Short Stories


He has a recurring dream of magazines.

The first came years ago, before the losses started to add up.

In the dream, he is standing in front of an entire wall of magazines. The smell of ink and paper is competing with the redolent, sweet scent of tobacco that distinguishes the other half of the dark, dingy, downtown shop inspired by one he visits in the waking world.

The wall of magazines is an infinite playground. Five rows in the lower section, six above, both stretching to the left and the right like an artist’s exercise in perspective drawing. Every inch of the pale, pinewood rack shouts with color and typography. Women’s magazines in pink and white and yellow promise perfect skin. Wood-crafting magazines in walnut brown and forest green promise six steps to a perfect dining room table. Business magazines in black and silver and gold promise perfect portfolios.

Even in his dream state, he doesn’t care for such pointed promises. He has always been drawn instead to vague hope, the kind you find at the intersection of uncertainty and possibility.

He stands before the rack, scanning the shelves. He knows what he’s looking for – a science magazine, a commentary on the art of film, and one or two literary publications. In the waking world, he could name the magazines that define his desire. But in dreams, all of the magazines are new to him.

In the first dream, he finds everything he’s looking for and more. He carries a dozen magazines to the counter with an almost boyish glee. He is addicted to the drugs of anticipation and wonder. He buys two candy bars and a pack of gum and his mouth salivates before the dream fades.

In the years that follow, the magazine dreams continue. But what was once a wall of magazines in a magazine shop, over time, becomes a tiny, dusty display in a convenience store most notable for its lingering stench of burned coffee. There are only a few magazines to choose from, and he rarely finds one he wants. He thinks about the evolution of this dream when he is awake, and tries to convince himself that the diminishing magazine selection is merely symbolic of what’s happening in the real world. He knows that’s only a piece of the truth.

He hopes the magazine dreams end before the racks are completely empty.

His screensaver at work is a collection of pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. The images confound him in all the right ways. Sometimes when he is daydreaming, he wonders about the edge of the universe. He is no scientist, but he’s read enough to know that astrophysicists are always attempting to define its boundaries. Once, he asked this question of a co-worker: “What kind of math could possibly exist that has the breadth to constrain or define the infinite?” His co-worker had been impressed by the rhetorical question, but quite rightly had no answer to give.

During the slow moments at work, and there are many, he imagines himself escaping his cubicle through the ceiling, rocketing through the Earth’s atmosphere, out of the solar system, past the Milky Way Galaxy, and straight on to the end of everything. The closer he gets to the imagined edge of the universe, the more he thinks about
Horton Hears a Who. It’s the only explanation that makes sense to him. There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing. Something to look after the things that are smaller. When he returns from his daydream, he reaches over and caresses the closest of the Russian nesting dolls that decorate the only shelf in his cubicle. He owns seven sets of dolls. Six of the seven were given to him as gifts by friends and family who believed anyone who had one set of Russian nesting dolls must be a collector and want many. He has never opened any of them more than one layer deep.

There is a familiar song playing on the radio. He listens almost exclusively to one station at his computer. It’s a station that plays movie scores. Not the popular songs that define so many movie soundtracks these days, but the instrumental cues that in years past had always been performed by orchestras and probably are all done on computers now.

Movie scores are as close as he dares get to classical music. Any closer and he is overwhelmed by the weight of history and the embarrassment of having retained so little from his music appreciation classes.

The music that’s playing is from a movie he hasn’t seen, and never will. The hesitant interplay of piano and cello and the slow progression teasing resolution that never comes is its own movie. It’s a heartbreaking scene of such perfect beauty and perfect pain that he has to turn off the radio if he isn’t in a safe place for tears. His cubicle at work is usually one of those places because he keeps the music loud enough to mask the whimper and choke. But even there he sometimes changes the channel to chase away the memory of her skin and the look of desperate longing in her eyes.

“You okay in there?” It is his supervisor’s voice. She is a smart and kind woman. She knows how important it is to give him space to do his magic. And it
is magic. This is the one positive truth he is able to hold onto about himself. His supervisor’s hair is wild and dark and the same wayward strand falls in front of her face whenever she bends down to study the mock-ups he’s assembled for a book cover meeting. She smells like fresh earth and her eyes are green, but they’re not quite the right shade of green so he doesn’t fall in love with her.

“I’m fine,” he says. “Just working on something big.” He uses a variation of this excuse every time she worries aloud. She always accepts it because she knows brilliance sometimes comes with tears and she doesn’t want to do anything to frighten it away.

The drive home takes twenty-seven minutes on average. It’s a well-researched number, which he calculated only after recording the daily return times for more than three months. He doesn’t know how long it takes to drive
to work. He’s always the last to arrive.

Often during the drive home he holds two competing thoughts in his head for at least three of those 27 minutes. One is a wish that he had an ice pick. The other is thankfulness that he doesn’t.

If he had one, he would retrieve it from the empty passenger seat where it would have been rolling around with every stop and turn, distracting him from the traffic on the road and the traffic in his head. He would play with it in his right hand, feeling the smooth grain of the polished wooden handle and the sharp point of the short, cold spike. He would wait for one of those rare moments in his commute when the road was empty and no one was staring into his window thinking, “Ichabod Crane,” and then he would thrust it into his thigh.

Sometimes when he imagines this he gasps. Sometimes he sighs.

And sometimes he makes a fist and punches his thigh instead. Never quite enough to leave a bruise. But always enough to remember why he’s thankful he doesn’t own an ice pick.

At the intersection of Ninth Ave. and Garden St, he slows for a red light. As he rolls to a stop, the ground begins to shake. He feels unbound for the briefest of moments, then he begins to laugh. It is an earthquake. This is the first he’s experienced while in his car. He looks over at the empty passenger seat and imagines the ice pick vibrating a warning like the cup of water in Jurassic Park.

He turns on the car stereo as the rumble subsides, and the same piano and cello tune begins to play from a CD he’d forgotten he’d made. Two blocks later, he approaches the town’s only Tobacco and Magazine shop and sees a rare empty parking space in front of it. He pulls into it, leaving the car running. There is a sign in the window he hasn’t seen before. “Now Leasing.”

This isn’t a magazine dream. This is the waking world and the shop has gone out of business.

He turns off the car and the stereo, and listens to the sound of his own tears without accompaniment or distraction.

It is a curious sound. A sad and beautiful sound.

The first aftershock shakes him out of his reverie and back to the smell of concrete and exhaust. When he realizes he has been rubbing his thigh, he stops, wipes a tear from his eye, then starts his car.

“There has to be something bigger than the biggest thing,” he says aloud, surprised by the strength in his voice.

Then he backs out of the parking space, and rockets away to find it.


Today I am Martin.

This is the first time I’ve used it. I thought it might be cool to pronounce it like “Martian,” but every time I said that out loud while practicing in the bathroom (words sound better there), I saw Jacob and David laughing at me and Missy wondering if she should join them. I don’t care so much about Jacob and David. They’re jerks anyway. But Missy would make a terrible jerk.

So it’s Martin. Mar. Tin.

My father is in the basement again. He’s always in the basement. He calls it the “cellar,” because the walls and floor aren’t finished like the rest of the house. He used to say, “someday we’ll fix up the cellar and make it a proper basement,” but not so much lately. I don’t care. It’s finished enough for me. The scratches on the concrete floor where I play roller hockey for the Green Bay Slicers is proof of that. My dad’s on the team, too, along with a bunch of people we made up. We’re the world champions. Again. He taught me how to play. He got in trouble when he was teaching me because Mom came down to see what the noise was and saw all the scratches on the floor. Or maybe it was the black marks on the walls. Here’s a tip: Don’t use black rubber pucks when you play cellar roller hockey. Use the fake plastic ones.

Dad’s back has been hurting a lot, though. You can’t play cellar roller hockey with a bad back. Everyone knows that.

Mostly these days he just sits at the desk in the corner by the window well and types things on his desktop computer – the one he named “Old Stupid.” If you tried to play a game on it you’d understand. But it works okay for writing emails and stories. That’s what he does when he’s not helping out at Aunt Louise’s dairy farm.

I read one of his stories once. He forgot to turn off the computer and it was right there staring at me. I had been playing basement bowling and I guess I was being too loud or something because he just slammed his chair into the desk and went upstairs without saying a word. Basement bowling is fun when you have someone to set up the pins, but not so much when you’re the only one playing.

The story had a name. “Entropy.” I had to look it up. That didn’t help much. It was about a guy named Lawrence. Lots of bad things happen to him. Like for one, he falls down a flight of stairs. But that’s not the worst thing according to Lawrence. According to Lawrence the worst thing is that the girl he loves more than anything stops loving him. At first I thought Lawrence was an idiot. The worst thing would be the stairs. They were metal stairs. Metal! But then I thought of Missy and the way she smiles and how she is the opposite of a jerk and I kind of understood what Lawrence meant, even if I still don’t understand the title.

Every day I walk to the train tracks. It takes me 27 minutes. I decided that 27 minutes equals one Train Minute. Just because. I used to count things in Train Minutes. Once I wanted to know how long the school day was in Train Minutes. I needed a calculator. The answer is one of those numbers that goes on and on: fourteen point four four four four four and an infinite number of fours after that.

I think that’s when I stopped counting things in Train Minutes. Infinity hurts my head.

My dad doesn’t like it that I go to the tracks, but he lets me go anyway.

“I don’t know what you’re waiting for,” he says. “There haven’t been any trains on those tracks in years.”

Ever since the bombings. I know about that. I learned about it in school, like everyone else. Terrorists blew up some trains. A whole bunch of people died. No one wanted to ride the trains anymore so most of them stopped running. Simple math, really. Not like infinity.

“The trains will never come back,” he says. But the way he says it makes me think he isn’t really talking about trains. I don’t think he’s talking about Mom either. Because she does come back sometimes. She doesn’t stay long, though. Just long enough to tell me she loves me and tell Dad she doesn’t love him, I guess.

I want the trains to come back. I read a really cool story about trains a long time ago and it was kind of like finding out that time machines were real. But when I tell dad that he just gives me one of his sad smiles and says, “Some things never come back, Byron.”

