April172012

The Glass Slipper is now available!

The Glass Slipper is the un-fairy tale of two familiar girls. Fairy tales may be fun, but the real true story of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella is more complex, real, and interesting than the simple children’s stories we all know. Wolves and fairies, godmothers and wicked stepmothers, princes and balls all come together in a larger story once upon a time…

Re-imagine how the lives and tales of familiar people came to be. Take a bit of a tale, mix in a few facts and a few fantasies, introduce some embellishments to capture an audience, and you have the fairy tales of old. 
The Glass Slipper turns these elements around. Take a fairy tale and introduce plausibility in place of fantasy. Then introduce different tales to each other and let their stories happen. Everything you know, or think you know, about Little Red Riding Hood and about Cinderella is here. But almost everything you know about them is twisted a bit.
There is evil, there is wickedness, there is the obligatory prince, and it all happens Once Upon a Time…

Sample or purchase The Glass Slipper: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/152532

 

December302010
Empty shelves
© 2010 Michael Young

Empty shelves

© 2010 Michael Young

photo 

December292010

A Word in Edgewise : a story (incomplete draft)

Bobbie looked out at the dry dusty town surrounding the dry dusty storefront.  She couldn’t interpret exactly how she was feeling, beyond empty. Everything felt empty. The town, the room, her heart. Her soul. Afternoon sunlight speckled off the windows, beating against the translucence of the old glass, trying to gain entry into the quiet room, trying to illuminate the musty dim corners. The intensity of the summer sun was softened by its passage through the dirt that crusted the panes, but it still made its searing presence known despite attenuation by the accumulated grime. Everything felt bone-achingly dry and austere. This land was all so unlike the close green hills of home. Correction: ex-home.

She warily watched the man sitting at a well-used table near the center of the room. She knew this man. In a very superficial recent acquaintance sort of way, she knew him. What she didn’t yet know is whether she should trust William Joseph Radcliffe. Billy. A small somewhat absurd name for a big guy. He was big enough that no one called him Billy in derision; big enough that he didn’t have to prove himself. Big enough that he had the luxury of speaking softly and still being heard. Big enough to seem obliquely threatening without actually acting threatening. Big enough to implicitly trust, because he didn’t exhibit a need to continually prove himself the way smaller men seemed prone to doing.

This was the tale Bobbie was telling herself. Justification, perhaps, for proposing to him that he bring her to this bleak land within a day of their meeting. When you have no place in particular to be, any place is as good as any other place. When you’re trying to fade away you have two choices: anonymity among the multitudes of a large city, or obscurity in an obscure place. She had chosen Billy as her guide into obscurity, although he didn’t yet understand his role. He simply acknowledged, by quiet acceptance, that the plot would unfold in due course.

Billy poked at a loose flake of paint, a hangnail of thick and grimy peeling paint. Once white, now yellowed with age and dust, the flake was one of many clinging loosely to the edge of the antique table. Billy, young and bulky, and the table, old and dusty, sat near the middle of the dusty vacant storefront room. Billy’s back faced the town central square, which sat quietly at one end of Edgewise, North Dakota.

Along the sides of the table the effects of years of use scarred the wood, sometimes revealing layers of the table’s history as if it was an archaeological dig. Spots where the topmost dingy white paint layer was broken revealed an optimistic bright yellow, which had in turn once masked a dreary grey-blue. Somewhere deep under the strata of paint lay a foundation of bone-dry wood, which perhaps once had been polished to a sheen by some long forgotten lonely wife out in the middle of the lonely prairie.

This was not some crude sodbuster table, hacked together in haste and simply intended to provide a good-enough surface for rough meals or repairing harness, birthing or laying-out. No, this table had finely turned legs with smooth grooves, attached to the tabletop with planed and fitted joints. Clearly, someone had labored to get a good piece of furniture out here in the middle of such vast dry emptiness. It was a simple leap to conjecture the care and attention that might have been lavished on the table, sitting as a centerpiece in a straight-backed frame house. Otherwise, why bother with all the trouble it must have cost getting it all the way to Edgewise?

It was a shame that subsequent generations hadn’t valued it so dearly. If they had, they surely wouldn’t have slopped heavy layers of paint over it. They wouldn’t have crudely spliced a wedge to the bottom of one leg to level the table against the undulating floor. They would have considered the value, the true value, of a fine piece in a crude land before defiling it so roughly.

Bobbie searched the corners of the room for some means to shift a few of the layers of dust. Billy watched with a mixture of exasperation and amusement while she stomped around, poking behind discarded furniture and piles of junk. Eventually she emerged from the back room with a straw broom that was worn to a few nubs. Wielding the broom like a finely wrought implement, she stirred most of the dust off the two chairs and the old table.

She sat across the table from Billy, looking past him, looking to the street beyond the rippled glass, looking to the faded gazebo in the square beyond the street. The dust clouds resettled as they sat at the table, not speaking. With her fingertip Bobbie drew doodles, sketched roads and rivers, built hills and valleys in the settled dust while Billy picked and poked at the dents and flakes in the table. He was clearly in no hurry; she had a vague feeling that was a general way of life out here.

She was the first to break the silence. With a sigh, and with a barely disguised attempt to hide her uneasiness, she asked, “You really mean to do this? In this dry dusty forsaken place you intend to open a café?”

“Yep. I sure do intend to do it. This’s my home and my town, and I mean to bring some bit of life here. Look at this place. Needs a bit of sprucing up and painting, sure. But imagine this place bustling with folks, noisy and alive. Imagine it smelling of coffee and fresh buns in the morning, spicy chili and warm cornbread at noon. Folks need a gathering spot that ain’t a saloon. Town needs a warm heart if it’s going to remain alive.”

For half the drive up from the Twin Cities Bobbie had heard his plans, but she hadn’t quite pictured the whole setting. Now that it was laid out around her she could only shake her head at his craziness. Perhaps too much sun and dust and dry loneliness had weathered the sense out of him. But she had only known him for two and a half days now. How much sense he had ever had was unknown to her. Could be that he was one of those pipe-dreamers, always hoping and imagining the good times that were sure to come. Sure to come, if only… Unfortunately, if only was generally a moving target, ever-receding from reality.

On the trip up Billy explained where they were headed, ‘in the interest of full disclosure’. Edgewise, North Dakota. About midway between Fargo and Bismarck as the confused crow flies, he put it. A place located somewhere in the hinterlands, located in the nowhere found smack dab between desolate and lonely.

“Edgewise. That’s a peculiar name for a town.” She alternated between engaging him and ignoring him, not quite sure what she was getting into.

“It’s called Edgewise because the main street runs perpendicular to the highway rather than along it. Some clever guy, who just happened to be my grandfather, decided that having a town built along the state road meant it was just a bump in the road from somewhere to somewhere else. He decided building it cross-ways to the highway made it a destination. And just to make sure people hurrying from somewhere to somewhere else noticed it, he got the state to erect a soldiers and sailors monument in the middle of the highway. So there’s a round-bout right in the middle of Edgewise, with a stone monument and a bit of park around it. Sure accomplishes its purpose; you have to slow and notice the town even when you’re just rushing down the highway to get somewhere else. And somewhere else is generally where folks are aiming to get.”

“What else has Edgewise got, besides a monument in the middle of the highway? I mean, is there reason for someone to stop down there to shop or eat or sightsee or something? Anything touristy or especially interesting in the area?”

“Well…” he hesitated, not wanting to worry her too much. She’d find out plenty about the place soon enough. He did tell her how the town had two loops, like lollipops, on opposite sides of the state road. Two loops joined by the main street, called by the imaginative and somewhat grandiose name Central Avenue. In truth, Central Avenue could also be called Peripheral Road, or perhaps One and Only Street. There really wasn’t much else to the town, as she’d soon discover for herself.

The midpoint of Central Avenue was the monument, and in the center of both loops there were town parks. The west loop had the playground, and the east loop had the bandshell, strategically positioned to capture the setting sun. The town hall and the Lutheran Church faced each other down the length of Central Avenue. The buildings consisted of a few shuttered shops, the library, the little kids school, the feed store, the five and dime general store. The Edgewise Historical Museum, open Tuesdays from 11 to 2, and the auxiliary shop next door rounded out the commercial district. That’s how Billy put it. The commercial district.

