Dave and the Tree House

I don’t know why I ended up taking myself so seriously, but I did. Here I was forty one years old and I’d sit around pontificating to my wife about the world and it’s problems, knowing that my solutions were the best ones. My friends at work and I would talk, and I would go on and on about whatever was in the news with me refuting all their arguments because I was the only one who had all the right answers to the many issues of the day. I’d go to my kids soccer or hockey games and analyze every move they made and talk earnestly with them afterwards, making sure they were crystal clear as to what they had to do to improve in the next game. I had captive audiences all over the place, and I enjoyed letting everyone know how much I knew and that only I could solve all the problems I saw in the world, our country, our town and my place of employment. In short, I was a big fat know-it-all and I’m surprised I had any friends at all and, especially, that my wife found some reason to stay married to me and my kids didn’t hate me. Everyone I knew certainly put up with a lot, that’s for sure. But I’m not like that so much anymore (I’m pretty sure) and I’ll tell you why. It had to do with a guy I met who lived in a tree house. I know it sounds implausible, but let me explain.

It was a Saturday morning, the last weekend in May and I was restless. Lee (short for LeeAnn), my wife of seventeen years had taken our nine year old twins, Eva and Ronny, to their friend’s birthday party. Our oldest, Emma, sixteen and in eleventh grade, was at home studying for her end of the year finals. I had an important presentation to give at work on Monday and I was pretty wound up about it. I had cut the lawn, weeded the gardens, washed and waxed my Prius and cleaned the outside of the windows of our home like Lee had asked. I was planning on watching the Twins play Baltimore downstairs on the big screen later that afternoon, but I was still wired and wanted to burn off some energy.

“I’m going for a bike ride,” I called up the stairs to Emma.

“Ok, Dad. I’ll be here when you get home.”

She was a great kid, the apple of my eye and not a bit of trouble. “Get that studying done, Ok?” I had to add, just to remind her who was boss.

“Ok!” She yelled back.

Satisfied my message was received, I grabbed my fat tire Trek and hit the road.

Lee and I have lived our entire married life, eighteen years, in Long Lake, a small town in western Hennepin county. It’s close enough to Minneapolis for me to drive into Golden Valley where I’m employed at Leland Consulting, a think tank that’s been around since the eighties. I mostly work (we call it ‘interface’) with companies in the upper Midwest devising ways to improve productively. Our solutions most always involve getting rid of (we call it ‘downsizing’) some of their employees, but too bad. That’s life. I can’t help it if some of the people running companies are idiots and don’t know how to operate a business the right way. Anyway…Our little town is also a pretty easy commute for Lee to get to North Memorial Hospital where she is an RN in Labor and Delivery. People out here like the quiet life and they also like the trail system of bike and walking paths maintained by the Three Rivers Park District. Being outdoors any time of year is a big deal to many of them, me included, so potentially I wouldn’t be alone on the trails on a day like today – a day with the sun shining, the temperature in the mid seventies and a clear blue sky. I made the executive decision to eschew the bike paths and instead pedaled down a little traveled county road past three and five acre manicured lawns and estates and those stupid McMansions everyone’s so intent on building. Soon I was six miles from town, into countryside and surrounded by the rolling woodlands, fields and hobby farms that make this area such an attractive area to live. I was heading to a place called Wollesfeld Woods which is a three hundred and twenty acre chunk of land that has been set aside by the county for no other reason than it’s a last remnant of the Big Woods, the hardwood forest that used to cover most of our state one hundred years ago; that is before idiots and their wasteful farming and logging practices cut down all the trees, leaving nothing but the occasional woodlot (like Wollesfeld’s) but not much else. Don’t get me started. Like most things, I have strong opinions on the subject.

Cruising down a long decline, I checked in front of me and over my shoulder to make sure I was alone before making a quick right turn onto a faint deer trail I knew about. In moments I was in enfolded into the woods, surrounded by tall trees, brush thick with new, springtime green foliage, and completely invisible to anyone driving by. Crashing through the undergrowth and up and down a few small hills, I followed the trail into the forest for about one hundred yards before I stopped to catch my breath. I was reaching for my water bottle when I thought I heard a noise. I stopped what I was doing and listened carefully. There was the sound of a wood pecker drumming rat-a-tat-tat on a hollow tree – probably a Downey. That wasn’t it. There was a red squirrel chattering away for all it was worth. That wasn’t it. Some crows were cawing from trees deeper in. No, not them. I thought for a moment that it could have been some other aviation species but I’d never heard a bird call like it in my life, and I was pretty much an expert on bird vocalizations. (Ask anyone, they’ll tell you.) A quarter of a mile away I heard a farmer’s tractor out in a field. Definitely, not that. What the heck? Was it my imagination? Not likely. I wasn’t prone to flights of fancy, but I took a minute anyway, did some breathing exercises and talked myself into calming down. The woods remained quiet except for sounds that should be there. Maybe I was just imagining the whole thing.

I shrugged and started to take a drink when the sound came back again, clear and pure, swirling through all of the other woodland noises. I realized, then, what I was hearing – the melodic, drifting notes of a flute; a wooden flute, like an alto recorder, I guessed, and they were coming from nearby. I listened carefully, looking around both in front of me and behind before discovering, even more perplexingly, they were coming from somewhere above me – way up in the trees. What the hell? This was beginning to get strange and I started to get nervous, wondering what was going on, not liking it one little bit that I wasn’t in control of the situation. I looked up, searching through the tangled branches nearby trees. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the diffuse forest light before I finally found the source. There, hidden high in the branches of a big oak tree was, of all things, a little house. A tree house to be exact, and sitting comfortably on a branch outside the front door was a guy playing the flute. He must have been watching me the entire time, because when he saw me look up, he stopped playing and laughed out loud. It was a boisterous, joyful laugh, like he had just played the funniest joke in the world on someone. Well, he did. The joke was on me. I was shocked to say the least and then, for one pissed off moment, I was mad that the woods that I thought I’d have all to myself had been invaded by another human. But the anger quickly passed and was replaced by something completely different – interest. Extreme interest, to be exact. What in the world was this guy doing up there anyway? As I was mulling over the possibilities, he did something that surprised me even more – he waved. Then called out, “Hey there friend, what’s new?

What a thing to say! I felt like I had just stepped into a nursery rhyme and the words There was an old man who lived in a tree actually appeared for a moment in my brain. But I quickly put them aside to focus on the reality of the here and now and what was really happening.

I’m a cautious person. Normally, at this point, I would have said to hell with it and hustled my ass out of there on my way to get cell reception so I could call the cops or a park ranger or anyone in authority who could come in and rid the woods of this obvious interloper – someone who was probably deranged and a possible menace to society to boot. I pictured how  people would congratulate me on performing a public service by blowing the whistle on the guy. Who knows, I might even get an award or a plaque of some kind. But something stopped me. I didn’t make a move, only stood there looking up at him. He just seemed too…what would the word be to describe him? Gentle looking, maybe. Or non-threatening. Something like that. At any rate, I decided to stay put and instead of calling in the Mounties, I looked at him for a moment and then surprised myself by calling back, “Not a lot (in answer to his question). What’s new with you?”

And he laughed again, more loudly this time, “Lots, my friend. Lots and lots.”

The first word that popped into my mind was this: Wow.

He definitely had my attention. As I was standing in the forest, wondering what to do next, he surprised me by calling back, “Hey there, friend, do you want to come and visit? The world looks pretty nice from up here.”

Well, that was certainly an unexpected request. I have to admit that my thought of taking off and calling the authority’s was all but gone. There was something about him that was intriguing – an innocence, of sorts, I guess was the best way to describe it. I am normally, well, check that, always, a very deliberate person, not spontaneous at all, and usually don’t like to try anything new until I’ve researched the hell out of it. (It took me two years to decide on the perfect lawn mower to purchase.) But I surprised myself by deciding to take a chance and take him up on his offer. I’m glad I did.

“Sure,” I called up to him, immediately wondering if I was doing the right thing. I pictured Lee and my friends, Steve, Amid and Kevin at work all shaking their heads, pointing their fingers at me and admonishing me to ‘Ride like hell away from that fruitcake,’ or words to that effect. But I put my (and their) concerns aside. “How do I get up there?” I asked, making it a point of looking around.

“Just a second.” He got up from his sitting position on his branch and put his flute in a satchel he carried across his chest. Then he jumped down to a branch below (rather nimbly, I might add) and grabbed a rope ladder that I hadn’t seen nestled among some twigs and leaves. “He you go, young fellow,” he said, lowering it down, “Use this.”

And I did, first leaning my bike against the trunk, and then climbing the thirty feet or so up through the branches wondering as I pulled myself along rung by rung higher into the forest canopy what I could possibly be getting myself into. But desire for personal safety was outweighed by my curiosity – I wanted to find out more about this odd man who lived in a tree. Plus, I was pretty confident I could defend myself just fine (due to my years of training in karate and jujitsu). Now that I think about it, though, I’m not sure how effective those skills would have been if I’d been attacked in an tree and had to fight while standing on a narrow branch encumbered by twigs and leaves grabbing at me. Fortunately I didn’t have worry about finding out. It was soon apparent I had zero reason for concern.

He encouraged me during my climb with, “You’re doing great!” and “Keep it up, you’ve almost made it!” And when I got to the branch the rope was attached to he was there to greet me with a hearty, “You did it, friend! Good of you to join me!” He was a cheerful fellow (I could literally see the exclamation marks at the end of his sentences) and more open and friendly to me, a complete stranger, than I myself have been to anyone in my entire life, loved ones and friends included.

