On the 40th anniversary of a fatal fire at his parents’ house, Patrick Simon knelt at gravesite #39 in a small cemetery that slumbers in silence on a lightly-traveled country lane skirting Lisbon, Maine. He made the 130-mile drive to his hometown annually from his unadorned basement apartment in Canterbury, New Hampshire.
His only keepsake of them was a wind up alarm clock they gave him when he left, a sound safeguard against being late for work. Its raucous ring had reliably announced each new day, including this one, for 46 years – with one notable exception.
On this October 7th, his 65th birthday, he struggled to remember their faces, their voices. He muttered aloud in cold, callous and cynical tones. He hadn’t seen a living soul there for years, thus disregarded discretion. He closed with a detached shrug, rather than fond words of farewell.
A robin whirled overhead, then darted downward. It brought boyhood memories of Teresa Tunney, an uppity, condescending classmate who relentlessly ridiculed him, chirping “Simple Simon, one for the birds.” Folks in Lisbon were devastated when she was found floating facedown at age fifteen in the Androscoggin River. How? Why? The questions remain unanswered. He wanted to smile, but he couldn’t.
He stood and turned, flinching at the sight of a statuesque young woman watching him. Her arrival had been silent. He looked past her, toward the small gravel parking area where his truck sat solo. Patrick wondered who she was, where she came from, and how she got there.
He walked directly toward her, out of both necessity and curiosity. She never moved as he approached. Her intense green eyes locked on his. As he drew closer, he became anxious, nervous, apprehensive. Should he say something? Do something? Nod in acknowledgment without breaking stride?
She remained motionless, holding her position in the narrow pathway, blocking his departure. She stared him into utter unrest as he stopped two steps in front of her. He searched for words that didn’t come. He felt a sense of inexplicable, undefinable familiarity. He also felt a heaviness in his chest. He panicked.
“Patrick, you look troubled. Please, come sit with me.” “Sit? Sit where? And you called me Patrick. Do I know you?”
“There’s a large prayer rock just beyond that maple. And of course you know me. It’s Jane. Jane Baker. I kissed you once in the fifth grade and you ran away like your fanny was on fire. Everyone laughed at ME, made fun of ME. It was the second worst day of my life.” She moved toward the rock. A befuddled and shaky Patrick Simon followed her, his mind racing as fast as his heart.
He did indeed remember Jane Baker and that klutzy kiss and running away because he didn’t think he “did it right.” He heard the taunts and jeers and assumed they were aimed at HIM.
No way this twenty-something, copper-haired beauty was Jane Baker from, what, 55 years ago? His legs weakened. His breathing faltered. “Are you Jane’s daughter or something, here to harass me all these years later? What’s your game? How did you know I’d be here today? Have you been following me? I don’t feel right at all, something’s wrong. I think I should go now.”
“Why didn’t you ever get married, Patrick? Was my kiss so distasteful that you chose a life of abstinence? You told people I was unhinged and unbalanced and that you were leaving after graduation to escape from me. Plain Jane Baker, insane trouble maker. Sound familiar?”
A delusional Patrick was trying to convince himself that he was okay, just having a bad anxiety attack. It was this woman’s fault. What was she trying to prove by confronting and taunting him here, of all places? “Why didn’t Jane just come herself, why did she send you?” He looked in every direction. “She’s here – leering, gloating, smirking – isn’t she?”
She finger-poked his forehead, restoring his focus. “You know it’s me, I know you do. After you left, your parents, in despair, said I stained your soul, darkened your heart, maimed your mind. Over one stupid kid kiss gone bad, you went rogue, abandoning and ignoring them while dishonoring yourself, hiding and wasting away, a no-excuse recluse. Over time, they gained perspective and accepted me, befriended me. I’d go to their house for dinner. We’d talk, play cards, watch television. Then that night . . .”
At this point, Patrick was reeling – physically, mentally, emotionally.
The robin reappeared, hovering briefly before him. The woman had vanished. Her voice had not.
“I knew you would be here today because you’re here every October 7th. Was it fate that the fire raged on your 25th birthday, the day you got fired for being late because you forgot to wind the clock? I think not. Welcome to my world, Patrick, where every day is October 7th!”
He dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. He shook, shivered, and lurched forward, face-first, fittingly and forcefully kissing the rock with a bone-crushing thud. He had met his Maker in the Fall.
Close by, observing from the weed-covered, flat footstone marker of the long-forgotten Teresa Tunney, the robin finally rested.
A handwritten note, discovered in his Canterbury apartment, told the tale.
Patrick Simon had drowned the noise and, ten years later, set the fire.
A guest, Jane Baker, had heroically pushed his folks to safety, only to trip, fall and perish in the flames. The townsfolk paid for her beautiful granite headstone – the one on gravesite #39. The one Patrick visited every year.
His parents cried at her funeral, then moved to Sacramento and never came back. Patrick was dead to them forty years before his face broke and his heart stopped under the maple.
Absent the revelation of that new and noteworthy Canterbury tale, only a mentalist, a lurking Lisbon robin, or a nearby northern King carving mystifying, yet mainstream, novel and needful things from his fabled castle rock, could have deciphered the hints, described the horror, and taken the stand to swear to the events described herein.
(Photo taken upon seeing Patrick Simon’s fractured face at the cemetery.)
Starring . . .
SimonBaker as PatrickJane / Patrick Simon & Jane Baker
Co-starring . . .
RobinTunney as TeresaLisbon / TeresaTunney & the Robin in Lisbon
Saw someone who wasn’t there. Heard a bird in the Autumn air. Dazed, disturbed, and in despair, learned too late that life IS fair.
“Kissed a girl, made him cry. Kissed a rock, made him die.” – Stephen King? A graduate of the now defunct Lisbon Falls High School – in Lisbon, Maine. Of course! A Needful Thing to know if one takes The Stand to describe the horror of October 7th.
Discovered in a New Hampshire basement apartment: The 25th Canterbury Tale (Note: G. Chaucer unable to comment at this time.)
(Note: Wrote this at the last minute as a back-up piece in August specifically for a VA-sponsored “Short, Short Story” Competition with a strict 1,000 word limit, which adds context to the closing line. Only allowed to enter one of them, so I stayed with the more unique original one that I spent a lot of time on. And yes, suddenly free of the confinement of a word limit, I tossed in a few proverbial shits ‘n’ giggles after the fact on this one 🙂
The Sneaker Inn is a tranquil 44-room resort on the eastern shore of Waite Lake in Marshfrost, Vermont. Nestled on the lake’s western shore is the Just Waite Bar & Grill. And between the beds and the brewskies lay 237 feet of shallow, clear water. On Friday and Saturday nights in the summer of 2007, with their guests tucked in for the night, five Inn staffers would shed their uniform shirts, shorts and sandals and swim those 79 yards to a grassy area out behind the bistro. They adhered to the axiom that if you drink, you sink, thus they would get some cash from the Buried Chest and buy ice cream and other desserts and sit and shoot the sugar with Willie Waite, the offspring of the eatery’s owner.
In late July, the Inn’s security guard upped and quit without notice. He worked four nights a week at the quiet refuge that catered mostly to artsy New Yorkers and struggling entrepreneurs. The job encompassed mostly walking the property’s perimeter every hour, being alert for the smell of non-recreational smoke, and scooping up stray litter, as in trash, not cat. Easy minimum wage work, sure, but replacing him on short notice was no easy task. Boss Bill called around but found no takers for the gig. (He figured calling it a “gig” might appeal to younger applicants. Who knew?) Driving into town Thursday morning, he ran across (not over) a 40-ish, long-haired, robust stranger. “Hey, wanna job? An easy one?” “Maybe, where at?” “Sneaker Inn, down the road a piece.” A moment of silence ensued.
“Sneak her in, down the road? I don’t know man, sounds shady.” Boss Bill bit his tongue, ’cause he really needed a warm body to show up that night. “No, ‘Sneaker Inn’ is the name of my waterfront motel. I need security Thursday through Sunday nights, ten hour shift. No experience required. No drinking, no smoking, no drugs and no sex with the customers. Clean clothes and comb that hair. Are you in?” “Pay good?’ “No.” Do I get a uniform or somethin’?” “Just a baseball cap with the word “SECURITY” on it.” “Cool, I’m in.” “Okay , you start tonight at 8 sharp. Name?” “Willy, with a ‘y.’ Willy Gillette from up Burlington way.”
When he showed up for work and was introduced to the staff, they guffawed like goobers. That name. What were the odds? Willy with a “y” could have taken umbrage but remained undeterred as they quickly dismissed their spontaneous rudeness, saying it was an inside joke, no harm, no foul. He was certain he could easily and uneventfully complete his assigned duties and sign out promptly at 6 AM. New hat in hand, he humbly, but confidently, began his routine.
At 10 o’clock, the five staffers bade him goodnight and merged into the shadowed shrubbery along the property line. Off came their shirts, shorts, and sandals. Then they waited . . . for Willie to make the 237-foot swim to the eastern shore. That’s Willie, with an “ie.”
Wilhelmina “Willie” Waite.
The five staff members? Cindy, Susie, Amber, Amy and Winnie. Winnie, as in Winnifred Waite, Willie’s twin sister.
The women, all single college students, greeted Willie, who arrived similarly-clad (un-clad?), with sacks of snacks. Nothing unseemly nor untoward happened at these get-togethers, mind you. Jiggles and giggles galore, to be sure, but nothing more. They told tall tales and talked about males – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Willy Gillette finished litter duty and headed out to the perimeter. As he passed through the parking lot on the road side of the Inn, he saw a couple of seedy-looking guys sitting on the hood of the 2006 Inferno Red Dodge Charger that Boss Bill picked him up in earlier that day. Willy was a laid-back dude who shied away from confrontation, so he walked right past them, pretending he didn’t see them due to the darkness. (There were lights in the lot and they were clearly visible, but what the hey, it was a minimum wage deal, right?) He was several steps past them, almost in the clear, when one of them nailed him in the back of the head with something soft and squishy. When he touched his neck, he could feel a sticky substance with a sweet odor. Alas, he had been doughnut-holed, honey-dipped style, by a duo of dirtbags. I shit you not. He lost his cool and went all Billy Jack on both of them, pulling them off the car and stomping the stupid out of those deux nuts in 37 seconds, maybe 38. Then he casually pointed to the front of his cap and mouthed the word “SECURITY” with a squared jaw and glazed eyes. The scofflaws whimpered off into the night, thankful they weren’t de-nutted for disorderly donutting.
