What Larry Wanted

Dedicated to friends, past, present and future.

I’m thinking, Man, what am I getting myself into?  It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in early September and I’m driving into Long Lake to the Bad Billy Goat, a bar and restaurant just off Hwy 112, the main drag through town.  My best friend when I worked at Northland Controls had called two nights earlier, wondering if we could get together.

“Danny Boy,” Larry Underwood greeted when I picked up the phone, “How are you doing, man? It’s been a while.”

Talk about out of the blue. “Yeah, it has been,” I stammered, slightly stunned, totally at a loss for words.

I’d been laid off five years earlier and moved on with my life, finding a job with Jorgensen Electric, a small family owned business right here in Long Lake, the small town me and Lynn had moved to after being let go, or ‘downsized’, as my boss had so kindly put it. Lynn continued to work at North Memorial Hospital in administration. Our twenty-nine year marriage is strong. Our three girls are grown and on their own. Life is pretty good. Uncomplicated. Uncomplicated that was until Larry called and wanted to meet.

“What do you think it’s all about?” Lynn asked after I’d hung up.

“Damned if I know. Probably something to do with money. Larry was always looking to make an easy buck.”

My wife looked at me skeptically, “You’re not going to lend him anything, are you? We don’t have a lot to play around with here, you know.” She swirled a tea bag in her mug and gave me a look – a look I knew only too well. Lynn is the brains of the family and I had learned over the years it didn’t pay to argue. She knows what she’s doing, running the finances and pretty much everything else when it comes to the household. She’s good at it. Me…well, it’s best to probably not go there.

“No, never, babe,” I said, hoping I sounded convincing. If I was going to piss off anyone, it’d have to be Larry. I’d learned the hard way that that it didn’t pay to go up against my strong willed, confident wife.

I stood up, suddenly restless, “I think I’ll go out for a smoke.”

She shook her head at me, disappointed that all of the arguments she’d been making over the years were still falling on deaf ears, “Another nail in your coffin, pal. I’m telling you, those things are going to kill you”

“Yeah, probably…,” which was about as witty as I was going to get, given the circumstances. I was a bit pre-occupied and had some thinking to do.

I went out back, stood on our deck and lit up. Larry and I had worked together for twenty two years, both of us having been hired within a few weeks of each other when Northland was going through a companywide growth spurt. We were engineers, fresh out of college and eager to prove ourselves.  Even though initially we had been assigned to different projects, we became friendly when we started talking outside during smoke breaks.

We had a lot in common: he had kids roughly the same age as mine, our wives both worked, we liked sports and we both took time to coach our kids soccer and hockey teams; those kinds of things. After a few months of getting to know each other, we introduced our wives and they hit it off instantly. Eventually me and Lynn and Larry and his wife, Jessie, became friendly enough to go for an occasional drink or two once a month or so and hang out, relax and listen to live music. We all became pretty friendly.

But that was then and this was now. Although we had worked together and been close (as much as you could be) during those twenty two years, since I’d been laid off I hadn’t really been in touch with him much; well, not at all, actually. I knew he’d been let go less than a year after I had but that was it. All I knew from our catch up conversation was that in the ensuing four plus years, Larry had gone on to do the generically vague other things that people tell you when they haven’t been doing much, or at least doing much that they want to tell you about. He did, however, offer that he’d been doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that, which wasn’t really anymore helpful.(When I asked him about it later he told me that he just didn’t want to go into at the time. “There were other things more important that I needed to talk to you about,” he’d said. Well, he was right about that.)

I remembered Larry as a tall, thin, clean shaven man with a quick mind who was excellent at computer aided design. He had the lean look of a marathoner but he wasn’t a runner at all, preferring to go for walks or bicycle rides with Jessie, instead. I remembered their relationship as a loving one; they were devoted parents and totally committed to raising their three boys. Their home was a happy place to be.

But my comment about Larry always looking to make a buck was accurate. He willingly ‘invested’, as he called it, in schemes that, on the surface sounded legitimate, but often where a bit shady. Schemes where you could double or triple your money in less than a year – that kind of thing. All you had to do was fork over ‘X’ amount of cash up front and you’d be rich (or richer) in no time. There was a retirement community in Arizona that turned out to be nothing but desert. Then there was the land acquisition in Northern Minnesota for a gated community that fell through. And the last one I had heard about, just before being laid off, was fronting an upstart drilling company speculating for oil in the newly discovered oil fields in western North Dakota. I’d heard it had fallen through also.

The only thing Larry made any money at was when he sold the burial plots he’d bought when he and Jessie were first married.

“We didn’t need them anymore,” he told me once out of the blue, one cold winter day when we were shivering our asses off outside having a smoke break. This was maybe ten years ago, back when things at work were going fine and no one even considered that they’d be let go. “We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks and finally decided to opt for cremation. I sold them and got four times what I’d originally paid.”

I was incredulous. It was February and we were standing outside Northland with our backs to the north wind, surface snow whipping past our legs, the dull sun offering absolutely no warmth at all. My fingers were freezing. I was silently berating my addiction, seeing Lynn in my mind nodding, I told you so, but I was still mule headed enough to not give it up. I was glad that the conversation was distracting me from how cold I was, “Man, where were they? The White House lawn?”

He chuckled, “Lakewood. Two plots. Under a big maple tree.”

Well, that explained it. Lakewood is a nearly two hundred year old cemetery on 250 acres of prime land in Minneapolis between Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. I’d always admired the property for it’s beautiful gardens, manicured lawns, rolling hills and mature hardwood and pine trees. It’s a perfect place for a cemetery, if your mind runs to that kind of thing. It’s considered ‘The Place To Be’. Lots of famous Minnesotans are buried there, the most notable probably is Hubert H. Humphrey.

At the time he sold them, Larry had speculated out loud that maybe he should start buying up grave sites around the country, hold on to them for a number of years and then sell them.

“I could make a killing,” he said, “no pun intended.”

I laughed, coughing out a cloud of smoke into the icy air, but didn’t tell him I thought the whole thing was nuts, if not a little macabre. I quickly changed the subject. Like most people, I didn’t like talking about death and dying all that much. Back then we had both been in our late thirties; too young, in my mind, to be thinking about such things.

But now we’re both around fifty, so…Geez, what am I thinking about? I crush out my cigarette and go back inside. If it’s money that he wants…No, that can’t be it, can it? I tell myself it’s probably nothing. Larry was a good guy back then and I had liked him a lot. We had become pretty good friends before we drifted apart. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – he only wants to catch up, I finally convince myself. Nothing wrong with that.

I find Lynn inside and we sit down in the living room to watch some television, thinking that I’m definitely (well, probably) blowing the whole thing up in my mind.

“Maybe he just wants to touch base and re-connect,” I say to her during a commercial break.

“You think?” she asks, giving me a look like she was about one tenth of one-percent confident in my assessment. “Why now, then, after all this time?”

“I don’t know.” She, as usual, makes a good point. My confidence level starts dropping toward her one-percent. I rally, “Besides, what have I got to lose?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Sport,” she says, muting our program and turning to face me. Usually not a good sign.” How about like…A lot!”

She gets up and goes into the kitchen. I heard her running water to make more tea. She puts the kettle on the stove and then joins me on the couch. I can tell she has given the matter some thought and is willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. At least for a while. “Anyway, you do what you have to. Just don’t lend him any money until you talk to me. Ok?” She makes eye contact, eyeball to eyeball. I pay attention.

“I get it,” I say. After all these years of marriage and more than I few miscues on my part, I really did. Get it, that is.

So now it’s two days later and time to meet Larry. I pull into the parking lot, get out of my car and immediately light up a smoke. In the reflection on the glass of the bar I see myself, bald and twenty pounds heavier than my doctor wants me to be for my six foot frame. I grew my beard out four years ago and keep it neatly trimmed. I like how it looks and think of it as mostly silver with a little chestnut mixed in. Lynn calls it dull gray with a hint of muddy brown. I’m wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans and work boots and I look kind of like a small town lumberjack, a source of never ending jokes from Lynn. But I’m an engineer by trade, not a woodsman, although if push came to shove I could build a deck or frame a garage, both of which I’ve actually done. Woodworking is a hobby of mine.

I take off my Minnesota Wild baseball hat and scratch my head. I’m still getting used to being bald even though it’s been a few years since I finally lost the last of my hair. I’m sweating a little. Eighty degrees is warm for the first week of September. I’m actually looking forward to fall and cooler weather setting in. Even the first snow.

Being at the bar is weird. In the five years since last seeing Larry I’d quit drinking, preferring, instead, to spend my free time developing my woodworking hobby and being in my little work shop out in the garage. It’s a lot better than hanging out in a bar somewhere downing beer and shots of Jack Daniels like I was starting to do too much of. Besides, Lynn’s happy with my decision, and when she’s happy, I’m happy.

A toot on a horn catches my attention and I turn. Pulling into the parking lot is a two or three year old, sage green Prius. Larry’s driving . He rolls down his window and waves. He looks a little different. Older, perhaps. That’s a surprise, it’s only been five years. I wonder if I look that much different. Then I think about the gray (silver) in my bead and lack of hair on my head. Hmm. I guess time is marching on.

“Hey, man, good to see you,” he says as he drives by, slows down and angles into a parking spot, adding, “You should quit smoking those things, you know. They’ll kill you.”

I laugh it off good-naturedly, seeing Lynn in my mind, nodding in agreement. I’ll bet Larry’s quit smoking. (I find out later he has.) I crush out my cigarette and walk over to greet my old friend. I have to say, just seeing him drive up re-kindles some really good past memories. My nervousness disappears and I find, suddenly, that I’m looking forward to seeing him. “Hey there buddy! Long time no see. How’s life?”

Larry gets out of the car and grabs me in a big ‘Bro’ hug. (He does look older.) “Danny boy! Man, are you a sight for sore eyes.” We stand locked together for a few moments. I catch a whiff of after shave, maybe Aqua Velva Musk. Just before I start to get uncomfortable Larry breaks the embrace and holds me out at arm’s length, looking me over with obvious affection. I’m happy to see him, too. Then he grabs me in another hug. This is starting to get a little uncomfortable. Then I catch myself. I feel Larry shaking. My old friend is starting to cry.

I quickly take him through the parking lot and we go indoors. I opt for the restaurant side of the bar. It’s just after the noontime rush, but the place is still crowded. And noisy. The waitress takes one look at the two of us (Larry is wiping tears from his eyes) and says, “Back booth boys?”

I nod gratefully and she takes us to a corner that’s furthest from the front door. She settles us in, drops off a couple of menus and leaves us with two glasses of water, getting the vibe that we need to be alone.

Well, what do you say in a situation like this? I’ve always been a bit of a smart-aleck. Lynn is eagerly happy to point out at any given time that my sense of humor is juvenile at best, and the rest of the time just plain stupid and embarrassing. My three girls were my biggest fans until they got into first or second grade when they became old enough to know better. Touchy feely I’m not.

But Larry is definitely hurting and I feel my heart going out to him. He seems spent and exhausted. He’s hung his head and his arms are limp on the table.  I reach over and take hold of the left one with my right hand and give him a little ‘I’m there for you’ squeeze. The contact jolts him and he looks up at me, “God, Dan, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” The momentary joy we felt reconnecting in the parking lot is replaced by something darker; something more ominous and foreboding.

“What’s going on?” I ask. This is no ‘let’s get caught up’ meeting. Now I’m really curious, in addition to being a little unsure of my ability to handle what he might say.

When I worked with him, Larry was a good looking guy (ask Lynn) and always meticulously dressed: pressed slacks in various subdued hues of dark blue, brown and tan, freshly ironed dress shirts, usually white or blue, ties that were expensive, yet understated, leather belts and sharp looking dress shoes. Even his socks (I’d guess) were ironed and top quality. Right now he looks awful. His poor face is splotched from crying and his red rimmed eyes are sunk into their sockets so deep they are painful to look at. I can tell he made an effort to shave today but he was unsuccessful, missing a good half the hairs on his face. His beard has turned gray, like his hair, which is matted and oily and looks like he cut it himself. He’s lost at least ten pounds and is unhealthily gaunt. He’s dressed in baggy blue jeans, a worn pair of running shoes and a dark maroon cotton sweater that’s blown out at the neck and has a few food stains on the front.