I have to say that his easy familiarity with me was kind of unnerving, but I put that all aside as I pulled myself to a sitting position and looked around (hanging on tightly to the branch, I might add). The view was spectacular. I was looking out through a leafy, green world to the newly plowed fields beyond and down into a woodland forest untouched by human development (I didn’t feel I needed to count Simon’s tree house). There was a scent of spring in the air and the world around us was coming alive after the burden of a long Minnesota winter. All of those things, plus the fact I was immediately charmed by the guy, had a lot to do with why I stayed up there that first time for as long as I did. That’s right, I said, The first time. I went back quite often during the next year – he was that interesting to be with. Plus, he was easy to talk to, which made the visits that much more pleasurable and fun to look forward to. I wasn’t used to a lot of fun in my life until then, and, frankly, didn’t miss it. Us know-it-alls didn’t make time in our lives for those kinds of things. Life was just too serious. Simon showed me there was a different way of looking at the world.

He told me his name was Simon Neiterrider and I introduced myself as Dave Hackburn. I guessed him to be in his early forties, around my age. But I found out later I was way wrong. He was ten years older, he just didn’t look it. He showed me inside his tree house, or ‘my home away from home,’ as he put it, on that first visit. It was a tidy eight foot by four foot square and about four feet high with a peaked roof and shingles. It was built, he told me, from scraps of lumber he’d scrounged throughout the area. You might imagine it looking like a piece of crap shack a bunch of short attention span nine year boys would have built but it wasn’t. It was solidly constructed, the boards were all planed and sanded smooth and fit tightly together, and all the wood was secured in place with screws instead of nails. He even attached small branches to the sides to help camouflage it. All in all, his little home was as worthy as any room or house I’d ever been in, just smaller. Inside he had colorful blankets and soft pillows (for sitting on) and a sleeping bag on the floor, a small book shelf, a little cooking stove (for tea, he told me) and even a few pictures hanging on the walls. There was a door on one end and three windows on each of the other walls that let in some soft light, bringing the outdoors even closer to him. In short, his tree house was snug and homey, like something out of a child’s fairy tale, except this was real life.

Simon was nearly six feet tall and very thin, which I suppose was a good thing given his living circumstances. He had a long beard, long dark brown hair he tied back in a ponytail and deep set amber eyes. He wore an Amish style straw hat, and had on tan cargo shorts along with a colorful orange and green tie-dyed tee shirt. He was barefoot and he appeared strong and fit and very serene.

I had a ton questions to ask him, once I got used to being up in the tree, not to mention the obvious fact that I was sitting on a branch next to a guy who looked like Gandalf or what’s his name, the headmaster of Hogwarts. He wasn’t shy at all, though, but was very talkative, happily answering every question I asked.

“O, yes, my friend, fire away. I’ve nothing but time,” he told me with a chuckle after we made ourselves comfortable on the branch outside his door. I still was conscious of hanging on tightly, but was slowly getting used to the gentle, swaying motion of the tree and the fact that birds were flitting around me without a care in the world. Suddenly I realized I, too, had time, after glancing at my watch and noting that I was missing the Twins game. What the hell, this was way better than baseball.

Also, in the back of my mind, I was thinking what a great story I was going to have to tell my wife and friends when I got back. No one would believe it. I had the feeling I was going to have it over everyone I knew and this new experience would make me unique and a cut above them. I honestly was ready to write off my afternoon’s experience with this quirky individual as just that: nothing more than something of a lark, something to impress my wife and friends with at his expense later, over drinks and a good meal. That’s is how I thought about Simon at first – just a curious object. Someone for me to take advantage of to make myself look better in the eyes of others. I’d never been more wrong about anything in my life. I can look back now and shake my head in disappointment with myself. What an idiot I was. My self-centered egotism back then is still, to this day, embarrassing to contemplate.

Anyway, I think it was the story Simon told me that afternoon that touched me so deeply and made me start to see the world, and certainly the people I was close to, differently and in a more caring and humane way. I was probably ripe for it, also, on some level I hadn’t taped into. But Simon was able to ignite something deep inside and for that reason I am forever grateful.

You see, Simon didn’t actually live in the tree house. He only stayed there. He had a full and complete life away from the forest. As we talked that first day and got to know each other better, his story came out bit by bit. He began first off by asking me about my job. As I told him about my work and what I did for a living, I saw that he really was listening to me and paying very close attention to the words I was saying.

When I finished with my story, Simon looked out through the branches of the oak, thinking for a while, and then he sighed, “Sounds like an interesting job,” he remarked, “I guess you get to help a lot of people.”

Thinking back to the companies where I’d ‘helped them’ by suggesting they get rid of many of their employees for the express purpose of improving the corporate bottom line, thus putting good people out of work and putting stress on their home life among other things, I thought his statement was a generous observation, if not quite accurate. Simon had a way of trying to see positive things in life, but I didn’t know that then. I was thinking about his comment and feeling the first twinges of guilt when we reversed roles and he started telling me about his life.

Simon was a caregiver. He worked for an organization that provided hospice care for people who were dying. He went to his patients, whether in their homes or a care facility, and spent time with them, comforted them, bathed them, talked to them and provided a measure of gentle companionship and emotional support for them. All of his clients died, some sooner than others, but they all eventually did. It was his job to care for them in a way that was loving and humane while they were on their last earthly journey.

He spoke eloquently and compassionately. By the time he was finished, I was so touched that I had tears in my eyes. And this is coming from a man who had spent his life thinking men were weak who showed any of wimpy emotion like that.

“So, why the tree house?” I asked when I had dried my eyes and recovered enough to talk.

Simon smiled, “Well that’s another story.”

He told me that five years earlier his wife had died of ovarian cancer. He had guided her through the final stages of her life all the way to the end, being at her side when she passed away after a battle that lasted ten months.

“By the time Sara was gone, I was spent,” he told me, his eyes, now, wet with tears. “My emotions were shot. I need to regroup. I needed to get away.”

He ended up camping out at Lake Independence, a park and camp ground about ten miles further west of us. He liked the area, the forests and nearby lake, but felt he needed more privacy and time to himself. It was around this time that he came across a book about ‘Tiny homes’ and it gave him an idea. One thing led to another and he ended up spending the next couple of years finding the right spot (this one) and building his tree house.

“So you’ve lived here how long?”

“I’m on my second year,” he told me with a big smile. “I come out here once a month for a long week end. My employer has no problem giving me the time off.”

I looked around. “How do you get here?”

He laughed, “I park my car in Wayzata at the Park and Ride and pedal my bicycle out here.”

So his car was just a few miles down the road from where Lee and I lived. Strange world. I had to hand it to the guy – he certainly was resourceful.

“And your bike…?”

“Right there,” he pointed to a spot maybe twenty feet from the base of the tree. “I’ve got it covered with a camouflaged tarp and leaves. You’d never find it unless you stepped on it.”

I carefully peered down below, teeter-tottering a bit, grasping the branch I was on tightly. He was right. I had been standing almost on top of it.

Would you believe I stayed up there with him for over three hours? He even shared a snack of granola bars and bottled water with me, food items he carried up in a small backpack, telling me with a sheepish smile that he didn’t need much.

I was enjoying myself so much that I honestly didn’t want to leave. Finally, however, I felt I had taken up enough of his time, although he assured me I hadn’t, saying, “Don’t worry about it, Dave. I told you that I’ve got all the time in the world.” But I left anyway and rode home, happier than I’d been in a long time. He had a certain aura about him – a calmness that was something I had never felt from anyone in my entire life. My world was all fast paced, aggressive and cut throat. His was calm, serene and peaceful. At least when he was at the tree house. Sure he dealt with dying and death every day at work, but he had found a way to cope. Maybe he was on to something.

I didn’t tell Lee or my friends at work or anyone about Simon. I have to admit I kind of selfishly wanted to keep him to myself. At least at first. But his story touched me in a way I wasn’t prepared for and I believe it laid the groundwork of making me a better person.

The change wasn’t immediate, of course, but over time and the monthly influence of Simon’s calm and centered nature I really did start to grow (or maybe mature is a better word) and look at the world from a different perspective.

And I did try something different at work the next week. Remember I had been wired because I’d been thinking about the presentation I was going to have to give on that following Monday? The background was this: during the spring I had been working with White Cloud Foods, a turkey processing plant in southwestern Minnesota near the town of Good Thunder. After being in business for nearly twenty years, they were looking for ways to streamline their operation and improve productivity, which usually meant cutting jobs and having a company like ours come in help them to justify that they were doing the right thing. The job cutting solution was something I’d done time and time again. It was clean and easy to accomplish and not creative at all. And I was good at it. My boss liked my work and it paid well. But meeting Simon had affected me, and his impact on me was immediate.

On that Monday, I called my boss and told him I needed a little more time to fine tune parts of my pitch to him. He grudgingly gave me a week, telling me, ‘This better be worth it.’ I hoped it would be. My thought was that Simon’s approach with his clients was humane and people centered so why not come up with a solution that would help both the owners I was working with as well as their employees? During that week my team and I did some frenzied research and found out some interesting facts. We put together our findings and I presented my proposal to my boss the following Monday. My idea was to help White Cloud’s executives write new by-laws that expressed the culture they wanted their company to have. When the bylaws were complete I would devise a training program for the employees that would help the owners implement the company’s new culture. My research had shown that companies with employees who felt invested in their workplace benefited by increased productivity from those employees. Turnover was less, too, which also saved the costs of hiring and time spent bringing new people up to speed. I know it all sounds kind of ‘New Age-y’ but too bad. It made sense to me and it made sense to my boss and it made sense to White Cloud. They agreed to implement my ideas and saw positive results almost immediately.(And, I might add, continue to see growth to this day.) That’s just one example, and it didn’t work every time, but I was trying. I was off and running.

I found myself taking more time to listen to my fellow workers at my job and with friends away from work when I was in discussions. I realized that the world was a complicated place and maybe I should pay attention to other people and what they had to say (like Simon paid attention to my words that first time we talked) and not just think my opinion was the only one and the right one. In short, I became less arrogant and a lot easier to be around.