“You make it sound like some big fancy town, with your emphasis on The Commercial District. But your description doesn’t seem to fit. Do I have to wait and see for myself, or can you clue me in? Why are you pushing Edgewise so hard?”

“Well, that’s what the mayor is supposed to do. To promote his town and make sure it gets its fair shake from the county and state.”

Bobbie burst out laughing. “You’re the mayor? But you’re barely older than me, and I’m barely old enough to be a voter, much less a mayor.”

“Laugh if you will, but I’m really honest to gosh mayor of Edgewise North Dakota. Although in truth that’s partly because my family’s been part of Edgewise since before it was Edgewise, and partly because no one else much wanted the job last election.”

“Well, I guess it started at breakfast a couple of days ago. Maybe you didn’t see me, but I was standing behind you waiting for a seat at the counter at that little hole in the wall breakfast place.”

“I guess I sort of saw you there, but I didn’t really pay much attention. I was focused on my short stack of blues. Which are the best blueberry pancakes in the state, as you doubtless discovered. I have to go there whenever I hit the city. I went to school at the U, hung out in Dinkytown, and fattened myself at that little counter for three years.”

“That explains why they knew your name. When the cook yelled out ‘Hey, it’s Billy Joe’ it caught my attention. It must be fate, Bobbie Jo finding Billy Joe. At least that’s the crazy thinking that went through my head. Mind you, I was still coffee-deprived at that point, so crazy thinking goes with that territory. Then when I saw you in the pub that night I had to go over and meet you. I had to find out if you really were a Billy Joe sort of guy.

“What’s a Billy Joe sort of guy?”

“Sort of a hick, I guess. Like folks expect Bobbie Jo to be a female hick.”

“So once in my life my crazy name paid off. I can’t tell you how much teasing I got about it all the time I was growing up. Still do, in fact. But since I’m a bigger guy now, the teasing’s a bit more respectful.”

“Well, try growing up in Connecticut with a name like Bobbie Jo. That’s like having a big ‘kick me’ sign stuck to your back all the time. All those Emilys and Stephanies and Rebeccas had a good time with little Bobby Jo.”

“So you come from Connecticut? I never met a girl from Connecticut before. Not many folks from there come out here to North Dakota, I guess.”

She stared at her fingertips for longer than was comfortable. “Oops. That’s more information than I wanted to give. Ok, I admit I come from Connecticut. Bethel Connecticut, in fact. Right next to Danbury. Which I don’t expect you’ve heard of.”

“Sure I have. Home of Charles Ives, one of America’s best composers. As a matter of fact, I played some Ives with the Fargo Orchestra. We’re not totally lacking culture and social graces here. We just hide it well sometimes. Got to keep folks guessing about just what we know and do out here. Sort of a game of lowering expectations, so we can exceed them easier.”

“Well Mr. Mayor, you’re exceeding mine now. No offense meant. It’s just, well, Billy Joe from Edgewise North Dakota. Not quite Percival Quincy Roger Stanhope. The third. From Greenwich. Who’s real, by the way. Or at least someone I know really has that good grief pretentious silly name. And lived up to it, by the way. Insufferably pretentious. Anyway, differing expectations, sort of like you said.”

Minneapolis to Fargo is northwest. Fargo to Edgewise takes most of the north out, leaving only west to travel. Looking back east when you part ways with the interstate, you see a road sign. Fargo 112 miles.

“Sorry, but I didn’t expect anything to be 112 miles from Fargo. Now here I am, every one of those 112 miles and even a bit more, passing a sign that says Edgewise, North Dakota. Pop. 419. Is that for real? You’ve got exactly 419 people out here that you’re mayor of?”

Billy was a bit slow to respond. “It doesn’t exactly say 419 people. It says population 419. Fact is, there are certain benefits if your town has a population more than 400. Things like a post office. Like road crews. Like road signs even. So we get a little creative at times. The point is Edgewise has a population of 419 souls, give or take a handful, of which 297 are people. Then we’ve got some dogs and cats who become full-fledged citizens when it comes time to tot up the residents. In total, the population count last time we checked was 419. At least that’s what’s on the ledger.”

"Sure is a different world, that’s for sure. Clearly I’m not in Bethel any more."

"But why are you here? Women don’t usually ask some guy they just met to take them off to an unknown place five hundred miles away. Not unless they’re running. Or hiding. Or maybe both."

"How about for a change of scenery? If you have no place in particular to be, any place is as good as any other. The way I look at it, if you want to go to nowhere in particular, any road will do.”

“Well, I’m sure some places are better than others, even if you have no particular need to be somewhere. So which is it? Running or hiding? Going off with a relative stranger seems like an interesting way of hiding your tracks, if a bit risky.”

story 

September262010
Near the End
© 2003 Michael Young

Near the End

© 2003 Michael Young

photo 

4PM

The Downfall of a Leaf : a story

Jim glared up at the sole remaining leaf clinging to a high branch of an otherwise bare maple. The leaf was carelessly swaying in the light autumn breeze, oblivious to the season.

“Waste of time, gathering up the fallen leaves. Let ‘em rot; ole mother nature knows how to take care of her own leavings. Ain’t nothing wasted with her. Ashes to ashes, leaves to dirt,“ he grumbled.

The spring-summer-fall cycle of leaves had been working long before carefully clipped lawns were man’s crowning glory, and would keep on working long after suburbia faded to irrelevance. No sense in spendin’ good energy doing nature’s job. The leaves would disappear no matter if he participated in their disappearance or not. Whether they finally ended up going away while they were scattered all across the yard or while they were in a smoky burning pile at the curb really mattered little to Jim.

Got better things to do than chase dusty leaves blowin’ around. Especially since as soon as he turned and went back inside, as soon as he got to sit at the kitchen table with that well deserved cup of tea, as soon as he looked out at his newly cleaned back yard, that damned last leaf was gonna fall. It would taunt him, mock him, razz him. It would keep on about how he could never keep up.

Durn that old Mabel! If it weren’t for her and her persnickety ways he wouldn’t be out here bothering about a few dead leaves. Typical. If she weren’t so almighty snooty about how neat and clean she kept her place and how he ought to foller her good example so his weeds didn’t grow into her yard, so his leaves didn’t blow in to her yard, he’d have things a lot easier. As if he controlled which way the wind blows. As if she could tell which leaves come from which tree. As if he cared. Worse thing was, her little cuts and jibes kept bothering him long after they should have ceased to matter.

That woman had a way of pokin’ and naggin’ too durn close to bein’ like an old wife. She ought to just let a man live comfortable in the best way he knew how, but somehow she couldn’t see her way clear to doing just that.

He ought to stop listening to her, and one day -Soon!- he would. More than twice, Jim had swore a binding resolution, a meaningful oath committed to himself, often when a couple of fingers still pooled in the bottom of his glass, to resist her malign influence and run his own durn life in his own durn way and durn her well if she didn’t durn well like it.

He would start dancing by her, fingers in his ears and singing ‘la la la! I can’t hear you! I don’t care one bit more whatever you say!’. He would, just see if he wouldn’t! Trouble was, he sort of wanted to hear her sometimes.

Jim stepped back a couple feet and glared up at the miscreant leaf. Maybe if he could stretch the rake straight way up over his head, and could give it a bit of a jump up, he might snag it and save a humiliating trip back outside when the dad-blamed thing decided to make its final plunge.

He stepped back and circled ‘round under the fluttering spot of color. Eying the angle, triangulating the distance and height, he carefully calibrated where to aim the rake.

He wasn’t real sure he could muster a second jump, wasn’t sure he’d be able to make another go at it, so he better get his sights aligned jus’ right for the once-over maneuver.

He grasped the rake handle just near the butt end, raised it up and straightened it above his head, then carefully straightened his arm and back. He leaned back a bit to confirm his triangulation, but a spot of sun glare hooked his eye. He brought his left hand up to shade his eyes and leaned back again. He had the miscreant in sight and aligned, but had to lean a bit further to ensure his aim was true.

Just as he prepared to launch himself and the rake at the leaf, he heard the door slam on Mabel’s back porch. She had been pokin’ her nose from behind a frilly curtain all along, of that he could be sure.

"Jim, you fool! What in tarnation are you connivin’ to do there?" Mabel hollered across. He twisted slightly even as he made his attempt, and his lean took him over backwards. He began an unplanned and uncontrolled descent to the newly cleaned yard.