Byron is my real name. I was named after a dead poet. He was a Lord, but not the kind you learn about in church. (Don’t ask how I know that. But I’m glad we don’t go to church anymore.) I looked up some of his poems. They’re kind of like entropy and infinity. I don’t understand them. But there was this part in a poem called “When We Two Parted” that I liked so much I memorized it. (Ask my teacher. This is a big deal.) It goes like this:

The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow--
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.

That’s how Lawrence feels in Dad’s story. And it’s kind of how I feel when I sit on the train tracks. My dad is right, they’re never coming back. My dad is always right. He was right when he said Mom would kick him out for a while. (He was gone for a month. The longest month in the history of life.) He was right when he said she would be the one to leave for good. (She did, though she visits sometimes, like I said already.) He was right when he said people would make fun of me because I change my name all the time. But he was even more right when he said it didn’t matter because I could choose any name I wanted.

“A name is just a way of talking about a thing,” he said. “You don’t love someone’s name, you love the person inside.” He was talking about me, but not only me. He wasn’t talking about Mom, though. I mean, he loves her in a way. You have to love the person you share a name with. But that’s not the same kind of love. I told him that and he laughed and said something about “irony.” I looked that up, too. Don’t ask.

“Some things never come back.” He says that about the trains, but I know he mostly means Marie. That’s not her real name. That’s the name Lawrence uses. I didn’t tell you this yet, but I’m pretty sure the story about Lawrence is really about my dad. Lawrence was married, too. But he loved someone else.

He loved Marie. She’s the one who stops loving him. After he falls down the stairs. It hurts just thinking about it.

When I go to the tracks, I just sit there and listen. I know what a train horn sounds like. I’ve heard them online. I also have a pretty good idea what the track would feel like if a train were coming. I think it would be like the way the whole house vibrated when Dad dragged Mom’s dresser to the garage last year. I was sitting on kitchen floor eating a Pop-Tart when he did it and the crumbs bounced on the linoleum like they were trying to fly. Mom calls Pop-Tarts empty calories, but I always feel pretty full when I eat them so I’m not sure what she means.

Entropy, maybe.

Or maybe she’s just wrong. Sometimes Mom is wrong.

Today is Saturday. When there’s no school I walk to the tracks right after breakfast. (Usually Pop-Tarts.) I like weekends because I can go early. The “chill on my brow,“ and all that.

I was only two when the trains blew up. The tracks are rusty now. And cold. And broken in some places. Some things never come back.

My dad is always right. But I don’t think he wants to be.

Tomorrow I’m going to be Timmy.

And I will wait for trains.

[Author’s Note: This short story is based on a very minor character in my current novel-in-progress. I know that’s kind of meaningless, considering the fact that the novel is still “in-progress” and you can’t go out and buy it anywhere. But someday you’ll be able to. And when you do, you’ll be among a select group who can say, “Hey, I remember that Byron kid.”]


His last thought is “Finally.”

The black, breathless shroud. An emptiness to end the emptiness. ​An infinite, dreamless sleep.

Then, interruption.

The IV is a cold finger on his skin. Its slow drip of forgetting ushers him from the black into the gray. Thoughts float like ashes and dissolve like cotton candy. Images flash like lightning and fade like Polaroids peeled too soon. Beginnings. Endings. A lingering embrace. A longer goodbye. There is freckled skin, warm, alive, eager. And then her fading scent on an empty pillow. Hope disappears like an almost-kiss.


The gray is an Escher paradox. Impossible paths leading everywhere and nowhere. At the center of the chaos, a tremulous pause, a hesitation where never-arriving calm threatens shadows into panic.

He opens his eyes. Shapes like faces hover. Some familiar. Some strange. They smile. They stare. They curse. They pray. They ask why.


There was a song. A very specific song, repeating, repeating, repeating. Were there pills? He remembers music.
Not this music. Electronic beeps and clicks, a rhythm without a melody. Soulless machines singing soulless songs to save his soul.

What was that song?

It made him feel. One last feeling before the black.


He is dizzy, swirling. He is Scrabble tiles looking for words in a tornado. His feelings are woodland creatures – sad bunnies, angry chipmunks, happy squirrels. They stand in formation across a meadow, then turn at the edge of a blazing forest to shrug before losing themselves in the smoke of it. Don’t go, he says. He wants to cry for them, but they have his tears.

Days and minutes blend into each other like the side of a rotting barn against a storm-welcoming sky. He sleeps for a moment and a year. When he wakes, the gray is gone. It does not go gently, like a woman teasing her lover awake with a song. It runs away like rabbit on fire. The room lights that seemed distant as stars pierce him like spotlights pressing for truth. They water his eyes. A false tear drips disappointment down his cheek and through the blur he sees a woman's face.

He wonders if she will speak. If she will yell at him for trying to leave. If she will try to understand with words what he doesn’t understand with or without them.

He remembers now.
There were pills.

Knives stab his stomach. Hammers pound his brain. Pliers pinch his arms. Chlorine and urine assault his nose. He feels the blood pump in his veins, defying him, teasing him back. He wants to be angry. He is too weak. He wants to be sorry. He doesn't know how.

What was that song?

He listens for it. Strains to hear its echo. There is nothing but the beep and click. And then, a sound like a sob. Another tear falls down his cheek. It is warm, and he wonders if it’s hers. She reaches down to wipe it away.

Her fingers are cold and their touch surprises him. The sobbing stops. And then she begins to hum. It is a sweet melody that reminds him of Christmas mornings.

That’s not the song. That’s not it at all. That’s the opposite of the song.

He opens his mouth to complain. She presses a finger to his lips.
You’re not alone, she sings. You are never alone. We are all broken. And we are okay.

She closes his eyes with her cold fingers. Rest, she says.

When he opens his eyes, she is gone.

He feels the throbbing in his chest and wishes it would stop. His bones ache.


He sleeps for another moment and a year. When he wakes, he looks for her.

Where is she? he asks the nurse.


The woman who sings.

You've had lots of visitors. Do you know her name?

She has cold fingers.

The nurse laughs. I don’t know, she says.

He sighs. My head hurts, he says. It hurts so fucking much.


More gray sleep. More stairs that lead nowhere. More waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping to the incessant beep and click. And then, a different sound. Whispers.

He opens his eyes to a room full of people. His brother is here. His ex-wife. The friend who found him. Not the one who broke him.

Where is she? he asks.

Let her go, they say. She's no good for you, they say. They don’t mean the woman with cold fingers.

A nurse stands over him.

How do you feel? she asks.

Everything hurts, he says.

Do you want something for the pain?

He looks at their faces. His brother, his ex-wife, his friend, the nurse. They are silent. They are waiting. They are listening.

You're not alone. You are never alone.

That’s not it, he yells. That’s not the goddamn song!

We're all broken...

A tear rolls down his cheek. That's not the song, he sobs.

His tears last a moment and a year. Then, a smile from nowhere and everywhere gently twists the gray into blue. He says it again, but this time his voice is a laugh like Christmas mornings.

That's not the song.

He looks at his brother. His ex-wife. His friend. The nurse.

He sees everyone.

And begins to sing.


Becky is 39. She doesn't care about her 40th birthday. Her mother wants to make a big deal out of it, so Becky has stopped taking her calls. This means her mother will plan a surprise party. Becky plans a different kind of surprise - the surprise of not being anywhere near her mother until one of them is dead.

This unvoiced decision marks the moment her descent into darkness finds its voice, the moment her secrets become scars. It is only after this moment that everyone else sees the changes that have been seeping into her soul for months. The evidence - a defeatist attitude, a disregard for deadlines, poor hygiene - leads to confrontation, then concern, then a painfully intimate conversation with her supervisors. She is given phone numbers for doctors and therapists and granted a leave of absence for an "indefinite period." They tell her this is a good thing; that they want her to be well, that they'll be here when she's better.

When she hears the words "indefinite period" she sees a rowboat in the middle of the ocean with no oars.

It's a month before her birthday when Becky's best friend Lindy finds the courage to drag her out of her apartment. Becky doesn't want to go out for coffee. She would rather stay in bed and search for answers and lies in the lines and shadows of the white textured walls. Bed is the only place she feels safe. She begins to tell Lindy this, but before the words come out, she decides it's another lie. In that hesitation, Lindy gets her way.

When they get to The Waterfront Cafe, Becky catches her reflection in the window and is startled by homeless woman standing next to Lindy. They are seated on the patio, which affords a dramatic view of the wide brown river, the walking bridge filled with arm-in-arm couples, and the setting sun. Becky only notices the arm-in-arm couples. She hasn't brushed her teeth in three days.

The chairs are made of wrought iron and when Becky tries to slide hers back across the concrete it catches on a seam and she nearly tips over. Somewhere between the tipping and the recovery, she feels weightless and afraid. She wishes she could stay there.

The small round table between them is barely big enough to fit their coffee cups and Lindy's dog-eared copy of Let's Pretend this Never Happened. She's read it twice. She means to give it to Becky.

The conversation begins with a proclamation spoken loudly enough that it brings a glare from a woman in a white dress sipping tea. It will end with the same proclamation offered in whisper.

"I hate the word hope," says Becky. "I fucking hate it."

Becky's life is an accumulation of losses. She doesn’t enumerate them today, but Lindy could. The loss of her father to cancer. The loss of her self-worth to a disinterested husband. The loss of her marriage to an affair. The loss of her lover to reconciliation. The loss of her son to cocaine. The loss of her mother to…whatever it is that makes mothers crazy. And the loss of her career. "Temporarily," Lindy would argue. Becky adds another loss to the list after staring at a couple praying at a table near the patio door.

"There is no god," she says.

"I think there is," says Lindy.

"You can't sit there and tell me that the god of the universe is looking down at me right now and thinking 'ah, that's just where I want her,'" says Becky.

Lindy wasn't going to tell her that. Not again.

"And don't give me that 'mysterious ways' bullshit, either," says Becky.

The next seventeen minutes go by without a word from either of them. Becky holds her coffee cup like she's telling it a secret. She sips it cautiously, like it's filled with acid.

"I miss you," says Lindy.

Becky wishes she could say the same thing to Lindy, but words cost too much and she is broke. She sips more acid.

"I hate the word hope," she says.

When Lindy takes Becky back to her apartment, she puts the book on her kitchen counter.

"The author reminds me of you," Lindy says, pointing to it.

"Which me?"


This was a Sunday.