The biggest immediate change was with my kids. In many ways Simon had a simplistic view of life when he was in the tree house. “Enjoy each day,” he told me. “Make the most of your time, and make sure to appreciate your loved ones.” He didn’t have to add to his statement. I knew what he was talking about. Life was finite. It would be over with all too soon, so make the most of each and every day while you still could. Sage advice and I’m surprised it took me so long to see and accept it, but I did, wholeheartedly. I started to simply enjoy the twins and Emma and their sports and activities for what they were: fun, harmless pass times and not the most serious events in the world. Everyone, Lee included, felt less stress from me and became happier. In fact, one day she asked, somewhat jokingly, “Dave, what’s the deal with you, anyway?”

“What?” I answered back. I had just come in from playing catch with my boy, Ronny, and we were both laughing. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” she said, rubbing my back affectionately and smiling, “You just seem happier, is all.” She gave me a sly look, “I like this guy.”

I gave her a hug and she hugged me tightly back. We were connecting in a way we hadn’t for a long time. It felt good.

In the year I knew Simon I went out to visit whenever he was at his tree house, spending a few hours with him each time. I found myself looking forward to our time together, coming up with a list of things to talk with him about. And he liked talking to me, too. He told me once that he’d never met anyone like me, which I was going to take as a compliment until he added, ‘You know, someone who was once kind of a jerk, but was willing to change.’ Then he laughed and looked at me with what I could have sworn was a twinkle in his eye. I have to say that he was the most perceptive, as well as likeable, person I’d ever known in my life.

And he had a lady friend! I met her in the early fall.

“Surprise,” Simon called down when I showed up the Saturday of the weekend I knew he was going to be there. “I’d like you to met Amy.”

A pretty redhead with long hair woven into a thick ponytail popped her head out the door. “Hi there. You must be Dave. Simon’s told me a lot about you.” And she laughed a quiet, knowing laugh, like she was very comfortable being up in a tiny little structure, thirty feet off the ground, that swayed ever so slightly even on the calmest of day. Whether it was Simon’s impact on her or her influence on him, I never could tell, but I met her more than once. She was a caregiver like Simon and they were really good with each other – loving and comfortable, as well as, somewhat surprisingly, always glad to see me. Their openness and generosity was not lost on me, someone who, up until then, was more than a little selfish with what I used to call ‘my private time.’ Simon was nothing like that. Instead, he was more than willing to open up his little home in the forest to me anytime.

I even went to see him in the winter. (That’s right, when he said he went every month, he meant it.) It was fun to take my bike through the snowy trail to his tree and climb up and visit with him. Once it started snowing when I was up there and we spent a carefree hour sitting outside, getting covered with big wet flakes, watching the landscape ‘get freshened up’ as he called it. He was a peaceful man who had an almost childlike way of looking at the world. Given his chosen profession, I envied him is ability to switch gears like he did and do what he needed to keep his head on straight in a challenging job. I did what I could to emulate him.

I knew Simon for over a year. Around the Labor Day that following year he quit coming to the tree house. I didn’t see him in September or October. I started riding out every weekend, thinking maybe I was just missing him and he’d switched the times he was out there, but that wasn’t the case. By November I finally realized the sad fact – he was gone.

The second week in December, I was helping Lee and the kids put up our Christmas tree. I wasn’t my normally cheerful self and Lee asked me what was wrong. I decided it was time to talk about Simon.

“Lee, kids, come here,” I said, sitting everyone done on the couch, “I’ve got something to tell you.” They looked at me with questioning eyes, like, ‘God what’s he come with now? A chicken coup in the backyard for organic eggs? A family hiking trip along the Lake Superior Trail?’ (A couple of things I may have recently been talking about.) I took a deep breath and began to tell my family about my friend, for that’s what I felt Simon and I had become over the last year, friends. When I finished there was dead silence for about two seconds before the quiet turned into a cacophony of noise as Lee and the kids all started talking at once. At first no one believed me. To my wife and kids I was a straight as an arrow white collar consultant who was the last person they could imagine befriending a strange man that liked living in a tree house.

I finally was able to alleviate all of their concerns, which took some doing, believe me; especially Lee’s – the kids all actually thought Simon sounded different (which he was) but also ‘Kind of cool.’ Lee, for her part, god love her, came to realize the fact that, above all else, he’d had a wonderfully positive impact on me.

“I knew something was going on,” she said, shaking her head, and getting a look in her eye I knew only too well. But you should have told me sooner.” She was a little pissed off at my secrecy and I didn’t blame her. And she was right, of course. I should have told her about Simon right away.

“I just thought you’d think I was nuts,” I told her, reaching out to give her a hug, which she reluctantly accepted.

“I might have at first,” she told me, “But, I don’t like that you kept a secret from me.” She pulled back, and looked me straight in the eye, “Never again, Ok?”

She was right. “Never,” I said. “I Promise.” And I meant it.

Only one question remained – where was he now?

When I told my family that I didn’t know, it was Lee’s suggestion to investigate further. And she did. It took her about an hour of searching on line before she found his obituary. Simon had died of congestive heart failure at his home in south Minneapolis in early September. His three kids and Amy were listed as next of kin. Further research uncovered Amy’s phone number and I called her that evening, offering her my late but heartfelt condolences. She thanked me and after we had talked for a few minutes she surprised me by asking if I’d been to the tree house.

“Yes, I have,” I told her.

“Did you go inside?”

“No, why? I could tell he wasn’t there.”

“Simon wanted me to tell you that you should go up inside. He left something there for you.”

What the hell? I thanked her and we chatted a little more before I hung up, wondering what he possibly could have left me.

I found out a few days later when I rode my bike out to the woods, followed the trail to his tree and climbed up to the tree house (in the past whenever Simon vacated his little home he’d leave the rope ladder down so he could climb up it next time). The outside was much the same as when I’d last been there. I brushed some leaves away and opened the little door, going inside and letting my eyes adjust to the low light. Everything looked unchanged. I didn’t see anything that looked like something he’d left from me. I took a few minutes soaking up the last remnants of what I might now call the ‘Aura of Simon’ before I figured Amy had been mistaken.

Not really wanting to leave, I took my time, looking out the windows, watching a male cardinal flit through the branches, searching for food while I marveled at his bright red color. Then it’s mate appeared and he fed her a seed he’d found before they flew off together. The sight was intimate and strangely calming. In fact, I was so relaxed I lay back on his blankets and in a few moments fell into a deep sleep. In a little while I awoke refreshed and at peace. I made ready to leave. As much as I was enjoying the serenity of the tree house, I wanted to get home to my family. It was then that I noticed his satchel and a piece of paper on it. It was a note and it was addressed to me. Dave, it read, be good, be kind, be yourself. And, most importantly, don’t forget to play the flute. It was signed, Your Friend, Simon. I looked inside and there was his wooden flute, the flute through which the notes he played drew me to him in the first place. He must have left it and the note the last time he and I were together knowing he wouldn’t be coming back. He never even hinted that something might have been wrong. I cried then, remember the nicest man I’d ever met in my life.

I was there for a long time, reminiscing to myself about all the good, peaceful times we’d had together. When I was done, I took one last look around before I climbed down and rode home in a sort of happy-sad mood. Intellectually I knew he was gone, but I wasn’t willing to accept that stark fact. His life was a gift, a gift to me and to those he provided hospice care for and to so many others, including Amy and his family. His goodness enveloped me while he was alive and is still with me to this day. I know of no other testimony a person can leave behind that that.

Simon’s tree house has not been abandoned. I’ve taking Lee and the kids to it a few times (after swearing them all to secrecy) and I go out to it once a month, just like Simon did, although I only stay a few hours at a time. I’ve even stayed overnight once or twice, but prefer to be with my family as much as I can instead. I’m trying to talk Lee to spending the night with me sometime and she’s about half way there. I think she likes that I’m a little more daring (if that’s the right word) than I used to be. I think I’m definitely more loving and fun to be around; she and the kids will all attest to that, of that I have no doubt.

When I’m at the tree house I think about lots of things, mainly having to do with my job and my home life, and wonder if I’m doing all I can to be a decent person. I use Simon as an example to try to emulate. I’m trying to be a more open and receptive at work and a kinder and more loving husband and father at home. I know it will be a lifelong process and I’m committed to doing the best I can. I think Simon would appreciate how I am progressing.

Some may ask why I can’t or don’t think about those things at home or at work or on my bike rides and there is some merit in that. But I’ll say this: being up in an old tree, swaying gently in the breeze, close to nature and the power and beauty of a hundreds year old forest is as good place to be as any to get your head on straight, probably better. l know I’ll be coming back as long as I can, many years, hopefully. Besides, the memory of my friend Simon is still there, and I like talking to him.

And now I’ve got to get going. I’ve got a wooden flute I’m learning how to play. Eventually, I hope I can do justice to it and, who knows…maybe someday I’ll be playing along and those melodic notes will drift through the air and reach someone wandering through the forest – someone who is looking for a fresh outlook on life. Someone who just needs to be shown a different and better way. Just like Simon showed me.

 

 

 

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The Fight

“Whatever happened to you?” my wife asked, standing calmly at the door of the bathroom with her arms folded, watching.

“What the hell do you mean?” I answered, slurring my words, just before vomiting again into the toilet for what seemed like the tenth time that night. “What in god’s good name are you talking about?” I added for good measure when I was done. Then I slumped to the floor and rested my burning forehead against the cool base of the porcelain sink. It felt good. Comforting. I waited for Linda, my wife of forty-four years to come and get me up, help guide me to bed, and get me settled like she’d done so many times in the past. But she didn’t. She left me laying there for the first time in my life.

I awoke the next morning, curled next to the bath tub, freezing to death on the cold tile floor, hugging a towel that I must have pulled off the rack. It took a few minutes to come around and collect myself. Then I made an attempt to stand, weaving to my feet before grasping the tub and trying to sit on the edge where I promptly fell backwards, knocking my head on the wall and causing my stomach to heave once again. I felt a cauldron of bile bubbling around down there but nothing came up. I decided to rest. Five minutes later, after I had climbed out, rinsed my mouth in the sink, made my way down the hall, down the stairs and into the kitchen, it dawned on me that the house was eerily empty. Suddenly I was worried. Where was Linda?

