Dearest Elise, the blue in my skies, I bring to you this birthday surprise. It’s neither silver nor gold, but this day I’ve been told it will bring tears to your emerald eyes.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Dear Aidan, the light in my darkest of nights, the one who has turned my wrongs into rights, any gift you bestow will delight me I know, you’re the finest of my acolytes.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
Please my lady, please my love, I fervently pray to the gods above that you not think of me as just one of the three who serve the needs that you speak of.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
But what would I say to your peers in grey if I took for granted what they do each day? Your heart is pure and true and I highly treasure you, and so I wish not to lead you astray.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
What am I hearing, what might you mean when your words cut like daggers, swift and keen? I delivered each time you searched for a rhyme when you wrote that poem for the wake of Colleen.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
My sweet lad, for that I’m in debt to you, your words so tender, offered on cue, but Colleen would feel so sad if she knew her young man had used them to barter, used them to woo.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
When my mother abandoned me at the age of four. It was you who found me outside your door and welcomed me inside, though my spirit had died, and I couldn’t have been blessed any more.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Then listen and learn from the one who knows why a woman with the love of a Burns red rose chose this place, this face, she knew would embrace her laddie when her ill-timed sickness arose.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
My father died in the war before I was born and mother Colleen cried every morn missing his courage, his grace, missing the smile she couldn’t erase, near the end, most cheerless, lost and forlorn.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Ten years have passed and it’s time you knew that Colleen had a sister and a brother too. His name was Alec Erick and when Colleen got sick he came from Scotland to bid her adieu.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
I have an uncle, is that what you say? Where is he now? Will he come this way? And an aunt as well? Please, I pray you tell, why at fourteen, do I learn this today?
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Dear Alec Erick, I must sadly report has gone to his Maker, his life cut short, not unlike his sister Colleen, he left the earth at only nineteen, leaving you here for me to support.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
My mother was nineteen at the time she departed? She gave birth to me when her life had just started? I arrived here at four, she lived eight years more, This news is not for the fainthearted!
Said the Lady to the Lad:
No, I meant like his sister, he died far too young, Colleen was twenty-five when her church-bells rung. He was seventeen, in Glasgow for school, when he came back that day to Liverpool to hear once more, her song left unsung.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
Well, that’s a relief, her age I mean, that she didn’t die when she was nineteen. Would have had me at twelve, a thought I’ll just shelve. Go on, and I won’t intervene.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
You are so young and it’s confusing I know. So prepare yourself for an emotional blow. Colleen and her brother, from one to the other, once viewed their older sister as foe.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
Though it’s still far from clear, it would appear that this sister is someone I don’t want to be near. I’m glad she went away to no one’s dismay, at best insincere, a woman to fear.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Dear Aidan, she never left, she’s not gone. The poet would say she’s hither, not yon. Colleen saved you for her and lost her own sir when he left one morning at dawn.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
You mean he left for the war, a hero so brave, a man for his country his life he gave? It’s sad I never knew him at all, still unborn at the time of his fall. She lost her sir – my dad – when he went to his grave.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Colleen wasn’t married, nor did she bear a child. She was a maiden lass, pure, undefiled. Her sir walked away when you went to stay. She made you her life when her sister last smiled.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
My mother Colleen did not give me life? The man who died at war- she was not his wife? Those tears that she shed when she lay in her bed, pierced my heart, like the blade of a knife.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
The brave man was not his wife, but he was your Dad. Her tears were for you, so don’t feel sad. Abandoned you were, but not by her. Your Dad was another woman’s Sir Galahad.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
So for ten long years, I held hate in my heart toward a woman who saved me from some cheap tart? The world is cruel and I played the fool, I’m young but I’m strong, I’ll tear her apart.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Cast aside your anger, it’s ill-mannered and wrong. You were birthed by her sister, alone and not strong. Just six weeks after his flag was unfurled, you picked up his mantle and entered the world. And now at this hour, I’m singing his song.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
You knew him before Colleen left me here? You know where she is, this woman I jeer? Tell me straight out what’s this all about and please be perfectly clear.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
I’ve no place to hide, no place to run, I am your mother and you are my son. Your peers are your brothers, from unknown young mothers who gave them up when their demons won.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
So it wasn’t fate I was left at your door. Colleen did for you, what you’ve done twice more. In time I’ll be proud to be an equal as one of the three, but how do I fare, losing the one I live for!
Said the Lady to the Lad:
You’ve not lost a thing, you’ve found your mother, a friend, A new book has opened, its ending yet to be penned. When you see me that way in the light of the day you will find fitting presents to bring and to send.
Said the Lad to the Lady:
Dearest Mother, the blue in my skies, I bring to you this birthday surprise. It’s neither silver nor gold, it’s my heart that you hold, seeing the tears in your emerald eyes.
Said the Lady to the Lad:
Dear Son, the light in my darkest of nights, the one who has turned my wrongs into rights, this gift of your heart is a true chance to be part of your Galahad dad, the finest of Knights.
The Torys, however, live in Sunsett, a hybrid town in southern Merrimack County, New Hampshire. They are average people who live average lives. They go about those lives relatively unnoticed, like those very small dents near the rear wheel-well in an otherwise flawless new automobile – a curiosity the first few times they are observed (“How the hell did those get there, man?”), but soon disregarded, absorbed into the mind’s eye, much like that small dark stain of unknown origin on the jeans you wore yesterday.
Let’s just say that if I don’t write something about the Torys, it’s extremely unlikely anyone will. They tend to avoid the fast lane, the center of the circle, the front row of the church and the last row at the theater. They blend in seamlessly and subtly. The French term je ne sais quoi has likely never been used in the same sentence as “The Torys”, whether spoken of as a unit or individually, despite Mrs. Tory’s own liberal use of the expression when talking about others. And she was fine with that.
The Torys are a family of five: Dad Troy, 38, Mom Amanda (“Mandy”), 37, whose name is often mentioned in hurricane warnings along the Gulf Coast – “A manda tory evacuation order has been issued by the Governor.” – twin daughters Terri and Tori, both the same age ( which is quite common with twins) at 15, and that little scamp with a slingshot and an attitude, Victor (“Vic”), who is 10. It may be a little surprising that twin female teenagers would blend into the background in a relatively small town, but unlike their little brother, they are content with taking a low-key approach to life, not bringing attention upon themselves. They are not identical twins, never try to do the “twin thing”, like dressing alike or having similar hairstyles, etc. Tori somehow appears older than Terri, not that you care.
Dad’s given middle name is Sebastian, which he despises, and Mom’s is Sébastienne, which she despises even more. Neither ever uses their middle name for anything, just sticking with the letter S. So when the three young-uns first saw the light of day, each was given just an S as a middle name, insuring that their signatures would always end in “S.Tory”, which Troy thought was clever, at least until the twins get married. Terri never uses her “S” though, liking the sound of “Terri Tory”, as in “stay outta mine”.
It should be pointed out that those almost-identical middle names which they both protested, contested, detested (past tense because the monikers have long since been exiled like stones into the River Styx) were exposed on their fourth date. Mandy’s mom gave her a verbal beat-down when she and Troy arrived home after midnight from an 8:30 PM movie. “AMANDA SÉBASTIENNE COUTURE, you have a lot of explaining to do.” Mandy cringed at the sound of her middle name, but Troy went bonkers in disbelief. “Your middle name is Sebastian? Mine is too! No shit. Holy cow, girl, what are the odds? But why a guy’s name? I don’t get it.” Mandy’s eyes glazed over, but the mother told the young man, as nicely as she could, “Not Sebastian, you half-wit, S-É-B-A-S-T-I-E-N-N-E, it’s French, we’re French, what are you?” He said he thought he was “just a regular American”. (Mandy was suddenly having second thoughts about that feel she let him cop an hour earlier.) Her mother, who knew his last name was Tory, surmised that he was for sure “just another dumb Brit” and not really American at all.
The next day, the young couple compared notes, and while both were still astounded they had gender-specific versions of the same middle name, an extreme longshot to the nth degree, they also shared their mutual distaste for the sound of it. Troy’s father told him he got the name from that Sebastian Cabot guy with the irritating beard and uppity accent, while apparently Mandy had a great grandmother from Bordeaux back in the old country who first got stuck with it. Troy wisecracked that he had once heard his granddad talk about some famous actress he had the hots for named Brigitte “Bordeaux” and said maybe they were related or something. (Meaning Brigitte and the great grandmother, not Troy and Mandy, which would, you know, have killed the wedding plans.)
Now this is going to be a short, simple story, a proverbial walk in the park as it were, because the Torys are walking snooze-fests, much like the guy writing this yawner. But one day at Shell Lake Park, they were doing the family picnic thing, sitting on an oversized Man from Nantucket beach blanket, poking down pork pie, like their UK brethren, when another family of five approached them. All about the same ages, but this gang’s kids were of opposite genders from the Tory kids. Two teenaged boys checked out the twins, while their little sister had a bad feeling about that rapscallion Vic. The boys of course were not twins because if they were you’d think I was making this stuff up after the Sebastian/Sébastienne longshot. Never did find out those kids’ names and exact ages, but let’s just call the boys Rufus and Rover and the girl Tabitha. I’ll tell you right now nothing significant happens with these kids, other than the boys embarrassingly and inevitably showing off for the girls, to no avail, and Vic launching yellow jell-o into Tabitha’s hair when she called him an “a-hole”. Fortunately for the young girl, she had blonde hair and the slimy stuff kind of blended in there pretty discreetly from an appearance perspective, and though it did smell well, it didn’t jell well, and it was icky and sticky and just so darn Vic-y. She snarled and tossed him another, more biting “a-hole” and he showed her by counting to 10 and going back for more pork pie.
It was the parents whose interaction was noteworthy. as the two fives merged into one ten in the park. The Balls – Stewart (“Call me Stew)” and Sindée (“Yes, Mandy, S-I-N-D-É-E, isn’t that adorable, it’s French you know.” “Yes, I know, love, I’m a Couture myself, S-É-B-A-S-T-I-E-N-N-E, and these Englishmen are so gauche, n’est-ce pas?”, which roughly translates into “Do you really wanna go there?”) – had recognized Troy and Mandy from the previous Black Friday at the Mall when the two men both reached for the last Black & Decker Piranha Cordless Circular Saw that was 20 bucks off until 9:00 AM. Sometimes, such situations can lead to entertaining love stories, like “Serendipity”, where the contested item was a pair of gloves and Kate Beckinsale stole my heart and still hasn’t given it back. But two guys and one circular saw do not a movie make. Troy and Stew both kept one hand on the box and one hand free to poke the other one in the cheekbone should it come to that.
Fortunately, Mandy and Sindee, oops, I mean Sindée, were close by and stepped in at the same moment to play peacemaker, both urging their guy to back away from the box and from each other. There was a brief awkward silence, then all four laughed it off and the men agreed to leave the damn thing for someone else. Who really needs it, right, not like it’s a table saw. On that occasion, no names were exchanged or anything cutesy like that, but Sindée did covertly raise a bushy eyebrow at Troy Tory. Not covertly enough for Stew Ball though and minutes later he doubled back to grab the saw and it was gone. He just knew that schmuck was just as sneaky as he was, but quicker on his feet. Someday, he thought, he’ll pay for that eyebrow thing with another man’s wife, and for this double-cross with the saw too.
Now, let me stop for a brief moment here. Stew Ball. Wasn’t he a racehorse back in the day? Am I remembering wrong? Did his parents have the chutzpah to name their son after a wine-drinkin’ stud in hopes someday he would be one too? Keep reading.
Okay, back to the park. Stew wanted to approach the Torys because he wanted to let Troy know that he knew that Troy went back and got the saw. Sindée wanted to approach the Torys because Stew was no longer in fact anything resembling a stud and she liked Troy’s smile. They both agreed they would approach the Torys because it would be the right-neighborly thing to do, plus they wanted to keep Rufus and Rover from asking when they could blow that lame scene and thought the pair of jeune filles might be able to keep them distracted for a bit. (Tabitha didn’t say much, mostly purred and pawed at the stress ball she got for Christmas.)
“Hey there folks, hope we’re not interrupting anything but we just had to come over and say “Happy Black Friday!” Troy and Mandy looked at each other but neither’s bell rang. Then Sindée subtly raised her right eyebrow, and the bell tolled. Both Torys said in unison, “That’s right! The Mall” How you guys doin’? These your kids?” Stew missed the eyebrow maneuver this time, as he was focused on Troy. (This is where the couples did their family introductions, as referenced above.) The teenage boys looked very interested. The teenage girls did not, as they already had a couple of other guys on their radar. Tabby hissed at Vic, which eventually led to the aforementioned a-hole and yellow jell-o exchange.
Stew: ” Hey man, we SAW you over here and thought introductions were in order. We didn’t know if you SAW us, so we came over. That day we SAW you we had a flat on the way home. Darned if my neighbor didn’t come by right then and of course he stopped to help because he SAW that the Mrs. here was really struggling with that tire.”
Troy, not taking the bait: “Izzat so? How about that. We had a great Christmas and both got everything we wanted, and so did the girls. Vic, my son over there, got a lump of coal. Gotta tell ya, that Santa fella really has a sense of humor, doesn’t he Vic?”
Stew: “Vic? Is that short for Vicky? I SAW a movie once where Queen Victoria was called “Vicky” when she was about his age. Your wife calls him Vicky at home, doesn’t she? Have a brownie, Vicky. Do your homework, Vicky.” Clearly, he was just bustin’ Troy’s ‘nads. Troy, on the other hand, was thinking seriously about tossing a couple of StewBalls into the nearby trash can before calling it a day.
Troy: “Look, my boy over there playing with jell-o is one tough kid, I’m tellin’ ya.” (Then he playfully elbowed Stew in the ribs.) “Gotta admit he gets in too many fights, but he always wins. They don’t call him Vic Tory for nuthin’.” – followed by playful elbow to the ribs #2.
Stew: “Yeah, bud, I hear ya, but what happens when he runs out of girls to fight?”
Troy: ” Hey, I caught Miss Sindée over there givin’ me the hairy eyebrow again, and I do mean HAIRY. Now I know why you needed that circular saw, but I’m guessing a hedge trimmer would do the job.”
Stew: “Yeah, well, your mother wears Army boots.”
Troy: “Pfffft. For your information, my grandfather was in the infantry and he once made out with that actress Brigitte Bordeaux right in back of the Manchester Post Office in broad daylight right in front of my uncle back when she was doing summer stock at the lake, if you know what that is, and he was wearin’ HIS Army boots through the whole thing. Told me so himself, bless his soul. So neither he, nor I, care if his daughter, my mother, bless her soul too, wore them sometimes so she could walk a mile in his shoes like the Good Book tells us.”
Stew: Doesn’t matter who wore what, what kind of lowlife circles back for a circular saw that he agreed not to buy in deference to another guy?”
Troy: “Deference? What’d you do, look that word up before you walked over here? And wait a minute, how would you know if I circled back for the circular saw unless you yourself circled back for the circular saw? See, I saw “The Princess Bride” too.
Stew: “Okay, okay, yeah, I did that. I wanted that saw. I needed that saw. It was 20 bucks off, for criminy sakes. So you keep it and be sure to say hello and kiss it goodnight for me next time you nuzzle up to it like you’re its rightful owner, which you ain’t. “
Troy; “Whoa, Stewball. Rein yourself in, man. I didn’t go back and buy that saw. Yeah, I thought about it, but Mandy set me straight. Besides, I figured you’d go back for it and we might find ourselves playing tug-o-war with it again. And you just admitted you did go back. Joke’s on you, bud – some other slob is cuttin’ up a storm with it as we sit here jawin’ at each other. I’m a Tory and Torys always win.”
Stew: “Seriously? You didn’t grab it? Crap, man, I’m sorry. I thought sure you had it. Takes a man to apologize and I’m doin’ it right now. But be clear, my wife wasn’t flirting with you with that eyebrow thing. In fact, look, see there, she’s doing it to your wife this very minute. I don’t even think she knows when she does it. So we’re cool on that too, right?”
Troy: “Yeah, fine. I’ll forget about the Army boots and you forget about the hedge trimmer.”
The two men stood and reluctantly shook hands. Mandy actually tried to stop her man from shaking because she was afraid Stew would try to pull the ol’ Power Squeeze and Troy would get mad all over again, but her hubby sent her away, back to Sindée at the other end of the blanket, even though he needed her that day. Both guys then proceeded to squeeze as hard as they could (see, Mandy was right on the Ball), gritting their teeth and pretending it didn’t hurt, but Troy couldn’t resist one more elbow to Stew’s ribs with his other arm. Stew manned up and took it in stride. “You know I SAW that one coming, right?” The handshake was hand-numbing, but each swiftly shook it off, then chatted a bit about the Red Sox and the big boobs on the woman just to their left, before gathering up their respective families and going their separate ways with a mutual “see ya around” kind of goodbye.
