Thursday, December 31, 2009


Julie died six days after her sixth birthday. She was an only child, the apple of his eye, and he had killed her.

They had been in the pool, and he remembered that he had forgotten the phone. He told her to stand in the shallow end: no swimming, no diving. "Okay Daddy," she'd said, with that sweet little sing-song voice.

He walked back to the pool with the phone and lemonade. He thought she was playing a joke on him at first, floating face down in the pool, but a heartbeat later, he knew it was no joke. He pulled her out, and felt tremendous relief when she started breathing again. She opened her eyes, looked into his, and said, "Daddy."

He picked her up, kissed her on the forehead.


She went limp, and he saw the light in her eyes dim. He watched life ebb away from his little girl, and the screaming and crying and pleading with God made no difference.

Cardiac arrest. A congenital heart defect. His mom had died of the same malady. But not at six.

Katie was shipwrecked, of course. And yet, she never blamed him, not even with her eyes. She tried to keep the bridge between them intact, but he'd driven her away, crippled by self-loathing.


He awoke in his dingy apartment in the bad part of San Diego, ambushed by a hangover, with an hideous taste in his mouth. The drive to the office seemed to take hours, and the sun drilled through his skull. He remembered little of the previous night's alcohol-fueled journey.

He pulled off the freeway onto the surface street. He stopped at the light, and noticed a commotion to his left, outside of a cafe.

He didn't remember stepping out of his car, or leaving it running at the stoplight, or walking to the scene. He only remembered a young woman on her knees, crying hysterically, and a man holding a handgun to a young girl's head. The girl looked like she could be six or so.

The scene was horrible enough, but he froze when he saw the little girl's face. She looked like a raven-haired, dark-eyed version of his Julie. His daughter. The daughter he'd killed.

He thought about running away, calling in sick, and holing up in a bar for the day. But he kept moving toward the man and the girl.

The man saw him from twenty feet, and leveled the pistol at him.

"Stop. Not another fuckin' step."
"I just want to talk to you."
"I don't want to talk to you."

He took three more steps. Again, the father moved the pistol from the girl's head and aimed it at his chest. The little girl was hyperventilating, squeaking Daddy please Daddy please Daddy please.


He felt his body go rigid. Fear gripped him, and that struck him as strange. He laughed at something his dad had told him: Don't meddle in the affairs of others.

"You stupid bastard. You think this is funny?"
"Yeah, sort of."
"What's so fuckin' funny then?"
"Well, until you pointed that gun at me, I thought I wanted to die."

A siren in the distance. A pause. The father looked at him, his rage dimmed by bewilderment.

"Why do you want to die?"
"Because I killed my daughter."

The father seemed to deflate.

"What did you say?"
"I said that I killed my daughter."

Another pause.

"I left her alone in a swimming pool."

Another pause.

He said, "I could take your daughter's place, you know. You could use me as a hostage."

The father looked down at his little girl. His face softened.

"Come closer."

He did. The sirens were close.

The father bent down. "Go to your mama, honey."

The girl tumbled into her mother's arms.

The father looked at him. He placed the barrel of the pistol squarely in his chest.

"So, do you still want to die?"
"I guess I'm too much of a coward to want what I deserve."

The father pulled the pistol back. He looked at his daughter, and his wife at his knees. He turned the pistol around, with the barrel resting on his abdomen.

"DON'T," he cried.

The father didn't. Instead, he handed him the gun. He smiled. "I guess I'm a coward too."


A week later, on the last day of the year, he called Katie.

"I was wondering if I could take you to lunch," he said.
"Yeah, really."
"I'd like that," she said. "Or, you could come over and I could make you lunch."
"Yeah, really."

"I'd like that," he said.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. The words are ambush, hideous, and meddle.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bridge to Then, Bridge to Now

He woke up chuckling. It was a weekend morning, and he didn't want to wake up his wife, so he tried to quiet himself.

She uttered, "Hm?" and went back to sleep.

He rose from bed, and checked on his son. Both of the dogs slept beneath him, fulfilling their mission to keep watch over Their Boy.

He walked outside, shirtless, into the pre-dawn darkness, feeling the delicious hint of autumn in the night air.

It was a funny dream. It was a dream about another woman, one from his past. He'd known her since kindergarten, but they'd become lovers in their thirties, after the death of his dad. She'd offered a balm over his grief, and the frenzy of their lovemaking would eclipse his sorrow, a sorrow that would further languish in the tenderness of the after.

But it wasn't the way their bodies slid across each other, lubricated by sweat, that filled his dream. It wasn't the way she would breathe, or the sound of their loins colliding, or the expression on her face as she reached that special place, or the way he'd snake his arms beneath her and squeeze as his time came.

No, it was the after. In the dream, he was on top of her, spent, covered in sweat, his arms still between her back and the mattress. He was drifting off to sleep, wilting inside of her.

Her grunts of discomfort brought him to.

"Sorry," he said, and rolled to the mattress.
"It's okay," she said. "I like it until I can't breathe. And by the way, I was just faking the rest of it."
"Good," he answered. "Please continue."
They both chuckled.

In the dark, out in the driveway, the better part of two decades later, he chuckled again.

He thought of one of the hardest nights of his life. It was the night he told her of meeting the love of his life again. The look on her face just before she started crying had haunted him over the years. He'd harbored a childlike hope that they would end gently, but instead, the end came with a brutal velocity.