It took a minute for me looking around through blurry, watery eyes before I saw the Post-it note on the counter next to the coffee pot. Enjoy your life, Dave. I’ve moved out to start over. Don’t bother calling. What the hell was this all about? I read it over and over again, not believing what she had written. With shaking hands I took filter out of the box, fit it into the basket, put in the coffee and water and turned the pot on. Then I went to the kitchen table by the window overlooking the backyard. I looked outside, barely registering the blue sky and bright October sunshine. Then saw the other note she left me: Whatever happened to you? Through the fog in my brain the words she had written seemed to ring a bell. Did she say the same thing to me last night? Outside the window, chickadee’s were feeding at the feeder and juncos were scratching around on the ground. I watched them for while, for a long while, actually, before I realized I was crying.

I never told Linda about Danny and I don’t know why. A few months earlier I gone (against my better judgment) to my fiftieth high school class reunion and bumped into him and we’d started talking. Danny was still as lean and muscular as he was back in twelfth grade when his nickname was The Snake because he was so quick to strike. He was a fighter, is what he was, and was tough to boot, often taking down two or three guys when his little gang fought other gangs in the Minneapolis area. Rumor was that he never even carried a knife, preferring to use his fists instead, liking, I guess, the idea of man-to-man combat where the toughest and quickest usually won. And that’s what Danny was: the toughest and the quickest.

I should be clear here – he and I were never friends, but we knew each other due to an incident after gym class when three guys from a rival gang in our school bushwhacked Danny in the boy’s locker room.  When I came upon them they were pounding the crap out of him as he valiantly fought back, barely holding his own. I didn’t like that it wasn’t a fair fight and I jumped in to help  (my first and only fist fight in my life) and landed a lucky punch to the jaw of a jerk named Ed, knocking him on his ass, breaking my middle finger. That punch turned the tide in Danny’s favor and he went after them with a renewed and sustained furry that caused the three hoods to run off. Danny chased after them and I, grimacing in agony, gamely followed behind, unable to do anything more than not scream due to the pain.

“Fuck off,” he yelled, flipping the bird at them as they ran through a door that lead outside. Then he stopped and turned to me with a big smile, the beginnings of a shiner and a little bit of blood dripping from his nose, “Wow, what a bunch of assholes, right Dave Baby?”

I was shocked because I didn’t realize he knew my name. “Yeah,” I said, groaning gingerly cradling my hand.

Danny took one look at it and said, “Well, buddy, let’s get you to the nurse. I think you broke that motherfucker.”

Profanity aside, I appreciated his concern, and let him lead me to Miss Borchert’s office where she put a split on my finger and taped it up, looking a askance at each of us, fortunately not questioning too much my story that I’d broken it falling down the stairs (nor the tiny bit of blood still leaking from Danny’s nose).

When we left and were out in the hall, he laughed good naturedly, slapped me on the back, (thankfully respecting my throbbing hand) and thanked me again before heading off in a different direction. That was it. We never hung out together since we weren’t even close to running in the same crowd, but he and I did nod and say Hi to each other occasionally in the hallway between classes, but that was all. After I graduated I never saw or heard from him again. Not for fifty years.

The reunion was held in the banquet room of the International Market Square in south Minneapolis. I’d made my rounds, greeting the few people I knew, finding I didn’t have much to say and even less in common, wondering why I’d even bothered to come to the thing in the first place. The answer was that I guess I was just curious about the people I’d gone to school with back in the late sixties: what had they ended up doing with their lives, what were they doing now – that kind of thing. If it sounds like a fool’s errand and a waste of time to you, you are not alone. Linda, for her part, could have cared less. Not only did she go to a different high school, but she wasn’t a fan of those kinds of reunions anyway, finding them a waste of time and preferring, as she often said, to ‘Live in the present.’ Now, standing by myself against a wall off to the side, watching the crowd start to get loose and loud, her words were beginning to ring true and make a lot of sense.

I was looking toward the bar wondering if I should get my third JD and coke, chug it down and then go home, when someone clapped me firmly on the shoulder. “Dave Baby, is that you buddy?”

I turned and faced a tall, lean looking man in clean jeans, boots and a black tee-shirt that revealed a series of tattoos on both of his arms. He was smooth shaven and had swept back gray hair with a prominent widows peak. He smiled, showing white teeth against a tan, outdoorsy complexion. He looked healthy and fit. It was Danny.

“Yeah, it is,” I stammered, It’s me, Dave,” I added, clarifying my name. (I never really cared for Dave Baby, like in Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, a ’50’s musician I actually kind of liked.) “How are you doing?” I smiled a little, not knowing what to expect from him, and politely put out my hand.

He shook it firmly and smiled back at me, friendly like, “Life is good, my man. Real good. It’s nice to see you.” Then he stepped back, frowning, and looked me over once or twice, seeming to make a decision as he did so. “Let me get you a beverage, Dave, you look like you could use it.”

Well, that was unexpected. I laughed a nervous little laugh, “Why’s that?”

“I can just tell,” he said and motioned to the guy behind the bar, “Could you please get him…” he looked at me and I said, “A JD and coke.” He made a motion to the bartender, “and I’ll have a bottled water.” When our drinks came, he put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to an empty table where we sat down. He looked around, the crowd building, music blaring, people glad handing long lost acquaintances, laughing and cutting up, just like a half a century earlier when we were naive kids in senior high. It was beginning to remind me of a high school dance after a Friday night football game except fifty years had passed.

As if reading my thoughts, Danny said, “Man, what a zoo, right?”

“Agreed,” I said. He smiled again, and we clinked our drinks. Then, with that common ground established, we started talking and catching up.

Danny had served in Vietnam, married a Vietnamese woman while stationed there, came home, settled, had two kids, raised a family, started and ran his own business and had lived a complete and full life. I had gone to college, avoided the draft with a student deferment, graduated with a degree in business, got a job working for a nationally known insurance company, had three kids, raised a family and lived a complete and full life. Almost like Danny’s right? Well, not quite.

After we had talked for a while, filling each other in on how our lives had played out, Danny sat back, took a sip of his water and looked at me. In my mind I pictured him seeing a balding, jowly guy about fifteen pounds over the optimum weight for my five foot ten inch medium build frame. I must have looked soft to him and I probably was. Well, forget probably, I was soft, not ever feeling a need to exercise and keep in shape. Not like Linda, who regular jogged, did yoga and worked out with her girl friends at the health club she’d attended for years. But he ignored my appearance and instead got to the point, “I’ve got one question for you, Dave.”

“What’s that?” I asked, feeling loose and more friendly now with our conversation and the accumulative affects of the JD and no food. I was also glad he had dropped the ‘Baby’ from my nickname, letting us off the hook to be able to move away from our high school years.

“Are you happy?”

Well…Whatever question I’d been expecting it wasn’t that and it definitely caught me by surprise. “Sure,” I answered quickly, “Why wouldn’t I be?” I added, feeling a little defensive.

And there was the rub. The big question. It’s the question that came back to me now that I was sitting alone in my kitchen with a note from my dear wife telling me she was leaving me. I’d given Danny what I told myself at the time was an honest answer. I’d told him I was happy, my reasoning being simple: I had my job, my wife, my kids, even a few grandkids. Who wouldn’t be? The thought came back to me now two months later, and through the alcohol fog in my brain, I realized the question had some merit. A lot of merit, actually. Was I happy with my life?

I crumpled up the note Linda left me and tossed it on the table. The hell with it, I told myself, suddenly feeling the need to quit thinking and probing too deeply into the inner mysteries of my existence. I needed to do something – anything – anything to escape my thoughts, which were rapidly turning into a whirlwind of conflicting arguments. I turned off the coffee maker, poured a mug, drank it down a couple of scalding gulps, instantly regretting my rash move. Trying to ease the burn, I rinsed my mouth under cold water from the faucet in the sink. Then I went outside to take a walk only to return in a few moments when I realized how disgusting my vomit stained, filthy clothes were. My shirt and pants were streaked with the remnants of last night’s toilet bowl hugging experience and, on top of that, I didn’t smell too good. I went upstairs to change and glanced at myself in the bathroom mirror: bags under my red eyes and gray stubble on my ashen face. I didn’t look too good, either. I decided to take a long, hot shower, hoping it would help my improve my mood and ease my sadness at Linda having left me. It did neither.

Linda and I have lived in Long Lake, a small town of just under two thousand located about twenty five miles from downtown Minneapolis, for over thirty years. Our home is a story and a half bungalow built in the 30’s. I love it and so does (did?) Linda. It has stucco siding with olive green trim around the windows and doors painted rusty red. Trust me, it looks nice. We converted the front and back yards to flower gardens during the first couple of years after we’d moved in with only a slight nod to islands of green grass for accent. People often stop on the street to admire how pretty everything looks and I have to agree with them. Our married life together has been a labor of love and commitment and it’s been reflected in our quaint, well kept home and our beautiful, colorful gardens. I couldn’t believe it was all starting to implode – just because of me.

I was thinking about all of those things after I was finally as presentable as I was going to be on this first morning of my life without Linda by my side. I went back outside and made my way down the driveway and turned left, walking slowly, still getting my bearings after last night’s drunken debacle. The sunny day helped. So did the cool October weather. I guessed the temperature was in the high forties. Was I really going to have to give up everything Linda and I had worked our entire marriage for? Our home together? Our security of being with each other? Our love? Ok, sure, she’d left me, so I could keep the house and maybe find a way to carry on by myself, but what would be the point? Would it be worth it to go on the living rest of my life alone in the home Linda and I had shared for so many years, reliving all the memories of our life together? A life I was now finding out she wasn’t happy in (at least with me it). It was an experience I didn’t savor. The truth of the matter was that I liked being married to Linda. She, however, was now making it clear she no longer liked being married to me.

