On Rainy Lake

“I can’t believe you forgot the marshmallows,” my wife scolded me.

“And I can’t believe you forgot the friggin’ graham crackers,” I spat back at her. “How do you except us to make smores with only these stupid chocolate bars?”

“Well, you’re the friggin’ genus, Mr. Hot Shot, you figure it out.”

“Well…Well…” I couldn’t think of anything to say, except this, “Screw you, Shelia, I’m going for a walk.”

I left our campfire and headed off into the woods. This was our first night camping with our rented houseboat on Scalawag Bay on the south shore of Rainy Lake. We were on the Minnesota side of the Minnesota, Canadian border and were supposed to stay three nights, but the way it was going we’d be lucky to last until morning.

I was steaming mad and pissed off to boot. I pushed through the jack pine and underbrush and tripped over a rock, half submerged in the mossy forest floor. I fell, smashing my knee on another rock when I hit the ground. Shit. I got up, brushed myself off and kicked at the granite outcropping, stubbing my toe in the process. Not a good idea. Damn, it hurt. I made the wise decision to quit doing battle with an inanimate object and continued on. A few yards further, I pushed through more underbrush and a branch wiped back and smacked my face. It stung like hell. I put my hand to my cheek and came away with a little blood. Shit and damn.

I slowed down to get control of myself and hiked on, silently cursing my fate, my life, my wife and this idiotic trip to Rainy Lake, not necessarily in that order. In a few minutes I came out of the woods and onto the backside of the little bay where we’d landed the houseboat. Hoping to calm down, I sat on a flat bolder near the shoreline and looked across a much bigger bay. On the horizon to the west was a sunset turning the sky a soft orange and crimson brushed with gentle traces of magenta and plum. It was probably beautiful. To someone else, it might even have been a glorious and awe inspiring sight, but I hardly noticed. I was still fuming. The only color I saw was the angry red behind my eyes. I took out my phone and checked that I had a signal. Good, I did, so I called my girlfriend, Leslie.

“Hi there Big Fella’, how’s the trip going?” she asked, picking up on the first ring, almost like she was waiting for me. She probably was.

“Like shit,” I told her. “We’re already fighting.”

“Over what?”

“Smores, if you can believe it.”

Leslie laughed so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear.

“God, Ben, that’s sounds so…so…”

I waited to hear what it sounded like to her. Now that I’d had a few minutes to think about it, our argument sounded ridiculous and pathetic. I guess I was on Leslie’s wavelength because what she said was, “Well, that just sounds sad.”

Which, all things considered, I guess it was. Shelia and I were both forty-five years old and had been married twenty-three years. Our marriage had definitely seen better days.

I shifted my butt on the rock, trying unsuccessfully to find a comfortable spot. I was tall and thin and I didn’t have a lot extra body fat. Some people might think that was a good thing, being skinny. Right. Try sitting on a hunk of granite in the boundary waters for a few minutes and get back to me on that.

“So how are things going at work?” I asked, just to change the subject. Leslie worked with me in Human Resources for Heartland International, a worldwide electronic temperature control manufacturing company; she as a training instructor, me in software design. In answer to my question, she began rambling on and on until finally I began to listen with only half an ear. I mean, really, who cared anyway? Honestly, not me. I was on vacation, a time to forget about workplace dramas and office politics. But it was on me. I’d asked her about work, so I didn’t interrupt and let her talk while I tried to make sense of how I ended up like this.

Shelia and I usually vacationed on Rainy Lake with our longtime friends, Bob and Iris Lansbury. This year, however, Bob was recovering from hip pointer surgery, brought on by years of playing catcher in a recreational softball league. Earlier in the summer he’d told me, “Sorry, buddy, I’m under doctor’s orders to keep this bad boy rested.” He pointed to his right hip and laughed. I did, too, but only to humor him. I had no idea what he was talking about. I did, however, decide to take him at his word (why not?) But, every now and then I wondered, maybe the real reason they were avoiding us was that he and Iris just didn’t want to be around me and Shelia and our falling apart marriage shit anymore.

Honestly, who could blame them? My wife and I been drifting apart for the last ten years or so, but things had really started coming unraveled a few years back after our kids began moving out of the house, Jake to live in Montana two years ago, and Julie to live over by the University of Minnesota last year. Our fighting, which had been subversively passive aggressive while they lived at home, had become more out in the open, with yelling and verbal taunts becoming the norm. The more I thought about it, who would want to spend time with us?

“…and then good old Manager Randy, told me that I had to…”

I turned my attention to Leslie for a moment but had nothing to say except for the occasional, “Huh, huh,” to let her know I was still there. Leslie was a talker. When it came to her job, she could go on and on and I had to give her credit for that. She’d worked for Heartland for three years and still cared. I’d worked there for nineteen years and did not.

With Bob debilitated, Shelia and I had gone ahead on our own and rented a twenty-four foot houseboat from Northern Lights Houseboat Adventures, the company we’d used on the three previous trips to Rainy Lake with Bob and Iris. The first time was twelve years ago, one of those bucket list things that was Iris’ idea. None of us had any idea what we were getting into. Surprisingly, we’d all had a really good time, staying out in the middle of August for four nights and five days on the biggest houseboat the company owned, ‘King of the Lake,’ a forty-four foot giant that I drove and inconveniently got hung up on rocks six times (I counted. So did everyone else.) We went back three years later and rented a smaller, more manageable thirty-five foot boat, ‘The Queen of Rainy’ which worked out well, but the smaller living space made it awkward on occasion (especially at night, if you know what I mean.)

Four years ago we decided to each rent a small houseboat so we could have some privacy if we wanted. The smaller boats were easy to drive and the living space was fine. In short, it worked out so well that Shelia and I rented one for three nights and four days in August this year. But this time was different. Without our friends with us, the idea was use our vacation to spend one on one time together and try to patch up the rifts in our marriage. Yeah, right. Easier said than done. You know that old adage, Pissing into the wind? Well, that’s exactly what is was like from the moment we pointed our houseboat (called Looney Tunes, ironically enough) away from Northern Lights base of operations and rode the calm waters of Rainy Lake eighteen miles east to Scalawag Bay. Along the way I came up with another adage, You can’t put a bandage on a hurricane. In my mind, it was more than appropriate.

When a marriage implodes who’s to say where the fault lies? I’d like to say it was with Shelia, but, to be honest, probably not. She was a devoted mother to Jake and Julie. She carved out a career as an independent accountant, working from a home office she’d set up in a converted bedroom on the second floor of our 1920’s bungalow in Long Lake, a small town located twenty miles west of downtown Minneapolis. In addition to her job, she found time to work out and run marathons. She’d even competed in the City of Lakes Triathlon in Minneapolis a few times. Me? I just tried to do a good job at work, keep our gardens weeded at home, the lawn cut and the driveway shoveled.

So, on paper I guess I didn’t come out looking too good, kind of boring, to be frank. Well, fine. I’m not going to defend myself. Sometimes these things just happen. Sometimes a husband and wife drift apart and can’t figure out how to get themselves back together again. Sometimes they don’t want to get back together. I didn’t know about Shelia, but the question was, did I want to keep our marriage together? I didn’t have an answer. The more I thought about it, the more I came up empty. I just didn’t know.

Most people would argue that having a girlfriend in the mix certainly didn’t help things and at this stage, I’d have to agree. Leslie and I began our affair last winter with discrete, innocent flirtations in the break room and the occasional “working” lunch at the Black Forest Inn, a restaurant a few blocks from our office. She was twenty-seven years old. I found her attractive, intelligent and baggage free. I enjoyed her company. Do the math. She’s eighteen years younger than me. I’m not sure what my expectations were, but I’ll tell you this: I never planned on things going as far as they did, but, I guess, as these things happen, they did. Looking back, naive and stupid would be the first two words out of many that come to mind to describe what I had done.

It all escalated last spring on a office team building trip to the Riverview Conference Center outside of Monticello on the shore of the Mississippi River, an hour’s drive northwest of Minneapolis. After a day of activities like playing ‘Blind Person’ Bluff’, ‘Designing the Perfect Work Place,’ and competing in a two legged race, most everyone was ready for a night of blowing off steam. Me, I was looking forward to having a few drinks, dial it back, hit the hay and read the newest Cork O’Conner novel.

I was in the Riverview Bar, well on the way to becoming very relaxed when I bumped into Leslie. We started talking. One thing led to another and we ended up spent the night together in my room. It was the first time I’d ever cheated on my wife. I felt a little guilty, but not all that much. Leslie was a nice diversion then, and still is now. We have continued to see each other and have grown as close as two people can be, given the circumstances. But did I care enough for Leslie to leave Shelia for her? I wasn’t sure.

I brought the phone closer to my ear and listened, “That class I’m teaching is just crazy. Most of them are from out east…”

She was telling me about the sales training seminar she was currently instructing. I listened, trying to drum up some enthusiasm. It was her job, after all, a job she was committed to; a job she loved and was good at. The more I listened, though, the more I realized that I honestly didn’t care about what she was talking about. She was happy, young and single. She had her whole life ahead of her. She was excited about life. Me? I had my own problems to deal with.

Here’s the thing. I suppose you could say I got involved with Leslie to take a break from Shelia. My home life wasn’t fulfilling. Shelia and I rarely talked, we just went our separate ways. She had her friends and activities and I had mine. In addition to gardening and yard work, my hobby is collecting vintage tin toys made by Marx, mainly purchased in antique stores or off the internet. Not the most exciting life, I’ll grant you, but I enjoyed it for what it was: simple, stable and uncomplicated. I really had nothing to complain about. But when I got involved with Leslie she gave me something to look forward to. She was fun to be with. She seemed to enjoy being around me. What was there to not to like about the situation?

With Leslie’s voice droning on and on, I set the phone down and got up and stretched. The shoreline was made up of round, walnut sized pebbles that shifted under my hiking boots as I walked a few steps to the water’s edge. I was on a tiny point of land. Behind me a hundred yards away was Scalawag bay, Shelia and the houseboat. In front of me was one of the bigger bays on Rainy Lake, Beaver Dam Bay, stretching west to the far horizon, a least two miles away. Sixteen miles from there was Northern Lights base camp. Twenty miles from there was the biggest town around, International Falls. Right here, right where I sat, as far as the eye could see, there was no one around except for me and Shelia. We had the entire huge lake to our selves.

To my left was a high ridge that sloped down to the water and formed the shoreline of the bay. It was marked by granite outcroppings and pine and aspen trees, commonly found in the boundary waters. To the right, across the lake at least a mile, was the distant shore of Canada, now nearly lost to sight. Darkness was falling. The sun had set, and its orange afterglow of was fading. The air was still. The peace and quiet surrounding me was stunning. I looked down and searched for a minute until I found a thin, smooth stone. I reared back threw it out over the calm water. It skipped a couple of times and then sank. Dang. I used to be better than that. I picked up another one and threw it. Harder. This time it went out five skips. Better. I smiled. Then I looked up. Above me the sky was quickly turning to a deep purple ink well of darkness, the kind only found far away from the bright lights of civilization. Up here on the lake, we hardly ever saw anyone other than the occasional houseboat, fishing boat, canoe or kayaker out during the day. At night, there was no one around. I liked the peace and quiet. It helped me re-charge my batteries from work. From life, too, for that matter. It was one of the main reasons I liked coming to the boundary waters in general and Rainy Lake in particular.

A sudden splash to my right caught my attention. I looked, peering into the fast approaching darkness. More splashing. Then a sound, like a kitten purring. Something was in the water and it was coming right at me. Unsure what it was, I took a cautious step backward, tripped a little, but caught myself. Then I looked more closely and was able to see what was making the noise. It was the long, sleek body of an otter. I watched, mesmerized as it moved along the shoreline, diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing. It was coming right towards me, unafraid, only a few feet away.

I quickly squatted down so I wouldn’t scare it. I’d heard otters were in the area, but had never seen one before. Now, here one was, swimming and playing not ten feet away, so close I had to fight the urge to reach out and touch it. Pet it. I was speechless. The otter rolled in a complete circle, came up on its back and slowly moved its tail back and forth, propelling itself confidently along, making a little wake in the water’s smooth surface. I looked closer and could just barely make out something in its paws. Maybe a fish? Crawfish? I looked harder, but couldn’t see it clearly. Probably a fish. Transfixed, I watched as the beautiful, sleek, creature swam past right in front of me and then continued to my left, taking it’s time moving down the shoreline. Finally it disappeared into the darkness. I blinked once or twice to clear my vision, hoping to see it again, but I didn’t. It was gone. What a thrill! Seeing that otter was one of the coolest things I’d had the experience of seeing in quite a long time.

I stood up and stepped as close to the water line as I could, squatted down and put my hand in the lake. It was pleasantly warm, having soaked up heat of the day from the sun. I raised my gaze and looked out over the bay. There wasn’t a puff of a breeze and the surface was mirror glass smooth. Above me stars were starting to appear and, with them, some constellations I was somewhat familiar with. I could just make out Cassiopeia, the lazy W, low above the trees over the ridge to my left. Straight overhead was Ursa Major, The Big Dipper. I took a deep breath, savoring the pine scented aroma of nearby evergreen trees. The air was still, not a leaf or pine needle moved. Once my ears adapted to the silence I began to hear the sounds of the night: The calling of a loon out on the lake over toward the Canadian side, the hooting of an owl somewhere behind me, the splashing of the otter as it moved further way down the shore. The sounds of the north country.

“…and then this one guy, I think he’s from New Jersey, started in about…”

Geez. Leslie. The night was so still, I could suddenly hear her voice coming clearly from my phone. I reached for it and checked the time. She’d been talking non-stop for almost twelve minutes, and I hadn’t paid attention to a thing she said. In fact, the longer I was on the shore, supposedly listening to my girlfriend, it was becoming apparent I really didn’t care all that much about what she was saying or what she was talking about. She cared about her job, and I didn’t. It was a simple as that. Did that feeling extend to her as a person as well? Did I really not care all that much about her, even though I’d told myself (and her) time and time again that I did? Had I, in fact, being lying to myself, and to her, all along? Very good questions. I wondered what that meant for the future of our relationship. Probably very not much. In fact, was it even fair that I continued to see her as a boyfriend girlfriend kind of thing and lead her on given the realization of how I truly felt? Was I really that kind of a shitty person? Hmm. I’d like to think not. Damn, I had figure this out. On top of it all, I had Shelia back at the campfire to deal with.

I suddenly made a snap decision. “Hey, Leslie,” I said, interrupting her telling me another anecdote about her class, “Sorry, but I’ve got to go. Text me if you want.”

I disconnected the call without even waiting for her reply. Then I turned my phone off.

Did I feel bad about how I had just treated her? Not really. I mean, we really weren’t all that committed to each other, were we? We were just having a good time. Right? Damn, maybe I really was a shitty person.

I put aside my guilty thoughts of Leslie and looked out over the water. By now, night had completely fallen and it was nearly pitch black out. Above me the stars were beginning to blanket the sky with a wash of white that was stunning to behold, a million pin-pricks of light. I took a deep breath and exhaled, hoping to rid myself of work and Leslie. I’m not sure I was one-hundred percent successful, but I will say this: I was glad to have been on the shore of Beaver Bay in the middle of nowhere right then. The peace and quiet were a welcome balm. Even though it was hard to see, I could see well enough to know that there was no place in the world I’d rather be at that moment than right where I was.

With the sun down, the air was starting to turn cool. I was dressed in loose fitting hiking shorts, waffle soled hiking boots, a tee shirt and a flannel shirt, but I still felt an involuntary shiver run through me. I needed to get back to the campfire and Shelia and face whatever wrath she’d cooked up to dish out. What a great trip, I thought factiously, starting to feel a little sorry for myself for having to face the music. Well, my problems were my own making, and I had no one to blame but myself. I sighed again and tried to mentally prepare myself, but with little success. Anyway, there was one good thing. At least I’d been able to see the otter.

I stood up and started through the woods, happy I’d thought to put a flashlight app on my iphone. It took me about ten minutes to get within range of our campsite. When I could see it flickering through the trees, I turned the flashlight off, thinking for some reason it would be interesting to sneak up on Shelia and see what she was up to. I was cautiously making my way toward the light from the fire when I realized she wasn’t there. Perplexed, I snuck closer, stepping carefully through the pine needle duff on the forest floor, and keeping myself shielded by hiding behind tree trunks. At the edge of the tree line I stopped and looked up and down the shore. I didn’t see her anywhere.

I was just about to step into the open when I heard a voice. It was Shelia. I could tell she was somewhere in front of me, but where? I looked more closely but it was so dark the only thing I could see was the glow of the campfire and the chairs we’d been sitting on and she certainly wasn’t there. I couldn’t see her anywhere. I listened carefully before figuring it out. She wasn’t on land or near the campfire, where I’d expected her to be. She had used the ladder attached to the side of the cabin to climb up on top of the houseboat. She was standing with her back to me, her hand pressed to the side of her head, and, surprise, surprise, she was talking on her iphone just like I’d been doing. Who could she possibly be speaking with? I wanted to run out in the open and yell something at her but had no idea what to say, so I stayed put and listened. By now my ears were adjusted to the quiet stillness of the woods. Even though I’m sure she was trying to speak softly, her voice was loud and clear in the calm night air. I could hear every word.

“Yeah, Logan, you can’t believe the crap I put up with from him. He ran off into the woods somewhere. I hope he gets eaten by a bear. I mean…What? Oh, I know, not really, but my god, he’s such a world class jerk, and that’s putting it mildly. I really don’t know why I bother staying with him.”

Well, by now I was more than curious, I was perplexed. What was she doing, standing up there talking to someone, this Logan character. Who the hell was he? What was going on?

I almost broke from my hiding place in the trees right then and there but didn’t. I decided I wanted to find out more, maybe pick up a few clues and see if I could get a handle on this secret life my wife appeared to be leading. So I kept quiet, stayed hidden and listened. After a minute it became clear she was talking to someone one who was more than just a friend. Much, much more.

“Yes, I miss you, too, honey. So much. I miss being with you. I miss your arms around me. Right now I’m picturing us…”

Honey? Well, I didn’t need to hear that. And listen to her tell him what she was picturing? Well, I didn’t need to hear that either. But I made the unfortunate decision to keep listening. I shouldn’t have. Even though I couldn’t see them, my ears, I’m sure, were burning red when she was done describing what she was picturing.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my wife of twenty-three years was having an affair, sneaking around behind my back and spending time with this Logan bozo. Unbelievable. And, believe you me, the irony that I was doing basically the same thing with Leslie wasn’t escaping me. Not one little bit. What a mess our marriage had become.

After listening for maybe five minutes, I’d had enough. I stepped out of the shadows of the forest and yelled up at her, “Hey, up there. What’s going on? Who the hell are you talking to?”

Shelia quickly ended the call. The roof was flat and she walked toward the edge and called down, “Where’d you go? What were you doing?” I couldn’t help but notice that she was avoiding my question.

“I went for a walk,” I said, pointing behind me, as if it wasn’t obvious enough, “Back to the bay behind us. I was watching the sunset. I even saw an…” Wait a minute. Who cared where I went? There was something more important that needed discussing; this Logan guy and what Shelia was doing with him. I needed to get the conversation back on track. “Never mind where I went. I heard you on the phone just now. Who were you talking to?” I demanded.

Shelia started down the ladder and said, “Who, me? I was just talking to a friend.”

“Ha,” I laughed. “Sounded like more than a just friend to me,” I said, mimicking friend and using my fingers to make quotes in the air. I can be really dramatic if I need to be.

Shelia jumped off the ladder and laughed right back at me. She was on the deck and I was on shore. Maybe twenty feet separated us. In the faint glow of the campfire I could see daggers in her eyes, and they were directed right at me. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so mad. “Yeah, a friend. Probably like your little friend at work. What’s her name again? Leslie?”

There was a wooden gangplank leading from the front deck to the sandy beach the houseboat was parked on. She hurried down it, pushed past me and covered the twenty-five feet to the campfire in about a second. She was steaming. With her back to me, she stood watching the flames for a moment, her arms folded tight across her chest, quivering in anger. I thought maybe she was taking a few moment to try and calm down, but I was wrong, way wrong.

I stomped through the sand, wanting to get an explanation about who this Logan guy was, conveniently forgetting I had been doing essentially the same thing with Leslie less than fifteen minutes earlier. When I got behind her, she turned and got right in my face, spitting out, “Don’t deny it, Ben. I’ve known about her ever since that stupid team building thing you went to last spring.”

No way, I thought to myself. No friggin’ way could she have know about that. And right then and there I should have kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t. Instead, I asked, “Leslie? Her? How’d you know about…?”

Oops. Oh, shit.

Shelia laughed, “See? Got you.” She shook her head sadly at my incompetence and said, “God, you are such an idiot.”

I’d admitted to my affair with Leslie without Shelia having to do anything other than accuse me of it. She was right, I was an idiot.

Shelia turned away and walked to the other side of the fire where her folding lawn chair was. She sat down, reached into the front pocket of her jeans and took out a pack of cigarettes. She shook one out and lit up, inhaling deep and holding it before blowing a stream of smoke into the night. I watched it separate and fall apart as it drifted away. I felt kind of like the smoke, drifting and scattered. I wasn’t prepared to have to face telling Shelia about Leslie. For some reason I thought I’d be able to keep my affair hidden. Well, Shelia was a smart woman. Astute, as well. I should have known I was only living on borrowed time and she’d eventually figure it out, which she’d obviously done at some point. What was I going to do now? What was my next step going to be?

Shelia is five-five and very tan and fit from her work out regime. She was dressed in cutoff jeans, a yellow tank top and hiking boots. At some point since I’d stormed off earlier she’d put on a blue flannel shirt to ward off the chill. She wore it unbuttoned. She was wearing a red bandana as a head band to keep her long auburn hair pulling back. She had an oval face, gray-green eyes and high, prominent cheekbones. To me she’d always been pretty, and she still was. But right now she was angry and boiling mad. She stared at me, daring me to say something, anything. I knew a huge fight was brewing, but I wasn’t in the frame of mind just then to argue. I still had a little bit of a left over tranquil feeling from seeing the otter. Besides, I had to collect my thoughts.

I went over to the edge of the woods to the pile of logs I’d cut up earlier and picked up a few. I went back to the campfire and tossed them in, watching the red and orange sparks fly up into the night, marveling for a moment at their beauty. I walked to the shore, looked out over the still waters of the bay into the darkness, and breathed the scented air emanating from the pine forest. Behind me the fire crackled as the new logs caught. It was a calm night and a peaceful setting. I should have been captivated by the magical spell of the north woods and been in relaxed and mellow mood, but I wasn’t. Far from it. Deep down my heart was doing summersaults; my mind racing.

I was mad at Shelia about Logan, that was for sure, but I was also mad at myself. Shelia now knew about Leslie. It had been much easier to accept my affair with her when I felt like I was pulling the wool over Shelia’s eyes. But my wife was smart and I should have known better; most people would agree that Shelia was the brains of the operation when it came to our marriage, and I’d have to begrudgingly agree. Plus, truth be told, now that the truth was out about Leslie and me, I had to consider what my true feelings for her really were.

I liked Leslie, yes. A lot. But, like I said earlier, a pleasant diversion would be as apt a description as I could give. Could I picture being with her long term, her being eighteen years younger than me and in the prime of her life, only eight years older that my daughter? Leslie with me, a middle-aged guy who puttered around in his garden, collected tin toys and hated his job? I was already going gray, for Pete’s sake. Well, when I looked at it that way, honestly, no.

I walked back to the fire and sat down in my own lawn chair. Shelia and I had a lot to talk about. I glanced over to gauge her mood. We had both quit smoking years ago and it surprised me that she was smoking now, but, I guess given the circumstances, it was to be expected. She lit another cigarette and sat taping a foot in the sand, waiting, I was sure, for me to make the first move and to begin the conversation. Or, at least defend my actions with Leslie. Well, that made sense and I was all for it, but I was unsure where to begin. And, honestly, I wasn’t really ready to feel the wrath of her anger.

So guess what I did? I took a safe route. Of all the things we had to talk about (Shelia and Logan topping the list, with me and Leslie coming in a close second), and all of the things I could have brought up, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “I didn’t know you’d started smoking again.”

If looks could kill, hers would have done it. Ten times over. Shelia calmly put the cigarette to her mouth, took a long drag and blew the smoke right at me. Then she said, “What the hell do you care, anyway?”

I thought back to my one-sided conversation earlier with Leslie. It had centered on the only thing we had in common, work, something I really had no interest in. I’d much preferred standing on the shore of Beaver Bay at sunset, watching the otter swim by as the day drew to a close and the stars were beginning to appear, instead of listening as she droned on and on about her job and the class she was teaching. The dichotomy was too apparent. My job was a means to an end, income for me and my family. Any passion for my work I’d had in the beginning of my career was long gone. Leslie’s career was just being. She loved her job and that was good for her. I didn’t care about mine and really didn’t care all that much about the things she was interested in. Was it fair to stay with her given those kinds of feelings? When I got right down to it and was totally honest with myself, the answer was no. Not fair at all.

Take Leslie and our three or four month affair out of the picture and look at Shelia and me. We had a history. We’d been married for twenty-three years and had been together for two years prior to that. We had kids. We had a home. We had a life we’d built together. And…and here’s the crux of the matter…we had found away to stay together in spite of the fact that we’d drifted apart. We were still married. We were still with each other. Maybe I still did care about Shelia more than I thought I did. Maybe we could begin to do what we said we were going to do on this trip, start to patch our marriage together. It had definite possibilities.

But did I tell my wife any of that, any of the personal things I’d been thinking about? No, not at all. Instead I turned in my chair toward her and asked, “Say, can I have one of your smokes?”

Silently she tossed me the pack. Then she tossed me her lighter and gave me a resigned sigh, “Go for it.”

Looking back, I think she would have liked me to have asked a different question. But you know guys and our ability to express deep emotional feelings. Not our strong suit. So I didn’t.

Instead, I lit up and we sat quietly smoking, each lost in our own thoughts. I knew I should have asked about Logan. How long had they been together? How often did they see each other? Did she have strong feelings for him? Stuff like that. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered, did I really want to know about the two of them and them being together? Frankly, the answer was no, not really. It’d be a painful discussion and hard to hear the details of, if not more than a little embarrassing. It was enough to come face to face with the fact that Shelia, in her own way, was as dissatisfied with our marriage as I was. She’d rebelled with Logan, me with Leslie. Point taken. What more was there to say?

As I smoked, I glanced over at Shelia. She was gazing into the fire, lost in her own world. I figured she’d want to know about me and Leslie. In fact, I was preparing myself to tell her everything she wanted to know and take my medicine, but she surprised me. She didn’t ask about her at all. Instead, she was quiet and contemplative. Maybe I should have asked about Logan, but I didn’t. I tried to tell myself, what’s done was done, but that would have been too simple of a statement. I mean, Shelia and Logan were obviously a couple. They had been sleeping together, just like Leslie and me. It was clear there was a lot to discuss, but we didn’t open up and start talking. We just sat and watched the fire while the north woods night deepened and closed in around us. In a way, the darkness was like a comforting blanket, which was strange because we were so far apart emotionally. The longer we remained silent, though, the more it became clear that each of us was taking the safe route by avoiding the inevitable fight with all its attendant yelling and screaming. Maybe being by the campfire, in the quiet of a Rainy Lake summer’s evening, with the occasional owl hooting nearby and loon calling over the open water, sounds we never heard back home, maybe that helped to set a different tone between us. Maybe it mellowed us. Whatever the fact, what we ended up doing was this: We avoided all of our issues and, instead, sat and smoked the occasional cigarette, looked at the fire, looked at the night and looked at the stars.

After a while Leslie said, “Pretty night out, isn’t it?”

Her words broke the angry spell that had settled over us. I made it a point of looking straight up into the sky. It looked like it had been spray painted with stars. There was no moon. I could see so clearly it almost hurt my eyes. I picked out a few more constellations and a couple of stars I knew the names of and pointed them out to Shelia. She cracked the barest of smiles and nodded. Behind me the owl hooted again. The pine scented air mingled with the aroma of the fire. The night was so still and peaceful, it almost brought a tear to my eye. It occurred to me that this might be the last time I would ever be on Rainy Lake, and it made me sad. My marriage was over. That much was clear. My wife was with some other guy. My girlfriend was soon to be a distant memory. I hated my job. My life was a mess.

After a few moments of silence, I answered, “Yeah, it really is a pretty night out.” In retrospect, my inability to express my feelings to her was so painfully evident that it was no wonder she’d become interested in someone else. I sounded like a fool. Or, as Shelia had put so succinctly, a little while earlier, an idiot. That’s what I had become in her eyes. Man, let me tell  you this, it was certainly nothing to be proud of.

Interestingly, though, in the end, we never did fight. We hesitantly started speaking to each other, mostly about inane things like the stars and the sky. Safe things. In fact, we ended up staying up late talking about everything other than the two elephants on the shore: Leslie and Logan. Maybe we were too exhausted to get into anything that heavy. Maybe we had given up on salvaging our relationship. Maybe we’d each silently accepted that our marriage was over. Whatever the case, it appeared we had reached a sort mutually agreed upon truce where we knew arguing and fighting wasn’t going to solve any of the myriad of problems that had spread like a cancer during all the years we’d been together. Why bother talking about something that was dead, over, and done for? Why, indeed? Besides, how could I give Shelia shit about Logan when I’d been with Leslie. What a mess.

Anyway, it wasn’t as bad sitting there with Shelia as it could have been. Not by a long shot. At one point, I even went inside the cabin of the houseboat, got out some Hersey’s bars and brought them back to where sat. We each had a couple, our nod to a smores less campfire experience. We smoked a few more cigarettes, too. I checked my phone once when Shelia went onto the boat for a jacket. There was a text from Leslie, “Miss U!!” Geez. I deleted it and didn’t text her back. I had nothing to say.

We turned in around midnight, after the fire burned down to red hot coals. Shelia took the bed. I took the floor. We had decided to take the boat back to Northern Lights base camp the next morning and return it. Neither us were in the mood to work on a plan to patch up our marriage. We were both silently accepting of the fact that the rifts were too many and too big and our marriage was finished. It was a eighteen mile trip back to base. If the weather held, it’d only take about four hours. We’d be at Northern Lights by noon if we were slow. We didn’t intend to be. There was no reason to take our time. Our vacation on Rainy Lake, like our marriage, was over for good.

It was a loud ‘thud’ that woke me. Shelia, too. “What the hell was that?” she muttered. She sounded sleepy but was coming awake fast. I was, too. It sounded like something heavy had landed on the roof. The inside of the cabin was gray, early dawn, but it was light enough for me to see her eyes were wide open, the whites showing. The sound startled her. Me, too.

“I don’t know,” I told her. I was rattled and hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. Then I became aware of the houseboat groaning; shaking and bashing itself up on the shore. Something wasn’t right.

I scrambled to my feet and looked out the sliding glass door leading to the front deck. Oh, no. I couldn’t believe my eyes. A storm had come upon overnight, and the wind was blowing like hell. In our emotionally exhausted state, we’d slept right through it. Now, though, our exhaustion was immediately replaced by adrenaline. In a moment we were both wide awake and alert. The wind was a gale like I’d never seen before. Three foot waves were crashing on the beach. Rain was pouring down and the shoreline had been eaten away by gullies of rainwater flowing out of the forest. Twigs, branches and tree debris were falling down on us, and I made a guess (later proven correct) that a big branch must have landed on the roof and awakened us. The houseboat had been blown sideways on the shore and the waves were smashing up against it, banging it hard and threatening to damage it beyond repair. I’d heard about these sudden storms and how they could blow up without a moment’s notice and apparently that’s what had happened. All had been calm when we’d gone to bed, but that wasn’t the case now. I silently cursed myself for not having checked the weather forecast on either my phone or the boat’s short wave radio before we’d gone to bed. Too much on my mind, I guess.

I pulled on my boots and ran onto the deck to take a look around. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everywhere I looked, the storm was wreaking havoc. I saw a number of pine trees that had been blown over, one leaning precariously on another which was all that was keeping it from falling onto the houseboat. If it did, we be trapped for who knew how long. The waves had destroyed the shoreline completely, leaving hardly any beach. The sideways houseboat was jammed up on what little sand there was, stuck solid. The wind was howling and the rain was pelting down so hard it hurt. I rushed back inside for protection.

“My god,” I told Shelia, “It’s like a monsoon and hurricane combined out there.” Then I filled her in on what I’d seen.

“What are we going to do?” she asked when I’d finished.

“Let’s call base.”

“I already tried. There’s no signal.”

“Shit.” I went to the sliding glass door and looked out again. Shelia joined me. The rain, which had been buffeting the boat in sheets, seemed to be letting up. The gray pre-dawn was turning a little lighter. I turned to her, “Any ideas?”

One thing I’ve always admired about Shelia was her ability to not let things get to her. She was a solutions orientated woman, a good person to have in a crisis, and that’s what this was. I’d never in my life seen a storm like I was seeing right now.

She took one more look outside as a branch fell hard on the deck. Then she turned to me and said, “We need a plan. Do you think you can get us off the shore? You could use the dingy to pull us. I’ll drive the houseboat. If we can get unstuck and get out on the lake, maybe we can get back to base.”

It was as good a plan as any, even though Northern Lights was eighteen miles away. First things first. We needed to get free of the beach. Besides, her idea was way better than what I’d come up with, which was nothing.

“Let’s do it,” I said. I put on my jean jacket and a Twins baseball hat and went out into the storm. My hat blew off in an instant. I never saw it again.

The Northern Lights had a rule that every houseboat had to have a rowboat for emergencies. Since we didn’t own such a boat, we rented one from them, a twelve foot aluminum Grumman with a ten horse power motor, and towed it behind us from base to Scalawag Bay. Yesterday, when we made camp, I’d untied the dingy, dragged it through the water down the shore about fifty feet from us. Then I pulled it up on the sand and secured it with a long rope to a pine tree. That’s where I headed now. I was wearing my hiking shorts and hiking boots. I had on a tee-shirt and a long sleeved cotton shirt under my jean jacket. It took about ten seconds before I was soaked to the skin.

Once I got to the dingy my spirits immediately faltered. The little boat was jammed up on the sand and filled to the gunnels with rain water. Fortunately, the plastic scoop bucket used for bailing was still tied to the engine and hadn’t blown away. I untied it and started franticly scooping and dumping. It seemed to take forever before the boat was finally empty enough to attempt to drive. Shelia told me later it’d really only taken about five minutes. She also told me she was impressed by how fast I worked. It was a little thing, maybe, but I took it for what it was, a compliment, not something either of us were freely giving out at that stage of our marriage.

With the boat empty, I made my way through the branches and twigs and other debris on what was left of the shore to the edge of the forest to untie the rope. On the way I got hit in the head with a branch about an inch in diameter and maybe six feet long. My adrenaline must have been really pumping because I didn’t feel a thing. In a moment, though, blood starting trickling into my eyes. I wiped it away with a quick swipe and took a look at my hand. It wasn’t too bad; not much blood. I figured the rain running down my face would clean the wound out and didn’t think about it again.

I untied the knot and hurried back to the dingy, coiling the rope with me as I ran. I threw it under the front seat when I got there. In just that short period of time the little boat had been blown sideways onto the beach, but it was easy enough to drag the back end out into the water. The problem was that the waves were working against me and kept beating the boat back toward shore. I was finally able to get the back end steady by staying in the water and holding on. I waited for a break in the waves. When one came, I jumped in, primed the gas tank, tilted the motor’s propeller into the water and pulled on the starter cord. It sputtered and died. It took three frantic tries to get the little motor going, but I finally did, just before a big wave hit and tried to throw the boat back on the beach. I jammed the motor into reverse and backed quickly away from the shore. With the waves pounding the shoreline controlling the boat was hard, but I when I was able to get it away from the beach, maneuvering was somewhat easier. When I felt I was under as control as I could be, I looked toward the houseboat. Shelia was outside on the deck under the overhang in front watching. I could tell she’d cleared the roof and the deck of all the branches that had fallen on it. Like I said, she was a great person to have in a crisis. When she saw I was free of the shore, she waved excitedly and gave me the ‘Thumbs up’ sign. I signaled back to her. I also took a deep breath and let it out. So far so good.

Next, I had to drive to the houseboat, tie on the rope and somehow drag it off the beach. In my mind I calculated my chances, figuring that maybe a ten percent probability of success was realistic. Better than nothing, I grimly told myself.

I gritted my teeth and worked my way over to the houseboat, the dingy taking in water along the way but not enough to worry about. At least not for right now, just a few inches sloshing in the bottom. I set the throttle on idle and carefully climbed to the front of my boat, got the rope, made my way back and tied it to one of the gunnels next to the motor. Then, as I tried to position the little dingy, Shelia stationed herself on the back corner of the houseboat, ready for the next step.

“Try to get as close as you can,” she yelled, “Then toss me the rope.”

Trying to maneuver a twelve foot aluminum boat rocking all over the place in two to three foot waves was not easy. The little dingy was bobbing like a cork in a hurricane, which in retrospect, it pretty much was. Doing it driving backwards was even harder. It took some getting used to, but I was eventually able to get close enough to Shelia to throw the rope. The first time I tossed it, the wind caught it like it was a piece of string and blew it way off course. I only missed by about ten feet. (I’m being facetious. I wasn’t even that close. The wind was really strong.) I pulled the rope in through the water, coiled it up and tried again. This time Shelia was able to grab it. Success. We both gave out weak cheers. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something. We were making headway and that’s all that mattered.

Shelia tied the rope to the back corner railing and yelled, “Ok. We’re all set. You try to pull us off the beach. Once we get into deeper water I’ll try and get this baby started.”

“Ok. Good luck.”

She gave me a determined smile and another thumbs up. I have to say, it felt good to be working as a team right then. It was something we used to do really well together, way back before the shit that became our marriage hit the fan.

I returned Shelia’s thumbs up with my own and also gave her my own version of a determined smile, which probably turned out to be more of a grimace than anything else. But I was committed to doing the best I could. In my head I prayed a silent prayer, and I’m not at all a religious person. Right now, though, any port in the storm, so to speak.

I positioned the dingy to pull straight back and then jammed the throttle forward to high and held on. The little motor whined and whined as it dug into the water, kicking up a deep wake. I watched the rope. It was a one-inch thick, braided utility rope, the kind you’d find on any serious water vessel (which our houseboat was.) If I thought it might break, I was soon proven wrong. It held fast.

Unfortunately, the heavy houseboat didn’t budge.

Shelia came out of the cabin to encourage me. “Run the dingy back and forth. Work it at different angles.”

I was out about twenty feet. The waves were throwing me all over the place, threatening to smash me into the back end of the houseboat. Not only that, there was the very real threat that I might get swamped by the big waves. But I was learning on the fly so to speak, and was able to keep the dingy from capsizing by judging when the waves would break and then riding the troughs between the crests up and down. I was also able to keep myself away from smashing into the houseboat. So that was good. Now, all I had to do was figure out a way to move it. Shelia’s advice made sense.

I waved back, and yelled, “I’ll try.” I gunned the motor and drove to the left. Then to the right. Back and forth, back and forth, the rope straining. Nothing happened. The houseboat didn’t budge.

After a few minutes of getting nowhere, I took a break to let the little motor rest and idle while I rocked on the waves. A couple of things had happened while I was struggling to free the houseboat. One, the rain had completely stopped. Two, the day was now less grey. I figured it must be around seven in the morning.

Shelia had been watching my progress, or lack of it, the entire time. She called out, giving me encouragement. “I think I feel it starting to give. Keep at it. I’m pretty sure this is going to work.”

I yelled back, “Ok, I’ll get to it.”

I positioned myself so the rope was taut and turned the throttle to full once again. The little motor responded and the dingy jumped forward. Back and forth, left and right, and back and forth, right and left, I went, fighting the waves, the rope straining. I was making no progress at all and starting to get discouraged. Were we going to stay stranded here in Scalawag Bay for who knew how long, getting beating by the waves and battered by the storm forever? It was not a pleasant thought.

I’d been driving back and forth for maybe ten minutes and beginning to give up hope that our plan was never going to succeed. Then, all of a sudden I felt the houseboat shift a little. A glimmer of hope rose in my chest. Could we do this? Maybe? I positioned myself so I was right off the corner where the rope was tied and pulled straight back, gunning the motor and saying another silent prayer. I felt the houseboat gave some more. Could it be? I leaned into the throttle and held my breath.

On the houseboat Shelia was elatedly jumping up and down, “I can feel it move, Ben. Gun it some more.”

I already was, but, what the hell. I yelled back, “Here goes.” I leaned into the throttle one more time.

And then, and then…the rope strained, and strained some more, and the corner of the houseboat moved a little bit, and then some more, little by little, until, all in an instant, the big houseboat broke free and the back end sung out away from shore. When it did, we both cheered, “Yea!” We’d done it.

Shelia yelled, “Hold it steady, if you can. I’ll try to get the motor started.”

She ran inside to the cabin where the controls were. I tried to hold the heavy houseboat steady, but it was hard. The wind and waves wanted to blow it right back on shore. I had all I could do to keep the back end just far enough out off the beach so that when Shelia got the engine running, it would be in deep enough water so the propeller wouldn’t smash on an underwater bolder and break. If that happened, we’d really be up shit creek.

After a minute, I heard the engine turn over. I held my breath as it ground away. The power came from a battery and I hoped it would hold its charge long enough to get us started. After maybe half a minute of grinding, instead of the battery dying, we lucked out; the engine coughed and then started. Shelia revved it once for good luck.

I yelled, into the wind, “Yea. Way to go, Shelia. Way to go.”

I knew she couldn’t hear me, but I didn’t care. It was a big moment. We might make it out of this yet. From inside the cabin the horn tooted. Shelia was ready to go. I drove the dingy close enough to untie the rope, freeing it from the houseboat. Then I backed up out of the way. Slowly but steadily she backed the away from shore out a hundred feet or so into the bay. Then she turned around and held the boat steady into the wind while I drove the dingy up next to it. I grabbed the side, killed the motor and scrambled onto the deck. Then I tied the dingy to the back railing and left twenty feet of slack in the rope so we could tow it behind us. When I was all set, I went inside through the back door and made my way to the cabin where Shelia sat at the captains chair, looking out the front window.

I was fired up with our newly won success and ready to congratulate her (and us) on our hard won victory. I took one look at Shelia, though, and stopped. Her expression was grim. She wasn’t happy at all.

She pointed, “My god, Ben, look…” Then words failed her.

I’d been so focused on getting the houseboat free from the shore, I hadn’t been paying any attention to what was going on out past the bay we were in; out on the big lake. Rainy. I followed her line of vision and I’m not sure, but I probably turned green or at least pale, when I saw what was waiting for us out there. I know one thing: If I thought the waves in our bay were big, I had another think coming. Out on Rainy Lake, they were much bigger. They were enormous.

Scalawag Bay was small, as bays went, maybe twenty or thirty acres total, shaped like a horseshoe. Where the ends of the horseshoe came together was the entrance. It was guarded by a small island maybe fifty feet across comprised of jagged granite boulders and wind bent jack pine trees. Once we navigated past the island we’d be on the main part of Rainy Lake, a big, narrow lake that ran east and west. The wind was blowing out of the west. Our bay was at the far east end. Northern Lights was at the far west end. We’d have to travel from where we were eighteen miles into the wind to get to base. That was one thing. The huge waves we had to contend with were another. I grabbed a pair of binoculars to get a better look. It was foreboding. The waves were gigantic, the biggest I’d ever seen, at least four or five feet high. The wind was pushing them in swells that left dangerous, deep troughs between the crests. I pictured our little houseboat out there and the image of a child’s toy boat being tossed around like a leaf on the ocean came to mind. It was not a comforting vision. Our boat was made of heavy duty aluminum, but was it strong enough to withstand the pounding of the waves out there? God, I didn’t know. I sure hoped so.

I handed the binoculars to Shelia. “Have look,” I told her, “What do you think?”

After a minute, she handed them back to me. “Let’s call base one more time. See what they want us to do.”

The shortwave radio was on the wall next to the steering wheel. I turned it on. There was power and that was a good thing. Unfortunately, there was nothing but static on the airwaves. I tried to call out to base a few times, but nothing went through. Like our phones, communication was impossible. We’d have to decide what to do on our own.

Shelia had set the boat idling in neutral while we deliberated our next move, and the waves were beginning to push us back toward shore. She put the engine in gear and we motored into the middle of our little bay where she cut the throttle and kept us pointed both toward the island and away from shore. Compared to the big lake, the waves in Scalawag, at two or three feet, were relatively small. But still, to inexperienced drivers like us, they were challenging. On second thought, even to experienced operators, manipulating the houseboat in these kinds waves would be hard. Then there was the big lake. I didn’t want to think about what it’d be like out on Rainy. If it was hard going on Scalawag Bay, it would be ten times worse out on Rainy. At least. Daunting was the word that came to mind and stuck. I started to lose what little confidence I’d had. How would we ever be able to make it back to base?

Shelia broke into my thoughts, “We’ve got to get across Rainy.” She pointed behind us. “We can’t go back on shore. The waves will just beat the boat to hell. We’ve got to figure out a plan.”

I looked back to where we’d set up camp the day before. The smooth sand beach was now littered with branches and tree debris. Rain water running out of the forest had carved out deep canyons while waves relentlessly pounded what little shoreline was left. There was no place to beach the boat even if we wanted to. We both turned and looked out toward the big lake. Like Shelia had said, we’d have to come up with a plan to get us across it. Good idea. I glanced at her and could see the wheels already turning as her mind worked through various scenarios. She was good with those kinds of things, figuring out plans and implementing them.

But, me? Maybe it was shock at our situation, but I’m afraid at that moment I started to cop out on figuring out what to do. Instead, I started envisioning us safely back home in Long Lake, the warm sun shining brightly on my face as I worked peacefully in the garden, planting marigolds and stopping occasionally to sip on a refreshing glass of ice tea. Not a very useful thought, given the situation we were in. Fortunately, Shelia was not like me. She had put her brain to good use. She grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me back to reality.

“We’d better make a run for it,” she said, “Let’s try to get out on the big lake, get this bad boy pointed into the wind and see if we can make it to base.” She took my face in both her hands and turned my head so I was looking directly at her. There was a hint of fear in her eyes, but that wasn’t the only thing I saw. There was determination present, as well. A lot of it. And courage. Her fearlessness helped get me focused and back on track.

“Do you think we can do it?” I asked.

“I don’t think we have a choice, do you?”

I picked up the binoculars and took another look at the waves raging on Rainy. I made myself choke down my fear. Her confidence was contagious. I turned and looked at my wife. She had more will and strength of character in her on a normal day than I had on my best day. Or a year of my best days, when it came right down to it. If she was willing to make the drive, so was I.

“Let’s do it,” I said, hoping I sounded more confident than I felt.

“Good man,” she clapped me on the shoulder in a show of solidarity. Then she took another long look at Rainy through the binoculars before turning to me, “Flip to see who drives?”

“Sure,” I said, gamely, “You’re on.”

She dug in her jeans and pulled out a quarter. “You flip or me?”

“Go ahead.”

She flipped, caught the quarter and smacked it on her hand. “Call.”

“Heads,” I said.

She removed her hand. It was heads. “You drive,” she said. “Then she grinned, the first time all morning, “At least for a little while.”

I rubbed my hands on my together to get them warm and to keep them from shaking. Then I nervously took the wheel, sucked in a breath and exhaled, getting myself mentally prepared, but who was I kidding, I’d never be ready.

Shelia was standing next to me. Her presence calmed me. She said, “You can do it, Ben. Just take it slow and easy.”

I appreciated her vote of confidence, something I wouldn’t have cast a ballot on. But, we were a team, right? I turned to her and said, “I’ll do my best.”

She smiled at me, “I know you will.”

It was a pretty serious moment.

I made myself ease the throttle forward. The houseboat moved slowly ahead, waves pounding against it and occasionally breaking over the bow, causing water to splash up on the sliding glass door. I could see well enough to drive, though, and motored on. We carefully made our way across the rest of the bay, the houseboat rocking more and more on the swells as we came up to and then passed the little island. Shelia stood next to me, holding tightly to the side of my captains chair, a term I use only in the most basic sense of the word. A skilled houseboat driver I wasn’t, captain, never, but I was willing to do my best. In fact, after a few minutes of driving, I was starting to get used to the rolling motion of the boat and learing to read the water and ride the waves. In fact, I was even beginning to feel somewhat confident about my ability to navigate. That was a feeling that wasn’t going to last long.

The trees and rocks on the island offered minimal protection, but at least it was something. Once I guided us past the island, however, the full force of the wind caught us and threw the front end of the houseboat hard to the right. At that moment a huge wave hit the side with a booming crash, causing us to rock dangerously and the engine to lift out of the water, screaming in protest as it did. For one terrifying moment I thought we were going to capsize. I grabbed the wheel tightly and pulled us back so we were pointed into the wind and the oncoming swells. I fought to hold us steady as each incoming wave raised the bow up in the air where we hung suspended for a moment before slamming down, shaking us to our bones and the boat to the rivets that held it together. Every single wave that hit the front of the boat broke over the bow and deck and flooded into the cabin before streaming back out again. In a minute the indoor outdoor carpeting was saturated and squishing under our boots.

I looked at Shelia as I tried to hold the rocking boat steady, “Christ, do you think we can do this?”

She squeezed my shoulder and said, “We’d better. I don’t think we have any other choice.”

Talk about an understatement. But she was right. We had no alternative but to do our best to fight through the wind and the waves and navigate the eighteen miles across the lake to Northern Lights base camp.

“Okay, then,” I said, “Hold on.”

I pushed the throttle forward and we moved ahead out onto the big lake. Oh, man, let me tell you, it was a trip I’ll never forget.

Rainy Lake is fed from the Kettle River to the east. It’s part of the Hudson Bay water shed which includes the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildness, Superior National Forest in Minnesota and the Quetico Provencal Park in Canadian. To the west, the lake drains into the Rainy River near International Falls, Minnesota, a river which forms part of the border between the United States and Canada. From the Kettle Falls to International Falls is roughly forty miles, roughly half of that distance taken up by Rainy Lake. In other words, it’s a big friggin’ body of water.

In fact, it’s actually two lakes in one, the upper and the lower. We were toward the east end in the upper lake and had to fight our way across it to a narrow channel called the Brule Narrows that led to the lower lake. Normally the trip would take around thirty minutes. Today, getting to the channel took us until one in the afternoon. It was a bitch the whole way. I kept the throttle about half speed. We just couldn’t go any fast for fear that we’d do damage to the boat. Even though it was heavy gage aluminum, I could just picture what would happen if one of the big floats that supported the cabin suddenly gave way and broke free. I shuddered at the thought. I kept a firm grip on the wheel and fought every single wave that hit the boat as it tried to throw us off course. Or capsize us. It was exhausting.

Shelia stood by me the entire way to the Brule Narrows, offering encouragement. The cabin was enclosed and protected from the wind. That helped. We got used to the water from the waves crashing over the bow rushing into and out of the cabin. We more than once told each other that we were glad we were wearing our water proof hiking boots. She was also able to fixed us a small pot of coffee which we shared along with one or two cigarettes. She even cleaned the cut on my forehead. We were so focused on the task at hand, though, we didn’t talk much. What was there to say? But we were working together, that was the important thing. Plus, we weren’t fighting about Leslie and Logan. We seemed to have reached a détente of sorts, and were more focused on battling the waves and keeping the houseboat afloat than anything else. I was fine with that. I’d pretty much decided to end things with Leslie anyway. The more I thought about it, the more the different in our ages and life experiences seemed more than enough reason for me to grow, get my head out of my ass and call it quits.

By the time we’d crossed the upper lake my arms were so tired I could barely hold onto the steering wheel, but I had done my best. At least we’d made it. The entrance to the Brule Narrows was marked by large buoys. I worked the boat past them into the relatively calm waters of the channel and throttled back, letting the boat idle and bob on swells that were still prevalent, but were gentler than out on the big lake. We were also protected from the wind and that helped somewhat.

“Whew,” I said, standing up from the chair and straightening my, “We made it.” I made a motion to wipe my brow, trying to add a little levity to our situation. Was it dire? Maybe. But we’d made it almost half way to base camp. All we had to do was steer our way through the Narrows out onto the lower lake, and then cross another eight miles of open water on the way to Northern Lights base. Easy, right?

Ever the pragmatist, Shelia asked, “How are you holding up?”

“Fine. My arms are tired. My legs are kind of stiff.” In fact, my whole body felt like I’d tumbled down a long flight of stairs. Every bone ached.

“You did good, but I’m going to take over.”

“No. I won the bet. It’s my responsibility,” I said, making a vain attempt to argue, hoping my voice didn’t sound as feeble as I felt. Truth be told, my arms were nearly numb from fighting the wheel, the wind and the waves. My strength was pretty much gone.

Shelia held up her arm in my face, smiled and flexed a muscle, “I’ll take over. You rest a bit.” I felt her arm. Her muscle was like a rock. God, all that working out she’d done while I fooled around planting flowers in the garden. I guess it was about to pay off.

“If you insist,” I said, joking, trying to sound magnanimous.

She just laughed, “No sweat.”

We switched places. When she was settled in the captain’s chair, I squeezed her shoulder like she’d done mine earlier. She smiled at me and squeezed my hand in return. It felt good to me to have that contact with her. I wondered if she felt the same way.

But before I had a chance to ponder that thought any further, she jammed the throttle to high and yelled, “Off we go.” The boat lurched ahead. I stumbled and then caught myself on her chair and hung on. I glanced at my wife. Shelia’s eyes were glued out the front of the cabin, watching the water for whatever lay before us, intent on guiding us safely to base camp, our final destination.

The Brule Narrows wove serpentine through reeds, cattails and other water grasses that formed a barrier between the channel itself and the pine forests and granite rocks along the shore. Our houseboat was twelve feet wide. In most cases the channel was four times that width. It was tricky going, but Shelia confidently took us along the mile journey from the upper lake to the lower lake without a hitch. While she drove we both breathed a sigh of relief. Other times coming through the Narrows we’d had to deal with boats coming at us or coming up from behind, which made for some tricky navigating. Today, we’d been on the water for over six hours and seen no water craft whatsoever. No pleasure craft, no houseboats, no nothing. Everyone was taking their cue from Mother Nature and doing the smart thing, which was to stay put.

But, of course, not us. We had a job to do and Shelia guided us with the skill of a seasoned mariner. I was really proud of her, glad for her confidence and her level-headedness. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it, just kept the throttle at half speed and motored on. Her firm conviction that we were going to not only survive our journey, but also make it unscathed back to Northern Lights base helped me settle down. While she drove I fixed her a cheese sandwich and gave her some mixed nuts and raisins. That’s all she wanted. She was focused and intent on the task ahead, but at least she ate everything.

Once we cleared the channel she took us out onto the big lake and pointed us once again into the wind and the waves. We had hoped as the day wore on the storm might abate somewhat but it hadn’t. It was two in the afternoon and the wind was blowing just as hard as before and the waves were as big as they had been on the upper lake, if not bigger. We had another bitch of a ride ahead of us.

(We heard later that the winds were sustained at thirty miles an hour with gusts up to fifty. Even seasoned veterans of the lake stayed put and off the water that day. But not us. We were neophytes and didn’t know any better. In spite of the challenging conditions, though, there was one good thing: at least the rain stayed away.)

Before we left the relative sanctity of the Brule Narrows, I tried calling base once more but only heard static on the line. Our phones had no signals either, so we were on our own. We steeled ourselves for the crossing and started out. The sky was dull gray and thick with clouds. The temperature was maybe fifty degrees, and we were both wet and chilled from getting our boat unstuck back in Scalawag bay, hours earlier. I longed for sun, something to warm us up, lift our spirits and give us hope. Even seeing a loon would have been nice. But, no. The day stayed cloudy, the loons stayed hidden and we were the only living creatures out on the lake. We didn’t even see any gulls. Every bird, animal and human being was hunkered down, riding out the storm. But not us.

