Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All the Wrong Places

Lucy sat alone in the middle of the park bench with a briefcase on one side and her umbrella and lunch sack on the other. If the items did not have the desired effect of preventing anyone else from sitting next to her, they would at least provide a buffer zone around her. She nibbled on her cheese sandwich, watching the park activity around her: a group of teenage boys tossing a Frisbee; a couple holding hands and whispering as they strolled down the walkway; an artist sketching a picture of a young woman holding a flower; a mother teasing her children as she helped them feed the ducks; an old man leaning to kiss the temple of the gray-haired woman sitting next to him; and a group of five women talking as they ate lunch together. The park rang with a mix of birds, laughter, and splashing water. Usually, Lucy appreciated the serenity of the park; it was a quiet place to eat her lunch where she did not have to make small talk with her co-workers and could read without interruption. Today, though, she felt unsettled. She tried again to return her attention to her book, but had read no more than three words before the sound of “Jingle Bells” filled the air. She looked up, wondering why a Christmas carol was playing in the middle of September, to see one of the women juggling with a phone, purse, and bag of chips. As soon as the phone was flipped open, the carol stopped. Lucy rolled her eyes – why couldn’t people take the small effort to change the song on their phone to something more appropriate for the season. It wasn’t that difficult. They were just too lazy to bother. As she packed up and headed back to work, it occurred to her that she could not even remember what her cell phone sounded like. She hadn’t heard it ring in over four months – not since the lawyer called to tell her about her grandmother’s will. She wasn’t sure there was even a person still living that knew her number; she only carried the phone with her in case of emergencies.

She opened the door to her building and walked quickly towards her office, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. She closed the door to her office and turned on her computer. Why had she been so unsettled at the park? Sure, the people seemed happy, but she was happy, too. Her life was fine – she had a good job, a nice home – what more did she need? The computer’s flickering screensaver finally caught her attention and she forced herself to focus on her work. That plan worked for ten minutes until a squeal broke the silence in her office. Curious, she got up and cracked open her door. Lucy saw a woman, whose name she should have known, and Mary, who did something with computers, giggling and squealing like teenagers. What’s-her-name was flaunting a diamond on her left hand. Lucy rolled her eyes, but Mary seemed impressed enough for the both of them. Closing her door again, she walked toward her desk, thinking that at least one person should get some work done in this office. As she rounded the corner, her hip bumped the edge of the desk and a picture of her grandmother crashed to the floor, shattering glass and sending half of the gold-flecked, antique frame under the desk and the other half flying into her leg. Ignoring the slight bit of blood on her calf, Lucy immediately bent to retrieve the picture, at the same time wondering why her eyes were blinking back tears. Her leg didn’t hurt that much and this was just a silly picture – nothing to get emotional about. She gently lifted the photo so as not to bend it or cut it on the broken glass and stood, staring at the picture of Grandma Benson. Esther Benson had been the only parent Lucy had ever known. She had told Lucy how her mother had left barely a month after giving birth, claiming that she never wanted to be a mother and she refused to tie herself down when she still had so much to offer, and how her father had struggled to take care of her. He had worked two jobs and they lived above the garage of a friend’s home, but he had never complained. He always said that Lucy was precious to him and he’d do anything for her. After he died in a car accident, Esther decided to raise her granddaughter, knowing it was what her son would have wanted. Lucy was two years old then, and the only memory she had of her parents was an old prom photo Grandma Benson had shown her.

Deciding once again she had better get back to work, Lucy began to pick up the glass, but was distracted by some folded, yellowed pieces of paper that had obviously been kept in between the picture and the backing of the frame. She unfolded the paper to find a letter, written in faded pencil. It began, “To my Beloved.” Beloved? Lucy sat down on the floor in the middle of the broken glass and began to read the letter. It was long, written by her grandmother to the grandfather Lucy had never met.

Lucy had loved her grandmother and felt loved in return, but hugs and kisses were not common in the Benson family and Lucy grew up seldom hearing spoken words of love. And yet, here, in her grandmother’s own handwriting, were sentence after sentence of devotion, passion, and commitment. She had apparently written it shortly before his death to tell him how much she loved him. The letter recounted their wedding day, singing in the Christmas production at church, the birth of their son, vacationing with friends in the mountains, summer potlucks in the town square, and the day the doctor told her that her husband was going to die from cancer. She told him she would never regret a day because of all the joy and love he had given her.

Lucy swallowed hard and leaned her head back against the desk. This didn’t make sense to her. Her grandmother had been a homebody as long as Lucy had known her. She went to church every Sunday morning, but never stayed for Sunday school, and she went to the grocery store every Thursday. That was it. There were no dinners with friends, holiday parties, or chatting with neighbors. So Lucy did the same – no friends, no clubs, no school activities. She had assumed that was the way it had always been for her grandmother. She remained sitting on the floor for a while, but by the time she stood up, she had made a decision – she was going to find herself a husband. If it was good enough for Grandma Benson, it was good enough for her. If a person needed a husband for a complete life, then she was going to go out and get one.


It had been two weeks since Lucy’s decision to find a husband, but so far, things weren’t going well. A few guys had flirted with her and she thought about asking them out. She even got as far as asking one guy if he had plans for the evening, but she hadn’t been able to follow through with the next question, and he hadn’t taken the hint. As she walked towards the park for lunch, she gave herself a pep talk. She needed to be proactive. Why had she chickened out before asking the man for a date? He was nice, good-looking, and funny. What was the worst that could happen? He’d say no and she’d be in the same situation as when she started – no harm or foul. Or maybe the worst would be that he’d say yes. Then she’d have to spend an entire evening in small talk, trying to be charming and pleasant. She hated small talk. Why couldn’t people just talk about real issues without having to dance through the pleasantries first?

Lost in thought, Lucy didn’t notice the man until she slammed into him. He was solid and she bounced off him, landing on the sidewalk.
“Oh wow, are you alright?” He dropped what was left of the hotdog that had been squished between them and bent down to help her. Her butt was throbbing, but there was no way she was going to tell him that.
“Um, yeah, I’m fine, thank you.” He held her hand to help her stand up. While retrieving her briefcase and lunch from the ground, she glanced up and noticed him trying to wipe ketchup off his shirt... at least she thought it was ketchup – there were various smudges and stains of many colors all over the shirt. “I’m so sorry – I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“It’s ok; it was an old paint shirt anyway so it’s not a problem.” She nodded and they stood there staring at each other. Lucy wracked her brain for something to say; she felt really stupid just standing there. She glanced down and noticed the hotdog on the ground.
“Your lunch – I ruined your hotdog. Could I buy you another one?”
He smiled. “That’d be great, thanks.”

They sat together on a park bench, eating lunch and making the dreaded small talk. His name was Chris and he was an artist. He had just moved to town and was living in his sister and brother-in-law’s basement until he could find a place of his own. She told him she’d just moved to town as well, but she had lived here when she was a child so it was a homecoming of sorts. He told her he had another sister in LA and a brother in Houston. She told him that she didn’t have any family. When it was time for her to return to the office, he walked her back to the building. As she opened the door, he stopped her. “I really enjoyed lunch. How about dinner Friday night?” he asked. She turned to face him, still holding the door open.
“Um, what?”
“Dinner? Friday night? Interested?”
This was it – a date. She should go... shouldn’t she? But what if he was some crazy psycho killer? Sure, he looked friendly enough, but nobody would ever go out with a psycho killer if they had it tattooed on their forehead. Or worse, what if he was really clingy, or... “Um, hello?” He waved his hand in front of her faced. “You still with me?”
“Oh, sorry. I, uh, I was trying to remember my schedule. Um, sure, Friday sound’s fine.”
“Great. Where should I pick you up?”
She hesitated, biting her lip. “Um, I may have to work late. Why don’t I just meet you somewhere.” He frowned, but nodded his head.
“Alright. There’s a great diner on Maple Street. 7 o’clock?” She nodded, said goodbye, and went inside.


Lucy had been sitting alone at the diner long enough to know that there were 235 tiles in the ceiling; nine cars in the parking lot – three red, two blue, one silver, two black, and one yellow; eleven people in the diner – eight customers, two waitresses, and one cook; and forty-seven napkins in the napkin holder. If she hadn’t been so angry and embarrassed, she would have laughed – twenty-eight years old, on her first date, and she’d been stood-up. The waitress stopped by the table, just as she’d done four times before, to make sure she didn’t want something to eat while she was waiting, but Lucy had had enough waiting. “Could I just have the bill for the coffee, please?”
“Sure, honey, but are you sure you don’t want something to eat?”
Annie, according to her nametag, laughed at her hesitance. “Honey, are you hungry?”
Lucy nodded, though Annie barely gave her time to answer before continuing. “If you’re hungry, and you’d have to be after smelling our wonderful cookin’ for so long, you should eat. Now, what do you want? I suggest you have the meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”
Lucy nodded again, not even registering that she was agreeing to the order until Annie smiled and said, “Good. I’ll bring it right out to you.”

The waitress returned, setting down a plate of the largest helping of meat and potatoes Lucy had ever seen. At her mumbled thanks, Annie frowned and asked if Lucy was feeling all right.
“I’m fine.”
“Just checkin.’ I noticed you were staring out the window and checking your watch a lot. I know what a no-show looks like.”
Lucy was speechless for a moment. After five years in the city, she’d forgotten how direct the people in this town were. “I’m fine. I’m sure he got hung up in traffic or something; it’s no big deal.” She was a little annoyed at the pity showing on Annie’s face, and she knew the waitress wasn’t going to let the matter drop, but instead of asking another question, Annie just smiled and said, “Enjoy your meal; just holler if you need something.”

To Lucy’s surprise, the food was delicious... and the waitress wasn’t that annoying. Annie asked a few questions when refilling the coffee or bringing water, but kept the conversations casual, commenting on the weather, the latest movies, and the food. She asked Lucy how long she’d been in town and when she discovered that Lucy used to live there they compared schools and graduation years, trying to figure out if they might have met in the past. Oddly enough, Lucy wasn’t bothered by the chitchat and by the time she got ready to leave, her watch read 9:00. Annie called out goodbye as Lucy was leaving, “I hope you come back again soon. You have to try our chocolate cake; we’re famous for it.”
“I will,” Lucy replied, realizing that she meant it.


Monday morning, Chris was standing in front of her office building, looking very contrite. She sighed and walked towards him.
“Hi,” he mumbled. She decided to skip the small talk.
“Hi yourself. Were you in a car accident on Friday night?” He looked startled, but shook his head. “Did anybody you know die?” Again, he shook his head. Hearing all she needed, she nodded and walked towards the door.
“Wait, Lucy, let me explain.” She sighed and turned back to face him. She crossed her arms and waited. “I’m really sorry. I went to have a drink with some friends. I just lost track of time, you know? That happens to everyone. I didn’t remember until like 8 and by the time I got to the diner you were gone.” Lucy almost laughed out loud.
“I was at the diner until 9.” She enjoyed the look of fear creeping into his eyes... until it turned to pity.
“Oh wow, really? You waited for me that long?”
“No. I wasn’t waiting for you. I was talking with a friend and enjoying a nice meal. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to work.”
“Come on, Lucy. Give me a second chance.” She glared at him.
“This conversation was your second chance.”