It dawns on me that maybe the reason he wants to see me is that there is something physically wrong with him. I have no idea what I could do to help, but…I have to ask, “Are you Ok, buddy? I mean, are you feeling alright?” How do I ask him if he’s sick? Just do it? Wouldn’t that be prying? I’m in uncharted territory here. In the past we usually talked about sports, kids and family. I have no idea what the protocol is, if there is any.

Larry takes a drink of water and pats my hand signaling that I can remove it. I do. He looks me straight in the eye, “I’m doing fine,” he says and in my mind I’m quick to disagree, but he continues, “It’s Jessie,” he says and I watch the tears welling up again. He wipes them away with the back of his hand, “She’s sick, Dan. Really sick.”

My heart drops out of my chest, my stomach flips over and I feel my insides start to quake. Jessie and Larry have been married nearly as long as Lynn and me – twenty eight years if I remember correctly. “Tell me…” I encourage him, my voice has dropped to a whisper.

“She’s got cancer, Dan. Ovarian. It runs in her mom’s side of the family.” He stops talking and takes a another sip of water. His hand is shaking.

I take a nervous drink out of my glass, too, and notice my hand is also shaking. I came into this meeting thinking, at the worst, he might hit me up for some money. This is the last thing I expected – that Larry’s healthy, happy , fun-loving wife is now in a battle for her life. Their world must be turned upside down. It feels like my world, too, has shifted somehow. My mom died when I was in my early thirties. We were close and when she passed on I felt like a part of me had also died. It took a long time to recover. In some ways I still am.

I feel that way now with Larry – a bit adrift and way out of my comfort zone. Even though we’d been out of touch, I always felt like we were still friends – like I could call him anytime to talk and we’d immediately fall into our old, familiar groove. I just hadn’t taken the time or worked up the gumption to do it. My mind flashes to the past when Lynn and I had been together with Larry and Jessie. Back then the four of us had had great times being with each other. But now those times are blurring, getting lost in the urgency of what Larry is telling me. Life is changing right before my eyes. I have the feeling it will never be the same again.

“God, man, I am so sorry,” I feel like giving him a hug but don’t want to make a scene. My heart goes out to the guy.

“I know you are,” Larry says, giving me a grateful look. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I just needed to talk to someone and you were the first person I thought of. Even though it’s been a while.”

“Too long,” I say, meaning it, telling myself what a fool I’d been to let our friendship slide. But even though it’s been nearly five years since we last talked, we’re starting to fall right back into what we’d had.

He tells me that they’ve only known for a few days. “She’d been feeling good and healthy right up until a couple of weeks ago when she went in for her yearly check up.”

Jessie teaches third grade at Jefferson Elementary in Minneapolis. She’s been at the same school for nearly twenty five years and is highly respected by her students and fellow teachers, having narrowly missed out on winning the Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award two times (that I knew of). She’s a devoted mother to her and Larry’s three sons, Sam, Ron and Larry Jr. All three are good kids. In the disjointed conversation that follows the news about Jessie, Larry tells me Ron and Larry Jr. both still live at home and commute to the University of Minnesota and Sam has a job working for the Minnesota DNR out of Bemidji in northern Minnesota. Jessie’s parents are still alive and live in Eagan, only a forty minute drive from where Larry and Jessie live in Minneapolis. The point I’m trying to make is that they have a good support network in place, with her parents, the kids and lots of friends Jessie has made over the years with her teaching.

“How can I help?” I finally ask.

The waitress had taken our orders while we’d been talking. She comes back, sets our plates down and leaves, giving Larry a sympathetic look. She looks at me, too, like Is everything Ok? and I nod Yes, even though it’s not. Not by a long shot.

I push my burger and onion rings aside, appetite gone. Larry picks up a carrot stick and nibbles on it. Behind me I can hear some patrons in the bar laughing. I have a sick feeling in my stomach and feel numb all over. I can only begin to imagine how Larry feels.

“Do you still do your woodworking?” he asks. I’m thankful that’s he’s interrupted my thoughts, which are flying all over the place. It’s good to focus.

“Sure,” I answer. Larry remembered that I had started toying around with it toward the end of my time at Northland. Then I get an idea, “Say, why don’t you come over to our place after lunch. We’re only a mile away. You can check out our home. I can show you my workshop. Lynn would love to see you and I can show you the garage and deck I built.”

“Thanks, but I’m not really up for it…” he says, rubbing his eyes, “…you know, visiting and all. I’ve got to get back to Jessie.”

What an idiot I am! Larry’s life is not normal anymore and he can’t drop everything, just like that, and head off for a casual visit on a sunny afternoon to reminisce with a long lost friend. I have a lot to learn about how much Larry’s and Jessie’s life has changed. If the tables were turned and it was Lynn…Man, I’d be a mess and that would be putting it mildly.

He straightens up, blinks a few times and looks right at me, “But I will take you up on your offer to help out.”

“Great. Anything I can do I will,” I say, meaning it.

“I’d like you to make a container for Jessie’s ashes. Out of wood.”

He looks at me and then sets his carrot stick on the plate. His Cobb salad, like my burger, is going untouched. I watch him sigh and take another sip of water. He looks into the corner of the booth like he wants to hide from the world. He is literally folding in on himself. I’ve never seen a more shattered human being in my life.

When he’d called me two days ago, all I could think of was what scheme he was planning and how he was going to try and borrow money from me or whatever. In short, take advantage of me and the friendship we’d had. But all of that has changed now. I realize that he is really the only adult male friend I truly have ever had. I didn’t want to lose that friendship. This is a chance to make up for my neglect.

“Sure,” I say, “I’ll be happy to do it.” Then I quickly augment my statement, “I’d be honored to do it,” I add, feeling a little uncomfortable at how sappy I sound. What the hell, I take a moment to berate myself, and then move on. This really isn’t about me, is it?

Larry straightens himself up and rubs his cheeks with both hands. His eyes are wet and glistening, but there’s a brightness to them I haven’t seen since we’ve been together. He looks relieved and just the tiniest bit rejuvenated, like a weight has been lifted ,”Thanks so much, man,” he says, gratefully, “I knew I could count on you.”

Well, that’s a glowing testimony if there ever was one, considering the fact that we’ve been out of touch all these years. But I appreciate what he is saying and take it in the spirit intended. I’m glad that I can help him. He has always been a good guy and the longer we’re together today, the more I realize how much I’ve missed our friendship. It’s good to be back in contact again.

I make a little smart aleck comment to ease the tension, “It’ll be a piece of cake.”

He breaks into a relieved smile, which is good to see. I don’t tell him I have no idea how I’m going to make what he’d asked me to make.

Back home I fill Lynn in on our conversation as best I can. Truth be told, I’m still rattled. I’m can’t stop myself from personalizing the situation and imaging how I would feel if the roles were reversed. If Lynn was gravely ill, like Jessie, I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d be in shambles, that’s for sure; a complete mess. The whole experience is freaking me out, and I’m close to losing it. But Lynn is an incredibly strong person. Of course, upon first hearing it from me, she was shocked but then quickly recovered, putting it all into perspective with the simple statement, “We’ve got to help them.”

Exactly. I needed to hear her words and they got me out of my head. She was right. I had to focus on what I could do to help my friend. “We are going to help,” I tell her, “Larry wants me to make a container for Jessie’s ashes.” Saying it out loud like that brought home the gravity of the situation again, and we were both quiet for a minute.

Lynn gets it together first, “That’s good,” she says, “Excellent. What are her chances for recovery?” She’s pacing back and forth, a little wired.

“I guess the five year survival rate is forty or fifty percent in Jessie’s case. Something like that. The cancer’s pretty advanced.”

She gets a little pissed, “Well, what is it exactly? That’s a ten percent swing.”

I rack my brain, “Um, forty-six percent is I’m pretty sure what Larry said. (And it was. I checked later online.)

Lynn likes to have as much information as she can get on anything. That’s part of what makes her a good administrator. She already knew more about ovarian cancer than the average layperson since she worked at North Memorial, but I knew she’d research the hell out of it later. It’d probably would take her less than a day to become an expert and be able to easily and confidently discuss ovarian cancer’s causes, treatment and survival rate. All I could add was what I remembered Larry telling me, “I guess it’s the fifth leading cause of death in women.”

“I’m going to call her right now. It’s been too god-damn long.” She grabs her phone, but doesn’t make the call, instead turns it nervously over and over in her hands.

She, like me, is feeling guilty that we’ve let the relationship with our old friends slip so badly. We’d all been close at one time. “That’s good, babe,” I tell her, “Me and Larry are going to try to get together at least once a week. We’ll talk on the phone in between times.”

“How’s he doing, anyway?” Lynn asks, compassionately, still holding her phone, “Him and the boys?”

I fill her in as best I can. While I talk, I feel something happening between us – a growing connection of sorts. Even though we’re both feeling guilty about not staying in better touch with Larry and Jessie, we seem to be building a resolve to work together at making up for lost time with our neglected friends. In other words, to try and put the past behind us and move ahead. It’s apparent it’s something we both want to do.

“What’s Jessie’s prognosis? Does anyone know how much time she has?” Her voice is quiet. She’s asked the hardest question of all. Larry’s already told me.

“The first thing is surgery. It’s scheduled in about two weeks. After that, there’s recovery both in the hospital and at home. That can take up to a month. Then three or four sessions of chemotherapy. The doctors will keep monitoring her. Ovarian cancer is tough. They just have to take it a day at a time. The fact of the matter is, no one really knows.”

And with that last bit of news, we both break down and fall into each other’s arms. We stay that way for a long time.

Later that night we go for a walk. We raised our three girls, Alyssa, Joanna, and Kim in Minneapolis but we now live about thirty miles west of there. In Minneapolis our home was on a small lot that had a few large trees, one of which we lost in the ’90’s to Dutch Elm Disease. Lynn planted a small flower garden in front yard for some extra color in the summer. We loved the house and the neighborhood – it was close to the kid’s school and the chain of lakes Minneapolis is known for. We never planned on leaving. Getting the boot from my job was the last thing I ever imaged would happen. But it did. We couldn’t afford the mortgage anymore and didn’t want to dig into our savings, so we decided to move out to Long Lake where houses cost less. I learned that life went on. It was a good move on our part.

As we walk, Lynn slips her arm into mine. Long Lake is a blue collar town with a population of just under three thousand. There is so little traffic on the residential streets we can walk down the middle without fear of getting run over. We wave the occasional friendly Hello to our neighbors as we walk by and they wave back. Our home is a cozy story and a half bungalow built in the ’30’s and it sits on a lot that’s larger than the one he had in Minneapolis. We’ve planted flower and vegetable gardens in the front and back, and passersby often stop to comment on how pretty everything looks. The town is a pleasant, comfortable place to live and we plan to be there for the rest of our days.

Jessie’s pending death is making us appreciate our life. We are talking more, expressing our feelings more (which is hard for me), and I can feel us drawing closer together. Maybe that occurs in situations like we now find ourselves. I don’t know, but it’s happening and it feels good.

The next night when we go for a walk Lynn brings up something I’ve been thinking about since my lunch with Larry the day before, “So what are you going to do about what Larry asked?”

When it came right down to it, there was only one thing I could do, “I’m going to call Dad.”

Lynn stops walking and turns to me, “Call your dad? That’s, ah…That’s something, isn’t it?” She’s rarely at a loss for words, but she is now. I didn’t blame her.

My dad and I were not exactly estranged, we just weren’t very close. It wasn’t always that way, but sixteen years ago, after my mom died, he withdrew from me and my two younger brothers, and, after a few weak attempts on my part that went nowhere, I’ve made cursory attempts since then to stay in touch. Same with my two brothers. In hindsight, it’s pretty ridiculous, I know, but there’s no need to belabor the point. I’ve been learning over the last few days that it takes two-to-tango, so to speak. Like I had dropped the ball with Larry, I had also dropped the ball with my dad.

