A Fortunate Man

One is never too old to learn a Life Lesson as the guy in this story is lucky enough to find out.

He had no idea why he felt compelled to do it, but he decided to do it anyway. As he explained to Lynn, “I just feel like it’s something I need to do.”

She shook her head and looked him straight in the eye, “Well, do what you think you have to do, but as far as I’m concerned I think it’s a dumb idea. Nothing good can come of it.”

“I just I want to talk to each of them. One last time.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” He paused. Even though he’d been thinking about it off and on for over a year, he still hadn’t come up with a good idea, which probably should have told him something right then and there. “Maybe get some kind of closure, something like that.”

Her laugh was somewhat derisive, “Closure? You’re over seventy years old. What difference does it make now? Sounds like a bunch of crap to me.” She thought for a moment and then asked, “When was the last time you talked to any of them? Is there something going on here you haven’t told me about?”

He could tell she was trying to understand and not get angry. He appreciated that in her. “No, it’s nothing like that. I haven’t talked to any of them for years.” He paused, wanting to keep things calm before adding, “I’m not even sure I know how to get a hold of them.” He took a deep breath and tried to control his ever increasing heart rate. The doctor had warned him about too much stress but he was bringing this on himself. “Look, I could just forget about.  I’ve even pretended that I could go on without doing it, but…” He shrugged and gave her what could be construed as a pleading look, a look she would hate, “I just feel I have to do it. Can you please just try to understand?” He knew he probably sounded needy and pathetic. Maybe he was.

She gave him a grim smile. “I’ll tell you what. You do what you have to do. Ok? I wouldn’t ever consider doing it myself, but if you want to do it, fine, go ahead.” She could see him visibly relax. “Just don’t come crying to me if it all blows up in your face.”

The plan was to contact the three women he’d been closest to at various stages in his life. There was Karen, his old high school girlfriend, who he had heard still lived somewhere in the city. There was his first ex-wife, Laura, the mother of his three kids, from whom he’d been divorced for over forty years. Finally, there was his second ex-wife, Katie, whom he’d been married to the longest and from whom he’d been divorced for eighteen years. He was in his early seventies, still in relatively good health, but you never knew. One could say he was sort of cleaning house or putting things in order, and maybe that’s what it was. He actually did feel that he needed some closure, no matter how crazy it may seem to others, like Lynn, the woman he’d been with for fifteen years and with whom he planned to spend the rest of his life.

“Just do what you have to do,” she said once more with a finality signifying that, for her at least, the discussion was over. “Just don’t say I didn’t tell you so if things don’t work out the way you want. Or expect,” she added.

“Ok, thanks, “I really appreciate your understanding,” he said, meaning it.

“Don’t thank me, pal, it’s your funeral.” She gave him a look, which he saw as a cross between sympathy and pity, like ‘how can this guy be such an idiot’ and then changed the subject. “Now, how about if we go for a walk? I could use a little fresh air.”

It took him over a month to get everything in place. He decided to try to meet each of them all in one day. His old high school girlfriend for lunch, his first wife for an early happy hour, and his second wife for dinner. He figured that if he met with them all in one day he could do a better job of handling the emotions he figured would arise rather than spreading things out over who knew how many days. Amazingly, it was not that hard to find each of them. He used social media and the internet and was able to contact them all. A friend of his managed a supper club a couple of miles from where he and Lynn lived and agreed to reserve a table for him that day for as long as he needed it.

“You sure you really want to do this?” His friend had asked when he had explained his idea. “Lynn’s a great woman. If I were you I wouldn’t do anything to piss her off. Or jeopardize your relationship.” He shook his head, before adding, “Sounds insane to me.”

“Yeah, I know it sounds insane. Everyone is telling me that, but I feel like I need to do this, so let’s set it up.” God, I’m sounding like a broken record, he thought to himself, and not for the last time, it turned out. But that bit his friend had said about jeopardizing his relationship with Lynn, well that was something to think about. In the long run, if he were smarter, he’d have thought about it more right then. But for some people, it takes a sledgehammer to the head a few times before they finally get the bigger picture. He, apparently, was one of those people.

So they picked a date and planned out the times for each of the meetings and that was that. He then called each of the three women and arranged when they would get together.

“It’s amazing how it’s all working out,” he told Lynn later, wanting to keep her in the loop.

She raised a hand up, like stop. “You know, I know you think you need to do this, but, really, I still think it stupid. You’re nuts to attempt it.”

“Well, it’s just something I have to do.”

“Yeah, I get that,” she said derisively. “I just don’t think you know what you’re getting into.”

“I know you think that,” he said. “But…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…You just have to do it.” She turned on her heel and walked away, shaking her head. He thought he heard her mumble, “Why do I even bother to put up with this crap?”

“But we’re good. Right?” He called to her back.

To which she turned quickly toward him with a tight expression, “Well, I’m good, buddy. I’m not all that sure about you.”

They’d been together for over fifteen years and she was only a couple of years younger than him. Their relationship was strong even though they were very different people. There was a great deal of respect for each other even though he got the distinct feeling that she was losing some of that for him with this new adventure of his. He told himself that this was just a little bump in the road. Something he felt he had to get past. From his point of view she appeared Ok with it, just not all that excited about it. This was just one of those things that occasionally came up in relationships, he told himself. She was easily strong enough not to be hurt by what he was doing, just not all that fired up that he was doing it. He could definitely understand that. If the tables were turned he’d feel exactly how she felt, even more so, probably. But he truly believed that their relationship was strong enough to get through this or he wouldn’t have considered doing it. As he had said to her, one of those things that he felt he had to do. The fact that it could be considered a self-centered act that may even hurt her feelings didn’t enter into his thinking at all. He just went ahead, blind to the potential affect it could have on his relationship with her.

Finding each of the women had been difficult but not impossible. First there was Karen, or Karrie, as she went by, his old high school girl friend. He ran into multiple roadblocks until he mentioned what he was planning on doing to his younger brother who (even though he was also among the growing number of those who thought the entire idea was nuts) gave him a line through Facebook.

“I’m in contact with Tim, who’s in contact with Sue, who’s in contact with Ellen. I’m pretty sure she might be in contact with Karrie, since they were in theater together and all.” He paused and looked at his older brother. “I still think you’re crazy to do this.”

“Yeah, I get it,” he replied, “You and everyone else I’ve talked to about this.”

“Maybe you should listen to them.” He looked closely at his brother before asking,  “So…How’s Lynn feel about all this?”

“She says she fine with it.”

“And you believe her?

“Why not?”

“Because maybe she’s just really hoping you’ll see for yourself that not only is it a dumb thing to do, but that it just might hurt her feelings. And that you come to your senses on your own without her having to tell you.”

“Naw, I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

His brother just shook his head, becoming, like his friend the manager of the supper club, another person who couldn’t understand why he didn’t see the potential for a disaster when it came to the impact this all could have on his relationship with Lynn. He just blindly stumbled ahead, oblivious to it all.

“It’s just something I need to do,” he said finally, thinking he should just have the saying tattooed on his forehead, he was saying it so much, and missing, instead, the point that others were making.

He was eventually able to contact Karrie and she agreed to meet with him but not before she spent more than a few minutes questioning him on what he wanted to talk about.

“I really don’t get it,” she had said, after he explained that he just wanted to touch base with her and see how things were going. “It’s been what fifty, sixty years since we had anything to do with each other. You never even bothered to go to any of our class reunions.”

When she put it that way, it did sound kind of nuts. “I just thought it would be…” he paused, what did he think it would be? Quickly he went on, “Nice, you know. Nice to touch base.” He said, knowing he was starting to repeat himself. Knowing he was starting to sound odd and possibly even more than a little strange. He pictured what she must probably be thinking. It wasn’t pretty. He heard her sigh deeply, and he prepared himself for her to say No but, of all things, she surprised him by agreeing.

On the line, her voice was formal, “Well, whatever, but I’m not sure I’m going to have a lot of time for this, though. Just a quick lunch, you say?”

Well, he had said lunch. She had added the quick part, but at least she had agreed. That was something. He heart rate had gone up and he was suddenly very nervous. This was really going to happen. “Yes,” he said quickly, “Just a quick lunch. Thanks so much.” He was going to add ‘It’ll be good to see you’, but she said a speedy goodbye and hung up without him getting a word in. He clicked off and stared into space, wondering what he had gotten himself into.

Getting a hold of his first ex-wife was easy. She was in the phone book. Laura Linley Ericksson. The name she went by now which was, after three marriages all ending in divorce, the name she had been born with.

“Well, what the hell do you want?” she spit out, picking up on the third ring. She obviously had caller ID.

When he explained his reason for calling she was silent for a few moments. It gave him a chance to reconsider what was now looking like an insane (yes, to piggy-back the word his friend and a few others had used) undertaking. However, she surprised him by agreeing to meet, but for an entirely different reason than for what he’d had in mind. “It will give me a chance to talk with you about Jenny.”

Jenny was the youngest of the three daughters they’d had together. The one who had been in and out of various treatment facilities since she had been fifteen. The one who even now, at forty-one, unfortuately was still having issues. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know.”

“Well of course you wouldn’t, you never even talk to her.”

Which wasn’t true. He tried to stay in touch with his youngest daughter, she just didn’t want to talk to him. He bit his tongue instead of saying ‘Well whose fault is that?’ Better to save it for when they got together, if even then. In an instant he saw how the whole conversation could potentially go with his ex-wife reaming him out but one more time in a long, long line of reamings. Well, the hell with it, he thought. This whole thing was his idea. He’d just take the good (if there was to be any) with the bad (which it looked like there was going to be a lot of). “Sounds good to me,” he said, trying for an upbeat and friendly tone.  He gave her the time and date to which she eagerly agreed. Making him wonder after he’d rung off whether he was ready for what might lay in store.

Katie, his second ex-wife’s phone number he still had. Even though they had been divorced for eighteen years, he could still remember it. It was just one of those things, like remembering the name of the cat his family had when he was a kid, or the name of his best friend when he was seven: it was just stuck in his brain. It took him several attempts to get through, though, her phone going to her voicemail over and over again. In fact, it took nearly a week before she finally picked up with a sleepy, “Well, hello, stranger. It’s been a long time.” Again, caller ID no doubt.

She was right, it had been a long time. After the divorce he’d never had an occasion to talk to her. This was the first time in all those years. But the conversation went pretty well all things considered. They quickly caught up. It turned out she was remarried and happily living with her husband, Larry, a soon to be retired chiropractor, in a northwest suburb. “Sure, I think I could make it down there,” she had replied to his idea.”I’ve can do some shopping at the Mall.” Which was the Ridgedale Mall, just fifteen minutes from where they were going to meet.

“Ok, great,” he said. “I’ll see you then.” And that was that.

He glanced at the calendar. It read November 14. In about a month, on Wednesday, December 13, he’d be meeting these three women who had been major influences on his life. Each of them in their own way. Was he looking forward to reliving the past? Not really. But he was looking forward to seeing how it went meeting with each of them. Each of whom he’d spent time with and loved in unique, but decidedly different ways. But the fact of the matter was that each of those relationships had ended badly. Why was he even considering doing this? Maybe, like everyone had said, he really was insane. Well, the time to figure it out was only a month away. By the end of that day he’d know whether it had been a good idea or not. If he really had thought about it, he would have realized the answer was there all along.

He and Lynn were busy in the month leading up to December 13th. It was the holiday time of year. He put up the outdoor Christmas lights which he now called Holiday lights just to be religiously correct. They shared a Thanksgiving meal with Lynn’s mother and her husband and all the rest of her siblings and nieces and nephews. He called his daughters to wish them all a happy day, getting through to only one, Stephanie, the one he was closest to, who lived in Madison with her husband, Steve, a physics professor at the University there. Then there was the push toward Christmas with shopping to do, baking to be done and plans to be made. He and Lynn were old hands at this, sharing the responsibilities as much as they could. Lynn tended to excel at all the indoor stuff way more than he did, the baking especially, so he found himself more or less trying to stay out of the way and interfere as little as possible, feeling a little guilty. It snowed off and on starting the week before Thanksgiving so he was able to shovel the driveway and walkway, making him feel a little more useful. They had learned, over the years, to divide up some tasks and share others and in the end it worked for them and that was the important thing.

If Lynn was concerned about him meeting the three women she didn’t mention it. And really, when he thought about it, why should she? She had her own life to lead. She had her relationships with her three boys and their families, her mom, her two sisters and brother and their families, and her circle of close friends. She had a small business making handmade pincushions and eyeglass cases that she sold on her internet site. She had an inquiring mind and was never bored. She loved to read. She had a full, rewarding and satisfying life. Which is what she focused on, along with all the other preparations for the holidays. She was happy, slightly rushed, but involved with each day, never taking a moment to dwell on him and his ‘crazy obsession’ as she sometimes put it. And he just left it that way, deciding that he knew how she felt (that he was nuts, insane, crazy, an idiot, etc.) and so he just left it alone.

The night of December 12 he built a fire in the fireplace and they relaxed watching a Christmas Special on their local PBS channel. She was in her comfortable chair and he in his usual place on the couch. It was pledge week and during one of the breaks she said to him, “So tomorrow’s the big day.” She was crocheting some flowers for a pincushion she was making.

“Yep, it is,” he responded. Not sure what else to say.

“So you’re still going through with it?”

“Yeah, I am,” he said, wondering where she was going with this.

She looked at him, eye brows raised as she looked over the top of her reading glasses. She shook her head. “I really wish you could explain to me why you feel compelled to do this. I still honestly don’t understand.”

He thought for a moment. “Have you ever wanted to touch base with any of the guys you used to go out with? You know, just to see how they are doing? See what they did with their lives?”

“No. Not at all. Remember when Ronny, that guy I dated in high school, tried to contact me through Facebook?” He nodded. “Do you remember what I did about that?”

“Yeah, you did nothing. You just ignored him.”

“Exactly. I ignored him.” She put her crocheting down and looked directly at him. “What good could have come from it? We were just kids back then. We went out, we broke up and moved on with our lives.”

“Didn’t you tell me he wanted to marry you?”

“Yes, I did tell you that and yes, he did want to marry me, but I was sixteen. It was a little weird and, frankly, kind of creepy.”

“Don’t you ever wonder about what happened to him?”

“I heard once that he still lived in the area and that he worked for a car dealership. That’s all I know, and that’s all I need to know. I have no need or desire to see him. The past is past.”

He thought about it for a minute. She had married young and had her kids early in the marriage. She and her husband had drifted apart starting almost from the beginning. They divorced as soon as the kids were out of the house and on their own. He knew she had no desire to have any kind of a relationship with her ex. “I understand your position, I really do. I just…”

“I know. You feel that you have to do this.” She said, quoting him word for word.

“I don’t want you to get angry.”

“I’m not angry,” she said, standing up and heading into the kitchen. “I’m just perplexed. Why anyone would want to do this…I just don’t get it.”

He wished he could give her a reasonable answer. He, himself, wasn’t all that clear as to why he wanted to do it. He listened as she turned on the faucet and poured herself a glass of water before coming back in and sitting down. They had only two table lamps on.  A couple of pillar candles on the mantle were giving off a vanilla scent. The fire was burning nicely in the fireplace it’s flames flickering and lighting up the cozy space. They had their Christmas (holiday) tree up and it’s lights were on, too, which added to the peaceful atmosphere in the room.

He wanted her to know she didn’t have to worry. He wasn’t trying ‘reconnect’ with any of these women, he just wanted to talk to them, see how they were with their lives and that was it. “I’m only doing this once,” he finally said. “One time, one meeting and that’s it. Done and done,” he added, voicing a phase they often used between them to signify the completion of a task.

She gave him a quick smile, but then added, “Well, I only have one thing to say, and then I’m not saying anything anymore.”

“What’s that?” he asked, curious.

“It’s your funeral, buddy. Don’t come crying to me if it blows up in your face.”

“I appreciate your understanding,” he said, relaxing a bit, hoping his voice conveyed the sincerity he truly felt.  He was also hoping she really did understand. He thought about what his brother and others had said. Was he hurting her feelings? He honestly couldn’t tell. “I really do,” he added and got up to throw another log on the fire. She returned to her crocheting and focused her attention back to television. A well known travel host was spending Christmas Eve in Austria in a quaint little village in the mountains with his wife and two kids. “Looks kind of nice over there, doesn’t it?” he asked, sitting back down. “Like a scene right out of a Christmas card.”

