Category Archives: Love Story

Rock, Scissors, Paper

I FUMED ACROSS half of Kansas’s boring terrain, fields upon fields of low, nondescript greenery. The upside? I had lots of time to think. That I needed, because I’d picked a bold and possibly dangerous solution to a problem that begged a solution. I’m on my way to Susank to take my sister away from her abusive husband.

Twelve hundred eighty seven miles from my home in Hershey; twelve hundred eighty seven angry miles. My wife said I shouldn’t make the trip. She tried to make me be reasonable.

“Too much for your heart, Jake. I know how much you love your sister, but…”

“I’m going, Maeve. Don’t stop me,” I told her. “The bastard didn’t believe me. I’m going to make a pretzel out of him.”

“Don’t talk like that. He’s bigger than you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m madder than him. Special Ops training should do the trick.”

“C’mon, Jake, that was ‘Desert Storm!’”

“You don’t forget,” I said, convincing myself in the process.

She tried a few low blows. I’m not twenty-seven any more. What if he hurts me badly? What if he kills me? What about Amy? Our daughter needs a father. What about your management job at the Hershey plant? And the lowest blow of all. What about her? She loved me, but at the moment I’d blocked everything she said with white-hot anger and no room for reason.

“My sister, Maeve, my sister!” I tried to brush her arguments aside. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

She got quiet about then. She didn’t believe me, except that I’d be going and she knew it.

I don’t tell her I had an equalizer and I meant to use it if my “visit” didn’t work to my satisfaction. I took my S&W 32 out of the lockbox yesterday, loaded and locked, relocked the empty box and slid the gun into my Pathfinder’s glovebox.

Angry is a kind of craziness.

I kept tight control over my features. She’d know she’d lost the argument to pigheadedness. I’d had it with the phone calls and Judy’s tears and the secret confirmation I got from my call to boyhood friend Geoff Wilucz, who still lived in that little town of thirty-four souls.

He told me Dave lost his job several months ago. He’d descended into drink to compensate and he wasn’t fun to be around. Geoff said he’d stopped being neighborly. I couldn’t tell Maeve that.

Then I wondered why Judy hadn’t shared with me. I answered my own thought. Probably knew I’d act like I’m acting. Then the disaster of my phone call to Dave. I lost it. I ended up calling him all sorts of names and I threatened him. He laughed at me and hung up. Nobody did that to me!

I gave it the test of time, twelve hundred miles of it. I left Hershey with an edge of angst, but that I directed to my wife for lying to her. It didn’t set well. We had no secrets. I grimaced at that pronouncement. If she had a secret, I wouldn’t know, right? And now I had one and she didn’t know, except we’d been married almost thirty years and if anybody knew me, she did.

My first day driving I went all out; sixteen hours seething inside kept my body at a long distance edge so I stayed plenty alert. I did most of it on the I-70 Interstate, cruise set on seventy. I found a Comfort Inn off the highway for the night in Topeka. My anger fell away and I slept the sleep of the righteous. Before climbing under the covers I thought about what Maeve might do. It gave me pause. Did she give up a little too quick?

If I were her, what would I do? I would call ahead to the Kansas State Police and have a welcoming committee waiting for me, but would she do that? I didn’t think so, but she might. She knew how upset I could get and she knew what I could do…used to do.

Hell with it! I’d cast the dice and what would be, would be. I patted the pocket with the lockbox key. She wouldn’t know about the gun and the idea wouldn’t occur to her; that I believed.

My triple bypass now two years in the past and with the blessings of the best recovery my surgeon had seen in years beating inside, I thought about my plan for maybe the thirtieth time. I’d arrive unannounced. Dave might be home, but likely he’d be over at Moe’s Bar in Beaver.

I gave some thought to the price his mortgage paid toward his drinking. The anxiety in Judy’s voice in our final conversation convinced me it would get worse for her before it got better. That’s when I made my decision to go for the showdown.

I left Topeka around ten, figuring I’d get to my sister’s place about one-thirty, give or take. I’d be ready for anything, but truly expected the confrontation in the late evening.

A niggling thought tickled my mind. What if Maeve called Judy; put her on alert? I could picture it. Put it in the mix, I told my brain. What would Judy do? I considered it as I drove the last boring stretch of the 189 off I-70, a knife straight road girdled by flat green fields. When I ran out of that road, I made a left and a right onto Susank Road with rising anticipation. It had been years since I had a knockdown, drag out. I’d stayed in shape. I could do it.

There, a left onto unpaved Pope Street. The Pathfinder raised a cloud of dust behind me. I could see Judy’s place with its add-on’s and the miscellaneous mechanical crap Dave left to rot behind the shed. Little place – testament to Dave’s ineptness or to laziness? I believe he tried hard for some years, but never got anywhere and I sensed his resentment through my phone conversations with Judy. She made excuses for him right along.

I couldn’t understand it, but I’d read somewhere that a lot of women stuck by their husbands even after they started beating on them. We’d had conversations and Judy always took his side, until about a year ago when Dave threw the bills across the room and then slapped her when she tried to confront him about it. The abuse began and escalated over the coming months. Judy wouldn’t call the police and unless she made a complaint, they couldn’t act. The resident State trooper, a guy named Crowley told me that when I tried.

Three days ago my last conversation with Judy did it. I would do something. The law could do nothing, I’d been told. She would do nothing, she sobbed. She loved him.

I drove onto Judy and Dave’s property. I didn’t see his truck, so I figured he’d gone to Mo’s. I presumed I’d have time to talk to Judy, to convince her that my appearance could begin a new life for her, that she’d go to a shelter while she divorced the bastard, or failing that, that I would convince Dave to get some help.

How wrong I could be. I parked, got out, knocked on the front door and after a few moments the door opened a few inches.

“Surprise!” I cried and threw my arms up. Then I saw Judy as the early afternoon light settled on her features. Blood moved slowly down her cheeks and I saw welts on her once pretty face. My face got hot and my rage became a force of nature. I pushed into Judy’s house without thinking.

Jake, NO!” she yelled. Just then she was yanked violently out of sight. Dave hulked into the doorway. Damn it, Maeve did call her after all. I backed up fast.

“So, you little piss-ant,” Dave started, “you’re going to do what to me?” In his hand he held an eight-inch kitchen knife. “I think I’ll cut you up, asshole.”

With that he lunged, the knife aimed for my stomach. If my adrenaline hadn’t been working overtime from the moment I saw Judy—his mistake—he would have impaled me and game over. I jerked backwards and twisted to the side, grabbed his arm at the wrist with my left hand and pulled hard. Not expecting it, Dave’s considerable bulk came through the doorway and his foot caught on the threshold. He crashed face down on the dirt. He still had the knife.

With amazing forethought I’d worn heavy brogans for the confrontation. I stomped on his hand and he let go with a cry. I kicked the knife ten feet away. He started to rise. I had less than a couple of seconds to reach behind and pull my Smith and Wesson from my belt. I bent down, stuck it in his ear, hard, and shouted, “Move, you simpleton. All I want to do is to put a bullet in your brain!”

He deflated quickly. “You wouldn’t do that,” he said, but didn’t sound sure.

“Find out! Move, you bastard.” I called to Judy, who had appeared back in the doorway. “Are you through with this piece of trash now, Sis?” Rock.

“Yes I am. I’m calling the police, Jake.” In a few seconds Jake heard her talking to the resident Trooper. She hung up. Scissors.

“He’ll be here in five minutes, Jake.” Then she started to cry. Paper.

Epilogue

Aftermath is always anticlimax. I told the trooper I’d get Judy to the nearest medical facility and get her fixed up. Crowley led Dave away in cuffs. Judy agreed to testify against her husband.

I had to prove I had a carry permit in Pennsylvania. Trooper Crowley advised me that didn’t hold for Kansas, but considering the outcome, he wouldn’t give me grief about it.

