Short Stories

(printed in Gila River Review. 2012 ©  All rights reserved.)

They’re Just Kids

“Shit,” Ramon mumbled as he unwound himself from the crumpled sheets and stumbled across the room. He didn’t bother to look at the screen of his cell phone; simply pressed Reply.

“What’s up, Sharon?” he said when his secretary answered.

“The Superintendent wants to meet with you at eight this morning, his office. His secretary called so I don’t know much more than that, but she did say to bring a student file. Kid named James Thornton. Know him?”

“Afraid so — I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Years of experience as a high school principal had trained him not to worry until there was reason to do so, but something about this made him uneasy. He was rarely called to the superintendent’s office except for weekly principal meetings. And, he thought, if it weren’t serious, they’d have waited until I had the school day rolling to call.

As Ramón carefully shaved around his narrow beard, he assessed his reflection. There was no doubt he looked all of his fifty years, a paunch around the middle, a few gray strands creeping into the wiry black hair he kept closely cropped. Every other Saturday he had a standing appointment at the only Hispanic barbershop in town. Forget the other hundred reasons he missed Texas, he had no trouble getting a good haircut in San Antonio.

As the only Hispanic principal in a decidedly Caucasian school district, Ramón was reminded of two things on a daily basis; how fortunate and blessed his life had been, and how quickly that could be taken from him. Education had changed over the years, and there was no such thing as job security at any level. He had seen principals come and go with little reason.

Fifteen minutes later Ramón threw his briefcase and laptop onto the passenger seat and climbed into the cab of his new truck. He had never owned a brand new vehicle. It was his pride and joy, and he breathed in the new car smell and smiled as he turned the key.

Ramón glanced at his watch — a quarter to seven. He had time to grab a quick drive-through coffee. He phoned his secretary as he waited in line. “Sharon, I’m stopping by school to get the files on this kid. Can you have them ready? I need the cumulative folder, discipline, and anything else you can find.”

Ramón had recognized the name immediately. He had suspended the kid over a week ago for bringing a knife to school. He was certain his assistant principal had followed all procedures, including the letter home when they couldn’t reach a parent. If everything was in order, this might be resolved quickly. Ten minutes later Ramón parked in the school drop-off zone and ran inside.

“Morning,” Sharon said as she handed off the stack of folders.

He glanced briefly at each. Absent thirty days out of the possible ninety. Numerous phone calls placed to both parents, though they appeared to be two different house-holds. Four schools in five years. Should have graduated last year, very few completed credits and mostly D’s in those. No sign of special needs. But when Ramón opened the last file, he knew he was dealing with a troubled kid. Though new this year, Thornton had already received detentions and short suspensions six times. The knife incident, an obvious “weapon on campus” violation, had resulted in a full nine-day, off- campus suspension. But all the documents seemed to be in order.

“Thanks Sharon. Guess I’ll go face the firing squad.” The pun fell flat.

The district office was only five miles from school, but Ramón left himself plenty of time to get there early. As he drove, the gnawing feeling in his gut worsened. Everything had been handled properly; there was nothing to be concerned about. And yet, there had to be something more, and he didn’t have a clue what that might be.

Sitting across from the superintendent, Ramón listened as the wall clock ticked behind him. The moment of silence seemed interminable. Finally, George Billings leaned forward, elbows on the arms of his chair, hands folded in front and looked directly into Ramón’s eyes.

“This isn’t easy for me, Ramón,” he said, “but as you know I have to take any allegation that reaches my desk very seriously. If you want your union rep here you can go ahead and phone him, or we can just talk about it together first, your call.”

One word shot through Ramón’s head, No. Shifting forward in his chair he said, “Well, let me hear you out first, unless you think I need a personal attorney.” He smiled in a futile attempt to lighten the mood. Unfortunately the superintendent’s response did nothing to alleviate the bowling ball stuck in his stomach.

“Well, I hope it doesn’t come to that but I’d keep it in mind. Want to start by showing me everything you have in that briefcase?”

“Hmm,” he said after looking over the files, “This may help us actually.”

“Us?” Ramón asked.

George Billings passed a hand-written note across the desk for Ramón to read.  Hands shaking, Ramón placed the one-sentence death knell back on the desk. Bile rose in his throat as he read the final words, “I was physically assaulted by the principal of Anderson High School”.

“Administrative leave until this is cleared up, Ramón. I have no choice. You can go back to work today and get things in order. Luckily it’s Friday, but if I were you, I’d structure next week’s schedule for your staff to handle.”

Ramon drove back to school as slowly as he could. God damn, he thought, what the hell?  Questions flooded his mind. Why would this kid…  His anger kicked in at the district. Sure, they’ll get an attorney; I’ll get an attorney; their attorney will meet with mine and all the while the district will be protecting their ass and leaving me hung out to dry. He knew how it worked.

Ramón often wondered if he’d have advanced further and more quickly had he stayed in Texas. Though he claimed to be content with his current position, he always returned from his frequent visits home and told anyone who would listen how much he missed his big family and how wonderful his little stinky town was, though he joked there were more dogs than people there now. His heart was there, his roots were there, and he wished he were there right now.

***

“Thornton!” his boss yelled across the busy room, “Get your ass in here and get this food out to people. What are you doing? Picking your nose? Move it!”

James had been on the job a week now and though nothing came out of his mouth, he was thinking pretty loudly. Ass-hole, yourself, old man. What the fuck do you know anyway? You think you got problems? Shit-hole place to work. Picking up the food from the warming tray between the kitchen and the diner, James chuckled. I could put my finger up my butt and into this old guy’s food if I wanted. See how he likes being shut down for food poisoning. He wasn’t good at his job and he knew it, but it paid enough for food and gas, and with his dad having bailed and his mother shacked up with some crack-head, he had nowhere to crash except the back seat of his car. The suspension had been perfectly timed. He had gotten this job the very next day after seeing the Help Wanted sign in the window of the café. His suspension was nine days, school days. So by the end of this week, he’d have to decide to return or keep working full-time.

A smile crossed his lips as he went back for the next order. Wonder if they’ve called him in yet? Bet they have. He considered driving by the school just to see if Mr. G’s truck was on campus. May have just gotten rid of the mother-fucker; but he knew there would have to be a hearing or court or something like that. He would be hard to reach with no phone, and his dad’s old rental house had been locked down when he left town. Even James couldn’t break in; he had tried the first night when he needed a place to sleep and piss. Well, that’s all right, he thought. I may just make a call and go to them instead. He knew the superintendent’s office had his letter by now. It may not have been some fancy lawyer letter, but his hand-written note was good enough. His allegations, though they were lies, were enough to destroy the man. He was happy; he was getting back at someone; someone owed him something, didn’t they? Didn’t someone need to be punished for this crap life?

***

A half hour later, a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in one hand, Ramón stopped at Sharon’s desk. She had been with him for five years, was indispensable, and always had his back. The head guy was always the scapegoat, but Sharon allowed no one to criticize Ramón in front of her. She was the gatekeeper to his office even though he made it difficult with his open door policy. Still, no one saw Mr. G without going through Sharon first. Her desk was constantly filled with bribes of candy, cutesy pens and pencils, and new additions to her pig collection. Smiling, Sharon said, “Welcome back” and handed him a stack of messages.

“I need to see you in my office,” Ramón said curtly, making no eye contact. He glanced around to see who might be watching.

Sharon’s brows knitted with concern as she followed him into his office. Ramón spent the next hour with Sharon and the few staff who needed to know the situation. He was tempted to tell them he was taking some personal time, but he wasn’t naive. This could hit the evening news as early as 4:30, and everyone would know it was an administrative leave. So why bother glossing it over? He was candid and brief and quickly declined any words of support or empathy. He wasn’t about to “go there”.

At lunch Ramón made his daily walk around campus. He wouldn’t let the students see him any differently today. Outside the cafeteria, students lounged about or sat on the metal picnic tables in the courtyard.

He nodded at a tall thin kid. “Brad, great game last night! I expect state this year, ok?”

He spotted one of the senior girls sitting with her group of friends and asked if she’d applied for the scholarship he’d mentioned last week. “I will, I promise,” she said

Each year Ramón prided himself that every student knew his name and his face by the end of the first nine weeks. More families were relocating to the southwest from Mexico and there was a constant rotation of faces and names, but he made it a point to know them all. He was visible, vigilant: nothing would happen on his watch.

When he returned to the office Sharon handed him his afternoon schedule.

“You have two teacher evals this afternoon and a parent meeting right after school,” she reminded him. “Can I do anything for you?”

He smiled. “Yeah, you can ward off the wolves for a half hour.”

He settled into the leather chair behind his desk and looked out the one small square of window at the blacktopped parking lot as his thoughts took him back home.

 

Ramón had been born in Texas in the 1950’s, the first-born male child after a long line of six girls. Then as luck would have it, another five boys followed. The age-spread made it just possible to raise twelve children in a small six-room frame house in the tiny town thirty miles from the big city of San Antonio. The children of immigrant Mexicans, Ramón’s parents had grown up in south Texas. Although his parents spoke Spanish in the home, Ramón was required to speak English at all times. When his colleagues commented that he spoke to his Spanish speakers in their native language he laughed. “That’s not Spanish. That’s Tex-Mex, and I just use it to make them think I know what they’re saying. Keeps them from lying to me.”

Ramón’s father owned the only auto repair shop thirty miles one direction and fifty miles the other, so the business stayed steady even though the money wasn’t great. Ramón had learned early on how to work with his hands. His father had wanted him to stay and take over the business, but all of Mama G’s boys knew their futures included college and professional success.

The day Ramón left for California was both the happiest and the saddest day of his life. At eighteen he had to make a decision to stay and follow in his father’s footsteps or follow his mother’s dreams. He made the choice and didn’t look back, joining one of his sisters in Los Angeles, the only other sibling who made it across that Texas state line.

Sharon popped in at two o’clock. “Mrs. Jones is expecting her eval,” she reminded him.

He nodded his head in response; then shook it side to side. “Pretty unbelievable, huh?”

“It’s surreal,” she said. “You follow every rule “to a ‘T’. How often have you said, ‘Every day I have to prove myself?’ No one will believe this. He’ll have to ‘fess up.”

“Unfortunately no one can find the kid to even question him.”

“Aren’t the police looking for him as a runaway?”

“Can’t; no parent to even file it as a case. If he weren’t on school records, no one would probably even be looking for him. We know he was here and now he isn’t; but that’s about it. I just talked to my attorney. The allegations are clear, there are no witnesses, and even though it’s the kid’s word against mine, I’m an educator.” And, Ramón thought, we’re held to a higher standard. Our reputations can be impugned with one short sentence.

Sharon wanted to reach out to touch his shoulder, but she knew he’d resist. “I’m here if you need anything,” she said and returned to her desk.

Ramón bit his bottom lip; then dropped his head into his hands, silently praying Our Father… No one could know the despair with which he prayed. He filled the remainder of the day with paperwork, phone calls and the scheduled appointments. Each time his office phone rang he cringed, dreading a call from a colleague who might have heard about his situation through the rumor mill. He stopped by the JV game, knowing he’d better enjoy every moment of normalcy while he could.