On Tuesday, Lindy brings Becky Chinese food. She answers the door in a Grateful Dead t-shirt two sizes too big. They eat in silence at the kitchen counter. The book is right where Lindy left it.

On Thursday, Lindy intercepts Becky's mother in the driveway and convinces her not to visit, and definitely not to make a big deal about her daughter's birthday. Not yet. Becky's mother looks like a broken doll when she leaves.

Lindy spends most of Saturday cleaning Becky's apartment. She dusts around the book on the kitchen counter and puts a vase of daisies next to it.

The next three weeks look the same to Lindy and Becky. The only thing that changes is the kind of flowers in the vase next to the book. Mums, next. Then tulips. Then roses.

It is a Thursday when Lindy sits in her car for fifteen long minutes, praying for the strength to walk the 37 steps to Becky's apartment building. It does not come, but she walks the 37 steps anyway.

When she uses the key Becky gave her two weeks before to open the door, the first thing Lindy notices is the smell. It is a wretched medley of sour milk and roses. She dumps the curdled milk into the sink and ignores the flowers and walks into Becky's bedroom with slow, fearful steps. Becky is where she always is, lying in her bed. The window is cracked open and a breeze is blowing lacy white curtains into a dance so delicate it makes Lindy's stomach ache. She sits in the chair at the end of Becky's bed.

There is a long silence. Lindy doesn't know where to begin.

"It's Ben," she finally says. "I just found out that he… " but she can't finish the sentence. She can't say it out loud. She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob. When she looks up, Becky is sitting on the end of the bed, just a few feet from her. She is wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt three sizes too big and holding a box of tissues.

Lindy takes a tissue and blows her nose and this is when she notices the book on Becky's nightstand.

"He's cheating on me," says Lindy through a sniffle. Just saying the words brings a new flood of tears and she hides in her hands again. "I hate…"

There is another long silence. The breeze releases the curtains and they fall flat against the window.

"I hate the word hope," Lindy says. She feels her best friend's bony arms encircle her. It feels like a hug from a glass butterfly.

"Me, too," says Becky. "Me, too."

Her breath smells like toothpaste.

The Moment

“What if you knew, with certainty, that your love life was behind you. That you would never make love again. No, wait, more than that – that you would never even kiss a woman, or hold her hand. What would you do with that knowledge?”

He looked at his friend, the seriousness in her eyes betraying the question as one she had already asked – and answered – herself.

“I’d spend the rest of my life trying to prove the uncertainty of certainty,” he said. She didn’t flinch.

“Even knowing you would fail? Because you understand the premise, right? It’s not going to change. Ever.”

He brushed a cherry blossom from his shoulder, glanced up at the tree as if to ask a question, then looked at Holly again. She had the wrong color eyes. They were blue. The color of faded denim, she would argue, but he thought they were darker. “I think they’re more of a sky blue,” he had said. “But I want them to be denim blue.” “Okay.” She had wanted to be taller, too.

“Yes. Even knowing I would fail.”

Holly found Jack on a dating site. Eight men ago. But they had never dated. In Jack, she had found the girlfriend she’d always longed for – the person she could tell anything to without fear of judgment. Sometimes she called him that. Her girlfriend. The first time, he responded with uncharacteristic verve, offering claims of heterosexuality so outrageous she half-wondered if he was a homophobe. He wasn’t. He was just being funny.

Sometimes she felt bad teasing him. She knew about all of his insecurities. Some she’d discovered by observation, others he’d just spilled onto the table like a woman emptying her purse. She laughed at this thought, filed away the words for a future teasing. She liked watching him squirm. There was something compelling about Jack’s discomfort. A strange beauty revealed itself in his vulnerability. She would never tell him this, though. He had gotten the wrong idea once when she’d offered an unguarded compliment. Something about his way with words. Moments later, he had his arm around her. They were at the movie theater he called "theirs." The movie was
Titanic. In 3D. She had turned to him and stared through the plastic glasses with such a curiously furrowed brow that he knew immediately he’d done something wrong. When he said, “Sorry, I thought you were Rose there for a moment,” she had nearly regretted the unvoiced complaint. He returned his arm to the armrest and she wondered then, for the first and only time, what it would be like to hold his hand. Perhaps if they’d been further along in the movie – the scene where Rose poses for Jack – she would have done it. They never talked about it.

“Why?” she asked. A reflected ray from the setting sun touched her face then, and her eyes did seem a lighter blue.
Faded denim. Maybe she had only ever seen them in such light? No. Though she rarely wore makeup – an observation that always prompted a familiar ache – she would surely see her face in the mirror every morning, every night. Her bathroom had no such magical light. It was a dim, dark, windowless place. He had seen it just once, but the picture had stuck with him, a puzzle piece that didn’t fit with the woman he knew as an infinite source of sun-bright energy and shadowless optimism.

He’d only spent that one night at her house, after a party she invited him to turned into a drinking competition. She had won. He had lost, but only by virtue of having not played. She asked him to drive her home, and he did. Then she had slurred an invitation to spend the night because of the long drive, which he not even for one second imagined meant sharing her bed. This was before they saw

“I don’t think I could handle living the rest of my life without the hope of love, the possibility of it,” he said.

“But you’ve given up on love. You've given up on hope, too. You said that. Didn’t you mean it?”

Her smile was somewhere between curious and coy. He thought of reaching over and pulling down the left side of the smile to erase the coy. It wasn’t meant for him. But they didn’t touch one another that way. They had only hugged once. Awkwardly. The coy, the sexy, the wanting – those were always meant for Michael, the lover who got away. The lover she sent away. The lover she always talked about between failed relationships and sometimes in the middle of moderately successful ones. He’s in South Africa now. Or New Zealand. She pretends not to know which, but it’s always the first she mentions. The second is merely an attempt to dilute a poorly-hidden ache.

“I meant it when I said it. I still mean it.” He didn’t need to tell the story again. She’d heard it a hundred times. But he paused anyway, to give her time to recall it. The desire, the bliss, the deception, the emptiness, the loss, and his own poorly-hidden ache.

“So you’d rather be alone, than with someone other than her.”


“But you hate being alone.”

“Look who’s talking,” he said. Another cherry blossom landed on his shoulder. He didn’t look up.

“What if the closest I get to the moment is now,” she said.


“It’s from a song. ‘What if the closest I get to the moment is now.’ Katie Herzig.”

“Should I listen to it?”

“You will. Over and over again.”

“I’m going to hate it, aren’t I,” he said.

“No. You’re going to love it. You love all the things that break your heart.”

A waitress came by to smile and drop off the check. He took it before she could reach for her purse. It was their only dance, and he always led.
Her best girlfriend.

“Oh, you need to see this,” she said with her words, her hands, and her eyes all at once. “Come sit on my side of the table.” He obeyed without hesitation. The patio lights dimmed just as he stood. He dragged his chair across the tile floor, sat next to her, but not so close as to fear the accidental brush of his hand against hers. Together, they looked out over the city at a fading day. The sun’s escape was painting a yellow and orange and red halo above the mountains.

He had seen thousands of sunsets, of course. Every one broke his heart for all the right reasons. The last few thousand, for those reasons and one more.

“You see her everywhere, don’t you,” Holly said, her voice softened by the night.

“Everywhere but next to me.”

She took a sip of her wine. Red. Always red. “I hope you can do it,” she said.

“Do what?”

“Prove the uncertainty of certainty.”

He smiled then. A kind, sad smile that would have made a sound like a sigh. Then he spoke, his voice strong, confident.

“’Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’”

“Dylan Thomas?” she said after a respectful pause. “I love that you know poetry.”

“I don’t know much. That’s the only part I remember,” he said.

“If Michael had known even one verse of poetry…” Her expression darkened, and he saw what she must see every morning, every night in the bathroom mirror. Someone she didn’t want to be. The darkness only lasted an instant, and she was back, sparkling denim eyes and bright spirit called to purpose by sheer force of will. “Well, I don’t now about you, but I’m going to rage every single day,” she said.

Holly looked over at Jack. He continued to stare straight ahead. She wondered what he saw in the color and the light. Then she realized she already knew.

“I think I will go gently,” he said, finally, this time with uncertain voice.

Somewhere in the distance, a car alarm sounded, a dog barked. Behind them, the rattle and scrape of tables being cleared. The patio was nearly empty when a breeze stirred the cherry tree. Blossoms fell like snow then, pulled to the ground by gravity and the first chill of autumn.


This is what she did before she stepped in front of the semi.

She walked into the bar, six or seven steps behind the waitress, three ahead of him. He was talking on his cell phone. She walked with her head down, an apology to the waitress who was nearly done with her shift and hoping to hurry it by walking faster.

She took the booth side under the TV, he the one facing it. She did this because of the one time she didn’t. The TV was tuned to a soccer game. She anticipated his scowl before it appeared and almost allowed herself a smile. He told the waitress to change the channel to “real football.” She said she couldn’t do that but she could find them another booth near another TV if they didn’t mind waiting. He minded.

She wore not-skinny jeans and a heather gray V-neck sweatshirt decorated with an orange C. The sweatshirt was at least five sizes too big, but it wasn’t his. He was barely her height and skinny enough to wear her clothes, which he had but only one time and only then because he was drunk and she was passed out on the sofa and he just wanted to know.

Every time she set her wine glass on the table the sweatshirt slipped over her left shoulder, revealing a black bra strap. She tugged the sweatshirt back into place like she was trying to teach it a lesson.

She wasn’t wearing makeup. Her eyes were tired and her skin pale and freckled. Her shoulder-length dirty blonde hair was tied in back with a rubber band. Escaped strands kept falling in front of her face but she didn’t scold them like she did the sweatshirt.

When they’d first met three years earlier he’d told her she reminded him of Charlize Theron and he’d said it again tonight but he was thinking of her role in Monster and she’d never seen it so she mistakenly thought he was being kind.

Her baked chicken was under-baked and she shouldn’t have mentioned it but she did in a sort of half-whispered dictation, another thing added to a secret list. This time he was listening so he called the waitress over and told her to fix it (and his overcooked steak, too) or he’d tweet about how bad the restaurant was and he has over seven thousand followers. The waitress apologized and took the chicken and the steak and the angry words back to the kitchen.

He wore sunglasses the whole time, not to hide his bloodshot eyes (they were) but because he was as vain as he was clueless about how stupid he looked wearing sunglasses indoors.