Willy took several deep breaths (he WAS 40-ish for cripes sake) before resuming his rounds.
Hearing voices in the bushes en route to the water’s edge, he walked smack dab into the Circle of Six, and was stunned at the sight he beheld there in the night in the stream of his light. He stammered and yammered like McCartney’s fool on a hill. A whimsical Winnie stood, greeted him, and introduced him to her sister. “Willy, this is MY Willie.” The barenaked ladies immediately emitted another round of spontaneous guffaws at the suggestive sound of that introduction, while showing no signs of self-consciousness. Willy was flabbergasted, confused, and uneasy. First night on the job and there he was in a compromising position, scared stiff, wondering. He wondered how Limburger cheese was made. He wondered what the minimum wage was. He wondered who wrote the book of love.
Well-mannered gentleman that he was, he kept his eyes up, trying to focus on their faces, which unfortunately blended into the surrounding bushes. He turned his flashlight toward the bold letters on his hat, just as he had done with the hood ornaments out front.
“Inn Security, ladies. All appears well. Enjoy the rest of your evening.” He tipped his cap, then sauntered slowly away, suppressing a grateful grin and thinking, “Hell of a gig, Boss Bill. Hell of a gig indeed.”
So goes the short, short story of a Friday night case of the willies, outside the Sneaker Inn, on Lake Waite, in scenic Marshfrost, Vermont.
Abraham Lincoln Laine III was born in a tony Boston suburb in November, 1948. Early in his senior year at Wellesley High, where he paired knockout SAT scores with National Honor Society status, his very pragmatic, disturbingly snooty, parents nudged him toward accepting a full-ride scholarship from Boston University come the Fall of 1966.
His father, George, was a humorless corporate accountant who seldom expressed emotion of any kind. His mother, Louise, a liquor-loving, stay-at-home Boston Brahmin wannabe, displayed zero affection toward the boy and his older sister, Deidre Victoria Laine, whose bevy of offbeat friends knew her as “Dee-Dee.” Unlike her brother, she struggled with schoolwork from first grade through high school. After graduation she moved out of the house, landing a job in a clothing store and sharing a large apartment in Revere with a trio of fledgling folksingers. Her parents wrote her off and focused on pushing/dragging their smart and sensible son toward a life of financial success and social prominence.
While George and Louise always addressed him as Abraham, home and away, he disliked his name from the time he could pronounce it, instead self-identifying as “just Abe.” The name on his birth certificate appeared pompous and pretentious, particularly the “III” suffix, when one considers that there was not even one Abraham Lincoln Laine among his ancestors. When he turned 16 and got his driver’s license, he covered up the “III” with his thumb when showing it to friends. He vowed to drop both ends of his name when he turned 18, and become simply “Lincoln Laine.” He thought that had a good ring to it and was sure it would piss off his old man.
After his first week on the BU campus that September, he knew his enrollment would be short-lived. Neither his heart nor his mind yearned for the college experience, at least not yet. He wanted to get away and experience new surroundings. He sought adventure and independence and dusty dirt roads. Still two months shy of his 18th birthday, he gave himself the remainder of the semester to settle on a smooth way out. He went through the motions – going to class, reading the assignments, becoming part of a small study group.
In that group was Liz Murphy, a vivacious and free-spirited Irish lass from Queens, whose parents shipped her up to Boston to “find her true self.” ¹ She wasn’t keen on the whole college thing either and it wasn’t long before she and Abe became constant companions and confidantes who shared a common goal. “One semester,” he would whisper to her, and she would tug on his sleeve and wag a long, slender index finger back and forth high in the air. “One semester.”
It turned out that Liz had an older sister too, but unlike DeeDee, Kate bought into higher education and had just begun her senior year at the University of Maine in Orono. She had followed her high-school boyfriend there but the guy went rogue, screwed around, then dropped out and got drafted. Last Kate heard, he had shipped out to Vietnam as an Army infantryman, a grunt. Kate stayed grounded and had graduate school on her agenda.
Abe had bone spurs in both heels and moderate asthma and was confident that losing his upcoming student deferment posed no risk to him. Liz had visited Kate in Maine several times and liked the clean air and slow pace of Penobscot County. Abe met Kate on his 18th birthday when she drove down to Boston to check in on Liz a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. She shared an apartment with a girlfriend in Bangor, but the roommate was going to be interning in DC for several months after the holidays. When Kate left, Liz carped the diem. “We could both break the dropout news to our folks over Christmas and then haul ass to Bangor, whatcha think?” Abe rubbed his chin and smiled at the opportunity just handed to him. “Bangor? I hardly know her.”
(That was a familiar joke to many New England guys but, then again, Liz wasn’t a New England guy.)
His words hung heavily in the air as her dancing green eyes flashed fire in a manner he had never seen. Abe and Liz were platonic pals who moved at different speeds, she the hare and he the tortoise. The “her” here was, after all, her beloved and very cool sister, not some skanky hussy. His comeback had been out of character and he was oozing “oh, crap” regrets. He opened his mouth to say sorry but she swiftly buried her tongue deep inside, withdrew, and then did it again. An off-the-wall 1960’s double tap. Then she tittered at the dumbfounded look on his face. Up went her finger. “One semester, Abey!”
Six weeks later, back home in Maspeth for the extended break before finals, Liz sat next to Kate at the Murphy Christmas Day dinner table. Nothing Kate said or did was ever wrong in the eyes of their parents, thus she took the lead. “Mum, Dad, I have some exciting news.” Mum and Dad dropped their forks in anticipation. A boyfriend? A great job offer? A grad school scholarship? “Liz is going to be coming to live with me for a few months after her exams are over. She needs some time to kind of decompress and reassess her priorities. With Beth gone, I’d feel lost in that big apartment all by myself. I’m so happy I was able to convince her that getting away from the books and the Boston bustle and bunking down with me would do her a world of good. It’s gonna be great!”
Mum and Dad sat with mouths agape. But the grandparents and a family friend, also at the table, enthusiastically voiced approval. Liz and Kate hugged. Talk about a plan coming together – the grands and the guest had been tipped off and nailed their roles. Dad asked Liz if they could talk about it later but Kate put that to bed with a stern stare and the words, “It’s a done deal, Dad. Be happy for her. And for me. It’s Christmas. Don’t scrooge things up. Okay?” He acquiesced. Mum asked Liz how long she would be away from college.
She speared a crescent roll with the pointed nail of her index finger and waved it triumphantly in the air.
Two hundred miles northeast, in Wellesley, at about that same time, Abe and Dee Dee were sitting down to dinner with the esteemed George and Louise Lincoln. Just the four of them. DeeDee had not come home for Christmas the previous two years, choosing to hang with her friends. She had surprised her folks when she called to ask if she could join them and, truth be told, though they agreed, they were not particularly ecstatic about it. Neither was DeeDee, but she made the call after being recruited by Abe to play the “Kate role” in reverse. It went as follows:
DeeDee: “So Abe, you’re dropping out after finals and moving to Maine? That’s SO stupid.”
George: “What? Dropping out of BU? Pshaw. No way.”
Abe: “Just taking a semester off to clear my head. Have friends in Bangor. No big deal.”
DeeDee: “No big deal? You just turned 18, you have no clue what’s out there. Bad move. Forget it.”
Louise: “Oh, listen to Miss Lost-in-Space. You can’t tell your brother what to do. He’s a smart kid.”
DeeDee: “You said it – ‘kid.’ Book-smart, not life-smart. I say you can’t let him go, he HAS to stay in school. Period.”
George: “Deidre Victoria, that’s enough out of you. Not your call. It’s mine. He can go. Eat your dinner.”
DeeDee: “I’m outta here. Shouldn’t have come. Merry freakin’ Christmas to both of you. Abe, see me out.”
Abe got her coat and walked her to the front door. Out of sight, he hugged her and handed her six $20 bills. “Half for a hand well played, and half for groceries. I’ll call you when I get settled in. Stay safe.” She had led their parents to the ledge and it took all of sixty seconds for them to jump off, just to spite her, as Abe figured they would. He went back to the table and ate Boston cream pie as he suppressed a smile midst the silence. Back in his room, he wet the tip of his index finger and chalked one up with a smirk. “One semester.”
Despite BU’s proximity to Wellesley, George and Louise had no knowledge of the Liz/Abe connection. Thus, they had no “It’s that girl’s fault” argument to make. The uninhibited fireball had a tendency to toss around emphatic F-bombs and flaunt her no-bra brashness with kind of an over-the-top, in-your-face exuberance that would surely have irked Lady Louise. George might cast a requisite frown, but likely would have enjoyed the show.
Ten days later, Liz arrived back in Boston via Greyhound Express and she and Abe buckled down to do their best on exams – “just in case.” He breezed through. She focused and performed surprisingly well. They closed the semester and boxed it up.
The pair loaded their stuff into the voluminous trunk of his ’59 Chevy Impala (a gift from George on his 17th birthday for being “a better man than your sister”) at dawn on January 27th, 1967, and headed northeast to Penobscot County, some 250 miles away, at a leisurely pace under a clear winter sky.
Abe pulled the car over minutes after they crossed the Maine state line and did an upper-body happy dance right there in the driver’s seat. He told Liz, “that kid Abe” had just passed on to the Great Beyond, and Lincoln Laine sat before her a newly minted, full-grown man. Liz bowed her head and uttered a somber “RIP, Abey baby.” Then she chirped and clapped, tugged on his sleeve, and vigorously shook her unbridled breasts in his direction with reckless abandon. He liked that she was a hot shit. She pointed to the road and said, “Now crank up this Hot Rod, Lincoln.” ²
They were greeted by Kate in mid-afternoon with a smile and two 8-inch Table Talk ³ pies, one for each of them. Beth was fine with Liz staying in her room while she was away, but both she and Kate had made clear that Abe, er, Lincoln, needed to get a place of his own, posthaste. Which was fine, because though they were best buds, he and Liz were not lovers (unless you count that surprise November double tap) and were clearly not headed down that path. She was tutti-frutti, he was vanilla, and never the twain shall meet.
