Straighten Up And Fly Right

Stevie lit the last of her cigarettes and expelled a blue haze of smoke up towards the ceiling, watching the green, red, and blue lights mixing the colors of the hazy atmosphere that hovered over the bar. The thick smokey haze hadn’t dimmed to volume of noise from the Wiritzer in the corner as the contents from it’s bowels bellowed off the wooded walls and dance floor. She watched Ryan as he drained another bottle, he almost fell off his stool with the effort of a man one bottle short of a twelve pack.  “Hit me.” Stevie yelled to the the bartender as she placed a five on the counter.  A tumbler with gin, tonic and ice was pushed before her a minute later, the delay caused by last minute orders before closing time.

 

Dan was efficient behind the bar, doling out the drinks, collecting the cash and making change.  As the evening wore on he went from good listener to a mechanical ear that heard grunts and groans, responding in kind.  The patrons tipped, the boozers didn’t, he could live with that.  “Just another fact of life.” Dan would say to those who cared to listen.  “My feet ache, I think they’re swelling.”  the comment was said to no one in particular.

“Soak them in hot water for ten or twenty minutes.”  The voice came from the general direction of Stevie.  She was looking at him with that basic concern women tend to have in general.  The mother hen instinct.  Dan smiled and looked in her direction.

“Thanks for the tip, I was going to do that after I close up.  Got a new box of Epsom Salts.”  He never figured Stevie as one who might care if his feet hurt or not.  Delores, the redhead at the other end of the bar, was more worried who was buying the next round.  These thoughts were whirling around his head as he picked up the empty glasses and placed them in the sink.  He would wash them later.  The empties he threw in the trash, that would be emptied after he closed the doors.  Closing time was always a bigger chore as the bright lights he turned on hurt his eyes and his feet felt swollen, stretching his shoes to the straining point.  “God, I wish I had a woman to help close the place.”  His outburst had become part of his closing routine.

 

John, Dan’s partner, had opened the cafe at six for the breakfast crowd.  His wife, Jan, did the cooking and by the end of lunch retired to her home while John tended the early crowd.  Usually these were men stopping in for a beer after work before heading home to wife, family, and dinner, not necessarily in that order.  Sometimes Big Jim, the sheriff, would stop by with one of his deputies and sip a bottle of beer together while discussing the general social and criminal situation of the county.  This was a small town and off the main route, a man could have a sense of privacy here and Big Jim expected it so.  Dan came in at four.  Together him and john would check the stock and accounts although the formal accounting was reserved for Sunday when the cafe and bar was closed.  The two local ministers of the baptist and congregational churches would object to any extension of business hours into their day.  Parishioners were expected to refrain  from strong drink on the sabbath.

 

By seven that evening Delores had come in and perched on her stool.  Dan would have to listen to another variation on her problems and the husband who didn’t understand and the children who wouldn’t mind.  Come eight and most of the thirty or so regulars would be in residence as there was very little to do in town and any other form of entertainment was over two hours away.  Outside of religion there were only three forms of entertainment in the town.  Dancing, pool, and skee-ball, all held in the bar.  Dan never considered drinking a form of entertainment, at least not after his teenage days of obligatory beer guzzling and whisky foolishness.  Fact now was that Dan never touched a drop.  For ten years he had watched people pour alcohol of one kind or another down their throats and had seen the results first hand.  As he has said to one patron who asked why he never drank, “Serving drunks has taken all the enjoyment out of it.  It just don’t seem important anymore.  Hazard of being a barkeep, I guess.”

 

Meanwhile Dolores as drinking more heavily than usual.  She was also more animated and inclined to talk to herself, raising her voice with each drink she threw down.  Jeff came in and shouted, “Hey, whose suitcase it that outside?”  Delores raised her head and in slurred speech yelled back, “It’s mine, asshole.  You got a problem?”  The conversation stopped immediately.  If it weren’t for the jukebox the sound of silence would have been heard for the first time that day.  All eyes turned towards Delores.  “What are all you looking at?  Huh?  Why are you staring at me?  Why?”  Her defiant stare tried to shield her from the prying eyes of the crowd.  Then she nestled her head into her arms on the bar and started sobbing.  “Richard threw me out.  That pompous bastard!  He threw me out.  He said I had to straighten myself out.”  Delores was sobbing harder now.  The people in the crowd were looking away, embarrassed to watch a woman suffering in public.

 

Dan picked up the receiver from the cradle and dialed his partner’s number.  “Hello, John?  Would you call rev. Hightower?  Yeah, we got a problem with Delores.  I think she’s going to need some help.”  He put the receiver back on the cradle and looked over at Delores.  One of the woman, Janey, was trying to sooth her, whispering something into her ear.  Once you cross the line in a small town there is no where to go but the big city.  “Well, I won’t miss her.” Dan said quietly to himself.  He filled three orders, took the cash and gave back the change.  It was still early and his feet were starting to hurt.

Advertisements

So Many Stars

Julia once told me, “Dreams are the stars and only come out at night.  There are so many stars from which to choose.  I wish I knew which one is right for me.  Just so many stars, so many stars.”  Wistful dreaming of a young woman, I suppose, but as good an analogy as any these days.  Our need for the ‘right’ dream is a part of human nature, the part that seeks hope in the futures.  I say futures because for the most part our lives intertwine with the lives of others.  When one is fourteen one rarely acknowledges such an occurrence.  Such is the twilight zone of youth.

 

I went off to war, such as it was then, while Julia went off to college.  Perhaps if I had actually liked school and bothered to study and obtain good grades that would be acceptable to a number of colleges and universities I would have had a different dream in life.  She was accepted to a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.  Her dreams were different.  “Jack, I want to study literature and art.  Maybe learn French and spend a year in Paris.  And maybe I’ll find a man I can love and who loves me.  I want to share his life, see him become successful.”  My dream was much simplier.  Get through my service commitment, find a job, and buy a decent used car.  I never could see as many stars in the heavens as Julia.  True, I had fantasies but I knew these were not common dreams that would ever come true.  And her dreams always left me feeling wistful and I envied her ability in school and her imagination.  “Jack, I know my dreams will come true, i feel it in my heart.”

 

That first summer I spent in boot camp and advanced training before I was posted to Ft Benning for three months.  Julia and I exchanged a few letters, about one a month.  Army life is a drag, dull and dreary for the private with little money and little time to spend it.  But she had her first full time summer job and was able to save a tidy sum for her first year at college.  Freshmen were put upon then, all the rules and the on campus dorms, each with its wicked witch guarding the door to paradise.  “Jack, the upperclassmen ignore us and the lowerclassmen are such immature jerks.  I thought it would be different when I came here.  Got a paper due, have to cut this short.”  I was looking forward to Christmas break and seeing her again but no such luck.  My dream just turned into a nightmare.  End of November we headed to the far east and jungle warfare school, often referred to as the course on how to survive K-rations.  Christmas I received a card from Julia with a few scrawls inside.  “Hi Jack, back here of break and so many parties to attend.  Hope you are well.”

 

Into the second half of her freshman year I was into my year of hell.  My dream was survival, count off each day on my reverse calendar and make it through the year.  Her letters were shorter and fewer during that time.  Towards the end of my tour she started writing about the new stars in the night sky, the new possible dreams.  “Dear Jack, I must tell you that I found out I have little talent for art.  I’m good at drawing but poor at composition.  It’s time for me to change my major.  Besides, all those old dead white men and their stories are boring me.  I want to read the exciting fiction of the future authors.  I want to see and feel the other cultures that our own culture has suppressed for so long.  I’m leaving at the end of my spring session.  I want to take the time off and find myself.”  I had about a month to go when I got hit.  It wasn’t a bad wound but it was inconvenient.

