Mellowing Out

Alicia Jorgenson set the cup down and said, “Here you go, Blake, some nice chamomile tea for you.”

Blake held up a hand, smiled his thanks, and said in a low voice, “Come and join me. This will be done in just a minute.” Then he closed his eyes and went back to his relaxation tape, ear buds firmly in place, listening to the melodic strains of “Trickling Forest Stream.”

Alicia went to the kitchen, made herself a cup, came back to the den and sat down. She wasn’t sure what to think about her husband, recovering from the mild heart attack he’d suffered earlier in the summer. A heart attack six weeks ago brought on by his obsession with his garden and with ridding it of the female rabbit and her babies that had taken over. He’d wanted to win first place in the garden contest this year after settling for second place last year. Well, this year he’d placed third.

Alicia remembered the outcome of the judging very well. At the time, Blake had been into his third week of recovery. When the announcement was made, Alicia had expected him to explode and rant and rave and go completely nuts and out of his mind. It would have been par for the course given his competitive nature. But he hadn’t even gritted his teeth or swore an oath of revenge. Instead, he’d shrugged his shoulders and grinned, “We’ll, at least it’s something,” meaning the third place award, a simple plaque, not the shining gold trophy he’d envisioned. It was so out of character for her high strung husband, that she’d had to look twice to see if the tall, slightly overweight man she’d been married to for over forty years really was, in fact, the same man. He definitely was. Maybe, Alicia thought to herself, as she went back to sipping her tea in companionable silence while Blake finished listening to the trickling stream, maybe he really was starting to change.

At just that moment, Becky Johnson and Maggie Jones, two old friends who had outlived each of their respective husbands by over twenty years, were walking past Blake’s house.

“Look at how lovely the pink geraniums are looking in those hanging baskets,” Becky remarked.

“Humph. That Blake, he’s such a jerk,” Maggie rejoined, “Thinks he knows everything about gardening.”

“Well, his flower beds do look awfully nice.”

“He’s just so full of himself. He doesn’t even bother to help out at the community garden. He’s a jerk in my book.”

The garden Maggie was talking about was the recently established Long Lake Community Garden, a lovely planting space donated to the city by Wilber Smith and his wife Edith after they had passed away. The two friends volunteered their time, both being avid gardeners themselves, usually for a few hours most mornings before the summer days became too hot.

Becky grinned at her friend. Deep down she agreed with her assessment of their arrogant neighbor, but she enjoyed winding Becky up occasionally. It helped keep their friendship interesting. It was easy to do, too, since Maggie had opinions on nearly everything and everybody under the sun, Blake Jorgenson being near the top of the list. Not that either of them were happy he’d suffered his heart attack. They weren’t those kinds of people, not at all. But they both secretly agreed that Blake really was, in their opinion, a little too big for his britches. Plus, the fact that the heart attack, which had been brought on when he’d freaked out over what he referred to as “That Damn Rabbit,” well, you had to admit, in the right context, it was kind of funny.

That being said, Becky pointed and grinned. There was the aforementioned rabbit, calm and unafraid, nibbling contentedly on one of Blake’s orange nasturtiums. She was about to shoo it away when Maggie put her hand on her friend’s arm to stop her. Becky just grinned, “Okay. He does sort of deserve it, doesn’t he?”

The two smiled at each other and continued walking on, arm in arm, happily enjoying the tranquility of a quiet August morning, ambling down the street and away from both Blake’s garden and the healthy looking rabbit, who, having finished with the nasturtiums was now moving on to some delectable looking bachlor buttons.

Back inside, Blake’s tape had ended. He happened to glance outside and spied the two elderly ladies. “Look at those two old bitties,” he said to Alicia. “God, they’re so high and mighty.” He took a gulp of his supposed relaxing tea, choked on it a little and coughed.

Alicia patted him on the back. “Blake, calm down. You know what your doctor said.”

“I know, ‘You’ve got to try and learn how to relax and mellow out,'” he said, in a sing-song voice, mimicking the words of Dr. Rose, a doctor chosen by Blake as much for his last name as anything else. “I’m trying.”

Alicia took a sip of her tea, “I know you are dear, but you really do need to try harder. Especially when it comes to your gardening. It’s supposed to be fun, you know. Relaxing. A hobby.”