Shelia not only was a was a trooper, she was also a really good driver. She gamely took us across the lower lake, holding the boat steady into the wind, fighting the waves as they smashed into the front, broke over the bow and flooded into the cabin. She wrestled us out of the deep troughs that rolled us back and forth, side to side, and threatened to capsize us at any moment. She did it all with no complaint, just steely determination and strength of will. If I graded myself as a C+ on my navigational skills, getting us across the upper lake, I’d give Shelia an A+ on the channel and the lower lake. She was great. Me? I kept her company, fixed us coffee, gave her bites of chocolate and lit the occasional cigarette for her. It was good teamwork on both of our parts, if I do say so myself.

I also watched the shoreline. We kept to the middle of the lake, aiming ourselves between the red and green buoys put out by the park service to keep boats not only in the safe part of the middle of the lake, but also away from dangerous rocks hidden below the surface. There was maybe a half mile between us and the shoreline on both our right and left. In watching our progress as Shelia drove my main thought was this: I’d seen cold honey move faster. Talk about a slow moving boat. God, most of the time it seemed like weren’t progressing forward at all, and sometimes even going backwards.

When I mentioned this to Shelia she grinned and pointed out the window, “I know, but it’s just an illusion. Pick out something ahead of us on the shore. Watch that. Eventually we’ll get to it. When we do, look ahead and pick out something else and watch that.” She turned to me, hair falling out of the sides of her bandana and smiled, “We are moving, you know, Ben. Foreword. I guarantee it.” Just then the millionth wave of the day smashed into us, shaking the houseboat to its core, and she calmly went back to driving, keeping us on track.

I did as she suggested, picked out a tall pine tree up ahead and watched as we inched our toward it. We eventually got there. Like so many things in the course of our life and marriage together, she was right. We were moving.

I have to say that as the day wore on, we settled into a rather companionable routine. Our fighting and arguing the night before was replaced by the effort of working together to get us from Scalawag Bay to Northern Lights base. Shelia was by far a better driver, so she kept at the wheel. I used a push broom to keep as much water out of the cabin as I could (and I think I did a pretty good job. We never flooded.) I fixed us peanut butter and crackers to munch on and made more cheese sandwiches for us whenever we got hungry. I didn’t want to start the gas stove, but risked it a couple of times to make us both much needed cups of coffee. And I also kept the cigarettes coming.

By seven in the evening we’d cleared the big part of the lower lake. The wind had abated somewhat, but it was obvious we weren’t going to make it back to Northern Lights base. Daylight was fading rapidly and we still had two or three miles to go.

Shelia throttled back and we bobbed on the waves out of the wind behind a nearby island. She turned to me, “What do you want to do?”

“It’ll be dark pretty soon. I’m not confident driving the houseboat at night, are you?”

“No. Not at all.”

We both looked around. Since we were off the main part of the big lake the shoreline was closer to us, maybe a hundred yards away. There were lots of small islands, too.

I suddenly had an idea. I went to a storage cupboard and took out a three-ring binder provided by Northern Lights that showed shoreline camping sites. I brought it to Shelia, opened it up and balanced it on the steering wheel. “Maybe we can find someplace out of the wind and put up for the night.”

We paged through it until we found a map that included our location. We were in luck. A quarter mile ahead and to our left was a site on the lee-side of a small island. It’d be perfect for us.

“Let’s do it,” Shelia said.

“Want me to drive? You must be exhausted.”

“No. I’m good.” She pointed to the map. “You navigate and watch for buoy markers. Make sure we don’t miss it. Keep an eye out for submerged rocks, too.”

I gave her a mock salute, “Aye-aye, captain.”

She laughed. We hadn’t done much of that today, if at all. It was good to hear. It was also a ringing endorsement that we had survived a twelve hour journey covering nearly eighteen miles and that were going to make it safely back to base camp after all, even if it would be the next day. Better late than never, right?

Shelia eased the throttle forward and half an hour later had gently brought us in over some underwater rocks onto a sandy spit of a beach on tiny, rocky, jack pine covered island the map called Pelican Rock. I jumped off the deck in front with the rope and waded through shallow water to the shore. I had my eye on a strong looking aspen tree and soon had us tied to it, tight and secure. I came back to our boat where Shelia handed me the gangplank. I set it firmly in the sand and walked back up it to the deck, dripping water from my boots.

Shelia had gone into the cabin and was trying the radio.

“Anything?” I asked.

She shook her head, “No. Nothing.”

What little light left in the day was rapidly fading, and it would soon be dark. I looked back on the shore. Someone had at one time used rocks to build a fire ring. I pictured how nice it’d be to get a blazing campfire going, sit next to it, relax and warm our tired bones. Trouble was, with all the rain we’d had, I doubted I could find any dry wood. On the other hand, maybe it’d be nice to get off the boat for a while anyway, fire or no fire. My leg muscles were still tense from trying to keep my balance while riding five foot waves all day. I was sure Shelia’s were, too. In fact, I still could feel the rocking and rolling motion of the houseboat even just standing still. Yeah, getting on dry land would be good.

While I was staring at the fire ring, Shelia stepped next to me, “Thinking about building a fire?”

“Yeah. But the wood will be pretty wet, though. Hard to start.”

“Hold on.”

She went back into the cabin, rummaged around for a minute and then returned, carrying a bundle of dry firewood.

I laughed, “What have you got there?”

“I remembered that Northern Lights always supplies these boats with some firewood. You know, just to help out us rookies.” She laughed, “How about we use this to get a fire started. Then maybe you can find some more wood on shore and dry it out by the fire. Once we get it going, that is.”

“Great idea. You’re on.”

In the day’s last light, I got a fire going. Shelia brought out our lawn chairs. I was able to search for and find some wood that wasn’t too wet, and used my little portable hand saw to cut it up. We sat by the fire late into the night, long enough to see the sky clear and the stars come out. The wind even abated, a sure sign the storm was over. We didn’t argue, just talked, at first about the harrowing trip from Scalawag Bay to our little campsite on Pelican Rock. Then we got down to brass tacks and talked about Leslie and Logan. All in all it was a pretty good way to end the day.

The next day we broke camp early and flipped a coin to see who drove. I won (again) and was able to make an uneventful trip to base. In other words, I didn’t get hung up on any rocks. We arrived by ten in the morning . We unloaded our gear and were in Long Lake late that afternoon, exhausted but happy we’d made it home safely. I was back to work the next day, Monday. One of the first things I did was text Leslie, “Wed. Me & U, lunch BFI?” She texted back with a smiley face.

I won’t go into the details about that Wednesday lunch at Black Forest Inn except to say that she was less broken up about me ending things with her than I thought she’d be. After I told her that I just didn’t think things were going to work out, she’d responded with a shrug and, “Yeah, I can see that. I kind of feel the same way.”

There wasn’t much to be said after that. I drove home that afternoon, though, feeling strangely relieved. Happy, almost. After working together while fighting the storm on Rainy Lake, I realized I wasn’t ready to give up on Shelia and I and our marriage. Not by a long shot. I felt we still had something going for us. A lot, actually. Shelia, on the other hand saw things differently.

After we’d built the campfire on Pelican Rock that last night, we fixed a dinner of whatever we could find: a can of beans, four ears of corn on the cob, some saltines and Hersey’s bars. After the day we’d had, everything tasted like the best meal some fancy restaurant in New York City could have possibly served us. Probably better. Neither Leslie’s name, nor Logan’s had been mentioned all day; we’d had too much to do, getting our boat to safety and all. Finally, now, safely relaxing by the campfire and the talk of the day’s adventure having run its course, both elephants in the forest couldn’t be ignored.

Shelia took a sip of coffee and lit a cigarette, then asked, “So what about this Leslie, this girl friend of yours. What’s the deal with her?”

I wanted to tell her. I had thought off and on during the day of how to put it; there were such a variety of different ways. Finally, I settled on the most direct, “I’m going to end it when I get back home.”

I looked at her to judge her reaction. She blinked once, took a drag and said, “I didn’t expect that.”

“I know,” I said, “But it’s for the best.” Even though she didn’t ask, I told her why, “It has to do with us getting across the lake today. Me and you. I liked that we worked as a team, and I’d forgotten how much I appreciated that we could do that. Not everyone would be able to. Look at Bob and Iris; they can’t even cook dinner together without getting into a fight. We’ve never been like that. We could always start a project and each of us would naturally gravitate to one set of tasks while the other found their own niche. We worked great together, always did,” I paused, then said, “Even with the kids. Remember? We always talked over any issues we had with them and never let them drive us apart.” I stopped and looked at my wife. She was nodding her head, agreeing, I think with my assessment. I went on, “I think we drifted apart for other reasons.” I sighed, “And I’m sorry for that. Sorry that I hurt you. Sorry that I made you feel alone.” Then I added the name I wasn’t sure I wanted to add, but figured, what the hell, why not? “Sorry I drove you to Logan.”

After my little speech, I was silent. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spoken so freely, so from my heart. Or for so long. It felt good to unburden myself and come clean with my feelings.

Shelia tossed her cigarette in the fire and opened up a Hersey bar, broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. She sucked on it for a minute before saying, “I was so mad at you. After Jake and Julie left home and the house was empty I felt empty, too. When we got married I pictured our life together. We would raise our kids, go on vacations, celebrate birthdays and holidays, you know, just be a family. I figured any problems we had, we could work through them.” She shook her head and broke off another piece of chocolate, “I don’t know what went wrong.” She put the chocolate in her mouth and contemplated the fire.

I got up and threw another log on, hoping to break the mood. Out on the lake a loon started calling. When it stopped, another one started up. Soon they were calling back and forth. Perhaps they were a couple. Whatever the case, they were doing a lot better job breaking the mood than my pretending to fool around with the fire was doing. I sat down and said, “I think I do. Know what went wrong, I mean. At least from my standpoint.” Shelia looked at me, waiting for my answer. “I think I just got lazy,” I said, “I think I started taking our relationship and marriage for granted. I think I just forget to let you know how much you meant to me.”

I pulled a cigarette from the pack lying on the sand between us and rolled it back and forth in my figures, but didn’t light it. After a minute, I put it back in the pack.

“I guess I forgot how much I really loved you until today.”

I looked at her. She had a tear in her eye. Suddenly, so did I. It was an emotional moment, let me tell you. I was glad, though, that I had said what I had to say. In fact, I was naive enough to think that maybe this little talk, and me opening up my feelings, would be all we’d need to get back together. Maybe our marriage would survive. Maybe all the shit over the last few years would be forgotten.

Shows you what a fool I really was.

Shelia picked up the pack, shook out a cigarette and lit up, “Too bad you didn’t tell me all of this years ago,” she said, “Or even earlier this year, for that matter, before I met Logan.”

Well, that was a good point, a very good point.

We stayed up late. We didn’t argue or raise our voices. Instead, we kept talking reasonably, getting our feelings out in the open, and that was a good thing. However, the long and the short of it was this: Shelia cared deeply for this Logan guy. She’d met him while running Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth the past spring, just after she’d figured out about Leslie and me. He was a thirty-eight years old, an investment banker, single and, apparently, carrying no baggage, emotional or otherwise. She wasn’t ready to give him up.

Later that night, I gathered up my courage and asked the question I most wanted an answer to, yet was most afraid to hear the answer of, “Are you going to leave me for him?”

Shelia told me she wasn’t sure. In fact her very words were, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. I’ll keep you posted.”

What a mess I’d made of things. I told myself I’d have to accept the situation for what it was and learn to live with where Shelia was at, but I knew it’d be hard. Here I was ready to dedicate myself to doing whatever I could to salvage our marriage, but she wasn’t ready to do that. It was clear that Logan was very much in the picture. We didn’t talk much after that.

I spent the night on the floor again, next to Shelia’s bed. In spite of our exhaustion, I know neither of us slept very well.

Once we were back home in Long lake, though, things didn’t go not too badly between us. Our détente’ continued, and I was happy for that. At least I hadn’t been kicked out of the house, which, in my mind had been a very real possibility. On Wednesday evening, when I told Shelia that I’d broken off my relationship with Leslie, she’d said, “If that’s what you want, good. I’m glad for you.” Not the most enthusiastic response in the world, but then again, what did I expect. I’d been the one to screw up in the first place. I had a lot of dues to pay.

When I asked Shelia later week about her and Logan all I got was a non-committal, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

When I tried to clarify, “What does that mean?” what I got back was, “Exactly what I said, I’ll get back to you.”

“Are you still going to see him?” I persisted.

The response?  A long stare and, “I’ll. Get. Back. To. You.”

Okay. I finally was getting the point. Shelia had some thinking to do, and when she was done, she’d…Get back to me.

Our first weekend back home, we had Bob and Iris out to our place for a Saturday night backyard picnic. Iris had called Shelia earlier in the week to catch up and when Shelia told her the tale of our harrowing journey across Rainy Lake, Iris told Bob. They both were excited to hear more, so we invited them over to fill them in and show them pictures we’d each taken with our phones. That Saturday evening I fired up the grill and did corn on the cob (a nod to our campfire dinner on Pelican Rock), and black bean burgers. Shelia put together a fresh salad with greens and veggies from our garden and we ate outside at our picnic table on the back patio.

When we were finished, Bob and I were inside doing the dishes when he turned to me and said, “So what’s up with you and Shelia?”

I handed him a plate. I was washing, he was drying. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you both seem…” he paused, trying to frame his thought before saying, “You both seem different.”

“Okay,” I said, “Different like how?” I handed him another plate.

“I don’t know. Better? Less argumentative, maybe?” He took the plate and dried it before setting it aside. He wiped his hands on the towel, set it on the counter and turned to me, “Did something happen between you guys up there?”

“You mean like the wind storm and almost capsizing the houseboat a hundred times on Rainy?” I grinned at him.

Bob, laughed, “No. I mean with you and Shelia. You seem more comfortable together. Less tense, that’s for sure. Better with each other.” He paused again and then asked, “Are you?”

Bob was a good friend of mine, we’d known each other for over fifteen years, but I’d never told him about Leslie and I wasn’t going to now. Instead, I said, “Yeah, I think we are. Better with each other, I mean. We had a pretty good time up on Rainy.” I knew I was sounding  vague, but too bad. If Shelia and I seemed good to Bob, fine. In a way we were. Deep down, though, I knew things between us were still tenuous, and they would stay that way until Shelia resolved her feelings about Logan.

I started washing a salad bowl and looked out the window into the backyard. Shelia and Iris were deep in conversation. About what, I had no idea. I turned to Bob and said, “So, yeah, I think we’re pretty good. I think we’re more than pretty good.” Even though Shelia’s jury was still out on Logan, between Shelia and I it sure seemed like things were better than they had been in a long time, years even. I sure hoped they were, anyway.

Bob slapped me on the back and said, “Well, that’s good news, buddy. I’m happy for you.”

If it was true, I was happy, too. Very happy. But, honestly, there was still the issue with Shelia and Logan. Until that was resolved, moving ahead with repairing our marriage was going to be difficult, if not impossible.

The next weekend was sunny and warm, the temperature in the low eighties. I was out in the garden on Saturday, weeding and deadheading in one of our five front yard flower beds, and trying to make sense of it all regarding my marriage. I was happy I broke things off with Leslie. The age difference was too great, our interests…well, honestly, there wasn’t much there. I’m glad I had done what I did, and, truth be told, I’m sure Leslie was, too. She had texted me the next day, “Thx Ben. U were fun! :)” Fun? Well, what can you say to that?

Did I want to stay with Shelia? Yes, absolutely I did. But, I was preparing myself for her to kick me out and move on to a life without me. I had let her down so many times over the years that I was surprised she hadn’t already told me to pack up and leave. Especially now that she had Logan in her life. How could I expect otherwise?

For my part? Well, over time, I had become vaguely unhappy with my marriage. I’d ended up using Leslie as a pleasant little diversion, an ill advised decision which I realized on Rainy Lake was something I didn’t need or want. But, of course, I had, and, in so doing, I may have damaged my relationship with my wife irrevocably.

Honestly? I still loved Shelia. I would give anything to have her back and to spend the rest of our life together, trying to make our marriage as good as it could possibly be. After all, when it came right down to it, not every couple could work together to fight their way across a huge, storm ravaged lake in a little houseboat, and live to tell the tail. Did that sound overly dramatic? Maybe, but from where I was coming from, it made perfect sense. There was something there between us worth fighting for.

My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden unexpected scent of spearmint in the air. I smiled. Shelia had taken up chewing gum ever since we’d gotten off the lake and she was favoring Wrigley’s Spearmint. She told me it was to help her quit smoking and apparently it’s been going well. She’s essentially stopped. I’m happy for her. Me? I was just smoking with her to share the moment. I hadn’t had one since we got in car at Northern Lights base camp and drove home.

I stood up, straightened my back and turned to greet her. Two weeks after the fact and I was still stiff from fighting the huge waves on Rainy. Shelia, in much better shape all the way around, recovered right away. In fact, she’d been running on a regular basis, training for the Twin City Marathon coming up in October. I tried not to think about if Logan was going to be running it, too.

“Hi,” I said, as she walked up, “How’s it going?”

We’d been getting along fine ever since we’d returned home. She knew I’d broken things off with Leslie. A few days ago when I asked her about Logan, she’d told me, “I’ve only texted him that I’ve got a lot on my mind. I haven’t seen him or talked to him since we’ve been back. I don’t really have anything to say to him.”

That was the last we’d talked about either of them. Other than having Bob and Iris over, mainly we’d just worked at our jobs, cooked our evening meal together, watched television and gone on a few walks in the neighborhood, stuff we’d pretty much always done. But…and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t just my imagination…I’m pretty sure we were more comfortable with each other than we’d been in years, like Bob had pointed out. We’d even laughed together a few times. It’d been nice.

“It’s going pretty good,” Shelia said, in response to my question. She moved in so she was standing close to me and asked, “How about with you?”

“Good. I’m almost done with the zinnias.” I looked around. The sun was low in the west over the roof of our home, shadows lengthening. Late afternoon. The sky was blue and cloudless and it was still warm out but not too hot, a perfect ending to a perfect summer day. “I’m going to start deadheading these babies next,” I pointed to some nearby bachelor buttons, waist high, blue and white annual flowers that self-seeded themselves every year. Butterflies loved them. I had a big clump in the middle of the garden and they needed some attention. Just then a movement caught my eye. I turned and watched an early Painted Lady land on one and start feeding. I smiled and looked at Leslie. She was smiling, too, but it wasn’t at the butterfly. She was smiling directly at me. Something was up.

“What?” I asked, curious.

“I’ve got something here. Thought you might like to see it.” She handed me an envelope.

The mail must have been dropped off earlier, and I’d been so lost in thought I hadn’t even noticed. I looked at the return address. It was from Northern Lights Houseboat Adventures. My first thought was that it was a bill. We’d paid for our houseboat before we’d taken it out that first day, but we’d lost the dingy on the way across the upper lake after we’d left Scalawag Bay. At some point that one-inch boat rope had snapped in the storm like a rubber band. We’d been so focused on looking ahead, watching the waves and judging the position of our boat, we never noticed it was gone until we were getting ready to enter the Brule Narrows. I opened the envelope expecting the bill for the dingy. It wasn’t a bill at all.

I looked over the one page letter. Then I read it more closely before turning to Shelia, “What’s this all about?” I asked, “What have you done?”

She broke into a big smile, “You like my surprise? I booked us in for next year. What do you think? Want to do it? Want to go back?”

What I held in my hand was a reservation. Guaranteed, for a week in the middle of August on our boat, Looney Tunes. Next year!

I was stunned and at a loss for words. Finally, I was able to ask, “You want to go back? With me?” It was the last thing I expected, and I was quick to answer, “Of course I do.” Absolutely, I wanted to go back with her. I began to envision us crossing Rainy Lake, in much calmer waters, of course, letting my imagination run away with me: Moonlit nights. Loons calling. A warm, crackling campfire. Smores. Then I put the brake on. “Wait a minute. What about…?”

I was going to say Logan’s name, but Shelia stopped me and put her finger on my lips. “Don’t worry about him. That’s over,” she said, leaning closer, “I ended it. No more fooling around for me. And no more fooling around for you, either, okay? From now on, it’s you and me, Ben, for better or worse, just like in the movies.”

I couldn’t believe I’d get another chance, but I was. Overjoyed, I said, “I promise. I swear to you, I’ll do everything I can to keep us together.”

“I’m counting on you. You know that, don’t you?”

“I do,” I said, looking into her eyes and holding her gaze, “But, you know, this isn’t a movie,” I added, stated the obvious.

“I know,” she said, “It’s better. It’s our life

To say I was overjoyed was putting it mildly. In fact, I think words will for always and all time be unable to do justice to the happiness I felt at that particular moment. But I will say this, I saw a vision of our future right then: Shelia and I, living our life together, growing old together, and that’s all I needed to see. It made me the happiest man on earth. I had ended things with Leslie and she had with Logan. Now, it was the two of us, as husband and wife, and we had another chance. Another opportunity to work on our marriage and forge ahead together into our future. It was something that didn’t always happen; the chance to start over. I was all for it.

They say a wound heals stronger when it mends and I have no reason to doubt that statement. Hopefully it will be the same with our marriage. I believe it will. But, over the years there were a lot of wounds inflicted, all caused by me, and there’s a lot of healing to be done. Will we be successful? We’ll find out. I will say this: I’m committed saving our relationship and moving ahead together. So is Shelia. What I know for sure is that something happened to both of us up on Rainy Lake. It’s like we each caught a glimpse into the depths of what we had built together over our twenty- three years of marriage, and we didn’t want to let it go. Somehow our love for each other had not only survived, but had also been rejuvenated. I have no answer exactly how it had happened. I only knew that it did.

Shelia stepped into my arms and I held her; the first time in years. Her closeness felt wonderful, just like I remembered, the best feeling in the whole wide world. “Yes, I want to go with you,” I said, “Rainy Lake, here we come.” Then I whispered in her ear, “I can’t wait.”

“Me either, “Shelia said, and we held each other tight. It was all she had to say. In fact, it was more than enough.

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Classic Rock

Dave Larson watched his son and daughter, Tim and Jessie, join the crowd of other high schoolers as they made their way up the steps to the entrance of Long Lake High School. Tim was a senior this year, Jessie two years younger, in tenth grade. He had a deep love and affection for them both. Tim, tall and lanky, was a wearer of glasses and a science geek; a dedicated student. Jessie, short and muscular, was an up and coming second line center on the girls hockey team; a natural athlete. They were both great kids and he grinned as he beeped his horn goodbye. They each waved over their shoulders without looking back and then disappeared through the front door of the 1970’s brick building. Dave smiled and gave them a wave in return, although he knew they couldn’t see him. He was a polite man and it felt like the right thing to do. Then he checked the clock on the dash panel of his six year old Ford Fiesta. It was 7:49 am.

He put his left hand up to shield his eyes from the October sun, low on the horizon, just peeking over the trees. He thought about putting his old sunglasses on, but remembered that the arm had fallen off yesterday rendering them useless. He made a mental note to get a new pair sometime soon.

An image of his wife Karen popped into his mind. She was the same age as him, fifty-one, and had short, blond hair, mostly gone to gray. She was five-two, stout, with the strong arms of her Swedish ancestors. She’d left early in the morning for her job in Wayzata, just seven miles away, where she was a dental technician and was needed for 7:30 am root channel with Dr. England. She’d kissed him on the cheek goodbye while he and the kids were still having breakfast: cheerios for him, toast for Tim and some kind of granola for Jessie. His wife’s image made him feel good inside. They’d been married for twenty-nine years. They had a solid marriage, Dave thought. He was happy with her. She was happy with him(he was pretty sure.) In fact, he had a good life: a good job, good home, good family. Just then a school bus roared by on the left, inches from his window. Other parents dropping off their kids beeped their horns goodbye. A bunch of students late for the beginning of class ran down the sidewalk on his right. Karen’s image faded and then was gone.

Dave sighed and checked the clock again. 7:53 am. It was a normal a day for him, as normal as normal could be; just like every other Wednesday in the last, what? Month? Year? Decade? He didn’t know. Truth be told, they were all starting to run together.

He shifted his rear end in the seat. Why was he wasting time sitting in front of his son and daughter’s high school mulling over his life? He should get a move on. He should leave the school grounds and take the service road out to the street that lead to the county road where the stoplight was. Then he should take a left and point himself east. He should drive the nineteen point seven miles into downtown Minneapolis to his job at Heartland Controls, the company he’d worked at for the last twenty-six years. He’d recently been promoted to product supervisor in the solid state division, a mid-level management position, and he needed to show his immediate boss he was worthy of the job. He was fifty-one years old for Pete’s sake, and he should quit procrastinating. He had a meeting with his design team at 10 am and lots of emails to catch up on. He had a presentation to prepare for on Friday to update his boss, Charlie Langston, on a new energy saving set-back thermostat his team was working on. He had responsibilities and he should just get to it.

Dave sighed again and put his car in gear. He checked over his shoulder to make sure it was safe, put his turn signal light on, pulled away from the curb and drove away from the high school. At the corner, he signaled again and took a right onto the service road and began the drive that would him a few blocks out to the stoplight at the county road. Once there he’d turn left, drive a few miles and hook up with the highway that would take him into Minneapolis and he would go to work. Just like every other day.

He watched the speedometer as he drove along the service road and kept it to a steady twenty-eight miles per hour in the thirty mile per hour zone. To the left the sun was inching higher above the trees. The sky was pure blue and cloudless, the temperature in the low fifties. It looked like it was going to be a gorgeous fall day. Dave settled into his seat and sighed again. Too bad he had to go to work.

On the way to the county road he decided turn on the radio and listen to some music. His preferred choice was channel 89.9 FM, a station dedicated to playing the best classical music in the upper Midwest. Given how he was feeling at the moment, something like a little Chopin would be a nice shot in the arm, something to quell his melancholy mood.

Somehow, though, when he punched the ON button, the call letters for the area’s mega-huge, classic rock station came up and Bam! Just like that, the little car was suddenly filled with the thumping, pounding, rhythmic beat of drums and bass guitar. BOOM, DADA, BOOM, DADA, BOOM…Dave flinched. He was used to the quiet serenity of a Mozart piano concertos or the melodic orchestration of a Beethoven symphony. Not this. Not the wild, relentless beat of rowdy, unruly, rock and roll. No sir, not on your life. The noise actually made him feel queasy and he could feel perspiration forming on his forehead. He had been a classical music fan for over twenty years. He liked the soft sounds of the strings, woodwinds and orchestra. He like the peaceful, mellow, feeling it gave him. Mozart or Chopin or Beethoven, even Sibelius, it was all good. The music soothed and relaxed him, sometimes even making him a little sleepy, like a narcotic. Not like the noise now emanating from the Fords tiny speakers, filling the car with that hard, driving, rock and roll. It was grating it. It was dissonant. In fact, it was kind of irritating.

He was reaching to quickly change channels when something stopped him. There was something about the song now playing that was familiar, something he thought he recognized. Dave liked challenges. He liked quizzes. He liked to try to figure things out, so he paused and listened. The song…what was the name of it again? He let the melody line run through his brain some more, trying to recall where he’d heard it before. A little test, he told himself. A little test to check how good his memory was. He thought about it for a few seconds before the answer finally came to him. Dave grinned and gave himself an imaginary grade of an A. It was a song from back when he was younger. Back when he was in what? High school? Junior high school? College? He fiddled with the volume, turning it down a little, and listened more carefully. Surprisingly, he found the more he listened, he more he realized that he kind of liked the song. He liked the way the drummer pounded the drums so they echoed deep and resonant, like a distance thunderstorm rumbling. He like the way the bass line ran up and down underneath the melody, making him want to tap his fingers along with the beat. Together, the drums and bass sounded kind of…what? Pleasing? No. Well, sort of but not quite. He thought some more. Primitive? Yeah, that’s what it was like, primitive; like the native sounds (he imaged) from the jungle way back when in prehistoric times. Sexy, even, the more he thought about it. (And then immediately felt guilty for thinking, for him, such an unconventional thought.) But the fact of the matter was this: The more he listened, the more he found he was liking what he was hearing.

Then he suddenly felt guilty again. Maybe he was liking it just a little bit more than he should have. He was a classical music fan, after all, not a rock and roller. That’s enough, he thought to himself. No more thinking like that.

He was just about to switch to his classical station when he the singer started in. It was then he recognized the that the name of the song was Molly Hatchet’s famous ‘Flirtin With Disaster’. Suddenly images came came flooding back to him; a tidal wave of memories, most of which were pleasant. It was a song from 1979, back when he was thirteen and in junior high school in Minneapolis. He was a science geek back then (just like his son now.) He and his friends had built a rocket in his parents basement just for fun; for the challenge of it. In school, he liked math. He liked science. He liked knowing that he could combine the two disciplines and make something tangible, in this case a thirty-one inch tall rocket that he hoped would work. It did. He and his friends shot it off out in the country west of Minneapolis and it had traveled nearly half a mile straight up before exploding. How cool was that?

By now Dave had driven to the highway and was stopped at the signal waiting for the light to change. He didn’t switch the station. Instead he kept listening to the song, thinking back to when he and his friends had built that rocket. Those were good times back then, great times, even. He smiled reliving the memory. The music seemed to touch something deep inside him, something that had been dormant for a long, long, time. He remembered how he and Eddie and Ron and Steve used to listen to rock and roll down in his parent’s basement when they’d talk about science stuff and math stuff. Even girls. Right now, the song brought all of that back to him; he found himself liking the driving force of the music and the power of the guitars. He liked the way the guy sang, with his deep voice, scarred (Dave was sure) by bourbon whiskey and non-filtered cigarettes. He liked the memories the song rekindled. He liked that the song made him smile, made him happy.

Right then and there, while waiting at the stoplight and listening to ‘Flirtin’ With Disaster,’ Dave suddenly made a snap decision. Instead of turning left and heading east through Long Lake and getting on the crowded highway that would take him to work in Minneapolis, he flipped the turn signal the other way and waited. When the light changed, he turned right, to the west. He started driving away from town, away from his job, away from his kids, away from his wife and away from his home. As he drove, he turned up the volume and the classic rock music of Molly Hatchet filled the inside of the little Fiesta. ‘I’m travelin’ down the road, I’m flirtin’ with disaster’. That’s what Dave was going to do. He was going to take a break from his life. He was going to travel down the road. He didn’t want to flirt with disaster, necessarily, he just wanted to take a chance and see what there was to see.

At least for today.

In his whole life, Dave was never one to consider himself as a rock and roll outlaw. Or even a rebel, for that matter. In high school in a well to do suburb of Minneapolis he was an A minus B plus student whose greatest claim to fame was third place for a perpetual motion machine he built for his senior year science project. The only girl he ever dated was Karen, who eventually agreed to marry him after they had both graduated from college when the guy she was engaged to ‘dumped her’ as she put it, for a former City of Lakes beauty pageant queen. Dave readily agreed.

They found jobs they both liked. They moved to Long Lake and bought a nice little bungalow and so Karen could be close to her parents. They had Tim and Jessie. Life was the way it was supposed to be – quiet, stable and predictable.

But now…now this. Now this sudden desire to break the mold that formed his uneventful life. To step out and do something completely unexpected. Something different. Was he nervous? Yes. Yes, he was. But he forced his nervousness aside and concentrated on the here and now. Somehow this morning he had been struck by a sudden and unexpected need to let himself know he wasn’t stuck in a rut and trapped in the confines of the life he’d chosen to live. He needed to do something different than what he’d been doing every day of his life for he didn’t know how long.

As he drove, Dave had a talk with himself. He asked, ‘I’m a responsible man, aren’t I?’ The answer: ‘Yes. Yes, I am. Just ask Karen. She’d say that I’m as responsible as the day is long, and then some.’ Next, he asked, ‘People can count on me to be stable and reliable, right?’ The answer: ‘Yes. Just ask…Well, just ask anyone. Stable could easily be my middle name (not Norman’).

So there. He deserved to do this. Even though it was unexpected behavior on his part, maybe he deserved to break out and do something out of the ordinary. Something completely unexpected. Something no one expected him to do.

Dave checked the rearview mirror. He was near the western outskirts of Long Lake and excitement was replacing his nervousness. He was really doing this. He was really heading away from his job and his home. The question came to him: Why? Why was he doing this? Well, to be honest, he didn’t know. All he knew was that this morning, this beautiful October fall morning, something had grabbed at his very soul and taken over, compelling him to do the unexpected. Was it the music that had fueled the change? Maybe. Probably. And if it had, the fact of the matter was that he had listened and he’d given in. He needed to know he could be more than just a reliable husband, father and employee. He needed to do what the song suggested. He needed hit the road and be free.

As Dave headed west, ‘Travelin’ Man’ by the Allman Brothers came on. Dave turned up the volume so the music was pounding through the speakers. He felt a surge of adrenaline roar through his veins. He’d never done anything remotely spontaneous like this before in his whole life. Ever. He was nervous, but excited. He sped up and made it through the last stoplight in town just as the light changed from to yellow for caution to red for stop. Caution? thought Dave. Not today. Stop? No way. Today I’m my own man. Nervous as he was, he liked the feeling.

He accelerated and made himself not look in the rear view mirror. Ahead lay corn rows and soybean fields. Farm houses and pasture land dotted here and there with wood lots. Wide open spaces. The open road. He could drive all the way to Montana if he wanted. For now, though, he’d go to Delano. He checked the clock. It read 8:16 am. The little town was only fifteen miles and maybe a twenty minute drive away. He could make it easy. He’d better. His bladder was full and aching and he suddenly had the pressing need to find a gas station and make a pit stop. He wanted to hurry. He wanted to put the gas pedal to the floor and break the speed limit if he had to and there as fast as possible, but he held himself back, conscious of maintaining the fifty-five mile per hour speed limit. After all, he didn’t need a ticket. He’d never had one in his life and he certainly didn’t need one now. He’d get there eventually. Hopefully, in time.

He fiddled with the volume on the radio, getting it set just right and hummed along to ‘Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.’ The song helped take his mind off his need to get to a gas station, but just barely. He checked the time again. 8:19 am. He pushed the accelerator down just a little bit more.

Clive Culpepper had been working at the Delano Quik-Stop for three and a half years, the last four months of which he’d been manager on the 6 am to 2 pm shift. It was 8:35 am that Wednesday morning, and he was behind the counter, watching the steady stream of traffic on highway 12 – most of it late commuters heading to work forty miles east in the twin cities. He was, as the saying went, ‘Looking but not really seeing.’ Instead, he was worried. His wife, Carrie, was expecting their first child any day now and she’d told him at 5:30 am that morning on his way out the door that she wasn’t feeling the best.

In fact, her very words were, “I feel like shit, man. Like someone put a huge watermelon inside me and then crammed me in a barrel and dropped me down an empty grain elevator.”

That didn’t sound good. Immediately concerned, Clive hurried to her side and said, problem solver he always tried to be, “You know I’d stay if I could, but I’ve got to get the station open. Can Susie come over and be with you?”

“That bitch couldn’t be bothered to help me even if I paid her,” Carrie had spat out.”She’s hanging with Kimo and that crew of jerks, and all she can think about is getting stoned and getting laid.” She paused and took a big swallow out of the glass of milk she was drinking, “So, no, Clive, I won’t be calling my dear little sister. The lazy little skank.”

Okay, then, message received, Clive thought to himself and hurried to change the subject, “Well, you just rest then, honey. I’ve got to get to work, but I’ll keep my phone handy. Call if you need me. Okay?”

Carrie was sitting at the cluttered card table they used for eating, paying bills, folding laundry and nearly every other task that required a flat surface. She looked out the window of the narrow, single wide that they could just barely afford payments on and said, “I’ll do that, Mr. Manager Man. Just make sure I can reach you.” She turned and offered him the faintest of smiles. Her blond hair was an oily, stringy mess, in need of a wash. Her blue eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep, and the extra fifty-five pounds she’d put on in addition to the baby she was carrying were bursting out of her faded pink sweat pants. “I count on you, you know.”

God, how much he adored her. She was the love of his life. He knelt down to be close to her and put his arm around her, “No problem, babe,” Clive smiled at her, “I’ve got your back. You know that. Always.” He rubbed her shoulder affectionately, then kissed the side of her face, holding his breath and trying not to breathe the oily fumes emanating from not only her head, but the rest of her body.

“You’d better,” Carrie told him, squeezing his hand before taking another gulp of milk. Then she and let loose a long, loose, belch. “You know I count on you.” She gave him another thin smile and released his hand before going back to looking outside.

Clive stood up and went to the kitchen counter. He grabbed his lunch bucket and checked his appearance in the mirror on the side of the corner cupboard. He was just under six feet with a thin, wiry, build. He had short, neatly combed brown hair and a wisp of a mustache (that Carrie liked.) He had brooding, dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows that gave him the look of a poet or a clergyman, neither of which he’d cop to. (He’d rather be considered a mechanic – he loved working on cars.) He had a tattoo of a heart with a capital C in the middle on his left bicep.(For Carrie, of course.) For work he always wore a uniform of neatly pressed gray pants and a crisp, gray, long sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled down and buttoned, with his name in red stitched above the left breast pocket. He made sure his black work boots were always clean and polished. If he wore a hat, it’d be his blue baseball hat with FORD in red letters proudly displayed on the crown. In short, he subscribed to the adage: If you look good, you’ll be good. And that’s what he wanted: To do good work and have a good family. He was nearly there. He was twenty-six, Carrie was twenty-four. They’d been happily married for three years. All he wanted from of his life was right here in their modular home set on the outskirts of Delano in the Riverside Estates trailer park only a fifty yards from the Crow River. Having their first child would make their life just that much better; perfect, even. He couldn’t wait.

Clive turned and said good-bye to Carrie. She waved half-heartedly back at him and his heart suddenly went out to her. He hurried across the old linoleum floor, knelt down and gave her another hug goodbye and held her tight. Hopefully the delivery will go okay, is what he was thinking. He knew his wife was a strong women, but this was their first child. Who knew what could happen? Then he wiped that thought out of his mind. The delivery would go just fine. He was sure it would. Carrie was strong. They trusted their doctor. Clive would be there to do all he could to help. You just had to have a little faith.

After allowing herself to be held for a moment, Carrie playfully pushed him away and said, “Better get to work, Manager Man. Just keep your phone handy, okay?”

“Right. You know I will, sweetheart.” He paused, holding her until she gently pushed him away, again.

“Time to hit the road, Clive.”

“Got it. I’m on my way.”

Clive went to the front door, turned and smiled and gave Carrie the ‘thumbs up’ sign, which she returned with a non-committal wave and the tiniest of burps. Then he pushed through the rusted screen door and out to the postage sized yard where his truck was parked. He noticed that the cottonwood sapling he’d planted earlier that summer seemed to be struggling a bit and looked a little wilted. He went to the outside faucet, filled a bucket, came back and watered the base of the tiny tree, saying, “Come on there, little fella’, you can make it.” Then he returned the bucket to the side of the trailer, stood for a moment and looked around. The horizon to the east was turning pink. The last stars were fading away in the clear dawn sky. His child was going to be born anytime soon. He grinned. It was going to be a great day.

From home he’d driven his twenty-two year old Ford 150 the three point four miles to work, unlocked the front door and gone inside. The first thing he did, after turning on all the lights, was to turn on the music his boss let him play through the overhead speakers. Classic rock, of course. ‘Not too loud, Clive,’ he’d been told, so he kept the volume reasonable. The first song that had come on was ‘Pink Houses’ and he’d hummed along on his way outside to the islands, where he’d taken readings on the pumps and turned them on. Then he’d gone back inside and got going with his day: stocking shelves, taking inventory, waiting on customers as they started trickling in and dealing with a hundred other things that always came up.

At 7:00 am Johnny Bremer (The Pot Smoker, as Clive referred to him to Carrie) showed up for his shift. At least he’s on time, Clive thought to himself. A high school dropout, Johnny had worked for him for a few months and all in all wasn’t a bad employee, if you ignored his pot smoking habit that is (which Clive had trouble doing.) The important thing was that they worked well together as a team. This morning he’d put Johnny to work cleaning out the restrooms and sweeping the floor while he’d manned the cash register and taken care of customers. The morning had been busy and had moved along with nothing out of the ordinary happening.

Now here he was, behind the counter, the morning nearly rush slowing down, thinking about what it was going to be like to be a father. He was scared but also looking forward to being a dad. Big time. He pictured himself coming home from work after the baby was born and holding and playing with the new little one, even learning how to change dirty diapers. He imagined watching the child grown and teaching him or her how to play catch and change the spark plugs on the truck. He pictured going on family vacations to Yellowstone and spending long lazy Christmas mornings around a decorated Christmas tree opening presents. So many things he’d do and share with his child that his dad never did with him because he hadn’t been there. No, his father had left home just after Clive had been born never to be heard from again. Well, Clive certainly wasn’t going to go down that road. Not ever. Not on your life.

He shook his head to rid himself of the image of his long departed father. He figured that if he was scared, it was in a good way and that made him feel a little better, a little less nervous. He and Carrie had decided not to be told the sex of their child and, instead, wait to find out until the baby was delivered. Would they have a little girl or little boy? It didn’t matter. As long as he or she was healthy, that was the main thing. And doctor Sanderson had reassured them all along that the little baby was ‘Still fit as a fiddle’ as she had told them the during their visit last week. So…all was good.

Clive was idly thinking of possible boy names (Clint, Jeremy, Rocky) when a movement outside caught his eye. A car was quickly pulling in off the highway. It was a gray Ford Fiesta. He watched it race past the islands and speed up to the front of the station before slamming on its breaks. Slow down, buddy, Clive thought to himself, along with, Man, what a friggin’ boring car. His attention was diverted, though, when all a sudden his phone beeped. He checked the display. It was a text from Carrie and it was urgent. ‘Come now!!’

Lightning fast, he texted her back, ‘I’m on my way,’ and jumped into action.

He pressed a buzzer under the counter. It rang the bell out back where he knew Johnny was probably having his morning toke instead of emptying the trash like Clive had told him to do. God, why had he hired the kid? He was a good enough guy, but certainly not the most motivated person in the world. (At least he was better than that Kimo guy Carrie had mentioned this morning. Now there was a bad news dude with a capital B.)

Clive looked toward the door at the back of the store leading out to the trash bins. He was starting to get mad. Where the hell was that kid? He needed to get going and get to Carrie and get her to the hospital. Just then the front door opened and the guy from the Fiesta hurried in and up to the counter.

“I need to use the restroom,” the guy said, “Really bad.”

“Over there,” Clive pointed to the far corner of the station.

“Thanks.”

The guy hurried off and Clive shook his head. He looked like a pudgy, burned out businessman. Jesus, fella’, plan ahead a little why don’t ya’? Then he forgot about him.

Clive checked his pockets to make sure he had his wallet, phone and truck keys. He did. He needed to get to Carrie. Come on, Johnny, hurry up and get your ass in here.

He looked toward the back door, again, willing the young employee to come through it. Nothing. He nervously shuffled his feet. He didn’t want to leave the counter unattended. He looked outside to the front. Maybe Johnny was out at the islands filling the window wash containers, showing a little initiative for a change. The station had three islands of pumps, two pumps per island, two nozzles per pump, so they could serve twelve vehicles if they needed to, but rarely were they all in use. Maybe Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. Maybe the Fourth of July. Not now, in the middle of the morning, in the mid of the week in the middle of October. Right now the only vehicle out there was one rusted out pickup that had just driven in and what looked like an old farmer who gotten out, set the pump and was now scratching himself, watching the meter turn around and around. But there was no Johnny, that was for sure. Where was that kid?

Clive swore silently and took a chance. He hurried around the counter, passing the eating area by the front window on the way. Jeff Nelson and Stubby Jorgenson, two retired farmers, were sitting at one of the four tables drinking maybe their fifth cup of morning coffee and bull shitting about god only knew what like they did every day. Except today. Today was different. Today was Wednesday so it was Checkers Day. They had their old, beat up board out and were busily engaged in their game; had been for over an hour. They didn’t even look up when Clive jogged past. Old Mrs. Shauffhausen was there, too, occupying one of the other tables, this one in the sunshine. She was eating a sugar donut and drinking a can of coke. She was working on a crossword puzzle like she did every day. A lonely old widow, Clive knew his station was one of maybe five stops she made during the course of her day. Her next stop would be the Super America a half mile west. Kind of sad, is what Clive thought on most days, but not today. They were regulars and he knew them not only by name, but could tell you how many kids and grand children Jeff had (five kids, fourteen grandchildren), when Stubby lost the thumb and index finger on his left hand (combine accident, summer of 1997), and when Mrs. Shauffhausen had lost her husband (cancer, spring of 2015). But he was focused on other things, mainly getting home to Carrie and getting her to the hospital. He needed to find Johnny and find him fast.

He made it to the back of the store in record time and was just about to yank open the back door (employees only) when Johnny came sauntering in, trailing a cloud of marijuana smoke. He was tall and skinny and dressed in blue jeans and a clean red flannel shirt. His hair was brown, freshly washed and medium length. In spite of his stoner attitude, he was a nice enough kid, a high school dropout that Clive had a bit of affection for. It was one of those things…Johnny was family, his mom’s brother’s kid. Johnny was his cousin.

“Jesus Christ, man, what the hell are you doing?” Clive yelled at him, “Get your ass in here. You’ve gotta’ watch the till. Carrie’s having the baby. I’m on my way to take her to the hospital. ” Clive dragged Johnny through the store and plopped him down on a stool behind the counter. He pointed back to the eating area, “You’ve got Jeff and Stubby and old Lady Shauffhausen over there, and there’s a guy in the bathroom. You should be okay. You have any problems, text me. Okay?” Clive grabbed Johnny be the shoulders so they were looking eye to eye, “Hey, you hear me? Text me if you need me. Got it?”

“Sure, sure, man. Relax,” Johnny said, trying to take in what Clive was ranting about. But it was hard. That Rocky Mountain Green his older brother had brought home from his trip out west this past summer was wicked strong. He maybe ‘Got’ half of what his cousin was talking about. If that.

“Just don’t screw up,” Clive said taking a final look around the store, verifying that everything looked in good shape. “I’ll text you when I know more about Carrie.” Then he had a thought, “I’ll see if I can get a hold of Marilyn to come in and help.”

Marilyn Digbee was a retired widow who worked eight hours a week to supplement her social security. She was a good, stable employee. Problem was, she couldn’t see very well due to glaucoma and had a tendency to talk to the customers way too much (in Clive’s opinion), but that was all right. Any port in the storm, is what he was thinking as he hurried out the front door to his truck. He started up the old Ford and sped off. Later that day, he remembered…shit, he never did get a hold of Marilyn.

Johnny watched Clive leave, quickly forgetting what little he remembered of what his cousin and boss had told him to do. Instead, he gazed out the window and watched the old farmer with the pickup scratch himself and pump his gas. Then he idly picked up a small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and carefully opened it. The clock read 8:45 am. He worked until one. He yawned. Man, it was going to be a long day. He put a chip in his mouth and chewed, his mind settling into a hazy fog of nothingness. A minute later he took out another chip and ate that one, too.

Dave had run from the counter to the far corner of the store, saying a quick ”Thank god,” when he saw the men’s room was unoccupied. He’d pushed through the door and hurried inside, not even bothering to lock it. He’d barely made it in time, but he did (Whew!)

When he was finished he washed his hands, dried them on a paper towel and felt himself finally starting to calm down. He took a deep breath, let it out, and took a moment to look at himself in the mirror. He was wearing his standard clothes for work, white shirt and tan khaki slacks. No tie. He was five-nine and clean shaven and not all that bad looking even though his hair was thinning and his cheeks were a little jowly from the extra weight he’d been putting on for the last ten years or so. Lately, Karen had been on him to begin to exercise, but he was hoping to eventually get her to understand that working out was simply not in his genetic makeup. She should know by now, after twenty-six years of marriage, that he was not much of a doer in the physical exertion department. For instance, he’d much rather read that run. Let him curl up with the latest issue of ‘Scientific American’ and he was one happy, albeit slightly overweight, guy. The quiet, contemplative life was more his style. So he was used to how he looked with his rather plain and non-descript appearance, and he accepted that he’d never be what others considered, ‘In shape.’ Such was the lot in Dave’s life and he was just fine with that. Why run and get worn out when you could just saunter along, take your time, and enjoy your surroundings? That summed up his philosophy perfectly.

So, disregarding his appearance, the main thing today was this: He felt good. Great, even. Not nervous at all. Well, not too much, anyway, considering he’d never done anything like this before, just acted spontaneously and taken a day off from work. All of his life he’d done what he was supposed to do. Which was fine. That’s what you did when you were a husband and a father, right? You accepted your responsibilities and did what was expected of you. That’s the way it was supposed to be, and, honestly, he had no argument with that. No complaints. He enjoyed being a husband to Karen and a father to Tim and Jessie. He even enjoyed his job. He liked the challenge of coming up with innovative solutions to help make homes more energy efficient. He even liked the people he worked with.

But now this. Introspective by nature, Dave was at a loss to explain why he’d done what he’d done, but he’d done it. And here he was. He was in a Quik-Stop in the small town of Delano, Minnesota, and he had the whole day ahead of him. In the background he could hear another tune from back when he was in high school, “Goody-Two Shoes,” by…What was that guy’s name again? Oh, yeah, Adam Ant. Interesting name and a catchy little song if Dave had to be honest. He smiled an inner smile and gave himself another A in his imaginary classic rock quiz. The guys in the store must be listening to the same radio station he’d had on in the car. An omen, maybe. If it was, perhaps it was a good one. He’d cast his lot into doing something different today so he might as well enjoy it.

Dave splashed some water on his face and dried off. Refreshed, he stepped through the restroom door and took a look around. The station was good sized. There were refrigerated units full of milk, eggs, pop, beer and bottled water along the wall on either side of him. There were three or four isles that ran the length of the store stocked with stuff for sale: everything from bread and candy, to paper towels laundry detergent, even motor oil, flashlights and windshield washer fluid. Tons of stuff, really, everything one could possible need in an emergency or otherwise. There was a warming rack with hot dogs and brats on it and a display of bakery goods. There was a big coffee machine with six different kinds of coffee available (plus hot chocolate) and, next to the coffee machine, there was a pop dispenser that had one’s choice of mountain dew, diet mountain dew, coke, diet coke, Fanta and Dr. Pepper. In the front of the store there was a small seating area to the left of the check out area which had a counter that seemed to take up most of the remaining space along the front of the store. The front door was to the right of the checkout counter.

Dave walked up and down the aisles, looking for nothing in particular, just browsing. A man controlled by schedules his entire life, it was dawning on him that he had no particular place to go and was no particular hurry to get there. In fact, he was free, just like that singer on the radio driving into Delano earlier had sung about, ‘Free as a bird.’ That was him, the new Dave. It was a good feeling, one he was starting to get used to.

He paused at a display of sunglasses near the coffee machine and looked them over. His old ones were wrecked. Plus, they were boring. Dave thought to himself, You know what? I should get myself a new pair. Maybe something a little more dangerous looking than the conservative style I usually wear.

After trying on a few, and checking out how he looked in the smudged mirror on the rack, he finally selected a pair of black wraparounds with tinted, dark blue lenses. These look great, he thought to himself, primping just ever so slightly in the little mirror. I wonder if these are the kind that singer from Molly Hatchet wears?

On his way to pay for his new shades (as he thought of them), Dave noticed some people in a seating area on the other side of the counter. Two guys were drinking coffee and playing checkers, and a lady was sitting in the sun eating something and working on a crossword puzzle. There were two empty tables. Suddenly he realized he was kind of hungry and maybe could use a little snack himself; maybe even something to drink. He turned back to the store and took his time looking around before finally settling for a medium cup of hot chocolate and a maple frosted long-john.

I’ve never done anything like this in my life, is what Dave thought to himself as he stepped up to the counter with his purchases. He wasn’t feeling guilty anymore about taking off from his job. He was starting to adjust to doing something different today and he was getting in the swing of things. In fact, he was starting to fun.

He paid for his items and decided to do something else he’d never done before. Instead of going out to his car, sitting in the front seat by himself and drinking his hot chocolate and eating his long-john, he stayed in the station. Why not? The place seemed clean enough; the guy behind the counter seemed competent, if only a little spacey, and the other people at the tables seemed harmless enough. Plus he was enjoying the music they were playing, now ‘Highway To Hell,’ by ACDC.

So he stayed. On his way to the seating area he picked up a free local paper, The Crow River Gazette, so he’d have something to look at. He picked out a table, sat down, made himself comfortable, set down his new sunglasses, opened the paper and started looking through it. The tables were close together and he could easily watch the two old guys playing checkers and the old lady with her crossword, but he did his best to ignore them. Instead he turned to his paper and started reading the lead story, an article about a young farming couple who were growing organic asparagus.

He was savoring his hot chocolate and long-john and enjoying the story about the asparagus growing couple when the front door opened. He looked up and immediately thought, Oh, oh, this could be trouble. Two tough looking guys and one rough looking girl had just walked in. The two guys were tall and skinny and looked to be around thirty. One of them had long black hair he’d pulled back in a pony-tail. He wore ripped jeans, scuffed black boots and a dirty white tee-shirt and had lean, hard arms, rippled with muscles and covered with tattoos. He had the air and attitude of the leader of the group. The other guy had a scraggly beard, shaved head with a coiled snake tattooed on his neck. He wore black jeans, a faded black tee-shirt and brand new black tennis shoes. His eyes were furtive and never settled on anything. He coughed a lot. The girl looked to be no more than sixteen. She had short, dirty blond hair, a pierced eyebrow and wore tight blue jeans and a stained, red, tee-shirt that had the symbol of a marijuana leaf on it. On her feet were pink flip-flops.

To Dave they looked dangerous, like maybe there were druggies. Or criminals. Or both. Although he’d only seen people like them on television, in his mind, they were the kind of people you had to watch out for. They certainly looked like they needed to be avoided, which, unfortunately, was something that was going to be hard to do, given the confines of the station.

Dave turned the page of his newspaper and tried to make himself inconspicuous. The three newcomers made him nervous and a little frightened. In fact, they were killing the warm, devil may care attitude he’d unconsciously adopted. He took a bite from his long-john and chewed it methodically but had trouble swallowing. His mouth suddenly felt like cotton. He pulled his sunglasses closer and turned back to the newspaper (which right now he was really only pretending to read) and kept a cautious eye on the guy with the black hair, the leader. He took a sip from his hot chocolate, but it didn’t help. His mouth stayed dry. In the background, Def Leppard came on through the speakers and Dave recognized the song as an old favorite, ‘Hysteria.’ In his spinning mind, the song title seemed to be more than appropriate.

The guy behind the counter greeted the three with a non-committal, “Hey, Kimo. Hey, Lenny. Hey, Susie.”

Dave held up his paper and carefully peeked out from behind. (Was he hiding behind it? Yeah, he guessed, maybe he was.) He watched as the three of them said nothing in return to the counter guy’s greeting. Instead, they sauntered past him like they owned the place and started looking around, touching stuff, drifting here and there like ghosts. Dave felt a rush of adrenaline when the three of them took their time passing near to where he and the others sat, but nothing happened. They walked past, not giving him or anyone else a glance. Whew. He breathed a sigh of relief and watched out of the corner of his eye as they walked further into the station, taking their time going through up and down the aisles, trailing their menacing attitude like the left over smell of fried onions.

Dave was definitely on edge. He could think of lots better ways to kill time other than perusing the Quik-Stop’s inventory of pancake mix, junk food and bungee cords. He wished the three of them would just finish their business, exit the station and leave him in peace so he could return to pleasantly drinking his hot chocolate, eating his long-john and reading the local newspaper. He glanced at them again. They were still just aimlessly walking around, doing nothing. It didn’t look like they were going to be leaving anytime soon. Dave went back to pretending to read his paper, keeping a watchful eye on them, just to be on the safe side.

A minute later an old guy in a dirty baseball cap and filthy jean jacket came in bringing with him a whiff of cow manure. He stepped up to the counter, paid for his gas and took a quick glance around. He eye-balled the three tough characters, shook his head and left. When the door closed, the three of them all worked their way back to the counter. The leader with the long hair and ponytail spoke in a deep, languid voice, “Hey, there, Johnny. What’s goin’ on?” Dave made a note of the counter guy’s name, Johnny.