 

The question became, what was my next dream?  I was now a corporal recovering from my wound.  Another year to go before that my big decision.  Do I stay or do I go, and if I go, to what?  The only skill I had at the moment was carrying a rifle.  The captain said I should re-enlist.  He would promise to get me into some sort of job training.  What would I like to be?  Take a week or two and think about, go visit some of the specialist groups and talk to them.  “I’ll arrange it.” he said.  I became a heavy equipment operator in the Engineers, seemed safe enough.  One day I found a letter in my box.  “Dear Jack, I’ve been living in a commune.  Everyone is so understanding.  We spend our time growing our own food and sharing the chores.  Some of the men are jerks but the women are very supportive of one another.  We’re on our way to a peace rally, we are fighting to war in Vietnam.  Have you left yet?  You must get out and stop supporting the government’s war against women and children.  You could come and join us.”  There was more about a few of the people in her commune.  David was so brave because he opposed the war and wouldn’t register for the draft.  And Paul have been arrested for leading a sit-in held in the local draft office.  all these heroes were so brave, at least to her.  And she was going to have Paul’s child.  Meanwhile, Paul had been arrested for the arson of an Army recruiter station.  He would face ten years in the federal penitentiary.  But she would wait and they would then live their dream.

 

Finally the day came when I would have to pay for my training again.  We were shipped out to Vietnam where we were needed to do all manner of work.  I found myself being dropped onto small hill tops so I could grade landing strips for helicopters and observation planes.  A platoon of us would be ferried into the new area where firebases were to be established and an infantry company was assigned to protect us.  You’d think I’d be safe.  Four months later own hill top was over run.  Several companies came to our rescue, if you can call it that.  Half our engineer platoon were killed, most of the rest of us were wounded to one degree or another.  The original company assigned to us took very heavy casualties.  During the night I lay concealed in the brush i looked up.  Most of the stars were gone.  The next day they evacuated what was left of us.  The return to semi normal began but the road would be long.  Some officer decided that I deserved a couple of medals and I didn’t dispute that point.  I already had a new dream.  I dreamed that I would recover sufficiently to start civilian life.  I dreamed I could put these hard years past me.  I had not heard from Julia for over a year.  I figured she was busy raising a child and doing what she needed to wait for Paul.  Besides, I didn’t have her address and her father wasn’t speaking to her.  Her mother would have given it to me but I couldn’t see the need.

 

A year after I left the service my mother forwarded a letter from Julia.  She had addressed it to me at the base where I had last served and thanks to the slow efficiency of the service and post office it had been sent to my “official” address, my parents’ house.  I was working for the gas and electric company operating a backhoe and occasionally articulated loader.  The boom in housing tracks assured work for many of us returning veterans for the next decade or two.  Not exactly my dream job but it would do.   Julia wrote, “I’ve had a miscarriage and Paul was angry.  Said I wasn’t taking proper care of myself.  He will be released from prison but I really don’t want to be around him.  Paul has become bitter, he feels his sacrifice was in vain and no one really cares.  I left the commune, the once friendly and hopeful people have become selfish and greedy.  They are more worried about their future now.  I’m not sure what to do now.  All my dreams never turned out the way they should.  I can’t go home, Dad is still angry with me and Mom is of no help.  Oh sure, she manages to send me a little money now and again and I have a drudge of a job.  I get by but that is about all.  All those dreams, what happened?  The sky is black at night.  Maybe it’s just the big city lights that have killed all the stars, I don’t know.  Think of me sometime.”

 

I had a week of vacation left so I talked to my boss and the following Friday I was in my pickup heading for the city.  There wasn’t much to go on.  Not sure about the address, it was almost six months old.  But maybe I could find her.  Heavens knows what I could do for Julia.  We had never been sweethearts.  she was the dreamer and I was the realist, not much in common for more than a friendship.  Hell, I almost forgot what she looked like, funny how time does that to people.  But I tried to figure which neighborhood would fit her circumstances.  It was Wednesday the next week when I stopped in at a cafe for lunch near the local university.  Julia was waiting tables.  She looked at least five years older than her age.  I only recognized her because of the name tag she wore.  I asked for coffee and a a sandwich.  I don’t think she ever really looked at me.  The bright light in her eyes had gone out and she was going through the motions of taking orders and ferrying plates from the counter to the tables.  I asked her when her shift ended and she gave me that irritated look of don’t bother me, you jerk.  “Julia, it me. Jack.  Your old friend from the neighborhood.”  She stood quite still for several minutes looking at my face with that quizzical look of non belief and surprise.  I thought she was about to flood the room with tears.

“Jack.  Is it really you?  My god.  You look so different.”

“Yes, it’s me.  So when do you get off?”

We spent half the night catching up on old times and all the water over the dam.  Gradually I could detect the old light come back into her eyes, life started to blossom again.  “So what do you want, Julia?”

She turned her face away from mine and stared deeply into the wall.  Maybe five minutes passed before she turned to look directly into my eyes.  “I want to dream again.  Do you think there’s a chance?”

I wished I had an answer.

 

Take Another Shot Of Courage

 

Chris stepped down onto the platform, the air parched and seared his skin, sweat dried before it had time to roll down his face.  Yuma is not a forgiving town, its geographical location known for its being inhospitable to the average American.  Not that any Mexican or Mexican American fared any better.  Here the climate made no distinctions among individuals.  A suitcase made of little more than laminated cardboard and cloth held what few personal items he owned.  Such was the physical history on our subject.  But as light holds promise, so too, does our young man.  For young men always hold promise until such time as all goodwill is forsaken.  The young man took a breath and started on his way to the bus counter inside.  Chris called to mind the need to call his uncle and let him know when the bus would arrive in Tacna.  After a few minutes walk he reached to ticket counter.  “Let me have a ticket to Tacna, please.”

“Round trip or one way?” came the voice on the man behind the counter.

“One way.”  Chris’s voice sounded non committal, almost passive.   “What time does the next bus leave?”

“Two thirty.  You should get to Tacna about four this afternoon.  You got a job there by any chance?”

Chris ignored the question and paid for the ticket.  Then he went to the bench by the bus gate to wait.  It won’t be long now.  Better call Uncle John as he noticed the  telephone in the nook by the exit.  Glad I don’t have to walk far as he approached the phone, put in the quarters, and dialed the number.  After the fifth ring he heard the receiver being picked up.  A woman’s voice, a bit on the old side, answered.

“Hello.” Was all he heard.  He felt slightly unnerved,”Aunt Martha, is that you?”  A woman responded, “Chris, is this Chris?  Your uncle was expecting your call earlier today.  Where are you?”

“Aunt Martha, I’m here in Yuma at the station.  The train had problems and they had to attach a new engine.  Would you tell Uncle John I’ll be in Tacna at four this afternoon?”

 

The ride to Tacna was dull, boring, uncomfortable.  The seats were confining and the landscape will filled with either empty cheap housing and RV parks for the snow birds or barren dessert with the occasional irrigation track among the ruins of bus stops decades older than the interstate.  Half lost in thought Chris was thinking as the bus rolled on, this is a lazy land, nothing to see or do and it’d be too hot anyway.  Can’t be any worse than juvie, maybe better.  I don’t know.  Can’t say as I care, really.  He looked at his watch.  Can’t remember if this place is in the same time zone.  I swear, this state is at least fifty years in the past.  The bus started to slow and the driver announced “Tacna”.  Chris sat up in his seat expecting something but didn’t know what.  Why is the bus stopping, there is no traffic.  Now he’s making a left turn.  guess we’re going into ‘town’.  The voice in his head was tired.  Tired of traveling, tired of waiting, just tired.Now the driver made another turn and stopped the vehicle in front of the post office.  Chris read the sign with a sigh of tired resignation.  Great, population 400.  Yeah, and I bet it’s all old people.  He picked up his suitcase and walked down the aisle to the door.  “Have a good day.” was the sound that came from the driver.  Startled, Chris turned around and just nodded.  Then he stepped off the bus and started to look around.  The door closed behind him and he heard the release of the air brakes as the bus started to pull away from the curb.  A horn sounded from the side parking lot and attracted his attention.  In a moment a tall heavy set man got out of the lone pickup and started to walk towards Chris.  Must be Uncle John he thought.