“Lock it in your glovebox on the way home, okay?” I said okay.

After the police presence departed, and we were on the way to the Walk-in, Judy and I had a heart to heart. Judy wanted to stay in Susank. The trooper assured her Dave would not bother her again, that his next stop was the county jail and after that, someplace even more impressive.

Judy had decisions to make and plenty of time to make them. I’d better call home soon. I had a story to tell and a bit of forgiveness to ask for.

Summer Vacation

JULY 1ST. WE drive north because we always drive south at the beginning of summer and I don’t want to do what we always do. My wife wants the old, comfortable way, but I get my back up and decide she could do something I want this year. She can’t reason with me.

That’s her big forte, reason. She finally gives in. This is why.

My headaches had been coming with increased frequency. That started a year ago. Eventually I went to my lady GP and she referred me to a specialist. I railed to my wife about like why should I go to her at all, half serious, half in jest. I said it’s like she didn’t know anything.

I have a fever or a pain and it’s, “Oh, you’re sick. I better send you to a specialist.”

I wonder what commission she got on me. Like, would I go to her because I’m well?

“Why don’t you change doctors?” my wife asks.

My answer: they’re all the same in my book. At least this one’s good looking. Smells good, too. Okay, so maybe I’m oversexed. I just do the eye thing and sniff the air she passes through. It’s not like I don’t know I’m married. It’s not like I don’t know what side my bread is buttered on. I’m a male. We’re hardwired for it. I read that somewhere.

Getting back, the headaches began with tightness across my forehead. It didn’t really hurt much at first, just something new. I read somewhere that the first twenty-five years you get growing pains and the rest of your time is dying pains, so I ignored it.

That pretty much answers it for me so I experiment with ibuprofen and aspirin and other stuff to see which one works best and eventually settle on ibuprofen. Six months into when I’m first aware, I mention it to my wife and she says go to the doctor and why’d you wait so long?

“Because it hurts enough now,” I say. I leave it as a question on my lips.

“Stupido! So now I should worry?”

“Nah, it’s not that bad, just more.”

“You gonna make an appointment or do I have to do it for you?”

“I’ll do it. Geez!”

So I go to my GP and she sends me to a specialist. And I got a brain tumor. And it’s growing. I can still function with pain meds and the doc specialist puts me though chemo and I’m in between sessions and our vacation comes up and I want to go north. I gotta say my wife gave up easy. Maybe too easy. I give that some thought.

So we’re on the road. I wanna go to Canada. I haven’t been there in a lot of years and I wanna go, so she stays mum on the subject, and she’s sitting by my side and we’re grabbing big breaths of clean air in our little convertible and the pain isn’t getting past the good way I’m feeling so all’s well, way I figure.

We go to the Bay of Fundy, stopover in New Brunswick and cruise Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia and see a bunch of sights like Hopewell Rocks and fishing boats lying on their sides waiting for the fifteen foot tide to come in and the Tidal Bore in Truro and this sharp pain begins behind my eyes and I don’t let my wife see this new thing and I’m getting worried, too, but I don’t want to ruin it for either of us, so I hide it.

I should be smarter, because I’m getting it that I really am sicker than the doc’s best guess or maybe it’s growing faster or something. Anyway, I have a choice. I’m in control. My wife doesn’t like to drive. She can do it, no problem, but she likes me behind the wheel and she’s really down on big highways.

Well, we get up at the B&B on our last day before heading back to the States and I’m in the bathroom and this pain hits me like a sledgehammer and holy mackerel, I can’t see for a few seconds and sweat breaks out across my brow and I’m glad my wife is still sleeping, only she’s not, because I thought I held in the groan but it got out and she’s standing at the door and there’s this expression on her face I hope I won’t see again in the future.

“Mickey?” It’s accusatory.

I’m still in pain and she knows it’s worse than ever.

“I’m driving today,” she says.

“Yes, you are, honey.”

“I’m taking you to the local hospital.”

“No, it’ll pass. I’ll be okay, but we gotta head for home, for sure.”

She mulls that. You don’t pull wool over her eyes for long.

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“No.”

“I’m calling the doctor.”

“Okay.” I say this because it’s hard to see again.

This B&B has long distance calling, lot of business from the States, I speculate. She dials out. She waits a time and I hear her side of the conversation with various lengthy pauses.

“Dr. Schwimmer, please? Lola Wright calling. It’s about Mickey.”

“Can I reach him? It’s important.” Anxious.

“He’s what?” Angry.

“Who’s covering?” Demanding.

“He won’t do. No, stop. Listen. You need to locate Dr. Schwimmer immediately and have him call me here. I’m out of the country.”

“You’re not listening. I said Dr. Schwimmer, NOW!” She’s going to follow the cord right up that Receptionists mouthpiece.

“Let me talk to the office manager.” Softer, controlled, dangerous.

“Carol, that ditz you have answering your phones needs counseling or firing. Mickey has taken a turn for the worse and we’re in Nova Scotia. I need advice from Mickey’s doctor now.”

“A fishing trip? Does he have a cell phone?” Scary, quiet, measured, palpable.

“Try to get him.” Serious, holding back. I see her face working.

“Carol, I don’t care. GET HIM!” They can hear Lola in Halifax.

“I’ll be waiting by this phone.” She gives the number and hangs up. She looks at me. I feel pasty.

“Mickey, you better lie down. You don’t look good.”

I married a nurse. What should I expect? Lola edges me out of the bathroom and I go back to bed. She’s a take charge girl. Know your stuff and respond quickly, best kind. It’s one thing I love about her and if I didn’t it wouldn’t change anything.

She goes to her purse and gets this little capsule, brings it with water and I swallow it. No point in asking. She showers and dresses and plants herself on a chair by the window next to the phone.

An hour goes by. I’m flying. No pain. It’s not aspirin. The phone rings.

“Yes, doctor…”

She describes my symptoms and I wait a long time.

“Yes, doctor.” She hangs up.

“He wants us to head for home, but don’t stop there. Come directly to the hospital. He’ll be there. He’s arranging for a surgeon. Said it’s obvious the chemo hasn’t stopped it.”

“They gonna cut a hole in my head?”

“Likely. I’m going to ask them for a brain transplant while they’re in there.”

“Funny.”

“Best chance I’ll ever get.”

“Ha ha.”

“Get up, buddy boy. We’re heading out as soon as we can pack.”

Talk about switcheroo. I get my summer vacation and now it’s back to the States to star in my personal life changing event. I’m riding; she’s driving. I got a new job; keep her awake.

Funny the twists and turns in a life. Until it’s not funny.

My Old Farmall

BACK IN ’38, same year as I was born, Pa bought a Farmall tractor, brand new. He got a good price from Jed Wright, who owned the West Torrington Sales Company. He told Pa the company be changing the design and likely going to name them with letters instead of numbers. Pa didn’t care about that. He’d heard from Hezekiah Brown who had a big farm up in Goshen that the F-14 tractor was a tip-top fine machine…good enough for Pa.

We jawed about it days when we worked the fields together after I got my size and some muscle on me. He told me Harvester started selling them in Texas in ’24. They were good, Jed said, so it didn’t take long before they sold ‘em East of the Mississippi and then up in our neck of the woods. The first ones they painted gray, but Pa bought a bright red one. Guess Harvester thought red would catch the eye and I’m thinking it did right enough.

Pa had got real tired of plowing the fields in the south forty with the horse team. Kept breaking the plow on New England rock ‘cause the horses would keep pulling afore Pa could say “Whoa!” Them horses got mired often enough, too, to hold up production and Pa with a mighty yank, his big farming muscles bulging, would have to cuss them out of the mire with a “Gee!’ and a “Haw!”

