Somebody Once

Still holding tight to his egg-stained fork, Graham ran the back of his hand across the counter, feeling the grains of salt roll under his skin like sand. He imagined rubbing the salt into the wound on his leg.

“More coffee?”

The server behind the counter should have been a sour old lady with a southern drawl and a smoker’s cough or a pretty young blonde trying and failing to corral her sexuality with a ponytail rubber band. But it was a man. A young man with dreadlocks that surely violated the health code by the way the natty strands flew around the room with every nod of his head. He was wearing a Princeton t-shirt and a hemp necklace and he was obviously stoned. Graham knew the look all too well from the mirror.

“Yeah,” Graham answered.

The server stared at him for a moment before turning to collect the coffee pot from the warming station.

Graham watched the young man move in slow motion, not a care in the world. Or maybe it was just that he’d exhaled all his cares behind the diner during his last break. He pictured the smoke swirling in the freezing midnight air, remembering his own demons of want and mistake, then stabbed at his eggs again. They were cold and runny, but cheap.

The server filled Graham’s coffee cup, then stood there for a moment with the pot held out as if awaiting some sort of approving nod.

“Hell of a thing,” Dreadlocks said, staring at Graham’s plate.

“What?” asked Graham.

“That girl. The one on the news. The one that almost got killed or raped or whatever.”

Graham cradled the coffee cup. It was only slightly warmer than his calloused, clean-scrubbed hands.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I mean, that wasn’t even a mile from here. Walked by that way a hundred times myself.”

Graham took a sip of coffee. Dreadlocks kept talking.

“I got this friend, he says he saw the whole thing. Three guys or maybe it was four jump this girl and start ripping her clothes off. I mean, like there’s no way my friend was going to get in the middle of that because those fuckers were serious trouble, you know?”

Graham set the coffee cup on the counter. The snap of plastic against metal sent a chill through him. Gunshots sound different in real life than in the movies, he thought.

“And besides,” the server continued, “Nate – that’s my friend who saw it all – he’s as skinny as that Napoleon guy, the one from the movie, not the French dude, and probably twice as stupid. He woulda gotten himself killed. But it didn’t matter anyway since that good Samaritan showed up. He really did a number on those dirtbags. He was a real dark hero – like in that flick by M. Night Shama – however the hell you say his name – the other film with Bruce Willis. Nate says he saw it all but if I know Nate he was probably passed out in his car the whole time. He’d sorta had a lot to drink.”

Graham reached into the inside breast pocket of his army surplus jacket and pulled out his wallet.

“How much?”

“A six-pack at least…”

“No, how much for the food?”

“Oh, yeah. Um…I’ll get your ticket.” The server didn’t move. He squinted at Graham for a long moment. “Hey, I know you,” he finally said. “You’re that singer, aren’t you.”

It was a statement, but Dreadlocks waited for an answer. When he didn’t get one, he continued.

“Dude, I loved that CD – what was it called, ‘Incredible Ache’ or something. Was that it? I must’ve listened to that thing a thousand times back in the day.”

“‘Irresistible Escape,’” said Graham.

“Right. Yeah. That was it. Second best thing about my old man leaving was that he forgot to take his CDs.”

Graham was pretty sure he knew the first best thing.

“Best thing? That he left,” said Dreadlocks. “He was an asshole. But he had good taste in music. So I guess I have that to thank him for.”

“Can I have my ticket please?” asked Graham. His pulse throbbed in his neck.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

A moment later, Dreadlocks returned and slid the ticket across the counter.

“So what happened to you?” he asked. “Was it sex or drugs or money? Or like did you have some sort of existential meltdown?”

“All of the above.” Graham pulled a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet, set it on the ticket. “Thanks,” he said, then spun around on the stool and slid off onto the cracked tile floor. The whole weight of his body found his knee. He limped to the door, grabbed the cold metal handle just as Dreadlocks called out.

“Hey,” he said. “You okay?”

Graham looked at the tiny red pools on the linoleum that marked his steps across the floor. Dreadlocks didn’t wait for an answer this time.

“I mean, it must be tough, you know? To be somebody once and then one day…well…at least you’ve got your music. That shit lives on, you know?”