 

“Howdy Chris, you’re late.  What happened?”  Uncle John’s voice was direct and forceful but not loud.  He had a voice that was use command and respect.

Are you kidding me? Chris thought he was being targeted. Why’s he jumping on me for?  Suddenly the answer jumped up like a scared jackrabbit,”The engine broke down on the way and they had to get another one.  Don’t go blaming me for that.”

“Throw your bag in the bed and get in, I’m behind schedule.” was all Uncle John said as he and the boy started to the truck.  No sooner than Chris had placed himself in the seat and shut the door then the truck started and Uncle John quickly backed it up and sped out of the parking lot slinging a bit of gravel.    The irrigated fields went by counting the minutes of silence as the truck cruised down the county hardtop.  for chris the silence had almost become comfortable.  “Chris, I didn’t ask you for an excuse.  I asked what happened.  Let’s get one thing straight between you and me and Aunt Martha.  We aren’t here to blame you for anything.  Your aunt and I require two things from you.  The first is that level with us, be truthful.  Lies don’t build trust and respect in a man or woman.  The second is that you take responsibility for yourself.  That means when work needs doing, you do it whether we ask you or not.  This is a hard land.  You can’t afford to lay around and let it kill you.  What you make of yourself is how the people around here will treat you.  Do you understand me?”

Chris’s mind was alive with thought he was being disrespected, Wow, what’s this old man trying to shine on me.  He must think I’m an idiot.  Who is he to tell me how to live my life?  Finally he gave a simple “Yeah, ok” in a voice that sounded bored and almost disrespectful.

Uncle John hit the brakes real hard, almost throwing Chris into the windshield.  The big man place his right arm on the back of the seat and turned his body and head to fully face the boy.  Now his voice boomed out.  “Boy, your daddy skedaddled and left your mother when you were six.  She had a hard life doing right by you and it cost her.  Dying of cancer ain’t a whole lot of joy.  Particularly knowing that you were in juvenile hall because you didn’t want to grow up.  Now you hear me real good.  I aim to do right by my sister.  That’s the only reason you’re in this state and out here.  I ain’t shading the truth when I say this land can kill you.  Now maybe you can lit out for Yuma or Tuscon and any part of California you think you can make in a couple of days.  But you’re soft, boy.  You don’t have the skills you need to survive into your twenties.  I can teach you a lot of skills, ones that will see you make something of yourself.  And I don’t mean for me or your mother.  I mean for yourself.  But understand me real good, boy.  I won’t take attitude off you.  And you don’t want me all over you like shit on a stick.”  He paused for a few more minutes then turned back to face the steering wheel.  “We’ve got another half hour to go to the next job.  I gave my word that the job would be done before night fall, so you have plenty of time to think about what I said.”  With that Uncle John put the truck in gear and sped on down the road.

 

Chris was deep in though as Uncle John let the truck glide into the driveway and turned off the engine.  “You hungry?  Your aunt’s been keeping dinner warm of the stove.  I usually wash up out here before I go in.  Sort of an old habit I just can’t break.”  The two figures stood at the large wash basin soaping up their hands and arms and faces.  Each poured one of the two pitchers of water over the soapy areas and then over their heads.  Chris thought the water feels good, just cool enough to take the sting of sun and dirt out of my skin.  Air is still hot yet, wonder if it ever cools down at night.  Uncle John interrupted his concentration.  “Come on Chris, supper’s waiting.” Then he went through the door and stood by the table.  “I hope we’re not too late Marth.  I know you were inconvenienced.”

“John, it’s no bother at all.”  Her look of admiration was evident to Chris.  “Thank you, Chris, for helping John.  I can tell he’s pleased.”  This friendly acknowledgement caught him by surprise.  My god, he thought to himself, no one’s ever said that to me before.  Then he stammered a reply, “Uncle John did all the work, I just helped a little.”

“You did good, Chris.  I would have been out there another hour without your help.  We’ll go out tomorrow, I’ve got a couple of jobs lined up.”  And with that, Aunt Martha put supper on the table and grace was said.  As Chris lay in bed his mind gave way to the possibilities of living here.  I’ll give it a chance, see what comes.  Still, I rather be in LA.  This place looks desolate, man, not ever a backwater town.  I wonder if there are any girls here?  Probably real hicks with cow licks.  He chuckled at that thought.  Sleep crept in soon enough and eased the tiredness of body and mind.

 

He was rudely awaken the next morning by Uncle John.  The door opened and his uncle uttered, “Time to get up, we’re burning daylight.”  Burning daylight? Wasn’t than in a John Wayne movie?  Burning day light?  What the hell? as the sleep cleared out of his head.  He pulled back the curtains, the first light of day was upon the sky.  His aunt came in to advise him, “Dear, I washed you clothes last night so you’d have something clean to wear.  Breakfast’s on the table.  Better hurry, John tells me it’s going to be a busy day.”  As she closed the door Chris pulled back the covers and sat up.  Sure enough, clean clothes were on the chair.  So he pulled on his clothes and went into the kitchen.  John was sitting at the table drinking black coffee and spearing a piece of thick slab bacon with his fork.  “How many eggs do you want, Dear?” Aunt martha was poised with one in her hand ready to crack the shell and slip the raw egg into the skillet.  “I usually do them easy over but if you want them different…” her voice trailed off.  “Uh, sure, easy over’s good.  Uh, two thank you.” was his reply as he sat down.  Uncle John reached for the pot, “Want some coffee?  we have mild if you’d rather…”  “Sure, coffee’s fine.  I take it black, please.”  Chris was amazed how polite he was being.  Maybe they had more charm than he thought.

For several weeks this routine continued.  His uncle was teaching him simple repairs and would leave him unsupervised at times.  The effect on Chris was quite visible.  He went from a hostile young teen to a young man more sure of his capabilities.  By the end of the fourth week the transformation was almost complete.It is said that to change one’s habits requires a minimum of three weeks.  The same is true of living in a new place, after three weeks it starts to feel like “home”.  And Chris was starting to feel at home and comfortable with the new changes in his life.  But for ever three steps forward one must be prepared for that one step back, expect it in due course.

September was upon him and the need to complete his basic education.  Rather than send their school age children sixty miles to the nearest public school the local families had established a coop of home schooling.  Several of the the men and women were retired teachers and ready to donate a few hours each week to the education of the young.  At any one time there were no more than sixty to seventy primary and secondary school students.  Thus student to teacher ratios were often single digit.  Chris had not graduated from high school.  In fact, he was way behind due to the precarious family situation and run ins with police.  So Uncle John informed him that school would begin next Monday.  “Don’t worry about going.  I sometimes come and teach welding and machine repair to the boys and a couple of girls who want to learn.  Just remember, there are no secrets in this community.  Everyone knows why you are hear and a little of your background with the police.  But they don’t know all the details and that is as it should be.  So tell them as little as you can.  Just take it slow and after a while they’ll accept you.  You got to build trust with them, right?”

“But Uncle John, what do I need with high school?  You’re teaching me how to make a living, aren’t you?”

“Because it’s a big world out there and you need to know more about it.  Math and science and reading and writing.  These are the tools you always have with you.  No one can borrow them and no one can steal or take them from you.  You’ll see.  For me the work slows down as winter closed in.  That’s when I read and maybe write in my journal.  You need something like that.”

 

Well, the subject was closed as far as Uncle John was concerned and Chris knew it.  So he went to school dutifully and tried to fit into the school and social scene.  Aunt Martha was often at the school with a few of the other mothers.  It was agreed that she was one of the best cooks in the town and taught the girls and a few of the boys how to survive on bare necessities.  For those who wished more accomplishment in the art of cuisine.  Lunch was a combined effort of parents and students.  One learns well the art of patience when a first grader is given the task of placing peanut butter on one slice of bread and a second grader the task of placing the jelly.  Some of the fathers came by each week to spend a leisurely lunch with their children or teach on the topic of growing crops or how to build irrigations ditches or some other subject like accounting.  Fact was, Chris and the other boys were getting courses in practical education they could never have achieved in a regular public school.