Thirty minutes of walking brought me to a small, secluded park on the south shore of Long Lake, the lake our town is named after. It measures a mile long by a quarter of a mile wide and the park I was in was as good a place as any to mull over my fate. I went to a wooden bench and sat down, staring across the water, seeing nothing but my own swirling thoughts. Thoughts that weren’t helping me find any answers as to what I should do next.

When I had talked with Danny at the reunion one thing stuck out more than anything and that was this: when he had asked me if was happy, I felt I had stumbled with the answer. In retrospect I can say that I honestly wasn’t sure if I was all that happy, even though I’d told him I was. But here’s the thing: when Danny said he was happy, he really was. He honestly and truly meant it. He’d started his own auto-rebuilding business when he’d come back from Vietnam and it flourished. His specialty was working on classic cars from the 50’s and 60’s and he, apparently, was good at it, although he didn’t toot his own horn about his success at all (sorry about the pun).

“When I started it was just me and my shop in the garage attached to our home,” he told me that night, “Now I own a good sized garage in south Minneapolis and have three employees, plus my oldest son who pretty much runs things now,” he sat back and sipped his water. “He’s a way better mechanic than I ever was.”

I liked that he loved his work and took pride in what he had accomplished and I told him so, “Sounds like it’s been a good life, for you,” I said, “Things worked out really well.”

He grimaced at my observation and told me he’d had his share of ‘issues’ as he put it, using his fingers to make quote marks in the air. “I don’t want to belabor the point,” he said, “but I had problems with drugs and alcohol when I came back from ‘Nam. I had anger issues, too, with my temper and fighting and all that. Thankfully Kim (his wife, he’d told me earlier) has stuck by me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

I couldn’t believe his candor with me; I was only a guy, a person who, more than anything, was a lucky punch and a broken finger away from being a complete stranger to him.

I reached for my JD and coke and then stopped myself. He looked at me and smiled. “Go ahead, it doesn’t bother me. I’ve been clean and sober for thirty two years.”

Something about the way he said it, though, made me stop. He wasn’t judging me, but the way he looked at me made me think that he knew something I didn’t know. Maybe I was drinking too much – and, more to the point, relying on it too much. I pushed my drink aside and didn’t touch another drop that night.

I liked that Danny had his own business – something he believed in and had a passion for. When I was younger, growing up around an uncle and grandfather who enjoyed fishing and hunting and spending time camping in the woods, I was influenced by them to want to have a career working outdoors. Like them, I enjoyed being outside and saw myself going to college and becoming a plant biologist or something like that. Then I could be outside, work at a job I enjoyed and earn a living while I was at it. Nice idea but it never happened. Why? Nothing went wrong per se, but life offered me another path and I took it. When I was at the University of Minnesota I met Linda and we got married right after we graduated. Then we had three kids in quick succession. I decided while she was pregnant with our first child that maybe the best thing I could do was to get a job making more money than a Level 1 Biologist working for the State of Minnesota could make. I answered an ad for an entry level insurance sales position for the largest insurance company in the upper Midwest and was hired immediately. The work was steady, I was good at it, I earned a decent salary and, just like that, I was on my way. But, now, sitting on my bench by the lake, I remembered at the time Linda had questioned my decision.

“You’re sure you want to give up your dream?” she had asked me. “You don’t have to, you know. After the kids are older, I’ll go back to work (she was just starting out as a fourth grade teacher, and good at it). We can get by until then if we’re diligent with our spending. I’m sure we can. We’ll just budget a little bit tighter, that’s all. Above everything else, I want you to be happy.”

Linda’s prophetic words were now coming back to me. I hadn’t so much as forgotten about them in all these intervening years, as ignored them. When the kids were old enough, she had made good on her promise: she went back to her teaching job and enjoyed a long and successful career in the Minneapolis school system. She was beloved by both her students and other teachers, once having won Minnesota Teacher of the Year, an award that, really, said it all. She was exceptional, but humble, saying in her acceptance speech at the time, that she owed it all to the amazing students she was privileged to teach and to the wonderful school she worked for. She was right and modest – two characteristics worthy of admiration. I, on the other hand, had chosen to stay with the security of my insurance job, telling myself that I was doing the right thing for my wife and kids. I was neither bright, nor modest, and certainly didn’t win any awards. I just did my job, telling myself everything was fine and I was happy.

But was I?

A little while after Danny and I had been talking, a nice looked dark haired woman came up and poked him jokingly in the muscle, “Hey there, big guy,” she grinned at him. He turned to her and smiled a bright smile.

“Well, there you are. Hi sweetheart. Dave, I’d like you to met my better half.” He stood up and gave her a big hug. “This is my wife, Kim.”

I stood, too, and we shook hands. She was warm and friendly, and I could tell there was still a connection there between the two of them, even after all these years. I could see it in their eyes and how they were with each other. Their love and affection was still strong. It was good to see. They started talking about how crazy the reunion was getting and I sat back and watched them, appreciating how happy and comfortable they were with each other. I was glad for them, but also slightly envious. I realized I was missing Linda. What was she doing right now at home? Probably working on a knitting project or one of her other many hobbies. I felt myself smiling inside, looking forward to going home to be with her. She was a wonderful person and I was lucky to have her.

Danny had told me earlier that Kim was the rock of their family.

“She’s the glue, man. Without her, I’d be nothing.” He looked hard at me then, making me remember the way he’d fought those three hoods in the locker room all those years ago. Then he told me something that now came back to me as I was sitting on that bench by the lake, “A good woman is hard to find,” he told me. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but too bad. It’s the truth. If you find one, don’t let her go. That’s what I’ve done with Kim. Sure, I made mistakes, but I’ve tried to deal with them and put them behind me. And I’ve tried to do everything I can to be a good husband to her and do everything I can to keep her.”

I’ll never forget the look in his eye as he stared at me – the look of a fighter. It was deep. It was clear. And he meant every word.

It came to me now that Linda had also been the glue for our family. She had been there for each of our three kids’ birthdays, PTA meetings, sicknesses, marriages (and one divorce), everything. Me, I had deluded myself that I was the ‘bread-winner,’ an archaic term if there ever was one, and taken a backseat to family life, letting Linda shoulder the burden: one she accepted without complaint, I might add, because she had loved the kids and had loved being a mother. Plus, on top of all that, she had worked full time. God, I’d been a jerk.

Why was all of this coming to me now? I think that Danny had helped put things in perspective. He had done something I hadn’t done. He had acknowledged his faults as a person with his temper and dependence on drugs and booze, accepted them, done something about them and, as a result, become a better person for it all. He had realized that there was more to life than just himself; he had Kim, his kids and his business, things to be proud of. But, more to the point, he realized how important they all were to him. I, on the other hand, had hidden my unhappiness by withdrawing from my kids and my wife, eventually choosing to ‘drown my sorrows in alcohol’ as they say. I had missed the point completely. What a pathetic, selfish idiot I was. No wonder Linda had left me.

I sat back and looked at the lake. The water was like glass and a flotilla of mallards were nearby, resting on their way in migration south. A flock of geese flew overhead, their boisterous honking filling the air. The fall leaf change was in full swing with trees dotting the hillsides exploding in kaleidoscope colors of reds, yellows and oranges. Late blooming purple asters shown in the sun and cattails along the shoreline were bursting with seed. Life was happening all around me, something that I used to appreciate, even love, when I was younger, and had apparently spent years and years forgetting how to do. Instead, here I was, sitting alone, feeling sorry for myself, on the verge of losing the most important person in my life.

I didn’t like that I was such a pathetic figure. No wonder Linda had said good-bye our marriage, our home and me and moved on to start a new chapter in her life – one that didn’t include her husband. I pictured what Danny would say I if I called him and asked what I should do. He say, “Get your head out of your ass and call your wife and apologize.”

It was the best advice I’d ever heard and I silently thanked him for it.

I reached for the phone in my pocket, took it out and dialed her number, ignoring what her note had said about not calling, wondering if the fact I did so would count against me. The hell with it. I had nothing to lose. I listened nervously as it rang once, then a second time. On the third ring she picked up only saying, “What?” I tried to gauge her mood, but couldn’t. Was she mad at me, or sick of me, or just plan tired of me? Probably all three, but I just couldn’t tell.

“Hi. It’s me,” I said, and rushed on before she had a chance to hang up, “Please hear me out. I just want to apologize for everything. I’ve been an idiot and I know I don’t deserve you, but I’m so sorry about so many things. I want to talk with you. I want to change. I want to try and make it up to you. I love you and don’t want to lose you. Please forgive me.” My words spilled out without my thinking or planning. I only knew they came from my heart, and every one of them was true.

And I was quiet then, not sure what else to say. In the corner of my eye I caught a movement. It was a beautiful orange and black monarch butterfly, landing delicately on one of the nearby purple asters. I knew it was there to feed and then rest for a few moments before continuing on its remarkable journey thousands of miles across the country to Mexico where it would spend the winter before beginning its journey home. The monarch’s beauty and frailty and strength have always been a wonder to me. I took it as a sign…a sign that maybe Linda would forgive me and we could pick up the pieces of our life and start afresh. Together. Was that too much to ask for? Or was I deluding myself? Had I drifted too far from the core of our marriage and the love we once had? I saw in my mind an image of Danny nodding his head, saying, ‘You did the right thing by expressing yourself like you did. Now you have to show her. Remember, actions speak louder than words.’ Yeah, I know it was another cliché’ but that didn’t matter – he’d be right. Danny’s life had been all about action. First by fighting with his fists when he was young and then by fighting with his heart by changing for the better as he got older. Could I do that? Could I change? I needed to and wanted to and it was clear I was going to have to if I wanted to become a better person and better husband and keep Linda in my life.