Despite his disappointment with his son’s decision to leave BU, George made sure that he had enough cash to last him six months. The Lincolns had no personality, but plenty of green. “Just promise me you won’t blow it on that marijuana stuff or whores, if they have whores in Maine.” “No whores, I promise,” thus leaving the other door open.
Kate told him that she had a friend who had a friend who knew a wealthy couple that lived up in, “you’ll like this, Lincoln”, the town of Lincoln, about 50 miles up-county. They winter in Sarasota and need a caretaker for their home on Mattanawcook Pond. (Kate pronounced that with ease while her guests’ eyes glazed over.) They aren’t due back until May and he could live there rent-free until then if he behaved responsibly and did some minor maintenance; clean the yard, the garage, the cellar, etc. Kate called the friend with news that a very bright young man was looking for a quiet place up that way for a spell. “Gotta be at least 21. How old is he, Kate?” “Um, not sure, but I know he was born back in the ’40’s.” The friend apparently only heard the “40” part. “Hmm, 67 minus 40, must be 26, 27, right?” A good Irish-Catholic, Kate knew she’d be Hades-bound if she said yes, so she just mumbled incoherent gibberish into the phone. “Okay, send him up right soon. He can look the place over and I’ll sit with him a spell and let the Lamberts know what I think.” On just his third day in Maine, Lincoln drove to Lincoln, with firm instructions from Kate to act mature, be polite and don’t lie.
Liz had given him a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek “for luck” before he left. Both knew they would likely drift apart soon, whether he got the Lambert place or not. Liz was already talking about maybe enrolling at the University of Maine in the Fall. He sincerely hoped things worked out for her and had bought her a “May the road rise to meet you” card back in Boston, a befitting selection for the strong-willed, fiery, Irish extrovert. He was going to sign it with some poetic words of his own and give it to her on St. Patrick’s Day. Still might. He kept it stashed under his driver’s seat.
He met the Lamberts’ rep at a diner in downtown Lincoln. The plan was to chat a little and then ride out to the house. He approached her just as she devoured half of a jumbo jelly doughnut in one gluttonous bite. Introducing oneself to someone whose mouth is full creates an immediate tactical advantage, so Lincoln closed in quickly. The woman, Susan something, awkwardly tried to speak and, failing that, extended her hand to shake but quickly withdrew it when she saw there was sticky crap on her fingers. She appeared embarrassed. He knew he had this.
Except he didn’t. After choking down the load and wiping her hand on a napkin, she promptly kicked his butt. Not literally, of course, though that might have been an easier ride for him. Her perceived humiliation turned to vitriol. “YOU’RE Lincoln Laine?” “Yes’m” “How old are you, boy? Show me your driver’s license.” “18, Ma’am.” “Well, you tell Kate I’ve got a bone to pick with her. We’re done here.” She seized the remaining half of the messy critter for the road and left with a grunt. (A grumble, not Kate’s former boyfriend.) Lincoln contemplated what had just happened. He ordered a coffee to go, pulled his collar up tight against the wind, and set out to get a feel for the town, walking and gawking like a tourist in Boston’s notorious “Combat Zone.”
Liz would have ripped that lady a new one, but Lincoln stayed calm, set Susan’s rudeness aside, and reminded himself that there were 4,646 more folks in town. He went into every store, greeted every passing stranger, smiled and politely asked questions from here to there and back. By the end of the day, he had secured a part-time job at the hardware store and successfully rented a garage apartment from a lonely old widower who talked his ear off and took a liking to him. A rejuvenated Lincoln Laine already felt right at home in Lincoln, Maine.
He drove back to Bangor to pick up the few things he had left there and delighted in embellishing just a tad by telling Kate that what’s-her-name in Lincoln said she could kiss her ass. “I simply could not tell a lie, Kate.” “That was Washington, not Lincoln, ain’t you got no schoolin’?” She liked him, but felt relief knowing he would be settling in some distance away, leaving her sister free to meet new people and get a fresh start. Liz had gone to a UM hockey game with a couple of Kate’s friends and when she got back, Lincoln filled her in. They sat up and talked most of the night. When he fell asleep on the couch, she tucked a blanket around him, watched him for a few minutes, tapped her heart with two fingers, twice, then went to Beth’s room and sacked out.
When he awoke, he went out to the car and brought the greeting card inside. No sounds at all came from either sister’s room. He had a feeling that both hoped he would be gone before they got up. Easier that way. No awkward goodbyes. He picked up a pen from the desk by the phone. He thought and wrote. He pondered whether he should leave it there for Liz to find, or drop it off at the post office on the way out of town. (In 1967, finding a surprise card or a letter in your mailbox was “wicked pissah” in Bostonese.)
He opted for the latter. He licked the stamp and thumbed it into place, then hesitated before dropping it into the box. He closed his eyes and tapped on her name. He thought back to that special November day and doubled down, tapping it again for good measure. Then he drove up Route 2 to his new life in Lincoln.
When Liz got the card in the mail a few days later, it had no return address, but she recognized his distinctive handwriting. She felt uncertain, so set the card aside, unopened. “Maybe another day.”
By March 17th, he had not called or written, and she knew he had moved on. She and Kate sat around the apartment, told Dad’s Irish jokes, got smashed, and playfully kissed whatever they could find that resembled the Blarney Stone. She felt a wave of melancholy and pulled the card from a dresser drawer. It was time.
“May the wind be always at your back.” She knew whatever he had written inside, if anything, might be his last words to her. She opened it slowly and there was a note, not just a signature. “Silly girl,” she chastised herself. “Read it and toss it.” She read it:
“Liz, me lassie. The poets write of unrequited love and lost souls and broken hearts. Their efforts always rang hollow to me. Then you came into my life, if only for a short time, and gave meaning to their words. You ran, I walked, but we both made it out of the maze. I hope you follow through and begin classes at UM in September. “One semester” was a fleeting rainbow we chased together and rejoiced in catching. Almost as quickly as it appeared, its colors have faded, but not before setting us free. And there is no better ending than that. – Me”
On Labor Day weekend, 1967, a confident young man checked into a 9th floor room in Building 1 at BU’s West Campus dorms. Name placards sat on the desks on opposite sides of the room. A bespectacled, long-haired, skinny kid turned away from the window, nodded, and said “Hey, I’m Tommy O’Shea, from Fall River. You must be, um … ” then paused to look over at the placard. “Abraham.” Where ya from, Abraham?”
“Abraham checked out after one semester. In his car. Won’t be back.”
“Oh, geez, man, that’s not good. So that makes you . . . ?”
With so many good answers to choose from, he hesitated.
He felt a familiar tug on his sleeve, turned around, and smiled.
“That makes him my friend and study buddy – Lincoln Laine, from Lincoln, Maine.”
“Catch ya later, Tommy boy. Liz here and I have to swing by her dorm next door and then we have a rainbow to chase.” Lincoln butt-bumped her out the door and down the hall to the elevators. Perhaps the twain had met after all.
A pensive Tom O’Shea turned back to the window, took note of the clear blue sky, and told himself they’re gonna be a while waiting on that rainbow. He sensed that she was not just his study buddy but also his bosom buddy. He wondered what their story was, and if they’d share it sometime down the road.
Suddenly, a wayward crow crashed violently into the window right in front of him. Tom watched helplessly as the bird flailed about in clear distress. Instinctively, he put his hand up against the glass before the dazed creature plummeted out of sight in a downward spiral. He gave the glass a forceful, frustrated, five-fingered tap.
Roger Kabb acquired 51% ownership of the Duck Inn & Cabins in Lake Delford, FL, in the summer of 1989, afterincessant urging from his live-in companion and business advisor, Madelyn “Mae” King, who took ownership of the remaining 49%, despite the fact that the transaction was fully funded by Roger. The large main building was the former home to a struggling family-style restaurant flanked by a couple of private dining/meeting rooms sometimes used for weddings and private parties. The rear half of the structure housed the kitchen area and a spacious bar. (Roger once asked a neighbor what the difference was between a beer joint and an elephant’s fart, and when the guy shrugged his shoulders, Roger said one’s a bar room and the other’s a BAROOOOM! Getting no response, Roger slapped him on the back, saying, “It’s a joke, man, dontcha get it?”) The main dining room provided a wide entryway into the bar, which also had a separate back entrance.
A dozen small kitchenette cabins stood quietly aloof in a semi-circle at the rear of the property.
The brick main structure and the wood cabins had sat vacant for almost seven years at the time Mae laid Roger’s money down, but the property had been maintained surprisingly well by Ted & Fred’s Handyman Services, an often unreliable operation run by the unpredictable and unmotivated Myers Brothers. The two slack-offs, monikered by Lake Delfordites as “Shifty” & “Shady “, were somehow able to secure a loan to purchase it on the cheap at auction after Hank Hatter Jr., the former owner and noted kibitzer and gadfly, died mysteriously and inexplicably from a brutal blend of toxins traced to his butter bowl. The brothers, who had frequented the bar and gone to Vegas twice with Hank shortly before his demise, jumped at the opportunity to cash in on his misfortune with dreams of making a killing on the resale.
A saucy, sassy, stylish Florida State grad, Mae King, 36 at the time and topped with strikingly-scarlet tresses, was intelligent, shrewd, and manipulative in financial and personal affairs. She had discreetly engaged in off-the-wall, off-and-on dalliances with both Ted and Fred Myers, mindless but muscular men of similar age, before Mae met the much older, semi-sophisticated, plain-featured, physically stout and financially stouter Roger Kabb. She soon became intrigued by his submissive acquiescence, his passive yet pleasant demeanor, his genuine sincerity and his casual generosity. In the end, he was just a goofy old good guy who made her laugh, frequently and with ease, an accomplishment that other men rarely were able to achieve. (Make no mistake – she had laughed AT many men, but silently and with spite.) Her wish was his command, and the go-along-to-get-along guy, flattered to the max by her attentiveness, responded to her every suggestion, request, and demand with “Roger that”.
It was reported that Fred Myers got off-the-charts drunk on New Year’s Eve, 1988, and drove his ‘84 Dodge Daytona Turbo into an overpass bridge support on I-4 at 84 MPH, just outside of Daytona Beach. A fiery explosion followed and after the flames were extinguished, the charred car and driver were both declared deceased. The remains of the badly-burned body were cremated (Ted negotiated a 50% discount because Fred was already half-baked upon delivery) and his ashes strewn unceremoniously into the sea by his sibling from the end of the Daytona Beach Pier. No services, no eulogy, no tears. When Mae heard about Fred’s inescapable but flashy departure from Handyman Services, she told Ted that Fred would have appreciated the irony of totaling his Daytona after totaling himself IN Daytona. “Too soon for jokes, Mae, too soon. But I sure could use some consoling later tonight, if you can get away from Roger Rabbit.”