Then he’d lose half a day heatin’ up the old forge so’s he could fix the blade. Happened time in, time out. Once he got the tractor, it didn’t take long for Pa to see how quick he could stop when he caught a rock and his time spent at the old forge went down a-mighty. He told us mor’n once old Molly and Dolly didn’t mind retiring.

Seems it took Pa thirty years to clear all the rock out of that big field. He’d tell us them rocks would rise up out of the good earth every spring like the Devil’s own children. He knew the frost be heaving, but he’d go on about how Providence must be agin him. Over the supper table Ma and us kids would listen to him cuss the day he started that field.

But Ma knew him and let him rant, “Does him good,” she told us kids quiet like, ‘cause Pa didn’t have much humor to him come end of day.

“Everybody’s got to let off steam,” she said. “Your Pa works hard.”

“How come you’re nice, Ma? How come you don’t get mad like Pa?” we asked.

She’d laugh and say, “I have my moments.”

Sweet lady, steady as they go. She made sure Pa attended church regular with her every Sunday. Said he needed a bit of the Lord’s blessing toward the end of the week. Said all that cussin’ wasn’t good for his soul.

After Pa put the horses to pasture, he’d hook up the small wagon to the back of the Farmall, throw on a couple hay bales for seats and drive us down to the Methodist Church. That church sat pretty as a picture in the hollow at the bottom of our hill, its big old steeple risin’ tall down where the roads crossed.

“Reaching for God,” Ma said.

Ma and Pa made going to church like a summer picnic. That kind of made up for our fire and brimstone preacher, Reverend Teasley. That man went on for three hours every Sunday before it seemed he’d run out of his own steam.

The war came and Pa got deferred as the only breadwinner in the family. He did his war duty by givin’ over a part of his crop.

He’d say, “For the boys overseas,” and he did his duty, but I saw him longing now and then.

Family kept him from fighting for his country in the Army and Ma didn’t say much, but we knew she raised her eyes from time to time and gave thanks that she could keep her man home.

That Farmall tractor kept a’ plugging and every so often Pa would lay a hand up against the red paint and give it a pat, like he used to with Molly and Dolly. Then he’d stare off, remembering how it used to be.

Every Sunday the Farmall pulled us to church. Ma sat on the wagon with us five kids and never complained – even when we were older and knew she suffered from the miseries. She’d just keep a smile and watch Pa up there, sittin’ proud atop that tractor’s metal bucket seat, working that big, flat wheel. She’d just quietly change position to ease herself some when we hit a bump.

Pa loved that woman. He set no store by another and when she got sickly after we’d all finished our schooling, he did his best to ease around the bumps on the rutty dirt road down to the village.

Time came when Pa couldn’t work the fields anymore and with Ma bedridden with the cancer that finally took her to Heaven, Pa’d sit by her bedside one, two hours at a time and just hold her hand.

‘Fore I forget, I’m Clay. Me, the girls, Abigail and Maude and my younger brothers Charles and David made up the Malcolm Smith family. As first boy, I stayed to run the farm. It was the way of it then, and since the others had to make their own way, they spread away like oil slick on a pond.

About then the war in Vietnam broke out and both my brothers enlisted in the Army. I recall the president called it a “police action.” Never figured it, except people say things to make them sound like not much. We got a letter from time to time, but the official one came one winter’s day two years after they left home.

Both killed in the TET Offensive; couldn’t get out of Saigon in time. Letter said they were heroes, saved half a platoon, awarded medals. Of course they would. They were Pa’s boys. He never had any truck with cowards.

Ma passed the month before that awful letter came, a blessing that she didn’t have to find out about her boys. Pa had little to say after that. He kind of sunk into himself. Right after Ma had gone to her reward, he seemed to give up. He stopped being hungry and I couldn’t get him to eat and I let Abigail and Maude know, but they couldn’t get him to go on either. We knew he wanted Ma. One night he went to sleep and didn’t wake up. We buried him in the family plot next to his woman. Our family of seven came down to three.

The girls had married local and made it a point to bring their families to celebrate Christmas at the old farm each year. After our parents passed on, they continued the tradition and they were good company, as I never married. I kept the farm going and it did well. Truth is; the farm and me was all the partners I ever wanted. I bought a bigger tractor with more power and thought about retiring the old Farmall, but it meant too much and I couldn’t do it.

Now we’re seventeen years into the new century and me and the Farmall are both of us near eighty. I’ll swear that old red beast is in better shape than I am. I just finished spiffin’ her up and that Farmall red looks like new. Shortly I’ll truck her over to the Goshen Fair. Entered her in the tractor pull. She’ll do fine. She’ll make me proud, just like she did for Pa.

Hilly Smedge

THIS STORY IS some about my family and my life, the trouble I got into and choices I will shortly make that will change my life, one way or another. I’m finally and truly in love. I see no way free of this dangerous course I follow. I am at a crossroads.

Do I tell the truth, there to reap the reward or suffer the consequences, or do I hide my past and hope he never finds out? I write this to paper first. Having written it, I will examine it like I’d had a conversation with a friend and make my decision.

I entered the world in 1837, born to Charles and Eunice Smedge. We were Smedges, but not the landed and wealthy Boston Smedges. Uncle Barton G. Smedge spent much of his life disapproving of his brother Charles and his progeny after my father married Eunice O’Brien – love being what it is – the daughter of an Irish longshoreman.

We Charles Smedges were the despicable offshoots, Pa told me when I turned thirteen and became an adult in the family’s eyes, of the smart and powerful Barton Smedge clan. Pa chafed, living in Boston. He couldn’t wait to get out of town and out from under the eye of that pillar of Boston society and his devious and hateful wife Sarah.

I asked Pa what despicable meant and he told me Barton Smedge just got too big for his britches and tossed away any family didn’t meet his ideas of what constituted Boston’s upper class. Snobs, he said, and a lot more. He didn’t say criminal, but I got that thought of it from how he said it.

When Pa read about land opening up in Oklahoma, he threw what money he had into passage through the “civilized” lands east of the Mississippi. We traveled by train to St. Louis. There we bought a wagon and supplies. The town of St. Louis had built up its stock and being in the right place became a major gateway to the west.

In Boston, Pa gathered their family’s most important possessions and Ma, a strapping woman of gentle nature but of strict upbringing, assembled their four small children, keeping us close as a brood hen. Once on the train Ma and Pa never looked back. That all occurred in 1843 after I turned six.

We took the Santa Fe Trail and followed it to the newly opened territory. What a sight to see that broad expanse of good land spreading out in front of our eyes and to look from one side to the other and see hundreds of wagons lined up for the land rush.

At the starters cannon shot the mad scramble began. Pa had traded up for some better horses along the way and beat out about a third of the rush. We set our stakes down over a hundred and sixty acres of decent bottom with a stream cutting through it and hills on either side. Pa spent the next three months building us a cabin and corrals, the boys and me helping where we could with Ma overseeing the home front.

Meanwhile Pa made sure nobody encroached on his land. That took his gun and a lot of watching. Eventually enough law came to the region that he could relax and farm. Even so, the wild land took constant taming and his rifle stayed handy and loaded.

Pa made a name for himself as a decent man who’d help his neighbors at the drop of a hat and that earned him the kind of friendships that meant protection. It’s like he had their back and they had his.

“There’s safety in numbers so long as everyone’s thinking in the same direction,” he told me often enough.

By 1856 we’d got established and producing and well enough off. We had livestock, both cattle and sheep, enough for our purposes. We also produced wine from vines; a special grape Pa bought in St. Louis, not knowing then if he could use the seed. We set our arbors sideways to the constant wind and it worked.

“Speculation,” he said to us back then, and looking at the side hill on which those champagne grapes grew so abundant, I had to smile. Early in that year everything looked so good, so permanent, but it was not to be.