“Not much, Kimo,” Johnny said. If he was flustered, he didn’t show it. He smiled and was friendly, “What can I do for you all?”

“Give me a can of that Copenhagen Straight,” Kimo said and turned, “You two want anything?”

The guy named Lenny said, “How about a pack of smokes, if you’re buyin’? Marlboro reds.”
Kimo indicated the row of cigarettes above Johnny, “You heard the man.”

Johnny pulled down a pack along with a tin of Copenhagen and set them on the counter. “Anything else?”

Kimo took the girl by the arm and pulled her up next to him. Susie? Was that her name? Dave tried to remember from Johnny’s greeting earlier. Yeah, that was it. Susie. She appeared to resist but Kimo out-weighed her by at least fifty pounds. He positioned her next to him and held her close, “What about you, sweetheart? Smokes? Candy? What?”

“How about a lottery ticket?” she said, “Powerball.”

Kimo grinned and motioned to Johnny, “You heard her.”

“They’re two bucks each,” Susie said, “Give me five,” she turned to Kimo, “If you’re buyin’ that is.” She seemed unafraid of the tall man with the ponytail. Way more unafraid than Dave, anyway.

Kimo reached in his pocket, took out a roll of bills, peeled off a twenty and slapped it hard on the counter. “Give us ten.” He rolled up the money and put it back in his jeans.

“Want to pick em’ yourself? Or let the machine?” Johnny asked.

“What’s the date today?” Susie asked, “The sixteenth or something?”

“Yep,” Johnny said, “October sixteenth, twenty-seventeen.”

“My sister’s having a baby today, I think. So let’s go with…” and she gave Johnny the numbers she wanted for one ticket. “Let the machine pick the rest.”

Johnny printed out the tickets and gave them to her. Then Kimo decided he was hungry so he bought three hotdogs from the warming rack along with a big basket of corn chips and hot, cheese sauce. He also bought himself a super sized coke, a large Mountain Dew for Lenny and a small diet coke for Susie. He paid for everything from his roll of bills and they all took their purchases to the last empty table in the setting area, not five feet from Dave. Lenny said he was going outside to smoke so Kimo and Susie sat down by themselves. Kimo pushed the basket of chips toward her and started in on his hot dog. They didn’t say a word to each other. Susie took a chip, dipped it in the cheese sauce and ate it. Then she took a paper napkin and wiped her fingers. Kimo ate one hot dog and started in on another.

Dave watched out of the corner of his eye. There was a ominous presence emanating from them that was palpable, especially that Kimo. The guy made him nervous and uncomfortable; not to mention more than a little frightened. He was conscious of himself perspiring, the sweat starting to run from his arm pits down his sides. Not a good feeling at all.

From where he was sitting Dave could easily see out the front window. The day was sunny and bright. What was he doing hanging around in this gas station? Among other things, he certainly didn’t fit in with the crowd here. He was wearing his standard white shirt and kakis, the clothes he normally wore for work. (Thank god he had taken his pocket protector out earlier and left it in the car.) He looked totally out of place compared to the locals. The guys playing checkers were wearing old jeans, faded plaid shirts, work boots and seed caps. One of them sucked constantly on a worn out toothpick. The old lady was wearing an old dress, a cardigan sweater, tennis shoes and a black stocking hat even though the temperature outside was probably in the low sixties by now. On the chair next to her was a huge canvas oversized purse filled with what looked like her all of her earthly possessions. Like a bag lady.

He didn’t belong with all these people. He should just get up and leave. Yeah, that’s what he should do. If he was smart, that is. Just get up, walk out the front door and go. But, then again, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. That’s the last thing he needed. What to do? Could he just turn invisible? That’s what he really wanted. To just fade away into the background and then show up magically at work. Or back home. That would be even better; to be back home, waiting for Karen to come in from work and the kids to come home from school. He could be getting dinner preparations underway. Or cutting the grass. Or fixing that leaky gutter. Anything. Anything would be better than this.

Geez, he should never have stopped. That damn bladder…

Dave looked past where Kimo and Susie were sitting. The two old guys were still engaged in their checker game, but every now and then they glanced over at Kimo and Susie. Even the old lady had taken a break from working on her crossword and was surreptitiously keeping an eye on them. Dave had a thought: Maybe Kimo had some sort of reputation in town, like he was a hoodlum or something. A small time criminal. A drug dealer. Someone not only dangerous with a reputation to boot. Geez…

In the end, for all his pondering, Dave decided that maybe the safest thing to do was to do nothing so that’s what he did. He stayed put, but staying put wasn’t easy. He tried to go back to the newspaper and the asparagus growing young farmers but couldn’t get himself to focus on what the article was talking about. He took a bit out of his long-john but it had lost all of its flavor. He sipped his hot chocolate but it was now cold. God, what had he gotten himself into?

That Lenny character came back and sat down with Kimo and Susie and started in on the chips and cheese sauce. In Dave’s mind, he looked even rougher than Kimo, what with his shaved head and tattooed snake on his neck. In the background, REO Speedwagon started up with ‘Roll With The Changes.’ In the past Dave had really liked that song. Now, though, it was different. Now, he was worried and couldn’t get his mind off of the situation he’d found himself in. In fact, he was so nervous and undone, he barely noticed the music at all.

For his part, Johnny was having a pretty good morning. He had a nice buzz going from the Rocky Mountain Green he’d smoked out back earlier. He felt mellow but in control. There had been a steady flow of cars and trucks at the pumps. At this time of day, most of the station’s customers worked in the cities so it was stop in, pump your gas and get moving. A quick stop, just like the name of the station implied, and Johnny laughed to himself every time he thought about it.

On any given day, the only customers who stopped in for gasoline and actually took the time to come inside the station, were those that wanted to pay with cash (rare) or buy something to drink and get something to munch on. He sold a lot of large coffees and donuts, bags of Doritos and other kinds of chips, too. Those customers usually paid quickly and were on their way. Everyone used a credit card these days so Johnny didn’t even have to make change. Easy, schmeezy.

In addition to the commuters, though, this time of year a lot of customers were guys with their small, independent lawn service companies who were out doing yard work and cleanup: AJ’s Yard Service, West Metro Cleanup, Steve and Joe’s whatever. They’d pull in with their pickups pulling trailers loaded with lawnmowers, leaf blowers, rakes and huge tarps for collecting leaves. They’d come inside and buy coffee and pop and chips and donuts and hostess cupcakes and all other kinds of easy to take with them snacks. Johnny like the yard cleanup guys. They were always friendly and would sometime shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes, taking a break in their day, giving Johnny a break in his.

Around 10:00 am or so, the rush usually slowed down considerably and that’s what was happening today. The only customers in the store were those two old famers Jeff Nelson and Stubby Jorgenson with their checker board, and crazy old Mrs. Shauffhausen with her crossword puzzle. Johnny wasn’t worried about them; they were regulars and could easily spend the entire morning doing whatever it was that they did. They were harmless. Kimo and Lenny and Susie were fine, too; a little messed up with drugs maybe, but, hell, he liked his little toke now and then so who was he to judge? Right now they were just quietly talking amongst themselves and hanging out. They weren’t a problem. It was that business man guy sitting in the eating area with the others that he was suspicious of. The guy with the newspaper. He looked strange. He wore those weird businessman slacks and a white shirt. He was short and pudgy and nearly bald. He looked like he should be on the road selling insurance somewhere, not sitting in a gas station reading a boring local paper, killing time with his hot chocolate, which must be ice cold by now. Johnny glanced at him again, remembering that, yeah, that’s right, he bought a long-john, too. It looks like it’s only half eaten. What’s the deal with that guy, anyway? He’s not from around here, that’s for sure.

Johnny glanced at him again and decided, Ah, what the heck. Live and let live. The businessman guy seemed harmless enough and probably was. To each their own. Johnny shook his head and went back to looking out the window, watching the traffic out on the highway, wondering what was it with some people that they could just wile away the time of day like that businessman was doing, sitting in a small town gas station all morning, doing nothing. Crazy world, that’s what it was. For sure.

Johnny waited on a few more customers who came inside to pay for gas and a few other things. One person also bought a newspaper and milk and another one took advantage of the 3 for $5 Reese’s Peanut Buttercups on special. Then things at the pumps calmed down again and all was quiet.

Around 10:30 am Johnny was munching on his Cool Ranch chips when he noticed a kid about eighteen (Johnny’s age) turn off the highway and speed into the station on a red Kawasaki Crotch Rocket. He watched as the rider by-passed the pumps and zipped up to the front door. He parked his bike, got off, and, instead of coming inside, just stood next to it looking around. What’s this guy want? Johnny wondered to himself. Then he had a thought: Ah, he’s probably wondering if he’s got enough loose change to buy a can of pop or a candy bar of something. It always amazed him how many people actually stopped in and then realized they didn’t have any money and used a credit card to by a cup of coffee and a sweet roll. Maybe this guy was like one of them. Then he realized he should quit staring out the window, eating chips and daydreaming. He should get busy and do something. There was a list of jobs that needed doing that Clive had left next to the cash register. Johnny checked it. Oh, yeah, right at the top of the list was written, ‘Cigarettes.’ That’s right, the cigarettes. He needed to restock them. He set down his chips and got busy.

He had just opened a carton of Marlboro Golds and was putting them up in the overhead cigarette case when the front door opened. Johnny stopped stocking the cigarettes and glanced over his shoulder. The kid on the motorcycle had just come inside and was reaching into the pocket of his jacket as he did so. Johnny didn’t recognize the guy, had never seen him before in his life. He was wearing a dark blue baseball cap pulled on backwards and was medium height and weight. He had a round, moon shaped face and looked younger than Johnny had first estimated, more like he was barely in high school. He had pimples on his face and black jeans, an old blue jean jacket buttoned to his neck and wore neon green Adidas trainers.

Johnny set down the carton to get ready to make eye contact and call out a greeting, but the kid didn’t even look at him. Not at first. Johnny watched as the kid took a quick glance around the store. He seemed to take note of the people in the eating area. He waited a beat and then stepped up to the counter. Johnny was starting to smile and say, “Hi,” when he stopped and said to himself, Shit, this is going to be trouble. Big time.

The kid had just pulled out a gun, a pistol, actually, and had it pointed right at him. Johnny knew fire arms, had grown up with them his whole life, and this one was a .22, of that had no doubt. A small caliber, maybe, but it could still do damage. It could still kill someone. Johnny instinctively moved the carton aside and raised his hands. Damn, this wasn’t good. He figured the kid was going to rob him. A quick image of Clive ran through his brain. Clive would be pissed that this was happening to his store and that wouldn’t be good. Johnny liked Clive a lot. Even though he was Johnny’s boss, he was a fair man. Not to mention his cousin. The last thing Johnny wanted to do was to piss him off and let the station be robbed on his shift. But he had no choice in the matter. That’s exactly what was happening.

“Hands where I can see them,” the kid commanded Johnny, pointing the pistol at his chest and moving it back and forth as if to make the point perfectly clear that he was in charge.

Johnny got it. He put his hands up higher. The bore of the gun looked ten times bigger than it was, but that didn’t matter. He’d do whatever the guy wanted. The last thing he wanted was to get shot and maybe killed over some gas station money. Besides, he remembered once that Clive had told him what to do in just such a situation. He’d said, “Just give them what they want, man. Don’t argue. Do what they say. And, for god’s sake, don’t try to be a hero.”

Well, no problem on that account, Johnny was now thinking. No chance of him either being, or ever becoming, a hero. Besides, he suddenly had the shakes and was doing all he could to keep his teeth from chattering out of his skull.

“Give me all the cash in the till,” the kid ordered. In spite of his young age, his voice was deep and gruff. Hard sounding. Johnny had a quick image run through his brain of some old gangster movie like ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and them robbing a bank out in the middle of the boondocks somewhere in Kansas. Then he shook the image from his mind, punched open the till and started to take the bills from the tray in the cash drawer. He grabbed a nearby plastic bag like they gave out all the time and put the money in it. The bag had the station’s logo on it and a smiley face. Johnny’s hand was shaking so badly he could barely get the money in. And he wasn’t smiling. Not at all.

While Johnny emptied the till, the kid turned quickly to the tables and told everyone, “Hands up so I can see them. Don’t move. No one. One move and I’ll shoot.”

Dave took one look at the gun and his heart went into overdrive. He thought for sure he was going to pee his pants. Or have a heart attack. Or both. But he did neither. Thankfully, he was able to get control of himself. In fact it all happened so fast, he wasn’t ever entirely sure of the sequence of events, but one thing he was sure of. He did not pee in his pants. Or have a heart attack.

What he did remember was this:

After the gunman told everyone in the eating area to put their hands up, he turned back to Johnny, watching carefully as the money was taken out of the till.

“Just put it the bag, man. Quick,” he barked out.

Johnny did what the kid wanted him to do and hurried.

When the kid was satisfied Johnny was doing as he was told, he turned and kept an eye on Jeff and Stubby and Kimo and Lenny and Susie and Mrs. Shauffhasen and Dave. Then he turned back to Johnny and watched him for a moment before turning back to where Dave and the others sat. He watched them for a moment before turning back to Johnny, nervously shuffling his feet, watching and waving the gun back and forth between Johnny behind the counter and all the people in the seating area and back again. Over and over. The more he did it, the more nerve wracking it became. What if the gun went off? What if someone was shot? Or worse, what if someone was killed?

While all of this was going on, Dave tried to control his breathing. His heart was racing. He tried to will himself to be calm, like he’d heard you were supposed to do in these kinds of situations, but it was hard. Impossible, really. A million scenarios were flashing through his brain, none of them good. What if the guy went nuts all of a sudden? What if he started shooting? What if he took a hostage? What if that hostage was Dave? Oh, god..

He looked outside. Where were more customers when you really needed them? But the gas pumps were empty. No one was around. He could see out to the highway where there was only sporadic traffic. No cars were pulling in. They were all alone. No one was going to save them.

It occurred to Dave right then and there that he might die. This young kid with the gun might freak out and shoot him the chest and he’d end up bleeding to death on the floor of Quik-Stop gas station on this bright, sunny day in the middle of October in a sleepy, little town fifteen miles from the safety of his home and the warm, loving arms of his wife and kids. Oh, god, no, please don’t let that happen. He didn’t want to die. He wasn’t ready for this.

Dave risked a chance and glanced at the gunmen. Oh, shit. It dawned on him that the guy was just a kid and he wasn’t even wearing a mask. Jesus, that wasn’t good, was it? The kid could be identified. Everyone in the station could easily see him, probably remember him and pick him out of a line up, right? Damn, this wasn’t good. The gunman would probably kill them all just so there weren’t any witnesses. Oh, god…

Dave glanced at the farmers. They had their hands in the air, doing as they were told, their faces expressionless (except for the guy with the toothpick. He was really working that little piece of wood, worrying it to death.) The old lady was clearly frightened and looked like she might break down at any moment, but she was trying to be strong. She was conscientiously obeying the gunman’s command and keeping her hands up high where he could see them. They were shaking. Kimo and Lenny had their hands up, but not very high. It was almost as if they were taunting the kid and his gun, like, Come on, I dare you to shoot. Susie’s hands were up, too. Dave could see by her expression that she was scared, and she was definitely following the gunman’s instructions.

When Johnny had the till emptied, he handed the bag of money to the kid, who grabbed it, took one look inside and shook his head, “Not good enough, man. There’s got to be more around here somewhere. Where is it? I want more than this.” He waved his gun some more to make his point.

Dave could see Johnny become visibly frightened, but he admired the young man for keeping his voice calm, “This is all the money we keep in the station. If we need more, we go to the bank,” he motioned behind him, outside somewhere down the street, “Honest.”

Dave believed him. Even in his terrified state, he had to admit that keeping very little cash on hand in the station was a wise policy.

“Shit,” the gunman said, and slammed his fist on the counter, starting to get mad.

In the background, Dave was suddenly conscious of the song playing through the speakers, ‘Bad To The Bone.’ He shuddered as he listened, imaging what horror could possibly happen next.

Johnny ducked, thinking that the robber was going to shoot him for not having any more cash on hand. Dave flinched as well and immediately felt sorry for the young gas station employee. It was Johnny who would feel the wrath of the gunman first if he lost control. He’d be shot, that much was clearly evident, and could even be killed. The gunman seemed more than a little un-hinged. God, what a horrible situation to be in. If Dave was the one behind the counter what would he do? He had no idea, but he was drawn into the drama unfolding at the front of the store. The more he watched, the more he had to admit that Johnny was handling the situation incredibly well. In fact, much better than Dave ever could have if the roles were reversed. That was for sure.

Dave glanced at the other hostages (which is how he was now thinking of the situation as; a hostage situation.) They were all nervously following what was transpiring at the counter. The two farmers and the old lady and Susie were all holding their hands up high in the air, obeying the gunman’s orders. Lenny was still were trying to look bored with the proceedings, but Dave could tell he was nervous, too. The guy’s hands were shaking. Kimo, for his part, just stared at the gunman, giving away nothing, his face non-committal. More than anything, though, he looked mad that this was happening. It occurred to Dave that both Kimo and Lenny had probably done the same thing themselves more than a few times in their careers as petty drug dealers (which is what Dave was pretty sure they were); robbed some poor, unsuspecting slob or slobs. Dave made it a point to keep his hands held high where the kid could see them. The last thing he wanted to do was make him angry or draw attention to himself.

“No more money, eh, buddy? Well, that’s just too bad for you.” The kid angrily waved his gun, motioned to Johnny, “Get over with the others.”

Johnny hurried from behind the counter to the nearest table and sat down. It was the table where Dave was sitting. Johnny glanced at him as he took his seat and nodded a greeting. Dave didn’t know what else to do, so he nodded back. Unexpectedly, just that quick bit of human contact made him feel a little better. A little less nervous. A little less frightened. Only marginally, maybe, but even a little bit better was better than nothing at all. He’d take it.

The gunman barked an order, “Listen up! Everyone, empty your pockets. All of you. Money on the table. Phones, too. Everything.”

With the gunman so close, Dave could smell the guy; rank sweat, mixed with cigarette smoke. Maybe some booze.

Jesus, please get me out of this alive, was what Dave was thinking as he did as he was told and put his cell phone, car keys and wallet on the table next to his sunglasses and newspaper. Johnny pulled out his own wallet, a set of keys, some loose change, a Swiss army knife and some rolling papers, and set them all next to Dave’s stuff. Around the room everyone else was doing the same thing, putting everything they had with them on their table for the gunman to steal.

Dave chanced a glance at Kimo. He’d set out a fat wallet stuffed with bills (Dave could see them sticking out), a couple of phones, a crumpled pack of cigarettes, some pieces of paper (maybe receipts from somewhere?) and his new can of Copenhagen. He noticed he didn’t put out the wad of bills he’d used earlier. Dave thought at the time that it was one of two things: either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid.

Why he could remember all of this, Dave had no idea, but he did. In fact, it was when he was looking at Kimo’s stuff that what happened next, happened. And that’s what he would never forget.

Dave was imagining that once the kid collected all their possessions, he’d herd them into a back room somewhere. He’d blindfold them, tie them up, make them sit on the cold floor in the dark and hopefully just leave them. Not the best situation, for sure, but that was okay. He could live with it. A least they’d be alive.

But there was also a far more sobering possibility. There was the very real possibility that the gunman would decide to wipe away all chance of him being remembered by the hostages and do the unthinkable. He’d take his gun just shoot. Shoot them all dead. And that would be it. Dave’s life would be over. No more happily ever after with Karen. No more being a father to his kids and watching them grow to adulthood. No more job. No more future. No more anything. Dave Larson would be nothing more than a name on a tombstone in Long Lake’s cemetery, something to be visited by his family every Sunday at first, but then less and less, tapering to every now and then as time went on. If that much.

He felt himself start to panic, and his heart begin to race as adrenaline starting flooding his system. He didn’t want to die. Not now.

Then, suddenly, the back door of the station burst opened and in came a clean cut young man in his middle twenties grinning and waving a box of cigars who called out, “Hey, Johnny, good news! I’m the father of a new baby girl!!” The guy thin and fit looking and wearing a clean, pressed, uniform of gray slacks and gray shirt with a name stitched on it that Dave couldn’t make out. There was a take charge kind of air about him. To Dave’s eyes, he looked like he knew what he was doing and could easily take control of any situation. Given the kid waving the gun around, Dave sure hoped he could, anyway.

Turned out he was mostly right.

Dave watched as the young man with the cigars looked to the cash register area, and, seeing no one there, ran into the station frantically looked around, his eyes finally coming to rest in the eating area. It took only a moment for him to take it all in: all of them, Dave, Kimo, Lenny, Susie, the two checker players, the old lady and Johnny, sitting stone cold silent at their tables with their hands in the air, held captive by the kid with the gun.

The cigar box  guy immediately took a step toward them and yelled, “Hey, what the hell…?”

Johnny yelled, “Look out Clive, he’s got a gun.”

The gunman walked slowly toward the young man, motioning with his pistol as he told him, “Hey, buddy. You there with the cigars. Over here.”

At that moment, one other thing happened: With the gunman distracted, Kimo leaped out of his chair and tackled the kid as he walked by. They both fell to the ground, fighting for possession of the gun.

Dave watched, stunned, as they grappled with each other on the floor for what seemed like eternity (but, really, was only a few seconds), and while they did, Johnny jumped in to help. In the heat of the battle, Dave’s first thought was to duck, so he did. Then he saw the old lady doing the same thing, the fear in her eyes unmistaken. Suddenly, something unexpected came over him. Something primal, almost. He realized that he needed to protect her. It was the right thing to do. So he did it. He overcame his fear and ran from his chair and shielded Mrs. Shauffhausen while the two checker playing farmers stood up and were getting ready to assist in whatever way they could.

Clive ran toward Kimo and Johnny to help, but he wasn’t needed. In quick order, Kimo was able to subdue the kid and dislodge the pistol while Johnny held him to the floor. It was all over in less than thirty seconds. With the kid disarmed, Kimo took the pistol and smacked him over the head with it once just for good measure. Then he set the gun on the table next to Susie who cautiously moved away from it. When Clive realized Kimo and Johnny had the situation in hand and they didn’t need him, he took out his phone and called the cops. Then he called his wife.

“I kid you not,” Dave later told the policeman in charge, “It was amazing.”

They were sitting in the eating area an hour later being interviewed by a cop from the Delano Police Station who’d introduced himself as, “Sergeant Becker. I’ll be taking your statements.”

The manager, Clive, had called the cops within a minute after Kimo (with Johnny’s help) had taken down the gunman. Three squads had shown up within five minutes, sirens blaring. It had been quite chaotic for a while, with the cops trying to establish just what exactly had happened, Clive trying to figure out who was who in the store, and the rest of the hostages trying to come to grips with the fact that they weren’t going to get killed, but would, in fact, live to not only see another day, but to tell the tale as well. All things considered, it was a very hectic next hour or so.

The cops had everyone make themselves comfortable in the snack area as Sergeant Becker commandeered one of the tables to conduct his interviews. Dave ended up sitting with Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen. Maybe it was because everyone was jazzed up from the hostage crisis and the adrenaline was really flowing, because everyone was quite talkative and they were all in really good moods. In fact, they’d all had quite a nice conversation amongst themselves. Dave found out that Jeff and Stubby had been friends all their lives and had each made quite a bit of money from the sale of their respective farms in the early 2000’s.They lived near each other in town and vacationed together with their wives in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, every winter. Mrs. Shauffhausen had taught second grade at the local grade school for over thirty years before retiring in 1998. She was, as she told Dave, ‘Still getting over the loss of poor Howard,’ her husband of nearly fifty-one years who had died from cancer in 2015. And all three of them had been interested to hear about the work Dave did in, as they called it, The Cities.

“I can’t believe you invent thermostats,” is what Stubby had said at one point.

“Well, I don’t really invent them,” Dave tried to clarify, “I just help design them.”

“What’s the difference?” Jeff had asked.

He finally realized, after a trying to explain for a while, that no one really carried about the nuances of thermostat design (like Dave did), so he was happy to play along and just have a nice conversation instead. All in all, it was fun getting to know each of them.

After calling the station’s owner (who lived in New Jersey), Clive spent most of the time on the phone with his wife, which Dave, being a family man himself, admired him for.

While he was occupied with family matters, Clive put Johnny in charge of ‘The Customers’ as he called all of them, and Dave was amazed at how conscientious the young employee had been. He’d brought everyone (even the cops) donuts and long-johns and coffee and pop and, because everyone was suddenly thirsty and ravenous, they’d all dug in with gusto that was a sight to behold. In short, He tried to make things as comfortable as he could for the former hostages and he did a pretty good job of it, too, if Dave did say so himself. Johnny only excused himself once or twice to go out back for a few minutes, but he always came right back.

Once Dave realized he wasn’t going to die in a flurry of bullets fired by a crazed gunman, he relaxed considerably. In fact, truth be told, he sort of started to feel pretty good about himself. Even though he wasn’t really a hero like Kimo (and Johnny), at least he’d held his ground and hadn’t tried to run away. That counted for something. And he’d done something else: He’d done what he felt was expected of him and that was to try and protect an innocent bystander, in this case Mrs. Shauffhausen, not even once stopping to consider that he himself was an innocent bystander as well.

Everyone felt the same way about Dave’s action.

Clive called what he did, “Heroic, man. What you did was flat out heroic.”

The farmers both shook his hand and Stubby said, “You did a good thing there, young fella.”

Johnny added, “Nice job, there, Mr. Businessman.”

Even Kimo took a moment and told him, “It’s never a bad thing to watch out for old ladies.” He then paused for a moment, thinking, before adding, “Or kids, either, for that matter, man. Kids are also good to protect.”

Dave just grinned and felt sheepish, but, truth be told, it felt good to be acknowledged in a positive way by the group.

Waiting to be interviewed they’d all sat around talking, rehashing the event, occasionally standing up and walking around to burn off nervous energy. In retrospect, as far as Dave was concerned, talking to everyone (mainly Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen) was not only fun but interesting. They weren’t the type of people he normally associated with, but he enjoyed getting to know them, nevertheless.

He even talked to Kimo and Susie. (Not so much Lenny, he was pretty quiet.) But Kimo was a talker, that was for sure. Dave figured he was wound up from jumping the gunman and saving the day, but whatever the case, it turned out he was an all right guy, even if he did look and act like a drug dealer (which Dave still assumed he still was, saving the day or not.) It turned out that Kimo not only worked in a body shop in Maple Plain, the next town to the west, but he also played rhythm guitar and sang back-up in a cover band called ‘Ramblin’ Men,’ a five piece group that specialized in music from the ’80’s. Ironic; that was the term that came to Dave’s mind when he found out about Kimo’s cover band, given it was classis rock music that had lit the fire that got Dave on the road to Delano in the first place. Anyway, he had a pretty good time talking to Kimo. Drug dealer or not, he wasn’t a bad guy.

Susie was nice, nicer than she looked, anyway, which was a little sleazy when Dave thought about it, especially compared to his daughter, Jessie. One thing she was though, and that was quiet. She tended to listen more than anything, especially around people she didn’t know, which was most of them. She did, however, spend a lot of time talking to Clive.

“She’s Clive’s sister in law,” Kimo told him at one point, biting into a hot dog, which by Dave’s estimation was at least his fourth of the day. Clive had finally told everyone they could eat whatever they wanted, and Kimo apparently had a thing for the stations hotdogs. After he told Dave about Susie being related to Clive by marriage, Kimo was quiet for a moment, chewing contemplatively, before adding, “I guess she’s an aunt now to Clive and Carrie’s kid.” Kimo smiled before asking, “I wonder how’s she’ going to like that gig?”

Dave had no idea what Kimo was talking about, but responded with the first thing that came into his mind, a non-committal, “Really,” a comment which made no sense to him, but was a term he’d picked up in the last hour or so from overhearing conversations among the younger people.

But Kimo seemed to take some meaning from it because he turned to Dave, nodding sagely, and told him, “Yeah, really.”

When Sergeant Becker got around to talking to Dave, the conversation didn’t last too long.

“I just want to follow up on what you told me earlier.” He and Dave were situated at the interview table, both sipping cups of coffee supplied by Johnny, “You say you’re from Long Lake?”

“Yes,” Dave said, pointing out the window, “Just east of here fifteen miles or so.”

The sergeant nodded and made a note in his notebook. “Yeah, I know where it is.” Then he asked, “So what were you doing out here in this neck of the woods?”

The way he asked it made Dave wonder if there was maybe more to the policeman’s question than met the eye. Then he had a sudden start. Wait a minute. Was there? Was he guilty of anything? Dave paused for a moment and thought about the sergeant’s question, picturing his wife Karen, his kids Tim and Jessie, and his job in the cities. He was just a regular guy who’d kept his nose clean his entire life. He’d never had so much as a parking ticket. So, no, he had absolutely nothing to hide. He wasn’t guilty of anything. Not unless you counted skipping work and hitting the road and listening to classic rock music a crime. And Dave was pretty sure it wasn’t.

“It was a nice day. I was just out for a drive, officer,” is what Dave finally said, politely, “Nothing more.” Why should he have to explain himself?

“And you stopped in here because…?”

Oh. Well, there was that.

Dave shifted in his chair, averted his eyes and said in a voice so low it was almost a whisper, “I had to use the restroom.”

“What’s that? I didn’t quite hear you,” Sergeant Becker asked, leaning forward. He was a big man, at least six-two. He had a muscular build, short hair, a trim moustache and had an air of confidence that made you respect him. And pay attention to him. Dave felt himself start to perspire.

Kimo, who had been listening in at the next table, leaned over and said, his voice louder than necessary in Dave’s estimation, “You heard the man, officer. He had to pee. He had to take a wicked whizz. He had to…”

Sergeant Becker held up a hand to shut Kimo up. “I got it.”

Dave felt himself flush as he looked at the policeman before stating clearly, “I had to go to the bathroom.”

The policeman nodded again, smiled, made a note and then closed his notebook. “Okay, then. I think that’ll do it.”

And that was that.

By the time the police were wrapping up their investigation it was nearly 2:30 in the afternoon. Crime scene tape had been removed and the station was open for business. Clive had been relieved by Jack Franklin, the manager from 2:30 pm to 10:30 pm shift, who was talking to Ben Stiles who was relieving Johnny. The police were ready to leave and there was nothing more required of any of the former hostages. “Thank you all for your time,” Sergeant Becker told everyone on his way out the door, “You’re all free to go.”

But no one was in a hurry to leave. It was like they were all bonded by the ordeal they gone through. They’d all survived. They shared something that never had happened to any of them before and (hopefully) would never happen again.

Dave chatted some more with Jeff and Stubby and Mrs. Shauffhausen, while Kimo and Lenny and Susie talked with Clive and Johnny. Finally Clive checked his watch and said, “Holy shit, I’ve got to split.” He needed to get back to Carrie at the hospital, but before he left he took out his phone and showed everyone photos of his new daughter, who he said was going be called Shane. He took down everyone’s phone number to text them. “I’m going to invite you all out to our place in a month or so. Carrie and I are going to have a big party to celebrate the birth of our new daughter,” he told them. Everyone told him they’d be there. Even Dave (just to be polite, he told himself, but then again, you never knew.) Then Clive shook everyone’s hand and left.

Dave felt he should get going, too. It was about 2:45 pm. He said his good-byes to everyone: Mrs. Shauffhausen, Jeff and Stubby and Johnny, Kimo and Lenny and Susie, and made his way to the front door. Before he left, though, he turned, looked back into the station and thought, What an amazing experience I’ve just had. Something Sergeant Becker said came back to him. “You know, Mr. Larson, you’re lucky you weren’t killed, don’t you? That guy with the gun could have easily lost control and started shooting. He could have killed everyone. It could have been a real tragedy.” Then the sergeant had paused to let his words sink in (as if he needed to), before adding, “Thank god it had a relatively happy ending.”

Dave heard later that the motorcycle kid was a speed freak who could, indeed, easily have lost control and shot everyone, just like Sergeant Becker had suggested. To this day Dave still shutters when he thinks about it.

For now, though, on this sunny afternoon in Delano, Dave had one primary thought: Thank god it was a happy ending. And it did have a happy ending, but the bigger question was this: When he got home, would he tell his story to Karen and the kids or not? Would he tell them about the gunman and the hostage situation and how Kimo and Johnny saved the day? Would he tell them about Clive and his baby daughter? Would he tell them about the farmers, Jeff and Stubby, and would he tell them about Mrs. Shauffhausen? Would he tell them about the small role he played in the happy ending? Good questions. Very good questions. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. What he was sure of, though, was that he had a lot to think about.

Throughout the aftermath of the robbery, for the rest of that morning and into the afternoon, a couple of news crews from the cities had appeared and set up camp in the parking lot of the Delano Quik-Stop. They’d gotten their cameras rolling and interviewed everyone. Dave was pretty sure the events that played out today in the little town would be on the evening news in the cities. Maybe. Sergeant Becker told him there was a fifty-fifty chance. Apparently there was something to do with the governor going on at the capital in St. Paul that might be the lead story. At any rate, Dave and Karen didn’t watch the evening news all that much because they were usually busy with the kids or getting dinner ready or attending to some other pressing family matter. In fact, there was a very good chance Karen might not see the story. But if it did make the news, some of their friends might see it. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more Dave was sure that eventually someone would see his face on the television and wonder, at some point, what in the world was Dave Larson doing out there in Delano on a Wednesday morning?

So in the end, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. But he did know this: He felt energized by the entire experience. And he felt good, really good; more alive than he’d felt in a long time.

Dave said a final, silent good-bye and stepped outside. The day felt clean and fresh. There was a faint aroma of burning leaves in the air. He took a minute to take a deep breath before slowly letting it out. He turned his face into the bright October sunlight and let the sun’s bright rays warm his face. He felt in some small way like he was a changed man. It felt good to be alive. He’d skipped a day of work, went to a small town and got involved in a robbery and hostage situation (not to mention a potential shootout) and survived. He’d met and talked with people he never would have considered talking to before and found out they were all nice, decent folks (even Kimo.) Heck, he’d even been invited to Clive’s for a party. In short, he’d never had a day like he’d just had in his entire life. Not even close. He knew he’d always remember the experience. It had been unforgettable.

He checked his watch. It was 2:52 pm. He got in his little Fiesta, started it up, put it in gear and headed out to the highway. He didn’t have to think twice about where he was going. He took a right and headed east to Long Lake. He was going home. He’d be back at work tomorrow, that much was for certain. He’d be back with his family, too, in a little while, right where he belonged. He couldn’t wait. He also made a snap decision: I’ll think I’ll tell my family my story, is what he decided. What have I got to lose?

But today wasn’t over with yet. Dave slipped on his new sunglasses and turned on the radio. Instead of classical music, he kept it tuned to the classic rock station. No more stings and symphonies and concertos and sonatas for him. At least not for a while. For now, he’d stick with drums and bass and electric guitars.

As he accelerated away from Delano, he rolled down the window and let the wind blow through what little hair he had on his head. He was in a great mood. The next song that came on was by Queen. He recognized ‘We Are The Champions.’ He turned up the volume and started singing along and as he tapped his fingers lightly on the steering wheel. After the first verse, he started singing louder and kept the car pointed down the highway toward home, more than happy to let the music carry him there. More than happy to make the most of this unexpected day and to rock out, while he still had the chance, just a little while longer.

 

 

 

Fireside Chat

“You going to be all right while I’m gone?”

I glance at Lea. We’re standing in the living room, and she’s putting on her red wool, knee length coat, getting ready for her son Adam to pick her up. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?

“Oh, I don’t know, Jack…for the last few days you’ve been in one of your moods again. Now you’ve got those old photograph albums of yours out and have been going through them all afternoon.”

Even though I think I detect a little weariness in her tone, Lea comes over and gives me a warm hug. “Sometimes I worry about you, is all I’m saying,” is what she tells me.

I guess I’m wrong about the weariness thing and maybe, just maybe, I’m being a little bit overly sensitive. I hug her back. I’m appreciative of her concern but, really, I’m a big boy. I can handle a little holiday nostalgia.

“Seriously, Lea, I’m fine. Really.”

She pats me on the back and breaks our embrace, but continues to stand close. She’s wearing a pleasant, light floral scent of some kind and has her long, auburn hair tied back in a red and green holiday ribbon. She’s even wearing just a hint of makeup. All in all she has a festive look about her which is appropriate since she’s on her way to spend Christmas Eve with her son and his wife and their four kids. Her parents as well as her daughter and her husband and their three kids are going to be there, too. It’ll be a nice, big, family gathering, something she’s been looking forward to since Thanksgiving when we had them all over to our place.

Our driveway runs past the side of the house to the detached garage in back. I glance out the window just as Adam’s car creeps past. (He’s an extremely careful driver.) He stops in front of the garage and beeps the horn.”Well, okay, then…” she says and hesitates, looking at me closely, judging whether or not she can believe me, and, I suppose, whether or not it’s safe to leave me to my own devices.

“Adam’s here,” I tell her. I smile my best smile and encourage her, “Go. Have fun with your family. I’ll be perfectly fine right here. I’m going to have a fire in the fireplace, read, hang out and…” I almost give it away, but recover in time to say, “Maybe even just do nothing at all.”

Lea decides to believe me. She relaxes a tiny bit, grins and then jokes, finishing my thought, “Just do nothing, eh? Something you’re really good at.”

We both chuckle. I really am a hard worker, have been my entire life. Right now, however, I’m sixty-five and thoroughly enjoying my third year of retirement from teaching eleventh and twelfth grade math at Long Lake High school, just two miles down the road from us. Maybe Lea’s right, I start thinking, maybe I’m not working as hard as I used to. Maybe I’m am getting a little lazy. Maybe I should…Oh, the hell with it. That’s a discussion for another day. Right now it’s the holiday season. Time to make merry and deck the halls and all that stuff.

“Just go, all ready,” I tell her, taking her by the arm, “Adam’s waiting.” Just at that moment her son lays on the horn a little longer than I feel is necessary. After all, it is Christmas Eve.

We walk through the kitchen to the back door. Lea wraps a magenta wool scarf around her neck and plops a lavender beret on her head. She looks great. She picks up two shopping bags full of gifts and gives me a hip check when I try to help her, independent as she is. She does, however, allow me to hold the door open for her and we kiss briefly on her way out. She breaths in my ear, “Take care. I’ll be back later.” Her scent lingers as she moves past, making me think I should have gone with her, but I’ve got other things to do. I watch as she makes her way down the sidewalk to the car where Adam gets out, waves at me and helps her put the two bags in the trunk. As he does so, the back door of his blue, four door Honda Fit opens and out pops his oldest daughter, Kaley, a skinny, whip of a nine year old with long auburn hair and big eyes, just like Lea. We all know grandparents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but hell, we can be honest here. Lea and Kaley formed a special bond early on. They’re like two peas in a pod when they are together and there’s nothing wrong with that. Lea’s gift for her granddaughter is something special and she can’t wait to give it to her when they open presents later. It’s “Anne of Green Gables” Lea’s favorite book when she was Kaley’s age.

I wave goodbye even though everyone’s talking a mile a minute and no one’s looking in my direction but that’s all right. They’re going to have a fun night together, I’m sure of that, and I’m glad for them.

I close the door before too much cold air gets inside. The temperature has been dropping all day long and now is hovering around fifteen degrees. The forecast is for snow flurries later on. It’s a good night for a fireplace fire. It’s also a good night to continue my conversation with my dad. I wonder to myself why Lea didn’t mention him when she was saying goodbye. Maybe she just forgot, what with the excitement of spending the evening with her kids and grandkids and parents and all. Well, I’m excited, too. I don’t often get a chance to see my father (well, hardly ever), so tonight is special for me as well.

I’ve lived with Lea for thirteen years. She bought the house nearly thirty five years ago from her parents when they decided to take early retirement and move to northern Minnesota. To say she dearly loves the nearly one hundred year old bungalow is putting it mildly. It hasn’t changed much since the year it was built and you can tell it’s been meticulously cared for, especially by Lea (and now by me, in my own way.) I do most of the yard work and try to stay out of Lea’s way when she’s doing the inside cleaning, a job she tells me, ‘Is not a job, but, something I enjoy doing.’ I get it. I feel the same way about working in the yard and the many flower gardens we’ve planted over the years. Anyway, the inside is charming. The wood floors are original and have been sanded and stained and polished so they look like the day they were installed. Even better. They have that soft, warm patina that wood develops over time when it’s been lovingly taken care of. There are windows everywhere so sunshine streams in during the day in abundance, giving us the feeling of being outdoors, a feeling we both love. The last time I counted there were sixteen hanging plants and seven potted plants in the living room and the enclosed front porch alone, adding to the outdoorsy feel when we’re inside. There are colorful throw rugs on the floors, Beatrix Potter figurines and other collectables arranged here and there in class cases and on wooden shelves. Wherever there’s space, a treasured painting or print is hung on walls painted soft, buttery yellow. It’s the homiest, most comfortable home I’ve ever been in. We were each previously married and I have grown to know and love the house like she does. Neither of us would ever think of leaving. It’s our emotional centering point.

I glance at the clock on the wall above the sink. It’s just after five in the afternoon and has already been dark outside for over half an hour. In Minnesota, these are the shortest days of the year, the ones with the least amount of daylight. I don’t have seasonal affective syndrome (SAD), but I do enjoy the light from a fire in the fireplace this time of year. It’s time to build one.

I walk from the kitchen into an open area (a combined dining and living room) where on the near side a sturdy dining room table sits, ready for family meals and lively discussion. In the center of the table, resting on a hundred and twenty year old doily embroidered by Lea’s great grandmother, there’s large wooden bowl made by a local craftsman from the burl of a maple tree. It’s filled with shiny sage green and amber metal balls about the size of large apples and  accented with balsam pine boughs and orange sprigs of bittersweet. I run my hand over the back of a chair as I pass, picturing tomorrow when everyone who is at Adam’s will be descending on our place, and take a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet. (Even though, like past Christmas Day’s I’ll be making myself scarce and taking in a movie.) On the other side of the table in the corner our Christmas tree is set up. It’s covered with decorations, some handmade by Lea’s kids when they were little, the aforementioned Adam and his younger sister Emily, some handed down from Lea’s mother and grandmother, and some purchased by Lea and I hunting through local antique stores. Right now the room is dark. I go to the tree and plug it in. Tiny white twinkle lights cast a soft glow that fills the space with the kind of warmth that only can be found this time of year. It makes the room look like it was taken from a scene right out of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

After taking moment to enjoy the tranquil feeling, I take a few steps into what we refer to as the living room, where my dad awaits. Along the right side of the interior wall is a red brick fireplace. On either side of it a lamp sits on a wooden end table. I turned them on earlier and they are the only illumination in the room. Their light is nice, but at this moment there is a gaping dark space between them definitely in need of some brightness. There’s a couch perpendicular to the fireplace, separating the living room from the dining room. It has two seat cushions covered in heavy weight burgundy cotton, and has seven pillows arranged on the back in various sizes, colors and patterns, primarily of the green, yellow and orange color scheme. Believe it me when I tell you it looks nicer than it sounds. That’s where I usually sit. Across from the couch there’s a comfortable wingback chair covered in light green corduroy. That’s where Lea usually sits. But not right now. That’s where my dad is.

“Hi, Dad,” I say, as I walk up to the fireplace. I kneel down and start crumpling some newspaper to stuff under the grate. “Nice night for a fire, isn’t it?”

My father grins, shivers a mock shiver and says, “You can say that again. It sure is.”

On the coffee table between the couch and the chair are three photo albums. I gesture to them and then start putting twigs on the grate from my bucket of kindling. “Been looking at those old photos?” I ask, somewhat rhetorically, because I know that’s exactly what he’s been doing – what we’ve been doing, actually, all afternoon. Why Lea didn’t mention Dad when she brought up looking through my photo albums I don’t know.

“I certainly have, Jackie, my boy,” he tells me. He’s still using the name he used to call me all those years ago. Back when I was growing up with him and Mom and my younger sister, Julie, and my younger brother, Steve (well, Stevie is what Dad called him back then.)

“Find anything interesting?”

“Yes,” he says, turning an album toward me, “Yes, I sure did.”

I glance over as I carefully lay three logs over the kindling, two on the bottom, one on top. He’s showing me what looks like an old family photo of all of us taken in the early sixties. I roll up a sheet of paper from the Lakeshore Weekly news, light it and wave it above the logs near the chimney outlet to catch a draft. When I do, I stuff the burning torch under the grate along with the rest of the newspapers.

I close the screen, sit down on the couch and watch the paper and twigs catch. In a minute the flames are hot enough to get the bottom logs going. I relax a little and congratulate myself. Success. Getting a fire going is always an fifty-fifty proposition in my book, even though I’ve been doing it most of my life. Every home I’ve ever lived in has had a fireplace. Even back when I was a kid. Back when that photo was taken.

“Let’s take a look, Dad,” I say, turning the album partially toward me so we can both see. Yeah, it’s definitely one of the old ones of our family. “What year do you think this was taken?” I ask him.

“Check the back. Your mom usually put the date there.”

Well, I know that, of course. I’m just trying to buy time. I know precisely when the photo was taken: Christmas of 1961. The last Christmas Dad ever spent with us. I was nine, Julie was seven and Stevie was six. In a few weeks Dad would be gone, having left us for Jennifer somebody who would eventually become his second wife. Then his second divorce. He married and divorced two more times after that. Throughout his life, Dad never developed a sterling track record when it came to long term commitments in general and marriage specifically. Obviously.

I look at the back of the photo anyway, just to humor him. “It says Christmas of 1961,” I say, looking at him. Then I decide, right at that very moment that, to hell with pleasantries, I might as well get into it with him right now. “Do you know the significance of that Christmas?” I ask him. I keep my voice quiet and firm, but still feel the slightest bit of a tremor down low. I’m not an aggressive person by nature and typically shy away from confrontation of any kind, but this is different.

“No. Why should I?”

“The significance, Dad,” I say, looking him right in the eye to make my point, “Is that right after that photo was taken, fifteen days to be exact, you left home. Don’t you remember? It was the last Christmas you ever spent with us as a family.” I certainly remember that time well, right down to the number of days it took before he left us and left for good. I try to keep my voice level and void of any emotion. I’m not sure how successful I am. Inside, my heart is racing and I’m doing all I can to cope with the sudden burst of anger I feel.

Apparently, I’m successful. Dad hasn’t registered the tiniest little bit of awareness that he has a clue about my feelings, and more specifically, my anger. Oblivious, he scratches his face and looks again at the photograph, studying it as if he’s looking for something. I ignore the photo and, instead, look at him. He’s smooth shaven, has a flat-top haircut and deep set grey-green eyes that, in my memory, used to twinkle with merriment whenever he laughed. (Which he did a lot, now that I think about it.) He’s dressed casually in comfortable dark brown corduroy’s and cordovan dress shoes with little tassels on them. A light blue dress shirt, the collar of which peeks around the collar of a festive, red, holiday sweater completes his attire. I remember that Dad always liked to dress well and apparently still does. Natty is the word that comes to mind. Or spiffy. Me? I’m wearing blue jeans, my favorite red plaid flannel shirt and heavy wool socks. A snappy dresser like my dad, I’m not. When I was growing up, he was a physical education and history teacher and was an active, robust man, standing just over six feet tall, weighing close to two hundred pounds. Now, in his old age (he’s eighty-nine), he’s lost weight and I swear he’s a couple of inches shorter than he used to be. He still looks good, though, just somewhat frailer than I remember. Plus, a lot older.

Finally he says, “That was a long time ago, Jackie. I have a hard time remembering a lot of things that happened back then.”

Right, I think to myself. Sounds like a friggin’ cop out to me. I’m suddenly less inclined to hide my anger. I point again to the photo, challenging him, “So you’re telling me you don’t remember anything about being with me and Julie and Steve when we were young? Look closely, Dad.” I’m trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice with my use of the term ‘Dad’ but I’m probably not too successful. Well, tough shit. The adrenaline is really flowing. Suddenly, I’m more than a little pissed.

I stab my finger at the picture and say, “Take a close, hard look. It’s Steve, not Stevie. He  and I are holding hockey sticks that you and Mom gave us that Christmas morning. I remember it like it was yesterday.” I snap my fingers, hoping to make my point perfectly clear.”We loved playing hockey. You used to take us to games. You even coached my team one year. I can’t believe you don’t remember.”

Man, where did that outburst come from? My emotions are starting to get away from me and I make myself shut up. I should be happy he’s here right now and that we’re talking. And, really, I am but, truth be told, my little explosion felt good. Maybe a little too good. I’m a nicer person that than, I tell myself. At least I think I am. I turn away from him and the photograph and take refuge in the fire. Flames of colorful blues and yellows and oranges are dancing along the logs, flickering brightly and giving off a pleasant warmth. It feels good to see how cheerful the fire is. Hopefully, it will help my mood. It does. After a minute of losing myself in the safe glow of the fire, I feel myself calming down.

“I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t know what came over me.” I turn to him. He’s looking into the fire, too. Is he escaping like I was? I want to say ‘I don’t believe you don’t remember those days,’ but decide to let it ride. What’s the point of arguing at this stage of the game?

Dad pulls his eyes away from the fire and looks right at me and says, “Look, Jackie, I know my leaving hurt you and your brother and sister. It wasn’t easy for me, either, you know.”

“So why did you? Leave, I mean?”

He takes a moment before saying, “Well, your mother and I had, I guess what today you’d call, issues.”

After Dad left home, my mom and I became very close and used to talk a lot about Dad’s issues, most of them having to do with other women (note the use of the plural.) Right now I didn’t need to hear his thoughts or excuses concerning his treatment of my mother, so I push the conversation in a different direction. One closer to home.

“You know, you could have at least tried to stay in touch with us kids.”

Dad sighs and sits back in his chair, but averts eye contact with me and takes refuge in the fire once again. He’s an old man and I shouldn’t be hammering away at him, should I? But…But what?

After he left in January of 1962 we only heard from him sporadically: an occasional phone call, an occasional card on our birthday, an occasional post card from somewhere. You get the point – only occasionally. By the time three years had passed, Dad was completely out of our lives. We heard through mutual friends of Mom’s that he’d moved to Portland, Oregon and was teaching at a junior college. We heard he was married. We heard he was happy. Then we heard he’d divorced and moved to Seattle. Then, by the late sixties, we didn’t hear anything more about him. Time as they say, marched on for my brother and sister and our mom, and we all moved forward with our lives.

I got married in 1974 to Janice when both of us were twenty-two. (We got divorced in 2002.) I got a job right out of college at the University of Minnesota, teaching math at a Minneapolis high school. Janice and I had and still have three wonderful kids: Ethan, Sara and Lucy. I even have a little granddaughter. Through all those years I was able to learn to live without any contact with my father. That’s the way is goes, I told myself back then. Suck it up, move on and forget about him.

Two years ago I started doing some research into my family’s history, mainly focusing on my mom’s side. I thought it’d be something my kids would be interested in. They have been good natured enough to play along, showing just enough interest to make me feeI like I wasn’t completely wasting my time. I had fun with it, though, learned a lot, and have kept at it. For the heck of it, I thought I’d start to do work on Dad’s side. I was surprised as well as pleased to have some success. In addition to going back four generations on his line, I was also able to track him down. He was still alive and living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a senior living complex near Lake Michigan called Shoreline Trails. After thinking about it for a few months and having a number of conversations with Lea, I decided to take a chance. I called Shoreline Trails and got in touch with him the summer before last. I had no plan other than to just break the ice. Surprisingly, it went alright. Our conversation was short, but friendly enough. To say he was surprised to hear from me was putting it mildly. I got the feeling he didn’t mind that I called, though, and we agreed to stay in touch.(Which turned out to be me staying in touch with him. He never once has contacted me.) I started calling and talking to him once a month or so and toward the end of this year I decided it might be…What? Fun? Interesting? I don’t know. He told me he was all alone and that tugged at me a little. I guess I thought it’d be nice to get together. He surprised me by agreeing. No date was set but he surprised me by showing up just after lunch today and we’ve been looking at old photo albums and chatting ever since. It turns out looking at pictures of my past has been a good way to prompt his memory (as well as mine.)

I lean forward now and watch him, wondering how he will respond to my question about staying in touch with the children he and mom had together – me and Julie and Steve. Finally he pulls his eyes away from the fire and says, “To be honest, I just wanted to move on. I thought it’d be easier all the way around if I just stayed away.”

“And you felt just ignoring and eventually forgetting about your kids was a good thing to do? The right thing to do?”

He sighs some more, “I know, I know.” Then he looks at me and says, “Look, I’m sorry Ok? I don’t know what you want me to say. I made a mistake, obviously. Believe me, I’ve made plenty in my life. Do we really have to talk about that now?”

“So you say you’re sorry?” I ask, grabbing a hold of the one word out of what he was telling me that actually meant something to me. “Really?”

He puffs out his cheeks (his face really is gaunt, the more I look at it) and sighs some more, blowing out a long stream of air. “I am,” he says. “Like I said before, I did what I thought I had to do at the time. I didn’t take into account how much it would hurt you and Julie and Stevie.”

I ask the million dollar question, “If you’d had known how much pain you were going to cause all of us, would you still have left?”

Dad looks at me closely and doesn’t try to hide the sad truth in his eyes. He says, “Well, Jackie, my boy, I’ll tell you this: Even though I now know how much it hurt you kids and your mother, I have to be honest with you. I would have still done the same thing. I would still have left.”

God, what a jerk.

I get to my feet abruptly and stand up tall. I’m a hundred and ninety pounds and a full six feet one inch, so I tower over him, sitting shrunken like he is in his chair. Am I happy that he flinches a little like he thinks I’m going to attack him? No, of course not. Hold on. Now that I think about it…actually, yeah. I have to admit, I kind of am.

But, honestly, I don’t intend to do him any physical harm. I just need to get away and cool off. I hurry around the couch, through the dining room and back into the kitchen, thinking what a bastard he is. I end up staring out the kitchen window into the back yard. There are no lights on out there, just a corner street lamp the next block over. It’s as dark and my thoughts. No, wait a minute, my thoughts are darker. So much for a nice, happy friggin’ reunion with my long lost father. Maybe I made a mistake inviting him to be with me.

As I stare into the night, feeling the cold seep in through the window, I start thinking about Lea. I hope she’s having a better night than I am. Well, of course she is. She’s with people she cares about and who care about her. Shit, now I’m starting to feel sorry for myself. I smack my hand against my head to knock the feeling away. Get a grip, I tell myself. I take a deep breath and exhale, trying to calm down. My breath fogs the window. I make a circle and draw a smiley face in it. ”I’ll get through this,” I say out loud, giving myself a little pep talk. “Just get your damn act together.”

I start to relax a little, but I still stay looking into the darkness. I need a break from talking to Dad and reliving those old painful memories that have started to surface. I know that I’m eventually going to go back in and talk to him, but not right now. I need a few moments to myself. Well, maybe more than a few. I decide to stay by the window for a while and take refuge in my jumbled thoughts. It doesn’t help much. I lose track of the number of smiley faces I draw on the steamed up window.

In the car on the way to her son’s home, Lea is turned in the passenger seat talking a mile a minute back and forth with Kaley about a dance class the young girl is taking. They are still about fifteen minutes from where Adam and Sally live when her son interrupts, “So, Mom, how’s Jack doing? Retirement still going alright?”

Lea says to Kaley, “Just a second, honey. Let me talk to your dad for a minute.”

Kaley agreeably says, “Ok,” and turns her attention a couple of dolls she’s brought with her to play with: Wonder Women and Bat Girl.

Lea smiles at her granddaughter and then turns to her son. Her smile vanishes as she becomes sober, taking a moment before answering, “He’s fine. It’s just that this is a tough time of year for him.” She appreciates Adam’s ongoing interest in Jack. He doesn’t have to be and Lea certainly doesn’t expect it of him. After all, he has a father. But her oldest son knows how much Jack means to his mom.

“Didn’t you tell me he doesn’t really have much of a family? His parents are both dead and his kids aren’t around? No brothers or sisters, either? You know he’s welcome to come along with you and join us anytime.”