Roger Kabb had delighted in purchasing a hard-to-find, low-mileage 1984 VW Alpine white Rabbit Convertible from a barmaid named Binky after seeing a Disney movie not longbefore Fred’s demise. He thought buying the thing as a weekend getaway car was a hip move for a guy his age (“Just call me Roger Rabbit!”), but Mae considered it a frivolous waste of money and scolded Roger, telling him that such folly was indefensible and beneath his dignity. Later, during one of the occasional aforementioned dalliances Mae indulged in whenever Roger rubbed her the wrong way, she almost split a gut after hearing herself tell Ted that the tacky little car was beneath Roger at the very moment she herself was beneath Ted. Unable to rise to the occasion, his mood shatteredby her spontaneous fit of laughter, Ted was confused, clueless and downright offended. Figurative imagery was not his strong suit. “Mae” oui.
Though she had declined Ted’s invitation the night after Fred’s passing (at 84 mph, he likely passed plenty of others before he passed himself), Mae very much wanted to indulge him after enticing Roger into a promise to make a white knight offer for the former Duck Inn. She was cleverly using her leverage, her visage, and her cleavage to negotiate a favorable deal with Ted on Roger’s behalf, and with Roger on Ted’s behalf. The note on the property was coming due July 1, and Ted minus Fred had sunk deep into debt. With foreclosure inevitable, and nary an offer in sight, Ted was desperate to sell to avoid bankruptcy.Mae badly wanted to reopen the place with the distinctive aura of her own flair and taste, thus she cooed and wooed Ted into Roger-like submission.The two men disliked each other, so Mae kept them apart and, with the bank’s approval, put the deal together herself, stimulating both men to sign off on it just in time, on June 30, 1989, each in large part to gain further favor with the somewhat mae-gnificent Madelyn King.
As they prepared the property for a new beginning, Roger and Mae briefly sparred over a new name. Roger wanted “The Jolly Roger” or “Kabb Inn’s Kabins”. Apparently, judging by Mae’s eyeball-rolling, head-shaking reaction, both were off the table before even getting on. She axed the former with “It’s not a pirate’s life for me, matey”, but even while gently dismissing the latter option as “a tad too cute”, she did like the play on his name and literally patted him on the belly, which was always a winning play for her. She proposed the simple and concise, “The Kabb Inn,” thus subtly and subconsciously incorporating the presence of the rustic cabins into the name. He dutifully consented after a few minutes of brooding in the bathroom, his go-to place for working things out. Crestfallen after still another surrender to Mae, he abruptly left and absentmindedly hopped around the driveway, Rabbit hunting. She reminded him that it was in the garage, then quickly took charge of preparing the newly-named inn for its Grand Opening on Labor Day weekend. One of the side rooms was being converted into a dance floor with a small stage on the far end for special events, no small task in such a short window of time. The calendar turned as Mae worked her butt to the bone, while Roger reluctantly retreated into the shadows.
Meanwhile, back at Ted’s double-wide at Tara ‘n Tino’s MH Park, the amorous action was absent. The added favor with Mae that he expected to gain by accepting Roger’s lowball offer was lost in time, suspended in space. The truth was she had always preferred her dalliances with younger sibling Fred over those with Ted, and now with the property deal done (and Fred more than well done), she had neither the time nor the inclination to return his calls, much less come calling. Ted started drinking heavily like Fred used to do, and as a result, both he and his struggling business continued to hurl. He often stared into the mirror, which in his case was much like staring into the void, and cursed his lot in life. “Freakin’ Roger Rabbit. Freakin’ Mae King. Freakin’ Kabb Inn.” And then he’d drink some more.
The Grand Opening was a huge success with the locals, and the tourists soon showed up as well. It became Lake Delford’s mae-n gathering place, where townsfolk enjoyed sittin’ and bullshittin’, i.e., gabbin’ at the Kabb Inn – “goin’ gabbin’ tonight, Luther, there’s TV dinners and pistachio puddin’ in the fridge. Don’t wait up.” Ms. King worked tirelessly and hired excellent staff while Roger drove aimlessly around town with his top down, honking his horn and waving at old couples and single ladies. As planned, Ms. Mae soon became the ever-present face of the establishment. While sometimes guilty of getting carried away with all the attention she mustered hot-dogging for the guys in the bar, she relished her role and regaled in it. There were frequent vacancies at the small, nondescript cabins during the relentless Florida summers but her marketing skills always resulted in them being sold out for the entire Winter season at very profitable rates. Screened porches, gas grills, clean linens and proximity to the Interstate sat just fine with the snowbirds migrating down from D.C. and points north.
The place turned a profit by the end of the second year, and Mae King cashed in. The former princess of persuasion vaingloriously promoted and immersed herself in the dual sobriquets of Red Queen of the Inn and Blue Belle of the Bar. Roger begrudgingly faded more and more into the background, a minimized and emasculated man, while Ted drank, spouted jabberwocky, and cussed his neighbors, theirkids and their kittens, leading to aggressive admonishments from testy Tara and shaky threats of eviction from timid Tino. Ted missed misbehaving with his brother, felt cheated with the sale price and subsequent success of the Inn, and often fantasized that if Roger was out of the picture, he and Mae could somehow pair up again and he might even become co-owner, and change the name to MaeTed (“Mated”) Manor. Ted thus had a vision, he just needed a plan … and maybe one more beer. –
Upon reaching the age of 70 on March 15th, 1992, Roger Kabb decided to officially retire from doing nothing and pursue the aspirations included in what he called his “free man’s bucket list”. “Free man” was a jab at the controlling Keeper of his Inn, Head of his Household, and Ruler of his Realm, though he wisely excluded that part when explaining the rationale behind his game plan. When he carried on about it, the guys in the back bar razzed him and rode him. He persisted, and insisted it might catch on someday. Mae patted him, on the head this time, and said, “Really, sweetie, that stuff’s out of your comfort zone. You don’t know jack nickels about chasing rabbits, much less chasing dreams. Stay home and write stories about going to the places and doing the things on that campy, lowbrow , kitschy list of yours, because your porch light is fading and your headlights are flickering. You’re incapable of traveling alone these days. I might give it a bit of a go in a few years (she choked on those words) because you’ve been good to me, but I’m engaged to the inn right now, so no can do.”
Belittled, patronized, and long since tired of gathering dust on Her Mae-jesty’s Machiavellian mantelpiece, Roger sold his share of The Kabb Inn to her at a conciliatory price with the one condition that the name remain unchanged. She had no problem with that because the locals all referred to it as “Mae’s Place” anyway. She gave him a cashier’s check for both the Inn and the house, then casually but callously wished him well. Her last words to him were fatefully flippant, telling him to “shoot me a postcard now and then”. He saw her flippancy by flipping her off and raised her one, smugly bidding her an overdue adieu and a silent Eff You. The forsaken Mr. Kabbthen loaded up the Rabbit and hit the highway, never to be seen again. A barmaid not named Binky once asked if anyone at the Inn had heard from “the bucket guy” but everyone just figured that he kicked it before reaching Kentucky. They named a triple-shot after him – the “Roger That” – at the lady’s tongue in cheek request. Sold well for several years out there at Mae King’s place.
Ted Myers probably should have buried the hatchet with Roger and rode shotgun with him on the latter’s way out of town, doubling as his wingman and bucket list buddy. After numerous unsuccessful and downright humiliating attempts to lure Mae back in, he had abandoned the smoldering embers of his business, sold his double-wide and left for parts unknown. Tara and Tino and the kids and kittens at the Park could finally rest in peace, thankfully while still above ground.
As for Mae, was it mentioned that she was intelligent, shrewd, and manipulative in financial and personal affairs? Her assets continued to grow, and were now impressive by any measure. She was sole owner of the Inn, owned her own home, had beaucoup bucks and a bountiful bustline that lasciviously lured in a wide array of unsuspecting, upscale gentleman callers. They bought her this and that and some of those, but it was never enough. Next man up! She was the pearl in her own oyster and she filleted her own fish. When she walked into the restaurant, or entered the bar, or strolled past the cabins, she did so to cheers of “Maaaae”. She felt like Norm in that TV show. Life had dealt her a great set of . . . cards, and she played them well. Subliminal Poker was indeed the name of her game. Rephrasing Kenny Rogers, she knew when to hold men and knew when to fold men. She never walked away from the game, but she always cashed in her chips, this lady in red.
1998 had reached its expiration date and 1999 was biddingto burst in with a bang. The Queen of the Inn had the final festive touches in place for a high-spiritedNew Year’s Eve celebration. All of the cabins were booked, the pantry and bar were well stocked and Roger That’s would go for half price all night. Still fabulous at 45, an energetic and enterprising Mae looked as good as ever. The cards kept coming, and after a Royal Flush, the lady was prepped to party, psyched to the max with Aces and Jacks. And those six-inch blue stilettos paired with that dazzling red dress laid out on her bed, well, ding, dong, the Belle would gong tonight.
But somewhere in the back of her mind, an unsettling tingling arose. What the hell was that? It was like there was an incoherent intrusion trying to find a nesting place. She shook it off, but it kept coming back as the dinner hour drew near.
In town to find some noisemakers, i.e., a half-dozen guys from the Elks Club, she ran into the soft-spoken but sulky and sullen Carrie Butler, who quickly reminded Mae that it was the tenth anniversary of the day her fiancé, ne’er-do-well Harry Howe, a drifter who was fresh out of the lower ranks of the Navy and a relative newcomer to Lake Delford, had vanished on the night of his bachelor party over in Daytona Beach. Carrie never got to marry Harry, and never got over it. She was convinced he got cold feet or hooked up with a “hookah” or some such thing and had gone back home to Jersey. Mae had forgotten the story, probably because it was overshadowed in town by the violent death of Fred Myers and the quirky death of a beloved old lady on that very same night. Mae made the mistake of recalling Fred’s demise out loud, and Carrie exploded in resounding rage. “Fred Myers? That rat turd pig went to the strip joint with the guys. Knowing what a Lothario he was, he’s probably the one that talked my man into running for the hills. Fred effin’ Myers. Glad he fried. Bet he cried. Hope he suffered before he died. Well, gotta get home before the drunks come out. Have a nice New Year’s, Mae.” Whoaaaa, reckoned Ms. King ( stunned that Carrie knew what a Lothario was, and now second-guessing her own past dalliances with a rat turd pig), didn’t see that one coming, but she’d make a good offset to the Elks Club guys tonight. Hope she shows up and we can get someone to yell “Fred Myers” at the stroke of midnight. She’d blow a fuse and do the Wham Bam Slam right into 1999!