“They look good on me,” he’d said when he bought them a month earlier at a store that sold only sunglasses. It wasn’t a question, though he’d expected an answer. She’d said “yes” then. It wasn't her first lie. He bought her a pair a week later. They cost half of what he’d spent on his, but that was still ten times more than she’d ever spent on sunglasses. She snapped the frame in half the next day quite by accident, but he doesn’t know it yet.

He checked his messages six times between the complaint and the delivery of the new food. He noted this aloud to the waitress (who had not been cut after all and would quit later that night after the third kitchen mistake), then experienced a rare, strange joy when he silently compared the checking of messages to the tapping of impatient fingers and recognized this as metaphor.

He looked at her once with an expression that surprised her. He shook his head slowly, disbelieving something. She thought she remembered the look from when they were first dating. The “how did I get so lucky?” look. The one that preceded his comparison of her to Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules. But it quickly faded into something like dismay. She brushed the hair from her face and took another bite of chicken.

Halfway through the second attempt at supper, he got up to use the bathroom or take a phone call or both and she looked across the aisle. She smiled politely and I tried to smile back in kind but all I could manage was a sad half-smile because honesty had filled the vacuum he’d left behind.

It was then that I whispered those three words. I hadn’t planned to say anything. I never say anything. I am an observer, not an intruder.

But the words came out and I couldn’t retrieve them.

“You are beautiful.”

There was no invitation in the words. I didn’t want to start a conversation. I didn’t want to fall in love with her or kiss her or sleep with her. I didn’t want anything but to say those words and I didn't even want to do that until they'd already come out.

I saw her catch her breath then and wondered if she’d been looking at me or the picture window beyond. The sun was setting and the sky was purple and orange and yellow and a few colors I hadn’t seen before.

He came back a moment later and said it was time to go and she nearly told him that she’d come for the blueberry pie and couldn’t they at least get some to go. Instead, she slid soundlessly out of the booth and put on her coat and gathered her purse and walked past him, out the door next to the picture window and into the parking lot. By the time he was done paying the bill, she had kicked off her heels. By the time he was stepping off the curb, she was almost at the highway. He walked to his car with his phone at his ear while two strangers chased after her. She stepped in front of the semi just as he opened the driver’s side door.

He turned when the horn sounded and stood there next to his just-washed car while she rolled into the median and came to a stop with her legs bent the wrong way and her body bloodied and her dirty blonde hair tied in back with a rubber band.

He stood there a long time. Long enough to notice a smudge on the hood. Long enough to start to feel something like sadness.

I might be wrong about some of the details. I’m not sure if he ever wore her clothes or if blueberry pie was her favorite dessert. But I am certain about some things.

The guy was an asshole.

The woman stepped in front of a semi.

And I didn’t say “you are beautiful” loud enough.


The old wagon is abandoned to a hill behind her grandfather’s house. Wild grass grows up through the handle, winding around it like ownership. We take pictures at sunrise when the morning light turns red paint to blood and rust to scabs. My photos are gentle, respectful and a little bit sad. Hers are sharp-edged and dangerous.

In the afternoon we picnic down by the thinning creek that divides her grandfather’s farm from neighboring undeveloped lands. Trees line either side of stream like dedicated servants holding sheltering umbrellas.

We spread a quilt under the sun, inviting what the trees deny. I want to take pictures of the trees. She shrugs and opens a bottle of wine.

Her glass is empty but for a small button of red swimming above the stem when I return with a camera full of nothing.

Trees are boring unless you know their story, she says.

So tell me one of their stories, I say.

She hesitates, then pours a second glass and takes a long sip.

There is a tree, not here, but upstream a bit. She doesn’t point, but holds a finger to her lips. Do you hear it? she asks.

I hear the trickle of the water and a whisper of wind through the leaves, then in the distance a roll of thunder that sounds like it’s wrapped in a blanket.

No, I say.

Listen harder, she says.

She leaves the story in the uncertain air and lies down on her back, balancing her wine glass on her stomach. A warm breeze blows straw-blonde hair across her cheeks and ruffles the hem of her sundress. Tiny daisies printed on yellow cotton slow-dance in the wind, then relax to tease more of her bare legs into the sun.

I aim my camera at her and click a succession of photos, close-ups that begin at her unpainted toenails and travel up her thin legs, past her hips, to small hands wrapped around crystal and crimson. I pause at her chest to watch her breathe, remembering the moonlit silhouette of her naked body from a dozen nights and a thousand dreams. Then I continue the photographic journey to her shoulders, bare but for a few lonely freckle constellations. Her lips are slightly parted, her eyes closed. A bead of sweat drips down her cheek. Or a tear.

The light here is terrible, she says. I will be washed out and pale. I will be a ghost.

I know.

Sometimes I see her that way, like the pinched wrinkles on a forsaken bed sheet. Or the smell of raspberries in an empty kitchen. Sometimes she is light without shadows. Sometimes only shadows.

This tree upstream, she says, is missing a limb.

And then she waits again. I write a dozen stories in my head. A child climbs out over the stream to catch a butterfly and the branch snaps. This is the day he learns to swim. Or doesn’t. A hunter shoots at a squirrel and misses, splintering wood instead. A desperate man ties a noose. Disease attacks. Lightning strikes.

I set the camera down and lean over to kiss her. She inhales just before our lips meet, and exhales a sigh. There is no one more beautiful in any light.

I’m going to find the tree, I say, and start to get up.

No, she says. She nearly spills her wine when she reaches out to grab my hand. Stay.

I take the glass from her and set it on the picnic basket, then lie down on my side next to her. I rest a hand on her stomach and she covers it with both of hers.

The tree wants to forget, she says. A photograph makes it remember.

I kiss her shoulder and breathe in the only scent that speaks to me of safety. Of home.

Okay, I say.

Hours pass. The storm turns away and looks for a different picnic to interrupt. Clouds drift by in a parade of deformed animals. A giraffe with a monkey’s head. A legless lion. An elephant without a trunk. The elephant’s trunk.

You know what word I like, she says. I thought she was asleep. Nevertheless.

She doesn’t explain. She doesn’t have to. I’d thought the very same thing once.

Another hour passes.

Do you hear that dog barking in the distance, she asks.

Everything out here is in the distance, I say. I think I am being clever.

Not everything, she says.

She folds the quilt and I pack up the picnic basket. We climb the hill hand in hand while I write a story of all new things and she writes one on top of old things.

When we get to the abandoned wagon, she stops. The sun has nearly set and the light coming through tall grass is painting streaks across the side like tiger stripes. I reach for my camera.

She drops my hand, walks over to the wagon and kicks it with her bare foot. The she kicks it again and again and again. Four times. Five, six, seven. She kicks it until the grass lets go and the wagon flips end over end and a wheel flies off.

Her breathing slows and she hobbles back to me. Her foot is bloody. I bend down to wipe it with my shirt. I don’t ask why. She had already answered that question.

It was her father’s wagon.

I kiss her foot, then stand and hold her in my arms until the sun goes down and the tiger light fades and the wagon disappears into darkness.


There is a giant clock built into the high white wall above the concourse hallway. The brass hour hand is at least three feet long, the minute hand nearly twice that. There are no numbers, just twelve evenly-spaced dots where the numbers should be.

He leans against the construction wall and ponders this, imagining a conversation around a mahogany table big enough for a dozen, but occupied by two.

"What about a huge clock?"
"A clock?"
"Something big and bold would be perfect in that space."
"A clock right above the arrival egress? Why? So people can see just how late the planes are?"
"Do you have to be so cynical?"
"I work in city government. It's my job."
"I think people would appreciate a clock."
"Fine, but no second hand."
"I wasn't planning on…"
"Second hands make people nervous. Reminds them of school."
"No second hand."
"And no numbers either. Just lines or dots or maybe tiny airplanes."
"Why no numbers?"
"Because that makes it harder to tell the time."
"Which is obviously the point of a clock…"
"Hey, you're a designer. Aren't you people all about form over function? Just do something grand and artistic and barely clock-like."
"We could save a bunch of money and just paint the time right on the wall. It would be right twice a day…"
"Now you're thinking."
"I was being sarcastic."
"You were speaking my language."

He counts a dozen travelers staring at cell phones and wonders if their children know how to read a clock face. He looks over at the arrivals hallway. A lone figure in regionally appropriate clothing carefully chosen to appear casual and welcoming (jeans, western shirt and an oversized cowboy hat) stands next to the “No Entry” sign, facing an empty hall. This will change soon.

They come in waves. Not predictable waves, like the ocean, every seventh larger than the previous six.

Some are ripples. The commuter jet crowd. Families who aren’t in a hurry.

Some are tsunamis.

He pauses on that word, tsunami. He used to love that word, the way the “t” gently pushes the “s” to the front of the mouth, sacrificing itself for the sake of a clever spelling. But joy has been squeezed out of the word. By Indonesia. And Japan. And heartache.

The first wave is a ripple. Two flight attendants shoot into the atrium with the rhythmic shoe-tap of certain destination, their suitcases trailing like reluctantly obedient children. Then comes a man in an ancient brown wool suit and matching hat. He is a man out of time. Or oblivious to it.

A husband appears, scanning the congregated masses held captive by red ropes and fear of the TSA. The man finds his wife and the stress of a dozen days away melts away in recognition. She is still his. They will drive home in silence, he thinks. Not because they have nothing to say. Because there is so much.

He looks away when they kiss.

A group of tourists is next. A Japanese man behind the rope raises a small American flag and calls out to them. They answer with nods and waves and he becomes a benevolent pied piper, leading them to the starting gate of an American adventure near the Avis counter.

And then a surge. Fifty or more pour out of the gateway, some pausing to search for familiar faces, others dodging the pausers to head straight to baggage claim.

Among the pausers, a woman about his own age. Thirtysomething. She is wearing a white gathered silk shirt, khaki green skirt and sandals. Her dirty blonde hair is a frazzled mess, kinked by unseasonal humidity, flattened by an unexpected nap. Her skin is that of someone who pleads daily with the sun for a special exemption from harmful UV rays. From a dozen feet away, he can see the freckles on her neck. He imagines the constellations.