“Yeah, it’s time I got back in touch with him,” I say. There’s the slightest hint of trepidation in my statement and I wonder if I’m really up for it.

Dad actually is a woodsman. After Mom died he moved from his home (and the home where me and my brothers grew up) in south Minneapolis to the forty acres of rural land he had purchased in the early 70’s in north central Minnesota near the town of Battle Lake. The property was nestled into the rolling hills left behind by the fourth and last glacier to visit the state. It had an big open field full of native wildflowers and grasses, a little pond that muskrats and ducks frequented and a nice woodlot full of mixed oaks and maples. Nearly every season a family of sandhill cranes nested in the area. Also, much to the joy of me and my two brothers when we were young, it had two hundred feet of shoreline on a midsized lake known for its  hungry pan fish and small mouth bass. Dad put a small camper on the property and took us boys and mom up there to live on the land and hike in the woods and fish in the lake. This worked great when me and my brothers were rowdy and rambunctious young kids, but by the time we grew into our early teens, the thrill was fading away; we’d moved on to girls, friends, cars and whatnot. Dad held onto the land, though, he and Mom using it to get away to whenever they felt like it, which was a lot, actually. They both loved being ‘Up in the woods’ as they called it. If Mom had lived long enough I’m sure she would have moved up there with Dad and they would have enjoyed their retirement years in the peace of quiet of Dad’s forty acres, or ‘Little slice of heaven’, as Mom sometimes put it. But that dream wasn’t meant to be. Congestive heart failure took her from us at the age of sixty one, way too young in my selfish opinion.

Dad worked for MNDOT (Minnesota Department of Transportation) as a mechanic. His specialty was welding, but he was excellent with his hands and could build anything. When Mom died, he took early retirement, sold the Minneapolis house, and moved to the property permanently. He also did something he’d always wanted to do: he built a log home.

Living up north turned out to be good for him. He was busy and active and had entered a new phase of his life. I was happy for him. He had his health, his hobbies and I really didn’t have to worry about him. The years sort of got away from me, though, and we drifted apart. Were we ever close? Of all of his sons, I was probably the one who was closest to him, but the honest fact of the matter was…not really; he was my dad and there were feelings, just not a lot of affection. Mom was the glue that held the family together and all of us boys loved her dearly. She was easy to talk to, and let us know she loved and cared about us. Dad was quiet and what you would call introverted. It was just the way he was. And that was fine because we always had Mom to talk to – especially when we were growing up. After she died, though, the glue of the family loosened, and the men in the family went their separate ways. Were Dad and I mad at each other or anything like that? I wouldn’t say so. When it came right down to it, I guess we were just out of touch. I hoped that’s all it was.

I swallowed whatever discomfort I might have had, called him the next day and explained my situation. I got the feeling he was happy to hear from me. I finished my story with, “I need a lathe, dad. Can you help me out?”

To his credit, he put the years behind him and didn’t hesitate, “Come on up, son,” he told me, “It’s been too long.”

That’s how I’ve ended up on I-94 a few days later, heading north for a weekend at my dad’s log cabin – a cabin I had never seen, I’m embarrassed to say.

Of the many lessons I learned helping Larry come to terms with Jessie’s illness, one of them was: If you’re thinking of holding a grudge, don’t! Life is too short. I wouldn’t have blamed Dad for being put out with me for not making more of an effort to stay in touch with him. But he wasn’t put out one bit. Not at all. In fact, he couldn’t have been more gracious toward me when I called. After he agreed to help me with my project for Larry, we stayed on the phone talking, longer than I believe I’d ever talked to him before. Needless to say, we had a lot of catching up to do.

I arrive in the darkness Friday night after a nearly four hour drive. Thank god for the GPS on my Ford or I might still be driving around on the country roads up there. I’d been away for so many years that I’d completely forgotten how to find his property. But I make it just fine. As I pull into the road leading to his log cabin, (he told me on the phone that’s what he still calls it), memories of being up there as a kid flood over me – it’s a big, soaking, tidal wave of nostalgia (kind of like when I first was back in contact with Larry) that, in spite of being a little unsettling, I have to admit, feels pretty good. I’m finding that sometimes new and unsettling can be a good thing.

Dad comes out to greet me as I pull up and park next to an old, but well maintained early1950’s Chevy pick-up that sits next to what looks like a garage (remember, I’ve not been to the property in over sixteen years). He’s smiling as he walks across a tidy little lawn illuminated by an outdoor floodlight.

I get out to greet him. I’m smiling, happy to be here and to see him, hoping I’m not jumping the gun by feeling right at home. Turns out I’m not.

“Hey son,” Dad says, reaching out to shake my hand, “It’s been too long.”

I agree. The years have been good to him. He’s slightly stooped, a little shorter than me, but other than that he’s tan, fit and healthy looking. He’s wearing an old Twins baseball hat and has let his white hair grow so it curls over the collar of his blue flannel shirt. Like father like son; the shirt part, not the hair. Mine is long gone. He’s smiling a welcome that is generous, considering how out of touch I’ve been. I appreciate it.

Man, it dawns on me that it really has been a long time. I can’t tell you how much like a fool I feel. When he first moved up north, Dad would occasionally come down to the city and spend Christmas with me and Lynn and the girls and my two brothers and their wives and kids, but only once every two or three years. However, those visits petered out over time as he built a new life up north. I didn’t do anything to help the situation, telling myself I was too busy with work and family to bother trying to stay more connected. Pretty lame, all things considered. Of course he’d invite my family up to visit, but I’d always blow him off. (Like I said, fool!). I decide, like I’ve done with Larry, there’s no time like the present to make up for how poorly I’ve treated him.

I ignore the hand shake and go straight for The Hug. If it surprises him, he doesn’t let on, and just lets me do my thing as he would say, and hugs me back. “Great to see you dad,” I say, holding him close, meaning every word. He feels good and even smells good, a mixture of the khaki work clothes wears, wood smoke and sweet perspiration, reminding me of when I was a kid. I’m doubly glad I came.

And the weekend goes well. I’m starting to understand that even though I’ve dropped the ball relationship wise with both Larry and Dad, I can at least make an attempt to try and make up for lost time. Like with Larry, Dad seems to appreciate the effort.

That first night he takes me inside and shows me the cabin he’s built. It’s a pleasing contrast of solid and quaint and bigger than it looks from the outside. It actually looks like a home. He explains that he drew up the plans himself and sent them to a company in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They manufactured the logs, built the home on their site, disassembled it and shipped it, marked log by log, back to Dad. He then reassembled it, “With help, of course,” he tells me, grinning, giving me a hard time. Back then he’d asked if I’d wanted to come up and be a part of the project, adding extra labor and muscle, but I kept putting him off, saying I couldn’t get time off from work. Honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t take him up on his offer. I see now that it would have been both fun and a great experience. Like I’ve said before, I’m not the brightest bulb in the pack.

The time with him went by quickly and by late Sunday afternoon I’m on my way home. Two things about the trip stick out in my mind: One, Dad is a great teacher. On Saturday morning took me to his workshop attached to the back of the garage and showed me his lathe and how to work it. He let me practice on scrap pieces of wood and then turned me loose to make the container I wanted to make for Larry for Jessie. I ended up using a burl from an oak tree that was left over from firewood he had cut. “It’s been seasoning for five years,” he told me, “It’ll be perfect for you.”

And it was. With Dad’s supervision and encouragement I turned it out on the lathe like I knew what I was doing. I ended up making a container that was shaped like a chalice, with a flared base and a removable top with a knurl on it to make it easy to lift, big enough to hold all the ashes. We sanded it smooth with three grades of sandpaper and rubbed it down with linseed oil, bringing out the grain, letting the wood talk to us as Dad put it. When we finished, I have to say, it was a work of art – dark wood with curving grain and swirls of color through it like caramel and honey. I know Larry is going to love it, but I couldn’t have even come close to making something so beautiful without dad’s help.

The other thing that sticks in my mind is Dad’s lady friend as he calls her. I met her that first night. “Dan I want you to met Helen,” he introduces us when we first go inside.

I am shocked to say the least, but quickly recover, “Really? Cool. Great. Really great. Super nice to meet you,” I say, all in a rush. See how glib I can be? Well, maybe not. I shuffle my feet around, feeling embarrassed, “So how’d you guys meet?” I finally think to ask, trying to relax and recover, thinking I sound just like I sounded like with my daughters and the numerous guys I had questioned them on over the years.

Dad tells me the story: there was a young man on the crew he hired to help with the construction of the cabin whose name was Zak. Helen is his grandmother. “She works at ‘The Sunset Diner’ in Dent. She’s a fantastic cook,” he smiles at her with affection, “Zak helps out around here when I need the extra muscle.”

Note to myself: Don’t just say I’m going to stay in touch with Dad. Do it!

“Cool,” I remark, scrambling for something to say, “So you guys are…?”

“Yes, dear,” Helen tells me, smiling, “We are a couple, aren’t we honey?” She gives dad a little squeeze around the waist. She’s not only mercifully ignoring my discomfort, she is making me feel right at home. Plus, she is utterly charming.

But for me? Awkward! I watch them for a few moments. There’s an obvious affection between them. What the hell. I decide to try and be happy for them. After all, I’ve the one who’s been out of the loop.”Well, congratulations, I guess,” I say, trying to sound enthusiastic, but I’m afraid I am unable to keep the picture of my mom out of my head or my voice.

Helen, to her credit, ignores my skeptical tone, understanding the fact that I’m slightly ill at ease. “See, sweetie,” she says to my dad, frowning and placing her hand on his shoulder, “you should have told him about us on the phone.” She looks at me, her expression softening, “We’ve been together for nearly ten years.”

Yes, definitely, Stay…in…touch…with…dad.

On Saturday night we are all sitting outside on the deck Dad has built off the back . I look up mesmerized. I have forgotten how stunningly magnificent the sky can be out away from the city. Back home you can only see a couple of constellations with a few bright stars tossed in. Up here in the north country, incandescent lights are few and far between. The night sky is inky black and stretches to eternity. Above us the Milky Way white washes the sky with stars too numerous to comprehend.

“God, dad, it’s beautiful up here.”

“I know, son, it’s one reason I love it so much.” He’s silent for a minute, comfortable and happy. He’d offered me a cigar earlier and we are both puffing away, enjoying them. He’d quit smoking, he told me, at Helen’s insistence nine years ago. “I agreed to do it,” he said, “to keep peace in the family,” he chuckles and looks over at her, “Helen still lets me have one of these every now and then,” he adds, “on special occasions.”

“And this is one of those,” she adds, good naturedly waving a cloud of cigar smoke away. I realize how rude we are being, but she seriously doesn’t seem to mind.”Plus, it keeps the bugs away,” she points out. Well, that makes sense and she’s right. There are zero misquotes around. Dad smiles affectionately back at her.

By this time I am comfortable with them together. She’s a nice lady and they are very happy with each other. Who am I to argue with that?

“Yeah, I’ve kind of quit, too,” I say. I hadn’t had a cigarette since the parking lot of the Bad Billy Goat.

“That’s good to hear, son.”

We are all quiet for a time, enjoying the night and each other’s company. I don’t know why I had not done more to stay in touch with Dad. He’s welcomed me with open arms. He hasn’t given me a hard time about ignoring him and falling out of touch with him. And…he’d helped me with my project for Larry without batting an eye. I couldn’t have asked for more.

I try to tell him all that later after Helen has gone in, but he blows me off with a wave of his hand, “Don’t worry about it. Those things happen. Just don’t be a stranger anymore, Ok?”

“I don’t intend to be,” I say. And I mean it. I really do.

Back home on Sunday night, sitting in the kitchen, both of us having tea, Lynn wants to know about Helen, “What’s she like?”