It wasn’t difficult for Lucy to forget about the morning’s confrontation. She was 28 years old and if she was going to find a husband, she didn’t have time to waste on guys like that. She was pouring over blueprint plans when she heard a knock.
“Come in,” she said, and the door opened to reveal Ms. Recently Engaged standing timidly in the doorway.
“Ms. Benson, could I ask you a question?” Lucy nodded. “My fiancé and I just bought a new home and we’d like to get it fixed up nice so we can move in right after the wedding. I asked around and everyone said you weren’t very busy yet, so I was wondering if we could hire you to be our designer?” This all came out in one breath causing Lucy to wonder if people really thought of her as this scary or if the woman was always wound this tight. She thought over her workload. She only had 3 clients at the moment since she was still getting settled in the company. The large project was due to wrap up in a week and the other two were relatively small and easy. She could use another account.
“How much time would we have until the wedding?”
“Six months.”
“Well, if you can make some quick decisions, I don’t think that’d be a problem. I can take you as a client.”
Lucy heard the squeal again. “Oh thank you so much; Tom will be so excited. This is his wedding present to me, and he said we have to make it perfect! How do we get started?” One breath again, thought Lucy before answering.
“Well, I’ll need to see your place, and we need to talk about your style and preferences and we’ll have to discuss what kind of budget you want to work with. We can set up an appointment at – ”
“Could we discuss it over lunch?” At Lucy’s blank stare, the woman quickly began to back-pedal. “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re probably busy. I’m just so anxious to get started and I tend to get over-excited about things. We should just schedule an appointment, like you were saying.” Looking at the woman’s red face, Lucy had a momentary twinge of guilt and empathy. “Lunch would be fine,” she said, “I know the perfect place. One thing though – could I ask your name?”
The woman smiled. “Debra Morgan; I’ve been the secretary here for five years.”


When Lucy and Debra entered The Diner, she heard Annie call out from behind the counter, “Oh Lucy, I’m so glad you came back. My husband and I were having dinner with his brother and I started thinking – he’d be perfect for you. You want his number?” Lucy laughed.
“Let’s start with a table first and work from there.”
“Oh you’re right; I’m so sorry. There are two of you? Right this way.” Annie took their drink and lunch orders as normal, but as soon as she set the food on the table she turned to Lucy and asked, “So, do you want the number?” Lucy glanced at Debra and then at Annie.
“Annie, I’m not sure – ”
“Oh c’mon, Luce. Steven’s a really great guy. The only better person you could find is my husband, Ryan, and I’m not giving him up. Y’all could meet here. If you want, Ryan and I could eat with you.”
“Alright. I guess have a better chance of not being stood up if you know the guy.” She had meant the comment as a joke, but Annie remained serious and shook her head.
“Oh no, he’d never do anything like that – you’ll see, he’s one of the best. Alright, we’ll work at details later so y’all can get to your food.”

Lucy and Debra began talking about Debra’s hopes for her home, discovering that they shared a mutual passion for antique wood furniture, but the conversation drifted to Debra and Tom’s relationship, movies, office gossip, travel, and books. It was a longer lunch than Lucy had ever taken, but she didn’t really notice; she was enjoying herself too much. Before returning to work, they planned to meet that Saturday evening at Debra and Tom’s new home to take measurements and get Tom’s input on the design plan. Lucy also made plans to meet Annie and the boys Thursday night.


Lucy thought the “double date” went pretty well. She was grateful for Annie and Ryan’s presence because they helped to fill a lot of awkward silences. Their family seemed a lot more interesting than her’s. They were obviously a very close family and she enjoyed hearing them tell stories on each other and laughing at their misadventures. She enjoyed the evening so she was surprised to see Annie’s grim expression when she brought it up at lunch the next day.
“I’m sorry Lucy. He said he didn’t think a second date would be a good idea.”
“But why? I thought it was a nice night. We were all laughing and I thought we were having a good time.”
“We were, but he said he didn’t think you were interested – that you hardly talked to him the whole evening.”
“I know I was quiet, but I just didn’t have much to say.”
“Lucy! He was asking you questions all night, but every time things got personal, you changed the subject.” Lucy sighed and thought about the previous evening. She had been reserved, but it was a first date. Was she just supposed to spill her guts to a total stranger? Annie continued, “Lucy, you have to open up a bit if you want people to like you. I’ve been trying because you seemed so alone, but you make it difficult for anyone to get to know you.” Annie left to help another customer and Lucy was surprised to feel tears in her eyes. She hadn’t had many friends in her life, but she’d convinced herself she liked it that way and it was a personal decision to remain alone. It never occurred to her that people wouldn’t want to be her friend. She had chosen to stay away from people, but could it be that people had also chosen to stay away from her? The realization stung.

Annie returned with a glass of water and a worried expression. “Are you alright, Lucy? You haven’t touched your spaghetti.”
“I’m fine. I was just thinking about what you told me. It was kind of a shock to the system.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Why don’t you bring your food and sit at the counter and we can talk some more.” Lucy nodded and Annie helped her move her lunch over. “Lucy, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, it’s alright. I guess I needed to hear it.” Annie took plates full of food over to a woman and child in the corner and when she came back, Lucy asked, “Have I told you that I moved back here because my grandmother just died and left me her home?”


Tom and Debra’s house was fairly empty since they weren’t planning on moving in until after the wedding. They had a few odds and ends – some kitchen utensils, a pool table, and a few potted plants – but no furniture. Tom had ordered pizza so when Lucy arrived they sat on the floor in an empty room, eating dinner and discussing ideas for the house. Lucy had already mentioned knocking out a wall and opening the room up, but that idea seemed to make them nervous. She was just about to explain some of the benefits when the doorbell rang. Tom answered it, and when he returned to the room with two women following, Lucy heard the squeal again.
“Ohmigosh! What are y’all doing here?” There was a lot of fast and furious conversation that Lucy didn’t quite follow, but at last, Debra turned and made introductions. “Lucy, these are two of my best friends, Sarah and Danah. They came to surprise me and celebrate my engagement.” She turned to the two women. “This is Lucy; she’s our designer. Oh! Y’all can help us decide on some things – she wants to knock down a wall!”

The two women seemed nice enough, but Lucy really liked them once they agreed with her about knocking down the wall. They all toured the house together, throwing out ideas and opinions. Every room seemed to prompt a story, causing the tour to last a lot longer than it otherwise would. In the kitchen, they began talking about family recipes and sibling water fights while doing the dishes. Lucy told them about how her grandmother always had hot chocolate waiting for her when she got home from school. She always managed to have it ready at the perfect temperature the moment Lucy walked through the door. Then she would start dinner and Lucy would sit at the kitchen table, sipping her drink and telling her grandma about what happened at school that day.

Tom left to return to his apartment around 10:30, and Lucy mentioned that she should probably be getting home as well. Debra grabbed her arm and Sara exclaimed, “Oh no, Lucy, you have to stay and finish telling us about that guy in New York. You can’t leave us hanging like that.”
“Alright, but only five more minutes.” It was 11:30 when they were interrupted by a horrific noise coming from outside. Danah held up one hand, motioning for silence. “Did you hear that? What on earth?”
Sarah leaned toward the window. “It almost sounded like a baby crying... or a dying cow.”
Huddled together, they walked through the kitchen and the noise grew louder as they got closer to the back door. Debra peeked out from behind Lucy’s shoulder. Should we go out there?
Sarah shook her head. “I’m not going out there! Who knows what that is.”
Danah nodded her agreement. “Maybe we should call Tom.”
Lucy rolled her eyes. “I’ll see what it is.” She grabbed her cell phone in case she needed to quickly dial 911, and a frying pan in case she needed to quickly knock someone unconscious. She opened the door, but all she saw was blackness. The loud noise stopped and she was just about to close the door when she heard a quieter noise, like a whimper. She turned on the light and stepped outside. She still couldn’t see anything and she ventured farther outside, pressing the “9” on the phone and raising the frying pan above her head. She could hear the girls talking from the doorway:
“Do you see anything?”
“Don’t ‘shh’ me.”
“Be careful, Lucy.”
She heard rustling behind a bush and pressed the “1.” She walked around the side of the house to view behind the bush. When she saw the little brown ball of fur, she lowered the frying pan and hung up the phone. She gently scooped the shivering puppy into her arms and carried him into the kitchen.

Sarah was the first to notice the animal in her arms. “Oh, it’s a puppy! Look at him – he’s so cute.” They all huddled around, fawning over the pup and scratching his ears. “What should we do with him?”
“Oh, I’d love to keep him,” Debra said. “But, Tom’s allergic.” Danah and Sarah each lived a couple hours away and had no way of getting him home, so it was decided that Lucy would take him home that night, and the next morning Debra would post flyers throughout the neighborhood announcing they had found a puppy. They continued talking while taking turns holding the sleeping pup on their laps. It was 12:40 when they finally left the house to go home... it was 1:15 when Lucy finally pulled out of the driveway with the puppy sitting on the passenger seat.

When she got home, she looked around the kitchen for something to give the pup, but really had no clue what dogs ate. She settled on a bowl of water and some bread. When she realized that sounded like something they fed prisoners, she gave him some cheese crackers too. “Alright then,” she said aloud to the pup, “what the heck do I do with you now?”


Debra and Tom’s wedding had been beautiful. Lucy had been a bridesmaid and it was all she could do not to cry at the wedding. When had she turned into such a sap? She met Danah, Sarah, and Annie at Starbucks after the reception. She had no sooner sat down when Danah asked, “So, who was that with you at the wedding?”
“That was Steven, Annie’s brother. He’s just a friend. He took pity on me when I was complaining about coming to the wedding as a “party of one.”
“What happened to Michael?” asked Sarah.
Annie rolled her eyes. “Oh wait until you hear this one.”
“He was too selfish, it just wasn’t going to work out.”
Annie snorted. “Four months of dating and when they break up, her exact words to me were, ‘He wouldn’t let me hold the remote control when we watched TV.’”
Amid the responding laughter, Lucy protested, “That’s important! If he won’t share the remote, he won’t share anything else.”
Annie looked at her. “Mmhmm. And what was wrong with Caleb?”
“Body odor. Horrible, awful body odor – I couldn’t even finish my meal.”
Danah hid her smile behind her hand before asking, “Lucy, I know people need to have standards, but are you ever going to find a guy who measures up?”
“Yes... unfortunately.” Annie reached over and put her hand on Lucy’s arm. “Hon, are you still upset over Sean?”
Danah looked confused. “Wait a minute. Who’s Sean?”
“Sean was a really great guy. I fell kinda hard for him – I even joined the choir just because he did.”
“What happened?”
He wasn’t interested. He got engaged to someone else last month.” A chorus of “I’m so sorry” followed.
“Thanks, but I’m alright. Obviously he just wasn’t the right one. Besides, if things had worked out with him, then I never would have met Luke.”
Annie began to laugh. “Oh, I can’t believe you even brought him up. That guy was insane.”
“Definitely, but at least life was interesting for awhile.” Annie explained to Danah and Sarah. “Turns out this guy had a knife fetish and was a bit of a pyromaniac.” They launched into crazy boyfriend stories for a while and then decided to go see a chick flick so they could see what relationships were supposed to look like.


Lucy opened the door to her home and barely got both feet in the door before a large mound of fur attacked her. “It’s good to see you, too, Jasper. Now get down or I won’t tell you about my day.” Jasper immediately sat down as if eager to hear the tale. As she moved about the house, changing into old sweats, fixing herself some tea, and getting comfortable on the couch, Lucy told her faithful companion about her latest adventures. “I think I’m going to call off this whole finding a husband thing. It’s brought me nothing but heartache and embarrassment. What do you think, Jasper?” Lucy looked over to gauge the dog’s reaction and noticed she’d put him right to sleep. “Hey!” she yelled, eliciting little more than one open eye and a heavy sigh. She laughed and bent over to scratch behind his ears. “So sorry to bore you. I just think some people are just meant to have dogs instead of husbands.”