At nineteen I’d been working Ma and Pa’s land-grab section for all my early years farming and I developed some hefty muscles on account of it. As a flaxen haired gal, not bad to look at, a little hefty in the shoulders from all the work and kind of trim in other areas, when I took my baggy overalls off at night, then I could see the girl right there in Ma’s ivory carved hand mirror.

I hadn’t caught a husband yet and back in the frontier days, you got one of them as soon as you could – if you could – and didn’t complain about what you got. Every woman needed a man to care for and every man needed a woman. A woman could cook and produce children and raise them to use for the farming us pioneers were about in those days. A man tended the farm and protected the ladies and the home.

Now, you could meet a fella at the harvest dances, but they held them in town. We farmed about ten miles north of Nowata, and though we provided all the wine the saloons bought while stills on other hills provided the hard stuff, I didn’t get in town much, so for me the husband thing didn’t happen. Pa said there weren’t enough boys near my age and he was death on the idea of any man his age hooking up with his daughter and calling him Dad, so I spent my time working the farm.

I became a lady of ill repute – according to the standards of the day – quite by accident.

Back then we had an Indian problem. The savages had some idea that we shouldn’t be there, that the land belonged to everyone. Well, people from the east pushed to the west on the government’s promise of land for all, and if all you did was grab it and hold it, it didn’t set well with the Indians. They saw their traditional hunting grounds swallowed up and government telling them always to move north and west, but above all, to get out of the way.

After awhile, the Indians got the idea that any promises the US Government made weren’t worth a peace pipe or their handshake, and their paper treaties were worthless, so they stopped being nice about it. I don’t mean we did anything. Not Pa and Ma and me and the boys, but them as came after us. They didn’t understand the Indians like we did. We got caught in that grinder in my nineteenth year. Ma caught a fever and died. Pa took it like a man but something inside died with her. I could feel it.

Shortly after we buried her, the savages started pushing back. They raided sparsely settled areas on the Oklahoma frontier and killed the men and women and stole the children and burned their homesteads. During the tenth of July raid Pa, Ezekiel and Henry, the sixteen and seventeen year old boys, though they accounted well for themselves, were arrowed down by Cherokees.

I stayed alive because I hid in some rocks above the house I’d played in during my early years. Shooting straight from the cabin window, Johnny, the oldest boy brought down six Indians before they put an arrow through his eye. I cried, but I could do nothing but save myself.

The cavalry eventually arrived and the war raged in pockets here and there, but I had nothing left. The Indians had run off the cattle and slaughtered the sheep and wrecked the corn bin and fired our fields. Dazed and destitute of body and mind, I walked the property for two days and never realized I neither ate nor drank.

Finally Will Huggins, a rancher and friend from the south of us rode up and found me wandering to no purpose. His wife nursed me back to physical health, but they could do nothing for my horror.

After a week I wandered away from them, from the land I loved and from the frontier altogether. I don’t recollect how I got to Abilene in the Kansas territory, but I ended up there. I only knew farming and the thought of it made me retch. I turned to work in a dance hall. I found all the men I’d lacked on the farm and an insatiable desire rose in me and I immersed myself in the bawdy world of drink and sex.

Ten years I plied my trade, putting my money away until one day I started down the stairs to work in my frilly finery and stopped in the middle of them, and as if by the turning of some magic switch it came to me I didn’t want this life anymore. I wanted to go home.

Working in a brothel taught me a lot. I got over my hate for the Indians and my fear of being helpless. People passing in and out of my life knew lots of things and I remembered well enough to make good moves in the direction I felt compelled to travel. I’d left a piece of me in Pa’s Oklahoma section and I knew someday I’d have to go back to it.

It’s 1866 now. The war is over, Kansas got statehood in 1861 and West Virginia and Nevada followed shortly after. Some say Nebraska’s next and Colorado won’t be far behind. There’s talk about Oklahoma becoming a State and joining the Union. I’m back on the farm I left so many years ago. My old neighbor Will Huggins bought the property after I left. In his advancing age he didn’t want to look after so much land, so I offered him a fair price and he gladly sold it back to me.

That Bertrand Smith is a handsome man. He’s the new lawyer in town. He just left in his horse-drawn rig to file the papers. Bert has taken a shine to me and he’s coming back. He’s single but not for long if I can help it. I got to level with him, though. Hilly Smith, yup, sounds good. Here’s hoping.

Looking Down

It is best to keep in mind that this experiment in storytelling requires the reader to accept the premise of a disability as tailored throughout. It might require a paradigm shift, i.e., instant suspension of disbelief at the get-go. Above all, keep in mind that it’s fiction. Now you are as prepared as you’re going to be.

ΩΩΩ

“I LOOKED AT Sally and what did I see?
I saw Sally, looking at me.”

I think okay but I mutter or blurt in rhymes and it’s a rare condition and I can’t help it. The medical community calls it Rhymosis. I kid you not. Not the nose thing. That’s Rhinitis. Actually, wish I had that instead. At least it’s treatable. It affects everything I say. You think it’s humorous, but it gets old.

“Know what I mean
Jellybean.”

Sally and I love each other and we’ll probably get married as soon as she decides she can put up with my malady. We also love to climb and we had never been to the Grand Tetons before. This would prove to be the final test, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The mountains stood before us, majestic, silent, ancient and hoary and the big smiles on our faces the genuine article. Anticipation translated to the here and now. Hot dog!

“Sally’s my love
We fit like a glove.”

There I go. Tom, our guide, said to stick with him and listen before we make any stupid moves. He lacked social skills, but came highly recommended. We said okay. Actually, I said,

“Hey friend
We’re here to the end
So tell us true
And we’ll stick with you.”

He smirked. Thought I was kidding. He’d find out. Probably get old with him before we got to the foothills. We hiked our packs onto our shoulders and set off, bundled against the chill, Sally to my right and Tom up ahead, leading the way. For a mile or so, the terrain gentled and caused no strain. Sally carried twenty pounds. Us men carried forty.

“Easy enough
In case it got rough.”

Eventually we started to climb and slowed to pick our way. Tom knew the land and pointed out things to watch for. Sally smiled at his attentiveness. I didn’t think anything, being more interested in the sights.

A canyon opened before us and the trail narrowed. “Careful there,” said good guide Tom and I blurted,

“The hills are rough
The going is tough
But we’ll prevail
Or fall on our tail.”

For all his social ineptness, Tom took his work seriously. He came to an opening across our path; maybe fifty feet deep and three across, motioned us to stop and then jumped across, agile as a mountain goat. He held up a hand for me to hold back and asked Sally to cross first. He held out his hand and she grasped it with her gloved one. I muttered,

“Fair maiden needs care
So guide Tom is right there.”

He called her to jump on his signal. She looked scared…

“But did
As he bid.”

Another blurt, but in low murmur and only to myself.

Once over, the guide called to me to leap and I did, but the ground crumbled as my feet caught the edge and I began to fall backwards. Sally screamed. Tom pivoted and grabbed for any piece of clothing he could get, clutched the bottom of my coat and planted his feet hard. With my jacket a fulcrum and my feet slipping on dirt, I yawed over the chasm and crashed to earth on the lip of the far side.

Sally reached down, got a fist full of hair and pulled me onto firmer surface.

“Ow! The hair, the hair
It just isn’t fair
But this isn’t a boast
Without you, I’d be toast.”

I know Sally tried to help save my life, but it came out anyway. Turning onto my knees, I gained my feet, grateful that Tom wouldn’t need to fish me, doubtless dead, out of the fissure.

“Tom, I almost fell
To save me was swell
But I’m stupid as hell
To almost fall in that well.”

The guide said “Nada,” and gave me a big macho smile that ended it. Then I noticed something else. Sally looked us both over as if comparing. Could it be…?