 

Christmas in small communities can be a very joyous time of year.  The lack of commercialization and absence of heavy vehicle traffic patterns keep the peace and tranquility, if not the spirit, of the holiday.  But the ghost of Christmas Past visited Chris two days before school let out.  As Uncle John had point out several times the adults in the town knew about problems Chris had with the police but were not aware of the particulars.  He also warned that a few of the teenagers knew that same information.  So it came as no surprise that one of those teens, an older boy, managed to search the internet and find a couple of newspaper articles about the particulars of that involvement.  For the first time Chris was confronted with his past and was unprepared.  The teen’s name was Will Graves and regarded as something of a troublemaker.  “Hey Chris, look what I found!  You’re a jail bird, a thief.  You’ve spent time in juvenile prison.”  The words immediately froze Chris in his seat and filled him with fear.  Will continued, “Look everybody, I have copies, pass them around.  We got us a thief and jail bird in our school.  He’s a gang member.  Read it!”

Before he could think words of protest leaped out of his mouth, “No, that’s not me.  It’s a mistake.  You’re wrong…”  His voice trailed off as he started to remember Uncle John’s admonitions.

Will started in again, “Liar, your picture was in the paper.  Liar, liar, we got you dead to rights.  You’re just a filthy thief and a liar.”

Those words landed with heavy blows against his psyche.  All Chris could think to do was run, run out of the room, out of the school.  Just run, run as far as he could.  Down the road, under the interstate, past the auto repair shop, into the dessert.  The chill air cooled his burning cheeks as he traveled several miles toward the Mohawk mountains.  Finally he stopped and sat down, leaned back on a boulder and held his face to the sky.  Over and over he kept asking himself, why.  I was happy here.  Why did it have to end now?  Where will I go, what will I do?  Night fell and the air turned frigid.  Chris had no coat and felt chilled to the bone as the cold imposed a strong numbing sleep upon his brain.

 

One of the mothers called Aunt Martha, “Is it true?  Did you nephew spend time in jail?  How come you didn’t tell us he was a thief?  Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Hold on Judy.  Calm down.  Now tell me what has happened.”  Aunt Martha’s inner strength was her coolness under pressure.  She had a way of exerting calm in her presence.  Judy related part of the story.  “I’ll be down directly, Judy.  Wait for me.”  Then she put on her coat and hat, opened to door and left for a ten minute walk.  The incident weighted heavily on her mind.  I hope Chris didn’t try to lie his way out of it.  I’ll see what I can do.

When she entered the small school the three teachers and four of the mothers confronted her.  Generally the comments ran on about how could she and her husband do this to them and isn’t the boy dangerous and how they would have to start locking their doors at night.  But Aunt Martha’s unflinching warm smile and calming influence won out even when Will poked a copy of the newspaper story to her face.  “I’ve seen it dear, I know all about it.”  As if to further make her point, she tore up the papers and let them drop to the floor.  “Will, did you enjoy hurting Chris?  Wouldn’t kindness be a better way?  As my John always says, ‘No matter what you think of a man, never needlessly make him your enemy.’  Do you think that would be a wiser course of action?”  Will, gently chastised, retreated from the circle of women and sought his seat.  Aunt Martha continued,”Where is Chris now?”

One of the mothers said he has bolted out the door and was running towards the Interstate.  Aunt Martha looked around and saw the coat on one of the pegs.  “Oh my, he didn’t take his coat.  John won;t be home for another hour or so.  Well, I better go wait for him.”  As if to reassure them before she left she added.  “Now that you know more of my nephew’s past, please judge him by the progress he’s made since.  His life wasn’t easy.”

 

Uncle John drove up in that easy way of his and quickly washed up.  Martha had filled the basin with hot water only minutes before and the warmth felt good on his hands and face.  Martha’s face told him something was wrong.  “Chris was confronted with his past in school today.  Will Graves found the newspaper articles online.  Now Chris has run off.  No one knows where.”  Uncle John thought for a moment then dais, “I’ll call the garage, maybe they saw him.”  Yes, Don Woods remembered seeing the boy running.  “He was jogging, really.  Had his head down most of the time.  I thought is a little odd, myself.  He in any trouble?”  “No, no trouble, just doesn’t know what to do.” Uncle John left it at that.  The word would get around soon enough.  No, he had to find the boy.  It was dark now, and cold, suppose to hit freezing tonight, maybe lower.  “Martha, get me a couple of blankets and I’ll get a bottle of brandy out of the cupboard.

Uncle John spent the better part of the night looking for Chris.  That is often the way with lost sheep.  The sky was getting light when he stumbled upon the boy, the body tightly curled and looking like one of the boulders.  He picked Chris up and bundled the boy in the blankets.  Then as he held the boy in his arms walked the three miles back to the truck.  He placed Chris gently onto the seat then went round to the driver’s side and started the engine, mildly racing it to build up the heat and let if flood into the cab.  Then he took a shot glass and filled it with brandy, held it to the boy’s lips and got some of it into the boy’s mouth.  His skin had that bluish tone from the long night’s exposure to cold.  Chris started to stir.  “Chris, take a shot, you need the shock of alcohol to get your blood going.  Come on, now.  Drink it.  Good, okay now, one more, just one more.”  The cab was beginning to feel warm, the heater fan was on high, and the boy’s skin was losing its bluishness, turning more pale white.  Uncle John put the cap on the bottle and eased the truck into gear.  I’ll phone the doc when I get Chris to bed.  Have him come over and check him out.

 

Chris was well enough a few days later to get out of bed and into his clothes.  Aunt Martha was a very good nurse.  As she told Chris, that is how she met John.  “I’ll tell you that story another time, when you’ve got a sweetheart of your own.  John will be home in an hour and I’ll have supper on the table.  We’ve missed having you at the table.”  As if by some mysterious communication John was home to that very hour.  Supper was laid and they all sat and ate the leftover roast beef.  Uncle John didn’t like turkey, said it slowed him down, made him feel sleepy.  About half way through the meal Uncle John spoke directly to Chris.  “Well, son.  You learned a lesson the hard way.  Running away from your problems damn near killed you.  It’s always better to face a problem directly.  Be honest with about it.  Many years ago when I was a young man, a little old than you, I faced that situation.  And like you I faltered.  I tried to lie my way out of it, pretended it didn’t exist.  I came up shot in life and my running away almost killed me.  I had to go back and face the people I had lied to, had let down, had failed in their trust.  To me, I would rather have died that go hat in hand and beg their forgiveness.  Humbleness comes when you overcome the need for false pride.  Chris, that’s where you are now.  You’ve got to the make the decision.  Don’t do it for me or Martha.  You got to do it for yourself.  I’m going to suggest to you that you and I go round to groups of the families here and you make amends.  You apologize for lying and betraying their trust.  You ask for their forgiveness.  You tell them why you ran.  There’s no shame in honesty.  And by the way, Mr Graves dealt with Will.  Perhaps a little too harshly for my sense of justice.  But son, Will’s not your enemy.  Don’t treat him like one.  He, like you, has his faults.  You let me know tomorrow what your decision is.”  Then turning to Martha, “I’m ready for some pie.”

 

The next evening at supper Chris revealed his decision.  “I’m scared, Uncle John.  I’m really scared of what they think, what they might say.  I’ll try but I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Chris, it takes no courage to tell a lie, never did.  But it’s truth that gives us the courage to say what is true.  You’ve taken a shot of courage to get this far.  Martha and I will be with you.  We’ll stand behind you.  And when you’re ready to speak, just take another shot of courage.”