The rake followed him down, but on its own descending path. The rake’s progress down took it to square in the middle of his face. It seemed to balance, like a teetering wobbling bowling pin, until it seemed to decide this was an untenable position. The rake clattered to the ground, its handle across his face and its tines dancing on the earth.

The handle shimmied and danced in counter-time to the dancing tines, playing a tattoo across his face as he lay on his back. His left leg was somehow twisted to the outside, and the back of his head was driven into the ground by the repeated blows of the rake.

The sun flashed overhead, then went dark. When the sun came out again, Jim felt the warm stickiness of blood sliding out of his nose. He closed his eyes again. His next conscious sensation was his head being lifted. It was a strange feeling, his head moving without any effort on his part; like some sort of out-of-body stuff. He carefully opened one eye.

Mabel was over him, lifting his spinning head off the grass and onto her generous thighs. “Stupid crazy dunderhead,” she muttered. How she had managed to get there in just an instant he couldn’t figure.

That puzzle was quickly chased away by a strange sensation from his left side. He tried to straighten his body, then grimaced as a sharp pain declared its way from his leg up to his woozy head.

Mabel saw his expression, and looked down. When she noticed the peculiar angle his lower leg was making she gasped. She almost dropped his head right back to the dirt. She regained her composure and carefully lowered his head to the ground. “I’ll be right back. You need an ambulance, and a wet pack for your nose. Don’t you bother tryin’ to get up and go anywhere before I get back.”

Just like a woman, he thought. Talking nonsense, just to show who is in charge. Why bother, when there ain’t been a man alive in 2000 years who could’ve felt he was in charge, or even had a real say, with anything that involved a woman.

How he was supposed to go somewhere, what with a busted leg, he couldn’t guess. What, he was going to go join a line dance at the Vets’ Hall or something?

His head spun again. Before things again went black, his eyes caught a flash of red-orange over his head. The recalcitrant leaf fluttered on its branch, mocking him as a bit of autumn wind gusted by.

Inside, at a window in Jim’s upstairs back bedroom, a small and mostly black feline adjusted her hind end, wiggling it right and then left, as if to properly fold her skirts before settling down to supervise the birds at the feeders. She watched a bit of drama under the maple, interested in any action that relieved the tedium of her day. Two humans were engaged in one of the strange antics humans seemed to be inclined towards.

With the feigned indifference that is the mark of a cat paying keen attention, she studied her human. She wondered what really went on in their heads, if anything, when they sallied forth and perpetrated some of their inexplicable actions. Realizing that the answer to this puzzle was unattainable, she put it aside and turned her attention to more engaging pursuits.

A flutter of color high in the big tree out there grabbed her attention for a bit, until she realized it wasn’t a flashy little bird she should do something about.

She turned back to watching the flurry of activity in the yard. Several people came rushing and gathered around her human. He lay on the grass, even though he wasn’t in a sunny spot. People didn’t seem to know where the best places where; they often rested in shady spots, rather than taking advantage of the warmth of a circle of sun.

Soon, they placed her human on a table with wheels, and rolled out of the yard with him. She jumped from the window ledge and trotted to the front of the house, where she climbed onto the back of the sofa. From this vantage, she watched the people push the table into a truck and speed away. This was all very interesting, but since her human had filled her water and opened a fresh can of food for her before he went out to play in the yard she wasn’t overly concerned.

Her concern grew, however, when the dark came and went, the sun came back, and her food dish was empty. Despite her constant attention whenever she heard the second drawer open and the can opener engage, she hadn’t figured out how to open the cans for herself.

Oh, well. She knew where the bag of dry food was stored, and she knew how to open the pantry door to get to it. Knocking it over was no longer a great feat; she had mastered that years ago. Provided there was dry food in the pantry, she wouldn’t go hungry. She decided to find the sun and take a nap while she waited for her human to show up. He always did, although he hadn’t gone away before without providing an extra dish of food.

Her day was long, but uneventful. She had to move four times to find new sunny patches, and she once spent an hour exploring the back of a closet. Dark came again, but no people came.

She jumped up to the sink in the bathroom and batted at a lever until some water dripped out. Daring to wet her face, she caught a few drops of fresh water. Next, she set out to find food. It was dim in the pantry, but she knew exactly where to look for the bag. Fortunately, it was open. When she tipped it some crunchies spilled out. Satisfied that she could provide for herself, she ate a few before heading for the bed and a well-deserved rest.

The sun was high over the tree with its flashy leaf when she heard noises at the front of the house. Cautious, she sat erect and waited, listening carefully.

“Now Mabel. You jus’ go on to home. I’m gonna do fine and dandy here in my very own house.”

“Jim, you just got out from the hospital. You oughtn’t to be running around without someone to look after you, leastwise ’til you get settled.”

“I kin look after me just fine. I got these crutches to help me get about, and I got a cane in the closet. I don’t need none of yer lookin’ after.”

“Well, I don’t feel right about just running off and leaving you all alone right when you just got home with a broken leg and a patched nose.”

Recognizing the voices, and curious about their tone, the cat softly jumped to the floor and slid out to the front room. Seeing her human, she meowed once and crossed to him. Rubbing against his right leg, she stopped when she saw that the other leg was wrapped in a shell. She looked up at him, then at the other human, the noisy one called Mabel.

“You see? I ain’t alone. I got the cat to keep me company. The very cat you pushed in my door an’ insisted I keep when my Sharon passed. She’s kept me in good company since, and I reckon she’ll continue to do so now.”

“It may well be that she’s good company, but she sure don’t know how to fix you a good meal. And that’s what I’m going to do right now. You heard the doctor. You got to eat well and rest right so’s your leg can fix itself. You said you don’t want to go to any care center, so you got to accept care right in your own house then.”

“Alright Mabel. I already know the only way to get you gone is to let you have a bit of your way. But after we have a bite I’m gonna lay down for a rest on my own bed, and you’re gonna be gone when I get up. That’s the way it’s got to be. That’s the only way I’ll accept your botheration.”

He reached down to scoop up the lithe cat. Off balance due to his crutches, he almost fell. Mabel rushed over to steady him, but he waved her away. “Leave me alone. Don’t bother fussin’ me. I’m fine. Just need to re-establish my balance, now that I’m on pegs and legs.”

He managed to gather the cat in his arm, and rubbed her head. She turned on her purr motor and pushed against his hand, urging it on and nudging it to the right spots.

Turning back to Mabel he snarled “Well, go on. Go make your mess in the kitchen so y’all can finish your meddlin’ and get on out and leave us in peace.”

She backed off at his rising annoyance, and turned to the kitchen after emitting a last note of hmmph. “Blame fool stubborn ornery old man,” she thought. “He’s gonna need some extra lookin’ after. He’ll see. Ain’t gonna be able to do much but set around until that leg’s mended.”

Jim barely had time to hobble to the worn out armchair and drop his skinny body onto its seat when Mabel’s cry rang out from the kitchen and echoed around the corner to assault his ears. “Lordy, Jim. You got quite some mess in here. How long’s it been since this place got top to bottom attention? I tell ya, it’s gonna take me some extra bit to get this just to the point where I can begin to fix a lunch.”

In a non-subtle stage whisper she continued. “I don’t get how anyone can go on livin’ like this day in an’ day out. Ain’t right, ain’t good. Jus’ pride going before the fall.” Realizing her unintended pun, she chuckled and repeated it. “Pride before the fall. And now too much pride after the fall.”

Unable to resist any longer, he called back, “I can hear you, ya know. And I got good reason to have my pride.” After a long pause, he couldn’t resist a final dig, “As you all full well know.”

She stood in the doorway between the two rooms, wiping her hands on a ratty grey towel. “Forty-eight years. That’s a powerful lot of pride to be harboring. You got a long long way to fall, holdin’ on to all that pride for all this time.”

“Tweren’t me who run off with someone when her promised man was bleedin’ out on a Korea mountain. It ain’t pride, knowin’ you been done wrong to. It ain’t pride, watchin’ your sweetheart, your blazing young beauty whose letters you kept right next to your heart, nesting with some dunderhead who done took advantage of a guy off servin’ his country to come along and steal her away. No sir. Tweren’t me who run off. So if you’re gonna go and get uppity on me agin, you best just run along right now.”