***

James wrapped himself in a ragged dirty blanket he’d found in the trunk of his car.  The back seat of his beat-up Chevy was a foot too short to sleep comfortably. He turned on his side and pulled his legs to his chest. One week as a waiter had left his back aching and his feet in permanent cramps. As he drifted toward sleep, his last day at school played out in his head.

He sat on top of a turquoise metal picnic table outside the cafeteria, his feet resting on the seat below. James had been in Phoenix for seven months, a misfit at his fourth school in five years and a year older than the other seniors. As always he’d eventually slipped into a surface acceptance by a small group of Goths and Skaters who stood around the lunch table today shooting the shit and trying to “out-story” each other. Paulie, his only friend, had laughed and punched James in the shoulder.
“Get out….” Paulie joked. “You never got in her pants!” Paulie grinned, and the two girls sitting on the table beside James groaned.

“Pervs,” one of them said.

Paulie punched at James again, air boxing to get him to react.

“Stop it, man,” James said. A slight grin mixed with his look of annoyance. He wadded the paper wrapper from his hamburger and threw it at Paulie. “I mean it, man, stop it,” he said as Paulie took another swipe at his rib cage. James picked up the cup of orange slush and threw it as hard as he could. It missed Paulie by a foot and landed just shy of the high school principal who turned quickly and met his eyes.

James tensed and noted that the man had looked past every other student and directly at him, as if he had a sign on his shirt saying, I did it.

“You wanna pick that up?” Mr. G. said.  His tone was gruff but not unkind.

“Didn’t do it,” James said.

Mr. G nodded slightly. “Didn’t do it? James, I saw you do it. Pick it up!”

Paulie and the girls moved slowly off the table and to one side.

“I said, pick it up and throw it in the trash can, James,” each word a staccato.

Heads began to turn in his direction, and James felt an old rage rising in his gut. He rose from the table and stood menacingly in front of authority.

“Pick it up, yourself,” James said.

Mr. G pressed the button on his hand radio and called for Security. Alice, the female guard, stood less than twelve feet away. She moved quickly, and each table of students grew silent, all heads now turned toward the altercation.

James knew the routine all too well. His upper lip curled slightly; his hands tensed at his side. Mr. G glanced at Alice, who now stood beside him, but he hesitated, hoping to see James bend to pick up the mess.

James took a step toward the principal, hands knotted into fists, and the guard said, “Don’t do it, James.”

Mr. G lowered his voice and his gaze. He stepped slightly to his left and nodded for the security guard to take over. “Take him in.”

“Asshole,” James sputtered between clenched teeth, “why is it always me?”

Alice motioned for James to walk in front of her, ready to take physical action if needed.  James was aware of a hundred sets of eyes following him. His face reddened, his eyes swept the crowd daring anyone to speak, and he walked slowly toward the office, the guard now at his side. His old man would get another call now. School detention was nothing compared to what awaited him at home.

James stopped for a second and the guard tensed. Oh, shit, he thought as he remembered the knife in his back pocket.

Alice led James into the office of the assistant principal in charge of discipline and briefly explained the situation. In the next two minutes James emptied his pockets inside out as ordered, raised his pant legs and was patted down. The three inch pocket knife sat among a wad of one dollar bills and a few coins.

The AP noticed his principal standing outside his door and held up the knife.

Mr. G shook his head at James. He looked at his A.P. “Give him the max and show him the door,” he said. “I don’t want to see your face on this campus for ten days, James, and this knife may just put you out for the year.” He turned his back to James and walked away.

James went dead inside. He’d just managed to make a few friends. He wiped his left hand under his nose to wipe away the bead of sweat and lifted his head in defiance as security told him to sit. The AP pulled the usual forms from his drawer and began writing. “Fill in your statement, James,” he said as he handed him the requisite incident report. “I’ll call your parents to come get you. A weapon on campus is cause for suspension. Ten days and a hearing before you can return.”

Inside James triggered rage – that g.d. bastard. A stupid wad of paper.  A cup of ice.  What the hell was wrong with these people? He saw Mr. G walk to his secretary’s desk and glance back at James, and he registered the same anger and disgust in the principal’s eyes that he saw every day his old mans’.

This is not over by a long shot, he silently screamed at the man. He had sliced two of the principal’s tires the week before. He was tired of this bull shit, of being constantly beat up by the system. This time would be the last. He would take this man down. He was sick of adults. My mother’s a crack head and a whore. My old man is a loser. You will pay for this. James grinned, signed his name at the bottom of the page and slid the form across the desk.

***

The district PR department must be working overtime, he thought on Saturday morning after he checked the newspaper and TV news. Ramón had too much time on his hands to think.

His family surrounded him with phone calls and email, but their support had the opposite effect, ripping him apart inside. His innocence didn’t keep him from feeling like a failure in the eyes of his brothers. He asked himself how he could ever go home, and at the same time, wanted to be nowhere else on earth.

The day dragged on and Ramón found himself pacing in his apartment. He took a forty-minute jog, a quick shower, and called his sister in California.

“May I remind you,” Leona said, “we girls were out of the house when you were growing up, Ramón. But the boys worshipped you, and nothing can change that.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, feeling his mood lift a little, “Until they were tall enough to fight me.”  He smiled thinking about those days as the eldest male.

“You set the bar, Ramón, for the all the rest. You worked hard to get where you are. And this too shall pass.”

He wanted to believe that, but what if it didn’t?

He hung up the phone, but Leona’s words stayed with him. Growing up in a barrio isn’t all that bad really, until you get a taste for something different, he thought. When you’re a child, it’s simply home. Like any other kid, he played ball, ran in the fields, rode his bike down to the corner grocer to get a cold Coke on hot afternoons, and there were plenty of those in west Texas.

Dogs were dogs, not pets. They ran free and chased a ball when you decided to throw it to them. The food on your table each night was the best food on earth; only your mama could make food that tasted that good.

You checked out the chicks who came to your dad’s garage needing an oil change or a tire repaired. You hoped to get some before you graduated. You went down to Juarez for long afternoons with your cousins, mixing among the drunks in the bars and the whores on the street. You put up with the teasing that they were going to buy you a piece of ass and make you a man before you headed back home.

He had to agree with Leona. He had been determined. He rode the bus to school and made the best grades he could, hoping and praying for that magic grade point average to get him into college, even a small college, even a community college, hell, even a trade school, anything that would get him out of the barrio. Anything to get him the good life; because suddenly he knew there was something beyond the poverty.

In California he got a taste of the outside world. He went to college on loans and grants, got married, had babies, and became a teacher, a coach, an administrator — on his way to the top. Nothing could stop him. But his career had taken its toll. Theresa, his ex-wife, had left him five years earlier with no warning. He had lost his “family”, the only thing that means anything to a Mexican. Familia. The fact that the kids were with him every other week didn’t make up for the loss of the family unit, not in his eyes. He was dirt poor after the divorce, barely able to pay for his one bedroom apartment and the truck. He had followed the dream but where had it gotten him? What had it gotten him?

On Sunday morning Ramón awoke at six o’clock and immediately grabbed the paper outside his apartment door. It wasn’t front-page news, but half way through Section A, he saw the headline: “Anderson High School Principal under Investigation.”

His jaw clenched in anger and his stomach heaved. I guess everyone in the district will read it today if they haven’t already heard it through the grape-vine, he thought. I should have stayed a teacher and a coach. I never had any desire to be in a position of power.

Within a half hour, Theresa called. I’m keeping the kids for the next two weeks; I don’t want them having to deal with this mess.”

Ramón cursed under his breath but he knew it was useless to argue. He couldn’t deny it. No matter how this was resolved, innocent or not, his career was going to be affected, had already been decided. It simply remained to be seen what that would mean. You didn’t walk away from something like this unscathed. And what it was doing to his kids; he couldn’t think about it. Life had already changed. It would never be the same.

On Monday, Ramón phoned work to check in periodically. “Every news station and paper in the city has been calling for a response,” Sharon told him. “We just keep referring them to district.”

That afternoon he was intently working at his computer when his phone rang. He was surprised to hear Dr. Billings’ voice instead of a secretary patching him through.

“Sure, I can be there as soon as you need me. Half hour? Yes, that’s fine.”

He imagined the scene as he walked through the doors of the administrative building. They were meeting in the conference room, so there would be a long oval cherry wood table with numerous padded black leather chairs filled with attorneys, superintendent, assistant superintendents, school board members and God only knew who else. He felt shorter than his 5’5” frame but held himself tall, taking one last breath before opening the door.

The room was empty except for the three people sitting at the far end of the conference table. Ramón took a chair on the opposite side and waited silently.

“You recognize this young man?” Dr. Billings asked.

“I guess I do, yes,” Ramón replied. “How are you James?”

He reached his hand across the wide table to shake the hand of the thin, rumpled, childlike young man who sat before him. James wasn’t sure what to do, but he nodded at

Ramón and then slowly reached his hand forward to accept the large muscular grasp of the man he had most definitely harmed; had nearly destroyed.

Dr. Billings addressed the man sitting beside James, “and this is Mr. Fred Jackson. Fred owns the diner where James has been working. He and his wife have agreed to take James into their home if he agrees to return to school and if he is honest with us today. He hesitated for a brief moment. “James has something to tell us . . .  so James, can you give us the basics?”

James straightened from a slump and pushed forward in his chair. He swiped his long hair out of his eyes and began. “That day, when you caught me throwing food outside the cafeteria, and you told me to pick it up and put it in the trash?” His voice was tentative and low.

Ramón nodded.

“Well, when I refused, you got in my face, man; right in front of my friends, you know? And then you went off on me and said, ‘how’d you like to have security haul your butt into the office?’ Shit, man, you embarrassed me – you pissed me off. Why’d you do that?”

Ramón watched as James became more agitated, but he sat quietly and waited.

“Then when they hauled me into Mr. Rankin’s office, he found the knife. You remember that, Mr. G? You said, ‘Give him the max and show him the door’.”

At 4:00 p.m. Ramon walked into school and Sharon gasped. He motioned for her to follow him and closed his office door.

“What happened? Why are you here?” she said.

“Kid had a change of heart. Seems like living on the street wasn’t so good. Thornton’s boss found out he was sleeping in his car, and he and his wife have taken him in.”

“And what about the parents?” she asked.

“The authorities located the dad in New Mexico by phone; he refused to come back to parent him. The mother seems happier with her drug selling junky boyfriend than with her son.”

“The kid is pretty damaged,” Ramón added. “He’s coming back to school. His boss is keeping him on part-time at the diner. He’s thin and still looks like a kicked puppy, but I think he stands a chance with this couple if he stays around long enough.”

“But I still don’t understand, Ramón,” Sharon said. “Those were terrible things to say about you. And how can you just sit there so calmly and talk about this as if nothing happened to YOU?”

“He lashed all of his anger at me in order to, as he said, ‘call you out in front of your friends, give you the max and show you the door.’ And that brings us to here.” He hesitated. “All charges dropped.”