“I know that,” Lea looks at her son and, for about the millionth time in her life, marvels at what a kind and thoughtful person he’s turned out to be. “I really do appreciate your willingness to include him when we all get together. It means a lot to me, but he’s Ok being home. He’ll probably hang out, maybe call his kids.” Then she smiles, “One thing’s for sure. He’ll build a fire. He loves having a fire in the fireplace and just relaxing by it. Especially this time of year. We have one every night.”

She’s only ever given Adam the barest outline of Jack’s life, not bothering to go into the details. She’s not told him about Jack being left without a father when he was nine years old. She’s never told him that a few years after his father left he was never heard from again. She’s never told Adam that Jack’s wife left him for a man who made far more money as some sort of an investment banker than Jack would ever make as a math teacher. She’s never told her son that Jack’s three kids all moved out west for various reasons after high school, and they continue to stay out there to be closer to their mother in California. She’s never told him that though each of his kids and Jack have a good, though distant relationship, they only see each other every other year or so. She’s never told Adam any of those things because Jack wants to, as he’s always said, ‘Keep my business with my family private.’ So she has respected his wishes and never told anyone, even though she doesn’t agree one-hundred percent with his reasoning and has told him so many times.

Adam flips the turn signal on and says, putting an end to the conversation, “Whatever. But you really should bring him sometime. He might have fun.” He pulls into the driveway of he and his wife’s older style, two story, white stucco home. It’s in a charming neighborhood of mature oak and maple trees and well maintained 1920’s homes a few blocks east of Lake Harriet and just off Minnehaha Parkway in southwest Minneapolis. The drive from Long Lake has taken forty minutes and it’s now nearly a quarter to six. Lea takes a moment to appreciate the white Christmas lights Adam’s put up along the gutter of the first level. He’s wrapped the trunks of three oak trees with them as well. The steps leading up to the porch are brightly lit with white lights woven into evergreen garlands wrapped around the stairway banisters and the posts supporting the porch overhang. His home has a wonderfully festive look to it, especially with the snow piled high around the foundation of house and the sides of the sidewalk and the driveway.

From the back seat Kaley exclaims, “Look, Grandma, look.  Great Grandma and great Grandpa are here.”

Lea grins. She’s already spotted her parent’s sage green Prius parked in the street. Her mom called at noon to say they were just leaving on their drive down from their home in Lake George, Minnesota. It’s a four hour trip and it looks like they’ve only recently arrived. She truly loves her parents and enjoys spending time with them. At eighty-six, they are as healthy as can be expected. They live on their own and can drive their car and Lea is grateful that they are still in her life. The plan is that later they will drive her back to Long Lake and spend the night and Christmas Day with her and Jack.

“I see that, sweetheart,” Lea says as Adam slows to a stop. “Let’s go inside and wish them Merry Christmas, Ok?”

“Ok, Grandma.”

Kaley is out of the car in a flash, pulling on her grandmother’s door handle. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Lea says, laughing, stepping out into a fresh coating of snow. Light flurries have just started falling, adding to the holiday feel of the evening. “Let’s get my presents and bring them in. Will you help me?”

Kaley readily agrees. Adam opens the trunk and they take out the two shopping bags. Together the three of them make their way along the shoveled brick pathway to the steps leading up to the porch and then to the front door. Through a balsam wreath decorated with tiny red berries and small pine cones, Lea peers inside. In the living room she can see the brightly decorated Christmas tree and her mother and father seated around a roaring fire in the fireplace talking to Adam’s wife, Sally. Kaley’s younger siblings, Stephan, Emma and baby Luke, are gathered around as well. Her father’s obviously told one of his goofy jokes because as she watches, everyone suddenly bursts out laughing.

Smiling, Lea glances at Adam, “Where’s your sister?” Lea’s daughter Emily and her husband Randy and their young boys, Logan, Jacob and Seth live in St. Paul, about forty-five minutes away.

Adam is checking his phone, “I just got a text. They’ll be here in about ten minutes.”

“Come on, Grandma, let’s go,” Kaley is literally jumping out of her snow boots she’s so excited. “Let’s go see the great grandparents.”

“I’m coming, Sweetie,” Lea says. Kaley opens the door and she and her father enter to a cacophony of greetings and glad tidings. Before going inside, though, Lea quietly closes the door and takes a moment to stop, step back and look up and down the block. She enjoys seeing the houses decorated for the season, some with colored lights, some with white twinkling lights. They look so pretty and seasonally merry. December has been a cold, snowy month but Adam is a dedicated snow shoveler. There are piles of snow outlining the driveway, the entryway and the sidewalk out by the street. It looks like a scene from a Hallmark Christmas card.

“Grandma, come on…” Kaley opens the door, scampers back out and begins tugging on her grandma’s coat sleeve.

Lea laughs, “Okay, okay. I’m coming.”

She is looking forward to spending time with her family. She thinks for a moment about Jack back home and silently wishes him well. Maybe one day he’ll join them. Like Adam said in the car, he’s certainly welcome anytime. A blast of cold air sends snowflakes swirling though the air and the image of Jack passes from her mind. Kaley is gesturing excitedly, holding the door open. Lea smiles and pats her granddaughter lovingly on her head as she moves past her and steps inside to a scent of roast turkey and something cinnamon. A room full of happy faces turn toward her calling out ‘Happy Holidays’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ and any lingering thoughts of Jack vanish under an avalanche of jovial greetings and holiday good cheer. Her heart fills with gladness. It’s good to be with my family, Lea thinks to herself, and raises her voice, “Hi there, everyone. Merry Christmas!”

I walk from the kitchen back into the living room to face my father. I’ve calmed down and have decided that since he’s here, I might as well accept the situation for what it is and try to make the best of it. I notice that the fire has burned low and so I throw another log on the it. I’m just about to sit down when…

“While you’re up,” Dad says, “How about a drink? A cocktail? I could sure use one.”

Yeah, I’ll bet you could, I think to myself, remembering all the times growing up when the end of any holiday celebration was marked by my father falling asleep in whatever chair he happened to be in. Well, passed out drunk was what he was, is what my mother pointed out to me once during a conversation we had a few years after he’d moved out. “Drunk as a skunk, Jack. Every holiday: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. You name it. He’d be passed out inebriated before you kids went to bed. Without fail.” She’d finally come clean when I was around eleven or so. “He’d usually start drinking around noon and wouldn’t stop until he was out like a light.”

Being naive back then, I was more than little confused, “Why’d he do that, Mom?” I’d always thought he was just tired out from…From…Well, I guess I didn’t know what he’d be tired out from.

To this day I still remember my mother taking a long drag of her cigarette, exhaling a stream of smoke away from us, shaking her head sadly and saying, “I wish I knew, Jack. But, really, I have no idea.”

In the spirit of full disclosure here, I have to say that I was no saint when I got older. I went through a phase as an adult when I used to have the occasional weekend drink myself; sometimes way too much. In fact, truth be told, I might have gone down the same path as my father if something hadn’t stopped me. Well, check that, three things stopped me: my three kids Ethan, Sara and Lucy. The last thing I wanted to do was to set a bad example for them. More to the point, I wanted to be as good a father as I could be, not some guy worried every minute of the day about where his next drink was coming from. So I quit drinking thirty-five years ago when my oldest Ethan was five, and I haven’t touched so much as a beer since then.

I take a deep breath and exhale and then close and open and close and open my hands. I’m trying to settle myself. I avoid eye contact by looking into the fire (once again.) I watch as the new log catches and starts burning before I turn to him and say, “No, Dad. I don’t have anything to drink. Not like you’re getting at, anyway. I haven’t touched a drop for thirty-five years. How about you? You still have the (finger quote time) occasional drink?”

Across from me dad puts up his hands in self defense, “Whoa there partner, hold your horses. I’m only asking. If you don’t have any booze, don’t worry about. That’s fine with me.”

“Good, because we don’t. Neither Lea or I can stand the stuff.”

“Understandable.” I can’t help but notice how conciliatory he’s being. “If that’s the case, how about some tea or coffee or something? Even water. Can you stand that? I’m getting a little parched with all this reminiscing,” he says, mimicking me with his own use of finger quotes around reminiscing.

Suddenly, I’m really embarrassed. God, where are my manners? In spite of everything going on this evening, at least I could be a decent host, “Oh, man, I’m sorry Dad. I’ll get something for us right now. Give me a minute, Ok? Coffee or tea?”

“Tea would be fine.”

I quickly stand up and toss another log on the fire before going into the kitchen to put together some refreshments for us. I fill the tea pot and get it heating on the stove. I open the cupboard and look inside. Lea and I like tea, so we have boxes of Constant Comment, Chamomile, Licorice Spice and English Breakfast. I make my choice. I take down a mug for each of us, put in a tea bag and set them on a tray. I open another cupboard and take out something for us to munch on, shortbread cookies from Scotland.

It’s nice right now to have the time to go through a known ritual like I’m doing, preparing an evening tea. It’s helping to get me centered. In my imagination, talking with my father wasn’t supposed to be so trying. It was supposed to be just the two of us chatting about old times, looking at old photos, reminiscing and getting to know each other after over fifty years of being apart. We were supposed to be having a good time. Whew. It certainly hasn’t been going quite like that. We’ve had a few blow ups…but, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s only to be expected. I guess I’m still harboring some resentment over issues that needed to be brought out and dealt with, even though, in my own mind, I thought I had. It’s obvious that for all those past years I’ve been deceiving myself. However, In spite of some tension between us, it occurs to me that I’m actually glad some of the stuff has come out, emotionally trying as it’s been.

I walk to the back window and look out into the safety of the dark back yard again. I can just make out the shadow of snow flurries from the light of the kitchen. It’s a nice Christmas Eve kind of snowfall, soft and fluffy. Watching the gentle snow calms me down. I guess when all is said and done, our visit together isn’t going too badly. I’m glad to have Dad with me, even if we don’t agree on things like him leaving the family and being out of touch for our entire lives. Back then it was what it was and mom and my siblings and I all learned to how cope. He had left us. He’d moved on with his life. So did me and my mother and my brother and sister. I’m getting the distinct feeling that, at the end of the day, when I look back on the time spent with Dad tonight, I’ll realize that it will have been better to be able to talk to him than not, even if some of the subjects have been painful.

The tea pot begins whistling, interrupting my thoughts. I turn off the stove, wait a minute and then pour the water, a mug of English Breakfast for each of us. I put them on the tray, add a small plate of shortbread cookies, two paper napkins and check it out. Everything looks good. I let the tea steep for three minutes, remove the tea bags and toss them in the trash. Then I take a deep breath and exhale, pick up the tray and go back to the living room. On the way in, I glance at the pretty Christmas tree in the corner of the dining room. I make a vow to be nicer to Dad, thinking that I should just let bygones be bygones and make the most of our time together.

I set the tray on the coffee table to the side of the albums saying, “Ok, Dad, I’ve got a nice little treat for us.” I set the mug down I’d selected for him, a white one with the saying, ‘Teachers Rule’, on it in red, block letters. I point to it and say, “Go ahead.”

My father gratefully reaches for the mug and makes it a point of reading the inscription. He chuckles (for the first time tonight, if my memory serves) and says, “Thanks, son. This looks great.” (I notice he called me ‘son’ but don’t bother to say anything. I have to say, though, that I liked hearing him say it.) He breathes in deeply from the aroma of the tea and adds, “Smells wonderful.” Then he takes a cookie and munches on it thoughtfully. He blows on the surface of the tea and then takes a sip before setting his mug down. Then he sits back in his chair with a napkin in his hand, holding it under the cookie to catch any stray crumbs as he munches away. It’s a move on his part that I notice, thinking that it’s thoughtful of him to be so conscientious in someone’s home. I find myself relaxing some more. I’m actually starting to enjoy his company.

We eat a couple of cookies and sip our tea in companionable silence for a few minutes. I’m thinking that maybe Dad is waiting to see what kind of mood I’m in before he says anything. I can’t blame him. After all, I’d challenged the old man on more than one occasion already tonight, not to mention getting mad once or twice. It probably wasn’t the nicest thing for me to do. I remember my vow and decide to be more congenial, if that’s the right word, given the situation.

I notice that Dad had continued looking at the photo albums while I’d been in the kitchen. He’d closed the first one, the one that had the old pictures from back when our family was still together; back before our lives had all changed forever. Thinking back to those times, I feel my anger start bubbling up again and try to stop it. Hold on now, I tell myself, remembering my vow, I’m going to be more congenial, remember? Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, my anger subsides. Maybe I’m finally getting past my father’s abandonment and starting to let things go. That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it, I ask myself? That’s what all the self help books would encourage me to do, right? Well, it’s easier said than done is what I’m finding, and a bit of a rollercoaster ride to boot. I buckle up for some more of the ride.

With the first album closed and the second one open, I lean forward and point, “What are you looking at, Dad?” I ask, taking a sip of tea before setting the mug down. I’m looking at the page upside down and can’t quite make out the photo.

“It’s this next album of yours. What are these pictures of?”

“I put together a bunch of photos I had of Mom and Julie and Steve that were taken throughout the years after you’d left home. I thought you’d like to see them.”

He becomes quiet, slowly looking through the first few pages, stopping occasionally, peering at the photos closely. He seems to be having trouble seeing them. Finally, he reaches under his sweater to the breast pocket of his shirt and takes out a pair of reading glasses. He puts them on, messing with them, trying to get them set on his nose correctly. Finally he gives up and holds them in position with one finger.

I’m about to ask if I can help with the glasses situation, when he jokes, “These damn things. These readers. I’ve never gotten used to them.”

I don’t know why I found the statement humorous but it did, probably because I’d run into the same problem myself on occasion. “I’ve got some readers around here somewhere. Do you want me to try to find them for you? They might fit better.” There, I tell myself, I’m being nice and congenial, just like I said I would be.

“No, that’s Ok,” he says, looking up, distracted, and barely acknowledging my statement. It dawns on me that he wasn’t paying any attention to me at all because he was so engrossed in the pictures. He turns back to them. I follow his gaze. It appears he’s especially interested in the ones of Julie and Steve.

I point to a photo of my brother and sister taken when they were in their early twenties. They’re sitting next to each other at a picnic table at Lake Independence, a forested park near Maple Plain, the small town where we’d grown up. (Which, ironically, is only five miles west from where Lea and I now live.) “Do you know anything about them, Dad? Do you know anything about what Julie and Steve did with their lives?”

He looks up. Is that a degree of sadness I’m seeing, or am I just misreading his expression and dear old dad is only pretending that he at one time cared, or even now cares, about the family he left behind?

“I know you want me to say that I really did think about Julie and Stevie off and on over all these years, Jackie, but, honestly, like I said earlier, once I left you all and moved on with my life, I really didn’t think about any of you all that much.” He sighs and adds, “Even less as the years went by.” Then he goes back to looking at the photos, putting an end to the discussion. He seems intrigued by them, like he’d rather just look at pictures and not talk to me. I feel that I should give him the time to do that, but…

But, shit. I can’t help it. To hell with being congenial. A flaming red lava flow appears in my vision and my heart rate jumps into overdrive. I know I was going to try to be nice to the old man, but Jesus Christ. What a jerk. What a complete bastard. It’s clear he didn’t give a shit about any of us back then and doesn’t give a shit now. Why did I even bother contacting him and inviting him for a visit in the first place?

I’m about to say something and slam into him, slam into him good and verbally put him in his place, but then I remember my vow: Be nice. Don’t be a jerk like him. Calm down. Suddenly, an image of my kids pops into my mind. What would I expect them to do, given, god forbid, them being in a similar situation? Well, I know the answer. I’d want my kids to be to be civil, that’s what I’d want from them. I’d want them to rise to the occasion and at least try to be pleasant. Especially, I’d want them to accept the past for what it was and try to move on. Me? I need to quit grinding over events that are over and done with. Those things are in the past and can’t be changed anyway. Time for me to take a deep breath. Time to get my act together. Time to move on. Time to be a good son to my long lost father, no matter how hard it is.

I pick up my mug of tea and silently sip from it, giving myself a moment. It takes a few of them but in a minute or two I’m finally able to calm down.

Dad hasn’t’ a clue about the emotional tornado that has just roared through my mind. I watch as he takes his time going over the pages of the album, one by one. He sips his tea. He carefully eats another cookie and then sips some more from his mug. I watch him. He seems to be enjoying looking at the pictures and doesn’t appear to need me to answer any questions he might have, so I let him look. I have to say that I kind of enjoy watching him. I do a quick calculation. It’s been fifty-six years since I last saw him and it’s good to have him with me. After a while I turn to watching the fire. The tranquility between us right now is pleasantly satisfying. In fact, it feels really good.

After a few minutes, I notice that the plate of shortbread cookies is empty. So are our mugs. I put them all on the tray, stand up and go back into the kitchen. I fill the tea pot and set it on the stove. I add a fresh tea bag of English Breakfast to each mug. In the lower cupboard to the left of the sink are four holiday themed containers, each filled with a different batch of cookies Lea has made over the past few days. I open each of them and carefully arrange a nice selection – Russian tea cakes, ginger spice, sugar cutouts and spritz – on a large holiday plate I find that’s decorated with a Christmas scene of a family in a horse drawn sleigh being pulled through snowy fields at sunset. It’s quite a bit bigger than the one we’ve been using. Lea is going to use it tomorrow when everyone comes over but I don’t think she’ll mind if I borrow it just for tonight. I close the containers, put them away, wash the first plate and set it in the drying rack of the sink. The tea pot boils and I fix our tea and put our mugs on the tray along with our cookie laden holiday plate. Then I take it all back to the living room.

“Here you go, Dad,” I say, making it a point to pass the tray under his nose, “I’ve got a special treat. Have some Christmas cookies.” I set the tray on the table, put the plate of cookies near Dad and place his mug in front of him.

Absentmindedly, Dad takes a ginger spice and starts munching on it, still perusing the photos. Then he stops, obviously impressed with its flavor, and says, “Um, um. Say, these are really good.” He holds the cookie up and looks at it reverently. Then he pops the rest of it in his mouth before reaching for a Russian Tea Cake, saying, “These are fabulous. I can’t tell you when the last time was that I had a fresh Christmas cookie. Mind if I have another?”

I laugh and motion him to go ahead, “Lea made them. Take as many as you want. We’ve got hundreds.”

Savoring his second cookie, Dad says, “She’s a good baker.”His voice is muffled, what with his mouth full and all.

“She’s a great cook, all the way around.” I momentarily think back on the variety of homemade meals Lea has fixed for us. The most recent of them being: scrumptious vegetable soup, thick black bean chili, and more than a few creative rice dishes built around chick peas, wild rice, vegetables and savory herbs and spices. My mouth starts watering just thinking about them.

Dad ponders my statement about Lea’s cooking, takes a sip of tea and says, “Your mother was a good cook.”

“She was, Dad. Really good,” I concur. I’m just about to add something pithy, like ‘So why’d you leave?’ or something like that, but realize I’d only be coming across as a jerk myself. I don’t want to do that so I pump the brakes.  After all, I’m the one who invited him for a visit. Deep breathing time, again, I remind myself. Deep breaths, in and out, in and out. After a minute or so I finally calm down.

Just then Dad surprises me by asking, “When did Ann die again?”

“Mom died five years ago. 2012. Congestive heart failure. Fortunately we were by her side.”

Dad points to the album he’s paging through, “Stevie and Julie? Were they there?”

“Well, no they weren’t, Dad. It’s a long story about them. But I was there, with Lea. Mom passed away under hospice care as peacefully as she could have.”

I’m silent for a moment as I turn to watch the flames in the fire, thinking about Mom. After she and I became close after Dad left, we remained close our entire lives. What would she have thought about me and Dad sitting together tonight after all these years, talking like we were? Well, I didn’t have to think too long or too hard. What she would say was this, “Jack, remember how I raised you to treat other people the way you would want to be treated? Well, that’s what you need to do now. Don’t harbor resentments. You need to show your father that you turned out to be a fine person and a fine human being, in spite of the fact that he left you and me and your brother and sister; in spite of all the pain he caused. You need to show him that you’ve put the past behind you and risen above it. You need to show him you turned out to be a good person.”

Does that sound weird? Too much like some sappy Hallmark Channel movie? Well, too, bad if it does. I’m glad Mom’s words came back to me just then. Especially given the situation. Sometimes what you really need a little kick in the ass from your mother. Especially when she’s right.

“Here, Dad,” I say, symbolically edging closer to show him I’m willing to set my hard feelings aside, “let’s take a look at these photos together. By the way, we began calling Stevie Steve after you left. Ok? And I’m Jack, not Jackie. Do you want me to fill you in on Julie and Steve and what happened in their lives? Would you like that?” I’m trying to be pleasant.

Is that a look of relief I see on the old man’s face? Or gratefulness? Whatever it is, I can literally feel the tension dissipate, sucked out of the room and up the chimney flue like the smoke from our fire.

He looks at me with a grateful expression and says, “Yes, son, I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”

So I fill him in on the lives of my brother and sister while Dad sips his tea, eats Christmas cookies and listens. It takes a couple more logs being added to the fire to get my brother and sister’s stories told, but that was all right; he was really interested and asked a lot of questions.

The nutshell version is this:

Steve and I were close as brothers and stayed close our entire lives. After he graduated from high school he and a buddy moved three hours north to Duluth, a thriving city of the shore of Lake Superior. He tried college there for a few years, found it didn’t suit him and eventually began working for a small owner owned construction company specializing in solar panel installation. Using the sun’s energy for home electrical needs is a growing business these days, but back then in the early 80’s it was just starting to take off. Even though the years were lean, Steve liked the work and liked the owner, a stoic Fin named Juri Niskanin. Juri, in turn, liked Steve, especially his work ethic, and offered my brother part ownership in the company roughly ten years later. Steve readily accepted. By then he was married to Eileen, a nurse at St. Mary’s, a three hundred and fifty bed hospital in downtown Duluth. In 1998, when Steve was forty-three, their son was born, Gary, who is now a student at the University of Minnesota at Duluth and works part time at a well known canal park hotel on the shore of Lake Superior.

Steve enjoyed the out-of-doors. He taught himself to hunt and fish after Dad left but gave it up in his late twenties for, as he put it, ‘The adventure of rock climbing,’ a sport he dearly loved. Unfortunately, it also killed him. He died during a climb in Colorado in 2003. Eileen still makes her home in Duluth and I continue to stay in touch with both her and her son. They are good people.

Julie, unfortunately, had a rough life. She got with the wrong crowd in high school and none of us, neither Mom, nor me, or Steve, could steer her clear of what eventually became a ten year tail spin into the world of drugs. She eventually hit rock bottom, living the life of a meth-addict in a dump of a trailer house off a rural county road twenty five miles north of Minneapolis. A late night call from a friend of hers to Mom saved her in the fall of 1982. Mom called me and we drove to Anoka County, found the single wide and rescued her. She was comatose and barely breathing. We were able to get her to the emergency room at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis just in time. The doctors told us later that she would have been dead in an hour if we hadn’t shown up. Fortunately we did. She was twenty-eight at the time.

Julie went into treatment. Then she relapsed. She went into treatment again and stayed with it, getting clean in 1985. She began attending Metropolitan Junior College in downtown Minneapolis and two years later, in 1987, earned a hard fought degree in counseling; drug abuse counseling to be specific, which stood to reason given her track record. And, given that track record, she was really good at it. She became a counselor for the Hennepin County Drug Task Force, focusing on women and the unique challenges they faced in the fight to stay clean and sober. She dated off and on but nothing serious until 1990 when she met Kyle, a level headed northeast Minneapolis beat cop. Life was on the upswing for her. She had a job she was good at; one that she truly loved. She had met someone she was happy with. And, most importantly, she continued to stay drug free. She and Kyle moved in together and even talked about starting a family. Unfortunately, her life ended tragically when she was killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver on a snowy winters night in 1992. She had been driving home on Interstate 94 after visiting Kyle at the local precinct station. She died instantly. She was thirty-eight.

We buried Julie that January in Lakewood Cemetery on the shore of beautiful Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. Steve was laid to rest next to her in 2003. Finally Mom joined her son and daughter in 2012.

“So, out of the family you left behind, Dad, I’m the only one still living,” I tell him by way of wrapping up the story of his son and daughter. I look at him wondering what he can possibly be thinking. He’d outlived his first wife and two out of his three children. I’m surprised to see that his eyes are glistening. Are those tears I see? He reaches into his pocket, takes out a handkerchief and wipes them away. Yes, I believe they are.

“Were Steve and Julie happy with their lives?” he asks softly. I lean forward so I can hear him. He twists the handkerchief into a knot. Untwists it and then twists it again. I fight the urge to put out my hand to stop him.

“Yeah, they were,” I tell him and watch as he stuffs the knotted mess back in his pants pocket. I can’t help but notice the use of Steve’s given name. His grown up name. He wasn’t Stevie any more. Dad is finally getting the point that the children he’d fathered (and abandoned) had grown up to be responsible, caring adults. Two wonderful people who had each tragically died too young and who had each, in their own way, made the world a little better place to live in during their abbreviated lives. (That’s my own opinion. Unbiased, of course.) “They were both happy,” Dad, I reiterated, “Very.”

“That’ good,” he says, “That’s really good.” His voice cracks. I can see that he’s not prepared to have to process the kind of information I’d just given him. I don’t feel any compunction to help him so I let him process.

He takes a sip of his tea before sitting back and staring into the fire. I sit back, too, thinking my own privates thoughts about my brother and sister, reliving my own unique memories of the times I’d spent with them. I’m happy I’d had a life with them. My siblings and I were as close as I could ever have hoped for us to be. I can only imagine what is going through Dad’s mind. Even though each of my three kids, Ethan, Sara and Lucy, live out west and I don’t see them very often, at least I do see them. Plus, we are in touch via Skype, email, texting and the occasional phone call. I can’t foresee ever having one of them dead and no longer in my life. Not at all. My mind just can’t wrap itself around the concept. Now, here’s my father sitting across from me after I’ve just delivered the news that two of his children are dead and gone. He’d given up the opportunity to see them grow up and now he’ll never get the chance to get to know them as adults. That sobering fact seems to have gotten to him. Shaken him. Was he sad they were gone and he never had a chance to get to have an adult relationship with them? Or was he sad because it only pointed to his own mortality, and the fact that soon he too would be dying and leaving this world forever?

I decide to let him think about it. I stand up, grab my wood carrier and go outside to the garage where I’ve stored my winter supply of firewood. I take my time loading up. It’s nice to have an emotional break, even though it is freezing cold outside.

When I get back inside, Dad’s not in his chair. I look down the short hallway off the living room and see a light on underneath the bathroom door. Then I hear the toilet flush and then water running in the sink. I busy myself filling the wood box next to the fireplace. After a minute he comes out, slowly makes his way to his chair and sits down. I study his face. He looks worn, his skin is gray and sagging. He looks older, but strangely enough, he also looks contrite. Apologetic.

He coughs and says, “You know, looking at those pictures and talking about Steve and Julie, I don’t know what to say.” He pauses for about a minute, while I wonder if he’s going to say anything or if we’re going to sit there forever in silence. Finally, when he does speak, he lowers his voice so I can barely make out what he’s saying. But I can. He says, “I guess I missed out on a lot.”

Well, no shit, Sherlock. I jump into it, “Did you even think to contact either of them? They were only a phone call away, you know. Didn’t you ever wonder what was going on with them and what they were doing with their lives?”

“I should have. I know I should have. But, honestly, no. I really didn’t think about them at all. ” He pauses and then adds, “Or you, Jack.” He looks at me, hoping that I recognize that he called me Jack instead of Jackie. I do and I nod my thanks, but don’t say anything. I can’t recall ever seeing someone looking so sad. He pauses again and picks up a cookie, looks at it and then sets it down, without taking a bite.  “Like I said earlier, I just put you all out of my mind. I guess I did it to survive. I just got on with my life. It was easier that way.”

“Pretty selfish, Dad,” I toss out my opinion (for what it’s worth.) “Pretty damn selfish.” An image comes into my mind. It’s like a collage of all the traits one should have to be a parent. Selflessness, the act of thinking of others (like your kids and your wife) before yourself, would be high on the list. It’s becoming apparent to me, the more we talk, that the truth of the matter regarding my father is that he just wasn’t cut out to be a parent. What’s interesting is that right now, at this very moment, I finally realize that we were all, me, Steve and Julie, better off without him. (I can’t speak for Mom, but my guess is that she was, too.) It’s a sobering thought. It’s also real. I’m ready to accept that, in the long run, it was better for all of us that he left.

He looks at me for a long moment and then says, “Yeah, I guess I was selfish.” Then adds, “I guess I missed a lot.”

I don’t have to guess and tell him with as much certainty as I can muster, “Yeah, you did.” I have nothing more to add, so I don’t.

I put another log on the fire. How many was that now? Seven or eight? I look at one of the old Baby Ben clocks on the mantel that Lea collects. This one was made in the ’50’s and is a soft orange color. It reads seven-thirty five. I wonder how her evening is going. She and her mom and dad and her kids and grandkids would have all had a nice meal by now and are probably getting ready to open presents. I can picture them gathered around the Christmas tree at Nate and Sally’s. I like that Lea’s family doesn’t make a big deal out of giving tons of gifts. The rule is that each person gives and receives only one gift and giving books is highly encouraged. Even the kids are required to give one gift to everyone in attendance. (The youngest ones get help from their parents.) For Lea and her family the importance of their Christmas Eve celebration is that they can share a meal and a festive evening with each other. Togetherness and family appreciation are the unspoken themes of the evening. Right now I’m thinking that I probably should have taken Lea up on her offer and gone with her. It would have been fun, at least more fun than sitting in my living room talking to an old man who obviously couldn’t have cared less about the family he’d left behind fifty-six years ago. I should have left well enough alone and never even invited him to see me. Next time, if I’m asked, I think I’ll accept. It might be fun go with her and be with a family who all want to spend time with each other. It’d be different, anyway.

I grimace and look into the fire, suddenly hating my ‘poor me’ thoughts. Here I am feeling sorry for myself again. At a time like this I wonder if I’m ever going to get beyond the anger I feel at Dad having left us so long ago. I know that the healthy thing to do is to let it go. I’m trying, but obviously not doing a very good job of it. I sigh for the hundredth time tonight and think: well, at least I’ve finally accepted that my siblings and I were better off without him. That must count for something. Doesn’t it?

My thoughts are interrupted when Dad asks, “So what’s this you’ve got here? What’s in this album?”

He’s voice sounds kind of upbeat. Enthusiastic. I look. He’s closed the second album and is starting to page through the third and final collection of photos I’d put together. It’s the one of me and my wife (well, ex-wife) and my kids. I appreciate that he’s at least pretending to be interested. I lean over the table, ridding myself of my self-centered thoughts, eager to show him my family. There are collections of holiday pictures, photos taken on vacations and photos taken off the cuff, just goofing around. In spite of all the pondering I’m doing tonight, and maybe because of it, I’m suddenly excited to show them to him.

While Dad looks at the photos, I give him a brief overview of my life:

“Janice and I met at the U and we married in June right after we graduated. That was in 1974. The first job I got after college was teaching tenth grade advanced algebra and trigonometry in Minneapolis at Washburn High School. Janice and I lived in a small one bedroom apartment just a couple of blocks away for a few years until we had saved enough to buy a medium sized home in south Minneapolis.” I flip through the photos, find what I’m looking for and point, “Here it is from the outside.”

Dad looks at it for a long time and then says, “Looks nice.”

Our home was a story and a half bungalow that had tongue and groove wood siding which we painted golden yellow. We painted the trim around the windows white. We planted shrubs around the fountain and filled pots in the summer so they were overflowing with colorful geraniums, petunias and impatiens. Even though the house and yard were small, we had a couple of good sized trees that gave us shade in the summer. It was a good place to raised a family. Ethan, Sara and Lucy were all born there.

“It was a really nice place to live, Dad. We were only a few blocks from Minnehaha Falls and a huge park. We went there a lot.” I turn a few pages, point and say, “There were lots of grassy areas and trees and tons of room for the kids to run around and play. They’ve all told me that they have great memories of growing up in that neighborhood.”

Dad scans the pictures on the page, taking his time looking. He seems to be enjoying the experience of seeing his eldest son’s family. As least that’s what I tell myself. In looking back on the evening, I’m pretty sure I was right.

He turns the page and I say, “Here’s all of us on a vacation we took in 1987 to Montana. Ethan was eleven, Sara was nine and Lucy was seven. We drove to the Woodbine Campground thirty miles north of Yellowstone and camped out for a couple of days on the Stillwater river. It runs out of the Beartooth Mountains, part of the Rocky Mountain chain.” I point out a photo of a mountain with snow on the summit, even in the summer. “That’s Granite Peak. It’s the highest point in Montana.”

Dad doesn’t say anything, he just looks. Then he takes out his twisted handkerchief and dabs at his eyes again. He doesn’t say anything, but this is obviously an emotional experience for him. I’m touched by response. I didn’t know he had it in him to care so much.

We spend a few minutes looking over more than a few pages of photos of white water rapids raging through a rocky gorge with cliffs at least fifty feet high (something you don’t see in Minnesota.) I show him a number of shots of the kids playing on the rocks in the calm backwaters of the Stillwater, Janice looking on. She’s dressed in a white tank top and light blue hiking shorts. She is looking tan and fit, and is wearing a madras headband that sets off her long, honey blond hair.

I tell Dad that one of the highlights of the vacation was a Dude Ranch we found that rented us horses to ride for an afternoon, under the strict supervision of a guide, of course. There are numerous photos of the kids in their cowboy hats astride, Paint and Scout and Dolly Parton. After our trail ride, we were saddle sore, but happy. There’s a great photo of all three of the kids standing with our trail guide, Arnie, who told us he was part Native American from the Blackfoot (or Kootenai) tribe in northern Montana. It was a great day.

Along with all the pictures we took on that trip, there is the obligatory one of me asleep in the middle of the day. I’m lying in a quiet spot next to the Stillwater in the shade of a pine tree with my Twins baseball hat pulled down over my eyes, completely conked out. I remember awaking to find the kids had carefully placed about fifty small stones on my chest. I remember Janice wrote of the back of that one, ‘Sound sleeper’. Finally, there’s a nice photo of Janice and the kids sitting around a roaring campfire roasting marshmallows, everyone smiling and happy.

I have to admit that even now after all these years, looking at those pictures is quite moving. They are bringing back really good memories. It’s nice to remember Janice and I and the kids really did have some good times as a family. Good times, that is, before the shit hit the fan and Janice left me for that damn rich guy.

Whoops. Here I am starting to get pissed again. I need to calm down. Like Dad did earlier, now I’m the one who sits back and contemplatively sips his tea. Finally my heart rate slows to normal and a feel my anger abate. Then disappear. Good.

While I’m going through my own personal mini-meltdown, Dad calmly keeps looking through the album. I watch him. Emotionally, right now he’s doing good. He seems to be enjoying seeing all the pictures of me and my kids and my ex-wife. I have a thought. In a sense, my family photos are like the ones I’d shown him earlier – the old ones of he and Mom and Steve and Julie. Maybe right now he’s living a little vicariously through my own family pictures; putting himself in my spot as the father who was with his family and never left. Maybe?

I decide to take a chance and ask, “Thinking about what it would have been like if you’d stuck around, Dad?” I ask, indicating another photo, this one of a birthday party, Lucy’s I think, taken when she turned eight. “You know, are you thinking about all the good times you missed?”

He looks up, startled. He takes a split second to settle himself before responding, “Why, no,” he says, “No, I’m not. I mean, I’m enjoying seeing these shots of you and your family. A lot. Right now, though, to be honest, I was just wondering what kind of camera you were using. These are some awfully nice photographs you’ve got here, son.”

Oh. So I apparently I miss read the situation big time, and Dad was not taking a walk down an imaginary memory lane of his past. Well, that’s Ok. I’d forgotten that he was, and apparently still is, a man interested in technology. At least he called me ‘Son’ when he responded to my question. There was something to be said for that; something to be grateful for.

I chuckle and say, “I used a Cannon Sure Shot back then, Dad. And you’re, right, it really was a good camera. I had it for a number of years. I must have taken a thousand pictures with it. At least. Probably way more.”

“You still have it? I’d like to see it.”

“No, I don’t. I dropped it in a lake when I was taking a photo of a loon. It was probably twenty years ago. I just use the camera in my phone now.” I hold up my Samsung Galaxy and show it to him.

“That’s a nice phone,” he says, taking it from me and looking it over before handing it back. Then he reaches into his pants pocket and takes out his own phone, “I’ve got the latest Apple iphone.”

He hands it lovingly to me. I take it from him, look it over and give him the necessary compliment, “That’s nice, Dad. I’ve heard it’s a really good one.”

“Yeah, it is,” he says, taking his phone back from me, “I like it a lot.”

It’s a little thing, but it gets us off talking about smartphones for a while. For a long time, actually. While we are talking it comes back to me that Dad always did like the latest in technology: the fanciest camera, the newest model television, and best, top of the line audio system with the most expensive receiver, tape deck, equalizer, speakers and so forth. In looking back at the conversation, I have to say, it was the first time we were actually comfortably talking together, sharing a nice little back and forth kind of banter about a common interest. A guy thing. More specifically, we were at ease with each other. I had to give each of us credit for that. It was actually kind of fun.

While Jack and his father are talking about the pros and cons of various smartphones, Lea and her family are just finishing up opening gifts. Kaley is jammed next to her grandmother in a comfortable easy chair with her new book, Anne of Green Gables. Lea is thrilled that her granddaughter loved her gift and now is enjoying the closeness of the little girl. She smiles as Kaley begins reading the story out loud in her soft voice. Her granddaughter is dressed for the holiday in red tights, a green skirt with two white pockets in front in the shape of snowmen, and a green and red stripped top. She is also wearing a red elf hat, trimmed in white, the tip of which curls down and has a white pompom on the end.

Lea glances around, totally at peace. The center piece of the living room is the fireplace, now pleasantly lit with burning logs. To the right of it is a tree decorated with a mixture of old-time ornaments Nate has begged off his mom, and new ones comprised of all of the colors of the rainbow which Lea is sure Nate’s kids have had a hand in selecting. Sally has a pair of candles burning on the mantel scented with a pleasant pine fragrance, and she’s set up an 1880’s English village winter scene on a table along the wall opposite from the fireplace where little lights shine through the windows of the old time shops and cottages and there’s a skating rink (made from a mirror) with young boys and girls skating on it. A family is pulling a freshly cut tree on a sled through the snow (soft cotton) and vendors with their wooden carts are selling hot apple cider and other holiday goodies. It reminds her of a quaint scene Charles Dickens might write about.

Her dad and Adam are playing Chinese Checkers with Kaley’s two younger siblings, Stephan and Emma. Sally is cradling six month old baby Luke in her arms. Lea’s daughter Emily is talking to Sally and playing with the baby. Emily’s husband Randy is showing their three young sons, Logan, Jacob and Seth, ages six to three, how to construct a cabin out of Lincoln Logs; something the boys are putting up with good naturedly, it seems to Lea. Her mom is in a comfortable corner chair, quietly paging through a book of photos taken of rural England, a place her mom and dad have traveled to at least three times in their life, if Lea’s memory is correct.

The living room is warm and cozy and is like a homey scene right out of a twenty-first century Christmas story. It makes her glad that her parents and her son and daughter and their spouses and her seven grandchildren all get along so well together. She glances at her watch. It’s just about eight. She’ll have to leave soon and get her parents home to her place at a decent hour. Suddenly, a burst of laughter makes her look up. Her son-in-law Randy has just told a joke and her dad, Edward “Ed” is laughing hysterically. So is her mother, Barb. It feels so good to be here, Lea thinks to herself, and glances at her watch again. Maybe she can wait a little longer. Maybe until eight-thirty or so. She goes back to listening to Kaley read, thinking how lucky she is to have her family with her like she does. Her Christmas Eve is everything she ever hoped it could be. Too bad Jack has chosen to miss it, she thinks to herself. Let’s see…she does a quick calculation. He’s missed it again now for what, the last thirteen years? Well, it’s his choice. Too bad for him.

Kaley turns the page and continues reading. Lea settles in and pushes thoughts of Jack out of her mind. Instead, she listens to the soothing sound of her granddaughter’s voice and breathes in the soft scent of strawberry from Kaley’s hair. Everything is as perfect as it could be. She sighs a soft sigh, happy and at peace, in no hurry to leave. She’ll definitely stay a little longer, she thinks, as the sound her granddaughter’s voice drifts into her ear, sweet as the frosting on an iced Christmas cookie, warm as the glow from a contented grandmother’s heart.

When talk of smartphones run its course, I realize both our mugs are empty again and asks, “Would you like some more tea? I could make us some.”

“Sure that would be good.”

I’m kind of energized. It’s been good to just chat with Dad about something other than our family issues. Maybe we can be amiable with each other after all, even have a friendship of sorts. I’d like that. I think he would, too, or he wouldn’t continue to stay here like he is. In fact, he could get up and leave anytime, but he hasn’t. I take that as a good sign.

While Dad goes back to paging through the third album, I put our two mugs and empty plate on the tray and go into the kitchen. I glance at the clock. It’s just after eight. I fill the tea pot, put it on the stove and have a thought: I wonder how Lea is doing? Well, I know the answer; don’t even have to think about it too hard. Lea’s doing great. She enjoys her family and loves being with them. I can easily picture her and her son and daughter and parents and grandkids are gathered together in the living room, fooling around, laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company. I have nothing but admiration for her family and like them all a lot. They’re nice folks.

But before I let my thoughts wander too far to Lea and her more pleasant family circumstances, I remind myself to focus on Dad being here. After all, it’s just the two of us spending a quiet evening together on this Christmas Eve. I imagine that it’s certainly a lot different than the holiday festivities over at Adam’s home where everyone’s friendly with each other and happy to be together. However, before I let myself go too far down that road, I stop and shake that homey image out of my mind. I replace it with this one thought: Even though we’ve had our tense moments tonight, at least after all these years Dad and I are together. We’re finding a way to put the past behind us and move on and that’s a good thing. And, we’re talking. It may not be much, but at least it’s something. It’s a start. And I glad for that.

After the water boils, I pour the water into our mugs and, while I’m at it, wipe the crumbs off the plate and put out some more Christmas cookies. I let the tea steep (constant comment this time), then put the tea bags in the trash and take the tray back to the warm living room with the bright burning fire. Dad is sitting comfortably in his chair still paging through the third photo album. He looks at ease. Peaceful. Happy. Looking at him I have one final thought and it’s a worthy one: If he hadn’t shown up this afternoon, Dad would have been alone tonight on Christmas Eve and so would I; him by circumstance, me by choice. Now, neither of us are. We’re together. There’s something good to be said for that.

I sit down and set the tray on the table. As I do, Dad says, “Say Jack, I was wondering, do you ever play backgammon? Remember I showed you how to play when you were young? We used to play together sometimes.”

I am stunned by his question and have to take a moment to collect myself. Is he intimating that he might want to play a game with me? Do something fun together? It’s the last thing I expect from him. While I’m collecting myself I notice he’s looking directly at me, waiting for my response. I rush to say, “I do remember, Dad. I’ve got a game board here in the dining room. Lea and I play sometimes. Why?”

“I’ve haven’t played in years,” he tells me, “Would you like to play a game?”

Wow. With my hand shaking slightly, I set his mug in front of him, careful not to spill. Yikes, is what I’m thinking. This is certainly an unforeseen wrinkle in the evening. It’s also an unexpected, though pleasant, surprise. I set my own mug down, then look him in the eyes and say (because I really don’t have to think hard about my answer), “I’d love to Dad.”

He gives me a big grin. “Good. Me, too. You get the board and I’ll clear some space for us.”

I stand, go to the built in buffet in the dining room and take out the game board. It’s in a leather bound case that unfolds to a cork board playing surface. The playing pieces are made out of round, thick plastic, red for one player, creamy white for the other. The pieces all have light swirls running through them, like agates. It’s a top notch set that I purchased at a favorite bookstore the first year Lea and I were together. I bring it to the coffee table. Dad has moved the photo albums off to the side but left the last one open. While I open up the board he continues to look at the photos of me and Janice and Ethan and Sara and Lucy. Toward the end of the album there are only photos of the kids. Then only photos of Lea.

He looks up and points, catching my attention, “I’m curious. What are your kids up to?”

As I arrange the playing pieces in position on the board, I tell him about my son and two daughters.

“After high school Ethan moved to Montana to go to college in Bozeman. He’s stayed out there. He’s thirty-nine and works as a cook in a locally sourced restaurant. He also manages the fruit and vegetable section in a natural foods co-op called Rocky Mountain Way. He’s married to Rachel and they have a little girl, my granddaughter. Her name is Ruby. My daughter Sara is thirty-seven and quite a talented fiddle player. For the last ten years or so she’s played with a bluegrass group called Left of the Dial. They’re based in Eugene, Oregon but travel a lot. She’s single. My youngest daughter Lucy is thirty-five and teaches second grade. For the last eight years she and her partner, Samantha, have been living and working in downtown San Francisco.”

“How about your ex-wife?”

“After the kids left home, she started devoting more and more time to her artwork. She’s a talented watercolor artist. She met a rich guy who initially was kind of a benefactor for her. He was and still is an investment banker. She and I had drifted apart over the years, so one thing lead to another and she eventually left me for him. The kids were out of the house. She asked for a divorce, I agreed and that was that. It was about sixteen years ago. I decided to move on myself and start over, so to speak. I found a teaching job right away at Long Lake High School, sold the house in Minneapolis, moved out here and began teaching college level calculus and trigonometry until I retired three years ago.”

“And Lea…?”

“She was working at a local garden center when I went in looking for some indoor plants for the little apartment I was living in. That was about fifteen years ago. She had been divorced for a few years and we got to talking. We’re the same age and found out that we had a lot in common. We became friends and then started dating and have been together ever since. I moved in here thirteen years ago.

“Are you happy?”

“Yes, I am, Dad. Very.” I look at him and he’s smiling a genuine smile for what seems like the first time all evening. “It sounds like it,” he tells me. Then he pauses for a moment before adding, “I’m glad for you, son. Really. I’m really glad that you’re happy.” Then he breaks eye contact and focuses his attention on the board as he picks up his dice cup and starts shaking it.

I think back to something Mom told me many years ago. It had to do with Dad’s inability to express his feelings. The way she talked back then, it sounded like it might have been a bone of contention in their marriage. “It was just something he wasn’t comfortable with,” she told me back then. “Expressing his feelings. It was especially true in the early years of our marriage.” I remember her sighing a disappointed sigh before saying, “It was just the way our generation was raised, I guess. The men in particular.”

Remembering that long ago conversation with my mom, I look at Dad. He’s avoiding my gaze and probably thinking, ‘Enough of the touchy-feely stuff. Let’s get on with the game.’ It’s hard to tell just exactly what he’s thinking, but I will say this: I’m touched that he bothered to tell me his was glad for me and was able to express his feelings. I can understand how hard it must have been for him to do that and it draws me a little closer to him.

But he’s clearly ready to change the direction of the conversation. “Now,” he says, rubbing his hands together in what seems to be joyful anticipation, “how about if we play some backgammon?”

“Sounds good to me, Dad.”

And we do. And I beat him, but not by much.

Nate and his family and Emily and her family are standing outside on the porch waving and yelling out ‘Happy Holidays’ and other glad tidings. Lea waves a final good-bye before she climbs into the backseat of her parent’s Prius. Barb starts the car, puts it in drive, beeps the horn goodbye and pulls away from the curb. Ed’s eye sight isn’t very good, especially at night, so her mom does the driving. The flurries have let up and there’s about half an inch of light snow on the streets. The roads will be slick.

“Be careful, Mom,” Lea says a few minutes later, gripping the arm rest as the car slips rounding the corner onto 50th street, “We don’t want any accidents.”

Ed laughs, “Your mom’s a careful driver. She hasn’t been in a car accident her entire life, have you Barb? Not even a fender bender.”

“That’s right,” Barb says and slows down as the car in front of her fishtails a little. “I’ll just take it slow and easy. After all, we want to make it to your place in one piece, right? We haven’t seen Jack in what? A couple of years?”

“Mom, you saw him last Thanksgiving, just a month ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. How silly of me.”

Ed looks over the seat at Lea, raises is eyebrows and says, “Don’t worry, dear, I remember seeing him. He wore plaid, as usual.” He laughs at his little joke. Lea can only muster a weak smile in response. She’s suddenly more than a little nervous.

At the intersection of 50th street and Highway 100 Barb asks, “I forget, do I go right or left?”
Both Lea and Ed yell, “Right!”

Barb puts her turn signal on and they turn onto the highway that will take them fifteen miles west to Long Lake. Ed settles his bulky frame comfortably in the passenger seat like this is normal behavior for the two of them. Lea says a silent prayer, and wishes for the tenth time since she got in the car that she had bothered to learn how to drive way back when she was a teenager. To distract herself, she takes out her phone to check to see if Jack has sent a text. He hasn’t. She contemplates sending him a quick message and then decides there’s no need. She sighs and looks out the window. Hopefully he’s doing Ok. He’s probably just looking at those old photo albums of his. A pretty harmless, if not a lonely, way to spend the night, she thinks. Well, that’s the way it goes. It’s his decision.

Her mother’s driving isn’t so bad. She’s doing a good job keeping to steady thirty-seven miles per hour even though the speed limit is fifty-five. The snowy, icy conditions certainly warrant not only caution but a slower speed on the busy roadway. Lea starts to relax but then grips the arm rest as the car slides a little to the left. “Mom, slow down,” she yells, just as her dad says, calmly, “Easy does it, Barb. Better watch your speed.”

Barb corrects the slight skid and backs off on the accelerator a notch until speedometer reads thirty-four miles per hour. Her hands are at the ten and two position on the steering wheel and her eyes actively watch the road, missing nothing. “I’m Ok, really. Both of you just calm down and relax. You’re making me nervous.”

Lea glances at her watch. It’s eight-forty five. At this rate it will take them at least another half an hour to get home. That’s all right. Better late than never, she is thinking just as her dad turns to her and says, “Better late than never, right, sweetheart?”

In spite of herself, Lea grins and laughs, “Yeah, Dad, it is.”

She settles in for the drive home. Her dad reaches for the radio and turns it on. Christmas music fills the inside of the car. Her mother starts singing along to ‘Joy To the World,’ and soon her dad joins in. By the time the third verse begins, Lea hesitantly joins them, humming along. She leans forward and checks the speedometer. It reads thirty-three. Good, Lea thinks, Mom’s still driving slow. Better late than never.

I put away the backgammon board and then attend to the fire. I use the poker to break up the charred wood. I had been so intent on our game that I’d inadvertently let the logs burn down, and right now I’m happy to uncover a few red hot coals. I add some paper, twigs for kindling, three medium sized logs and sit back. In a few minutes first the paper and kindling catch and then the two bottom logs. Looks like the fire will get going again. Good.

“So how are you doing, Dad?” I ask, making myself comfortable on the couch.

He’ been quiet since we’ve finished playing. He looks tired, but maybe that’s to be expected. He’s nearly ninety, after all.

“I’m good, son. Just thinking.”

“About what.”

“I know you’d like me to say that I shouldn’t have left you and Steve and Julie and your mom all those years ago.”

“Dad, I…” I’m about to tell him I’ve reconciled with all that. Talking to him tonight has helped immensely. What’s done is done is where I’m at. What’s past is past, and it’s time to move on.

But he won’t let me speak and holds up a hand to stop me from interrupting ,”Wait a minute, son. Please let me continue.” He rubs his hand back and forth over his buzz cut. He’s obviously nervous. And emotional. Finally, he clasps his hands together in front of him and continues, “I want you to hear me out.” He takes a deep breath, exhales and then says, “You need to realize that I had to leave. I wasn’t happy with being married to your mom. It was nothing against you kids. I know I should have stayed in touch with you and Julie and Steve. I know that now.” He points to the albums, “Looking at the photos you put together has shown me that.”

I try unsuccessfully to hold back a smirk. Finally I’m vindicated, and I feel tiniest bit of self-satisfaction. A tiny bit. But in all honesty, the more I think about it, really not all that much. My smirk vanishes. It’s a shallow, pointless victory. After numerous times tonight feeling like Dad was acting like a jerk, now I’m the one feeling that way. I don’t like the feeling. I’m finding that, in spite of everything, I’ve come to care about him. It’s hard to see the pain he’s now experiencing.

“But, like I said,” he continues, “I had to leave. I wanted to find a woman I could be married to. Someone who I could be happy with.” He pauses and looks into the fire, now crackling merrily. Right now I’m doing my best not to belittle the man’s thoughts and feelings. I’m thinking: You married three more times after mom. You divorced three more times. You’re all by yourself right now. I guess you…

Oh, my god. Suddenly, it hits me. In a flash. I mentally smack myself on the side of my head as I realize the awful truth of my dad’s life. It’s taken all this time this evening for me to finally figure it out. (Not to mention that I’m finally thinking about him as a person for a change instead of myself.) When I do focus on him, it all becomes perfectly clear. What Dad really wanted in his life was to have a successful marriage. More than that, he wanted to have a life with a wife and children. He wanted a family, but he never was able to attain that dream. He failed. He might have been a successful teacher, and might have had a lot of friends, but when it came to relationships with women, he was a failure. I wonder, is this what he’s going to tell me?

It is.

“I guess what I’m trying to say, Jack, is that after all these years, I’m finally at the end of my life. I’m old. I know I don’t have much time left.” He looks at me. Something has changed inside of him. I expect to see self pity in his eyes, but I’m wrong. Instead, I see something completely different. His eyes have become so alive and fiery they almost give off sparks. And it’s not just his eyes. His frailness is gone. He’s pumped up and seems stronger. There’s suddenly a passion in him I haven’t seen before. It fills his entire body. He’s the most alive I’ve seen since he’s arrived. “What I want to tell you is that you have a good life here with Lea, Jack. And even though you don’t see your kids too often, it sounds like you have a good relationship with them, too.” He points his finger at me and says, “What I want to tell you is this. Don’t. Blow. It.” He punctuates each word by a stabbing motion. “Make the most of what you’ve got. You can never go back. You can only learn from your mistakes and go forward.”

It may not have been the deepest or most profound advice, but that didn’t matter. It came from my dad and that’s all that mattered.

Growing up, we weren’t a family that dispensed freely with hugs. Well, we never did when you got right down to it. Maybe that’s why when I was older and had my own kids, I started using hugs as a way of demonstrating affection. Whatever the case, after Dad expresses himself, I stand up, go over to him, kneel down and give him a big, warm all encompassing hug. He holds himself stiff for a few moments. Then he starts to relax. I feel the tension leave his body. I don’t say anything except, “Thank you, Dad. That means a lot to me.” A few moments go by and then I feel his tentative fingers on my back. “I’m glad you came tonight, Dad,” I tell him, “I’m really glad.”

In the room I’m aware of a deep silence. A supreme stillness. All I hear is the crackling of the fire, but that’s Ok. It’s comforting to be this close to my father. Then the silence is broken when Dad says, “Me, too, son. I’m glad I came, too.”

Then his arms tighten and he hugs me back.

Barb turns from Highway 100 onto Highway 394, the final stage in the drive home. The road is greasy with a mixture of slush and snow and traffic is moving slowly at thirty miles per hour. Lea glances at her phone. The time reads a few minutes after nine. Still no message from Jack. Should she text him and see how he’s doing? In the front seat, the radio is off and Ed and Barb are talking. Well, Ed’s talking. In between reminiscing about the evening at Adam’s and past Christmas Eve’s in general, he’s guiding his wife down the highway, making sure she’s heading in the right direction and not taking any unnecessary turns.

In watching her parents, Lea realizes what makes their relationship work so well is that they are functioning together as team. They are making the most of each other’s strengths and, by so doing, they are mitigating each other’s weaknesses. This allows them to have their home – a home they continue to call their own without being relegated to a tiny apartment in a senior care facility somewhere. Also, they are still able to own a car and have a degree of mobility others at their age have had to sacrifice. At eighty-six years old, her parents have a good life. As long as they are safe, is what Lea is thinking. As long as they stay safe and take care of each other I’ll try not to worry so much. It looks like, for now, they are.