I’m not the jealous type, but Sally could be getting tired of my unintentional poetic outbursts. Handsome Tom the mountain guide, rugged and virile…I wondered. I had to redeem myself in Sally’s eyes. But how?

We climbed steadily, sometimes leaning against almost vertical gray walls to keep our balance. The trail narrowed in these places and Tom had us tie ropes to our waists. For Sally, he’d hook an end of his rope to her safety “harness” and I would do the same on her other side. We’d then feed out ten or fifteen feet for each of us. Tom eased through the passage with care and then had Sally work her way past the same stricture while he gathered line and I paid it out, keeping Sally’s lifeline taut.

Although always last in line, being last also seemed best. Should Sally misstep and fall, she had us both to catch her, with her weight distributed between us. Should I fall, there would be two to bear my weight and pull me up, I hoped. More important, should I not make it because of an accident, Tom could get her back to civilization.

The views became breathtaking as we moved upward. It would be too dangerous to go into the snowline, but we’d gained a couple of thousand feet and did not want for spectacular sights.

Tom mentioned just ahead a flat shelf held a view he liked. When we got there, we turned to look. Sally gasped at the beauty. Tom looked at her intently and I thought, possessively. Sorry, I couldn’t overlook that look and it unsettled me. Still, I tried to be cool.

As I looked down from my high point, what I saw nestled between overpowering mountain heights gripped me with the power of magic. The mountains came together and a river, fed from three extraordinary, thundering waterfalls, began to wend its way toward Wyoming’s Jackson Lake. My debility kicked in. I spouted something to commemorate this wonderful view.

“The view is ocular
Our eyes binocular
The scene is wet
But better yet
The mountains I see
Are for you and me.”

Hoods up and cheeks red, we reveled in delight as we felt our hardworking muscles euphorically deliver the rewards of glistening youth.

Then it happened. Coming around a sharp bend on a narrow section, I felt something in my feet, a vibration. Tom felt it, too, and laid his ear against the cold stone face as if listening. His face worried, he looked up.

“Avalanche!” he cried. High up in the snowpack, a section of the mountain took on a cloudy look and I saw movement. Tom glanced around wildly, looking for something. I understood him instantly.

Then he lost it. “We’re gonna die!”

His pitiful panicked cry transformed him into an ugly thing. What happened to handsome, rugged and virile? For me his light went out.

Behind me, the mountain rose sheer for fifty feet and then took a sharp angle upward. That’s it! Already in motion, I said,

“Quick, that place among the rocks
Will save our clocks
I’m saying we’ll make it
I wouldn’t fake it
Save your breath
To avoid your death!”

The rumbling grew and grew. I saw Sally grab Tom’s rope and yank, turning him toward us. Sally and Tom ran right behind me as terror gave wings to our feet. We arrived and I shouted:

“Paste yourselves against the wall
Or you will surely fall
Do not look askance
Don’t invite grim happenstance!”

The words tore from me and were lost in a crashing whiteness that vaulted over us. We became one with the mountain. We shook in sync with the avalanche as the roar of snow overwhelmed our ears and threatened to take us on a two thousand foot journey to oblivion.

The whiteness and roar seemed to last an eternity. Then, just like that, it ended.

Sally’s face, white as the snow that attacked us, softened as she realized we still lived. Tom, too, white with fear, regained his manliness. I, curiously, felt wonderful. During this trial, something happened to my sense of well-being and I felt serene.

What pleased me most came from Sally, a fitting end to this awesome saga, to find no one but me in her thoughts.

“My dear, you couldn’t be braver
You are my true savior
My mind is made up
You get the winner’s cup
I am no longer harried
It’s time we got married.”

Sarah and Samuel

I HAD AN interesting day today. I met someone at the corner of Main and Farnum Streets. I’d arrived a moment or two after her. She stood silent at the light post waiting for the buzzer so when I moved to the post to position myself for crossing, I didn’t notice and bumped into her.

It’s strange I didn’t smell her.

I’ve been blind for years, a childhood accident. During that time I’ve had to learn to get along. My sense of smell is excellent, as is touch and hearing. Developing them has leavened the sight I lost and now in my middle years, I get along fine. I have a good job and my company is supportive of my disability. I have a home and although I live alone, I have many books in Braille and I read constantly. Life is quite satisfying, thank you.

As I said, I bumped into this person and she moved away slightly. I could sense her turn to look at me.

“Oh, sorry!”

“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” she replied, her tone slightly petulant.

“I didn’t see you.”

“Are you blind!”

“Yes.”

“Oh, sorry. So am I.”

At that moment the light turned and the buzzer told us we could cross. I walked side by side with her and struck up a conversation. People seem drawn to others who have certain familiarities and we had a big one.

“Wonder what people are thinking,” I said, “seeing the two of us crossing in tandem, canes clicking.”

She laughed. After the first insult – my running into her – she felt humor again.

“Where are you from?”

“Originally?” I asked.

“Well, yes, but here in town, too. I don’t know your voice and since we are such a closed community, I think I would have.”

We were midway across Main Street. I could hear and smell the cars stopped at the light. I tried to imagine the people in them. Were they young and upcoming or bold and carefree? Could a criminal with some sadistic purpose be at the front of that line, thinking what kind of thoughts? I always wondered about others.

“Well, first things first,” I said. “I’m Samuel.”

“Sorry. Of course! Sarah.”

“Hello Sarah. I’m originally from Detroit, but I’ve lived in Cincinnati for twenty years in my aunt’s house over on Danforth Street.”

“Oh, that’s a nice area. My sister and I walk there now and then, but I’ve never bumped into you before.”

“Actually, I bumped into you.”

She laughed again.

“Yes, you did.”

We sensed the curb at about the same time and stopped to negotiate it.

“Where are you heading?” I asked.

“I’m out for morning coffee. The little Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurant is up ahead another block. You sound nice. Would you like to take coffee and a bagel with me?”

“Is that the name of the restaurant, or is that what it is?” I laughed.

“Both.” She smiled. I couldn’t see it, but I knew.

“I’m on my way to work, but I don’t like to miss an opportunity to talk with a nice lady, so let me call my boss and see if she is okay with my being late.”

“You have a lady boss?”

“Sure, lots of lady bosses these days. Hold on, okay?”

“Okay.”

I pulled out my cell and my finger found the speed dial number. In a moment, the phone picked up.

“Sheer Magic, Monica speaking.”

“Monica, Samuel here.”

“Hi, Samuel, what’s up?”

“I’m going to be a half hour late, okay?”

“I think I can spare you.”

“Thanks, Monica.”

“Samuel?”

“Yes?”

“You’ll tell me what this is about when you get here, right?”

“Perhaps.”

“Hmm. Now I can’t wait.” A tinkle of laughter came over the phone. Sarah heard it and snorted. Samuel disconnected.

With a little giggle, Sarah said, “Matchmaker?”

“Can’t deny. Sorry.”

“Why? Never mind. Let’s get coffee.”

“Yes, let’s.”

They strode forward, the sighted sidewalk people obligingly moving away. Sarah and I heard them and could place their footfalls and even determine when they moved aside.

At the Hole-in-the-Wall Sarah said, “We’re here.”

“My nose already told me that,” I said, but I chortled, nonetheless.

A voice came from the front of the restaurant. “Hello Sarah. You cheatin’ on me?”

“Hi, Ben. It would serve you right.”

He laughed.

“This is Samuel. He bumped me down the street and I decided to take him in.”

“Hello, Sam. Welcome to the Hole-in-the-Wall. Watch out for this one. She’ll zing you.”

“Ben!”

“That’s okay,” I said. “She doesn’t sound dangerous to me. I’ll take my chances.”

“Ben, you’re going to give me a bad rep.”

“Nothin’ you don’t deserve,” he said, but he let out a belly laugh descriptive enough for me to form a picture of him. He had to be the cook. I could smell a variety of food products coming from his direction and I pictured a fat man in a greasy apron with hand swipes along the sides of his abdomen.