He stood in the dark, looking at the first hint of dawn over the ridge. He thought of other things too: meals they'd shared, places they'd been, gatherings with friends. He thought of how he'd heard from her for the first time in nearly sixteen years, and how she'd offered the gift of forgiveness.

"I don't hate you anymore," she'd written.

He stopped at the steps, a lump in his throat. He was grateful that he could think back to those times and smile without guilt hazing his memories. Now he could call her a friend again. Now, once more, she was in his present.

He smiled for the dawn, and for himself.

He walked back to the house, hoping his wife and son would wake soon. He was in the mood to take them to breakfast.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday of September 23, 2009. The words are eclipse, languish, and velocity.

Monday, August 17, 2009

His Daughter

I was way early for my flight, but I didn't feel like doing my typical pacing routine through the terminal in New Orleans. I sat down in the gate area, watching people gather for a flight leaving before mine.

A forty-something man walked up with his daughter. The girl looked to be my son's age, nine or so. She was blond, with striking, electric-blue eyes. The man was fit and rugged-looking, with olive skin and dark hair. After checking in with the gate agent, they returned to their standing position a few feet in front of me. They stood looking at the gate, his hands on her shoulders.

She turned and wrapped her arms around him.

"I don't want to leave, Daddy."

My mind raced to fill in the blanks. A divorce. Mom has custody. Daughter visiting Dad for the summer. School about to start. A flight back to Mom and her other life.

"I know Honey. But I'll see you during Christmas break, okay?" His voice sounded just a little . . . governed.

"But that's so long from now, Daddy. I wish I could live with you all the time."

The dad looked at a loss, as if the right words were failing him.

Finally, he said, "Me too, Honey."

The gate agent came to them, told them that the girl could board early. He walked with her to the ramp entrance. She threw her arms around him one last time, and I saw them both mouth the words, "I love you." She walked down the ramp, and he watched her leaving until there was nothing more to watch. He walked the few steps back to my vicinity, and turned to look at the airplane. Tears rolled from his eyes. I decided to give him his space, and stood to go buy a magazine.

I paused. I clapped him lightly on the shoulder, surprising him.

"Hang in there," I said.
"She's going back to Mom for the school year?"
"Yeah. Damn this is tough."
"How long have you and Mom been divorced?"
"Two years. A long two years."
"Gosh I'm sorry," I said. "I can't imagine how hard it must be to see her go."
"She's not mine, but she's in my heart, you know?"
I paused. "You're her stepdad, then?"

It was his turn to pause. He looked at me pointedly, and seemed to weigh something in his mind. "I had a DNA test done when she was five. Turned out I wasn't the biological father. I told my wife and my girl that I was going on a fishing trip for a few days, but I checked into a hotel and drank myself stupid."

"My God," was all I could say.

"At first, I made plans to divorce my wife. I was going to get transferred out of down; I was going to start a new life. But after four days holed up in that hotel, I knew that I loved that little girl more than ever. Some other guy's seed may have created her, but she was my daughter."

I started to speak, but I had to get past the lump in my throat.

"Did you ever confront your wife?"
"No. I was afraid she would leave with my daughter." He laughed a curt, bitter laugh. "Two years later, she left anyway."
"Will you ever tell your daughter?"
"If she ever thinks to ask, I won't lie to her. But no, otherwise, I'll carry the truth to my grave."

He drew into himself for a moment. Then he surfaced, and stuck out his hand.

"Thanks for talking with me friend; it was mighty kind of you." He chuckled. "Hell, I haven't told anyone about my daughter, and I end up spilling my guts to a stranger at the airport."
I smiled. "Hell man, I'm just a nosy bastard."
He laughed. "I think I needed to run into a nosy bastard this morning." He looked at his watch. "Time to get to the office. Thanks again, friend."

He reached for his wallet, probably to give me one of his business cards. But he seemed to reconsider, and he walked away.

I watched him leaving until there was nothing more to watch.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


Sam called out, "Glen, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Hey, is that any way to greet a friend who's visiting you at work?"

"Yeah it is, when your friend works at the police station," Sam replied.

"Can you go for lunch?"

"Yeah, but why didn't you just call first?"

"Dunno," Glen replied to his cop friend.

Sam looked at his old high school buddy. He'd been up and down since his wife and daughter had been erased from the planet in a car wreck the year before. Lately, he'd been more up than down. But by the looks of things, Glen was back in Down City.

At the old downtown diner, they nursed their coffees and picked at their food.

Glen said, "Remember when Jane and I had money troubles when we first married?"

"Yeah," answered Sam. "Good thing you got all that overtime, huh?"

"The overtime wasn't what got us out of the hole."

"What then?"

Glen took a deep breath. "I spent two years dealing crank."

Sam suddenly found it hard to breathe. His best friend had been a methamphetamine dealer.

"Sam, are you with me?"


"Are you still with me?"

Sam groaned. "I feel like the whole world has tilted."

Glen looked beyond his cop friend, though the window at the life outside.

"It has," he offered. "Sam, that's not the worst of it."

"Jesus Glen, how could it be worse?"

Glen took several deep breaths. "Remember that biker who got stabbed to death in Lemon Cove six years ago?"


"I did it. I killed him. He was trying to rip me off, and I stabbed him through the heart."

Sam sat, saying nothing, wishing he'd wake up from the nightmare.

Later, the lieutenant walked into the holding room. "You have the right to remain silent," he began.