Lea glances at the speedometer and then out the window again. They are moving steadily down the snowy highway at twenty eight miles per hour, with the occasional faster car passing them on the left. She relaxes just a little and sits back, watching the Christmas Eve world go by. They’re only seven miles from Long Lake. They’ll be home in less than twenty minutes.

I release Dad from my embrace from where I’m kneeling and get to my feet. As I do, there’s a muffled knock on the front door. I glance at the clock. It’s just after nine. What the hell? What’s going on? Who could that be?

I quickly go to the front entryway (it’s just off the living room) and peek through the window on the storm door. A few weeks earlier, in a nod to the season, I filled two planters outside on either side of the door with spruce tops and evergreen boughs and wrapped them with white, twinkle lights. The lights are controlled by a timer and right now they’re on and bright but, still, it’s hard to see outside, due to the evergreen wreath I’d also hung there. I’m reaching for the door handle when suddenly I hear voices outside. Voices singing. Now I’m really curious. I open the door and am hit with a blast of freezing air, but I barely notice. Instead I take in the scene in front of me. Gathered around the bottom of the front steps, and illuminated in the glow of my outdoor lights, there are about ten people dressed for the frigid night in variety of colorful heavy jackets, scarves, mittens and stocking hats. They are Christmas carolers, and they are singing one of my all time favorite Christmas songs, ‘Silent Night’.

“Dad, come here and look,” I turn my head and yell back behind me.”We’ve got company. Christmas carolers.” I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw anyone going door to door in this neighborhood, or any neighborhood for that matter, singing Christmas carols. It’s a tradition that has fallen not only out of fashion but is apparently way off people’s radar, only happening in nostalgic Christmas movies on the Lifetime Channel. In fact, if memory serves, I think the last time I remember anyone outside singing Christmas carols was long ago back when I was a kid. Suddenly, in my mind, it all comes back to me. I can clearly see me and Mom and Dad and little Stevie and Julie and friends of my parents (what were their names again? The Ramsdens?) and their three kids, all of us going up and down the block of my old neighborhood singing Christmas carols for the neighbors. I’d forgotten all about it until now. “Dad, quick, come look,” I turn and yell again.

I’m thinking that maybe my father has fallen asleep and decide to let him rest. After all, it has been quite the emotional reunion between us and he’s probably exhausted. I turn my attention to the carolers and am surprised, yet pleasantly pleased, that I now recognize some of them (bundled up as they are.) There’s the young couple, Tim and Amanda from down the block with their two little girls, Zoe and Michelle. They have been joined by Tim’s mom and dad, Ann and Gordy. There’s another couple and their two kids who must be friends of Tim and Amanda’s. I count ten folks in all, and I clap enthusiastically when they finish their song. I’m happy to see them all. I smile a greeting and am just about to say ‘Hi’ when they start in on ‘Deck the Halls’. Suddenly I have an idea. I set the door stop to keep the door open and hold up my hand indicating that I’ll be right back. I hurry into the kitchen (where I can still hear their singing quite clearly) and quickly make up a fresh plate of Lea’s cookies. Then I take a Ziploc baggy and fill it with more. I hurry back to the carolers where I’m able to enjoy the last verse. I find myself humming along and I set the plate and Ziploc down and applaud again when they finish. In the back of my mind I’m wondering where the heck Dad is but then put the thought aside.

“That was great, everybody,” I exclaim, clapping even more enthusiastically than before. I’m touched that they stopped by to share part of their Christmas Eve evening with me. I pick up the plate and Ziploc and then make a joke, holding them out and saying, “Sing one more and I’ll give you all some cookies.” I look at the little kids when I say it, remembering back to that long ago time when my family was out doing the very same thing. Getting free Christmas cookies as part of the experience was an added bonus. Apparently Tim and Amada’s kids feel the same way. Little Zoe, who can’t be more than five or six, looks at the overflowing plate and says, hardly batting an eye, “Sure thing, mister. What song?”

I put my hand to my chin and make it a point of pondering before asking, “How about ‘Jingle Bells’?”

The little girl grins and starts in singing right away, causing all four adults to laugh as they and the other kids hurry to catch up. What I’m seeing before me reminds me of Charles Dickens and his immortal book, A Christmas Carol, an absolute favorite of mine. It’s a perfect Christmas scene. If only Dad could see this. I look over my shoulder, but can’t see him. He’s definitely moved from his chair and is asleep on the couch is what I’m thinking. I turn my attention back to the carolers.

When the song is completed, I chat with my neighbors while everyone munches on the Christmas cookies. (Which takes about a minute. It’s pretty cold out and everyone is eager to keep moving. I don’t blame them.) As they are leaving I give the cookie filled Ziploc to Tim, wish everyone merry Christmas and happy holidays and shut the door, shivering as I do so. The temperature has got to be near zero. With the door securely closed, I peer through the window and watch the carolers head down the sidewalk to the driveway, and then out to the street on their way to the next house. Then I remember Dad and go to check on him.

Still feeling the warm glow of neighborly friendliness and good cheer, I step into the living room and look around. The chair Dad has been sitting in is empty. So is the couch. On the coffee table are the three photo albums, now closed and stacked neatly one on top of the other. I notice that the tray with the two mugs and the cookie plate on the coffee table are all empty. The cushions on the couch are straightened up and things look neat and tidy. The fire is burning brightly, the three logs I’d added earlier are only partially consumed. It looks like someone (Dad?) has straightened up the room. Well, this is strange. What the hell is going on? Where’s my father? Suddenly I am conscious of a buzzing in my pocket. I check my phone. It’s a text from Lea. They’re turning off highway 394 onto country road 112. They’ll be home in less than ten minutes.

It’s great to hear from Lea. It’ll be wonderful to see her and her parents and I’m excited for them to get home safely. But I’m also a little distracted. I still can’t get figure out where Dad is. I check the bathroom. It’s empty and the lights are off. I go back to the living room, stand in the middle and look around, confused. The fire has the house feeling cozy and warm. The Christmas tree in the corner in the dining room with its tiny white lights and quaint old time decorations is still adding a soft, festive glow to the space. The homey feeling I’ve grown to know and love ever since I’d moved in with Lea thirteen years ago is still there. Nothing has changed. But then I have a curious thought: Dad really was here wasn’t he? I really did talk to him, didn’t I? Sure I did, I tell myself. I couldn’t have been making the whole thing up. Could I?

Suddenly, through the front window car lights appear out on the street. I watch as the vehicle slows and turns into the driveway. They’re home!

I hurry to the back door, put on my gloves, boots and jacket and rush outside, just as the Prius is sliding to a complete stop three feet in front of the garage door. I see Lea in the back seat and she smiles and waves a greeting. She’s looking a little haggard, which I attribute to the journey from Minneapolis. (It’s a known fact that she doesn’t like driving in inclement weather.) Other than that, though, she looks happy. She’d must have had a wonderful time at Nate’s, just like I knew she would.

I help her out of the car and give her a hug, “Have fun?” I ask, even though I know what her answer will be.

“I did. It was the best,” she says, hugging me back. “Let’s help Mom and Dad out and get them inside by the fire.” She looks at me with a sly smile, “You do have one going, right?”

“Of course,” I say magnanimously, spreading my arms wide and joking with her, “It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without one.”

“That’s for sure. Mom and Dad will love it.” She squeezes my arm, an intimate gesture that feels really nice.

I’m stepping over to help Ed get out of the passenger seat when Lea stops me. “Wait a minute. How about you? Are you doing okay?”

I know what she’s getting at, especially with me mooning over those albums of mine like I’ve been doing lately, reminiscing and, frankly, feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Well, after tonight, all of that is past. My talk with Dad (whether I imagined it or not) showed me that I’ve got a lot to live for. It’s up to me to put the past aside and make the most of what I have right here and now. I hug Lea again.”I’m doing great,” I say, squeezing her tight, thanking my lucky stars that we’d found each other fifteen years ago. “I’ve never been happier.”

We get Ed and Barb inside and situated on the couch in the living room. Lea makes tea for everyone and I stoke up the fire. We stay up for a while, talking, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. Lea and her parents all have fun looking through the photo albums I ‘d left on the coffee table. Both Ed and Barb comment on how much they enjoy catching a glimpse into my past, saying the photos bring them closer to me. Lea, god love her, only jokes about all the cookies that had been consumed while she was gone. Me? I tell her that they were so good, I just couldn’t stop eating them.

At one point Lea goes to the freezer and takes out four more cookie containers to thaw. I’ve followed her into the kitchen.”Good thing I planned ahead,” she laughs and adds, turning to me, “You know everyone’s coming over tomorrow, right?”

I nod my head as I munch on one of her sugar cutouts. “Yeah, I do remember.” Then I mention what I’ve been thinking about off and on throughout the evening, “Say, about everyone coming tomorrow…I wanted to talk to you about that.” I point back toward the living room, “Maybe later after your folks go to bed. Is that Ok?”

“Absolutely,” she says, giving me a quizzical look.

I wave off any concern she might have, saying, “It’s no big deal, just something I’ve been thinking about tonight.”

“Ok,” she says, “Sounds good.”

She takes a list off the refrigerator and starts to review what she’s going to be working on in the kitchen tomorrow morning, getting ready for when Nate and Emily and their families come over. One thing I appreciate is that she doesn’t say anything about the two empty tea mugs, even though she does give them a funny look as I take them to the sink and quickly wash them out. Then we both go back to the living room and join Barb and Ed.

Upstairs there are three small bedrooms and a bathroom. Whenever Ed and Barb stay with us they prefer the one on the north side of the house. It’s a cozy little space that once was Adam’s bedroom and they don’t seem to mind sharing the small, full sized bed. Around eleven or so Ed starts yawning. Then Barb.

“Well, time to hit the hay,” Barb says, “Tomorrow’s a big day.”

Lea and I help her folks upstairs and get them settled. Then we go back downstairs. I go into the kitchen to make us some chamomile tea while Lea makes herself comfortable in her chair. I bring the tea out and for a while we sip it companionably while we watch the final coals of the fire, now glowing red hot and throwing off tons of heat. Then I look at Lea and she looks at me. We both smile, happy to be together.

I’m wondering if now is a good time to tell her about how I spent my evening and the things I thought about and the conclusions I came to concerning my father when Lea says, “What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

Oh, yeah, there’s that. I shift mental gears and say, “You know, you’ve got your family coming over tomorrow.”

Lea has turned toward the fireplace, watching the coals and enjoying the warmth they are giving off. I can see her visibly relaxing as she sips her tea, but she’s still a little revved up from the evening spent seeing her kids and grandchildren and her mom and dad. In other words, she’s in a super good mood. “Yeah, I’m going to be busy in the kitchen in the morning. Moms’ going to help. Why?”

“Well, I was wondering if that offer still stands. About me joining you all. You know, me being a part of it.” I pause and then add, “With your family, I mean,” emphasizing the obvious.

“Why, of course,” Lea says, suddenly perking up. I can tell she’s happy I’ve decided be part of her family’s get together. Then she thoughtfully takes a step back and looks at me, curiously, “What’s brought this on all of a sudden? Usually you just go to a movie.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, knowing I’m sounding vague. Now is the perfect time to tell her about talking to my father. I think about it for a split second and then decide to let it go. Maybe some other time. For now, it’s best to just focus on tonight with Lea and tomorrow and getting ready for Christmas Day with her family. So I say, “I just think that maybe it’s about time.”

However, Lea is more than a little perceptive and wise to me to boot. She’s not ready to let me off the hook. She points to dining room table where the stack of the three albums has ended up. “Does it have something to do with those photo albums of yours?”

I stand up and go to her and kneel down and hug her tight, “Yea, sweetheart, it kind of does.”

Lea hugs me back. I’m sure she’s wondering what is going on with his man she has chosen to live with for the rest of her life. She seems to be enjoying the moment, though, and the closeness. She does have one final question, however, and I’m not surprised when she asks, “I know I sound like a broken record, but please, tell me one more time. Are you sure you’re doing all right?”

I don’t have to even think about it when I tell her, “Yeah, I am, Lea. I really am.”

A fleeting image of my father passes before my eyes. It’s not the image of him from the old pictures in that first photo album we looked at from back when I was just a kid, only nine years old and didn’t know any better. Not even close. Instead, it’s an image of Dad as an old man. The image of the man who was here with me tonight. When he and I sat by the fire, had some tea and cookies and looked through the past, reliving both of our lives. Right now my evening has jelled into a sort of pact with myself. My talk with Dad has revealed that, like him, I’d made some mistakes in my life. No one is perfect, that’s for sure. But, in the end, my life has been a good one. A great life really. I just need to stay vigilant and not get lazy; not forget to pay attention to the things that matter most. To that end, I’ll call each of my kids tomorrow and wish them a happy holiday. I’ll encourage them to make time to see me next year because I’m planning to come out and visit each of them. I’ll tell them that I miss not seeing them and want to establish physical contact. Soon. I’m pretty sure they will agree. I hope so, anyway. I’m going to do all I can do to stay in close touch with each of them: Ethan, Sara and Lucy. After all they are from my blood. They are my children.

Just as importantly, there is Lea and how much she means to me. Our life together is more special than I could ever have imagined. By the end of his life, my father had failed to find someone to love and commit to. I hadn’t. Call it luck or fate or what have you, but I’ve found Lea. We have each other and for that I will be forever grateful. I’m going to do all I can to make her happy and prove to her that she made the right choice when she decided to let me into her life.

After a minute or so, we release from our embrace. I return to the couch and Lea goes into the kitchen. As she passes through the dining room she glances at the cupboard. The door is ajar. She goes to it and before closing it, she looks in. “Hey, Jack, what’s with the backgammon game? It’s been moved. Did you have it out?” She gives me a funny look which after a few moments turns a little wistful, “Remember, we used to play, didn’t we? We haven’t played in years.”

“Yeah, I know,” I tell her, “I was just looking at it earlier.” I look into the fireplace, contemplating the red-orange coals, and then back to Lea as I have a sudden thought, “Say, maybe we can start playing again. At least for old time’s sake. You know, we used to play a lot.”

Lea laughs, “As I recall, I beat you quite often. You sure you’re up for it?”

Another fleeting glimpse of my dad passes before my eyes, “Sure thing,” I say, “Absolutely. Anytime.”

“You’re on. It’ll be fun, but after the holidays are over, okay? I’ve got things to do tomorrow.” She pauses, thinking and then adds, “Maybe while Mom and I are busy in the kitchen, you can build a fire and you and Dad can play. He’s used to be pretty good. He’s the one who taught the game to me. I think he’d like it.”

If Ed and I played, it would be the first time I would have ever done anything with Lea’s father. Just the two of us. Ever. Amazing at it may seem, we’d never even had a one-on-one conversation together in the over thirteen years we’ve known each other. Well, I thought, no time like the present.

“Sure,” I tell her. “It’ll be fun.”

The next day we set up the game board and play. I sit on the couch where I sat last night, and Ed sits in the chair where my father sat. He beats me two games to one. I was right, it was fun. Really fun.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

 

The Inn On the Lake

“Sam, don’t forget to lock the door.”

“I won’t.” I sling my backpack over my shoulder, click the key fob for the Ford Focus and add, muttering under my breath, “I’m not an idiot, you know.”

Mary must have heard and gives me a sharp look but doesn’t say anything in response. I watch as she turns and marches determinedly through the rain and parking lot puddles to the front entrance of where we’ll be staying, the Inn On the Lake. She seems a little pissed off at me at the moment, but that might just be my imagination. I open my umbrella and follow her, wondering in the back of my mind how this planned outing of ours is going to go. I hope well, but you never know, especially after fifty-three years of marriage. Well, check that. After all these years I know exactly how it will go. Even if she’s pissed, her bad mood will soon pass. We’re too old to let piddly stuff like that bother us for long. Things will go just fine.

Mary flips her long gray braid back over the outside of her yellow rain jacket and meets me just inside the entrance, holding the door open, “Did you bring my umbrella with you? I’m going to need it if we’re going for a walk along the shore after we check in.”

“Why didn’t you bring it yourself? You knew it was raining,” I chide her, giving her a hard time. I shake out my umbrella, close it and set it aside.

“Well, Sam, I can’t be expected to remember everything, can I?” She bites off her words. Her eyes are fiery. She’s not willing to give in.

“Well, you certainly expect me to.”

She sighs resignedly at me and shakes her head. She’s about to argue some more but then laughs when I reach into my pack and pull her umbrella out from where I had it hidden. I open it and hand it over to her, flourishing it like a magician with a bunch of flowers, “Here you go my little chickadee,” I say in the poorest imitation of W.C. Fields anyone has ever heard, “an umbrella bouquet just for you.”

“Oh, shush, you,” she says, grabbing the umbrella and trying unsuccessfully to sound mad. “Act your age, you old coot.” Her grin, though, gives her away.

We step off to the side to let a young couple with two small children squeeze past us. Mary closes her umbrella as she watches them. She points to the little kids and says, “Remember when James and Annie and Tim were that young? Those were good times.”

I’m happy to see that her mood has passed. We are both seventy-eight years old. Our three kids are in their late forties and early fifties and we have six grandchildren aged sixteen to twenty-six . The time she is referring to is so far in the past that I’ve completely forgotten about it. But if I told her I didn’t remember, she’d be all over me. “Sure,” I say, “those were great times.”

Mary smiles and squeezes my arm and leads me inside for check in, “No you don’t, Mr. Sam Baker, but that’s Ok, I won’t hold it against you.”

We cross a lobby that’s more than welcoming. On the left there’s a comfortable seating area filled with overstuffed chairs and conveniently placed end tables. The focal point is a wall mounted gas fireplace lit with flames cheerfully flickering. Next to the fireplace is an aquarium full of colorful fish peacefully moving through the crystal clear water. There are lush ferns and palms in brass pots everywhere, and a small fountain in the far corner bubbles quietly . To our right a mountain of cups are stacked on a long table offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. There’s an urn full of free coffee, too. The carpeting is clean and there is a light, pleasant, floral scent in the air. My thought, as I look around, is that this place really has it going for itself.

Mary pulls me up toward the counter where a young man in a dark maroon sport coat is waiting. She says to me, under her breath, “You did remember to bring money, didn’t you?”

I proudly pull my worn leather wallet out of my back pocket, take out the only plastic I ever carry with me and display my bank card when I get to the counter. The young man (his name tag states ‘Gary’) glances at it, smiles and says, “Welcome to the Inn On the Lake. How may I help you today?” He’s college aged, nice and polite, and I can see that Mary is impressed by his friendly attitude. Me, too, for that matter.

“Reservation for the Bakers. One night only, with a lake view room,” I state. Gary busies himself getting the paperwork ready. I glance at Mary and lean toward her, saying under my breath, “Yes, I did remember my wallet. I’m not an idiot, you know.”

Mary grins, “Not all the time, but I still love you anyway.” Then she changes the subject and whispers in my ear, “And also the Declaration. You remembered that, too, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” I whisper back, and I’m about to say something more when Rick Jorgenson steps from his office behind the counter and hurries toward us, extending his hand in a warm greeting, “Sam and Mary, welcome. I thought I heard your voices.” He is tall and robust, with a neatly trimmed beard, short cropped hair and the ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman. Compared to my five feet ten, slightly doughy physique, thinning hair and clean shaven face, I’m pretty plain looking. Rick’s a gregarious guy (I’m more introverted), and I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. “How are my two favorite lodgers?”

Mary and I dutifully laugh at his joke. The Inn On the Lake is three stories high, over two hundred feet long and has one hundred and seventy nine guest rooms. We’ve been coming to it for over thirty years and have known Rick for the last five of which he’s been manager. My guess is he has more than a few favorite guests.

But we play along just for fun. “We’re just great, Rick,” I say at the exact moment Mary says, “We’re wonderful. Happy to be here.” And we all laugh, like one big happy family. Then we make small talk as he tells us about the weather (‘It’s been better’) and how business is going (‘Super good’) until the check in process is completed.

When it is, Gary interrupts our conversation, “Ok. You’re all set.”

He hands us our key cards. We say goodbye to them both, cross the lobby and take the elevator to the third floor where we walk down the hallway to our room. It’s the same room we’ve been coming to every time we stay at the Inn. We drop our bags off, I grab my daypack and ten minutes later are back downstairs and outside. Mary’s still in her yellow rain jacket and I’ve changed into my dark blue one. I’ve also put on my tan Nature Conservancy baseball hat. We are ready for whatever the weather has to offer and right now it’s misting. Heavily. So with our umbrellas lifted and pointed into a slight breeze, we begin to walk along the shore of beautiful Lake Superior, the largest of the great lakes and the biggest freshwater lake in the world.

Earlier in the parking lot Mary was only mildly irritated at the weather and not really mad at me. That, in my book, is always a good thing, because sometimes, if I’ve screwed up badly enough, she doesn’t hold back on letting me have it. Like the time I left the stove burner on after I’d made tea for each of us, or the time I’d inadvertently tracked mud over her freshly waxed kitchen floor, or the time I’d dried the mixing bowls but put them away in the wrong place, or the time…well, you get where I’m going, right? And those examples were only in the last few weeks. But the true fact of the matter is that right now she is on top of the world – as excited to be out by the lake as I am, even if it is raining, ‘er, misting.

We are walking on a wooden boardwalk (sometimes referred to as the walkway) that follows the Lake Superior shoreline for over half a mile from where we are at Canal Park to downtown Duluth, and then five miles further up the far shoreline almost to the Glensheen Manson. The Inn where we are staying is near one end of the boardwalk, only a quarter of a mile from two white lighthouses, the shipping canal and famed Duluth harbor lift bridge that ushers ore freighters and pleasure craft into and out of the Port of Duluth. That’s where we are heading, each of us glad our umbrellas are protecting us from the mist, which with every passing minute is increasing in intensity and clearly on the way to becoming a bona fide rain.

“Oh, I so love it here,” Mary says enthusiastically, stopping after only a minute or so of walking. She turns to look out over the vast lake while wiping some moisture from her forehead. She’s just over five feet tall and has pretty eyes, a wide mouth and high cheekbones, a distinctive look handed down over generations by her Sami ancestors from northern Finland. She’s wearing jeans, hiking boots and a light blue cotton sweater under her jacket. Three foot high swells are rolling in towards us, crashing on the rocky shore only about thirty feet away. Their booming thunder fills the air, almost, but not quite, drowning out the calls of the white, ring billed gulls circling above us. “Oh, Sam, everything is just like I want it to be. It’s perfect. Just perfect.” She turns to me and smiles, wiping more mist from her face. “I think this is my favorite place in the whole wide world to be.” She gazes out over the lake again for a few moment before turning to me, “How long have we been coming here, again?”

Work on the restoration of the entire canal park area began in the 1980’s and the hotels followed shortly thereafter. I pretend to do a quick calculation, but I really didn’t need to. I’ve kept a daily journal ever since we’ve been married and I consulted it before our trip, hoping for a chance to show that my memory isn’t really as bad as everyone thinks it is (although, honestly, it is.) “We’ve been coming here at least once a year for thirty one years,” I announce proudly. “This is our thirty second year.”

“My oh my. Over thirty years,” Mary says, contemplatively, as she turns back to the view. “And all those times were with you and not my secret boyfriend. Imagine that,” she glances sideways at me. She’s wearing what I can only describe as an impish grin, which, I have to say, looks awfully nice on her.

“Lucky me,” I smile back at her. I like it when she jokes like she’s doing right now. It offsets the times when her depression is so severe she can hardly move from whatever spot she’s chosen to sit or lie in, let alone talk and make jokes.

Suddenly she grabs my arm and pulls me close to her. I can feel the fabric of her jacket against mine. I even catch a whiff of the scent she wears (I forget the name), something light with a hint of sandalwood, I think. It’s times like these, when her depression is at bay and my mind is working clearly, that I appreciate (dare I say, love) the most, especially at this stage of our lives. She gives me quick peck on the cheek, smiles, and then turns back to the lake to enjoy the view.

Mary trained to become a registered nurse and was hired right out of school to work at Hennepin County Medical Center, a huge hospital complex in downtown Minneapolis. She was assigned to various areas in the sprawling facility during her thirty seven years of employment, but ended up spending most of her time on the sixth floor Burn Ward administering to victims sixty five percent of whom never recovered. She was a compassionate nurse, calmly taking care of her patients, helping to ease not only their physical pain, but their emotional trauma as well. It goes without saying that she was (and still is) a truly a caring woman, and that trait was one of the many reasons I fell in love with her nearly sixty years ago when we first met at the University of Minnesota. I was finishing up my degree in biology and had decided to get a teaching certificate in case I didn’t get a job working at my preferred professional choice – a wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Mary had, at one time, also contemplated teaching and we met in a class we were both enrolled in. It was, as I recall, Introduction to Learning Methodology. She was smart and friendly and had what I referred to back then as a ‘drop dead gorgeous’ smile. It was the early sixties and, as Bob Dylan said, the times were changing. She dressed in faded blue jeans and embroidered peasant shirts. She didn’t wear makeup and was prone to letting her long auburn hair flow free. She wore boots all of the time except for summer, when she switched to leather moccasins. I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. After three years of dating we married in nineteen sixty four, buying a home in southwest Minneapolis a few years later.

I never got that job with the DNR. Instead (and quite happily, I might add), I became a teacher and taught biology at Southwest High School in Minneapolis for thirty six years, retiring in the year two thousand. Mary followed suit a few years later. We sold our home and moved twenty miles west of Minneapolis to Long Lake, a small town on the shore of the picturesque lake the town is named after. We bought an old, well maintained bungalow and have lived happily there ever since, gardening, bird watching and walking the quiet neighborhoods and local trails the area is known for. We couldn’t be happier.

We are also getting older. We are slowing down. My memory is not what it used to be. I’ve got a touch of congestive heart failure (it’s functioning at 70% capacity.) I’ve also had my right hip replaced meaning I walk with a slight limp, but haven’t given in to using a cane (yet). Mary’s physical heath is still good, it’s just that her mental health is failing but, thankfully, her good days still outnumber her bad ones.

Ok, I’ll stop right here. I could go on and on listing our aliments, but who wants to hear about all of that? You get the drift – we’re old and our bodies are wearing out. That’s the way it goes. The main thing, though, is that when it comes to our advancing age we are finding ways to cope. One of those ways is to make our annual journey to the Inn On the Lake to enjoy the majesty of Lake Superior, a lake we have come to love and where we’ve built a treasure trove of memories.

“Oh, Boss Man, look over there,” Mary says, pointing.

I look. Out about three hundred yards from shore are two, no, three brightly colored kayaks, one blue, one red, one orange. They’re fighting through the swells, working their way from our left to the right. “Must be heading for the canal,” I say. “Maybe they’re going into the harbor.” I watch them skillfully maneuver the waves, feeling slightly envious. It looks like it’s a fun time, if not more than a little dangerous.

Duluth harbor is separated from the lake by a shipping canal nearly two thousand feet long and three hundred feet wide. Huge ocean going vessels carrying iron ore and other goods use it to enter and leave, passing back and forth under another feat of engineering, the Aerial Lift Bridge. When the bridge is raised shipping traffic can move into and out of the Port of Duluth. When the bridge is down it connects Canal Park to Park Point, a spit of land and residential houses jutting about a mile further out into the lake. Of course other boats, primarily pleasure craft, use the canal and the harbor as well, and it looks like that’s what the kayakers are going to do.

Mary turns and sets off walking, “Let’s hurry and watch them go through the canal.”

Her idea sounds like fun and I silently curse my gimpy hip as I turn to follow. “Slow down,” I call out when she quickly out paces me, “I’m hobbling as fast as I can.”

She turns and waves, “I’ll meet you,” and continues on.

I mutter to myself, “Go for it, Speedy,” and resign myself to never catching up to my fast walking wife. I’m not mad, though, because it’s good to be outside with her. We’re next to the lake that we love, and that’s a good thing. We’re breathing fresh, northern Minnesota air, and that’s also good. Plus, I’m as mobile as I can be, and I can’t argue with that, either. I grit my teeth just a little and hobble on.

Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act was enacted in nineteen ninety-seven. When it came into law Mary and I were in our late fifties and weren’t thinking much about end of life questions other than completing our wills and making sure each of us was taken care of if one should proceed the other in death. And, of course, we also made sure our kids were taken care of. Honestly, though, once our wills were complete, we only revisited them every year of two like a lawyer friend told us to. Mainly we just got on with our lives.

All was fine until our twenty two year old grandson Bill, or Willie as we and everyone else called him, was killed in two thousand and two by hostile fire in eastern Afghanistan. Willie’s dad and mom, our son, James and his wife Abby, were, of course, devastated. We helped them cope with their grief as much as we could, but some wounds never heal. The pain of the loss of their son is still there for them to this day, as it is for us. (In addition to James and Abby and their three remaining children, we have our daughter Annie and her husband Frank and their two kids, and our youngest son, Tim, who’s divorced and has three children. In short, we have a pretty good sized family.)

I know for certain Mary’s depression is tied to Willie’s death. In fact, she’s told me as much many times, only recently saying, “I just can’t shake how sad I am that Willie is gone. He was such a fine young man. He had his whole life ahead of him.” Even though when she told me this, just a few months ago, it had been fifteen years since he’d been killed. Like I said, some wounds never heal.

Willie really was a good boy and certainly much too young to die, but the point is this: His death triggered a further deepening of the depression Mary has been saddled with her entire life, stretching as far back as her high school days. (It’s passed down through her genes – her father was a manic depressive who ended his life by hanging himself in the basement of their home when Mary was only thirteen.) I’m extremely proud of her. She fights her tendency toward what she calls ‘The Blues’ every day of her life with only minimum use of medication.  Due to Mary’s years as a nurse and my interest in science, we are both extremely attuned to the negative consequences of addiction. On the rare occasions she does have to medicate she says, “I’m only using these stupid pills to get over those bumps in the road I can’t cope with, you know . You really don’t have to worry about me, I’m fine.”

I hear her. It’s not the pills themselves, I’m worried about, it’s her depression. Like I said, we are coping. But that still doesn’t mean I don’t worry about her.

I had my right hip replaced about ten years after Willie’s death. The doctor told me it was the result of all the jogging and running back in the seventies and eighties I did when the fad was starting to catch on and I guess I have to believe him. These days I walk slowly but am happy to at least be able to move as well as I can. Now, if my memory was just a little better. Some would say I have early onset Alzheimer’s and I might agree (if I remember to. Ha, ha. Just kidding.) I’ve been tested and nothing’s definite. But all the doctors I’ve talked with all agree when they tell me that I’m getting older and memory loss is associated with aging. I believe them because I’m living proof that it happens.

Four years ago Mary and I watched a special on our local Public Broadcasting channel about Oregon’s Death With Dignity legislation. It got us thinking…What would we do if we had a choice about not only when to die, but how to die? Over the next few months we talked about it almost non-stop and came up to this conclusion: Since we do have a choice, then we might as well do something about it.

So we did.

We made up another will of sorts; a document, really, and called it Our Right To Die Declaration. In it we stipulate that we are mentally competent to make our own decision regarding ending each of our lives, and we are going to do so when the time comes. We have signed it and dated it. (Getting our Declaration notarized was not possible. We tried it once and got some very strange looks. We were also on the receiving end of one rather uncomfortable visit from a concerned police officer that a overly vigilant, in my opinion, notary public called – a person who seemed to take his job a little too seriously, as far as Mary and I were concerned.)

Anyway, the statement in the document, ‘When the time comes’, is what brings Mary and me to Duluth and Lake Superior on this particular visit. We plan to discuss if now is the right time. We’ve even brought sleeping tablets in case we decide that the answer is yes.

Mary stops half way to the canal, turns and hurries back toward me. I have to say that I’m moving really slow today; plus, I’m panting a little and my heart is starting to labor, not a good thing given my congestive heart failure issues.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to run off,” she says, coming up to me and looking concerned. “I was just so excited. I’ll slow down and walk with you.” She takes my arm and tugs on it.

“No, don’t worry about it,” I say, trying to hide my shortness of breath and hoping to appear like a normal, healthy old person, whatever that looks like.

Mary doesn’t buy it. “Really, Boss Man (a term of endearment she uses that I especially like, but I can’t tell you why), it’s Ok. Seriously. I’ll try to walk more slowly and keep you company.”

I’m suddenly conscious of people moving past us. Are they listening to this discussion? Are they watching us? If they are, they probably think we’re a couple of addled escapees from some Senior Center down the road trying to figure out which way is up. She starts to pull me along beside her, but I stop her, “Really, Mary. Just go on ahead. It’s fine. I’m fine. Really. I’m just taking my time.”

She looks at me, judging my sincerity, but I’m not kidding. I like it when she’s enthusiastic about something like the kayakers. It’s not her fault I’m slow. After a moment she seems to sense that I’m alright with her going ahead on her own.

She releases my arm, “Ok, Boss Man. If you’re sure.”

I motion for her to continue without me. “I am. Promise. I’ll be right behind.”

“Ok, then. Just take it easy.”

“I will.”

Before she leaves she hands me her umbrella. The mist has almost stopped so I fold it up and put it in my day pack. Then I do the same with mine. I can tell Mary’s excited to get closer to the kayakers so I reaffirm that I’ll be alright, “Really,” I encourage her, “just go ahead.”

She grins and gives my arm a squeeze, then thinks twice and gives me a quick hug.”Take it easy with that heart of yours,” she cautions me, and then hurries off. I follow her, moving slow and steady, lagging behind but conscious of taking it easy like Mary (and my doctor, for that matter) told me to do. It takes five minutes for me to make it to the shipping canal, a formidable concrete structure that stretches about two hundred yards into the lake and is over two hundred feet wide. The sides are about chest high and there’s a wide cement causeway next to it that I walk along. It takes another ten minutes to make it out to the end where there’s an observation overlook next to a sturdy white lighthouse.

I’m about fifty feet from the end when the kayakers leave the lake and enter the calm waters of the canal. Mary’s standing by the lighthouse and they’re heading right past her on their way to the lift bridge and the entrance into the harbor. I watch her wave as they pass by and each of them waves back.

I hear her excited voice. “Hi,” Mary yells. “Having a good time?”

“The best time ever,” the last one in line in the orange kayak calls back, waving his paddle. He’s a young man around twenty with a full beard and wearing a red voyeur hat. “You should try it sometime.”

Mary laughs and begins walking along next to him as he paddles, “Maybe I will.” She is heading right toward me. In a minute we meet each other and when we do she gives me a quick hug. “I’m having so much fun,” she exclaims. “Do you mind if I keep walking with them?” She motions to the kayakers.

“Go right ahead,” I tell her. “I’ll be along.”

She smiles as she turns and follows the threesome back toward the lift bridge. I hobble along behind her, retracing the steps I’ve just taken. I’m starting to get tired but I’m happy that she is happy, and angry at myself for buying cheap running shoes so many years ago and now paying the price. These days I’m thankful for my comfortable walking shoes. (Another of the many decisions made by me as a result of relentless prodding of my patient wife, who I have come to realize over time and now can freely admit, is definitely the brains of the operation when it comes to our marriage.)

Slowly but surely I make my way back along the causeway. It takes me about ten minutes to join her near the Maritime Visitors Center located next to the lift bridge. Mary has already waved the kayakers underneath and is now standing in a grassy area nearby talking to a man and woman who look to be in their late thirties. They are all watching three young kids, who appear to be the couple’s children, as they run around chasing seagulls and feeding them chunks of bread.

“Sam, come here,” she waves me over. “These are Aria and Michael and their three children. They’re visiting from the cities, like we are.”

I make my way over to the threesome, trying to appear casual and not as winded as I feel. I must have been successful, because no one notices a thing as I gimp up to them and join the conversation, even as I quickly wipe an irritating drip of perspiration from my brow.

Michael, has (can I say it like this?) the most lovely, coffee latte skin I’ve ever seen. He’s dressed in jeans, running shoes and a dark green sweater and is carrying an umbrella, now closed since the sun is peaking through the clouds. He smiles, showing me prefect teeth, ten times whiter than mine.

“Hi, Sam,” he says, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you.” We shake and then he points past me, “What a beautiful lake. It reminds me of the ocean back home in Somalia.”

I make a mental note: they’re probably from the Cedar Riverside area of downtown Minneapolis, over by the University of Minnesota. A lot of refugees live there.

“Aria tells me they’re here on a tour,” Mary says, indicating the nice looking lady with big eyes and a beautiful smile standing next to Michael. She wearing a long, flowing, lavender dress, a colorful cardigan sweater and a dark purple hijab. “They live down by the University…”

So I was right.

“…in northeast Minneapolis.”

Oh, so I was wrong.

“Our son lives up there,” I tell Michael. “Near University and Broadway,” I add, kicking myself for being so…what’s the word? Dense? Yeah, that would be it.

Aria joins in, “That’s quite close to us. Our home is on twenty second and Marshall Street.”

“Did you know that Lake Superior is the biggest freshwater lake in the world?” I ask, trying to recover my faux-pas even though I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who has a clue as to what I was thinking. Well, check that. Mary probably does. Probably for sure.

“I’ve read that it’s the biggest lake, surface wise, but there are a couple of other lakes in the world that have more volume. I believe Lake Baikal in Siberia is one, and Lake Tanganyika in East Africa is the other,” Michael says, almost apologetically.

“Michael, quit it,” Aria says, chiding her husband while appearing good naturedly embarrassed. She looks at me, “He teaches eleventh grade geography at North High School and doesn’t get a chance to show off too often.” She glances at Michael and smiles, “With adults that is.”

I look at Michael and he laughs self consciously. I immediately start to like him even more. It’s clear we are fellow teachers and have a lot in common; a lot to talk about. I’m about to spew forth a bunch of information that I’ve painstakingly memorized over the years: Lake Superior has 31,700 square miles of surface area, an average depth of 483 feet and the deepest point is 1,333 feet, but decide not to. He probably knows that anyway. Plus, who really cares about a bunch of dry facts? It’s the majestic, almost poetic beauty of the lake draws people to it from all over the world, and we’re fortunate to have such an amazing natural wonder so close to home. It’s clear Aria and Michael feel the same. I decide to keep my mouth shut and glance at Mary. As usual, she’s able to read my thoughts and gives me a quick grin as well as an encouraging thumbs up sign. It’s uncanny how well she knows me.

We all move to a nearby bench and sit down. I’m grateful for a chance to catch my breath. I’m pretty winded, and it’ll be nice to give my heart a rest.

Mary and Aria talk about a shared love of books and reading while Michael and I talk about teaching. We all watch their kids run around the grassy area playing tag with the gulls. Well, the kids are playing tag. The gulls are hoping around, staying out of the way of the kids and looking for handouts.

After a few minutes I suddenly have an idea, “How about if I buy us some popcorn? Then we can all feed the birds.”

“Do that, Sam,” Mary says excitedly. “It’ll be fun.”

Trying not to favor my hip too much, I walk slowly to a snack and beverage stand close by, purchase four bags of plain popcorn (they have a number of variations ranging from cheese flavored to butter to salted to caramel) and bring them back to our little group. I give a bag to Michael and one each to Mary and Aria. It takes us a minute to get the hang of it, but soon we are all tossing kernels up in the air, exclaiming as the gulls dive for them and try to catch them in their beaks. In a minute there are at least thirty of them hovering around us, circling, calling, diving and soaring. It’s really quite a sight and not something you see too often back home in Long Lake (if ever.) Soon Aria and Michael’s kids join us and a crowd gathers, enjoying the show. Then more gulls show up. I end up buying half a dozen more bags and only quit when Aria checks her watch and informs us that they have to head to a nearby parking lot where a bus is waiting to take them home to Minneapolis. Everyone groans good naturedly (especially the kids.) We all shake hands and smile and wave as they walk off.

Mary turns to me, her eyes bright. She’s energized by the encounter. “Aren’t they nice people, Boss Man? So much fun to be with.”

“They are,” I nod in agreement, watching as the friendly family steps on to the bus. I wave again as Michael turns and waves to me, “They’re really nice.”

After the bus leaves, we walk over to the breakwater and look out across the lake. The clouds have dissipated and the sky is clear. It’s the last week of September and the green leaves on the trees along the far shoreline over a mile away are starting to change to colors of orange and red and yellow and gold. We silently take in the quiet splendor of the beginning of the fall season in northern Minnesota; colors so pretty they take our breath away.

After a few minutes the mood is broken when my stomach starts to growl. I attempt to divert Mary’s attention by pointing out a particularly interesting pebble next to my walking shoe, but nothing gets by my observant wife. She asks, innocently, “What time is it?”

I check my Gotham gold tone pocket watch, a special gift from my oldest son three years ago on my seventy fifth birthday, “It’s a little after one.”

“I’m getting hungry,” Mary says. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

“Sounds fantastic.” (Also, it sounds lots better than listening to the symphony now playing loudly in my gut.) “How about Amazing Grace?” I suggest.

Mary nods in agreement, “Do you even have to ask?”

I laugh because, no, really, I don’t.

Amazing Grace is a quaint little cafe that reminds us of the coffee houses we used to frequent when we were in college back in the sixties. It takes us about ten minutes to get there and most of that time is spent waiting at one of the two stop lights that control traffic flow in the Canal Park area.

Once at the cafe we walk down a short set of steps to partially below street level and step back in time. The cozy cafe has low ceilings, mismatched but comfortable chairs and wooden floors. There’s even an lingering scent of incense in the air, mixing with the aroma of fresh bake goods and homemade soup. Each table has its own unique oil cloth table cloth. It’s the kind of place where you seat yourself and we choose a table that has a traditional red and white checkered pattern. There a fresh couple of fresh sprigs of purple asters in a little jam jar in the middle. We’re sitting next to a window so we can look at the feet of people outside walking by if we want. We don’t. I take my hat off, hang it off the back of my chair, and we settle in, making ourselves comfortable, waiting for someone to come take our order.

I’m enjoying listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ playing quietly through the overhead sound system, when Mary asks, “Did you bring the Declaration?”

I’ve set my daypack on the floor by my feet. I pat it and say, “Got it right here.”

“Let’s take a look at it after we order,” Mary says, and then puts her finger to her lips as the young man who apparently is our waitperson quickly approaches and sets down a glass of water for each of us. She looks up, changing mental gears and gives him a big smile, “Hi, there. No need for a menu. I think we already know what we want.”

“Cool,” the young man says and points to the back of my chair, “Like your hat.” He must have read ‘Nature Conservancy’ printed on it.

“Thanks,” I tell him. He seems like a good guy. He’s young, kind of hippy looking and has a nice set of dreadlocks.

“By the way, my name’s Jeff and I’ll be your server today.” He smiles at his little joke, and makes it a point of hiding two menus behind his back. Mary and I laugh with him, both of us in good moods after being outside by the lake. Talking with Michael and Aria has helped, too.

“This young lady will have the veggie burger, with fired onions and sharp cheddar cheese,” I tell him, “and I’ll have a bowl of wild rice soup with rice crackers on the side.”

“You guys must have been here before,” Jeff says, not bothering to write anything down.

“We have. Thirty-one times,” Mary says, remembering what I’d told her earlier and giving me a wink.

Without batting an eye, and like it’s the most common thing in the world for customers to keep track of how many times they’ve been to Amazing Grace, Jeff smiles and says, “Well, in that case, let me welcome you to time number thirty-two.” He’s tall and thin and has a wispy beard. He’s wearing cargo shorts, sandals and a worn tee-shirt that says, ‘Make Love Not War’. “I’ll get your order started right away.”

I watch him walk away, momentarily envious not so much of his dreadlocks but of the fact that he has a full head of hair. Then I chastise myself because that hairy ship of mine sailed over fifty years ago. Really Sam, I tell myself, definitely time to move on. So I do.

With Jeff taking care of our order and only a few other people dining, we have the place almost to ourselves. I’m reaching into the daypack for the Declaration when Mary puts her hand on my arm to stop me.

“Oh, honey, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s not bother with that right now,” she says, looking at me with pleading eyes. “Is that Ok?” She pats my arm and smiles affectionately, “I’m having too good a time. Maybe we can wait until we get back to the room.” She looks at me, her amber eyes full of light, still as beautiful to me as they were all those years ago when we first met, “Is that all right with you?”

Anything to make her happy, is what I think. “Sure,” I tell her. “Absolutely.” I squeeze her hand back and we pause like that for a few moments, looking fondly into each other’s eyes, just like we used to do in our early years together, over half a century ago. The closeness feels good. Special.

After a few moments Mary squeezes my hand once more and sits back in her chair. She looks at me, smiling brightly and says, “Let’s just enjoy the rest of the day. Ok?”

Sounded like a good plan to me.

We leisurely enjoy a tasty lunch. Jeff stops by our table a few times to check on us, and we eventually spend some time talking to him and getting to know him a little. He’s a student at the University of Duluth and majoring in Limnology, which, he tells us, is the study of fresh water lakes and ponds and they’re physical and geological characteristics. In point of fact, he’s going to become a biologist, like I at one time hoped to be. He wants to figure out ways to help improve water quality in the polluted lakes of Minnesota. (My little editorial aside is that our state has far too many. When I tell him that he says, “Hopefully, not for much longer.”) I have soft spot in my heart for people like him; someone who wants to try to save the environment and is willing to dedicate his life to such a worthy cause. That kind of dedication is beyond admirable in my book. Toward that end, when we have finished our meal and are leaving money at the table for our bill, I leave him a healthy tip.

We are on way out the door when we are enticed by the cafe’s bakery display. We can’t help it, Mary and I are both suckers for sweets, so I purchase four cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, lavender sugar and ginger spice. I put the bag in my day pack and we say good-bye to Jeff. He tells us to have a good day and we tell him that’s exactly what we intend to do.

“We’re going to take the boardwalk all the way to Fitger’s,” Mary tells him.

“Cool,” he says. “Check out the bookstore up there. It’s pretty good.”

“We will,” I tell him, appreciating his advice and not bothering to tell him we try to go to Northern Lights Books every time we come to Duluth.

Jeff hurries to greet a group of three new customers. We wave a final goodbye and head out the door. We walk up the steps and step into a gloriously beautiful day. The sky has completely cleared. The temperature is a balmy sixty degrees or so. I pull the brim of my hat down to shield my eyes from the bright sunshine. It’s warm enough for us to stop and take off our jackets. My flannel shirt and tee-shirt will be more than adequate for me, Mary’s sweater is fine for her. The jackets barely fit into my now nearly full day pack, and I’m pondering stopping at our room to empty it out when Mary interrupts my thoughts.

“Jeff is a such a nice boy,” Mary says wistfully, as we walk to the corner and wait for the light to change. “He reminds me of Willie a little bit.”

Oh, oh.

I glance at her with trepidation, wondering if her statement might signify the beginning of a dip in her mood, the beginning of a downward slide toward the blues if not further into deeper depression. But, fortunately, it looks like I am jumping the mental health gun a little too prematurely. Mary is smiling as she is talking and still happy. In fact, she looks at me as if reading my mind and says, “What? I can’t make a comment about a young man near to our grandson’s age?” See looks at me, like she’s challenging me to say something and then grins, “Don’t worry, Mr. Boss Man, I’m doing just fine, thank you.”

Then she turns away with a big smile on her face, taking in the scene of quaint shops and tasty restaurants, all within view of Lake Superior. She takes in a deep breath and lets it out, “Everything is so perfect,” she exclaims. “I’m so happy to be here. I love the lake, especially when the waves breaking like they are on the rocks. Feeding the gulls with Michael and Aria and their kids was so much fun. Lunch was wonderful and Jeff was a really good guy, too.” She looks at me with what I swear is that same impish gleam in her eye from earlier and adds, “It’s good to be alive.”

A fleeting image of Our Right To Die Declaration appears in my mind and then, just as quickly, disappears, as if carried by an offshore breeze out over Lake Superior. I decide not to pursue it.

The light changes and we cross the street. This portion of Canal Park is narrow, only two streets wide. Lake Avenue and Canal Street run parallel to each other for the over half mile length of the park from downtown Duluth on one end to the Aerial Lift Bridge on the other. We are still toward the lift bridge end of the park. We cross the street and walk down the sidewalk on the far side of Canal Street, the street closest to the lake and the street our hotel is on. In a minute or so we are at the Inn’s parking lot.

“Should I run our jackets up to the room?” I ask, kind of dreading it. For some reason I’m getting winded pretty easily today.

Mary doesn’t bat an eye, “Why don’t you let me do it? You save that hip of yours for our walk. Your heart, too.”

Like we told Jeff, we are planning to take the boardwalk to Fitger’s, over a mile away. Founded in the 1880’s, Fitger’s was at one time a prosperous lakeside brewery. It thrived for over a hundred years at the edge of downtown before falling on hard times. It closed its doors in 1972 and shortly thereafter was purchased by a group of investors. They began refurbishing the building, keeping much of the facade while remodeling the interior. It was a labor of love that took ten years. By the time they’d finished they had converted the former brewery into a three story, twenty-seven room hotel, with specialty shops and a couple of nice restaurants on the first level. Since it re-opened in the early eighties, it has become a go-to place for locals and tourist alike. For us, it’s a fun place to visit and walking to it is something we’ve always enjoyed doing on our visits to the Inn.

Mary’s idea is a good one. Gratefully, I take our jackets out of my pack and hand them over to her. She hurries toward the front door, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll meet you around in back. Find a bench by the lake and sit down and take it easy. I’ll just be a minute.”

Thankful to get a chance to rest I yell, “Ok,” and slowly gimp around the side of the Inn to the boardwalk. I find a bench with a nice view of the lake (although, honestly, they all are) and gratefully sit down to enjoy the scenery, the sunshine and the sound of the waves still breaking along the shoreline. It occurs to me that Mary and I could easily spend days here, meandering around (well, gimping, in my case) enjoying the out of doors and each other’s company. Too bad I only booked the room for one night.

I’m pondering the possibility of perhaps adding another day onto our stay when Mary taps me on the shoulder from behind, startling me a little, “What do you think, Boss Man? Shall we head for Fitger’s?”

“Absolutely,” I say, and immediately decide to hold off on my idea of staying an extra day to maybe surprise her later. Mary helps me to my feet and we step onto the boardwalk and start walking.

If you were to look at a map of Lake Superior, the far southwest corner comes to a point right on the edge of downtown Duluth. From where we are, the boardwalk is level and follows the southern shore of the lake to the tip of the point. There it bends to the right, to the northeast, and continues along the shoreline at the edge of the city. Duluth is built on the hills that lead down to the lake and any time you want to, you can look up and get a panoramic view of the second largest city on Lake Superior.

Once you turn past the tip and start heading northeast, the boardwalk not only starts to climb above the shore, but also begins to run along side of a railroad track that was built over a hundred years ago. The rail bed was carved out of the igneous rock common in the area and is unique in that a sheer cliff rises above it to downtown Duluth as well as down below it to the lake – twenty feet or more each way. But the way the boardwalk is built and landscaped, once you turn past the tip, you really don’t know the city is next to you, just a quarter mile off you left shoulder. In other words, as you walk you can look to the right out over the lake and imagine you are in a different time and different place and it’s frankly quite awesome – one of the many reasons we love making the three hour journey it takes to get here from our home.

After we’ve made the bend at the tip and begin walking up the gentle incline of the boardwalk to the northeast, we suddenly catch the faint strains of what sounds like fiddle music. We look at each other trying imagine what in the world could be going on but come up empty. Curious, we continue on a little further until we can look up ahead a hundred feet or so. Finally we can tell. We see a group of people gathered at what looks to be (if my memory serves) Veteran’s Memorial Park where a freeform, concrete structure is built on a high overlook above the lake. It’s dedicated to those from the area who have given their lives in service to our country. Mary hurries ahead while I hobble along as fast as I can, catching up to her in time for me to be introduced to couple she has begun talking with.

“This is Guy and his wife Melody,” Mary says. “They’re visiting from out of town and are seeing the sights, just like us.”

I shake the rough hand of Guy, a lean, thickly bearded man around fifty with a gray ponytail. He’s dressed in faded, but clean, jeans, a red plaid shirt and work boots, all topped off with a beat up straw cowboy hat. He tells me he’s carpenter and he and Melody live on the Iron Range near Aurora, a town about sixty miles north. He’s quiet but friendly and we chit-chat a little. I’m try to concentrate on Guy telling me about a log cabin home he’s building in his spare time for he and Melody, but I’m a little distracted, if not more than a bit captivated, by the musician, a young kid with wispy blond hair who can’t be more than fifteen. Man, let me tell you, he is playing one mean fiddle. His selections are mostly western swing with some Cajun tossed in for good measure and everyone in the crowd of maybe twenty is listening intently, bobbing their heads along to his songs.

Suddenly, Guy says, “Excuse me,” and breaks off from our conversation. He reaches over and takes Melody by the hand. They separate themselves from us and move off to the side of the crowd, taking a moment to look into each other’s eyes and settle themselves. I’m glancing at Mary with a questioning look in my eye, when all of a sudden they start dancing. Swing dancing, to be exact, and much to the delight of everyone in the crowd, the musician included. They are really good, too. They dance a couple of songs while a few onlookers clap in time, keeping a ragged beat. When they finish, Mary and I and the crowd applaud enthusiastically. Guy and Melody make their way back to where we are standing, sweaty and perspiring, but happy and smiling. Guy tells us dancing is a hobby of theirs, and they mostly do it in the privacy of their own home.

“I guess I just got inspired by the moment,” Guy says, shyly.

Melody laughs at him and punches him in the arm, saying, “Don’t believe a word he says. He’ll dance if he walks by a kid whistling on the sidewalk. But I don’t mind. I like doing it, too.”

What a fun and interesting couple. We talk a while longer before we all say goodbye. They tell us they are heading for canal park and the lift bridge, and Mary and I tell them we have just come from there and to have a good time. I drop a five dollar bill in the fiddle player’s case, which he acknowledges with a smile and a nod, and Mary and I continue on along the boardwalk.

Since we’ve left the area of the lift bridge and our hotel we’ve covered just over a mile. On the other side of Veteran’s Park, the wooden boardwalk ends and is replaced by a ten foot wide tarred path, which is probably a good thing because now the area turns hilly and the path twists and turns and dips and rises, all the while maintaining a height of around twenty feet above the shore of the lake. The views are stunning and every few steps seems to bring a new exclamation of wonder to our lips. Near to the path are granite rock outcroppings amid clumps of green pines and golden aspen trees. There are colorful flower gardens packed with purple and white asters and yellow black eyed Susan’s. Every now and then a swale of green grass provides a comfortable spot for people to rest and have a picnic, of which more than few people are doing. Waves roll in from across the lake in three or four foot swells and crash against the rocky shoreline, booming with abandon, at times tossing spray nearly as high as the path. Gulls soar above, gliding gently on the wind, wings barely moving. The sky is deep blue, the sun is shining brightly and water is glistening like an infinite sea of sparkling diamonds. It’s a day worth treasuring.

We move a few hundred feet past the musician and the crowd, find a wooden bench, sit down and look out over the vastness of the lake, enjoying an unobstructed view. It doesn’t even bother me that my right hip is hurting, but, still, it feels good to rest. After about fifteen minutes Mary says, “How are you doing Boss Man? Do you want to forget about going to Fitger’s and head back to the Inn instead?”

Even though I’m in a little pain and am slightly winded, I’m having too good a time to call it a day. “No, I’m doing good,” I say. “I love being here.”

Mary laughs. She understands I’m not exactly being honest, but she cuts me some slack; she knows how much I enjoy being up here on what everyone in the state of Minnesota calls ‘The North Shore.’ “Ok, Big Guy,” she says, “Let’s rest a little longer, and then we’ll keep going.”

She pats me on the thigh sealing the deal, then turns and looks back out over the lake stretched out in front of us. I follow her gaze. There are a couple of charter fishing launches heading from left to right toward Duluth harbor. In spite of their size, they look like the toy boats our kids played with in the bath tub, so dwarfed are they by Superior’s immensity. We watch in companionable silence for a few minutes, perfectly at peace.

After a while, Mary glances at her watch and says, “It’s nearly three. Do you think you can make it the rest of the way?”

I’m rested and ready to go, “Try and stop me.” I get to my feet, joints creaking, and steadfastly point myself down the path. “Lead on, my Little Butterfly,” I say, using a term of endearment from probably fifty years ago. What possesses me to blurt it our at that particular moment I have no idea.