A patchwork leather bag hangs from her right shoulder, a muted rainbow of yellows and blues and reds. She grips a book with her left hand. He strains to read the title, but it is pressed against her hip. God hears his plea and she is jostled by a man who doesn’t stop to apologize.

The book lands face up.

The Art of Racing in the Rain. He smiles.

She picks up the book at looks directly at him. Blue eyes. Denim blue. And then she does the unexpected. She walks right up to him.

“Are you the person I’m looking for?” she says. Her words tumble out like jacks across a tile floor. “I mean…” she blushes, “I’m looking for Tom. Are you Tom?”

He is not Tom.

“Not today,” he says. “Yesterday I was Tom. But today I’m Jeff.” This brings her perfect, crooked smile.

“Sorry,” she says, “You look sorta like him. I mean like his picture. I’ve only seen his picture.”

“Great book,” he says, and points at it.

“Oh, I know. Don’t you just love it? But so heartbreaking…”

Before he can queue up an appropriate response, she spies him over his shoulder.


Tom is handsome. Tom is late. Tom is walking toward her with brisk steps and apologetic eyes. She mouths “sorry” with soft, unpainted lips, then turns and walks toward Tom. They share an awkward hug. Tom is smitten. He can’t take his eyes off of her.

They begin to walk away. Tom reaches for her hand, she gives him the book instead. He looks at it, she says something and he shakes his head.

Just before they reach the hallway that leads to baggage claim, she glances back over her shoulder and smiles.

You look sorta like him.

He turns to face the arrival concourse, leans back against the construction wall and watches. An hour later, the giant clock built into the high white wall tells him it’s time to go. He walks a little slower than usual to the bus stop. He lets two buses go by before climbing up the familiar steps of No. 273.

“Well?” says the driver.

“A few interesting characters,” he says.

“You gonna put me in one of your stories?” says the driver.

“You never know,” he says.

He slides into the first available seat and pulls out his notebook. He gives her a name. Penny. It feels slightly ironic. Perfectly ironic.

He stares at the page during the ride home, but nothing appears. He stares at it again at his desk until he’s too tired to think. The next morning at breakfast, the page with a single word on it stares at him.

“Penny,” he reads aloud. Still nothing.

And then, he knows. There is no story.

There is only Penny.

The next day he will be Tom.

Just in case.

Dinner (excerpt from a w.i.p.)

I could think of no better way to cap the end of a good chapter of our lives than by taking Kelly to Brother Sebastian’s. The landmark steakhouse and winery was always high on our “if we only could afford it” wish list (a long list, considering my pastor’s salary and Kelly’s part time income from her job at the furniture store).

There are plenty of restaurants in Omaha, but Brother Sebastian’s is the only place that comes to mind when you tell your spouse you’re taking her out for a one-of-a-kind dinner. So I didn’t tell her. I just said, “the sitter’s here, we need to get going.”

She gave me that sly smile she always saves for the moments when I need it most – the moments that follow an accumulation of arrhythmic marital connections, the moments that threaten to reveal the dark oases of vulnerability in our Sahara-huge determination to love one another no matter what.

“Where are we going? Am I dressed up enough?”

Her smile kills me. In a good way. Kelly could be old and wrinkly and bedridden, but as long as she still has that smile I will always be just one smile away from loving her the way I was destined to love her.

I didn’t answer.

“Brother Sebastian’s!” she said, before I’d even started the car.

I smiled, of course. Because how could I not? She reached into her purse – a small purse because she’s never been the sort of woman who liked to carry the entire contents of the bathroom counter with her – and pulled out a tube of lipstick. Kelly rarely wears much makeup. She doesn’t have to. She has beautiful olive skin and brilliant blue eyes that enchant the curious and hypnotize the smitten.

“Did we win the lottery?” she asked, staring into the mirror on the back of the passenger-side visor.

“Yes. Did I forget to mention that?”

“Then I’m having the steak and lobster.”

“Whatever you want,” I said.

“Except for a glass of wine,” she sighed.

“Yeah, except for that.”

“Maybe just one?”

“Let’s recap. What did the doctor tell you?”

“That once in a while a glass of wine wasn’t so bad,” she said, flipping the visor up.

“And then what did you say in response to his weak moment prompted by your sad eyes and pouty lips?”

“‘I don’t think I’ll risk it.’”

“Change of heart?”

“No. I’m just whining.”

“Cute,” I said.


“Yes. And the pun about the whining.”

“Oh. Yeah. That was intentional of course.”

She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I’m not the sort of driver who’s willing to take his eyes off the road, not even to kiss my wife. She’s always been a bit frustrated with this because she likes to look me in the eyes when we talk. But I didn’t feel any frustration. Instead I felt a spark in that gentle touch of her lips. I continue to be amazed by the ever-changing nature of a woman’s emotions. A week ago she didn’t want me to touch her.

“That was an appetizer,” she said, reading my thoughts. I hoped she couldn’t read all of them.

We pulled into the parking lot and it was, not surprisingly, packed. I was praying silently for grace from a familiar refrain but God chose not to answer my prayer.

“Did you make a reservation?” she asked, as we climbed out of the car. “Surely you made a reservation. Did you?”

“Yes. I did.”

She sighed and a puff of condensation drifted from her mouth and disappeared into the cold evening air.

“Thank you,” she said.

“For making a reservation?”

“That, too.”

I had asked for a table in the room known as “The Brother’s Study.” After a moderate wait, we were escorted to the secluded room, and it was bit like time traveling. The restaurant looks and feels a lot like the monastery it wants people to believe it is. The wood-paneled walls are dark and aged, the hanging ironwork and amber glass lanterns, appropriately dim. Wine casks form the entire wall of one dining area. I’d read about The Brother’s Study years ago but wasn’t prepared for the intimacy of it. A tall bookshelf packed full of books lined one wall. We were ushered into a cozy booth along that wall. I scanned the books, expecting them to be little more than decoration. There were plenty of books with titles I’d never heard of. But there were also a few I recognized – McDonald, Lewis, and…Hemingway. I considered the lives of the fictional monks who walked the dark hallways and wondered if they would have had to hide their copies of The Sun Also Rises.

“I love this place,” said Kelly. “I absolutely love it.”

She reached across the table and rested her hand on mine, her eyes sparkling more than usual in the light of the flickering oil lamp. Her fingers are long, soft – the fingers of a woman who understands the sway of subtle gestures and delicate touch.

“And it smells amazing,” she added.

It did. Food smells dominated the room, redolent aromas of char-grilled steaks and freshly-baked rolls, but they were not so overpowering that I didn’t notice the scent of old wood and wine. There was a weight to the air – a thickness that you could almost taste. If the taste were a color it would have been burgundy.

“Does it seem odd to you that this whole monastery theme is so romantic? I mean, monks aren’t known for their love lives,” said Kelly.

“Ah, but that’s exactly what they’re known for. Except their love lives are a little different than yours and mine.”

“Yeah, I know. They’re in love with God.”


“I get that. In theory, anyway. But look around. The low lights, the dark corners, this place is all about secrets. It’s all about mystery.”

God is mysterious,” I said.

“Yeah. No kidding.”

Kelly wanted to say more. I saw the words lining up behind her eyes. She picked up her water glass, studied it, traced the rim with her index finger, then took a long, slow sip.

“Do you think this is at all like a real monastery?” She finally said, returning from her reverie.

I thought back a few years to my seminary days. There wasn’t much in those memory banks to answer Kelly’s question. Protestants who run in mostly evangelical circles – even the reasonably educated ones – tend to pinch or turn up their noses around anything that gives off that distinctive Catholic smell…and monasteries reek with it. It’s a shame and something I don’t agree with, but I learned early on that ecumenism is welcomed with open arms in theory and crossed arms in practice inside the walls of most evangelical churches. One quote from Thomas Merton was enough to trigger a caution from the board at my previous church. Previous. I’d nearly forgotten we were just days away from moving.

“I’m guessing there are fewer tables and not so many waiters,” I finally said.

“And probably not a lot of this,” she said. I felt her naked foot sliding up the inside of my leg.

“Um…right. Probably very little of that.”

Her foot continued up my leg. I looked at the table across from us, certain everyone in the room could see my eyes grow wide. An older man in a gray suit was sipping a glass of wine while his guest – a woman young enough to be his daughter but clearly not his daughter because of the way she was looking at him – lifted a forkful of butter-dripping lobster to her red-lipsticked lips. Kelly’s foot pressed gently against a part of me that wasn’t supposed to be acknowledged in public places.

“So, what are you getting?” Kelly asked, studying the menu with practiced nonchalance while continuing to massage me with her foot.

“I think that’s becoming rather obvious, don’t you?”

“The steak, then?”

I laughed, but it came out like a snort. The silver-haired man turned his head toward me, glanced under our table, smiled and gave me a head nod that was like a secret handshake offered exclusively to members of the “gettin’ lucky tonight” club. I reached down and guided my wife’s foot back to the floor.

“People are watching,” I whispered.

She shrugged her shoulders and offered an exaggerated sigh. “And you have a problem with that?” I felt her foot again, softly brushing against my calves.

“Okay…who are you and what have you done with my wife?”

I knew I shouldn’t have said it the second after the words escaped. But if I’d hurt her, Kelly didn’t let it show. She just widened her smile, tilted her head toward the woman at the neighboring table, who was licking butter off her fingers, and said, “I’m having the lobster.”

All In (A Love Story in 344 Words)

He won the girl of his dreams on poker night.

She wasn’t dropped onto the table as part of the ante – a wry or rude joke offered by one of the frat boys to make up for a sudden lack of cash.

No, she was standing on the next table over, surrounded by similarly well-dressed girlfriends. And she was dancing to “Pour Some Sugar on Me” like she meant it.

He looked up from his cards and saw her hiding secrets both dark and bright in ironic dancing and un-ironic singing and a blouse with three buttons undone instead of a much more appropriate two.

He saw her and he knew. There was something in the air. Something piquant and perfect that sliced through the smell of beer and cigarettes to tease a smile from his lips despite the odds stacked against him.

“All in,” he said. He would have lost if the frat boys had known the subtle differences in his smiles. This one, born of curious magic, would reveal him a fool who would rather trust whim than logic. But they misread it as confidence and folded.

She looked at him as he scooped up his meager winnings, heard the swearing from the flustered frat boys and caught that rare smile. Even through a three-martini haze, she knew exactly what it meant. It was a thank-you and an invitation.