“Take care rocker dude,” Dreadlocks said.

Graham let the door slam behind him, then shuffled through the slush and snow. A single flickering streetlight stood like a nervous sentry in the middle of the parking lot. His shadow followed him, caught up to him under the light, then preceded him as he crossed the street into the dark of the starless night.

It was the sort of night that ought to inspire writing, but his guitar was still in the pawn shop.

Unbreakable, he said to himself. That was the name of the film.

Right then he stumbled. He grimaced when he landed hard on his left hip, but a moment later his grimace had morphed into a wicked smile.

“Unbreakable,” he coughed out with a throaty laugh.

Graham dragged himself into a seated position and leaned against a stop sign as black as the growing stain on his jeans. So what if I don’t have my guitar. He began humming a new song. It didn’t have any words yet, but he already knew the title.

“Somebody Once.”

It will be a song about redemption.

The Monster Is Not In the Closet

He looked like Gollum. Not the Gollum from the movies. His skin wasn’t leathery or gray. He didn’t move like a monkey and his ears weren’t as big as saucers. And not the Gollum from the books. She hadn’t read them. She could have because she read well above her grade level, but she believed they were all about monsters and she didn’t like monsters. Not even heroic ones.

No, the Gollum he resembled was entirely the product of Holly’s imagination – something she pictured after her cousin had tried to scare her with a story about a monster that lived in her closet - a spindly, spider-like creature with long, stringy black hair and caterpillar eyebrows and an Adam’s apple that bobbed not just at Halloween parties, but year ‘round.

“He’ll drag you outside by your hair and throw you into an alligator pond,” her cousin had said. She knew he was just saying that because he was jealous of her tri-color pen. Who wouldn’t be? It could write in green or blue or red with the click of a slider button. But she wasn’t going to give it to him.

So when Holly met the man her mother called Nicholas she was predisposed to think of him as a monster.

He was a tall man. In the daylight, like when he shuffled into her room to ask if she needed help with homework (she never said “yes,” even the time when she’d forgotten what “congruent” meant), the stray hairs on his head brushed against the top of the door frame. At night, when he came in to stand at the end of her bed and mumble “good night” he always had to duck on the way out.

“You’ll get used to him,” her mother had said. That was the morning after the night when Holly had gotten up to get a drink of water and happened upon him in the kitchen. He was standing in front of the refrigerator, bent into a lower-case “r”, door handle in one hand, jug of 2 percent milk in the other. He didn’t move for what seemed like minutes. When he finally did, it was only his head that turned and it snapped to the right so suddenly Holly thought it might spin all the way around.

“He’s just a bit eccentric,” her mother had said between bites of sausage. Holly wanted to ask what “eccentric” meant but Gollum walked into the room just then. He stepped over to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of juice, poured himself a glass, returned the bottle to the refrigerator sat down at the table. He tried to smile at her, but his eyes didn’t obey. They were an odd gray color. On a girl or a horse, they might have been mysterious and pretty. But on a skinny old man who stared into refrigerators, they just looked creepy.

“You’ll learn to love him like I do,” her mother said one afternoon.

“When?” Holly asked.

“He’ll grow on you,” her mother said.

“Like the measles?” Holly had asked, proud of her cleverness for all of three seconds until her mother scolded her, not with her angry voice, but her sad one.

It was well past midnight the first time she saw his silhouette in the doorway. The dim blue nightlight in the bathroom across the hall threw his shadow into her room, his legs stretching across the uncluttered floor, his shoulders bending up the foot of her bed, the tip of his head nearly touching her blanketed toes.

He lifted a hand to his face and the long shadow fingers brushed across the soft underbelly of her stuffed tiger, Snow, who had rolled or crawled off the pillow when she’d climbed into bed. She shivered on Snow’s behalf, then slowly pulled her legs up to her chest, offering a silent apology for leaving him to the shadow’s mercy.

From that night on, she always made sure Snow was tucked securely under the covers within hugging distance.

Sometimes Gollum stood there for minutes that were longer even than the ones she counted second by second at the close of a school day, his scratchy breathing and the scrape, scrape, scrape of long fingernails against dry skin interrupting the familiar rhythmic bubble and hum of her fish tank.