I pictured myself talking to her in the near future and listening closely to her and learning to appreciate anew her and the life she had created for herself (irrespective of me) with her friends and interests and hobbies. I pictured myself paying more attention to her, learning to listen to her concerns and doing what I could to make her life better. I pictured taking her to her favorite restaurant more than once a year (and finding new ones that she would like.) I saw myself doing whatever I could to show to her that I still loved her and wanted to be the kind of guy that she married and believed in all those years ago. I wanted to prove to her that I would never drink again. I wanted to be her friend. And, especially, I wanted to show her that she could count on me to be a dependable and trustworthy husband for the rest of our lives together.

If she would only give me one chance, I was sure I could prove it to her.

And held my breath, then, waiting for her to say something.

Finally she spoke, “Dave?”

“Yes?”

“Didn’t you read my note?” And she hung up.

I read somewhere once that the pathway to hell was paved with good intentions. Was I naive to think I could talk my long suffering wife into believing that I could change my life and be a better person on the strength of a fifteen second phone call? Most definitely the answer was Yes – I was that naive and probably stupid to boot, as was born out by her quick and decisive answer. But I saw Danny’s face in my mind’s eye encouraging me not to give up. Was I man enough to step up and fight for my wife and our marriage?

I got up from the bench with fresh resolve and left the park, my footsteps moving ever faster as I headed home. I had a lot of work to do: I was going to clean the house from top to bottom, dump out all my booze bottles and have a long talk with myself. I had to figure out the next steps in my fight to win Linda back. I knew the road wouldn’t be easy, but that was all right. I was willing to face the future. I wanted to change. I wanted to learn how to be a better person, one Linda would want to be with. This was a fight of a different nature than when Danny and I fought those hoods back in high school. Back then it was for some misdirected idea of pride. Now it was my wife, for the person I valued most in my life. My decision was made. I was committed to doing all it took to win her back. I didn’t want to lose her.

I hurried on, eager to move forward. The fight had just begun.

 

 

The Train Solution

He didn’t like it at all. Not one little bit, the way the young couple on their fancy bikes were smiling and looking so over-the-top happy. Look at her, dressed for the cool fall weather in a dark blue top and purple sleeveless insulated vest and her black tights with lavender, pink and white swirls. So nauseatingly perky and cheerful. And the guy pedaling behind her, with his stupid grin and super white teeth that even from where he watched across the street, seemed to gleam unnaturally – what was the deal with him, anyway? They were both bothering the hell out of him and he figured he knew exactly what that irritating happiness was all about. Probably had sex last night and then again this morning, he thought to himself, feeling only the tiniest twinge of envy, well bully for them. Then out for a bicycle ride in the late afternoon sunshine, with their lovemaking afterglow on display for all to see…it was starting to make him sick.

Grumbling, Jack Tremaine got out of his car, beeped it locked and walked to the corner where he waited impatiently for the light to change. He glared at the traffic streaming by from both directions, daring each and every driver to look at him so he could stare back and mentally give them a good piece of his mind. None did. What a bunch of cowards, he thought to himself, inwardly smirking. He would have easily shown them who was boss.

When the light turned green, he crossed the street and went into the little coffee shop on the corner called The Chicken Scratch Cafe which was the most idiotic name for a place to sit and drink coffee that he could ever imagine, but there you had it. There was no accounting for some people’s taste when it came to putting their creativity (or lack of it) on display for all to see. But he and Lynn used to frequent the cafe on a regular basis, so what the hell, he sighed, and tried not to let it bug him. But deep down it still did.

“I’ll have a mug of English Breakfast, please,” he told the young, eyebrow pieced, ear studded, androgynous looking guy behind the counter. “And one of those gluten free peanut butter cookies while you’re at it,” he added, seeing a cellophane wrapped stack of his old time favorites on a plate off to the side. Then he silently counted under his breath while the guy decided at that very moment to begin telling the young woman he worked with about the ‘Wicked cool night’ he’d had last night. On and on he yapped at his co-worker (wasn’t she supposed to be working instead of sitting around listening to this idiot babble like an out of control bubble making machine?), regaling her with his observations on life and music at some stupid bar he’d been to. Here it was nearly three in the afternoon and the goofball probably had just gotten up and stumbled into work, still hung-over. God, the incompetence of some people.

“That’ll be six-fifteen,” the kid said, while still talking to her. He hadn’t yet made eye contact with Jack.

Man, what a…, Jack thought himself, tossing down seven dollars and unable to come up with a comment derogatory enough to do justice to complete his observation. Normally he would have said to keep the change, but he was in a foul mood, and he tapped his fingers on the counter impatiently waiting for his money, smirking to himself when it appeared the kid had trouble coming up the how much was owed.

“It’s eight-five cents, pal,” Jack said, feeling for a moment like kind of a jerk, but it quickly passed. So what, anyway? Why should he even care about some bonehead who couldn’t count, couldn’t make change and only cared about partying until all hours of the morning when he should be paying attention to good, honest paying customers like himself? There ought to be a law.

“Yeah, right,” the kid said, reddening a little on his neck, handing him three quarters and a dime, “Gottcha.”

“Geez, there is no hope for this world,” Jack muttered under his breath, taking his tea and his cookie and making his way to a tiny table for two by the window.

The coffee shop was small and looked out onto the corner at the intersection of two busy streets in a quaint, older residential neighborhood in southwest Minneapolis. Jack and Lynn liked to come to it after browsing in the used bookstore next door. They’d get some books, come to The Chicken Scratch, grab a table, have tea and a snack and talk over their purchases. In fact, this table by the window was their favorite. Often, when they’d finished, they’d go for a walk hand in hand along tree lined sidewalks, enjoying looking at the older, well cared for homes nearby, some of which were built a hundred years earlier. Those were good times. Good times that now were over and done with. Had been for six months, in fact, ever since Lynn had died after a short but intense fight with cancer. He missed her every day. God, what a miserable life. He left his tea untouched as he stared out the window, not registering at thing, his thoughts turned inward to memories of his cherished wife and the life they’d had together.

Behind the counter, Ryan motioned to Abby. “What’s with that guy?”

“Yeah, the dude was rude, right?” Abby said back to him laughing a little at her joke.

“I’m serious,” he answered. “He’s been coming in for a while now by himself. Wonder what happened to the woman he was always with?

“I remember her,” Abby said, suddenly a little embarrassed by her comment. “She was friendly and always wore those long dresses. She told me once she made them herself. They seemed good together.”

“Yeah, reading their books and stuff.”

“What do you think? They split up?”

“They seem too old for that.”

“Yeah,” Abby said, “Something must have happened, though. Kind of sad, right?”

“Maybe she died,” Ryan said, thinking about his grandfather who had recently passed away, less than a year after his wife, Ryan’s grandmother, had died.

“Maybe,” Abby added, she too now starting to remember a lost loved one; in this case her father who had died in a car accident when she was only ten.

Whatever it was with the guy, it got them both thinking: in addition to lost loved ones, they’d each been through romantic break ups. They were never easy, and both of them hoped someday they’d met someone who they could be with for years and years, instead of weeks and weeks. Lost in their thoughts, Ryan and Abby watched the door and their customers, waiting for more business, suddenly both a little sad.

The guy with the tea and cookie sat at a table by the window looking out to the sidewalk and street beyond, his mug untouched. He was old and gray and had unkempt, stringy hair that hung limp over his collar. He was skinny, unshaven and wore baggy blue jeans and a worn jean jacket over a red flannel shirt. If Ryan and Abby hadn’t been seeing him on and off over the previous year and with the nice woman he used to always be with, they’d think right now that he was one step above being a derelict. Maybe half a step. They knew he wasn’t but he certainly looked forlorn and down on his luck.

“Let’s keep an eye on him,” Abby suggested, after a few minutes thinking about her father and now trying shake her blue mood.

“Good idea,” Ryan agreed, somewhat distracted, still thinking about his grandparents. He turned to Abby, “Did I ever tell you about my grandfather?”

Jack was sick of life and sick to death of people telling him that things would get better. He was especially sick of people telling him that you just had to go through Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grieving – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. You only needed to be patient and things would eventually turn around and get better. It was all a bunch of crap. He’d held his dear wife in his arms as she passed away in the hospital bed he’d brought in so she could live out the last days of her life in a modicum of comfort in their home – the home they had shared for thirty-seven years, a large part of their forty-seven year marriage. So he didn’t deny that she was dead. Nor was he angry, not anymore. It wasn’t her fault the cancer had taken her so quickly. Bargaining and depression just seemed like a waste of time and that last stage, acceptance, well what good would that do him? Accept that his wife, his best friend, yes, he could even say his ‘soul mate,’ if there was such a thing…sure why not accept the fact that she was now gone from his life forever, leaving him unbearably sad and alone and all by himself. Sure, he thought to himself, I accept it. So what?

He took a sip of his tea, barely tasting it, and sat looking out the window some more. Seeing nothing.

Ryan and Abby had worked at the cafe for two years, having been hired within a month of each other. He was twenty two and she was twenty five. Where he was thin, almost gangly and liked his piercings, she was short, liked tattoos and had medium length hair she died purple. Each of them favored black clothes. They had developed a friendship over those two years and could talk with each other about almost anything. And they’d waited on lots of customers. Some of them strange. All with a story to tell. The more they watched the guy by the window, the more they wondered about him.

“You think he’s Ok?” Ryan asked. He had just finished getting a coffee to go for a young mother with her infant daughter, who was tucked comfortably into her stroller sound asleep wrapped in a pink blanket with a stuffed bear cuddled to her chest.

“Hard to say,” Abby said, waving good-bye to the mom and her daughter, “Should I go and check on him? See if he’s Ok?”

Ryan grabbed a damp towel and wiped down the counter, thinking. “No, give him some space. Let’s just keep an eye on him.”

“Sounds good,” Abby said, and she sat down on the stool behind the counter, changing the subject, “So tell me about Mickey Finn’s last night. What band was playing? Were they any good?”