He scarcely heard the lieutenant. He wondered if he would spend the rest of his life in prison. He didn't care. His wife and daughter were gone, as was his motivation to continue living a lie.

He thought of how the biker stood for several moments before his collapse to the grimy storeroom floor. He thought of the days he'd have left, his life on the outside jettisoned, with nothing to hold him up but the sweet memories of days with his wife and daughter.

He wondered if the day would ever come when he'd cease to yearn for life with a rewind button.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. Today's words are collapse, sweet, and yearn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fleeing the Clowns

He sat with her at the bar. Perhaps her beauty had lost some of its sparkle since her glory days, but she was a fetching woman. And yes, she was fickle regarding her beliefs and convictions, but that night, her convictions were of little interest. He sought something lower.

He was surprised the next morning that he had no urge to bolt through the fog of the morning after. They chatted, and he very much enjoyed their pillow talk. She was a decade older, but in the soft morning light, he saw nary a wrinkle on her face. He felt utterly spent from the previous night's horizontal frenzy, but he felt a stirring nevertheless, a feeling that she wasn't just a one night stand.

He used the bathroom, returned to her, wrote down her number, and offered a goodbye kiss. He began walking through the living room. He froze. Hundreds of framed pictures of clowns covered her walls. How had he missed that as they walked through to the bedroom? He tried to tell himself that it was funny, but the gnawing pit in his stomach insisted otherwise. They looked at him. They accused him.

He let himself out, and sprinted across her apartment complex parking lot to his car, and his escape.

At home, he stood in the shower until the hot water abandoned him, trying to wash her off of his body, and out of his soul.

Prompted by Thom G's Three Word Wednesday. Today's words are fickle, sparkle, and wrinkle.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Looking for Dreamworld

My son started talking about Dreamworld when he was three. At five, he began talking about the portal into Dreamworld, down at the clearing near the main road. At seven, we got a call from the school principal. Darrell was freaking out the kids who'd joined him in his Dreamworld community at school, and the principal wanted us to tell him to knock it off.

He did, and promptly went into a blue funk. He told me that if he couldn't keep more kids on his Dreamworld team, there was danger that Dreamworld would fall to the Dark Ones, and it would be lost to kids who needed a refuge or a place to develop their potential.

One night, Darrell told me he needed to talk. I climbed in bed with him.

"DJ, why are you crying?"

"Dad, Dreamworld needs more defenders. I'm the only kid using this portal, and the Dark Ones could win if we don't get more help."

"Could I help you?"

He sighed. "Usually, adults can't go through the portal."

"Can't you just visit Dreamworld in your dreams?"

"Yeah Dad, but kids don't have the same power when they visit in dreams. To be defenders, they have to go through a portal."

"Have you been through the portal down by the road?"

"Of course, Dad."

"When do you go?"

"At night, when you and Mama are asleep."

"DJ, that could be dangerous." I suppressed a chuckle, but at the same time, I felt a chill up my spine, and the vague stirring of a buried memory. "You could run into a pack of coyotes, or a mountain lion, or even a bear."

"I know Dad, but I have to go sometimes. I'm the only defender for this portal."

"Wake me up next time; take me with you."

"Dad, the portal probably won't open for you."


"Ally, use the dog door." Ally was six months old, and she'd thankfully learned to use the doggy door early on. She was an Akbash, a livestock guardian breed, and she already weighed over sixty pounds. She looked like a white Lab on steroids.

She pawed me again, and whined. Sometimes, she insisted on having a doggy doorman. I grumbled as I got up. Sure enough, she went straight for the front door. She bolted down the steps, then turned and looked up at me.

"Go ahead girl," I said. "You don't need my help to pee."

She whined, and ran back up the steps and into the house. I rolled my eyes and followed her in. She turned toward DJ's room.

DJ wasn't there. I looked in both bathrooms. No DJ. I looked outside. No DJ. My stomach did a somersault.

Ally stood by the door. I could almost feel her thinking, "C'mon! Let's go find my boy!"

I knew I should wake Rachel, but something told me that it was best to let her sleep. Something told me that waking her up would be against the rules. What rules? I didn't know, but Ally seemed to know very well. I looked at my watch. Two in the morning. How long had DJ been gone? I dressed quickly, and followed Ally into the night.

I looked at the car. Another feeling washed over me. Driving the car would be wrong. It would be faster, but it would be wrong.

We walked the mile and a half along the dirt road to the main road. The night was utterly still. No cars, no crickets, no toads, no wind.

We walked down the last hill to the clearing. Ally stopped. She looked at me and whined, then continued down the hill. We entered the clearing, and I looked at the area where DJ had often told me the portal rested. I saw nothing, but Ally bolted toward it.

Ally stopped. She whined. She fell to her belly, and whimpered pitifully. She looked back at me, and I could again almost hear her thinking "C'mon!"

At that moment, I saw it: the portal. The light from it was very faint, but it pulsed with a rhythmic sequence of white, red, green, and purple light. It was barely perceptible, yet utterly arresting.

I was scared. DJ had gone through the portal. Of that I felt no doubt. I also felt no doubt that through that portal could be found something wonderful, and something wicked.

I don't know how long I stood there, looking at the colors, but I was startled when Ally grabbed my hand with her teeth. She trotted back to the portal, turned toward me, and whined. That time, though, the whine didn't convey a "C'mon." That time, the whine seemed to offer a warning. Ally took a few steps toward me, and sat for a moment. She whined again, got to her feet, and walked back to the portal.

Then she disappeared.