On the way home, Stew humbly told his wife that Troy wasn’t the one who bought the saw, that he felt bad and apologized to him, and he also told her he didn’t mind when she fluttered her eyebrows at others, and that he was going to be less of a jerk from now on. Sindée looked surprised and smiled a smile as wide as the Erie Canal. She was suddenly seeing a different side of ol’ Stew Ball. That evening, she gave her sons some cash and told them to get lost until midnight. She gave Tabitha a Rubik’s Cube and sent her to her room (“Come get mommy when you figure it out, sweetie!”) It was just so adorably French of her.
In a silver minivan, going in the opposite direction, the Tory family was wigging it up. Troy told how Mr. Ball had apologized yet he got to elbow the guy in the ribs three different times for still another Tory win. Mandy told her husband how Sindée had eyebrow-flirted with her and that they were going to hang out sometime just for a hoot – “Two French girls on the prowl, ooh-la-la. Très bien, non, Monsieur?” Troy’s eyes glazed over at the thought, just the way Mandy’s did that night after the movie years ago. Terri and Tori (hate to ask but when the latter tells a boy her name is Tori Tory, does he think she’s stuttering?) both made barking sounds in response to their mother asking what they thought of Rufus and Rover, and Vic said he was sure he could kick Tabby’s butt if he wanted to, adding that her hair smelled like a fruit stand even before he put the lemon jell-o in it.
When they got home, Troy went to the garage and, after making sure it wasn’t plugged in, he kissed the Black & Decker Piranha Cordless Circular Saw he bought at 20 bucks off on Black Friday at the Mall right on the blade (because that’s what real men do), and gave a little Jackie Gleason how-sweet-it-is smirk. Then he went in the house and kissed Mandy and complimented her on her well-groomed eyebrows. She always liked an unexpected kiss, but wondered why this one tasted like WD-40 with a hint of cedar. All five of them pigged out on Domino’s pizza, hot wings from Charlie’s Place, and cinnamon buns, while watching Reba reruns on cable, then dragged themselves off to bed. The usual snooze-fest resumed. All of the Torys slept well that night. (Don’t know about the Tories though.)
Across town, Stew Ball had some wine and prepped long and hard for his return to the track, focusing on what lay ahead. Sindée saddled up her racehorse and rode him hard down the backstretch to screams of glory. When they fell asleep, which Stew always did after crossing the finish line, he was SAWing logs and Sindée was counting them – in French. Rufus and Roger got picked up for weed and spent the night in the slammer, where they slept like the dogs that they were. Poor Tabitha was found in the morning with the Rubik’s Cube in one hand and her stress ball in the other. She had a scowl on her face and jell-o still in her hair. But don’t be concerned, Tabby still has eight more shots to get things right.
As we see this tale come to a merciful close, in the end the Torys seemingly had stayed true to form for one day more¹, fading quietly, blandly, into the silence and the stillness of another anonymous summer night, their day at the park already a distant memory. For them, at least.
As I wrote at the beginning of this short, simple story, the Torys of Sunsett “are average people who live average lives. They go about those lives relatively unnoticed.”
That is, until that day at Shell Lake Park, with their brightly-colored, oversized Man from Nantucket blanket on full display as Tory and Stew bickered like schoolboys on one end while Mandy and Sindée flaunted their flirtatious French repartee (Soup Nazi says “no aigu accent for you, repartee!”) on the other end, inadvertently calling attention to the long, stretched-out, smiling man’s face in the exposed center of the polypropylene surface. Everyone found an excuse to walk by and steal a glance downward as they passed. The ladies would crane their necks and feign disdain while the men, as one might expect, couldn’t wipe the grins from their chins. At the end of the day¹, except for Tabitha and the two caged mutts, a good time was had by all, and the Torys had finally, unbeknownst to them, been noticed. For better or worse.
The morning after, while on their way to bail out their bong-totin’ boneheads, Stew Ball, feeling his oats, joked to his wife that Troy must put the “man” into “Man”dy a LOT because “he’s such a stiff.” “Oui, oui, all the way home”, she whispered huskily, eyebrows both raised. “Just like you, my wine-drinking stud, put the “sin” into “Sin”dée. “Stew liked hearing that. He was back on track. His heart raced.
He felt a limerick coming on: “There once was a Stewart from Sunsett, who was married to a French coquette, though she’d flirt with her brows, she would never carouse, with the Janes and the Johns that she met.”
Feeling alive, she upped him five: “There once was a Sindée from Sunsett, who snubbed every man she had met, then SAW Monsieur Ball, who gave her his all, as Marius to her Cosette¹.“
¹ Les Miz is just SO French, you know !
Writer’s Notes: (1) That is a genuine Black & Decker Piranha Cordless Circular Saw in the pic at the top of this page. (2) Kate Beckinsale still has not answered my e-mail, but there’s always tomorrow, which is only a day away. (3) The Torys had a red canary named Lava – “Lava Tory” – but I was not privy to that information when I started writing this hot mess. He choked on a sticky bun and was fittingly flushed down the porcelain highway by Tabitha, who gave him the bun and felt guilty. But, badly bloated from a steady diet of sticky buns from his young friend, he got stuck and the commode overflowed and one thing led to another and Mandy got a brand new lavatory out of the deal, including getting rid of that green toilet from 1959. Anyway, Lava was also given the middle initial S , making him “Lava S. Tory”, which reminded me that I saw “Love Story” in a theater in Taipei on R&R with a Taiwanese woman who scored me some great deals on jade and took me to the Taipei Zoo and shared a midnight pizza with me. The kicker is that I read the very short novel, “Love Story”, on the long plane ride from California to Vietnam (along with Joan Baez’ book “Daybreak”) and then several months later I go to Taiwan and see one movie there in a non-Grauman’s Chinese Theater and it’s “Love Story”. The book, and the movie, opened with, “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And Brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.” Grabbed me just the way Beckinsale did so many years later. That’s my S.Tory – and I’m S.Tickin’ to it.
“Oh, Stewball was a racehorse, and I wish he were mine He never drank water, he always drank wine” Songwriters: John Herald, Robert A. Yellin, Ralph C. Rinzle (There are 5 or 6 OTHER Stewball the Racehorse songs, dating back many years, by various artists and all with different lyrics, but this was the most well-known version, and the one I had in mind while writing.)
“because he wanted to let Troy know that he knew that Troy went back and got the saw.” “How would you know if I circled back for the circular saw unless you yourself circled back for the circular saw?”
(Readers with small screens may wish to bypass the original presentation of this 5-stanza, 100 line poem and drop down to the numbered-line adaptation just below it to see the proper line breaks, which are essential to the piece. The comprehensive “Writer’s Notes” at the end provide in-depth, detailed background and context to the poem.)
Bought a bus ticket to San Francisco on a Winter morn, nineteen seventy-two. Stopped over in Chicago. Ate. Changed buses. Twelve passengers boarded as I watched. One caught my eye. Busty brunette looked my way, chose the seat just behind mine and settled in for the ride. In the long dark hours under inky skies, she reached between the seats and grabbed my attention. Hello there. Joined me at daybreak. Poked, probed and nudged me. Touchy. Feely. “Going home to San Mateo. Tired of the road. Need a break.” Still, she displayed a zest for life that I had just lost. Broke. Broken. The miles and hours raced by as we shared our secrets, stories and desires. Rest-stopped in Reno. Casino called. Watched, wagered, won. Merged, two into one. Crossed California’s great Bay. End of the line. I planned to stray. She planned to stay. Hesitation. Long goodbye hugs. She ran, then stopped and turned. “Come home with me.” I did.
Worked days, nights at the new Hatch Plaza store. “Manager, Hardlines” was my title, my job. New building, new staff, new start. Giant by name, link in a chain. Herman was boss man, Joe his right hand. They called the shots, assigning worker bees to departments and aisles that suited their styles. Three funny and bright young women stood out, stood tall. Spirited, vivacious, each one forcing me to fall head over heels, smitten by each, but by one most of all – the blue-eyed blonde flirting away. ( ‘Twas okay, back in the day.) Seven years younger she was, out of my reach and out of my league. Or so it seemed. Looked past her. Kept my distance. Abandoned the yearning. But nigh she stood, then moved so close, so near, whispering music to my ear. Enticed, enamored, so much to say, but listened instead to the words she said: “Can’t get nowhere if we don’t start somewhere, so take a break, and let’s see what’s in store!”
“Have a friend who could use another friend. Come with me and George this weekend to her place.” Weighed down by work and classes, I needed a pause. “Count me in.” Along the eighty mile drive southeast, I was able to convince myself that no matter how things might go with this stranger, my presence there would offer promise, not pretense. A young mother she was, battle-scarred beyond her years. My own path, fraught with challenges, left me tired, overwrought. Her daughter away when we three arrived, she was free to fly, joined by a couple she held dear, with George and his lady and me. We all headed out to a club on the coast to gab, drink and (ugh) dance. Their worries soon waned. (Mine Wayned.) High spirits reigned uncontained. (Driver abstained.) But one strain remained – my mug left undrained. Peed by the roadside. Everyone cheered. Back at her place, she and I sat up all night together. Our time had just begun.
Whipped cream on French cheesecake. Rough day. Wound tight. Need to breathe, escape. Lakeland night life, live band, half mile down the street. Why not? Strode past the buffet to the lounge. Place was dead. Bouncer looked bored. “Slow night, slim pickin’s, man.” Fine. Came for the music. Sat at the bar. Ordered my one beer. Nursed it. Band was weak. Played some Robert Palmer. No one danced. A plastered princess tossed a bra at the lead singer. Missed. Yelled, “With that voice, you need all the support you can get.” The band played on. Bouncer stink-eyed her. She blew him a kiss. Sweet. Tall, pert, emerald-eyed enchantress parked her bum right next to me. Playfully shook my arm. “Watch! Seen this movie before. Free flashing.” Huh? The drunk dudette got up in some dude’s face. Raised her tank top clear up to here. She teetered and tittered. “How ’bout them apples?” Green eyes asked my name, told me hers. Talked two hours. Gave me her number. “You won’t call.” Seven years later, we kissed goodbye.
First contact made online. Nurse. Registered. Fall, two thousand two. Shared the usual stuff. Some things in common, some not. Should we meet? Maybe? Possibly? Me – considering heading back South, after five years of cursing snow and ice. Her – deep-rooted in the Granite State. Entrenched. Family, friends, nursing career, connections, home. So what if we did meet and a bond emerged? Move? Stay? Dang. I was getting way ahead of things. Again. (Kicked self.) Women turned away from me. “My eyes, Tess, my eyes!” Ouch. Would SHE? I held all the baggage. She held all the cards. Still, she rolled the dice. Mixed metaphors aside, we met on a Sunday afternoon. Her house. Fall. New England. Pats scored a touchdown. We scored a pizza. She smiled – coyly. Her: “Voila!” Two huge delights had been hiding right in plain sight. Me: “Quelle surprise!” I held and beheld them – two sacks of kisses ( Hershey’s, not Miss’s) – for four full years.
1) Bought 2) a bus 3) ticket to 4) San Francisco 5) on a Winter morn, 6) nineteen seventy-two. 7) Stopped over in Chicago. 8) Ate. Changed buses. Twelve passengers 9) boarded as I watched. One caught my eye. 10) Busty brunette looked my way, chose the seat 11) just behind mine and settled in for the ride. 12) In the long dark hours under inky skies, she reached 13) between the seats and grabbed my attention. Hello there. 14) Joined me at daybreak. Poked, probed and nudged me. Touchy. Feely. 15) “Going home to San Mateo. Tired of the road. Need a break.” 16) Still, she displayed a zest for life that I had just lost. Broke. Broken. 17) The miles and hours raced by as we shared our secrets, stories and desires. 18) Rest-stopped in Reno. Casino called. Watched, wagered, won. Merged, two into one. 19) Crossed California’s great Bay. End of the line. I planned to stray. She planned to stay. 20) Hesitation. Long goodbye hugs. She ran, then stopped and turned. “Come home with me.” I did.
1) Worked 2) days, nights 3) at the new 4) Hatch Plaza store. 5) “Manager, Hardlines” 6) was my title, my job. 7) New building, new staff, new start. 8) Giant by name, link in a chain. 9) Herman was boss man, Joe his right hand. 10) They called the shots, assigning worker bees 11) to departments and aisles that suited their styles. 12) Three funny and bright young women stood out, stood tall. 13) Spirited, vivacious, each one forcing me to fall 14) head over heels, smitten by each, but by one most of all – 15) the blue-eyed blonde flirting away. ( ‘Twas okay, back in the day.) 16) Seven years younger she was, out of my reach and out of my league. 17) Or so it seemed. Looked past her. Kept my distance. Abandoned the yearning. 18) But nigh she stood, then moved so close, so near, whispering music to my ear. 19) Enticed, enamored, so much to say, but listened instead to the words she said: 20) “Can’t get nowhere if we don’t start somewhere, so take a break, and let’s see what’s in store!”**
1) “Have 2) a friend 3) who could use 4) another friend. 5) Come with me and George 6) this weekend to her place.” 7) Weighed down by work and classes, 8) I needed a pause. “Count me in.” 9) Along the eighty mile ride southeast, 10) I was able to convince myself that 11) no matter how things might go with this stranger, 12) my presence there would offer promise, not pretense. 13) A young mother she was, battle-scarred beyond her years. 14) My own path, fraught with challenges, left me tired, overwrought. 15) Her daughter away when we three arrived, she was free to fly, 16) joined by a couple she held dear, with George and his lady and me. 17) We all headed out to a club on the coast to gab, drink and (ugh) dance. 18) Their worries soon waned. (Mine Wayned. ) High spirits reigned unconstrained. (Driver abstained.) 19) But one strain remained – my mug left undrained. Peed by the roadside. Everyone cheered. 20) Back at her place, she and I sat up all night together. Our time had just begun.
1) Whipped 2) cream on 3) French cheesecake. 4) Rough day. Wound tight. 5) Need to breathe, escape. 6) Lakeland night life, live band, 7) half mile down the street. Why not? 8) Strode past the buffet to the lounge. 9) Place was dead. Bouncer looked bored. “Slow night, 10) slim pickin’s, man.” Fine. Came for the music. 11) Sat at the bar. Ordered my one beer. Nursed it. 12) Band was weak. Played some Robert Palmer. No one danced. 13) A plastered princess tossed a bra at the lead singer. 14) Missed. Yelled, “With that voice, you need all the support you can get.” 15) Band kept playing. Bouncer stink-eyed her. She blew him a kiss. Sweet. 16) Tall, pert, emerald-eyed enchantress parked her bum right next to me. 17) Playfully shook my arm. “Watch! Seen this movie before. Free flashing.” Huh? 18) The drunk dudette got up in some dude’s face. Raised her tank top clear up to here. 19) She teetered and tittered. “How ’bout them apples?” Green eyes asked my name, told me hers. 20) Talked two hours. Gave me her number. “You won’t call.” Seven years later, we kissed goodbye.
1) First 2) contact 3) made online. 4) Nurse. Registered. 5) Fall, two thousand two. 6) Shared the usual stuff. 7) Some things in common, some not. 8) Should we meet? Maybe? Possibly? 9) Me – considering heading back South, 10) after five years of cursing snow and ice. 11) Her – deep-rooted in the Granite State. Entrenched. 12) Family, friends, nursing career, connections, home. 13) So what if we did meet and a bond emerged? Move? Stay? 14) Dang. I was getting way ahead of things. Again. (Kicked self.) 15) Women turned away from me. “My eyes, Tess, my eyes!” Ouch. Would SHE? 16) I held all the baggage. She held all the cards. Still, she rolled the dice. 17) Mixed metaphors aside, we met on a Sunday afternoon. Her house. 18) Fall. New England. Pats scored a touchdown. We scored a pizza. She smiled – coyly. 19) Her: “Voila!” Two huge delights had been hiding right in plain sight. Me: “Quelle surprise!” 20) I held and beheld them – two sacks of kisses ( Hershey’s, not Miss’s) – for four full years.