Blake gazed at his wife with affection. Of course she was right. He wasn’t a dummy. He knew he that for the sake of his health he needed to learn how to relax, but it was hard. If it wasn’t for that Damn Rabbit, he’d have won first place in the garden show this year. A big, shining, gold trophy instead of that stupid wooden plaque. Everyone said so. But, no, Mrs. Bunny Rabbit had chosen this summer to not only return to the neighborhood, but to have about a million babies, all of which she brought to feed on his prized flowers. Damn it, life just wasn’t fair. He felt himself getting worked up all over again. Alicia was right. He really did need to learn to calm down. To mellow out, as the doctor had said.

He took a deep breath and let it out, “I know, dear,” he said, sighing.

Alicia stood up. “Well, that’s good. Now, I’ve got some errands to run. I’ll be stopping at the grocery store. Need anything?”

How about a shotgun for that Damn Rabbit, Blake thought to himself, but, instead, said, “No. I’m good.” He paused and added, smiling, half way joking, half way not, “How about maybe something stronger than this tea?” He grinned and mimicked a drinking motion.

“Blake,” Alicia admonished him, “You know what the doctor said.”

“I know. No booze. No red meat. No nothing fun. I get it. Tea and saltines.” He sighed again, starting to feel just ever so slightly sorry for himself.

“It’s not that bad. All of us just want you to get better.” She bent to give him a kiss on the forehead, “I’ll see you in a little while.” She patted him on the arm, “Good bye, dear.”

Blake waved her goodbye and returned to his iPod and his relaxation music. He scrolled down the playlist until he found, “Soft Springtime Rain,” and set it playing. He sat back and closed his eyes, dreaming of better days. Better days when that rabbit was finally gone. They couldn’t come soon enough as far as he was concerned. It was frustrating. All the time he put into his garden, gone to waste. Third place. What a disappointment. Alicia didn’t care about the award, she just liked to garden. Maybe he should be more like her. Food for thought. On the other hand, maybe he really should get a gun and blow that rabbit to Kingdom Come. He thought about it for minute or so, picturing a disgusting, bloody scene. Naw. He could never harm any animal, even the rabbit, much as he despised it. Maybe he really should learn how to relax. Yeah, that would be the best thing to do. He signed once again, leaned back in his chair and drifted off to sleep, the sound of soft summer rain in his ears.

Blake didn’t see it, and it was probably a good thing, too, that out in the garden the female rabbit that Maggie and Becky had seen was still there, only now her four babies had joined her. They moved as a group through the flowers, happily feeding on newly sprouted bachelor buttons and whatever other delectable treat they could find. They were so many choices. After a few minutes, before they became too full, the big female gathered her young ones to her and led them away. She had learned over time to never completely eat all the food in a given location. She always left some for another day, and that’s what she did now.

She began making her way to a field of clover across the street and the next block over, down by the railroad tracks. The clover was sweet and tasty, a nice change from the flowers in the man’s garden. In fact, the more she thought about it, maybe she’d just leave his garden alone for the rest of the season. There was whole summer’s supply of clover, fresh for the taking in the field. She could always come back to the man’s garden. Anytime. If not this year, for sure next year. As she hoped along leading her babies she made her decision. She wouldn’t return for the rest of the season, but next year she’d be back. Maybe with a new batch of babies, too. Why not? It made perfect sense to her. She liked almost all the flowers in the man’s garden. The food was good for her babies, a welcome change from the clover in the field. Besides, in a way she felt she owed it to the man, especially since he had so thoughtfully planted such a lovely garden with all those delectable flowers. It was almost like he had done it just for her. She was finished with his garden for this year, but next year? Next year she’d be back for sure.

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To Catch A Mouse

In the beginning of our marriage I’d bring her flowers every Friday after work. Brightly colored carnations, if I remember correctly, a bouquet of them; yellow, red, white, orange, mauve, or even purple. She’d smile and exclaim, “Oh, Steve, for me?”

“Of course, Janie girl,” I’d hug her tight, “For my best lady love.” Or something silly like that. Silly and slightly romantic. We’d both laugh, fueled with the unfettered joy of our love. Those were good times back then.

But the years began to intervene. Years of longer hours at work. Years of raising three daughters and two sons. Years of trying to make ends meet and not always succeeding. Years of doing all we could to keep our marriage alive and well. Years of slowly drifting apart.

When the last of our kids left home and we became empty nesters, we tried to rekindle that lost love. We discovered that, though we weren’t wealthy, we were well enough off to do things we’d always wanted to do. We had more free time. We could take trips if we wanted to (and we did, to New England once for the fall colors; England once to go to Cornwall.) We could do things together and enjoy the twilight years of our marriage. But did we? No.

A few more years went by.