Sharon looked into Ramón’s eyes and knew there was more. He gave no outward sign of being either relieved or happy about the outcome. “But?” she asked.

“But I can’t stay here, Sharon. They aren’t about to keep me where I am after the allegations, and protocol is to assign me to some trumped up position at the district office. I won’t do it.”

“Texas?” she asked, knowing the answer before he could speak.

“Shit, I hate that boy! I hate this. How can you sit there so calmly and just accept this as your fate? How can you be so damned forgiving?”

“They’re kids, Sharon; they’re just kids. And it’s our job to teach them, no matter where that is.”

_________________________

 

(Published in the anthology, Grandmother, Mother and Me (memories, poetry and good food) Hidden Brook Press, 2012 ©)

Chocolate Fixes Anything 

I looked nothing like my mother. My father’s genes were the stronger. Wanda was tall and thin, blond and hazel-eyed. I was my father’s daughter, or so I thought—short, brunette, bushy eyebrows set above large brown eyes.

I was quiet and introspective, given to bouts of dark moods, and often a loner. I took pride in that for years. It made me feel somehow mysterious. My mother’s gregarious, outgoing personality, and her insistence on telling total strangers everything she was thinking, embarrassed me. I had no desire to become her. I hated her smelly ashtrays, her constant chatter, her endless cups of coffee and her large costume jewelry.

Then one afternoon at my dad’s 80th birthday bash, one of my mother’s friends found me at the punch bowl and exclaimed, “You look just like your mother. Doesn’t she, Maxine, doesn’t she look just like Wanda?” Was she suffering from dementia or perhaps cataract affected vision? I wondered. I smiled politely, patted her hand and told her how nice she looked. “You haven’t changed a bit either,” I said.

For weeks after that, her remarks left a million questions rattling around in my head. I kept glancing in the mirror trying to conjure whatever essence of my mother she had seen. It slowly came into focus, all the lessons absorbed into my being without my notice. I had hosted the party for my dad and entertained “Wanda-style” the many guests I hadn’t seen in years. I chatted and smiled in my one good dress and heard my mother whisper, “I told you, a scarf can make any dress look new.”

My brown eyes faded to her shade of hazel following the birth of my son—the red-haired boy my mother said I’d have. She shared this prediction from her hospital bed. She was fifty-seven and dying from lymphoma. I was thirty-two and pregnant with my second child. I simply shook my head, patted her hand and smiled. I’d already named this baby Angelina.

Eighteen weeks later, as my obstetrician held up a tiny screaming baby boy, he noted my shocked and stricken face and said, “I can’t put him back, mom.” We all had a good laugh, and I heard my mother chortle above my bed in the delivery room. “I believe I told you so,” she said crisply.

In those thirty-two years, my mother implanted herself solidly. After her friends’ observations, I began to see her legacy quite clearly.

Her lessons were many:

* One good dress is better than a dozen cheap ones. I have taken that to heart.

* Save as long as it takes to get the expensive piece of furniture. Ditto! I started with Drexler and antiques. My new home looks like a Pottery Barn display.

* A Democrat can live with a Republican. Been there, done that (twice unfortunately).

* Parent with a decent helping of discipline mixed with unconditional love. My two wonderful adult children are living proof of that.

* Women are better drivers. I fly down the freeway as freely as she did the highway between Oklahoma and Kansas.

* Everything tastes better fried, and chocolate cake can fix anything. I love frying chicken and making cream gravy, although my age and digestive system don’t tolerate it so well now. Each year I make my mother’s chocolate cake. I learned recently that it is often called Texas Sheet Cake. Being from Oklahoma, she sort of left out that Texas part.

I learned the most important lessons early on, subliminally. As a young girl I watched my mother sit with her best friend and neighbor, Betty, as they drank coffee and smoked cigarettes, complained about husbands and bragged about kids. I rode with her to her friend, Maxine’s, house and watched them chat for hours, saw them laugh while they shopped the Montgomery Ward catalogue and support each other through daily trials.

When my parents’ friends, Claude and Virginia, came over in the evenings, the women would quietly slip from the family room into the bedroom, leaving the men to talk “golf” and “cars”. I’d wander down the hall shortly after and settle on the floor as the two women sat on the bed and talked about the important issues of “life”. Years later I watched them sit together on my sofa, holding hands and hugging during my mom’s last stages of cancer and chemo—not knowing she’d be gone within the next few weeks.

“Women friends are the most precious gift God gives us,” she told me. “Treasure them and treat them well.” Virginia sat by her side daily until my sister and I took over the death-watch of her last two weeks.

Recently I have spent days and hours sitting with my women friends as they faced cancer and surgeries, knowing that they will be the ones to help me when the time comes in the not so distant future. I wonder at the passing of time and see her nod knowingly.

I often feel short-changed by my mother’s untimely death, but she did show me how to die with dignity. We had an agreement before she passed. We were driving through town to an appointment with her oncologist. If she were to die—although she would NOT – but if—she would tap on the window occasionally to let me know she was still around and to reassure me there was a heaven on the other side.

During the first few months following her funeral, she rang the doorbell. It terrified me late at night, and my husband would go downstairs with a baseball bat as I followed close behind. There was no one there, of course, and he attributed it to a loose wire. Later, the tapping began; infrequently, out of the blue, always at the bedroom window. I would hop out of bed and race to the back patio planning to see a woodpecker sharply tapping at the wooden eave above the bedroom window or a tree limb smacking in the wind. The knocking became less frequent with each move. But not too long ago I heard the tap and didn’t even bother to get up to look. I just rolled over and said, “Hi, Mom, I’m fine,” and went back to sleep.

I have living proof that genetics are stronger than upbringing. I watch my daughter, Michelle, flit around her kitchen like a humming bird, glass of wine in one hand, stirring a pot with the other. She talks and gestures as she tells a story, and when she walks outside for a quick cigarette, I see my mother in every move. Michelle is fun and active, full of chatter and joie de vivre, enjoying life to its fullest. She tilts her head and uses expressions she never had a chance to observe, and she often surprises me by wearing mom’s large clunky pins and necklaces with pride.

Mom must be thrilled at her granddaughter’s closet—her shelves lined with no fewer than a hundred pair of shoes. She’d probably want to wear the four-inch Manolo Blahnik’s. I swear she did housework for years in high heels. I can hear Wanda outside on the patio, smoking with her granddaughter, praising her independence and her career.

Recently I stood at check-out in Macy’s. The jeans I’d chosen were marked thirty per cent off. Plus I had a coupon! I knew mom would be proud. When the sales clerk said, “That comes to $7.36”, my mouth dropped. As she showed me all the mark-downs, I swear I heard mom beside me. “Go girl, I need coffee and a cigarette after that!”

I could have used her help earlier this week. I told my son I’d gladly sew a project for him. Two days later I wondered what I’d been thinking. I kept looking up. “I know you’re laughing at me, mother, so stop.” Mom sewed all of my clothes through fifth grade when I decided “store-bought” was better. Although later, she copied expensive prom and dance dresses we could never afford to buy. I’m sure she was thoroughly embarrassed I couldn’t sew three straight seams without glopping up the bobbin.

Both my sister and I have now lived longer than our mother. Each of our fifty-seventh birthdays was a milestone fraught with worry and concern. Would it be our destiny as well, to leave our own children at such tender ages? Luckily we got our dad’s healthy genes, and that anniversary came and passed. We are intended to live longer.

That is something my mother never got to teach me—how to age gracefully. How to be sixty, or seventy, or eighty. She left that to my dad who lived to ninety-three. So I have had to figure that out on my own, and I do so knowing that she will tap that window again soon to let me know she is keeping me safe. In the meantime, I’m baking chocolate cake because she was absolutely right … chocolate fixes anything!

_____________________________

(Third place, Non-fiction, Mesa Community College contest)

Without Wasted Words

“What was it like growing up in rural Louisiana in the ‘20’s?” It’s only one of the many questions I wish I had asked my dad before he died. My father was an introverted man who rarely spoke about his feelings or his past. He expressed few emotions beyond loud pronouncements regarding politics, his Cadillac or his lousy golf game.

I knew he was a good man and a hard worker; I knew that for some one with a sixth grade education, he provided for us extremely well, and I knew that he had come home from “the war” with memories he relived in dreams most nights.

I remember my father best through the eyes of a camera lens. Boxes of old black and whites, taken with our Kodak Brownie, sit in my office. There are dozens of me as a child with a beaming, proud father kneeling beside me. In the large pile are many group photos of my parents with close friends they visited on Friday nights.

Among them was an older couple who had adopted dad as a young, recently discharged soldier with a wife and infant, struggling to make ends meet, far from his rural Louisiana roots. They lived on the outskirts of our small Oklahoma town and were the closest “grandparents” I had. I spent hours in my pretend world at the old treadle sewing machine while my parents played Canasta with Charlie and Hazel in the next room.

Dad’s tattered, dog-eared albums are filled with photographs of evenings with his work buddies and their wives — card parties, 4th of July’s, lightening-bug-filled evenings where I, an only-child at the time, played frenetically under star-filled skies.

My parents’ closest friends were Dale and Maxine, and our picture albums are full of homing pigeons, chicken coops from the year the “dads” decided to raise their own Sunday dinners, and hand-made wood and wire short-wave radios they had more fun with than we kids. While Dad and Dale won at the card table on Friday nights and the wives chattered, I sat with my best friend and her brother browsing through the “Monkey” Ward catalogue and cutting out paper dolls from magazines.

It seemed like I lived on the fringe of my parents’ lives, and Dad was an important, yet vague apparition moving about my universe like the sun – keeping us fed, clothed, and warm – providing us a roof of shelter, protection, and discipline. Mothers were omnipresent, nurturing, teaching, and loving. In those days, dads were out there keeping the bearings oiled, the brakes working, the tires aired – they were the engines of the family’s life and as such they seemed somewhat foreign and distant.

My father was the “fixer”. He tended broken legs, drove me to the emergency room on a regular basis, and disengaged my right thumb from the mixer blades which he bent with ease. Back then, I thought he could bend steel beams. As my high strung mother reacted frantically to each of these events; my father quietly walked in and took charge.

He sprung open the rollers of the old wringer washer to rescue my little sister’s arm; he wrapped her hand in gauze when she fell through the front glass door and he drove like an ambulance driver to the hospital. He found Mr. Peepers sitting in the tall elm tree out back and put my aqua and white parakeet back in its cage as I cried with relief. He could fix anything around the house and in our lives. Without wasted words.

Dad could sit silently in his worn brown rocker recliner for hours. We listened as Claude, his golfing buddy and best friend, relived each stroke of their afternoon round. Dad’s contribution to the conversation was an occasional nod or grunt.

At some point, his reticence to talk, to share, to be actively involved in my life began to create a wall that I had difficulty breaking through. As most teens do, I began to see myself separate from my parents’ views, resisted my dad’s southern ideas about race and politics and social issues. When I went off to college, I wrote to my mother nearly every day, always adding a post script — say hi to daddy.