I fill her in as best I can, knowing that Lynn is mentally tallying up my observation skills. “Let’s see, Dad’s seventy seven. I’d guess Helen’s maybe seventy. Turns out Zak is her only grandson and they’re really close. He’s probably thirty. She’s short, about five feet I guess. Stocky. Solid. Long hair tied up in a braid. Mostly gray with some black in it. She wears blue jeans and sweatshirts a lot. She has a little purplish-red birthmark on her neck. The right side, I’m pretty sure. I think she’s part Native American. Ojibwa, maybe. And she’s a good cook. A really good cook.” I finish my assessment by rubbing my stomach and grinning, proud of how much I’d noticed.

“God, Daniel, you are such an idiot!” Lynn explodes. Or maybe not. It’s never good when she addresses me by my given name.

“What?” Now what’d I do? “I told you what I saw, what she looks like and stuff,”

“Who cares about what she looks like! How did she and your dad get along? Are they happy together? Are they nice to each other? Those are the important things.”

Oh, yeah. I guess there was that. “Fine,” I say, “They get along fine,” I add, stalling for time, trying to think of something to add. But, in the end, I can’t. Low marks on my observation skills from Lynn now, for sure, I’m guessing.

She gets up and takes her mug (rather haughtily, it seems to me) into the living room, shaking her head in disappointment. Then she turns and gives me my orders, setting her mug down and ticking her demands off on her fingers, “Get on the phone first thing tomorrow. Invite your dad and Helen for Christmas. Both of them and Zak, too. I want to see your dad again, and meet Helen and her grandson. This crap has gone on too long. They sound like good people and I want to get to know them and I want them to feel welcome in our home. Ok?”

“Sure, no problem,” I say. “That’s exactly what I was thinking of doing.” Well maybe not quite in those words, but…I’m with her on this and have to admit, she always makes sense. “I’ll do it in the morning.”

“Good,” she says, “That’s real good.”


For the two nights I was gone, Lynn had our youngest daughter, Kim, stay with her. A weekend slumber party, was how she put it. They rented movies both nights, went shopping and out to lunch on Saturday, and ate whatever they felt like eating in between. They’d had a riot. After our daughter left on Sunday, and before I’d gotten home, Jessie had called and asked if Lynn could come over. She did and after I told her about my trip up north, she told me about seeing Jessie. Like with me and Larry, it had been nearly five years since Lynn and Jessie had seen each other.

“Dan, she’s so fragile looking. I was afraid to hold her too tight, thinking I might break her.”

We are sitting at the kitchen table having a treat from up north. Helen had sent me home with some fresh cornbread muffins and homemade wild black berry jam. God, they’re good. Lynn has made some more tea and we were enjoying a late evening snack.

“Was Larry there?”

“Yeah, but he kept in the background. He’s not looking too good, is he?”

“I know. Remember what I told you?”

“Yeah, but now that I’ve seen it…Geez. Jessie told me he’s helping out with a lot of the cooking and cleaning and everything. Her mom can’t do it all. Plus he’s still going to work.”

I nod in agreement and slather up another muffin, stuffing half of it in my mouth. “How’s the house look?” I ask, voice muffled by my chewing. I can’t help it. I think they may be the best muffins and jam I’ve ever tasted.

Larry and Jessie live about two miles from where we used to live, over past the east side of Lake Harriet in a neighborhood of quaint homes and tree lined streets. Theirs was a small, two story, white stucco with wood trim painted brick red. It had always been neat and tidy, both inside and out.

“Not looking too good,” Lynn offers, “The yard is neglected. The boys are helping out, but…Larry’s doing the best he can. It’s a good thing Jessie’s mom comes over. She’s there nearly every day.” She stops talking and looks at me. She’s only nibbled at part of her muffin. “Daniel, it’s really sad.” I quit eating and wipe my hands and mouth on a napkin. She’s calling me by my given name again. I know she’s not angry. She’s sad and her point is well taken.

“Let’s figure out what all we can do to help,” I say.

For the first time since I’ve been home, Lynn smiles, “I was hoping you’d say that.”

For the rest of the fall, we dedicate ourselves to doing as much for Larry and Jessie as we can. I’m not sure how much, in the end, we really did help, or if we made any difference at all, but one good thing came out of it: the friendship we’d had with Larry and Jessie and had let slip over the years, not only was rekindled, but it flourished.

I make good on my promise to see Larry every week, usually on Saturday’s. He and Jessie had amazing support from their family and friends, people were always stopping by to give Jessie moral support and do what they could to help out. So why did he want to hang around with me?

As he put it once, rather kindly I thought at the time, “It’s just nice to get away from it all for a while. Even an hour or two is nice. I can clear my mind and recharge.” Pretty simple and understandable, if you ask me, so I did what I could.

Remember that Larry was an engineer? Well, after he was let go from Northland he did a complete reversal in his career. While looking for a new job in the engineering field, he started donating time to a Somali refugee center in downtown Minneapolis. He confided that it was actually Jessie’s idea. There were a lot of young Somalis at her school and she knew that the issues facing newly arrived families were many and daunting. Larry was a good people person anyway, rare for an engineer, and he thrived, helping families get set up in housing, schools, jobs and everything else required for them to make a successful transition into their new life.  At first he just volunteered while looking for work, but the people at the center liked him and after a few months offered him a full time job. He took it.

“I made a lot of mistakes in my life, Danny boy,” he told me once. We were having lunch at The Malt Shop, a friendly, low key family oriented restaurant in southwest Minneapolis, near to where Larry and Jessie lived. “I feel good trying to help others and give something back.”

Man had I underestimated this guy, I thought to myself, remembering back to that first night he called, thinking he was going to hit me up for money. And I told him that, “Yeah, man you’ve really surprised me. What you’re doing now is fantastic.”

Larry grinned back at me, something he’d rarely done that fall, and took a bite out of his veggie burger. He didn’t say anything, just chewed contemplatively. Sometimes he was hard to read, but who wouldn’t be, given what he was dealing with? I left him alone with his thoughts, happy just to be with him and give him the companionship he needed.

Guys in my generation are not very good expressing feelings toward one another. Look around. Books have been written on the subject. Movies have been made. Countless jokes have been told. We are constant fodder for our wives to make fun of (you can include Lynn here big time.) Thinking back, I seriously believe that the time at the Bad Billy Goat when I touched Larry’s arm was the first time I’d ever purposely touched a man to show affection in my life. It’s just not done.

I hope it’s obvious by now that I honestly feel for Larry and what he’s going through. I try hard to show him through my actions. Going to lunch on Saturdays turned out to be a good idea. It’s worked for us. We make it a point to try different places every weekend and it’s ended up being fun. Larry appreciates the weekly break and the chance to talk about whatever is on his mind, and I like building the friendship.

In October I suggest going on what I call Little Outings. We go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art a few times, taking an hour or so each visit to explore the various displays in the cavernous two floors of exhibits. (We both liked the Impressionists best, with a show of Paul Allen’s collection of nature paintings coming in a close second.) We go for walks around the city’s lakes, liking Lake of the Isles with its quiet, meandering path, located a few miles north and west of Larry’s house, the best. One time I take him on a forty-five minute drive west of the city to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and we spend an entire afternoon in the country wandering around, strolling through rolling hills, forest woodlots and lovely landscaped gardens.

One week we carve pumpkins for the hell of it for Halloween. The next week I help him  and his two boys with yard work and we get his lawn and gardens looking good and cared for, and, as I called it, put to bed for winter. By the middle of November we have forged a strong bond – a kind of brotherly closeness that began at the Bad Billy Goat and has grown as the weeks have gone by.

Lynn has been doing the same thing with Jessie, who’s taken a leave of absence from teaching. She’s in close contact, staying in touch on the phone and going to her home to visit, have coffee and to do any cleaning or cooking that needs to be done. Like I said earlier, Jessie has a strong network of family and friends, and Lynn fits in easily; everyone is helping out the best they can.

Ten days after Larry and I first had lunch and shortly after I had returned with the wooden chalice from up north, Jessie had her operation to remove her ovaries. The surgeon took both of them and told the family that she would have to move on to the next step which was a round of four chemotherapy treatments. They wanted to make sure the cancer wouldn’t come back.

“There are no guarantees,” Larry told me at the time. “We just need to do everything we can and doing the chemo is one of those things.”

The treatments wore Jessie out and it took her nearly a week to recover after each one. By the middle of November she was done with them. She would have a final assessment test the middle of December and we all looked to that day as sort of a bench mark regarding her health and recovery. Larry and Jessie were told they’d have the results a few days before Christmas.

“Hell of a Christmas present,” Larry tells me the weekend before Thanksgiving. We are walking around the Kenwood neighborhood, a few blocks from Lake of the Isles. The day is crisp, around thirty degrees with a hint of snow. The sky’s a leaden gray and it seems to weigh down upon us, making us bend emotionally under its weight. All the leaves are off the trees and we shuffle through clumps of them on the sidewalk. The air is still, not a bit of a breeze, and smells like ice. It’s so quiet, we almost whisper.

We are struggling up a long hill, the old, well kept up homes in the area keeping us company, our breath turning to vapor in the cold. No one is outside, everyone either driving in their heated cars running errands or snuggled up indoors by a Saturday afternoon fire watching college football. I am at a loss for words. Larry and I have been in constant contact for the over two months since he first called me. I look over at him. He’s not quite as gaunt as he had been back then. Maybe our little outings are helping. He’s dressed in a red puffy insulated jacket, fresh blue jeans, new hiking boots and wears a black watch cap beanie. He’s clean shaven and his eyes are bright. I have the feeling he’s doing as good as can be expected given the situation.

“It’s going to be Ok,” I tell him finally, just to say something. “Jessie’s a strong woman, she’s gotten through the operation and the chemo. She’s got her family and her friends to help.” I pause and kick a few leaves out of the way, “Plus,” I add, “She’s got you, you know, for better or worse.” Listening to myself, I grimace…me and my feeble attempt at humor.

By this time Larry is used to it. He smiles, “Yeah, I get it. Thanks.”

We are nearing the top of the hill and I feel I should do something more. I put my arm around his shoulder as we get to the top and round the corner and give him a little ‘Bro’ squeeze – holding on for just a second longer than I need to before I let go. I don’t look at him but he doesn’t pull away, so maybe it’s the right thing to do. I just want him to understand I’m there for him. I’m pretty sure he knows that I am.

We are on Mount Curve, and the neighborhood is one of the oldest in Minneapolis. The streets here are known for their individually designed homes, most of which were built over a hundred years ago. Some of them are positioned so they have an unobstructed view of downtown, only a mile away. Walking the sidewalks is like going back in time. We stroll along for another half an hour, exploring streets we’ve never been on before, admiring the Tudor and Victorian homes, enjoying the quiet of the day, not saying much, just being together. Larry seems to enjoy the company. I know I do. It’s one of those days I will remember, I think, as being remarkable for how unremarkable it is. We are relaxed and we are together, secure in our renewed friendship. Simple things really are, sometimes, the best, I’m finding.

Later that afternoon, after we say good bye and I drop Larry off, I drive around the corner, out of sight from his home, park the car and turn the engine off. It’s late afternoon. The temperature has dropped and light is fading from the sky. Snow flurries are in the air and they collect and melt on the windshield. I have stopped the car because my eyes are watering. It’s not from the cold. My heart is aching for my friend and his family and I am trying to think of what more I can do for them. I’m at a loss. I sit there long enough for the car to cool. I can see my breath as I sigh. I’m frustrated and I lay my head on the steering wheel and close my eyes. I can’t think of what else I can do. I start the car, hit the wipers to clear the snow off and head home to Lynn. In a month Jessie will get her test results and we will all know what’s in store for her for the future. For Larry and her family’s future, too. Does it sound stupid to say that I drove all the way home with my fingers crossed? Well, I did.

On December fourteenth Jessie goes in for the series of tests that will give her physicians an indication of whether or not the chemo has worked to eradicate the cancer. The doctors are cautiously optimistic. They’ll have the results on December twenty second.

On the twenty first, a Wednesday, I take Larry to the Patisserie, a coffee shop that specializes in bakery items, having won ‘Best of the Twin Cities’ awards at least five times in the past. We have tea and each of us selects one of their award winning pastries. Lynn and I come here often and like to sit outside when we can. Right now it’s snowing, so…no sitting outside today.