The song ended and she fell back into the arms of her laughing friends. She wiped the beading sweat from her brow, buttoned up her blouse, then stumbled elegantly to the bar.

He went all-in on the next round and lost everything. He excused himself from the table and walked up next to her at the bar.

The frat boys catcalled. The girlfriends whispered their jealousy.

He asked what she was drinking. She told him, “Kelly, what’s yours?” The music was really loud.

He smiled and asked again. She laughed, then said, “And what are you drinking?”


The music stopped. They scooted closer anyway.

He ordered a diet Coke. She ordered coffee.

In Reflection

In the mirror across the bar she is twelve. She is standing in the wings of the Big Top, breathing the scent of hay and earth and animal with deep, happy inhales. She hears the crowd’s cheer rise and fall in waves, pictures a man and a woman flying through the air in matching blue and white costumes. She looks at her own costume. It is pink. Color, Maya, color! The circus is all about color! It is the voice of her father, a voice she has never known but somehow recognizes. I want to match you and mom, she says. But you match Kimba!

“Another?” She is back in the bar, her elbows leaning on the mahogany counter, her fingers wrapped around a sweating glass. The man she has been dating for three months touches her hand. He is a handsome man and she wonders if that’s why it was so easy to say “yes” to his dinner invitation all those weeks ago.

Maya looks down at her empty glass. She doesn’t remember the last sip.

“Okay,” she says. He lifts his hand from hers, and her whole body aches in the absence of his touch.

In the mirror across the bar, Kimba lifts her gray trunk, tickling at the edge of the curtain, playing with a fraying cotton rope that hangs from the exposed metal frame above. Kimba is wearing a pink ruffle around her neck. Kimba doesn’t like the ruffle. She endures it. Maya thinks this is how she feels about her pink outfit, too.

The applause becomes a symphony. Spotlights flash by the entryway. Her father sprints past, blowing a kiss to Maya. Her mother slows, reaches up and wraps her fingers around her daughter’s pink-slippered foot. Stand tall, her mother says, then follows her father back into the darker rooms where circus acts are stitched together with sawdust and magic.

“You seem quiet tonight,” he says as her drink is refilled. He notices things. She wonders if this is why it was so easy to say “yes” to spending the night after that first dinner. She had never done that before. Not so soon.

“I’m fine,” she says. He knows this means she needs the quiet; that she’s daydreaming or remembering or sorting. He will touch her again to acknowledge this. And he does, his hand on her shoulder.

In the mirror across the bar, Maya is atop Kimba, carefully adjusting her stance to stand tall as the elephant marches behind a parade of clowns into the biggest ring of the three-ring circus. Fireflies spark from the crowd when the youngest star makes her entrance. The flashes don’t really help, she hears her father say later, on the drive home in a rusty brown station wagon. The cameras are too far away for the flashes to matter. Maya leans against the car door, watching the blurring trees. They matter to me, she whispers to the clouds.

“Do you want to get out of here?” He asks. She feels the weight of his hand on her shoulder. He wants to go.

“No. I want to stay.” When she says it, there is too much bite in her words. She knows this and wants to apologize, but instead she lifts her glass and sips, disappointed by her distraction, then surprised by the taste of pomegranate.

In the mirror across the bar, she is twelve years old and standing on the back of an elephant. Head forward, she hears in echo. Head forward and smile big. The smiling is easy; she feels like she is flying. But she wants to turn and catch her father’s eye. She imagines him standing in the shadows, holding her steady with raised eyebrows and white knuckles, confident in his teaching, hopeful in her learning.

“Where are you?” he asks. His voice is soft, almost too soft to hear above the music that’s playing in the bar. She knows this song.

You don't even have to speak,
if you keep looking at me.

She catches her breath and turns to look at him.

“Kiss me,” she says and he does. The kiss tastes of salt and lime and ends too soon. It is a perfect kiss. He pulls back and looks into her eyes, not pleading, not probing. Lingering.

In her peripheral vision she sees the girl of twelve in the mirror. The girl turns her head to see her father and loses her balance. She begins to fall.

“Whoa,” he says, catching her as she slides off the stool. “You okay?”

His hands are strong.

“A little dizzy,” she says. He doesn’t let go until a measured moment later.

“I’ll get your coat.”

“Wait,” she says. “Don’t go.” He sits back down. She turns to the mirror behind the bar. The little girl is gone. In her place, a middle-aged woman who looks vaguely familiar, apart from the tired lines on her face and the bags under her eyes.

“I look like a wreck,” she says.

“You look like a princess,” he says. “Is it okay if I say that?” Then he smiles, because he knows it’s one of the things about him she finds charming – the way he asks permission to pay her a compliment only after he’s already offered it.

“Yes, it’s okay,” she says. He’s a good man, she thinks. She reaches across the bar and rests her hand on his.

“I was at the circus,” she says.

“You were at the circus?”

“A moment ago when you asked, I was at the circus. I’ve never actually been. But I was twelve years old and wearing a pink ballerina costume and pink shoes and I was balancing on an elephant as it circled the arena. Everyone was cheering and there were hundreds of fireflies and…my parents were there. They were trapeze artists.” She is watching him watch her as she speaks. He is fully engaged, not queuing up a response, but listening for the things she doesn’t say.

He turns to look at her reflection in the mirror. She turns, too. He is handsome in reflection.

“Am I crazy?” she asks.

He lifts her hand and kisses it.

“Yes,” he says, and she hears “you’re beautiful.” She is about to cry when he speaks again. They are perfect words.

“Tell me more about the fireflies.”


My mom is a lot prettier than she thinks she is. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who knows this.

Last summer we went to the Grand Canyon. We couldn’t afford plane tickets because Dad’s company had to close for a whole week in February and he didn’t get paid. I thought, “that’s like five snow days in a row!” but I didn’t say it out loud because Dad was extra quiet when he told us.

It was a long drive from Wisconsin. I could tell you the states we drove through. Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona. I could also tell you how many times my older brother Tony complained about how stupid the trip was. 37. I’m not exaggerating. I kept track in my notebook.

Tony is two years older than me. He thinks 16 is too old for family trips. He’s probably right, but I guess you have to complain 37 times before your parents will agree with you. Based on what Dad said somewhere in Iowa (he doesn’t use those words very often except when the Packers are losing) I’m pretty sure Tony will get to stay home this summer. Probably with the neighbors – the ones with the kid who goes to Tony’s school, not the ones with the dog that’s always getting into our trash.

Unless we go to Disneyworld. Tony says that Disneyworld is just for kids, but I happen to know he’d want to go anyway (if Dad would let him). There’s no way he could turn down the chance to see that Indiana Jones stunt show again. Once, last week, I caught him wearing the hat and holding a belt like a whip and quoting lines from the movie and even though he threatened to beat me with the belt if I told anyone I didn’t care because he looked like my brother for a few minutes and that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

I know more stuff than I say out loud these days.

I used to say everything that came to mind. I kind of had to. There were too many words and I couldn’t keep them all inside. My brother hated it and usually just walked out of the room. Dad listened until he heard something I got wrong (which was often) and then corrected me because he didn’t want me to embarrass myself someday. He was usually very polite about it all and I learned a lot, too – like why your pee smells funny after you eat asparagus. Mom was the only one who liked listening to every word. Sometimes she rolled her eyes, but not on purpose.

On the day we drove through Arizona, Mom was complaining about the heat and I was sure an ice cream stop would fix that and I think she agreed but Dad said maybe and then Tony complained again how stupid the trip was (complaint number 23) and Dad yelled and said we weren’t stopping until we got to the hotel. We went to a restaurant that night and I thought it was really good (chicken strips and French fries!) but I guess it wasn’t because Dad sent his steak back twice and Mom never got her salad.

The next morning is when it happened for the first time.

We all got in the car and drove to the Grand Canyon. Everyone had slept in late so Mom didn’t have enough time to put on her makeup, but it probably wouldn’t have stuck anyway since she kept rubbing her eyes. I don’t think it was allergies. Tony threatened to throw me over the railing - if they even had one. We didn’t know. I was only a little scared about that. Dad drove like his back hurt or something.

When we got there, we all walked up to the viewing area and stood there. They did have a railing. Tony complained that it was just a big stupid hole in the ground, but then he shut up for a while. I said “wow,” and that was probably when I stopped saying everything out loud because there were a lot of other words I wanted to say but didn’t. Then I looked over at Mom and I couldn’t find any words at all. She looked tired and a little sad but her eyes were green and her mouth was almost smiling and the wind was blowing her hair a thousand ways at once. She was so beautiful it made my stomach hurt. I kept waiting for Dad to say something. He looked at her at least twice. But he didn’t say a thing. I figured he was stunned, like me.

I don’t think that anymore.

Today my baseball team won our first game. I only got one hit, but I made a diving catch that should be on ESPN. Mom and Dad were in the stands, cheering. Tony had other plans, but he did tell me “have a good game, kid” before we left. After the game, there was a moment that was kind of like in a movie. I had just come back from the team huddle and the sun was starting to go down and all the colors were showing off in the trees and everywhere. Mom’s hair is different now, shorter. And there might be more lines around her eyes than last summer. I don’t know. I don’t keep track of things like I used to. But with her short hair and the way the wind was blowing it and the way the sunset was painting everything gold she looked like an angel. She was even more beautiful than the time at the Grand Canyon.

I saw Dad look at her for a long moment and I was sure he was going to say something. I mean, how could he not? Even “wow” would have been enough. But instead he just picked up the cooler and walked away.

I wanted to tell Dad he was stupid not to say something. I wanted to tell Mom that he probably meant to but couldn’t find the right words. I wanted to say a lot of things, but I don’t say everything I think these days.

So even though I was sweaty and dirty and probably smelled bad, I hugged her. I’m the only one who still hugs her.

I think it was the right thing to do.


The metal bench is an eyesore, its patina not the lovely green-gray of time-weathering, but the red rust of saltwater and circumstance. Situated halfway between the ocean and the sharp, wind-carved ridge separating the reedy grass from the wide swim of a sandy beach, it leans slightly forward, anchored to a buried block of concrete not much longer or wider than the bench itself. At high tide, its thick legs disappear from view, leaving a latticework of seat and back, an iron net for wayward seaweed, a royal perch for white gulls.