She turned her head toward him, shaking it ever so slightly. “You know, don’t you, that you’re way too much of a romantic. ” She pointed toward the screen where the family was out in the snowy forest cutting down a tree to use in their Christmas celebration. “Life isn’t really like that.”

He chuckled. He really did understand, after all these years together, what she was getting at. She was definitely the realist in the relationship. “Well, one can always hope,” he joked.

“Yeah, one can, but you know what they say?”

“What’s that?”

“Hope is highly overrated.”

“Maybe the world needs more people like that guy and me,” he said, pointing at the TV, still joking with her.

She laughed. “Maybe, but just don’t go getting your hopes up,” she said, circling back. “Tomorrow may not turn out the way you plan.”

“I don’t really have a plan.”

“Good.”

“Go with the flow, that’s me,” he grinned at her.

She rolled her eyes. “Even if the flow takes you right down the drain?”

“Well…” he had no answer to that one.

“Look, let’s just watch the rest of the show, Ok? I’m kind of enjoying it.”

That’s what he liked so much about her. Well, loved, really. She could see things very clearly. She was confident in her beliefs, yet she was also extremely open-minded. They could talk about anything. He was lucky she had chosen to stay together with him for all these years. He got up and went over to where she was sitting and gave her a kiss on the top of her head. “I love you,” he said.

She looked past him, watching the screen, “Yeah, I love you, too,” she said, just the tiniest bit annoyed.”Now, please, I really want to watch the rest of this.” Her crochet needles clicked together as she continued working. He went back to the couch and sat down. His eyes drifted from the show and he found himself staring into the fire, enjoying how its warmth enhanced  the snug feeling of their cozy room. And, really, that should have been more than enough for him. Except tomorrow was December 14th. Tomorrow he was going to face his past in the form of his old high school girlfriend, his first wife and his second wife. When he really thought about it, he had to wonder what the hell he’d been thinking about, getting together with all of them. Was he as clueless as everyone thought he was? Oh, well, how bad could it really be? The fact was he would find out tomorrow. It would be there soon enough.

December 13th dawned clear and cold. He and Lynn did some housework and then went to the grocery store for their weekly shopping trip.  Around noon he dressed in clean jeans, a black pullover cotton sweater and his work boots. He checked himself in the mirror. He was bald, having lost his hair rapidly some years ago during his sixties. He didn’t mind it. His beard was almost all gray and he kept it neat and trimmed. He kept his weight under control and his only health issue was that fact that he was nearly blind in his right eye due to macular degeneration. But he could still see fine. See well enough to drive, anyway.

“I’m all set,” he said, coming into the living room where Lynn was working on a hand embroidered eyeglass case. “You going to be Ok while I’m gone?” he smiled, testing the waters a little.

Her eyes stayed focused on her work. “Yep, I’ll be fine. Ethan’s coming over a little later.” Ethan was her oldest son. The son who owned his own carpet installation business. The son who was an avid reader and the son who stopped by often to talk with his mom about books they were reading and current events.

“Great.” He paused waiting for her to say something. But she just kept working on the hand stitching around the edge of the eyeglass case. “Well, I’m off, then.”

She raised her eyes up over her reading glasses and looked at him. “You’re really going through with this?”

“Yeah, I am.”

He could hear her sigh, resigned. “Well, drive careful, then.”

“Don’t miss me too much,” he said and chuckled. Something he always said when he was going to leave her for any length of time.

She gave him the thinnest of smiles, like she accepted but not fully appreciated his attempt at humor. “I’ll be fine.” Then she went back to her work.

He looked at her and a feeling of affection flooded over him. Why I am I doing this he again thought to himself? Maybe everyone is right. Maybe nothing good can come of this. And, more importantly, why am I putting Lynn, this lady I love so much through all of this? But he had no answer. As they say, the die was cast, and the wheels were already in motion.

He turned and headed for the door. Just then the phone rang and Lynn answered it. By the conversation he could tell it was Ethan calling. “Yeah,” she said,” He’s on his way out now so come over whenever you want.” She paused, listening.”Ok, see you in ten minutes.” Another pause, then, “Yeah, it will be good to see you too.”

He walked out into the cold and started his car letting it warm up. The temperature was around twenty degrees. Clouds had rolled in and snowflakes were starting to fall. He watched them blow across the hood for a few minutes and then backed out of the driveway and drove the two miles to the supper club. His friend greeted him as he walked in and led him to a corner table by the window overlooking the lake. The supper club had only been open a few months but already business was brisk. His friend has spent six months in the first part of the year remodeling the place and it looked fantastic: wooden floors and comfortable, padded chairs surrounding tables covered with linen tablecloths. Upstairs was the supper club portion where the dining was peaceful and casual. Downstairs was a brew pub where the atmosphere was more relaxed and noisy. He and Lynn had eaten in both levels and preferred the upstairs, which was where he now sat. They both liked that the club had a nice view overlooking the lake, the long, narrow lake that gave the town they lived in its name, Long Lake.

He had just sat down and was checking his watch when he noticed a movement by the front door. A well dressed woman in an elegant looking calf-length red wool coat had just walked in. She removed a black beret and a pair of black gloves and greeted his friend, the manager, with a smile. He talked to her for a moment and then pointed in his direction. He watched with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation and then had to catch himself as his heart rate went up and the bottom dropped out of his stomach. The woman started walking toward him. It was Karrie. He took a deep breath and stood up. She put out her hand as she got to the table.

“It’s nice to see you, again,” she said with a smile showing perfect teeth that almost gleamed. “It’s been a long time.” She was polite and poised. “I didn’t recognize you with your beard. Your friend pointed you out.” She indicated back toward the front door.

He stood and attempted to force his nervousness aside as he shook her hand. He tried his best to smile back as pulled out a chair for her. “Please, sit down.” A waiter came and poured them each a glass of water, dropped off their menus and left. He was grateful for a the interruption. His mind was racing, and he felt his heart rate ratcheted up another notch. “And thanks so much for coming,” he added. He hadn’t expected this at all. His old girl friend, Karrie, it turned out, had become a well known local stage actress who went by the name Carrie Iverson. He now recognized her from the occasional photo he’d seen in the variety section of the newspaper. He was in over his head. He felt perspiration bead up on his forehead, and a stream of sweat roll down his back. Whatever he had imagined this meeting would be like, it all went out the window. Whatever confidence he thought he had was gone. His hand actually shook as he reached for a glass of water. Karrie watched him with a bemused expression on her face, like she knew what he’d just figured out. For his part, he was speechless as he tried to collect himself, a bad state to be in since he had invited her to lunch to talk. She was gracious enough to sense his discomfort and spoke first.

“What have you been up to all these years?” she asked, comfortable with herself and smiling. In control. Also, kind of letting him off the hook.”I have to say, I really don’t remember much about those years back in high school. But I do remember your mom. She was a great lady. I really liked her.” She sat back and took a sip out of her water glass.

His thoughts were scattered. Karrie remembered more about his mom than she did of him. What had he gotten himself into? An image of Lynn flashed into brain. She’d be sitting home with Ethan right now, talking and relaxing, having a pleasant conversation, perhaps about the books they were reading.  He suddenly missed her. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. Tried to focus. He had to say something. He grasped at the first straw that popped into his mind.

“My mom passed away in 2011,” he said. “And, yes, she always enjoyed you, Karrie. Thought the world of you, in fact.”

She smiled, and he thought that maybe she was the type of woman who enjoyed the fact that people paid attention to her. Well, of course, he thought to himself, she was an actor for Pete’s sake. She wouldn’t be on the stage if there wasn’t some kind of kick or energy or what have you from having the instant gratification of people’s applause.

“And how about you?” She asked, still smiling, being polite. “How are things with you?”

She had an ease about her that he admired. A confidence. She wore her age well. She was trim in statue and dressed with an understated elegance that he quickly realized was probably her normal, casual attire. She had on a burgundy silk looking blouse and tailored dark green slacks that looked to be soft wool. Around her neck she worn a thin gold necklace with the letter ‘C’ hanging in the middle. Her blond hair was cut short and was lightly frosted. Her finger nails were painted deep red. She was dressed for lunch but also for the season and, he guessed, because she knew she would be noticed, being out in public like she was.

Their waiter came back and did the subtlest of a double take when he looked at Karrie, suddenly realizing who she was. They ordered, the garden salad for her and the wild-rice soup of the day for him. The interruption gave him a few moments to think. To answer her question he decided to give her the abbreviated version of his life. He told her about finishing college at the University of Minnesota and his degree in Environment Science. He told her about the job he’d had for most of his working years at General Mills as a quality control engineer. He told her about his first marriage and his three girls. He told her about his divorce and subsequent second marriage and divorce. He told her about being laid off from General Mills and how he’d moved out west of Minneapolis to start all over again. And he told her how he had met Lynn when he started working at a local garden center. All the while he talked, he noticed that she was politely listening, asking the occasional question and seeming to take an interest in what he was saying. Of course, she was a professional actor, so it may all have been a ploy, but he sensed she was actually, if not overly happy to be at lunch with him, at least not unhappy to be there.

“How about you?” He asked, “It appears as if everything has gone well for you. More than well,” he smiled, “You’re actually famous.” He was trying to add some levity to the situation. He felt formal and stiff. Kind of stupid to be honest, and, again, an image of Lynn flashed before his eyes, like telling him ‘I told you so’. He shook his head slightly. “It must be nice.”

Again she smiled. “It is. Things have turned out better than I could have ever expected.”

“You pretty much started acting in high school, right?” He was trying to get comfortable. Trying to get the conversation to feel more natural. It was hard, but Karrie was helping out by actually being quite nice. Almost like she was feeling the tiniest bit sorry for him.

“Yes, I did. Remember the Little Theater?” The theater in the school where plays, band concerts and other assemblies were held.

He nodded. “You were in ‘Oklahoma’, right?” He remembered every play and musical she had ever been in. In fact, he still had his old high school year book. Over the years, he’d pretty much memorized it. Karrie had not really been a standout actor back then, but she had been very good. He remembered her working hard preparing for her performances. Who would have known she would have gone on to have such a successful career?

She laughed and toyed with her water glass. “Like every other high school in the country.”

She had a way about her. A comfortableness, if that was the right word. The longer they were together, the easier it was becoming to talk with her.

“I remember you were going to go to college up in St. Cloud. You said that they had a pretty good theater department up there. Is that where you ended up?” He and Karrie broke up the summer after they had graduated. She had told him she wanted to move on with her life and go to college and not be tied down. At the time it had broken his heart. He sighed inwardly. Apparently their relationship, which had been so intense and important to him, had been barely a small blip on her emotional radar.

“Yes, I went there for two years and then transferred back down here to the University of Minnesota. I got involved in some college productions.” She stopped, remembering. “It was fun.” She smiled. “That’s where I met my husband.”

“He was in acting as well?”

“Yes. His name was Tom Iverson.” She looked at him. “He became pretty well known before he died.”

A light bulb went on in his brain. Of course he had heard the name. Tom Iverson had been one of those wild guys who seemed to be bigger than life and was often in the news. This was back in the early seventies. He was involved with the Guthrie and The Children’s Company, both well known and well respected theaters in the area. He was killed in the late seventies in a late night crash when his motorcycle had spun out of control on a dark road while racing around the curving roads of Lake Minnetonka. Ironically, the accident had occurred just about five miles from where they were now sitting.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, and tried to think of something else to say. In his mind he had often wondered, over the years, what it would have been like if he and Karrie had gotten married. Obviously that would have never happened and he was now starting to see that his reasoning for getting together with these women, in this case with Karrie, was probably going to be somewhat painful. The reality of life was smashing into his romantic dreams, with reality coming out the winner in a big way. “How long were you together?” He asked, finally coming up with something to say.

“We were together a few years, then got married and then he died a few years after that. So, maybe five years total.”

“No kids, I take it?”

“Kids were never going to be happening with me. I seem to recall you and I might have talked about that.”

He was stunned. They had, in fact, talked about it. The memory suddenly came back to him. It had been just a month or so before they had broken up. She was probably at the time laying the groundwork for breaking it off with him. “Yeah, I do remember that.” He paused, “Maybe that ‘s one of the reasons we broke up.” He ventured an observation, unsure of whether or not he wanted the answer. But he was here now and talking to her. Wasn’t this part of what he wanted? To find out where her head was at concerning what she thought about, if anything, when she thought back all those years ago to when they were together and dating.

“Maybe…I don’t know. Could be. Like I said, I really don’t remember much about back then.”

Well, there you go, he thought to himself. Point taken. She had moved on with her life, which, really, was the healthiest thing to do. She really didn’t think much or even remember much about those long ago years when they were in high school. The fact was, back then they’d just been kids. Young and inexperienced. Their lives had just been beginning and they were just starting out. Both of them had each lived a lifetime of experiences since then. In fact, as they continued to chat, more comfortably now that the ice had been broken, it made a lot of sense. He was definitely the odd ball. The odd man out. The one who remembered those years like they were only yesterday. The truth was, like Karrie had said, it had been a long, long time ago. He must have been crazy to assume she would have memories and feelings from way back then. He relaxed and took a sip of water. Karrie was a nice, well spoken and interesting person. She had done well with her life. She was happy and well adjusted. And he was happy for her. He also knew that his questions had been answered. She had gotten on with her life. He should, too. The years that he remembered with her were only the dimmest of a distant memory of hers. He didn’t need to look any further than that.

Lunch arrived and they began eating. “This is a lovely setting.” Karrie said, slowly taking a small bite of her salad and carefully chewing. She pointed out the window. The lake had a few clam-shell ice houses on it, smoke drifting up from their chimneys. “Do you like it out here?” Across the ice the wind was blowing as snow swirled nearly obscuring the far shoreline a half a mile away. From their vantage point looking down from the hill the supper club was on, it looked unbelievably pretty, like a romantic scene on a Christmas card. He thought again of Lynn.

The town they lived in had a population of just under two thousand people. The street they lived on was so quiet that often hours would go by before any cars would pass. “I love it out here. Lynn, the lady I’m with, has lived here almost her entire life.” He paused and smiled at Karrie. “I was lucky to find her.”

“What’s she like?”

He spent more than a few minutes telling her about Lynn and how they’d met, about what a great mother she was to her children and how talented she was.

“She sounds like a really nice person.” Karrie said. “You sound very happy with her.”

“I am. Until I met her I felt something was always missing in other of my relationships.” He paused, thinking. “But I really did try hard to make them work.”

“You’re talking about your two ex-wives’?”

“Yeah. But with both of them the term ‘growing a part’ really did apply. If, in both cases, we tried to make it work out, it didn’t. Probably was never going to.” He sighed and looked out over the lake and then took a sip of his soup. He suddenly felt he could should tell her about what his plan was. “I’m meeting each them later today. You know, just to talk. Kind of like we’re doing.”

Her response was interesting. “What’s Lynn think about that?” Interesting in that she cared about what Lynn would think, a person she had only heard of just today, and knew nothing about.

“She’s fine with it. Why?”

“Well, it’s not something I would be comfortable with, if I were in her shoes.”

There it was again. This questioning of what he was doing and the impact it might have on Lynn. Others, in their own way, had said pretty much the same thing. In the back of his mind he wondered if maybe Karrie was right. She immediately had grasped the significance of what he was doing and how it might affect things between he and Lynn. It dawned on him there was probably more than an element of truth to what she said. Everyone else was saying the same thing. However, instead of getting into a discussion about Lynn with Karrie he tried to put the matter to rest.

“It seems she’s Ok with it,” he finally said and looked out the window again, wondering if, in fact, that was really true. That Lynn was truly Ok with it. He was getting an inkling of a suspicion that maybe she wasn’t and he had been too blind to see it. He sighed inwardly and started to get a nervous feeling. Losing Lynn was the last thing he wanted. This whole thing was getting complicated.

“Any dessert for you folks?” The waiter interrupted his thoughts. He looked at Karrie with a question and a raised eyebrow.

“Anything, Karrie?”

“No, I’m good.” She glanced at her watch. “Anyway, I should probably getting going.” And then looked at him with what looked a little like pity. “Plus, you’ve got a big afternoon ahead of you.”