I had intended to undertake two separate, unrelated writing exercises here: first, to reflect on the diverse beginnings of the significant relationships of my adult life, taking a respectful, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes light-hearted approach, preferably in verse form, in chronological order; second, to create a 100-line, 5 stanza, amplification of the poetic form termed an ETHEREE, a 10-line verse where the first line contains one syllable and each following line contains one more syllable than the previous one, culminating in a ten-syllable final line. There are also REVERSE ETHEREES, where the first line has 10 syllables, working down to a final line with one. And then there are DOUBLE ETHEREES, a nice visual effect consisting of 20 lines, combining ETHEREES and REVERSE ETHEREES in one 20-line verse, either thick in the middle or thin in the middle.
I made the decision to combine my two writing exercises into one much more complex endeavor: creating a non-standard DOUBLE ETHEREE, a variation that builds from a one syllable first line then adding a syllable to each descending line to a final line count of 20 syllables, doing so for each of the five stanzas, i.e., each of the five “First Encounters”. The primary challenge to doing this was that, as the lines got longer, while staying complete for most desktop views, a few lines wrapped around on tablet views and MANY lines did so on the smallest devices. Realizing that the aesthetics of the piece would be compromised on those devices, I decided to persist and finish the work, and then present it via this explanatory addendum. The 100 lines appear first without numbered lines, and then a numbered-line version follows right below. (Readers with small screens may wish to simply bypass the non-numbered version and drop down to the numbered-line presentation below it. ) Clearly, it is of utmost importance to the intent of the piece that the reader knows where the line-breaks are, to insure that they know which line they are reading. All 6th lines, for example, have 6 syllables, 12th lines have 12 syllables, 17th lines have 17 syllables, etc., thus the numbered version allows the reader to quickly verify how many syllables are assigned to each line, without having to determine which line is being read.
The restrictive parameters encouraged, justified, and in some cases necessitated the use of staccato-style, fragmented word groupings. Traditional sentence structure politely stepped aside as needed. This project intrigued me and was very time-consuming, with countless edits needed to meet the syllable requirements, but the end result succinctly captured the nostalgia, the memories and the moments. The ladies are very real, the first encounters described are hyperbole-enhanced but reality-based scenarios, and the writer thoroughly enjoyed the process of creating visual images with virtual words you can touch. – WMD
Aloft and alone on the imposing rock ledge, enraptured by the panorama of Fall color that spread from here to there along my line of sight, I immersed myself in the seamless serenity of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I had been reflecting on recent tumultuous times that had blurred the boundary between the end of youth and the beginning of real life. The loss of certainty and direction was paired with the discovery of a complex inner self that twisted my gut. The former was predictable, the latter was not.
My immediate future, however, was not uncertain. In a couple of days, I would be on my way to Oakland Army Base. From there, I would board a bus bound for Travis Air Force Base with a group of young strangers, exchange the bus seat for a plane seat, and be flown to an unsettling setting that contrasted strikingly with that tranquil perch just above the tree line there in the southernmost Whites.
I pulled a Sky Bar from my knapsack, laid back, closed my eyes, and strained to hear the echoes of the voices I heard on the car radio while driving north from Laconia: –
“When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes … sail on, silver girl, sail on high, your time has come to shine, all your dreams are on their way … like a bridge over troubled water, I will ease your mind.”
“Caught in my fears, blinking back the tears . . . ’cause I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine, and I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time.”
The plaintive phrasing and wistful words offered by Art Garfunkel and Linda Ronstadt were calming, comforting. My mind was eased, my senses pleased by the melodic tones of music that wasn’t there.
When it was time to leave the quiet solitude of that always-welcoming and optimal outcropping, I let gravity conserve my energy while descending from what I once described as my “own stone throne”, where I had often taken refuge when my waters were troubled and my road was rough. Down the familiar trail I coasted to the furrowed logging road, soft-stepping past the birches immortalized by Frost, splashing childlike through that last crystal-clear stream out to the clearing and into the car. Heading home, I could still hear the echoes, and took solace in knowing they would always be there.
A very long year later, I was back in “the world” and out of the Army. I had by now undeniably crossed the bridge into real life and though I was still feeling very much weary, I actually and ironically needed to feel small. But not on the down note vocalized by Garfunkel. Small in a good way. In the way a child beholds the night sky. In the way a groom embraces the shadows when all eyes turn to the bride. In the way egos are humbled amid heroes at Arlington.
I knew one stop remained before I would truly feel I was home again.
Despite bitter late Autumn cold, I sought the sanctuary, the security, the psychological safety of my most favored lofty ledge. Transformed by events, I sailed on high to that cherished nesting spot, took several deep breaths of clean mountain air, and inhaled the lingering scent emanating from the tops of sleeping evergreens. Interspersed with them, the stark beauty of defoliated deciduous trees posing silently and stoically below created an image of carpeted ridgelines bowing to the bevy of surrounding peaks silently awaiting the season’s first snowfall.
I parked my butt on the slab of rock that hosted me and listened for the voices, the words, the echoes that surely had been awaiting my return to the mountain. Listened and waited. Waited and listened. On that November day I realized that, like the faded fallen leaves below, echoes aren’t forever.
The granite beneath me grew colder. My passion for my place of refuge did not.
Just before starting my descent, I turned and projected my own voice into the void, proclaiming “You, White Mountains, are my inspiration, my heritage, my freedom, and my friend, and I think I’m gonna love you . . . for a long, long time.”
( Be it requited or, as Linda lamented, be it not.)
The sound surged back at me in rolling waves, reverberating off invisible walls, cascading gently down toward the valley floor. I felt a relentless rush as I recklessly chased the pulsating words down the trail. I wanted to experience them from the bottom as I had from the top. Just as the song lyrics had survived the trip from the car to the peak a year earlier, on this day these did so in reverse. Though they had faded somewhat with the time and distance of the descent, they were there to welcome me at the end. All I had to do was close my eyes and wait and listen and take it all in. And because echoes always end, they have to be appreciated and savored in the moment and remembered for what they were. Then get on to the business of creating and casting new ones for another day, another year, another time. But they will never come back around if we lose the will to wait for them and the willingness to listen for them. If we don’t hear them, no one will. After they’re gone, they won’t be back, and the opportunity to make a memory, one we may want and need someday, will have been forever lost.
As I walked to the car, I felt profoundly excited, exuberant, euphoric. I felt a renewed sense of certainty and now knew which direction I was destined to travel. I had owned the day. It was Sky Bar time in the Whites.
The spirited bounce in my step served as a reminder that we often dance best to the music that isn’t there. Travolta had nothing on me when I crushed a move emerging from that stream near the end . (Swayze, maybe, but only on his best day.) I read somewhere that many years later, in a local grocery store, two 50-ish ladies sighed longingly as they watched a sprightly old codger make that very same move while rounding the corner of a crowded aisle.
I suspect he too once successfully crossed a badass bridge into the real world. Probably craves dark chocolate and owns some old Ronstadt albums as well. Happy trails to you, old-timer, may your load be light and your eyes stay bright. Hope you stick around . . . for a long, long time.
The sound of a Louisville Slugger ripping the crap out of a grass-stained official Novice League baseball was followed quickly by loud, anxious shouts aimed in his direction. Not so much from spectators in the bleachers because there were only 17 spectators and no bleachers, but rather from his teammates on the field and on the team’s far-off wooden bench. But no voice was louder or more urgent than that of his coach, who began running alongside the first base line like a lynx in heat.
Aghast at the velocity of the line drive as it sizzled its way toward the right field corner, the other guys on his team knew trouble was a-coming, and at a high rate of speed.
They were just one out away from their biggest win of the summer (okay, their first win of the summer) and were clinging to a one-run lead with two outs and two runners on base. The Novice League, made up of 9-11 yr.-olds who were deemed “not ready” at the annual Little League tryouts, played 5-inning games and this was the bottom of the 5th so you see it was a somewhat significant situation within that limited environment.
Sammy had been placed in right field for reasons known to all red-blooded Americans of the late 1950’s familiar with the intricacies and traditions of the game of baseball.
Right field, it was said, was for losers.
Right field was for weaklings who wore thick glasses and couldn’t catch a cold.
Right field meant his chances of screwing up the outcome of the game would be minimized because most good hitters batted right-handed and had yet to learn the fine art of hitting to the opposite field. The not-so-good hitters, well, they often DID hit to the opposite field but only because they swung the bat so late or so slowly that even if contact was made, it was made after three-quarters of the ball had passed them by and the result was a ball that dribbled a few feet in any of several directions, sometimes even onto the playing field. Rarely did they get it to the outfield, and on those occasions the batter was often so happy and surprised that he was likely still at home plate yelling “I hit it! , I hit it!” when he was thrown out at first base, even by the worst of Novice League outfielders – like Sammy.
With any luck, on any given day, there would be a strong wind blowing from right-to-left at game time and fly balls would drift harmlessly into center field. Alas, on this day, unfortunately, the air was still but it would not have mattered anyway, because this ball was a screaming, vicious, missile that would have sliced through the strongest of gales as it surged defiantly toward the depths of the right field corner. It was smashed, I tell you. Whizzed. Scorched. Flaming fast and fading further and further to Sammy’s left as it traveled. To the trepidation of he and his teammates, this ball was absolutely not going to find its way into center field.
Center field, you see, was for winners.
Center field was for cool guys – athletic kids (or, in the case of the Novice League, semi-almost-athletic kids). Guys who could run faster than right-fielders, guys who were destined to get the girls the right-fielders couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, when they got to high school. More importantly, at most levels, they could catch a baseball, hit a baseball and even throw a baseball all the way back into the infield.
Center fielders drank milk, ate vegetables and could spit almost 10 feet if they wanted to. Their uniforms and caps fit better, and they weren’t scared of nuthin’. In short, they were destined to have life by the baseballs.
Back to Sammy and a Saturday in the Summer of ‘59.
To the utter amazement of his teammates, he was running, really running, at full stride into the corner near the right-field line, his glove outstretched, looking for all the world like Jackie Jensen, the Red Sox right-fielder he revered, racing into the very same corner at Fenway Park to save a game against the demonic Yankees. He looked determined. He looked confident. He looked like – a center fielder!
The ball began to sink swiftly into the gaping jaws of that God-forsaken corner. All 17 spectators alternately shrieked and gasped as they watched the wonder of it all. The runners were circling the bases at breakneck speed. The setting sun tried its best to blind him, but his eyes remained steadfastly focused on the blurry sphere.
Sammy’s world hung in the balance.
He left his feet on a dead run and dove for that nasty bitch of a ball, still knowing deep inside he was not likely to catch it, being a right fielder and all. He closed his eyes as his belly bounced along the hard ground, like an airplane passenger might do during a rough landing. He came to a stop. The sounds from the spectators came to a stop. He expected his baseball career, if not his world, was about to do the same.
The brief moment of silence was obnoxiously eerie.
Then, cheers erupted from his teammates. The baserunners had stopped in their tracks, looking somber and subdued. His coach, who had also never stopped running, was now only feet away, hopping up and down like a rabid rabbit, celebrating the joy of life and baseball. The spectators made an array of sounds that, in the moment, just didn’t matter.
The boy had landed face down and hadn’t even felt the impact of the ball tearing into the webbing of his glove. He was looking back at his teammates who were going absolutely friggin’ nuts celebrating this greatest of all moments. It must have been the catch of the year in New Hampshire Novice League baseball, maybe even Little League baseball. He was a hero for sure, still lying face down but certain he would soon be lifted up and carried off the field. Hey, maybe the coach would even put him in center field for the next game!
Sammy reached into his glove for that battered but beautiful baseball so that he could hold it in the air for all to see before they carried him off the field.
It wasn’t there.
It had never been there.
“FOUL BALL”, proclaimed the umpire.
His coach retrieved the ball and happily ran it back in to the pitcher. The runners went back to their bases. His teammates got back into position. He got up slowly and trudged back to that spot from whence he came, head down, glory lost. He tugged on his cap, looked around, and muttered, “baseball sucks”.
Across America on that 27th day of June, 1959, hundreds of anonymous, pre-teen right fielders nodded in silent agreement, squinted in through thick glasses at the opposing batter, and prayed fervently that the next ball would be hit to center field.
Ah, sweet kinship!
Writer’s note: In the years to come, playing center field would be exalted in song by one John Fogerty in 1984 (“Centerfield”) and playing right field would be lamented in much the same way as it was when Sammy was 10, albeit this particular time with a significantly happier ending, by Mr. Willy Welch in 1982 (“Playing Right Field”, later sung by Peter, Paul & Mary).
Writer’s Note: ( March 29, 2021: )
I HAD to mention Jackie Jensen in this story that took place in June of 1959. He WAS the Red Sox right-fielder and had won the AL MVP award the year before, in the 1958 season. But there was a far more personal reason to acknowledge him in this story.
On Saturday, September 26th, 1959, Jensen hit his 28th home run of the season in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Washington Senators to win the next-to-last game of the season. The next morning, my parents, my brother, and I went to early Mass, then piled into the car for our first ever visit to Fenway Park. I was going to actually watch Jackie Jensen play, in person. It didn’t matter that both teams had losing records. As always after Mass, I picked up the Sunday paper from the guy in front of St. Joseph’s Church, and off we went.
In the back seat, I went right to the sports page to read about the game the day before and the “preview” to the game to be played that day. And, right out of the gate, just a couple of miles into the drive south to Boston, I was crushed. Just like that line drive to right field had been in the story. I think I muttered “baseball sucks” that day too.
As revealed in the newspaper story, Jackie Jensen had announced his retirement from baseball sometime in the early evening hours of Saturday, leaving the ultimate final baseball play – a walk-off home run, as his legacy. He was scheduled to drive home to California Sunday morning. So he was leaving Boston as I would be arriving. CRAP times 100.
If the reader thought Sammy had a rough day on June 27, 1959, it should be stated that he was facing a far worse day exactly three months later, on September 27, 1959. The special day he had been looking forward to for months had been hiJACKed by his own hero. “Who retires with one game to go?”, I’m sure I wailed a few dozen times on the way down. Nevertheless, it was the Red Sox, and Fenway Park, and it was still very special when we got to the game. Coming out of the tunnel and seeing that still-green September grass and The Wall in person for the first time was a sight I will never forget. Jackie Jensen was on his way home, and here I was, a fellow right-fielder, sitting at Fenway and rooting for his Red Sox.
Gene Stephens played right for the Sox in the game and they finished the season with a 6-2 win, led by, get this, my BROTHER’s favorite Sox player at the time, Don Buddin, who he got to see hit a 3-run homer. I also got to see Ted Williams play in person that day, and he got a couple of hits.
Sammy eventually got over the non-catch, and I eventually got over missing watching Jackie Jensen play baseball by one day. Life, it seems, really does go on.
(Jensen twice made short, unsuccessful attempts at a comeback after skipping the 1960 season. Likely he regretted it over the years. He died prematurely from a heart attack in 1982 at the young age of 55. RIP, my boyhood hero …)
From nineteen fifty-four through nineteen sixty-two, we roamed those halls, and that schoolyard too. Some years a lay teacher, but most with a nun, some years a split class, but all remained one. As we grew up together, we lived by one rule: this fortress, these bricks, were more than a school. Discipline was swift and the homework took hours, as lessons were learned, their values became ours.
The public school students threw us a glance, as we engaged in our pomp and our circumstance. Though we learned with grace in that parochial space, Sacred Heart School enlightened at much the same pace. The “Irish church” (St Joseph’s, right next to the school) and the “French church” (Sacre Coeur) were utterly cool. That’s what we thought, so that’s what we said, when asked by others if we saw transfers ahead.
Green was our color, gold were our stars, we led with our right, and we left without scars. Some departed, some came, (“Hey, what’s your name?”), but most stayed the course, the bond stayed the same. Some struggled to keep up, to fit in, to belong, but we weathered the storms and we all got along. At some point in time, grade five or grade six, we knew we’d be fine and we knew what to fix.
The nuns seemed more gracious as the years passed by, and we all got smarter, as we reached for the sky. Crushes were born and notes would soon pass, as flirting at recess became flirting in class. Our last two years we learned compassion and care but that life could be daunting and not always fair. The eighth-grade teacher, Scholastic and stern, pulled me aside, told me “write what you learn.”
We graduated and moved on to Laconia High, with new friends to find, with new things to try. We brought memories born of eight years a team, but were starting all over, swimming upstream. Our academic foundations served us quite well, we knew how to think and we knew how to spell. Some of us went one way, and some went another, but she stayed my sister, and he stayed my brother.
What strengths will we have, which skills will we lack? What point might we miss, if we never look back? “You reap what you sow”, “You are what you know”, “To fail is to grow” – perspectives gained so long ago. So we turned back to the books, heading into the turn. We had courses to conquer, and a diploma to earn. Some days tested our mettle, but none brought us down, thanks to family and friends and the good folks in town.