Lucy sighed and leaned back against the chair. So what if she didn’t have a husband. She’d done just fine for twenty-eight years without one, thank you very much. She grabbed a book to start reading just as her phone began playing “Moonlight Sonata.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009


The shrink looked at me and smiled. At least I think it was a smile – his steepled fingers resting in front of his mouth obscured the view a little. “I’m waiting; it’s your turn to talk,” he told me. I didn’t want to talk. He knew that because I never wanted to talk, but for some reason, he always insisted on it. He kept looking at me, and I decided it was definitely a smile, the kind of smile a villain gets when his evil plot to take over the world is working perfectly. I didn’t know why he was enjoying my discomfort so much, but I guess you have to be a bit mental if you were going to understand other people who are. Well fine, I knew something to say that could wipe that stupid smile off his face.
“My father was a step removed from being abusive. He would yell and scream, make threats, throw things, pick me up and shove me against the wall. He once left a bruise on my arm after he grabbed me to keep me from leaving the room, but he never actually hit me. Sometimes I’d wish that he would. Then I’d have a good reason to hate him. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to wonder if, or when, it would eventually happen. Once, after he’d raised his fist and come towards me, I asked him to hit me, yelled it at him actually. I just wanted it to be over with. My mother screamed and grabbed his arm, or I think he would have actually done it that time.” I shifted in my chair and tried to figure out where to focus my attention. I looked at the nameplate on the desk, the plain blue coffee mug, and the dusty window blinds before deciding on the elegantly framed degree on the wall, just over the doctor’s right shoulder. He leaned back and tapped a sporadic rhythm on the arm of his chair.
“So, why are you telling me this now?”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” I made a mental note to see if Syracuse University was a real school.
“Yes, of course it is. But we’ve been meeting for over a month now, and you’ve only talked about grocery lists, hating reality shows, and how annoying it is that you can’t find jeans that fit. I’m wondering what prompted you to start talking about this now. I’m just curious what the catalyst was.”
“Nothing, it just came to me so I thought I’d tell you. Then you could tell me how it’s my father’s fault that I’m in therapy, and I can go home secure in my dislike for him.”
“I see.” He didn’t say anything else. He just leaned on his desk and stared at me. Or he stared right through me; I couldn’t tell which. Either way, I hated that. Silence. It seemed to be sitting on my shoulder. I’m fairly certain it was also staring at me.
“I yelled at Danah last night. I scared her. I made her cry.”
“Can you tell me more about that?”
“No. There’s nothing to tell. She talked back and I yelled at her. That’s it.”


I know it’s not an excuse, but it had been a hard day, and I wasn’t in the mood to deal with attitude. Unfortunately, I’d been blessed with a little girl full of attitude. I don’t know who she got it from, although my husband says she takes after me. I was battling a headache and trying to fix a Hamburger Helper while she blared some sort of rap music in the living room. I asked from the kitchen, “Danah, could you please turn that crap down.”
“It’s not crap.”
“Taste is subjective. Turn it down.” After a minute, the volume hadn’t changed, so I went into the living room and pointed to the stereo. “I said, turn it down... now.”
“If I turn it down, I won’t be able to hear it.”
“Then you might as well just turn it off.”
“Mom...” she rolled her eyes. Why God gave teenagers the ability to do that, I’ll never know.
“Look, turn it down or turn it off. Those are your options.” I remained silent as she climbed out of the chair as if it were a feat equal to scaling Everest. I kept quiet as the race to the stereo cabinet could have been won by the tortoise, and I didn’t say anything when she practically jerked the cabinet doors off their hinges. But I lost my patience when she flicked the volume knob to the right with a sly grin on her face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I yelled loud enough to be heard over the thumping bass and reached over and ripped the chord out of the wall. Silence. I glared at my daughter. She at least had the decency to not glare back. She looked down at her painted toenails and mumbled something.
“What did you say to me?” Despite the absence of the music, my own volume hadn’t diminished.
“I said, ‘It was just a joke.’”
“Oh, you think that’s funny? You think it’s funny to disobey me? You think it’s funny that I have a splitting headache, which you’ve just made worse? That’s what you find funny?”
“No. I just...”
“Just what? You know what? I don’t care! Get upstairs right now. Do not turn on your radio, do not get on your computer, do not open a book. You are not allowed to do anything but sit there and twiddle your thumbs in absolute silence.”
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry that I have a daughter who is so rude and insolent.” I grabbed her arm and turned her towards the stairs.
“Mom, you’re hurting my arm!” Her tears stopped me up short. Had I really just said I was sorry she was my daughter? I had inflicted bodily harm on my little girl. Who had I just become?


“So, what happened after you yelled at her?”
“I apologized for what I said, for grabbing her arm to tight. I told her I loved her, that I was lucky to be her mom.”
“Are you afraid that you’re like your father.”
“I’m nothing like my father.” People used to always tell me I was just like my dad, people who thought he was merely a stubborn and sarcastic man. Nothing anyone could say was a bigger insult to me. It was true that I wasn’t the most flexible of people, but no one ever said I had a temper, because I didn’t. I never fought back; I never got upset; I never yelled. At least, not until after my daughter was born. The doctor smiled at me again. I don’t know why.
“I’ll ask again, why are telling me this?” I squinted at him. I was beginning to seriously doubt if this guy was really a shrink. He didn’t even have a couch in his office, for crying out loud. Silence reigned as he waited for an answer. Okay, so it wasn’t rhetorical. I thought about not answering, waiting him out to see how long he could go before saying something. Unfortunately he was better at this game than I was.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“If you had to answer, what would you say? Make it up. Guess.” He waited again, letting in more of that doggone silence. Fine, I could placate this silly man if I had to.
“I’m not like my father now. But what if I become him in the future? What if age, stress, or who knows what makes something in me snap? I get annoyed a lot now. I argue with Steve; I yell at little old ladies driving too slow. What if I have latent tendencies buried in me that are beginning to surface? What if that’s why I snapped when arguing with Danah?”


My parents offered to pay for college if I lived at home. I liked the idea of not having student loan debts after I graduated, so I took them up in it. My junior year, I had a professor I hated. I was talking to my mom about him and, to this day I don’t know why, but it made my father really mad. He began yelling, “Would you just shut up? Shut up! I’m sick of your whining.” He jumped out of his chair and lunged at me. I shrank back, but his hand reached the homework I was holding in my hand. He grabbed it and ripped it into four pieces. Holding them up in my face, he said, “Why don’t you just quit? Give up, Sarah, you’re never gonna graduate. You’re too stupid; you’re a failure.” I hated myself for starting to cry. I didn’t want his words to affect me. I’d been telling myself for years I didn’t care what he said to me, but there I was, in the middle of the dining room, balling my eyes out. Once again, I wished he had hit me, but this time it was because I thought that would have hurt less. I ran out of the dining room and grabbed my keys. I had just opened the door to leave when it suddenly slammed closed again. I looked up and saw his hand on the door, holding it shut. He looked down at me, “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Anywhere you’re not.” I tried to open the door again, but he was stronger than me and it barely budged.
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’m twenty years old; you can’t stop me!” I turned to run towards the backdoor, but he followed and got there first. “You’re not leaving this house, Sarah.” I should have let it drop then, but it was a matter pf principle. I wanted to get outside, even if only for a second, just to prove I could. It occurred to me we were acting like children, but I didn’t care. I turned again to run back towards the front door. This time he grabbed me from behind and lifted me into the air. Every thing I learned in self-defense class completely escaped me, and I just hung in his arms, helpless. My mom started crying. I hated when she did that. It always made me give up. I always gave in first. I always lost. I never did get out of the house that night, but the next week I moved into a friend’s basement. In a bit of irony that I completely despised, I dropped out of college in order to get a better job and pay the bills. I ended up going back and graduating a few years later, but my father never let me forget that it took nine years.


“Sarah,” the doc looked at me, carefully forming his words. “Why don’t you consider your father abusive?”
“Well, he never hit me.”
“There are other kinds of abuse.”
“I know. I guess–it’s just–Sometimes I think he actually could be labeled an ‘abusive father,’ but when I think that I feel guilty. I know there are kids out there who had it much worse than I did – beaten to a pulp, molested, locked in closets, things I could never imagine. Those kids would have loved a father like mine. He’d have been a vacation for them.”
“That doesn’t make what he did acceptable.”
“I know that. But... he wasn’t all bad, you know.”


There were times when my father seemed like a pretty good guy. I played volleyball in high school. My best friend really wanted to play but was too scared to try-out alone, so I went with her. It turned it out that I really liked playing, and I was pretty good at it, too. After my first year, the coach quit and they hired my father to take her place. He was a pretty good coach. The team went from losing almost every game to placing second in the championships. You could tell a group of eleven adolescent girls scared him a bit, and I even felt sorry for him sometimes. He had his favorites on the team, though. He told me he couldn’t make it seem like he gave me special treatment since I was his daughter, so he was always harder on me than anyone else. He never told me I played well, I was never nominated for awards, but I was a starter and a team-voted captain, so I didn’t mind too much. Then, my senior year at the awards banquet, he gave me the MVP trophy. I couldn’t believe it. When he handed it to me, he whispered, “You deserve it. It wasn’t right to not give it to you. I’m proud of you, honey.”


“I guess when I think of an abusive father, I think of huge guys in wife-beaters drinking beer, guys who hate their life and their kids. He wasn’t like that. He never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and, when he wasn’t losing his temper, he was a good father. He came to school events; he’d brag about me to his co-workers. I always had food, clothing, and shelter, something he was constantly reminding me of whenever I dared to complain about anything. He took me to movies and sporting events. He was forever patting my head and telling me he loved me, even after I stopped saying I loved him back. But sometimes, I couldn’t figure out if he meant it, or if he was just feeling guilty.” I stopped talking and sighed hard. Everything had seemed to come out in one breath, and I felt like I needed an oxygen mask. The doctor remained silent. I wondered if this was some shrinky practice of allowing me to “process my thoughts” or some crap like that. I wasn’t paying him so I could analyze myself. Still, since he wasn’t going to say anything... “I guess maybe that’s what worries the most. He wasn’t a stereotypical abusive person. But he still made my life a living hell. If he could do it to me, I could do it to Danah.”
“So what are you going to do about it?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about leaving–moving to Colorado or something.”
“You want to run away?”
“It’s not running away, it’s protecting my daughter. I used to always hope my father would leave us, or that my mother would take me, and we’d leave him. Most kids in school were worried that their parents might get a divorce someday. I think I was the only one who wished that they would. But, my parents don’t believe in divorce. The stupid thing is I don’t either. I always figured I’d never get married because it was too much of a risk. The guy could turn out to be some jerk, like my father, and I’d be stuck with him. My mom didn’t know my dad had a temper until after they were married. It was actually on their honeymoon; how sad is that?”
“You did get married though. What made you change your mind?”
“Temporary insanity.”
“And is your husband anything like your father?”
“No. He’s actually really great. It turns out that I’m the monster, not him.”