Prompted by Thom G's latest offering of Three Word Wednesday. The words are arresting, rhythmic, and wicked.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Heart Wins

The day outside was bright and sunny, with a gentle breeze blowing from the south. In his mind, though, it was dark and dreary, with a gale raging.

Shame rained upon him. He realized that the lawyer had talked him into going a step beyond what his heart would allow. If only he had realized that sooner.

He picked up the phone. His wife would be at work, but her lover would be home. The lover answered.

"It's Andy," he began.


He called back. The lover answered with a torrent of profanity. He waited.

"I'd like to meet you for lunch," Andy offered.


"I'd like to meet you for lunch."

A sigh.

The lover asked, "Why?"

"Because I think we can work things out before the court date."

"The kids?"

"Yeah," he answered.

He waited outside the restaurant. He watched his wife's lover enter. He told his hands to quit gripping the steering wheel so tightly.

He felt timid, embraced by fear. But that was okay. He felt that way because sometimes the right path was the difficult one.

He found the table, sat across the from the lover, and offered his hand. Warily, Julie took his.

"Andy, how could you of all people make an issue of our orientation?"

He thought about his change of heart on the gay marriage issue years before, and about those letters to the editor he'd written. He thought about his friends Greg and Walter, dead for several years now at the hands of two synagogue-burning, gay-hating brothers.

"You're right,"Andy said. "And that's why I'm not fighting you for the kids anymore."

Julie's jaw dropped. "You're serious?"

"Yes." Then, "Would you mind if we skipped lunch?"

"No," answered Julie.

He stood to leave. "I'll have my lawyer contact yours."

He was several steps from the door when she caught up with him.

"Andy, wait!"

He turned. She offered an embrace. He took it.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"No," he answered, "but I will be."


Prompted by yesterday's Three Word Wednesday. The words are dreary, embrace, and timid.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Three Word Wednesday: Fixing Things for the Greater Good

Prompted by today's Three Word Wednesday. The words are efficient, optimize, and treacherous.

He reflected on how the ignorant and uninformed would consider his actions treacherous, immoral, ruthless. They just didn't know how life worked.

He hadn't made efficient use of his time that day; he knew he could have wrapped things up in much shorter order. But the man had once been his friend. He'd taken the wrong road, though, and evolved into a busybody shit stirrer who'd shown contempt for the status quo. Those letters to the editor were bad enough, but he hadn't been satified with that. He was a regular problem at city council and county supervisor meetings, and next week, a local radio station would interview him.

It was time to get the shit-stirrer out of the way.

Still, he felt a pang of remorse when he saw his former friend walk into the women's shelter with another piece of his hand-made furniture. The guy was good in many ways, true, but he was getting in the way. He'd become another one of those troublesome citizens who insisted on promoting the truth over what was right.

The fixer got out of his car, with the tool under his jacket. He opened the trunk, and stuck the small bag of powder under the spare. He loved older cars; they made his life easier. He closed the trunk, and smoothed the previous year's tag over the present one. It was always wise to take steps to optimize results.

He watched his former friend drive away, and followed him down the busy boulevard. The guy inside the P.D. passed him, and gave a curt nod.

It was done. He thought for a moment about the man's wife and kids, but shoved those thoughts from his mind.

He felt at peace, after a time. It was good to be a man who made things work.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Love and Ground Rush

I'm late with last week's Three Word Wednesday post, but here it is. The words are bicker, nervous, and trajectory.

She awoke to the feeling of a pillow soaked with tears. Oh my God, what a dream. He was there, and he'd said such wonderful things. He'd told her how much he loved her, how he was blessed to be married to her, and about how she was the most passionate woman he'd ever known. He finished by saying, "Thank you, and please find happiness again."

She put her feet to the floor. The sun would soon rise. Bo the bear dog looked at her from his corner. She looked at his brown face, which really did look more like that of a bear than the Lab-and-something the folks at the pound had claimed.

"What? It was just a stupid dream."

Ben had only been gone a week, and Bo had hardly moved. But he moved now. He walked to her feet, and looked into her eyes.

"It was just a dream, Bo," she said again.

A Stellar Jay lit upon the bedroom windowsill. He looked at her too. They were doing a tag-team on her heart. She motioned at the jay with her hand. "Shoo." The jay would have none of it. He looked at her, insisting. Bo the bear dog looked at her, not backing down.

She smiled, and the tears flowed again.

"Okay," she said to Bo and the jay. "Okay."

Ben had been nervous while driving to Minden that day. He thought for a moment about turning around and going home. But the draw of joining the big boys at the soaring center beckoned him, and steeled his resolve. It would be his first try at mountain wave flying in a glider, and he'd dreamed of this day for years.

He thought about how Sylvia would react if he showed up at home earlier than expected. She'd see it as an opportunity to go to work on him again, to convince him to give up flying those airplanes without engines. She'd tell him to take up golf or tennis or skeet shooting like normal people.

He continued driving toward Minden. He wasn't about to give up his dream, and he wasn't in the mood to bicker with Sylvia.

Don, his instructor, sat down in the classroom with him. He told Ben about the time he'd entered a mountain wave so rough that he'd been turned upside down, nearly colliding with the tow plane. They met with the tow pilot, and briefed more on emergency procedures. Ben was reminded of the glider pilot's mantra: Keep the slack out of the tow line.

They launched in the Grob 103 sailplane for their hoped-for encounter with a mountain wave. They caught a gentle one; Minden was known for that. Then came the rotor, and it was not gentle.