Our grammar school home from those formative days, now renamed and relocated, has evolved in its ways. The students are fewer, but the same standards apply. Do your best, help the rest, and still reach for the sky. I’ve heeded her words and written down what I’ve learned; respect is earned, trust returned, and bridges get burned. I walked the halls of the decayed building before it was locked. Felt their presence, heard their voices, as they listened and talked.
We choose to remember things we’d rather forget, because we treasure the triumph of challenges met. The forty-seven students who shared their last days there, have traveled different pathways, have breathed different air. But one thing has stayed constant, across life’s many lawns, whether I’ve stood up with knights, or stood down with pawns. From so many sunsets, through so many dawns, I’d still see the faces of the kids of St. John’s.
(Writer’s note: “The eighth-grade teacher, Scholastic and stern,” – the word “Scholastic” is capitalized for a reason, i.e., the 8th grade teacher was a nun who chose the vocational name Sister Scholastica, who truly was both scholastic and stern, yet a true and dedicated educator with a passion for music on the side.)
The 47 faces of the kids of St. John’s School, Class of 1962, Laconia, NH: To those who have passed, may their stars burn bright. To those who remain, keep reaching for the sky. In spirit, the bond remains intact, and the 47 remain as one.
Mary’s Motel is a lackluster, lemon chiffon 11-unit bargain basement lodging establishment that sits at the edge of a small, stagnant pond on the west end of Sundown Road, known to the locals in Sharonsburg, Maryland, as “Roman Road” – because the only way tourists find it is if they are roamin’ around looking for a place to snap photographs they can show to friends back home.
The wooden structure was built in 1978-79 by two brothers who had been damage controlmen in the Navy.
Though Mary’s name graces the property, it has always been run by a Dick.
Richard “Dick” Cesar Marlon was born on November 12th, 1951, in Lewiston Maine. Over his father’s objections (“You been messin’ around with one of them foreigners down in Portland?”), his mother, Margaret, had given him that unusual middle name after watching the actor Cesar Romero, Jr., play a character named “Pretty Willie” in the 1950 movie “Love That Brute”. She really did think Romero was the prettiest man she had ever seen and often called the young boy by his middle name when her husband was nowhere around. Unfortunately (or not), her husband Mark, a brutal spouse, ceased to be around at all after exiting solid ground while riding a horse on a “cowboy vacation trip”, whatever the hell that was, to Cody, Wyoming, with his buddies in October of 1955.
About a week after the guys headed west, Margaret got a call from one of his drunken friends, known around Lewiston as “Crazy Charlie”. He was excitedly slurring his words but she had learned over time how to understand him and his message was deemed to be of major importance. Mark the Monster had “gotten all lickered up” and rode a horse off a cliff and “got broken up real bad”, and Charlie left the image right there. Long pause. “Charlie, is he dead?” “Of course he’s dead, woman, he rode a horse over a cliff.” Margaret told him to hold the line while she composed herself and he said “okay, but hurry up ‘cuz the guys are payin’ for this call”.
She set the phone down and walked into the kitchen, where her sister Val was making brownies. She blurted out the news and then took some deep breaths and played with her hair. She returned to the phone and said she had one more question, and then he could hang up because she would call the authorities in Cody the next day for more information. “Go ahead, ask”, said Charlie. “How’s the horse?” The phone slammed down hard on the other end, but Margaret was quite sure she heard “something-something-bitch” before being cut off. She went back to the kitchen where Val was now sitting down at the table. Their eyes met and Margaret smiled and then Val smiled and said “ Welllll, shit” and both started laughing like fools.
Sis cautioned that Mark may have put Charlie up to a sick prank, since no one had properly notified her as next of kin. “We’ll know for sure when I call out there in the morning.” After a few moments of silence, the ladies grabbed some Cokes, pulled the brownies from the oven, and toasted the cruel bastard.
The next day, some sort of “spokesperson” for the Cody Police Department came on the line and said he was sorry to inform her that a man identified by his companions as one Mark Marlon, 33, of Lewiston, Maine, husband of Margaret Marlon, had indeed fallen to his death the day before while erratically riding a horse named “Soothsayer” at breakneck speed along a ridge overlooking the Shoshone River Canyon outside of town. He then extended the obligatory heartfelt sympathies to the newly-minted widow and asked her if she had any questions. She asked if she had to go to Wyoming to claim his body, but was told his friends were making arrangements to bring the body home. “No hurry” she said. She then asked, “How’s the horse?” “Ma’am, the horse went off a cliff with your husband on his back, a man who was all lickered up and acting crazy. Many people in this town knew and loved ol’ Soothsayer and are mourning his passing. Your husband, quite frankly, not so much.” Margaret said she understood and extended her own heartfelt sympathies for the town’s loss and the conversation abruptly ended.
His death confirmed, Margaret Mary Marlon hugged her two young sons, and told them gently that Daddy had an accident and had gone to live with God (she almost choked on those last five words, but it was the right thing to do at the time). Conducting herself with dignity and grace in their presence, she refrained from calling young Richard “Cesar” that day as a sort of parting nod to the man who had, to his only redeeming credit, provided her these two fine boys. Val came by to take the kids for a few hours, and Margaret went and sat on her living room couch and turned on the radio. Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” rang out across the room. She cranked up the volume and let the sweet irony of the timing and the words sink in.
Suddenly, she was on her feet and doing the 1955 version of the Happy Dance. Ding, Dong, the sonofabitch was gone. No more physical or verbal abuse. No more vicious insults. No more threats. No more bruises to explain to the neighbors. When she said her prayers that night, she asked God to forgive her for her joy in the passing of one of His children, and she knew He would. She also said a prayer for poor Soothsayer and thanked him for giving his life for others. Her final prayer was that she would be able to get through the funeral and the immediate days thereafter without betraying her inner urge to smile like the Madwoman of Chaillot from beginning to end. And she did – not the smiling part, but the getting through part.
(Writer’s Note: It is suggested, if time allows, that the reader watch the YouTube video of “Goodbye Earl” by the artists formerly known as The Dixie Chicks for a 1999 perspective on Margaret’s irreverent response to Mark’s passing. Link provided at end of story.)
Dick Marlon’s younger brother, Joseph Jerome, shared his November 12th birthday, born on that date in 1953. Dick and Joe, two years apart, grew up with no real memories of their deservedly-dishonored dad. When they were in their early teens, Margaret married a man that reminded her of a young Cesar Romero, though not as pretty of course. She had kept her late husband’s surname, not wanting the boys to carry a different last name than her, even though she previously pondered going back to her maiden name (Atherton), Her new husband was well-to-do Bangor businessman Marcus J. B. Mead – making her Margaret Mead. No relation to that “other” Margaret Mead, she’d tell the women at the Ladies Guild meetings, and they would all smile at that, though few got the joke.
Margaret Mary Atherton Marlon Mead died unexpectedly and undeservedly from a ruptured brain aneurysm at the tender age of 43 in the summer of 1969, shortly after Joe graduated from high school. Dick had struggled through school but managed to get his diploma on time with the class of ‘67 and was kicking around at a dead-end construction job in nearby Auburn while waiting for the local draft board to get him. (Some said Marcus Mead had “influenced” the members to bypass him each month, while others believed that, even with the manpower demands of the war, they simply didn’t want to embarrass Lewiston.) Both boys took her passing hard, as they had felt close to and respected their mom. They liked Lewiston and they liked their stepdad but decided it was time to go, and joined the Navy together that Fall. They never came back. To Maine, that is.
After seeing the world and leaving the Navy, they both settled down in Allegany County, Maryland, a location they chose completely at random one night after hooking back up when they resumed civilian life. Dick later admitted “at random” meant using the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey approach to a mid-Atlantic map hoping the dart would land much closer to Washington, D.C., rather than on the far western edge of the map. Joe wanted a do-over but Dick reminded him that there had to be a reason for the wayward toss. Joe ceded to his older brother and was glad he did when he met the love of his young life there just months after arrival.
Her name was Mary Portia Mathews, and she was his Angel of the Morning.
Dick and Joe built the small motel together, mostly using trust fund proceeds they had claimed upon reaching age 21 (Marcus and Margaret had planned well for the boys), and Mary, in her off-hours from her bakery job, contributed endless energy, sweat and humor to the endeavor in the “go-fer girl” role she chose and embraced. The brothers had planned to name it “Margaret’s Motel” in honor of the only Margaret Mead that mattered to them.
On the morning of March 15th, 1979, with completion of the project just weeks away, Mary Portia’s ‘75 Chevy Monza was struck head-on by a car whose driver was “all lickered up”, just as Joe’s father had been that day in Wyoming. She died instantly. To say that Joe was grief-stricken comes up short. He was devastated. Despondent. Distressed.
He asked Dick if it would be okay to change the paperwork and the unprocessed sign order for the motel to read “Mary’s Motel”, as she had poured her own heart and soul into making their dream become a reality. Joe told his brother that their mother would have wanted it that way, because she was who she was, and Dick unhesitatingly concurred. After Mary’s funeral, the name change was formalized, and plans for the opening were finalized.
When the red & green neon sign arrived, it was attached to double posts that straddled the roof above the office. That night it was lit up for the first time and Joe completely lost it. Dick tried to console him, reminding him that visitors for years to come would speak of their stay at Mary’s place, and her name and her spirit would be ever present. By the time Joe prepared to go home to the apartment he had been sharing with Mary, he had calmed down and even gave his brother a thumbs-up as he drove out of the motel parking lot.
As he reached the road, and just before Dick turned back toward the office, Joe suddenly threw his Chevy C10 into reverse and slowly backed up to the office door, where he got out and hugged Dick, something the brothers rarely had done. Dick could hear Joe sobbing, feel him shaking, but said nothing, and just held the hug. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably not, Joe looked up at the sign and literally shrieked, “Yeah, Mary, this IS your place”. The outburst and its guttural tone was unsettling to Dick. Joe released the hug, firmly shook Dick’s hand while looking away, and gave him one of those familiar arm punches they had exchanged so often as they were growing up, though this one was much harder, reflecting the adrenaline rush he was surely feeling. Then he slowly turned, got back in his truck, and drove off again, this time not looking back.
The call from the sheriff’s office came shortly after midnight. Dick never blinked. He knew Joe had a shotgun, thus he wasn’t surprised. No note was left. That scream, that prolonged hug, the tender spot on his arm – he understood. The only thing that really surprised him was finding a diamond ring in a small box in a bag behind the driver’s seat in the truck. The receipt was dated March 12th, three days before Mary met her fate. Joe had always told him everything, and he knew an engagement was somewhere on the horizon, yet finding the ring that way didn’t sit well for some inexplicable reason. Dick felt anger and hostility – toward Joe, toward life, toward everyone and everything he saw and heard and touched. It was at that moment that Richard Cesar Marlon fully and forever morphed into Mark Marlon’s spawn.
He asked himself why Joe had not given the ring to Mary right away. She would have known that moment of bliss before she had no more moments. She would probably have looked at it a dozen times as she drove to work the morning of March 15th. Waiting stole her chance for one last glance at her left hand on the steering wheel, and the smile that would have come with it, The next day, however, he told himself that Joe was probably afraid that Dick might unintentionally spill the beans to Mary about the ring, and that was why he didn’t tell him about buying it. He also chose to believe that Joe was likely waiting for Opening Day at the motel, or the night before, to propose since that was going to be a special time for all three of them. With that, he was no longer angry with Joe – but the rest of the world was still on his shit list. The sudden deaths of his mother, his brother and his future sister-in-law had blackened his soul and his mood.
Unlike Joe, Dick had not really made any friends at all in Maryland. Even before these new tragedies, he was a different breed of cat. As time had passed, he had already begun to show warning signs that despite not remembering much about his father, he was his father’s son. Joe, on the other hand, was the more mature and responsible of the two and was one of those guys everyone liked immediately. Mary actually met Dick first in Sharonsburg, at the bakery, and he was the one who introduced her to Joe.
At 27, Dick had never been in any kind of significant relationship. A Navy “psych” had suggested that relationships might always be difficult for him because he took the loss of his mother so hard and had subconsciously thrown up protective walls whenever he was attracted to a woman. But that did not explain not dating in high school at all or in the immediate years thereafter. He was attracted to girls back then, and now to women, but he always felt judged by them and kept his distance. He admitted to himself that he was attracted to Mary at the bakery that day and that he felt some degree of jealousy when she and Joe connected instantly.
Away from work at the motel, Joe had spent less and less time with Dick, and while Mary often suggested double dating and hooking Dick up with one of her Cumberland friends, Joe cautioned her against it, without saying why. He cared about his brother and would have been thrilled to see him find a special lady, yet he had seen some dark changes in Dick since they moved to Maryland. Their mother had shared with them some of her “experiences “ with their father when they got old enough to understand, and while Dick just shrugged it off, Joe had aligned with the feelings of the people of Cody, mourning the horse and damning the man. Despite their overall closeness, on those occasions when their father’s name came up, the tension was evident – one was a Hatfield and the other was a McCoy.
Joe was buried in the same small Maryland cemetery as Mary, a decision that did not sit well with Marcus Mead, who insisted that Joe would have wanted to be buried in the family plot in Lewiston, next to his mother. (Mark Marlon had been buried in his own family’s section of an Augusta cemetery and in recent years, Dick questioned why his father and mother were not buried together, even after his mother had told him about the sins of his father. Margaret had made clear to her sister soon after Mark’s passing that she did not want to be laid to rest anywhere near him, for the things he had done to her.)
After they were married, no-siblings Marcus bought a burial plot that could accommodate up to eight decedents – he and Margaret, the two boys and their future spouses, and Val and her partner. At the time of Joe’s passing, only Margaret had taken her place there, and Marcus was adamant that Joe join her. Dick had not told Marcus, or even Mary’s family or friends, about the ring. So even though Joe had loved his mother dearly, he almost surely would have chosen to stay forever with Mary in Maryland. Had he left a note, he could have included that detail, along with a reference to planning to ask Mary to marry him, so everyone would know. Marcus would probably have honored that wish, but there was no note, and Marcus did not know how serious the Joe-Mary relationship had been. Thus, burying him out there irked the man who had created the significant trust funds that not only built the motel, but provided the brothers with more than generous living expenses in the interim. Marcus and Val traveled to Sharonsburg for Joe’s funeral, and even though the motel had not officially opened yet, Dick offered them rooms there and they accepted out of respect for Joe.
Before leaving for home, Marcus asked Dick about the sign. “I thought I was funding “Margaret’s Motel” in honor of your mother. Did Joe ask for the name change? If so, I get it. But now that he’s gone, I’m willing to pay for a new sign and business papers to change it back.”
Dick, somewhat slow-witted and one who was often unprepared for the unexpected, had already thought this matter through, and was ready with the best answer imaginable; “I appreciate the financial offer, but there are two good reasons for keeping the name as it is, and one of them should make you feel better about this. First, Mom’s middle name was Mary, though it didn’t seem to come up very much. So, in effect, the motel is still named for her, right?” Marcus nodded and asked for the second reason. It was only then that Dick told him about finding the ring and how Joe had asked for the name change when Mary Portia died, and that Joe had specifically said that his mother would have wanted it that way because that’s who she was, and he (Dick) had agreed.
The response completely changed Marcus’ viewpoint and when he told Val about it as she packed her things, she cried. The good kind of crying. She had often called her sister by her middle name when they were young because “Margaret” sounded so stodgy, but when Mark Marlon came into her life, he controlled damn near everything she said and did, and got heated if someone called her Mary ( “Went out with a Mary once, said I was a slob or something like that.”) just as he did later whenever he was reminded his first son’s middle name was Cesar. People have first names for a reason, he asserted, and that was that. It also happened that Mark Marlon had no middle name, not even an initial, and to him that served as proof that middle names were irrelevant and “not worth speakin’ about”.
Dick’s superlative and calm explanation regarding the name change, and the resulting acquiescence of Marcus and approval of Val, suggests that in April of 1979, Richard Cesar Marlon may have stepped away from the abyss, and let some light into his life.
After a few last-minute delays, “Mary’s Motel” officially opened for customers on Saturday, April 28th, 1979, with nine of the eleven rooms rented. Dick served as manager and maintenance man, and a local woman worked part-time as bookkeeper, receptionist in Dick’s absence, and because she displayed a contagious and constant smile, became the face of the business. She had emigrated from Greece, as reflected in her given name, Clio. Her expressive dark eyes sparkled and she talked with her hands. Now on her own, she was divorced with no children. Over the years, Dick and Clio developed a close friendship that led them to get married twenty years later, though neither ever expressed feelings of love for one another. They had simply become comfortable confidantes who got tired of living alone as they approached age 50. There was no proposal, just a “we might as well get married” agreement over meatball subs in Frostburg.