He told the waiter to please bring them the bill and then said to Karrie, wishing he hadn’t brought up meeting with his ex’s, “Well, anyway, it’s been really good to see you again.” He wondered what she would say.

“Yes, it’s been nice to see you, too.” She looked at him and smiled. “I didn’t know what to expect when you called, but this has been…” She let the words trail off, thinking and then added, “Interesting. Yes, I guess that ‘s what it’s been. Interesting.” She smiled again. “But I really should apologize, I’m just not one for remembering and reliving the past.”

He got the feeling that she was being truthful, but also kind. She wasn’t running away from their luncheon but, nevertheless, seemed more than a little happy to be leaving.

The waiter brought the bill and he paid for it. She took a final sip of water and they both stood up. He helped her on with her coat and they walked to the front door. The supper club was over half full and he noticed more than a few people watching as Karrie walked by. Before she left she turned to him and smiled one more time. She put out her hand and he shook it. “Take care of yourself,” she said, and patted his hand with her other one. “And take care of that lady of yours. She sounds like you have someone very special.”

Well, this was it. This was their goodbye and he couldn’t think of anything to say. He just smiled back at her and then an old theater adage popping into his mind, “Well, break a leg.”

She grimaced, somewhat embarrassed for him, and said, “We don’t really say that anymore.” She patted his arm one more time and then left, the cold winter air blowing snow in through the door before it slammed shut. She was gone. He knew it would be the last time he’d ever see her or contact her. The meeting was over. They never reminisced about the things he had remembered so strongly: the movies they’d gone to, the hockey games they’d attended, the drives around the lakes in Minneapolis, listening to early sixties rock and roll and singing together, parking late at night and losing track of time, hurrying home to just beat curfew. They’d talked of none of that. If anything, he’d learned that she had moved on with her life and that he was just a distant memory to her. It was time he did the same. Like Lynn had said, the past was past.

He looked at his watch. They had talked for nearly two hours. His first ex-wife, Laura Linley Ericksson, would be there in less than fifteen minutes. He went back to his table. His manager friend came over. “So how’d that go?” he asked. “That was Carrie Iverson, right?”

He filled his friend in on the conversation, finishing it off by saying that that Karrie had more or less suggested that he had a really good thing going with Lynn. “It was almost like she was coaching me to be careful and not do anything to screw up the relationship.”

His friend patted him on the back, and said, “Sound like sage advice from a smart woman. I’d listen to her if I were you.”

He was about to answer in the affirmative when he happened to look toward the front entryway. A woman had come in stomping snow off her boots, swearing and making a commotion. She was wearing a puffy ankle length tan winter coat. She had on a red knit hat, red gloves and a red scarf. She scanned the room and saw him and headed toward him, brushing snow off as she wove her way through the tables. His manager friend gave him a look, raised his eyebrows and hurried off leaving him to it. His first wife was on the way and she wasn’t smiling.

He stood up just as she reached the table. “Hi,” he said, trying to be friendly. “Thanks…” He was going to say ‘thanks for coming’, but she cut him off.

“God, what a drive out here. The roads are a mess. I could use a drink.” She glanced around as she sat down, looking for someone to serve her.

“I could go to the bar and get you something.”

She shook her head, no. “Naw, I’ve been sober for seven months. I’ll get some sparkling cider instead.” He sat down. Fortunately the waiter showed up just then with water for each of them, their menus and then quietly stood waiting for their drink orders. “You aren’t drinking?” she asked. “I recall you used to like to indulge.”

God, what a whirl-wind, he was thinking to himself. The last time he’d spent any time with her was forty years ago when they had met with her attorney to sign their divorce papers. He’d talked to her on the phone off and on during the intervening years, mainly having to do with issues with their kids, and seen her in person less than a handle full of times. He took a deep breath and mentally fastened his seatbelt. She always had been a force to be reckoned with.

“No, I have been sober for twenty six years,” he said. “I’ll just have some sparkling cider too.” He was just going to indicate this to the waiter, but she beat him to it.

“Two sparklers for us.” She commanded and then turned her attention to the menu. The waiter gave him a look, like ‘good luck’, and hurried away.

“How have you been?” he asked, wanting to be congenial. “It’s been awhile.”

“Shh, just a second,” she responded, holding up her hand, “Let me see what they’ve got here.”

Laura was five years younger than him. She wore her hair short and had dyed it silver, not what you’d imagine from a woman in her late sixties, but Laura Linley Ericksson never did things like everyone else. She marched to her own drummer and liked to think of herself as one of a kind.

After the divorce they had shared the custody of their three daughters. Laura began to devote herself fulltime to establishing herself as an artist, a painter. Over the years she had become successful in her own right as her style moved from the watercolor botanicals of her early years to the more abstract, large colorful paintings she did now. Her work had made her very well know in both the local and national art scene. He looked at her as a self-made woman and he knew she prided herself on her ability to carve out a niche for herself in the competitive world of art.

“I saw that you had a show down at the Weisman Gallery,” he commented, hoping it would put her in a good mood.

“Yeah, it’s going well. I’ve sold some stuff.” She put down the menu, and motioned to the waiter as he was carrying a tray to a nearby table. “I need something to eat,” she said to him, “I’m starving.”

“Fine. Anything you want.”

The waiter came over with their sparkling cider and took their food order: a tray of hummus and vegetables and a cheese plate. When he left she said, “So have you heard from the girls at all?”

“Nothing from Jenny. Steph and Libby and I talk pretty often.”

“Well, Jenny’s in treatment again at Adult Challenge downtown.” She looked hard at him. He often got the vibe from her that their youngest daughter’s trials with drug addiction were all his fault.

“So you’re in touch with her, then?”

“Sure. You know we’ve always been close.”

What he knew was that Laura would like to think they were close. But the reality was that his ex-wife tended to go her own way and that her children were never her highest priority. She could have written the book on ‘do your own thing’. He didn’t want to get into it with her, though. They’d argued about the proverbial ‘whose fault’ was it that their youngest daughter had turned out the way she had more times than he could count. Nothing was ever resolved. He wished that they each could assume a level of responsibility for Jenny’s behavior and come to terms with the reality that it was now up to Jenny, a forty-one year old adult, to start to take some responsibility for her own life, her own actions and the consequences of those actions. But Laura didn’t want to see it that way. She still wanted to assign blame to him. He had learned to accept this from her and how to let it roll off his back.

“How long will she be in treatment?” He loved all of his daughters each in their own way. Jenny, however, was closer in temperament to her mother. “Is she still doing her jewelry?” Jenny was a very talented silversmith. An artistic talent she got from her mother.

“Yeah. I got one of my galleries to give her a show.” She looked at him again. Challenging. For her, raising the kids was always a competition. Who could do the best for them? Stuff like that. She tried to do as much for Jenny as she could, which was good for Jenny, but she never passed up the chance to turn the knife in him a little like ‘see, I’m a better mother and you’re a worse father’. Like many of her attitudes and game playing, over the years he’d gotten used to it, but it was still tiring, if not a little hurtful. He decided to try to keep the conversation sociable and to not challenge her.

“That’s great. I’ll try and get over to see the show one of these days.”

“It ends the weekend after next, so you’d better hurry.”

“When does Jenny get out of treatment?”

“It’s a three week program. She’ll be out in eight days.”

“Next time, could you please let me know when something like this happens? I do care about her, you know.” It had always ticked him off that Laura tended to keep Jenny’s issues a secret from him and then lay it on him after the fact. Even though Laura and Jenny were close, it didn’t mean that he didn’t care. He did. It seemed that he always had to remind her of that fact. “I’d appreciate it.”

Laura just laughed derisively. “Yeah, I’m sure you would.”

His heart rate started going up and he began to feel adrenaline flooding through his veins. Fight or flight. It was right now, right at this time, that the conversation could go one of two ways. He could challenge her and they’d end up in a huge argument probably centering around who was the better parent. Or he could just let it go and try to keep things calm. The fact was that they were both Jenny’s parents. And they both cared for her. They both tried to do their best when it came to providing love and support to their daughter. Just because Laura and Jenny were close didn’t mean he didn’t want to be in his daughter’s life. He did, and he knew that Jenny knew that. After all, they did talk and they did see each other, just not as much as Jenny and her mother did. He decided to just let it go.

“So have you talked to Libby and Stephanie?” He asked, hoping she would accept him changing the subject. After all, she’d made her point about Jenny and how close the two of them were.

“Yeah. They’re both good,” she said, with a smirk. She really doesn’t want to let up, does she, he thought to himself.  Fortunately, the waiter came with their food, providing a break. Laura started in on the hummus, dipping a carrot in and munching. He picked a slice of rye toast and chewed slowly, taking a sip of sparkling cider when he was done. He took a visual break and looked out over the lake and watched the snow blowing across the surface. A few guys were out there sitting on buckets, fishing through holes in the ice. It was a constant source of amazement to him that some die-hard ice fishermen would go out in any weather, even a snow storm like now. It was almost dark out and they’d set out glow rods in the snow providing a soft, ethereal light. The scene was actually pleasantly soothing to him. He took a deep breath, relaxing. God, he loved living out here. He and Lynn had a really good life. He looked forward to being with her until the end of their days. He felt himself calming down and turned back to Laura. She was watching him. “What about you? she asked. “How are things with you?” She apparently felt she had made whatever point she felt she needed to make.

“Things are really good.” He decided to circle back to the two of his kids who actually still made it a point to stay in contact with him. “I didn’t get through to Libby on Thanksgiving, but I left her a message. She called a few days later. She and Raja and the kids are doing fine, it sounds like.” Libby and her husband lived in Mankato. She worked in a bookstore and her husband taught a variety of English classes at one of the local high schools. He had published two volumes of poetry and was working on his first novel.  Since he and Lynn liked to read so much, they got along wonderfully with Raja. “Stephanie and Steve are going to sell their home and down-size now that the kids are gone. They sound pretty excited about it.” He watched his ex as he talked. Her attention was starting to wane. Whenever a conversation shifted away from her she was usually less interested in what was being said and that was the case now. He decided to wrap it up. “So, all and all, they both sound good.”

“I’m going to cook dinner for Stephanie and Steve on Christmas Eve. See the grandkids, too.”

“That’s nice of you to do that.” He was trying to be pleasant. He and Laura had a history of brutal arguments over which parent would have the kids for holidays, especially when they were first divorced and the girls were young. Now those arguments were non-existent. The girls could make up their own minds. But when he and Laura were newly divorced, man, those holiday times had been tense. They couldn’t even have a civil conversation without it devolving into a yelling, screaming, verbal boxing match. Fighting about who would have the girls over the holidays was always a huge event. There were not only their kids to consider, but also each of their respective parents along with the power play that always existed between he and Laura. When he thought back to those times he did so with a sense of embarrassment. In retrospect things could really could have been handled differently. They could have shared more and compromised more. But it had taken a long time for that to happen. “I’m sure you all will have a good time,” he said, meaning it. He had long ago realized that the best thing to do was to do what was best for their kids. If the girls wanted to spend more time with their mom and her family, then fine, that’s what they’d do. If they wanted to be with him and his side of the family, that was great too. The girls, for their part, did a good job spending equal time with each family. It was as if they somehow just knew what was best action to take at any given time. Along the line they had learned to be quite diplomatic, providing a good lesson for both of their parents to learn. Still, the holidays for him were always a reminder that, when it came to a divorce and a split family, you just learned to make the best of things and move on as best you could. It was never easy.

“After you called I had a thought,” she was still picking at the veggies and hummus. “Do ever do any of your wood work?”

“I’ve sometimes thought about getting back into it, but, no. I sold all my tools along time ago.”

When they ‘d first been married back in the sixties they had embraced a more simpler lifestyle. They had found an old farmhouse to rent nestled between a woodlot and a cornfield outside of Decorah, Iowa. A number of other young people were living down there and he and Laura fit right in. He became proficient at making wooden utensils that they would sell at art and craft fairs around the area. Laura started making quilts and selling them, too. Shops in Decorah started to carry their work as well. He got a job working as a dishwasher in town at ‘The BeesKnees’ restaurant to supplement their income. The girls were all born down there. However, over the course of the six years they were in Iowa, things started to change between him and Laura. The long and the short of it was that they started growing apart. Which, when you thought about it, was bound to happen, since they’d married so young, she being eighteen and he twenty three. In the end, Laura missed living in Minneapolis. Missed her parents and her friends. Besides that, she wanted to get on with her life. As she had said to him back then, “I just don’t see myself scraping by nickel and diming myself to death for the rest of my life.” When he brought up how much he liked their lifestyle and living a simple, uncomplicated life she laughed and said, “Well, go ahead and do it, then. For me, I’m done. I’d like have some money for a change and not have to worry about never getting any new clothes and stuff like that.”

He hadn’t fought it too much. If she wasn’t happy there was no way he was going to make her happy. She had her mind set. They moved back to Minneapolis and got divorced. She lived with her parents and they helped out with the girls. He was able to find an apartment nearby so he could easily be with his daughters. He enrolled in school at the University of Minnesota and got his degree in Environmental Science, working a variety of jobs to pay his way. They did their best to raise the girls, and even though Jenny had issues, all in all he was not unhappy with how his daughters had turned out. “So, no, I don’t do any woodwork,” He smiled at the memory. “It was fun back then, though, wasn’t it?”

She looked at him like he was crazy. “Not at all. It was a lot of work. It seemed like all I did was take care of the girls while you fiddled around with your wooden spoons and went to work at the restaurant.”

“You had your quilting. You had friends down there.”

“I had three little kids to care for and a home to run. Making quilts was my only outlet. And I did that with toddlers running around all over the place.”

“Don’t you remember them playing out in my workshop. I took care of them a lot.” Which was true. They had done a pretty good job of sharing the responsibilities when it came to the kids. At least that’s the way he remembered it.

“I don’t remember it that way at all.” She stared at him. Then she took a breath and sighed. “I seem to recall us having this conversation about a million times before.”

She was right. He had started to slip back to the old ways. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” He took a sip of his water to give himself a moment to collect himself. “I know you did the best you could back then.” Which was true enough. He just didn’t want to fight about it again. They both could have done better at being a married couple. It had all happened forty years ago and was long over. Done and done, as he and Lynn would say. Time to move on.

They longer they talked, the more calm and at ease they both became. The stuff they were talking about was stuff they had talked about before. She had been married and divorced twice after they had split up. He’d been married one more time. They both had not been the most successful when it came to that part of their lives.

“Are you seeing anyone?” He asked, trying for some even ground.

“No. I’m happy doing my art work.” She finished off the last of the hummus with a piece of cucumber. “I’m pretty much done with sort of thing.”

He suddenly realized something. There was really nothing left to say. He’d touched base with her and they’d had a pretty civil conversation. Laura was who she was. They had been close years ago, but had drifted apart. And, as it turned out, for good reasons. They really were different people. She was who she was. Their divorce had been, after all was said and done, a good thing. They had moved on with their lives, the girls were doing fine, and even if Jenny had issues, she still had two parents who loved her. Things could have been worse. Instead they were pretty good.

He looked at his watch. It was nearly 5:00 pm. She saw him do it. “Got somewhere to go?”

He laughed. “Well, I’ve got a friend coming in about half an hour.”

“Who? Do I know him?”

“Well, you aren’t going to believe it. It’s not a him but a her. It’s Katie.”

She burst out laughing. “Your second wife?”

“Yeah, I’ve always been a glutton for punishment.”

She laughed some more, “Yeah, that’s the truth.” She stood up, “I should get going anyway. I’ve got a client to meet about a possible sale.” She began putting on her coat, getting ready to leave. He put down money to pay for their bill and got up to walk her to the door. On the way she surprised him by patted him on the shoulder. “Thanks for getting in touch. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was fine.” He had to admit that he agreed with her. All in all, it actually had been fine, just like she’d said.

He held the door open for her as she buttoned up her coat and put on her hat and scarf and gloves. The snow was still falling but there appeared to be in a bit of a lull. Night had fallen. Flurries were drifting through the parking light flood lights, but not at all that heavily. Maybe the storm was past. “Thanks again for coming,” he said, looking past her out to the parking lot. There was a lot of snow piled up by the plows. “Drive safely out there.”