I met my husband in college. We never really dated, though. I didn’t date much at all actually. Some guy would ask me out every now and then, but not very often. I’ve been told I have a frosty demeanor around men. I guess that’s true—I’m always suspicious of them, trying to figure out their ulterior motives, waiting for the other shoe to drop. When a guy did ask me out, I always managed to wreck it. I used to try to get them angry on purpose to see how long it took for them to lose their temper, and how they acted once they did. I’d intentionally push their buttons. Jake and I worked the same shift at a local bookstore, and we just got along really well. He always made me laugh and listened to me vent about school and my parents. I saw him handle angry customers with calmness and ease. He never got angry, not even when someone’s kid threw up in the children’s department and they left without bothering to clean it up. Jake just shrugged his shoulders and went to get some paper towels and cleaning solution. During the slow hours, we’d talk about everything from the weather and favorites sports teams to politics and religion. I looked forward to going to work, just to spend time with him. We worked together for over two years, and the other shoe never dropped. He came to my graduation and that night he told me he loved me. A month later, we went to dinner to celebrate my new job, and I told him I loved him back. We spent a lot of time together after that, usually watching TV or making dinner at one or the other’s home. I tried pushing his buttons, ticking him off, but it didn’t work. He’d just look at me and say, “I know what you’re trying to do. It’s not going to work, so just stop it.” I finally did see him mad. I told him about the time my father had shoved me against the door and told me to stop acting like a baby. His jaw tightened and he got really quiet for a long time. I liked that. When he finally did speak, his voice was hard and deep.
“Your father’s a jerk, Sarah. He had no right to do stuff like that, and you didn’t deserve to be treated like that.” I gave him a half smile, and told him it didn’t matter anymore. Since I no longer lived with him, we got along all right. I still didn’t hug him or anything; there was too much history for me to ever feel a close connection with him, but we could be civil and cordial with each other. Jake shook his head.
“I’m sorry you went through that stuff.” His voice softened as he continued. “I’ll never treat you like that, and I want to spend my life proving it to you.” He asked me to marry him and gave me a beautiful ring. When he said, “I promise I’ll never make you cry,” I said yes.


I heard the doctor cough, and I jerked up. I looked at the desk, but he wasn’t there. His voice came from the other side of the room. “I said, ‘Would you like some coffee?’” I turned around in my chair and found him standing by a small table, holding a coffee pot in one hand and a Styrofoam cup in the other.
“Oh, sorry. Um, yes, thank you. Black, please.” He nodded and began pouring the coffee. As he dumped sugar and cream into his own mug, he asked, “So, why haven’t you left yet, if that’s what you think is best?”
“Um, I don’t know. I guess I’m too selfish, or I haven’t worked up the nerve yet—I’d miss them. I love them both with all my heart, and I’d miss them.” He walked over and handed me the steaming cup.
“Don’t you think they would miss you?”
“I don’t know. I guess they would... now. But it’s still early. I still remember the look in my father’s eyes the first time I didn’t respond when he told me he loved me. I could tell it hurt him, and I was glad. I don’t want it to come to that point with Danah or Jake. Wouldn’t it be better to leave before that happens?”
The doctor looked at me for a while before speaking. “You think leaving will prevent her from hating you? Is disappearing from her life going to allow you to have a good relationship with her?” Crap. Why did he have to start acting like a doctor now? I blew on my coffee, trying to act like I had already given this idea a lot of thought and had this problem figured out. This time he broke the silence. “Right now, your daughter still says she loves you?” I nodded slowly.
“Last week, I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday. I thought she’d want a party with her friends or something, but she wanted to spend the day in DC... with Jake and me.”
“Well, then you’re still doing something right. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on that than on the chance that things might go bad?”


I used to love my father. I was the epitome of “daddy’s little girl.” I followed him everywhere; I can remember trying to step in his footprints one snowy day. His stride was so long, I had to jump from step to step. I wanted to be just like him. I don’t know what changed. I can’t even remember when it changed. The first time I remember him yelling at me, I was six years old. My mom had made meatloaf, and when I complained about it, she said, “If you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else for dinner.” So I did. I went next door and asked if they’d feed me. I don’t really remember what my father said to me after he brought me back home, but I remember it was loud. Still, that wasn’t when things began to unravel between us. It took a few years of him losing his temper, apologizing, losing his temper, apologizing. By the time I was in 5th grade, I would spy on him, with the phone in my hand, when he was angry with my mom, so I could call the police the moment he laid a hand her. By the time I reached 7th grade, I knew the crap about it taking two to fight was a lie. I’d try to walk away, but that just made him even madder, and he always came storming after me. I’d stand there and listen to him rant and insult me. He’d put his face in mine, yelling so hard that he’d turn red, and I could feel the spit spray on my face. By the time I was in high school, I couldn’t stand him. Nothing I did pleased him, and everything he did disgusted me. I used to tell him I loved him because that’s what I was supposed to do, but now, I haven’t told my father I loved him in twenty-two years. I was in tenth grade and we had an away volleyball game. A teacher stopped me in the hallway to talk about a project I was involved in, so I arrived five minutes late to where the bus was always waiting. The bus was gone; he had left me. It was a small issue, in the scheme of things. I had been late, after all, and that was the rule. But, I stopped pretending after that.


I sat in my chair, making indentations around the top of the cup with my fingernail. The doctor turned his chair to the side and crossed his legs, but he never stopped looking at me.
“Sarah, I understand your concern. The idea of becoming someone we don’t like is very discomforting, but I think you’re jumping the gun a bit. You’re not going to do your daughter any favors by leaving her without a mother. Danah doesn’t hate you now, but if you leave, she most certainly will.”
I thought about it for a while. A mother who deserted a child or a mother who scared her child—I wanted another option. There needed to be another option. I shrugged, not really knowing what the expected answer was at this point.
He nodded, so I guess the shrug was acceptable. He stood up and walked around to the front of the desk. “Give it some more time. You have a lot of work to do, and this isn’t going to be easy, but you can conquer this.” He sat on the edge of the desk. “I’ll give you some relaxation exercises and we’ll keep working on this in the coming weeks, all right?”
I nodded.
I looked at him doubtingly, but took the material he handed me and gathered my stuff to leave.
As I opened the door to his office, he asked one more question, “Did your father ever go to counseling?”
I shook my head no and waited for him to continue. Silence.
Finally he smiled at me. “See you next week.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

Luke and Rebecca

Not thrilled with this one, but... oh well.

The lights shining on the stage seemed hot enough to make the devil sweat, but Luke was frozen still. He stood, holding the sword in one hand, holding the fake wound dripping blood down his waist with the other hand. He couldn’t believe this. He’d done this scene 100 times before; how could he forget the lines now? He looked over at Cindy for help, but she was hunched over a chair drawing her character’s last breath. He turned toward Eric, but he just stared back, waiting for Luke to continue. He looked like he was fighting a smile. Figures - he would find this funny. He knew it was something about poison. “The poison... the sword...” Aw, screw the lines, thought Luke. It was time to get off the stage, and fast. He raised his sword, took a stumbling step forward, and shoved the sword into Eric’s heart.
Eric grabbed his chest, “O, yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt.”
Luke dropped his sword and fell to one knee. From across the stage, he heard a whisper, “The cup, you moron!” Crap! He struggled back to his feet, lifted a cup from a table and forced Eric to drink the grape juice. He fell back to his knees, clutching the wound in his side. He was supposed to say something here. He was supposed to say a lot of somethings here. He fell to his side and slowed his breathing. He was dead. And his director was going to kill him.

From her seat in the audience, Rebecca fought back her tears. He’d done it again. Every time he had a chance, he ruined it.
“Professor Morgan?” Rebecca looked up at the students standing in the aisle next to her.
“Why would the director choose to leave out the final lines like that?”
Rebecca shook here head as she gathered her purse and jacket and stood to leave. “I don’t think he did, Josh, but we’ll talk about it in class tomorrow.”

The phone ringing woke Rebecca from her sleep. She looked at the clock - 2:45. She picked up the phone and spoke into the receiver, “This better be important.”
“I got fired Rebecca.”
“No kidding. What did you expect was going to happen, Luke?”
“Well, he could’ve given me another chance!”
“That was your other chance. You can’t blow the final scene of one of the most famous plays in the world and expect to be let off easy.” She heard a sigh on the other end. “Luke, what happened? I saw you perform that part perfectly last year.”
“Yeah, but it was my first time back after I’d been sick. I was nervous.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Sick” was three months in rehab.
“It had been a long time since I’d done it.”
“What do you mean ‘It’d been a long time’? What about rehearsals?”
“Aw, I knew the part. And the director knew me; it was okay.”
“If the director really knew you, nothing would’ve been okay. Are you saying you skipped rehearsals?”
“Not all of them. But Chris got this sweet deal on a boat and-”
“Luke! How stupid can you be? How stupid can the director be? I can’t believe he let you go on tonight.”
“Well, the understudy was sick...”
Rebecca stood up and walked towards the bathroom to get some aspirin, then headed to the kitchen. She put the phone on speaker and began to make some toast.
“Luke. You have to stop doing this. You’re twenty-eight years old and you’ve never had a job over three months.”
“No, I’ve got it together this time, Rebecca. Chris told me about this company-”
“You need to stay away from Chris.”
“He’s my friend, Rebecca. And it’s not up to you to run my life.”
“Fine. It’s late, Luke. I’m sorry you lost your job, but I still have mine. I have a 9 o’clock class in the morning, so I have to go.
“Rebecca, wait. Can I crash with you tonight? I was rooming with one of the actors, but I couldn’t get the rent together last month, and now... well, I just need a place for a couple of days, that’s all.”
Rebecca closed her eyes. The aspirin wasn’t helping yet. “I’m sorry, Luke. Not this time.”
“What? You’re joking, right?”
“I can’t keep saving your butt. You’re going to have to do it on your own this time.”
“Where do you expect me to go? You know I can’t afford a hotel right now.”
“It’s not my problem, Luke.”
“Not your problem? Of course it is. I’m your brother and you’re just gonna leave me out in the street to die.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. You’ll find a place. What about Chris? If he’s such a good friend?”
“Thought you wanted me to stay away from him? Can’t have it both ways, you know. C’mon Rebecca. I’ll make you pancakes in the morning. Remember how we’d make them into shapes and stuff. We can catch up... laugh and talk and stuff. It’ll be like old times.”
“Luke, I have a class in the morning.”
“Well, we’ll do lunch or something. C’mon. I miss my big sister. You know I love you.”
“Fine. Fine, Luke. Try to be quiet when you come in, please. I’m going back to bed.” She hung up the phone before he could reply. Why did she always give in to him like that? She knew she was just enabling him, but he was right. Where else was he going to go? She couldn’t just give up on him.

When Luke got to Rebecca’s house, he discovered the sofa bed was already made up for him and there was a clean towel and washcloth folded neatly on the corner of the sink. She treated him too well, and he knew it. He figured he kind of deserved it, though. He was only fourteen when both parents died in a car crash. She was already twenty-five, living on her own, and catching lucky breaks on the stock market. She had a good job as an English professor, was rich, and didn’t have anybody else she needed to support. Why shouldn’t she help him out? He was trying as hard as he could to make things work, and it was the least she could do, every now and then. Lately though, she’d been less willing and eager. It used to be that he could just turn on the brotherly charm, push the right buttons, and she’d write him a check, give him a place to stay, find him a job, anything he asked. He worried that she was starting to say no too often.

It was after 12:30 in the afternoon when he woke up. There was a note on the counter from Rebecca saying she had a break between 1:30 and 2:45 if he wanted to do lunch. He called her cell phone and left a message, saying he’d meet her at the usual café at 1:30.

Rebecca waited at the café until 2:30 before ordering her sandwich and eating it on the way back to campus. She opened her phone again. No missed calls, no new voice mails, just four unanswered calls to Luke. That boy better be lying in a- she caught herself before letting the thought continue. She’d never forgive herself if he really were in trouble. She went through the rest of her classes before calling again. There was still no answer. She stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up some groceries and a salad. Lord knew the boy didn’t eat right on his own; he was at least going to eat healthy when he was with her.