“You doing all right?” I ask my friend.

“Yeah. Jessie’s got her mom and some friends with her now. I guess Lynn is coming over later to help with dinner.”

“Yeah, she told me she’s going to be there. She’s glad to help, man,” I tell him. “We all are.”

Larry takes a sip of his tea. He has a blueberry scone next to him that he hasn’t touched. I notice his hand is shaking a little but he’s hanging in there. I’ve noticed him getting stronger since we’d first gotten together. He looks at me, “I want to thank you for all you’ve done, man. I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

Ops. Feelings! This getting a little uncomfortable. I break off part of the flourless fudge cookie I’ve ordered and put a chunk in my mouth and chew on it and swallow, giving myself time to think. “Hey buddy, it’s the least I could do,” I respond, not feeling as quite awkward as I might have three months earlier. But still…

Larry grins at me and takes a bite of his scone. He seems to understand my slight uneasiness. Then he sets it down he grabs my hand and gives it a little squeeze and laughs, “Well, thanks anyway…,” and then releases it.

Whew. He’s way better at this show of affection thing than I am. But I get what he’s saying. He’d been through an emotional roller coaster of epic proportions since Jessie had been diagnosed. We are less than twenty four hours away from knowing what the future is going to have in store for my friend and his wife and their family. For my part, I’m glad to have been there to help out. In whatever way possible.

It’s pleasant and comfortable for us in the cafe. We stay for another hour talking, drinking tea, making tentative plans for New Years Eve and trying to ignore the fact that the next day Jessie will get her test results back. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to point out that tomorrow will chart the course for the rest of their life. Well, maybe it is dramatic, but what the hell, it’s the truth.

Ten days later, Lynn yells down from upstairs, “Dan, are you ready?”

“Yeah, just give me a second, will you?” I’m in the kitchen looking through a drawer.

“You’re not going out for a smoke are you?”

Geez, I think to myself. No rest for the wicked, “Hey, it’s been over three months. Why would I start up now?”

“Knowing you, I can only guess at what hare-brained excuse you could come up with.”

“Funny,” I yell back. I find what I’m looking for and put a few in my pocket. Then think about it for second…what the heck, and put a few more in.

It’s New Year’s Eve and we’re going to downtown Minneapolis to St. Anthony Main, a renovated series of shops and restaurants in two blocks of old warehouse buildings along the Mississippi riverfront. Larry and Jessie have rented a banquet room from the Riverview Restaurant and we’re all going to have a celebration bash.

Lynn comes downstairs and gives me a hug. She looks great, dressed in tight black jeans and an aqua, pink and lavender stripped sweater. Her hair is pulled up and she’s wrapped a dark blue, floral print silk scarf around her head in solidarity with Jessie (she lost her hair during chemo.) “Ready?”

She’s in a hurry to leave but I hold our embrace for an extra couple of seconds. To her credit she lets me and only seems the tiniest little bit perturbed.

I let go and reach for the keys on the key holder hook by the back door. Lynn puts on her favorite black and red cowboy boots (I’ve opted for my work boots) and we go outside. It’s been snowing off and on all day, but has stopped in time for me to shovel out the walk way to the garage and also the entire driveway. It’s six at night and we have an hour to get into town. Should be no problem.

“Quite the year,” I say as I drive us down our snowy street and out to the highway that will take us into Minneapolis.

“You can say that again, Sport,” Lynn says, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek before settling back in her seat and making herself comfortable, tightening her seatbelt. Then she quickly puts out her hand on the dash to brace herself as the car skids just a bit, “Just pay attention to your driving, OK?”

Jessie’s tests came back as good as could be expected. Her doctors told her that the cancer seemed to be in remission (Yea!) and they would monitor her closely for the rest of her life. Remember I said that only forty-six percent of patients make it five years? Well, if she makes it past five years, the chances of her making a full recovery go up significantly to ninety-five percent. We all have our fingers crossed.

I called the next day after my visit up north like I said I would and invited Dad and Helen and Zak down for Christmas and it went really well. We had our girls over on Christmas Eve and they each brought the guys they were currently with and we all had a good time. Lynn and I were finally able to exhale, relax and kick back a little with the good news of the test results. Dad and Helen and Zak stayed for four nights. Lynn and I took them sight-seeing around our area and we even went into Minneapolis one day and had lunch at the same Malt Shop restaurant Larry and I had begun frequenting. At night we played rotating four-handed cribbage and had fires in the fireplace. Dad wants us to come up to visit them at his place as soon as we can and we definitely will. I’m thinking of seeing if Larry and Jessie want to join us. I think they’d really enjoy it.

As I drive us to downtown I think a lot about how the last four months have played out. Larry’s call to me jumped started something I’d neglected for a number a years – our friendship. He made me realize the frailty of our lives and how important it was to treat each day as a day special and unique unto itself. In other words, make the most of each day. In re-reading this I know I sound like a Hallmark Card or commercial or something and I don’t mean to, but, being a guy, it’s sometimes hard to express what I’m truly feeling. But there it is. Friendship is something never to take for granted. Either is family. If I’ve learned anything from this experience it’s that I let a lot of things slip over the past years, both with Larry and my dad. I’m planning to not let that happen again. I’m committed to doing it, but, as I’ve learned, actions speak louder than words.

Which brings me to the container for Jessie’s ashes that Larry asked me to make. I showed it to him just after I returned from that visit to my dad’s and he loved it. He took it from me and cradled it in his hands, rubbing the surface and breathing in the fresh, woody aroma.

“Man,” he told me, “this is beautiful.” He admired it for a good five minutes, turning it every which way. He even held it up to the light to get the full effect. I had given it to him when we were in one of the new restaurants we were trying out and people were starting to look at us. After a few more minutes of holding it (almost lovingly, I thought), he handed it back. “I really like it, man, but will you do me a favor? Will you hold onto it for me? Just in case?”

Meaning, just in case Jessie makes it through chemo alright and the cancer goes into remission, which, of course it did. But back then we still only could hope. I told him I’d be glad to do whatever he wanted.

And I still have it. Lynn thought it was really nice, too (not quite as enthusiastic as Larry, but at least she told me she liked it. That meant something.) Anyway, after Jessie’s good report from the doctor she asked me if she could do something with it.

“Sure,” I told her, then thought to ask, “Wait a minute. Like what?”

Now I know it sounds strange, but she thought it would look nice up on the mantle above our fireplace. She has the top off and the bowl filled with some dried flowers and herbs from our garden – like a little potpourri container. The top rests next to it. I have to admit the entire effect isn’t bad. Hopefully it will stay there for a long, long time.

We make it down to St. Anthony Main and pull into the parking lot for the restaurant. Downtown Minneapolis is packed with people. There’s going to be fireworks at midnight on the Stone Arch Bridge – an old bridge over the river that’s been restored for pedestrians and bicyclists only. It’s only a few blocks from where we’ll be and chances are excellent Lynn and I will be standing outside watching. Larry and Jessie will be there too, along with everyone else who was with them during the past months. They’ve all been invited for the festivities: Jessie’s and Larry’s three boys and their girlfriends will be there, Jessie’s mom and dad, friends of Jessie’s from her school and even some of Larry’s Somali friends from his work, and lots of other friends and acquaintances – all celebrating Jessie’s life. It’ll be fun. For our part, Lynn and I have never celebrated New Year’s in downtown Minneapolis before. Even when we lived here. It’s going to be a new experience, capping off four months of new experiences, and we are both looking forward to it.

We get out of the car and make our way through the crowds already out for the evening. People are milling around and bundled up against the cold, but there’s excited laughter in the air. Spirits are high and infectious. I reach to my pocket and take out one of what I’d been looking for in the kitchen. A tootsie roll pop. Dad has his cigars. I’ve got my candy (no more cigarettes for me.) I unwrap one, cherry flavored red, and pop it in my mouth (pun intended, sorry Lynn) and take my wife’s hand. She smiles at me and pulls me close, dropping my hand and taking my arm. We know Jessie’s not out of the woods yet, but for now we can celebrate her first victory. And that’s certainly cause for celebration.

Up head we see Jessie and Larry walking hand in hand. Jessie’s wearing a bright red stocking hat and scarf that matches Larry’s red, puffy sleeved jacket. From the behind they look like young lovers. Lynn and I both call out to them and hurry to catch up. Old time street lamps are lit and trimmed with green garland. White twinkle lights decorate the buildings and reflect off the newly fallen snow. Someone shoots off a bottle rocket and it trails colorful sparks out over the Mississippi. Tonight is going to be a good night of celebration with our friends. It’s been a long time coming, and deep inside I have the feeling it will be the first of many more times together. Our friendship is something worth believing in. Of that, there’s no doubt in my mind.


There’s Something About Ellen

All Ellen Oldfield wants to do is read. Books, that is, paperbacks usually, mainly fiction. She needs to read. It’s what gives meaning to her life and as well as a sense of purpose. It also keeps the world at bay, helping her to feel safe and secure. She likes nothing better than to curl up with a cherished paperback, either by a favorite author or one she is unfamiliar with (it doesn’t matter the least to her) and wile away the time letting the hours pass, getting lost in the world of words. You may know people like Ellen, or maybe even are a little bit like her yourself. I know I am. My friend Charley employs her at his used book store and that’s where I first heard about her. Her story has stuck with me.

Most people would describe Ellen as a quiet, shy young woman; one of those people who, as you went through your day, you would never notice, and, if you did, would immediately forget about because she would have left absolutely no impression on you at all. None. And that would have been fine with Ellen. She doesn’t mind anonymity, in fact, craves it. But she still has to work. She still has to go out into the world and having to do so is hard for her; being around people, possibly even talking to them, is not something she is comfortable with. In fact, it fills her with such an overwhelming fear that sometimes she reacts physically, tensing up so badly that her entire body will cramp into knots, collapsing in on itself, making it impossible for her to move. Her life is challenging to say the least.

If you asked her about her job she would say that she lucked out when she was hired to work at Tennyson’s, Charley’s bookstore, located in a two story, dilapidated, brown brick building near the University of Minnesota campus. He sells used, and rare, hard to find books, and the store seems to have been around forever. I met him back in the late sixties when I was a freshman at the University and we have stayed in touch over all these years.

The event Charley told me about happened this past summer. At the time, Ellen had worked at Tennyson’s for nearly three years. Charley told me she found the job fulfilling and satisfying. She was in charge of cataloging his huge collection and wasn’t required to wait on any customers, which suited her just fine. She was around books all day, and she loved her job as much as she could love anything. Plus, it paid the rent.

Ellen worked at the store full-time and when she wasn’t working she was home in her tiny, third floor, efficiency apartment near Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis. There you’d find her curled up on her Victorian style couch reading, letting the hours slip away until she had to get ready to go out again. It was a life she didn’t necessarily choose, but one she worked at, trying to keep the panic attacks at bay. She did the best she could.

On this particular Saturday, Ellen is stretched out asleep on her couch. Her cat jumps up on her, kneading her tee-shirt with her paws, waking her.

“Prudence, whatever is the matter with you?” She asks her kitty, “hungry again?” Prudence responds with a dramatic rattling purr, loud for such a petit animal. Ellen takes a hold of her and draws her close, petting her lovingly. Her affection for her pet is strong.

She then sits up, blinking herself fully awake and carefully closes the Anne Tyler book she is reading. She continues to caress the three year old calico, smoothing the fur on the top of her head. The repetitive motion is calming. Prudence purrs on and on, enjoying the attention.

Ellen looks around and mentally checks over her tiny apartment. Her small, square, kitchen table is where it should be with two, shaker style wooden chairs tucked perfectly under it. The table is six feet exactly in front of the refrigerator and six feet exactly from the end of her couch. A white vase of pink and lavender carnations is in the middle of the table flanked by two braided yellow place mats. Her pair of dark green, corduroy, winged back chairs are next to her on either side of the burgundy couch she is on – right where they should be.