Jack had come out of his quiet reverie and now sipped on his lukewarm tea and nibbled on his cookie while he watched the world on display outside the window, silently seething. God, people are such idiots. Look at that stupid guy with his little dog. He’s put a red and white stripped sweater on it, and probably thinking it ‘looks so darling’ when, in fact, it makes the poor animal look like it belongs in two-bit circus doing back flips and dancing and prancing on its back legs while following around some ridiculous clown with an overblown smile and a honking horn. Nice life for the dog. He shook his head in disgust, his gaze falling on a mother pushing her daughter in a stroller who had just left the cafe. Look at her, drinking that precious coffee while her daughter has nothing. Selfish, selfish, selfish. Nice parenting, he groused to himself.

Suddenly, he felt a pain in his chest. God, I’ve got to calm down, he thought, steadying himself with his hand on the table, thinking what Lynn would tell him. She’d say, “Calm down, Jack. They’re just people out having a nice time. It’s nothing to have a heart attack over.” She would be right, of course, but he wasn’t willing to admit it to himself, not yet, anyway, and certainly not in the mood he was in.

The thing he kept running over and over in him mind was this: why not just end it? Why not just check out right now and be done with it all? He knew Lynn would hate the fact that he was thinking this way, and, frankly, he hated the fact that he was thinking this way, but to hell with it – that’s just the way it was. Sure he had his kids and grandkids and some friends and his brother and sister; lots of people in his life who he knew loved and cared about him, but they couldn’t tip the scale away from the fact that, with Lynn gone, he was now all alone, and, truthfully, what was the point of it all anyway? Everyone else he knew had meaningful lives and someone or something to live for. He did not. He had nothing. He’d spent all of his emotional energy caring for Lynn during her illness and he had nothing left. He was done. Finished. Spent. With Lynn gone there was nothing to live for. Why should he even bother wasting another day breathing air and taking up space? Those stages of grief what’s her name talked about? Well, try taking a look at the stages of living for a change. Someone figure that one and tell him about it. Then he might listen. But, seriously, who was he kidding? Nothing was going to help him now, certainly not some fly-by-night, ‘Here’s the solution to living a better life,’ self-help guru who only wanted to make a buck out of suckers looking for an easy answer. Well, it certainly wasn’t going to be him. I’ve got news you, buddy, Jack thought to himself, on a roll now, his thoughts clear and true, I’m not going to fall for any of that BS. Better to end it and make room for someone else. Even those two worthless employees behind the counter. He glanced over his shoulder, seeing them talking and laughing with each other. He shook his head thinking, let them live a few more years and have things start to not always go their way, then we’ll see whose laughing. He thought of Lynn and took a deep breath to calm down some more before he really did have a heart attack. But then he thought, so what if I did? Anything was better than this.

The cars and trucks speeding by outside were hypnotic. The more he watched them, the more it seemed they were telling him something: talking to him. Beckoning him to come outside. Telling him they could take the pain away right now. Forever. It made perfectly good sense to him.

Back home, thirty miles west in Long Lake, there was a train track that ran near the home he and Lynn had shared all those years. He hardly slept at all anymore, instead often rocking in his rocking chair pretending to read, listening to the sounds of the night – sounds like the trains rumbling by in the wee-wee hours. Lately he had contemplated climbing over the chain link guard fence and working his way through the overgrown embankment thirty feet down to the tracks. He imagined himself getting there a few minutes before the final late night train into the cities was scheduled. He’d lay across the tracks, feel the icy steel on his neck, take deep breath, clear his mind, close his eyes and listen as the train approached from the west. It’d run him over, mercifully and quickly putting an end to it all. It was all so simple, really, and he admired himself for coming up with such an elegant plan. He called it The Train Solution. What stopped him was that he could see Lynn shaking her head No at him, admonishing him to, in her words, ‘Be a man and pull yourself together.’ Well, Lynn, he thought to himself, easier said than done. He sighed and took a sip of his now cold tea, thinking only one thing: what, really, was the point of going on living at all anymore?

Ryan turned to Abby, looking concerned, “I’m getting a feeling about that guy,” he said, pointing to Jack, “and it’s not good. I think there’s something up with him.”

Abby had been keeping an eye on him too. He seemed a bit off. “Why don’t you go check on him?”

Ryan looked around the cafe. It wasn’t quite half full. In addition to the guy by the window, there was a table with three girls from the local high school who were talking quietly, checking their phones and, in general, having a good time being out on an pleasant October Sunday afternoon. There was a forty year old guy reading the newspaper, drinking a latte and having a scone, and two guys about Ryan’s age working together on their laptops, drinking their coffees black. He smiled at Abby, “Think you can handle it?”

“I’ll try,” she said, joking with him a little and turning to check on the pastry supply in the cooler. Space back there was tight. She could easily keep an eye of the customers. “Why don’t you bring him some more tea on us? Just for the heck of it.”

“Good idea.”

Ryan prepared a fresh mug and went around the counter, wove around two tables and approached the guy by the window. He put a smile on his face, “How’s it going today?” And when the guy turned to look at him, asked, “I thought you might like some fresh tea.” Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn’t what he got.

A movement suddenly caught Jack’s attention. He looked up. God, he thought to himself, It’s that stupid kid from behind the counter coming at me mouthing off about something. Whatever the kid was selling, Jack didn’t want any of it. He jumped to his feet and pushed hard passed Ryan. “Out of my way,” he growled, reaching for the door handle.

Ryan, startled and knocked off balance, dropped the mug and it shattered, hot tea splashing across the floor. He made a move to grab the guy’s jacket, but the old man shook him off. “Let me go,” he yelled as he pulled open the door, ran through it and started for the street.

Ryan was mad and almost willing to let the guy go, thinking, Friggin’ rude SOB, but something motivated him not to. He remembered suddenly the nice lady that the old guy was usually with. He remembered how they had talked and laughed together having their tea and their snack. He remembered them being happy and smiling. What had happened to them? Maybe she really had died. Maybe the guy really was all alone. He thought of his grandmother and grandfather and how they had passed away within a year of each other and how he missed them both. Maybe he could do something to help this old guy, unpleasant as he may be.

Ryan moved quickly to get through the door before it closed. He felt the cool October air on his face. He saw the young woman he’d served coffee to sitting on a bench waiting for a bus, her daughter sleeping peacefully in her stroller next to her. He saw a few couples out walking together enjoying the afternoon sun, and a guy nearby playing with his little dog. But his attention was drawn to the cars on the street speeding by, racing to beat the yellow light, and he panicked when he realized the old guy was stepping determinedly off the curb between two parked cars and heading right into the traffic.

Jack had had it. Why wait until tonight to go lay on the tracks and put his Train Solution into effect? Why not just do it now and let some lucky automobile do it for him? He had brushed past that kid from the counter and was on his way. He felt a sense of liberation. The time was now. Let’s just end this thing. Who knows, maybe I’ll even see Lynn after its all over, he was thinking as he made his way to the curb. One more step past the parked cars. That’s all it’ll take. One more step and it’s all over.

But that didn’t happen. Just as he was stepping toward an especially big SUV he felt a strong hand on his shoulder and then he was being pulled backwards, fighting to keep his balance. What the hell? He turned and looked just as he stumbled and fell to the sidewalk wrapped in someone’s arms. God damn, it’s that dumb kid from behind the counter. Jack fought for a moment, struggling with the kid who had fallen with him cushioning his fall. He twisted back and forth, fighting in vain before suddenly giving up. The kid was too strong. Jack lay limp and prone. The kid moved to a sitting position on the sidewalk, holding his head in his lap, cradling him, saying, “Hey there, man, take it easy. It can’t be all that bad, can it?”

Jack had nothing to say, but to himself he thought, Yeah, it can, pal, it really can be. You try living as long as I have only to come to the end of your life and realize you’re left with nothing  but memories that don’t even begin to help ease the pain that comes from losing the person you’ve loved your entire life who’s now gone, leaving you with nothing, nothing, nothing. And, then, in spite of himself, Jack started to cry.

Ryan felt the old guy shaking, his thin body racked with sobs. Man, now what am I going to do? He shifted a little, trying to make the old man more comfortable. Again, he thought of his grandparents and what he would do for them if one of them were in the same situation. He did all he could do – he held the guy and whispered words of encouragement, feeling a need to take care of him somehow. The guy was obviously distraught, wanting to step into traffic and injure, if not kill, himself. What was that all about anyway? Ryan was frustrated that he couldn’t do more. Words of comfort were all he had to give. He hoped it would help, but deep down felt the guy needed more than comforting words right now. He kept quietly talking to him, though, rocking him gently, like he would a young child. Jack closed his eyes and seemed to rest, his eyes wet with tears.

Abby was suddenly by his side. “Hey, man. Are you Ok?” she asked Ryan. “I’ve called the police.”

“I’m good. I don’t know about him, though.”

At the sound of their voices, Jack suddenly came around, quit sobbing and started to try and get up. “I can handle myself just fine,” he spat at Ryan, shaking off the young man’s arms, struggling to his feet, weaving a little as he stood. Ryan got up quickly and then reached out to  help steady the old man. Jack pushed him away.

Traffic was stopped in both directions and a crowd had formed. Jack forced his way through outstretched arms, determined to cross the street. In the distance a police siren wailed, moving closer to them. The police were the last thing he needed.

Ryan had followed him into the street, “Hey, man, you should wait for the cops. They’ll want to check you out.”

“Leave me alone,” Jack yelled at him, making his way through the stopped cars. Whether he liked it or not, Jack had caused quite a disturbance. Across the street and down fifty feet his car was parked. If he could just get to it…

Ryan grabbed him one more time and held on hard, not letting go, “Stay right here, mister. Let’s let the cops check you out.” He was polite but firm, and he meant it.

The kid’s grip was strong and Jack fought for just a few moments before giving up. What the hell, he thought to himself, I’m done fighting. Who really cares anyway? He felt himself withdrawing inward to a place where he was free of everyone. It was peaceful and silent. The world around him faded away.

The squad car pulled up and the two officers quickly assessed the situation. One cop, a young man, stayed outside and got the traffic moving again while the other, a middle aged woman, brought Jack inside the cafe and checked him out.