After mother died at age fifty-seven, dad seemed to withdraw even further. He focused on surviving as a sixty-year-old widower; involved himself in travel, church groups, even an adult choir, though he couldn’t sing on-key to save his life. He was shy in groups and roomed alone, but he filled album after album with his ventures around the country and an Alaska cruise – the dream trip of his life.

A different man emerges in photos taken with his brothers during our annual family visits to Jena. It was there he seemed most alive — in his element — surrounded by laughter, and fun and Friday night fish fries under the tall Louisiana pines of his childhood. Each evening, before I headed to the kitchen to help with the dinner dishes, I watched as the men left the long rustic wood table on the back porch and retreated to the front where they sat on the horse-hair seats of the old straight back chairs, tipped precariously against the side of the house as they smoked and told tall tales and laughed and cursed and spat. I now wonder if his quiet reserve became a refuge when he returned to the city. I’ll never know – for I never asked.

Daddy seemed a miser for many years, convinced he didn’t have enough money for a new pair of shoes or a new sweater from Dillard’s. I was surprised when I began receiving large annual checks in his later years, gifted to avoid probate. And it was with total disbelief after his death to find myself the recipient of a good amount of stock shares and insurance money. Why? I wondered. Why did he not spend and enjoy what he had? Why wait to give it to his two girls? I know the answer to that question, of course. A sense of duty, of responsibility, drove my dad’s life, and he would not die without leaving his family financially sound.

That generation of men, the World War II survivors, knew what it was like to give everything they had for their country, their wives, and their families. Many made the greatest sacrifice with their very lives. Those who came back, alive but scarred, returned with a sense of duty.

At my dad’s ninetieth birthday celebration, my sister and I watched as people entered the church social hall. I saw the years melt away as old Army buddies started up conversations they’d begun long ago.

People streamed in for several hours, checking out our tables of photos, awards and memorabilia. There were church friends and ministers from the past, former work colleagues, card group members, and old neighbors. Some knew my father simply by the Oklahoma Gas Company uniform he wore for thirty years. “Hey, Louie,” they called as they entered the room, gave him a hug or a handshake and thanked him for his help.

I watched in amazement that day. Here was dad surrounded by all these people who remembered him, thought of him, and cared about this shy, quiet man. It was then I realized I hadn’t really known my father. I was his daughter, not a friend or colleague, not a work buddy or choir member. They knew someone different than the old black and white photos from my childhood. They knew and respected a man who was gentle and caring, who gave beyond his means, who worked harder than anyone else, who gave his all for others.

There are a hundred questions I would ask my dad if he were here. I’d be more interested. I’d care more. I’d want to know. I hope that he is playing Canasta across from my mother on Friday nights with Claude and Virginia, or Pitch with Dale and Maxine. I hope he sees Charlie and Hazel often. And I hope he sits around sharing stories with his brothers on an old battered porch much like Granny’s.

My questions will have to wait for the other side. Meanwhile I have my photos and dad’s look of pride as he holds the hand of his little girl in her Easter bonnet in 1947.

_____________________________

 

(Published in Gila River Review – Fiction)

Not So Far

As I edged my Lexus through the slowly opening security gate, I cursed. I hated the confinement of a gated community, and I resented its false sense of security. Inevitably the stop-light just ahead turned yellow as I reached the gate, and red by the time it fully opened. Which meant another five minute wait. Today was no exception.

I was furious with myself as well. It was eleven a.m., and half-way into mixing a batch of brownies, I had opened the carton to find one lone egg. Eggs had been on the grocery list yesterday.

A once-blue Ford pick-up sat directly across the four-lane street and caught my eye as I made my left turn. The rear bumper was hanging off and the side panels were dented and primed gray. I dismissed it and headed a mile north to my local Safeway. I was focused on the bowl of brownie mix filled with oil and water, waiting for my return.

Ten minutes later, the carton of eggs tucked carefully beside me, I slowed to make my turn and pressed the coded remote that allowed me into my subdivision. The truck still sat at the curb to my left. I should probably report it. It might be stolen.

Just then the top of a dark head bounced above the dashboard and back down, and I startled. Perhaps a puppy left in the heat? I drove straight until the median ended, made a u-turn, pulled up behind the truck and carefully approached. There was no one visible in the seat or the truck bed. I peeked through the open driver-side window and cried out. Two brown eyes stared back, eyes so black they seemed all pupil.

The young boy gasped at the same moment, and we both laughed.

“What are you doing in the truck alone?” I asked, and when he remained silent, I carefully mouthed, “Do you speak English?”

The small brown boy lowered his head.

He sheepishly answered, “I understand. My cousin, he is walking back with gasoline soon. We are fine. Not to worry, Mrs.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, “Because I live just inside, over there and we could call for help.”

The boy shook his head from side to side. I could feel his tension. “Thank you, but no. Andres, he will be back soon.”

Something felt off with everything the boy said. I repeated, “I live right in there – three blocks – turn left. I’ll leave my car in the drive so you can see it. Ok?”

He nodded. “Thank you. We are fine.”

As I drove home, my gut told me to turn back. He looked all of ten or eleven. Who would leave a child alone on the side of the road? And nowhere along the street had I seen his “cousin.” I’d have noticed a Hispanic male carrying a gas can, especially having seen the truck earlier. I parked the Lexus in the drive and went inside to finish baking.

I chopped nuts and greased the pan in a sort of reverie. Mindless tasks were good for me. As a free-lance writer I needed the time for important thoughts and, once in awhile, an excellent finish to an article. Today I could think of nothing but the young frightened face stuck on the side of the road in an upscale neighborhood.

Unfortunately, upscale here usually meant conservative, law enforcing mentality. Few of us tree-huggers lived behind these gates. I knew my own kids called me a bleeding heart liberal – it was OK with me. I bore it as a badge of honor.

Retirement had almost worn me out. I was exhausted from trying to fill those long day-time hours. That was one reason for the baking. It gave me a sense of purpose, a completion, a result. I froze nearly everything I baked or made secret drop-offs to my adult children across town. Living alone didn’t feel so lonely when I was working full-time. I had come home so exhausted the last thing I wanted was a spouse to tell me to turn off the lights when I left a room or to fill my first silence of the day with television noise. So I had started free-lancing for local newspapers and magazines and occasionally got a $50.00 check if they could afford to pay me. And I baked.

As I put the glass pan into the oven, I wondered about the boy. Had his cousin returned? Why wasn’t he in school in the middle of the day? Was he illegal? Had someone already phoned the police? I set the timer for thirty minutes. As soon as the brownies were done, I’d drive back over to check on him.

***

Carlos

Five minutes after the woman left, Carlos spotted a truck in the rear-view mirror. It pulled onto the easement and stopped. Carlos slid off the seat, onto the floor and under a white canvass tarp that Andres used to cover the rusted-out hole in the under-carriage.

The two men spoke Spanish, though Carlos could not see them. They kicked the right front tire and rummaged around in the scrap metal that would put milk on the table this week. Carlos hoped they wouldn’t steal it. Andres would kill him. One of the men cursed, said something about the shitty truck and the shitty truck owner, and they pulled out into traffic.

Carlos waited for some time before he crawled from under the tarp, opened the passenger door, and slid out, hiding behind the truck as best he could. He would walk up to the gas station; see what was keeping Andres. Maybe something had happened to his cousin. What, he didn’t know. He was a young male Hispanic asking for gasoline. Maybe that was enough, Carlos thought.

It took him fifteen minutes to walk the long blocks to the Safeway. He looked for Andres in ditches and behind shrubs, then down into a deeper desert wash below the road. By the time he reached the gas station, Carlos knew Andres had gotten scared and left him. Inside his pocket he felt the three dollar bills and a few coins. Not even enough for a gallon, and he had no can to carry it.

Carlos entered the small attendants’ area and gazed longingly at the few stale donuts in the glass case. He waited for the man ahead of him to pay. When the attendant asked how he could help, Carlos grinned, showing three missing teeth.

“My cousin – we have run out of gas down the road. He sent me to get some.”

The gas attendant looked down at him and smiled. “You got a gas can?”

Carlos shook his head.

“Well, man, I’d like to help you out but you have to put a deposit on the can. Twenty dollars. Do you have twenty dollars?”

Carlos shook his head again.

“Hey, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to tell your cousin to come pay for the can.”

Carlos nodded, his smile gone and his eyes glazed over. “How much is the water?” he asked, pointing to the bottles in the refrigerated unit.

“Dollar, twenty-five. The donuts are two.”

“Just the water,” Carlos said, and he handed the clerk the money.

As Carlos walked back to the truck, he wondered why he’d even tried. He was ten years old with no driver’s license. He could walk home, but it was miles away, and he hadn’t had food or water for hours. He was starving, but mostly thirsty. He guzzled the small water in a few gulps. His mother would be worried by now. She’d be sitting in the kitchen with the new baby at her breast, watching the toddlers playing with pots and pans on the linoleum floor. They had no phone, but Carlos knew she’d find a way to reach his Tia soon, and maybe someone would come looking for him. Maybe.

Thirty yards from the truck Carlos stopped abruptly and quickly snuck behind a large cape honeysuckle bush. The cop car was parked just behind the truck, barely off the road. One officer sat in the patrol car on his radio. The other opened the driver door, lifted the tarp from the floor, and checked the truck bed. As he wrote out the ticket and placed it under the windshield wiper, Carlos felt the lump forming in his throat. He fought back tears and waited until the officers passed without a glance in his direction, then dashed across the busy four-lane road.

***

When the door-bell rang, I had just opened the oven. I dropped the hot pad and looked through the screen door to the entryway. It took a moment before I lowered my eyes enough to see the curly, black head of hair and the frightened eyes beneath.

“You found me,” I said. I unlocked the door and motioned for him to enter the tiled foyer. “What’s your name?” I asked.

He smiled tentatively. “Carlos,” he said.

I saw the boy’s face soften at the smell of warm chocolate, and he glanced into the kitchen.

“How about some brownies and milk?” I asked.

He nodded and jumped onto a counter stool, watching me as I cut an extra large square and placed it on a plate. “Milk?” I asked as I opened the refrigerator, poured a tall glass and pushed both of them across the granite counter top. The boy looked at his shoes before speaking. “Can I wash my hands, please?” I walked him to the kitchen sink and handed him a paper towel.

As he ate, I weighed my options. I could call the police to come pick him up. This wasn’t my responsibility after all. But the thought of C.P.S., I.C.E., Drug Squads, all of those institutions that could get involved, made me cringe. This was a small brown boy left on his own in a very white world. I couldn’t call.

“How old are you,” I asked. When Carlos answered, I asked where he lived.

“Down the road, that way,” and he pointed. “It is far. I can walk.”

I sat down on the stool beside him. “Can we call your family?”

“No, Ma’am. We don’t have a phone.”

“Ahh. Your mother will be worried. You’ve been gone so long.”

Carlos nodded. “She’s busy with the babies, but she probably called my tia.”

“Is that Andres’ mother, your tia?” I asked.