Before Rebecca even opened the door, she could hear the music pounding from inside. Oh, Lord, she sighed. When she entered the house, she was greeted by four men she’d never met, a few guys and girls she’d seen once or twice, Chris, and Luke, all of whom were drunk. Beer cans and bottles were littered across the floor, pizza boxes were stacked up on the coffee table, an overturned slice of pizza was resting on the recliner. Rebecca closed her eyes, not wanting to see the rest of the mess.
“Hey sis! How’s it going?” Rebecca didn’t answer. She turned toward the kitchen, took two steps, stopped, and turned back around.
“Luke, turn the music off and get these people out of my house right now.”
“Aw, c’mon...”
“Now!” At the sight of Rebecca’s anger, a few people had already started sneaking out the door, but some of the more brave – or stupid – ones were still lounging on the couch. Luke looked over at them and shrugged.
“I can’t be a bad host. We’re gonna watch the game tonight; this is just the pre-game party.”
Rebecca shoved the grocery bag into Luke’s hand, spun on her heel and stormed towards the couch. “You get out of my house right now. The party’s over; the game’s been cancelled. Out! Before I call the cops.” In a few minutes, Rebecca was left standing in the middle of the living room, glaring at Luke. From the corner of her eye, she could see that Chris was still there, but everyone else had left. “Clean up the mess, Luke.”
“Yeah, I will. Gonna watch the game first.”
“No, you’re going to clean it up now or you’re going to have to find someplace else to watch the game... and sleep tonight. Damn it, Luke, we’ve talked about this before. If you’re going to stay here, you have to show some respect and you have to look for a job.
“Give me a break, Becca. I haven’t even been here a day; it takes time to look for a job. Hey, maybe you can talk to that manager-guy you know...”
“You have three weeks to find a job, on your own, or you’re out. And,” she looked pointedly at the dirty bum on her couch, “Chris and the rest of your friends are not welcome here. Dinner will be ready in forty minutes; have this place cleaned up by then.”
Luke placed an empty box on top of the pizza slice on the chair and sat down, throwing his leg over the arm of the chair. He watched his sister storm out of the room and heard Chris give a low whistle. “Dude, that bitch thinks she’s your mom or something.”
“You let her talk to you like that? You’re an adult, dude. Stand up to her; fight back.”
“Yeah, maybe I should.” Luke stood up to go talk to her, but ended up falling into the coffee table. Chris laughed and opened another beer.
“Yeah, man. Break her table; that’s fighting back.” Neither said anything for a while, but then Chris spoke up again. “You know, if that bitch were dead, all this would be yours.”

Luke walked into the kitchen where Rebecca was cutting chicken for dinner. She could smell the alcohol on him. “Well, I’m glad all that money for rehab was well-spent.”
“Aw, it’s just a party, Becca. I’m not falling off the wagon or anything.” She raised an eyebrow at him, but kept cutting. Luke reached into the refrigerator for the last six-pack, and Rebecca peeked around the corner to look into the living room.
“Luke! The place is still a wreck and Chris is still here. What is going on?”
“Well, we’ve been talking about it-”
“Chris and I.”
“Oh, brilliant.”
“Well, I don’t think you have any right to tell me what to do anymore.”
“Any right?” Rebecca slammed the knife down on the cutting board. “Any right? I gave you a home for eight years, I paid your way through college until you flunked out, I’ve given you more money that I count with no expectations of you paying it back, and now you’re staying in my home again, rent-free. I have plenty of right. I’m not telling you how to live your life, Luke. I’m telling you rules for behavior in my house. If you don’t want to follow them, you can leave.” She picked the knife back up and returned to making dinner.
“Look, you can’t kick me on the street. Mom and dad expected you to take care of me.”
“You’re not a kid anymore, Luke. I’ve done my duty.”
“Is that all I was to you? A duty?”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it. You were my baby brother and I loved you. I still love you. The problem is, you still can’t do anything on your own. You’re still a baby.”
“I’m twenty-eight years old!” Their voices began to escalate until Chris could hear every word from the living room. “I’m a grown man.”
“Then act like it! I’m not going to keep bailing you out of trouble. From now on, if you want to act like a baby-”
“I told you, I’m not a baby.”
“Fine, you’re not a baby. If you want to keep acting like a loser, be my guest, but don’t expect me to keep bailing you out.” Luke rounded the corner and grabbed the knife from Rebecca’s hand.
“I’m not a loser!” He lowered his voice to a whisper and pointed the knife at her. I’m not a loser, Rebecca. I’m not a baby; I’m not a screw-up.” Rebecca glanced from the knife to the glazed look in his eyes and took a step backwards. She knew Luke wasn’t a bad person, but alcohol had always had a violent effect on him. She took another step back; Luke took one step forward. She stepped again, and he stepped again.
“Luke, c’mon now. Put the knife down. Go watch your game; I’ll bring you dinner when it’s ready. Okay? We’ll talk about this later when you sober up a bit, alright?”
“Stop talking down to me like that! You’re patronizing me now. I told you; I’m not a baby!”
“No, no you’re not! I’m sorry I treated you like one. I won’t do it again.” Luke lowered the knife, but wasn’t through making his point. He leaned forward, attempting to look large and menacing. He moved to take one more step, but instead bumped into the corner of the counter and fell sideways. He didn’t even realize he’d lost the knife, but when he recovered his balance and went to set the knife on the counter, he realized it was no longer in his hand. Then he heard the gasps. He looked up and saw Rebecca, shock on her face and blood on her chest. She looked down at the bloody knife on the floor and then back at Luke.
“Luke...” She began to fall and Luke reached out to catch her, sinking to the floor with her in his arms.
“Becca - no, Becca. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“I know you didn’t.” She slowly reached up and wiped the tears from his face. He lifted her up and held her body close to his chest.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to do. Becca, what do I do?”
“I can’t help you this time, Luke. I’m sorry.”
“Becca, please. I’m so sorry. I fell. I’m sorry...”
“Remember that line you were looking for? It’s ‘The point envenomed too! Then venom, to thy work.’” Luke nodded and cried, not really understanding. “I love you baby brother.” The last words were barely audible before she stopped breathing. Luke choked out a sob and buried his head in her hair.
“I love you, too. I’m so sorry.” He sat on the kitchen floor, cradling her lifeless body. He heard the front door open and close as Chris left. He heard the sirens getting closer and the door being broken in. He felt them pulling him off her and heard them discussing the situation. Words like “dead,” “murder,” “drunk,” ‘silent,” and “attorney” filled his head.
“Sir? Sir!” Luke looked up at the police officer placing handcuffs on him. “Do you understand these rights as I have read them to you?” Luke nodded as he watched her sheet-covered body being carried by on a stretcher.
“Help her,” he whispered.
"Ain't nobody can help her now, buddy." Luke nodded. There was no one left to help him now either.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

More Than Merely

Sorry, crazy week - you get a poem instead of a story.

Dark mahogany shelves line the walls,
Tall guardians of a valuable treasure.
Pages of discovery, romance, and fantasy
Battle for coveted space
Amongst history, comedy, and adventure.
Disguised as common objects,
They present rare and priceless gifts:
The entrance to knowledge,
A refuge from life,
Opportunity to escape,
Advice and assurance,
Consolation and encouragement,
The motivation to dream.

Silently waiting to be opened,
To be allowed to speak.
So much more than merely books.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Guitar Story

I had to figure out a way to change Momma’s mind, but how? I wouldn’t say she was smarter than me, but she somehow always seemed to know what I was trying to do. Still, I had to try – kids didn’t come out of The Fink’s house alive.
“Momma, you and Daddy can’t go out tonight. You have to stay home.”
From inside her walk-in closet, I heard her reply, “Why not, Sweetheart?”
“Um, because... um, Daddy said the car was making funny noises, remember?”
“Jeffrey, that was two weeks ago. The car is fine. Have you seen my black shoes?”
I threw myself across her bed. “No. And I don’t feel good. I think I’m sick.”
“Oh dear. I’ll have to get you to bed right away then, and maybe I should call Steven’s mom and tell her you won’t be able to come over tomorrow.”
Well that didn’t go the way I had hoped. “No, it’s okay. I’m feeling better now.” I heard a thump coming from the closet.
“I’m glad to hear it, dear.”
I rolled over into a sitting position and let my feet hang over the edge. I sat there, thinking about what to do, listening to the sound of hangers scraping over the bar and boxes being shifted around. I sighed. I had to tell her the truth, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me.
“Momma, you can’t go out. You can’t send me to The – to Mrs. Fink’s house. She’ll cut me up and feed me to her cats!”
“Jeffrey Morgan!” Her head momentarily emerged from the closet to glare at me. “You know better than to talk about people like that.”
“Honest, Momma, Chris told me. She’s got a hundred cats and she–”
“That’s enough, Jeffrey. Mrs. Fink is a very nice woman.”
“Then why did she bury her husband alive?”
“Chris said–”
“I don’t care what Chris said. You keep that kind of talk up and you’re losing you’re TV privileges for a week. Mr. Fink died in a car accident years ago, and Mrs. Fink would never hurt anyone. I want you to be nice while you’re over there.”
“What about Becky?” I asked.
She sighed; it was always a sure sign she was getting annoyed with the conversation and wasn’t going to give in. “I’ve told you twice already. She’s out of town this week, and Daddy and I have to go to this dinner with his boss.” She finally exited the closet and looked down at me. I guess I looked pretty pitiful because she tousled my hair and sat down next to me on the bed.
“Look at me, Sweetie,” she said. “I love you. Do you think I’d let something bad happen to you if I could stop it?”
I shook my head. She gave me a kiss on the top of my head before asking, “Then why do you think I’d let a murderer baby-sit you?”
I thought about this for a while before coming up with an answer. “Maybe she put a curse on you?”
“Oh Jeffrey. I don’t think anyone could ever rival your imagination. You’ll be fine tonight. Now, go get your bag and pick out which books and toys you want to take with you. We need to leave in twenty minutes.”

As we drove to The Fink’s house, I sat staring out the window, planning my strategy for survival. It was raining – I took that as a bad sign. I had always imagined that the front of cars were faces, the headlights being eyes. Tonight, every face I saw was evil looking or sad. I took that as a bad sign too. I decided that if I didn’t bother the lady, maybe she wouldn’t bother me. It seemed like a long shot, but it was the only thing I could do. I resolved that’d I’d just sit quietly and not say one word... until I needed to start screaming for help.

My mom knocked on the door and I stood behind her, holding onto her coat. When the door opened, I was surprised that the hinges didn’t squeak and no fog came out of the doorway. Momma motioned for me to go in first, but I shook my head. She sighed, gave an apologetic glance towards The Fink, and led me inside. The house looked normal enough, like any other house I’d been in, but I figured she kept it like that so company wouldn’t be suspicious. The chains and knives and torture machines were probably in the basement.

I sat down and tried to make myself as small as possible against the arm of the couch. I studied The Fink as she and Momma talked about some stuff. No one really knew how old she was, but I’d heard anywhere from 45 to 127. She had a large scar down the left side of her face and a second one across her forehead; they met at a corner right beneath her hairline. Chris said it was from where she had once peeled back the skin of her face to frighten a child, but I didn’t really believe him. Why would someone only peel half their face off instead of taking it completely off? Steven said it was where her husband had hit her with the shovel while trying to fight her off. I figured that made more sense.

Momma came over to say goodbye. “Be good, Jeffrey. I love you and you’ll be fine, I promise. Daddy will be here around ten to pick you up.” She gave me a hug, but when she tried to stand up, I kept hanging on. I felt a little silly – I wasn’t one of those sissy momma’s boy types, but I just couldn’t let go. She removed my arms from around her waist, kissed my cheek, gave me a wink, and walked out the door. I wondered if that was the last time I’d ever see her.