Most people give the bench little more than a curious glance. Most people are visitors here, vacationers who come to trouble the beach in celebration, only to complain later about the plague of sand that won’t wash off in the shower.

A few sit on it and pose, smiling the fake smiles tourists smile when sharing frame space with a relic or a monument they care nothing about, apart from the opportunity it gives for yet another vacation photo.

Juliette sits on the bench every Tuesday when the weather allows, arriving before sunrise, leaving after.

She listens to the lapping of the waves, the familiar conversation of the gulls. She welcomes the sea spray on her face and tastes the salt and breathes in through her nose, smelling fish and fowl and life and decay.

And every morning she sees them.

* * *

Juliette drew her feet up out of the water and sat cross-legged on the bench. There was salt in her eyes. From tears, mostly. But also the sea. She had returned to the bench at the end of the day, in search of a sunset to erase the sunrise when she had seen Nick and Maureen walking hand in hand along the shore. She didn’t want to believe it was Nick, but no one else walked like he did - as if he owned the earth.

Maureen was wearing a sundress so white it blinked like a flashbulb against a yellow sky. Her skin was pale, pink around the shoulders. Nick would surely pick at the peeling sunburn in a day or two. Maureen would complain, swat his hand away, then take his hand and kiss his fingers. He would do it again moments later. Again she would complain. After the third time, she would stop complaining. Instead, she would collect his little annoyances and hold them in a queue, awaiting the right time to say something. But then they would make love and every little annoyance would be erased in sweat and sigh.

Nick wore khaki shorts and a faded navy blue t-shirt. Juliette knew the shirt. Soft, fraying along the neckline. She wore it while trying to make him breakfast just a week before. He had come up behind her then, not quietly enough to disappear into the white-noise sizzle of the frying bacon, but quietly enough for her to feign surprise. He had reached around her with his strong arms, wrapped her in a hug, pulled her close until she could feel his heartbeat. She had turned her head to the right, welcomed a half kiss that tasted of gray morning. His hands had wandered beneath the faded blue shirt, sliding up from her tensing stomach to trace curves he’d been learning in secret, stolen moments for nearly three months.

She had made her decision the moment she saw Nick with Maureen, but it wasn’t until that evening, as the sun set, that the weight of her decision caught up with her resolve. Still, she would not change her mind, no matter what the cost.

* * *

The sun is slow in rising today, she whispers to the gulls. She pulls her sweater tight.

* * *

Her father was there at the birth of her son, in the waiting room outside, pacing. Later, he handed her forms and pointed to places where she needed to sign. He touched her arm once, to wake her. She pretended it was to offer grace, or assurance, or an apology for her mother’s absence.

She named him James and told no one but her infant son in a whisper and a kiss. He was round and perfect and had Nick’s denim blue eyes. They took him away on the second day.

* * *

Every morning she sees them, Nick and Maureen, walking along the shore. Every morning except this morning.

This morning Juliette is looking at her hands, at the roadmap of veins painted under paper skin. She folds them together as if in prayer. It is a posture her heart has known for years.

It is James’ birthday. He would be sixty today. She imagines him welcoming his first grandchild, gently brushing away jests about his new title. Grandpa. She pictures his beautiful dark-haired wife, finally giving in to the gray she has colored for a decade, allowing it to define instead of worry her. She hears James say to his wife, “you’re the most beautiful grandmother on the planet.”

His voice is a lion’s purr.

Juliette feels cold metal pressing against bone through her thinning cotton dress. She blinks away the sting of the ocean. She listens to the soft recoil of every wave, the wind searching for trees to disquiet.

She remembers a tree. A towering maple in a grove of memories. She watches through blurry 17-year-old eyes as a single golden leaf falls. Glorious and graceful, it descends to land upon a turn of black soil.

He would be sixty today, she whispers to the wind.

The gulls are silent. Listening.

She has lived a good life. She has loved long and well, raised three children, sent them wise and confident into the adventure of figuring it all out. And she has been a faithful wife for half a century. She takes a deep, rasping breath. Her husband will be waking soon. She will bring him breakfast in bed. He will try to remember her name.

It is time to forgive herself.

She prays for a touch on her arm that speaks grace. When it does not come, she begins to raise her head, feeling every one of her years in aching joints. The sun mimics her movements, rising slowly. She opens her eyes just as the sun breaks the line on the horizon.


She has seen hundreds of suns rise. But this one is different.

This one sees her.


They are small steps. The shuffle steps of an old woman. But she is not old.

She is two days past five years and she is measuring.

Each shuffle step is a number. At first she calls them inches, then she makes up her own word for the increment. “Wriggles.” About the length of a worm, she says. “That’s what a wriggle is.”

Her mother is sitting at the other end of the porch, watching. She is holding a glass of sweet tea. Ice cubes rattle like dry bones when she tips the glass and sips, remembering the taste of leaves and flowers and sugar. Beads of condensation run down the glass and fall onto her floral dress.

“The glass is crying,” her daughter says, looking up from her measuring.

“I suppose it is,” says her mother.


“Tell me what you think, precious.” She holds the glass out toward her daughter. More drips fall onto the weathered gray floor. Her daughter stands on tiptoes, careful not to lose her place halfway to the flower box, just next to the stairs that point down at a cracked sidewalk.

Each drop is a black spot on the floor.

“I think…” The balls of the little girl’s feet land back on the porch, inviting a mouse-like squeak from the floorboards. She rises up on her toes again and stares at the glass, then at the spots.

“It’s sad about the spotted tiger,” she says, then resumes her measuring.

Her mother laughs a single laugh. “What spotted tiger?” She sets the glass on the wide arm of a whitewashed chair, then folds her hands in her lap.

“Eleventy,” says the young girl.


“Eleventy wriggles. That’s how many to the flower box.”

“Tell me more about the spotted tiger,” says her mother.

The little girl points to the fading spots on the porch floor. “The glass is crying because the spotted tiger is going away.”

Her mother smiles. She sees it, too.

“Where is it going?”

The girl fidgets with the bow on the front of her pink and white polka-dot dress. She tugs at the hem, studying it. She opens her mouth to share an epiphany, then closes it. She lets go of her dress, laces her fingers together just like her mother and looks over at the spotted tiger, all but gone in the afternoon heat.

“To heaven,” she says. Then she looks up at her mother’s face, thin and pale, painted by the patterned shadows of her lacy hat. “Do you have to wear that hat?” she asks.

“It helps,” she answers. “But I can take it off if you like.”

“No,” says the girl. “It helps.”

Her mother wants another sip of tea, but she does not move her hands.

“I’m going to measure something else,” says the girl. “From the flower box to mommy.” She begins her shuffle walk again, whispering numbers learned and imagined. One, two, three, four, slevin, ornty. Her mother coughs once, twice, three times, and then again. The girl looks up, but keeps on measuring, matching her steps in rhythm with the rasps from her mother’s throat.

The shuffle steps become full strides until, in one final lunge, the girl presses herself up against her mother’s knees. They feel like doorknobs against her tiny chest. She wraps her arms around them anyway, and hugs her mother’s legs, resting her head in her lap. Yellow bangs fall in front of her eyes and she looks sideways at the sweating glass as if through the hanging branches of a weeping willow.

“How many wriggles,” her mother asks between coughs. “From the flowers to mommy?”

“I stopped counting,” she says. Water continues to bead down the glass, pooling at the bottom. A tiny river forms and snakes down the chair’s bent arm. When it reaches the back edge, a single drop forms, hangs on for a moment, then drips to the floor. She waits for another. She waits a long time, counting again in her head, this time trying her hardest to use only learned numbers. When she gets to nine, a second drop falls.

“Mommy?” she asks, still holding tight to her mother’s legs.

Her mother coughs a “yes?”

“The chair is crying, too,” she says.

“Is it sad about the tiger?”

“No,” she says. “It’s sad about you.”

Her mother catches her breath and holds it. She runs her fingers through her daughter’s blonde locks, brushing them away from blue eyes like stars, always so full of questions. Except now. Now they hold an answer.

“I’m going to miss you, mommy,” she says.

“Oh precious.” Her mother bends forward to kiss the top of her only daughter’s head. The lacy ribbons from her hat brush the girls’ neck, tickling her. The girl shivers, but does not giggle.

“Will you take care of him?” she asks her mother.


“The spotted tiger.”

“Yes, I will.”

“When you go to heaven.”

“When I go to heaven.”

The world pauses. Everything listens. Even the quiet holds its tongue. Then, the girl speaks. Her voice is a song she hasn’t yet learned.



“How many wriggles is it from here to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” her mother says. “But it’s always just the right number.”

The girl lets go of her mother’s legs and straightens up. She looks down at their feet and thinks about how much growing she will have to do before she can wear her mother’s shoes.

“I think it’s nine,” the girl says. Then she smiles and her eyes go back to asking questions.

“Nine wriggles,” her mother says.

The girl turns and skips to the middle of the porch. She lines her toes up along the top of the steps, glances over at her mother, then leaps down to the sidewalk.

Her dress is a parachute. She laughs. Her mother coughs.

Another drop of water rolls down the arm of the chair and waits before it falls.

Bad Words and Angels

It would be several months before Hilary began to consider she had been in the right place at the right time, rather than the worst possible place she could imagine. But as the heat of a small girl’s life melted into the cold of certain death, all she had was one word.

“Fuck,” she said in a whisper that came out like a shout.

“What’s your name?” asked the little girl. She was curled up on the side of the road. The fetal position.

“Hilary,” she said.

“My mama says that word is bad, Miss Hilary,” said the girl.

“Well, your mama is right. But sometimes a bad word is the only kind that fits.”

“Like when you spill your slushy?”

Hilary looked at the little girl’s left hand, still grasping a tall paper cup. It was crushed like that steel beer can in the movie Jaws. Hilary measured the girl’s determination against Quint’s display of strength and decided the little girl was the stronger of the two.

“Yeah, like then,” said Hilary. Jaws. Why the hell am I thinking about Jaws? Jaws of life would make more sense. She thought of the crash described in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. A horrific accident. A thought swept through her head like a rogue wave. Or a prayer. I’ll take a head-on collision in trade for saving this girl’s life.