Now I’m sixty-nine and retired from many years service as a design specialist for Northland Enterprises, an Electronic Controls manufacturing company. Janie’s sixty-eight and happily working part-time at a sewing shop called Stitchville, a job she’s held for over twenty years. It’s life after becoming empty nesters and it should be good, right? But it’s not. That rekindling our lost love idea never really caught fire (pardon the pun.) We’ve still drifted apart, and I’m not really sure why.

But I will say this, it’s pretty much push coming to shove time for Janie and me. Why? The answer is that now, after the many ups and downs we’ve had in the forty-five years of our married life, and finally getting to a point where we can enjoy each other’s company, it’s all coming down to this: mice. Or, should I say, my ability (or lack of ability, in Janie’s mind) to catch the damn things.

Here’s the deal, in the last few weeks a couple of the little rodents have found their way into the house, and Janie’s put it on me to figure out a way to catch them. In fact, a challenge of sorts has been issued by my wife, one which I’ve heartily accepted. (I’m in charge of most of the house maintenance after all.) The question is this, can I get rid of them or not?

The way I see it, from Janie’s standpoint, my inability to trap the persistent rodents has become simply one in an ever lengthening string of my incompetent endeavors that have, for some reason, arisen over the last year or two. Why, I don’t know. Does it have to do with the kids having left home? The last of our children left ten years ago, so that seems like a stretch. My retirement? That was five years ago, so maybe, maybe not. Menopause? Hmmm. I don’t think I want to touch that.

I guess I don’t have a clue. Whatever the case, though, it seems that in the last year or two all of my household maintenance abilities have come under increasing scrutiny and viewed minutely under Janie’s ever vigilant microscope. Everything from how I shoveled the sidewalk (poorly) or cut the lawn (just as poorly), to how I fixed that leaky kitchen faucet (“Still drips a little, Steve”) or that drip in the downstairs laundry tub (don’t ask) has been scrutinized and found wanting; endeavors that have led Janie (I call her that in my mind, but we’d cut the cute names out of our discourse years ago) to the conclusion that she had, in fact, married an incompetent idiot. Or at least one who didn’t measure up to her increasingly exacting standards.

Now I’m not going to waste a lot of time defending my aforementioned abilities regarding sidewalk shoveling, lawn care and faucet repair. Suffice it to say that I’ve done my best. In the past, I did whatever yard work or home maintenance tasks that were required of me and that was that. Done and done. But lately Janie has started to scrutinize the end result of my labors and begun to draw her own conclusions, usually to the negative. I believe the issue for her has less to do with the outcome of the work I do around the house and more with a general dissatisfaction with me in general, her husband of so many years. In fact, it’s a feeling probably common in long term marriages. (Am I trying to comfort myself with that observation? Well, I guess, that maybe, yeah, I probably am.)

But I like being married to Janie. I can take some heat from her. I just want her to be happy. So, for me, it was simply down to if I could prove myself to her or not. Could I demonstrate that I could do this one thing: Begin the task she asked of me, succeed at it, and, by so doing, prove that I still loved her? I’m not sure about her, but in my mind, the marriage hinged in outcome. I still loved Janie and wanted to stay married to her. I’m pretty sure she felt the same way about me. I hoped so, anyway.

But the mice thing was becoming an issue and the cards were dealt; if I succeeded in keeping them out of our home, all was well and good and Yea! Good for me; the marriage succeeds and everything’s coming up roses. Fail? Well, god only knew, but I did know this; I was sure our home life wouldn’t be pretty. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not overstating the matter when I say that she might become so fed up that she’d kick me out and send me packing. Something I didn’t want at all.

So, hardly any pressure at all, right? Yeah, right.

The crisis of push coming to shove with mice in the house started a few weeks ago. I’d been downstairs putting the final touches on a woodworking project. I build those “Little Library’s” you sometimes see in people’s yard and sell them on line, just for the fun of it plus a little extra cash.

I was hand sanding the edge of the door frame when all of sudden from upstairs in the kitchen Janie yelled, “Jesus Christ! Steve, get up here!”

I dropped my sandpaper and ran up the stairs. Janie was in the corner standing on a chair. She pointed, “It’s a friggin’ mouse, Steve. For christ’s sake. It was in the linen drawer. It scared me half to death.”

“Damn. Is it still there?”

“No. It jumped out when I opened the drawer and ran behind the refrigerator.”