Her kitchen is neat and clean. Next to the refrigerator is the sink with a red dish cloth folded over the faucet, and next to it is the four burner stove with a bright yellow teapot on it, just as they should be. In the middle of the far wall, six steps across from her, is the small work table that holds the old singer sewing machine she inherited from her mom. A clear plastic storage container filled with fabric is placed underneath, the dress she is currently working on lays neatly folded on top. Her I-Pad in its light green case is on the glass coffee table right next to her in front of the couch.

Nothing is out of the ordinary. Good. She realizes she has been holding her breath, and exhales, breathing a sigh of relief.

She looks at the clock on the wall, 4:46 pm, and sits up. Prudence moves next to her, sits down, still purring, and watches her owner. Ellen runs her hands over her faded blue jeans. They feel soft to her touch and give her a sense of security. She adjusts the old Bonnie Raitt shirt she is wearing, loving the feel of the worn fabric on her skin. She runs her long fingers through her thick brown hair that she cuts herself in a page boy style, deciding at that moment she’ll put off giving herself a trim for another week. She stretches her thin arms over her and tilts her head back, checking for cob-webs on the ceiling. Since she had dusted the day before, she doesn’t expect to find any and she is not mistaken. Prudence jumps to the floor and saunters to the corner of the kitchen where her food is, nosing at her empty dish. Always hungry, Ellen thinks to herself, smiling. She loves her cat, or ‘kitty’ as she often refers to her pet, and would do anything for her.

Then the pleasurable moment begins to slip away. She feels herself start to tense up, her heart rate increasing, a red flush beginning to grow up her neck. She glances at the clock again. 4:52 pm. She has to go out today. She has the evening shift tonight at the bookstore. She volunteered for it to test herself – to prove to herself that she could do it; run the store by herself and even talk to customers. She’s never done anything like it before in her life, but she promised herself and her boss that she would. She intends to keep her promise. The time has come. Her shift starts at 6:00 pm and runs until 9:00 pm. She has to get ready, go out and face the world and the idea of it fills her with a fear bordering on terror.

Charley Tennyson (only a very few friends are ever permitted to jokingly call him ‘Alfred’ or ‘Lord’) glances at the clock on the wall. It reads 4:55 pm. He’s saying good-bye to Crazy Pete, one of his best customers.

“Enjoy that Kerouac, CP,” he says, watching the old guy go out the door. Crazy has bought a first edition of ‘On the Road’ and is clutching it tightly to his chest. He’s a huge man whose white hair frizzes out around his light blue Twins baseball cap like an out of control, white, Brillo pad. He’s dressed in a colorful Hawaiian print shirt with green parrots on a yellow background, faded, cutoff blue jeans and a pair of falling apart leather boots held together with duct tape. He’s a good, long time customer, one of many who frequent Charley’s store.

“Peace, brother,” CP smiles in return, flashing a two finger ‘V’. Crazy’s an old hippy and one of the best wood-workers Charley has ever seen. Right now he’s making a series of carved cherry wood wind chimes he’s planning to sell at the Uptown Art Fair, starting the first weekend of August, coming up in two months.

“Same to you, man,” Charley says, waving good-bye. Then he walks to the front of the store and  looks out to the busy street outside his shop – the store he’s owned for fifty one years.

Charley’s a friendly, gregarious man, who enjoys being around people. He idly scratches his full, bushy, white beard, his bright blue eyes accentuated by wire-rim glasses. He is bald, short and squat, and today is wearing sandals, baggy chinos and a red plaid, flannel shirt cut off at the elbows. The afternoon is pleasant, the sky colored robin’s egg blue and the temperature’s in the low 80’s, not too hot at all. People hurry along the sidewalk, finishing errands, perhaps going home to get ready to go out for the evening. Warm Saturday nights in the summer in Minneapolis often prompt a party like atmosphere, with residents young and old letting off steam and enjoying the pleasant weather – the chance to be out and about and not cooped up like they usually are in the winter is too enticing to not take advantage of. Business could be good tonight.

Tennyson’s is located just a few blocks from ‘Dinky Town’ a hot spot of bars, restaurants and shops near to the north end of the University of Minnesota campus. This is the first year Charley has considered keeping the bookstore open until 9:00 pm on Saturday’s to take advantage of the increased street activity during the summer season. Ellen has volunteered to do the shift, something she’s never done before. Volunteer, that is. In fact, to be brutally honest, it was the last thing he expected out of his shy, withdrawn employee. But she offered and he had agreed.

He looks at the clock. The time is fast approaching for her shift to begin and he seriously wonders if she is up to it. He walks back into the store, nervously shuffles some books around, and then looks through a few pages of a rare volume of John Updike’s poetry. He glances at the clock again and walks over to the cash register. She has just over an hour before she is supposed to start. He nervously taps his fingers on the counter, pulls on his beard some more and contemplates going out back for a calming smoke, but then quickly squelches the idea. Better wait inside in case Ellen shows up ahead of time. He doesn’t want to do anything to rattle his diffident employee. Sometimes she is early to work, but one thing she is never, and that is late.

When Charley first met Ellen he had no idea what he was getting into. To him, she was just a quiet, somewhat retiring, young woman, who avoided eye contact. He hired her not only because she impressed him with how well read she was and her almost encyclopedic knowledge of books, but because on that first job interview, after talking for a while (actually, him doing most of the talking), he had taken her on a stroll through the long rows of tall stacks toward the back of the store and she quickly began pointing out how she could re-arrange his haphazard cataloging system, coming up with a workable plan right off the top of her head. Being around books seemed to excite her and get her out of her shell. He liked that. He also realized he needed someone with her organizational skills, and he hired her on the spot. The fact that she was quiet and withdrawn didn’t bother him in the least.

Over the ensuing three years she has worked for him, however, he’s realized that her shyness was only the outward manifestation of something deeper. She was meticulous in her dress and her behavior. She never laughed, only giving him or a customer the very occasional smile if something tickled her fancy. Which wasn’t often – maybe once a year. And that smile? Well, a slight upturned tick at one corner of her mouth was more like it, with the emphasis on slight. She talked only when spoken to, and although she was never, ever rude, she was not exactly outgoing either. But all of that was fine with Charley. He liked her. He and Sara, his wife of forty-nine years were parents and grandparents and they treated Ellen, who was in her early twenties, like an adhoc granddaughter. She was a good worker: smart and dependable. But there was something different about Ellen that he couldn’t put his finger on.

It was Sara, who, after she got to know Ellen a little, suggested early on that she might have Agoraphobia. “She’s so painfully shy, Charley,” she told him after Ellen had worked at the store for a few weeks. “And did you ever notice, she never looks directly at you, either. I think that’s a symptom. You should look into it.”

Charley had noticed and he did look into it. He researched on-line and he and Sara talked about what he found and how it related to Ellen. The more they talked and the more information they uncovered, the more they became convinced that Ellen, that nice, shy woman, indeed, was probably Agoraphobic.

“It’s a serious condition. That’s why she’s so withdrawn, you know,” Sara told him. “I’m surprised she’s even able to do what she does.”

Which was really the crux of the matter, as far as Charley was concerned. From what he’d read, most people with Agoraphobia had trouble going outside at all, let alone were able to work in at any kind of job, especially one like in his store, where there were people around.

But Ellen is different, unique to herself, and her story came out bit by bit, especially during this particular summer when she volunteered to work the Saturday evening shift. She prefers to think of herself as quiet, and resents being labeled as withdrawn or ‘put in an agoraphobic box’ as she puts it when she discusses her issues concerning the outside world with her confidant, Prudence. Something she does quite often.

“It’s just the way I am!” Ellen will say, putting an emphatic exclamation point to her statement just to make sure she is clearly understood.

Prudence, who is used to her owner’s somewhat quirky ways after living with her for three years, will sit on the floor in the middle of the apartment, keeping her company, listening and casually licking her paw to clean her face. She’s heard it all before, but is happy to listen anytime, because…sometimes when Ellen is done ranting, she feels the need to burn off some nervous energy, which often leads to her not only cleaning the already spotless apartment, but also to giving her beloved kitty a much appreciated extra helping of food in her dish. Prudence is all for that.

Ellen keeps a calendar from her bank hanging in her kitchen on a cupboard next to the sink. Each month is a different photo of a different building in downtown Minneapolis and she likes that she knows where each of them is located. Every morning she circles the date with a black marker and puts an red ‘X’ through the circle of the previous day’s date. If she doesn’t kept track, she won’t know what day it is, let alone how much time has passed since she started working for Charley. A quote from Thoreau might define her outlook: to paraphrase…‘Time is but a stream I go a fishin’ in. I drink from it, but it soon passes, and eternity remains.’ The point is that Ellen has learned to take things as they come and not put too much emphasis on the future. Living one day at a time is good enough for her. It helps her stay focused and secure, and helps her to function in a world that threatens her at every opportunity.

But three years at Tennyson’s was a long time. She liked her job and she liked Charley, so she felt she owed him an explanation, since, after all, he was the guy who signed her paychecks.

“Let’s talk,” she told him earlier that summer when discussions of opening up on Saturday evenings first started to take place. “I need you to understand a few things.”

So at the end of May, on a Friday night after work, Charley and Ellen sat down in the back room office and had a heart to heart chat. He fixed English Breakfast tea, their favorite, on the little hotplate he kept on a filing cabinet in the corner, and then offered her a mug, sipping his carefully, blowing on the surface to cool it. He sat in his old, broken spring chair behind his cluttered desk, suddenly, for some reason, feeling nervous. But he really needn’t have been. Ellen was just being Ellen, that was all, someone, even after all this time, he was still getting used to.

“So you’re thinking of opening on Saturday nights?” Ellen asked, making herself as comfortable as she could in a metal folding next to his desk, “I’m thinking of trying to handle running the store all by myself. What do you think of that?”

Charley wasn’t sure what to think. Ellen rode her bike to work (no matter what the weather), did her job and went home. She had never initiated a conversation before, preferring to spend her time back in the stacks, cataloging, dusting and re-arranging sections and lovingly caring for the old books. Even though they’d worked together five days a week for three years, Charley had to admit he really didn’t know her at all, only that she was a steady, dependable employee.

He liked the directness of her question and responded with the first thing that popped into his brain, “Why now?”

To which Ellen replied, “Why not?”

Well, there you go, thought Charley, she’s obviously got something on her mind. And she did.

“My mom was shy like me,” Ellen told him, “Not like my dad at all. He’s outgoing and friendly. He sells insurance and was on the road a lot when I was growing up. It was me and my mom and my other sister and two brothers. I’m the third oldest, with my two older brothers and then me and then my little sister. They’re all pretty much like my dad, you know, friendly and outgoing. Me, I’ve always kept to myself. Just like my mom.”

While she talked, Ellen had not once looked at Charley, which he was used to. Instead she focused on the watch on her left wrist. A watch she wore every day. It had a blue background with Minnie Mouse on the face.

“Mom died when I was ten,” she continued, her voice soft yet confident, “She taught me how to sew. We were always close.”

Charley watched as she closed her eyes, lost, he figured, in some long ago memory of her mother. A tear suddenly formed and slowly trickled down her right cheek. He felt a fatherly desire to wipe it away but held back, respecting her private moment.

Why she felt the need to tell him all of this, he had no idea. He and Sara had seven grandkids but none of them were like Ellen. She was quiet and remote. Distant. Not talkative at all. She never complained and rarely said more than a few words to Charley. But she was likeable in her own way. It was hard to put into words, but there was something about her that both Charley and his wife admired. The more Ellen talked the more he realized what it was. Life had not been easy for her, but she made no excuses and went through her day doing the best she could. And the best she could was really quite admirable, as far as Charley was concerned.

“I had one close friend in school,” she went on, wiping the tear away, “His name was Sammy. Sammy Watkins. We met when mom had me in pre-school. She worked at Northern Data Systems as a computer programmer and trouble shooter for their computer network. She was really good at it. Also, she didn’t have to talk to people too much. So, you know, that was a good thing for her.”

Charley found himself nodding his head in agreement even though Ellen wasn’t even looking at him. It seemed like the right thing to do.