For those first twenty years, Dick had worked hard and suppressed his dark Mark Marlon side. He started drinking heavily, but gradually, over that time span and while it bothered Clio, he seemed otherwise stable and “safe”, so she made the commitment. Marcus Mead had come out two or three times a year for the first ten years or so after the motel opened, but he developed health issues and retired, rarely traveling even down to Boston any more to see his beloved Red Sox play. Val moved in with him as his caretaker and companion, but there was no funny business involved. One or both would call the motel now and then in the 90’s to speak to whoever answered the phone, but that was the extent of the contact. Dick and Clio got married on the motel lawn with only a few locals attending, all at Clio’s request. Brunch was ham sandwiches and chocolate cream pie and then see ya later.
After the wedding, however, business at the motel dropped off significantly as Dick sloughed off his duties and building and grounds maintenance noticeably suffered. The pond was emitting a foul odor and there were always dozens of beer cans floating around. Kids would park across the street from the motel and drink and make out there. By 2008, with the economy flailing and failing, the drinkers had become druggies, income was scarce and Dick ordered Clio out to get any kind of employment she could find. She bounced down a road of temporary part-time minimum wage jobs, hating them all. Her glorious smile had become a vacant stare and she was finally openly rebelling against his antics, which enraged him. Then came the abuse, the insults, the bruises. She called Marcus regularly for moral support (they had met soon after she started working there and he thought she was potentially the best thing that could happen to Dick – if he didn’t screw it up.).
She didn’t leave because she had no place to go. She considered the office at the motel her safe space and kept a cot there, and even when all the rooms were vacant, she pretended she had to be there because there were rumors some people might be coming. Dick sat around their shabby apartment outside of town and cursed his wife and his life. Marcus had told Clio the details of Mark Marlon’s death in Wyoming back in ‘55 and on bad nights she would ask someone above to send Dick to Cody so the descendants there could exact their revenge for the loss of Soothsayer.
By early 2021, Marcus Mead and Val were long since dead and buried next to Margaret. Dick was now 70 with severe cirrhosis and a fat gut that hung below his belt. The ramshackle motel was a local joke, yet still considered open much of the time. Clio had “escaped”, taken away by a nice couple from Richmond who spent a night at the property when they essentially got lost while roamin’ around and exploring the countryside. Dick reported her missing but the local cops only pretended to look into it. Clio had, in fact, reported to them that she was living safely now “far away” and they wished her well and never made a record of the call. Dick is sure she ran off with some foreigner to be a maid or a cook, and good riddance to her.
Before Marcus died, he contacted an associate in Boston in March of 2001, and that associate sent one of his men up to Lewiston. The two men talked for the better part of three days, and the man left with a significant deposit for future services. Marcus asked that the man create a “calling card” identifying himself as Marcus Junius Brutus, which he told the man was his real full name “back in the old country”, showing him his “J.B.” middle initials on an ID card, noting that he added the American surname Mead because he “liked the nectar on occasion”. He told him about Mary’s Motel in Sharonsburg, Maryland, how to get there, and he described the man who ran the place. He told him that a woman named Clio might contact him some day after his own passing and ask for a favor, and she would know how to get the balance of the payment to the man.
In the here and now, Clio placed the call to Boston on February 26th.
There is a better than even chance that on March 15th, at Mary’s Motel, Richard Cesar Marlon, a real-life Dick, will be disrespecting the memory of his mother, his brother, the young love of that brother’s life, and the Lady Clio by sitting soulless and heartless on a filthy couch midst the crumbling premises, his only company his own misery. He will not be riding a horse, but will surely be “all lickered up” and oblivious to things that go bump in the night.
Beware, Cesar, ‘tis the Ides of March, and Brutus draws near … slight not the one called Soothsayer.
Summer of 1962. For me, the long pause between the 8th grade and the 9th grade. There was this black-haired, doe-eyed female who lived a couple of streets over. She was two years older and 3 inches taller than me and I had seen her use a long left hook to make a guy’s nose bleed at Opechee Park. But on this Sunday afternoon, I’m taking her to the movies at the Colonial Theatre downtown, hoping everyone sees me with … her.
Just a few minutes into the show, she makes a move, nudging me fast and hard, whispers she wants some popcorn. I get up, walk to the old theater’s concession area between the lobby and the seats (where else would it be?) and bought one of those 15-cent cardboard boxes of aromatic, heat-hatched kernels of corn. I get back to my seat, hand it to her, and she says ” No, not THAT kind, I want the buttered stuff in a bucket.” She seemed irked, irritated, impatient. Got back up, went to the stand, paid out big bucks for the buttered version.
Had just sat back down and one handful later, she says,”Didn’t you salt it? I can’t taste any salt. Go salt it.” Up I popped from my seat, task in hand, and headed back to the land of Milk Duds, Junior Mints and SnoCaps. I grabbed the oversized aluminum shaker with the semi-clogged holes and fiendishly shook that mother like a madman. The lady asketh, the lady receiveth.
Upon my return, she quickly converted an oversized handful into an oversized mouthful, gasped, made a face (it was dark, but I KNOW she made a face), then asked where her Coke was. “You didn’t say you wanted a Coke.” She huffed, then hissed, “Well, common sense says that eating something THIS salty is gonna make ya need something to drink, ya know.” As I crawled over her outstretched legs one more time, I pretended not to hear her sarcastic snark in the dark, “Shouldn’t have to ask.” So she said it again, louder, about the time I reached the couple sitting three seats down the row.
Came back with the Coke, even got her the largest size, to make up for the salt surprise. By now I had lost a pound and a half going back-and-forth, the aforementioned couple were breathing heavily (I’m guessing that was because they were tired of getting up for me), and her attitude had become downright non-Christian by 1962 standards. A full minute passed. Then another. Then it came … “Did you bring napkins? This butter is all over my hand. Give me a napkin.” I told her I had failed to bring any, but offered my condolences, and then my handkerchief. “Yuck!”, she gasped, recoiling in disgust at what my Dad used to call a “snotrag” – “Son, when you leave the house, you can forget your wallet, you can forget your hat, hell you can even forget your own name, but NEVER forget your snotrag, ‘cuz sure in heck at some point you’re gonna need it, you’re gonna want it.” The damsel in obvious distress clearly needed it, but didn’t want it. She did, however, remember my name. The words came through clenched teeth, “Wayne, you cheap little twerp, get me a freakin’ real napkin – NOW. “
I probably should have been grateful that her hands were occupied, with the Coke in her left hand and her greasy right hand resting inside the popcorn bucket which in turn was resting between her legs, because otherwise her fists may have joined her teeth in doing that clenching thing. I remembered the bloody nose she had donated to that kid in the park just because she caught him staring at what he wasn’t used to seeing in the 8th grade. He bled all over his shirt. Shoulda had a snotrag with him, I guess. My Dad was right, as usual.
Dutifully, and with great fear and trepidation, again I arose and squeezed past the heavy-breathing couple (“Ohhh”, I remember thinking “now I get it”) and headed for the concession stand. The lady started to ask me what I wanted THIS time, but I walked right past her. Into the lobby. Out the front door. Home to watch the Red Sox game.
I don’t know how long Lisa Left-hook sat there waiting for me, but I have heard that if you can get into that building late at night, all these years later, and you sit very still and remain very quiet, you can hear the distant, shrill voice of a fifteen year old female bully, calling out repeatedly, endlessly … “Wayne? Wayne? Where are you? I want that napkin, and I want it NOW!”
Nothing of note happened in the valley town of Gnames on October 10, 1961.
But thirty miles west, at the fancy new hospital in Delfeye, a liberated little girl was delivered into the world By Hephera “Heffie” and Zachary “Zeus” Drillings. In truth, a doctor delivered the kid – Heffie just pushed when told to. Her dazed hubby sweated whiskey and water droplets onto his faded t-shirt, while murmuring unintelligible gibberish in a manner that seemed to calm his wife and amuse the young doctor.
Heffie wanted “Effie” for a girl because she was sure they would look alike and sound alike and Zeus favored “Hercules” for a boy because he’d grow up strong and tough like him, but each was dismissed by the other from the get-go, and any chance for agreement spiraled downhill from there. They agreed there was plenty of time, and there was – until there wasn’t.
Heffie was a twice-divorced, seasoned 33 year-old. Five years her junior, Zachary was immature, undisciplined and indecisive. She met him at a produce stand on a hot July afternoon and was immediately enamored with his big biceps, country charm and childlike naivete. For his part, he liked that Heffie was an experienced older woman with well-rounded assets. She was a typist and he was a laborer. (She was his “type” and he put her in “labor”, he told Lou the barber.) Though very different, they complemented and complimented one another, compromised often, and somehow kept their knot tied tight.
The attending nurse said they needed a name, now, for the birth certificate.“We’re still thinkin’”, revealed Zachary. Now three years into their marriage, Hephera had heard this refrain one too many times: at the used furniture store, in the concessions line at the Hesiod Hills Drive-In Theater, and the order window at Bacchus Burgers. After subtly sizing up the nurse, however, the new mom carped the diem.
“ZZ”, she offered,“this nurse is so pretty and I bet she’s smart too, like our little girl’s gonna be. I bet ya she can whip up a name that sounds real good, right Missy?”. The woman in white was indeed intelligent and well-read, and had a thing for Greek mythology, which was about to become unexpectedly relevant.
“Mr. Drillings, why did she call you ZZ?”, she asked, grabbing and holding his attention. “Ma’am, because of that Zeus guy that shoots lightning bolts and bosses people around and has statues and stuff. I’d do that if I could. Got no middle name, and I liked the zing of ZZ. Top-notch ring to it, It was a toss-up between Zeus and Zorro, whose show I like, but the guys at work would razz me if I picked a cape-wearing guy in a mask over a bolt-throwin’ beast, so I’m Zachary Zeus and proud of it. Ma’am.”
The Nurse’s face lit up like a blowtorch upon hearing his colorful explanation. Her own father had a fixation with Zeus! Diabolically delighted, she suggested the name of a beautiful woman that Zachary’s idol had tasked a friend to mold to perfection in every way. Zeus at first gifted her to everyone on earth, who all happened to be men at the time (“Wowza”, thought Heffie, imagining the possibilities). After tantalizing those guys for 317 days, she was given by Zeus to a feckless, fortunate fellow named Epimetheus, whose brother “Pro” had done something or other to capture Zeus’ attention. “Must have been something really good to fire up my man Zeus”, declared ZZ. The devilish Nurse was clearly on the scenic route to Hades now, but she couldn’t help herself.
She ventured onward, portraying the woman as flawless – a walking work of art who instilled in mankind feelings of endless joy and brotherhood, conjured up images of sunlit nights and double rainbows, and provided orchards of fruit and rivers of mead to all. Each of these blessings she bestowed by simply, and unselfishly, opening a beautiful box she kept hidden under her bed. A wide-eyed ZZ exclaimed “Yes, yes, we’ll take it.” Heffie cautioned “Slow down, cowboy, you haven’t even heard it yet.” Both waited impatiently as The Nurse, milking the moment, playfully simulated a drum roll.
“Pandora! You could call her Panny or Dora for short. It’s perfect, please tell me you like it?”
Pandora Drillings? This was all Greek to her, but sure, why not, mused Heffie, briefly distracted by a passing orderly. She and Zachary made eye contact and signaled a muted but mutual approval.
In need of a middle name as well, they asked for help again and Nurse Missy tossed in “Daphne”, a gorgeous water nymph whose suitors, including the Olympian God Apollo, rested on her laurels, whatever that meant. ZZ looked riled and said “no daughter of mine‘s gonna be a nympho!” “No ‘o’ at the end, ZZ”, she laughed. “Daphne was pure as morning dew.” The new dad came back with “Yessir, gotta admit I do like me some good, clean dew alright.” A ready-to-wrap-this-up Heffie grunted “Don’t mind him none, he don’t know no better. Go ahead and write it down.” Zachary poked back with a boisterous chant of “DAFF-NEE, DAFF-NEE”.
And so it was that Pandora Daphne Drillings became a person of record, thanks to the fanciful and fertile mind of The Nurse, who wished them the best and left the room with a gleam in her eye and a bounce in her step.
Growing up in Gnames, Pandora was proving to be charming, resourceful and inquisitive, though burdened with a manipulative and volatile temperament. She thoroughly researched the origins of her name before asking her folks if they knew who Pandora really was. Heffie regaled in telling the story of Nurse Missy describing an inspiring, celebrated, benevolent woman providing presents for all from a mysterious box back in the day.
But the disapproving girl in turn told them the story of a vengeful (or just irresponsibly curious, depending on the source) Greek Eve who opened up a big ol’ JAR of Nasty on the Earth, unleashing a myriad of misery on mankind. A spiteful icon of wicked intent, or simply an impulsive, irresponsible idol? In closing the jar, she had trapped Hope inside. Was her intent to suppress Hope, or rather to preserve Hope? The answers matter not; the result was the same. The deed was done, the damage lived on. The Drillings girl would forever be averse to a curse from a nurse.
Feeling played and betrayed, Heffie bounced a thick index finger off her husband’s forehead. “I TOLD you we should have gone with “Effie.” Flinching, ZZ said it was likely only an honest storytellin’ mistake and told his daughter to just stay away from magic boxes and don’t release bad things into the air and she’d be okay. “Easy for you to say, Dad, you’re not the one who has to put up with all the dirty comments from the boys at school. It was A JAR, dammit.” He tried to console her with “Hey, it’ll make you stronger, girl, make you tough inside. Zeus tough.” (She left the room, wondering what “zoo stuff” was.)
He was right though. Strong and determined she proved to be, pleasing to the eye, and at age 21, while working at Phycshun Plastics, she moved with a girlfriend to Ledgens, ‘bout halfway between Gnames and Delfeye. There she met one Apollo Augustus “Gus” Grissom, age 20, adopted at birth by Mr. and Mrs. Al Grissom. Born in the same hospital as Pandora. Delivered by the same laid-back doctor. Given his name by the same person …
Athena Grissom, a/k/a Mrs. Al Grissom, a/k/a “Missy the Nurse”.
Athena’s obsession with Greek mythology was inherited, her own name springing from her father’s head in tribute to Zeus and his daughter. This child-in-waiting was thus going to be an Apollo or an Aphrodite come hell or high water, and Al, as he did most of the time, simply and safely concurred. When a boy finally emerged out of the darkness with a triumphant victory cry, her cup did indeed runneth over. “Welcome to the Light, Apollo!”, she gushed in her dual roles as the attending nurse and adoptive mother. Hearing this, the doctor excused himself, and went to get a Snickers bar, which seemed acutely appropriate.
Al was a happy warrior as well, because Athena had begrudgingly thrown him a bone with the Roman middle name that could be shortened to Gus and thus be a namesake to the famous Mercury Seven astronaut Gus Grissom. Mom called the little guy Apollo. Dad called him Gus. Most people just called him “Paul-o”. He was well-liked, though generally excuse-laden and ill-prepared. Labeled “artsy” and imaginative, he was boyishly good-looking. The girls ga-ga’ed over him, but he never seemed to notice. His mind drifted on clouds. (More Wordsworth’s than Shelley’s.)
After high school, he went to Titan Tech in Thalia on a music scholarship for a semester, dropped out, and came back home to Ledgens. His paternal grandfather had set up a very hefty trust fund for him, with annual distributions starting at 21, balance due at 30. Good thing, as he wasn’t particularly ambitious or career-driven. Worked for his florist father at “Grissom’s Geraniums et Al”. Made deliveries. Played the cello and wrote poetry. Lived in the back with a cat named Python.
Hephera often told Panny that she should hang out at the Gnames produce stand in the summer so she could find her own ZZ. “No thanks, Ma. No offense, Dad.”, she’d say. Sailed right over ZZ’s head every time.
A delivery van pulled up to a pre-Valentine’s Day party on Saturday, February 12, 1983. The youthful driver stepped out, yellow roses in hand, and sauntered to the front door. Pandora answered his rhythmic knock. She had ordered the flowers for her roomie and wanted to be the one to give them to her. He was having none of it. “Nope. No can do, Missy.” Missy? Uh-oh.
The pair of nurse-named saplings each had one fist around the flowers and two eyes on each other. Party-goer Ernie Eros broke up the stare-down by suddenly nailing an unsuspecting Apollo with a plastic arrow right in what Forrest Gump would later describe as his “butt-talks”. When he looked back at Panny, he surprisingly went ga-ga, for the first time ever. She got an arrow too, but hers just bounced off her chest, giving her a bad vibe and nothing more.