Double damn. We have an older bungalow style home built in the nineteen twenties. I  do everything I can to keep it in good shape but let’s be honest, it’s an old house, not exactly what you’d call air tight. Every now and then we’d get a mouse inside. The last time was probably four or five years ago; so long ago I’d completely forgotten about them being any kind of issue at all. Back then I’d trapped it in the basement and disposed of it. There had been no mice since then so I thought I was done with the pesky critters. But now this. Now, another one had made its way inside; in fact, into the kitchen and that was not good. Janie was deathly afraid of them. They actually made her physically ill. Me? I didn’t like them, but I didn’t mind them. Not too much, anyway, but I did prefer they stay outside.

I found a flashlight in a drawer, got down on my hands and knees and shined the light behind the refrigerator. Two bright, tiny eyes peered back at me. Sure enough, the mouse was there.

I won’t go into all the details, but it took me a couple of hours to get it out from behind the cumbersome appliance. I didn’t get a chance to kill it, just got it to run out the back door using a broom and…well, it’s a long story.

Anyway, with the mouse out of the house Janie was not mad but still wound up. “You’ve got to do something, Steve. Figure out where it came in and seal it up or something. I don’t want any more coming in here. Ever.” She hugged herself with her arms and gave a shiver to emphasize her point. Then she added, “I’m counting on you.”

Point taken. Terms explained. Challenge issued and accepted. “I’ll get the damned thing,” I assured her.

I left my Little Library project and spent the rest of the day outside crawling around the entire front, back and sides of the house looking for any possible places a tiny mouse could get in. I found a few and plugged them with steel wool. “Good,” I thought to myself, “Now try to get in.” I stood up tall, put my hands on my hips and added, “You little bastard,” for good measure. Then I went around the entire house again just to be sure and found no more points of entry. Pep talk time, “Nice going Steve. Problem solved.”

The next day another one showed up. Again in the kitchen and this time under the sink. Well, shit. Janie freaked out again, leading me to wonder why the hell they didn’t just come in downstairs so she didn’t have to see them. Then I could just deal with the problem down there. You know, out of sight out of mind. Anything was better than her having to see the friggin’ things and go out of her mind. Anyhow, I was able to take of the problem again. This time I managed to contain it with a towel in the corner by the drain pipe and kill it with a hammer. Not pretty and certainly not something I enjoyed doing. Not at all. I’m a huge animal rights advocate, but sometimes…Well, no one’s perfect, I guess. At least not me.

Anyway, with it dead and gone, I wondered, “Was it the same mouse as from the day before?” No idea, but the big picture was this: I hadn’t solved the problem. They could still get in the house. Time to move on to plane B.

Plan B was to call Simonson’s the local rodent control specialists, which I did. A big, long haired, Hell’s Angels looking guy in overalls with the name Johnny printed on his shirt pocket came out. He spent a good two hours going around the outside of the house checking for ways a mouse could get inside. He laughed at my steel wool.

“We don’t recommend using that,” he said, pulling the stuff out jamming it in his pocket. “Mice can chew right through it. We’ve got this.” He opened up metal case which I guess was his mouse control kit and showed me a wad of thin, shinning strips. “This is shredded brass and it will last forever. They can’t chew through it like steel wool. It works great.” He stuffed it in the places I’d found plus about ten other locations. He used a mirror on a long arm so he could see where the sides of the house were set on the foundation. He said that’s where mice will usually get in. He poked around a lot and was very thorough. I longer I was with him, the more I found myself gaining confidence in him. He seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to mice. He even found holes that I couldn’t see, even when he pointed them out to me. He plugged everything and went through a lot of his copper mesh. When he was finished we went inside.

After a cursory walk through of the first floor we went downstairs. “Why downstairs?” I asked, “They always end up in the kitchen.”

“That’s where the food is,” he told me, “That’s naturally where they’ll head once they get inside.”

Well, that made sense, but was that a smirk I saw on his face? Naw. Maybe just a reflection of me feeling like I should have known better. Besides, he seemed pretty sympathetic to our mouse situation. His conclusion was that they were probably coming in at the base of the foundation by the furnace room where I had my work shop. I had a wall hanging cupboard there that was even with the foundation block. The top of it was a natural landing for them once they got inside. He plugged a couple of holes in that area outside with his magic mesh (my term for the copper strips), but still…I guess you couldn’t be one-hundred percent positive they’d stay out. He told me that there was always a chance they’d find a way to squeeze inside, then make their way up to the kitchen to where the all the food and mouse goodies were.

“It’s getting to be that time year,” he said with a grimace, “Late September, October. “They start looking to find ways to get indoors for the winter.”