“How about a quiet table near the window, Sarah?”

“You mean the one you give me every time? And there is no such thing as quiet in your place.”

Ben laughed again. I liked him.

“Sure.”

They entered the eatery. Two or three tables were occupied and “Hello Sarah” came from them.

“You are well known here,” I said.

“I’ve been coming here for a couple of years. My kind of place.”

“Coffee smells good.”

“It is.”

They sat, automatically putting their canes handy to the side.

“Ben will bring me coffee and a heated bagel with cream cheese. What would you like?”

“I’ll have the same. I ate breakfast early, but it won’t hurt to be sociable.”

“Ben,” she called. “Two of the usual.”

Ben called over from behind the counter. “Two usual, comin’ up.”

“Now for your grilling,” Sarah said, and I pictured the Cheshire Cat. “Tell me about you.”

“Only if you will reciprocate.”

“I could do that.”

I started by telling her about Detroit, about my unremarkable upbringing in a loving, middle class home. I got to the auto accident when I was ten, where my parents were killed and I’d barely survived. The memories became fresh again and I halted and hesitated from time to time. When I got to the part where the tractor-trailer had slewed off the road, crossed the center divider and tipped over onto our car, I shook with the memory. My hands gripped the table until they turned white and Sarah seemed to sense it. Her hand came across the table and grasped mine.

“You don’t need to go on,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Her hand was cool, but I felt warmth in her touch. I gathered myself and took a few breaths. The restaurant had become very quiet. I’d forgotten the people sitting nearby and I realized that I’d been sharing my story with an audience. I stopped.

Sarah called to Ben. “How’s ‘the usual’ coming?”

“Be there in a minute,” Ben said, but he sounded subdued.

I’d had time by then to realize that I was reliving a time buried deeply, and it dawned on me that I needed to get it out, that it had been festering inside and that’s not a good thing.

I said, “Sarah, I’d like to have you hear the rest of it. Will you?”

“If you want. Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

With another breath, I began again. “We were on the Interstate on our way to Scranton to visit relatives and ran into a December snowstorm coming up from the south. The truck carried huge rolls of paper, newsprint paper. When it jackknifed onto our car I fell onto the floor from the back seat. Mom screamed. I can still hear it. I felt a sharp pain and then I couldn’t breathe, like the whole world lay on me.

“I woke up in a strange hospital. I had trouble thinking and when I tried to move, I couldn’t. My face hurt and my eyes felt…I guess the best word is ‘raw.’

“I heard a nurse say, ‘He’s conscious,’ and a lower voice say, ‘Good. That’s a big step.’

“I remembered nothing again until the following day when I again woke to pain, but I could think. I made sounds and finally words. Later they told me I had asked where Mom and Dad were, why weren’t they with me…and what happened?

The doctor came over to the bed and whispered that they weren’t able to come in and see me because of the accident. It scared me so much I didn’t want to ask the next question. Even though the doctor’s chose his words, I imagined the worst. They must have noticed my agitation, because a nurse with a soothing voice came over and did something and I went to sleep again, probably the IV drug, I believe now.

“I got better slowly and they finally told me that my parents didn’t make it, but that my Aunt Hattie from Cincinnati had come to the hospital and in a few days she would take me with her. I grew up with my aging aunt. She couldn’t have been more wonderful and supportive of her blind nephew.

“In my early twenties I got a bachelor’s degree from a Special Ed program run out of the local community college in nearby Covington and about that time Aunt Hattie died.”

I paused for breath. Sarah told me later that she’d never heard it so quiet at the Hole-in-the-Wall before or since.

“I stayed in my aunt’s house – she had some insurance that paid off the mortgage – and managed on disability insurance for awhile. I didn’t want to live off the government, so I did a job search and finally landed one at Sheer Magic, the curtain and apparel store. They have a design shop. Seems I have a facility for visualizing a complete room, and I’ve been there since. Now, what’s your story?”

Sarah sat there for a moment, trying to catch up. Before she began, several patrons got out of their chairs and came over. I looked toward the scraping sounds of chairs and knew Sarah would do the same. I pictured how our dark glasses must glint in the restaurant’s overhead lights.

“Mister,” one said to me, “I’ve been down on the world for a long time and in a few minutes you have changed that for me. I’m Chet. I hope I’ll see you again someday. I’m a carpenter. Anything you need done, talk to Ben and he’ll get me.”

Another man broke in immediately. “Mister, I’m Bobbie, and you done the same fer me. Anythin’ I kin do, let me know.”

Finally, a tall man in an expensive suit came over, reached for, grasped and shook Sam‘s hand.

“I’m with Goldman Sachs,” he said. “You have just created a defining moment in my life. My world had washed of color. I’ve been too cynical to realize how important hope is to me. Thank you.”

I sat still and tears leaked from the corners of my eyes. Deeply affected, I could say nothing.

Two went back to finish their breakfast. The man in the suit left.

Sarah looked in my direction. I could tell by her breathing. “Samuel, I was born blind, so I’ve never had anything to lose, but in these short few minutes, I think I have come to know you, the important parts of knowing, I mean. You couldn’t take the rest of the day off, could you?”

I hesitated. I had work to do and should be about it. If nothing else I prided on being steady. But an element had entered my life like a thunderbolt and I couldn’t remember ever feeling so disconnected from my own hum-drum before.

“Let me make a call.” I dialed Monica.

“I need the day off,” I said as she came on.

“You got it.”

I hung up. I couldn’t believe how happy she sounded.

Elephant in my Pocket

THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC ALLEY reached a long way back and brick walls on either side towered many stories, dimming the bright shaft of sunlight a few feet away. Squinting, I tried to discern “Fred,” the guy my friend Brian said would meet me. Brian had many contacts. I’d told him what I wanted and he raised an eyebrow, but said he could make it happen. He asked how much money I wanted to spend and I told him. A few days later he told me what I must do.

I thought of Brian as worldly, more social, not like me, the bookworm. He paced his way through college with me, but he didn’t have the drive to excel, not like I did. Good that it didn’t affect our friendship.

As I peered into the darkness of the alley I made out a shadowed form and gulped with the sudden thought, what if it’s not him? Things happened in alleys. I steeled my nerves and stepped in.

“Fred?” I called softly.

The man said nothing, but I felt intent eyes on me. He nodded. He appeared the epitome of average, not dirty or rumpled, but nondescript, with a forgettable face. He didn’t smile. Here goes. I tried to be ready…for what, I didn’t know.

“You have it?”

Another nod.

“Can I see it?”

From a pants pocket he produced a minuscule clear plastic envelope  and dangled it in front of me beyond arms reach. It looked like it. Trying not to breathe hard, I handed him an envelope. He opened it and peeked inside, closed it and passed over the little prize I wanted. He made no move to leave. I inspected the little package more closely.

Yes! I smiled and put it in my pocket. It felt strange doing something I’d never done before.

Somehow, the thrill of fear that gripped me heightened this first time adventure. Taking my cue from the silent man in front of me, I nodded, turned and headed for the street, but I have to admit, little tremors went up and down my back. At the end of the building, I glanced back into an empty alley. He’d disappeared. I reached into my right pocket, grasped the plastic, felt the outline of what I’d paid so much money for and held it protectively. As I walked, it seemed to swell in my hand.

I needed this. Four years of college behind me and already I had a good job offer. I earned it with hard work and personal dedication. This item in my pocket would cap the experience.

On leaving the alley, I became fearful. Suppose someone saw me duck into that narrow space between the buildings. What would a curious person think? Would he or she flag down a cop and point at me. Would I hear, “Stop, mister…!

Furtively I searched the crowded sidewalk. Had anyone noticed? I couldn’t tell. Sidewalks filled with shoppers went this way and that, intent on their own missions. I breathed a sigh.