Other times he paused only long enough to sigh before shuffling down the hall to her mother’s bedroom.

Holly wanted to say something to her mother. She wanted to tell her how he looked like a construction paper puppet standing in the hallway. Not a good construction paper puppet like the one she made of Abraham Lincoln for the Presidents’ Day presentation, but a bad one like the spiders that danced on the neighbor’s front porch every Halloween.

But her mother had been through a lot. That’s exactly what she’d said, “I’ve been through a lot.” She’d said it with her saddest voice of all and Holly knew it had something to do with Daddy going away, but she never asked about him anymore. Not since the time her mother answered in her bitter voice, “He’s a very sick man and he’s not coming back!”

Holly woke to a voice whispering her name, but she did not open her eyes. It seemed to come from far away, like a fading dream. She reached for Snow and strangled him in a hug. The bubble and hum of the fish tank was joined by the scrape, scrape, scrape and the scratchy breathing. And then another sound. A tapping. Footsteps.

She dared to open her eyes.

Gollum was standing at the foot of her bed. He held his finger to his lips.

“Shh…” he rasped.

Shadows moved across the floor but Gollum remained stick still.

A sour smell blew in through the open window next to her headboard. There was a shuffling sound and a grunt. Gollum reached the window in two giant steps and grabbed the creature, pulling it the rest of the way into the room. It fell to the floor with a thud and a crunch and made the most awful noises. But the sound that scared her most?

“Holly,” it croaked. “I’m here to take you home,” it slurred.

Moments later, sirens. Then flashing red and blue lights spun through her room. Gollum, still sitting on the monster, looked over at her and tried to offer a reassuring smile. Then Holly’s mother rushed into the room and grabbed her. Holly held tight to Snow and all three of them retreated to her mother’s bedroom just as the police appeared to help Gollum defeat the monster.

Not monster, thought Holly. Daddy. My very sick daddy.

Not Gollum, thought Holly.


One Word

It’s only a song. A heartbreakingly perfect song that played in a tiny café at ten minutes to closing time on an autumn evening when my heart was beating fast and my breath was shallow and the spinning of the earth made me unsteady. I had just sat down when the song began to play, a cup of hot tea warming my hands, my elbows rocking the unbalanced round table. The clerk behind the counter had smiled at us. Did she notice our wedding rings didn’t match? The one in the dining area glared for a moment, seeming to calculate the depth of our distraction, then continued flipping chairs upside-down onto empty tables.

We had been walking for an hour. Just walking and talking in a mostly deserted downtown. The cold air and surprising conversation and the certainty in her voice had stolen all my words except for three: “Are you sure?”

Her eyes never left mine. They were brown eyes. Mysterious, eager eyes so intense I had to keep looking away. Every time I did, gravity brought me back.

“Are you sure?” I asked, for the tenth time.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she said without rolling her eyes.

“But why me?”

“Because…” and that’s when she paused. “Listen.”

Why’d you have to be so cute, it’s impossible to ignore you,
Must you make me laugh so much, it’s bad enough we get along so well…

It was the first time I’d heard the song. It must have been the second or third time for her, because she mouthed those words when the chorus came around again. And then I understood. She saw me as I had longed to be seen – as handsome. I studied her gaze, disbelieving how someone so impossibly beautiful could want anything from me but friendship, but I could see no lie.

The song continued and I heard its warning.

Say goodnight and go…

We would stand at her car for ten minutes. Or twenty. Or a thousand. Side by side, shivering but not touching.

“I know,” she had said after a heavy quiet, then again, with a weight of resignation in her voice. “I know.”

I had started to walk away.


My world turned on that word.

* * *

It was a new song then. It’s long past old now. What has it been? Six years? Seven.

I tried to focus on the bookshelves, yet I couldn’t help but wonder. Why this song? Why now?

Imogen Heap. I hadn’t forgotten the singer’s name.

I fought the urge to wander back to the music department and forced my attention once again on the books in front of me. Nothing new by Leif Enger. Where would he go after Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young and Handsome?

“Handsome,” I read aloud.

