Home Is Where The Heart Is – Part III

Megan’s shift at MacDonald’s ended at eleven. The night manager, Kevin, a skinny white guy around thirty with a bad complexion and a pleasant disposition had a philosophy that Megan liked: he didn’t mind if Little Lisa stayed while she worked. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he told Megan four months earlier when she’d been hired, ‘Just don’t let her bother the customers.’ And Little Lisa never did. In fact, she kind of grew on all the employees, especially Kevin.

One thing the little girl was good at, and that was entertaining herself. Tonight she colored an old ‘My Little Pony’ coloring book someone had left next to the trash bin using some crayons Kevin had bought and kept for her back in his office. When Megan found the book and brought it to Little Lisa (along with Kevin’s crayons) it was like someone had given both of them a fancy present, reminding Megan for the millionth time that when you didn’t have much, every little thing was important, seen almost as a gift, and nothing, not even someone else’s trash, was ever taken for granted.

When her shift was over, Megan and Little Lisa were bundling up, getting ready to head outside when Kevin ran up and stopped them. “Hey you two, don’t forget your dinner.” He handed a sack to Megan. After every shift Kevin gave them each a free Full Meal Deal. He knelt down so he was eye level with Little Lisa, “And I’ve got yours all special for you, just the way you like it: six chicken nuggets with no sauce, small fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.”

He really was a nice guy.

“Thank you, Kevin,” Little Lisa said politely, holding her meal tightly to her chest.

“See you tomorrow,” Kev, Megan said.

“Yep,” he mock saluted, “Until then…stay warm and don’t take any wooden nickels.” Megan rolled her eyes at him, appreciating his attempt at humor. Then he turned and went back behind the counter to check on the remaining two helpers. They stayed open until 2am and he had a long three hours ahead of him.

“What did he mean by that, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked as they made their way to their car. The snow had quit falling, but there was maybe three inches on the ground and on her car.

“He was just kidding, Sweetie,” she said, getting the little girl settled in her car seat before setting to work sweeping off her car. It took her about five minutes. She was diligent and careful to get it all removed so she could see clearly. When she was finished she got in, buckled up and started the car. They chatted together for a few minutes, eating their dinners while the car warmed up. When they were finished they dumped their leftover paper and wrappers in a trash can and then pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a little where the snow had compacted. At times like these Megan was conscious of every move she made – from making sure not to fall down and injure herself when walking on icy snow, to being watchful and careful with her driving – everything she could to be conscientious and safe and not do anything that might jeopardize the tenuous hold she had on her life with her daughter. A stay in the hospital or medical bills was something they could ill afford.

The drive from Minneapolis out Highway Seven west to Minnetonka took forty-five minutes; nearly twice as long as normal due to the snow clogging up the roads, slowing the late night traffic to a crawl. The big box store they were heading for closed at midnight and they barely made it in time to rush inside and make their way quickly to the women’s room where they washed up and brushed their teeth. Then they bundled up and headed back outside. The temperature was dropping and the cold was settling in. It might even dip into the single digits overnight. Megan shivered and held Little Lisa’s mittened hand tightly.

She had parked the car way off to the side, half way from the store out to the service road that ran along the far end of the parking lot. She was able to spend the night because the store had instituted a policy a few years ago of letting people similar to her situation park their cars overnight as long as they were gone by six in the morning . And also, most importantly, as long as no one caused any trouble they were welcome to come back. For Megan, it was exactly what she needed. In the five months she’d been staying at the lot no one had ever caused her or anybody else any trouble. In fact, it was just the opposite. More than anything, she was finding that homeless people like her mostly just wanted to be left alone. During warm weather there might be up to fifteen cars scattered around, each leaving as much space as possible between themselves and the nearest vehicle. However, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, the number of vehicles had dwindled to maybe three a night at the most. Tonight, it looked like Megan’s old Ford would be the only vehicle there.

“Come on, honey,” Megan said, reaching the car and opening the front door, “Let’s get you settled.”

Little Lisa knew the routine well: she climbed into the passenger side while her mom went around and opened the back hatch where the few belongings they owned were stored (mostly clothes stowed in a single Tupperware container). She grabbed their blankets for the night and then went around to the front driver’s side where she climbed in, securing and locking their doors. Then she pulled up the latch that let the seat slide back as far as possible. She had learned through trial and error that sleeping in the front seat was roomier and easier on both of them, especially in the winter, where they could take advantage of the car’s heater if they ever needed to. But running the Ford at night cost money, so they rarely did.

Megan helped Little Lisa get settled in. She took off her snow boots and set them on the floor in the back. Then she pulled an extra thick pair of wool socks over her feet, rubbing her toes and joking with the little girl, making her laugh. Megan always felt it was a good way to go to sleep – with the sound of her daughter’s laugher in the car, drowning out any depressed feelings they might have about their living situation. Then she put her in a snowsuit and a kid’s sized sleeping bag  before finally putting ‘Lambie’ her favorite stocking hat on her head and wrapped a scarf around her neck and face. Then she covered her up with a thick quilt she had bought at a Dollar Store just after Thanksgiving. By morning the temperature in the car would be the same as outside, and although it would be cold, at least wrapped up like she was, Little Lisa would be warm.

When Megan was satisfied her daughter was all set, they did their final bedtime ritual. “Do you want me to read you a story?”

“Yes, Mommy, yes,” Little Lisa exclaimed, her breath showing as she spoke. It was already getting cold in the car. “Can you read me about Elsa and Anna?” Little Lisa was hooked on ‘Frozen’ and anything having to do with their characters would be sure to bring her joy. This book was a favorite.