The Daddy Test

One Sunday my daughter and her boyfriend drove up from the valley to our house in the mountains. We were having a family affair of some kind and my step daughter was staying the weekend with her husband and two children as were my step son with wife and brood in tow.  If I remember I was roasting a nice bone in rib roast and fixing the trimmings.  You know how that goes, bake potatoes, green beans with almonds and what all that went with it.  Family get togethers are like that.  A lot of food, some good wines, all the good things in life.  Meanwhile my wife played with her grandchildren and traded gossip with the adult children.  We were close to sitting down to eat when Rebecca, my daughter, and her beau walked in.  Introductions all the way round and niceties of family behavior, the curiosity of children satisfied for the moment, and now we are ready to eat.  I carve the roast and the women serve the food.  Time for a good wine and a little supper talk.

 

Rob doesn’t have much to say and I don’t blame him, after all, this is a new experience.  He doesn’t know us and we don’t know him and my daughter caters to his needs.  Jeff, the step daughter’s husband, is talking about work and the latest management screw up and what a grind work is.  Hey, I’ve been there and can commiserate with him.  We talk about his prospects for a raise and a possible promotion.  Rob’s only comment is “Oh, you work for that company?”  Well that and the weather are safe subjects.  My step son, Bobby starts to talk about moving to Colorado, he thinks he can get a job there as an electrician.  His wife chimes in that the community is rural.  We have discussed this before after they came back from a trip there to scout the area.  Again, Rob is being polite, I guess, “Is that up in the mountains?”  Bobby answers his questions and Rob is silent once more.  I’m thinking this could be a nice boy for my daughter, I don’t know, he hasn’t said much.  My impression is still neutral at this point.  The food and wine are making my enjoyment of the day complete.  so the end of the meal is at hand and I am lending a hand clearing the table and cleaning up in the kitchen.  I have a tendency to clean as I cook but today the food prep got away from my usual efforts and so I load the dishwasher and do a few odds and ends in the sink while others are putting the left overs away.

 

Now the fire needs another log or two and a bit of stoking and ash removal.  Wood fires take some maintenance.  Rob has never lived in a house where such things are commonplace and I explain the basic process of using wood heat what the chores that must be done to keep that heat steady.  Rob has a blank face.  Well, not everyone knows this things and the younger generation is remarkably ignorant on the basics of living.  So I sit in my chair and immediately three cats are in my lap, they aren’t dumb.  Daddy’s lap is warm in the winter and he strokes our fur occasionally and gives us treats.  He is the good daddy.  The Saint Bernard is at my feet expecting a rub or two with my feet.  God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  Now the conversation begins.  Rebecca explains that she and Rob are attending the local junior college and she is getting good grades.  I ask her what she is taking and she answers, the usual second year fare and her GPA is 3.0.  “Ah, good, very good indeed.  Do you have any problem classes?”  “Yes, I’m having problems with college algebra.”  I answer that one way to overcome that problem is to write out all the formulas and laws on 3 by 5 cards and make sure you memorize them.  The other is to do all the questions in each chapter.  Yes, I know, it’s a pain but that usually works.  Certainly helped me out.”

 

Now I ask Rob what he is taking in JC.  Rob says he is taking English composition and Algebra I.  “Oh, is that all?”  “Well, I have to work and so I don’t have a great deal of time for more classes and studying.”  Yes, yes, yes, time is a common problem for the young.  So I innocently inquire, “What do you want to do with your life?”  Out of the corner of my eye I see that Jeff has perked up in anticipation.  Yes, I did ask that very question of him and he failed most miserably in his answer.  The young, as a rule, seldom know what they want to do in life.  I know this is true because I didn’t know at that age any more than the average teenager/young adult.  We often back into our careers under some rather unusual circumstances.  Well. rob had his answer ready for me.  “I want to teach literature in public secondary school.”  Ah, most commendable of him.  Ask a leading question and watch them step into it, deeply.  “So, who are your favorite authors?”  That would be an appropriate question of someone who wants the teach literature, wouldn’t you think?  Sensing that perhaps his memory was offline at the moment I ventured that I liked literature and found the early novelists to be interesting.  “Certainly Pilgrims progress excites the mind of the believers while Dante showed us the torture of religious conviction when taken to the limit.”  Stunned silence.  “Still, while I find Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters interesting I appreciate Hard all the more for that historic period.”  More silence, “But perhaps you favor John Galsworthy’s critique of English society and government at the turn of the century.  And certainly Somerset Maugham wrote critical novels and short stories.  Did you ever read The Moon And Sixpence?”  Poor boy, his eye were like a deer caught in the headlights.  Seems he has never bothered to read literature.  “I’ve never read those authors.”  “Ah, then who is your favorite author?”  There you go kid, you should be able to supply one name.  Well, that name escaped his memory.

 

Meanwhile my eldest granddaughter came down the stairs with a most impatient message.  “Grampa, the computer doesn’t work!”  “Oh, Heather, that’s too bad.  I’ll be right up.”  So I disengaged the cats from my lap and started up the stairs accompanied by Jeff, Bobby, and of all people, Rob.  I go into the bedroom where I have an old 286 machine I built myself and sit down in front of the screen.  I see the blue screen of death.  the computer has “locked up”  or more precisely, it has reached an endless loop state and program can’t recover.  Rob is the first to offer advice.  I need to use control, alt, and delete to break the loop.  “Rob, the operating system is BSD, a version of UNIX.  A simple break command will suffice.”  And it did.  Again, Rob was quick with another stock piece of advice.  “Maybe you need to run the Defrag program?”  Rob, this is UNIX.  One mounts and unmounts the files.  The utility to run is somewhat different from Microsoft.  The real problem is the MS-DOS operating system these game run on.  It’s a piece of horridly written crap.  So I simply take the simulator for MS-DOS and reset it and the programs will run again.  There are floppy disk programs the kids are playing on, very simple programming.  This is not like the Pentium 4 I have in the other room, different animal.  As I was finishing what I was doing, Bobby looked at Rob and said,”My dad knows a lot about computers, it’s his job.”  Another deer caught in the headlights.

 

After Rob and Rebecca left for the long drive back down the mountain I hear Jeff sniggering.  Karen, his wife asked what was so funny.  “You remember when your dad gave me the Daddy Test?  Well Rob just flunked it big time.”  Karen was giggling, “You mean that’s why he had that scowl on his face?”  Jeff was jubilant for Rob had flunked the Daddy Test far worse that he.  I mean, Jeff was almost in tears from the laughter.  Bobby was amused as was his wife, Sylvia.  I gave her that female version of the Daddy Test before they eloped.  As for Rob, rebecca told me that for the two hour trip home he was raging at me.  In fact, he kept it up for two days.  Hey, if you don’t know your shit why pretend that you do?  Two lessons in life everyone needs to learn: never bullshit a bullshitter; and never assume Daddy it dumb and stupid.  Rebecca told me that Rob’s failure merely moved up the timetable of moving out and moving on.  Rob, well I guess he is still working at 7-11 and telling all the tennyboppers how smart he is.

Still The One

After all these years, you’re still the one.  I had an appointment downtown in the city and since I am averse to traveling on the commuter trains during rush hour I had taken a mid morning train.  The meeting was scheduled for late afternoon and not wanting to waste the entire day worrying about its outcome, there were some picayune details that could affect my tax return and hence my income, I resolved to spend a few hours shopping.  My daughter’s birthday was coming up and I had no idea what I should give her, I am not up on the latest fad or fashion.  Besides, she is of an age where the gift must either be practical or esoteric.  I detest practical so I opted for esoteric and that meant searching in the out of the way shops.  You know the ones, sort of second hand and Asian import places when one just might find a real bargain or even a hidden antique.