Mary just laughs, ignoring my statement. Perhaps she’s even forgotten what it had meant all those years ago. (I have, too, but I still like to say it.) “I’ll race you,” she jokes with me.”How’s that sound? I’ll even give you a head start.”

“You’re on,” I say and off I hobble, trying to hide my grimace. I hurt, but not so bad that I’m going to let it ruin our afternoon. One thought keeps me going, though: I’m thinking that if they sell canes at Fitger’s, today might just be the day that I decide to get one.

Mary is kidding about racing. She takes a hold of my shoulder to stop me from hurting myself. She’s very conscious of my health and bends over backwards to make sure I eat right and don’t push myself too hard. We take a leisurely stroll instead. The sun is bright in the sky over the hills of the city to our left and the sky is cloudless and the purest blue I’ve seen in quite a while. To our right Superior stretches to the far shoreline of Wisconsin twenty miles away. Beyond that the lake disappears into the distant horizon. Somewhere beyond our vision is Ontario, Canada. The swells roll from left to right and continue to crash against the rocky shoreline beneath us. Gulls circle above, calling and squawking. Where we are right now is, as Mary has said time and time today, the perfect place for us to be.

About every minute or so we see individuals walking or jogging or bike riding, as well as couples out enjoying the late afternoon, just like we are. Mary takes my arm as we walk, utterly at peace. She looks at me and grins. “I’m so happy,” she says.

“Me, too,” I tell her, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

She gives me a kiss on my cheek, “Best day in a long time.”

“I agree,” I tell her and squeeze her arm affectionately, thinking for the hundredth time today, just how lucky I am.

It takes us fifteen minutes to go a quarter of a mile, but we didn’t mind in the least. Our buoyant mood carries us all the way to the stairway leading from the path up to Fitger’s. I pause and look at it and balk. The circular two story structure is built from iron and is exceptionally strong and sturdy. Today, however, I’m afraid the climb is going to be too much for me. Although I want to, I just don’t have the strength or the energy to make it to the top.

“I think I’ll just rest,” I say to Mary and make my way to a nearby bench where I gratefully plop down, letting loose with a contented sigh. I take out a bottle of water from the day pack, up cap it and take a refreshing drink. “You go on up. See if you can find us good book or two at Northern Lights.” I hand the bottle to Mary and she takes a drink as well.

She hands the bottle back to me and I put it the pack. Then she makes the quick decision to go it alone, “Ok, Boss Man. I’ll go ahead without you, but I won’t be long. Just don’t go flirting with any young girls while I’m gone.” She laughs and leans over and gives me a hug, inadvertently knocking my hat askew.

I set it back in place, I chuckling at the implausibility of her statement, “Not on your life. You’re the only young lady in my life. You know that.”

Mary grins, “I know, and you’d better believe it, mister.” She squeezes my shoulder affectionately before she walks over to the stairway and begins her climb, “See you in a few minutes.”

I watch her prance up the stairs, marveling at her energy. When she reaches the top, nearly twenty feet above me, she leans over the railing and waves and I wave back. Then she disappears from my view, making her way along the path at the top of the ridge to the back entrance to Fitger’s. I sigh. If only to be young and spry again. Or at least to be able prance like my wife. But what am I thinking? Who am I to complain? It’s been a good day and I’m in a great mood. I’m enjoying goofing around and joking with Mary. I’ve learned that these good days (as I call them) are something to appreciate and cherish. Believe me, it’s not always like that, especially when her depression is severe. But she’s having as good day as am, so I intend to make the most of it, both for her sake as well as mine.

My bench is on an overlook, high above the Lake, at least thirty feet. Not more than fifteen feet in front of me a steep cliff leads down to the rocky shore below, precluding anyone but the most adventurous (or foolhardy) to make the climb down to the water. Just as I am wondering if anyone is ever reckless enough to attempt such a undertaking, wouldn’t you know it, two boys and a girl around twelve years old come flying along the path on skateboards, jump off them and disappear over the edge in the blink of an eye, skateboards securely positioned under their arms. I can hear them laughing all the way as they climb down to the lake. I panic a little, the parent in me mouthing a silent prayer that they don’t get injured. Then I realize I’m just being foolish. Those kids are happy and carefree and on this beautiful fall afternoon don’t appear to have a care in the world. Who can blame them? Let them be. Who am I to be an old fuddy-duddy and rain on their youthful parade?

I am pondering the advantages of being youthful and energetic when I have another and decidedly more troubling thought. For some reason, our Right To Die Declaration pops into my mind, scouring it clean of all notions of youthful enthusiasm, if not indiscretion. The reality of the here and now rears its ugly head. The real question facing Mary and me at this particular moment on this particular day on this particular shore of beautiful Lake Superior is this: Is tonight going to be the night we take out our stash of sleeping pills, drink them down with a glass of water, fall into each other’s arms and hold each other close as we say goodbye to our life together and the world we are living in? Is this the night we are going to end it all?

My thoughts go something like this: Mary is in such a good mood right now, her spirits are bright and she’s not even close to being depressed, so my guess is that she will vote to stay alive for another year. And why not? All is going well for her, or at least as well as can be expected. Nothing to worry about, right? Then I remember that just one month ago she had been a totally different person, having been struck almost catatonic by a fall into deep depression. Her despair was so pervasive that her mind literally went numb. She didn’t interact. She didn’t talk. She just lay in bed with the curtains drawn and slept. All I could do was try to get her to eat some soup and drink some water, nurse her along as best I could and pray she would recover like she always had in the past. Unfortunately, anything I did for her she struggled against. All she wanted to do was pull the blankets up over her head and close out the world. It was troubling as well as horribly frightening.

And it wasn’t the first time she’d been like that either; been in such a state where she seemed to have given up the will to live. Over the past few years those episodes have been happening more and more frequently. Six months ago when Mary brought them up to her psychiatrist, the doctor only prescribed different anti-depressant medication along with the admonition to ‘not let yourself get too down.’ Easy for her to say. Unfortunately, the new meds did nothing for my poor wife. In fact, in the last six months, now whenever she gets depressed, nothing seems to help: not medications; not doing things she usually enjoys doing, like reading or gardening, or sewing or quilting; not seeing our kids or grandchildren – nothing.

But then, snap your fingers and just like that, bang, she’ll pop right out of it. She’ll get up, get out of bed, and start living life as if nothing had happened, even though she knows that something did. In fact, that’s what occurred that time last month. She suddenly sat up, stretched, and got out of bed, all smiling and energetic. She greeted me and the new day with, “Hey there, Boss Man, I’m hungry, let’s go out to eat.” I was overjoyed. We went to a favorite restaurant where she wolfed down a double serving of eggs Benedict, and drank cup after cup of English Breakfast tea. Life started up for us again.

Since then she’s been doing fine (great, actually), but who knows when another episode will happen? Well, the answer to that question is obvious – we don’t know, do we? But even if we don’t know when it will happen, we both know that it will happen. And the real question is this: Does she want to continue living, all the while knowing that the possibility of sinking into severe depression is not only likely, but a foregone inevitability? And the answer to that question? I’m not sure.

Me? I still have constant, dull, pain in my hip and can’t walk very well. My memory is going, and I am definitely slowing down. My heart is laboring and it seems like every day I have less and less energy. So, on one hand, things aren’t too good. But…How’s my mood? My attitude? They are both good, thank you very much. I enjoy life. I still adore Mary and love being with her. I love our kids and our grandchildren. I enjoy reading, bird watching and gardening. I even have an old three-speed bicycle I enjoy riding from time to time. Most certainly, not only do the good parts of my life outweigh the bad, they also contribute to emotionally mitigating my aches and pains and lack of energy. So I would be voting no on the end of life issue. Would Mary? I’m not sure. In fact, after all is said and done, one thing is certain, we have a lot to talk about.

Just then, coming up from behind, there’s a tap on my shoulder, startling me out of my morbid thoughts.

“Hi there, Boss Man,” Mary chides me. “Thinking about that girlfriend of yours again?”

I laugh, “How’d you guess?”

She moves in front of me and holds out a small container filled to nearly overflowing. It’s a hot fudge sundae, my absolute favorite. She grins as she places it in my eager hands (along with a fist full of napkins), “Surprise. I got you a treat.”

“My god, this is perfect,” I tell her, using a little red spoon and already digging in. “How’d you guess that this would hit the spot? I’ve always got room for some ice cream.”

“I know. I’ve got your number, big time,” Mary grins. She sits down next to me and starts working on a waffle cone the size of her head.

“Salty caramel?” I ask through a mouthful of cold ice cream and warm chocolate, savoring their combined flavors. I’m watching her tear into her cone. Salty caramel is her favorite ice cream in the entire world.

“Do you even have to ask?” she mumbles, chewing away enthusiastically.

Actually, now that she mentions it, no I don’t.

We pass the time chatting and enjoying our ice cream while looking over the lake. Mary savors her cone and I dig into my sundae, marveling at how scrumptious each bite tastes. These little pleasures are magnified by not only our age, but by the very real reason we’ve come to spend the night at the Inn. Every now and then people pass by, either on bikes or walking or jogging. And every now and then someone makes eye contact with us and smiles and says “Hi” and we smile and say “Hi” back. And those friendly folks never once come close to imagining that the two old people sitting peacefully side by side on a park bench in the bright afternoon sun, enjoying their ice cream and talking together, are only a few hours away from deciding whether or not tonight is going to be the night they are going to put an end their lives.

However, for the moment we steer clear of that discussion.

When we finish our ice cream we stand up and I stretch my stiff muscles. Mary dumps our trash in a refuse container nearby and we make ourselves ready to leave. Before we do, though, there’s one small bit of business to take care of. Since she had playfully snuck up behind me earlier I hadn’t noticed something else Mary had brought with her – something she had hidden on the ground behind the bench. She now picks it up and shows it to me.

“Look what else I got you, Mr. Gimpy,” she says. I turn to look just as she proudly holds up her purchase, “Do you like it?”

Thinking she had bought us a few new books, I’m shocked, no, let’s say I’m stunned, when I see what she has done. It takes me a moment to answer because I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. What she’s holding is a beautifully carved wooden cane. It looks like it was crafted from Diamond Willow, a tree species common to northern Minnesota. It’s reddish-brown hue is accentuated by mellow yellow traces of lighter colored grain running through it. The wood is polished to a gleaming sheen so bright it almost glows in the sunshine.

Mary hands it over to me and I cradle it in my hands, reverently running my fingers over the wood’s smooth surface. My ambivalent and somewhat negative thoughts about using something to assist me walking are completely blown away by the beauty and craftsmanship of the cane itself. It is the most gorgeous handmade piece wood I’ve seen in a long time, if ever. Don’t think less of me when I tell you that it’s beauty actually brought a tear of joy to my eye. You bet I liked it. A lot.

“I more than like it,” I tell her, “I love it.” I quickly wipe my eye. My heart is touched my wife’s thoughtfulness.

“You’re not mad I got it for you, are you?”

Over the five years since my hip replacement we’d talked often about me getting something like a cane to help with my increasingly unsteady walking, my increasing tendency to trip on the tiniest obstruction in my path and my deteriorating heart capacity. I’d won every discussion with immature arguments all centered in some way shape or form around my stubbornness and close-mindedness. (Toss in my stupidity, while we’re at it.) But after my struggle today to cover the mile and a quarter from the Inn on the Lake to Fitger’s, I’m now willing to accept my limitations. I’m amenable to trying anything. This cane is just the ticket. “Not at all,” I tell her, enthusiastically. “In fact, honestly, I’ve been thinking seriously about getting a cane off and on all day.” I pause and smile a little sheepishly, “You’re a mind reader, is what you are. Let’s give it a try.” I’ll bet my intuitive wife knew what I’d been thinking all along.

Mary grins, “Go for it, Boss Man.”

I shoulder my day pack and then grip the smooth handle. There’s a slight curve to it that fits my right hand perfectly, as if it were made for me. I like the cane’s light weight, yet it also feels solid and strong, like it will last forever. “It’s great,” I say, looking at Mary. “Fantastic, in fact. You did a good thing, here.”

She smiles back to me, “It’s about time you listened to me.” She reaches into her pocket and takes out a clean Kleenex and dabs the corner of my eye. Then she puts it away, not bothering to say a thing.

I reach out and give her a one armed hug, “Thanks so much for putting up with me.”

She smiles, “You’re an all right guy sometimes. I just might keep you around.”

When Mary jokes with me like she’s doing now, it means more to me than any declaration of love – you know, like ‘Actions speaking louder than words’ – that kind of thing.

But I can’t resist saying, slapping the tip of my new cane in my hand left hand, “Ok. Now, I’ll race you. Watch out. One, two, three, go,” and I head off, huffing along with my new cane.

Mary pulls up next to me in about four steps. “Calm down there, Speedy Gonzales. We’ve got all the time in the world to get back to the Inn. Let’s just take it easy.”

I slow my pace because, like so many other things she’s suggested throughout our life, Mary is correct – we do have all the time in the world. At least until tonight when we have our discussion about Our Right To Die Declaration. But right now we aren’t thinking about that – just today and the warm, late afternoon sun on our faces and our outing together in the fresh air along the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. And that’s all that matters.

Mary takes my left arm and we slowly make our way back toward the Inn. The sun is starting to dip in the west over the hills of Duluth off to our right and the shadows are lengthening. The air has a crisp coolness to it, making the times we step from shadow into sunlight gratefully warming our old bones; a joy and adds to our feeling of happiness from being outdoors and sharing this time together.

We are in no hurry. We poke along, pointing out purple Kale and fragrant herbs planted in tidy, well maintained public gardens near the walkway. Pretty ten foot tall Amur Maples with their leaves turning burgundy red and flaming orange add more color to the scene. Fall is really our favorite time of year, and the effect of all the color along the walkway is both calming and invigorating at the same time; the kind of feeling that’s fun to experience. I’m also enjoying my new found freedom of movement with my wonderful wooden cane (which I’m inclined to think of as a walking stick.) I’m finding that I can actually walk better, at a steadier, less painful, if still fairly slow pace. The adage concerning the tortoise and the hare, ‘Slow and steady, wins the race’, comes to my mind more than once, making me grin a little.

It’s nearly six in the evening by the time we arrive at the Inn. The sun will be completely set in less than an hour. We use our key card to enter through the back door into the open area that will be used tomorrow morning for breakfast seating. (A buffet breakfast is free for the Inn’s guests.) As we pass by the front desk Gary waves to us before he turns with a smile to help a middle aged couple check in. In the height of summer, the lobby is usually packed with vacationers at this time of day, mostly families with young kids in tow. Now, in the off season, there are far fewer people, most of them ‘Peepers’, older people like us who have come to this part of Minnesota to look at the beautiful fall colors along the north shore of Lake Superior and the arrowhead country in general. We wave back at Gary. Mary leans over and whispers, “He’s such a friendly young man,” as we walk by.

We take the elevator up, exit on the third floor and walk down the hall. We don’t see another soul. It’s like we have the whole floor to ourselves. Mary leads the way, a step or two ahead of me and my new cane. After years of struggling with my hip replacement and (for some ridiculous, misguided, old codger kind reason), vain enough not to want to admit I needed some assistance, it was my dear wife’s intuition to know that all it would take was the right time and right place to push me over the edge to do what I should have done years ago. I’m glad she did what she did.

We enter our room, I set my cane aside and fight the urge to give it a loving pat-pat. Then I do. Mary goes about getting settled. We both love The Inn On the Lake and this particular room especially – it’s the same room we’ve stayed in for each of our now thirty two visits. To the left is a large bathroom and shower with a door that closes for privacy. Next, along the wall, there’s a nice sized desk, then a large, king sized bed, and then a cozy sitting area with two comfortable easy chairs. There’s a convenient little table between them where we can set our mugs of coffee or tea (or hot chocolate.) Immediately next to me along the right side of the room is closet and then a good sized counter and sink. Next is a long, low chest of drawers with a flat screen television on end nearest the sitting area. A great feature of the room is next, a nice sized gas fireplace mounted in the wall, which we’ve used quite a bit during previous stays for the ambiance (and occasionally for heat.) There are also framed prints on the walls capturing scenes associated with the lake: waves crashing on rocks, fishing trawlers trolling for whitefish and iron ore ships battling November storms. But the real draw is at the opposite end from where I’m standing; a large picture window overlooking a secluded balcony and the vast expanse of Lake Superior just beyond.

A privacy door to the right of the window leads out to the balcony and that’s where we head. “Let’s sit and enjoy the view,” Mary says, settling into one of the comfortable chairs. She pats the one next to her, “Come on, Sam. Come and join me.”

I really want to, but…”First, should I go back down and get us some hot chocolate?” I’m mentally kicking myself for having forgotten to think about bringing up a favorite treat of ours when we were downstairs. The free hot chocolate provided by the Inn is an added bonus for us.

“No, that’s Ok. We can make some tea later.  Come…”She says, patting the chair next to her, “Come and sit with me.”

I appreciate that after over fifty years of married life my wife still wants to spend time with me. I pull up a chair and sit down. If we lean forward a just little we can see the boardwalk about seventy five feet away. Past it is the rocky breakwater with waves still rolling in and then the lake itself. To the left of us we can see the far shoreline where we’d been walking earlier. We can even make out Fitger’s if we look closely. But it’s the wide expanse of Superior stretching off into the far horizon that takes our breath away every single time we look at the huge lake. From our third floor vantage point it’s stunning sight, this inland sea, right here in northern Minnesota. We split our time between looking out over the water and watching people stroll along the boardwalk, letting the moments slip by as if our time together was infinite and will last forever.

Over the next hour or so, we both take showers and I make us some tea. We spend most of our evening outside on our little balcony, enjoying each other’s company and being together. Mary is wrapped up in a blanket to ward off a chill. I’ve put on a light jacket. We each have a book, so we read a little, people watch a little and watch the lake a lot.

At one point, after we finish our tea, I grab my cane and go downstairs to a serving area reserved for guests and fix us two big mugs of hot chocolate. When I realize I can’t use my cane and carry two mugs at the same time, one of the staff cleaning in the lobby notices my predicament and asks if he can help. I gratefully take him up on his offer. We make our way back to our room and he is kind enough to bring the hot chocolate out onto the balcony. He sets the mugs on our little table and I give him a five dollar bill for his effort. He gratefully thanks me and quietly leaves us to our lake gazing and people watching. Mary sleepily sips her from her mug and as I fight the urge to gulp from mine. I really am kind of addicted to the Inn’s hot chocolate. A sense of peace settles over us as we look out into the deepening twilight. The day is winding down to a close and the lights along the boardwalk have come on.

I’m engrossed in reading my book, when, after a while, it occurs to me that Mary suddenly has become very quiet. I glance over just as she lets loose a huge yawn. It’s been a long day, and she’s obviously tired. In fact it occurs to me that it’s completely dark out. Night has fallen

“Should we go inside?” I ask. “I could turn on the fireplace.”

She shivers a little, “That’s sounds like a good idea. I’d like that.”

Mary picks up her blanket and our books, I grab our hot chocolate (which now is lukewarm.) We go inside and get ourselves settled. After a few minutes watching the flames flicker, Mary surprises me by asking if I want to play a game of cribbage. She seems to have revived and picked up a bit of energy from somewhere.”What do you say, Boss Man, just for old time’s sake?” I swear I can detect that same impish twinkle she seems to have had in her eye all day.

“Sure,” I readily agree, “If you don’t mind losing,” I grin, joking with her.

If we bothered to keep track over the fifty-three years of our marriage and the thousands of times we’ve played cribbage, Mary has won probably eighty-five percent of the games. I’m always a willing competitor, though, just not very good at cards compared to her.

“I think I can handle it, Big Guy,” she laughs, and begins shuffling the deck while I set up the board and pegs. When we are all set, and she’s just about ready to cut to see who will deal, she stops dead still and looks at me, “You know, we haven’t talked about the Declaration. We really should get that out of the way.”

Here it comes.

I set the board aside, “I was wondering about that.” I take a nervous sip of my hot chocolate. It’s barley warm and just short of disgusting. “Just a second.” I go to the microwave, set the mug in and turn it on for a minute. The noise gives me some time to consider what she is going to say. Is her decision going to be yes or no? My guess is it’s going to be no. She’s been having a really good day: she’s enjoyed our walks, she enjoyed talking with Richard and Gary at the front desk. She liked meeting Michael and Aria at Canal Park and feeding the gulls. She had fun talking with Jeff at Amazing Grace and chatting with Guy and Molly at Veteran’s Park. She’s been friendly with people and happy and outgoing all day long. She bought us ice cream at Fitger’s along with my beautiful new cane. In short, she’s on top of the world; a rare place for her to be, but, nevertheless, a place that is certainly possible for her to attain again in the future. At least it’s something for us to shoot for. Plus, my wife is a fighter. I think she will want to rise to the challenge of living a happy and productive life for another year. So the way I see it is this: The sleeping pills will stay put away. Mary will want to stay alive and if she does, so do I. I will join my wife for another year of living our lives together. There will be no Right To Die Declaration fulfillment tonight at the end of this, one of the most memorable days we’ve ever spent at the Inn On the Lake. At least that’s my guess.

Turns out I am right. I take my mug back and sit down and look at her. Mary’s eyes are sparkling merrily as she says, “I won’t keep you in suspense, Boss Man. I’m voting no. I’d like another year with you.”

Was that a surging flood of relief I am immediately overwhelmed with? It is. My heart leaps, “I’m so glad to hear that,” I tell her. “I feel exactly the same way.” Words cannot describe how happy I feel.

I move quickly next to her, drop to my knees and give my cherished wife a big, warm, all encompassing hug. She hugs me back, “So you can put up with me for another year?” She asks, not having to add anything more about her depression and dark moods.

“Obviously, yes,” I say into her hair. “I might ask the same, of you,” I add, releasing her, but stay kneeling next to her. I want to be close as possible. Suddenly, my hands start shaking. My body’s reacting to how much stress I have been feeling not knowing what we were going to be deciding. With the decision made, the relief is palpable. I can’t believe the joy I feel and, with it, the happiness that fills my entire being.

Mary places her hands in mine. At her touch, my entire body immediately relaxes and I become steady. We have another year together. I’m overjoyed. I look into her eyes. She returns my gaze. We don’t have to say a thing.

Unexpectedly, along with the relief, there’s suddenly the tiniest bit of a sharp twinge in my heart. Probably the aftermath of my ice cream, I think. I ignore it and decide not to say anything. I don’t want to spoil the moment.

“Yes I can, Boss Man,” she says, finally, in answer to my question, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I take her words as a good sign that she might actually be winning the overall big battle with her depression. At least for now she is. I’m relieved for her; and us. “I’m so very happy,” she adds and I know that she is telling me the truth, not something she thinks I want to hear. She squeezes my hands, then lets go of them and hugs me again. I hug her back. I can’t believe how happy I am; how happy we both are.

Unfortunately, after a minute or so my knees start to give out. We hug once more and I stand up (we both wince when my knees crack) and I say, “Well, in that case, how about if dump this old chocolate out and make us some fresh chamomile tea to celebrate?”

“That will be wonderful,” Mary says and briefly reaches out and touches my hand once more. No further words are necessary. We both know that, with our mutual decision to leave the pills untouched and to continue living together another year, something special has passed between us. Our love, deep already, had just become immeasurably deeper; our bond immeasurably stronger.

So I make our tea. Mary opens the bag of cookies from Amazing Grace and we share them while we play three games of cribbage, Mary beating me two games to one. I don’t recall ever having had such a wonderful evening.

By the time we finish playing cards, Mary is yawning almost nonstop. The day, spectacular as it has been, has completely worn her out. She stands up and stretches, “I’m going to go brush my teeth and get ready for bed, Boss Man, and read a little. You go ahead and stay up if you want.”

When she is ready and climbs into bed I come and sit down next to her and make like I’m tucking her in. She shoos me away, laughing. We kiss lightly on the lips, say that we love each other and I leave her to her book. I stand up and glance at the bedside clock. It reads a little after ten. I’m still a little energized by the day and don’t want to bother Mary. I turn off the fireplace and all the lights in the room except for her bedside lamp, grab my jacket and a blanket and make my way as quietly as I can out onto the balcony.

At this hour, the boardwalk is quiet. I only see a few walkers, a jogger and one or two couples strolling hand in hand. The lights along the walkway resemble old time street lamps from Victorian England, and they cast a pleasant glow, illuminating the ground with a soft light and adding to the almost poetic beauty of the scene. There’s no moon so the sky is pitch black, and I can see a white wash of stars stretching to infinity above the lake. I checked the Duluth Shipping News before we’d left home and I know that the Walter J. McCarthy is expected sometime later this evening. I causally scan the horizon, looking for the ship’s lights. The W. J. McCarthy is a one-thousand foot ore boat on its way to Duluth Harbor from Sioux St. Marie. It would be fun to see it come across the lake, making for port through the canal nearby and into the harbor just beyond. For now, though, the lake is void of the big ship’s lights and is as deep and dark as a bottle of India ink.

I must have dozed off. I’m wrapped up in my blanket when suddenly a gust of wind startles me. It’s a cold wind and causes a chill to rush deep through my bones. I shiver and feel goose bumps run up and down my arms. I come wide awake and check my pocket watch. I’ve been asleep for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s my shivering that causes what happens next to happen, but suddenly I get a sense of forbidding. My entire being goes on high alert. I have the strangest feeling that something’s not right. I immediately think of Mary. She’s been overly tired tonight. She’s gone to bed earlier than we normally do. She’s been yawning all evening. Is something going on? Is something happening I should have noticed and been aware of but wasn’t? I wonder…

Then I have a thought, a horrible thought. It hits me so hard, panic sets in and my heart starts to race. Our Right To Die Declaration! Those sleeping pills! Had she not been truthful with me earlier this evening when we’d talked? Had she lied to me about wanting to continuing living with me to spare my feelings. Had she, in fact, really taken…

Those pills? Shit! I jump up from my chair, knocking it over the table as I scramble to reach for the door handle. I need to check on her. Fast. Images race through my mind, each worse than the next, until I’m left with the worst scenario imaginable; Mary lying comatose in the bed slowly succumbing to the effects of those damn sleeping pills. I yank open the door and at that exact moment my heart thumps like it’s turning over on itself. I clutch at my chest as I look into the room. The bedside lamp is still on. I can see Mary lying in bed, turned away from me, blankets pulled tightly around her. She looks so peaceful. Is she asleep, or…

I take a step toward her and suddenly my heart slams into overdrive. It feels like it’s been hit by a sledge hammer. I press down on my chest thinking I might be able to slow it down, but I can’t. It only races faster. Faster. Faster. Oh, my god. What’s happening? I only have one answer. I’m having a…

In the next instant my heart explodes. The pain is so overwhelming, it knocks me to the floor. I roll into a fetal position as sweat runs out of every pore in my body. I’m having trouble breathing. It feels like I have a hundred pound weight on my chest, bearing down on me, pressing me into the carpeting. The pain is unimaginable. I’m afraid I might vomit. I panic and try to fight back, try to rid my body of the pain and to try to regain my equilibrium, but I’m losing the battle. I feel myself starting to pass out but fight to stay conscious. I need to get to Mary. I need to see if she is still alive. I need to convince myself that she hasn’t taken those sleeping pills. She wouldn’t leave me, would she? She wouldn’t take her life, would she? Not after how happy she was today. I try to call to her but I can’t form any words. My mouth is numb, my mind is going blank. I have lost all control of myself. Is this what it’s like to die?

The only thing I can think to do is to try and crawl to Mary. I force myself across the carpet. Ten feet, five feet…I inch my way to her, dragging myself along with my right arm, using my elbow for leverage. It takes what seems like forever. Finally I make it to the edge of the bed. I reach up and grasp the mattress with my right hand, the one hand that seems to be working. I try to raise myself up to her. I want to touch her. To gain strength from her. To see if she is still alive. With strength I didn’t know I had, I pull myself up until I am eye level with her shape under the covers. My vision is blurry and I’m not able to focus. There’s a fog in my eyes, a mist. I can’t do anything other than blink rapidly and hope that my vision clears. Oh, the pain in my chest is unrelenting. I fight to stay conscious. Suddenly my sight returns. For the briefest of moments, Mary’s form comes into view. I can see her clearly, and when I do, I see what I need to see. The blanket she is wrapped in rises, then falls, then rises again. She’s breathing! And it’s steady and strong. She hasn’t taken the sleeping pills. I am overjoyed. My dear wife is alive.

In the next instant everything changes. My vision leaves me, going cloudy and out of focus. The pain in my chest accelerates until it is beyond unbearable. It’s crushing me. I can’t stand it anymore. I can barely make out Mary’s form under the covers. I want to touch her so badly. I force my hand forward. Then…I can touch her! Oh, joy! I want to continue living with her so badly. We’ve got so much left to share with each other. So much life.

But no, what’s this? I’m slumping to the floor. I can’t get up. I can’t move. I am drifting…drifting away. No. Not that. Please let me stay. Please let me live. Please, please, please. I struggle to come back. I fight to reach out to Mary but I am losing. Darkness is setting in. I don’t want to leave. I’m not ready to go. Not now. Please let me stay. Please. But, the darkness deepens. Oh, no. I don’t want to go away. Please let me stay. Please. I’ll do anything. Anything. Because anything is better than this. Anything is better than my life with Mary…

Being.

All.

Over.

Then final darkness. Then Sam is gone.

Later that night, Mary awakens and looks at the clock. It reads two-twenty. She stretches and rolls over, feeling wonderfully refreshed, wondering as she does so, where Sam can be. He’s definitely not in bed. She looks across the room to the door leading to the deck. Oddly, it is open. No wonder it’s so cold in here, she thinks to herself. Why did Sam leave it open? Sam. Sam! She bolts up right, wondering where he is. Did his memory fade and he forget where he was? Did he wander off and is now lost somewhere?

Her eyes frantically search the room. She happens to glance down and she sees him lying on the floor next to the bed. His arm is stretched toward her. She falls to him, and takes him in her arms, holding him and rocking him. He is limp, unresponsive. It takes but a moment for her to realize the awful reality. She’d dealt with enough death at the hospital to know without a doubt. Sam is gone and passed from this life forever. What happened to him? Her mind races, searching for answers. She holds him tighter, as tears form and run down her cheeks. He must have had a massive heart attack. It’s the only thing she can think of that makes sense. She wills her strength into his body, wanting desperately to bring him back from where he is. But it doesn’t help. She knows the awful truth; he is dead. Mary breaks down finally, her body racked with sobs, her soul aching. She loses track of time as she cradles her husband’s head in her arms, holding him to her chest, quietly weeping over the loss of this good man whom she has loved so dearly and for so long.

When she is finally able to bring herself back to the here and now, Mary knows that the right thing to do is this: She needs to call 911 emergency and report her husband’s death. The paramedics need to come to the room, examine his body and verify that his heart has quit beating. A doctor needs to pronounce him dead. Beyond those legally mandated activities, the police will probably even need to question her. After all, he died while she was in the room with him. It’s common procedure. In short, people in charge of such things need to take over.

Right. Yes. Those are the immediate things she needs to do. However, those are all just the cold logistics required by law. For her, though, more importantly and most certainly, what she really needs do is to take the first tiny steps forward in learning how to accept the loss of her husband. She needs to figure out how to move on with her life.

Mary closes her eyes to gather strength. There are so many things that she is supposed to do, supposed to take care of, but she does none of them. Instead, she continues to hold onto her husband, rocking him in her arms.

Then, after a while, she puts into place a plan of her own.

She looks at the clock on the bedside table. It reads three fifteen. There is plenty of time. She gently moves away from her husband. She stands, goes about turning on some lights and then goes to her travel bag and takes out her bottle of pills. These days sleeping pills aren’t made as strong as they used to be in order to protect users from doing what she is now going to do. But this pill bottle she obtained years ago when she worked at the hospital, long before regulations were made more restrictive. These pills are strong. She knows their dosage. She knows they will do the job.

She goes to the sink and looks at her image in the mirror. Do I really want to do this, she asks herself? I have my children and grandchildren to think about. How will this affect them? She knows her death will be traumatic, there’s no doubt about that, especially on top of the loss of Sam, her children’s loving father. But she is old and going to die someday anyway. Sam already has. Death is a necessary part of life. Somewhere along the way, in her children’s grieving process, they will come to the conclusion that both of their parents lived full and useful lives; their deaths, though sad, were certainly inevitable. And if her children have issues with the manner of her death, well, sorry kids, but that’s just too bad. It’s the way it has to be. It’s not their lives she has to face, but her own – her life with Sam, her Boss Man, now no longer by her side. It’s a life she doesn’t want to live. The truth of the matter is that the time is right. The time is now.

Mary shakes out the number of pills she calculated years ago would be the required amount and adds two more. She puts them in her mouth and washes them down with a mouthful of water from the faucet. She knows she has about fifteen minutes before they begin to take effect.

She moves through the room tidying things up. She straightens the covers on the bed. She uses a towel to wipe down the sink and carefully hangs it on the rack. She makes sure the towels in the shower are straightened and hanging nicely. She rinses the mugs they used and sets them to dry upside down on a wash cloth on the counter. She sets the book she was reading carefully on the nightstand. She finds Sam’s book and does the same on his side of the bed. When she’s done she looks around, happy with what she sees. She doesn’t want whoever finds them to think they were slobs.

In looking around the room, her eyes glance at the picture window and the black night beyond. Starting to feel drowsy she makes her way to the door leading outside and steps onto the balcony. The air is brisk and momentarily revives her, but it will take more that cold air blowing in off Lake Superior to bring her back. If fact, nothing will. Not now. In a few more minutes her body will start to shut down. She will fall asleep, and her major internal organs will slowly cease to function. Finally her heart will stop and, within five minutes, she will be gone. Just like Sam.

Mary straightens up the chairs on the deck that Sam knocked over and sets the little table between them. She folds the blanket and sets it on one of the chairs. There, she says to herself, it looks good. Neat and tidy. She turns and takes one last look at Lake Superior. Due to the darkness she can barely make it out, but the lake is certainly out there. She takes heart in knowing it will still be there after she is gone – a living memorial, if you will – a testament to her and Sam’s love. She takes a last long moment and listens. She doesn’t have to strain. She can hear the waves breaking rhythmically on the rocks nearby. It’s a sound both she and Sam have loved for the over thirty years they have been coming to the Inn. She leaves the door cracked just an inch or so and then goes inside. If she is lucky, she’ll be able to hear the waves when she lays down next to her husband.

Before she does that, however, there are a couple of things left to do. She takes her phone and Sam’s and makes sure they are turned off. Then she goes to the door leading to the hallway and places a Do Not Disturb sign on the outside handle. Then she sets the deadbolt. No one will find them until the afternoon at the earliest. She’d be long gone by then.

Stumbling slightly, she turns off all the lights but for the one by her side of the bed. She is now ready to lay down next to Sam. Before she does so she has a thought. She looks around and then sees what she is looking for; Sam’s new cane is propped up against the wall near the table where they’d played cribbage. She reaches for it and holds it in her hands. She smiles at the memory, just a short while ago, of how much he had appreciated her gift to him. She runs her hands over the beautiful smooth wood and then lays it down reverently next to him. Next she moves him onto his back, just like she’d done for countless other bodies she’d prepared for viewing when she worked at the hospital. She is gentle with him, this man she has loved her entire life. This man who was, in his own way, was much a part of her life as she was of his. The two of the together, she knows, form the absolute truth of their marriage – together they made each other whole.

Finally she lays down. Earlier she’d removed a comforter from the chest of drawers and now she pulls it over the two of them. She is so sleepy…so very sleepy. She curls up next to Sam and puts her head on her husband’s chest, something she’d done thousands of times during their long marriage. Their marriage…Words can’t begin to describe how wonderful it had been. So much, much, more than she had ever hoped it would be.

She snuggles closer to him and closes her eyes. The room is so quiet. Peaceful and still. She can hear her heart beating. She can hear it slowing down. She is beginning to lose consciousness. And then, just before sleep takes over, the last sound Mary ever hears makes its way into the room, sent on a breeze blowing softly off the lake – the rhythmic sound of the waves of Lake Superior, breaking against the rocks. Lapping against the shoreline. Calling her home.

She smiles at the memories the sound of the waves brings and then drifts…drifts…drifts away. Sleep overtakes her.

And then she hears no more.

A month after the bodies of Sam and Mary were discovered Gary the desk clerk is sitting at a round table in the Inn On the Lake’s small break room. Rick comes in through the door and Gary looks up and greets him.

“Hi.”
“Hi, yourself,” Rick says. He goes to the coffee pot, pours half a mug and sits down next to him, “What ‘cha reading?”

Gary shows him the book. It’s a brand new, but slightly worn, paperback. Rick glances at it and says, “Never heard of the guy.”

“It’s pretty good,” Gary says. He pauses and then adds, “The old guy who died in 358 last month? He was reading it.”

“Really? How do you figure that?”

“Remember I let the police in? I noticed it on the night stand. I thought I’d check it out.”

“Any good?”

“Yeah, I like it.”

They are quiet for a minute. Rick blows on the coffee and takes a sip, thinking Gary might have more to say. He likes the young employee, thinks he might even have management potential, so he prompts him,” Weird about them, isn’t it? Who would have thought they’d both die on the same night like that?”

“I know,” Gary says, carefully using a piece of what looks like scrap paper to mark his place. He now seems eager to talk, “I think about it a lot. They seemed like such nice people. I read in the newspaper the cops figured that he died of a heart attack and she couldn’t handle the grief and took her own life.” He’s silent for a minute, thinking. Then says, “I just don’t get it.”

“Get what? They were old. Maybe their time had come. Maybe it was supposed to happen.”

Gary puts his book down. “Do you really believe that? That there is a time and place for everything? Even when you die? What do you call that? Predeterminism or something like that? We studied that kind of thing in my entry level philosophy class up at school.” Gary is a liberal arts student at the University of Duluth. He points in the direction of the city before continuing, “If that’s the case, how do you explain the bottle of sleeping pills they found in her purse? Who carries something like that around with them anyway? And why?”

Gary looks hard at Rick, challenging him to give him an answer.

But Rick has no answer and is suddenly leery of the conversation. Like most people, talking about death is not something he’s comfortable doing. “I have no idea,” he says, “but I do know this – I plan to live for a long, long time. No sleeping pills for me. No way.”

He quickly gets up, rinses the mug in the sink and walks to the door, making it a point of checking his watch. “Breaks almost over. It’s pretty slow out there but I’ll man the counter. See you in a few minutes, Ok?”

Gary glances at his own watch, “Yeah. Be right there.”

He watches Rick walk out the door and then goes back to his book but is unable to concentrate. He sets it aside. He’s had trouble this past month getting over what happened that night up in room 358. He liked the old guy. He liked his wife, as well. In his backpack he’s got a copy of the book she was reading, too, by a female author he’d never heard of. Somehow those two books are making him feel closer to the old couple. But their death has rattled him, that’s for sure. It all happened so fast. He just can’t get it out of his mind. One day they were alive and well; vibrant and smiling. Next day, bang, they’re gone, just like that. Such a sudden and tragic loss. He just doesn’t get it. Why did their deaths happen the way they did? And, more to the point, how did it happen that they died together like they did? He just doesn’t understand.

He holds his book in his lap and stares out into space, letting his mind drift, thinking about death and dying, wondering what he’d do if he were in the same situation as the old couple when he got to be their age. Like Rick, he comes up with no answer.

In a few minutes he glances at his watch. Shit, time to go back to work. He quickly puts the book in his backpack, sets is on the floor, then hurries through the door, out to the lobby and up to the check-in counter. Rick gives him a look like, ‘Don’t make it a habit of taking these long breaks,’ and heads to his office. Gary watches until his boss closes the door and then glances toward the big windows nearby that look out over the lake. He sees that the sky is blue, and the waves are gently lapping on the shore. The serene scene makes him think, yet again, of that old couple who died. He feels badly they are gone. He would have liked to see them next year, maybe even have gotten to know them a little.

But, of course, they won’t be returning. In fact, when you get right down to it, who knows? Maybe next year he won’t even be working at the Inn. He’s been saving his money. He might do some traveling before he settles down. But one thing is certain – he’s got a lot of years left in him before he needs to face the end of his life; his own mortality. He’s got a lot of living to do until then.

The image of Sam and Mary fades from his mind as he turns to the business at hand. Some new guests have just come in through the front door. It’s an elderly couple. The old man is using a cane and they slowly make their way across the lobby. Gary notices that he’s wearing sensible walking shoes and she’s wearing boots. The lady entwines her right arm with his left. She is about a foot shorter than him and when she looks up at him and says something to him, they both start to chuckle quietly. Gary, watching, thinks it must be some sort of inside joke between them. They seem very comfortable and happy with each other, that’s for sure. For some odd reason, seeing them together makes him feel good.

“Hi, folks,” he says greeting them with a smile as they step up to the counter, “Welcome to The Inn On the Lake. How may I help you today?”

“Hello, young man,” the old man says. He has a friendly, open smile. It’s end of October and cold outside but he looks warm in his dark blue jacket and dark green Audubon baseball cap. He leans his diamond willow cane up against the counter and smiles at the little old lady next to him. She responds by smiling back at him and flipping her long, gray braid outside her own warm looking yellow jacket. The old man turns to Gary and points out the nearby window with its view of the boardwalk and the expanse of Lake Superior beyond. He says, “This is our first visit to your Inn. My wife and I would like a room with a view of the lake. One night only. Do you have any available?”

Gary observes the couple with a sort of vague recognition. Has he seen them before? They look like…But then shakes his head. Couldn’t be, he thinks to himself, no way. He collects himself and smiles back, “You bet I do. I’ve got a nice one for you up on the third floor.”

“Did you hear that, Marilyn? They’ve got a room for us. What do you think? Should we take it?”

Next to the old man, the lady leans in to the conversation. “How exciting. It sounds perfect, Stanley,” she says, looking at her husband and grinning, “I think that’ll be just perfect for us. Let’s take it.”

Gary watches as the old couple make eye contact with each other. Does something silently pass between them? Some secret something only they know the meaning of? He shakes his head, again, clearing it of those kinds of weird thoughts, thinking, ‘Old people, you just never know what’s going on with them,’ and waits patiently for their decision.

Finally, after a few moments, the old man breaks eye contact with his wife and looks at Gary and smiles and says, “Well, that’s all settled, then. You heard the young lady. One room with a view of the lake. We’ll take it.”

 

The Fruitaholic

“I’d like to introduce you to Jesse. This is his first meeting.” Noah gives me an encouraging smile and moves off to the side and stands against the wall.

I get up slowly, feeling the muscles in my thighs stretch and my knees crack. At the sound, I self-consciously laugh out loud. “Sorry about that,” I say, trying to make a joke. I look to my left where maybe a dozen people are seated in folding chairs in the small room. For some reason I notice three of them: a guy about sixty with long, stringy hair and a full grey beard; a thin, prim looking woman about forty in black, horned rimmed glasses, wearing a green dress and a string of pearls around her neck; and a young kid with a buzz cut and facial piercings who looks to be maybe sixteen. Those three and everyone else just stare back at me. I’m one-hundred percent on display and out of my element. Plus, I feel like I’m some kind of a nut case for being here. Maybe I am. But one thing is for certain: no one laughs. I feel a hot blush rise from under my shirt up my neck and all the way to my ears. Tough crowd, I think to myself as I take three steps to the front of the room and turn to face them.

“Hey,” I say, stammering a little. Like most everyone in the world, speaking in front of people gives me the willies. I look over at Noah Langston, my sponsor. He gives me an encouraging smile, nodding at me to go ahead. I cough to clear my throat and start again, “Hi. My name’s Jessie,” I say, happy my voice sounds more confident than I feel, “I’m a Fruitaholic.”

“Hi Jessie.” The voices of unknown strangers drone back at me, filling me with trepidation. I’m suddenly petrified and not sure I’m ready to do this.

I fight back an urge to run and glance again at Noah. I’m sure he can read my mind so he gives me another smile and a thumbs up with both hands. Two thumbs up. I appreciate his vote of confidence. He’s serious about me taking this first step on what I hope is the beginning of the road to recovery. I take a deep breath and begin, looking down at my feet, somehow taking comfort in seeing my worn, black, tennis shoes.

“Hi. Like I said, I’m Jessie and I’m here to tell you my story.”

I glance up and make eye contact with a picture on the back wall that looks like a demented clown from a Stephen King novel. Thinking to myself, That’s exactly how I feel, I begin talking, “I’m forty seven years old and have been married twenty five years to a wonderful woman named Iris. I have three great kids; my son, Joe, and my two daughters, Karen and Kate, all three of whom live in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area and all three of whom are healthy, well adjusted people. I work at the same job I’ve had for twenty-three years, senior technician for Lakeside Industries, where me and the team I’m on maintain all the computer systems for the company. We make boots and moccasins – you may have heard of us. Anyway, Iris and I have lived in Long Lake out west of here near lake Minnetonka since we got married, like I said, twenty five years ago.”

I pause and let my eyes rove away from the clown to the opposite side of the room from where Noah is standing. I zero in on a photograph of downtown Minneapolis at night, the lights beautifully illuminating the city skyline (which for some reason fills me with a sense of comfort.) I am unable (or unwilling) to make eye contact with the people in the room. For now all I can do is to push back my fear and keep talking. I take a deep breath, let it out, and continue,

“So on paper, my life looks good, right? Well, it’s not. Several years ago, um, eleven years, eight months and five days, to be exact – I remember the day like it was yesterday – I began my love affair with fruit. It happened innocently enough at a neighborhood picnic, and it involved a huge bowl of red seedless grapes. I was talking to a neighbor when I casually reached in the bowl, picked out a grape, popped it in my mouth and ate it. No big deal, right? Then I grabbed another grape, popped it in and ate it. Then another one, then another, and another, and then more and more. Then I started grabbing grapes with both hands and stuffing them into my mouth, and then…well, I couldn’t stop. In a matter of minutes, I’d consumed every single grape. I remember holding the bowl in my lap, seeing it empty except for some water and a few left over stems floating in the bottom and thinking to myself, What the hell just happened here? Before I could come up with an answer, I remember Iris standing next to me saying, ‘Jessie, let me take that and then let’s get you home. You don’t look too good.’ She pried the bowl from my grasp, put her arm around my shoulder and led me away. She told me later that the neighbors were pretty freaked out.

“I’d never eaten so much fruit at one time before in my whole life and I’ll tell you one thing right now, I didn’t sleep too well that night.”

I quit talking as I finally got the nerve up to look around the room. Most people were watching me intently, encouraging me and nodded back; all except for one guy around thirty with a goatee and black framed glasses who had fallen asleep. It seemed most everyone in the room could relate to what I’d done in some way, shape or form. It gave me the courage to go on.

“I guess that bowl of grapes was the beginning. I can’t for the life of me figure out what caused me to do such a thing and my shrink couldn’t figure it out it out either. I started seeing him a few months after my first overdose on those grapes when it became plain that I couldn’t control my desire for fruit on my own. It was Iris’s idea. ‘You need help, Jessie,’ is what she told me, and I have to say that I agreed with her.”

By the way, my shrink’s name is Dr. Rosenblum, but I’m not supposed to use names in group. That’s what Noah told me anyway, so I didn’t during my talk and, to be honest, I’m kind of surprised I remembered not to blurt it out, but I did – remember, that is.

“‘You’re definitely addicted, Jessie, he told me after we’d talked awhile during our first session, “‘I’ve never had a case like this before, but you are clearly on your way to becoming an addict, a Fruitaholic.'”

I look up and glance out over the crowd again, “I have to say, the first time my shrink uttered those words, fruitaholic, I laughed out loud. I still do, on occasion, but the sad fact of the matter is this: He was right. I am a Fruitaholic. I’m addicted to fruit and that addiction has almost ruined my life.”

Again, sage nods from everyone. Even Mr. Goatee, who had woken up, joins in.

I suddenly realize I had said all I had to say. I look at Noah and he smiles an encouraging smile and gives me one thumbs up and motions me from the front. I go to my chair and sit down, wiping the sweat from my brow. I hadn’t realized I’d been perspiring so much. I take a deep breath and exhale. I am emotionally exhausted. Completely drained. Noah conducts the rest of the meeting, but I don’t remember a thing he says.

When it’s over, I stand up and make small talk with a thin, energetic, man named Randy who’s in his forties. He has a nicely trimmed mustache and more energy than any three people I know. The guy jumps around so much as he tells me about his job in finance, shifting from one foot to the next, that I get dizzy. When he mentions that he runs marathons for a hobby I have no doubt he’s probably won a few. I sit down and recover my equilibrium after he hops off to go talk with Mr. Goatee. Noah strolls up to me and says, “Ready to go, Jessie?”

Was I ever. I nod that I am, realizing that I’m falling into the nodding habit of the other fruitaholics. Maybe I really did belong. Maybe…but I am too tired to contemplate the possible  ramifications.

“Can we go get some coffee or something?” I ask, “I’m kind of wiped out.”

Noah, bless him, takes me by the arm and leads me from the room. “Let’s go downstairs to the coffee shop. My treat.”

I gladly follow him out of the meeting room and down the stairs. I can’t believe how fried I suddenly am.

Leon Silverman is a meth-head who cleaned up his act fifteen years ago and decided ‘Give back to the community,’ as he purportedly once said, just prior to the beginning of a series of relapses that are still going on to this day. I met him once and he’s a nice guy, just a little hyper for my taste, but still a pretty decent person. Thankfully, the coffee shop he opened is still going strong. It’s in a two story, white frame house built in the twenties in the Linden Hills neighborhood of southwest Minneapolis. It’s called Jumping Jack Java (a nod to his favorite band) and the first floor is a hip, trendy, place with slanted wooden floors and mismatched, but comfortable, furniture. It’s usually packed with Gen Y’ers plugged into their electronic world, but it’s also home to all sorts of other folks. You’re likely to see young mothers with their kids parked next to them in strollers, businessmen conducting meetings or working on their laptops, people visiting with friends, folks sitting alone and reading, and sometimes even the occasional baby boomer hippie, nursing a cold cup of coffee, staring into space before putting pen to paper, jotting down a line or two of poetry. And, now that I think about it, just about every other kind of person and generational nametag in between. In addition to great coffee, it’s a pretty good place to settle in for an hour or two of people watching. But that’s not why I am now sitting at a table with Noah nursing a mug of French Roast.

The upper floor is composed of small meeting rooms and that’s where the Minnesota Chapter of Fruitaholics Anonymous meets every Tuesday night from seven to eight. After the meeting was over and Noah suggested we go downstairs, get a cup of coffee and talk, that’s where we headed. Noah was sipping a mocha and munching on a chocolate chip cookie, while I choose plain oatmeal (no raisins, for obvious reasons) to go with the French Roast.

“So how do you think it went?” he asks, blowing on his steaming mug, taking his time between sips, his dark eyes watching my every move.

I like Noah a lot. He’s in his mid-fifties, has a bushy brown beard and keeps his head shaved and oiled. He looks kind of like Alan Ginsburg. (In contrast, I’m pretty normal looking –  just under six feet, have a bit of a paunch, thinning hair and am clean shaven; all in all, pretty unremarkable.) He’s a retired airplane pilot, happily married and enjoys swing dancing with Lois, his wife of over thirty years. He’s tall and thin, favors plaid shirts and black jeans and wears wire rim glasses, keeping with the Ginsburg look. (I like blue jeans, the aforementioned tennis shoes and tee shirts. The flannel shirt thing with him I kind of dig and have started wearing them myself.) He looks intellectual and he’s quite smart but doesn’t make a big deal out of it. In short, he’s a good guy and easy to talk with and we hit it off right away. He’s also kind, thoughtful and caring, traits I’m not possessed with in massive amounts – well, hardly any amount, to be honest, but Noah is working with me on that.

“If you’re willing to try to help yourself,” he’s told me time and time again, “And meet me half way, I’ll do everything I can to help you.”

I guess you can’t ask for anything more than that.

“I don’t know,” I say in answer to his question about how the meeting went, “Fine, I guess.” I really don’t have clue, to be honest. I was so nervous while I standing in front of the group that I mostly just spewed out a bunch of stream of consciousness stuff. If I had my talk on tape I’d probably puke listening to it. “What do you think?” I ask, stalling for time. In the back of my mind I’m wondering if maybe he’s gearing up to tell me he can’t do anything for me. After a performance like mine, I wouldn’t blame him.

But Noah isn’t like that at all. As my sponsor, he is sincerely committed to helping me come to grips with my addiction and to finding ways to help me cope with it. He takes a sip of coffee before answering, “It was Ok,” he says, a little hesitantly for my money. Then he takes another sip and sets his mug down before thoughtfully continuing, “You gave them a nice overview of yourself and your family and job and life. That was good.” I smile at him, thinking that he was going to complement me further, but I was going to be disappointed because he didn’t.”My biggest concern is that I don’t think you’re taking your addiction very seriously, or the meeting either, for that matter.”

Shit, no complement then. Well, at least he was being honest.

I laugh out loud, maybe, in retrospect, a sign that he was correct in his observation about not taking the meeting seriously, “What do you mean? I ask, trying not to sound defensive, “I did the best I could.”

“Well, for starters, you made a few jokes about being addicted throughout your talk. Now, don’t get me wrong, having a sense of humor about it is good. Really good, in fact. But in the beginning, like where you are now with getting sober and staying sober, well, your joking came across as disingenuous. In other words, like you aren’t taking your addiction sincerely and using jokes and humor to hide the truth.”

“The truth?” I stare right at him, trying to be assertive and probably failing, because deep down I know he’s right, “What do you mean by the truth?”

“It’s plain and simple,” Noah says, taking another sip of coffee, giving me time to think about what he’s saying, “I don’t think you think you have a problem.

Well there you go, I think to myself, the cat’s finally out of the bag. Forget about being defensive. I’m opening my mouth to defend myself when Noah cuts me short, “When was the last time you had some fruit?” he asks pointedly, his eyes probing mine.

I wilt under his intense gaze, “Three days ago,” I confess, “Last Saturday night. I ate a bowl of strawberries.”

“Was that all?”

“And an apple or two.” I pause and then add, “Well, seven.”

“And…”

“And nine bananas,” I whisper, “I drove to an all night convenience store and bought every single one of them that they had.” Noah looks at me sadly, slowly shaking his head and opens his mouth to speak, but I quickly jump in and interrupt him before he can say something like, See what I mean, “But that’s all I ate,” I blurt out, then hurry to add, “I swear.” For some reason I cross my heart, something I hadn’t done since I was maybe eight or nine years old. I can hear the pleading tone in my voice, a tone I’m not proud of.

Noah shrugs, reaches across the table and touches my arm in a show of solidarity, “I get it, Jessie. I really do. Staying sober isn’t easy. It requires, first and foremost, commitment on your part.” He sighs and sits back and thoughtfully munches on his cookie. Then he quickly sits up straight and slaps the table with both hands, startling me, “So we have a lot work to do. It’s going to require time and commitment.” He looks at me, challenging me and asks, “Are you up for it?”

I think back to last Saturday night and my losing bout with the strawberries and the apples and the bananas. I had ended up passed out on the floor with strawberry juice all over my face. The cramps in my stomach the next morning were unbearable. I had made a fool of myself in front of Iris, yet again. The entire episode had been another embarrassment in an increasingly long line of embarrassments.

I make my decision. “I am,” I say, crossing my heart (again!) “I swear to you, man, I really am.”

“Ok,” he says, grinning at me and rubbing his hands together, “Let’s get started.”

Most people would think being addicted to fruit was not all that big a deal. Hell, fruit is supposed to be good for you, right? Well, in one sense it is of course, especially when combined with grains and proteins – it makes for a healthy diet and everyone knows that. But the issue is not really fruit in its most, elementary sense – a basic food group. The real issue for someone like me and my fellow fruitaholics is the addictive behavior associated with our desire for fruit; when that desire (like the innocent enjoyment of a ripe pear or sweet, juicy, peach) becomes such a powerful force that it literally takes over your life; when your thoughts every moment day and night are consumed with fruit and ‘When will I get some?’ (Hopefully, soon) and, ‘How long can I go without succumbing to my desire for it?’ (Hopefully, more than a few minutes.)