“Yes I can, Sweetheart,” her mother said, reaching under the seat for the book and taking it out of the large zip-loc she kept it in for protection. The lighting from the parking lot flood lights gave her enough light to read by. She began the story, watching her daughter’s eyes go from excited to heavy almost immediately. It had been a long day. After a few minutes her face relaxed, her breathing deepened and she soon fell into a peaceful sleep, transported by the story to a world of fantasy far away from the one in which she was living.


Nacho Cheese Doritos

A little bit of heaven right here on earth, that’s what it was, my love for Doritos, specifically Nacho Cheese. But that little bit of heaven came crashing down hard the day doctor Anderson gave me the test results.

“Sorry, Jay, it’s bad news. You’ve got celiac sprue, a gluten intolerance. You can’t have any of that stuff you like to eat, especially Doritos. You’ve got to quit right now or they could kill you.” He shook his head, commiserating with me. “Maybe try, I don’t know, raisins?”

Well, shit. From heaven to hell in the blink of an eye. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, however I had no desire to die, so I did as he asked. I even tried the raisins, but they didn’t hold a candle to my treasured Doritos. In short, I did my best.

Until recently.

I’d been Dorito free for nearly five years, doing a good job keeping my craving at bay. Had I been tempted at times? Sure, lots. But I’d stayed the course, diligently following my doctor’s orders, being a good boy. Or did, that was, until I unfortunately came across a stray bag in the back of an old stash cupboard in the garage. Bam! An explosion of overwhelming desire for those chips returned with such unexpected force, it almost brought me to my knees. The effect was immediate. I tried to turn away but couldn’t, drawn as I was to that red bag of crunchy goodness and cheesy delight. Oh, no, I silently screamed, don’t give in. I tried to hold fast, but couldn’t help myself. With trembling hands I reached for the bag, held it to my breast and caressed it, all the time thinking, just one won’t hurt, will it? Couldn’t I have just one little Nacho Cheese Dorito?

Who was I kidding? The battle was short, and war was lost before it even began. I couldn’t help myself. Already salivating, I ripped the bag open, dug in and munched away to my heart’s content. I ended up eating them all, and you know what? They tasted even better than I had remembered. In fact, I’m heading for the store tomorrow to buy another bag, maybe two. I don’t care if they aren’t good for me, because there’s one thing I know for certain- I can quit anytime I want to. In the blink of an eye. Just like before. Probably.


Footprints In The Snow

Out for a winter’s walk I came upon some footprints in the snow. Whose were they? I wondered, and paused for a moment, thinking…Coming up with no answer, I impulsively decided to follow them. As I walked, I began remembering how much I enjoyed this, walking outside like I was, not up and down those long hallways in the mall like I’ve been doing lately. You see, I’ve been having a little trouble remembering where I am over the past year, so my wife has taken to driving me to Ridgedale where she and I walk with an oldsters group. It’s been okay, and I liked walking with Kath, but it’s nothing to write home about. However, let me tell you, back in the day, back when my memory was clear, I used to do it a lot, this walking outside. I liked it then and I was liking it now, even though I didn’t know where I was.

Having the fresh invigorating air with the cold bite of winter on my cheeks not only felt wonderful, it made me feel young again. Out of the blue old time memories came flooding back: My younger brother Tim and I in our youth, walking in the winter woods outside of town with our field guides in out backpacks, teaching ourselves how to identify birds; Young Kath and I before we were married, shuffling along a snowy, moonlit trail in a wooded park in January, talking quietly, planning our future and stealing warm kisses behind a convenient oak tree; My daughter Janet and I strolling along a snowy river path near the college she attended as she told me of her dreams for her future; My grandson…

Suddenly I heard Zak’s voice calling, shaking me out of my reverie, “Grandpa, Grandpa, you need to come inside. Grandma Kath says it’s time for dinner and great uncle Tim’s starving.” I looked over and saw him grinning. We all knew how much my brother liked to eat.

“I’m coming,” I said, pulling my mind back to the present and making my way through the snow to the back door of the home Kath and I have lived in for over fifty years. So that’s where I was. Our backyard was a tiny open area, and the edges of the property were thick with evergreen trees; in a way it was kind of like being in a wooded clearing in northern Minnesota. I’d have to try to remember that.

“What were you doing out there, Grandpa?” Zak asked as I came up to him, stomping snow from my boots. He was eleven and in middle school, and this winter he was busy with hockey, his friends and class work, in that order. I didn’t see him as much as I used to, or liked to, for that matter.

“Reminiscing,” I told him. He didn’t need to know I’d had absolutely no idea where I’d just been except lost in fond memories, reliving the past. I recovered valiantly and said, “Thinking about walks we used to take.”

“Like when you took me out that one winter night and showed me the constellations? I remember we saw Cassiopeia and Orion.”

“Yeah, exactly,” I said, mentally shifting gears back to the present (rather smoothly, I thought.) “Back when you were young and just a kid, like four or five.” I reached out to jokingly muss up his hair as he ducked away, laughing.

I stepped into the back entryway, closed the door against the cold and began taking off my winter jacket, scarf, boots and hat. I used to babysit him one day a week before he started grade school. Those were good times back then, special times, especially now that he was getting older and busy with other activities. I glanced up and saw Zak looking past me to the backyard, quietly thinking. The house was filled with the aromatic scent of cinnamon, baked sweet potatoes and fresh apple pie. My mouth involuntarily started watering. I smiled to myself, thinking of my brother. No wonder he was starving.

Zak interrupted my thoughts, “Hey, Grandpa, how about after we eat, you and I go outside and go for a walk? It’s been a while.”