The song ended and I took a deep breath, wanting to inhale only the good memories and maybe with them, a small hope of finding love like that again. A flash of cerulean blue caught my eye and I glanced down the aisle to see a toddler race by holding tight to a book nearly as big as he. A young mother followed close behind, smiling, thank God, and giggling.

“Come back here you little Sneetch,” she said.

Dr. Seuss. Yes. Immediately I was in the pages of Happy Birthday To You!, following the Birthday Bird through the land of Katroo, feeling more than a little embarrassed about the naked swan dive and wondering if I could have convinced the Birthday Bird to let me wear a swimsuit since it was my birthday after all.

* * *

I sensed her presence before I saw her. Maybe it was her scent. God, I loved the smell of her. Or the sound of her breathing. I’d like to believe I would even have recognized her silence – a daunting, sensual, hungry silence.

“Hey,” she said. Her eyes were softer, but the lines around them harder, deeper. She wore faded jeans and a chocolate brown cardigan over a white t-shirt.

“Hey,” I said.

“It’s been a while,” she said.


“You look good.”

“I look old,” I corrected.


“Mostly old.”

A teenage girl on a mission rounded the corner, came to an abrupt stop, then spoke.

“Mom, did you remember to bring my babysitting money?”

She smiled a parental smile that was three parts practiced patience and two parts exasperation. “Yes. But you can’t spend it all today. Remember what we talked…”

“I know,” the dark-haired girl said in a voice that was all parts exasperation. She looked at me for a moment, offered a half-hearted attempt at puzzlement, then turned back to her mom. “I just wanted to make sure you had it in case I needed some of it.”

Just as quickly as she’d appeared, the girl was gone.

“Wow,” I said. “She’s…”

“A pain in the ass.”

I laughed. “I was going to say ‘all grown up.’”

“I don’t think she would remember you.”

“No.” I felt a familiar ache like a punch to my stomach. “I suppose not.” I looked away.

“Did you hear it?” she asked.

“The song?”

“When I saw you in the store, I went back and asked them to play it. The clerk was a bit of an asshole at first and whined about how it was against the rules, but I can be pretty persuasive.”

“I remember that about you,” I said.

She smiled. Beguiling. That was what I’d named her smile.

“So, are things…good?” she asked.

I pushed at the spine of a book that was jutting out so it would line up with the others, then ran my fingers across the edge of the shelf as if checking for dust. I looked over her shoulder at the growing line at the checkout counter. I queued up a dozen words, then shook them off, considered a dozen more, then erased them.

“I really should be going,” I finally said. “It was nice to see you again.” I started down the aisle, only to realize I was holding a book I didn’t want to buy. Without pausing, I set it on the top of the bookshelf and apologized silently to the clerk who would have to re-shelve it.

I heard the word just as I reached the end of the aisle.


I remembered the touch of her hand on my face, the taste of her lips. I heard the soft moans of pleasure and felt her breath against my naked chest. I saw the hope and the dreams and the love and the ache and the fear and the mistakes and the goodbyes and the end of everything.

My heart was beating fast and my breath was shallow. I felt the spinning of the earth and kept walking.

The Quiet Season

"What kind of quiet is this? I don’t know what kind of quiet. It’s just…quiet. Does everything I do now have to mean something else?”

Heidi is frustrated, but not angry. Her brow furrows with both emotions, but with the latter she purses her lips and starts breathing through her nose, exhaling nostril sighs in threes like ellipses, buying time to form a well-reasoned argument. When she finally speaks out of anger, her tone is always deliberate, controlled. Her tone rises now. This is how I can tell she’s frustrated.

“I’m sorry.” The words taste bitter on my tongue.

“I just want some time alone,” she says. Then she un-furrows her brow by forcing a smile. She knows I’ll recognize the artificial smile for what it is – another sort of punctuation mark. A period.

I turn and walk out of the bedroom and down the hall, pausing just long enough outside the bathroom door to look at myself in the mirror. It’s not one of my good days.

When I get to the kitchen, I fully intend to open the refrigerator and stare inside for a long moment, sure to be confounded by how it’s possible to have every food ever made and still find none of it appealing. Instead, I keep walking, pushing through the kitchen door and into the cool autumn night.