Mabel put her fists on her fine hips, then shook her head at him. “It’s a wonder Sharon put up with your gripin’ and moanin’ nonsense for all of four decades. Drove her to her early grave, I’ll bet.”

“It’s a wonder Sharon came out of the same line as you, bein’ kind and considerate as she was. How did she come to be your cousin anyhow? It’d be like a skunk and a bluebird can be cousins. And you weren’t the bluebird.”

“You don’t need to be hollerin’ at me, Jim. I’m not trying to get you riled, tellin’ you what you ought or ought not to be doin’. I’m not deserving of these words, and you know that. Lordy, all I know is I’m here tryin’ to help you, same as usual, and you’re busting all over me for it. I don’t know, Jim. I ought to just give up, like you say. Let you go off and perform whatever acts of craziness you prefer, and hang the consequences.”

“Acts of craziness? Like hangin’ by you for so long? I’ve known you for more’n half a century now. If I was so all fired crazy, why the good heck are you still here?”

Mabel sighed. She dropped the towel on the sideboard and quietly walked across to his chair. She half perched on the arm of the chair and placed her hand on his arm. She started stroking her fingers across it, as if to straighten out the wayward hairs poking out at odd angles. “Oh, Jim, Jim, Jim. It’s not so much that you’re crazy. It’s jes’ that sometimes you get crazy notions and I get scared for you.”

“Well, don’t. Somehow I’ve managed to reach this day just fine. This day that is about 73 years past my entry to this here world. Somehow, my crazy notions haven’t killed me yet. Mebbe someday they will, but at least I’ll go on my terms. That’s the way I want it-on my terms. Just like you want it on your’n.” He shook her hand off his arm in a gesture of defiance.

“Well, your way did some pretty damage this time. And if I weren’t here to pick up your pieces, you’d be stuck in a nursing home right now.”

“Mebbe if you weren’t here, I wouldn’ve broke my leg. Mebbe I wouldn’ve been bothered about the leaves, since I don’t mind them nearly as much as you do. How ‘bout that?” He looked off across the yard, avoiding her eyes. He didn’t bother about her hand this time, though.

“Look, Jim. How many times do I have to tell you that you ain’t a kid any more. It’s past time you gave up on thinking you can just go and do whatever bit of foolishness comes to your fool head.”

“None, Mabel. You don’t never have to tell me nothing. You always seem to want to, but you never have to. You been pestering me for years and years, and I been trying to not hear it for the same. Let it rest, Mabel. Let me finish out my life in peace. If I need you sometime, you’ll hear it from me. Otherwise, don’t you be scuffing at my doorstep every day now.”

“You cain’t do that.”

“I cain’t do what, Mabel?”

“You cain’t tell me to get out and stay out. You need me. You need someone to look after you, to help you out until you’re back on your feet. And that someone’s got to be me, since I know you best.”

He glared at her from his seat. “I told you I don’t need no one to be fussin’ around, tryin’ to run my life. Least of all you. I’ll take care of my own self in my own way. So why don’t you just go bother the leaves in your yard or somethin’, and leave me be now.”

The sun rose strong the next morning. It took a while to clear out the sink and restore the dishes to their rightful spots in the cabinet. Once that was accomplished, Jim burned up a couple slices of toast and poured himself a large coffee in his favorite chipped mug, the one Sharon had made when she was in one of her crafty phases. He practiced perambulating up and down the kitchen, getting a solid feel for his new three point stance. Once satisfied with his progress, he thump-shuffle-thumped to the front door and picked up the paper. He shuffled back to the kitchen table and eased his way to a seat, placing the coffee mug in front of him.

After a bit he became aware that he wasn’t alone. He glanced over the top of his papers, over the top of his reading glasses, across the table, and saw the cat perched on the table surveying the yard. Her wiggling rear indicated something of interest out there. He squirmed around in his chair and surveyed the barren garden, the patches of dirt showing where a mole was breaking through the dry brown grass, the thorny rosebushes along the back fence. Slowly, his vision came to rest on the miscreant maple.

Focussing on the tree, he finally spotted the lone leaf still clinging to the otherwise barren tree. It fluttered in the breeze, but showed no inclination to give up its high perch. He gripped the arms of the chair ‘til his knuckles went white.

"Bastard leaf," Jim mumbled. "Mebbe I’ll just cut down your whole damn tree. That’ll show you who’s got the last say."

He eyed the cat perched on the table. “Ya’ll know you’re not supposed to be up there. Skeedaddle down now, ya hear?”

She looked at him to gauge his level of seriousness. When he didn’t bother to brush her off the table, she settled her chest fur with a couple of quick licks, then turned back to the window and began to purr lightly.

She jumped when her human suddenly slapped the table. Once she was safe on the chair opposite him and out of reach, she sat up and looked over at Jim.

“Yep. That’s the thing. Show it who’s boss in this neighborhood.” He spat the words out with unexpected force, as his palm hit the table. “Whatcha think cat? We can be in charge of our own life.”

He picked up his crutches, took his old slouch hat from the chair, and shuffled out the door.

He was careful to close it properly. Grasping the rail with his left hand, crutches in his right, he slowly hopped down the steps. When he reached the bottom he leaned on the crutches and turned from side to side to see if he was being watched. Didn’t need any interference now. Satisfied that he hadn’t attracted any untoward attention, he hobbled down to the street.

The little black cat sauntered to the front window and watched him go. Once he got to the sidewalk and headed up the street she wandered to the kitchen to make sure he had provided a good heaping of food before he left. She had taken to pestering him more than usual to let him know he still had responsibilities. Can’t trust him too much anymore, she’d found out. Satisfied that he’d paid attention, she headed up to the bedroom where she could spend some time imagining how she’d get that fluttery leaf out of the tree.

Jim hobbled up the block and around the corner as quick as his wobbly crutches let him. He’d taken the long way so’s to avoid crossing in front of Mabel’s house, and now he was pressed to get to the stop before the bus headin’ down towards Walmart came along. He hadn’t quite figured out how he was going to get the chainsaw from the bus back to the house, but blamed if that was gonna stop him. He’d work on that part once he got settled in the bus and caught his breath.

story 

September192010
Pink #53
© 2010 Michael Young

Pink #53

© 2010 Michael Young

photo 

12PM

Saturday Morning : a story (draft)

At the counter, a not-quite-young woman grabs orders and dispenses tonic to a line of needy customers. She is blonde, friendly, speaks with a bit of a British accent, and smiles deep into peoples eyes. She handles the continual lines with a cheerful efficiency, showing no sign of weariness at the unending parade of patrons in need of a morning fix.

The door opens and closes, opens and closes. The line at the counter ebbs and flows, but never disappears fully. A lot of refreshment, a lot of caffeine, a lot of pick-me-ups, pass across the counter. Most people stop on their way out of the shop to tailor their drinks to suit, adding varieties of milk or cream and sugar to taste. A minority of people linger in the shop while they enjoy their coffee. Some are awaiting friends, while others simply relax and read a newspaper in a public place.

A brown haired woman, petite and fashionable, sits a table on the side and awaits company. She’s nervous; awaiting a first meeting. A cup of coffee in a public space. It’s easier to get out of a bad date if it is limited to a meet-and-greet over coffee. She fidgets, changes tables to be more visible and to scan the people entering. Is this the one? No, he has a newspaper and is settling in for a quick read, away from the kids and their boisterous play. How about the guy in the leather jacket? He’s scanning the room, looking for someone. He has an interesting profile -oh, how the online-speak is creeping into her view of people-. But no, he spots his match, who turns out to be a realtor with a fat binder of local properties.

The brown haired woman lightly pounds the table. Her nerves are taking over, and she can’t sit comfortably. She finally settles at a table at the front, the closest table to the door. From here she can observe the front entry as well as the parking lot. If he is as nervous as she is, he may be sitting in his car gathering his courage. Perhaps he justifies his delay by the need for a last primp in the visor mirror. Must present a good front, must make a good first impression. She is carefully prepared, for a weekend morning. Black jeans, black boots with spike heels, a short rabbit fur jacket. She stands in contrast to most of the other patrons, who are dressed down in jeans or sweats, casual lay-about clothes.

A couple walks in. Before they order their coffee, they scan the room. Spotting some neighbors, they walk over.

“Merry Christmas” is exchanged.