I was shocked almost to the point of speechlessness. It was the last thing I expected to hear from my busy grandson. I almost put on my jacket right then and there, grabbed him by the arm and went back outside. Instead, I reached for him and enveloped him in a big bear hug as he good-naturedly squirmed to get away. “That’d be wonderful, Zak, just perfect.” Our meal couldn’t be over soon enough, as far as I was concerned.

Afterwards, as Zak and I got ready to go outside, snow flurries started falling ever so lightly. The sun was setting, painting the western horizon dusty mauve, and the soft glow of street lamps were illuminating the drifting snowflakes like floating specs of glitter. It was so pretty that we were spontaneously joined by my daughter Janet (Zak’s mom) along with Kath. Even my brother Tim dragged himself out of his easy chair and made it outside. I couldn’t recall the last time all of us had gone for a nice family stroll together along a snow covered street. It was way better than being at the mall. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if we made a habit of it, all of us making time to get together and go walking. Winter, summer, spring or fall, it wouldn’t matter. I’d like that a lot.

But today was special, having us all together. And you know what? The whole time we were walking, I remembered where we were from beginning to end. In fact, I still do. It was unforgettable.


Home Is Where The Heart Is – Part II

Donny Eisenberg was with security and had been watching the young woman and her little girl ever since they’d entered the store. He’d seen her slip the doll into her purse and almost grabbed her then, but held back. He’d been a Floor Walker for eight years now, ever since he’d retired as a bus driver for Metro Transit, and after all these years he could just tell.

Like he recently told Helen, his wife of fifty one years, “They just have a look about them. You know. Trouble.”

To which Helen slapped down her newspaper and stared at him , “All of them Donny? Every single one of them?” She glared at him, frowning.”You know they’re people, don’t you, not things? Each one is a person. A living breathing human being who just might be down on their luck. Can’t you sometimes give them the benefit of the doubt? Cut them a little slack?”

Donny knew she was getting angry but he snorted his answer anyway, “Never.” It seemed they were having this argument more and more often these days and he didn’t know why. “That’s not what they pay me for. The company makes the rules, I enforce them. I’m supposed to stop them if they shop lift, call the head of security and turn them over. That’s my job.”

“So you’re paid not to think, huh?  Is that it? Have no feelings? Well, it sounded like a stupid policy to me when you were hired and it still sounds stupid,” Ellen spat out her words, making her point perfectly clear. Then she stared at him long and hard, waiting for Donny to say something. Anything. Donny stared back at her, his mind suddenly blank.

Finally shook her head in disappointment and stood up, taking her newspaper into another room. Donny watched her walk away, all his arguments suddenly coming back to him. But they were unsatisfying and did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was left with contemplating for what seemed the millionth time in their long marriage, why his wife was always so mad at him. He turned and looked out the window, seeing nothing but Helen’s disappointed frown, and wondered if maybe, in the long run, she really might be right.

Now, as he followed the young woman and little girl through the crowded store, he pictured Helen admonishing him with a flinty gaze and steely eyes boring into him like two overheated drill bits. He knew she’d be disappointed in him (again) but he shrugged it off. To hell with her, he thought. He had a job to do.

It was the day before Christmas Eve and the place was packed, especially today, a Saturday: parents pushing carts full of toys, most of it crap that kids would open and lose interest in before the new year began if not sooner. Harried adults, wound up children, everyone talking twice as loud as normal just to be heard over the incessant Christmas music pouring through the sound system. Most people would be driven nuts, but Donny had learned to tune it all out just to keep his sanity; but he swore if he heard ‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells’ one more time he’d…Well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he was sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Up ahead the young woman (he guessed she wasn’t more than twenty one or twenty two) turned into the first of what was probably ten aisles loaded to over flowing with displays of Christmas lights of every type and style and decorations of every shape, size and color. Donny slowed and walked past her to a look at a row of indoor Christmas tree ornaments, keeping a surreptitious eye on the two of them. She had unbuttoned her ragged coat and even though she had on at least one sweater and a turtle neck, he could tell she was thin. Her skin was pale and her non-descript brown hair was cut short and he noticed that in spite of her street worn appearance, she looked clean. What struck him, though, were her eyes. Even from where he stood and even though she wore glasses, he could see they were bright and blue. Attractive, almost.

Definitely not a drug user, he thought to himself, assessing the situation. He knew that for a fact. He’d seen enough of them in the store to know – wild eyed and manic. Not this one, though. She was calm and under control. And pretty good with her little girl, too, he thought, now that he had watched her for what, he glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes or so. Lots better than a good majority of the other shoppers milling around him, some of whom even bumping into him without so much as even a ‘pardon me.’ Rude people.

He kept a casual but watchful eye on the two of them. Were they a mother and daughter? If so, the young woman seemed…what? Conscientious, maybe? Or thoughtful? Something like that. Not rude, anyway, that was for sure, and that might count for something, even though she was a thief. He found himself hoping she wouldn’t take anything more.

Megan visually scanned through what seemed like a hundred different styles of Christmas lights before she found what she’d been looking for. She’d seen them in a catalog once someone left behind at work – battery operated white, twinkle lights. They’d be perfect for what she had in mind. She calmly glanced around and, seeing no one but an old man looking at ornaments, she quickly slipped the small package into her shoulder bag – the bag she had lined with tin foil to get past the electronic security at the exit doors. It was a trick she’d learned from her friend, Alyssa, at work. ‘Yeah, you do that, girlfriend, you’ll be golden.’ And it did work. Megan always felt the slightest twinge of guilt whenever she shoplifted, but managed to push the feeling back down by saying that she’d eventually pay the store back. And she meant it, too. It just wouldn’t be today.