I’m not hungry. And yet I’m starving. Heidi would roll her eyes if I started in on the “starving but I can’t eat” monologue again. But just because I say it more than once doesn’t mean it is any less true the fifteenth time.

Under the street lamp, I see the lowest-reaching branches of a towering maple tree. The leaves are neon yellow and I hope for a moment it’s a trick of the light, that they’re actually still summer green and the beach vacation is ahead of us and full of promise instead of behind us and stained by questions.

A dog barks.

Not the big black Newfoundland three houses down, but the little caramel-colored dog on the opposite side of the street. I don’t know what breed it is. A Pomeranian? I do know how much I hate his yelping voice. It sounds like nervous chatter, like uncertainty. Like panic. Not so, the jowly rumble of the Newfie. That’s a regal voice. A confident voice.

I wonder how Heidi hears my voice.

At the end of the cul-de-sac I stop. I turn around and look down the long, empty street toward my house. Our house. But no longer a home. Not since we got back from the beach.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” she had begun. We were side by side on matching deck chairs under a billion stars. I said nothing for the longest time, hoping she might remember the permanence of words and swallow them instead. As if anticipating my desperate prayer for a sea-change miracle, God underlined the perfect night sky with the most brilliant shooting star.

“Did you see that?”

She wasn’t looking at the sky.

The yippy dog barks again.

“Churchill! Come!”

Churchill. I wonder if dogs understand irony. Churchill yips again and is ushered inside.

I start walking back to the house. When I come alongside the Newfie’s yard, he is waiting there, his giant body pressed up against the cedar privacy fence, bowing it outward. I can hear his panting breath. He barks a low, soft hello. We are old friends.

“Hey,” I say. The sound of my voice surprises me. It is the fragile voice of a man who is about to cry. I collapse onto the sidewalk, pull my knees to my chest, lean back against the fence.

I didn’t want to love him, she had said. And then, an unexpected kindness – silence. She didn’t complain about how hard it had been living with a husband who’d lost his sense of direction, who’d forgotten how to laugh. She didn’t describe how she and her co-worker had gradually become best friends, then reluctant lovers, then unrepentant ones.

Not then, anyway.

I would drag that out of her later, in the first hour of our drive home. The next seven hours would be filled with a toxic stillness and then, quiet resignation.

I glance down the street again, look at the house we were slowly converting from someone else’s dream into our own. The swing on the front porch is blowing gently in the breeze. It was the first thing we fixed after we bought the house.

We finished it just in time to catch an early winter meteor shower. We bundled ourselves in blankets and made seventeen wishes on seventeen falling stars. One was a wish for forever.

Heidi is a silhouette in the living room window. She peeks out through the curtain, but she won’t see me. I am hidden in shadows. She begins pacing. Lifts something to her ear. Her cell phone. Instinctively, I reach for my own and wait.

It doesn’t ring.

A leaf falls in front of me, interrupting the whisper of wind with a fingernails-on-chalkboard scrape across the sidewalk.

The Newfie barks a velvet word of comfort. He knows. His breath puffs through a knothole. I want to wrap my arms around that dog. I need something to hold onto.

But there is a fence between us.

Still Eight

If you ask me how old I am I will tell you a lie. I’m not nine yet. But I will be next week, so it’s only going to be a lie for a little while longer. Lying about stuff like that isn’t so bad. But it is bad when you lie about stealing or breaking things.

I don’t think what I told my mom today was the bad kind of lie.

She asked me what happened to my stuffed dog. I told her “I lost it.” Then she got all quiet and it looked like she was gonna cry but she didn’t. I think she used up all her crying when my baby sister died.

I didn’t cry.

I’m not going to tell you the name of my stuffed dog. That would mean I miss him. And I don’t. I’m too old for stuffed animals. James said so and I agree with him. He’s already nine. Plus, he’s my best friend. You have to listen to your best friend. Except when he’s wrong. But he’s not this time.

James has an older brother named Scar. That’s not his real name. I don’t know what his real name is. Probably something like Stewart. Scar smiles a lot but I don’t like his smile because it looks like a lie. You don’t have to listen to your best friend’s brother. Unless he’s really big.