“Name’s Zeke.” “Name’s, er, Dora.” He smiled. She didn’t. “No, I’m messin’ with ya, my real name is Apollo, like Apollo Creed in them Rocky movies, except I don’t box or nothin’ like that.” Damnnnnn, she thought, when she heard him say “box.” What are the odds, right? “Dora’s short for Pandora, like the lady with the box, except it was really a jar. Pleased to meet you.” (She wasn’t.)
Blatantly bewitched by Eros’ arrow and Pandora’s eyes, and wanting to immediately impress her, he blurted out that in a few months he was going to start getting lots more money than other guys his age, and her ears perked up like they had been caffeinated. Pickin’s were slim for young women in these parts, so she had to play this right.
In the next few months, everything fell neatly into place for her. Both shared the stories behind their unique names. He joked that the nurse that named her must be “as loony as my mother.” Pandora didn’t really like any of his names, but to her surprise, he liked saying “Daphne” and stayed with it. She alternated between Augustus and Gus, the lesser evils, depending on her mood.
Unable to sleep one humid June night, Panny recalled the story of her mythic forename bearer and her unheralded husband. She tried to make “Epimetheus” roll off her tongue, to no avail. The shortened “Theus” sounded noble and masculine (she had ruled out “Meth” for some reason) so she relentlessly called him that for a week and he cringed every time she did. “Theus, hon.” “Theus, babe.” Jeez, enough already.
“I work with flowers, I’m just not a Theus, Daph, that’s more fittin’ for an ironworker or a welder. How about Epi … Eppy?” Her eyes rolled back in her head. “Eppy”? You seriously want me to call you Eppy? “oh, make love to me, Eppy”, “let’s go to the park, Eppy” (they were IN the park at the time) or heaven forbid “Mom, Dad, this is Eppy, we just got engaged.” She calmed herself, then said “No way. You’re Theus. It’s settled. I’m going across the street to Bud’s Market. Make sure Eppy isn’t here when I get back.”
They sat silently together on a park bench as she broke him off a piece of her Kit Kat bar as a goodwill gesture. It didn’t work. Discouraged, he dutifully kissed her on the nose, got up, and headed for his van, leaving her alone and brooding. She cussed. Fumed. Seethed. Simmered. Smoldered. To let off steam, Pandora even boxed her own ears. (Whoa!) But all the while, she kept her eye on the prize – his trust fund.
Almost five months into this rocky relationship, deep into engagement and marriage discussions, it was undeniable that Daphne had degenerated into an intransigent and intolerant sorceress. She had become distant, mean-spirited, irritable, sarcastic, unpredictable, uncompromising and controlling in a way that was hard for Apollo to process. (To be fair, though, she did have perfect skin and nice nails, so there was that.)
It was almost as if she didn’t even like him, much less love him. Alas, an airtight, affable, amiable alliance was now awry, askew, ajar. (“It was A JAR, dammit!”)
Nevertheless, the pair struggled on. She kept calling him Theus just to burn his toast, and he would remind her it was Eppy paying for her ice cream. Meanwhile, their cuddlin’ time had become nothing more than fleeting cheek-pecks and one-arm hugs.
Though Pandora was in the process of loosening the lid of her own stockpile of searing lightning bolts, she suggested their parents meet in the park in Ledgens. Maybe if it went well, she and Theus could take that positive energy and get their soon-to-be-prosperous relationship back on track. He held out hope, yet feared Daphne was a simmering volcano, ready to erupt. The reason eluded him, but the tension did not.
A week later, in an idyllic setting right out of Camelot – chirping birds, clear blue sky, grass green and groomed, a picnic table somehow free of chirping-bird droppings – both parties of three approached the table from different directions, arriving at almost the same moment. It was Saturday, August 20, 1983. “Every Breath You Take” was Billboard’s #1. For an awkward few moments, breaths, deep ones, were all anyone could muster. The silence roared through the warm, lazy air.
When everyone started to speak at once, resulting in a garbled word stew, the ice was broken. There were smiles and a couple of chuckles. Each family sat down on their own side of the table, father facing father, mother facing mother, Dora facing dollar signs. Al stepped up. “Hey folks, how y’all doin’? Good to finally meet Daphne’s family.”
And with that, the awkward silence was back. At least on the Drillings’ side of the table. Panny grimaced. Eppy grinned. Though they had spent time with each other’s parents on several occasions, the Grissoms only knew Pandora as Daphne and the Drillings only knew Apollo as Augustus and Gus.
Zachary pumped his fist and let out a quick round of “DAFF-NEE, DAFF-NEE”. He had no idea why Al had called her by a middle name never used at home, and he didn’t really care. However, now that they were seated knee to knee, Hephera and Athena were able to study each other’s face closely. Both felt the leading edge of a deja vu cold front.
The Nurse had long since forgotten the “Daphne” part of the play because it was an Apollo-on-the-brain extemporaneous offering she had just thrown out there on a whim. In and out of her mind. Whoosh. Gone. When Athena got home from work that day, she told Al all about duping two unsuspecting strangers into naming their daughter Pandora, but she never mentioned the second act. So even when their son introduced this beguiling, intriguing lass to them as Daphne, it was deemed to be a case of superb serendipity, yet it didn’t come close to ringing a bell for Athena.
Heffie turned to her daughter. “Daphne”? “Panny, are you going by your middle name now?” The girl stammered and looked toward her Epimetheus, who volunteered to Heffie that he called her Daphne because he didn’t really like Dora. Athena quipped, “Daphne, Panny, Dora … how many names you got, girl?” Cognizance came a-callin’ when she heard the distinct inner echo of her own words – “Panny, Dora” – running together.
And that’s when the bell rang.
She turned to a weathered but suddenly-familiar Zachary. He, along with Heffie and Athena herself, had remained unnamed because Al’s opening mention of Daphne had derailed the introductions train before it even left the station. “And your name is …?” “Zachary Zeus Drillings, ma’am, but people call me ZZ ” Suddenly, Athena wished she was in Athens and I don’t mean Ohio. Twenty years is like two weeks when one hears a guy call himself ZZ. She didn’t remember Heffie’s own unusual first name but she saw in the face of this now 50-ish woman some bad karma coming down the road. One doesn’t get to type the name Drillings that often on maternity ward paperwork. It was a one-time, memorable, smiling-while-filing occasion.
Still, it appeared only Athena had figured it out. ZZ and Al were comparing hands and exchanging good-natured banter. (That’s what happens when a career laborer and a career florist spread their fingers out on a picnic table.)
Heffie volunteered that she and ZZ thought Gus was a nice young man who was treating her daughter with respect. “Gus?” repeated Athena. (“Gus Grissom, ya know, ZZ”, said Al, proudly, but sadly. “Astronaut. Died in the Apollo 1 fire. I said one hell of a coincidence, but the wife says it’s one of those foreign kismet things. Whatever, broke the boy up some, was only four.” ZZ was lost in space on this one, but figured he was safe with “Bummer, man.”)
Athena politely told Heffie she preferred her son be called by his rightful name. “I understand completely,” came back Heffie. “I’m the same way, so let me correct myself. Augustus is a fine young man, and seems quite well-suited for Pandora.”
“Augustus? Rightful name? Like Daphne?” Athena rose to her feet, aware now that dark clouds were rolling in. “Who’s Pandora?” asked Al, still staring at his hands. Athena bit off the words “It’s Apollo’s girlfriend, dear, it’s Daphne.” Heffie and ZZ looked at each other and in unison asked, “Who’s Apollo?”In the verbal chaos that ensued, a barrage of questions were asked and answered, but the two young people kept silent.
Eventually, Athena acknowledged that she had been guilty of “a bit of mischief” at the Drillings’ expense all those years ago, and tendered a decidedly insincere apology to them and to the girl. ( “You just had to call me ‘Missy’, didn’t you?”) An irked Pandora told her boyfriend that he was right – his mother was indeed loony. Athena pouted on hearing that, while Heffie smirked and ZZ made loon sounds to the best of his ability.
Pandora abruptly stood up and announced that she and her guy were going for a walk. “C’mon, Theus, now, and don’t you dare bring Eppy with you.” She was expecting a proposal today, and she wanted it on her own terms. She hustled him away to a chorus of “Who’s Theus?’’ and “Who’s Eppy ?” Al chimed in with, “Who’s on first?”
Pandora worried that her marriage/divorce/alimony plan was slipping away. Once out of view, she warmly kissed the cello fellow, her beau-with-a-bow, hoping to reach a high note and a rousing finale. She said she was so sorry for letting her petty, pent-up hostility diminish and distract from her otherwise full jar of positive attributes. She told him she would call him whatever name he wanted from that point forward, because, you know, what’s in a name and all. Followed by, “But not Eppy, of course, and honestly, that whole Augustus/Gus thing is kind of lame, Paul-o rings hollow, Zeke is a geek, and c’mon, Apollo IS loony. So are we okay now, Theus?”
Eppy nodded. He leaned forward and whispered softly into her ear, “It’s time.” He stepped back and double-tapped the bulge in his shirt pocket. She watched his movements through dancing eyes. He gently placed the box in her left hand, and told her not to open it.
Then, Apollo Augustus “Gus” Grissom winked, turned and, for the second and last time in that park, walked away from her.
It was Saturday. He had flowers to deliver and a cat to feed.
Shaken, she held, and beheld, the velvet-covered case in her hand. Her curiosity was tempered with caution, her resolve offset by uncertainty, her indignation fueled by fear.
An eternity passed. She lifted the lid slowly, warily. Out flew Hope, escaping eons of captivity, emerging into an elusive earthly existence. Behind it, Pandora’s box sat hopeless and empty, devoid of marriage dreams and treasure schemes. The ring was gone, Apollo was gone and she was woebegone.
Though the book was forever closed that day on Theus and Eppy and a certain fabled catastrophic container, Pandora Daphne Drillings remains a person of record in Gnames and Ledgens.
And in Delfeye as well, where just days later, in a hospital room, a maternity nurse welcomed a request from an indecisive young couple. She was telling and selling them a compelling story of a mythical goddess, blending the names and qualities of a loving mother, Hera, and her robust, drop-dead handsome son Hephaestus, the husband of Aphrodite, his very loving and faithful wife. (Al was gonna love this one.)
As she simulated a drum roll, ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” played in her head.
“Hephera! You could call her “Heffie”, for short. It’s perfect, please tell me you like it?”
No small endeavor: defining the word “found” in terms of my own life’s experience
using exactly 50 letters, no more, no fewer.
In 2016, that was my challenge, my assignment, my mission.
The reason, at that time, was urgent and personal.
Today, four years later, the urgency is gone and the task less personal.
Yet it stands, still, as a benchmark accomplishment, a lasting achievement.
It is extremely difficult for me to settle on something, anything, without
soon wanting to change it in some way, or wishing I had.
Though I referenced The Fifty directly and indirectly in Post #16 titled “In Remembrance – A Reassurance” ( it is in fact both the primary purpose and the conceptual centerpiece of that entry), I owe it a stand-alone presence as the 20th reading in “The Intellection Collection”. Because neither the “Collection” nor this website would exist without its seed, its energy, its inspiration.
My online portfolio of photos of fields of green and gold reflect blurred memories of sometimes walking, sometimes running, through both real-life settings and those that live and die in my imagination, in relentless pursuit of God-knows-what.
Telling, that last choice of words.
In 1993, the artist Sting debuted the haunting allure of his own “Fields of Gold” and I wondered if he saw them the same way I saw them and if he had chosen to look past the green sometimes present midst the barley because the universal appeal and seductive glimmer of gold was the lasting imagery he sought.
His lyrics capture a shared experience, whereas my fields hosted none other than myself.
The song, however, rekindled long-forgotten feelings of those walks and runs through colorful countrysides, movements without direction, absent companionship. And so I was beckoned there again, to the fields of my younger days – most flowered, a few not, yet always alluring, enticing, inviting.
In the twenty-plus years between first hearing the song and the return of the memories, circumstances encountered along my path led me to the aforementioned urgency and personal progression. Led me, molded me, sculpted me. Provided me sanctuary, an oasis in an unsettled mind.
Fifty letters, no more, no fewer – because that was the promise
Focus was the only tool I needed in my belt. A tool I had mastered to the nth degree for so many years, but one which had slowly and steadily worn down until it was lost completely in 2010. With that loss came an ever-widening hole in my travel bag, a hole which sucked everything but my heartbeat into its darkness.
That hole seemed very much unlike the one in 1998, as described in Post #5 – “View From A Hole.”
Yet, in retrospect, it was simply a paradoxically inverse image of itself. One hole – different self-placement. Draining from the bottom, while providing from the top a sliver of light that flickered so often to the edge of certain extinguishment. But just as with Jimmy Louis’ persistent embers from his faded flame in Post #3, that sliver of light has never yielded its place nor surrendered its promise, and many days it has even widened before stubbornly surrendering the space it had gained.
Fifty letters closed the bottom of the hole and have continued to preserve and protect the light at the top. For now at least. Each day’s today shapes its own tomorrow, bringing previews of hope and promises of calm. That’s what survival comes down to sometimes – convincing oneself that while tomorrow is not likely to alter one’s course, it … could. Thus it’s worth the chip it takes to stay in the game.
Crafted together into fourteen words.
Words I can touch.
Words you can touch.
Words that can touch you back.
“LOST, ALONE, in FIELDS of GREEN and GOLD, I FOUND the GRACE of GOD.”
Saying them, seeing them, sharing them, safeguards the light and creates the lifeline.
From there, as it always has, the rest falls on me.
Wayne Michael DeHart April, 2020 (The Spring of Pandemic)
Caveat: The following drivel was written off-the-cuff upon returning home from a grub run and, candidly, is probably not worth your time, unless you’re stuck at home and are tired of doing push-ups and cleaning the bathroom, or are otherwise bored beyond comprehension. So proceed with caution, and don’t blame me when you’re done if you wish you had those minutes of your life back.
I went to Market Basket on Wednesday for the first time in a month. And I learned something about myself at age 71.
I can dance!
Judging by the nearly-full parking lot, I was hesitant to enter because it didn’t seem possible to observe the six-foot distancing thing, but I needed some stuff to eat. I knew exactly where each of the 6 or 7 items on my list was located, but was also aware of one-way aisle traffic, thus my plan for the quickest possible in-and-out route may have to be adjusted on the fly.
My head was adorned with not one but two balaclava masks (not to be confused with the more edible baklava mask), one over the other for double thickness. (One was olive green, one was purple – hey, they were 99 cents each on e-bay about 10 years ago with free shipping and those were the color choices. I had no idea why I was buying them at the time, other than that they were 99 cents and I love a bargain.) Not only was my mouth and nose covered, but so were my floppy ears and my pencil neck. With only my eyes showing, I looked the best I have in about half a century.
I wore a baseball cap, with the front of the cap facing forward. You know, like back in the day. Since my head was already covered by the masks, there was no need for the cap, but I never leave home without it, just like my long-expired American Express card. Old habits Die Hard (there’s always room for a Bruce Willis movie reference, dontcha think?).
But I digress, like Peter Falk reading “The Princess Bride” to the kid in, well, “The Princess Bride.”
My first problem became evident almost as soon as I entered the store. My glasses fogged up immediately. I didn’t have the luxury of taking them off because the temples were hopelessly lodged inside the confines of the skin-tight masks, so I simply soldiered on, knowing the condensation would evaporate rather quickly. ( I – was – wrong.) I bumped into someone as I struggled to see through the haze and apologized profusely. I kind of expected a friendly “Don’t worry about it” or something similar, but no response. I pushed my glasses down with my covered wrist just long enough to determine if my silent victim was a Sir or a Ma’am, only to discover the likely reason for the silence. I had run into a dessert display near the service desk. Feeling rather foolish, I shoved some cupcakes into my handbasket (not handbag – c’mon, really?), which we men choose over a cart because, well, it’s a testosterone thing. I then ventured forward, where many had gone before, still in a haze.
As I walked toward the mustard aisle (is that a thing? a mustard aisle?), I began shaking my head all around and up-and-down in hopes of accelerating dissipation from The Fog still harassing my glasses. I had Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing in my mind for no valid reason, so that’s what I was trying to do. Guess I was overdoing it because a female voice asked me if I needed help. I told her there was a bug near my face and I was okay. I lowered my glasses a tad, looked over them, and saw a confused look on an employee’s face. Apparently, she thought I was jerking my head around trying to find a certain product and was asking me if she could help.