There ensues a few minutes of light chatter about plans for the holidays, who is going where and when. It’s polite chatter, intended to keep a semblance of involvement and engagement. Some fraction of it will resonate, and when they again happen to meet, perhaps in the Stop & Shop, they can pick up a follow-up thread.

“We’re not going away this year. The cat has been sick and we think it will be better to stay home and nurse her. It’s probably her last Christmas.”

“Oh, that’s sad. Has she been sick for long? I remember when our dog had leukemia. It was so hard to watch him slipping away. We felt so helpless, and he couldn’t tell us how he really felt.”

“I know what you mean. It’s hard and it’s sad. Still, we are looking forward to a quiet Christmas at home, just the two of us. I don’t think we’ve ever had a holiday all to ourselves.”

“Oh, I know. It’s always such a busy and non-relaxing time, running around shopping and decorating, then all the travel. Thank goodness my parents moved to Arizona. At least we can’t be expected to run between both families, or to choose which one we will see on Christmas Day. It’s so tiring, and all the traffic makes it seems endless.”

After a few more minutes of pleasantries, the newcomers move to join the queue for their coffee. The neighbors rise, don their coats, and depart. Their table sits empty for only a moment before a pair of teenage girls flutter over to it.

Once more, the door opens. The petite brown haired woman watches, hesitates, then stands. He’s a black man, with a jaunty beret. In this particular place, he’s definitely a minority. Advantage to her-with few black men in the place, her task of picking out the right man is eased. He is relying on her picture, and her recognition of him, to ease the meeting.

Does he look like his picture? Does she? After a moments hesitation, they smile and exchange a quick hug. It’s a hug of relief; a major hurdle has been crossed. She points to the counter, he smiles and walks over to place his order. She sits, visibly more relaxed. First step accomplished. He came, and on time. The greetings were comfortable. Although she hasn’t done this often, she has talked with friends who had horror stories. Even after exchanging email, after talking on the phone, Prince Charming turns out to be a rogue, even a Neanderthal. One friend described a guy, a real charmer, who immediately suggested they skip the coffee and head to her place to ‘get more comfortable’. ‘You never know’, her friends told her. Great. Just what she needs to boost her confidence in this whole process.

When he comes back to her table and sits, they begin to chat.

Does the public image match the private, online, image? Does his persona fit his online messages? Is she truly the person she presented via bits and bytes? And more importantly, is this a beginning, or will this meeting spell an end to the online flirtation? Vexing questions, and a snap judgement is called for. Twenty minutes, thirty minutes, forty minutes of banter. Then, seemingly by mutual consent, they smile and rise from the table. They discard their coffee cups as they walk out the door. After a last-or is it?- hug, they part and walk to their cars. An end, or awaiting the next chapter?

An elderly couple claims a pair of overstuffed seats. While she settles in, he shuffles to the counter to order a pair of small coffees. On his way back to his seat, he picks up a couple sections of a newspaper left by a previous patron. While the woman sits and quietly observes the room, the man carefully reads the paper. They interact psychically, but not overtly, in the way of many long-standing couples. Aware of each others presence, they sense each other’s presence and thoughts, rather than actively engaging.

She picks up a section of his paper and begins skimming through it. Finding a point of interest in an article, she leans to him, points to the section that caught her, and explains briefly how it caught her. He chuckles at her explanation, then smiles before turning back to his paper. Her engagement in the paper is only partial. She frequently looks up and scans the room, looking for other points of interest. She had observed the meeting of the brown haired woman and her date, but that show ended. Must be something else of interest to watch. With all the showy flashy people in this town she’s rarely at a loss for a subject to study, and the glittery people don’t mind. Many of them seem to crave attention, in the manner of showy birds flitting in trees.

She slips into a quiet revery, lost in thoughts, memories, feelings. A couple of times she looks over at her husband, who is engrossed in his paper and oblivious to the cacophony around him. She smiles toward him. She is apparently wandering through some gentle memories. Not in a hurry to be elsewhere, they linger over coffee and the paper for almost an hour, until he finishes a section of the paper and notices her watching him. He leans towards her, nods his head toward the door, and quietly speaks. They get up stiffly, climbing out of the soft chairs with a small degree of difficulty. As he helps her with her coat, she suddenly leans to him and kisses his cheek. He holds the door for her as they leave.

A young woman, looking for all the world like someone home from college, sits at a center table. An older woman brings two lattes and a muffin. The resemblance suggests mother and daughter, out for a casual cup of coffee and a moment to catch up with each other. It is an easy conversation, of the kind that occurs only once a girl passes through her teen years, when her parents are a continual source of consternation and obtuseness, and begins to appreciate her family once more.

They split the muffin, dropping crumbs on a napkin spread as an improvised tablecloth.

"How’s your new schedule? Is it going to be lighter than the fall term?"

"I don’t know. I’m trying to push through the foundation courses this year so I can focus on my major courses next year."

"How are the distractions? Are you still seeing that guy from Indiana?"

"Ok, mom. First, my social life is not merely a distraction. I need a break from books sometimes. Second, that guy from Indiana had a name. Has a name. Bill. But I’m not ‘seeing’ him. And to answer your next question, I’m not seeing anyone special right now."

"I wasn’t meaning to imply that you shouldn’t get out and have fun. I’m just curious. We don’t see each other every day, now that you are at college. I’m still interested in your life."

"Oh, I know. It’s just that I’m a big girl now, and I want to be trusted to have my own life."

The daughter picks crumbs off the napkin and pops them in her mouth. She brushes her blonde hair back with her hand, and the resemblance between mother and daughter is quite apparent. Blonde hair, blue eyes, fine complexions. It is as if a time mirror is placed in front of them. The girl that the mother once was, and the woman the daughter will become, are at that moment visible.

The awkward moment passes, and they begin catching up on events and people. After several animated minutes of conversation they pause. The daughter has a direct and open look, and she tilts her head in a quizzical manner while her mother talks. Mother looks at daughter and smiles. She reaches over and squeezes her daughter’s hand.

"Shall we go shopping now?"

The daughter stops at the restroom, then they walk out arm in arm, the girl no longer embarrassed to be seen with her mother.

Two tables each contain a pair of women, neighbors or friends, taking a moment out from the fast pace of the holiday week to relax, converse, and commiserate.

At a rear table, two women discuss their kids, share holiday menus, vacations plans, and goals for the coming year. One of the women has two young children. After finishing their hot chocolate, the kids are charged up and fidgety. The older one, a boy about 4 years old, twists and squirms in his seat. The squirming picks up pace until it becomes a dance around the seat of his chair. Eventually, he probes the floor with his foot.

Upon finding that there is no immediate response from his mother, he slides off the seat and begins exploring the environs of the table. From there, it is a short move to exploring the neighboring tables, then doing laps around the room. Several half-hearted attempts by his mother to settle him fail, and the younger child decides to join in the fun. Faster and faster, louder and louder-their boisterousness becomes a nuisance for others, until their mother gives up and gives chase to pack them up. This only incites further rowdiness, with one escaping while the other is corralled. Eventually, with the help of her companion, the mother herds both kids out the door. So much for a few moments to relax with a friend…

At a front table, two women lean toward each other across the table. One of the women has brown hair pinned up on her head, revealing blonde streaks. She wears worn blue jeans, a brown sweater over an orange t-shirt, and sheepskin boots. She has a look and physical attitude of someone who has dealt with nonsense, who has fought some battles and is prepared to fight more if necessary. Her face is worn and lined, her eyes-easily her best feature-are large and dark.

Her companion is younger, fresh-faced and relaxed. Her dark hair is worn loose, draping over her shoulders. Her style is a bit more coordinated, but still comfortably casual. Neither woman appears to be in a hurry, as if they were squeezing in a few moments in a tight schedule. Their cups go mostly untouched, their conversation dominating their time.

Woman 2 is trying to sort out a relationship.

"I just can’t figure out who it is I’m with. He’s as sweet as could be one day, then foul and sarcastic the next. It’s hard, not knowing which person is going to be at my door."

"I know he really likes you. He can be a real dumbass, but he sees good things in you, and he really likes you."

"I was falling in love with him, until this other side of him started showing up. Now I question the whole relationship. Has he always been like this?"

"He’s been a sort of a roller coaster for a long time. Ever since Dad died, in fact. Let’s see..I was 12, so he was about 8. That’s 24 years of up and down stuff."