Turning to Ryan, who had stayed nearby, she said, “He’s Ok physically, but mentally I’m not too sure. He looks to be in a little shock. Do you mind if we left him sit here for a while and kept an eye on him. I don’t think we need an ambulance. Do you know what happened?”

Ryan told her what he knew, mainly that it looked like the guy had no idea what he was doing and it appeared he was going to step into directly into the fast moving traffic.

“Ryan saved his life,” Abby added.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he said, embarrassed, “The old guy just seemed a little out of it.”

Jack had come back from where he’d been and was watching the conversation with interest between the lady cop, the kid and the young woman from behind the counter. He knew he was in trouble and was afraid if he didn’t start acting more normal, he might be sent to the hospital for further, more detailed observation. He definitely didn’t want anything to do with that. When the lady cop, who had introduced herself as Linda, asked him if there was someone he could call, he immediately told her to call his son, Jerry, so she did. And that was that. A day that had started with him in a bad mood, now got even worse with having to wait until his son and his wife drove in from the south suburbs to pick up him and his car and take him back home to Long Lake (his daughter-in-law driving his car of all the embarrassing things), then sitting with him there in the living room, making him promise to stay in better touch and vowing, themselves, to stay in better touch, before finally leaving long after nightfall, letting Jack be alone for the first time in hours. The only thing that had kept him going ever since that kid at the cafe had grabbed him and pulled him away from the traffic, interrupting what he’d planned to do and then having to pretend it was all nothing but a ‘senior moment’ was this: just let me get home. Let me get back to Long Lake and to the that late night train that’s going to come roaring down the tracks that I’ll be stretched out on, waiting patiently for the end, saying good-bye to my life forever.

And now he was finally home and on his own and he was ready, ready as he was ever going to be. Time for The Train Solution, Jack thought to himself, feeling calm and sure of himself for the first time ever since Lynn died. His plan was perfect. Nothing, and certainly no meddling kid from a coffee shop, could stop him now. The dark hours of deepest night couldn’t come soon enough, and then…the end.

Six weeks later it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and Ryan and Abby were again working together. The cafe was busy, families stopping in for a break from the long holiday weekend, couples talking with their heads bent close to each other, singles enjoying some time alone, and small groups of young people getting together to catch up. The Chicken Scratch had experienced a brief moment of notoriety (and a jump in business) after the episode with Jack and Ryan, but all was back to normal now and Ryan and Abby were talking.

“Do you ever wonder about that old guy you saved?” Abby asked, during a lull. She had gotten a new tattoo on the inside of her left arm. It said, Partial Traces, which was the name of the band Ryan had seen the night before the incident with Jack. Abby had gone to see them the following weekend and had become a huge fan, liking the punk rock sound and loud, but melodious original songs – and, especially, the cool, laid-back attitude of the lead singer, a girl named Mari.

Ryan straightened some pastries in the display case and looked out over the crowd, “Yeah, I do. There was something unique about him, wasn’t there? I don’t know what it was. I was kind of drawn to the guy.” He took off his cellophane gloves, wiped his hands on his towel and set it under the counter, “I guess he reminded me of my grandparents, especially my grandfather.”

“I didn’t know you missed them so much,” Abby said, watching him carefully.

Ryan shrugged and grinned a little, “Me neither, but I guess I did,” he said, “Weird, huh?”

“Yeah, really,” Abby said, starting to think of her father, something she’d been doing more of lately. She turned to Ryan, “I think I want to tell you about my dad…”

Just then there was a movement at the door and they both glanced up, watching for a few seconds before realizing who was coming in. “Whoa…talk about weird,” they both said at the same time, turning to each other, eyes wide. Because who had just walked in but Jack Tremaine.

“Hey there, you two,” he called out, smiling, walking with a purpose right up to the counter and shaking each of their hands, “Long time no see.”

“Hey there Jack,” Ryan said, happily, trying to cover his shock, “We were just talking about you.”

Jack laughed, “Nothing too risqué I hope.”

Abby smiled and came around the counter and gave him a hug. “We were wondering about you, man, hoping you were Ok.”

“It’s been a hectic month, that’s for sure,” Jack said, hugging her back. And then he stood off to the side of the counter filling them in on what had been happening (in between the two of them waiting on customers, of course.)

He told them he had been spending more time with his kids and grandkids, and had been over to his daughter’s home in northeast Minneapolis for Thanksgiving and had been invited to his son’s place for Christmas. He told them that he had been seeing a grief counselor at the suggestion of his son and daughter-in-law, and had starting being more productive around his house, doing yard work and general cleaning as well as some home maintenance and repair projects, the kinds of thing he’d let slip, ever since Lynn had passed away.

“So all is going well?” Ryan asked, when he’d finished, starting to make up a cup of English Breakfast tea.

“And life is good?” Abby followed up, getting his favorite cookie, happy one was left for him.

“It is and yes,” Jack said back to them both, nodding. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out two envelopes. “Here. These are for you two.”

Ryan and Abby had no idea what to think as they opened them. Then each broke into a big smile. There, for each of them, was a brand new, crisp, fifty dollar bill.

“Just a little token of my gratitude for each of you,” Jack smiled and waved off their protestations. “It’s the least I can do.” And with that, he moved out of the way as a family with three young kids came in and Ryan and Abby got busy filling their order. He took his cookie and mug to the same window table where he’d sat six weeks earlier, made himself comfortable, took a sip from his mug, and looked out the window.

After the rush was over, Ryan turned to Abby and pointed over toward Jack. “What about that, huh? Fifty dollars. I can really use the extra money.”

“No kidding,” Abby smiled back at him, in a good mood, already thinking of putting the money toward a new tattoo she’d been thinking about getting, one with her dad’s name incorporated into it.

“I can’t believe how nice that was of him,” Ryan said, thinking of how it was going to help with some of the Christmas shopping he was planning on starting next week.

“Well, you did save his life.”

“Yeah, but, anyone would have done the same, don’t you think?”

“Maybe,” Abby said, and then paused, “But you actually did it.”

“I guess,” Ryan said, reddening a little on his neck. “Anyway, he seems good. Like he’s doing alright. Maybe the counseling and seeing his kids and stuff is helping.”

Abby nodded her agreement, and then they both turned to a batch of new customers coming in. It was one of those days – hectic and busy. Soon, thoughts of Jack drifted into the backs of their minds.

At his table Jack sat sipping his tea, nibbling his cookie and watching the cars going by on the street. There were groups of people on the sidewalk ,out enjoying a brisk Sunday walk, bundled up against the late November chill. There were snow flurries in the air. The sky was a leaden gray and there was no wind. Just the kind of day he and Lynn would have called a ‘good fireplace day.’ A day that would end with a crackling fire at home, a mug of tasty hot chocolate and the welcome company of each other, snug and secure in their companionship and love.

But, of course, that’s all gone now. Yes, he’s ‘Come back from the dead,’ as his son and daughter now called it, and, yes, he’s been more friendly and outgoing to other family members and friends, and now, after over a month since his nearly tragic accident, most everyone has pretty much decided that he’s on the mend mentally and getting back to normal, whatever that might be.

And that’s just fine. Jack loves his family and he appreciates the love they give him. He does his best to return it, he really does. It means a lot to him, the care and concern they have for him, but, honestly, it’s just not enough. He doesn’t tell anyone his deepest thoughts: not his counselor or his friends or his kids. No one needs to know that most nights he still can’t sleep (even though he tells everyone he does) and that he spends those nights outside alone, bundled up against the cold, wandering the quiet streets of his little town. He talks to Lynn, then, and tell her what’s on his mind, and she listens and that’s all he asks. He knows she will never understand how he has come to this, nor would she agree with what his plan is, but that’s just too bad. See, the plan is still out there, The Train Solution, and it’s the best he’s come up with and he’s sticking with it. The truth of the matter is, since that day in October, nothing really has changed for him. The life he is living now is really just a facade, at least that what he tells himself. Ryan saved him, and for many people in his situation that would be seen as a sign – a chance to start life anew. And he tried. He really did, but it just hasn’t worked. He’s just missing Lynn too much. The life they had is over. What he has now is not enough to tip the scale in any direction but the one he has chosen to take.

He takes a final sip of his tea and finishes off his cookie. He looks back toward the counter. Ryan and Abby are talking animatedly during a lull in customers. They seem happy and it makes Jack smile inside. They’re nice people. It felt good to give each of them some extra money – just a little extra token of his appreciation of them.

Ryan sees Jack looking at him and Jack motions to his mug.

“I guess Jack’s going to stay a while,” he says to Abby and sets to work making up some more English Breakfast.

“Cool,” Abby says grabbing the final cookie. “Here send this to him too. Tell him it’s on the house.”

“Good idea.”

Ryan pulls the order together and heads to Jack’s table.

Jack takes his order, smiles his thanks, and then watches as Ryan hurries through the tables back to the counter, momentarily berating himself for how wrong he’d been about his initial impression of the two young employees.

Then he settles in to enjoy some more of the afternoon. From his jacket pocket he takes out a worn paper back by a favorite author, opens it and starts to read. The snow flurries have stopped, and the late day sun has broken through the clouds filling the cafe with bright sunlight. In about an hour the Chicken Scratch will close and Jack with have to leave. Tonight the train goes by at three-thirty in the early morning. He might be down there, he might not. He settles in with his tea and his book. The cafe feels warm and comfortable. He turns in his chair once and grins, hearing Ryan and Abby laugh, and then goes back to his reading. He’s got nothing but time. Today is a good day. He suddenly makes a decision not to go down to the tracks tonight and settles in to enjoy the afternoon. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? For now, he’s got all he needs right here. The tea and his cookie taste good. It’s the kind of day Lynn would have loved, and he’ll enjoy it as if she were right here with him. After all, the cold, steel tracks and the roaring nighttime train will always be there tomorrow night. Or the night after. Of that much he’s sure. And that’s all he needs to keep on living. For now.