Donny went back to his pretend browsing, glancing over every now and then before moving a few steps. He was disappointed to see her slip a small strand of some kind of lights into her purse. Too bad. Now she’d have to suffer the consequences. He made a mental note: she’s got the doll and the lights. He started to get himself ready. One more item and he’ll blow the whistle on her. Just one more.

“Mommy, can we get this, please?” Little Lisa asked, interrupting Megan’s thoughts and tugging excitedly on her sleeve.

She looked at the object that held her daughter’s interest and tried to hide her grin. “Not right now, Sweetheart, but maybe some other time.”

“Please, please, please.” It was unlike her to beg like she was doing.

Little Lisa had selected a baseball sized snow globe with a picturesque scene of a quaint cottage and a decorated pine tree next to it. A little red bird (a cardinal? she thought) sat on a branch. You shook it up and the snow exploded inside, hanging suspended momentarily before drifting to the ground, covering the objects in sparkling white. Megan had always wanted one when she was growing up, but times were tough in her family with just her mother and Megan’s little sister and brother – no father and not much money (and, of course, no snow globe), the story of her life. Now her daughter wanted one, just like she had. Funny how things like that worked out.

“I’m sorry, Honey, but we can’t afford it, now,” Megan told her firmly, “We’ll have to wait.”

“Aw,” Little Lisa said, frowning. Then an idea clicked inside her and, not wanting to give up just yet, she smiled coyly at her mom and asked, “How about…maybe…tomorrow?”

Megan couldn’t help but let her heart go out to her daughter. Pretending to give the matter some hard thought she finally said, “Well…maybe, Honey. Maybe,” she said, smiling at her daughter’s persistence, thinking to herself, what does it hurt to have something for a little girl to look forward to? Then she said, “Now, give me the globe please.”

Happy that at least her mother didn’t say ‘No,’ Little Lisa lovingly handed it to her and then turned away to gaze wishfully at a display of candy canes. Megan took the globe from her, but instead of setting it on the shelf, she slipped it into her bag while Little Lisa’s eyes were averted and then said, “Come on, kiddo, we need to get going. Mommy’s got to get to work pretty soon.”

Little Lisa sighed, “Ok, Mommy,” she said, and took a last long look at the display of pretty snow globes (now, minus one) before she turned away, taking her mother’s hand uncomplainingly and, for at least the tenth time that day, left Megan to wonder what she had done to deserve such a sweet natured, agreeable child.

Donny watched as they made their way through the frantic crowds jamming the aisles, the little girl holding her mother’s hand tightly. He was the tiniest bit heavyhearted she’d taken the snow globe and that he’d have to bust them, but there you were. It was his job and he was good at his job. He decided to wait until they left the store to make his move. Maybe other shoppers would see him nab them and it would set an example not to mess around shoplifting in this store. At least not while Donny Eisenberg was on duty anyway.

He followed discretely fifteen feet behind, eyes roving side to side watching what seemed like hundreds of people at a time, all the while zeroed in on the young mother and her little girl. They were making their way past the long checkout lines (without paying, of course) and heading for the exit. Once they went through the doors and were outside, he’d grab them. He’d get them for the doll, the lights, and now the snow globe. Steal on my watch, Donny thought, not a chance.

He was watching carefully, moving step by step toward them when, just a few feet before the exit doors, the little girl stumbled on one of the big thick floor mats meant to soak up water and slush from outside. Donny made a quick mental note to get on the damn maintenance crew. They should be cleaning and changing those mats out every half hour. Then he re-focused on woman. The young mother was only a few feet from the doors. He started to move toward them.

“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Little Lisa said, tears welling up. Megan had grabbed her to keep her from falling and getting wet, and fought to hold her up by the hand, trying to keep her off the soaking, soggy mat. “I tripped.”

Megan struggled for a moment before finally getting the little girl straightened out and her feet firmly planted on the floor, “That’s alright kiddo. I’ve got you, but just try to be more careful next time.”

Little Lisa snuffled, “I’ll try Mommy. I’m sorry.”

Megan moved them over by the wall, off to the side of the flow of the crowd now surging to leave the store, pushing overloaded carts, clutching packages and bags and struggling to get into their coats and jackets. She dabbed the tears from Little Lisa’s eyes talking quietly to her to help get her calmed down. Then she glanced outside and her spirits sank. Flurries were coming down and she could see them already blanketing the ground. The problem was that the snow would make the drive to work slow and she couldn’t afford to be late. It would also make it treacherous. The treads on her tires weren’t the best and she’d have to be extra cautious to stay in her lane and not slip into another vehicle. Megan shook her head – it seemed like there was always something to contend with.

She knelt on a dry spot to the left of the exit, zipped up her daughter’s coat, tightened her scarf and put on her knit stocking hat and mittens. Then, in one quick movement, she folded a strip of foil over the top of the inside of her bag, the final step in making sure she didn’t set off the security alarm. Now she was all set.

She was just standing up, buttoning up her own coat when, through the maze of people she heard, then saw, a Salvation Army bell ringer. He was on the sidewalk outside the door; a stocky black man dressed in heavy boots, an insulated jacket, tan Carhart overalls and a purple Minnesota Vikings stocking hat. He was also wearing a cheerful smile in spite of the cold and snow.

Little Lisa had finally calmed down and was back to being in a good mood.  She saw him too. “Mommy, can we give him some money? Please? Please? Please?”

Megan didn’t have to think twice. She knew there were people out there in much worse shape that she and her daughter. After all, the two of them at least had a car to live in. “Sure Sweetie,” she said, reaching into her shoulder bag for her pocketbook and taking out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Here, give this to the nice man.”