But she was done talking. She gave him a quick wave and made her way through the snow to her car. He watched her until the cold set in. He was happy that being with Laura hadn’t disintegrated into a shouting match. Maybe they both really had moved on.

Shivering, he stepped inside and made his way back to his table where he sat down. A new waiter appeared. “Hi,” she said with a smile. “I’m Hallie. Can I get anything for you?”

“I’m fine for the moment,” he said. “I’m expecting someone.” She gave him a nod and left him alone. He looked outside. The storm had picked up again. The lights from the guys out ice fishing were nearly invisible in the blowing, swirling snow. What little he could see of the surface of the lake disappeared into a deep darkness making him thankful to be safe and warm inside. He thought of Lynn and smiled. He really should be with her right now. He was just starting to imagine being home and building a fire for them to snug in with when he happened to glance toward the front door. Katie was standing there looking around. He got up and waved. She waved back and walked toward him, smiling. She was as different from Laura as night and day.

“Hi there,” she said, still smiling, cheeks red from the cold. “Lots of snow out there.”

“I can tell,” he said, pointing toward the window. “How was the driving?” He pulled out a chair for her.

“Slippery. I almost spun out a couple of times.” She was wearing a dark blue quilted thigh-length jacket, a white stocking hat and thick, colorful mittens. She shook some remaining snow off of the jacket and hung it over the chair. She put her hat and mittens in its pocket and then sat down.

“Well, thanks for agreeing to see me.”

“Yeah, it’s been awhile, like what, twenty years?”

“Eighteen,” he said, as he sat back down. “I’d ask how you’ve been, but…” He made a point of looking at his watch, trying to make a little joke, “We’ve only got until this place closes.” He laughed a little, embarrassed, realizing suddenly how stupid he sounded.

Fortunately, she laughed too. “I’ll give you the edited version, then.” Katie was always congenial. Unlike Laura, who could get argumentative at the drop of a hat, Katie was usually good natured and pretty easy to get along with. “Where should I begin?” She smiled at him and then let her eyes drift to the window beside their table. She looked out, watching the snow drifting through the flood lights illuminating the back patio area. She Looked good. Healthy. Her shoulder length hair was pure white and she held it back from her face with a turquoise colored barrette. She was wearing a dark purple  turtle neck sweater and blue jeans. Around her neck was a silver necklace with a small pendant that had a red stone in it. The last time he’d seen her she’d been in a serve depression and had been on the brink of being hospitalized primarily for her own safety. Back then she had issues with her family, specifically her parents, that she was trying to resolve. She’d spent years in counseling and therapy. One thing that came out was she decided he didn’t fit into her life anymore. They both agreed that it would be best to split up and they divorced shortly thereafter.

She brought her gaze back inside and began to fill him in on what she had been up to. After their divorce she had continued going through more years of counseling and had finally straightened her life around. She had met a man, gotten married and was now living in the prosperous suburb of Maple Grove. She looked and sounded happy and he told her so. “Thanks,” she said, “Larry and I are doing well.”

“Larry’s your husband?”

“Yes, I told you on the phone, remember?”

“Sorry, I forgot his name.” He paused, curious. “And your health?” Meaning mental health, but he didn’t want to push things, “How’s that?”

“Good,” she said, “I’ve gotten a lot of things worked out.” She paused and smoothed out a wrinkle on the table cloth. “It’s an ongoing thing, but I’m good. Larry helps.”

Halley stopped by with water and dropped off a couple of menus. “The specials tonight are range chicken casserole and broiled whitefish.” She smiled at each of them and scampered off. She was young and enthusiastic. He briefly wondered how her life would turn out. What would she be doing in fifty years? Would she be like him, sitting in a restaurant talking to people she used to know, trying to put the past to rest? He shook his head. Katie was starting to look over the menu.

“I’m glad to hear it,” He told her, meaning it. Katie was a nice person. The big problem between them was that whenever she slipped into her depression she started turning against him. Which he could have handled, but she also turned against his girls and his family: his mom and brother and sisters. It finally became too much to handle. She wasn’t happy with him and he started to be unhappy with her. They were unable to mend the rift between them and eventually they separated. She moved into an apartment close to where her older sister lived. Her sister started being a caregiver of sorts to her until she eventually got better. As she started learning ways to cope with her depression she decided she didn’t need him around. They agreed to a divorce and they each moved on with their lives. Eighteen years was a long time, but it didn’t take long to catch up. They always had an easy time talking. The things they had in common were all the years he had worked at General Mills and the times they had shared raising the kids. So there was a lot there. Where he and Laura had only been married eight years, he and Katie had been married twenty two. They had a lot of history together and they reminisced easily, talking about the past.

He had graduated from the University in the early seventies. Jobs were plentiful back then and he was fortunate to be hired right away. General Mills was located in the suburb of Golden Valley and he worked there for over twenty years, all of them having to do with quality control. He liked the company and he liked the variety of projects he was assigned to. One of his memorable ones was working on a cereal called ‘Fruit Brute’ which was the first project he ever was involved with. It was introduced in 1974 and discontinued in 1982 but it was a fun project nevertheless. In was through that work that he met Katie. She was working as a para-legal at a local law firm that General Mills used for legal counseling. She was the liaison between her firm and his company. They got to know each other, started dating and found that they got along well together. They were married in 1974. By then Laura had stepped away from the child rearing picture, so he and Katie raised the girls pretty much full time. They got them through grade school and high school and into college. They took them on yearly vacations and tried to provide as much stability as they could. Those years weren’t terrible and he remembered them fondly. Katie did her best to fill in as the mother of the family even though the girls continued to see Laura on rare occasions. He always felt that he and Katie did a good job giving the family security and structure. All children have issues with divorce, especially dealing with step-parents, and his girls were no different. He was happy that Libby and Stephanie had stable families. Jenny was another story, but he still felt that he and Katie had done the best they could.

He filled her in on how the girls were doing. He told her about Lynn and how they’d met. She was mildly interested in a polite way, and he realized as he was talking that she, too, had moved on with her life. A door closes, a door opens. Life goes on. He was starting to see this as a theme to the way the day was going.

Halley stopped back with a basket of rolls and took their orders. They each opted for the specials, Katie the chicken and he the whitefish.

“Well, thanks, again for coming out to meet with me,” he said. “It’s nice to see you looking so healthy.”

“You’re looking good, yourself. I almost didn’t recognize you without your hair.” She laughed.

He rubbed his hand over his bald head, “Yeah, started losing it over ten years ago. Grew the bead instead.” She smiled and took a sip of water. He had a thought. “Do you want any wine or anything?”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t do that anymore.”

Unfortunately, drinking had been a part of their lives when they had been together. She liked her wine, he liked his bourbon. It never got overly out of control and he confined his to the weekends, but it had still been there.

“Glad to hear it,” he was genuinely happy for her. “It’s been twenty six years for me.” He had quit a few years before they divorced.

She raised her water glass to him and gave a toast. “Here’s to sobriety.” He clinked her glass and they each took a sip. “How about your smoking?”

She was certainly covering all the bases. But he had asked to met her so he had to go with wherever the flow took him. “Not so good. I still can’t quit. Down to only one or two a day.”

“Well, you’ll get there.” Katie was always encouraging and generally positive. He had always enjoyed that about her. “I was able to quit. Finally, after trying many times.”

“That’s great to hear.” Like with both Karrie and Laura this initial conversation felt stilted to him. Not uncomfortable so much as formal and stiff. He decided to change course and ask something that he’d always wondered about. “Do you ever think about those years we were together?” She gave him a questioning look. “This may sound stupid, but I’ve occasionally wondered if you ever thought about those times back when we were married.”

“I do think about them sometimes, but really not all that often. Why?”

“Well, I think about them…” He stopped trying to frame the words to what he’d thought about so much. “I’m just wondering if those years were good for you. Or would you just as soon forget they ever happened.”

Katie laughed, “Boy, that sounds deep and dramatic.” He laughed then too, feeling some tension dissipating. “Well, to answer your question, I do sometimes think about those years. We had some good times. I remember the vacations with the girls the most. Probably going to Maine and staying for a week on the coast. Staying on Mackinac Island, too.” She paused, thinking, smiling, which made him feel good. For years he had felt guilty about their divorce. He sometimes wondered if he could have done more to salvage their marriage. But what was done was done. He sincerely believed things had worked out for the best. He was happier now than he’d ever been and Katie was obviously happy as well. She continued, “I liked when we took the kids on the train to Duluth, and I liked the time we went camping in the Black Hills.” She paused again before continuing. “So, yes, I’d say I have some pretty good memories, still, of those times when we were together.” Then added, “Now that you bring it up.”

“Any regrets?” he ventured to ask.

“I’m sorry the girls and I didn’t get along any better.” She answered right away without having to think long about it. Then she looked past him out to the window and beyond. He looked, too. The snow was blowing past the flood lights. Someone had decorated evergreen trees that surrounded the snow covered patio. The white lights twinkled. He thought it looked wonderfully peaceful. “But I tried to do my best,” she said. “That’s all I can say.”

“Yeah, I know you did. I know it was hard.” He looked at her and stifled a desire to touch her hand. “It was a challenging situation,” he said instead. “I’ve thought about it a lot. It was just difficult.” He sighed, meaning it. “There were issues with Laura. The girls challenged us on nearly everything we tried to do.”

“Remember when we tried to have everyone sit down to dinner?”

“Yeah, talk about tense.”

Ha and Katie had insisted that dinner was family time and that they would all sit down and share a meal together. The girls put up with it but they hated it. Many of those dinners were spent with he and Katie trying to engage them in a conversation, but to no avail.

“But, we tried,” She smiled at him.

He smiled back, “Yeah, we did.”

The girls all left home to go to various colleges. By that time Katie’s depression had gotten worse. She quit her job at the law firm and sought a variety of treatments, counseling strategies and medications. She withdrew and no matter what he tried to do he couldn’t help her. He had been at a loss. Eventually she became bitter towards him and the girls and even various members of his family. When she approached him about getting a divorce she had said, “It’s just not working for me. I’m not sure if it ever was.”

When the divorce was finalized he remembered that he talked to her on the phone one last time. “How are you feeling?” he had asked. He felt he had tried as hard as he could to keep the marriage together. It just wasn’t going to work.

“I’m doing a lot better,” Katie had said. “My shrink told me that I seem healthier and happier. Looks like getting out of our marriage was the best thing for me after all.”

At the time it had been hard to accept the failure of his second marriage. He’d let not only Katie down but himself as well. At least after the divorce Katie appeared to be happy and on the road to a better life. When he hung up that final time he figured that was it. He’d spend the rest of his life alone. And he did for a few years. Then he met Lynn and his life had changed for the best.

Hallie came and cleared their dishes. “Any dessert for you two?” she asked.

“I’m fine,” Katie said, looking out the window.”It looks like that snow is really picking up again so I should probably get going.” Just then her phone rang and she answered it, turning away from him. He could only hear snatches of the conversation. It sounded like someone she was very familiar with had called. She hung up, smiling.

“That was Larry,” she said. “He said that the snow isn’t showing signs of slowing down and the roads are a mess. He’s sending a cab for me.” She checked her watch. “It should be in about twenty minutes, about 7:30.”

“He sounds like a good guy. Like he really cares,” He said, thinking that he was glad Katie had found someone to make her happy. Someone who could show her how much he cared for her. “Do you want some coffee while you wait?”

“That would be nice.”

He waved the waiter over and they ordered. It was really quite a pleasant way to end their meal together. He was happy they had talked and he knew deep down that their marriage had failed for realistic reasons. She had gone on to find Larry, someone to be happy with. He had gone on to find Lynn, the person he’d spend the rest of his life with.

After a while his manager friend came over to the table and told Katie the cab was waiting for her. They got up together, she put on her jacket and then gave him briefest of hugs. They wove their way the past tables to the front door. He held it open for her. The cab was idling  near the entrance. “Thanks for coming out to see me,” he said, “I appreciate it.”

“Good luck,” she said. “Take care of Lynn. She sounds like someone very special.”

She trudged through the snow and turned and waved as she got into the cab. He watched it drive off, tires spinning for traction. He closed the door and went back to his table taking his phone out on the way. He wanted to call Lynn and hear her voice. He wanted to see her and be with her. If anything, the three meetings had made him realize what a special person she was and how much he loved her. He punched in the number for their home and she picked up on the second ring.

“Are you still alive?” she asked, joking.

“Yeah, it’s all over.”

“All over? That sound dramatic. And final.”

“Yeah, I’m done. It’s out of my system.”

“You’re not going to do this again? See them again?”

He thought back about the way the afternoon had gone. Karrie, Laura and Katie. All so different. Such different conversations. Such different people. He was the constant factor. They had changed. Well, grown, really. They had each found a measure of happiness in their lives. And he had too. He had Lynn and they had their life together. And when it came down to the final accounting, that’s what was the most important thing to him.

“Never,” he said emphatically. “I just want to come home and be with you.”

“Sounds good to me.” She paused. “Maybe build us a fire?”

“I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

“Me either,” she said. “Hurry home.”

He settled up his bill, waved goodbye to his friend and went out into the night. Despite the snow, which he could see now was a full blown snowstorm, the parking lot was nearly full of cars. It was just ten days until Christmas Eve and the holiday season was in full swing. He’d noticed it in the supper club, people in good moods, conversations lively. He used the broom on the handle of his ice scrapper to clean the snow off while the car idled, warming up. Once it was clean he got inside and ran the windshield wipers to do a final clearing of the front window. He watched the snow swirl through the bright floodlights in the parking lot. Past the corner of the club, through the trees and blowing snow, he could just make out part of the lake. Long Lake. The name of the little town he and Lynn lived in. The place he had shared with her for fifteen years. The place where he had put down what was to be the final roots of his life. The place where he felt secure and at home. At peace.

He thought back over the last hours. He felt a measure of satisfaction with how things had gone. Karrie hadn’t remembered much, well nothing really, of their past together, but they’d had a nice visit. Laura was happy with her life and was looking at him with less anger than she had before and Katie was doing well, having moved on from the time when they were married. And maybe that was the message here, if there was one: moving on. Moving ahead with your life and not dwelling in the past. He could see it as a closing of a door or a symbolic wiping the slate clean kind of thing. He knew what Lynn would say. She’d say that you just keep moving ahead no matter what obstacles life tosses your way. Sage advice that he should embrace. The past is past and there’s no need to dwell on it. Which was true, he knew that now. He’d never see those three women again. There was no need. He’d learned what he needed to learn. It was simple really. Life went on. It was up to you to make the most of it. Any mistakes made or regrets you might have needed to be accepted. They were part of what made a person what they were today. The good and the bad, it all came together in one’s attempt to do the best one could and be the best possible person they could be. Now he needed to act on that awareness.

He thought of Lynn again. She’d be waiting for him to get home and build a fire for them. A fire to keep them warm on this stormy, wintery night. He put the car in gear and slowly made his way through the parking lot, head lights cutting a path through the storm. He turned onto the highway. There were only a few cars on the road. He slowly accelerated and the car slipped a little. He kept both hands on the wheel. There was no place he’d rather be than with Lynn. He took his time and drove with caution. He’d be home shortly. It would be good to get there.

When he turned onto their street there was a set of tire tracks and he followed them, spinning and swerving through the snow. In a few minutes he saw their home. The planter pots that he’d stuffed with spruce tips and decorated with tiny white lights shone brightly on either side of the front door. Inside, a soft glow shone through the windows. He turned into the driveway and plowed through at least eight inches of snow to get to the garage. He was thankful he’d left the door up. The gardens he and Lynn tended so carefully during the growing season were resting under that snow, waiting for spring’s time of rebirth. Lynn had left the back light on for him. He closed the garage door and glanced at his shovel knowing he’d be out again by seven the following morning shoveling the driveway, patios and sidewalks, a job he enjoyed. He fought his way to the back door and went inside.

“Is that you?” Lynn called out. She was in the living room. He imagined her sitting in her comfortable chair, probably working on one of her projects. He could almost hear his spot on the couch calling him.

“Yeah, it’s me.” he shrugged off his jacket and stomped the snow from his boots before taking them off and setting them on a small rug by the door.