But after he rode through the first wave of terror and shock that came with what happened, he knew that the mountain wave rotor hadn't done it.

"Something hit us," he thought. He felt surprised that he barely felt the cold of the rarefied air.

It had happened at 24,000 feet. They were climbing at an exhilarating rate when the bang happened, and he found himself falling, the oxygen mask still attached to his face. He looked for Don, or Don's body, but saw nothing of him. He saw no parts of the sailplane, either, and thought that strange, even as he plummeted to what would almost certainly be his death.

He wasn't just giving up, though. If he could alter his downward trajectory to something with a more horizontal component, he might land on the snowy, northern face of the ridgeline ahead. The mountain face was steep, and if he hit the slope just right, it was possible that he'd live. It had happened.

At the same time, he'd accepted that it was very, very likely that he would die.

The terror and shock had largely left him, but now, as he plummeted toward the ground, he felt overpowered with remorse. The last words he'd said to Sylvia had been cross ones; he hadn't even kissed her goodbye before leaving the house.

He thought about the time they'd met. It was at her cousin's wedding reception, and he was quickly smitten with the half-Irish, half-Mexican girl with the flaming red hair. The problem was that he was drunk as hell, and he'd made a first-class ass out of himself. He realized that when her father interceded and not-too-gently suggested that he go sit at his own table. Ben was drunk, but not so drunk that he couldn't remember that her father had been a Golden Gloves boxer.

He'd felt fed up with her temper leaving that morning, but now, with the clarity given by doom, he grasped that her temper was just one part of her passion. My God, that woman was so passionate that it scared him, and not just when she was mad. Even a kiss on the cheek from her was so utterly passionate, so utterly there.

He'd been one lucky man. He'd always known that, but he wished he could have believed it half as fully as he believed it now.

He saw the beginning of ground rush, and knew that he didn't have much time left, even in his present mental state. Time would only slow so much, even when a guy was about to die. He saw that his effort to change his trajectory was futile, and that he would land in a narrow valley between ridgelines.

His last thought was, "Please let me tell her how I feel."


Bo the bear dog woke in the middle of the night. He looked at the woman, and exhaled with relief. There was no moaning, no thrashing about. Her face looked peaceful, and he felt no turbulence about her. She'd exited the path to hating life, at least for now.

He felt so sorry for people. They could do so much with their big brains and their thumbs, but there was so much about life and the after that escaped them. What would they do without dogs?

Bo drifted back to a blissful sleep, the kind of sleep enjoyed by a dog with a mission.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Three Word Wednesday: Framed

The words from today's Three Word Wednesday are cryptic, flash, and malign.


“Your wife should back off,” my friend Bill said.


“Because my cousin with the P.D. says so.”

That’s all I got from Bill. His warning seemed cryptic then, but not now.

The flash of a camera assaults me. Walking toward the courthouse, I spot the reporter with a life mission to malign me.

My storm is coming.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Three Word Wednesday: Tutored Privates

At Thom G.'s invitation, I'm going to try my hand at his Three Word Wednesday. The idea is that the writer takes the three words Thom offers up for that day and uses them in a story. Today's words are opportunity, quarrel, and service. I also kind of ripped Thom off for the theme of the story, however loosely.

Tutored Privates

"Let's not quarrel," she said in that condescending teacher-to-student way.

It figured, since she was an English teacher, that she'd use a word like "quarrel," instead of "fight" or "argue."

She was looking at me the same way she'd look at a student in class when pointing out he or she had committed the sin of fragment or run-on. Except we were in her bed, naked, covered in sweat.

She'd told me that she was getting married. My tutoring was coming to an end.

It started when Miss Valencia invited me to her house one evening. She said I needed individual attention so I might forever avoid committing the sin of fragment or run-on. I was a too-skinny fourteen year-old who'd kissed two girls and felt one breast. When I felt opportunity in the air, I told myself that it was my imagination, and that no thirty-one year-old divorced teacher was going to have sex with a nervous as hell fourteen year-old. But I started massaging her shoulders, and things started happening.

I once asked one of my uncles, the one I could talk to about anything, what it was like to be inside a woman.

He smiled, thought a moment. "I guess it's kind of like a warm, honey-soaked sponge," he said.

"You've had experience with honey-soaked sponges?."

He laughed and punched me lightly on the shoulder. "Smart ass."

When we started, I couldn't imagine that a honey-soaked sponge could feel that good. Being a Southern Baptist boy, I felt a powerful interplay going on between guilt and rapture. For perhaps forty seconds. I was embarrassed, but she told me that it was my first time, and that I shouldn't worry about performing. The second time wasn't so embarrassing.

The private tutoring lasted for two months. Twice a week, but never on weekends. Then I saw the engagement ring. It was Mr. Lund, another English teacher.

I was mad, I was hurt, and I felt used, like I'd been lured in just to service her.

One afternoon, she caught up with me as I exited the school.

"Can you come over tonight?"


She looked around before continuing. "Just to talk, okay?"


We talked for two hours. She cried. I cried. I walked to the door. She gave me a long hug, looked in my eyes, and said, "Thank you."

The next year, after her wedding, I'd see her and Mr. Lund walking to the teacher's lunch room together. I'd feel a tinge of the hurt, of the anger, of the feeling that I'd been used.