“Anyhow,” she continued, “Sammy and I were buddies from the very beginning, probably because we were both a little different. Sammy was born with one leg an inch shorter than the other, so he limped, even though he wore a brace when he was young and then a raised shoe when he was older, to help compensate for it. And me, well, I was very quiet back then, you know, pretty withdrawn. But one thing we both liked was anything having to do with drawing or painting. He was a really good artist, even back then. Very creative.”

She stopped talking for a minute and caressed the face of her wrist watch with her thumb. “He gave me this before his family moved to the west coast when he was in ninth grade. We missed each other a lot and wrote back and forth at least once a week. A year after they left he was killed in a car accident.” She lowered her head, her hair obscuring her face. “He stole his parent’s car and was trying to drive it,” she said, sadly. Then shook her head, “Him with his bum leg.”

Charley was mesmerized by her story. He’d never heard her talk so much and it made him wonder where it all was leading. He didn’t want to interrupt her, though, and found himself listening closely, not wanting to miss a thing, thinking about what Sara would say when he told her later that evening.

“I became a lot more shy after that,” Ellen said, sitting up and running her fingers through her hair, “after he died.”

As Charley listened, he realized that Ellen was using ‘shy’ to cover a multitude of personality characteristics. She still continued to avoid looking at him, but the words flowed more easily now, almost as if some internal spigot had been turned on and left to flow unimpeded. Her confidence was growing and her voice level increased a couple of notches.

She continued with her story: telling him about learning to get along without Sammy being her friend. Learning to deal with the bullies in her school, both guys and girls, and learning to accept the fact that she was different. “I realized it was up to me to learn to live with not being able to do the things others did so easily, like go out on dates, work at a job after school, or even stand up in front of class and give a speech.”

Charley laughed out loud, “Ellen, dear, no one likes to do that.”

“I know,” she responded, “I’ve read that more people are afraid of giving a speech than fear dying, but people still do it.”

Charley nodded, understanding the point she was making.

She paused again and looked into space, seeming to tap into some inner well of strength. After a minute she continued, “I couldn’t do any of the things other people did. My dad, my teachers, everyone realized by that time I’d never have any what they all called people skills.”

Charley sympathized with her and wanted to tell her there was more to life than just people skills, but she was on a roll and he let her talk.

“My grades in school were really good and when graduation came I even received a couple of academic scholarships, but…” The words trailed off.

“It would have been hard for you to go away and be around people you didn’t know, right?” Charley asked, to let her know he understood.

“Yeah, it really would have been. Others might have liked the attention but not me. I’m not one for being in the lime-light as you can probably tell.”

Again, Charley nodded, and again, Ellen didn’t notice.

“What I really wanted was to be independent. My dad understood and was very supportive, but things were tough at home with mom gone. Money was tight. I got a job cleaning houses with Minute Maid, a company that provided cleaning services for homes in Minneapolis and the western suburbs. I worked for them for three years, living at home, helping dad out and saving my money until I had enough to move downtown.”

She raised her head and, for the first time, looked directly at Charley. Ellen’s eyes were deep, dark brown. There was a luminescence to them he’d never noticed before, like flecks of gold maybe. “Finding this job and working here in the store is, I think, what I’ve always wanted to do…What I was meant to do.”

Outside, the street was full of traffic noise: big, side loader dump trucks were rumbling past, carrying debris from a high rise apartment building going in a few blocks away down University Avenue. Inside the office, though, they heard none of it, focused as they were on their conversation. Charley glanced at an old mini-grandfather clock on the wall. It read 6:48 pm. They’d been talking for nearly an hour. Time had flown by. He wondered if Ellen had finished her story and had said all there was that she wanted to say. She wasn’t.

Ellen went back to starring at Sammy’s watch as she continued filling Charley in on her life, feeling the need to express herself to this kindly old man who had given her a job she could only have dreamed of in her wildest imagination. As she talked she could tell Charley was enthralled  (if that was the right word) and she truly was trying to be as open and honest as she could be. But, if she stepped back outside herself and watched the conversation as a third person, and really, really listened, she could tell that as hard she tried to be honest and express herself, and no matter how sympathetic Charley was and truly seemed to hear her and absorb her words, when it came right down to it, she really wasn’t doing a very good job of telling him what was on her mind. But maybe that was all right. Maybe that’s the way it had to be. Maybe, for now, she would have to accept that it was the best she could do.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wanted to learn how to live on my own and be independent,” she finally said, sighing and glancing into her tea mug. She picked it up and took a sip, then set it back down on the corner of Charley’s desk, running her finger around the rim.

“Something was driving you, right?” he asked.

“Yeah. I just wanted to be on my own and learn to live my life in a way that made sense to me. You know,” she added, “given the fact I’m so shy and all.”

Charley smiled when she used finger quotes around ‘shy’. She didn’t see him, focused as she was on telling him her story.

She told him that after her mom died when she was in the fourth grade, she sank into a deep depression. Her dad took her to numerous doctors, both for physical and psychological reasons and it was decided that she should take medications for both her depression and her anxiety being around other people. And she did for five years. Right up until she was fifteen. On the day Sammy and his family left for the west coast she decided to quit them cold turkey. She had read that the after effects could easily have long term consequences on her and her health. She felt she was too dependent on them, possibly even addicted to them, and she decided she didn’t want to be. So she quit, and that decision was the beginning of her trying to established herself as an independent person, relying on herself to function in the world and not be dependent on drugs or medications.

Then, a year later, Sammy was killed, and while it could have been easy to go back on her meds, she didn’t. For a while, she used her books to escape whenever she needed to, which, in the beginning, was quite often. (Her rather formidable collection of books nearly doubled during that period). Then she bought a bicycle and started riding it to get out outside, see the world and to get out of her head. Then she learned the trick of talking to herself, working her problems and issues out in ways that made sense to her.

“So you learned how to get through it, right?” Charley summarized what she’d said.

He knew what she was getting at. He’d lived a lot of years and seen his fair share of people with problems. He had them himself. The fact that Ellen had issues certainly was apparent. He had no problem with that at all, but the fact that she felt she needed to confide in him was something he hadn’t expected. He appreciated the effort that it took for her to do it. In fact, to even attempt expressing herself was a pretty big deal, in his opinion.

“Yes, that’s what I’m getting at,” she said, picking up her tea mug, taking a final sip and then setting it down. It was empty.

“Want some more?” Charley asked, motioning to the mug.

“That would be nice,” she said, with the hint of a smile.

If in thankfulness for the tea, or relief that she was able to talk and express herself, he didn’t know. Probably both.

“I’ll heat some up.”

While Charley went to the sink and drew some water, Ellen got up, walked out of the office, through the tall stacks of books to the front of the store and looked out the window. University Avenue was one way, traffic moving left to right. It was nearly seven-thirty and the sun was low to the west, a golden glow of light reflecting off the buildings of the campus to her left. Dusk was settling in and street lights would soon be coming on. Cars and trucks sped by in bursts, vying for space with the never ending stream of bicyclists. Across the street were big, old homes some of which were divided into rooms and rented out to students . Under the canopy of tall trees, people strolled by on the sidewalk, enjoying being outside in the warm evening.

Ellen looked at the scene but didn’t really register any of the activity, thinking instead about her talk with Charley. She had told him more than she’d ever told anyone in her entire life, and with it she felt a measure of relief. But with that relief came disappointment. I’ll never be any good at this interpersonal stuff, is what she thought. Even though Charley is a really nice man, I just don’t like talking to people. It’s hard to do, makes me uncomfortable and it’s not enjoyable at all. Then she made a snap decision. I think I’ll just go home.

She turned and went back into the office. Charley had poured out some more tea and looked up as she walked in, smiling encouragingly at her, in a good mood. He held up one finger, Just a minute. He was on his phone, talking, she could tell, to Sara. “Yes, we’ve had a really good, conversation,” he was telling his wife, “I’ll tell you about it when I get home.”

Ellen tuned him out. She was suddenly exhausted and needed to get away. She looked around and found a Post-it tablet and quickly scratched a note: I really just wanted to tell you I would like to work on Saturday nights. Thanks. She pulled the note off and slapped in on the desk and turned to go.

Charley continued talking for a minute before he glanced at what she’d written. “Wait, Ellen!” he called to her, then said to Sara, “I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later.”

He stood up and rushed from the office. Up ahead he saw Ellen pushing through the front door and getting on her bike. By the time he got to the front of the store, she was pedaling down the block, heading for home.

What the…Charley thought to himself, watching her until she disappeared in the traffic. He went back to the office and looked at the note again, re-reading it. Then he smiled to himself and shook his head. All of that just to tell me she wants to work on Saturday night. He got up and walked through the store, making one final check, turning the last few lights off, getting ready to leave. But before he went home he sat down and sipped his tea, rolling the note like one would a rolling paper for a smoke. He tapped it on the desk, thinking of the effort it took for her to even talk to him. He smiled, knowing that he didn’t even have to think hard about his decision – of course she could work on Saturday nights. Anything he could do to help her out, he would. The key to it all, though, was Ellen. It would be up to her to follow through.

Now it’s Saturday. Ellen gets up from the couch and walks into the bathroom. Her efficiency apartment is small –  takes her five steps to cross. She looks into the mirror, something that for many years of her life she was not always been able to do. But she’s come a long way from those days; now she can. The image reflected back is a young woman of average height and slim build, with, straight brown hair and a light complexion, with a slight blush of freckles on her cheeks. To others, her eyes would be pretty, but to her they are plain brown accented by full eyebrows. Her nose is angular and her lips are thin and naturally tinted pink. Her jaw is oval, a few teeth are slightly crooked.

For years Ellen has tried and tried to accept her physical self for what she is, a pleasant looking person, but she can’t. Her looks just aren’t that important to her. She can only stare at the reflection in the mirror and then turn her thoughts inward and wonder if she can really go through with her promise to herself to step beyond the secure apartment she lives in do the evening shift tonight. Who cares about one’s appearance when the real challenge is whether or not she can muster the courage to go outside? No one knows what she has to go through to abandon the security of her home at anytime, let alone now, and go to work at Tennyson’s tonight without Charley being there. She’s never been able to tell her father or Charley or anyone the depth of her fear of the outside world. No one knows and try as she might, she just can’t. Only her mom knew, but, of course, she is gone. The fear is something she has to face every day of her life by herself.

She steels herself and begins humming a song by Adele. She admires the personal strength and character of the singer. Ellen has a burning need to prove that she can exist in the world beyond the confines of the small room and apartment she calls home. Life means nothing if she gives in to her desire to stay inside and hide from the world. She will always be quiet. She will always be shy. But she doesn’t have to be a prisoner.

To others, it is just going out and going to a job. Everybody does it. No big deal. And that’s fine for them. To Ellen it is much, much more. Her security lies in the ‘knowns’ in her life: her apartment, Prudence, her books. Having a job and dealing with people and getting close to people, well…that’s different. You never know what they’re going to do, how they’re going to treat you. Her mom has died. So has Sammy. Her friend Charley will, too, one day. Yes, she knows that death is a fact of life, and yes, she knows it is inevitable, but this all consuming fear of hers is much more than that. This is about the risk of being around people, talking to them and interacting with them. Everyone does it, don’t they? Why is it so hard for her? Maybe one day she’ll find an answer. For now, the only answer she can give is that it is just the way it is. And she has accepted it for what it is because it’s true. It’s part of who she is.

She feels Prudence rub up against her leg and she bends down and picks her up, cradling her kitty in her arms, absentmindedly petting her. She looks into the mirror some more, trying to gather her courage. She thinks about her mom. She thinks about Sammy. They would both want her to do this, to take the risk and go out and run the store tonight. She takes strength from their memory and the courage each of them found to help them to live in the world despite their handicaps. Adele’s song keeps playing in her head. She hums along some more, tapping her fingers, feeling her courage building and the strength of her inner will taking over, transforming her. The image in the mirror is unchanged except for the fiery certainty that has taken place in her eyes. She is ready.

“Ok, Pru, let’s do this,” she says, setting her kitty down. She turns the shower on and Prudence runs and jumps on the couch. Ellen steps into the little stall and stands under the stream, letting the water wash over her, working to quell the rapid beating of her heart, fear mixing with anticipation. She has no idea what to expect once she walks out the door of her apartment and makes her way to Charley’s. Therein lies the challenge. And that’s what her courage is for.