“How’s the driving?” Lynn sounded good. Cheerful. He knew how much she cared for him. It was up to him now to put the past behind him and show her how much he truly cared for her. As he had realized today, life goes on. You do your best and make the most of your opportunities. Now was his time with Lynn. Now and for the rest of their lives. It was an opportunity he wasn’t going to waste.

“The roads are slippery. It’s still snowing out there. The temperature’s dropping too. How about if I get that fire going?”

He could picture Lynn smiling as she called back, “Sounds great. It’s a good night for it.”

He walked through the kitchen into their cozy, snug living room. Lynn had lit a few candles and had plugged in their holiday tree. She had a lamp on near her chair. The room felt serene and peaceful. Lynn stood and came to him and they embraced. He kissed her on the top of the head. “I really missed you, today,” he said and squeezed her tighter.

She hugged him back. “Me too.” She looked up at him. “You done with all of that nonsense?”

He looked her in the eyes. “I am. Forever.”

“That’s good,” she said, and hugged him more.

The other thing he learned today suddenly came to him: he was a fortunate man. A fortunate man indeed. He owed it to Lynn to be the best person for her that he could possibly be. To make her life better. Brighter. Their future together started right now.

“And that’s enough talk about me,” he said. “Let me get that fire going .Then you can fill me in on how things went for you today. I really want to know.”

He gave her a smile and she smiled back, like she knew exactly what he was getting at.

They talked long into the night. He lost track of the number of logs he put on the fire. Much later Lynn came and joined him on the couch and they wrapped up in a blanket. She put her head on his shoulder and they gazed into fireplace, enjoying their comfortable companionship and the warm glow of the embers. They decided to spend the night there. Just before they fell asleep it came to him that there was no place he’d rather be than right here with Lynn, the woman he loved more than anything. He couldn’t wait for tomorrow and a new day and the beginning of the rest of their life together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sweeping Out the Garage

Guess what I was doing when the idea for this story came to me? By the way, that red squirrel…It really does exist.

The old man spent more than a few minutes at his task. Taking his time, in fact, as if there was nothing more important to do on this cloudy, mild, December day other than sweep out the floor of the garage. He used a push broom-a long wooden pole with worn, bent, black bristles that he pulled towards himself instead of pushing, making you wonder why he did it that way. But he was methodical, that was for sure, starting at the far right hand corner and working his way across the floor to the left. He’d backed his old four-door Ford out onto the driveway before he’d begun, the weather being a balmy forty-three degrees, not like a Minnesota winter at all. A good day to work outside. He had the entire two car space to sweep, getting rid of sand and gravel and grit, all accumulated during the last few weeks; weeks when it had snowed, then rained and then been followed by this warm up they were presently experiencing. He called the stuff debris and there was a lot of it on the floor. And now there he was, sweeping (or pulling, rather) the broom over the cracked and stained concrete surface with a deliberation that, after a while, made you sort of admire him for being so conscientious.

He was slightly bent in the back and he seemed to carry there a lifetime of physical work and stiffness as he paused to rest and adjust the hat he wore. The wool stocking hat his wife had knit for him for Christmas three years ago, the year before she’d died. It gave him a sense of more than warmth, something closer to security, knowing that, though gone from this world, she was still with him in so many little ways; little ways like this treasured hat, knit for him by her knowing fingers using hand-dyed wool from Ireland. Its heathery-orange was a color he loved and they’d picked it out while shopping together at her favorite yarn shop. The hat covered his thinning hair which nearly matched the color of his jeans, so well worn from all those years of washing that they, like his hair, were almost white.

Above him, in the rafters, a red squirrel had taken up residence. And what a nuisance that rodent was, scattering chewed up black walnut hulls and pulverized shell powder all over the place, adding to the debris on the floor. For years those black walnuts had been the bane of the old man’s existence. Trees out in the yard dropped the nuts throughout the summer and the neighborhood squirrels collected them, storing them everywhere. This particular red squirrel acted like he owned the garage, or at least the space in the rafters. This was the second year it had been up there. What a mess, the old guy thought to himself, unscrewing the brush part of the broom from the handle and using it to sweep off his work bench. It was located along the left hand wall unfortunately positioned directly below where the majority of hulls seemed to be strategically stored. Hulls that now were tumbling off the bench onto the floor, bouncing and rolling all over the place as he went after them methodically, brushing the work surface clean. When he was finished he sighed as he put the broom back together and continued with his sweeping, thinking he should probably do something about that damn squirrel. Well, maybe next year. For now it was just him, all alone out there, pulling the broom, stepping to the left and pulling it some more, debris piles getting larger as he worked his way across to the left hand wall. Then, shuffling in his work boots, he slowly and stiffly made his way back across to the right hand side of the garage to start the process all over again. Almost like a dance, it looked like, this old guy and his broom.

He didn’t notice but up in the rafters the resident red squirrel was watching. Normally an aggressive species, for now the squirrel was content to just look down on the old guy, choosing not to chatter and scold and cause a commotion. The squirrel could wait. It had stored hundreds if not thousands of black walnuts up in the safely of the rafters. It had a whole winter ahead and lots of nuts to crack open, lots of debris to scatter. The squirrel was warm and safe as it watched becoming mesmerized by the way the old man worked, back and forth, back and forth. After awhile it’s eyes grew heavy and it fell asleep.

The squirrel could have no way of knowing, of course, but It has been like this for a few years now, this obsession of the old man’s with cleaning out the garage.  Ever since he’d lost his wife to cancer two years ago, just before the winter holidays began, he has felt compelled to keep things clean. Both inside the house (the home they’d shared for over forty years) and outside. This compulsion of his is strong in him. This overwhelming desire, or need, really, to keep things tidy. To be honest, she had been more of the one to do the inside work and he the outside during the years they’d been married. Back when she’d been alive. It just worked out that way. A silently agreed upon splitting up of tasks and division of labor. It had served them well. But now with her gone he has taken it upon himself to do both. Both the work inside the house and outside. One could insert the word try here when it comes to the inside cleaning. He would never measure up to her standards when it came to housework, of course, but he tried. He did his best. But it was the outside work, like taking care of the gardens or cutting the grass or, for sure, like sweeping out the garage, that he felt he was in his best element. Felt he really shined. Especially when it came to keeping the garage floor clean. So that’s what he does now. And he does it with a care and a passion that, if you took the time to watch and think about, was really quite remarkable.

Remarkable maybe or, at the very least, touching. This old man, living by himself, sweeping out the garage on a mild winter’s day. Watched over by a sleepy red squirrel as he moves across the floor, working with his broom, sweeping back and forth, back and forth, as if time has no more meaning to him than this. This sweeping and cleaning all the while as he remembers the past and all those good years he and his wife spent together. Those good years and their life long bond and how they had enjoyed taking care of their home both inside and out.

The Stargazer

The world is filled with infinite wonders. This story is dedicated to those who sometimes get lost in the wondrous beauty of a starry sky and a cosmic night.

After he moved out of Minneapolis, Mitch McConnell started going for long walks late at night. He had re-located to a small apartment in an old wood frame building on the outskirts of the little town of Loretto which was near Lake Independence in western Hennepin county. His late night walks were perfect for mulling things over in his head. And Mitch had a lot to mull over. Toward the end of last year his second marriage had failed, as much his fault, he figured, as that of his ex. So there was that. Then there was the fact that over the years his three kids from his first marriage had all moved to different parts of the country. He made an effort call them and talk on the phone and to see them as often as he could, but, truthfully, he got the feeling he was drifting apart from them. He felt they still held the failure of his marriage to their mother as more his fault than hers. In fact, to a certain extent, they blamed most of it on him. So his relationships with his boy, Donny, and his two girls Sara and Emma, were strained at best. That was one thing, or two or three if you tossed in the failed two marriages with the estrangement of his kids.

Then there was the job he’d lost, the one he’d held for nearly thirty years, working as  a products engineer at a large research facility located a few miles north of downtown Minneapolis. Just after the first of the year he’d been let go in a company wide effort to become more competitive by cutting costs. So he and nearly thirty-five other long term employees had been laid off with pat on the back, a severance package and a heartfelt ‘thank you’. Well, thank you, too, Mitch sarcastically thought to himself. Over half his life with the company, and bam, just like that, out on the streets. So here he was fifty five years old and without a lot of prospects. Well, none, actually.

In March, just to get out of Minneapolis and away from old memories and to experience something new, he had moved out here to Wright County. It was verdant country with its rolling farm land fields and its wood lots full of maples and oaks. It was also peaceful and quiet. He liked the slower pace of life and it gave him the opportunity to re-evaluate things. He even was lucky enough to find a new job. Down the highway west of town a garden and landscape center had been looking for a new employee and he applied and was hired. The owner and manager, Lonny Schumacher, explained it this way, “Well you looked like you could hold your own with a front-end loader bobcat.”

To which Mitch replied, “I’ve never ever driven one. I barely even know what one is.”

Lonny responded by laughing, “I’ll have you trained in less than a day.”

In fact, it only took about an hour before Mitch was confident enough to dump his first load of 3/4″ river rock into the back of an old Ford F-150 pickup, so maybe Lonny knew something Mitch didn’t.

Which was probably true. Lonny was a good guy. He had grown up on a farm further west and north on the sandy flatlands surrounding the Mississippi River near Monticello. They grew potatoes on a hundred and eighty acres and made a pretty good living at it. Lonny’s dad ran the farm and his mom taught fourth grade at Riverside Elementary in Big Lake just five miles north of Monticello. Lonny started working for his dad when he was ten years old. After he graduated from high school he took two years of business classes a local Vo-Tech. He worked and saved his money until he had enough to open the garden center. He called it Seasonal Wonders and it had been in business for seven years. Lonny was thirty five years old. He and his wife, Ann, had four kids, two boys and two girls. Ann was a special education teacher in a nearby town and they lived on forty acres down a gravel road just a mile from the garden center. They were good, down to earth people and Mitch enjoyed getting to know them, so different from the kinds of people he’d been used to all the years he’d lived in Minneapolis.

It was Lonny who mentioned what a kick it was to go out at night to watch stars. “You should try it sometime, man. Nothing like the peace and quiet of a star filled sky. Kind of puts you in touch with yourself, if you know what I mean.”

At the time, Mitch didn’t have a clue as to what Lonny was talking about, but that all changed during the summer. It was in July, after he had been working at Seasonal Wonders for about four months, when Lonny told Mitch about the Aurora Borealis. “Did you see the Northern Lights last night?” he asked first thing in the morning after Mitch had gotten to work. “Man, they were incredible.”

“Ah, no,” Mitch said. “I was sleeping.”

“You snooze, you lose, pal,” Lonny responded, laughing.

Mitch was continually amazed at the amount of energy Lonny had. “Don’t you ever sleep?”

“Well, sure. But this was special. You don’t see the Aurora every day.” He paused, looking at Mitch. “Got the kids out there, too. Even Ann. It was fun.”

“Well, maybe I’ll give it a try, sometime. They out every night?”

“Geez, man. No.” He chided him, like ‘those crazy folks from the city’, but then was serious, seeing that Mitch was looking interested. “You know, they might be out tonight. Look, Loretto’s a tiny town. What, a couple of hundred people? You told me you go for walks anyway. Just walk out of town. Get away from the street lights. Look to the north. You might be surprised. It’s pretty cool.”

Even though Lonny was young enough to have been Mitch’s son, he was a really mature guy. Both mature and grounded, which Mitch attributed to growing up in such a stable family. He was from a farm, for pete’s sake, thought Mitch. Can’t get much more grounded than that. Which was probably true.

Loretto’s population was closer to five hundred. It was thirty miles west of downtown Minneapolis. Still in the country but starting to feel some effects of spreading urban sprawl, with its population having increased somewhat due to a building boom in the 80’s and 90’s.The population had leveled off now, though, and Mitch enjoyed living there. He enjoyed fixing up his apartment and found out from a guy at the post office that the building he lived in was once a hotel serving the railroad. Trains passed through town maybe ten times a day, whistles blowing, cars rattling, heading east into Minneapolis or west out to the oil fields of North Dakota. They gave the place a kind of nostalgic feel. Seasonal Wonders was ten miles west down highway 55. It took him fifteen minutes maximum to get there. After working as an engineer for nearly thirty years in Minneapolis, and dealing with the rat-race there, he was enjoying this change in his life. This opportunity to try something new. So, yeah, he thought, new job, maybe time for a new hobby.

“You know, I think I’ll give it a try,” he told Lonny.

“Good man. I think you’ll like it. Now,” Lonny said, striding off, “Let’s get back to work.”

Around eleven o’clock that night Mitch left his apartment and went across the street and into the neighborhood of small houses nearby. He walked for about three blocks, all of them up hill. The houses thinned out and the street finally ended at a corn field at the top of the hill which was bordered by an old gravel road. Mitch walked to the edge of the field and stopped. There were no street lights around. It was pitch black out. He felt a slight claustrophobic feeling of the dark night closing in. He tilted his head back to see. Up above and all around the sky was clear. He had a three-hundred and sixty degree view. There were no clouds out or moon either, just a kind of low, hazy light, that Mitch soon realized was from the countless stars that, as his eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, started appearing. The claustrophobic feeling started to go away. The more he looked the more he could see until it was like he was in another world, a huge dome of stars above him and all around, twinkling and sparkling. He could make the one constellation he knew, the Big Dipper, tilted on its side out in the northeast. The night was quiet and still but the longer he was there the more sounds he heard: the breeze rustling through the corn stalks, some small (he hoped) animal noisily walking through the grass on the edge of the field down to his right, the low hooting of an owl in the woods to his left. It was like he was in a different world. Mitch was mesmerized, slowly turning around and around watching the stars, unaware of how much time was passing.

When his neck started to hurt from being bent back for so long, he began looking around to find a place he could sit and rest. Maybe relax his neck and still be able to see the sky. He was starting to make a move to the right when he heard a voice.

“Nice night for stargazing, isn’t it, young fella’?”

Mitch jumped and let out a sharp, “Geez.” All he could think of was that there was some nut case right by him ready to attack him with a knife or something.

To which the voice laughed. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.” And then added, chucking, “Well, maybe I did.”

The voice came from a guy about twenty feet away to his right who apparently had been sitting in a lawn chair at the edge of the corn field the entire time Mitch had been up on the hill top. He had blended in so well as to be almost invisible. “I guess you didn’t noticed me. I always dress in dark clothes,” he said by way of explanation as Mitch’s racing heart started to return to normal. “I just like being part of the night.”

Over the course of the last few years of his life, Mitch had started taking more of a cautious approach when it came to interactions with other people. Maybe it was all the stories on the news of people being brutalized for no particular reason. Unexpected attacks by strangers on unsuspecting citizens. Whatever. He had to admit he was growing more paranoid as he got older. So he was cautious and didn’t say anything as he started backing away from this guy in the lawn chair sitting out on the edge of a cornfield in the middle of the night.

“I’m Loren, by the way,” the voice said. “Loren Johnson.” He made a motion with this arm. “Do you live around here, young man?”

Mitch stopped backing up and thought about what he should do. Really, the guy sounded Ok. Polite and all. Looking more closely he appeared to be an old man. Probably harmless. His voice was soothing. Besides, there was something intriguing about this person who would take the time to sit up on the top of a hill late at night watching stars. Mitch took a chance and decided to stay. And that was how Mitch met Loren Johnson, the guy who he eventually would refer to as The Stargazer.

“Yeah, I live down in that old gray apartment building at the bottom of the hill,” Mitch said pointing  and answering Loren’s question. “By the way, I’m Mitch.”

“Nice to meet you, Mitch.” Loren waved a hand by way of greeting. “Yeah, that old fire-trap down there. Used to be a general store back in the day.”

“I heard it was a hotel once. You know, for the trains,” Mitch said, making conversation, trying to check the guy out and gauge whether or not it was safe to be with him.

Loren laughed. “Well, a hotel is putting a pretty spin on it.” He chuckled. “Try brothel. Hotel of Ill Repute, would be more like it.”

Geez, Mitch thought to himself. I’m getting way more information than I need right now. “Well, anyway, that’s where I live. Been there about four months.”

Loren nodded and then suddenly pointed to the north. “Hey, look at that,” he exclaimed. “The Aurora.”