She listened for the sound of an oncoming vehicle, calculated the time it would take to run across the street, get in her still idling Jeep, and accelerate to an appropriate collision speed. Then she thought of the other driver. Would he swerve? And what about his family. No, that wouldn’t be fair. I’ll hit a tree instead.

But there were no trees. And no vehicles on the two-lane country road.

Just the drone of a small airplane. She willed the airplane to become a medical helicopter. It did not.

“Thanks,” said the girl. “My name is Courtney.” Her words came out as gravel. Hilary ran her fingers through Courtney’s curly blond hair. She thought of her own daughter, Tilly, imagined her drawing elaborate scenes on the driveway with sidewalk chalk. There would be at least one unicorn. Probably two, so the first one wouldn’t get lonely.

Get off the driveway, Tilly! Go inside where it’s safe. Please Tilly. Stay inside forever.

“Courtney. That’s a beautiful name.”

“I like Veronica better. I always wanted to be Veronica.”

“Well, then, Veronica. It’s good to meet you. Do you know that Courtney girl? I think she’s really pretty.”

Courtney gurgled a laugh.

“I spilled my slushy,” said Courtney.

“I spill things all the time,” said Hilary. Was that the right thing to say?

“I think I spilled it on my dress. My mama won’t like that.”

“She’ll understand…”

“My mama gets real mad when I do something bad.”

“Honey…you didn’t do anything...”

“How come everything’s blurry?” asked Courtney. Her eyes were swollen shut.

“It’s just a blurry sorta day,” said Hilary. And it really was, so that wasn’t a lie. She reached for the girl’s right hand and held it.

“I’m cold, Miss Hilary.”

Hilary pictured the blanket in her trunk. It would still be covered with dirt and pine needles and that huge mustard stain in the shape of Gorbachev’s birthmark. She meant to wash it last week.

Shit. I left a load of laundry in the washing machine. I’ll need to run it again. Mike is going to be pissed.

She slipped off her sweater. Her favorite sweater – the moss green one that knew her curves better than her husband’s hands. She placed it gently over the girl’s body. The sweater would be ruined. She’d never find another one like it. People would call it an act of kindness. She would smile and nod, then miss the sweater more than she knew she should.

“My head hurts,” said Courtney.”

“You hit it when you fell down,” said Hilary. When that asshole in the pickup truck ran you over.

“It hurts…a…lot.” Courtney’s speech was slowing.

“I have a blanket in my car. I could make it into a nice pillow…”

“No…don’t go.”

“Okay. I won’t. Someone will find us soon, anyway. Someone who can help.”

Just then Hilary remembered where she’d left her cell phone. It was on the kitchen counter next to the grocery list she had also forgotten in her rush to get to the bank before it closed. Chicken breasts, breath mints, skim milk, some sort of cheese…what was that cheese…

“I think…I want to say a bad word,” said Courtney.

Gouda? No. Not goat’s milk. A soft cheese. Something to stuff in the chicken breasts along with…along with…pancetta. Yes. That’s on the list, too.

“Miss Hillary?” asked Courtney.

It starts with a “B.” Bulimia. No, of course not. Brie? Not brie.

“Miss Hilary?” she asked again.

Boursin! That’s it.

“Yes…Courtney?” Hilary noted that she sounded exactly like a teacher acknowledging a child’s raised hand that had been hovering in the air for so long it would have demanded steadying by another.

“Veronica…,” Courtney corrected.


“I want to say a bad word….but…is there one that’s…not so bad?”

“Yes. Damn isn’t so bad.”


“I’m so sorry it hurts, Veronica.”

“You…you won’t tell my mama…will you? About the…bad word?”

“No. I won’t.”

“Or the slushy?”


“Thanks.” The word was an exhale. Then after a long moment of eerie silence, “Miss Hilary?”


“Are you my angel?”

The sound of an oncoming car stole her answer. Then, the crunch of tires on gravel. A car door. Footsteps. Frantic voices. Dial 911. Had she said those words? Had the stranger in the yellow tie?

“She’s not breathing,” said the stranger. He pushed Hilary out of the way and dropped to his knees.

He grabbed Hilary’s hand. “Put pressure right here, on her leg,” he shouted. She felt flesh and blood and rocks and bone. The man started breathing into Courtney’s mouth, then pressing against her tiny chest. If this was a loving act, it was the most brutal loving act she could imagine.

Minutes passed. Minutes and hours and days and a lifetime.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. His tie was no longer yellow.

Hilary began to cry. The sirens came eventually. But much too late.

For the next few months, she cried every time she heard a siren. And sometimes, merely at the sight of her daughter.

“Are you crying about that little girl again?” Tilly asked once.

“Yes,” she answered through blurry eyes.

“I don’t feel like crying right now, but if I did, I would cry with you,” Tilly said. Then she put her hand on her mother’s.

“Thank you, Tilly,” said Hilary.

“Sometimes it’s okay just to be next to someone when they’re sad, isn’t it?” Tilly asked.

“Sometimes that’s all you can do,” said Hilary. Her words came out in a whisper, hovered between them like a mist, then tickled her daughter’s lips into a kind smile.

Yes I am, Veronica. Yes I am.

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.

All That Glitters

There was glitter on the back of his left hand. Not craft glitter. The kind found in little girls’ makeup. And hers.

He rubbed at it.

She defied convention and logic in a thousand ways he loved, and a thousand he despised. Today had been a relentless avalanche of the latter, the result of which sent him to this moment when he doubted everything – their past, their present...their future.

It had begun with her denial of his bedtime advances. Technically, they began before the new day had – at eleven thirty seven. But they continued well past midnight, so he considered this the first offense of the new day. Of course he understood her reasons – he always understood.

“Of course I understand, baby.” But don’t you see how much I want you right now?

He didn’t say the second thing. He only thought it, but he was certain she’d heard his thoughts because she always heard his thoughts. The fact that she didn’t acknowledge them but simply rolled over and hugged her body pillow became the second offense.

Offense isn’t the right word.

She’s not committing crimes against anyone. But it’s the first word that came to mind when he started thinking about how things were progressing (beginning right around eleven thirty eight the night before) and he couldn’t seem to come up with a suitable replacement. He’d tried “annoyance” and “quirk” but neither of those seemed right either. So he stuck with “offense”. He initially felt guilty about this, but convinced himself that since it’s a word he’d never speak aloud to her, it wasn’t so horrible.

He rubbed at the glitter again, and it seemed to multiply. Now it was on the back of his left hand and the fingertips of his right.

When morning sunlight had streamed in through the skylight to spotlight her side of the bathroom vanity, he counted at least three offenses – a toothbrush still dripping foamy toothpaste onto the countertop, dusty spills of eye makeup painting pink clouds around the bowl of the sink, long brown hairs peeking out from the drain – but then reduced them to a single offense he gave the name “the price of beautiful.”

The cookie he grabbed as he raced out the door disintegrated when he took a bite and some of the crumbs flew down his shirt. He didn’t notice this until that night when he changed into sweats and a t-shirt, after hours of scratching at what he imagined were phantom bugs nipping at the half dozen or so hairs on his chest. (He only ate that first bite of the cookie, then tossed the remaining pieces, save those chest-hugging crumbs, into the tall grass next to the garage. It was a butterscotch chip cookie. His favorite, when they weren’t burned on the bottom.)

A computer called him while he was in a board meeting. He listened to the message an hour later while racing down the hallway to the men’s room.

“This is a courtesy call from First Federal Bank. Your checking account is overdrawn…”

“Thank God for overdraft protection,” he said aloud, though his throat tightened on the word “overdraft” (because he was trying to figure out what she’d forgotten to write in the checkbook) rendering it as little more than a grunt, prompting a strange look from Bill who was standing at the leftmost urinal. Bill zipped, flushed, washed his hands and left without a word.

The middle urinal was spotless. No one ever used the middle urinal.

This reminded him of an offense he hadn’t yet noted from the morning. The toilet water was blue again. She knew he hated those blue drippy things.

“But they were on sale,” she said while brushing her hair. Over the sink.

He thought about adding her “sale excuse” to the list, too, but her bargain-mindedness almost always tipped the positive side of the scale. So he didn’t.

The drive home was typically long and stressful. He called to talk with her just as he merged onto the highway, but dropped the phone when he had to scratch at the bugs and honk at the idiot in the H3 who hadn’t yet discovered the turn signal lever.

When he finally picked up the phone, she was still talking as if he had been listening all along and when he asked her to repeat what she’d just said, he heard a familiar sigh – the one that made him feel three inches shorter than his already short 5’9” frame.

“I’m sorry, I dropped the phone,” he’d said. She apologized, too, but an apology doesn’t erase the history of a sigh, so he included that in his tally.

Dinner looked and smelled great. But the mess in the kitchen reduced his appetite from “ravenous” to “just hungry.” There was flour everywhere, including on her cheek. He did some of the kitchen cleanup before sitting down to eat. He brushed the flour from her face. She smiled politely, like a stranger smiles at someone attempting a good deed, and barely said a word.

Monday Night Football always took precedence over Scrabble. They could play Scrabble the other six nights a week. Well, five, when the NFL channel hosted a Thursday night game. (“Look, honey, at least I’m not watching on Sunday nights. There are games on Sunday nights, you know. And I’m not watching them.”) But she pouted and shuffled off into her computer room to sulk anyway. He nursed a beer, scratched his chest again, this time imagining phantom cookie crumbs, and probably burped once without saying “excuse me.” (To be fair, he noted this – and his angst about the messy kitchen – on a second list of offenses he was keeping track of for his wife’s benefit.)

It was nearly eleven when he turned off the TV and wandered into the bedroom. She was already in bed, sitting up, leaning her back against the headboard, reading something by Anita Shreve. Again. He undressed, climbed in beside her and grabbed The Tipping Point from the bedside table.

That’s when he noticed the glitter on the back of his hand.

By now, there was glitter everywhere. Not much – but enough to notice. It was on the back of his hand, his fingers, and, though he couldn’t see it, on his right earlobe.

He looked at her. There wasn’t a trace of glitter on her face. No evidence of any makeup at all and yet somehow she still glowed. She looked up from the book, reached over and brushed something from his ear. He saw the gold sparkles on her fingers.

“If you think happy thoughts, you can fly,” she said, and rubbed the glitter onto his forehead.

He looked into her gold-flecked eyes and forgot everything on his list. He kissed her. And she kissed him back.

What This Is