“Yes, maybe she’s heard from Andres. I hope,” he said.

He drank the milk quickly and started on the brownie. I reached for the carton and poured another glass. In the next half-hour Carlos shared his story. He and Andres had been on their way to the local recycling center with a load of scrap metal. Andres collected it wherever he could find it, although Carlos insisted nothing was stolen. Each week they made enough for some groceries for both families.

“Do you think Andres is dead?” he asked me.

“Oh, Carlos,” I said, “no, I’m sure he’s fine. He’s probably looking for you now.”

“Or maybe he walked home to get help?” Carlos said.

“Right, maybe he walked home to get help.”

His big brown eyes filled with tears but he quickly wiped them away before they had a chance to spill over.

“Do you go to school, Carlos?”

“Oh, yes, unless I have to help translate for my mother or help Andres like today.”

“I used to be a teacher,” I told him. “It’s important to stay in school.”

The doorbell startled both of us, and I jumped from my seat. I reached the door and looked back to see Carlos slide behind the large center island. I smiled at his quick thinking, though the police officer took my look as a welcome.

“Yes, officer?” I asked.

“Young Mexican noticed in the neighborhood, ma’am. Have you seen him?”

I shook my head. “No, no one around here.”

“Your car is in the drive-way and your garage door is open, ma’am. I’d pull it in and close up. You never know these days,” he said. “They’ll steal about anything to buy drugs, you know?”

I bit my tongue hard and assured the officer I would pull the car in immediately. “I’ll phone if I see anything.” I closed and locked the front door.

“He’s gone,” I called out, and Carlos grinned showing his missing front teeth. He returned to his seat. “Someone must have seen you come into the neighborhood. I don’t know. What made you come find me?” I said.

Carlos began. “After you left, a black truck stopped and two guys started digging through the back, hoping to find something to take, I guess. Then they tried to open the door, probably to steal the truck.” His eyes glistened. “I slid under the tarp that Andres uses to cover the big hole in the floor. They didn’t see me, but I was scared.”

“I’m glad you came, Carlos.”

“But I don’t want to get you into trouble, lady,” he said, wiping his hands on the napkin I’d handed him. He shook his head and looked at the floor. “Andres probably hid somewhere; afraid he’d be caught and sent back.”

I understood his meaning. This was no world for young men who had been brought to the states as youngsters. If he was illegal, he probably did get frightened by something or someone. His luck could possibly run out in an upper-class white neighborhood like mine.

I wrapped another brownie in a napkin and motioned for the door.

“You can finish in the car, Carlos.”

I looked out the garage in both directions for the patrol car. We moved quickly toward my Lexus. As I pulled out of the subdivision, we both spotted the tow truck hooked to the beat up Ford. “Sorry, Carlos; it’s a good thing you got out of there.”

He pointed south down the busy four-lane road.

“How far?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I will show you. It is far.”

I turned up the radio. Carlos began to sing. He was happy to be heading home.

One mile south we passed the last populated intersection full of well-known chain grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores and fast food restaurants. I watched Carlos squirm in his seat belt and his eyes dart quickly from one side of the road to the other.

“Looking for Andres?” I asked.

He averted his eyes and looked at the floor mat.

“He may be home when we get there,” I said.

I knew the head nod was just to appease me.

“Straight ahead?” I asked as I accelerated through the light.

Just past the strip mall the road suddenly narrowed to two lanes and the landscape changed abruptly. No more manicured desert areas along the road-side, no carefully planted cacti in the washes or painted stucco walls. Everything turned gray: the blacktop pitted with pot holes, the weathered Super Carniceria building on the corner, and rows of Ironwood and Juniper trees that lined the dirt embankments, their dead branches filling the sky above us.

I slowed at a four-way stop, and Carlos pointed to the left. The road dropped off-grade onto dirt. It had been a long time since any gravel truck had been through here.

To my left was an auto salvage yard filled with rusted out windowless dead car bodies. Creosote and Graythorn grew up among them. I laughed at the hand-painted sign on a two-story tan building to my right – “Little O Tires” it read.

Carlos looked at me strangely. He didn’t understand the play on words.

“Now where?” I asked, and he pointed at a house ahead and to the right. It stood out of the grayness. It was a small square flat-roofed adobe structure painted light pink, one window on each side of the rough- hewn front door. Off one side of the house a weathered tin roof dipped to form a covered parking area just wide enough for one vehicle. At the rear a falling down wood lean-to created an outdoor patio.

As I slowed to make the turn into the narrow gravel drive, I noted a half-dozen cars and trucks parked helter-skelter around the property. What appeared to be a small trailer home that had seen better days was parked under the one tall Mesquite tree toward the rear. Bikes and metal riding toys sat close to the door, a few sparse patches of grass popped up here and there in the rain-rutted yard.

“Just let me out here,” Carlos said. His tone was suddenly firm and certain.

“But . . .”

“No, it’s good; it’s OK.” He smiled.

Then suddenly he leaped forward in the seat.

“Andres,” he cried out.

I felt my throat close. A tall thin man, a boy himself really, stood at the open door.

He peered at the unlikely Lexus stopped on the side of the road.

Before I could pull further in, Carlos leaped from the passenger door, his seat-belt slapping back against the leather. The car door slammed, and arms and legs shot across the culvert and up the drive.

Just before he reached the arms of his cousin, he turned suddenly and waved.

I raised my hand in return and watched as a woman stepped out to join the boys on the cement steps. She bent to hug Carlos and as she stood, our eyes locked and she smiled. I pulled a u-turn in the drive and looked at the odometer before heading back. 4.5 miles. Carlos was wrong – it was not “far” after all.

____________________________

 

(Originally published in Celebrating Christmas with . . . Memories, Poetry and Good Food)

The Christmas Angel

For most of us, the Christmas season evokes common images: snow covered Christmas card scenes, candles glowing in church, an old cardboard crèche, sugary smells from the kitchen, the crisp hard jingles of the street corner Salvation Army bells, and everywhere, the mischievous smile of Santa Clause, from the department stores to the Coca Cola bottles.

For each of us, however, those images soften and spread into personal memories of Christmases past. A treasured gift, a special person, a particular tree, a prayer answered. They glow brightly on a dark Christmas morning in a candle-lit room, as you sit surrounded by soft holiday music, close your eyes and think of the people you love and cherish.

As I close my eyes, I turn to a page in our heavily creased family photo album. Each black and white glossy is held in place with four white corner tabs. I am six years old, in my one piece pajamas, curly hair surrounding a face full of awe and anticipation, listening raptly to my father read the Christmas story from Luke. My mother sits beside us beneath the Christmas tree. Dad probably had to top the tree again that year. He always chose a tree too tall for the room. It was as if he could never remember the ceiling height as he stood in the grocery store lot and picked out the thickest cedar tree he could find. He would cut the trunk as far as possible, although he was limited by our old hand-made wooden tree stand. He then began to trim from the top, as mother loudly admonished, “Leave some branches for the star.” Next he would find the “holes” in the imperfect tree. He would take the branches he had cut from the bottom, and with string, he attached some here and there to fill in the empty spaces. At last he would step back and nod his head in acceptance of the now perfect Christmas tree.

The nod gave mother permission to haul out the large box of multicolored light strands, the aluminum garland and the thick strings of silver tinsel. I loved the candle shaped lights filled with liquid that made the flame flicker up and down.

When the tree was fully decorated, mother placed our slightly crinkled tin star on top of the tree, but just before the star, came myornament — a flesh colored ceramic cherub with gold foil wings hung by a satin ribbon. Her hair was carved and unpainted and her small child-like face consisted of two small black dots above a Mona Lisa smile. She was purchased when I was five weeks old. Dad had returned from his post in Europein time for my birth. Glass was unavailable during World War II, so the ceramic angel became a part of our family tradition and is still among my treasures.

Each Christmas when we took down the tree, we carefully wrapped her in layers of tissue paper and placed her gently back into the ornament box until the following December. I have carried her with me from city to city, house to house and tree to tree throughout my lifetime. Each year when I unwrap the tissue, her eyes gleam with recognition, and I position her on the highest bough in a place of honor.

I didn’t put up a tree this year. We were celebrating at my daughter’s house, and it seemed a hassle I didn’t need for once. But the day before Christmas, I went to the garage and pushed and pulled and rearranged until I could reach the box of ornaments. Lifting the lid from the plastic storage bin, I patiently sorted through paper and trimmings and ribbons until I found what I was looking for.

There she was, sixty-five years old. She has a few hair-line cracks around her face and torso, not unlike the fine-lined wrinkles appearing on my own. There are some creases and tears on her gold foil wings, and her white satin ribbon is faded yellow. But the old girl is in pretty good shape for her age and has outlived many broken ornaments in her life-time.

I couldn’t help but think of all we’ve been through together during those many years: the moves, the changes, the loss of parents, the births of children, the happiness and grief. Her presence reminded me that I m simply a composite of all the people I’ve known, all the love I’ve shared, and all the experiences God has provided. And I feel so fortunate and humbly blessed.

I found an ornament hook and carefully slid her ribbon through it, wrapped her once again in her protective paper and put her with the brightly wrapped packages I would take across town the next morning. She will, no doubt, out-live me but I know that she will be delicately placed on future Christmas trees, and I also know, without a doubt, that she and I will become a cherished memory for someone sitting in a candle-lit room with soft holiday music playing on a dark Christmas morning.

_____________________________

 

Camilla’s Wig

 The wig was not quite shoulder length—more of a bob that hugged the base of her neck. It was sleek and shiny and black. Camilla shook her head in disbelief.

“What am I doing?” she asked her best friend, Tammy.

“It will be fun; you said so yourself.” Tammy tilted her head slightly. “Here.” She adjusted the bangs to sit lower on Camilla’s small heart-shaped face. “Better.”

“I like it better than the blonde one, honey,” said the store owner as she continued to back-comb the red pixie-cut wig on the woman in the next chair.

Camilla’s mirrored image smiled back. “I do look kind of sexy, huh?”

Tammy agreed. “Buy it!”

And so she did.  It was not an expensive wig; wasn’t even real hair; but it was “quality cheap” and could be washed and styled.  Her credit card swiped through the magnetic slot and the $75.00 was charged.

“What if he changes his mind?” she asked as they climbed into her old blue Honda Civic.

“He won’t,” Tammy said as she crossed all ten fingers and toes.

Marcus had made so many promises over the years. Camilla had become immune to disappointment. She was already cursing herself for buying into this latest one.  Last Saturday as Marcus worked in her front yard, he smiled at her. He’d been distant the past few months, blaming it on work as always. The day was sunny, and Camilla shielded her eyes from the white blaze. “What did you just say?”

“I’m taking you to Vegas in June,” he repeated.

Camilla felt her heart pumping just a fraction faster and she looked into his fluid brown eyes, hoping he meant it.

She smiled. “You promised you’d take me dancing, too.”

“Separate rooms, though,” he said.

Which made no sense. They’d been sleeping together for years; always at her house, always on his time-frame.

“Why?”