The Fink, who’d been standing in the doorway of the room, came in and sat down in a chair across from me. She looked almost as nervous as I was, and I wondered why.
“Hi Jeffrey.”
I looked at her.
“How are you doing tonight?”
I shrugged. It struck me that her voice was quite normal. I’d never heard her speak before, but I always imagined it would be kind of low and growly-like or squeaky like the witch on the Wizard of Oz. She spoke again.
“Is there anything particular you’d like to do tonight?”
I shrugged and looked down at my tennis shoes.
“Alright then. Your mother said you brought some toys and books? You’re also more than welcome to watch TV. I’m afraid I really don’t know much about little boys; I had two girls.” She sat down on an old rocking chair, picked up some sort of needlework thing, and began humming as she worked. I looked hard at the needles. There didn’t seem to be any blood on them, but she could’ve washed it off. They seemed like a perfect weapon for murdering innocent little children. Just then, something furry ran across my leg. I screamed and jumped up on the back of the couch. The Fink’s needles froze as she looked up in shock, first at me, then down to a small, grey cat rubbing its head on the corner of the couch, and then back at me.
“I’m sorry, Jeffrey. Are you afraid of cats? I can put him in the basement if you’d like.”
The basement! I knew it wouldn’t take long before she tried to get me down there. Well, she wasn’t going to be opening the door on my account. I shook my head no and reached down to pet the cat to let her know it didn’t bother me. I wondered if all the other cats were in the basement too.

We sat in silence for a while before she put down her knitting. She looked at me. I had taken one of my books out of my bag, but it was lying unopened on my lap. I couldn’t afford to be distracted – that’s when she would make her move. She spoke again. I don’t know why that made me jump a bit, but it did.
“Well, I’m a bit parched. Would you like something to eat or drink?”
I shook my head hard and fast. Even if I had known what parched meant, there was no way I was eating or drinking anything this woman had. She’d probably drug it or use it to turn me into a frog... or a cat! Maybe that’s how she got all those cats.
“Okay, I’m going to get a glass of water. I’ll be right back.” She left the room with a backward glance at me. When she walked, one leg was dragged along, never leaving the ground and she hunched over a lot. That proved she was a witch; normal people didn’t walk like that.

I sat on the couch and wondered how long she’d drag this out. I preferred that she just get it over with and kill me now. I glanced to the right and there, leaning up against the corner, was an open guitar case with an old, worn guitar sitting inside. I don’t know why, because I’d always wanted to be a drummer, but something about this guitar caught my attention. I stood up and listened for any signs that The Fink might be returning. I didn’t hear anything, so I walked over to the guitar for a closer look. The case was ragged and parts of the brown cardboard were showing through under the black covering, but there were stickers covering a lot of it and there were some pictures stuck to the inside. The guitar looked like it was a hundred years old. It had scratches and dings all over it. It looked like it belonged in the trashcan instead of showcased in a living room. I was certain that it wouldn’t even work anymore, but nevertheless, I reached out and ran my finger across the strings. A perfect sound came out of it, followed by my name. I jumped backwards in fear and ran right into the legs of The Fink.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you, Jeffrey.”
I never thought I’d be relieved to see her, but since a talking guitar was more than I could handle, I was glad to know it was her who’d called my name.
“I see you discovered Jenny’s guitar. You know, there’s a novel written on that guitar.”
“What?” I hadn’t meant to say anything, but I’d seen the guitar and the only writing on it was a few words and a name scrawled in the corner.
“Every sticker, scratch, and mark on that instrument tells Jenny’s story. Would you like to hear it?”
I shrugged. Maybe telling the story would keep her too busy to feed me to her cats. She picked up the guitar and case and carried it over to the couch and sat down. I think she expected me to sit down next to her, but I chose the chair instead. The Fink held the guitar on her lap and plucked a few strings. The music sounded familiar, but I didn’t know what song it was. Then she began the story.

“Well, back in the late 1950’s, this guitar belonged to Miss Jenny Garson. She was a singer and her dream was to the play the Grand Ole Opry. Do you know what the Grand Ole Opry is, Jeffrey?”
I shook my head.
“It’s where the best of country music sing. It’s very old and it was a great honor to be asked to play at the Grand Ole Opry. People like Little Jimmy Dickens and Porter Wagner play there. Jenny was a waitress and she saved up all her tips for a year until she had enough to buy this guitar. When she got home, she took a piece of duct tape and wrote her name on it and then she stuck it inside the sound hole. You see? It’s a bit faded, but you can still read it.”
I leaned forward in the chair to see the name. I could make out most of it, but the last few letters were pretty light.
“Well, Jenny lived in Texas and the Grand Ole Opry was in Tennessee so she had to keep waitressing to earn some more money, but she played this guitar every free moment she had. You can tell by how worn and scratched the fingerboard and neck are. She played a lot of the Carter Family – there’s some of their sheet music in this pocket. If you like, I’ll play you some of their records later so you know what they sound like. Well, one day, while she was working at the diner, this rich man came in and sat at one of her tables. He started sweet-talking her and asked her to dinner. She was a cautious girl so she told him no, but he kept coming in every day and sitting at her table. If her tables were full, he’d wait for someone to leave. He wouldn’t sit in anyone else’s section. And every day, he’d ask her to dinner. Well, after a few weeks of this, she was flattered and finally said yes. So they had dinner and, after that, he began courting her. She thought he was very nice and he treated her proper, but she couldn’t really say she loved him very much, not the way her folks had loved each other when they were alive. Still, when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. I guess she figured that he’d take good care of her and, since no one else was asking for her hand, she might as well marry him. You see this picture? That’s them at Niagara Falls on their honeymoon. She’s torn his head out of the photo, but I’ll explain that later.

“Well things were alright for a while except she had to put her dreams of the Opry on hold because he didn’t like country music, and he said he didn’t want to go to Nashville. But they traveled a lot, and she got to see all sorts of places. She’d buy stickers of where they went and put them on her guitar case. There’s a sticker here from the Grand Canyon and from New York. She’s also got them from Virginia and California too. They were mostly business trips and she spent a lot of time waiting for him in the hotel, but she didn’t really mind. She’d just take out her guitar and start singing and playing. She started writing some songs of her own, too. They’re in a folder here in the pocket, next to the sheet music. Each song she wrote got a little better and some of the ones here in the back are actually quite good. I’ll play some of them for you when I’m done with the story... if you’re interested.

“Unfortunately, after a couple of years, things took a turn for the bad. He lost a lot of money in his business and he began to get angry and mean. He yelled at her a lot, and she was scared of him. You see this big gash in the back of the case? Well, one night, she was playing her music and he got mad at her so he picked this up and threw it down the stairs. When she went after it, he grabbed her arm and shoved her against the wall. He told her he didn’t ever want to hear that guitar again. That night, she got a suitcase full of clothes, all the money she could find, and her guitar, and she left. She went down to the bus station and bought herself a ticket. See here? She saved the stub and it says Nashville, Tennessee on the midnight bus. I’m not sure why she saved the ticket, but I guess it was a turning point in her life, and she wanted a memento of it. Anyhow, you can see now why she tore his head out of the picture. Now, would you mind getting me some more water? The kitchen’s right down the hall there.”

I was a bit surprised at the abrupt change in the story, but I nodded my head and got up to venture down the hall. It was dark, and I kept glancing over my shoulder to see if this was a trap and she was sneaking up on me. So far, she seemed nice, but I figured that’s what she wanted me to think. As I got closer to the kitchen, the light over the stove cast a glow on some pictures hanging on the wall. I stopped and looked up at a serious looking man standing behind a younger-looking Fink, sitting in a chair. She looked pretty, and she didn’t have the scars on her face. Another picture was a little girl holding a different guitar, playing and singing. Was this another kid that she had told the same story to? I wondered what happened to her... if her bones would ever be dug up by a wandering dog in the back yard. I had just started thinking if her mother would be sad or relived to discover what had happened to her little girl when I heard The Fink’s voice calling my name. I looked up to see her walking towards me. She held something in her hand; in the darkness, it looked like a knife. I began to shake and stutter as I took backward steps away from her.
“Pl-please, d-don’t–”
“You left the glass in the living room. Are you alright?” She walked into the light and then I noticed she was simply holding the glass in her hand, not a knife.
I nodded, blushing, and looked up at the girl in the picture. I wasn’t positive, but I thought I saw her laugh at me. Following my gaze, she looked at the pictures and smiled.
“That’s my daughter, Michelle. She was a natural talent with music, but she wasn’t really interested in it. She was interested in math and science. She was valedictorian in high school.” The Fink turned around to face the other wall. “That’s my other daughter, Megan.” She pointed to a picture of a slightly older girl, sitting on a swing and smiling at the camera. “She was a natural talent with boys; she always had at least one trailing after her. She was always real kind and sweet, though.”
“What happened to them?” I knew they were dead, but I couldn’t help asking.
“Megan’s married and lives with her husband in Colorado. Michelle works in some big, fancy office in New York. I don’t get to see them very often, but they’re happy, and that’s what’s important.”
I frowned. Of course she wouldn’t tell me if they were dead; she wouldn’t admit to killing them. I looked up at The Fink; she was smiling at the pictures. Well, maybe they weren’t dead. There was no way for me to really be certain.

When we got back to the living room, I took a seat on the other end of the couch. I could see better from there.
“Okay then, where was I? She’d just gotten on the bus to Nashville, right?”
I nodded when she looked at me.
“Okay. Well, when she got to Nashville, she didn’t know what to do. She’d always dreamed of being on the Opry, but she had no idea how to go about making that happen. And, she’d used a lot of her money on the bus fare. Since the only thing she knew how to do was waitress, she started asking for a job at every restaurant she could find. The first couple of days she didn’t have any luck. At this point, she was getting really worried because she could only afford one more night in the motel before she’d have to sleep on the street, and she hadn’t had anything to eat in almost two days. Well, she passed by a church and, without really knowing why, she went inside and sat down in one of the pews. It was a beautiful church with a huge stained glass picture of Jesus sitting with some lambs and sheep. She was in awe of that window. She didn’t have the time to waste, but she probably sat there for forty minutes, just staring at it and asking Jesus to give her a hand because she was scared. When she left, she took one of their tithe envelopes with their name and address on it and stuck in here inside the guitar case. She planned to send them some money after she got famous. Well, Jesus must have been listening because that very afternoon, she found a waitress job at an old club. And, if that wasn’t good enough, another woman who worked there said she was looking for a roommate and that Jenny could stay with her pretty cheap. See, here’s another sticker. This one’s the club where she worked.