There’s a metal barrel behind my house. It’s in the far corner, next to the telephone pole. It’s not a regular barrel, it’s something called an incinerator. That’s a big word that means you can burn stuff in it. Every 4th of July my dad would sneak me out by the barrel after dark without mom knowing and he would toss in firecrackers. They were really loud and made the fire jump and the flames looked like monsters. At first that made me afraid of the incinerator. But then my friend James showed me how you could throw things into it from a safe distance. Things like sticks and rocks and marshmallows (the little ones because I know where Mom keeps those in the corner cabinet and she lets me have them for snacks sometimes). And then we found these seed things. They looked like flat brown bananas and they fell off of a big tree. The tree was in my neighbor’s yard but since some of the seed things fell into our yard and we had to rake them up, it’s not like we were stealing. The cool thing was that they sounded like popcorn when we threw them into the incinerator.

I said I used to be scared of the incinerator. I’m not anymore. But until yesterday I hadn’t gone in the back yard by myself for a long time because of what Scar said.

James was sick one day about a month ago but his brother wasn’t and he was waiting by the incinerator after school ‘cause Scar runs real fast and I always walk slow. When I saw him there, I just said “hi” and kept walking. He told me to come over for a sec. I figured he had found something cool to throw into the incinerator and I was a little scared not to do what he said because he’s really big. When I got there, he said “watch this” then unzipped his pants and peed against the incinerator. It made this cool hissing sound and I thought it was sorta funny, but then he said “you try it” and I didn’t like his smile so I said “no thanks” and he told me “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.” He sounded just like one of the bad guys on The Lone Ranger. I ran really fast back to my house and he didn’t follow me ‘cause my mom was home but he shouted “Next time I see you I’m going to kill you” and that’s why I haven’t been in the back yard much.

I was going to tell James what his brother said, but James and Scar moved to Cincinnati to live with his mom a week ago. He didn’t even tell me he was moving and that made me mad.

Yesterday after school I went to play in the back yard. I took my army men and lined them up on the porch railing and threw rocks at them. It wasn’t as much fun by myself even though I always made better shooting noises than James.

Mom asked me to come in and wash up for supper and I did and I guess she thought it would be funny if my stuffed dog joined us because he was in the high chair where my kid sister used to sit before she died.

That was really sad. My mom and dad were sad for a really long time and I didn’t like it. Then they started smiling again and I think I hated the smiling even more. They didn’t get the high chair out just for my stuffed dog, though. That would have been stupid. Aunt Nan was coming by later to pick it up since she is going to have another kid.

Anyway, I yelled at my mom for taking my stuffed dog from my room and grabbed him and ran to put him back on the bed next to the pillow. Mom said “sorry” and I knew she was because she rubbed my head the way I like it when I sat down at the table. We had tater tots, and that was the best thing about the day.

After dinner I played with my Lite-Brite set but I couldn’t think of anything cool to make.

That’s when I did the thing I lied about.

I grabbed my stuffed dog and told my dad I was going out front to climb the big tree and he said “don’t be gone for long because it’s almost bed time” and I said “okay.” But I ran around to the back yard instead.

Today when my mom asked, “what happened to your stuffed dog” (except she didn’t say “stuffed dog,” she used the dog’s name that I’m not telling you) and I said “I lost it” I knew right where it was.

I think I might have to tell her the truth because she isn’t going to move away like James and Scar.

I didn’t really plan on doing it, but when I got to the back yard I walked right over and threw the dog into the incinerator.

I’m too old for stuffed animals. James thought so, too.

My stomach hurt a lot today. And when I lied to my mom it hurt even more.

It’s really late now and I can’t hear my mom and dad talking so they must be sleeping. I don’t like being awake when they’re asleep. Tomorrow I will tell my mom what happened to my stuffed dog.

I got him when I was three. My Aunt Nan and Uncle Rick gave him to me for my birthday, but I don’t remember that.

He was brown with white ears.

I used to chew on his ears.

One time we put him in the washing machine because he was so dirty. That wasn’t a very good idea. He lost a lot of stuffing.

Yesterday I threw him in the incinerator.

His name was Floppy.

What This Is