" And how has he kept it hidden for so long?"

"Oh, it wasn’t always hidden. Dad kept our mother on an even keel. When he died she fell apart. Richard took the brunt of it. He learned to cope by developing a bite, a dark sarcasm. After he left for college, he calmed down and became the sweet guy you see."

"And where did that guy go? And why? Why now? Why me?"

"I think you guys are getting real close, and the other real close relationship in his life was with mother. So maybe some of that old frustration and fear is coming in to your relationship now. It’s how he views close relationships."

"So what do I do? Do I bag it and get out now, or is there hope? I know you’re biased. You’re his sister, his only relative. But I have to ask you because you know him best."

"I’m not going to apologize for him, or make excuses for him. If he’s a dumbass, I’ll call him a dumbass. But I like you. I see you guys are good together. Maybe we can work on it for a bit before you give up."

"How? What do you suggest?"

"Why don’t you guys come over to my place? I’ll tell him to come at 7, and lay it out to him. Tell him he’s an idiot if he loses you because he can’t appreciate you and treat you right. Then you come about 8, and we’ll lay it on him together."

"Do you think it’ll help?"

"I hope so. I love my baby brother I and want him to be happy. If he needs to be slapped upside the head and made to see what’s good for him, I’ll do it."

Woman 2 laughs. She watches as a group of women took a table and placed a baby carrier on one seat. Smiling at the baby, she turns back to her coffee and conversation.

The baby carrier crowds a table. There appear to be three, maybe four, generations represented at this table, counting the baby. The senior woman is young to be a grandmother; perhaps the middle generation has two widely separated children, an early 20’s woman and the baby. It is not readily apparent who the baby’s mother is-the middle woman or the young one.

The women chatter busily, keeping two or three conversations going at once. The baby doesn’t have a coffee, so she isn’t as hyperactive as the others at the table. The women are clearly accustomed to this style of multithreaded conversations, but the din from their table is baffling to onlookers. The baby has some learning to do in order to keep up with her family, but at the moment she prepares for it by napping.

The coffee break is a quick stop in the day. After about 15 minutes of chatter, the women move on.

A young girl, high school age, sits on the side with her MacBook and a notebook. Remarkably, for a teenager with a computer, she is doing schoolwork rather than chatting online, viewing her friends’ Facebook pages, or otherwise finding distraction on the Internet.

After a while an older woman comes up to her and introduces herself. The woman is an alumnus of the University of Rochester, and the girl has applied for admission to that school. In a low key manner, the woman conducts an admission interview. She encourages the girl to talk about  her strengths and goals, and her other school prospects. They talk about other schools the girl is interested in, and some of the differences between the various schools. They discuss possible careers and how difficult it can be to decide on a plan for study and, by extension, for life, at this point in the girl’s life.

Before parting, the woman makes a pitch for the school. She describes her experiences at Rochester, and her pathway through her school career. After half an hour the interview ends. The woman stands, takes her coat, and shakes the girl’s hand. The woman gets a cup of coffee and then leaves. The girl turns back to her computer, and continues with her work.

A middle aged man, looking a bit rough around the edges in this region of pristine Connecticut denizens, surfs the Internet on his older iBook Pro. He has a bag stuffed with papers and gear, and has spread his setup into the equivalent of a portable messy desk. Papers and notebooks are spread across two chairs, while computer, mobile phone, headphones, mouse, and coffee cup consume the entire table top. His appearance, and his demeanor, match the disarray of his portable office.

He is not satisfied with something he sees on his screen, and he makes little chuffing noises. His expression darkens. He takes a notebook and flips through it. Not finding what he is looking for, he flips through the sheets again, with obvious frustration. His noises and his actions make the girl with the MacBook uncomfortable. She’s at an adjacent table, and she looks over at him. She shifts slightly, as if an additional 10 cm of distance will ensure her safety.

His phone rings. He looks at the number on the screen, then answers it with a gruff “What?”

His first responses to the caller are loud and aggressive. He attracts scowls, but is oblivious to the effect he is having on the mood of the shop. He abruptly ends the call and gathers his things. He haphazardly stuffs them in his bag, and nearly upsets the table when he suddenly stands. As he storms out the door, a chill breeze rushes through it.

An elderly man walks in and rearranges an easy chair and a side table, positioning them so he can reach his drink easily. He sits alone and reads a tabloid. He keeps his jacket zipped to the collar and his red baseball cap on his head. His foot occasionally taps in time with the music playing in the shop, seemingly responding on its own. He is hunkered down and doesn’t give the impression of a toe tapper.

His appearance, his careful rearrangement of the furniture, his demeanor, give an impression of fastidiousness and a straight arrow approach to life. Perhaps his life has been an unending, unyielding succession of predictable or controlled events, and that pattern continues into his later years. Or, perhaps, he was a wild one, a hellion in his youth, and he is now straightening his curvy path through life.

Either possibility is easy to imagine. His jaunty baseball cap and athletic shoes are not congruent with his tightly fastened jacket and his pinched mouth. Perhaps he has a thousand and one great life stories to tell. Or, after a long narrow life, he is boring as hell.  No one risks finding out, and he doesn’t invite interaction. Eventually, after a long hour of slowly perusing the paper, he carefully folds it, tucks it under his arm, and stops at the toilet before leaving.

As the morning runs into noon, the sun disappears behind thickening clouds. The wind lightly gusts and a few first snowflakes fall, swirling and dancing in the wind. The blonde barista goes outside to capture a sidewalk sign that is threatening to become airborne in the stiffening wind. She looks up into the sky at the impending snowstorm before heading back inside to the warm smell of fresh-ground coffee. Perhaps there will be a white Christmas this year. Back inside, the steady exchange of faces and places continues through the day.

story 

September112010
Central Park Standoff
© 2005 Michael Young

Central Park Standoff

© 2005 Michael Young

photo 

August132010

After The End : a story

On Saturday night we were in Central Park, dancing in the rain. Dancing in the rain beneath a big tree, beneath a huge old oak. A huge old oak that was barely sheltering us from the deluge despite its broad canopy.

Picture us. We were soaked to the skin, yet dancing. See how alive we were? Dancing, although soaked to the skin. I was dancing with the intent of sweeping my partner off her feet. I was dancing with joy and energy, with passion and with the simple pleasure of it. I was truly, wonderfully, happily alive, for how could one be more alive than when dancing in the rain for the sheer thrill of it?

Suddenly everything changed. In an instant nothing was the same. Not unexpected, I admit. After all, living is quite different from not living. At least that’s how most people would perceive it. But nothing can truly prepare you for the actuality of not living, the vast difference between being alive and being not alive. Nothing in your comprehension, or your nightmares, can prepare you for the reality of your new situation. Nothing can prepare you for the actuality of the change, the disparity in the two states, the reality of your new existence. Or should that be your new non-existence? A matter of perspective, I guess.

This can’t be happening. I can’t end like this. I’ve got too many things to do; too many things unsaid. Too many things undone. I’ve got too much life left to live. Damn it, I’m not ready for the end.

Look around you. Go ahead, take some time. I’m not going anywhere. Appreciate what you see. Whatever it is, appreciate it. Because you can see it. Or hear it. Or smell, touch, taste it. I look around and all I see is nothingness. Nothingness, but with a texture. If that makes any sense, which it probably doesn’t. None of this makes sense to me, so why should it make sense to you?

It’s not that I don’t see, or can’t see. It’s more like there is nothing to see. Whatever direction I look, if the concept of direction, or even the concept of look, still means anything, it’s all the same. Muted, flat, not any specific color. Dull. Relatively featureless, with no specific colors or sounds.

The atmosphere, for lack of a better way of putting it, is like a thick fog. I’ll call it grey, to provide a reference. So it’s a grey fog, if you will, with a nominal density and movement. And I can detect a faint odor. A hint of something familiar, but not quite identifiable.

I don’t feel cold, I don’t feel heat. No red devils with pitchforks assail me, contrary to my living-self expectations of my eventual fate.

I just realized something. If I am seeing, sensing, however you want to put it, I’m not in a void, a black hole of nonexistence. At least not as far as I can see. But then I’m not sure the idea of actually seeing means anything right now. Whatever it is I am perceiving is simply there. Look, I know this sounds befuddled, confusing, crazy, whatever. But the idea of not living seems crazy to me.