Then I'd smile.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Last Break Day

Francis and I saw the Louisiana coastline at the same time, and I think we had much the same reaction: an overpowering sadness. It was likely that neither of us would ever fly a helicopter again. We'd just flown our last crew change from an offshore oil platform. We had three passengers in a twelve-passenger helicopter.

When the flu hit the U.S., it really didn't lead to a Stephen King-like collapse of government and society. No, things were winding down, but not collapsing. Francis and I still had our jobs because of seniority, and because the flu had hit hardest the age group from twenty-five to forty-five. Most of our pilots in that age group were dead.

We landed at the Morgan City base, and Ron, the day mechanic, came out to escort the passengers in to the operations building. Francis and I gathered our flight gear, and walked upstairs to the employee lounge. We had a cup of coffee with Terry, the Area Manager. We told stories and lies and laughed a lot.

There were no other pilots at the base. The room felt achingly empty. Terry asked us to check back in two months, in case the oil companies decided to remobilize in the Gulf of Mexico. "Assuming the phones are still working," he said. "If they aren't, send a letter. The government says that mail service will continue."

Francis and I walked to our cars, stowed our gear, and met in the middle of the nearly empty employee parking lot. We shook hands, then hugged. Francis and I had been best friends for a quarter of a century. I'd been there for his wedding, watched his two daughters grow up, and I'd been there for his divorce. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't.

Francis would make it home to Kansas, with a little luck. He had a Dodge diesel pickup with extra fuel tanks in the bed, and they were full. I'd managed to catch an airline flight to go to work, but in the ensuing two weeks, the airlines had virtually shut down. I had a Ford Focus with an almost-full gas tank and ten gallons in the trunk. I could make it a third of the way home to northern California without refueling, maybe as far as the New Mexico border. The word was that most gas stations were closed along Interstate 10. I'd need more than a little luck.

Roadside bandits hadn't proven to be much of a problem, but the government advised the few people still traveling to stick to the Interstates as much as possible. They were patrolled now and then, so the bandits tended to shy away from them.

I drove through the remaining light and into the night. There was not an open gas station to be found.

I saw a Texas state trooper's car parked at the main exit for Kerrville, door open. I stopped and approached the patrol car in the darkness. The inside of the car was illuminated. The trooper had all the signs of late-stage flu. He was dying. Deaths had tapered off, but rumors abounded that the flu virus had mutated, and those of us who had survived were not out of the woods.

I stopped ten feet from the trooper. "Don't worry," he croaked, "I've been in a command center, isolated. This is my first go-round with the bug. Last too, I guess."

That lessened my fear of a mutated virus, but I slipped the surgical mask over my nose and mouth anyway.

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"You can help me out of here," he answered. "I want to die looking at the stars."

I pulled him out of the car, and half-carried him to the grass on the shoulder. I could feel the heat radiating from him.

"This will do," he said. I helped him lie on the ground. I went back to his car and grabbed his jacket. I folded it and put it under his head.

"Is there anyone you'd like me to try to contact?"

"My wife and daughter are dead," he answered. "Doesn't much matter. You should go. I want to die here alone, thinking about my girls."

"Are you sure?"

He met my eyes. "Yeah. Where you going?"

"Northern California," I answered.

"Wow. You loaded with fuel?"

"No," I answered, "just an extra ten gallons."

"You'll find a gas can in the trunk," he said. "Don't think I'll be needing it."

I poured the gas into the tank, and walked back to him.

"Thank you," I said.

"You're welcome. Thanks for talking with me. You'd better go." I started to walk away.

"Wait," he rasped. I turned. "Do you believe in life after death?"

"Yes," I answered.

"I hope you're right. I sure want to see my wife and daughter again."

"You will," I said.

"I believe you. Goodbye."


I put the car in gear, and again began driving west, hoping that my wife and son would still be safe at home, and hoping the cough that had started a couple of hours earlier was nothing to worry about.

The sky was beautiful.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just Dinner

I picked up the book, a crime novel. I looked at the photo of the author on the back cover. Was it her? She'd only mentioned her last name once, during that conversation twenty-two years earlier. She was still attractive, with nearly white hair. The photo related that mixture of light and dark in her eyes. It had to be her. I thought of the night we met, back in the mid-eighties.

It was dark when I bounded up the steps at the old post office in Ventura. My two "regular" homeless guys weren't there; they'd no doubt packed it up for the night and were back at their camps on the river bottom. I was glad. I always gave those two money, and sometimes I'd buy burgers for them. I felt confident they weren't scamming anyone, and if they were, they deserved money for pulling it off so well. But that night, I had a vicious sinus headache, and I felt none too inclined toward generosity.

I grabbed my mail out of the box, then stood at a table dumping the junk. I saw a figure in a hooded trench coat walk into the lobby. He looked like a stage hand from Rust Never Sleeps. I almost prayed that he wouldn't approach me looking for money. I was a little surprised when I heard the person opening a box, figuring he was homeless. The post office would only give boxes to people who could provide evidence of a physical address. The river bottom didn't count.

I could hear the soft footfalls approach. I tensed. A soft, feminine voice glided to me. "Excuse me." I turned. A woman, indeed. Early thirties. No makeup. Beautiful. But not beautiful in a Hollywood-manufactured way, no. Beautiful in a way that haunts a man not on initial impact, but in the way it grows in his mind and heart. Beautiful in a way that somehow eclipsed the sadness pouring from her eyes. I was stunned.