Still, my body tingled. My emotions; too tight. It wouldn’t do.  I tried to relax and become one with the crowded scene, but kept my hand in my pocket, fingering the plastic. If I could get the rest of my body to cooperate, I’d look jaunty at worst, anonymous at best. Be part of the scene, raise no stir, blend in. That’s what I had to do.

Twenty-one years old today, not that Mom or Dad cared. Dad left Mom after a loud argument…it hit me, a year today! My twentieth birthday. A disappointing time. I hardly expected presents that late in life, but hearing “Happy Birthday, son,” from either might have been nice. No, the crack in their marriage overcame any thoughts of their son that day.

The memory crawled back. I saw me in my bedroom with the door closed, working on an outline for my Psyc essay. I needed to ace it.  I needed to stay focused entirely on my schoolwork. I didn’t want to be here with them, but we lived too close to the Cornell campus to justify staying at a dorm. Regardless, long-term money problems made it impossible.

Dad threw up his hands. He’d done it so often I pictured it as though I’d seen it, and I heard him yell, “That’s the last time, May.” Behind my closed door, I suffered in silence as the minutes stretched.

Finally, the door slammed; Dad’s final solution and not a word from him since. I stayed with Mom thinking only of my need to acquire my final solution, to get the hell out.

We lived in a big house on a tree-shaded lane on Linden Street, except in winter snowstorms an easy walk to the campus. After he left, to his credit Dad paid the bills, but he divorced himself from any contact with his wife and son. Total concentration almost to obsession on my studies insulated me from my parents’ adult mess.

I’m not saying Mom needed me. She had her own spate of problems, her drug dependency generated by a bad fall three years before from which she recovered physically, but with too many pain pills and an associated weight gain, her self-image plummeted. She became sloppy, ineffectual and quarrelsome. Dad had it “Up to here!” words I’d heard him say that echoed in my brain even today. I didn’t blame him when he gave up. I blamed Mom.

After he’d gone, I never felt right about telling Mom to stop wallowing in self-pity, so I said nothing. She’d put herself there and I believed she could have gotten help. She didn’t and I didn’t give her any support. Dad brought me up to believe that you make your own way in life. If you had a problem you couldn’t handle, suck it up. Unable to see Mom’s side of it, we became strangers in the same house and she faded into the background.

Then, in the beginning of my senior year, I met Gail, a theater student on campus. I fell for her hard. Her magnetism took some of the edge off my studies, but I had to graduate well. I had to be in the top tenth percentile in my class. When scouts descended on Cornell in the final semester, they had to notice me.

Gail’s and my chemistry was awful and beautiful and sensible and crazy and we wallowed in it. Mom sunk further into the background. A few months into the relationship, Gail and I had a serious conversation. Evidently, she had it as bad for me as I did for her, so mutual devotion, tied up in common sense and acceptance of the greater goal made it workable.

I graduated in the fifth percentile of my class. The scouts noticed. I had ached for Microbiology as my chosen field. I wanted a job in a top lab with all the tools and funding where I could prove myself and eventually indulge in working up original ideas I’d kept close to my chest for years.

Now I walked stiffly, looking from side to side with my eyes, trying not to appear an outsider to the moving crowd. I fingered the plastic and squeezed it gently, thinking of the near future and the job offer I’d wanted and successfully won.

I massaged this elephant in my pocket, my piece de resistance.

Gail rehearsed her small part in a popular local play today. I wanted her to see what I held so firmly. At Ithaca Downtown College Theater, I mounted the stairs, stopped before the main entrance door, took out the plastic envelope, opened it and beheld its contents. I inhaled and exhaled several times and squared my shoulders. This is for the two of us, I thought. Pleasure beyond measure. The thought made me giddy.

Now on the surest footing I’d ever been, I walked into the darkened theater, resolutely strode down the main aisle and onto the brightly lit, crowded stage, my face hot but my will strong.

In front of Gail, to the horror of the director whose rehearsal I had interrupted, I dropped to one knee, held out the brilliant one-carat diamond ring to her and said, “I love you, Gail. Will you marry me?”

East Wind

THE WIND CAME from the east channeled by mountains either side of their protected valley. Six times out of seven a stiff breeze coming through Widders Notch foretold a hurricane.

She and Pa had to come back from severe damage a good number of times and since Pa died Grandma Jo had trouble keeping up the place. Her lumbago kept her to the sitting porch more and more and while looking at the beautiful, deep valley and the mountains and by dozing a good bit, she’d think about chores more often than doing them.

She lowered the moistened finger she’d held to the wind and wiped it on her stained overalls. She squinted toward the pine grove on her hill. Eyesight going right along with everything else, she thought. Maybe she saw needles waving, maybe not. Finger said east, so east then, and it feared her.

She sat back in her creaking rocker. At eighty-six she couldn’t see the end of her life, but it couldn’t be far off. Being resigned to it fit her thinking well enough. Jake, Hank Grover’s great grandson wouldn’t have to come up here anymore. He’d probably take it as a blessing.

Hank lived a half mile further down near the valley’s out road and Jo knew he carried a torch for her in Normal School back when Buchanan got to be president in1857 before the Rebellion. But she’d married Pa after the war and that was that. Sixty years later after Pa died, Widower Hank came up and tried to court her, but she told him they were friends and she wouldn’t upset that apple-cart.

“You need a man around, Jo,” he said.

“You can’t do nothing Hank, “she said, “and I can’t neither, so you want to help out, ask that strapping boy lives with you come up, split wood, maybe make a few repairs. I can pay him.”

“No need for that. I’ll set him to it. You know he’s soft in the head.”

“’Course I do. He won’t be a bother.”

Hank left, been five years back and he didn’t come again what with his farm and all his own chores and maybe disappointed, but the boy did and what help he gave paid attention to the woodpile for the most part. Not being quite right, she didn’t want him on her roof anyway, so the place ran down, right along with her. Now and then she’d wonder which would collapse first.

Now this wind’s a coming. She pulled her body painfully off the chair and went inside. The screen door creaked open and slammed on rusted hinges. She went about taking everything off shelves that could fall if the house shook too much and put it on the floor near as she could to the closest wall. Her earthenware had suffered many decades of use and had chips, but she couldn’t abide them breaking altogether.

She recalled the last big wind. It found Pa high on the side hill tilling the two back to back fields for what he hoped would be a second corn crop. He stopped midway on the second field, turned the horses around and came back as fast as the old plodders would come and shouted for her to batten down while he put the horses into the paddock for safety ‘cause he didn’t trust the barn. They worked together like soldiers and rode out that big blow sitting in the house listening to it creak and groan.

She couldn’t help but smile at those days working together. She had her memories. They’d have to do. The light began to dim as the first high clouds worked themselves between her and the sun. It reminded her, the storm shutters needed closing. She went after them as soon as she satisfied her view on the kitchen. She’d latched the upstairs shutters when it got too painful to climb the stairs several years ago and moved downstairs for sleeping. They closed from the inside; glad Pa did it that way when he built the house.  At ground level they fastened from the outside. By the time she finished, the leaden sky pushed at her with little gusts. She could feel the storm gathering strength.

About to go back inside and sit in the one stuffed chair Pa had bought for her forty years before, she’d mounted the porch steps and got a hand on the screen door when she heard a hail from down the hill. It startled her, not being alone. With a wave, Hank puffed up the dirt road toward her. He had to stop and lean against a post for a few moments, and then he doggedly continued.

Jo, pleased to see her old friend again, but puzzled as to why he’d appeared just then, made her way down the three steps off the porch and went to meet him. A strong gust hit her and she fell with a short cry.

“Jo!”

Hank came to her as fast as he could manage. The old man had little strength left, but bent down and helped her up. She leaned on him and he leaned back. Together they inched their way back to the porch and grasping the rail, pulled them both onto it.