Noah put it well as we are talking later that night when he says, “It’s not fruit in and of itself that’s the issue. It’s thinking about it all the time that’s the really problem. The desire gets in your head and overwhelms you. All you think about is, Where’s my next fix coming from? (He uses his fingers to finger quote fix.) He looks at me, his gaze deep and intense, “And do you know why?”

When he’s talking to me like this, it’s like a teacher-student thing. I kind of like it. His confidence is reassuring, but I still don’t have a clue as to where he’s headed, “Not really,” I say.

“Come on, Jessie. You’re a smart guy. Think about it.”

I appreciate his vote of confidence regarding my intelligence, something I would rate as a C plus at best. But I take a stab at answering him anyway, “Because that all I do,” I tell him, “I don’t do any work. I don’t really have meaningful conversations with people. I’m distant from those I love and who love me, and not a lot of fun to be around. In a nutshell, I’m trapped by my thoughts of fruit, constantly thinking about when the next time will be that I’ll be able to get some.” I’d read enough self-help pamphlets and addiction related books to take an educated guess as to what he was getting at.

“Exactly.” In my mind, I go ‘Bingo’ as Noah continues, “It takes over your whole life. All you do is think about where your next fix (finger quotes, again) is coming from; whether you’re awake and thinking about fruit or sleeping and dreaming about it. You understand what I’m telling you, right?”

I nod my head, “Yeah, I get that.”

“Really?” he asks skeptically, “I’m not sure you do.” I can feel perspiration suddenly forming under my arms pits. At the rate this evening is going, what with all the sweating at the meeting and now this with Noah, I’m on my way to becoming severely dehydrated. I take another sip of coffee and think about what he’s said. I hate to be challenged, especially when I’m trying to dodge the truth. ” He shakes his head sadly, “Apparently you don’t get it enough to be serious enough to do anything about it. Remember what you told me about what happened at work a year or two ago?”

Oh. So that’s what he was getting. That incident at Lakeside. The memory comes roaring back with a vengeance.

In the early years of my addiction I had been able to keep my cravings for fruit under control, especially at my place of employment, sneaking an apple here, a slice of watermelon there, and not making a big deal out of it around the people I worked with. But that all went out with the bathwater a year and half ago after I had a rather troubling experience with blueberry pie at a company dinner.

I had been approached by my boss, Ellen Downs, who told me she wanted me to give a presentation about the new data processing system we were going to be installing at Lakeside Industries the following year. All of the sales people would be linked to it and it would help manage inventory more accurately and..blah, blah, blah.

“Just give the audience an basic overview, Jessie, and try not to bore everyone to death. I’ll give you ten minutes.”

I assumed she was joking about the boring people to death comment (although with her it was always hard to tell), so I laughed a little and watched her reaction carefully. When she didn’t respond and stared back at me with a severe expression, I hastened to reassure her, and said with more bluster than was probably necessary, “Bore people to death? Me? Not on your life. It’ll be a great presentation.” I tried to sound confident, all the while deep down I was doing my best to believe the words I was saying, especially given my aforementioned fear of speaking in front of people.

She patted me on the top of my and said, “Good boy.” Just like you’d say to a dog. No getting around it, now that I think about it, why beat around the bush? She really was a jerk.

I was worried I was going to botch my talk and Ellen the head-patter would be mad and take it out on me by not giving me a much needed bump in my salary come raise time, so I did my best not to let my nervousness get the better of me. And, miracle of miracles, I also managed to stay sober and clean for nearly a week leading up to the event, with only the occasional lusting glance at rows of kumquats on display in the food line of the company cafeteria to tempt me, which I’m happy to say I valiantly fought off. And that was a good thing. In fact, I was pretty proud of myself, thinking maybe I had finally become strong enough to fight for (and maintain) my fruit sobriety.

The dinner was an occasion to celebrate the end of the company’s fiscal year. It was held in the beginning of October and was historically a chance for salespeople and managers to celebrate and blow off steam. The Big Wigs at Lakeside rented a huge banquet room at the four star Hilton Hotel in downtown Minneapolis. There were twenty five round tables and twenty employees seated at each – salespeople, managers of all levels, and support staff, including us technicians. The atmosphere was festive with classic rock music piped in through overhead speakers. Food and alcohol was flowing freely and in no time everyone in the room was happy and relaxed and loudly on their way to becoming intoxicated. Everyone but me. Not only was I a committed teetotaler when it came to alcohol (I just didn’t like the taste of the stuff), but I was also too nervous to eat.

Next to me Sam Jacobson, programmer extraordinaire and my best friend at work, slugged down half a bottle of Budweiser and let out a loud belch before slapping me on the back and laughing loudly, “Hey Jessie man, lighten up will, ya? Have a drink and get with the party. Don’t be such a friggin’ stick-in-the-mud.”

In response to being slapped, I choked on the water I was trying to swallow and sputtered, “I’m just thinking about that damn presentation – you know that talk I have to give.” I coughed and cleared my throat, “I’m worried about it, that’s all.”

“Hell,” Sam expostulated, “You’ve got nothing to worry about.” He looked around the crowded banquet room as he downed the rest of his Bud. I followed his gaze. The place was packed with people laughing, eating, drinking and talking at the top of their lungs. The music was cranked up to ten or eleven. The entire party was amped up loud and getting louder. “No one cares about what you have to say anyway,” he yelled in my ear, “They’re all too loaded.” He laughed long and hard before collapsing in a fit of coughing. Then he grabbed another bottle of beer from a passing server and took a long, deep swallow, definitely on the way to becoming loaded himself.

Funny, I thought, as I turned away and back to trying to control the panic rising in my chest. Real funny. I wished I could believe him. But I was a loyal little trouper. Ellen was counting on me to do professional presentation, which, of course, I hoped to do and, beyond that, I wanted to do a good job, if not for her and the few people who would be paying attention, at least for myself – I didn’t want to come across as a complete idiot.

If I could only get a little help…something to help build up my courage…something to help settle myself down. I checked my watch. The time for my presentation was rapidly drawing near. My nerves seemed to have suddenly taken over and were kicking into high gear, causing my stomach to turn cartwheels and my throat to constrict. I coughed again to clear it. It didn’t help. While my heart rate went up and sweat started beading up on my forehead, I scanned the room looking for an escape; a way out. Who was I kidding? I was trapped. If I bolted, I’d never hear the end of it and Ellen would have some harsh words for me (at the very least) plus, a probable demotion and dock in pay (at the very most.) I had no alternative. I had suck it up and give that damn presentation.

The sweat began in earnest, seeming to pour out of every pore.

A commotion behind me suddenly caught my attention. Through the swinging doors leading into the room came a parade of at least a dozen servers, each dressed in white and each pushing a heavily laden cart. I was about to turn away from them when I looked closer. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Dessert was being served and it wasn’t just any old dessert like your traditional bowl of melting orange sherbet or microscopically thin slice of dark chocolate cake. Not even close. It was much, much better. Laid out on those carts were thick individual slices of pie – blueberry pie to be exact, the sides of each slice dripping in berry juice pooling on its plate in purple puddles of splendor. The crusts were shining in a sugary glaze under the bright lights of the banquet room, glistening like diamonds in a high end jewelry case. My eyes locked onto them. Hundreds of plates of pie were being paraded through the room right before my very eyes. They were beyond gorgeous – they were a dream come true. I was unable to stop myself as I started to slip, at first just a little, then a little more, then a lot (damn, damn, damn!), before finally falling head long off my sober wagon, tumbling into a heap of wanton desire. I wanted each and every one of those beautiful berry filled delights. And I wanted them now. I grabbed the edge of the table with both hands and held on tight, fighting the good fight of sobriety as I tried to hold firm to my resolve to stay fruit free.

It occurred to me that while everyone was enjoying this, their scrumptious dessert, I was going to be standing at a podium on the stage in front of them, speaking into a microphone, talking about ‘The Future of Automated Servers’ which is what my talk was about. Even I got bored thinking about it. I needed some of that pie to help get me through the arduous task that lay ahead.

My eyes zeroed in on individual slices as the servers went around to each table, setting down plates of pie, lovely, mouth watering pie. Each plate of ambrosia was calling to me like the sweetest of dreams, one slice of pie to a plate, one plate to a person. Over four hundred of those beauties sharing the room with me. My, my, my. My delectable blueberry pie. From table to table the servers went, dispensing heavenly gifts around and around the room until all the tables were laden with dessert – slices of blueberry pie that, each and everyone, seemed to be calling to me (a cacophony of fruit), so beguiling they were, so enticing.

A server set a plate down in front of me. Oh my god, the temptation was so strong I almost gave in (and dove in, headfirst), but I didn’t. I was still fighting the good fight. Still battling to stay clean, holding onto the table with all my might. By now my knuckles had turned white, my hands nearly numb. I pried my eyes away from the pie in front of me and turned to watch my fellow Lakeside employees, wanting to savor vicariously the delicious eating of the pie, the tasting of the beautiful fruit, the wolfing down of that tantalizing dessert.

But what was this? No one was eating! Everyone was neglecting their pie, paying no attention to it at all. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People had the chance of a lifetime to partake of this luscious, fruit filled experience and, instead, what were they doing? Well, they weren’t eating, that much was for certain. No. Instead, they were (of all of the fool-hearty things) just sitting around talking and laughing and drinking and carrying on as if nothing stupendous was happening. But something was happening: they were giving up their chance to top off the evening with a taste of heaven – of blueberries – of fruit!

In my increasingly confused and befuddled state, I wondered why no one was having their dessert. What was the delay? Were they waiting for me to begin my talk? I looked up to the front of the room where all the top level managers were seated at a long table. Ellen was holding down a place of honor near the middle and was animatedly talking to Larry Munson, vice-president of operations, her immediate boss and second in command of the company. They seemed very friendly with each other. During a break in their conversation she sat back and smugly looked out over the banquet hall, enjoying the opportunity of lording over all of us minions. Her gaze passed over me, and I could tell she refused to make eye contact. It was just the kind of thing she’d do. I checked my wrist watch. I knew it was time to begin my talk; she had told me I was to start when the dessert was served. I was confused. Wasn’t she going to introduce me? That was the plan. Should I just get up and go to the stage and start talking without any introduction at all? What did she want me to do?

Sweat beaded on my forehead and started running into my eyes. Next to me, my friend Sam was turned away and talking to one of the other technicians. I overheard something about the Vikings, our professional football team. Sam was a diehard fan. God, once some people started talking about sports…I knew he’d be no help.

I took a chance and loosened my grip on the table with one hand and wiped the perspiration from my brow. My vision blurred for a moment before it cleared. Then I detected a motion from the front of the room and looked. Ellen had risen and was making her way to the podium. She was wearing a brown suit and sensible shoes. Her short hair had been cut even shorter for the occasion. She looked like a librarian on that fifties television show, Leave It To Beaver.

I gripped the table more tightly. As she walked, she looked to her left, her beady eyes making contact with my rather blurry ones, and I swear she snapped her fingers at me. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe something in my brain snapped (well obviously it did, as you are about to find out), because I couldn’t help it…Seemingly in another world, I loosened my hold on the table and slowly rose to my feet. I straightened my back and adjusted the lapels of my sport coat with what I felt sure was an air of confident resolve. Then, instead of walking with a firm and determined step to the front of the room and the awaiting podium and microphone, where I was supposed to turn to the assembled crowd of my peers to offer up my speech in a flowing, melodious voice – what I did, instead, was this: I lost my compose. I lunged to the table next to me and, like a squirrel frantically gathering nuts for the winter, I grabbed one slice of pie, then another, and then another and another, and stuffed each piece in my mouth until my cheeks bulged. I chewed frantically, swallowing as fast as I could to keep from choking, stuffing in more and more fresh pie until my mouth was jammed, the blue juice running down the sides of my face, dripping onto my shirt on its way to the floor. When I couldn’t get any more in I started stuffing pie into the pockets of my sport coat, and when they were full I stuffed pie into the pockets of my pants, and when they were full I somehow ripped open my shirt and started stuffing pie down my front as from one table to another I went, around the room, grabbing slices of pie and stuffing them in my shirt, and when I was done one table I went on to another one, stuffing pie wherever I could put it, in my shirt and in my pockets, in my mouth, gathering slices of pie like a manic squirrel (or a manic fruitaholic).

When my pockets were full and my shirt bulging, it looked like I had nowhere else to put any more pie. Except I did. All the pie I had been and stuffing in my mouth I had swallowed and my mouth was empty. So I casually grabbed a big slice from the nearest plate, opened my mouth wide, crammed it in and chewed that pie deliberately, masticating it on and on and on until I was finally finished. Then I swallowed and turned to the front table where Ellen and the Big Wigs sat, gave them a salute (flinging blue berries in an purple arc out in front of me) and started walking toward them. What I planned to do I, to this day, had no idea. But as I took my first step, I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw it was Sam. “Buddy…” he said, anxiously, “Jessie, get a grip on yourself. Calm down.” He turned me around so I was facing him. Not a pretty picture I’m sure: me, with my manic eyes staring back at him. Me, covered in blueberries and blueberry juice and pie crust. Me, completely out of my mind. “Come on, Jessie,” he said, firmly gripping my shoulder, “Let’s get you out of here.”

And that’s all I remember.

I awoke in the emergency room of Hennepin County Memorial Hospital in downtown Minneapolis early the next morning. I thought I was alone – I deserved to be, but I wasn’t. My longsuffering wife, the ever patient Iris, was sitting in a chair next to the bed, right by my side.

“Jessie, thank god you’re alright. You don’t know how worried I was.” She stood up, leaned over and gave me a big hug before sitting back down. She took a hold of my hand and looked at me compassionately, taking the measure of her pathetic husband. It took a minute to get my bearings. When I realized I was in the hospital I was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of guilt. I had not only let myself down again, but also my loved ones. As if reading my thoughts, the next words out of Iris’ mouth were these: “Jessie, I’m so afraid for your physical and mental health. You really need to get some help.”

I nodded my head contritely and said, “I know.” I looked at Iris and tried to convince her with my eyes and my chagrined expression that I meant what I said. I must have been successful because for the first time in a long, long time, my long suffering wife actually smiled at me as she leaned over and gave me another big hug and told me how glad she was. She really did believe me.

Too bad I was going to let her down. But it would be awhile before that happened. Until then, I really did make an effort.

At the time of my company party fiasco, I’d been addicted to fruit for ten years and it was obvious that I really couldn’t continue to try any longer to manage my addiction on my own. And if I ever needed a reminder that I needed help there were dozens of photos and videos posted on social media of me binging on pie, blueberries running down my face, sticking to my clothes, stuck in my hair and hands…blueberries everywhere. Believe me, it was a sight better off not contemplating for long, if at all. (Though the images of me with my purple face smeared in crushed blueberries with blueberry juice dripping off my chin occasionally pops up in my mind, even to this day. Unfortunately.)

But my predicament was made even more disturbing because over the rest of that year and into the next, I still was not able to make myself get the help I needed – even though I told Iris I would. Can you believe that? I still can’t. And I still can’t believe that Iris didn’t boot me out of the house, but she didn’t – she stayed by my side, ever faithful, trying to help in any way she could, all the while hoping I’d get better. But I didn’t get better because the fact of the matter was that I hadn’t hit rock bottom yet. That low point took another year to attain. Another year of binging on whatever fruit was available, and then quitting, and then binging some more and then quitting, and then binging some more…well, you get the drift. I still can’t believe it took that long. And more to the point, I’m surprised any one close to me (specifically Iris and my kids) continued to have anything to do with me. But they did, and for me to say I’m eternally grateful doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of my true feeling.

The final straw came eight months ago at my youngest daughter’s wedding. I had been clean for a few weeks leading up to the big day and feeling pretty good about myself – confident that I had finally turned the corner and could handle any fruit temptations that came my way. I should also say this: I dearly love my children. My oldest boy Joe is twenty four and works as a graphic arts engineer for a local media design company. Karen is twenty two and has just started teaching second grade in south Minneapolis. Kate is twenty and works in a used bookstore. She was born with Guillain-Barre syndrome, has limited use in the left side of her body and has trouble moving her arm and leg, but her affliction has not stopped her from leading a complete and rewarding life. She loves books, loves to read and has a ‘can do’ attitude that I’m envious of. (She gets it from her mother.)

Kate had been working at Old Thyme Books near Macalester College in St. Paul for nearly a year when she met Caleb, a twenty four year old graduate student in American Literature, when he came into her bookstore looking for an obscure book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kate knew some sources on-line that Caleb was unfamiliar with and helped him find the book he needed. That was over a year ago. One thing led to another, they fell in love and decided get married. They wanted an outdoor July wedding and the beautiful Minneapolis Zen Garden near picturesque Lake Harriet in southwest Minneapolis was the perfect location. Iris and I were overjoyed for them.

The day dawned bright and sunny, the kind of picture perfect Minnesota summer day that makes you feel glad to be alive. The Zen Garden is a contemplative five acre secluded spot nestled between Lake Harriet and a nearby bird sanctuary. It’s also just across the street from the renown Minneapolis Rose Gardens, and the sweet scent of hundreds of roses in bloom filled the air adding to the splendor of the day. The wedding was set to begin at three in the afternoon. The kids (that’s what Iris and I fondly called Kate and Caleb) had written the words for their ceremony and a nondenominational minister would officiate. Three of their friends would provide music – a fiddle, a guitar and a standup bass.

Everyone was having so much fun and in such good moods, talking and catching up, that the ceremony didn’t begin until nearly three-fifteen. There were maybe forty people there – most of them friends of Kate and Caleb. Iris and I stood in front and off to the side, both of us smiling proudly at this, the first wedding of our three children. We couldn’t have been happier.

Did I mention earlier I had been sober for a few weeks? I had been and was feeling pretty good about both my sobriety and myself in general, confident in my ability to remain on the straight and narrow path of zero fruit indulgence.

About half way through the wedding, the musicians started a quiet version of ‘Seven Bridges Road’, a favorite song of mine. My mind started wandering and my eyes followed suit. My gaze traveled across the Zen Garden with it’s beautiful polished stones, reflecting pool for meditation, and the simple but elegant plantings of yew, cypress and blue spruce. I felt my heart lift with joy for my daughter. This is what Iris and I wanted for all of our kids, for them to be happy, and it looked like Kate was on her way.

Perhaps I let my guard down. Perhaps I let my over confidence in my sobriety get the better of me. I don’t know for certain, but what I do know is that I let my gaze travel outside of the peaceful Zen Garden, away from the charming wedding ceremony and over to the big community garden down the street. It was about fifty yards away, but even from that distance I could see where people had planted row after row of colorful annuals, verdant vegetables and…(oh, be still my beating heart) fruit. Luscious fruit. Lovely, gorgeous, scrumptious fruit. I could see canes of blackberries and raspberries and bushes of blueberries – all swollen and ripe, gleaming in the sun. Near to them were rows of strawberries with bright red jewels hanging by their stems, bursting with sugary sweetness. The entire garden was swollen with fruit in abundance and it was all out there waiting, beckoning for me to come to it and indulge.

I know my mind started to go blank and, in looking back, I should have been able to control myself. But I couldn’t. My heart rate sped up and my body was suddenly bathed in perspiration. I could feel sweat running down my back. I clenched my fists and forced them to my side. Then I put them in my pockets. Stay the course, I said to myself. You’ve been sober for two weeks. You can’t afford to give in. Not now. Not at Kate and Caleb’s wedding. Get a grip. Be strong. You can do this.

I fought a battle with my desire. I fought valiantly. But, in the end, I was unable to fight hard enough. I was too weak and, in the end, succumbed to my need for fruit.

Iris told me later that she tried to help. “I knew something was up when I looked over at you, and saw you weren’t even paying attention to Kate’s lovely ceremony. I followed your line of vision and when I saw that community garden with all the fruit I knew something bad might happen. I grabbed you by the arm and tried to get your attention. I told you to try and get a hold of yourself. But you were in such a state you didn’t hear me. You were already mentally gone. Then you bolted from my grasp and ran…ran faster than I’d ever seen you run before, straight for the fruit in that garden. On the way you even knocked down a little six year old girl who was playing in the grass with her puppy. You didn’t even stop to see if she was injured. Thank goodness she wasn’t. You just ran like a man possessed, straight for that garden. At that moment I was afraid I’d lost you forever.”

She told me all of this later that night at the hospital – just before she left to go home after finding out I was going to be alright. “Will I see you tomorrow?” I asked. I felt horrible. I’d ruined the wedding. I’d let down Kate and Caleb, and I’d disappointed Iris.

“I’ll be back to pick you up at nine in the morning and take you home. Then we’re going to have a talk.” Her voice was firm and no nonsense. She shook her head in what I could only imagine was disgust (or maybe pity) as she turned on her heel and left my hospital room, saying nothing more, leaving me alone and all by myself.

Oh, shit. I’d really messed up this time.

That night in the hospital was bad and not only because I was dealing with my fruit hangover. I was the loneliest I’d ever felt. I also had a ton of guilt about how poorly I’d acted; how I’d ruined Kate’s wedding and let down Iris. But, I have to say, I still felt I was going to get through it Ok; that the consequences of my behavior would be negligible, just like all the other times in the past. After all, Iris was coming back the next morning to pick me up and take me home, right? If she was going to do that she must have already reconciled herself towards me and what I’d done. Perhaps even forgiven me, just like she’d done so many times in the past.

Shows you how stupid and self-absorbed I really was.

Iris showed up to my room right on time that next morning. She and the nurse got me situated in a wheelchair and Iris pushed it down to the hospital entrance and loaded me into our car. She said nothing to me from the time she entered my room, up to and including the entire forty five minute drive home to Long Lake. I tried to engage her in conversation but she was having none of it. By the time we arrived home I was finally beginning to realize that things weren’t the way they used to be or were supposed to be. Not by a long shot.

Once inside Iris sat me down on the couch in the living room. I barely had time to get settled when she stepped back, stood up straight and tall right in front of me and delivered her ultimatum, “This is it, Jessie. We’ve been married for twenty five years and for nearly half of them you’ve been an addict. You are addicted to fruit and you say you want to get better, but you don’t do anything to try to help yourself. I love you but I’m exhausted and worn out. I can’t take it anymore.” She was honest, blunt and to the point. I’ll never forget her words. She didn’t cry. She didn’t rant and rave or scream and throw things (all things she’d done in the past.) No, what she said was, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ Well, I thought to myself, she’s pissed and I don’t blame her. But I can deal with that. In fact, how much worse can it get? Plenty, I found out, because then she added, “If you don’t get help, I’m going to leave you. I promise,” she pointed her finger right at me to make her point, “I’m done putting up with you and your addictive behavior. You can’t get better on your own. You’ve proven that time and time again. You need professional help and you need it right now.”

And here’s me, still not convinced I’ve got that bad of a problem, spreading my arms wide, giving her a big smile and making a joke out what she was telling me by saying, “Hey there, honey, it’s not so bad. I was sober for two weeks. Give me a chance. I can do it again.”

I’ll never forget what she did. She said nothing. Instead, she pulled out her iphone and brought up some photos and videos that people had sent her taken the day before at the ceremony. She held the phone right in front of my face so I wouldn’t miss a thing. As she showed the pictures to me, I was no longer embarrassed my behavior. I was appalled. The image of a tornado sucking up everything in its path of destruction is an apt vision of me decimating that poor community garden, ripping raspberries and blackberries and blueberries and strawberries from their vines and bushes and branches, gorging myself whether the fruit was ripe or not. A shark tearing into a school of fish is also apt. But the real time images of me in a tuxedo on my hands and knees crawling through the dirt, wolfing down any fruit I could get my hands on as if my life depended on it (and in a way it probably did), is an image that will haunt me from the rest of my life.

I looked up from my seat on the couch and gazed into my wife’s eyes. She had put up with my behavior for eleven years now. I knew it was time to stop and stop for good. “I will quit, Iris, I swear to god, I will. But please, please, please don’t leave me.”

I stood up to hold her, hug her and gain strength from her presence. Iris would have none of it. She put up both her hands to stop me.

“You get sober and stay sober, Jessie. Then we’ll talk about what comes next.” She put both her hands on my chest and pushed me backward. I fell back onto the couch and watched as she walked out of the room, saying over her shoulder, “You’ve used up all the extra chances I’m going to give you, buddy. Get help, and get it now.” She walked into the kitchen and slammed the door, leaving  me to myself.

Years ago I had basically quit going to my shrink (don’t ask me why). I called Dr. Rosenblum that day and had my first session with him two days later. I was willing to do anything to save my marriage.

We did a quick catch up that lasted about a minute before the good doctor got down to business. The first thing he reminded me of was this: “An addict feeds his addiction, whether it’s booze or drugs or, in your case, fruit, to not only satisfy his graving, but to give his life meaning.”

“That’s all?” I asked, thinking there had to be more.

He got mad, his eyes shooting daggers at me, “Of course not.”

Well, I at least I was right.

“There are all kinds of factors contributing to your addiction,” he continued, “And we will look into all of them. But, for you primarily, Jessie, your entire life is focused around fulfilling your hunger and desire for fruit. It has become the focus of all you do. Your wife, your family, you job, they all have become secondary to your figuring out ways to satisfy your desire. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

I nodded my head.

“If you don’t make a change. You will lose everything.”

I started perspiring. I didn’t want to give up all that was precious to me; Iris, my children, even my job. I had to make that change he was talking about. “What do we do?”

“We will begin right now.”

So I started going to regular, weekly, sessions with Dr. Rosenblum, once again, just like eleven years earlier. But this time it was different. This time I really was committed. And, I have to say, it was just like being in school again (kind of like with Noah.) I won’t bore you with the details, but the more I understood that not only did I want to change my behavior, but that I was actually capable of doing it, the better I felt, and the more things began to make sense. It all boiled down to winning my back my respect in the eyes of Iris and my three kids. In short, I began making an honest effort or, as we stay in treatment, putting in the work. I’ve only just begun and I’ll say this: I know I have a lot of work to do, but I have too much to lose if I don’t. It may take the rest of my life, in fact I’m told it probably will, but I’m committed to changing my behavior, dealing with my addiction to fruit and winning back the love of Iris and my children and the respect of the people I work with. It’s what my life is all about now.

It was Dr. Rosenblum who introduced me to Noah.

“I believe we are ready for the next step, Jessie,” he told me, after I’d been seeing him for about seven months. “I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.” He handed me a slip of paper with Noah’s phone number on it, “I think he can help you and do things for you that I can’t.”

Later that week Noah and I met for the first time. It was at Jumping Jack Java and we were sitting at a table by the window, having coffee and getting to know each other. When he started telling me about Fruitaholics Anonymous and suggested that I start attending their meetings I coughed into my mug before sputtering, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I started laughing as I wiped French Roast from my face, “What kind of a lame group is that, for god’s sake?” I took a big bite of the ginger cookie I was eating to make my point.

Nonplussed, Noah said, “It’s a group dealing with the same issues you are, Jessie. They’re good people,” He looked me in the eye and smiled, “I think they might be able to help you,” he added, calmly.

After talking about it for a while, I reluctantly agreed, mainly because I was willing to do anything to get a handle on my addiction, even if it meant hanging around with a bunch of…Wait a minute. I was going to say, ‘losers’, but these were people who had the same problems as me. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too quick to judge. In fact, maybe they knew something I didn’t (well, that was obvious.) Maybe I could even learn from their experiences. I decided to give it a try. And, as long as I was trying, I was going try to keep an open mind.

That was five weeks ago and brings me to where we are now, me sitting in Jumping Jack Java talking with Noah after my first Fruitaholics Anonymous meeting, planning my future. I look across the table at his calm demeanor and say, “Dr. Rosenblum believes he’s done all he can for me and I believe him. I’m smart enough to get that I have a problem – a problem that has not gone away in the last eleven plus years. In fact, in spite of the effort of Dr. Rosenblum and the extreme patience of Iris and my kids and even people at work, it’s only gotten worse. Much worse. And it’s all because of me and whatever flaw there is in my makeup that leads me to act the way I do when I’m around fruit.” I look at Noah and he is silent, unwilling to interrupt what I’m saying. It’s one of the many things I like about him, he’s thoughtful and not judgmental.

“What’s Rosenblum say?”

“He believes I can get better, I just have to learn to control my desire for fruit.” I take a moment and shake my head sadly and add, “It’s hard, really hard.” I look Noah right in the eye and say, “I’m being as honest with you as I can be. The issue is this: My shrink tells me that I can eventually control my addiction. I tell him that I’ve tried countless times to get clean, but I can’t. Then he reminds me, ‘If you don’t find a way to fight your addiction, then you will lose your wife and children – those whom you love and care for. Is that what you want?’ And when it’s put that way, the answer is, of course, no.”

I stop talking and shake my head again, wishing suddenly for a wand to make my addiction magically go away. But it’s not to be. There’s no easy way out. I’ve got to put in the work and do this on my own. I shake my head again, conscious that all my head shaking is giving me a headache. I could use an aspirin. I fall into a deep funk.

My silence must have lasted for more than a few minutes, because I’m startled back to reality when Noah clears his throat. I look up at him. His kind eyes let me know he understands my predicament. He smiles and says, “You seem to be deep in thought, Jessie, where did you go?”

I have no idea and tell him, “I don’t know. It’s just all so confusing. I want to get better. I couldn’t stand it if I lost Iris. I’ve made a fool of myself with my kids, especially Kate. I’m a joke at work. My life is a mess.

I look into my coffee cup. It’s empty. So is Noah’s. I stand up and stretch, my knees cracking again, and say, “Let me get you some more coffee, my friend. My treat. I can see a long night ahead for us. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Can you stay and help me?”

Noah nods and says, “I’ve got all the time in the world.”

On my way to the counter I pass the kid with the piercings who was at the meeting. He’s with a girl with short, dark hair and purple streaks in it. She’s about his age and dressed completely in black. They are drinking coffee and talking. No iphones or ear buds or anything to distract them, just talking.

As I pass by he glances up, recognizes me and gives me a nod and says, “Dude,” and then goes back to his conversation.

I nod back and smile cordially and continue walking to the counter. The connection with him is a little thing, but it gets me thinking: There are people out there like Piercings and Ponytail and Green Dress and Mr. Marathon and Mr. Goatee who are fighting the fight of addiction, just like I am. If they can find ways to stay sober, find ways to cope with their desire for fruit and learn to live full and useful lives, maybe I can too. In the final analysis it all comes down to the fact that I have too much to lose if I don’t. Right then and there I decide to go to the next meeting. In fact, I promise myself that I’ll take it deadly seriously this time and tell them my real story, the one I’ve just told you – the one that includes the company party meltdown and the wedding disaster.

I’m nervous, but relieved to finally be taking my first, honest, small steps toward sobriety. I find myself at the counter and order two coffees and a couple more cookies, pay for them, and then hurry back our table. I’m eager to get started.

 

What Gene Told Me

Every since I’ve known him, my best friend Gene has always been a story teller. He’s good at it, too, most of them having to do with things that have happened to him at work on his job as a carpenter. Like uncovering a nest of garter snakes, (‘There must have been ten thousand the friggin’ things), or the time he almost got hit by lightning (‘I couldn’t hear a thing for the rest of the god damn day’), or the time he shot himself in the foot with a nail gun (‘Hurt like a son-of-a-bitch’). Stuff like that. He was pretty funny, too, how he told them, and I enjoyed listening to him. He always made me laugh.

Last summer we had gotten in the habit of sitting on a couple of lawn chairs in his garage on Sunday afternoons, having a few beers and listening to the Twins game on the radio. Gene wasn’t always a carpenter. Twenty seven years earlier, for a brief period of time, he played first base and batted fifth for the Quad City River Bandits, a Class A baseball team affiliated with the Houston Astros. On that July afternoon during game between the Twins and  Kansas City, he told me a story with a different tone to it. One that wasn’t funny at all. One I’ll never forget. It was about when he visited a prostitute in downtown Rock Island, Illinois.

“Yeah, it was on my nineteenth birthday,” he said, turning serious as he lowered the volume on the radio. Then he cracked open a cold can of Hamm’s. I half expected him to switch gears after setting me for something heavy and start telling me a funny story, like when there was once a rain delay and the ball diamond turned into a lake and the fans in the stands as well as both teams went skinny dipping. You, know, making a joke, out of things. It was the kind of thing he might do.

But he didn’t.

“My friends from the River Bandits were behind it all,” he said, using finger quotes around friends to make the point that, even though they were teammates, his friends weren’t really his friends. “There was Stinky, Fred, Jorge and Harper, all…”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “Stinky?”

“Yeah,” Gene looked at me like I was dense, “You know, cuz of his feet.” He crinkled up his nose, remembering, I suppose, the noxious aroma emanating from his teammate’s baseball cleats. Probably not the most pleasant memory in his arsenal of memories, I wagered. Then he took a sip of beer.

In my mind I went, Oh, well, sure. Feet. Of course.

“I guess the smell is caused by bacteria on the sweat glands,” he informed me, pointing to his boots propped up on a milk crate, “In Stinky’s case he must have had twice as many as everyone else, cuz, man, they were always pretty ripe…”

I put my hand up, “Stop, stop, stop. Way too much info.”

“Well, you asked.”

“Right. Well never mind. I get it.”

“So can I get back to my story?”

I waved my can of beer at him, “Go ahead.”

“As I was saying, those guys set the whole thing up. We were at home playing a double header with the Lansing Lugnuts.”

I coughed out a laugh, spewing a mist of beer. “The Lugnuts?”

Gene was getting exasperated. “Yes, and they were damn good. Do you want to hear my story or not?”

I did. “Sorry. Go on,” I wiped my nose. A little beer had gone up it.

“We lost the first game in the afternoon, and won the second in the evening, so I was in a pretty good mood.” He smiled, thinking back to that night. Gene’s team had been based in Davenport, Iowa, and he’d told me many times that they were ‘Marginally Ok,’ as he put it, finishing in the middle of the seventeen team Midwest League each of the two seasons he was with them. “Harper was twenty-eight, the oldest guy on the team and the ring leader. He organized everything. The guys borrowed a car, made the arrangement with Jackie and…”

“Whose Jackie?”

“Geez!” he exclaimed and stopped talking for a moment. He stared at me for a long couple of seconds before asking, “Who do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, ” Yeah, right.”

I was pretty excited to hear his story. Most guys would be. After all, that first time always sticks in your mind, doesn’t it? At least mine always has – a misfire of mammoth proportions on my part with my college sweet heart, the ever patient and long suffering Molly Henderson.

“So they had me all set to go. All I had to do was follow their lead. Problem was, I guess I wasn’t ready.”

“A bit of premature issue?” I asked. This time it was me using finger quotes around premature. I was sympathetic to what I imagined might have happened.

“Something like that.”

Damn. I was hoping he’d had a more successful first time than me, but I guess I was going to be disappointed.

“What happened?”

“After we won that second game, we were all pretty stoked. We went to a bar across the river in Rock Island. It’s a college town you know, and the place had some weird name like The Smiling Toad or something like that. It was just off the interstate in Illinois and down near the river bottoms – the Mississippi. It looked like it was a old roadhouse of some kind because the parking lot was dirt and there were trees all around, like it was carved out of a forest. It was pretty secluded and the place was packed.  Anyway, we were going to have a few beers to celebrate the win, my birthday, and my pending present from the guys.” He stopped talking for a moment before continuing, “I have to say, talking about this…it’s embarrassing.”

Well, he started it. Ten minutes earlier, I was happy just listening to the Twins playing the Royals.

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I told him.

“No. I kind of want to. Need to, actually.”

It dawned on me that he was really agonizing over this. I liked Gene a lot and I wanted to be supportive., “Go ahead, man, it’s happened to millions of guys,” I told him, surmising that millions was probably way too low an estimate.

“The bar was loud, some local band was playing Led Zeppelin covers, and I was tossing back those brewskie’s like I was drinking glasses of water.” He looked at the can of Hamm’s he was holding, grimaced, and set it down on the cement floor. Then he continued, “When I was pretty well on my way to feeling no pain, the guys got me to my feet, held me steady, and led me outside. I remember stumbling down the steps into the parking lot and falling down at least once on the way to the car – probably a lot more than that. Not my finest moment, that’s for sure.”

He looked at me and I just shook my head. No it wasn’t. Nowadays, Gene is a pretty sober guy, a hard worker and devoted family man. But back then at nineteen…well, hell, we’ve all done stupid things when we were young, right? I told him, “Don’t worry, man, we’ve all been there.”

I think he appreciated that I understood the limitations inherent in his intoxicated state and went on, “I guess earlier one of the guys had moved the rental to the far side of the parking lot, over by the forest and away from the floodlights. It seemed like the walk took forever. Stinky put his arm around me as we made our way up to the car and said, ‘Here we go, Slugger, it’s your big night. Get ready for the time of your life.’

“Talk about adding to the pressure, right?” I asked.

“No kidding. When we finally got to the car, Harper opened the back door and leaned in and said, ‘Here he is.’ Stinky gave me the tiniest shove and told me, ‘Good luck,’ and I went tumbling inside, not knowing what to expect. Then they slammed the door.”

“Man…” I said, just to say something. “Not good,” I added. What a bad situation. I was beginning to really feel for the guy.

“No kidding. Not good is putting it mildly.”

“What happened then?”

“The guys I was with, my friends (finger quotes again) just laughed. The window was down and Stinky leaned in and said to me, ‘Her name is Jackie. You all have fun,’ and then they left. I could hear them laughing all the way across the parking lot back to the bar.”

“Not the best beginning,” I observed.

“No. Not at all,” Gene said, turning to me, “And it didn’t get any better from there.” He paused again, picturing, I’m sure, how events played out. It was not a pretty picture I was guessing, more Jackson Pollack than Claude Monet. It turns out I was right (about it not being a pretty picture, that is), but I was way wrong about what had happened. In fact, I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but never more wrong than when it came to Gene and Jackie. He continued with his story, turning even more serious, “Here’s the deal, Ed. When I finally got up the courage to look at her, I couldn’t believe what I saw. In my mind I was picturing a sexy woman in her late twenties, with wavy, blond hair, blue eyes and a great build, wearing a short, tight, red dress and perfume that smelled like vanilla. You know, some weird preconceived sexist image.” Yeah, I thought to myself, something a nineteen year old horny guy (if not a lot of other guys) with an over active imagination and no girl friend might have. He continued, “But the person I was sitting next to was nothing like that. Not at all.” He looked at me, imploring me to believe him.

I did. His seriousness and tone made what he was telling me quite believable. In fact, I’d never seem him as upset as he was. For some reason I lowered my voice almost to a whisper, “What was she like?”

He was clearly agitated. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. “Ed, she was so young! She looked like she was only fifteen. She reminded me of my sister, of all things.” He twisted his hands and then rubbed them on the thighs of his jeans.

Shit. Not good. I’d seen enough news coverage about underage prostitution rings to know horrific they were.

“That absolutely sucks,” I said.

“No kidding,” he shook his head some more and then continued, “It made me sick back then and it makes me sick now, just thinking about it,” he looked me in the eye, “She was nothing like I’d imaged. She…” He shook his head, at a loss for words.

I understood where he was coming from. “Unbelievable,” I said, then thought to clarify, “Fifteen you think?”

He shook his head some more, chagrined at the memory, “I’d guess, yeah. She looked lots younger than me, that was for sure. She had short dark hair and bangs, and was wearing blue jeans and some kind of white peasant shirt with embroidery on it. I remember she wore a thin gold chain necklace that had a little gold heart.” He was quiet for a moment and added, almost in a whisper, “She looked like a little kid.”

The garage fell quiet except for the muted game in the background. We were both lost in our thoughts. Finally, I said, “Well, you did the right thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“You left right away didn’t you?”

Gene face turned beet red. “Well, no.”

“What!?”

“But I should have,” he was quick to add, “I mean, I would now. I mean…,” he was clearly flummoxed.

“What happened?” I asked, testily.

“Well, remember, I was pretty drunk. Plus, I was looking forward to this to happening, so I tried to ignore her age and rise to the occasion, so to speak.”

Man, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I got mad. He should have just left. Taking advantage of an underage person (girl!) was not cool in my book. Apparently it wasn’t in Gene’s either, he just didn’t know it then.

“How’d that go for you?” I asked sarcastically, “Did you get your birthday present? ” I didn’t even bother with the finger quotes. I was disappointed in him. And myself. I averted his gaze and looked into the corner of the garage where the radio was. The Twins were batting in the bottom of the seventh but I have to say, I wasn’t really paying attention anymore. The unsetting thought had just occurred to me that I might had done exactly the same thing if I’d been in his situation. Believe me, it was not a pleasant character trait to have to face, but there you had it. Then I remembered he was only nineteen (me, too, in my imagination.) We all make mistakes. I know I certainly had. Have. Did. I calmed down a little to let both him and me off the hook.”Sorry,” I said, “It’s just out of character for you, is all.”

He smiled a wan smile, “Well, thanks for that. I was stupid and deserved what I got. So, no, I didn’t get my present. Not even close. Let’s just say that too much beer and too much quilt…well, they just don’t make for a happy ending, if you know what I mean.”

I nodded, unfortunately having been there in the beer scenario way too many times, “Yeah, I definitely know what you mean.”

Gene was silent for a moment, listening to the Twins. He turned up the volume a little. Buxton has just hit a triple. We both smiled. Gene picked his beer up from the floor and we taped our cans. But my friend wasn’t done with his story yet, not by a long shot.

“I have to tell, you, though, she was really nice about it. I remember she patted my shoulder, and said something like, ‘It’s Ok, Slugger, it happens more often than you think,’ which didn’t make me feel any better, but she was so sweet about it that I almost believed her.”

It was nice she tossed him a life line, I thought. In fact, she sounded like she was a decent person. I was curious, though, and asked, “Then what happened?”

“The weirdest thing. I pulled up my jeans and was getting ready to leave, but she stopped me, put her hand on my arm and said, ‘Do you have a cigarette? Your friends have already paid. We could just sit here and talk or something.’

“You’re kidding,” I said. Then I remembered her age. Maybe she just wanted a break in what I could only imagine was a god awful life. A few minutes of peace. Plus, even back then I’m assuming Gene was a nice guy, like he is now. Maybe she was being honest with him.

Gene started shaking his head again. “I just wish I hadn’t drunk all the beer. I would have enjoyed just sitting there with her. I didn’t have a girl friend. I’d always been shy and didn’t date much, so it would have been nice to be with her and, you know, just talk.”

Given all that had happened that night, I could see his point. “So did you?”

“No. Didn’t get a chance,” he said.

“Why?”

“Right about then, the cops showed up.”

I coughed and choked on the beer I had just drunk. “What?” I managed to quite literally spit out. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah. Well, no, I’m not kidding. We were in the back seat remember. Just sitting there, me wondering what to do next and trying to sober up. Jackie offering to talk. Then, all of a sudden two cop cars came tearing into the parking lot, sirens wailing, lights flashing, tires spinning. The dirt was flying everywhere. My first thought was that I was going to get busted.”

“What’d you do?”

“Well, I started sweating like a pig.”

“No. I mean the cops. Did the cops surround your car and arrest you or something?”

I’d watched enough television to have a crystal clear picture in my head of the events unfolding. I could see the squad cars skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust right next to Gene and Jackie. I could see the cops jumping out, pulling their guns and surrounding the car, pointing high beam flashlights at them and shouting for them to ‘Get out of the car! Get out of the car!’ Or ‘Down on the ground! Down on the ground!’ Or ‘Don’t move or else!’ Or something like that. My imagination was working overtime.

“Man, not good. Did you get arrested?”

“Arrested?” Gene laughed, “Not on your life.”

I was confused. What about the police surrounding the car and pointing their guns and all the yelling and all that stuff. “Well, what happened?”

“We ran.”

“Ran?”

“Yeah. It was Jackie’s idea. As soon as the cops pulled into the parking lot, she took one look and said something like, ‘Shit, let’s get out of here.’ She opened the door on her side, got out, grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her. We ran in the opposite direction.”

“What the hell?”

“Yeah. Remember we were at the edge of the parking lot? Well, she pulled me into the underbrush next to the car and then into the woods and we ran as fast as we could, busting through the forest, falling down, getting smacked in the face with branches and all scratched up. Eventually we made it made a quarter of a mile or so to the Mississippi, slid down the bank and right into the river. Man, I’ll tell you, that muddy water sobered me up quick.” He laughed at the memory and looked at me. I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. This stuff only happened in the movies, didn’t it? “It was a blast,” he added, smiling some more and taking a healthy drink of beer.

“Weren’t you scared?”

“I was too drunk to be scared. Besides, it turned out the police weren’t there to bust an underage hooker and a misguided, drunken, nineteen year old guy. They were there to break up a big brawl in the bar,” he laughed, “They didn’t have a clue about us.”

All I could think to say was, “Amazing.”

Gene sat back and took another swallow of his beer. “Yeah it was. And you want to know the really amazing part?”

There was more? “Absolutely.”

“Well, Jackie and I sat on the bank of the river all night long, just talking and getting to know each other. It was first time that’d ever happened to me with a girl.”

Shit, it was just like in the movies!

“Turns out she was a great person.” (Right then I started picturing that movie with Richard Gere and what’s her name in it, the prostitute he befriends.) “She told me her story: that she was eighteen and she and a few of her friends were ‘Hooking,’ as she called it, for extra money that summer. She was going to use it when she started college in Decorah that fall. I’ll tell you this, Ed, we hit it off right off the bat. No baseball pun intended.” Pun or not, he gave me a big, silly, grin.

“Are you going to tell me you not only became friends, but you started going out?”

“Yeah, and then some.”

I was finding this increasingly hard to believe.”What more could there be?” I asked somewhat skeptically.

“We became friends. We started dating and…” he said, drawing it out. The garage went quiet except for the radio. In the background Polanco singled home Dozier. The Twins were up 5-2.

“And then what?” I asked, despite my skepticism, I was drawn in by his story and anxious to find out what happened.

“Three years later we got married.”

Oh. My. God.

Gene and I had become friends twenty one years earlier when our girls started playing soccer on the same team in the Long Lake under seven soccer league. We were both in our late twenties, enjoyed doing stuff with our kids, and shared a common philosophy regarding children’s athletics: the main thing was to have fun when you were playing the game. Learning new skills, learning how to play as a team, those kinds of things were good, too. Winning was way down on the list. That first year our kids’ team challenged that philosophy by winning two games out of fifteen and finishing dead last in the league. But we bought the team, The Long Lake Lady Lilies, dilly bars at DQ after every game, and the little girls were happy and had fun, so that’s what counted.

Anyway, back then Gene had just started working for a general contractor in the western Hennepin county area. He was busy a lot, so I ended up car pooling his daughter, Samantha, along with my daughter, Ellie, to a lot of the games. To make up for it, he’d invite me and my wife, Chris, and Ellie and our son, Ethan, over on Sunday afternoons to barbeque brats, toss the Frisbee around and hang out. Over that first summer not only did Gene and I get close, but so did my wife and his wife, Beth, or BJ as he called her.

BJ worked part-time at Ridgedale, the big shopping Mall seven miles east of us, at Macy’s in the jewelry department. Chris made hand-crafted place mats and table runners on her loom in our basement that she sold on-line. They both were devoted mothers, and they both enjoyed gardening and reading, so they had more than a few things in common. To make a long story short, over the years we all become close friends, eventually working our way up to spending the occasional Thanksgiving together, along with ever single Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Labor Day for the past twenty years. It was as good a friendship as four people could ever have.

Gene was a big man, standing six-three, and towering over my five-ten. He outweighed me, too, by probably fifty or sixty pounds, all of it muscle, not like my jelly belly flab. And that man was strong, I’ll tell you. I’ve seen him carry a forty pound bag of concrete mix under each arm like it was nothing. Me? One bag and two hands and I could barely lift it, let alone carry it.

He dressed in blue jeans, work boots, and flannel shirts most of the time except for when the Minnesota summers turned hot and humid. Then he ditched the flannel for white tee-shirts but kept the jeans and boots. He wore his dark hair long, tied it back in pony tail and kept his salt and pepper beard neatly trimmed. He kind of reminded me of a mountain man. Anyway, the point of all of this is that he was one big guy who could have used his size to intimidate people but he didn’t. He was one of the kindest people I’d ever met. He gave money to numerous environmental organizations, donated his time at the local senior living complex by helping out doing odd jobs, and even kept the grass cut on his next door neighbor’s lawn, Mrs. Halverson, a eighty-two year old widow, who Gene said reminded him of his mother.

Last fall he told me he wanted to tear down his old, single story garage and build a new one. “Yeah, it’s going to be double wide with space in the back for my workbench and tools. I’m even going to make room for us so we can sit and visit and listen to the games. Like a clubhouse,” he tapped his temple and smiled, “I’m thinking all the time, buddy. I’m even going to put in a stove for heat and a refrigerator, you know, in case we want some beers.”

I liked how his mind worked.

Initially he was going to do the construction himself but I ended up helping, which was an experience in and of itself because handy with any kind of tools I’m not. Even the simple task of hammering a nail straight gives me problems. They always bend. Early in our marriage Chris kindly of put up with my lack of skill in the home maintenance department, saying encouragingly on many occasions, “That’s Ok, Eddie, at least you tried.” Nowadays she simply says, “Ed, don’t waste your time. Just call Gene.” So I do, and the job gets done, done fast, and done right.

So after twenty years or so of him helping me out, I felt I owed him more than the occasional gift card for a dinner out with BJ or a case of Hamm’s (conveniently, both his and my favorite beer.) “How about if I help with the garage?” I asked him that afternoon when I was over watching as the bobcat demolish the eighty year old structure in about ten minutes, “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me.”

Gene looked at me askance, “Carpentry, Ed? Are you sure?”

I understood his reticence. After all, my job as a Life Science teacher at the local middle school was a far cry from what Gene did for a living. But I was eager to try. “Sure, what not?” I said, adding quickly before he could say No, “I take orders well, just ask Chris.” Which was true. I may not possess the greatest number of skills when it comes to practical matters, like fixing a leaky faucet or replacing a screen on a window, but I was willing to tackle any project. (Then I’d call Gene.)

“All right,” he said, after considering it, “Who knows, it might be fun.”

It was. Working one day a week, we got the demolished garage debris cleared out and hauled away by the end of October. Then he had a crew come over and pour the slab. After it cured for a couple of weeks we started the framing which we finished by New Year’s. We had the siding on in the middle of February, in time for the first day of spring training. Then we put in a small wood burning stove in the back to heat the place during the rest of the cold Minnesota winter while we finished the inside. We usually worked either Saturday or Sunday and it was fun. I even learned to drive a nail straight. (Gene taught me how to use a nail gun. Piece of cake.) By the time April and the Twins first regular season game rolled around, we had the two car plus space complete and were ready for the radio, some beer and baseball.

All well and good, right? Well, the thing was, during the time we were doing the construction, a good six months, I noticed something changing in my friend. He’d always had energy to burn and could easily out work me. But as the year ended and this new year began, he started to slow down a little, took more breaks, and just didn’t seem to have the pep he normally had. When I mentioned this to Chris in February she said, “Why don’t you ask him about it?”

Novel idea, and not one guys are usually comfortable with. But after I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks, trying to figure out a way to bring it up without it looking like I was prying (and coming up nothing), I said to myself, to hell with it, I’ll just ask him.

Say Gene, how are things going? You feeling Ok these days?” There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

We were taping in the dry wall. He kept working, but said to the wall, “Sure. Why?”

“I was just wondering is all.”

“Nope. All is good, buddy.” Then turned and looked past me to the section of wall I was working on, giving it a critical eye, “Make sure you get that tape sanded a little smoother, Ed, It looks kind of rough.”

So there you go. Everything was Ok.

When I told this to Chris that evening she gave me an incredulous look and said, “That’s all you did? Just asked him and left it? You didn’t push him and ask some more detail. You know, maybe probe a little,” she said, raising her voice and poking me in the chest with her finger a few times to make her point, “God, Ed, you a such an idiot.”

“What?” I said, a little defensively, rubbing the spot where she’d poked me, “What else could I have done?”

“Not let him off the hook, that’s what. Haven’t you noticed that he’s lost weight, too?”

No, I hadn’t. “Not really.”

“Men!” Chris said, and stomped off, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll call BJ. and find out what’s going on.”

“No, you don’t have to do that,” I said, I hurrying after her. But she did anyway.

Gene had been feeling poorly, is what BJ told Chris and what Chris relayed to me later that night. “He just doesn’t have much energy,” BJ told me.

“Yeah, like I said.”

She ignored my comment and continued, “His doctor’s keeping an eye on him. BJ thinks we should just carry on with Gene like all is well. I guess he doesn’t want to make a big deal of it.” She paused and looked at me and then added, “She thanked me for my concern and for calling her, and told me it was good to talk.”

Chris’ take charge attitude made me feel a little defensive, but I let it ride, knowing I was never going to win an argument with my headstrong wife.

“Sounds good to me,” I said, happy to have avoided a confrontation. Besides, not getting into feelings was something both Gene and I were good at. So we left it at that.

And that brings me to where we were now, sitting in the finished garage on an August afternoon, drinking a few beers and listening to the Twins play Kansas City. I had been a little surprised by Gene’s out-of-the-blue prostitute story but was happy to play along, more curious than anything as to what happened – you know, what the final outcome had been. Now this. The reality of the situation was that the prostitute, Jackie, was really BJ, Gene’s wife, and they were happily married and had been for many years!

Did his telling me the story have something to do with his illness?

“Ed, there’s a little bit more I need to tell you about,” he told me.

Well, I guess I was about to find out.

He stood up, went to the workbench and fiddled around with a jar of screws before going to the radio and lowering the volume. Then walked over to his chair and sat down again. “You might have noticed I haven’t been myself lately.” He picked up his beer, swirled it around and then set it down without taking a swig. He looked at me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on him. I waited, now wondering what the hell he was going to tell me. I have to admit that I myself was struck by a sudden urge to get up, walk around and fiddle with stuff like he had done, but I didn’t. Something told me what he was going to tell me wasn’t going to be good. I stayed right where I was, took a sip of beer and nervously waited, watching him. Finally he sighed and took a breath, mustering himself before looking at me and saying, “Well, the thing is, Eddie, I’ve got a tumor. It’s in my brain. I’ve got a friggin’ brain tumor.”

Shit, I was right. It was bad.

I don’t know about Gene, but for me the world suddenly stood still. For about a minute. I was aware of nothing except maybe the game on in the background. I don’t know. Everything turned blurry while I tried to process what he’d told me. I do know that the bottom fell out of my stomach and I felt like I was going to be sick. I needed to do say or do something. Fast. So I did both.

“What the hell, man?” I said, standing up and hurrying over next to him. I knelt down so we were eye to eye. What do you say in a situation like this? I knew nothing about brain cancer. Could it be treated? Was he going to die in a few weeks or was he going to be able to live a long and fulfilling life? I had no clue, but I did know this – my heart went out to the guy. I put my hand on his arm in a show of solidarity and said, “I’m so sorry, man. Is there anything I can do to help?”

And he looked at me, his eyes sad and a little tearful, and said, “I was wondering if maybe you could drive me to the treatments. It’d be a big help. Jackie’s pretty freaked out.”

And then, almost as if it was scripted, his wife’s voice came from the entrance to the garage, “I take it you told him,” she said, racing across the floor to us, “Good.” I stood up, my knees a little weak. She looked at me and said, “He’s wanted to tell you for a long time, Eddie. It seemed like now was as good a time as any.”

My first thought was (swear to God) is she talking about him telling me about her being a former prostitute, or about his brain tumor? I took a chance on the latter, “Yeah, he just told me about the tumor.” My heart went out to her, too, and I embraced her, “I’m so sorry.”

Gene broke the tension with some levity, motioning towards himself, “Hey, what about me?” And we both knelt down and hugged him, which is how Chris found us. BJ had called earlier and told her to come over. She joined us in a four-way hug fest. I have to say, it was pretty emotional.