“Now, this club had a stage where young, aspiring musicians could come sing, and Jenny thought that was the best part of her job because she could hear them while she was working and, on slow nights, the manager would let her get up there and do a few songs herself. People seemed to like her and one person even wrote her a letter on a napkin. It’s right here; see, it says, ‘Young lady, you sing real pretty. Keep it up.’ One night, after a couple years, a woman came in to sing, and Jenny was blown away. The woman just had a beautiful voice. When she was finished with her set, the woman came over and asked for something to drink, and Jenny started talking to her. Well, she found out that this woman was going to be playing at the Grand Ole Opry the following night. Well! You can imagine how excited that made Jenny! She told this woman how it was her dream to play at the Opry. The woman said, ‘Well, honey, us girl-singers have to stick together. Let’s hear what you got.’ The manager said okay and, even though she was real nervous, Jenny got up on stage and played and sang her heart out. After she was done, the woman smiled and said, ‘I shouldn’t encourage you because you’re going to be some tough competition, but I think you’ve got what it takes.’ As you can imagine, Jenny was overjoyed. Since this was the first person she’d ever met who was playing at the Opry, she asked the woman to sign her guitar. Now, look close here, can you read what that says?”
I scooted down the couch to get closer and looked at the writing in the corner of the guitar. “Um, it says, ‘You’ll make it there. Patsy Cline.’”
“Yep! Patsy Cline, can you believe it?”
I must have given her a blank stare because she just shook her head and said, “Never mind, I’ll play you some of her records, too. So after another year or so, Jenny got remarried, and this time she knew she was in love with the man. This picture is of them looking out the back window of the car on their wedding day. See the ‘Just Married’ sign there? She didn’t do anymore traveling and there’s not much added to the guitar or case after that. So that’s pretty much the end of the story.”
She smiled at me, and I smiled back. I was just about to thank her and tell her that I’d never seen a cooler guitar, but before I could, a cat sauntered into the room and jumped up on the couch. I looked closely; it was the same one I had seen earlier, which got me thinking. I wasn’t so sure there were any others, but I need to know.
“Mrs. Fink, where are the rest of your cats?”
“Oh they’re in the basement. I just fed them a young boy this morning so they’re not too hungry right now.”
My eyes grew big and I was about ready to jump up from the couch and run when she started laughing.
“Jeffrey, this is the only cat I have, but don’t think I don’t know what people say about me.”
I felt really ashamed right then. I couldn’t bring myself to look at her, so I focused on the flower pattern covering the couch. She put her hand on my shoulder. I looked up and she winked at me.
“When I was growing up, ‘The Dragon Lady’ lived at the end of the street. She had pet rats the size of alligators in her basement, and they only ate human flesh.”
I was relieved she wasn’t mad at me, but I still didn’t want to face her right away. I looked over at the guitar again and noticed something she hadn’t mentioned. I pointed to it and asked, “What about that Grand Ole Opry sticker? Does that mean she got to play there?”
“Oh goodness! I didn’t mention that? Well, she never did play at the Opry. She went and saw the show one time though, and that’s when she got the sticker. I can’t believe I forgot to mention it because, well, that’s where she met her husband. He was in the seat next to her in the balcony. Both their ticket stubs are in here somewhere. They’re little, and they tend to fall down in this pocket so they’re hard to find. Oh! And here’s the baby bracelets, too.”
Mrs. Fink held out two pink little bracelets so I could read the names: Barnett, Amy and Barnett, Kristen. “That’s why singing at the Opry wasn’t so important to her anymore. She was very happy with her life and was content. Her husband loved to listen to her sing in the evenings, and she played lullabies for her babies so she had the best audience she could ever dream of.”
“Mrs. Fink, how did you meet her? And how come you have her guitar?”
“Well, I never actually did meet Jenny. I bought this guitar in a pawnshop a few years ago. See, I was in a car accident, and I had a lot of rehabilitation to go through, and I didn’t want to leave the house much, so I bought this and a couple of books, and I taught myself to play. I just kind of pieced together her story based on what was here in the case. I filled in the gaps using my imagination. Sometimes though, when I’m playing this guitar, I can feel Jenny here with me. I think she’s glad someone else is playing it now.”

By the time Daddy arrived to pick me up, Mrs. Fink and I were singing along with “Crazy” and munching on the best chocolate chip cookies I’d ever tasted. Daddy smiled as he helped me get my coat and bag.
“It looks like you had a good time?” he asked.
“Uh-huh. Maybe Mrs. Fink can watch me again the next time you and Momma go out?”
“We’ll have to see if Mrs. Fink is up to that. You can be quite a handful sometimes.”
Mrs. Fink tousled my hair and replied, “Well, I’d love to have you over anytime. We’ve got a lot more records to listen to.”

On the way home, I mentioned to Daddy that I wanted to learn to play the guitar.
“You do, huh?
“Yeah, can I get one?”
“Hmm. Maybe we can borrow one and get you a couple lessons. If you still like it and want to keep learning, then we can go to the music store and get you one.
“No, Daddy. I really want one from a pawnshop – one that’s kind of beat up and stuff.” Daddy just looked at me as if I was crazy.

The next day, Chris and Steven were shocked to see me still alive. They wanted to know everything about the “Witch’s Lair,” as they called it.
“Did you see all the cats? How many were there?
“There was only one.” I could see disappointment in their eyes, and I got the distinct impression I’d really let them down. I sighed, then continued, “Well, only one that I saw, but I heard all sorts of scratching and clawing and chewing sounds coming from the basement, so I think that’s where the rest of them were.”
Chris smiled. “I knew it! How’d you keep her from feeding you to them?”
“It wasn’t easy. There were a coupla times I didn’t think I was going to make it...”

Mrs. Fink became my regular baby-sitter after that. We’d come up with crazy stories to tell Chris and Steve about how I escaped unscathed. She taught me a love for music and storytelling, and she taught me how to play the guitar. When I finally got my guitar from the pawnshop, it didn’t have as many clues to its former life as Jenny Garson’s, but Mrs. Fink and I still managed to come up with some pretty good stories.

As time passed, she got older, smaller, and weaker. I cried the night she asked me to play and sing at her funeral. When the time came, I choked up a bit the last verse of “Amazing Grace,” but I’d never been more honored in my life. She left me Jenny’s guitar in her will. It has a place of honor in my living room, but there’s one new item inside the case – a photo of me and Mrs. Fink. We’re sitting on the porch, holding our guitars, and singing some song. I don’t remember which one but probably a Dolly Parton one since those were her favorites.

Some day, when my son gets old enough to ask about the guitar, I’ll have two stories to tell him – one about Jenny Garson, and one about me and The Fink.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Confession

She’s shaking so hard, she can barely hold on to the pistol in her hands. She relaxes her grip and lets go, not even registering the sound of the gun thudding on the carpeted floor or the fact that blood is seeping across the carpet and will soon reach the weapon lying at her feet. Her hands flutter around her face as she chokes back the building sobs and bile. Repulsed by the scene in front of her, but unable to turn away, she stumbles backwards until she hits the wall and sinks slowly down to sit on the floor. What have I done, what have I done? I have to call the police… they’ll never understand… I’ll be put in jail… Ohmigod, what have I done?

She draws her knees up to her chest, wraps her arms around them, buries her head, and takes deep breaths. So far, her breath has been rapid and shallow and she needs to calm down and think. The intakes of air don’t help. Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod! This isn’t real… it can’t be happening. What… why? Oh, Lord, help me – what have I done?

She closes her eyes, trying to focus. She runs a still shaking hand through her hair and then rests her forehead against her palm. What am I supposed to do now? This wasn’t how my life was supposed to turn out.
She was sitting on the metro, willing the train to move faster and skip the upcoming stops. She just wanted to get home and spend a couple hours in a warm bath. She felt the presence of someone sitting down next to her and rolled her eyes. There were twenty empty rows on the train – why couldn’t this person sit in one of them?

“You’re probably wondering why I just didn’t sit in an empty row.” She wasn’t sure whether it was because he’d read her thoughts or because of the deep, warm voice, but she jerked her head up to look into the face of the perfect man. She knew that was cliché, but she couldn’t help it. She’d seen him before – not only did he work in her office, but he made regular appearances in her dreams at night. This man could have run Mt. Olympus with his dark brown perfect hair, his deep pool of chocolate eyes, and the defined muscles showing through his immaculately pressed shirt and pants that perfectly fit his tall – she had to stop… she made even herself sick with this nonsense. He had flirted with every girl in the office except her, and she never would have expected him to sit down next to her on an empty train.

He didn’t seemed put-off by the fact that she hadn’t answered but had, instead, sat there gaping at him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy it, and he looked like this happened to him every day. Apparently he was perfectly comfortable with women looking at him like hungry lions. She managed to close her mouth, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to open it again to try to speak. Somehow, he knew that too. “Honestly, I considered sitting in an empty seat, but you looked so beautiful that I had to come talk to you.” She wanted to act cool, roll her eyes, and laugh the remark off as a lame come-on, but nobody had ever told her she looked beautiful. She wasn’t ready to throw away the first compliment she’d received. She glanced away before tentatively asking, “Really?”
“Of course, really. Why would I make that up? Hasn’t anyone ever told you that you are beautiful?”
How did he do that? Everything she thought, he put into words.
“N-no. I don’t think so.”
“Well then, it’s obvious you need me because I plan to tell you that every day for the rest of your life.”
“The rest of my life?”
“Of course, don’t you believe in love at first sight?”
“Um, no, not really. I mean, no one would fall in love with me at first sight.”
“I did. Now how about you have dinner with me tonight?” She looked at him for a long time. This wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right… could it? And she couldn’t go to dinner with him... could she? He was too smooth. Her friends would probably say he was corny, but it was having an effect on her nonetheless. But men like this didn’t ask women like her out. He had to have some ulterior motive.
“I don’t think–”
“You don’t think you could break my heart so you’re going to say, “Yes’?”
She nodded. “Yes.” Where had that come from?
He smiled. “Good. My name is Doug, by the way.”
She’s still sitting against the wall when she feels a brush of something against her leg. She jumps a bit before realizing that it’s her cat rubbing his head against her, looking for attention. He begins to walk towards the body face-up in an ever-growing pool of blood on the floor. The cat stops at the outer edge of the ring of blood and bends his head to sniff this unknown substance.

“NO!!!” she screams, lunging for the cat. She yanks him back from the blood and carries him into the other room. There are three chairs, but she returns to a sitting position on the floor, this time wedged in a dark corner. The cat in her arms squirms, but she tightens her grip and buries her head in his soft fur. She can’t let him return to the body. He can’t know what she did. No one can know what I did. They’ll never understand. They’ll hate me.
Dinner was wonderful. He had given her his complete attention. He hardly even glanced at the gorgeous waitress who had taken their order; he hadn’t even seemed to notice they way she touched his arm or leaned in close to hear him order, even though she seemed to hear Emily just fine from where she was. He had chosen the restaurant, held her chair, ordered her meal for her, and never took his eyes off her. He was completely in control; she liked that because she was never in control. He made her feel taken care of. He made her laugh. He told stories of his childhood, his family, his work, and hobbies. Although she couldn’t believe she told him, he managed to draw out of her how she had always been shy and overlooked, how no one had ever asked her on a date in high school, and how she always felt out-of-style and frumpy. She told him how her mother had died young so no one had ever taught her how to be a woman. When he told her that he thought she was “all woman,” she was hooked.
The first teardrops begin to fall. She had always been a good girl, always went to church, always obeyed the speed limit. Had she really just murdered a man? No! It’s a dream. It’s just a horrible dream. I’ll wake up and everything will be okay. I’ve been dreaming of killing Doug for four years so that’s all this is... just another dream. She stands up and takes a step toward the foyer. Okay, I’ll walk in there and everything will be fine. He won’t be lying on the floor. He won’t be there. Still, she doesn’t take the first step. She scratches the cat’s ears and picks at a piece of mattered fur. She studies the pictures on the mantle and wipes some dust off a shelf. Finally, she inches toward the doorway. A sob racks her chest – it wasn’t a dream. He’s still there, just as dead as he was before.
After that night, hardly a day went by that they weren’t together. They had dinners; they saw movies; they went on hikes in the mountains. She never had to plan or suggest anything. Every day, he knew what they should do and he made it happen. She had begun to worry that she’d never have a relationship, but now, she had a man who wanted to spend every minute with her.