Let me tell you how I arrived at this peculiar state. This is as much for me to figure out what’s happened as to inform you.

As I said, I was recently happily dancing with Susan. Maybe I didn’t say it was with Susan, but it was.

Susan is my newest girlfriend. Or was. Susan still is, I guess. It’s me who now isn’t.

This is a confusing state of affairs. I’m going to have to skip all the conditionals and exceptions and digressions if I hope to tell this. So for now I’ll just tell things as if I were sitting across from you, living and breathing and farting and everything else humans do. Where it matters, I’ll explain more about my current state.

On to Susan and I. Our story probably starts with Jackie. Jackie is my friend from way back. All the way back to second grade, in fact. For people in their fourth decade, that’s a lot of shared time. Jackie was pretty much the same person in second grade that she is now, except smaller. Bossy and brash. Plans people’s lives, doesn’t take no for an answer, heartbreaker. Beautiful. And stubborn. She is consistently maddeningly stubborn. Jackie was also Susan’s best friend in college. There’s the connecting link in the triad.

Once upon a time Jackie set us up for a dinner date. An evening with her and Sam, me and Susan. The less said about that evening, the better. Trust me on this. Then she arranged a party at which Susan and I were the only unattached guests, unbeknownst to either of us, and thus pretty much forced together. It’s a wonder we didn’t each, in turn, turn on her.

Now normally, if things don’t work on the first date, and certainly if the second is less than successful, it ends right there.

I’m not sure why we tried again, but eventually we did. I’m sure Jackie was somewhere in the middle of it. She probably set up a conference call with herself, Susan, and I, then bowed out once the call was established. Ridiculous as that sounds, that’s a patented Jackie move. However we ended up talking that evening, we talked so long the battery in Susan’s phone gave out. For the sake of her poor phone we agreed to an open-ended date. A final fateful date. I never thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with Susan, but that’s the way it turned out.

We decided to minimize expectations by planning only to meet for coffee on Saturday, and letting things unfold from there.

Saturday unfolded as a vibrant day. The sky was a rich deep blue across which piles of clouds scooted, driven by a westerly breeze. Late summer hung in the air, tainting the breeze with an admixture of the burned aroma of roasting nuts from a nearby sidewalk cart, exhaust from the traffic crawling along the avenue, hints of undefinable odors wafting across the river, all layered with the nuance of ocean and harbor. In other words, New York at its ripest.

I was sitting at a table on the sidewalk, waiting for Susan. Not wanting to be late, I was there rather early. I had just enough time to start drafting a mental list of excuses to leave after downing the agreed-upon coffee when Susan suddenly appeared in front of me, a vision in a light silk top and a swirling black skirt. Her creamy top accentuated her golden hair, to good effect. Susan looked great, and I was entranced. I quickly decided I was going to enjoy this morning, at least visually.

Once I stopped gawking and closed my drooping jaw, we settled in for our coffee. I now realize a consequence of her clingy blouse. A consequence beyond the stir I felt in my loins as I admired my brunch companion. Could something as innocuous as a silk blouse, which offered so little warmth or protection when it got soaked by rain, be the domino that brought me to this point? Of course, every event is part of a chain that links us to the present moment. But some links are more consequential, just as some moments are.

Anyway, back to our brunch. Bagels, toasted and smeared. Poppy for me, cinnamon raisin for Susan. I know it was risky, having a poppy seed bagel. Darn seeds get stuck in your teeth, and you go around all day with little black specks that no one screws up the courage to tell you about. I planned for that, and did a quick check and cleanup after polishing off my bagel. Bagels and coffee, sitting at a tiny sidewalk table under a green canvas awning, itself overspread by a green leafy canopy. We somehow had a lot to say. After many words and almost equally many minutes, a coffee became two lattes; a bagel became a bagel and a shared morning bun. We occupied that tiny table longer than good citizens should.

Finally, we yielded our prime seats to the waiting throngs and strolled the few blocks east to the park. We kept up a steady banter as we crossed to the park. I guess we found plenty to share; I barely noticed how far we had walked.

After walking for some time Susan suddenly said, apropos of nothing in particular at that instant, but more so of the general situation, “This is ridiculous. We’re acting as if we are complete strangers. Worse. We’re acting as if we are on probation, being monitored for any more-than-superficial actions.”

In concert with that outburst she slipped her hand through my arm, which had been kept in check through the stratagem of firmly planting my hands in my pockets. I smiled and withdrew my hands from their restraints. After that we both relaxed and fell into an easy interchange, discoursing about everything and nothing, from trite to serious.

Idyllic? So it seemed. After a period of aimless meandering, rubbery gray-water hot dogs and Italian ices revived our energy levels. We sat and talked, we walked and talked, we walked and didn’t talk. Over the course of several hours we covered a lot of ground, much of it with her arm on my arm. I could sense she was trying to subtly steer me with her grip; I had no particular direction in mind, so I let her.

But lest my description sound too much like a feel-good movie, or a fairy tale, an instance of discord did creep in to remind us of the humanity involved. I speak of a scarcity of usable public facilities, and our differing sensibilities as to what usable meant. Now I get that women, of necessity, must interact with the plumbing in a way that may be optional for men. Still, there are times when squeamish must yield to practicality.

And when the choice becomes either use a less desirable facility or find a bush, a choice has to be made. Susan did not fully appreciate my pointing this out.

However, we managed to overcome this minor setback to our relatively harmonious day without serious injury to our accord. The timely discovery of an acceptable toilet definitely helped.

We eventually parked on a bench a bit off the busy thoroughfare of The Mall.

"You know, this might actually work out."

"This what might actually work out?" I replied.

Susan looked at me as if I was newly arrived on the scene. “You and me, that’s what. I’m actually really enjoying the day. Not just the day, with the sun and the park and the breeze and the trees, but being with you.”

Grinning like a gargoyle, as usual, I nodded. “Sort of surprising, after our two earlier less than sterling attempts. Either I’m on my best behavior, or you are. Either way, there sure seem to be two different people here this time.”

She laughed, ending when a slight snort punctuated her chuckle. The outburst embarrassed her; her hand flew to her mouth for a moment. She looked sheepish, but I shrugged it off.

I guess I did the right thing, because she continued. “Perhaps Jackie was right all along. She has been telling me about this guy she knows well for a couple of years. And I’ve been ‘yeah yeah’ putting her off just as long. I don’t think I’ll tell her she might have been right, though. I’d never hear the end of it.”

“Oh, yes. You must, simply must, be with someone.” I tried my best Jackie imitation. “Otherwise you’re such a bore at dinner or parties. And oh, by the way, I know just the person for your eternal happiness.”

She laughed again. Her blue eyes widened and sparkled with delight. “You’ve heard that too? I thought that was reserved for me.”

Our revery was interrupted by a swirling gust of wind. Surprised by the sudden vehemence of the breeze, we looked up at a rapidly graying sky.

"Perhaps we should move along. Looks like something is brewing up there."

"I don’t really want to end the day here. Any suggestions?"

"The Met is not far. Shall we go see some art? We can decide more once we’re inside."

"That’s good with me. I just felt the first raindrop, so we better get moving."

Fat drops spattered on the ground as our feet beat a staccato rhythm, hustling up the many wide marble steps, racing along with a suddenly artistically oriented crowd seeking the sheltering cultural amenities of the grand museum.

Hang on. Bear with me. I’m suddenly filled with the images and emotions I will never again behold through living eyes. The glorious colors and forms artfully dispersed all through the grand spaces of the Met, all those hymns to humanity. Gone from me. Music, literature, art. Sunsets and sunrises. All gone.

It’s not the people I’ve lost that I see right now. They’re not the images filling my, well, my consciousness, or whatever you can call this peculiar state. I hope you don’t think poorly of me for that. It’s not that I’ve chosen that particular set of memories; they seem to have chosen this moment to be remembered. Does that make sense? We don’t necessarily choose memories. They often seem to surface of their own accord.

Like this one, which just burst in on me. I once had a cat. She came crawling to me one spring afternoon, when I was about nine. A tiny bedraggled scrawny mewling pathetic little thing. Powder grey with big green eyes; a melt your hard heart face connected by a mass of fur to a slightly oversized tail.