Mitch turned to his left and looked. There, seeming to float above the far northern horizon, were oscillating bands of green and yellow lights shimmering and changing shape in the sky. Like waves. The bands stretched from the horizon up and up so that they were nearly overhead. Mitch watched as the colors shifted through various combinations of greens and yellows almost like they were dancing. He had never seen anything like it before in his life.

“Pretty amazing isn’t it?” Loren asked.

Mitch was almost speechless but forced himself to nod in agreement. “Yeah, it is,” he said, voice cracking. “What causes them?”

“Well, the technical answer is that there are explosions on the sun that emit streams of charged particles of electrons and protons that are energized when they hit the earth’s atmosphere. The colors show up when electrons with hit oxygen and nitrogen and they emit their energy. Sort of like a cosmic rainbow at night. Me, I just like them because they’re cool to watch.”

Mitch smiled to himself, liking that the old man used term ‘cool’ to describe such a spectacular event. “Yeah, I think I get what you mean,” he said.

The two men were quiet for a while, watching and only voicing the occasional ‘Ooo…’ or ‘Ahh…’ when there was a particularity dramatic bust of color. After a while the Aurora subsided and soon the colors vanished altogether. They still stood watching, though, as if transfixed by what they had seen. Loren broke the silence between them, “Well, what did you think, young man?”

Mitch couldn’t think of any words that could describe what he’d just witnessed, but he tried. “Pretty awesome,” he said.

To which Loren chuckled and said, “Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.”

It turned out that Loren lived just down the hill from where they were watching. “Since the show’s over, I guess I’d better head on home,” he said, standing to pick up his chair. He groaned, “Man, these old bones are stiff.”

“Can I help?” Mitch asked. He was a little amazed at how easily he had slipped into his conversation with Loren, standing out here in the middle of the night, talking about stars and the Northern Lights. It felt good. He talked to Lonny at work, of course, but this was different. He was drawn to Loren somehow and found himself kind of liking the guy. Maybe he was just lonely. Then he had a thought, “Maybe your wife is worried about you.”

Loren was still a little bend over, trying to stand up straight and stretch. “Well, she would be, if she were still alive.”

Mitch was suddenly embarrassed. “Oh, man, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.” Which was true, of course. They’d only just met.

Loren brushed it off. “Don’t worry young man. How were you to know?”

“Still…”

“Really, it’s Ok.” He waved a hand, like brushing it off.  “Me and my Helen, we had a good life.” He paused, seeming to reflect, “But the cancer took her two years ago this November.”

“You live by yourself, then?”

“Yeah.” Loren picked up his chair. “Come on and walk with me. I’ll show you where I live.”

The two men walked back into the residential neighborhood. Loren appeared to be in his mid-eighties and they took it slow and steady going down the hill, the old guy being careful where he stepped. Mitch had a chance to check his watch. It was 2:47 am. He wasn’t even tired.

Loren lived in a two story frame home that looked like an old farm house. It was painted white and seemed to be in good shape, at least from what Mitch could see. It was one of the bigger ones on the block. “Nice place,” he said as he and Loren slowly made their way up the driveway on the left side of the house. “How long have you lived here?”

“Helen and I retired here off the farm in 1999. So you do the math.”

About sixteen years. “Looks like it’s been taken good care of.” Mitch was feeling confident, now, talking to Loren. Houses and stuff. Guy talk.

“Yep, been in my family for a while now. I took it over from my parents when they passed away.”

Hmmm. Interesting, Mitch thought to himself. “Did you live around here, then?”

“Had a farm out County Road 11 west of here. Grew silage corn and some pumpkins for the locals.” He chuckled again, sort of a habit of his Mitch was starting to realize.

They got to a side door with a light on over it. Mitch was able to get a closer look at Loren who was standing slightly stooped so he appeared a few inches shorter than Mitch who was a solid six feet. Tonight Loren was wearing a worn pair of dark khakis, work boots, a blue flannel shirt, jean jacket and a green John Deer baseball hat. The night had turned cool, maybe sixty five degrees. Loren set his chair against the side of the house. “Want to come in?” he asked. “I’m going to heat up some coffee.” He shivered, “These old bones…” He let the comment lay.

Mitch glanced at his watch. It read 3:03 am. Why am I so worried about the time? He wondered. Loren saw him and chuckled again, “Got some place to go?” he asked.

“Well, not really,” Mitch admitted, chagrined.

“Come on in, then. What have you got to lose?”

Just for a few seconds, Mitch’s paranoia kicked in but let it pass. Geez, he’s just a harmless old guy. What can it hurt? “Sure,” he said, “Why not?”

Mitch followed Loren inside. A flight of stairs in front of them lead down to what he figured was the basement. To the right three steps lead up into a comfortable kitchen. Loren flipped on a light switch and indicated a round red Formica kitchen table with four padded red chairs arranged around it. “Sit.” So Mitch did, looking around while Loren made coffee.

If he had to guess he figured the house was probably a hundred years old. The kitchen had that comfortable, lived in feel that you didn’t see too often anymore The floor was covered with a light almost white linoleum speckled with green and blue flakes. It was worn but remarkably clean. The cabinets were a warm honey color that looked to be natural wood. An oversized original looking farm style sink was located in the middle of a counter running along the right hand wall. Above it was a window with the bottom half covered by a lacy off white curtain dotted with tiny flowers. The overhead light cast a soft glow, the corners of the room nearly in shadow. As Loren prepared the coffee, Mitch felt himself relaxing, feeling comfortable and at ease. Almost at home.

“Here you go,” Loren said, bringing over the coffee and sliding a thick white mug across the table. He then put down a plate of store bought sugar cookies and sat down.”Have a little snack,” he said, pointing to the plate. “I always get a little hungry out there watching stars.”

“Thanks,” Mitch said as he picked up a cookie and took a bite. “Tastes good,” he added and took a sip of his coffee, thinking what else he could say or ask Loren, who seemed to appreciate having him there, enjoying the company. Maybe he’s just lonely, Mitch was thinking. Then Loren started talking.

“Yeah, it’s been a while since Helen died,” he said, picking up the thread of conversation he’d started back on the hill. “I’ll tell you, it took a while to get over it.”

“I’ll bet,” Mitch said, but Loren continued talking like he hadn’t even heard, lost in his own story.

“She was the light of my life, that’s for sure,” he said, smiling. “I’ll never forget how we first met. It was back in 1950. I was nineteen and had enlisted in the army. I was just a stupid cocky fella’ wanting to see the world,” he grimaced a little at the memory. “I was sent over to Korean and was doing alright, staying safe and everything until I was injured in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. December tenth.” He stopped for a moment and shook his head. Mitch assumed that the memory was painful in probably more ways than one. Loren continued, his voice soft, almost reverent. “Helen was a nurse in a MASH unit assigned to our battalion. We meet and, as she told me later, there was something special that she saw in this old hay seed farm boy from Minnesota. She was more of a townie kind of girl. From Fairmont, down in the southern part of the state. She must have seen thousands of wounded men. Why she choose me, I’ll never know.”

Mitch stayed quiet, listening. He’d never known anyone to talk about war. It felt extremely personal, almost like prying, but Loren didn’t appear to mind at all. In fact, he more or less blew by his war experience, giving few details and focusing more on how he met the nurse Helen who eventually became his wife. Mitch continued to listen, becoming enthralled with what was turning out to be Loren talking about the story of his life.

“In the spring of 1951 I got discharged and went home and worked for my parents back on the farm. We had 180 acres and grew enough to live on.” He smiled at the memory. “It was like you see on those public television specials. Life was pretty simple and good. We were happy.”

“I’ve watched some of those,” Mitch said, just to say something, but Loren kept on talking with no indication he’d heard anything, lost in his story, his history and his memories.

“The thing was, I had been out there in the world. Seen things both good and bad that I’d never thought I’d ever experience. One of the good things had to do with airplanes. I got to know some pilots while I was recovering in the hospital. They were good guys. When I got back to the states, and out on the farm, I decided I wanted to take flying lessons. There was an airfield in Buffalo about fifteen miles from us and that’s where I went. Learned to fly a single engine Piper Cub.” He smiled again. “Man, that was a real nice plane. Red with white trim. Would cruise at 120 miles per hour. I loved flying that machine.”

“What happened with Helen?” Mitch asked, wondering how she would get back into the story.

“Hold your horses, young man, I’m getting there.” Loren took a sip of his coffee, savoring the flavor and smiling, whether at the taste or his memories it was hard to say. Then he continued. “Helen came back to the states toward the end of 1951 and settled in Fairmont, living with her folks. It’s the county seat down there and they had a nice hospital. That’s where she worked. We kept in touch with letters. I’ve still got them.” He stared off for a moment smiling before continuing. “Anyway, I got an idea that I wanted to see her so we wrote back and forth and made a plan for me to go and visit her.” He laughed. “I didn’t tell her I was going to fly down there, but that’s what I did.

“The guy who gave me lessons rented me the plane and in May of 1952 I took off and hedge-hoped over the trees and fields all the way down. Had a riot flying that little airplane. Landed at their municipal airport, secured the plane and got ride into downtown. We met at her favorite cafe, The Downtowner. When I told her what I’d done she wouldn’t believe me. To convince her we had to go back out to the airfield.” He stopped and gave Mitch a wink. “I took her for a ride in that Piper and it was somewhere up in the bright blue sky, soaring above the cornfields of Martin County, that I think we both fell in love.” He looked at Mitch and smiled, “We were married on the 23rd of September of that year.”

Loren sat back and was quiet for a few minutes. Mitch got up for some more coffee. “Warm you up?” he asked, but Loren was silent, starring into his mug. Mitch took the pot over and poured some in for the old man. “Here you go.” He patted Loren on the shoulder. He was suddenly feeling a great deal of affection for the old guy.

Startled, Loren said, “Why thank you, young fella’. I don’t normally talk so much about all of this.”

“That’s Ok. It’s interesting. I like hearing about it,” Mitch said truthfully and then paused, checking out the old man. He seemed fine, and not the least bit embarrassed, which Mitch thought he might be feeling. This was stuff guys didn’t normally, if ever, talk about. At least in his experience. “I’m enjoying it but we can stop anytime you’d like.”

Loren didn’t appear to hear Mitch as he went on. “After we got married we lived on the farm with my parents. I’m the oldest in the family so dad sort of put me in charge. Helen worked at the hospital in Buffalo. We built a good life. Made money. I bought some land southwest of here and planted soybeans. I ran our farm and helped out with dad’s. The kids started coming, four of them, and we just settled into our life.” Again he paused, remembering and smiling. “It was good. Jack was born in ’53 and then Jeannie in ’55. Then the twins Debbie and Susie in ’57. The kids were happy and healthy. Helen cut back on her hours at the hospital to be at home. Our farm and my dad’s were doing fine. We were even able to save money.” He paused again, gazing inward. Then he looked up, a sad expression in his eyes. “Then came the ’60’s. You know all the change and what not.” Mitch nodded. He was born in 1960 so he sort of had a flavor for the decade. “Anyway it was that damn war…” Mitch tensed. There was something in Loren’s voice. Anger. He took a moment to collect himself and then sighed, “We lost Jack in ’72. June 15th. in Vietnam. The worst day of my life.” Again, more quiet. Mitch didn’t know what to say. In another room he could hear a clock chiming the hour. Four of them. 4:00 am. He should have been sleepy but he wasn’t. There was something about being here with this old man who obviously was lonely and feeling compelled to share his life’s story. Mitch felt he owed it to the guy. Why? He didn’t know, but it felt right to be with him. Loren continued with on with what seemed to Mitch a wistful expression.

“Helen and I did our best and concentrated on raising our remaining children. Jeannie became a nurse, just like her mom. The twins got caught up in the end of that counterculture stuff,” he waved a hand, like swatting away a fly. “They even lived on a commune for a while.” He smiled. “Actually, it was pretty harmless. They turned out just fine. Now, Sara teaches pre-school. She has two kids, Sidney and Kala. Debbie is a seamstress, and has her two girls, Jenny and Stephanie. Sara and Debbie have always been close and still are. They live about an hour from each other in the Portland, Oregon area.” He smiled, “I see them occasionally, but not as much as I’d like.”

“What about Jeannie?”

“She’s been married and divorced twice.” Loren frowned. “I guess marriage is not for her. But she’s got Jeremy from her first marriage. He’s an engineer in Silicon Valley. Does Ok for himself.”

“Where’s Jeannie live?”

“She’s out by Buffalo. Near the hospital.”

Mitch nodded, taking in the information. To him Loren seemed to be a very capable eighty-four year old man. What I wouldn’t give to be like him in thirty years, he thought to himself.

Loren stood up and poured himself a small portion of coffee. “More?” He asked Mitch, who shook his head. “Nope. Anymore and you’ll get to watch me float away.” Loren grinned and sat down again.

“The girls moved out and got on with their lives and it was just Helen and me. My mom and dad had to retire off the farm in the eighties. We sold the land and used the money to buy this house. They lived in this place almost twenty years. They died within five years of each other. I stayed on the farm until ten years ago. Had to sell it finally, when I couldn’t do my chores. I’ve been here since then.” He looked around. “Not a bad place, is it?”

“I like it,” Mitch said, “At least what I’ve seen so far.”

“Come on,” Loren said, standing up. “I’ll give you a tour.”

Mitch was quickly thinking whether or not he was up for that kind of a thing when he heard a thud that sounded like it came from upstairs. He jumped to his feet. “What was that?” He pointed toward the ceiling. “I thought I heard something.”

All Loren could respond with was a quiet, “Oh Oh,” like he’d just done something he wasn’t supposed to do.

What sounded like footsteps raced across the floor above kitchen. Then Mitch heard a door open and slam against a wall and then the footsteps hurried down some stairs. He looked toward the living room which was through a doorway out of the kitchen to the left. He glanced at Loren who was now standing up looking perplexed. Mitch was in the process of asking, “What…?” When a figure burst through the doorway and into the kitchen. It was a women a little older than Mitch. She was wearing a nightgown and had shoulder length gray streaked hair framing an angry looking face. The expression spitting tacks came to Mitch as she shouted, “Dad what the hell are you up too?” She looked at Loren and then at Mitch, who she seemed to notice for the first time. She was holding a baseball bat. Mitch backed away with his hands up.

Loren seemed chagrined. “Oh, hi Jeannie. Sorry.” He stopped and tried to collect himself. “This is Mitch,” he said, indicated with a motion of his hand. “I met him tonight watching stars. He’s a friend of mine.”

Mitch quickly took in the situation. Being the old guy that he was, Loren had obviously just wandered out of the house and his daughter didn’t expect him to do that. Which worried her and made her mad. But her dad was Ok and not harmed. She should be able to see that. On the whole, not that big a deal, in his book. But the question in his mind was that Loren had said earlier that Jeannie lived in Buffalo. What was she doing here in Loretto? For now, Mitch wanted to be friendly and let her know he posed no eminent threat. “Hi,” he said, trying to be polite, placating with his hands. “My name’s Mitch. Nice to meet you.”

Jeannie just stared at him, not impressed. “Maybe it’s time for you to head home, buddy,” she said, eyes burning into him, slapping the bat in her hand. “Like right now.”

Well, then again, maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was a big deal. Which it turned out it was. Most people right away would have left and let the emotions between Jeannie and her dad cool off somewhat. But Mitch felt he should stay, thinking that in some way he may have been responsible for Loren’s current situation. Which he wasn’t, which soon became clear. Jeannie proceeded to read her dad the riot act, telling him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t supposed to go outside by himself ever again. “You got that?” She asked, jabbing a finger that stopped just inches from his chest. Loren responded by nodding meekly in the affirmative and apologizing. Jeannie just stared at her dad giving away nothing, before finally relenting and saying, “Ok.” Then her eyes softened. “Well, I’m sorry, too. I really worry about you, you know.” Loren just gazed at the floor and shuffled his feet.

Jeannie watched him for a moment and then turned her attention to Mitch, wondering out loud what the hell he thought he was doing sitting with an old man in his kitchen in the middle of the night. To which Mitch held up his hands in surrender saying that he didn’t mean anything by it, he was just enjoying the guy’s company. They went back and forth as the tension in the room slowly dissipated. After a few minutes Jeannie had calmed down and regained her composure.