 

I walked up the boulevard a couple of miles, a good stretch of the leg as they say, to an area where the streets are narrow and the buildings past their prime by several decades.  Red brick with soft edges, the decades of erosion, face the store fronts and apartments above them and the mix of inhabitants, both young and old seem to have that sort of worn look to match the neighborhood.  The haberdashers, dressmakers, green grocers, and dry goods stores left long ago after the invasion of the A&P and the cut-rate chain stores.  Customer loyalty switched by necessity to lower prices, the affect of lower wages and higher rents.  Life here is a struggle, survival of the fittest.  It was the third shop I entered that was, by chance, a fortuitous adventure.  The owners were in the process of liquidating their inventory as best they could before selling the lot to consignment brokers.  The doors to the courtyard in the back were open and a small group of people were gathered around a couple seated at one of several tables.  Curiosity propelled me into the courtyard to witness this event.  Several minutes passed as I stood observing what looking like a celebration of some sort.  Perhaps it was a wedding anniversary or the retirement of the couple, I could not tell.  A young man of forty something approached me (at my age, most people are younger, believe me) and stared rather hard at me for at least a minute.  “I’m sorry if I have intruded upon a private party but the door was open and the joyful noises were so inviting.”  I hoped that my apology would be accepted.  “I know you.  I know who you are!” the young man was quite enthusiastic on this point.  “You’re the writer!  I bought your book.  Look, momma, papa, this is Mr Lynn.  The writer.”  I was stunned.  True, I have published two novels and a few short stories but I am hardly a household name.  My sales and income will bear that point out.

 

I found myself being ushered into the presence of a couple who might have been into their seventies together.  A strange thing about age is that the longer a couple remains married the more then tend to look like each other.  If it were not for the long hair of the one I would have had difficulty telling the husband from the wife.  Well, the dress helped identify her, too.  Another son brought a chair for me and placed it beside the couple, obviously I have become a person of importance in their lives.  The husband started, “I’m Joseph and this is my wife, Margret, Joe and Maggie to our friends.  This is our fiftieth wedding anniversary so we are celebrating, as you can see.”  Joe pointed to the man who identified me, “That is John, my oldest son and that’s his wife, the one in the yellow dress.  Behind me, ‘come here Joe’, is Joe junior, my second son.  Maggie always said the second son should have my name, it gives him an equal position with my first born.”  Joe paused for a minute and beamed at Maggie and then looked around at the other guests.  “Joe junior’s wife isn’t here at the moment, she went to fetch so more food from the Italian place around the corner, Luigi’s Place.  It’s not like the old days when Luigi was alive.  It’s all canned sauce and over cooked pasta.”  A few of the other guests were giveing assenting nods and sighs.

 

One by one Joe introduced his guests, neighbors of many years, many decades.  Occasionally Maggie would have something to say about  them, “Elenore used to babysit John and Joe when I had to see my mother when she was ill.  God rest her soul.”  Or “David was always handy with the electricity in the building.”  I could feel the affection she had for each of her neighbors that were present.  My life was shifted back in time to the “old days”, times of which I still retained a few memories however dim today.  So I asked, “How did you meet each other?”  There was a prolonged silence, a couple of sighs, and then Joe spoke.  “We grew up in the same neighborhood in Baltimore.  We went to the same schools and the same church.  It was June and I already had received my draft notice.  Well, one thing led to another and the next thing we knew, we eloped.  Maggie had to skip her senior year and I had to find a job.”  I worked general labor, you know, not very good pay.  Life was hard and her father hated me.”  “Joe, you know that wasn’t true, my father just didn’t think you were ready for marriage.”  “Maybe your old man was right, I don’t know.  All I know is that we had a one room apartment and your were pregnant.  I was working for a small factory that only paid minimum wage, what that, a dollar an hour maybe?  We either walked or took the bus, couldn’t afford a car.  God, how I hated those days.”  “Joe!  We were happy, you know that.  Remember?  We’d eat crab at that place two blocks around the corner.  It was cheap then, not like today.”  “Then the factory went bust and I was out of work again.  You were pregnant with Joe Junior then.  I didn’t think we were going to make it.  I felt so crazy trying to find work and make ends meet.  Sometimes I think I should have enlisted, learn a trade and maybe have a nest egg when I got out.  You remember how bad it was, Maggie.  But my aunt gave us the money for the hospital bill.  What was that, about four hundred.  That was a lot back then, about eight or nine weeks work before taxes.”

 

Joe and Maggie told me the story of their lives together.  All the hard times and the good times.  The sons chimed in with their accounts.  It was not your typical Hollywood story with special effects and neatly written scripts and that happy ever after routine.  well, perhaps they were having that happy ever after routine now.  So I asked,”How did you come to buy this place and how long were did you have it?”  Joe continued,”Oh, the big factories like Martin closed down, went down south or where ever.  what was left was still heavily union, know what I mean?  You had to know a couple of guys in the union to find work.  No union card, no work, that simple.  A lot of the small places folded up, went out of business.  Seems like every two years, when I could get a job, the place I worked for went bust.  What year was it, Maggie?  About 1982?  Yeah, the year Reagan got elected.”  “Yes, dear, that was the year.  And my uncle John, in this city, died and poor Aunt Betty was left with this shop.”  “Oh yeah, I remember now.  Yeah, your aunt Betty didn’t know anything about this business and she said for us to come and live with her and run the place.  Well, not that we had any other options then.  But hey, Maggie has a head for figures so she took to the bookkeeping real quick.  And me, I could talk to customers, you know.  A little positive talk, a little smooze, and I would have me a sale.  Between Maggie and me, we did all right.  I ain’t saying we got rich, but the business kept us in body and soul and a little more.  And then when Aunt Betty died she left both the business and the building to us.  Well, you got to figure, eight apartments can give you a decent income.  Now we’re fifty years older and a developer offered us a nice price on this building.  this neighborhood is suppose to undergo renovation.  So we took the money, gonna go to Florida, maybe.  Well maybe not that far, I here North Carolina is a good place, cheap living and railroad access for half a days trip back here.  we’ve got grandkids to spoil, you know?”

 

I was about to leave for my appointment when Joe pulled me aside in front of Maggie.  “Babe, you know I was so tempted at times to cut and run on you and the kids.  But you know, after all these years you’re still the one I want whispering in my ear.”  “I know, dear, I know.”

Telling Tales And Writing Short Stories

The number of books out there that tell you how to write short stories and novels are extensive. I mean, there are so well meaning English and Literature graduates and PhDs ready and willing to tell you exactly how it’s done. Except they tend to renege on their promise. I will tell you a secret, there ain’t no formula and never was. So save your money and I will try to tell you something of the process.

 

Back in 2003 I had my university degree.  Now I was approximately fifty three, had been in telecommunication since 1972 as a lineman, then cable splicer and then electronic switch technician and then voice and data engineer.  By 2001 I was out of work, the great telecom bubble burst and left about half a million of us out of work and most of us would stay out of the industry.  Well, I had been writing poetry as a creative outlet (I will admit that my poetry was mediocre at best) and I though I could turn to writing fiction.  I mean, what the hell, I was writing great technical pieces, had a reputation of being able to clarify the complicated.  I mean, how hard is it to write fiction?  God damn hard, let me tell you.  It is a whole new ball game in a different stadium.  Go figure.  Writing is not writing is not writing.  Lesson one.

 

You want to write fiction?  Then keep a journal.  I started keeping journals, making observations and writing down notes.  Why do it?  Because you need to observe life in order to write about it, dummy.  Lesson number two, life is stranger than fiction.  I don’t care how creative you think your are, you literally can”t make up the shit that happens in real life.  But guess what, that doesn’t matter.  Story telling is not about the most unusual things humans do.  All stories share a commonality of human behavior.  We often do the expected but for different reasons.  You see, that is the irony of life.  It’s not so much what we do as the reasons we have for doing it.  Oddball behavior is for science fiction and horror genre.  The rest of us live our lives in that ironic quiet desperation.  That is why you develop the posers of observation.  Notice what people wear, what behaviors they indulge, how they speak.  This is the job of the writer, an observer of human nature.