She stole my little heart, and she kept it all the way through college. Always watching at the window when I straggled in, always rushing to meet me by the door, always ready to curl by me and keep me company even when my latest crush crushed me. She was my undemanding ever-loving companion at times when it seemed no one else was. I helplessly watched her go, diminishing before my eyes as a tumor took over her soft little furball of a body. Watching that happen was hard. Maybe that’s why it’s filling my mind now. It’s hard to lose, hard to know you’ve lost, and know there is nothing you can do to change it.

I bawled like a baby when my soft little friend was gone. My tears flowed profusely. When I was so drained that my tears could no longer flow, they still managed to drip from the tip of my nose. When I was overwhelmed by anger and grief my tears provided the final catharsis, the release I needed.

That’s something of the release I’d like to feel right now. I’d like to be drained of anger, and of fear, by the simple expedient of a good cry. But I can’t. I’ve been released from my body, but I’m imprisoned in my release. My tears won’t flow; they can’t flow. I want to cry, but I have no more tears.

Is that what it means, to be no longer living? To feel, but without release, without relief?

Is feel even the right word for what I am experiencing? Questions. Questions and confusion. That’s my current state. I can follow each of these questions down its own rabbit hole, but I fear it will be as futile as attempting to understand Alice’s wonderland.

Okay, let’s go on, shall we? Sorry for the digression.

So where were we? Right. We were in the Metropolitan Museum. We made it inside just before the flashing crashing storm arrived with its full thunderous glory. We had just a few hours to wander the galleries before closing time.

"I love this place. There’s so much beauty gathered in one place. Too much for the time we have today, I’m afraid. Where should we go?"

"How about a treasure hunt? Since we were chased inside by a storm, let’s find beauty in storms. Let’s find pictures of storms."

"Nice idea. Let’s start in the European gallery. There’s a few achingly beautiful paintings with storms there."

And so we wandered upstairs and down the crowded corridor, seeking stormy weather. We found it in several paintings, but our agreed favorite was by Cot.

We stood in front of The Storm for a while, listening to distant-sounding muffled rolls of thunder. The strength of nature couldn’t be fully deterred by any puny edifice of man. Not even the massiveness of the building surrounding us eliminated the rumbling of the storm.

Susan stood in front of me, my hands resting on her shoulders. We shifted. I stood to the left of the frame, seeking a new angle. She sought the contrary angle, leaning in from right side. We sat on a bench, looking up at the fleeing lovers while leaning against each other.

"Is that us? Two young lovers fleeing an oncoming storm? Look at how obviously happy he is to be with her. He’s so enamored."

"If you’re fishing, yes, I’m happy to be here with you. And while I’m glad we fled a storm together, the comparison is a bit off. At the very least, we’re overdressed compared to them. Or shouldn’t I say that?"

"I don’t mind. We’ll see…" Her voice tapered off, but her smile didn’t.

But I won’t see. I won’t see or feel.

I can still picture her smile. I remember its warmth, its dazzling vitality. I wish I could still feel her body warmth, her heat. I want to feel her heat. I want to feel her swaying and moving under my touch, to feel her move as I felt her move when we were dancing in the rain. I want to feel, but I no longer can.

We eventually left Cot’s painting and meandered through the galleries, searching for more depictions of storms. None quite fit our mood as well. We started speculating where the two young lovers had been before fleeing, and where they were fleeing to. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to speculate what they might have been doing in that dark and lonely vale, so clearly under-dressed. That was territory we were not yet prepared to explore.

Alas, all things are finite.This includes museum visiting hours. We lingered in the galleries as long as we could, but eventually we were flushed out and onto the street. The storm had ceased its howling and crashing, and fleeting patches of blue appeared and as quickly disappeared.

“I hadn’t realized how late it was getting. This has been a long day.”

“This is the end of it, then? For us. For today, I mean,” she hastened to add. Susan’s voice was a bit plaintive. Apparently, she wasn’t ready for an ending.

“Well… that’s not what I was saying. I was beginning to note how hungry I’m getting. How about dinner? There’s some nice places over on Lexington. Once we’ve sated the beast we can talk about what’s next.”

As we walked along in near silence, I was a bit startled to hear my thoughts become audible via Susan’s voice. “You know, despite the inevitable I-told-you-so, I’m going to call Jackie and thank her for being so stubborn. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a day, and I would have missed it if she hadn’t been so insistent that we really needed to try once more.”

“I’ll second your voice, but caution her not to start knitting baby booties. That would be rather premature!”

Susan laughed. “You do know her well, don’t you?”

“Since second grade, I’m afraid. We were supposed to be married and raising kids by the time we hit middle school, according to her.”

“Middle school? That’s sort of rushing it, even for Jackie.”

“Well, since it was about five years in the future, it was almost forever away. That was her logic.”

“How did you escape?”

“She moved to Washington in fifth grade. By the time she moved back, in high school, I wasn’t the light of her life anymore. Poor me.”

“Poor you. Dumped before you had a real chance. She’s a heart-breaker, that woman is. She measured most guys by comparing them to this funny-looking boy she grew up with, who was her first and best true friend as she put it. Very few made the cut.”

“Well, she got the funny-looking part right, that’s for sure.”

Susan was quiet. Her fingers had run away, but they returned to wrap around my hand. She studied our hands carefully. A smile slowly illuminated her face. “Life is good.”

“Yes it is. Especially when it hits the point of unrestrained giddiness.”

“Unrestrained giddiness? Uh-oh. What are you proposing?”

“I propose that we after dinner we go back to the park.”

“To where?”

“First, to the terrace. Let’s go dance by the fountain, kiss on the bridge, laugh and sing until we get to the other side. Then we can decide to where after that.”

And that’s what we set out to do. People probably thought we were crazy when we waltzed around Bethesda Fountain. We didn’t care; we ignored the amused looks. We were laughing and having so much fun that we were soon joined by another couple, and then another. We were all waltzing to our internal tunes. Boy, did we feel alive and frisky.

Finally, out of breath but glowing, we sidled away from the party we had instigated. As proposed, we stopped in the middle of Bow Bridge. After a bout of last-minute shy hesitation, we shared a non-shy first kiss. We briefly came up for air, and were in the midst of another lingering kiss when the rain started again. We decided to head for the 85th Street exit. We were about halfway there, rushing along and semi-successfully dodging raindrops, laughing and singing, hand in hand, our arms gaily swinging. Our enthusiasm was dampened when the pitter-patter of raindrops became a deluge of raindrops. Rather quickly we were soaked.

“This hard rain has to pass. Let’s stop under a tree until it slows down,” I half-shouted to be heard over the cacophony.

“Over there.” Susan pointed to a substantial oak by the side of the path.

We raced under it, and stopped, out of breath and doubled over. After regaining our breath, we stood and watched in the lamp light as the sheets of rain poured down. The storm suddenly redoubled its intensity, as gusts of wind swayed the trees.

“We’re soaked. My place is close. Should we head there as soon as it lets up? I promise to behave.”

“I’m not concerned about your behavior. By now my blouse is as diaphanous as our young lover’s gown. It’s not hiding anything. I’d happily shed it just to be warm.” As if to punctuate her comment, Susan shivered.

I gathered her in my arms to warm her a bit. We began a slow soggy waltz beneath our leafy canopy. Susan smiled up at me in spite of her sodden clothes, and I pulled her close. Her body settled into mine as we slowly shuffled about under our sheltering tree, performing our rain dance.

And then it happened. I felt a thud on my head and left shoulder, then nothing more. A sudden gust of wind had slammed into the tree above us. Unseen and unheard, a limb had broken off.

And now we circle back to the beginning. I gradually became aware that I no longer had my former existence. At first I couldn’t figure out what had happened. Something-everything-had changed, but I didn’t realize why everything seemed so different.

Eventually it struck me-no pun intended. My world was now empty. I was gone; thrust into a void. Everything and everyone I had known was gone from me, and me from them. In the midst of a single superb point of happiness everything had changed.

Would it have killed anyone to let me be for a while? A few more years, that’s what I need. That’s what I want. Even a few more days, a few hours like my body’s last. At least a few more achingly beautiful joyful hours, dancing with Susan. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

story 

August72010
St. Lukes Hospital
© 2005 Michael Young

St. Lukes Hospital

© 2005 Michael Young

photo 

← Older entries Page 1 of 2