“Because,” he said.

Camilla sighed and looked at the ground. His favorite words were “no”, “maybe”, and “because”.

“Do you want to come for dinner tonight?” she would ask.

“No.” Never a reason or explanation. And when she dared ask for one, his response was always the same, “Doesn’t matter, does it? Just ‘no’. Accept it.”

And she accepted it.

Early in their relationship, she refused to accept “no” without a reason. How difficult was it to say, “Can’t tonight; wish I could.” She had tried to teach him to say the words, had tried to make him understand how his curt one word responses hurt her. He tried it once or twice, but the old Marcus always resurfaced.

As the years passed, she gave up. It was easier to accept than argue. It wasn’t that he was mean; she assured herself and her friends. He was just a man of few words. And maybe he was right; maybe it didn’tmatter. Maybe “no” was enough, really.

Earlier this month he’d grabbed her hand and his sensual lips formed words she’d wanted to hear for so long. “I’m taking you dancing.”

She was thrilled and said so.

His next words took it all away. “Yeah, with all the other women who have helped me over the years.”

A large gulp got her past the tears that welled in her eyes.

“I won’t go with other women. I hope you’re teasing.”

“No, I’ll take you, just you,” he said as he pulled her to the bedroom.

She had mentioned it a few times. “When are we going dancing?” she asked.  He was always silent. And before long she knew it was another broken promise.

So today, she was in a wig store buying a black wig to take to Vegas. She told Tammy it would please Marcus. “No one will recognize me. I’ll be a totally different woman. It will turn him on.”

“Go, girl, you will be so sexy in Vegas.”

The next Sunday Marcus draped himself across her sofa watching football. Camilla slipped into her walk-in closet and tucked her hair inside the black wig. She put on a garter belt, black hose and a black lace push-up.

When she walked into the living room, Marcus groaned. It was not the reaction she’d expected.

“What is that?” he asked.

“You don’t like it?” Camilla pleaded. “Marcus, I bought this to wear in Vegas. No one will know it’s me. I thought that’s what you wanted?”

“You look ridiculous,” he said, “go get dressed.”

His words stung like a hundred bees. Her eyes filled; her throat closed; she ran to the bedroom in shame.

“Oh, shit, come on, Camilla,” Marcus called down the hall. “OK, I’m out of here.”

That night Camilla cried herself to sleep.

The next morning she forgave him.

The wig sat in the closet on the Styrofoam faceless head for six months. On her birthday, Camilla woke early and waited for the phone to ring. He often called at five a.m. before he showered. A booty call she was forced to admit. But today the phone stayed silent. By the next morning Camilla’s anger had turned to rage, her sadness to grief. Her text message said, “Go fuck your self.” The phone rang instantaneously.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“My birthday is ‘up’,” she said. “After seven years, you forget my birthday?” She calmly hung the phone in the cradle and cried. This time there would be no “next time,” she promised herself.

She wondered what it might have felt like to dance with Marcus, slowly swaying in his muscular arms. She wondered what it might have felt like to drive beside him in the truck to Vegas. She imagined standing in the hotel lobby while he checked them into one room and handed her the second key strip. She saw herself in a short, tight, black knit dress, high heeled pumps.

People would look at them and say, “What a lovely couple. How nice they look together.”

Marcus in his starched, white shirt and black pants.

Camilla in her sleek black wig.

____________________________________________

Up the Road Apiece

(published Gila River Review)
One recent morning while hiking through a local nature preserve, I grew bored with the views of the migratory birds, most of whom had left for the summer. I had just reached the top of a steep incline, when something skittered past me in the brush to my left. Following the sound, hoping for some excitement, I ventured off the public pathway and pushed through a thick stand of trees and shrubs. As I lifted a large branch and scrambled down the embankment, I was hit with a pungent sweet smell of damp needles and wet earth that transported me back to central Louisiana in 1955. 
  I could see myself vividly, walking along a path, down to the creek, to pick blackberries and raspberries from the tangles of vines that grew beneath the tall pine trees outside Olla, Louisiana. It was a clear, cloudless morning in early June as I walked with my Granny, Miss Edna, down the pea gravel road past the weathered chicken coop and the deserted barn. The cows that had once wandered loose and free had been sold. Granny had become too frail to milk them. The chicken coop was silent, for she could no longer stoop to gather the eggs she had once prepared each morning. She had always been old in my mind, as grandmothers usually are.
On this particular day I was ten years old, no longer the small child frightened of the chickens that had once encircled us as we tossed them grain each morning. I had shed plenty of tears as a youngster when they ran toward us, wings arched and open, pecking at my legs and hands as Granny forced open my clenched fists to release the kernels of corn. Gone, too, was my terror of the large steers that had once crossed the dirt road into the front yard of Granny’s small three-room frame house. Armadillos had become just part of the landscape, and I had learned to accept the nightly ritual of the head to toe “tick inspections”. 
The night before, we had sat together on the front porch and rocked in the old wooden high-backs. I loved watching her take the bobby pins from the large bun at the back of her head; watched in awe at the sight of her hair falling silently like a rapid stream flowing down her back past her hips, below the horsehair seat of her chair. Her hands took the large tortoise brush, and she slowly pulled it through the long strands, one plait at a time. She brushed until her dark black hair glistened with the shine of natural oils. My grandmother never cut her hair and even at one hundred and two, when she needed assistance with nearly every activity of life, she performed this nightly ritual alone.
Miss Edna, my father’s mother, was the strong matriarch of a family of five boys and one girl. Only 4’8”, she ruled with force and fierceness. She was a daughter of the land in the early 1900’s. Raised not far from the family farm, my grandmother had married young, birthed six children in ten years and rose each morning at 4:00 a.m. to milk the cows and gather the eggs before preparing breakfast for the field hands. Breakfast dishes were washed with buckets of water cranked from the old cistern on the over-sized back porch; the same porch where meals were served at the long rectangular table surrounded by mismatched wood chairs. No sooner had that task been completed than she began preparing dinner, the largest meal of the day, which always consisted of large slabs of meat, mountains of potatoes and gravy, home-made biscuits and vegetables either fresh from the garden or canned and preserved the autumn before.
She took pride in her job of feeding the large crew three times a day and somehow found time to complete her household chores without running water, indoor-plumbing and very little electricity. Granny washed the men’s heavy work clothes by hand, heating the water on the stove before she filled the large metal tub that sat in the middle of the bedroom. Later in the evening that same tub was used for a nightly bath. The heavy old iron was heated on the gas range before she pressed the wrinkles from the bib overalls that Grandpa and the boys wore in the field. By 1955 she had acquired a ringer washer that sat on the back porch, but we still drew water from the cistern and heated it on the old gas range for my nightly baths.
Those days had made my Granny tough and strong, leaving her with a gruff demeanor that often made me fear her as a child. When WWII broke out, Granny watched as all five of her boys put on the brown uniforms of the U.S. Army and left Louisiana at the same time. The old black and white photo of her and her “boys” in uniform sat on the mantel of the fireplace until her death. Miss Edna survived hot humid mosquito filled summers and bitter cold nights. There was a living room fireplace and a large cast- iron wood burning stove in the one large bedroom. As a child I was amazed to hear stories of how she and granddaddy slept on the large goose down mattress with all six children bedded down around the edges of the room. Her chest puffed out with pride when she talked about the two large oval framed photos that hung over the bed; sepia toned stern faces of her mother and father.
The chime of my cell phone brought me back to this hot June day in Arizona, and as I made my way back to the pavement that circled the man-made lake, I wondered why that particular morning with Granny had surfaced so unexpectedly. Perhaps it was because I had her to myself. My dad was one of only two siblings who did not return to the family compound after World War II. Granny never forgave either of them, or the women they married. I had been too young to understand the power struggles that were silently played out each summer between my mother and Granny; didn’t understand those subtle but harsh looks that rolled across Granny’s face when mother poured sugar and milk on my rice or allowed me to use the inside ‘night bucket’ instead of the fly filled outhouse that sat in the back yard.
Our annual summer visits were filled with aunts and uncles and a dozen cousins who lived just up the road apiece. I was the city stranger and seldom felt part of the clan. I was the grandchild who demanded milk from the store and refused to eat the grits that were served at every meal. But each evening I felt drawn into their warmth. We ate in shifts, and five of us would cram into the small narrow kitchen taking turns washing and drying the supper dishes, singing loudly “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” or “My Darling Clementine”. At dusk we youngins’ sat on the front porch quietly listening to the tall tales our daddies told as they perched precariously on the back two legs of their wood chairs. The time Uncle Nelson had caught a forty- pound catfish up the ‘crick’ aways. The time they had all gotten drunk and drove smack into a bull, tearing up the front of granddaddy’s old Ford pickup. The old man who waited in the woods to take little boys and girls who wandered off..
But on that bright summer morning there we were, Granny and I by ourselves, ambling along; talking about nothing in particular; stopping first to mail a letter. The aging post office sat alone framed by tall pines hung heavily with Spanish moss. There were no other buildings in sight for several miles; the same held true of the Free Baptist church on up the road.  These structures seemed to rise out of the soil making little islands of their own.
 As we climbed down the side of the creek bed, brambles of the blackberry bushes painted my arms and ankles with the stains of their berries and the droplets of blood from the cuts and scratches they tattooed on my skin. The day was sticky and warm, and I swatted at the constant zinging of flies and gnats and honeybees. I could see my grandmother lifting her head to the cloudless blue sky, then smiling down at me with encouragement as we filled the old wood-handled tin water bucket that was becoming too heavy for my small ten-year-old body to carry. Granny picked it up when I struggled, and we moved from the bushes of blackberries to the arched purple vines of raspberries growing wild on the bank above us. My feet slipped on the wet soil, and her weathered hand reached for mine as she pulled me up the steep riverbank. For a brief moment, Miss Edna’s tight stern face softened, and her eyes sparkled. In that instant I saw through her gruffness to the soft maternal woman she hid so well and found myself wishing that I, too, lived up the road apiece.
(This is a piece of creative nonfiction which, for family members, means most all in my imagination. Disclaimer)
_____________________________________________________

 

Last Chance

3rd place fiction – Maricopa Community Colleges – published in Passages, 2012

                                                        

On Wednesday night, the sky was black; clouds rolled gently over the stars, allowing brief glimmers of light that Susan prayed were signs of hope. She sat alone in her teal blue Honda, headlights off and the radio, barely audible. Susan pulled her trench coat tighter and gazed at the first new moon in March. She was parked at the far end of the run-down Phoenix apartment complex just across from the dumpsters, hoping like hell her daughter, Amber, wouldn’t spot the car.

Amber. A picture focused slowly, like a Polaroid film. Twenty years ago Susan sat on the edge of a hospital bed, anxious to go home, in the maternity dress she’d worn just two days before. In that frozen moment, she held a pink-blanketed bundle in her arms. Amber had been born with a thick head of black hair, alert eyes, and unlike most newborns, a beautiful, perfect, unblemished face. Amber had always teased Phillip, her younger brother, about his cone head from the forceps delivery his birth had required. “That’s why we don’t have any baby pictures of you,” she’d say, poking Phillip and laughing. Susan clung to happy memories these days, hoping they would carry her across the huge waves of fear and anger.