By the time the fog had cleared from both my glasses and my brain, I had managed to secure the first 5 items on my list plus the non-essential cupcakes, including the always-essential loaf of oatmeal bread. Only two items left – a gallon of milk (even more essential than the bread) and a couple of dark chocolate bars (THE most essential of all).
At the intersection of Aisle 8 and the back aisle of the store, I walked smack dab into The Great Market Basket Traffic Jam of 2020. There were like 147 people there, most of them pushing carriages every which way and lunging around like the Old Man in the Mustard Aisle. The 6 ft, rule was more like the 6-inch rule. I felt like one of those ducks in a carnival booth. Wham, Bam, no-thank -you, Ma’am. (Oops, digressed again.) I got hit by carts and elbows so many times I felt like I had fallen onto a Whack-A-Mole table. I had to do something, and fast.
And so I danced. It’s amazing how one can do the unexpected when the situation calls for it. I twisted to the left. I waltzed to the right. I dosey-doed, hucklebucked, trotted the turkey and shimmied shamelessly.
I moved like Jagger.
And I did indeed accomplish The Great Escape – though by now my butt was black and blue and my hips were too.
Almost done and more than feeling my age, I stopped in front of the chocolate section of the candy aisle. My eyes searched for the Market Basket 85% Cacao bar, my staple, which is often out-of-stock even in normal times.
There they were – four of them left. As I was about to lay claim to two of them, I got a sudden case of the “the guilts”. I had images of someone rushing up and pointing at me and yelling, “Hoarder, Hoarder”. So now, already too long in the store for safety, I found myself muttering, “one or two? one or two? What do I do?” Luckily, a young woman approached and patiently waited, observing the distancing guidelines. Since I couldn’t decide, I did the chivalrous thing and left the aisle so she could get what she wanted with me out of the way.
I headed for the milk section to pick up a gallon of 1%, allowing me a minute or two to decide on buying one or buying two of the 85% treats. Perhaps the woman would still be there, pondering her purchase as I had been, allowing me even more time to decide.
When I got back, she was gone.
And so were three of the the four 85% bars.
It’s true – the Lord works in mysterious ways !
I grabbed that remaining bar like it was a $1200 stimulus check and headed for the check-out (no pun intended) (okay, yes, it was intended) like it was closing time at the zoo. Paid, left the store, drove home, emptied the bags – and found that through my then-fog-filled glasses I had bought jalapeno mustard instead of spicy brown mustard.
Ugh. Jalapeno. Good thing I still have some TP left in the cupboard …
A learned yet awkward soul seemed he. Never seen with a smile, never seen with a frown. New to “The Rivers” in May of Eighteen Sixty, with shoulders so broad and eyes so brown.
He kept to himself, for the first several days,
before venturing out, before walking the town.
He addressed a young lady as she passed him by,
but his voice betrayed him, slurring the sound.
She did not understand the unsteady words,
so she kept on walking, kept going around.
Embarrassed he was to cause her concern.
He first looked back, and then looked down.
But Susan Daniell, noting the stranger’s dismay,
turned and stepped forward, onto his ground.
She could see he was nervous, and his tongue had been tied,
and knew right away that his graces were bound.
His shoulder she touched with outstretched hand,
turning him gently till his courage was found.
She smiled and asked “Your name please, Sir?”,
and his head lifted up; his graces unbound.
“Alvah” spoke he in his clearest tone,
as his presence in town he tried to explain.
The river he said was a powerful tool,
a force of nature, fueled by the rain.
Confused was the lady but curious too,
“Farming you mean? A man of the grain?”
“Making, not growing” he was quick to say,
“I learned it in Enfield, it’s become my domain.”
Susan studied his face and liked what she saw,
his words now just noise as they began to wane.
For she was distracted and starting to tire,
cramping and wincing with a familiar pain.
She tried to dismiss it, to stay the course,
but he sensed her stress and he saw her strain.
“May I help you, M’lady? May I see you home?,
May I walk with you? May I see you again?”
She removed her glove and extended her hand,
taking his in hers, telling him to remain.
“I live close by, it’s just down the street,
so come by tomorrow, to 10 Webster Lane.”
Four years his junior, a gentle seventeen,
she greeted him warmly, in the morning light.
Her mother watched over, uncertain at first;
he had to be good, he had to be right.
His disheveled appearance belied his virtue.
This, Susan had sensed the previous night.
They talked and he loosened and even once smiled
at this pretty young lass, clothed entirely in white.
He told them both of his plans for a mill
he would build, sturdy and strong and watertight,
with a man named Aiken, who knew hosiery well
and had proposed the idea that they unite.
Miss Susan, she knew in her gut, in her heart,
that this man would become her forever knight.
They soon became close, over the months and the years,
and as he worked his dream, she remained in his sight.
Though that first enterprise struggled and closed –
it was revived in Sixty-Five in a union so tight.
A brother of Susan then partnered with Alvah,
creating Shaker half-hose to the town’s delight.
A year into that venture, their finances secured,
each pledged to the other “I will” and “I do”.
As Alvah matured into the pride of this town,
he thrived in his role – the man everyone knew.
His time was shared ‘tween the mill and his wife
and he melded with both beyond his purview.
Susan readily, reliably, stood right by his side
as Fortune smiled down and the mill trade grew.
He traveled the state and brought Franklin renown
as a welcoming place for folks to come to.
Good jobs for the masses in buildings of brick
bettered the lives of the old and the new.
The couple fit in – liked, respected by all –
by neighbors and merchants, and workers too.
Simple yet elegant with their very own style,
they worked and they weaved and delivered on cue.
For themselves and the people who helped them succeed,
they stood steadfast and strong and saw everything through.
With three children to light up their darkest of nights,
the couple often were tried, but always were true.
With the mill standing strong with a life of its own,
Alvah moved on and enhanced his career.
A banker and a railroad man, he was also elected
to the Legislature in Concord, not far from here.
Through each of his callings, each of his roles,
The Man of the Mill remained focused, sincere.
While others gave speeches and danced to the drum,
Alvah kept to the task, and kept Susan still near.
His party ran him for Congress, more than one time.
At Nominating Conventions, three times he’d appear.
Back home in the town that had taken him in, he
championed and cherished the church he held dear.
The decades passed by and Susan passed on.
She stared down her fate without fright, without fear,
with stature and station, with status and strength.
Alvah granted her wish – that he not shed a tear.
Though three years later he took his rest by her side,
their spirit, their presence, did not disappear.
Their vision lived on ’til the day the mill died.
Farewell and goodbye, in its eighty-eighth year.
Second floor. Old guy. Moved in about two months ago. Keeps to himself. Aloof and distant.
Grunts when someone says hello if they cross paths when he goes downstairs for his mail or takes his trash out to the dumpster. Slight of build, appears pale and gaunt, thick glasses, long hair but clean-shaven. Wears a belt with a large brass buckle that reads, “GUS”. Hardly a sound is heard from behind his closed door, day or night, or so his nearest neighbors say. Has a little blue Hyundai, but seldom does it ever move from its spot at the far end of the parking lot. When he does leave, it‘s either to buy groceries on a weekday (which was evident) or visit the two remaining loves of his life on a 100-mile round-trip Sunday drive (which was not evident).
The weathered building houses 18 apartments spread over three floors, with 27 tenants. No resident manager, no amenities, no lease, no security deposit, no pets allowed. Just the quiet privacy he wanted.
“What do you suppose he does in there all day?”, growled Jen, the big-busted blonde cougar in Apt. 9. “Something odd about him; I’ve passed by him a few times and he never even looks down at these puppies. You look at them, don’t you Chris?” Chris smiled and nodded, then playfully stared at her bountiful cleavage until she said, “Okay, tiger, that’s enough.” He laughed out loud, reached for his truck keys and headed out to his night job. By now, this repartee had become somewhat of a routine ritual between the two but for him at least, it never got old. “That haggard old codger must be blind,” he would shake his head and tell himself, “or darn close to it.”
“Lew Louis” reads the name on the mailbox insert. In a hallway gaggle one Saturday morning near the mailboxes on the first floor, someone speculated his full name must be “Lewis Louis” and another added, “Even better, probably Lewis L. Louis, L for Little, and divorced from Lois Louis.“ The half-dozen tenants guffawed loudly when another chimed in with, “Loser Lewis L. Louis” and on and on it went.
That is, until someone noticed the pair of denim-clad legs visible on the staircase behind them. The legs were not moving. An eerie quiet set in. The tenants stared at the legs and the legs seemed like they were staring back. To the arriving mail carrier, it looked like a moment frozen in time, a still photograph. “Hey folks”, he greeted them but all eyes remained fixed and focused on the staircase legs, even as someone mumbled back a muted greeting to the carrier, who had already begun dropping mail into the boxes.
Then, suddenly, a voice boomed from the stairs. “Anything for Little Loser Louis today?”
One could almost hear the unspoken, collective “Oh, crap” from the gagglers. The mailman sensed something was going on even before the question was asked and one look at the expressions on the faces in front of him when the question was posed led him to hastily finish his work with an “I’m outta here” urgency.
Convinced more than ever that the stationary legs belonged to the new tenant, one of the men meekly got out the words, “Just kidding, Mr. Louis. Just kidding. We joke about everyone who moves in here. Nothing personal. No offense intended. Okay?” The newcomer was not imposing physically, to be sure, but no one seemed to want to cross him. He had that look in his eye, that chip on his shoulder, that hair too long for a man of his age. Might go off on them at any time. Might lose it. They anxiously awaited a response of some kind, but only an unsettling silence ensued.
It was unclear why they didn’t quickly scatter before he resumed his trek down the stairs. Surely he hadn’t recognized their voices, having up till now only seen them nod or heard them mutter an occasional “Hi” or “How’s it going?” in passing. They had to realize they were likely unidentifiable and thus held plausible deniability for the boorish banter. Perhaps they were afraid to move, frozen in fear that a now-unhinged Lewis “Little Loser” Louis would take three steps down, come into full view and pull a bazooka from his pants and go postal on them on his way to the mailbox. The silence was suffocating, but for whatever reason, they simply awaited their respective fates in place, hearts pounding, muscles twitching.
Then, to their surprise and relief, the legs did an about-face and returned back up the stairs, mail run abandoned. In the quiet, they heard a door open and quickly close. “Damn you, Ed, why did you have to start that stuff? Now everyone in the building could be in danger if he pops his cork.” “You can tell there’s something just not right about that guy. You watch the news, anything can happen these days, especially with those silent, loner types.” “Me?”, says Ed, “You were the one that added the ‘Loser’ part, and it sounded like that’s what got him upset. We have to tell the rest of the tenants about this, so they can make sure their guard is up and their doors stay locked. Deadbolt ’em even better. Always use their peepholes. And maybe from now on we should wait for the mail inside our own places instead of hanging out in the hallway like this. At least until he moves on and it’s safe again.” Everyone nodded and quietly went about their business.
Several days passed. No one saw or heard Lew Louis. And by now all the tenants knew about the “incident” and were watching for him like hawks on ham. Until the following Sunday morning, that is, when he went downstairs and out to his Hyundai and drove away. Within minutes, word spread around the building that he was on the move.
“Don’t want him ON the move, just want him TO move” said Jen. “Creepy old coot, doesn’t wanna even look at these, ya know? Not normal for a man. Chris says so too.”
In the early afternoon, the blue Hyundai returned to its parking spot. Lew Louis got out, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door. A young girl of maybe seven or eight got out. He took her by the hand and led her up to his apartment. A couple of people saw that, and quickly everyone present in the building had been alerted. “The old pervert’s got a little girl up there. We’ve got to do something. Call 911.” “Yea, we’ll do that but what might happen before they get here? The guys have to band together and knock on his door and see if the poor girl is okay. Even if he doesn’t answer, at least he’ll know we’re onto him, and he’ll have to behave himself.” All agreed it was a good plan.
Jen joined six of the men and they knocked long and hard on the door of Apt. 12. They banged and banged, and kept on banging, all the while spouting unintelligible warnings and threats, followed by a simple “Open the door, let her go.” The girl’s voice could clearly be heard, sounding anxious and worried. “Grampa Gus, why are those people trying to break down your door! What do they want? What will they do?” She then shouted, not at the unsteady old man in front of her, but at those on the other side of the door. “Go away, go away, you’re upsetting him, you’re scaring him.”
It was a “WTF” moment for the mob in the hallway. Was the girl confused? Was he telling her what to say under threat of hurting her? And what had she called him? Something wasn’t right.
The 911 call had already been made and the police were on their way so the tenants eventually stopped pounding and yelling and just listened quietly, ears pressed up against the door. After a short while, they heard sobbing sounds from the girl and nothing else. No words, no ruckus. The men and Jen started to bicker among themselves.
“Let’s kick in the door.” “No, let’s wait on the cops, he could have a gun pointed at the door, or at her.” “But wait you guys, she called him Gus”, like she knows him.” “No way, it’s the old ‘fun’ belt buckle scam I read about on the internet to prey on kids and lure them in. He’s a Lew, not a Gus. I say we go in – now.”
And go in they did. A hard shoulder to the door easily opened it. But the shoulder wasn’t needed – because the door wasn’t locked.
Inside, the young girl appeared incoherent, shaking uncontrollably. She was on her knees, pulling and tugging at the motionless body of Lew Louis. He was indeed wearing the big shiny “GUS” belt that she had bought for him at a flea market a year earlier. When he wasn’t wearing it, he was Grampa Lew, but when it was adorning his waist, he was always Grampa Gus.
As officers arrived, they summoned paramedics. But Grampa Gus was Grampa Gone.
Lew Louis was in fact not Lewis Louis. The guy was just plain Lew, according to his death certificate.
He was a 68 year old Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart. He had lived an honorable life, worked hard, and was a man decent to the core. He never hurt or harmed anyone, much less an innocent child, and over the years had been a good husband and father and a trusted friend to many. But time had taken a toll on him, as with most of us.
When his waistline grew, so did his cholesterol and blood pressure readings. His heart had weakened as well. Concerned, he wisely and acutely adjusted his diet resulting in significant weight loss, making him appear withered and worn. “Lisa, honey, your Grampa can’t keep his pants up because he’s so skinny now”, his daughter had told her daughter before that trip to the flea market where she saw the inexpensive, brown belt with the big brass buckle. She gift-wrapped it herself with Christmas paper even though it was the height of summer and gave it to him and they both had a great laugh over his new name. After a while, he wore it proudly and often, even hoping others would comment on his cherished conversation piece so he could tell them about Lisa and the story behind it. But no one ever did ask, least of all his new neighbors.
Lew Louis was a widower and his daughter was a widow. As his health had worsened, she insisted he come to live with her and Lisa, but he was a proud man and he realized he had indeed become a bit of a grouch sometimes and had drifted away from his friends as age and events taxed and strained his mind and body. So against her advice, he had rented an apartment 50 miles away to try to calm himself down on the inside, to seek a sustained tranquility and renewed energy in a quiet refuge of his own, and maybe then he would take her up on her standing offer. She agreed out of respect and gratitude for this man who had become her shoulder to lean on since her husband’s passing.
On the day of his death, Lisa’s mother had promised to tend to a sick friend from work and Lew had asked if he could bring the girl back to his “pad” (“Lisa, Grampa has a cool pad, you gotta see it”) for a few hours and assured her he was feeling alert and fine and that Lisa would be safe riding with him. Despite increasing the day’s total drive to 200 miles, which he no longer was accustomed to at all, she reluctantly agreed and saw them off with a blown kiss from her front yard.
A sensitive man within, he admittedly did feel a sting when he heard his new neighbors making fun of him and his name that day on the stairs. He was even momentarily tempted to proceed to his mailbox and tell them they were a bunch of assholes. But he checked himself and instead conjured up his most surly tone when booming out the question that shut them up. Face unseen, he was actually grinning like a fool when he asked it. In fact, it made his day, and he didn’t have many things that did anymore.
Isolated in his new surroundings, he had been oblivious to the unfounded fear and suspicion, the gossip and rumors, that were whirling all around him. Then came that fateful Sunday, and the sudden chaos of angry, raised voices and relentless pounding and pummeling on his door. Frenzied and frantic, Lisa was holding on to him tight as the fading light erased her from his sight forever.
Jen and Ed and Chris and the rest of the tenants reassured each other that they were only being good neighbors and watching out for an innocent child and protecting themselves from a reclusive stranger who grunted and looked away, a man who was so detached and evasive that he must be up to no good in there.