“What can I do?”

“I tried to seal all points of entry from the outside with the copper mesh. That should keep them out. Or at least discourage them.” He was very serious. I was becoming more and more impressed with his knowledge of mice and his dedication to keeping them out of houses. “Let me leave you something else to help you out, just to be on the safe side.”

He reached into his mouse control kit and took out some deadly looking traps, “It’s hard with an older home like yours,” he shook his head, sadly, “I’ve done the best I can outside. You might just have to learn to live with getting the occasional mouse who finds its way inside.” He saw my dejected look and was quick to add, “If that happens, don’t worry. These traps will do the job,” he pointed to the top of the cupboard, “I really think that if they’re coming in, that might be the place. That’s where you should this bad boys.”

He showed me how to set the traps and then left with a sympathetic wave and a thumbs up, “Good luck.”

“What’d he say?” Janie asked as I watched his truck drive off while at the same time trying to fight off a sinking, depressive feeling. But this wasn’t about me. I had Janie to think of, not to mention, our marriage.

“He said we might have to learn to live with getting the occasional mouse in here.”

“What?!”

“Yeah, I know. It’s not the answer you want to hear but don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

“Well, you’d better. You know how afraid I am of those damn things.” She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Again.

I felt for her, I really did, “I’ll do my best.”

I set two traps up on top of the cupboard like Johnny suggested, baiting them each with a glob of peanut butter and a peanut. My thought was that once the mouse tried to pull the peanut off the peanut butter, Bam! The trap would snap and that would be that.

For ten days life in our home was on an upswing, especially since there was no evidence of mice. Nothing in the traps. Nothing up in the kitchen. No mice anywhere. Janie was relaxed and in a good mood. I was even starting to think that Johnny had solved the problem with the copper mesh and their entry into the house had been plugged and our home would be mouse free for now and forever more. I was wrong.

After breakfast on the eleventh day, I went down to my work room, diligently checked above the cupboard and guess what I found? Right. A dead mouse, stuck in the trap.

Two things went through my mind: One, shit. They were still getting in. And, two, well, at least it wasn’t in the kitchen. Plus, it was only one, not like the nightmare I occasionally experienced of herd of them infesting our home, running around rampant like…Like…Well, I don’t know, like a herd of mice, I guess. I removed the mouse, put it in a paper bag and took it out to the garage and deposited it in the garbage can. I symbolically wiped my hands together. Done.

On my way back to the house I had an idea.

“What’s up?” Janie asked when I came into the kitchen.

“I just got rid of a mouse.”

“What!”

I could tell she was amping up to freak out, so I put up my hands to stop her, “Hold on. Just hold on a minute and calm down. I’ve got something I want to talk to you about.” I could see her visibly pause and take a deep breath. It occurred to me right then that she really was trying to work on ways to cope with the mice problem. I appreciated that in her, I really did. After all, she was honestly terrified of them. I said, “I want to talk to you about the situation with the mice.”

What I told her essentially was that I was doing all I could to “Monitor the mice,” as I called it. “It looks like they’re only occasionally coming inside, and when they do, it’s not a bunch of them, it’s only one mouse. So that’s not too bad. Plus, it’s in the basement by my work room where I’ve got the traps. They’re attracted to the peanut butter I’m using as bait. I can catch them there, dispose of them, and you’ll never even see them. Never. In fact, you won’t have to worry about them. I’ll be the one to catch them. I’ll be the one to dispose of them. It’s all on me and I’ve got it covered. I think it’ll work. I think it’s good plan.”

Janie looked at me, her expression thoughtful. I could see the mental wheels turning as she considered what I’d said. Then she went to the counter where the coffee maker was and poured herself a cup of coffee. I could tell she was thinking about my plan, and that was a good thing. At least she wasn’t freaking out. She sipped from her cup and closed her eyes, something she used to do when she was deep in thought. She was quiet for a minute, and I kept my mouth shut. Then she opened her eyes, set her cup down and went to the cupboard. She opened it, picked out an old mug of mine and filled it with coffee. Then she handed it to me, something she hadn’t done in I don’t know how long. Was she thawing out a little?

She looked at me and said, “So you’re saying that you’ll take care of things?”