“Sorry,” she said, “I just get worried about him, is all.” She set the bat down and went to Loren and put her hand on his shoulder. “Are you Ok, dad? Maybe you should get upstairs and get some sleep.”

Loren suddenly looked very tired. Drained.”Yeah, maybe I will,” he sighed. He went to the sink and washed out his mug, putting it in the drain rack. Turning to Mitch he perked up a little. “Goodnight, young fella’,” he said. “I enjoyed our evening.” He gave a contrite look to his daughter who went to him and gave him a hug.

“You go on, now, dad. I’ll be up in a few minutes.” She looked at Mitch. “I want to talk to your new friend here.” Mitch could hear the ‘finger quotes’ around friend in her voice. After Loren left the room and his footsteps trailed away up the stairs, she turned to Mitch. “Ok, what’s your story? Friend or foe?” She gave Mitch a not unfriendly look. Maybe she wasn’t so angry with him after all.

Mitch indicated the coffee pot. “Can a pour you a cup?” He asked, still trying to calm the family waters.

“I’ll get it.” Jeannie said, moving to the counter. “Fill me in on what’s going on here.”

Mitch assumed, correctly he later found out, that in those first few minutes together Jeannie had quickly sized him up as not a threat. But she was definitely protective of her dad and now wanted some answers. They sat at the table talking. Mitch filled her in on how he had hiked up the hill earlier that evening and how he had eventually met her dad. And how they had started talking about stars and the Aurora Borealis and the night sky, to which Jeannie had offered the first glimpse of a smile.

“Yeah, dad does like his star gazing, that’s for sure.”

“I know. It was great to talk with him,” Mitch said, happy to have a positive response. Jeannie still seemed cautious of him, but a little less wary. He paused before adding, “He seems like a nice, harmless old man.” Taking a sip of his now cold coffee he added, “I didn’t realize he had some issues.” Referring to but not specifically saying anything about what he assumed was Loren’s dementia.

“That’s Ok,” Jeannie said, and in her look Mitch could tell she was concurring. She took a cookie from the plate and began munching slowly. “I just worry about him.” She sighed, suddenly looking very tired. Then she changed the subject. “What’s up with you, anyway? Do you do this often, this walking around at night befriending old men?”

Mitch smiled for the first time since Jeannie had burst into the kitchen. “No, really I don’t.” He waved a hand. “It was just one of those things.” And he filled her in on what it was like for him to be with her dad. “I just found him interesting. Plus, to be honest, I really don’t have a lot going on in my life right now.” He stopped and grinned a little, making a joke. Jeannie smiled back and replied, “Yeah, I can see that.”

As they talked, Mitch started feeling more comfortable with Jeannie, sort of like he had felt with her dad. She came on strong and assertive initially, which he understood. If the tables were turned, who knew how he would have responded to coming upon a stranger in his kitchen? But he could tell she cared deeply about her dad and that made him feel a sense of compassion toward her. His own parents had died years ago. He’d never had to deal with them in old age. On the whole, as they talked, Jeannie came across as a nice person in a difficult situation, trying to make the best of things.

In the living room the clock chimed again. Mitch counted five. It was 5 am. Looking out the window over the sink, Mitch could see a faint glow in the sky. Dawn was approaching. A new day was beginning.

He stood up, stretching. “Well, I should probably get going.” He pointed. “Sun’s coming up.”

Jeannie stood and stretched, also. “Yeah. I’ve got to get ready for work.”

“The hospital?”

“Yeah.” She gave him a look. “Dad must have told you.”

“Yep. Lots of stuff about your family.”

She was suddenly on edge again. “I was going to ask, Like what, but I can only imagine.”

Mitch must have looked perplexed. Jeannie continued, “Dad sometime gets his facts confused. You know. He tries, but he’s really not a hundred percent there all of the time.”

Mitch kind of understood, and told Jeannie so. “Some of it was true, though, right?”

She glanced out the window again. “Look, it’s getting late, or early, however you want to look at it.”

Mitch took the hint. “I get it. I’ve got to get ready for work, too.” He had told her earlier about working at the garden and landscape center. He didn’t know why, though, but he found that he liked this family that he had inadvertently blundered into. He liked Loren and he liked Jeannie. He liked hearing Loren’s stories and even if they weren’t all true, there must have been an element of truth to some of them. Jeannie must have sensed his reluctance to leave just then.

“Look,” she said, “You seem like a nice enough guy. Why don’t you come back up here after you get home from work. I’ll be home by 6:00 pm. Come up around 7:00. How’s that sound? If you’re all that curious, we’ll chat a bit and see if we can get our facts straight.”

It sounded good to Mitch. “I’ll be there,” he said. And with a wave of his hand he left, walking the two blocks down the hill to his apartment watching the sunrise and thinking through the last hours of his life. He felt different, somehow, from how he’d felt just twelve hours earlier. He felt more alive and energized than he’d felt in quite a while. He was looking forward to seeing Jeannie and her dad again. Evening couldn’t come soon enough.

But first he had to get through his normal ten hour day at the garden center. He arrived at his usually starting time of 8:00 am. They were busy right away and he spent the entire morning loading rock into trucks with the bobcat. Finally there was a lull around noon and he took a break. He was sitting in the shade drinking some water when Lonny came by.

“What’s up, man?” he asked, ready to stride on.

Mitch stopped him. “It’s all good.” He held up a hand. “Hey, got a quick question for you.”

Lonny stopped. “What’s going on?”

“What do you know about Loren Johnson, an old farmer from out where I live in Loretto?”

Lonny smiled. “So you met old Loren, eh? Quite the character, that one.”

“Yeah. Last night. I was out stargazing.” Mitch filled Lonny in on how he’d met Loren, and the night spent watching the Northern Lights, and the time back at the house in the kitchen and then the bit with the explosion with Jeannie. “But everything’s Ok, now,” He said, “I’m going back there tonight.”

“Well, good for you, old man,” Lonny laughed, making a joke. Then added, more seriously, “They’re good people, those two. Been through a lot.”

“Sounds like it,” Mitch said remembered last night and looking out over the flat lands around the garden center. Heat waves were shimmering in the distance. The day was starting to heat up and get hot.

“Well, you probably just got the story from Loren, is what I’m betting,” Lonny said, looking right at Mitch.

“Yeah, I did,” Mitch said, stretching out the words, “So…”

“Well, Loren’s a great guy, but his version of things is, shall we say, a little white washed. A  little sugar coated.” Mitch must have looked confused. “Here now,” Lonny started to move away, “We’ve got to get back to work. Let’s get together for a beer sometime. I’ll fill you in.”

“I’m going back there tonight.”

Lonny stopped and was thoughtful. “Well, as far as Loren’s concerned, I’d be careful talking about Helen if I were you. The old guy’s version of things is really not all that accurate.” Lonny again started walking away.

“What’d you mean?” Mitch asked, perplexed.

“It wasn’t the rosy little marriage and family portrait that I’m assuming Loren painted for you.”

“What? Loren said they were really happy.”

Lonny smirked. “Nope. Helen left him in the 70’s and took the girls. Seems our friend Loren liked the ladies a little too much. Had affairs and the like.”

Mitch was stunned. “I don’t believe it.”

“Well, believe it my friend. A bit of a drinking problem, too. I’m amazed that his daughter Jeannie has anything to do with him .

“Geez,” Mitch said, shocked. “I would never have guessed.”

“Yeah, well that’s life, man.” Lonny said. “If you go back, I’d be careful about what you believe about what Loren says.”

Lonny continued walking away. Mitch had a thought. “What about Jeannie?” Thinking about how much he enjoyed talking with her.

“Oh, Jeannie’s great,” Lonny said, and then smiled. “But be careful. She’s not had the best of luck with men.”

“I heard she’s been married a few times.”

“Two or three. I think,” Lonny said. “Guys have left her, so she doesn’t have a great attitude with it comes to guys. At least that’s what my wife says.” He looked at his watch. “Come on, let’s hit it.”

They went back to work but the rest of the day Mitch kept thinking about Loren and his daughter Jeannie. No matter what Lonny had said, and the unflattering stories circulating about Loren, he still felt an affection growing inside of him for the old guy and his daughter. He was looking forward to seeing them later that night.

He left work at 6:00 pm and drove home, eagerly anticipating seeing Loren and Jeannie. He showered, put on a clean pair of jeans and a light green tee-shirt and hiked up the hill. He was at the old frame house right on the dot, 7:00 pm. He saw Loren in a rocking chair, sitting in the shade under the overhang on the front porch, sipping from a glass of what looked like iced tea. He waved a greeting.

“High there, young fella’. Do I know you?”

Mitch laughed a little, wondering if the old guy was kidding or not. “Yeah. I’m Mitch. We met last night. Remember?”

Loren smiled a sheepish smile. “Well, I might, young man. Why don’t you come up here and tell me all about it?”

So Mitch climbed the steps to the porch and sat down on a spare rocker. “Whew,” he said, “Hot out today.”

“Yeah, it is, but just wait until tonight. Something about a cool summer’s night that makes the long, hot day more than worthwhile.”

Mitch thought back to the night before and the cool stillness under the starlit sky up on the hill.  “Yeah, I get what you’re saying.”

The two of them rocked in their chairs for a while, chatting. By his comments, Mitch realized that Loren actually did remember him from the previous night and he felt good about that. Jeannie came out a little later with a tray of iced tea and some oatmeal cookies. “Here you go, men.” She set the tray down, gave Mitch a glass and poured some more for her dad. She pulled up her own rocker and sat down, taking a glass of ice tea and taking a sip. She was wearing a floral print sleeveless sundress. To Mitch she looked really nice. “Hot out,” she added.

“Yeah,” Mitch agreed. She seemed calm and happy to relax on the porch. “Should cool off by tonight.”

Jeannie nodded and then leaned over and addressed her dad. “Northern Lights tonight, dad?”

Loren thought for a moment and then said, “Yes, I believe there will be.”

Jeannie smiled and said back to him, giving what Mitch could have sworn was a wink, “That’ll be good. Maybe we can go up and watch them together.”

It was so relaxing sitting on the porch they almost didn’t get up the hill that evening. Mitch couldn’t believe how comfortable he felt with Jeannie and Loren. After the tense situation of the night before, things had calmed down considerably. All three of them sat watching the day fade to evening, chatting quietly, rocking in their white wooden rocking chairs, sipping ice tea. Mitch felt like he had fallen into a Norman Rockwell painting. Jeannie filled him in on the living situation for Loren.

“I have a service called Home Instead come in for a few hours every day and watch over dad while I’m gone. Give him lunch and stuff like that. They’re really reliable and dad seems to like them. Right dad?” She asked, and Loren nodded, smiling.

Mitch thought about what Lonny had said earlier that day about Loren ‘liking the ladies’ but decided to not bring it up. Jeannie seemed to be enjoying herself talking to Mitch and, for his part, talking with her and being with Loren, sitting on the porch on a quiet summer’s evening, was the closest thing to a normal, family kind of life he’d had in many years. He didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.

He found he could talk to Jeannie about Loren in front of him without any problems. “Your dad seems Ok to me.”
“Well, he has his good days and bad days,” she said, looking at her father with a mixture of affection and concern. “Right now he’s doing pretty well. Sometimes, though, he’ll wander off and, of course, that’s concerning for me.” She sighed. “The police have had to look for him a few times, you know and bring him back.” She glanced at Loren, who was watching some kids out on the street throwing a Frisbee around. “The cops around here know all about my dad.” Mitch was starting to appreciate how challenging  it was to watch over her dad. But Jeannie seemed to accept the way things were and was making the best of the situation. He admired her for that.

“You all have lived in the area your whole life, right?” Mitch asked, remembering what Lonny had said about Helen taking the girls and leaving back when they were young. He was curious as to how much Jeannie would tell him. It wasn’t that he was nosy, it was just that he was liking being with her and her dad. It was more than making conversation. More like wanting to know what really was the truth. Getting closer to them.

Jeannie was honest. “I know that last night dad probably told you some glamorous story about his life with my mom,” she paused and looked at Mitch, who nodded and made a motion like, go on. “Well, the truth is,” she stopped and looked at her dad, who was sipping his iced tea and rubbing at a spot on the knee of his trousers. She gave a thin smile and went on. “Mom and dad had a falling out when us girls were in our teens. It was after we had lost Jack.” She looked at Mitch. “Dad told you about him, right?”

“The war, right?”

“Yeah.” She paused a moment before going on, eyes cast down, remembering. “Anyway, Dad,” she started and stopped, thinking some more and then started again, “Dad wasn’t the most reliable person during those years.” Mitch nodded again, encouraging. “Mom and he started arguing more and more. He started going out and drinking. They fought a lot. Not physically, mind you, but verbally. Lots of yelling.” She sighed. “It wasn’t pretty. She finally moved us to Buffalo. She was close to work. Me and my sisters finished high school there, and mom moved on with her life. She even got married. I went to college up in St. Cloud, got my degree and came back. I’ve been a nurse ever since.” She took a long drink of her tea and put the cool glass against her forehead. Mitch felt he should do something to comfort her but she went on before he could. “Mom died a few years ago from cancer.” Mitch nodded, thinking that a small part of Loren’s story last night was accurate. “I’ve been taking care of him here at the house for almost ten years.”

Mitch thought about his relationship with his kids, which was distant, at best. “Did you stay in touch with your dad during those years after you all and  your mom left?”

“Honestly, I was mad at him when we had to move. I loved being on the farm. But that’s life.” She looked out over the front yard and past the houses across the street to where the corn fields started, rolling off into the distance. Lots of wide open space out there. Beyond the fields was a tree line of oaks and maples that signified the edge of a huge county park. “I really couldn’t leave the area, though.” She stopped again for a few moments. Mitch could almost feel her breathing in the fresh scent and aroma of the neighboring farmland, like it was rejuvenating her. “You know how they say that time heals all wounds? Well, it did for me. Dad cleaned up his act. Focused on taking care of the farm and my grandparents farm. Quit drinking and carousing. Started his hobbies.”

“Like stargazing?” Mitch asked.

Jeannie nodded. “Yeah, that. He also started collecting old tractors and restoring them. He’s into old clocks, too.” She indicated back inside the house.

“I heard one chiming last night.”

Jeannie smiled. “One of these days I’ll get dad to plug them all in and get them set and running. It’s quite impressive when you’ve got about a dozen of them going.”

Mitch laughed. “I can imagine.” He couldn’t remember having such a nice, normal evening. It was one of those times that could you wished could go on forever. To the west the sun was sinking just below the horizon, reflecting  crimson scarlet off a few thin clouds.  A robin was singing a last trilling song before nightfall. Jeannie had a nectar feeder hanging off a corner of the porch and a hummingbird kept coming to it, darting back and forth, tiny wings a blur. She had potted plants scattered around filled with geraniums and impatiens in a variety of colors. A wind chime tinkled in the soft summer breeze. Mitch was so relaxed he almost fell asleep.

Jeannie went inside to refresh their tea. Loren rocked back and forth seemingly enjoying the peaceful ending to the day. Mitch couldn’t blame him. “Looking forward to looking at some stars tonight?” Mitch asked.

Loren turned toward him slowly with a big grin on his face.”You bet I am, young fella’. You bet I am.”

And later that night they did just that, all of them, Jeannie included, which was a perfect ending to a day Mitch never wanted to end. Much later, as he walked down the hill to his apartment through a peaceful summer night beneath a star studded sky, he could honestly say that he couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.

Summer ebbed into fall with the trees changing to colors of golden yellows, fiery oranges and burgundy reds. The temperature dropped and the winds picked up scattering leaves dancing and swirling across the ground. The farm fields were harvested and lay bare until spring. November arrived and with it came the threat of the first snow of the season. Mitch and Lonny worked long hours at the garden center putting the perennials into storage until the next year. They also got ready for the shipment of evergreens they would be setting up and selling for the holiday season. But this year the snow held off. The temperatures hovered around 35 degrees during the day and 20 degrees at night. Some of the smaller ponds froze over and then the larger lakes. Everyone was waiting for winter, in the form of snow, to finally arrive, but it continued to hold off.