“Goody, goody.” Little Lisa took the dollar bill, held it tightly between her mittened hands and ran through the door right up to the guy. “Here, mister,” she said, giving the money to the man who helped her put the dollar in the bucket.

“Why, thank you very much, and happy holidays to you, young lady,” he said kindly, giving her a big grin and pretending to tip his hat but never once stopping the rhythmic ringing of his bell.

Megan took a quick look around, noticing only the relentless crush of the crowd and, for some reason, that old guy who looked like the old guy she’d seen earlier. But her attention was drawn back through the doors outside to Little Lisa, who was now happily standing next to the bell ringer, chatting away like they were old friends. Megan wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, put on her own stocking cap and mittens, and walked through the doors, momentarily holding her breath, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it didn’t and she sighed with relief.

She walked over to her daughter, took her by the hand and smiled a polite smile to the volunteer, wishing him a happy holiday. She had bought clothes from Salvation Army before and she was happy to give something back, even though it was only a dollar. Then they made their way through the slippery, slushy snow to her car. Little Lisa got into her car seat in the back and buckled herself in while Megan used a brush to clear the snow off. Then she got inside and started the old Ford. She let it warm up a few minutes before putting it in drive and slowly making her way through the snowy parking lot out to the street and then to the highway where she settled into the long drive to work, the snow falling ever faster.

Back in the store Donny had been waiting, watching their every move and he’d seen the young mother give her little girl the dollar for the donation. It made him hesitate. It was a gesture from her he hadn’t expected and it touched him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. He stood in place, oblivious to the crowd pushing past him and the dirty looks some people were giving him. He was thinking about the young mother and her little girl, seeing Helen’s face in his mind watching him, almost willing him to think for himself for a change. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments and surprised himself by coming to his decision rather quickly. What the hell? Maybe it was his good deed for the season. Maybe it was the disarming vision of Helen in his brain. Whatever…sure he was breaking the rules but big deal. There was something about the young mother and her daughter. They seemed alright to him- not career criminals, that was for sure. Maybe they were just down on their luck. Maybe it was the little girl. She seemed so well behaved and the way she was with the Salvation Army guy was…well, kind of cute. Whatever the case, he decided to let them go and, he had to admit, immediately felt pretty good about his decision. He wondered if he should bother to tell Helen about what he’d done when he got home. He thought about it as he watched the mother and daughter trudge through the snowy parking lot out to their car, surprised to find he was holding his breath until they made it safely. Then he turned back to the store, thinking that maybe he would tell her. And, if he did, and she took the time to listen to him, maybe, for once, she wouldn’t be so damn mad at him. It was worth a try. Stranger things could happen.

He started to walk back into the store, taking out his two-way radio and making the call to maintenance about changing out the entry mats. Then he saw another person he might have to keep an eye on. A black woman and a bunch of kids all under the age of ten. Suddenly, though, the thought of trailing them through the store seemed pointless. Sure, if they didn’t have money and couldn’t pay for their stupid toys and crap, they shouldn’t be in the store in the first place. But, what the hell, maybe Helen had been right – who was he to be playing god? All of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe it was that young mother and her daughter. Maybe it was the image in his mind of Helen’s ongoing disappointment in him. Who knew? But he decided to let the black woman her kid go past him without bothering to follow. Instead, he took out his two-way again and made a call, “I’m going on break.” He walked to the back of the store and through a door that said, ‘Employees Only.’ He sat down and stared into space, suddenly very tired. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and then it’s over, Donny thought. Thank god.

Old Man Jasperson

Ambrose Jasperson looked at himself in the mirror, fluffed out his full beard and pronounced to his wife, Emma, “Alrighty, then. Looks like Santa Claus is all set.”

He smiled at his reflection. From his natural beard, curly and white, to his cheeks rosy from a lifetime of dairy farming, to his belly jolly from a lifetime love of anything sweet ( cookies in particular), he really did look like Santa Claus. The Santa suit provided by the senior living facility helped, too.

A knock at the door. “Mr. Jasperson. Mr. Jasperson, are you ready? We’re waiting for you.”

He adjusted the red blanket over his legs, rolled his wheel chair to the door and opened it, doffing is red Santa cap, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas,” he greeted Maggie, one of Riverview’s care providers.

Maggie smiled, thinking that it was nice Old Man Jasperson, as he was referred to by the staff, was in a festive mood. She’d only worked at Riverview Senior Living for a few months and didn’t know him very well, only that he was quiet and kept to himself in his room at the far end of the hall. She’d also heard that he’d lived there for three years, that he’d had a tragic life, losing his four children over the years to a variety of accidents and misfortunes, and that he’d lost his wife, Emma, to cancer five years ago.

She’d also had been told that every year for the past three years he’d volunteered to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and that said a lot, as far as Maggie was concerned. In her mind, Old man Jasperson must have something special going for him.

She smiled, “Ready to go? They’ve just finished singing Christmas carols.”

As attendants went, Ambrose thought Maggie was fine. Nice. She left him pretty much to himself and that was a good thing. He knew most everyone at Riverview thought he was a bit odd and that was all right with him. If spending time by yourself working on a project and talking to your long departed wife was consider odd, well then so be it. They could get back to him when they were eighty-eight like him, and trying to live out the end of their life in a meaningful way like he was trying to do. Then maybe they’d have something to talk about.

“I’m all set. Let the festivities begin,” he said cheerfully. “Ho, ho, ho…” And he rolled out into the hallway but not before waving a cheery good-bye to Emma.