“Actually, I have. I tried to fix where they were coming in with steel wool, and when that didn’t work, I got Johnny in. He’s a professional mouse guy, and he’s done what he can to help us by using a better plugging material than I’d used. He looked around and found and closed off all the other possible points of entry. But he also said that our house is old and we might get the occasional mouse inside. It’s just the way it is. I’m monitoring the situation downstairs where their probable point of entry is. This is the only mouse we’ve had in two weeks. When the weather gets cold they’ll go into hibernation, and we won’t have a problem until next spring. If then. Who knows, by then a cat or a fox or something might have gotten them all. Granted, there might be a few around, but who knows? Maybe not. At any rate, I’ll watch the traps. I’ll make sure I keep peanut butter on them and if we do get a mouse, it just stays down where I am. You never see it and I’ll get rid of it like the one I just got rid of. You wouldn’t have to worry about a thing.”

I tried to be reasonable, taking into account Janie’s fears of mice. I tried to let her know she could depend on me, and she could count on me to take care of the problem so she wouldn’t have to live in fear of coming across an unexpected mouse. That’s how much I loved her, and if that sounds weird, too bad. It’s how I felt. I just didn’t want her to have to worry.

Janie sipped her coffee, thinking some more. I sipped mine, too. I knew how frightened she was of the damn mice. I was doing my all I could to help out, and, in the end, I think she finally saw that I was.

“Ok. I get it. I know you’re doing your best and I appreciate that. Thank you.” She smiled and I could feel the tension rush out of the room like air out a balloon. She walked up and gave me a quick hug. Then she looked past me and out the window and said, “You know, Steve, it’s a nice day out. You could use a break in your woodworking. Maybe we could do something together. You want to go for a walk or something when we finish our coffee? We haven’t done that in a while. It might be nice to start doing some of the things together that we used to do.”

Whew. She was thawing. Maybe with this mouse situation under control we could start to put the past behind us and begin to move on. Not back to like we were when we were first married. After all, we weren’t young anymore. But forward to a time like where we were now, where we’d sorted out some issues (like me dealing with the mice in my own way) and accepted each other for who we both were. And, most importantly, we both could live with that person, faults and all, and keep the marriage intact. It seemed like it, anyway, a new beginning of sorts. In fact, I could see myself picking up some carnations next time I was out. I think Janie would appreciate them.

And regarding her idea to go for a walk? She didn’t have to ask twice. You bet I did.

 

 

 

Speckled Toad Beer

I hate to admit it, but I never knew that the inspiration for the character of Uncle Sam in the WWI recruitment poster was the artist himself. Apparently he’d dilly-dallied on doing the painting until it was almost too late, so he did the initial drawing based on his own reflection in the mirror. He liked what he saw and from that first draft he completed the work, adding the bushy eyebrows, craggy features and the pointed, somewhat threatening finger, that to this day is still an iconic American symbol.

My wife and I had been watching a special on our local PBS station when the story behind the poster was explained. It gave me an idea. Why not do the same thing using myself as a model for the Speckle Toad Beer ad campaign I was working on?

I floated the idea past Michelle. It didn’t take her long to express her opinion. “Your nuts, Troy,” she said, and popped a kernel of popcorn into her mouth from the bowl we’d been sharing to emphasize her point. “Completely out of your mind,” she added, grabbing a big handful to further solidify her opinion.

“Why? What’s wrong? I think it’s a great idea.”

She let out a soft belch and looked me right in the eye. Michelle has taught third grade at the Long Lake elementary school for fifteen years. She’s good at it; dare I say, even great. She has a firm but loving hand with the kids, which makes her popular with both the students and their parents. She also tells it like it is and doesn’t pussy foot around with the truth. “Who would really care to see an image of you on an advertisement for beer? Seriously. My guess is no one.”

She chuckled to herself and went back to the popcorn, figuring she’d made her point. In her mind she probably did. But me? I’m a little slow on the uptake. I should have listened to her.

I’m in my mid-forties and have worked for nineteen years in the art department for Lavender Hill Design, a well known upper Midwest firm specializing in advertizing work for small businesses. We’ve recently hit it big with the local craft beer industry, and I’ve been one of the most successful designers. Maybe longevity and success had gone to me head, but I ignored my wife’s advice and proceeded with my plan of using my own image in the ad campaign. In World War I it was Uncle Sam saying ‘I Want You.’ Now, for my ad, I was hoping to come up with something like ‘Speckled Toad Beer Is the beer for you,’ with my face serving as the spokesperson.

I took some selfies and then used them to make some preliminary sketches. Then I used my oil paints to create the perfect image. After a couple of weeks of work I had my character, “The Face of Speckled Toad Beer,” as I secretly called it, and was ready to present it to my design team at the end of the week.