His apartment was soon rented to a personable young guy and Jen keeps wearing those low-cut tops and flirts with him whenever she can. Chris still indulges her whims. The daily gathering and chitchat with Ed and his crew at the mailboxes has resumed. All is back to normal in the hallways of the three floors and inside the 18 apartments.
Everything is as it was, and nothing was lost from the daily routine, except the sight of a gaudy belt buckle inscribed “GUS”, and that guy that wore it … you know, Lew Louis in Apt. 12.
At a lively gathering of seventeen of her friends, Emma acknowledged their best wishes on her birthday with a proud announcement: “Yes, at 75, I am finally officially ‘old’ and pretty certain I’m still a woman. But I am NOT an old woman – and I’ll thrash the bejeezus out of any one of ya who says I am.” She winked and smiled, then sat her old ass down.
May 8, 2016, was also Mother’s Day.
Emma was not a mother. In fact, she had rarely been in any kind of relationship, much less one where the word “love” or “marriage” earned even a consideration. Some things are just not meant to be, she had reasoned, and for much of her life and for far too long had accepted her solitude with a quiet grace and dignity.
Many, if not most, of those present, however, were mothers and grandmothers. They had other places to be, other places their presence was desired and expected on this sunny Spring afternoon. All agreed beforehand that for them there would be other Mother’s Days and other opportunities to accommodate their loved ones.
Each knew that for Emma there would be no more birthdays, and those aforementioned loved ones would indeed understand their choice that day.
When Emma turned 60, she retired from her long-held clerk’s position at a New Jersey manufacturing facility. She sold her small, modest home and moved, alone, to Florida, and purchased an equally small and modest manufactured home in a senior retirement community. Quiet, and not very social, she fully expected to be immediately cast in the traditional lonely spinster role by her new neighbors, a role she would find neither uncomfortable nor unsettling.
An introvert, she valued her privacy and lack of obligation to “join in” and draw unsolicited and unwanted attention to herself, while at the same time desiring the idyllic safety and serenity offered by such a community. No more snow and ice; much more sunshine and warmth, with green grass and colorful flowers in every direction. No more office schedule, gripes and gossip; much more free time and peace of mind.
And so it was – but for just a few short months.
Then came the anguish and ashes, the fatalities and futility, of September 11, 2001.
For Emma, who had been enjoying the tranquility that she was looking for, and who had become casually acquainted (“Good morning, I’m fine and you? Wonderful, have a great day, etc.”) with a few of her neighbors in “the park”, the sudden tragedy hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. She felt immeasurably lonely, sickened and defeated by the events of the day and those that immediately followed. For the first time ever, she wished she had a husband, a lover, a son, a daughter, or an actual friend to help alleviate the fear, the darkness, the loneliness and the pain in her hurting heart.
For weeks, she grieved alone inside her home, sustained by canned goods and frozen foods, going only to her mailbox, then retreating quickly back inside. Inevitably, some neighbors took note. One of them, a woman of about her age who also lived alone, became the first to tap on her door. At first, Emma fled to her bedroom to “wait it out”, but the concerned visitor only knocked louder and more aggressively, calling out her name. (She actually was saying “Irma”, not having been formally introduced to this new person, and thus relying on neighborhood chatter for the scoop on the soup, as it was called.) Emma soon felt guilty about ignoring the clearly-alarmed and persistent woman and also realized an embarrassing 911 welfare check could result if she remained unresponsive.
She went to the door, opened it, and said, “EMMA. E-M-M-A, Emma, not Irma.”
The two women looked each other in the eye. To the surprise of both, each started smiling, then laughing out loud, almost in rhythm. Neither knew that for Emma, and for those yet to come into her life, it would prove to be a life-changing, transformational moment in time.
As the country slowly regained its footing from the events in New York City, at the Pentagon and across that barren Pennsylvania field, a sense of normalcy returned to her Central Florida mobile home community and the nearby cities and towns. With it emerged a “new” Emma, a woman who came to realize that people DID matter, and that she had deprived herself of a lifetime of the rewards derived from sharing with, and caring about, others. She had always been a good person, a nice person, mind you. Never rude or unfriendly, never deliberately offsetting. Just one of those folks who kept to herself, who celebrated the good and suffered the bad in solitude and silence, friendly but not a friend, cordial but not a confidante, alert but not aware.
Out of a national disaster came a personal rebirth, a steadily-evolving process of socialization into a sense of completing oneself. Emma now wanted every day to count, to matter, to afford opportunity and for that opportunity to be breathed in, held, remembered, then exhaled to make room for the next one, and then the next. The aforementioned neighbor, Regina, had told everyone about her encounter with Emma, asserting that “the newbie is a cool old chick after all.” Soon, everyone greeted her with “IRMA !!” when they saw her (yep, like “NORM” in Cheers), and she absolutely delighted in it. This must be that warm, fuzzy feeling she had heard about all of her life. She liked it, and the neighbors liked her.
It was now early 2006, and Emma/Irma was an active, outgoing, popular, funny (!) and much-valued member of the park community. She wasted neither time nor energy bemoaning those many lost years of simply existing, alone, in a corner or in the shadows. Instead, she was grateful for every new adventurous day in this unforeseen gift of a second chance at a purposeful and meaningful life.
A couple of the women in the park had read about a unique social group of older women named the “Red Hat Ladies” (“Red Hatters”) who belonged to the “Red Hat Society”, a movement that originated with a few over-50 California women flipping their middle digits at the perceived norms of the golden years. They envisioned a long, slow exit filled with fanciful, zany, off-the-wall and devil-may-care adventures. Their signature adornments were red hats (the wilder, the better) and purple garb (still even wilder, still even better).
They sought kindred spirits, near and far. The movement was rooted in friendships and when the train came by, Emma got instantly on board. In fact, she became both the engineer and the conductor for the local chapter.
The aura of Irma had invaded the heart, soul, body and mind of Emma, awakening and energizing each element swiftly and cleanly, spiriting her away from the Long Ago and into the Here and Now. The wise woman understood why the cards said she had to be Emma first in order to become Irma and thus rejected any regret over the lost years.
On the day Emma went shopping for the second time for a brand new oversized and overwhelming red chapeau, she went alone, by design. She had seen many sizes and styles on the internet (“I like this internet thing.” she had commented to Regina a month after the latter had introduced her to the concept of actually having a PC of her own. “It’s like finding Hershey kisses in your bed when you wake up in the morning.”). She knew what she wanted – something large and unadorned, so that she could have words embroidered onto it, rather than go the decorative trimmings route of several fellow red riders.
She found exactly what she wanted, then headed to a tiny storefront stitchery in the next town over. One of the ladies in the park excelled in such work, but ol’ Emma didn’t want to show her cards before the bi-monthly Saturday night Red Hat gathering at the clubhouse. She wrote down the words and described the placement she wanted, painstakingly picked out thread colors, told the wide-eyed young seamstress to “do it to it”, then went to Wendy’s for a burger and a Frosty. Just killin’ time, chillin’ out, bein’ Irma. She returned to the shop two hours later, belly full and anticipation high.
The embroidery work was done. The threads proved to be exactly the right colors, jumping out boldly against the scarlet felt of the wide-brimmed hat. Emma, now just a month shy of her once-dreaded Medicare birthday, was beyond excited – “I feel and act like a kid, too bad I don’t look like one”, she needled herself.
When Saturday evening arrived, Emma put on a purple-striped top and purple-trimmed shorts and practically double-timed to the clubhouse with her hat in a bag. Just a freewheelin’ kid bouncing down the street, anxious to see everyone and share her new treasure.
“The Cat’s in the Hat. The Hat’s in the Bag. Da-da, dee-dee, they’ll look at me.” She sometimes fretted that she had become almost too happy and definitely too silly. Nevertheless, her presence and companionship were always welcomed and no one had ever discouraged or disparaged her lightheartedness. She made people smile, but mostly she wanted to make everyone laugh – men, women, children, puppies and kittens alike.
No one could remember the recluse that had moved into the blue-trimmed home at the bend in the street five years earlier.
Good, she mused, because I don’t remember her either.
This was probably the fifth or sixth time the Red Hat ladies had gotten together to hang out and eat and tell stories and experience the camaraderie of the night. Emma had worn the same bland burgundy hat at each of the previous get-togethers, though several of the ladies had already debuted multiple selections in a wide range of rich and ravishing reds . She had not let on that she would have a new look for this go-around, so naturally when Emma arrived (a tad fashionably late, she admitted to herself), everyone turned to look as she noisily shook her purse upon stepping inside.
“YOU FORGOT YOUR HAT!!”
“No. No, I didn’t.” And up came the bag.
For some oblique reason, she first counted the other women present. Seventeen. Dang. She was hoping for more for the unveiling. Still, enough to determine success or failure.
She moved to the front of the room, once again thoroughly enjoying being the center of attention after so many years of passing through life unnoticed wherever she went. Still, Emma had not become diva-esque, despite her popularity. She sincerely appreciated the friendships and the positive qualities of each of the women she had come to know. Some of them she even trusted with her secrets, though none of the latter proved to be scandalous or “spicy” (to their dismay).
With curious eyes all around, she felt like Shirley MacLaine’s mischievous Irma La Douce rather than Irma La Elder, enticingly turning her back and making a swift bag-to-head movement with one hand while bent forward and holding a small mirror in her other hand. To her pleasant surprise (not really, she had practiced the move about 83 times before leaving home), the hat sat right where it was supposed to without any adjustments.
Still bent over with her back turned, the peanut gallery rolled into high gear – “Whatcha doing down there, looking for a man?” came from the left, and “Hey, the sandwiches are getting stale, Irma” from the right. For the briefest of moments, Emma worried that she was about to lay an egg, and not a golden one.
Up she came, whirring around like a ballerina into a shaky releve’ fifth position, arms outstretched and moving from high to low at her sides, punctuated with a weak and hesitant “TA-DA”!
More silence as everyone moved closer.
Then … laughter, and lots of it, followed this time by a bolder and much more triumphant “TA-DA” from the relieved star of the night.
It had taken a few moments for them to read the words embroidered across the wide front of her so-red and so-floppy hat.
In bright, neon green: “If ya think I’m gorgeous …”
Underneath, in bold yellow/gold: “LAUGH !”.
For an-almost 65 year-old woman, who had always seen and described herself as the ultimate “Plain Jane” (no offense, Jane, if you’re reading this), it was a 3-pointer from 30 feet away from the basket, hitting nothing but net.
It was a grand slam with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning when trailing by 3 runs.
It was a triple chocolate five-layer cake with an extreme amount of frosting.
It was finding the only seat in the theater with no one on either side at curtain time.
It was outstanding.
It was geriatric genius.
It was, in a word, perfect.
Years passed. The park’s Red Hat Ladies expanded their activities into the local communities, gaining a whimsical notoriety and becoming the envy of their sister groups in the area.
From that night forward, though Emma had to replace the hat a few times due to wear and fading, nothing else about it had changed. The very specific color, the words, the beaming face underneath it, all became etched in the memories of those who delighted in her sense of humor.
As she grew older, the significance of the words grew as well. She had chosen “gorgeous” for a very specific reason. If the word had been “beautiful” or “pretty”, she reasoned, someone might easily miss the point. A smile would be far more likely than a laugh. One could say, “yes, she is beautiful in spirit”, or “beautiful for her age” or “she does have a pretty smile”. Specific to physical appearance, the word “gorgeous” offers no such escape route. She wanted to make them laugh, not simply smile. Thus the outlandish sight of “gorgeous” on the hat of Emma, proudly out in front of her group, always set the tone and the mood. The Red Hat Ladies were there to have fun, to encourage others to have fun, and to give an emphatic thumbs-down to the very idea of growing old gracefully.
And so they did.
Emma didn’t care whether folks laughed WITH her or AT her. As long as they laughed for a moment and forgot their own troubles and turbulence, she was cool with that. The best part, both for her and for them, is that either way no one had to suppress laughter upon reading the hat, no matter which way they were assessing it. No one else knew, or would know, why the next person laughed.
It gave both the mean-spirited and the elitist cover for their patronizing guttural guffaws. For everyone else, it was a reminder that, as Reader’s Digest told us for generations, “laughter (truly) is the best medicine.”
At age 70, on the tenth anniversary of that ill-fated day, Emma finally revealed to Regina that a chance reminder of those 2001 hate-driven events had been the catalyst for that very first “message” hat. Five years earlier, stopped in traffic while out hat-shopping in her Chevy Cavalier, a faded “Remember 9/11” bumper sticker caught her eye and stared back at her, creating an instant juxtaposition of hat and hate in her head. Point made and noted, Emma abruptly shook off the intrusion and drove on home, but resolved in some small way to employ the former to offset the latter.
That night, she sat on her bed and closed her eyes and tried to visualize a “happy hat”. She came up empty until Rod Stewart’s inimitable voice reverberated across the room, ricocheting off the walls, courtesy of her beloved Bose Wave radio. Though she had indeed become quite the social sally by that time, she only shook her ageless booty in the privacy of her home. Off the bed she bounced, dancing and singing/mumbling along to “Da (Do) Ya Think I’m Sexy?”, air mic in hand. (Cool old chick indeed – Regina had nailed it right out of the gate!)
There it was – the awaited lightning bolt. Hearing herself singing the only words she really knew, the title itself, cracked her up. “Me sexy?” It made her laugh out loud. Emma quickly searched her vocabulary for a more appropriate word than “sexy” that would produce the same surprise and yield the same laughter. Thus was born “If ya think I’m gorgeous…” She plotted out the words and crudely sketched the hat on her phone pad. “Yesssss.” Seventeen days later she found just the right hat, visited the stitchery, chewed her burger and chugged her Frosty.
After that disclosure, she asked her friend if she believed that malicious hatred and heartfelt laughter could truly co-exist within someone at a moment in time. Regina first looked away, then down, and said, “Sadly, my dear, I very much think they can, and that it’s actually quite common.” To which Emma replied, with that impish wrinkle-laden grin, “Do you really think anyone, while laughing at the words on my hat, the thread on my head, at THAT moment in time, can simultaneously have thoughts of hate?”
Regina shrugged and tilted her head. “I guess not, short-lived as a moment is. So you win, Irma. You win.” She then gave an acquiescent nod and got up to hug her friend before heading home to a book and a beer. Emma at first just smiled after the door closed. Then she giggled. Soon she was howling with laughter in her kitchen.
“We won!” Emma and Irma had made their point together … as one. “WE, one!”
Shortly after Labor Day weekend of 2015, Emma came home from her visit to the doctor. She sat down on the concrete steps and stared into the distance. Emma wanted to cry and for Regina, or any of her neighbors, to see her and come over, but no one did.
The tears never came. Not that day or any day thereafter. They had all been shed before she moved south. No one ever saw her cry in New Jersey, but cry she did. More than anyone should. And now, she wanted to, but couldn’t. “Didn’t win today, did ya”, she muttered.
Gut-punched, the woman rose from the stoop and went inside, into her bedroom, and retrieved the hat from the closet shelf. She pulled it down tight onto her head, and at 74 years and 4 months young, pulled off a faultless pirouette, held it, looked into the mirror, and said aloud, “Gorgeous you are, kid, TA-DA!”
And since she couldn’t cry, she did what everyone else did when they beheld that sight – she laughed.
In time, almost everyone in the park became aware that her cancer would soon be the victor in the war that consumed her from within. Nevertheless, Emma and Irma combined to fight and win many battles in the months that followed. “They” did not give in easily, as Emma would have done fifteen years earlier, choosing instead to turn up the music, mute the pain and not just endure, but persevere.
Emma wore the signature red hat to that 75th birthday gathering on May 8, 2016, and yes, everyone laughed one more time, just as she had hoped. Weak though she was, she went full-blown theatrical, making the most of that final spotlight, that sacred moment in time. Before toasting her best friend, Regina joked, “Enough already, Irma, you ham, now sit your old ass down”. That’s when a frail but still saucy Emma spoke her own sassy words, saluted her Friend and thanked her friends, and ended with a feigned Scarlett O’Hara swoon down onto the chair.
Thirty-three days later, on June 10, Emma passed quietly in hospice, deep in the night.
Her red hat, which Regina had lovingly placed by her side when she first lapsed into involuntary silence and stillness, caught the eye of each staff member that looked in on her through those final days and hours. It never went unnoticed and it never was moved, much less touched, as they tended to her unspoken needs.
When the night nurse made her last rounds, Emma was lifeless.
Her face was locked in a smile.
The hat was on her head.
“TA-DA” , indeed.
The nurse looked around the room, turned back to the sight before her, froze the moment in time, and then laughed out loud.
Emma would have been pleased; mission accomplished, one last time.