Mitch had become an ad-hoc member of the Johnson family. He helped out with yard work and whatever chores around the house that needed doing. He loved it. He felt needed and necessary, a long way from how he’d felt over eight months earlier when he’d first moved into town feeling damaged and adrift. Now he felt accepted by Jeannie and Loren and he did all he could to show his appreciation. He changed out the screens and put storms on the windows, caulked around the edges of window and door frames, brought in firewood, raked the leaves and winterized the lawnmower. He began to look at the house as his own, which didn’t go unnoticed by Jeannie.

“You’re quite the handyman, there, Mitch,” she said one time, chiding him, “To bad we can’t afford to pay you.”

“Hanging out with you and your dad is payment enough,” Mitch said, hoping he didn’t sound too corny. Too needy.

Jeannie laughed. “Man, that sounds pretty lame, but we appreciate it, anyway.”

Mitch just smiled and went back to work raking the yard. Yeah, it did, didn’t it? But what he’d said was the truth. He really was developing an affection for his two new friends.

There were times, being with Jeannie and Loren, that he thought about maybe asking her out. Start dating her. Take their relationship to the next level whatever that might be. But every time he got close to bringing up the subject she would say something to the effect that she sure liked how things were not having to be tied to any guy, or it sure was nice having the kind of freedom that she had, so Mitch would just put the thought out of his mind. In the end, it was just good to be with her and her dad. They got along fine and everyone was happy.

On Thanksgiving he called his kids and wished them and their families a happy day. The conversations all went fine. He had grown to accept how things were between he and his son and daughters and so he didn’t push it too much. He was happy that at least they were all talking and there didn’t seem to be any more hidden animosity. Maybe Jeannie was right when she had said that time healed all wounds.

He had dinner that day with Jeannie and her dad. He made a wild-rice casserole and hiked up the hill with it. The day was cold, around ten degrees and a light snow was falling. Winter had finally arrived. The kitchen was warm and smelled of oven roasted turkey and savory sage dressing. While they ate Mitch was moved to say how thankful he was that he was friends with Jeannie and Loren to which they responded with a hearty cheer and a clinking of their glasses of sparkling cider. Later, they sat in the living room in front of warm, flickering fireplace fire sipping hot chocolate and quietly talking. By the time Mitch walked back to his apartment he was chalking the day up to another in a string of memorable times spent with Jeannie and Loren.

And then it was December. They hit a stretch of clear, cold weather, just perfect for stargazing. For nearly a week straight Mitch went and got Loren and they headed on up to the top of the hill. Jeannie always declined to accompany them.

“Too dang cold, for me, gentlemen,” she say. “I’ll leave the craziness to you two.”

Mitch and Loren didn’t care about the cold. They dressed for it in layers of long underwear, jeans, Carharrt overalls topped off with a thermal lined jacket, a warm woolen hat and a thick scarf. They even brought a couple of thermoses of coffee. They’d plop down in their lawn chairs, pull a blanket over their legs and they were fine. Besides, a little chilliness was nothing compared to the wonders of those cold December nights.

One night toward the middle of the month they were out on an exceptionally cold and bright night. “Look at Cassiopeia.” Loren pointed to the constellation out in the east. It looked like a lazy ‘W’.

“Really nice,” Mitch said, settling in and appreciating the crisp feeling in the air even though the temperature was hovering around zero. He liked this unique kind of winter stillness that allowed you to really hear the sounds of the night. All it took was a little bit of time for your ears to adjust to the profound quiet. Within fifteen minutes he had heard the hooting call of a Barred Owl from somewhere off behind them in the woods at the edge of the corn field. He’d head a coyote howling way out to the west. He’d heard the scream of a rabbit and the thumping of hooves, probably a deer, crunching through the icy crust on the top of the three inches of snow on the ground. And, speaking of ice, he’d heard the cracking and booming of the ice surface out on Lake Independence, over a mile away. All these sounds were like a winter melody to him. A lullaby of sorts. He found a sense of peace and serenity sitting out in the cold with Loren, sipping their coffee, quietly chatting, listening to the night and watching the sky above them speckled with countless stars.

They quickly added the more constellations to the mental list they kept. The Big and Little Dippers, Orion, Auriga, Pisces and Pegasus where the most common. They hadn’t yet, but sometimes they’d even see a meteor shower or the occasional shoot star.

“Lovely out here, isn’t it?” Mitch remarked.

“It sure is. Reminds me when I used to take the classes out.”

Which was one of the stories Loren told that was probably true. Mitch had found that Loren sometimes confused reality with his thoughts and imagination. It took a while to get used to it, but he was getting so he could distinguish between what Jeannie referred to as fact and fiction.

“Yeah, dad spends a lot of time in his own world,” she told him once during the past summer. “It’s harmless, I guess.  Just take everything he says with a grain of salt and you’ll be Ok.” She sighed and then smiled. “But when he talks about stars and stuff, you can bet that what he says is true. When it comes to the night sky, the guys knows what he’s talking about.”

Which was why some years ago when he was in his sixties Loren became a sought after volunteer for the local schools. He started donating his time to help out in science classes, usually in the junior or senior high but sometimes even grade school. “Dad’s very democratic when it comes to looking at stars,” Jeannie said fondly. “Everyone is welcome to share in his cosmic world.” So he’d take students who were interested out for a evening of stargazing. His outings became very popular, at least that’s what she told him. “Yeah, people loved it. And he was good at it, you know, passionate and all of that. He was a good teacher.” She stopped and thought for a moment. “He even started doing adult education classes through the local junior college over in Buffalo. He had to stop maybe eight years ago when his memory started to go. He couldn’t drive reliably so that was that. But he’s very knowledgeable, that’s for sure.”

On this particular December night, they were lucky. They did see at shooting star, which, as Loren said, wasn’t really a star at all, but just a bit of cosmic dust burning up when it made contact with the earth’s atmosphere. But Mitch didn’t really care about the technical side of it all. He just like looking at the sky. He could put his head back against the lawn chair and just gaze. Which is what he did. Just sat there looking up into the heavens. A memory came to him of when he was twenty years old and he and some friends had gone camping in the mountains of Colorado. They had spent the entire night looking at the sky and the brilliant dome of stars above them. They’d spotted a satellite on that particular night and watched it move across the sky, no bigger than a pin-prick. It had been so unexpectedly amazing that he’d never forgotten it. Then came a memory of when he was a young seven year old watching stars with his dad and a friend of his dad’s who had a telescope. How his dad had put his arm around his shoulder as Mitch looked through the telescope and told him how great it was to be out there with him watching the stars. So many good memories, Mitch thought to himself, as he sat out on this cold December night on the edge of a corn field on the edge of town with his new found friend, Loren. He smiled and felt warm and secure with the faint hooting of the owl in the distance and the soft glow of the star lit sky above him. The stillness of the night was like a blanket, warming him in a kind of cosmic way. His mind drifted and his eye lids fluttered. He was at peace with the world.

He awoke with a start and shook his head, instantly aware that something was not right. “Hey, Loren,” he said, turning his head to the right where Loren and his chair were. “I must have…”

But he never finished his sentence. Loren’s chair was empty, his blanket laying in the snow. Mitch jumped up and checked his watch. It was nearly midnight. He did a quick calculation. He must have dozed off for fifteen minutes. Loren could be anywhere. And then the thought hit him. The train. At 12:10 am the nightly train came through town. The tracks where about a quarter of a mile from where he stood. He had to get down to them to check for Loren. First he took out his phone and called Jeannie.

She picked up right away, sounding sleepy. “Where are you guys? Aren’t you frozen yet?” She was joking with him. Loren obviously wasn’t home.

“Bad news, Jeannie.” He heard her gasp, readying herself. “Your dad’s gone. I must have fallen asleep. For maybe fifteen minutes. I’m going to go look for him.”

“Hold on, I’m coming up there.”

“First call 911. Let someone know.”

“I’ll do that.” She dropped the phone, probably nervous. Mitch heard her say ‘shit’ as she picked it up.

He spoke quickly, “Look, you call it in. Then hurry and get dressed and meet me down by the tracks.” He heard Jeannie gasp. “I just want to make sure he’s not down there. Ok?”

“Geez, yeah,” she said, a tremor in her voice.

With the phone pressed to his ear Mitch started off across the corn field, the shortest way to the tracks. “Hurry up,” he said, his voice urgent. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.” Jeannie click off and Mitch was on his own.

You might think being outside at night would be total darkness, but it’s not. Especially in the winter. Any snow on the ground is illuminated by the starry sky and that’s what helped Mitch cross the field. The top layer of snow was icy and his boots crunched through it and underneath was only a few inches deep so the snow wasn’t an issue. The furrows of corn were the problem. The dirt ridges between the rows were frozen and unforgiving. The faster Mitch tried to go, the more he stumbled. He fell more than once, cursing more his own incompetence that anything else. Why did I fall asleep? Why didn’t I pay more attention to taking care of Loren? He felt an incredible responsibility for the old man. And for Jeannie, too. She’d trusted him with her dad. God, she’ll never forgive me, he thought, hurrying faster, stumbling more.

It took about five minutes to cross the field but seemed like it took an hour. Mitch checked his watch. Just after midnight. His heart was racing. He was hot. He could feel sweat running down his back. Panting and out of breath he pushed on. Ahead of him was a wood lot that dropped down in a steep decline to the railroad tracks. He saw no indication that Loren had come this way but he couldn’t be too sure. Man, what an idiot I am, he chastised himself once more as he plowed into the woods, breaking through brush, branches whipping his face as he stumbled downhill.

It took a few minutes for him to get to the bottom. He broke out into the cleared area on the edge of the train tracks. He heard a whistle blow and looking to his right saw a bright head light. The train was a mile away. It’d be here in just over a minute.

He quickly looked in both directions. His biggest fear was that Loren would wander out onto the track. But Mitch saw no sign of his friend. He called out his name, but the train’s whistle obliterated his voice as the engine roared toward him, louder and louder. Mitch frantically scanned the edge of the track, eyes searching everywhere. Loren could stumble out of the woods and onto the track at any time. Where the hell was he? And the train kept coming, wheels screeching like a banshee, the clattering of a hundred cars echoing through the trees. Still no Loren. Then the engine flew right by him, blowing snow that swirled all around. It’s whistle screamed in his ear, deafening. Mitch stood off to the side, just a few feet from the edge of the rattling cars, frantically looking up and down the track. Nothing. Finally he could see the end of the train coming toward him. Still no Loren. Then the final car clattered past the spot he was standing leaving behind a return to quiet as the train rumbled down the track to his left, heading east. Mitch hung his head, barely hearing the retreating whistle blowing. Then there was a fade to silence as peace and quiet returned. Still Mitch hung his head, feeling like he had betrayed Loren somehow. Disappointed Jeannie, too. Man, what a jerk, I am he thought to himself, as he turned to start walking toward town, less than a quarter of a mile away.

“Hey, why so glum, chum?” Came a voice from across the tracks. “You’ll never see any stars staring at the ground.”

Mitch jerked up his head. He couldn’t believe his ears. “Loren,” he yelled and ran across the tracks. “Where have you been?”

Loren looked bemused. “Right here. I just wanted to see the train up close and personal.”

He must have crossed the tracks earlier and come out of the woods when the train started going past. Whatever had happened, at least he was safe. Mitch grabbed his friend and gave him a huge bear hug. “We were all really worried, man.” He gave Loren a quick once over. He seemed fine.

Loren shrugged, “I’m just a little chilly is all.”

Mitch laughed. “Let’s get you home, then.”

First he called Jeannie and gave her the good news. She was up on the hill just starting across the corn field. “I called the police. They’re going to send out a squad car.”

“That’s good, but I don’t think we’ll need it. He seems Ok, Jeannie. It’s a good ending I think,” Mitch said. Then added, “I’m so sorry. I…”

Jeannie stopped him. “Hey, Mitch, it’s Ok.” Then she paused. He could hear her heavy breathing and the faint crunch of snow as she walked. “The stories I could tell…”

Mitch knew that she’d had similar experiences with her dad with him wandering away. After all, that’s how she and him had met. “We can talk more later. Right now I’m walking down the track to the crossing in town. We should be there in about ten minutes or so.”

“Sounds good.  I’m heading back home.” He could hear her start to run. “I’ll bring the car.”

“Ok, good. See ya’.” And he could have sworn that just as he was hanging up he heard Jeannie say, “And Mitch, thanks.”

By the time he got to the crossing Jeannie was just arriving. A few minutes later while she was giving her dad a quick check up, a police cruiser showed up. Mitch talked to the guy, assuring him that all was well and that with Jeannie being a nurse things were under control. The  patrolman pulled out his flashlight and checked out Loren, and then checked out Mitch and Jeannie before giving them all the ‘A-Ok’. He then left them with the suggestion to take Loren home, which they did.

Much later, in the kitchen, Mitch and Jeannie were having some hot chocolate, unwinding and trying to come to grips with what had happened. Earlier, Loren had taken a hot shower and Jeannie had put him to bed. The house was quietly settling down.

“How about if you build us a fire in the fireplace?” Jeannie suggested.

“You bet.” A fire sounded like a good idea. Mitch still had a bit of a chill.

“I’ll bring our mugs.”

Mitch got the fire going and Jeannie came in with fresh hot chocolate. They sat together in a warm familiarity, watching the flames and sipping their beverages. Mitch couldn’t remember feeling so good. So comfortable. So relaxed. Maybe those weren’t the best words. How about at home? That’s what best described his feeling. Being at home. He looked over at Jeannie. She was smiling to herself, staring into the fire, seemingly lost in her own inner thoughts. All of a sudden she looked up and smiled at him. Mitch felt something there between them. A closeness and a warmth. If he felt it he wondered if she did too.

“You were good with dad tonight,” she said. “Real good.” She sighed. “He can be a real handful.”
“I like your dad,” Mitch said, and wanted to add, and you too, but censored himself due to the corniness factor. Instead he added, “He’s a good guy.”

She chuckled. “Well, he has his moments.”

Mitch settled back against the cushions. He and Jeannie were only inches apart. Just like they had been so many time before, sitting here, or in the kitchen or out on the porch. But tonight felt different. Back when he thought that he had lost Loren, something had happened to Mitch. He realized how much he cared for the old guy. And with that realization came the awareness of how much he cared for Jeannie. They had become a family to him. Different than the family he had as a father to his kids, but a family nevertheless. And with that feeling of family came a feeling of responsibility, a feeling that he enjoyed having. Again, he looked at Jeannie, who was smiling and having trouble keeping her eyes open.

“Here,” he said, taking her mug and setting it on the coffee table, “You just relax. It’s been a long day.”

“And night,” Jeannie said, reaching for a blanket and pulling it around her. She looked at Mitch. “Can I rest on your shoulder?”

“Sure,” he said, raising his arm and pulling her in.

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Then she looked at him with a smile that seemed like it may have held a deeper meaning. “I appreciate you, too, Mitch, more than I can say.” She closed her eyes and snuggled in closer.

In a few minutes her breathing shifted as her body relaxed and she fell into a deep sleep. Mitch held her close, feeling the warmth and security of being with this woman he had come to care so much for. Then he too drifted off, his dreams filled with visions of what may lie ahead. All of them good. And the fire in the fireplace burned down into a bed of glowing embers. And one of Loren’s clocks chimed five times. The house lay still and peaceful in the cold winter’s night.

Around 7:00 am Loren came down stairs to make coffee and get some breakfast. He glanced into the living room and saw his daughter and Mitch asleep on the couch.

“Good,” he said to himself. “It’s about time.”

And in a few minutes the coffee was ready. He poured himself a cup and sat at the kitchen table, sipping from it, thinking about the evening ahead and the stars he would see. Watching the night sky always seemed to rejuvenate him and make him feel alive and in touch with life and the world around him. He bet Mitch would go up on the hill with him to stargaze. Maybe Jeannie would too.

He could hear them stirring in the living room and he called out, “Hey, you two in there want some coffee? I’ll bring you some.” He listened and then smiled. They both had said yes. He stood up and went to get two mugs. He had a vague memory that something had happened last night. What was it? He tried to remember but nothing came to him. Well, no big deal, he thought to himself. He poured the coffee and headed for the living room. A new day had begun and, for now, everything was looking fine and that’s all that mattered.

“You both up for some stargazing tonight?” He asked, walking into the room and setting the mugs on the coffee table.

“You bet we are, dad,” Jeannie said, looking at Mitch and smiling.”Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”