 

So I spent twelve years trying to write fiction.  I wrote three novels that will never see the light of day.  Why?  They such, pure and simple.  All those creative writing classes don’t teach you much.  Oh sure, you learn about technique but fiction is so much more that technique.  Technique is about formula and only authors like Louis D’Amore write formula and it shows.  Barf, barf, barf.  Well, revelation is upon me, suddenly I can tell a story.  How did that happen?  I’ll tell you very simply.  I started writing essays.  I mean, I wrote on economics, history, politics, you name it.  The first were dry pieces of white toast.  Go and read for yourself, transfers of information with out emotion.  Now go and read John Locke or any number of essayists.  You know what makes them great?  Emotion.  Huh?  Choice of words.  did you ever notice that some words evoke a sense of emotion whereas others are a bit neutral?  Think about it.  You want to convey information and have people read you, give that information a tint of emotion.  Where would Tom Payne be without appealing to the emotions of the patriot and the free man?  He gave you information about the evils of the monarchy, but it take emotion to do something about it.  Get the picture?

 

If poetry is controlled emotion, fiction is emotional content.  Creativity is about emotion in writing, whether it be non fiction, poetry, of fiction.  You will never read this in any book on writing and yet it is obvious as hell.  All those Phds in creative writing they they can’t understand the damn process.  I am amazed.  So, where do you find this emotion?  Oh surely you jest.  Okay, one of the “inspirations’ for my writing is music.  How so?  Simple, good music tells a story.  Did you know that?  Music that is very lyrical, popular songs with a message provide a story, an emotion to build upon.  Take Seals and Croft and one of their hits, Summer Breeze.  Listen to the song and ask yourself what images does the music conjure up in your imagination?  Can you see it?  I am a visual person.  I can visualize a story as I write.  I see it in my mind just as if I were watching some film I produced.  That is what imagination does for you.  Okay, so you are a “visual” person.  the what do you hear, what do you feel, what can you taste or smell?  See what I mean?  It is this sensory awareness you are trying to convey to the reader.

 

So I “see” this “film” on my story, now what.  If you have read my past fifteen of so stories you will notice that they are unedited.  They are raw.  I can go back and see that they need revising.  Choices or verbs, adjectives, phrasing, dialogue, and the list continues.  My wife was upset that I didn’t use the carriage return for dialogue.  Standard procedure in writing.  Yet, if you are going to get the “story” down, that is unimportant.  In fact, it makes more sense in writing no to carriage return after every quote.  I want to keep the continuity of the story, so put it all together.  It’s the story that counts, not the form.  But one of the problems when writing as a visualization is that emotion is lost.  there is no actor to convey that emotion.  Think of film.  what is the importance of the actors?  To convey a sense of emotion that would not otherwise be there.  So when I start the editing process that lack of emotion will jump out at me and I can correct the copy.  See how it works.  Of course the more you write and get into such habits the less you need such wholesale revision.  This is how one can write well.  No need for story boards, extensive outlines, and the rest of the fake crap.  Storytelling is a conspicuous and spontaneous process.  The two adjectives seem like oxymorons but they aren’t.  Stories told according to a formula are stale, unexciting, dull.  The conspicuousness is that we deliberately tell stories in a manner that appears new, fresh, uninhibited.  Note that last adjective.  Mark it well.  Any time you use a formula you inhibit the spontaneity of the story.  It becomes just another rehash of blah, blah, blah.

 

 

Dance With Me

Fall is a glorious time in the wine country just as it is in New England. The end of August starts the harvesting of rich ripe grape clusters and continues through the beginning of September while the work of crushing and fermenting is usually complete by mid October.  Then the wine has been put to a long eighteen months rest in new oak barrels. By the end of October the fall celebrations are under way and autos full of people are flocking to the highways watching the leave first turn varying shades of yellow then red and finally that dark brown that marks the end of their yearly lives. Later when soft rains of Thanksgiving fall they will be disked into the ground and provide the nutrients for the vines.  This work is done each year around the world, from France, Italy, Germany, and many other countries on the European continent to America, Canada, and Mexico on the North American continent to India.  It is an age old practice from the time man first harvested grapes and made wine.

 

Michael and Paula had invited me to their vacation home in the wine country, a modest bungalow that had belonged to his parents, a wedding gift for the couple.  The last of the turning leaf army had straggled back to congested cities and suburban tracts of ticky-tacky yet the leaves still retained the last vestiges of color as if they had waited on my approval.  I approved most gratefully and thanked them for their patience.   The dark grey stone gave the house a sense of age and presence, a lesson of endurance for the younger stucco that sometimes crowded the hillsides.  Michael’s great grandfather had built that house before the turn of the last century, the tremors that so delight the inhabitants in the coastal cities had failed to even move it out of square.  Most of the original land tract had been sold to a couple of grape growers but Paul had one or two acres left on which he tended the few apple and plum trees clustered around the house.  One sprawling oak dominated the property, it was planted in 1895, not long after the house was built.  The gravel lane from the main road was half hidden and one had to traverse a little more than a mile up that path to the top of the hill.  I remember the first time I was on that crest, the view was impressive as fog press the colors into grey wisps and flowed like the sea across row after row of vines.  It was a million dollar view that I hoped would never be disturbed.

 

Sam, golden retriever greeted my car with an air of authority and waited until I opened the door to give me close inspection.  Michael followed behind and gave the command, “Sam, sit!”  Which he did as a good and obedient dog should.  “I have to watch Sam, he likes to jump up on strangers.  Never could break him of that habit, don’t know where he picked it up.”  “Maybe from Paula” I said.  We both chuckled at the thought.  And on cue, Paula came running out of the house and leaped into my arms with a welcoming, “Hello, stranger.”  Michael and I both looked at each other.  I put her back on her feet and she led the way to the door.  Michael had my overnight case in his hand while Sam brought up the rear.  “It’s a stunning time of year, thank you two for having me.”  Paula spoke in the quiet but assertive manner of hers, “We love it here when we can get away.  And you know we love having you stay with us.”  We walked through the door and Michael took me to my room, a cozy little place just large enough for a regular bed, a wash stand and a small dresser.  The view out the window more than made up for it’s lack of size.

 

In what used to be called a common room and not is today’s open concept, we sat and sipped a glass of white wine.  Two of the old growers always gave Michael and Paula a couple cases of their yearly vintages as a gesture of good will.  The couple snuggled on the couch while I reposed in the wingback.  Paula knew I had a preference for the old wingback style and had added this one to their decor, ridding themselves of that hideous barrel type one considered chic decades ago.  Their style of living here, away from the pretence of the city, was one of old comforts and ease of life.  As Paula once explained, “In the city we need to keep some pretence of current style because of our work.  But we never feel as ease there.  Here, we can let down our hair and be horribly middle class.”  Michael cut in, “Time is measured in seasons here and moves slowly, in tune with nature.  I feel relaxed, I can think about life.  But you’re a writer, you know all about that.”  I envied them, not because they had this getaway but because they had each other.

 

A few years ago I first met Michael at a party, one of those affairs where the hostess needed an extra man and I was pressed into service at the last minute.  Dora was member of a class who collect literary agents, owners of art galleries, and so forth.  A regular socialite with a dubious day job.  She chaired or sat on various committees of good works and social agenda.  So when the writer she invited had to cancel at the last minute, my name was suggested and I was immediately whisked into service to round out the usual cadre of artists, writers, and musicians.  The average upper class individual, or at least those middle class individuals with newly acquired money, love to think that we are extremely interesting and profound.  I’ve never met one of us who were.  But it meant a good mean, good champagne, good wine, and if I was lucky, good single malt.  After the usual grazing of the herd on canapes and champagne we were ushered into the dining room and took our assigned seats.  I was sandwiched between a woman who was a member of the local school board and a man who was a legal counsel for a for one of Dora’s charities.  Michael sat across from me, hemmed in by an outspoken woman performance artist on one side and a well known but, in my opinion, mediocre musician.  I remember being asked to pontificate on a number of idiotic ideas and like a fool I addressed that idiocy as it should have been addressed.  Needless to say I was not employed by the hostess in any capacity in the future.  Several times I caught Michael looking very amused at my comments and once I detected that he actually had great difficulty suppressing laughter at one rejoinder I issued point blank at that local school board member.  I think I called her lack of intelligence on issues of education a crime against humanity.  The lawyer next to me had actually given a hearty chuckle.