A few hours later, back in his room, Ambrose had changed out of his Santa suit, wheeled his chair to his one window and was looking outside. He lived on the first floor and had an unobstructed view of the parking lot. A few days earlier, a snowstorm had blanketed the world in white and Riverview’s maintenance staff had decorated the front of the building with evergreen garlands and wrapped strings of colored lights around all four of the tiny evergreen trees near the entrance. It wasn’t much, but he liked how they looked, festive and cheerful. He’d always enjoyed Christmas time, no matter how challenging his and Emma’s life had been. He still did. There was a warm and snug feeling associated with this time of year that he loved.

After they became too old to farm, Ambrose and Emma sold their land and dairy herd and moved into a small bungalow in nearby Redwood Falls. There they lived happily for nearly ten years until poor Emma died after a valiant year long struggle with cancer. Soon after, Ambrose’s diabetes got the better of him, confining him to a wheelchair, and he moved into Riverview. That had been three years ago.

Now it was just him. Well, he and Emma. Ambrose had to admit, it was nice to have her with him. It made his days less lonely.

A knock on the door. Ambrose glanced at the clock. Eight-thirty. This was unexpected. He turned in his chair and asked, “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Mr. Jasperson. Maggie.”

“Maggie. Hi. What can I do for you?” He was still in a good mood from playing Santa. Plus, Emma was with him, sort of like Mrs. Claus. That helped.

“I wanted to thank you for playing Santa tonight,” Maggie said through the door.”You did a great job. I was wondering…We have some leftover Christmas cookies from earlier. Would you like some?”

Cookies? Absolutely. “That’d be wonderful, Maggie. Thank you. Just a second, I’ll get the door.” He turned to Emma and whispered, beaming, “Christmas cookies!” And watched as she smiled back at him, knowing how much he loved his sweets.

Ambrose wheeled to the door and opened it. As Maggie came in and set the plate of cookies down, she noticed something on the little bedside nightstand. Curious, she pointed, “What have you got there?”

“Oh, that,” Ambrose said, suddenly embarrassed and turning red, “It’s nothing.”

Maggie peered closely. It was a photo album, and it looked like it was stuffed full of old family photographs. “I don’t want to pry, but they look interesting.”

“You can look at them if you want. Really, though, they’re just old pictures.” He paused for a moment, fighting off a sudden, encroaching melancholy. After a moment he said, his voice almost a whisper, “My…My wife took them. Emma.”

“Oh, my. I love looking at old photographs,” Maggie said, enthusiastically, meaning it. It was one of the reasons she liked working at Riverview. She enjoyed being around old folks and hearing the stories they had to tell.

Maggie’s enthusiasm perked up Ambrose’s’ mood considerably. “Well, if that’s the case you might like these.” He grinned an impish grin, and wheeled next to his bed where he reached under and pulled out not one, or two, but three flat storage containers. “I’ve got photographs in all of them.” He watched Maggie’s eyes go wide. “Emma took pictures our whole married life. Do you want to have a look? I’m putting them in order in albums, sort of our family history.”

So that’s what he’s doing in here, Maggie thought to herself. He’s organizing his life through old photographs. That’s amazing. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Jasperson, I’d love to see them.”

Ambrose smiled and pointed, “Pull up a chair, then. And, please, call me Ambrose.”

Maggie smiled, happy to finally be the first staff person in Riverview Senior Living to start to get to know ‘Old Man Jasperson’ better.”Okay, then. Ambrose it is.”

“Great. But first, you might want to go get another plate of cookies. I’ve got a lot of pictures here.”

Maggie, grinned, thinking that she couldn’t think of a better way to spend Christmas Eve. “Good idea,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

After Maggie left, Ambrose selected a cookie off the plate and munched on it as he set about spreading out some of the photographs. He turned to Emma and said, “You don’t mind sharing our photos, do you Em?” He pointed toward the door, “She seems nice.” He listened for a moment in the silence of the room and then smiled, “So you don’t mind? Good. I didn’t think so.”

He then happened to glance out the window and saw that snow was beginning to fall. He was quiet for a moment watching the flakes drift past the floodlights outside, carrying with them for him a lifetime of memories of past Christmases, memories that made him feel warm inside.

He turned his head as if listening and said, “What’s that? Why, yes it is Em. It really is a pretty scene out there. Like being back on the farm.” The room was quiet while he listened some more. Finally he spoke, “I agree. Merry Christmas to you, too, Sweetheart. It’s been one of our best Christmases ever.” He paused once more, nodding his head along with what his wife was saying. “That’s right, Em, I agree. Every Christmas is special, just as long as we’re together.”

The Mesabi Miner

The huge iron ore freighter was thirty miles out when Jerry Jorgenson saw it appear on the horizon, barely visible, a tiny spec. He pulled down his seed company cap to shade his eyes, and used his binoculars to watch as the ship slowly made its way toward where he was standing, close to the shipping canal between Lake Superior and the Port of Duluth. They say that death and taxes were what you could always count on. Well, to that you could add the Mesabi Miner, thought Jerry, as he watched the huge vessel’s slow but steady progress. The freighter had been carrying iron ore back and forth across all of five of the great lakes for seventy-three years, Jerry’s entire life. It was as dependable as the day was long, was how he looked at it.

It took nearly two hours for the ship to make the journey, and as it approached the entrance to the canal it began slowing down, making ready to leave the lake. By now Jerry was surrounded by a boisterous crowd of men, women and children from all walks of life. Everyone was excited and the festive atmosphere blended in perfectly with the bright sun and warm sand and raucous seagulls. The huge vessel was so close he could almost reach out and touch it’s riveted steel immensity: one-thousand feet long, one-hundred feet wide and over fifty feet deep. It was fully laden with nearly eighty-thousand tons of iron ore, and it gave him a thrill beyond words to be standing so close to it.