“What are you doing here?” Jo gasped.

“Runner came up from town. Said big blow coming. Jake’s took sick bad. Doc Hall says he can’t be moved. Thought of you up here alone and started up the hill on Daisy, but she threw a shoe about a quarter mile back and went lame. I left her there and started walking. You need a man, Jo.”

The old woman couldn’t believe it, but it was so. “Guess I do, Hank. I’ll thank you for coming.”

“Catch my breath and I’ll give you a hand.”

“No need. What’d got to be done I did.”

“We’ll ride it out together then.”

“Glad for your company, Hank.”

The east wind grew and the turbulent gray sky lowered as the storm came on. The first big drops of rain slanted in and forced the couple off the porch. Inside they took to the kitchen chairs, looking at each other across the table and glancing up now and then when the old farmhouse shook. Upstairs something crashed and Hank struggled to get up.

“No, Hank, stay with me.” Jo took Hank’s hand across the table and held it and it made her feel better. The fear she held under the surface calmed.

She knew in that moment that she should not have turned Hank away after Pa died. What would be the harm? Farming took her and Pa’s strength and energy, but their marriage succeeded and they had sixty good years. Pa rested under the soil in the family plot. God gave them the land from which they wrested their living. They had done His will and she knew he worked in mysterious ways. He’d brought Hank to her when she most feared being alone, didn’t He?

The wind outside howled like fury. Another crash and then monstrous sounds, rending, tearing, splitting noises grew and the house seemed to twist. Ceiling beams sagged and big pieces of plaster dropped around them.

Hank’s grip increased in Jo’s hand and she knew he knew their end had come and she pressed his hand back.

“Pa,” she called amidst the thunderous din, “I’m coming to you, and I’m bringing a friend.”

Beautiful Island

THE INVASION BEGAN – as it always did – in the last days of December. Our little town of five hundred would soon swell to two thousand. The boats would come as surely as one day follows the last. It’s not as if we didn’t have the room or need the money. It’s that our idyllic and nearly perfect lives were about to be disrupted. Our island paradise needed a shot in the arm and every year at this time that’s what it got.

As a practical matter, we had to pay a price. For the next month our penalty for eleven months of fishing, gardening, puttering, dreaming and making love in the sand during wonderful, warm nights under bright, quiet stars would reduce us to servitude.

Twelve years ago when Becky and I arrived on the island, although still remote, the closest five neighbors came calling. They came as a casual Welcome Wagon, and one even asked, with a broad smile, to borrow a cup of sugar. Becky and I got a kick out of that. For the rest, smiles and handshakes and “Welcome to Beautiful Island,” worked fine. We looked them over and they looked back. We decided they were the salt of the earth and they decided we were salt enough for them.

Becky, my bride of twelve wonderful years came to the door and called. “Lance, come in to lunch.”

I squinted, a hand above my eyes, looking west over our private bay, past the white sand and across five hazy miles toward what I thought of as the “mainland” one last time before I turned to go in. Five miles of deep blue, gently white-capped ocean separated heaven, not from hell, but from busyness, crime, burgeoning populations, and people a lot like me frantically trying to live well.

In my mind I saw scurrying ants doing their thing; building, moving, polluting, dying, and they were as remote and separate as though we were on another planet.

Today the haze almost obliterated the eroded cliffs and sharply vertical mountains. I loved them. They were a distant part of the ambience I appreciate every day. The bright pall told me the jet stream had dipped south and it meant a change in the weather. It made me think of the hazy fog that dissipates my nightly dream, how it passes like a gauzy wave and melts away as I emerge from sleep and I pictured rolling into the softness of Becky, who asleep or awake moves into the contours of my body.

The hot sun beat on my forehead. The errant thought came to me that I didn’t think about brow or face or any part of me often. Well, perhaps when Becky took my hand and led me into bed at night, perhaps then I did.

My parents and my only other sibling, an older brother, were killed in a private plane crash, God rest their souls. It’s a very distant hurt now. Dad had instilled in me a love for what nature provides and the desire to care for it, to be one with it. The mission and the attendant activity had toned me up, while my active designers mind reshaped our home.

Mom and Dad had owned the place before us and their parents before them. The will gave me the property and love gave me Becky.

I headed up the wooden steps. The eight foot deep porch ran the thirty-foot length of the building. I’d replaced the thatch roof over the porch earlier in the year and it looked good. A couple of nasty storms hadn’t ruffled it much, not since I added wire mesh over the top. I’d gotten quite expert at what I called “chores.” For me it meant everything that needed doing on the fourteen-acre property. At the screen door I focused on the few flying insects in view and gauged when I could jump through the door. I batted at a lone mosquito on a wrong trajectory, and then opened the screen and passed through quickly. I enjoyed outwitting hungry bugs.

“Hi Honey.” She turned her lips up for a proper kiss, which I dutifully gave.

“Waiting for the first one?” she asked.

“No. Dreading is more like it.”

“We have to eat.”

“You know how I feel.”

She smiled at me.

From king of my private domain, essentially living a perfect life alone with my wife, I must submit to noise and confusion and demands of house-guests who would crowd my beaches and eat my food. There would be damage – kids will be kids – and I crossed my fingers as I did every year. Maybe not this time. Becky was fond of saying that it was part of the price and she’d shrug and I loved her gesture.

Dad’s grandfather bought two hundred acres on the three-mile long island eighty years before. He’d been a lawyer and speculated in land when nobody even considered Kauai’s outlying islands on the east. He’d told his family they were part of paradise, too. Dad told him Grandpa had vision and means – the best combination – and he got it for a song. Over the years the two hundred acres shrunk to fourteen. I still considered it a lot of property to care for.

Becky said, “Sit.”

Her tone wasn’t imperious, but mischievous. She loved me, no doubt, and I loved her, not only because of her passion and sensibility, but because she completed me. Her sandwiches, simple fare prepared from Gram’s great bread recipe, sliced thin and served with mayo, Swiss cheese and salami with a dill pickle on the side looked terrific. I waited until she sat down and picked up my first half.

“You finish that last hut?” she asked. Becky’s small oval face peeked from around the nut-brown frame of her hair. It glistened with a recent washing and her usual hundred strokes. She primly bit into her sandwich and chewed reflectively.

“Yup.”

“What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Ah! The invasion starts with the Sandersons tomorrow. I want to suck up as much peace and quiet as I can. You figure a way to bottle it yet?”

“Ha ha.”

“Didn’t you promise?”

“I’m the one who suggested that last year, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. Well, okay. What you doing?”

“I plan to set my knitting aside, refuse to read a book today and spend some quality time with my husband.”

“Now that I like.”

“Let’s walk up to the inlet and down to Frank’s place. I owe Julie some sugar.”

“You’re kidding. You’re repaying her after twelve years?”

“No, silly. They are girding for the influx, too, and she gets like you. You’re not alone, bucko.” She tried to look stern, but failed. As usual.

“Yeah, I know.” I felt a little selfish, but we were all of a type on the island and Becky was such a leavening experience.

“And,” she said, “since you need fortifying, we are going to sit on a blanket on my favorite stretch of beach with a bottle of that wine I saved from my birthday and we’re going to watch the sun go down. After that…don’t disappoint me.”

Never refuse an invitation! I said, “No chance in hell!”

We sat and sipped chardonnay kept cool in a shallow stream that ran from the middle of the island, across the sand and into the ocean. We watched the end of another day and when the evening clouds piled up against the tops of the western mountains and turned pink, I turned to Becky and gently took her in my arms. Our lips met and we found fire in our bellies and for a brief, wonderful moment we exalted as our spirits melded with the fire in the sky.

We returned home, arms around each other, her head resting in the crook of my shoulder.

In the morning the Sandersons arrived.