"Do you have the time?" I looked at my wrist, and somehow managed to croak, "It's eight thirty-five." "Thank you," she said, and walked away. I watched her exit the lobby. I'd tagged her as homeless, but her clothes, while old-looking and drab, were clean.

I walked to my car, and as I opened the door, I saw her walking away, head down, in a fast shuffle. She looked as if she wanted to dodge the streetlights, dodge the world. I started to call out to her, but realized I had no words. I drove away, in the opposite direction, toward my apartment.

I turned around halfway home. I drove back down Santa Clara Street, past the post office, continuing east. I was about to give up when I spotted her. I slowed, rolled down my window. What to say?

"Excuse me," I called out. She lowered her head even more, and quickened her pace. "I'm sorry if I scared you," I continued. "If you're hungry, meet me at the coffee shop at the Best Western. It's only two blocks from here. If you're not there in a half hour, I'll leave."

She stopped. I stopped. "What do you want?" "I just want to talk." She raised her head a bit. "No one just wants to talk." I was trying to come up with something both witty and non-threatening when she asked, "Are you gay?" "Not as far as I'm aware," I answered. I'd hoped to get a laugh out of her, but no luck. "Too bad," she said at last. But, she raised her head to meet my eyes, and I thought I saw the slightest smile. "I'll think about it. Sit toward the front."

It would make a better story if I were to build the tension a little, and write that I was just about to give up when she walked in the door. But, I'd only been seated for ten minutes when she made her entrance. She looked at me from the door. She looked like she might be changing her mind. But the hostess walked up to her, and she motioned toward me.

She sat. She looked at me for a moment, seeming to study me. She looked at me again. She seemed to have trouble meeting my eyes. "Why are we doing this?" I searched for the right path, then gave up and guessed. "I was hoping that if I bought you dinner, you'd agree to be my sex slave for a week." She didn't laugh, but she smiled a real smile, and the sadness flowing from her eyes slowed to a trickle, if only for a moment.

"You don't seem like the sex slave type," she said. "You're right," I answered. "I don't think I have that much stamina." Another little smile from her.

"So, you thought I was homeless, and you decided to give me a little comfort in a coffee shop?" Her question was matter-of-fact. No mirth, but no acrimony either. "Yeah, I thought you were homeless at first, until I realized that your attire wasn't so much the homeless look as Goth Lite."

Another little smile. I was on a roll.

She looked at me. I hadn't answered her question. "I thought you were homeless until I saw you up close. Then I got a better look at what you were wearing, and I noticed how . . . "
Don't say beautiful, I thought to myself.

"I noticed how attractive you were. It made me curious to know something about you. What can I say? I'm a nosy bastard."

"So, you're not just out trolling, looking to get laid?" I paused, caught in another what do I say moment. She was meeting my eyes now. "No." I left it at that. I waited.

The flow of sadness from her eyes seemed to slow more. But it didn't stop. No, it didn't stop. But, her posture grew less defensive, and her expression more relaxed.

We ordered. We talked. She had grown up on a dairy farm in New York. Her parents had died in a car crash during her senior year in college. She'd majored in English Lit. She never finished her degree.

She asked, "So, how do you like me so far?" "You're an interesting person," I answered, with nothing witty in my arsenal. "Here's something interesting for you: I've been diagnosed with schizophrenia. I'm on medication. I'm a free-lance writer; I sell short stories and articles to travel magazines. I only take my medication every other day, because it kills my creativity. I have sex with men for money, and that funds my travels. I'm part writer, and part whore."

I laughed, sure she was joking about the sex for money thing. She wasn't laughing. She wasn't smiling. "You're serious, aren't you?" "Yes. Still want to know me better?" A touch of bitterness. She told me that her clients were all older retired men, and that she wasn't a streetwalker. I paused on another what do I say crossroad.

"Well, I have to admit that I've changed my mind about proposing marriage." She looked at me for a moment, expressionless. Then she laughed, long and hard. She stopped. Her eyes traveled over my face. Then she began to cry.

"I have to go," she said through sobs. "Why? Our food is coming."

She put her wallet on the table. She pulled out a photo, and placed it in front of me.

I was stunned. The guy in the photo looked like my double, except he was sans moustache and had blond hair.

"That's my husband. We got married during our junior year. He died two years later. He tried to break up a fight in a bar, and one of the guys shot him."

I felt at a total loss for words. Finally, I uttered, "So he and your parents . . ."

"That's right," she said. "I lost my parents and my husband within a year of each other."

"You seem like a great guy," she began, "but I can't see you anymore. You look too much like him. Your voice is almost the same, and you have the same sense of humor. I can't do this."

She stood hurriedly, and began to stride away. I watched her stop at the hostesses' station. She turned and walked briskly back to me.

For a moment, I thought she was about to slap me, but she took my hand, stood on her toes, and kissed my cheek. "Goodbye," she whispered, and began walking away again. Once more she turned. She walked toward me, but slowly, with her eyes downcast. She took my face in her hands, and pulled me down to whisper in my ear. Then she walked away for good.

I sat there for an hour, picking at my food, looking at hers.

The more I looked at her face on the back of the novel, the more certain I felt. It was her. I stood in line to buy her book, but when it came time to pay for it, I turned heel and returned it to the display stand.

She'd made a request that night, just before she walked away: "If you see me around, please pretend you don't know me."

I walked out of the bookstore. Somehow buying that book would have felt like breaking a promise. I doubted that she would care. But somehow, holding onto the promise seemed important.