The wheel house was seventy-five feet above the water. Unexpectedly, a figure appeared at the small window, leaned out and saluted good naturedly to those gathered below. It was the captain. The crowd called out and waved back excitedly. Not Jerry. He wasn’t what you’d call a demonstrative person by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, he watched closely as the captain doffed his cap, expecting to see a grizzled and weathered seaman. But that’s not what he got. He did a double take, and then had to raise his binoculars to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. They weren’t. It wasn’t a man who was doffing a cap and commanding his beloved freighter. It was a woman. And, even more remarkable, she wasn’t even very old. He was stunned beyond belief. What was going on? Was this a sick joke of some kind? What had happened to manly tradition and the stoically competent seafarers who were supposed to be safely guiding the huge iron ore freighters across the always treacherous Great Lakes? More to the point, what was this woman doing on what he always thought of as his ship?

Jerry could not accept what he was seeing. It made him almost physically ill. Then as if to add insult to injury, the captain (That woman!) shook her head and set free long tresses of blond Scandinavian hair that shown in the sun like the finest imported satin. Her tanned face broke into a big smile as she gave the jovial crowd an impish wink and waved enthusiastically to them.

Jerry was aghast. She’s going to smash that ship, that’s what she’s going to do, he thought to himself. I’ll bet my pension check from the steel workers union that she’s going to sink the Mesabi Miner to the bottom of the canal. Then they’ll be sorry. Everybody knows that only men have the knowledge and skill necessary to make it through that narrow passageway and into the port beyond. He folded his arms tightly across his chest in a huff, as if challenging her to fail. Then he watched and waited, expecting the worst.

If the young captain could sense Jerry’s skepticism, she didn’t let on. Undaunted, she turned seriously to the task at hand and, like thread through a needle’s eye, she cool handedly guided Jerry’s beloved iron ore freighter through the narrow canal into the safe harbor beyond, completing the Mesabi Miner’s journey by tooting it’s horn three times. The crowd erupted as one and began wildly cheering. Not Jerry. He turned away in disgust, the roar in his ears almost too much to bear.

He took two fast steps, and in his haste to get away almost knocked over a young girl about ten years old wearing a Minnesota Twins baseball hat. As he sidestepped her it occurred to him that his own granddaughter was about the same age. She was a delight to be around and was already an accomplished hockey player. It dawned on him that her mom, Jerry’s daughter, was about the same as the ship’s captain. She not only was a wonderful mother, but also a highly respected veterinarian. Damn. It was a pain in the ass to do so, but he had to admit that the world he used to know was changing. Sometimes too fast for him, but it was.

He quickly apologized to the young girl who smiled and said cheerfully, “That’s okay, mister.”

He took a few steps and then stopped and thought to himself, Hell, that lady captain actually did do a good job steering the freighter through the shipping canal, way better than I could have anyway. His shoulders slumped ever so slightly as the realization hit him. Yeah, she really was pretty good.

He straightened up tall, having made what was for him a momentous decision. He turned and gave the departing vessel as snappy salute. Then he begrudgingly joined in with the crowd and began applauding.

Runner’s High

As long as I can remember Mom and I were close. Maybe that’s why it didn’t surprise me too much when she asked me to run a marathon with her.

She and Dad divorced the fall after I left for college at the University of Wisconsin. I was the youngest of four boys, and the last one to leave home. Mom told me later that the marriage had been over for years and that she and Dad had decided to wait until I was moved out until they set the wheels in motion to finalize things. None of my brothers nor I had a clue that anything was wrong, apparently for years. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

Dad worked the Ford Motor assembly line in St. Paul until it shut down. Then he moved on to Northern Aluminum in northeast Minneapolis. He didn’t like the change one bit, saying that making soda pop cans was a far cry from making transmissions for F-150 pickup trucks. Most everyone could see his point.

He was a hunting, fishing, hard drinking, macho kind of guy. I was more of a reader and math. He gave up on trying to interest me in killing things when I was around eight years old saying, “Go play with you dolls, Shirley, I’ll take your brothers hunting instead.”

I was shy by nature and slightly withdrawn, but I didn’t mind his sarcasm one bit. Especially since by then Mom had taken me under her wing. She worked part time as an administrative assistant for a large reality company. But she always made time for us kids, saying that her children were her first priority. A fun outing for us was to go to the park, play on the swings and read. She taught me how to identify birds and how to count to a thousand in prime number by the time I was eight. (By the way, there are sixty-nine of them up to 1,009.) I couldn’t have asked for a better mom.

When the divorce was complete, they sold the big, four bedroom house in Bloomington my brothers and I had grown up in and split the money. Thus began my mom’s transformation from quiet and dutiful housewife to a person who embraced life to the fullest.

First off, she moved twenty miles west of Minnesota to the small town of Long Lake. She purchased a townhome on western shore with a view of not only the lake, but of the forested hills surrounding it. She told me at the time, “You know, Jack, I never did like living in the suburbs.”She was a small town girl herself, having grown up on a farm outside of Breckenridge in the northwestern part of the state.

A year after she moved to Long Lake, she retired from the realty business. When I questioned her about it, she said, “You know, I’ve worked in the housing market my whole life. It’s time for a change.”

“I thought you liked your job.”

She smiled and patted me on the shoulder and said, “Jack, it was just a job. Something I did to bring in money to help with the bills. It was nothing more than that.”

She got a job working part time the local bakery.