My presentation was on that Friday. When I was finished, I can honestly say that I had never heard people laugh so hard.

That night I dragged myself home and plunked down on the couch, the same couch a month earlier we’d watched that ill-fated PBS special.

“Bad day at the office, Dear?” Michelle asked, sitting next to me and handing me a gin and tonic.

“You might say,” I said, gratefully sipping my drink.

She grinned, “I told you so. Want to tell me what happened?”

I did. I told her I had taken my enhanced face and dressed myself in a coonskin cap and buckskins like that Davy Crockett character my dad used to watch back in the fifties. Bad move. Hysteria was the order of the day from my team. I had completely blown it.

“When my supervisor caught her breath and quit laughing, she told me that an amphibian dressed up in buckskins wasn’t going to cut it. It went downhill from there. The rugged character I’d hoped to portray ended up looking like a deranged mountain man. I don’t know which was worse, the fact that I’d blown the presentation, or that everyone thought my face looked like a toad.” I sighed and leaned back on the couch, “The general consensus was that instead of selling beer, it would more likely scare people away from buying it. Back, as they say, to the drawing board.”

Michelle snuggled next to me, “See, you should have listened to me. I really do know what I’m talking about, you know.”

She was right. I don’t know what I’d been thinking. “Yeah, I hear you. I guess I let my ego get in the way,” I sighed and sipped my drink, starting to come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was.

“You want to watch some television?” She started scanning the shows. Then she stopped and looked at me, joking, “Can we risk it? You’re not going to let some show give you any more crazy ideas?

I laughed, “Funny. No, I think I’ve learned my lesson. From now on I’ll just stick with what I know, art and advertizing. ”

“Good idea.” It took her less than a second to agree.

She found a program she liked and we watched it. It was filmed in England and had something to do with a baking contest. Interestingly, the contestants were vying to win, but they were also quite pleasant to each other. It was nice to see. Maybe they were on to something, and it gave me an idea. I wondered if maybe the ad could say something like, “Speckled Toad Beer, a beer that treats you kindly.” It sounded good and had a nice ring to it. I’d run with it.

But this time I’d keep my face to myself.

 

Planes Overhead

It was the first really warm day after a long cold winter. My wife Elise wanted to spend some time with our eldest daughter so I dropped her off at Emily’s house and went to nearby Lake Harriet, one of the city’s most charming lakes, to hang out for a while. I sat on a park bench in the sun watching the world go by: young couples strolling hand in hand, grinning silly grins, head over heels in love; parents pushing strollers with their new born child bundled safely inside; kids running and joyfully splashing in puddles of melting snow, parents smiling and making no attempt to stop them; old folks taking their time, walking slowly, enjoying the pleasant day. All of it good. All of it uplifting. But, if that were the case, then why did I feel so melancholy?

I sat facing west, the early afternoon sun reflecting brightly off the snow covered lake. I slipped my sunglasses on. It’d be a few weeks before the ice would melt completely but no one cared; “Let’s just get outside and enjoy the sunshine,” was the rallying cry of the day, and people jumped to it.

Overhead planes staged in a raged line one by one, readying themselves for their final approach to Minneapolis’s huge international airport. It was five miles behind me to the east, and the big tri-engine jets (737’s mostly) seemed to float through the air as they began their decent, one after another, lowering themselves out of the sky, loud engines roaring through the peaceful afternoon.

Unlike most people, airplane noise doesn’t bother me. I’m predisposed to like them because my dad had been a pilot. His only job his entire life was flying airplanes. He’d been a young pilot in the Navy in World War II and then flown for a major airline right up until the day he died at his home in Seattle at the relatively young age of forty-seven. “Heart attack,” they said at the time. I always wondered if it had something to do with a little early morning fooling around with the woman he’d been married to at the time, a young lady only seven years older than me.

But that was a long time ago; a lifetime, really. So why was it memories of him were flooding back to me now, on this day, this sunniest of days in the middle of April? I was fifteen when he left, my two brothers much younger. Mom was only forty-two. But my memories today, though clouded by time (and probably romanticized a bit, too,) were not to be denied: Dad coaching my little league baseball team, Dad putting up football goal posts in the backyard for me to  practice kicking, Dad taking home movies of our family around the Christmas tree, Dad teaching me how to care for a car, Dad talking to me about how to act around girls. Dad being a dad.

But he left when I was fifteen, there was no doubt about that. He left and I never saw much of him after that. Eight years later he died.