She's published three more novels since I spotted her first. I haven't read any of them. I'm still keeping my promise.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ending Without Beginning

A twenty-something man, a twenty-something woman. Her toddler daughter. They sit in a diner in a northern California coastal town. They talk. The conversation sways between awkward and easy, sad and funny.

She asks, "Why didn't you ask me out in high school?"

He thinks. Simple answer, really. "Because your boyfriend was my brother's best friend."

"Oh yeah." She laughs a sad laugh.

He talks about his five year-old boy, and how he misses his mom, who was stolen by a guy with money. She talks about her ex, and wonders if her daughter will ever see her father again. They talk about mutual friends. They damn their alcoholic parents.

He curses himself for being so shy, so cowed by her beauty. She doesn’t think she’s beautiful anymore, no. A baby, twenty pounds, and a couple of scars left by her departed ex have created a chasm between now and then, when most of the high school guys thought she was hot.

But to him, her beauty has evolved to something even more enchanting. To him, the years and the pounds have made her all the more alluring, more womanly. He looks at her little girl. Mama’s face, Mama’s smile. Maybe she would break a high school boy's heart the way his had been broken.

They dance around the goodbye neither wants to say.

She asks, "Will they keep you on at the warehouse permanently?"

He wants to lie, aching for a chance with her, but he won’t risk poisoning the future with false promises. "I don't know. They tell me that I'll be off for three months, and they'll bring me back in the spring. I won't know if they'll make me permanent until the end of next season." He looks at her, looks at her little girl. "Stay. We can make it. I'll find something until I go back to the warehouse."

The young woman wants to cry. She won’t. "Why are you asking me now, when I'm leaving for Portland tomorrow? And how can you know you want to live with us? We've never even gone out on a real date. Watching our kids play together in the park doesn’t count."

"The time never seemed right," is all he can muster. He doesn’t know if he can say the rest, but there might never come another chance. "I've loved you since the eighth grade." As soon as those words leave his lips, he knows it’s too late. Months, years too late.

She tries to forget what he said. She tries not to see the trembling of his lower lip. She won’t believe his words; she can’t afford to place her faith in one man again. The conversation ebbs. They eat half their food, and the little girl grows cranky. She says, "I have to go. I have to. The job in Portland is too good to pass up." She looks down at her daughter. "I have to do it for her."

She stands. "Let me walk you to your car," he says.

"No, please . . . just stay here." A tear escapes, defying her efforts. They hug. No kiss. She walks toward the exit.

The little girl looks over her mother's shoulder at him, and calls out “bye bye.”

He drives away. Tears flow. He hadn't lied to her. He couldn’t. “She’ll come back,” he says aloud, over and over again, grasping for hope, trying to stem the fear that truth will leave him twisting in the wind.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Driving Lessons

Ah yes, life was good for the kid. As usual, he was visiting his grandparents in Arkansas for the summer. Back home in California, he'd have to wait until the age of fifteen to get a learner's permit, but here in Arkansas, the minimum age was thirteen, and that little piece of paper was burning a hole in his pocket.

His grandfather was a patient driving instructor, to be sure. No one got in their way, either, not while they were driving Grandpa's patrol car. Grandpa was the Chief of Police in that little Arkansas town. During the kid's third lesson, he chased a speeder and watched, smugly, as his grandfather wrote the man a ticket.

The kid was the man that summer.

One hot, lazy afternoon, they sat in the patrol car watching for more speeders. The kid's grandfather was quiet that day, until he asked, "You still going to church when you're back home in California?" "No," the kid answered. "Mom doesn't make me go anymore." "You still let your grandma drag you to church while you're here though." The kid thought for a moment. "Yeah. It seems like an easy way to keep her happy." "Good boy," Grandpa said. They both laughed.

"The thing about churches as that they want you to believe they have a lock on right and wrong. They believe it's all black and white. It ain't. In life, you'll find lots of shades of gray when you're deciding what's right and what's wrong. Son, if you don't believe anything I've ever told you, believe that."

The kid looked at his Grandfather. The older man usually met his grandson's eyes when he made a point, but he continued to gaze straight ahead. "When I was a new deputy sheriff down in Brownsville, we had a little . . . event. There was a new kid on the force. Everybody liked him, and he loved his job. One day he pulled over a drunk. He thought the drunk was pulling a gun on him, and he shot him dead. He found a baby crying in the back seat. What he didn't find was a gun."

The older man paused. His jaw clenched for moment. His eyes looked far away. Then he came back.

"Two senior deputies showed up. The kid told them what happened. They told him to go sit in his car and keep quiet. When the sheriff himself showed up, he found a revolver in the dead man's hand. The senior deputies told the new kid to shut up about it and forget it ever happened."

The grandfather cleared his throat. "Was it the right thing to do? I don't know. The man was a good-for-nothing drunk who beat his wife and kids. The kid went on to have a good career, and got commendations for heroism. He never talked to those senior deputies about that day, and they never mentioned it either. Was it the right thing to do? You tell me."

Except the kid's grandfather wasn't looking at him. He was gazing off into space, into another time.

"Grandpa?" "Yeah." He wanted to ask was it you? He didn't.

Ten years later, he attended his grandfather's funeral. He walked from the service to his car. He sat at the wheel thinking of that day, and about having never asked the question.

He drove away. He felt at peace. He pondered that sometimes, the truest path didn't follow the truth. Sometimes the truest path could be found in the not knowing, wrapped in shades of gray.