“The people there are wonderful,” she often told me, “Plus, it smells fantastic.”

The place was called Lakeside Sweets and she was right. It did have a wonderful aroma. I went there whenever I could.

She dated some, saw old friends a lot, made new friends, volunteered at the library and historical society and joined two book clubs. She even started jogging. Her life became enriched beyond her wildest imagination.

“Jack, let me tell you, I’m having a blast,” she told me more than once, “I’ve never been happier.”

Which was true. I could tell. Her skin developed a golden glow. She cut her hair short and wore simple jewelry made by a local craftswoman. I was very happy for her.

After she moved, I went out to visit her as often as I could, more frequently after I returned to Minneapolis from college. I liked it in Long Lake. The quiet pace of life suited me. On one of those visits I heard of a job opening at an accounting firm in town. I applied and was hired. I had majored in accounting at Madison so working for the Jasperson’s, a father/son insurance company, was a good fit.

I found a nice, one bedroom apartment a few blocks from the lake. (Well, being a small town, pretty much everything was a few blocks from the lake.) I bought a fat tire bicycle and started riding on the biking trails in the area. I bought bird and wildflower and tree identification books. I even started dating a woman named Meg, a clerk at the hardware store in town. I got a tabby cat from the Humane Society and named her Sunshine.

Life was good for both Mom and me. We met every Sunday at the local cafe to chat and get caught up on what was going on in each of our lives. It was at our weekly get together that she dropped a bombshell. By then, she’d been living in Long Lake for ten years and I’d been out there for nearly five. We were sitting outside, overlooking the lake. It was a pleasant spring morning, with robins birds singing and the air filled with the scent of lilacs just starting to bloom. In that moment, life was perfect. Then it changed in an instant.

I had just finished telling her that Meg and I had gone for a nice walk on the Lucy Line Trail the day before. “We’re getting along great, Mom. We’re thinking of getting an apartment together.”

She smiled and said, slightly distracted, “That’s nice, dear. You sound happy.”

I smiled back at her, “I am Mom, moving out here has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Me, too. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”

“So do I.”

She was silent then, sipping her chamomile. I was quiet with her, both of us enjoying a companionable few moments looking out over the lake. Then she cleared her throat, and told me all in a rush, “Jack I’ve got something to tell you. I’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s benign right now, so I don’t want you to worry. The doctors are monitoring it.”

Well, shit. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I felt like the world had just stopped spinning. This couldn’t be happening. Not to Mom. God damn it. My take away of that day was this: Life just wasn’t fair. Both for her and for me.

We talked most of the rest of the day. The upshot was that though she was getting progressively weaker, she still could work in the bakery if she paced herself. It was then that she dropped another bombshell. “Jack, I have a favor to ask.”

I took her hand,”Anything, Mom.”

“You know I’ve been running for the last couple of years. I was planning on running the Twin City Marathon this October. I want you to run it with me. Will you do that for me? Please?”

Exercising has never been an interest of mine. Sure I rode my bicycle, but that was for fun. Training for a marathon? Impossible. Especially with only four months to the race. But it was my mom. I didn’t have to think twice, “Of course, I’ll do it,” I told her, “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I began training the next day.

Probably at that time I still hadn’t comprehended the severity of Mom’s condition. I was probably in a degree of shock and denial. I’m sure I thought that since the tumor was benign she’d eventually recover. Well, I was wrong.

Her condition got worse, her health went downhill fast and by the time of the marathon, Mom had passed away. I never got to run it with her.

The one of the last things she told me was this, “No matter what life brings, Jack, you can rise up to the challenge and face it. Give it your best shot. Even if you fail, at least you know you tried. Never, ever run from anything.”

I hugged her tight. There was nothing to say.

I didn’t run the marathon the year of Mom’s death. I just couldn’t. But the next year I did. I ran it just like Mom had asked me to. And, I have to be truthful here, the way I was able to do it was that I pretended that she was with me, running by my side. Sorry if that sounds weird, but that’s the way it goes. Meg was my cheering section. I finished in five and a half hours, way back in the pack. By that time, I knew that even pretending Mom was with me wasn’t going to help me finish any easier. It was a physically brutal race. The hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.

Toward the end of the end, I was laboring badly. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the finish line. I stopped and started walking. I was getting dizzy and thinking about quitting. I was less than three miles from the finish. It came back to me then what Mom had said, about how she’d wanted to run the race herself, before she died. I knew, then, what I needed to do. I gritted my teeth and made my feet start moving, step by arduous step.  Soon I was jogging again, back in the race. I was feeling good that I hadn’t given up.

Less than a mile from the finish line I was so focused on getting to the end, I almost didn’t hear a familiar voice on the sideline, cheering, “Come on, Jack, you can do it. I know you can.”

I looked to the side, to the sea of spectators lining the course. Who was that? It didn’t sound like Meg. Besides she was going to meet me at the finish. I looked some more, and then I saw her. It was Mom. She was cheering a waving and laughing. I couldn’t believe how good it was to see her. I waved back and looked toward the finish line, now less than a half mile away. I knew I could make. I had Mom there to cheer me on. I ran faster, exhilarated.

And I made it, too. Yes, sore and in pain, but I made it. And you know what? It’s been months after the race and I still go out running. I like being on the trails around our little town, but I have to say, I have an ulterior motive. Just like at the end of the marathon, when I saw Mom in the crowd, maybe, just maybe when I’m out running, I might see her again. Wouldn’t that be great? I think so. And even though I haven’t spotted her yet I’m going to keep at it. She’s got to be out there, right? And if she is, I’ll find her. Stranger things have happened, haven’t they?