Surprisingly though, Mae immediately regretted those thoughts, rued her rudeness, repented, and at least pretended to ask the universe for forgiveness. Just minutes later, however, she was bored already with the reverence thing and regretted feeling regret in the first place. Freakin’ Sad Sack Carrie Butler – oh, please, woman, get a grip. Then, with her stylishly-tousled, blue-streaked hair extensions (to match her stilettos) swaggering seductively in the light December wind, the Lady headed home to put on the daring red dress that was destined to turn heads and tempt fate.
Hours later, the evening was going wonderfully well at The Kabb Inn. The food was great, the bar patrons were boisterous but well-behaved, and Mae had red velvet whoopie pies delivered to the guests in the cabins. The band played, songs were sung, the dancers swayed, bells were rung, everyone stayed, and all felt young. The Red Queen of the front & The Blue Belle of the back exuded euphoria and ecstasy. She commanded the room, a rose in full bloom. Blitzed, bombed, bawdy and ballsy, she was making out at the Kabb Inn as the countdown to midnight began. As it got louder and the big ball on the five television screens was starting to drop – “EIGHT, SEVEN,” – that tingling in the back of Mae’s mind not only returned, but did so with a vengeance in the form of a thundering flashes of crimson lightning that teed her up and drove her into the rough. Aptly, “FORE” was likely the last word she heard, as that’s where the counting stopped on a dime at that moment in time.
The sound of gunshots cut through the countdown and chaos quickly ensued. Two hooded figures were seen running brazenly out the back door, but not a soul gave immediate chase. Both wore full-face Mardi Gras style masks, which were part of the New Year’s Eve tradition at the Kabb, thus no one could describe them, a hurdle heightened with everyone at the former Duck Inn duckin’ for cover in the panic and hysteria that rippled through the rooms. Finally, as the immediate shock of the moment subsided, Tara and a few manly men stepped up and ran outside in blind pursuit, but all they saw were red taillights fading into the distance. 9-1-1 calls were placed and the pursuers clumsily piled into a car and a truck and raced into the darkness, but alas, the perps and the taillights had merged into the murky night.
Back at the Kabb Inn, shrieks and cries melded with stunned silence and sobs. Few saw the ball drop and no one cared. The scene was horrific, the patrons horrified. The boozed-up band, in the spirit of the Titanic’s musicians, ignored the clamor and continued to play “Auld Lang Syne,” but no cups o’ kindness were raised in good cheer. The organist hauled ass when he heard someone scream “call the police”. Old habits die hard too.
Word spread fast. At a little past 6:30 AM, almost an hour before sunrise, locals gathered at the Breakfast Barn downtown. An Orlando television station was going live to a news conference taking place in Marion County. Officials announced the 3:20 AM capture of two male suspects and an ongoing hunt for a third. “Police believe that each of the three men fired one shot into the back of the head of Madelyn King, 45, of Lake Delford, killing her instantly. Ms. King is the owner of The Kabb Inn down there in friendly Lake Delford, where the tragic event took place during a large gathering of some sort last night. The two captured men have been identified as brothers Theodore Myers, 48, and Frederick Myers, 44, both of Smyrna, up in Tennessee, not to be confused with New Smyrna Beach over near Daytona.
Sobs of anguish and gasps of disbelief ricocheted off the plastered dry walls of the eatery.
The Myers brothers arrest aside, it was suddenly clear to the sharper tools in the Barn why Harry Howe had never come home to marry Carrie Butler. Dang. (But on the upside, as a Navy man, Harry must have felt right at home riding the waves once again as he was scattered into the Atlantic.)
The official wasn’t done: “The suspects’ sedan popped a tire near that big dairy farm, you know the one, hopped off the roadway, and burrowed into a deep manure pit, where our officers found them knee-deep in dung, laughing like fools and jabbering like drunken idiots, which they apparently are. They offered little information about the third man, who they say approached them at a Nashville strip club and offered a big wad, which we think means a lot of money, to join him in what seemed to them a harebrained plot to kill Ms. King right in front of her cohorts, which is not a dirty word. Saying their lives sucked anyway so why not, they described that man, who goes by the dumbassaliases of Jolly Roger and Roger Rabbit, as a pasty-skinned, hairy-eared, goofy old guy from Loo-a-ville. That’s in Kentucky, ya know. The alleged assailants insist that the two handguns now in police custody were each fired only once into the victim, who was struck by three bullets. They said that the driver, the Jolly Rabbit guy, felt sick and pulled his car over on State Road 40, east yonder of Ocala, right near where the Hasty Freeze used to be before an alligator bit that little kid. He left the keys, grabbed a gun from that console thing between the seats, and made a weakened getaway into the woods near Mill Dam Lake. The public is cautioned that he is said to be off-kilter and batshit crazy, excuse my French, and is definitely armed and presumed dangerous. We have that entire area surrounded and believe his arrest is a-comin’. We’ll let y’all know
what’s what when it’s all figured out.”
And now it was also very clear why no one had received word of Roger Kabb’s assumed demise somewhere on the Road to Nowhere, a.k.a Bucket List Boulevard. (No sirree, naysayers at the Inn, the bucket guy had definitely NOT “kicked it before reaching Kentucky”.)
As the group struggled to digest and make sense of the report, an entirely different goofy old guy entered and saw the bewildered, shocked expressions, the anger and tears of people he had known for years. He heard someone murmur, “I can’t believe she was murdered like that, it’s so awful.” “What? A woman was murdered, right here in Lake Delford?”, he asked in disbelief. Silent nods confirmed the news. “Who was she?” Folks looked away. Seemed no one wanted to break the heart of the kindly old fellow. “Speak up, people, who was she? Tell me.”
Three women hemmed and one man, well, he hawed.
Finally, a well-ordered waitress gently pulled him close and tipped him off. “They all know that you knew her well, Mr. Wright. I’m sorry to tell you that “she” was … Mae King, out at the Kabb Inn.”
(Though truly saddened by the news, he fondly recalled the time that he and the late Mrs. Wright were caught making out at the cabin at Camp Hickey the summer before the war, when they were both fifteen, even though they knew in their hearts they were dancing to the beat of Satan’s drum. He forced himself to suppress a smile, not wanting to appear disrespectful seeing how Ms. King was probably being dissected in a lab right about then. The latter image brought a welcome tear to his eye, and the waitress pressed the old-timer’s head to her bosom to comfort him. “Dang, girlie”, he thought, “how am I supposed to look sad with those things in my face?” He bit his lip real hard so he wouldn’t laugh but it got impaled on his tooth and caused him to begin crying full-out sloppy tears. Perfect. But he was now certain he was going to hell when his ticker took a breather, though that thought was assuaged somewhat by the prospects of seeing the Mrs. again. Mr. Wright may have been a tad old, you see, but even though he was already projecting about his last ride on the bus, unlike poor Madelyn, he wasn’t dead yet.)
As dawn flickered through the Ocala National Forest, an exhausted Roger Kabb, after frequent stops to pee and sit a bit, heard the sounds of bullhorns and barking K-9’s getting nearer to his final resting place on a decaying pine log. Swarms of deeply disturbed fire ants had emerged from opposite ends of the log and merged into one agitated army, surreptitiously surrounding him. The agitated insects then blew their cover, incessantly invading his space, catching his eye. He stared down at the frenzied freaks and whispered “What are you bozos lookin’ at? SHOOT ME a postcard, she said. Well, I met her halfway on that one, didn’t I. Her call. Three strikes and no balls and she’s out. Game over. So you deviant miscreants can just bite me.” And they did.
Undeterred, he pulled a pen and a faded, folded paper from his shirt pocket, spread the coffee-stained sheet open, scrawled a shaky check mark into one of the last two boxes he had added only six weeks earlier, crumpled the paper into a clump, and tossed it five feet forward, where it was certain to be discovered, scrutinized, analyzed and interpreted by some arrogant young know-it-all forensics dweeb. “You can analyze the crap out of this but you still won’t know jack nickels, son, about this Free Man’s Bucket List of mine. Just you wait though, sometime soon, everyone will. People will talk about it, share it, maybe make one of their own,”he mused, amused. Despite the anguish of ants gnawing at his ankles and Johnny Law closing in on him, he inhaled a deep dose of brisk morning air, held it, savored it, then surrendered it, fittingly setting it free.
He hummed a few bars of Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” grimaced, then grinned like the Cheshire Cat as he recalled the two lines that summed up the last chapter of his life. Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure if he could quote them to the surging, six-legged, sadistic stingers due to copyright laws, which bummed him out. Checkmated, he wished for words of his own, but none came.
After retrospectively peering through his looking glass from his vantage point, and assuming the unhinged Roger’s posthumous blessing, the writer offers the following lines to succinctly summarize the subject and substance of the story as set forth this day herein:
“Ding, Dong, the Queen’s Inn Red . . . King’s cold and dead . . . her wily head, filled with lead . . . daring dress matched the shade she bled . . . engaged to the Inn but left unwed . . . reached for the stars, but saw them instead . . . the White Knight upped and fled . . . twitched like a rabbit down the road ahead . . . his headlights dimmed and his mind just sped . . . his last list lost, overlooked, unread . . . Fred returned and was declared undead . . . he and Ted were jailed and pled, wet the bed with their watershed, overwrought and underfed . . . three dull needles hung by a thread . . . each wrapped tight in the spite she spread . . bringing up the rear while the cold Miss led . . . she did herself in with the shit she shed . . . none could remember what the dormouse said . . . Hatter 1’s too Mad to ease their dread . . . Hatter 2’s underground from laced cornbread . . . the ’84 Turbo’s cheap retread, slid in the rain like a downhill sled . . . it’s Howe he descended from a-hole to a-shred . . . all checked out with the Grace of Zed . . . and Carrie wrote a book that the whole town read.”