A car turned sharply into a parking space to her left, the headlights glancing over her face like a spotlight on a darkened stage. Susan instinctively ducked her head and turned slightly in her seat. As the driver clicked the lock button on the vehicle and walked towards the entrance, Susan drew a breath. She studied the lighted windows above her, the large rectangular sliding doors set precisely twenty feet apart. She wondered which set of vertical blinds Amber might be looking through at this very moment.

***

It hadn’t occurred to Susan or her ex-husband that Amber wouldn’t remain the well-behaved, artistic, straight “A” student she’d always been. Susan had recognized the usual acting out behaviors in middle school but had chalked it up to teen-age angst and their recent divorce. High school started well, but by mid-year Susan found herself sitting across from the assistant principal on a regular basis, acting as a supportive parent in the office and screaming in rage on the drive home. They settled into four years of groundings and threats and two a.m. yelling matches. The day she found cigarettes hidden under Amber’s bed, she scoured the room for signs of other drugs, knowing full-well that Amber was much too smart to keep them in the house.

By senior year Amber seemed to find some peace. Her high school art instructor had helped her find an acceptable outlet for her feelings, and her therapist had offered hugs and journals and teddy bears at weekend retreats. Susan relaxed a little and kept her fingers crossed. Graduation night brought great relief.

In the fall she helped Amber and her best friend, Shelly, set up an apartment on the south side of town and encouraged her to register for classes at the local community college. Susan knew this was unwise, even as she did it.

Phillip benefited greatly from Amber moving out. Susan knew he had silently suffered through the turmoil and verbal hell of the past four years. He chose the path of least resistance, establishing his role as the “good kid,” as if he sensed Susan’s limited reserves of strength. With Amber out of the house, Susan focused on making Phillip’s senior year peaceful. He blossomed, and the following September left for college in California to pursue his love of architecture. Susan waved as she drove away from his dorm and wept the entire trip home to Arizona.

***

Tonight marked the three-month anniversary of the end of Susan’s rope. She had held it tightly for three years, watching her daughter move from college to college, town to town. Periodically Amber landed back in her old upstairs bedroom at Susan’s house, detoxing and feeding her nearly starved body, vowing each time to remain clean and sober. Susan knew the drill, but each time she heard the words she knew were lies, she also grasped the rope tighter and prayed that this time her daughter was telling the truth, this time she would follow through with the promises Susan knew were empty.

Funny how you just keep taking the abuse, she thought as she sat in the dark. Her divorce hadn’t been easy, God knew, but she had severed that cord with a quick even cut. Children were different. You didn’t divorce your kids, although she’d attended support groups with parents who had. Susan couldn’t do it; she opened the door and her heart each time Amber returned.

Then last March, the rope began to fray. Amber rang the doorbell and dragged one small duffel bag to her bedroom. In the middle of the night Susan heard screams of pain and rushed up the stairs. She opened the unlocked door and saw Amber sitting among slivers of glass, picking the small shards from her bleeding fingers. Her eyes were hollow beneath the faint line of brown skin where her eyebrows should have been. Her emaciated body looked deformed inside her dad’s old discolored white t -shirt. Susan wanted to crumple to her knees and pray for someone else to deal with what she saw. Instead, she spoke carefully, her heart breaking with the effort.

“Stop picking,” she said as she lifted Amber from the floor. “There’s nothing there.”

Susan threw a coat over her daughter’s shoulders and drove to the hospital. The lab report read “crystal meth.” Susan hated herself that day. How had she not seen it? How did she not know? Because I didn’t want to, she admitted.

Amber ran the next day.  It took a week to find her and bring her home. She ran again. Susan hired a company to put her daughter’s car on blocks. It didn’t matter. Strangers would come to pick her up when Susan wasn’t home. There was never a note. The house would just feel empty with Amber’s absence when Susan opened the door that night.

Amber’s old friends stopped by occasionally. “I heard she’s living in a house on the west side, Mrs. Peterson,” they would say. “You know that apartment complex down on Camelview and 24th?” they offered. Susan followed up on each lead, and hugged and thanked the friends who still loved her daughter. One Saturday morning she drove around the block of a stranger’s house a dozen times before walking to the door. She could hear stirrings inside but no one answered. Susan simply set a pile of clothes and a few dollars on the doorstep with Amber’s name. Sometimes a thin, disheveled young man answered. They all looked the same now. “No idea,” he said simply or, “Never heard of her.” Those were the times when Susan forced herself to see what Amber had become.

In September Amber called, asking to come home. Susan stood in the kitchen, heart pounding, wanting desperately to say no. She cursed under her breath. “I’ll pick you up. Be out front.” As she walked to her car, she pulled a card from her wallet. Susan thanked the interventionist profusely when he agreed to a seven o’clock meeting that night. She picked up Amber at five, settled her into the house and forced her to eat a cup of soup. When the doorbell rang and Susan welcomed the therapist, Amber raged with “shits” and “fucks.”

“Sit down and calm down,” Susan said sternly. She was surprised when Amber complied. The interventionist spoke with a quiet firmness, turned often to Susan who cried out her concerns and fears. Amber sat, arms crossed, sullen and defiant. She occasionally gave a furtive look at her mother, accompanied with an angry smirk. The interventionist wrote a clear, simple contract.

“We can’t go on like this, Amber,” Susan said, more gently than she felt. “If you stay here, this is how it will be.”

Amber paced from one end of the living room to the other, picking at the scabs along her arms. Susan waited for her daughter to say “no.” Instead, Amber read the words aloud giving them her own interpretation. “Locked in my home with no car and no key. Great!” She paced. “See a nutritionist and gain a hundred pounds.”  She rolled her eyes. “Pee in a fucking cup three times a week at my mother’s whim. Spill my guts in a bunch of psychobabble.” She turned on Susan. “You really think I’m going to do this shit?” Susan silently feigned a calm and stillness.

Amber grew more agitated. She walked to the center of the room and stopped directly in front of Susan, pulling her fingers through her long greasy pony tail. “Why don’t you just fucking put me in jail?” The room grew large in the silence. Susan watched as her daughter threw herself down in the corner armchair, watched as tears streamed down her face, watched as Amber defiantly scrawled her name on the bottom of the page. Susan knew enough to not feel hope.

For a month Susan returned from work each evening and saw Amber’s thickening body, thin lines of brow hairs forming across the ridge of her eye bone, blue eyes growing clearer each day. Occasionally, the house smelled of cleaning products or a warm pan of brownies in the oven. Susan’s crossed fingers hurt deeply, and her knees were raw from the hours of prayer. Maybe this time it would truly stick.

In November, Amber approached her. “I think it’s time I find a job, Mom,” she said.

Susan hesitated. “Oh, Amber, it’s only been a couple of months. Are you sure?”

“Mom,” Amber replied, “I can’t sit in this friggin house another day. I’m going nuts. You can only read so many books and watch so much TV when you’re sober.” She gave a slight grin.

“Ok,” Susan agreed. “You can borrow my car for a few days while you look.”

After only two days Amber came home to tell Susan she’d been hired as a receptionist at a local beauty salon. “I’ll need my car, mom.”

Susan’s hesitation was intense but momentary; she knew she had to trust one last time in order for her daughter to succeed. She handed Amber the keys to her car.

For the next six weeks, a routine formed in Susan’s life. She rounded the corner after work, slowed at the end of the drive, and choked back the sobs of fear in her throat. As the garage door rose, she’d see Amber’s car sitting in the second stall, and she shook with joy. They were going to make it through this.

On a cold Friday evening in mid-December, Susan left the office early to pick up pizza and a video rental. Amber’s side of the garage was vacant, but it was too early for her to be home from work. By seven o’clock Susan knew. The pizza congealed on the kitchen counter. Susan sat in front of the blank TV screen, a tape in the video player. The sun left a reddish hue in the living room as it set, and Susan sat surrounded by the remnants of a used-up box of Kleenex.

The next day she phoned Phillip in California to say that Amber might not be home when he returned for the Christmas holiday. She wanted to break the news to him so he’d have time to process the information.
“Mom,” he said. “Do me a favor.”

“Anything.”

“Go to an N.A. meeting tonight. You can’t keep going through this. You can’t keep letting her come back.”

“Who made you so wise?” she teased. Trying to soften the facts did neither of them any good. She knew that. Phillip had lived with this as long as she had; he was right. Her heart broke for her children. They were both fractured and hurting and there was little she could do.

“I know it’s hard, mom, but you surely know by now she’s not going to change, not until she’s ready any way.”

The meeting hall could be in any town in America, Susan thought as she parked and walked toward the nondescript, single-story white building. A church recreation center during the day, each evening at five o’clock it morphed as meetings rotated like clock-work. A.A., followed by Narcotics Anonymous., then Eaters Anonymous at eight. Rows of padded folding chairs faced a lectern. The ever brewing thirty-cup coffee pot, packaged sugars, creamers, and stir sticks sat on a folding table at the back of the room. People sipped their caffeine, wandered outside to smoke, and shuffled back in time for their support group. Susan despised the meetings. They represented a part of her life she’d rather not acknowledge.

Several members nodded hello as she took a seat in the back row, three feet from the door if she needed to bolt. After two people spoke, some one suggested moving the small group into a circle and after a scraping of chairs against vinyl flooring, Susan found herself face to face with her demons. As kind-hearted and open-faced as these people appeared, what they represented scared the hell out of her.

One of the few men present asked for support. “My daughter has just relapsed for the fourth time,” he told the group as his hands twisted in circles in his lap. “It’s time we give up and let her go.” The group mumbled in agreement, but Susan’s back straightened like a rod and her lips pursed in anger. He spoke again to his approving peers. “We have to turn off the phone, refuse her attempts to contact us, and say ‘no’ from now on as much as it kills us.”

Susan couldn’t hold her tongue a moment longer. “I’m sorry,” she said, “But how can you possibly turn your back on your own child? There is no way in hell I could do that.” She hadn’t meant to sound so caustic. No one called her out, but several people smiled gently.

The man looked directly at her and sighed. “It’s hard,” he said, “don’t get me wrong. But everyone here understands that you can’t make a decision for another person. At some point you have to let your children fall, you have to let them fail, to let them reach rock bottom before they will get the help they need.”

The woman sitting beside him leaned forward to speak. She directed her words toward Susan. “Nothing,” she said, “Nothing you do or say makes any difference when the addiction gets that strong. They’ll go back to it every single time unless you stop allowing it.”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t give up on my own child.”

Silence followed, and someone beside her took her right hand and squeezed. A woman across the circle and to her left spoke gently. “Susan, is it?”

Susan nodded.

“Susan, what have you done that has worked so far?” she asked.