She turns the shower off, steps from it, dries herself, then gets dressed. By 5:32 pm she’s all set. She’s as ready as she’ll ever be. She gives Prudence a kiss good-bye and wheels her bike out the door and down the hall seventeen footsteps to the elevator. Then down to the first floor lobby and then out twelve footsteps to the street. She glances at her Minnie Mouse watch. She has twenty-three minutes to get to work. Plenty of time.

At 5:55 pm Charley says good-bye to Johnny and Lucy, two young people who work in one of the nearby restaurants and often spend time browsing the history section. They’re an androgynous couple with purple dyed hair and tats and piercings and Charley likes them a lot. Today they each found a book and had spent over an hour curled up in the comfortable overstuffed chairs in reading area he’d set up (at Ellen’s suggestion two and a half years ago) in the front window.

“See ya’ later Charley,” Johnny waves at him as they leave. They are both dressed in black and play in a punk band called ‘Wiley Coyote’, that apparently has quite a following in the upper Midwest. Whatever the case, they are good people, like most of his customers. He is certain Ellen will have no trouble at all on this, her first night, working the store.

He is watching the street activity outside the front window when he sees her pull up on her bike. He breathes a sigh, Thank god. She is dressed like she normally dresses, white converse high-top tennis shoes and a full length, granny dress that she has sewn herself. This one he hasn’t seen before. She must have made it specially for tonight. It has a light blue background with tiny green and white flowers on it. Her hair is blown back from her ride and her cheeks are flushed. She jumps off her bike, an old, blue and white, three speed Raleigh and takes her tote bag out of the straw basket on the front, hoisting it on her shoulder. She looks in through the window, sees Charley and waves. Charley waves back as she pushes in through the front door.

“Hey, there, Ellen. Ready for tonight?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, Charley,” she says, pushing the bike past him to the back of the store. “Let’s bring on the customers.”

Charley watches as she smiles. Not the slight smirk that he is used to, but a wide, full on happy smile. She’s ready for this, he thinks to himself. She’s going to be fine.

“Here’s the key. You know how to lock up, right?” he says, just to be friendly. He knows she knows what she’s doing.

“Of course I do, Charley. You just go on now and go home to Sara. I’ll be fine.”

He watches her put the key in a pocket on her dress. He likes the sound of her voice. Firm and confident.

So he takes her suggestion and leaves, enjoying the freedom he feels as he goes out the front door into the warm summer evening. He and Sara live on the street behind the shop, a block and a half away, and he’s looking forward to a little stroll. Maybe they can go for a longer walk through the campus later after dinner. That would be nice, he thinks, realizing how certain he is that Ellen will do a good job tonight.

A young woman pushing a stroller stops him as he starts down the sidewalk. She points and asks, “Is this store open, mister?” then reaches down to adjust a white sunbonnet on the young child’s head. The kid is maybe two years old.

“Yes, it is,” he says, indicating the door. “Just go on inside. Ellen’s running things tonight. She’ll take good care of you.”

“Cool,” the young woman says. She wears a wide-brim straw hat, flip-flops, a long yellow, floral skirt, a pea green tank top and has a red heart tattooed on her right shoulder. She pushes in through the front door as Charley holds it open for her, and he overhears her telling her child that they were going on an adventure. It’s something he has said occasionally on outings to one or the other of his grandchildren and it makes him smile.

As the door closes, he looks in through the window. Ellen is approaching the woman and her little kid. She is smiling a greeting, Hello. He watches as they talk for a minute. Then Ellen bends down and says something to the youngster in the stroller. He can see the child grin back at her. Then Ellen stands up and leads the way down one of the crowded aisles with the woman pushing the stroller, following behind. Charley turns and walks down the street feeling good, nodding Hello to passersby. Everything is going to be all right, he just knows it.

And it is. Charley tells me the story that winter when I am back in town. I’m here for Christmas, visiting my son and his wife who live with their two kids out west of Minneapolis in Long Lake, the town I grew up in. Charley and I have stayed in touch since the 60’s, seeing each other maybe every five years or so. My son collects books so I like to stop into Tennyson’s, see Charley, get caught up with him, and see what he has that I might be able to buy for a gift. That’s when he tells me about Ellen.

“So what happened?” I ask. This had all taken place seven months ago. To me it was just a simple little story, the kind you might hear on a slow night on the local news or read in the variety section of the newspaper on Thursday; you know, one of those ‘feel good’ stories. Nothing remarkable, that’s for sure.

But Charley saw it differently, “That first night went great. No problems at all. In my mind she rose to the occasion and it couldn’t have gone any better.” He hefts a box to the counter, straining a little. I rush over and help him.

“And she’s still working here,” he continues, opening the box, an order of books from New York City. Outside it’s ten degrees and starting to snow, light flakes drifting down, giving the late afternoon a feeling of Christmas, which is only two days away. “Business is really good. We’ve started keeping longer hours. I’ve hired another employee. A young man named Steven,” he glances at the clock, “he’ll be here in a few minutes.”

“What about Ellen?” I ask, curious now. Business couldn’t be that good. It’s a Friday afternoon and right now we were the only two people in the store.

Charley laughs, “Oh, she still works here,” he takes books from the box and starts stacking them on the counter. “She left at noon today. She’ll be here tomorrow. She’s not quite as withdrawn these days and a little more accessible. People like her and her knowledge of books. She’s got a small, dedicated following.”

Weird, I thought to myself. “I thought she was ‘shy’,” I said, doing my finger quotes, just like in his story.

“Oh, she is, she still is,” Charley emphasizes, “very much so. But people like that about her.” He chuckles, “You know, customers don’t like to be rushed when they’re thinking about buying an old book.”

I laughed. He was right about that. “So that’s it?”

“Yeah. She’s also got a part-time job working with that woman I told you about. The one with the kid who came in right when I was leaving? Seems she has a dress shop, and…to make a long story short, Ellen is working there one day a week now. In the back room, of course, sewing and making dresses. She seems pretty happy. As happy as she can be I guess.”

“I thought this was her dream job. Working here. That’s what you said she said.”

Charley smiles and starts pricing the books, “Well, it still is. She told me she wants ‘to stretch herself out’, as she puts it…and try something new. Besides, she’s good at sewing and making dresses. Plus, you know, she can work pretty much on her own.”

“Huh,” I say, still thinking it still wasn’t that big of a deal.

Just then an older woman comes in and tells Charley she is looking for a book on Native American archeology in Minnesota. Charley takes her back in the stacks, telling her he has just the book for her. I have some time to think as I browse, looking for something by or about Emerson for my son.

The more I think about it, the more I begin to have second thoughts about my initial impression of Ellen. Maybe it is a big deal. We all have challenges in life, and the measure of how we grow and mature is how we rise up to those challenges, face them, deal with them and move on. It’s less about success, and more about taking action and trying to do something about the obstacles life puts in our path. And that’s what Ellen did. She put herself out in the world and challenged herself to get beyond her comfort zone. That’s what impressed Charley so much about her. I certainly couldn’t fault him for that. I was starting to kind of see it from his point of view myself.

“So a happy ending,” I say, as Charley leaves the woman in back and hurries past me (nodding, Yes) to greet a new customer coming in. It’s that goofy guy I’ve seen ever since I went to college at the University, Crazy Pete. He’s brushing snow off a heavy, dark blue, boot length wool coat. He has a Russian Cossack hat on his head and an orange scarf wrapped about ten times around his neck. His winter boots are caked in snow. In spite of the winter garb, he still looks frozen.

“High there, CP,” I say waving, not knowing if he’ll recognized me.

He doesn’t. Instead, ignoring me, he asks Charley, somewhat petulantly, “Where’s that Ellen? She was going to find a book for me, one on the history of woodworking in Tudor England.”

“She found it, CP,” Charley says, and smiles when Crazy Pete’s face lights up. “She left it right here for you,” he adds, reaching under the counter. There’s a Post-it note on it. I glance at it as Charley hands the book to CP, who eagerly opens it and makes his way to the front reading area, shedding his winter outerwear. He sits down and starts paging through the book, treasuring it, giving the impression he’ll be there for a while. The note didn’t take long to read. Here’s your book CP. Enjoy! Ellen.

Simple and direct. With an exclamation point of all things! Even though I’ve never met her, I can tell that it’s the perfect way for her to express herself. And that, to my way of thinking, and Charley’s, and the new friends she is making, is a pretty good thing.

So I decide to go ahead and jump on Charley’s bandwagon. Ellen’s story is remarkable in its own way and there’s nothing wrong with that. She sounds like an interesting person –  maybe one day I’ll get a chance to meet her. Then I put her in the back of my mind and go back to my browsing, feeling myself closing in on a book for my son.

Back home in her apartment Ellen is comfortably stretched out on her couch, reading a new book. It’s two days before Christmas and snow is beginning to fall, drifting past her window, dancing a little on the cold, north wind. The book is by a new author, one she’s only just head about through an on-line class she is taking, ‘Beginning Writing Fiction’. She likes the course, but is enjoying her book even more. It’s been seven months now since she took the chance and started working Saturday nights at Charley’s. She’s still not been able to find the right words to express herself, not even to Charley. No one knows how much being out in public exhausts her. She’s getting better at it, she’s working at it, but it’s certainly not her forte.

“Nope, not for me,” she says to Prudence who is still her confidant, her constant companion. Her kitty is lying in the chair next to her, curled up, sleeping. As if she can hear Ellen’s voice subliminally, Prudence starts purring, a gentle motor coming from her throat that is loud in the tiny room. After a minute she stops and suddenly sits up, looks around and blinks her eyes. She sees Ellen, registers her in her furry cat brain and yawns, turns around once, lays down and goes back to sleep. Quiet returns.

Ellen smiles an inward smile and goes back to her reading, a story about growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. It takes place before she was even born, but she is enthralled by the era, the strong female characters and the description of the city itself. She’s never been to LA. In fact, has no desire to go there. But the author is wonderful and has a way with words, painting colorful images with the skill of an artist; like maybe her friend Sammy would have done. Soon she is transformed and carried away to the sights and sounds of the city and its people. Time slips by.

After a while she stops reading, lays the book aside and closes her eyes, but she doesn’t drift off to sleep. No, she remains awake but resting, relaxing, right here in her little apartment with Prudence, her sewing machine and all of the things that help to keep her feeling safe and secure. The outside world is still frightening to her. She is doing all see can to get along in it, but still… Maybe one day she will be able to express herself and tell someone what it’s like. Maybe.

Charley is a dear and he is helping, so is her new friend, Debra, the dressmaker. Even Debra’s daughter, Kali, in her own enthusiastic, little kid way. She’s been invited to Kali’s third birthday, coming up in twenty-seven days (she’s noted the date on her calendar), and is thinking about attending – again, to challenge herself; to push herself to see if she can do it.

But really, the truth of the matter is, being around people is debilitating to a degree she is unsure anyone will ever know about, let alone be able to understand. The simple fact of the matter is that people are like human black holes, sucking the energy right out of her, leaving her emotionally drained, physically wrung-out. As bad as it is, is it facetious for her to say that it’s Ok? Because it is. It…is…Ok. She’s accepted that it’s just the way life is. People are people, they are what they are and she is what she is, and she’s doing her best to learn to live with that reality. That’s all she can ask of herself.

She opens her eyes, picks up her book and gently caresses the cover. Outside the snow increases in intensity, pelting her window, the beginning of a blizzard, perhaps. Night has fallen, dark and frigid. While the wind howls outside, Ellen is warm and comfortable inside. She is content and within herself, lost a the world of words, feeling energized by the story, recharging her emotional batteries for when she goes out of her apartment again.

But that won’t be until tomorrow. It’s a long time until then. For now she has her book and Prudence and her apartment. She is safe and secure. She sighs a contented sigh. Her eyes are bright, reflecting the words on the page. She has a long night of reading ahead. She couldn’t be happier.