The jig was up, the chips were down, her hare left home, his rabbit left town. In full view of the cops and the dogs that were almost upon him, this Kabb was out of gas as he raised the gun to the rising sun with just enough breath, strength, tenacity and time to finish that final countdown from where it left off at the Inn that bore his name – “THREE, TWO, ONE . . .
He got it, alright. But it was no joke.
Maybe Mae had been right.
Maybe he should have stayed home and written stories. Like this one.
The inside scoop, filling in the blanks, the rest of the story! The light fluff first, then the heavy stuff.
The Mad Hatter (“Hatter 1”) and the Cheshire Cat remain in a time loop and are presumed to be doing well. Alice Liddell’s White Rabbit (not to be confused with Binky’s-then-Roger’s white Rabbit) lives on in lore, but has gone blind and can no longer tell time. Gary Wolf’s Roger Rabbit, divorced by the Mae-like Jessica, paired up with a fox named Mona from Arizona, and they moved to Allbunny, NY, where they had hairy human triplets. Thankfully, all resemble Mona, even the boy.
Hank Hatter Jr. (“Hatter 2”), whose bitter, baneful butter bowl set off the events chronicled here, was buried while wearing a white cowboy hat adorned with the letters “HH” in gold thread – just like his father before him. There was no Hank III or Henrietta. His fish couldn’t swim and his knock-kneed wife ran away with a damn Yankee from Vermont. And then he began to run with the two-faced Myers Brothers, lost his way, and had to pay. Poor Hank.
Grace Barnett Wing Slick, now 82, was tagged with two “Queen” titles of her own during her career. She has one child, a daughter named China, who is now age 51. The band on the dance floor stage was cranking out her “Somebody to Love” just minutes before the fatal countdown began at the Inn on 12-31-98. (You just can’t make this stuff up.)
Jack “Nickels” Nicholson and Morgan FreeMan, both 85, are reportedly still pursuing their own individual bucket list items, as time allows. Freeman is still going strong in Hollywood while Nicholson has been pretty much inactive since 2010. But we’ll always have “Here’s Johnny!”
Zed’s dead, baby, Zed’s dead. He went out with a bang and his passing was well short of graceful, but his Harley proved to be Butch and Fabienne’s saving Grace. “Whose motorcycle is this? What happened to my Honda?” (Tara ‘N Tino’s “Pulp Fiction” has a Honey Bunny in it – rabbit fan fare.)
Mrs. Wright had passed away at the dinner hour on New Year’s Eve, 1988, alone in her bedroom, after choking on a three-layer whoopie pie with extra cream filling. Sweet to the bitter end, she was. Mr. Wright was away in Daytona Beach that evening “celebrating something” with some of the younger guys from town. (Rumor was he had been hookah-huntin’ with the boys.)
Mr. Wright missed the Mrs. but remained mischievous right up until his last ride on the porcelain bus in 2004. He and Mrs. Wright had no children or living siblings, so he curiously left an $8,000 certificate of deposit to the bald guy who owned Babe’s Bakery – the source of that whopper of a whoopie pie to which she was fatally attracted. The coroner said her blood alcohol level was off the charts and she was so badly impaired she should never have been allowed to drive that whoopie pie down her throat without supervision. On his death bed, Mr. Wright confessed to the ICU nurse that he had once touched Mae’s left breast from behind (when Mae was still alive, just to be clear) and another guy standing next to him paid the price. He asked if he might still go to heaven and the nurse told him she doubted it. He took his last breath with his middle finger extended.
Tara and Tino Quentin and their six children are alive and residing in Waco, Texas. They sold the MH park for good bucks and headed West. The kids all got married to non-family members and have children of their own. Quite a Qlan, all of them living on the same six acres. T &T occasionally toast Ted with shots of bourbon and “coke” and send him greeting cards in the slammer with smiley faces on them.
Navy vet Harry Norman Howe could have learned a valuable life lesson when he asked Fred if he could borrow his car while drunk to the nines – had he not nodded off at 84 mph. With too much beer on the brain, he really was having second thoughts about marrying stick-in-the-mud Carrie and may not have gone through with it anyway after returning home. She had a nice rack, sure, but she always wanted to stay home and watch sitcoms and play with her two black cats. So the nomadic young man got plastered, much like the walls of the Breakfast Barn, and then got behind the wheel and got plastered all over again 11 minutes later. His ashes got a brief reprieve in the cool Atlantic waters before being inhaled by the fishes in the months that followed. The crash was reported at 11:44 PM on 12-31-88. He was so intoxicated that had he just waited at the club for the midnight celebration, he might have passed out, got deposited in an alley by the bouncers, slept it off, and never got behind the wheel that night. He then may have realized that a good, albeit boring, woman with a nice rack is hard to find, returned home and married Carrie and lived a long and more-or-less contented life. Their 20th anniversary cake might have read “Carrie and Harry – N. Howe !” Damn shame, for sure.
Carrie Butler’s first and only book, “Howe: He Lost,” had sold 8,464 copies as of December, 2012. It was a 177-page paperback Peyton Place wannabe that focused more on twenty years worth of Lake Delford scandals and gossip than on her near-marriage to Mr. Howe. Because it was a fictional piece, everyone got new first and last names except her former fiance’, whose last name was preserved for her chosen title. But instead of Harry Howe, a Navy vet, he became Sammy Howe, a former Marine. Her spinster days ended on July 4th, 2003, when she married . . . (drum roll) . . . Dick Johnson, the bald guy who owned Babe’s Bakery. Her book, which “the whole town read,” didn’t make waves outside of the county. But despite it airing plenty of local dirty laundry, she became a cause célèbre of sorts and evolved into a more outgoing and less bitter woman. Dick ‘n Carrie’s “BIg Fat Whoopie Pies,” billed as being “filled with passion and pride,” became a fixture at the inn, where they sold for half price every New Year’s Eve. The book, incidentally, via it’s inside scoops, was able to rehabilitate Roger Kabb’s reputation (poor guy’s mind was blown, and that cancer thing, how awful), while demonizing Madelyn “Mae” King (her mind was blown too, of course, but all that “shit she shed!” No lady, she. Calling the inn “Mae’s Place” became lame, uncouth and very uncool, and was sure to draw a scornful glare and a much-deserved finger wag. In the end, Freakin’ Sad Sack Carrie Butler Johnson did indeed get a grip, while Mae King was the one doing the Wham Bam Slam right into 1999. For Ms. King, turned out karma really is a bitch, and then some.
Now, more than 23 years after they did the dirty deed and were incarcerated for life with no chance of parole, the Myers Brothers are separated again, after accepting plea deals to avoid Florida’s death penalty at Raiford. Fred died a bitter man in 2012 from liver cancer, leaving Ted behind for the second time. Ted, now 71, has long been a model prisoner and is actually remorseful for his role in the death of Mae King. All three shots were fired simultaneously, two by Ted who held his own gun in his right hand and Roger’s gun in his left hand. Fred fired the other shot. They couldn’t miss as they were standing side-by-side directly behind her, fully-masked, at the moment of impact. Ted still tells himself that Fred fired a split second before he did and thus rationalizes that Fred’s bullet killed her while his two were just window dressing and really didn’t matter when all was said and done. When the brothers returned to the getaway car with Roger waiting at the wheel, Ted laid Roger’s gun in the center console and the car accelerated into the night. So the original report that the guns taken from the brothers at their shit-pit arrest had only fired two of the three shots, and that Roger had exited the vehicle with the third gun in hand, was accurate. It was obvious that Kabb was too frail and slow to go in with them and do his own dirty work, so the brothers felt their best chance of getting away clean was to stick him in the getaway driver role. Things were going great until Roger unexpectedly (to them) pulled the car over saying he was sick, grabbed his gun and left them with a generous amount of cash in the car. He disappeared into the night, not knowing that Ted, in the front passenger seat, was close to shooting him in the back for running out on them. Likewise, neither brother ever knew that before he pulled over, Roger contemplated shooting both of them as soon as he picked up his gun. “Three dull needles hung by a thread.”
Fred, knowing the business was going downhill and hankering for a new start with hairdresser Hillary Horney from Haines City, gladly handed the uninsured Daytona’s keys to Harry and hitched a ride to Winter Haven from a scary-looking woman while Harry was still in the club. When he heard what happened on the news, that he himself was no longer among the living, he saw an opening, bought a junker, scooped up Hillary and the pair headed to Ohio, where her girlfriend lived, assuming the names Jeff and Joanne Jenkins. Fred bragged he was “gonna put the Sin in Cincinnati.” Turns out Hillary’s girlfriend was, well, actually her girlfriend, and Fred wandered aimlessly into Kentucky and on down to Tennessee, working odd jobs and lamenting the loss of his Turbo. He had planned to get hold of Ted at some point and tell him he still had a pulse, but didn’t get around to it for a few years. When he finally did contact Ted, the latter was persona non grata back in Lake Delford and took off to join his brother without telling anyone. The brothers formed another handyman business in Murfreesboro and had pretty well screwed that one up too when one Roger Kabb suddenly stood before them on Black Friday night, 1998, in that strip club. Kabb, slow-witted and semi-senile at 76, appeared emaciated and on his last legs as he lured them into his devious plan with his last remaining wads of cash. ( I know, you want to know how Roger found them, right? Fred had dropped the Jeff Jenkins ID and these two clowns were operating under their real names, and Roger found them by looking in Tennessee phone books after a tip from his longstanding contact person (snitch) at the Inn, a guy who also stayed in touch with Ted after he left town, and who kept Roger apprised of all of Mae’s activities. Roger told the brothers he was dying (which he was) and had just added a two-part grand finale to his free man’s bucket list. Roger had visited 68 strip clubs since leaving Lake Delford years earlier, and it was there, in #69, that he scored for the first time in years. Three miserable human beings with nothing left to lose, and all three had been screwed, in some form or another, by Madelyn “Mae” King and her red tresses. It was “go time.”