Well, that was last summer. It’s now February , the dead of winter, and Gene is doing pretty well. His type of cancer is referred to as low grade (diffuse)  astrocytoma. The five year survival rate for a man of his age (forty eight) is 43 % so we are hopeful. Throughout the rest of the summer and in to the fall I gladly did what he asked of me and took him to the University of Minnesota Hospital for radiation treatments. He had six of them and they were spaced far enough apart so he could rest and recover in between. We completed them in the beginning of December. The next step is surgery, but his lead doctor (well, doctors. He has a team of them.) is holding off on that. Right now they’re monitoring all kinds of factors relating to Gene’s condition, of which I only understand a little bit and, remember, I’m a science teacher. It’s pretty complicated.

For the rest of the year he got progressively weaker. The doctors attributed it to the radiation treatments and it looks like there were correct, because I’m glad to say that around the first of the year Gene turned the corner and started getting a little stronger. In fact, he seems to be getting little bit better every day. He’s lost maybe thirty pounds and most of his hair has fallen out. The pony tail is long gone. So is the beard. At least he’s not as weak as he was. I prefer to think of him as not dying, but getting better, and the weight loss and hair loss is just part of that process, but then I’ve always been a glass half full kind of guy. I’m just not ready to lose him yet, so I’m not planning to. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.

Anyway, the point of this story is really not about dying and death. It’s about Gene and his stories. See, the interesting thing about his form of brain cancer has to do with one of its side effects. Gene has always been a talkative guy and way more expressive than me. If he was a good story teller before the brain tumor…well, let me tell you, he’s an amazing story teller now. We’ve taken to spending one or two evenings a week together out in the garage with the wood burning stove cranked up. It’s deep winter, so we’re listening to the Minnesota Wild hockey games, drinking herbal tea, which believe me, we are still getting used to, but it’s supposed to be better for him than beer, and I guess neither of us can argue with that. Anyway, I swear, put a quarter in him these days and he just won’t stop talking. He’s telling stories about playing minor league baseball, stories about hiking both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, stories about training to ride the Tour de France, stories about when he was a Peace Corp Volunteer in Sierra Leone, and on and on and on. I asked his doctor about it and he told me not put too much stock in the stories Gene is telling – that they’re probably not true and just a crazy aspect of how his mind is working and a unique side effect of the tumor. Like an hallucination. I guess the doctor’s the expert and I’m supposed to believe him. Maybe I should but, hell, whatever the case, Gene’s stories are fun to listen to. Besides, it’s great to be with him and hang out together and listen to him talk. It’s just like the old times, back before the tumor.

But it’s gotten me thinking back to that day when it finally came out that Gene had a brain tumor. He had just told me about his encounter with the prostitute, Jackie, and how they had talked, became friends, then lovers, and how it turned out that her name was not Jackie, but Bobby Jean, BJ, who eventually became his wife, and Jackie was just her stage name, if you know what I mean. The thing was, was the story real or not? Or did Gene make the whole thing up?

The logical thing, of course, would be to ask BJ, but man, that seems like an insane thing to do. I can just picture that conversation:

“Hey BJ, I have a question for you?”

“Sure, Eddie, what is it?”

“Gene tells me you guys met when you were a teenage hooker. Is that true?”

I can just imagine the look on her face. It wouldn’t be pretty. In fact, my guess is that it’d be pretty scary. Anyway, she’s got enough to deal with now taking care of Gene without having to deal with my idle curiosity. Plus, I really can’t think of a good way to broach the subject without offending her. And, to tell the truth, what good can come of It? I do know that their story has always been that they met at a bar after one of his ball games in Davenport, started talking, started dating and the rest was history. Which, in a way, is close to the truth. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think, who really cares? Gene and BJ are happy together. They’ve raised a fine daughter in Samantha and now are dealing with the most challenging event of their marriage – Gene’s brain tumor. I’m going to help out as much as I can, and be the best friend to him I can possibly be, and leave the story of her being a prostitute alone. True or not.

Besides, for the last few visits he’s been telling me about playing goalie for the Hamilton Bulldogs, a minor league affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. My favorite sport when I was growing up was playing hockey so to me they’re highly entertaining. You see, when Gene was with the Bulldogs one of the guys on his team was an eighteen year old hockey phenomenon, the soon to be hockey legend (get this), Wayne Gretzky of all people! Since I’ve always liked (well, loved, maybe is a closer word) hockey those have been some great stories to listen to. But when they run out, I’m optimistic there will be more. Who knows where his mind will take him? But Gene is definitely on a roll – it’s hockey this and Wayne Gretzky that, and I’m more than happy to sit there and be with him, spending time together, him telling me his stories and me listening. Hopefully it’s something we’ll be doing for a long, long time, because, I mean, really, what better way is there to help a friend deal with a crisis like Gene’s going through than to hang out and talk and listen to him tell his stories? None that I can think of.

Besides, when he tells me about being in the nets playing goalie and stopping the greatest hockey player of all time on breakaway after breakaway, time after time again, well, hell, I could listen forever.

 

 

Maggie’s Decision

“God damn it, open this friggin’ door!” Phil Jespers yelled, “Do it right now, Maggie, or you’re done for. You know what I mean.”

Outside the bedroom, leaning up against the wall next to the door, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Jespers could feel the vibration of her husband’s pounding in her back. She could feel his anger, too. Or rage would be a better word. She knew his hatred for her by now had spilled over into uncontrollable fury, but that was too bad. Last night he’d come home at two in the morning after a night out drinking with his buddies and demanded to have sex with her. He outweighed her by over one hundred and fifty pounds and was determined, so she had no choice but to give in, knowing from past experiences that in a few minutes it’d be all over. Well, she was wrong. It was over in less than a minute and in that minute she’d made her decision. A decision she’d been thinking about for years – years of putting up with his abuse; the verbal put downs of everything from her cooking and how she cleaned the house, to how she folded his stupid pants, not to mention the ongoing physical punches, pinches and slaps and, of course, what she could easily refer to as Rape By Husband. Well, no more. She’d had it with him. Now it was time to get even.

Maggie turned and put her mouth close to the door and lightly knocked on it to get his attention. The pounding immediately stopped, and she said, “Done for, you said? What is it you’ll do to me again, Phil, I couldn’t quite hear you?”

“I said, I’ll kill you, you stupid bitch,” Phil yelled, and went off on another rant, screaming out an escalating string of profanities that even for him were obscene beyond belief. His beating on the door increased, too, with an intensity that was incredible given how horribly out of shape he was, not to mention severely hung-over. But he was on a roll, now, his physical fury shaking the entire structure of the single story rambler that they’d lived in for all of their twenty seven year marriage.

Maggie leaned back against the wall and listened, enjoying her husband’s out-of-control hysteria. She smiled to herself and said quietly, loud enough to just hear her own voice, a voice she thought of as the voice of reason and, unlike Phil’s guttural swearing, one of sanity, “That’s what I thought you’d say,” her smile mirroring the pleasure she was taking in Phil’s complete meltdown taking place only a few feet away in the bedroom. The room Maggie was now planning would be the place where Phil would eventually breathe his final breath. And when he did, that would be that; over and done with, free and clear. She could move on with her life. A life without Phil in it.

Maggie turned and made her way down the short hallway to the tiny kitchen. She filled the teapot with water, turned the gas burner of the stove up to high, and set the pot on to boil. She went to the cupboard on the wall to the right of the sink and took out her favorite mug, the one she’d bought at Olafson’s when she first started working there, what? Fifteen years ago? No, seventeen, just after Phil got laid off from his construction job. “You’ll have to get off that boney ass of yours and go to work,” he’d told her back then, literally shoving her out the door, adding, “Don’t come back until you do.”

Well, she should have taken the momentum of that shove and not only walked out the door, but she should have kept on going. She should have walked down the steps and out to the street, taken a left and walked the three blocks to the bus stop, got on the 675B and ridden away from Phil forever. That’s what she should have done. But where would she have gone? She had no family, her parents were both long dead. Her two older brothers had each moved out when they were finished with high school, and she had lost touch with them over the years. And she had no friends she could have turned to. Not a one. So she did the only thing she could have done. After two days of looking for work; two days with Phil’s stinking, dog breath literally breathing down her neck every moment while he constantly berated her for being, “A skinny, good for nothing, lazy bitch,” as he so vehemently put it, and despite the fact that she must have walked at least ten miles in those two days, doing her best to find work, she took a job at the first place that would hire her. She became a cashier at Olafson’s Grocery and Meat Shoppe, an established, well known family run business in the Long Lake area, only a ten minute walk from her home. It had worked out pretty well, too, for her. Better, in fact, than she had ever imagined, and for that, at least, Maggie was grateful.

The teapot began whistling and interrupted her thoughts. She went to the stove, turned off the burner, put a tea bag of Constant Comment (her favorite) in her mug and poured in the boiling water. She set the mug on the four person, Formica kitchen table, sat down and started paging through a magazine published in England that focused on gardening in the British Isles. She liked looking at the pictures of the beautiful flower gardens, imaging that one day, she too, would plant a garden filled to overflowing with colorful daisy’s, dahlia’s and daffodils. Flowers like purple cone flower, white phlox and yellow black-eyed Susan. Flowers that would not only be pretty to look at, but would also attack birds and butterflies and honey bees. She smiled to herself, letting her imagination run wild for a few moments, enjoying the pleasant fantasy of a life without Phil in it.

Suddenly, a loud crash from back in the bedroom shook her out of her revelry. She stood up and peered down the hallway but saw nothing out of the ordinary. It was probably just Phil falling over the nightstand in the bedroom, she thought to herself. Hopefully he hurt himself. But whatever the case, it was no big deal. She went back to the table and sat down with her magazine. In addition to the pretty pictures, there were interesting articles to read, and she read each and every one of them in order as she causally sipped her tea, ignoring Phil’s escalating ranting and raving and pounding a mere twenty feet away. It was all just background noise, now, and didn’t mean a thing. Not anymore. Not with her decision having been made.

Maggie had always been shy. Her two older brothers were not interested in including her in their rough housing around the house, or playing every kind of outdoor game or sport imaginable, not to mention the occasional foray into daredevil bike riding no handed down the steep hills near their home. For that she was grateful. Growing up, her natural inclination was to spend her time by herself, quietly reading her books (Nancy Drew Mysteries being one favorite out of many) or playing with her dolls, making up games and whiling away her time pretending her make-believe family of princes and princesses was just like her real family, a child’s foolish daydream which it wasn’t even close to reality.

Her father was a strict disciplinarian who taught English at the local junior college and demonstrated little affection to either his wife or his children, preferring to spend his free time in his study, writing, he put it, “My first novel.” Her mother was a retiring woman who, after the children were born, began to come across to all who knew her, her children included, as increasingly tired and worn out. Bedraggled would be an accurate description. She also developed a strong taste for wine of the pink variety, and by the time Maggie was in middle school, her mother had become severely alcoholic, a disease that eventually killed her when Maggie was seventeen. Her father, as it turned out, must in his own way have secretly cared for his wife, because after her death he became increasingly morose and depressed. No one could help alleviate his emotional tailspin, although Maggie certainly tried, fixing his favorite meals, and making sure the house was clean and tidy, just like he liked it. She even got her father to help her plant an oak tree near the back door in his wife’s honor. However, all of her efforts were for naught. Within a year of his wife’s death, he hung himself from a rafter in the basement of the junior college where he taught, a sad and forlorn man, never having even coming close to finishing that first novel he’d spent his entire life slaving over.

The house was left to Maggie (her brothers wanted to have nothing to do with it), and she lived there non-eventfully for five years. She was twenty-three and working at Hart’s Cafe in Wayzata, five miles east of Long Lake, when she first met Phil. Back then there was something about him that she was drawn to, namely that he made it a point to talk with her, took an interest in her and what she liked to do (read and cook and garden) and seemed to enjoy being with her. He took her to movies and out to dinner at nice restaurants. Once he even took her to a play by August Wilson at the highly regarded Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. Most importantly, though, he took away some of her shyness, bringing out parts of her hidden away from the public eye her entire life. He encouraged her to take an evening class at the local high school on Asian Cooking. He suggested she sign up for on-line classes having to do with literature. He ever purchased a membership for the two of them for the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum so they could visit and walk the lovely gardens paths together anytime they wanted. In short, he encouraged Maggie to come into bloom just like the flowers she so passionately loved. Six months after they met he asked her to marry him and she said, Yes, thinking that he was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

And he was, until the day after their marriage ceremony. Then things changed, changed horribly, and the nightmare that became her life began. When Phil moved in to her home he brought with him the other side of his personality. The side he hadn’t shown her in those hours spent going on dates, or sitting quiet cafes together, sipping tea and talking, or going for drives in the country just to be together. No, that side of his was gone and gone forever. There was another side to Phil and he had kept it hidden from Maggie and hidden well. It turned that he was a violent man – very violent, and even more troubling, he seemed to enjoy that violence; especially the act hitting his new wife and berating her and bruising her and battering her.

So instead of the life time of the happiness Maggie had been expecting, Phil turned their marriage into a unrelenting reign of terror as he meted out physical and emotional abuse on a daily basis. Eventually he destroyed the nice, young woman she had become, one learning to grow into herself and even trust and love the man who would soon be her husband. Instead, he transformed her into a woman who, the longer she was brutalized and traumatized, became more withdrawn, shell of her former self, beaten down and worn out not only by life, but by her husband. A sad story, true, made even sadder by how often it happens to so many women these day.

But it wasn’t the end of Maggie Jespers, not by a long shot. Because through it all, no matter how it bruised she looked on the outside, there was something more to her than met the eye. She had something going for her inside, deep down where Phil couldn’t touch her no matter how hard he tried. Inside she had her spirit; her will to live. She had her dreams. And she wouldn’t give in, and she wouldn’t give up. She wouldn’t let Phil’s abuse of her rule her life. She found ways to cope. She became a survivor.

Maggie took a refreshing sip of her tea, letting the liquid swirl in her mouth a moment before swallowing it down, enjoying the soothing warmth and slightly spicy flavor. Then she set the mug down, put the magazine aside and picked up the book she was reading; one by a favorite female author. She settled back in her chair and began to read, losing herself in the author’s story, one of a woman in her forties who is dissatisfied with her marriage and leaves her husband in search of a new life – a life free of the encumbrances imposed on her by the overbearing jerk she was unfortunately married to. It was a story somewhat close to home in its relevance to what Maggie had been experiencing for her long and arduous twenty seven year marriage. (Although the woman in the story wasn’t regularly beaten and traumatized, not like Maggie.)

Reading all manner of fiction had become a refuge for her as her marriage with Phil took it’s turn down the dark road that lead her to contemplate killing him. In the beginning, when she brought up buying books, he refused, telling her, “They’re nothing but a waste of friggin’ money, if you ask me. I won’t allow it.” Yet he easily justified spending grocery money on his whiskey and cigarettes, telling her, “It’s my money and I can do whatever I want with it.” Nor would he let her go back to work at the cafe, telling her she needed stay at home and take care of him; cooking his meals, cleaning up after him, giving him sex. Thank god there was a library in town.

After being laid off for a few months, Phil got lucky. He had a friend who worked for a sanitation company and the friend had been able to pull some strings, finally getting him a job driving for Lender’s Environmental Services, a company that served the western metropolitan area. “Phil’s a garbage man,” is what Maggie told her friend at work, Lettie Sanderson, when he got the job, “He hauls junk for a living.” Maggie had been working at Olafson’s for just a few months by the time Phil was hired.

“Well, someone’s got to do it,” Lettie told her, lighting up a cigarette when they were out back on a break, “From what you’ve told me about him, he’d be good at it. You know…it doesn’t required a lot of brain power.” She grinned at her joke, a grin that Maggie returned.

The two of them had hit it off early on when they’d first been introduced by Mrs. Olafson; one of those relationships that started good and got better as time went on. Maggie began to confide to Lettie that her home life wasn’t the best, something the slightly older woman was aware of, having seen the bruises on her new co-worker on a regular basis starting from the first day they’d met.

“I know…” Maggie said in response to Lettie’s garbage man comment, letting her mind wander, picturing Phil getting himself stuck in the bin in the back of the truck and getting slowly drawn into it and crushed along with all the other garbage. Now that was one pleasant thought. Lettie put her hand on Maggie’s shoulder and gave it a companionable squeeze. It was a gentle, loving touch, something Maggie was not used to receiving. No, Phil’s physical contact with his wife was anything but loving, and nine times out of ten it was accompanied by some sort of violence. Lettie’s touch was unexpectedly soothing, and Maggie unconsciously leaned toward the nice woman standing next to her, breathing in her soft scent of sandalwood and vanilla, appreciating their growing friendship more and more with each passing day.

When Phil started his new job he said, “Bitch, you keep working. We and use the extra money.” Maggie was glad he did, because she loved her job, especially her friendship with Lettie. Over the years, they became as close as two people could get, sharing a common bond of not only bad marriages, but an interest in gardening, books, and cooking. The longer they worked together, the more Lettie drew Maggie out, accepting her new friend’s shyness but also probing underneath to find the deeper person who was hidden there.

They talked all the time. They shared recipes and came up with a favorite homemade pizza all of their own. A creation made with sauce from fresh tomatoes and basil, and topped with gorgonzola cheese, fried onions and mushrooms. Lettie would cook their creations at her home and bring the food in to work for them to share during lunch. “It’s the best,” was the comment given to them when the Olafsons and other employees sampled their food. Maggie and Lettie had to agree, it was.

Their favorite book: “Too many to pick only one,” Lettie said.

“I agree,” Maggie told her, liking that she had found a friend like her, someone she could talk with and confide in without fear of being berated, beaten or worse, “But, I have to say that I am partial to women authors.”

Upon hearing her comment, Lettie smiled and gave Maggie the first high-five she’d ever received in her life, “You got that right!”

Their favorite flower: “I love roses,” Lettie said, to which Maggie replied, “Well, I have to disagree, there. I’m partial to sunflowers, they’re so cheerful. They always make me happy.” Lettie laughed good naturedly and gave her friend a hug around the shoulders. “So we agree to disagree. That works for me. I won’t even hold it against you.”

Maggie laughed, too, enjoying everything about Lettie, someone who was helping her to see that there was more to her life than just being Phi’s slave, servant and wiping girl.

When they first met, Lettie confided that she was going to get a divorce. “I’m done with him, Maggie,” she said only a few weeks after they started working together, “He’s a lazy slob who spends all his time drinking when he isn’t on my case to pick up after him and take care of him. We’ve been married for fourteen years. He’s changed from how he used to be, and, believe me, it’s not been for the better.”

So similar to my marriage, it’s kind of creepy, Maggie had thought at the time, finding herself increasingly being drawn to the straight talking, outspoken woman.

Back then Maggie guessed that Lettie might be around her age, if not a few years older and she was right, Lettie was thirty-seven and Maggie was thirty-four when they started working together. Lettie was tall and thin with nervous energy to burn, short cropped dark hair, and a propensity for wearing tight jeans and snap button cowboy shirts. Maggie was thin, too, with shoulder length brown hair. Why, other than the fact I’m six inches shorter that she is, and dress differently and wear my hair differently, we could almost be twins, is what Maggie had thought at the time, stretching their common likenesses somewhat. But she felt an immediate connection between them, something she’d never felt with anyone before in her life, certainly not another woman, and she wanted to hold on to that connection and make the most of it. In retrospect, it was certainly Lettie’s assertive nature that, over the years, fueled not only her eventual divorce, but also became the mirror image Maggie began to develop of herself: Someone who could take charge, get out of her marriage, change the direction of her life and make a new start. Trouble was, Phil wasn’t about to grant her a divorce.

“Not on your life, Bitch,” he told her the first time she broached the subject, a couple of years after she’d met Lettie. “I like things the way things are just fine,” he leaned his big fat body back in his big fat easy chair and guzzled his big fat half can of beer before letting out a big fat disgusting belch. Then he reached for the remote and turned the volume up to 100 on some mind numbing football game. Maggie got the point: End of discussion.

The problem was that she wanted to keep the house (Phil made her put it in both their names when they got married), and she would have to buy him out, something she couldn’t afford to do. On the sly she was able to save about five hundred dollars a year from her job. After seventeen years she had eighty-five hundred dollars, about ten percent of what she estimated she needed get make him an offer, a sum not even close to something he’d consider accepting (or what it was worth.) So she was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and even though she fantasized innumerable scenarios for ridding herself of Phil, she never considered acting on them. Not on your life. They were all too gruesome, even though deep down she knew he deserved whatever she could conjure up: Arsenic poisoning, a shotgun blast to the head, strangling him with her bare hands when he was passed out drunk. Even running him over with his car (he didn’t allow her one of her own.) They were all interesting and pleasurable to think about but way too risky. So for years she didn’t anything but do the best she could, which was to try and live with the fact that she was stuck in her life with Phil, and it was never going to be anything but one big fat constant horror after another.

But then there was that incident last night: His heavy, stinking, sweating body, writhing away on top of her, crushing her and making her nearly physically ill. It had finally become all too much. She’d had enough. When he finally passed out and she crawled out from underneath him, she knew that now was the right time to make her move.

Maggie looked at her empty mug, her tea long gone. She put aside her book and rose from the table and went to the sink. As she rinsed her mug she looked out the window to the little strip garden Phil had allowed her to plant in the front yard. Some bright yellow spring daffodils were flowering and their soft, buttery color brought her a fleeting moment of cheer – a moment of joy. Then it was gone as she began to focus on the matter at hand, putting an end to Phil’s abuse for now and for all time. She glanced at the calendar hanging to the left of the window. Wednesday. She looked at the clock on the wall. 10:47 in the morning. She wasn’t excepted at work until noon. She looked out the window and up and down the quiet street she lived on. All the people in the neighborhood worked, kids were in school, and the weekdays were always quiet, houses lying empty until around late afternoon when folks started returning home to prepare dinner and spend time with their families or whatever. For someone planning what she was planning you couldn’t ask for better conditions.

She was thoughtfully setting her mug into the rack to dry when a loud noise startled her. It sounded like the bedroom door had smashed against the wall. What was going on? She stepped away from the sink and looked through the kitchen and down the hall. The door to the bedroom was hanging off its hinge. Sprawled on the carpet was Phil, rolling around like a fat, slimy, over-stuffed garden slug. He turned his lunking head toward her as she took a step backward, unconsciously searching for someplace safe to escape to. But there was none. There never would be. As long as he was alive, Phil would make her life miserable. It had to stop. Stop now.

Their eyes made contact and his were burning with rage. “Stay right there, you bitch. Lock me up in my own house, huh? I’m gonna kill you for that.” He tried to get to his feet, but then lost his balance and fell back against the wall, obviously still drunk. Maggie’s mind raced. What she had originally planned for ending Phil’s life wasn’t going to work. Not with him conscious like he was. It took her only an instant to think of an alternative plan and when she did she smiled to herself. For a plan B it wasn’t all that bad. It might even be better than her original plan A.

Plan A had been this: With Phil passed out in the bedroom, she was going to open the bottle of Wild Turkey she had bought and kept hidden for just such an occasion. She was going to pour it over his body and on the sheets and even on the carpet. Then she was going to take one of his Marlboro Reds, light it with his plastic, disposable lighter, and drop it on him. Then she’d step back and watch the burning begin. (Right now, just imagining the blue and orange flames running over his body was making her inordinately happy.) Then, before the fire turned into an out-of-control conflagration, she’d run to the kitchen cupboard closet, grab her shoulder bag already packed with a change of clothes and her eight thousand five hundred dollars of savings, and leave the house. She’d walk to the metro bus stop only a few blocks away and get on the 675B to downtown Minneapolis. Once there, she’d walk to the central bus station and board the first bus she found leaving the state. She didn’t care where it went. Anywhere would be fine, because the fact of the matter would be this: She’d finally be free.

Maggie only permitted herself a moment reveling in that thought because Phil was starting to get to his feet. Time for a plan B. Maggie reached for the stove and turned all four burners up to high. She opened a drawer and reached in for a book of matches, then made her way to the cupboard door and grabbed her shoulder bag. She slung it over her shoulder and then stepped across the kitchen to the back door. In the time it took to do all over that, Phil had staggered down the hallway to the entrance to the kitchen. He was listing against the doorway, out of breath and panting, stoking himself up to attack Maggie, grab her and beat her up if not actually kill her, like he had threatened.

“What do to you think you’re doing, Bitch? Trying to escape? Not on your life! Stay right where you are,” he commanded. Then he lurched toward her, but after only two or three steps he lost his balance and stumbled into the Formica table. He crashed and fell to the floor, letting out a string of swear words.

Maggie watched as he lay drunkenly squirming on the linoleum. She glanced at the stove, imagining the gas filling the room. Good, she thought to herself, the more the better. In a minute Phil was able to turn himself around and take hold of the table to steady himself. He used both hands as he struggled to get to his feet. Maggie quickly moved from the doorway toward him. “Here, Phil, let me help you,” she said, with more than a hint of malevolence in her voice.

Phil looked at her as she stepped toward him and their eyes meet, his bloodshot red, hers full of conviction. He spoke first, “You Bitch! I’ll…”

Maggie never heard what he was going to say, although something on the order of ‘I’ll kill you,’ would have been par for the course. He’d certainly said it enough times, nearly every day of their marriage. She stepped up, grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it over, causing Phil to fall to the floor, sputtering more obscenities.

Maggie turned away and stepped back to the door. It lead from the kitchen to the side walk leading to the detached garage in the back yard. The oak tree Maggie planted with her father grew between the house and the garage. It was huge now, the trunk over three feet in diameter. If she was lucky, the tree would help protect her from the blast. If she wasn’t lucky…Well, best not to think about that.

She turned around and looked into the kitchen. Phil lay either exhausted or injured or both on the floor, legs kicking weakly. She clutched her shoulder bag to her side with her elbow and opened the book of matches. She looked at the stove. It had been on long enough. She could even smell the gas. She stood in the doorway with the matches in poised in her hand. Now was the time. Decision time. Should she stay and deal with Phil for the rest of her life? Just like she had been for the last twenty-seven years of her marriage? Or should she light the match and try to make it to safety before the blast from the explosion caught her, likely killing her? If she made it out alive, she could start a new life. One that had to be better than the one she was in now. She looked at the matches and she looked at Phil. She made her decision. She held the backdoor open and got herself ready. Then she took a deep breath, preparing herself to run. An image flashed in her mind of her living in a world different than the one she was in with Phil. A better world. A less painful world. A prettier world. Let’s do this, she thought to herself.

She let her breath out, and put her foot outside the door, holding it open with her foot, ready now to make a sprint for the safety of the oak tree. “One, two, three,” she counted out loud, poised and ready. Phil’s horrible head appeared above the table, and that’s all she needed to see. She took a step out the door and struck the match.

Carl Whittaker, the Chief of Police for Long Lake, Anders ‘Hank’ Hankinson, the Captain of the Long Lake Fire Department and Gordy Little, lead investigator, sat in Carl’s office early the next morning.

“Well, this is the shits as far as I’m concerned,” The Chief said, snapping a rubber band on his wrist, worrying it to death, “What the hell do you think happened, Hank?”

“You mean beyond the fact that the entire house blew up?”

Carl grimaced, “Don’t even bother trying to get smart with me.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Hank said, coughing and opening his file, getting down to business. He spread it open on the Chief’s desk. It wasn’t funny, what happened, that was for sure – a house completely leveled, and at least one person dead. The only saving grace was that the damage was confined to the little rambler on Lilac Way and none of the other houses nearby. “The guy was a smoker; we found the remains of packs of cigarettes and lighters all over the place. My guess is there was a gas leak, maybe at the stove. He didn’t notice it, lit up, and…” Hank expanded his hands out away from his body, signify an explosion. He didn’t bother adding, ‘Boom,’ which Gordy did in his mind, wincing as he did so, trying not to imagine Phil Jespers’ final moments and not doing a very good job of it. Hank Hankinson continued, “Let me summarize what we’ve got here.”

Gordy listened with half an ear because, one, he’d helped Hank with the report and knew everything that was in it, and, two, no matter what Hank thought, Gordy figured he had a pretty good idea what had gone down at the house Phil and Margaret Jespers had once lived in. The now non-existent house was a place he’d been called to at least a dozen times in the twenty years he’d been on the force. The one thing he knew for certain was that Phil Jespers was dead. Without a doubt. They’d found his body late yesterday afternoon after the fire had been extinguished and the scene was under investigation. The fact that Phil Jespers poor wife, Margaret, was missing and unaccounted for…well, that was something else again. Gordy and Hank and the rest of the search team had found no evidence of her anywhere, even though they’d diligently searched the house both inside and out, the yard, the garage, and all around the neighborhood. No body. She was either completely incinerated by the blast, which was the theory Hank was leaning to, or she’d escaped and maybe run off. Gordy hoped it was the later. Over the years he’d seen with his own eyes some of the things Phil Jespers had done to his poor wife. The guy was a brute who rated down with the lowest of the low on his list of repeat offenders, and Gordy wasn’t bothered in the least by the charred remains that dental records had already confirmed what everyone surmised: They were from Phil Jespers.

But Margaret, his poor wife…What happened to her? That was the question, and that’s what the Chief wanted an answer to.”You’re my best man, Gordy. I’m putting you in charge of the investigation. Find out what happened to the wife.”

“I sure will, Chief,” Gordy said, formally, fighting back an urge to salute, just to show his boss he got the message. But he kept his hands in his lap, and, instead, sat back while the Chief and the Captain talked some more, eventually turning to other department matters. Gordy tuned them out. In his mind this one thought kept circling around and around, a thought that soon turned into a hope:  I hope she got away. That’s what he was thinking. I hope she survived the blast and is now long gone and on her way to living a better life. She deserves a break.

And to that end he could already see where the investigation might lead – if he had anything to do about it, which, being lead investigator, he did.

He spent the rest of the day interviewing people. By five that afternoon he’d talked everyone close to Mrs. Jespers, or Maggie, as everyone called her. The neighbors were no help, the prevailing comment being that she kept to herself. “So did the husband of hers,” Lucy Franklin, who lived next door, had told him. But she at least had the wherewithal to lean close and whisper, “He’s was a mean one, that man. Really mean.” Then after pausing for a few moments she shook her head sadly before adding, “Poor Maggie…” When Gordy asked her to elaborate, she declined, saying instead, “It’s probably better for her that he’s gone.”

Her employers,  Sigurd and Ella Olafson, offered nothing more than, Mr. Olafson saying, “She was quiet, you know, but a real good, reliable employee,” and Mrs. Olafson, adding, “She was very courteous with the customers. A real nice person.”

They both seemed saddened by Maggie’s having gone missing (and presumably dead) and wanted to help, but couldn’t offer much to move his investigation along. So that was that.

Lettie Sanderson however, the employee closest to Maggie, and, it was easy to see, a close friend, painted a much fuller picture. She was the final person he interviewed. It was middle of the afternoon and they’d gone out back behind the grocery store to talk, the rail thin lady chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and telling it like it was when it came to Maggie Jespers.

“That beast of a husband of hers deserved to die a long, painful death,” was how she started out when Gordy asked her to tell him a little bit about her friend. “If there’s a Hell, I hope he’s roasting in it right now…long and slow…being par-broiled for eternity. It’s what he deserves after how he treated that poor woman.” The picture Lettie painted of Maggie’s marriage and home life didn’t get any better after that. “He beat her, he treated her like dirt, he made her life a living nightmare. He controlled every moment of her time. She couldn’t even call me on the phone! I wouldn’t be surprised if she just snapped and blew them both up.”

Mrs. Jespers blew them both up? Interesting, Gordy thought to himself. Here he was hoping she’d escaped and was maybe alive somewhere, starting life all over again, and now this. Was Lettie telling the truth or perhaps, instead, covering up for her friend, trying to throw him off the trail and point the investigation in a different direction? It wouldn’t have been the first time a friend had tried to cover for another friend. Maggie blowing herself and her husband up on purpose? He pondered some more. That was certainly a possibility, especially given how horrible her life had been. A life with no future. Maybe committing suicide and taking her no good husband with her was the only solution she thought she had.

On other hand…Gordy pursed his lips and toyed with his pencil, maybe what Maggie really did was kill her husband and make it look like she perished (although they still hadn’t found any evidence to support that supposition.) Then she took off, left town, and started life all over again. Maybe right now she was alive and well and living out the American Dream somewhere. Maybe she orchestrated a new start for herself. But if that was the case then how could she have done it? The house exploded in an instant. The blast was heard five miles away. There was no way anyone could have escaped alive. That’s what the fire department guys were saying. “It just couldn’t happen,” Hank had told Gordy yesterday while they were sifting through the rubble. “No way anyone could have lived through this.”

But Gordy was trying to keep an open mind. Maybe there was more to Mrs. Jespers than met the eye. Maybe she was capable of taking action, drastic as it was, and doing the unthinkable – taking a chance on losing her own life to get out of the life she was in with her abusive husband. Is that what she did? Did she blow up the house on purpose? Could she have escaped? Could she still be alive? And if she was still alive, shouldn’t she be held accountable for her crime, the murder of her husband?

They talked a few minutes longer, Lettie suddenly turning vague and non-committal, leaving Gordy to wonder if she really was covering up for her friend. But if she was, there was really no way of finding out. The more the two of them talked, the more he realized that Lettie had said all she had to say. Finally he accepted he had all the information he was ever going to get from her.

“Ok, Ms. Sanderson, thanks for meeting with me. If you come up with anything else that you think might be of importance in the investigation, please get in touch.” He gave her is card and said good-bye, knowing deep down the chances were excellent he’d never hear from her again.

As he walked to his car, though, Gordy couldn’t get the conversation out of his mind. There were many questions, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to find answers to them all. To try to sort through his thoughts, he drove the squad car in the opposite direction of the police station and went, instead, down to Lakeview Park, the community park over looking Long Lake. In spite of the warm spring weather, the park was nearly deserted, only a couple of kids casting lines off the public dock. He found  a picnic table under a massive cottonwood tree that was just starting to leaf out and sat down. He lay his notebook on the table and looked out over the placid water, dimly aware of a sea gull squawking from somewhere. He thought about all the times he’d been called to the Jespers’ house, being alerted by the neighbors on either side as well as from across the street. Everyone in the neighborhood was aware of the brutality of Phil Jespers toward his wife. Early on in his career Gordy had come to believe what they said and the truth about what was going. In fact he talked many times privately with Margaret Jespers at the grocery store when she was on break, but he couldn’t convince her to file charges against her husband. Every time he failed to convince her, he felt like a failure, feeling like he should have been able to do more.

A red squirrel hopped up on the far end of the table and started chattering away, scolding him incessantly. Gordy waved his hand and the squirrel jumped to the ground, scampered off about ten feet and took up its chattering again. Gordy shook his head and laughed a little while watching it. Then he turned back to his notebook and looked at the notes he’d accumulated during the day. Then he stopped and looked out over the lake. Maybe he deserved to be scolded for not doing more to help Maggie Jespers, Gordy thought to himself, if not by a noisy squirrel, as least by himself.

He breathed in the fresh spring air. He loved seeing the trees leafing out and songbirds returning from the south to nest in the forests and woodlands nearby. It was a time of year for change and rebirth. Out above the lake an eagle soared on an upward thermal while nearby it’s mate flew toward it. They met in mid air and grabbed talons, twirling together in a show of their union before unlocking and flying next to each other to the east, to the far end of the lake where their nest was located. It warmed his heart to see them together, bonded with each other in a common need to procreate and raise their young – a life of purpose and meaning. He was quickly coming to the conclusion that Margaret Jespers deserved better than what she’d had. If she were still alive, why didn’t she deserve a chance at a better life? A chance to make something of herself? A chance to live without the threat of abuse from the man she married? Especially after all she’d been through. It seemed reasonable to him.

Gordy looked at his watch and saw that it was nearly six in the evening. His partner, Alan, would be home from work by now and probably preparing dinner. He taught math at the local high school and they had talked earlier that afternoon, Gordy filling him in on the investigation. Alan told him to take his time getting home – he was going to fix a nice meal of pasta, toasted French bread and a mixed greens salad with balsamic vinegar dressing; something that would keep until Gordy returned to their small, tidy bungalow, only a mile from where the blast took place. Gordy’s mouth started watering just thinking about sitting down to a good meal. Especially after today.

He sighed and got to his feet, but before he went to his car he reached into his jacket pocket for the bag of sunflower seeds he always carried to munch on. He poured a handful and tossed them back toward the squirrel, who scampered off, stopped, sniffed, and then ran back to where the seeds lay and started stuffing them into its mouth. He watched for a moment enjoying the peaceful scene. Then he headed for his car. He had to go back to the station and write up his report. Sitting in the park had helped him clarify his thinking. He’d lay out the facts as he saw them, and point out the unanswered questions as to Mrs. Jespers whereabouts. His final recommendation would be that they leave the case open. Then he’d file it away and move on to the string of robberies that had been plaguing the area since last Christmas. The Chief seemed motivated to solve the break-ins, thinking they might be gang or drug related. Gordy would suggest they focus on them, and put the case of Margaret ‘Maggie’ Jespers on the back-burner. He smiled to himself. He was pretty sure he could convince the chief to go along with it. Somebody owed the poor woman something for all the pain and suffering she’d gone through in her horrific marriage, and that somebody might as well be him. He started the car and took the most direct route back to the station that he could. He was eager to get the report written, give it to the chief, get home to Alan, and to put the case behind him.

The next day Lettie was taking her smoke break out back of the store. The springtime sun was warm on her face, the day was pleasant and the air was filled with the aroma of lilacs in full bloom. Next week was the beginning of May, and she should have felt happy about the unseasonably warm weather but she wasn’t. She was mulling over her conversation the day before with that investigator from the police department, Gordy whatever his name was. He had called her at work earlier that afternoon and asked to meet.

“I just have a few questions for you,” he’d said, “About Mrs. Jespers. I heard you and she were pretty close.”

So he’d come over to the grocery and talked to Mr. and Mrs. Olafson, and when he was done with them he met up with Lettie. “Can we go out back and talk?” she’d asked when were introduced, “I might need a cigarette or two.” Gordy readily agreed and they’d gone out back and she’d lit up the first of many Lucky Strikes. Before the cop could even start asking questions, Lettie had taken off on a non-stop rant, spewing forth a litany of observations about Maggie and Phil, and Maggie’s marriage with Phil, and how badly Phil treated Maggie, and on and on and on. She was positive she’d had the investigator reeling in a matter of moments.

She told the cop in no uncertain terms what she’d hoped had happened to the husband who had caused her friend such relentless misery, and then started in some more about Phil and what a jerk he was. But as she talked something clicked in the back of her mind. She realized she might have been sending out the wrong message, because she certainly didn’t want the cop thinking that maybe Maggie’d had something to do with causing the explosion – just to get rid of Phil for good.

So she stopped mid-sentence, took a breath to calm herself down and went on a different track, “Sorry,” she apologized, “But I’m a little upset by the whole thing, I guess. I’ve never known anyone who’d been killed before, let alone in a house that blew up.”

The investigator had put up his hand to stop her, “Whoa there, Ms. Sanderson, no one said anything about your friend being killed. We’re just starting the investigation and we’re looking at every angle.”

“Well, be that as it may, I’ve got to be honest with you. Even though I’ve known her for seventeen years, I’ve never really known her, if you know what I mean.”

Gordy nodded and took a minute making small talk to let Lettie calm down, before getting back to the matter at hand. But after about five or ten minutes of vague comments and even vaguer answers like, “I don’t really know,” and “I’m sorry, but we really weren’t that close. She was a hard person to get to know,” the cop had nodded, closed his notebook, given her his business card and left, seemingly satisfied with the fact that Lettie didn’t really have anything more to say about Maggie, or add to what little he already knew. Or at least that’s what she hoped, anyway.

And that was just fine because Lettie, of course, really had been close to Maggie. As close as they get under the circumstances, especially hampered by the fact that Phil kept her on a short leash and basically under his thumb every possible moment. But, even given Phil’s tight control of her friend, as far as Lettie was concerned there was a fifty-fifty chance that Maggie had blown up the house on purpose. She had confided to Lettie more than once that she might eventually snap and if she did, there’d be hell to pay. Maybe this was one of those times. And, who knew? If she had snapped, if she had blown up the house, maybe there was a chance she could have escaped and could now still be alive.

Lettie took a contemplative drag and blew the smoke out. She already missed her friend, but the big question was this: Could Maggie have survived the explosion? No one had found any evidence one way or the other to lead them to think she had or hadn’t. The cop seemed like a decent enough person. Maybe he’d find some clue or something that would lead to an answer. One could only hope. She snuffed out her cigarette and went back to work. One thing was certain, Lettie was going to keep all her options open, and the first and main one was this: Maggie was alive and well and living somewhere. That was what she hoped with all her heart, anyway. And it was a hope she carried deep inside, because, other than the memories of the good times they’d had together, it was all she had to hold on to.

But the days turned to weeks and then to months. Spring turned to summer, and people eventually forgot about the big explosion on Lilac Way. Well, they didn’t actually forget about it, they just talked about it less and less and got on with their lives. By the time fall rolled around, and the kids were in school, and the leaves were starting to change color, the Long Lake Police Station had moved on to other business, too, and the case of the explosion at the house on Lilac Way was indeed filed away as an open cold case that no one bothered looking at – just the outcome Inspector Gordy Little had hoped for. The Olafson’s hired a new woman to take over Maggie’s job and life went on. For nearly everyone in and around the Long Lake area the memory of Maggie Jespers grew dimmer and dimmer with each passing day.

For everyone that was but Lettie. She is out back in the late October sun, on break, having a cigarette, and thinking about her friend. She misses the quiet, shy woman who she has grown to care for and love. She misses talking about recipes they wanted to try, flowers that were in bloom and books they were reading. In fact, right now she is enjoying a mystery series by a well respected woman author set in a rural village in central England. She would love to talk with Maggie about how much she is likes the main character, a quirky female private eye. She thinks Maggie would enjoy the character, too, (as well as the books themselves).

In short, she misses the companionship and friendship. Life isn’t the same without her friend. In the early months after the explosion Lettie held out a strong hope that Maggie had actually escaped the blast – had, in fact, somehow survived and, by surviving, had gone on to build a new life for herself. A better life. And with that new and better life she would one day get in touch, and they would renew their friendship and move on with their lives together – these two old friends who were both now finally rid of the specters of their former husbands.

But Maggie has never gotten in touch. And as the days have turned to weeks and the weeks to months, Lettie has finally begun to accept the awful truth: Maggie had, indeed, died in the blast. She is dead and gone. Gone forever. She is never coming back. With that hard realization a void has been left in Lettie’s heart that is deep, numbing, and painful. And all the more painful because of the sad reality that now she, Lettie Sanderson, is truly without hope of her friend returning.

She sighs and crushes out her cigarette and makes her way back inside to work. She glances at her watch. Four more hours. Then home. Then a bite to eat. Then relaxing in her rocking chair with her book. Then bed. A life empty without her friend. Everyday more lonely than the previous one.

October in Gloucestershire in England is gorgeous. Even the locals marvel at the way the muted oranges, reds and yellows of the beech, oak and sweet chestnut trees, colorfully wash the Cotswold hills along the River Coln that flows through the village of Fairford. People who are born here may leave for a while but most always return, drawn by the beauty of the area and the slow pace of life. Others, once they discover the tapestry of rolling meadows, woodlands and fields, many bordered by low, limestone walls hundreds of years old…Well, once they set down their roots, they never leave.

Behind the counter of the Strawberry Fields Forever flower shop the owner, Kelly Newcastle, has just hung up the phone. She turns to her new employee, a thin, quiet but friendly woman with dark shoulder length hair, tinted gray, and says, “Arla, honey, would you mind watching the shop for a while? I have to go to school and get Raffe. Apparently he’s suddenly come down with the flu or other horrific malady.” Kelly rolls her eyes, suggesting her nine year old son is probably faking illness to try to get out of a math test or something .

“Sure, Kelly,” Arla says with an understanding smile, “Go right ahead and take your time. Don’t worry about the shop, I’ve got things covered.”

Yes she does. Kelly does a quick look around. She’s had the little shop for nearly ten years now. It is well stocked with cut flowers and floral arrangements and filled to overflowing with beautiful bouquets made mostly by Arla, her new employee (well, not so new. She’s worked there for nearly three months, now.) The shop has never looked better. Kelly ruminates for a moment on how Arla certainly has a way with flowers, then gets herself ready to leave.

“I know you do, honey,” Kelly says, grabbing her purse. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The tiny bell above the door tinkles as some customers come in. She skirts around them as she goes out.

Arla waves, “Say Hi to Raffe for me.” She grins at the thought of the bright, artistically inclined little boy she is developing a fondness for, then turns her attention to the twenties something couple and their two young children who have just entered, “Hi there folks, beautiful day out today, isn’t it?”

Kelly looks over her shoulder toward her shop as she hurries down the sidewalk. She knows that her new employee has issues. She knew that right off the bat by how Arla limped when she came in for her job interview, and, later, after she was hired, by how she favored her right arm when she was arranging flowers. But don’t we all, was how she looked at it at the time. And still does. From her point of view Arla is friendly, a hard worker, and exceedingly conscientious. What more could she ask for in an employee? Maybe one day maybe she will confide in her and tell her story. Until then, she is happy to let things go their own way.

Kelly turns up the street. She loves the quaint town she has called home for most of the forty-seven years of her life (except for a brief sojourn to college for a year and a half in North Umberland.) She loves the cobblestone street that winds through the little village; the one her shop is on. She loves the slow pace of life. And, above all, she loves the people who have chosen to live in Fairford. People who enjoy the beauty of the soft hills surrounding the town, the stream that meanders through it, and the quaint shops, of which hers is one. Kelly glances at her wristwatch. Just after two in the afternoon. She slows to a walk. With Arla in charge, she can take her time. She doubts Raffe is all that sick, but if he is, she’ll be happy to have him home and take care of him. For the first time in years she has an employee she can depend on to leave in charge of her shop. It’s a good feeling, being able to count on someone other than herself. A really good feeling. She slows her walk to a stroll, finding herself hoping Raffe can come home from school. She’d love to spend the afternoon with him.

Back at Strawberry Fields Forever, Maggie (aka, Arla) watches over the couple as they browse, giving them time and space, not wanting to be too pushy. She stays near the counter, leaning on it and resting her leg, ready to answer any questions. As she watches them and their two young children she again thanks her lucky stars for what seems like the millionth time for just how fortunate she has been. She loves her job. She loves the cheerful tinkling of the bell that greets people when they enter the shop. She loves working with the flowers and arranging bouquets. She loves working with Kelly, a fireball of a woman a few years younger than her, whose energy and enthusiasm is infectious and just what Maggie needs to continue her healing process.

She watches the customers and contemplates the six months that have passed since the explosion on Lilac Way. My goodness how life has changed. Among other things she found her way to the Cotswold region in south central England where she now rents a room in a two hundred year old stone cottage from a nice elderly lady by the name of Mrs. Elise Latham. It’s a perfect place for her to learn how to live without the fear and pain and abuse she received on an almost daily basis back BTE (before the explosion), as she now refers to it. Every day she gets stronger. Every day she puts the memory of her past life behind her. Every day she learns how much her new life has to offer. She doesn’t have much of a plan other than to live and to heal and to enjoy life, and that’s what she is trying to do.

But if she did have a list of things to do, next on the agenda would be to get in touch with Lettie and invite her to come for a visit. Soon, real soon. Until then she will take her time getting better, both physically and emotionally. It will take time, but that’s Ok. She’s Arla Wickensham now, and she has all the time in the world.

She glances at the clock on the side wall. Two o’clock, eight in the evening in Long Lake. Lettie will probably just be settling down in her comfortable rocking chair in her tidy living room with a book. She always liked to read for at least an hour or two before watching the news and getting ready for bed. Maggie blinks back a tear. Oh, Lettie…How you are missed.

Maggie had just moved into her room with Mrs. Latham and was giving herself a few days to get settled, thinking that she owed herself at least that much, when she happened to glance at the local paper. She saw the ad for help at Strawberry Fields Forever and decided to take a chance, limping the three blocks from the rooming house to St. Mary’s Lane, where the flower shop was located. Kelly, the owner, and Maggie hit if off right away, and she was hired on the spot, culminating a whirlwind of events in Maggie’s life.

She smiles once more at the young couple and their children, letting them enjoy looking at the pretty floral arrangements as she lets her thoughts wander back over the last six months, time she is learning to look at as LAE, ‘Life after the explosion’ because the last six months have certainly turned out unexpectedly…what?…Different? Productive? Rewarding? Maybe all three.

The explosion.

She still marvels at how events played out because, obviously, she survived. And Lady Luck certainly played a role, that was for sure. The wall of the house absorbed the primary energy of the blast as did that wonderful old oak tree. But, even so, she had been hurled backward into the yard where she’d lain, hurting and in shock as burning debris began to rain down on her. Her leg was injured, she knew that for sure, but she did her best to ignore her pain. She clutched her shoulder bag, forced her aching body to stand and began the painful process of limping from the backyard out to the street and down the block. She was nearly two blocks away and moving slowly (but at least she was moving) when the sirens began and the first responders started racing to the neighborhood. By then she had made her way down to the bus stop – just like in her dreams she imagined she would one day.

In looking back, she now knows that her quiet neighborhood, with everyone at work and no one around, had been her first lucky break. There had been no one to see her as she made her slow but steady progress away from the scene of her crime. Her second lucky break was catching the downtown bus so quickly. By the time the police cars and fire trucks started rolling through town, Maggie was gingerly working her way up the steps and onto the 675B bus to Minneapolis. By that first evening, when Gordy and the fire chief where finishing up sifting through the ruins of her former home, Maggie had left the bus terminal in Minneapolis and was over half way to Madison, Wisconsin. By the next day, when Gordy had finished his meeting with the Chief and Hank and was in the process of interviewing Mr. and Mrs. Olafson and Lettie, Maggie was holed up in a Days Inn near the University of Wisconsin campus. She stayed there for a week, resting, tending to her wounds and, as she started referring to it, ‘Getting my life in order.’ She found a room to rent half a mile from the campus. She found a job. And she came up with a plan. A plan that required that she obtain a passport, because she was going to England; she was going to start a new life.

She didn’t have a drivers license because Phil had refused to let her drive, and her old one from before she had met him had expired years earlier. But she did have an ID Card and that’s what she used. She worked for a few months at one of the many college eateries (just like she’d been doing when she’d first met Phil), living frugally and saving her money, adding it to her savings from Olafson’s. When she had what she estimated would be enough to get to England and get herself settled, she applied for her passport and received it six weeks later. She gave her two week notice and booked a flight to London, landing at Heathrow Airport at the end of summer. The rest was easy: A map here, a bus there, and soon she was in the quaint village of Fairford, nestled into the rolling hills of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire in south central England. She was ready to begin to live again.

“Miss, we like both of these arrangements. Which one do you like the best?” The young man asks, interrupting Maggie’s thoughts.

She shakes her head, smiling and getting her mind back to the present. “I’m sorry,” she says and laughs self-consciously, “Day dreaming I guess. Here, let’s take a closer look at them.”

She limps out from behind the counter and begins to admire the two bouquets the couple have selected. One’s colors are primarily blue, white and lavender. The other is red, orange and yellow. They are both beautiful as far as she is concerned. Especially since she made each of them herself.

“I think they’re both lovely,” she says, gently caressing the tops of the flowers, “I think either of them will work out just fine for you, because, you know, there’s nothing that brightens a day quite like a bouquet of flowers.”

The couple smile at her comment and bend their heads together, talking quietly.

What better way than this to spend the day, Maggie thinks to herself, than helping people decide what kind of flowers to buy? She is so happy! She’s working at a job she loves and she is healing and getting better. Every day. Her dream of starting over is coming true.

The couple make their decision and Maggie wraps the orange, red and yellow bouquet in soft, green, tissue paper. They pay and make their way out of the shop, but not before accepting two suckers from Maggie. “These are from me to the children, if that’s Ok with you. For being so polite,” she says. The couple (and their kids) smile their delight, saying, “Thank you, Miss,” before leaving. Maggie waves them on their way, grinning ear to ear.

Then the shop is empty and her thoughts return. Her smile fades and she becomes pensive.

She feels guilty she hasn’t contacted Lettie. She’s missed her so much. It’s been too long. She suddenly realizes how badly she wants to see her.

She glances under the counter where her shoulder bag lays. Inside is the letter she’d written a few days earlier. In it she has opened up her heart to her old friend, telling her she misses her and hopes that she understands why she did what she had to do. She’s also told Lettie that if she ever wanted to, Maggie would send her the money so she could fly to England. ‘We could have a nice long visit,’ was how she put it in the letter, ‘I’d love to show you around my new home and where I live.’ Hopefully, they could pick up where they had left off with their friendship. That would make everything perfect.

But Maggie has put off sending the letter, not quite sure if she was ready to share her heart. But she is in a good mood now, especially after helping the couple select their bouquet. Maybe now is the right time. She closes her eyes and pictures seeing Lettie getting off the bus in her quaint, little village. They smile at each other and hug and don’t let go for many minutes. Maggie breathes in Lettie’s scent of sandalwood and vanilla. Lettie hugs her tight in return and it’s as if they were never apart. Then they release their embrace and smile at each other, connected again and firm in the knowledge that their friendship has withstood them being a part for all these months. In her mind Maggie suggests they go to her favorite cafe and they stroll down the cobblestone street to the Lavender Mist where they sit down and drink tea, eat blueberry scones and lemon curd and talk and talk and catch up. Later Maggie will show Lettie the sights: the Cotswold hills, the Coln River and the stone cottage where she lives. She’ll introduced her to Elise and to Kelly. The two dear friends will be together for as long as they want to be.

She opens her eyes and sees it all so clearly. She doesn’t have to think further. She will send the letter. She wants to see her friend again. That’s the main thing. She wants to continue putting her life back together; especially the good things of her life, and Lettie will always be one of those good things. Seeing her and being with her will make her healing process complete.

Maggie leans against the counter and sighs a happy sigh. Contentment has never been a factor in her life, not until now. But now she can say that she is truly content. It’s a good feeling to have. Now she looks forward to every day and to what the future holds, come what may. Because after all is said and done, there is one thing for sure that is always paramount in Maggie’s mind these days and that is this: It’s good to be alive.

She pats her shoulder bag. The shoulder bag that is the one physical reminder of her life before the explosion. The life she is turning her back on forever. Forever that is, except for one thing. She takes out the letter and looks at the name on it. Lettie Sanderson. Long Lake, Minnesota. She has an inkling of a suspicion that Lettie will be happy to hear from her. She gently caresses the envelope and then makes her decision. She will mail it tonight. Tonight on her way home. She grins and puts the envelope back in her shoulder bag.

The shop bell rings, interrupting her thoughts, and she looks up. A few more customers are wandering in.

“Hi there, folks, welcome to Strawberry Fields Forever,” she says, smiling her greeting, “Isn’t it a lovely day today? How may I help you?”

One of the ladies smiles back and says, “We’re looking for a bouquet of flowers for a dinner party we’re having tonight. Can you help us?”

Maggie grins, steps out from behind the counter and limps toward         her. “Yes, I can,” she says, pointing to an arrangement she just put together that morning, “These are especially lovely. What do you think of them?”

It’s a bouquet of yellow daffodils, bright sunflowers and white daisies. Maggie loves how cheerful they are.

The lady is impressed, “They’re absolutely gorgeous!” she exclaims, making a quick decision, “I take them.”

“That’s wonderful,” Maggie says, and lovingly takes the flowers in her hands, “Give me just a minute and I’ll wrap them up for you. Then you can take them home.”

A thought comes to Maggie as she is wrapping the bouquet. I think I’ll make up an arrangement like this for Lettie when she comes (already, in her mind assuming her friend will jump at the chance to visit and renew their friendship.) I’ll just add something to brighten up it up even more. Flowers like blue lavender, purple verbena and burgundy foxglove. Lettie would love that.

She smiles, thinking of her friend as she tapes the wrapping paper in place and hands it to the nice lady.

“Here you go. Nothing like flowers to brighten a day, is there?”

“No, there certainly, isn’t,” the lady says, “Nothing better in the whole world.”

Except having a friend to give them to, Maggie thinks, already planning for when Lettie comes to England. Because when she does make the journey to the Cotswold’s and finally arrives in Maggie’s new little village, and they met for the first time since the explosion, then Maggie will feel like she is truly healed. Then, the life is creating for herself will be complete and the life she has dreamed of having can finally begin.