Died, but didn’t. He’s still been with me, that smiling face of his, carried in my heart all these years. I was down at this same lake a few weeks after I’d heard of his passing. It was mid-July and hot. I had been out for a bike ride and not having much luck shaking the lost feeling I had of his death, knowing I’d never see him again. I had stopped at a bench, much like the one I was on now, and was looking out over the sparkling water, gazing at nothing really, thoughts turned inward. Suddenly, above the lake a vision caught my eye; a vision of a plane soaring across the sky, a cross between a jet and a passenger plane. I looked up and watched as Dad opened the cockpit window, dressed in his best pressed dark blue captain’s uniform, looking natty. He waved and smiled and waved some more. I was filled with such a sense of peace, then, seeing him, that I nearly cried with joy. Well, truth be told, I did. I cried and then wiped the tears from my eyes and happily waved back. He was okay. He might have passed from this world, but he was going to be all right; he was still flying the planes he loved to fly.

Maybe that’s what was happening now, on this sunny late winter day by the lake. Maybe each and every one of those planes flying by overhead was Dad’s way of say, “Hi, there son. Good to see you.”

Sound weird? Maybe, but I took it for what it was, Dad and I communicating each other in our own way, after all these years. And just like that, poof, my melancholy mood vanished. It was good to have him with me.

I pulled myself back to the present and went back to watching the parade of folks strolling by, everyone enjoying the sunshine and the warmth of the day. Overhead, plane after plane after plane continued to pass by, each one of them like so many memories of my dad still alive and carried inside me.

Suddenly, there was a petulant tap on my shoulder.

“Hey, Dad. What are you doing? Mom’s worried.”

I turned. It was my oldest son. I had been thinking about going to visit him before I’d been derailed by a beckoning park bench and a plunge into all those memories of my father. “Hey there Jeremy. Good to see you.” I smiled at him.

My six year old grandson Seth ran up and gave me a big hug. “Hi Grandpa. Look at these.” He pointed out his new rubber boots. Boots that were already spattered with mud. From what I could tell they had a spider man theme to them.

“Those look pretty sharp, young man.”

Seth grinned and hurried off to a nearby puddle where he began an enthusiastic game of simply stomping around in it.

Jeremy walked around the bench. He was tall and he hovered over me, blocking the sun. He asked again, his tone pinched and barely patient, “Dad what are you doing? Mom’s worried. She called me to check on you. She thought you might be down here. You didn’t answer your phone. You have it turned off?”

I took my phone from my pocket and checked it. Damn. He was right, I had inadvertently turned it off. “Hey, I’m sorry. I screwed up.”

Jeremy took out his phone and made a call. He and I had a close relationship. He lived in the city, not far from both the lake and his sister. We talked regularly and I saw Seth and his older sister Emily at least once a week when I drove in from where Elise and I lived twenty miles away in Long lake to take care of them after school.

I said, “I was just enjoying the sun and thinking about things. What are you guys up to?”

Jeremy was on the phone and held up a hand, “Yeah, Mom, I found him. He’s fine. Okay. Yeah. Is it okay if we pick you up in a little while?” He turned to me and grinned, “Yeah, Mom, I’ll tell him. Okay. I think maybe we’ll go for a walk. I got Seth some new boots. It’s a nice day out. Dad’s good. Okay. I’ll tell him. Bye.”

Jeremy hung up, bent down, looked me in the eye and said, “Mom says to call her next time you decide to wander off all afternoon. If you don’t there’ll be hell to pay.”

I smiled. I knew Elise wasn’t really too mad, just concerned, and she was right. I would call next time. “I will,” I told Jeremy.

“Good. Now, “He grinned and clapped his hands enthusiastically together, “How about if we all go for a little stroll and enjoy this wonderful day?”

I wouldn’t have passed up a chance to spend time like this with my son and grandson for the world.

I stood up, “Let’s go.”

Seth ran over and took me by the hand and we all three started for the path around the lake.

As we walked, Jeremy clasped me on my shoulder and smiled, “Good to see you, Dad.”

I grinned back at him and spontaneously gave him a tight hug, “Good to see you, too, son.”

We started walking along the path, Seth running ahead, laughing. It was good to be with my family. I was a lucky man.

A minute later, while Jeremy and Seth were preoccupied throwing snowballs at the trunk of a large oak tree, I turned and waved once at a low flying passenger plane. Then I joined them in their game. I hadn’t bothered to tell Jeremy that his grandfather would be joining us on our walk. Not today anyway. Maybe I’d tell him some other time. For now, it’d just be my little secret.