There was a time when news that “the rabbit died” was greeted with either joyous applause or gloom and despair. Here, it was left up to the reader to assess whether Roger’s Rabbit died somewhere along his yellow brick road or if it was in fact the getaway car. Word is that neither was the case. His Rabbit was found in a Louisville parking garage after his death. It was not only alive but it was well. Neither of the brothers wanted to use one of their vehicles and Roger feared that, even almost seven years since he left, driving through town and pulling into the Inn’s parking lot in that easily-recognized thing might draw someone’s attention and wreck the plan. So he bought a red 1985 Chevy Cavalier beater from a used-car dealer for $500 and told the brothers they could keep it if they got back. Neither liked that “if” part, but hey, it was as good as the crap cars they were driving, so they went with the plan, not knowing that Roger had no intention whatsoever of making the return trip, no matter how things played out. Despite his demented state, Roger had left a will, and the Rabbit, per his wishes, reverted back to its original owner, Binky. He also left Binky a huge amount of cash he had stowed away in a safe deposit box back in nearby Deltona. She used the money to buy the Inn and re-named it . . . “The Jolly Roger Inn” because, you see, it WAS a pirate’s life for her, matey. Binky and her life partner hired “Big Ruby Red,” a Mae King-like presence with the same big-as-life personality to pull in the customers but with none of Mae’s negative attributes, to run the place and restore its status as the go-to, social center of the town. Folks gathered and once again shot the shit nightly in the “Bucket List Bar Room” in the back. One might say that Mae left a mess, and Binky cleaned up. $$$$$
With the demise of Mae, Roger Kabb was able to check off that second-to-last, recently-added box on his bucket list. He left the final box – his own death – unchecked, though he knew at that moment it seemed both inevitable and imminent. Why not just check the box before tossing the paper away? Why not afford himself such closure? Because he remembered the emptiness he felt when he had checked off the last box on his original list two months earlier. He wanted to feel alive until he wasn’t. Planning his and Mae’s deaths rejuvenated him at a time he was both physically and mentally beyond sick. It gave him a raison d’être. His lowest moment had been checking off that last box and being left without a purpose. He vowed not to do it again, thus never had any intention of checking that box come hell or high water. And there was one more reason. Sitting there on that log, he knew he was a weak man in more ways than one. Despite being determined not to, he was acutely aware that he could, he might, surrender himself peacefully, belying any such checkmark. Roger aside, do you or I really want to check off everything on our own bucket list? Or would it be best to always have one or two items left to pursue, at whatever cost, to keep our edge, to keep us hungry, to keep us feeling alive?
And one last point to ponder: “In full view of the cops and the dogs that were almost upon him . . . he raised the gun to the rising sun” before resuming the countdown.
After the edited-down version appeared in the Mensa Bulletin, I received feedback from a few very perceptive readers that either questioned or assumed exactly what happened when he completed the countdown. Clearly, he had been successful in rejecting surrender. But had he simply raised the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger? Or did he raise the gun and fire just to draw fire, perhaps into the ground or at the the top of the trees, in the general direction of the approaching cops, knowing they would immediately and instinctively do for him what he didn’t have the courage to do for himself. Either way, Roger Kabb ended his own story and got the last word while controlling the onset and the origin of the closing “BAROOOOM.”He raised the gun and counted down to “One.” And then . . .
Honestly, if I knew, I would tell you.
12:02 AM, January 1, 1999 at The Kabb Inn, Lake Delford, FL:
7:08 AM, January 1, 1999, off SR 40, southeast of Silver Springs, Ocala National Forest, FL:
Three hundred youngsters, grades 2 through 8, were sizing up the 27 transfer students in their respective classes, an annual appraisal exercise that was silly and superficial on its surface, but for those being assessed, it was an inevitable rite of passage that went with the territory. For pretty girls and cute boys, approval was a breeze, a piece of cake, a walk in the park. For the less-blessed-rest, for the enigmatic and the divergent, the process was at best uncertain and unsettling, and at worst hurtful and occasionally humiliating. It took no more than three school days for the seven juvenile juries to come in with their first 12 up-or-down, in-or-out, verdicts (the obvious ones, of course), with the remainder to be evaluated, classified and labeled in the following week or two.
The nine nuns and six lay assistants at Mercy Academy pretended to be unaware of this misguided and unsavory ritual, but in truth most were fine with it. “Builds character, ”said one sister to another. “What does?” “You know, that thing they do.” “Which thing?” “The building character thing.” “I’m not aware of that.” Then they both laughed and started whacking each other’s knuckles with wooden rulers, getting their snap back after a sleepy, stagnant summer. No malice intended, just a harmless, heavenly habit. It was great fun to be a nun in 1958.
By the end of the following week, 14 more newbies had been categorized by a makeshift panel of their peers. (Peer was a snicker word back then to pre-adolescent boys. “That Ernie Beck’s quite the peer. He ate a whole Snickers bar while taking a whizz. Saw it myself. Scout’s honor.”)
And that left but one – an undersized, bespectacled fifth-grader whose family migrated north to New Hampshire from down Marblehead way, an area where witchy women were flying high almost three centuries before the Eagles sang about them. Buoyant and spunky, he walked fast and talked faster. Sported Weejun penny loafers while the other guys at Mercy dragged the hallways in clunky Buster Browns and Poll-Parrots. Carried a conductor’s pocket watch while they wore Davy Crockett wristwatches. (Some would eventually discover he wore Keds and a Crockett coonskin cap on the weekends.) Seemed studious, smiled easily, blended in pretty well. One of the pretty girls said she saw him take his glasses off and his eyes were so sparkly blue they “looked like cat’s eye marbles!”
Classmate “None Meana” Regina snidely snorted and sneered, then tossed her catty two cents in, as always. “By George, you just wait, Bad Billy’s gonna marbleize that fancy-faced marble-head from Marblehead till he loses his marbles.” (Mean girls, much like Linda Ronstadt’s love, have been around for a long, long time.) The boy heard about the triple zinger and fluffed it off, graciously calling it cute and clever, thereby balming the burn from the toxic-tongued terror. Flabbergasted and speechless (for once), as well as curious, she subtly gazed into those eyes and found herself mesmerized, just like the pretty girl. Her fire doused and her sting neutralized, she metamorphosized and normalized, sympathized and empathized, socialized and harmonized – emerging as one more Mercy miracle. The road (rather than a bus) rose up to meet her, and a reformed Regina soon was mean-a no more-a.
After Billy and a couple of other sixth-graders tested the tenderfoot’s manhood by repeatedly punching him in both arms, expecting him to snivel or run or both, he won cheers and respect from onlookers by thumping the three of ‘em right back. Hard, quick, relentless. Spunky. The new kid from Massachusetts was deemed to be utterly unflappable and strikingly savvy.
He had also gained an air of mystery for two quirky reasons, the first being his given name was Michel, pronounced just like the female Michelle. (The tale of a boy named Sue was at that time still just a floating lyric in the back of Shel Silverstein’s head, so it’s life lesson was still somewhere over the rainbow.) His last name was the quite proper, very English, James – a surname that was an ocean apart from the miserable Valjean, Gervais and Gavroche factory families living in poverty and darkness up on Gorbeau Hill, in the Portlake section of town.
The boy later explained that before he was born, his mother assumed she’d have a girl named Michelle while his father anticipated a boy named Michael. When he popped out on a very cold November night, to the fleeting delight of the guy who sired him, his quick-witted mother led said sire, aka her husband, into accepting the male spelling of Michelle by extolling upon the virtue of compromise and pointing out that Michel was in fact the French version of his favored Michael. “Michel will set him apart,” she asserted. You got that right, he thought to himself. Still, he begrudgingly acquiesced because he loved the lady and had long since learned that compromise was often a winning play for him, in a myriad of ways that revealed themselves at unexpected but opportune times.
In the years that followed, however, he would often wink and call his son Michael or Mike when his wife wasn’t around. The kid played along and took it in stride, always winking back to assure timely delivery of his weekly allowance. Now and then, however, hubby would defiantly “Michael him” right in front of his wife and she would simply say “Comme ci, comme ça. N’est-ce pas, Henri?” And then gleefully wink at both of them. Whenever the Mrs. threw French phrases at Henry James, he lamented losing his high-school crush, Daisy Miller, to his cousin Jesse. In response to her good-naturedly blinking away his bait, he would shrug, snatch a package of Hostess SnoBalls from the pantry, seize his Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and plop down on the living room couch. “Henri, my ass,” he’d mutter under his breath, before attacking the pair of pink, marshmallow-frosted, cream-filled beauties. Minutes later, sweetened up, Henry James was smiling again, abandoning the couch to chase the Mrs. around the kitchen table to work off the calories. At least that’s what he told Michel, who enjoyed watching that sort of good-natured parental give-and-take, though he never quite grasped the thrill of the chase – much less the opportune rewards that came with it.
He just knew he liked being their son.
The boy’s second unique characteristic was an obsessive affinity for classic, unadorned marshmallows. He ate them at morning recess, at lunch, at afternoon recess, and after school. Run-of-the-mill white, soft, fluffy, squishy, sweetmeat treats. They were in his pockets, his jacket, his school bag, and when not in class, in his hands. Two fistfuls at a time. The James boy was one focused and folksy fifth-grader who knew a good thing when he ate it.
By the end of that first month at Mercy, he became known to the upper half of the student body as “The Marshmallow Kid.” He proved to be real smart, right neighborly, kept up with the boys, was embraced by the girls, and won accolades from his teachers. The nuns admired his attitude and the lay assistants applauded his acumen. Whenever he took his glasses off and flashed them blues, the girls would coo and the boys would boo, all playful and in good fun, while Michel pretended not to notice, remaining casually cool. “TMK” was indeed a dude that quietly wooed.
It should be noted here that his first name proved to be a complete non-issue to the female students and to the teachers and staff there at the school, as it had been no big deal with anyone back in Marblehead. The NH boys were a bit of a different breed, however, but after the early exchange of punches with Bad Billy and his sidekicks, there was no more needling about being a Michel, at least not to his “fancy face.” A few of the guys playfully called him “Mitch,” but then a few became several, several became many, and many became most. He didn’t care. He was just glad his last name wasn’t Miller.
By the time the holidays arrived, dang near half the kids in school had become marshmallow-addicted wackadoodles, while parents and teachers whistled past the graveyard, a most ill-fated colloquialism. Those munchkins were simply mimicking Michel, an inspiring kid valued by all. He was everything they aspired to be. Granted, he never once shared his marshmallows, not even with the pretty girls, but hey, as Aristotle once noted, and Henry James repeatedly demonstrated, you don’t turn your back on chocolate cake just because the frosting is pink.