They’d been dating for two months when they had their first disagreement. She’d wanted to go to a friend’s party, but he had other plans.
“I had dinner plans for us. You’ll have to see your friends another time.”
“It’s her thirtieth birthday. That only happens once. Can’t we do dinner tomorrow night instead?”
“No, we can’t do dinner tomorrow night; the reservations are for tonight. Just call her and tell her you hope she has a good birthday, but that you won’t be able to make the party tonight.”
“But, I want to go! She’s my best friend and I want to be there.”
He stared at her for a minute before whispering, “I thought I was your best friend.”
She sighed. “You are. I mean, you’re my boyfriend. I love you. It’s different though.”
“I don’t think it should be different. You’re the most important person in my life, but obviously I care more about you than you do about me.”
“That’s not true!”
“Then why don’t you want to have dinner with me?”
“I do want to have dinner with you. It’s just that it’s her thirtieth – ”
“So she’s making you do things you don’t want to do? If you want to have dinner with me, if you love me and want to spend time with me, then you should do it. I don’t think you should be spending time with these people if they don’t support your relationship with me. What kind of friends don’t want you to be happy?”
She looked at him blankly. What had just happened? He took her hand, pulled her to him, and wrapped his arms around her waist. He kissed her forehead and brushed her hair out of her face before continuing, “I want to spend every moment I can with you. That’s how much I love you.”
“That’s how much I love you, too.”
“Then you’ll go to dinner with me tonight?”
“I’ll call Julie and tell her I can’t make it.”
He smiled and gave her a light kiss. “I knew you’d do the right thing. It’s one of the reasons I love you.”
She begins to cry uncontrollably now. The cat tries to jump out of her arms, but she doesn’t notice; she just stares at the body, as if seeing it for the first time. She lets out a yelp as the cat digs its claws into her arms. She drops him to the floor, and he streaks up the stairs and out of sight. She follows him halfway up the steps and sits down, staring at the body. I can’t call the police. I’m not a bad person – I can’t go to prison. I have to clean this up.
Eventually her friends stopped inviting her to do things with them, and by the time she announced their engagement, the only person left to be a bridesmaid was her sister-in-law. The wedding was a small affair with his parents, a few friends, and her father, her brother, and his family. She’d always wanted to go to Hawaii on her honeymoon, but he preferred a mountain retreat so that’s what they decided to do. Just before it was time to leave the reception, her brother took her aside into a one of the church’s Sunday school rooms. He smiled at her, but he had tears in eyes.
“I love you. You know that, right?”
She nodded. Her family had never been vocal about their emotions, but she knew his wife had softened him over the years.
“I just wanted to tell you that you can call me. Anytime. For anything. Okay?”
Again, she nodded.
“I’m serious. Please call me if you ever need help.”
“I will, but I have to go now. He’s doesn’t like to wait.”
He gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “You look beautiful.”
Tears filled her eyes and she smiled at him. “Thank you,” she replied and turned to go.
She moves down to the bottom step and sits back down. She has to get rid of him, but the idea of touching a dead body sends waves of nausea through her. She decides she needs to find some gloves, but as she begins to look for them, a knock sounds at the door. She freezes and ducks behind the kitchen counter. Who on earth is that? Nobody ever comes to our door; why do they have to start now? Oh Lord, what do I do know? The doorbell rings and there’s another knock, harder and louder this time.
“Police. Open the door.”
Ohmigosh! No, this can’t be happening. Why are they here? How do they know? Oh God. She makes no move towards the door. Will they leave if I don’t answer the door? She hears the doorknob click and realizes she never re-locked the door. The door opens a few inches before it bumps into the body lying in front of it. She hears a whisper.
“Sir, there’s a body here.”
They’d been married eight months the first time he hit her. She hadn’t meant to be late – there was an accident on the highway – but she knew she’d made him angry. It was a just a slap in the face, and he cried and apologized. She was sure it wouldn’t happen again.

But it did. She’d started talking to a woman at work; it had been so long since she’d had a female conversation that she lost track of time. It was her fault. He cried and apologized again. He decided that she should quit her job so that she’d always be able to be home to fix dinner. It would keep stuff like this from happening again.

She tried hard to keep him happy, but it wasn’t always easy. He got upset the night she burned his dinner and gave her a bruised arm and black eye. He got angry when she talked to the mailman and gave her a concussion and a bruised rib. He was furious the night he wanted sex, but she was on her period. He forced himself on her anyway and left bruises on her wrists and pelvic area, along with a new black eye and split lip. He apologized every time, but she never knew what would set him off next.

Her sister-in-law gave her a brochure about a woman’s shelter. When he saw that, he broke her cheekbone and her arm. The next night, he came home with a gun. He didn’t say anything... just set it on the table and began eating dinner. When the meal was done, he stood, picked up the gun, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and said, “If you ever leave me, I’ll find you, and I’ll kill you.”
When the first officer finds her, she’s still hiding behind the counter. He looks at her for a few minutes, obviously noticing her swollen cheek, shaved head and stitches, and the bruises on her face, arms, and legs.
“Ma’am, are you alright?
“N-no. I don’t... I mean I didn’t... ” She shakes her head, not really knowing what to say to this man. The tears begin to fall again. Between her sobs, she manages to get a few words out, “Please help me.”
When she found out she was pregnant, she knew things had to change. She couldn’t let him hurt her child. It was up to her to protect this baby and she wasn’t going to fail. She bought books on pregnancy, raising a baby, and being a single mother. She went home, packed her bags, found the gun he had hidden in the desk so he couldn’t use it against her, and left.

It took him less than twelve hours to find her at her brother’s house. He asked to speak to her alone, but her brother refused.
“If she’s willing to talk to you, you’re going to have to do it with me in the room.” She agreed to hear what he had to say.
“I want you to come home right now.” She looked over at her brother. He shook his head and she replied, “No.”
“Why are you looking at him?” he asked. “Think for yourself for once. You’re my wife, and you need to come home.”
“I can’t.”
His fist tightened and he took a step towards her. Before he could take a second step, her brother had moved to stand between them. Through clenched teeth he told him, “I think it’s time you left. She’s not going with you.”
“I’m not going anywhere without my wife.” He stepped back to look at her. “Honey, please, you know I love you. I need you in my life... please, please come home with me.”
“I can’t,” she said, shaking her head.
“Why not? I told you I love you. I’ll try harder, I promise.” When he saw tears start to form in her eyes, he reached out and brushed her hair behind her ears.” “Sometimes I forget how beautiful you are, you know? I’m sorry for that. I won’t forget again if you just give me another chance.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t just think about myself anymore... I’m pregnant.”
“What? P-pregnant? Oh sweetie!” He sank to his knees and put his hands on her stomach. You’re really pregnant?”
She nodded, “Yes, and I can’t let you hurt my baby... I can’t.”
“I wouldn’t! I would never hurt it, I promise you.” Tears welled in his eyes and his voice got thick. “Oh man... a dad! I’m going to be a dad. Honey, please, I can do this. I can be a great dad... I can be a great husband. Please, don’t take my child away from me.”
Tears were now streaming down his face. He moved his hands from her stomach to take her hands. He looked up into her face. “I know I’ve blown it again and again and again. I didn’t realize how badly until just now. I don’t deserve another chance; I know I don’t, but please, please give me one. One more chance, please. Let me be a dad. I’ll take care of our baby; I’ll take care of you. I’ll never hurt either you, I promise. I know how important this is now, Sweetie, I do.”
“Could I talk to my brother a minute alone please?”
“Sweetie, please – ”
“Just one minute.” He nodded. He caressed her belly one more time before standing and facing her. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “I love you,” he said, before turning and leaving the room.”
She turned and looked at her brother. “I’m going home.”
“No. Please, don’t do that. Don’t give in to him again.”
“Did you see him? He’s sorry.”
He rolled his eyes. “He’s always sorry.”
“It’s different this time. He’s going to be a dad and he knows he has to change. Weren’t you listening to him? He gets it now. I believe him.”
“Yeah, I was listening. All I heard was a bunch of lies. You can’t – ”
“I can. I am.”
He sighed. He could tell he wasn’t going to be able to change her mind. “I think you’re making a mistake, but I can’t stop you. I’ve still got the copy of the house key you gave me. Just promise me that you’ll call if you need help... anytime, okay?”
She nodded.
She tries to lie, but she’s never been good at that. She wants to tell them that she just found the body, dead already, but even she can see the holes in her story. It’s obvious the officer can as well. She takes a deep breath and plunges into the truth. “I did it. I’m so sorry, but I did it.”
“What happened?”
“My husband... I wanted to... I mean, he deserved to... ” How do I explain this to them? They’re not going to understand.
“Ma’am?” the officer prods, “you shot him?” She nods. “Why did you do it?”
It had been four months since she came back home and he hadn’t hit her once. He’d come close a time or two, but always managed to reel himself in before it was too late. This night, though, he was angrier than he’d been in a long time. She’d been having a lot of back pain and had taken a long, hot bath to help. He came home from a meeting with a lot smokers and wanted to take a shower. When he realized that there was no more hot water, he became furious. She was about to go downstairs when he grabbed her arm and began yelling.
“Are you stupid, woman? What is wrong with you? I work hard all day to feed you and that brat you’re carrying around. All I ask for is some respect, some simple courtesy when I get home, but obviously you can’t handle that. You ungrateful bitch!” He threw her into the wall and the plaster cracked where her head slammed against it.
She began to cry, “I’m sorry, I just wanted – ”
“Yeah, you wanted. It’s all about you, isn’t it?”
She began to edge away from him, but he caught her arm again. “Where do you think you’re going?” He jerked her back towards him. “Don’t you dare walk away from me.”
She took a step backwards to steady herself. Thinking she was trying to leave again, he stepped forward and slapped her face. She tried to catch herself, but the force of the slap knocked her off balance and she fell face forward onto the steps. She continued tumbling down until she landed at the bottom of the stairway.
“Do you see what you made me do?” She looked up to see him coming down the steps after her. “This is your fault. If you’d just be a good wife, this wouldn’t happen.” He stepped over her crumpled body, grabbed his jacket, and slammed the door behind him as he left the house.
She gently moved her arms and legs. Everything hurt, but nothing seemed to be broken. Blood was pouring from a gash on the side of her head. Slowly, she made her way to the telephone and dialed 911. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, she began to feel an odd sensation and went into the bathroom to check. There was blood on her underwear.
Despite himself, the officer feels for this broken woman in front of him. He has two sisters and the idea of a man hurting one of them makes him sick.
“I had to do it. He... he...” She begins to sob uncontrollably.
“You shot your husband to keep him from hurting you again?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m used to that, but he killed my baby girl. Her name was Elizabeth.”
On her way home from the hospital, she called her brother. There was no answer. She tried to leave a message about the baby, but all she could do was cry.
She handed the taxi driver a fifty-dollar bill to cover the twenty-dollar fare. She didn’t even notice – the only thing on her mind was making her husband pay for what he’d done. She went inside and found the gun. She wanted to make him think she wasn’t home so she could take him by surprise. She turned off the lights in the house and hid in the coat closet, leaving a crack just wide enough for the gun to fit through. All she had to do then was wait.
“I knew where the gun was kept. I waited in the closet so I couldn’t be seen. When the door opened and he walked in, I-I... I pointed the gun at him. I-I never even shot a gun before, but I pointed it at him, and closed my eyes, and pulled... Oh God, what did I do? I did it, but I didn’t mean to. I-I... ”
When it seemed obvious that she wasn’t going to finish the sentence, the officer asked, “And that’s when you shot your husband?”
“No. My husband... my husband still hasn’t come. I thought he had, but... that’s not him. I... I killed my baby brother.”