Susan’s heart ripped but she slowly lifted her head and looked around the group. Parent after parent, mothers and fathers of children addicted to alcohol and drugs; their faces lined with the effort and the pain of failing over and over again. She couldn’t speak as she sobbed quietly and a handkerchief was passed her way. “Nothing has worked,” she finally squeaked from her tightened throat. “Nothing is working.” A few heads nodded in sympathy, but no one spoke. Susan knew at that moment that she had to let go. Amber could not get better as long as she held the rope; it was too frayed; it was severed now. Susan would spend Christmas break with Phillip; she would go back to work; she would try to live her life.

It took Susan two months to find out where Amber was living. She drove past the apartment complex dozens of times hoping for a glimpse of Ambers’ long brown hair, her bright blue eyes. Amber had phoned twice to tell Susan she was “ok”, her words slurred and nonsensical each time. On one drive-by, Susan watched as a tall bone-thin young man left the building and walked to an old beat-up, rusted out Chevy Nova. He was pierced and tattooed, baggy pants hung below his boxers; his untucked t -shirt read “Smokin” in large letters under a graphic marijuana leaf. He brushed aside the long greasy hair that hung over his eyes as he drove off. Susan knew, without knowing, that Amber was with him, in this dirty piece-of-trash apartment. She was almost afraid to sit there in broad daylight, could sense people peeking through torn fabric blinds that hung at angles. Broken beer bottles lay where they’d been thrown against the brick building; trash was dumped under the covered parking spots. Susan cringed.

The following Saturday Amber’s best friend knocked on the door. He had heard from Amber. The apartment was a meth house. Amber was afraid. Susan made only one decision that day. She phoned the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and turned over the information including the apartment address and number. Then she waited.

***

She waited until tonight—this dark, starless night—where she shivered in her car in the dark parking lot of a crap apartment building on the wrong side of town. What the hell was she doing? Susan reached into her purse and took out her cell phone. When Amber answered on the second ring, Susan simply said, “I am downstairs, parked by the entrance. Come down with your things and get in the car.”

Amber hesitated.

“This is the last chance,” Susan said softly.

Susan turned the key in the ignition, put the gear shift in Drive and slowly pulled forward toward the entrance. Each second pierced her heart as she watched the door through the open passenger window. A moment later the door opened, and Amber moved swiftly toward the car.

___________________________________________________

(Nonfiction – Published Gila River Review – Spring, 2012)

 Dying for a Free Vacation

It had warmed to a whopping five degrees that morning. I stood at my kitchen window and peered out at the dreary Minnesota sky and our snow-covered acreage below. The snow was measured in feet that winter. I cringed at the thought of another day of claustrophobia, stuck in the house with two children, ages eight and three. Michelle, my daughter, was home from school on Christmas break and was sleeping in, and Mikey would be up soon, the inevitable hat on his head, his little behind on one of his numerous riding toys. What would he be today? A fireman, a cowboy, an astronaut? I smiled as I sipped my cup of coffee, warming my hands on the hot mug.

The winter had been brutal and had started early. By Halloween the kids were bundled in snow suits, scarves, and mittens; the hoods of their jackets tied tightly beneath their chins. We took photos of their costumes in the warmth of the house before bundling them in layers to trick-or-treat. By Thanksgiving we were snowed in, and the icy roads made the ten mile trip to the Red Owl grocer treacherous. The snowplows scraped the roads and the neighborhood drives daily that year, making ceaseless rounds through the county and creating drifts along the sides of our property high enough to make an ice fort.

The week following Christmas was always difficult. The new toys were already tossed aside, board games had grown dull, and the jig-saw puzzle was complete. Boredom reigned. Maybe I’d take them to the backyard for some sledding to pass some time. Our property was hilly with farmland below and to the east; the slope was gentle but steep enough for a good ride.

I poured another cup of coffee for the caffeine fix I would need in a half hour when the three-year-old came to life, then turned on the radio. I immediately heard the dreaded words. “A vigorous jet-stream with winds in excess of twenty miles-per-hour should drop another six inches of snow by late afternoon. The slow-moving system out of South Dakota is due to hit mid-day with treacherous road conditions by night-fall.” Great! My mood plummeted.

The ringing phone drowned out the remainder of the weather report. It would be my friend, Dianne, at this hour. Going on that assumption I said a quick, “Morning – what are we going to do today?” She laughed. Dianne was a Minnesota native, and nothing about winter fazed her. Her mud room between the garage and kitchen was piled with hats and scarves, skates and sleds, a rifle, an abandoned snow chain and her riding boots. Dianne lived eight miles farther north where she boarded her horses, grew most of their food, and raised four kids. She had two teens from a previous marriage and a daughter Patti, nine months younger than Michelle, and Josh, one year younger than my Michael.

“Turn on the radio – KROC – quick.” I dialed to the station and listened to the syrup-voiced announcer. “At nine o’clock this morning you can win a trip for two to the Bahamas. Warm sun and ocean breezes, a beach-front hotel, air fare, all expenses paid.”

“Wow!” I said. “I would die to be on a beach in the Bahamas.”

Dianne shushed me.

“That’s right, folks – nine o’clock at the airport. Get your ticket for the drawing at the door.”

“Let’s go,” Dianne said. She sounded more excited than I’d heard her in months.

“But — the weather,” I said, hesitating.

“Four-wheel drive, we’ll be fine. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”

Her enthusiasm over-shadowed my doubts. “Well, ok . . . I guess,” I said.

In the next hour, two things happened simultaneously. The kids finished their oatmeal and toast in record speed, and the threatening clouds moved in from the west sooner than expected.

When Dianne’s van crinkled down our gravel drive, I was ready with both kids waiting by the back door. I strapped them in and asked her again, “You sure about this?”

Dianne nodded, and I pulled myself up into the passenger seat.

The airport in Rochester is seven miles south of town. We were ten miles north. Add the length of the city and you have a thirty mile trip.

The girls in the row of seats directly behind us could not stop chattering. Each was certain they would have the winning ticket.

“How many are they giving away?” I asked

“Ten pair, I think they said,” Dianne replied.

“Well, no one else will be out in this weather.”  I agreed with the girls that they just might win.

Michelle’s red cheeks glowed with excitement. “When can we go?” She bounced up and down, her seat belt looking like a yo-yo string.

“Tomorrow, I wish,” I said, giving her even more cause to kick the back of my seat in her exuberance.

The boys had no clue what the excitement was all about. They sat in the rear in their car seats and were simply thrilled to be going somewhere. My earlier reluctance had now relaxed into mild anticipation.

Just on the south edge of the city, the winds hit and the cold wet snow slapped the windshield. I watched Dianne’s hands clutch the steering wheel a bit tighter as she slowly let up on the accelerator. The girls were now into full blown competition.

“I’m going to win, and my daddy will take me,” Patti said.

“No, I’m going to win,” my daughter insisted. “And you aren’t.”

“Are too.”

“Are not.”

“Girls,” I snapped, “there are twenty tickets; maybe you’ll both win.”

That information only fueled the fire.

“I’m going to fly on one of those kites,” Michelle said.

“I’m going to breathe under the ocean,” Patti replied.

“I’m going to be higher in the sky on that…” she stopped.

“Parasail,” I said in a near whisper, trying to let Dianne focus on the road. “Girls, stop talking,” I said, harsher than intended.

Just ahead of us, the road seemed to blur out: a blinding whiteness as the flakes came straight at us, larger and wetter than before. The windshield wipers swooshed them aside for a few seconds, but they couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of the storm. Our vision grew dimmer. Dianne peered directly ahead. Between the swipes, she leaned toward the windshield and peered at the black highway. I knew from her expression, even she was getting worried.

“Maybe we should turn around,” I said quietly, so as not to scare the kids.

“I think we’ll be ok,” Dianne said. “Roll down your window and make sure I’m

not crossing that right-hand stripe.”

Great, I thought, definitely not reassuring.

A mile further, we knew we were driving into blizzard conditions.

“Sing a song for Mikey and Josh,” I encouraged the girls. “But a quiet song, ok?”

The bickering stopped and the strains of “Old Macdonald” began.

I looked at Dianne’s tense, pale face; her eyes squinted through each individual swipe of the blade.

“We can’t stop,” she said, glancing at my concerned face. “It’s too cold and windy; we’d get snow bound and that’s worse. Better to just keep plugging along.”

Her foot barely touched the gas pedal now. We were creeping at 30 mph on the four-lane highway, fog lights giving a glow to keep us from getting rear-ended. The wind began to shake the van, but Dianne held us on a straight course.

“Turn up the radio,” she told me, and I complied.

“A weather advisory has been issued for southeastern Minnesota. Blizzard conditions with winds up to 35 mph are reported west of the city. Travel is not advised at this time.”

“No kidding,” Dianne said. We laughed to ward off the fear.

There was no place to turn around on the divided highway. Even with four-wheel drive, the culvert was too steep. The next exit was the airport turn-off, three miles ahead.

The girls finished with their “bah, bah here” and “quack, quack there…”

“Mommy, I can’t see the outside,” Patti said in a small voice, her thumb going directly toward her mouth.

Michelle looked at me for comfort, and I smiled.

“Tell me about that parasailing,” I said.

I felt the skid as we hit black ice, and I clutched with fear. Dianne’s experienced winter driving took over, and she turned into the spin. I felt the van straighten and the tires grip.

The one-mile sign slowly passed my passenger window, and I gave a silent prayer and a word of encouragement.

“Man, that was good, Dianne. You are one hell of a driver.”

“Unlike you,” she reminded me. I had slid into a ditch in front of the bowling alley with my six-month-old son in the back seat two years ago. Even though the slide harmed nothing but my rear bumper, no one would let me forget.

We needed the humor to loosen our guts and lighten our spirits.

“Well, I certainly hope one of you wins this trip,” I said and I turned to see four white faces with bulging eyes looking back at me.

Before us the white blur turned into a thin veil, and that gave way to a clear view of the Airport exit sign off to the right.

“We’re going to wi…in,” I sing-songed so the girls would know we were going to live. We pulled into the airport parking lot at 8:56, and the girls bounced from the van as I unbuckled the two boys from their third row seats. Hand- in mittened- hand, one child on each side, we stomped through the snow piles and entered the warmth of the terminal.

A couple dozen people stood around in unbuttoned coats, scarves and gloves in hand, melting wetness onto the carpeted floor.

I turned suddenly and gave Dianne a big sloppy kiss on her left check, as the girls gave a disgusted, “Mom!”

“Whew,” she said and I saw the trembling in her right hand, the tension of the last hour releasing slowly.

Each daughter held three green serrated tickets in their hands and read the numbers; they chose the ones they felt were winners and handed us the rest. The drawing took less than five minutes. Michelle’s number was the first called; Josh’s was fifth, and Dianne handed it quickly to Patti. “You won!” she said eagerly.

The girls walked to the podium and brought back two white envelopes that held the letters for their Bahamas Vacation-for-Two.

And Dianne and I tallied up the cost of the additional two tickets necessary for us to make the trip. We had spent fifty minutes in a blizzard risking life and limb, knowing our husbands would kill us. We were hoping our near-death experience might ease the news that we needed another two grand for the free vacations their daughters had won.

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