Michel James should be celebrating his 73rd birthday in a couple of months.
But he won’t. ___________________________
In the Spring of his seventh-grade year, he was literally running late for the morning bell and took a shortcut across the railroad tracks just behind the schoolyard. He called out triumphantly that he was coming fast and many students turned to urge him onward as he carefully negotiated the embankment that led down to the tracks. Ever judicious, he looked both ways, saw it was clear, but then uncharacteristically raced recklessly forward. Halfway across, he tripped, his head violently striking the last steel rail, killing him instantly in full view of traumatized youngsters that called him their friend.
To divert their attention quickly away from the sight and get them into the school, a stunned Sister Ambrose clutched her rosary in one hand and, with the other, frantically rang what proved to be the mourning bell. In the blink of an eye, under dark gray clouds, they had lost him forever.
His funeral was held in the adjacent church. The students attended en masse, amen.
Every May 10th, for sixty years, two brilliantly-blue cat’s eye marbles appear at his grave, taped to his headstone. As mourning doves coo, his seventh-grade girlfriend toasts Michel James with a “sweetmeat treat”, then turns away – to sigh, to cry, to whisper goodbye – once again.
Alone in remembrance, Regina rests in his peace.
The Marshmallow Kid . . . flashed them blues . . . November 12, 1948 – May 10, 1961.
Wayne Michael DeHart (July, 1997, with July, 2021 edits)
What did Dickens really know about the best of times?
He wasn’t there when I shared Rolos and raindrops, lemonade and laughter, with high-spirited Lisa of auburn hair and evergreen eyes and silken skin, of winsome winks and guilty grins and “love you too”s.
He wasn’t there through ice cream days on Boston Common and campfire nights in New Hampshire forests of pine and balsam and birch, where lurking hugs and lightning bugs danced around the Muse.
And he was never there when fireworks shows, birthday candles and Christmas lights brightened her wondrous world, when county fairs and teddy bears spread her smile from here to there, or in tender times when magic tricks and pick-up sticks chased away her blues.
And what did he know about the worst of times?
He wasn’t there when they told me the reason for her blinding headaches and her dizzy spells and of the eroding effects we would come to know too soon and too well from a miserable, merciless disease.
He wasn’t there that misty Easter morning when a fading Lisa smiled weakly at the pink and yellow marshmallow peeps surrounding her on the colorful down comforter, waved a quiet farewell to the new giant plush rabbit watching over her from a bedside chair, and mouthed an unprompted “love you too” to me one last time before closing her eyes to find what no one sees.
And he was never there those seven weeks when that sad blue bunny and I came to her each day at mourning time to nurse and nurture the withering flowers that fought for life above her, back home in the indifferent shadows of two Bucks County weeping willow trees.
“You need to get on with your own life”, you told me. “The sun will still come up tomorrow”, he told me. “She’s gone to a better place, to be with her mom”, she told me. “She’s looking over your shoulder this very minute”, they told me.
The only person looking over my shoulder is me, and when I do all I see is darkness and disarray and a maze of paths that I’ve too often taken – paths that lead everywhere and nowhere, but never somewhere.
Not long after I wrote the opening lines, I gave the neglected bunny to the neighbor’s kid in Doylestown. Those flowers at her grave are themselves now buried by nature’s hand. I regret that I don’t get there as often as I did at first. “As often?” How about hardly at all. What does that say about me? Seems like there’s a cold rain almost every day, even when there isn’t. Perception rules reality when the world has you on your back.
I am reminded of the song “A Little Fall of Rain” from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables, offered by a dying Éponine to the one she unrequitedly loves:
“Don’t you fret, M’sieur, I don’t feel any pain, A little fall of rain Can hardly hurt me now. You’re here, that’s all I really need to know. And you will keep me safe. And you will keep me close. And rain will make the flowers grow.”
I don’t hear Éponine singing to Marius; I hear a sad, sweet Lisa singing on-key to the guy who was there for her, guided her, embraced the enchantment of the earth with her, through those last four roller coaster years. Somehow she knows he now wistfully wanders through the raindrops he once welcomed, not really seeing them or feeling their energy, as he had when he centered they and them, two spunky inseparables through the best and worst of times. This prolonged state of melancholy has to stop. Must stop. Because the rain does in fact nourish the resilient blooms, the ones that she talked to when no one was looking.
The insight of the innocent often slides past the purview of the myopic, seasoned skeptic. The slings and arrows miss their target, until they don’t. Through it all, the kindhearted kid held the keys, and I just held the door.
The storied sandman who visited the girl at just the right time every evening departed with her. I wrestle the darkness as I await the promise of dawn. Tonight, I’m trying to read myself to sleep with the voluminous book of poetry a knowing friend gave to me when Lisa passed. A wide variety of poets, among the most eminent in verse, and their most notable works can be found between its covers. I really do need to sleep, yet turn to the entries of Robert Frost, an earnest laureate for the masses, a champion of the commoner in each of us. Born in California, he thrived in his new surroundings after his remaining family moved to Massachusetts when he was only eleven, upon the death of his dad from a different merciless disease. Though his breakthrough as a poet came in his London years, he spent most of his adult life residing, farming the fields, roaming the woods, writing prolifically, and teaching in rural areas of New Hampshire and Vermont. Surely he too once experienced walking through Boston Common and the Granite State forests of pine and balsam and birch – just as Lisa did, with me, before the doctor broke the news that broke my heart.
“When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”
Boy? The poet knew not the likes of one lively Lisa girl.
I fell asleep to the familiar, oft-quoted closing line, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” I’ve always liked that. It reminds me of . . . something.
Seven months have passed since Lisa journeyed off and left me behind. The holidays are nigh and I know you will miss her entrance, though not nearly as much as I will. I mean, she was a part of your life too, wasn’t she? She was real to you, she touched your cheek, your hands, your heart, your very being.
You probably knew her by another name. Or too soon will.
I should have felt your hurt back then. But I didn’t know. I didn’t understand. After all, you were just somebody else.
If it’s not too late . . . I’m sorry for your loss.
I have long since set Dickens aside and taken comfort in the inspirational offerings of his countryman William Wordsworth, a true wordsmith with an ever-so-fitting name, who had a Frost-like appreciation of nature and a firm grasp of the depth and fragility of the human spirit. That same book of poetry I mentioned earlier contained a Wordsworth poem I was already familiar with and had been since my very early teens: “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”. I’d like to say it was my academic nature and intellectual curiosity that familiarized me with the following lines, but it was actually a movie that wandered into town – “Splendor in the Grass”.
“What though the radiance which was once so bright Be now forever, taken from my sight, Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower: We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind:”
There are exactly 200 additional lines in the Lake District Romanticist’s classic poem, but these were the words heard whole or in part on three different occasions in that Natalie Wood-Warren Beatty movie. They were emphasized each time, luring a 13/14-year old boy in New Hampshire into searching the back shelves of Gale Memorial Library for the words that came before and the words that came after those I had heard at the Colonial Theater. I’ve since read them many times over. I recited the lines quoted here from memory to maybe 25 girls in my youth, to maybe 25 people I met in my traveling twenties, and dozens more in a variety of circumstances in the decades that followed. But I failed to recite them to the enthralling Miss Lisa, the young girl who really mattered, whether she would have understood them or not.
However, I can tell you that I did in fact read her a different Wordsworth poem one crisp nightfall as she curled up under the covers in her last Springtime. She delighted in hearing “Daffodils” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) because this dear girl loved the sight and smell of flowers of every kind. I wish I had memorized that one and recited it, so I could have watched those evergreen eyes grow wider still as each word and image lingered lazily over her pillows, rather than lifting my own eyes from the page to hers as often as I could without fumbling the flow the poet laid down. I missed so many chances. I missed making so many memories. I missed them because my time with her was destined to be infinite and endless. I convinced myself that, long after my own gravestone had gone green with mold and mildew, she would think of me and come by on my birthday with her grandchildren, bringing untrimmed purple lilacs, unspoken pep talks and maybe an unopened roll of Rolos to toast my memory. I took that liberty because I perceived that nine-year-old kids, both real and imagined, were indestructible and unbreakable small humans who would become all-knowing, remain ever-present, and prove to be everlasting. The untimely loss of Lisa girl brought reality to my doorstep.
A very wise woman who witnessed my decline told me that I would reclaim and retain my intended place in the universe if I just kept watching the mirror. “When the eyes finally meet yours, you’ll know you’re ready.” She was right, of course. They did, and I was. Ready, that is.
(Though you, the reader, have committed no crime here, a long sentence awaits you. Please indulge me in my egregious affront to good grammar, but since it was written in real time as a single, uninterrupted thought in 1997, to do otherwise would be to betray the freewheeling spirit of the girl with the auburn hair.)
Ready to rewind, refocus and rededicate myself to preserving the vivid memory of Lisa’s vivacious visage, attached to the hidden treasure back there under the willows in Bucks County, but personified here, now, in the fresh, clean air that I breathe in deeply as I linger on the resurgent verdant growth of my front lawn in serene silence awaiting the soft afterglow of the sudden hard summer rain and search the sky for the last wave of prismatic droplets which will dance the shower’s celestial finale with a rousing two-step of refraction and revelry that spins below gilded clouds and the glistening glint of an emerging sun as the water vessels paint the horizon in the seven colors of the visible spectrum that band together and tug harmoniously at the delicate strings of doubt and despair that still knot my mind and stomach but which fray and unravel in the humbling presence of the fleeting but rapturous arch that always leads to the storybook gold as it shimmers and glimmers, gleams and glitters, into a brilliant shining reflection in the sparkling green eyes of a laughing Lisa who fills my lungs and surges through my veins each time I inhale her memory and savor the sweetness of moments past and behold a vibrant vision of the refreshing rascal reaching for a ride on a leaning white-barked sapling in the mossy woods of New Hampshire as she gives me one of those whimsical, winsome winks, then smiles, reminding me that one could do worse than be a swinger of birches – or one who dances with the daffodils – in this world, or in the next.
Love you, my lighthearted, high-spirited Lisa.
Soon, I’ll close my own eyes, listen for your “love you too”, and find, as you have, what no one sees.
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?”
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 …)
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 …
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.