 

After the ordeal of dinner was over I had been standing in the corner doing my best wall flower imitation when Michael walked up and said,”Follow me, old man, you look in need of a serious drink.”  I’m not sure if my age was showing that night but I had at least ten years on him.  He led me into what I concluded was the library, for it actually contained a few volumes artfully arranged on built in shelves.  But I would lay odds no one ever opened them. It was apparent he knew his way around the very large house for he went to the right cabinet and pulled out two short glasses and a bottle of Glenlivet.  “Ice or a splash of water?” was all he said.  “Water, thanks.” was my reply.  “Sit down, let’s have a decent conversation.”  I was a little stunned by that remark.  “What’s on your mind?”  “You gave such a splendid performance back there at dinner, I’m sure Dora will hear of it.”  “Ah, is that Ms Worthington’s name?  You must be on intimate terms with her.”  “Oh, by the way, my name is Michael Banks, pardon my manners.  I know her husband, John.  I’m in his law firm as a junior partner.  By the way, I thought the lawyer joke rather funny.”  “Thanks, er.. Michael, if I may call you by your first name.”  “Oh please do, I don’t stand on ceremony.  I’m only here as a favor to John.”  “Mr Worthington?”  We had another single malt and parted our ways for the evening.  I skipped out knowing Ms Worthington would never call upon me again.

 

Michael called me the next Wednesday, would I care to have dinner with him on Friday at Le Bistro?  My first instinct was to turn him down.  I have little in common with lawyers and certainly junior partners with a national reputation are beyond my perceived worthiness.  But I was curious as to why someone like him would wish me for a dinner companion.  I had no money or social position, so the reason intrigued me, I accepted.  “I’ll meet you in the bar.  Just give them your name and a libation will be waiting for you.”  Apparently he knew of my reduced circumstances.  I had a small pension, so I turned to writing thinking I might actually earn a few dollars each month.  The operative word is few, by the way.  And he had the courtesy to suggest a good restaurant that was past it’s incrowd prime but still offered excellent meals at a decent price.  I was at the restaurant at five past the hour for I did not want to appear too desperate not inconvenience him by being fashionably late.  I shouldn’t have worried, he was fifteen minutes late and most apologetic for his tardiness.  His mother had taught him good manners, that was a mark in his favor.  The decor was understated in accord with the idea that the parton should be delighted with the food and not the embellishments of the room.  I was half way through the standard serving of a very nice but not well know white burgundy, a village Meursault of good vintage.  My enjoyment of the wine was evident when he came in.  He asked me what I was drinking and I told him.  “Ah yes, a very good wine, excellent value.  It has nice legs, a hint of floral notes, a touch of citrus, and acid enough for the long haul.  How did you come to chose that one?”  Michael was a man who knew his wines well.  So my credentials were offered by way of a few past wine experiences and we felt an immediate bond.  We went in to dinner and got down to cases.  I need not bore you with the menu and wine list, let’s just say it was a very good meal, the finest I have had in the last five years.

 

“You’ve guessed I have an ulterior motive in asking you to dinner.”  “Well, yes, I am hardly in your social crowd and the thought did occur to me.”  “Let me put you at ease.  Dore is not the reason you are here although she is very put out by you.  She was trying to convert that ignorant Ms Meacham to her cause.  You’ve set Dora’s plans back by a month.  But to continue, I became aware that you are the father of Ms Rebecca Lynn, are you not?”  “Yes, but what does my daughter have to do with all this?”  “Simple, your daughter is a member of a dance group run by Paula Johnson.”  “Yes, go on, how does this affect me?”  “Since I do not know either woemn and would like an introduction to Paula Johnson I thought perhaps you might arrange with your daughter to introduce me to Ms Johnson.  I’m afraid that if I tried to do it myself I would be looked upon in a most unfavorable light.”  “You mean something akin to a stage door johnny?”  “Yes, yes, that’s what I thought.  And while tonight’s dinner was an obvious bribe, please don’t get me wrong.  I rather like you, you have that odd sense of humor.  You have wit and intellect.  I think you might like to see me in a more relaxed setting with a few of my more modest friends.  We all aren’t society hounds.”  “So why this woman and wouldn’t it be more direct to intrude upon her at some social bash or something?”  “Paula is too busy for such trash as Dora and her friends.  And Paula is a bit of a recluse, likes to guard her privacy, hates society parties.  I mean, I’ve tried, but no gambit seems to get past her defenses.  Look, this is not a case of unrequited love or anything like that.”  “Well, I’ll broach the subject with my daughter.  I can’t say how much influence Rebecca has since she is a substitute for the regular dance cast.  But tell me, if you wouldn’t mind, just what attracts you to Paula?  What do you see in that woman?”  “I suppose I could say that I see the grace and style of the world at dance in her movements and that her smile was line the sun shining just for me.  The fact is, I saw an interview of her last year and she touched my heart.  There is something that rings true in her, reverberates in my soul, if you understand my meaning.  I think, given a chance, we might find a way to make our burden’s less odious.  But until I do meet her and have some time spent talking with her I doubt I shall ever know.”  “Then I will enlist my daughter’s aid to get your foot in the door, so to speak.  After that is shall be up to you to make your plea.”  “Thanks so much, Bill.  You don’t mind my calling you Bill, do you?”  “Only my friends have that right, Mike, and I think you just may qualify on that point.  I shall talk with my daughter and see what can be done.”  Well, you should have seen the grin on Mike’s face.  Like a little child with a lollipop in hand.  He ordered some port and a plate of Stilton, walnuts, and gravenstein apple slices.

 

So the following week I talked with my daughter.  We met at the theater during rehearsal.  When a break came for the company we huddled in the front row seats and I outlined my dilemma.  I had a friend, Michael, who would appreciate a private audience with Paula as I tried to so delicately put it.  We did not notice Paula as she stood just behind us but out of our of direct sight.  I heard Paula’s voice in that quiet assertive way ask me who did I think I was to come here to her theater and try to monopolize one of her girls?  Rebecca turned around and said, “I’m sorry madame, this is my father and he had some important information for me.”  “Oh!  I though he  was hear to play cupid.  I have been listening.  Am I to be the target of one of his arrows?”  By now I was very red faced and was stammering what poor apology I could muster.  “Oh, please don’t go on like that, Mr Lynn.  Now tell me more about this secret admirer.” The stage manager called “Time, Places.” But Paula held up her hand while the company dithered a bit on the floor.  I tried to be succinct in my message, it took about five minutes.  “I can’t be sure but my opinion is that he is interested in you as an individual.  Call it a simpatico attraction, if you will”  “Interesting.” was all she said.  “Stay here for a moment or two.  Rebecca, time to join the rest.”  Then she quickly glided over to a man standing by the person I thought was the stage manager.  I saw him disappear for a few minutes and then return to the foot lights.  He came down to the row where I was sitting and handed me an envelope.  “Madame says to give you this.”  Turning, he took two steps and leaped upon the stage.  I had just spoken to one of the principle male leads.  I looked into the envelope and saw a pair of tickets for Saturday’s premier and an invitation to the backstage reception after the performance.

 

I made a point of phoning Michael and telling him I had to see him at once.  I wouldn’t say one way or another, but I told him that if necessary I would stop by his offices if he deemed me presentable.  “Of course, old man, do come on by.”  When I stepped out of the elevator there was a young man waiting for me.  Since I did not look like the client type he came over immediately and said, “Mr Banks is waiting for you.  I’ll show you in.”  Mike rose from his chair when I came in, he was wearing that grin of anticipation as I approached his desk.  Sit down Bill, please.”  “Sit yourself down first, you might faint.”  I handed the envelope to him as he sat back in his seat.  He took the tickets out slowly and seemed quite amazed.  “No one has been able to get tickets for me to this event, not fifth row center, no one!”  Then he saw the cards for the reception.  His shoulders collapsed and his head sloped forward in thought.  A few seconds later he looked at me and said,”How on earth did you ever do it, Bill?”  ” I think Paula wants to meet you.” was all I could say.  I think you can guess the rest of the story.  My daughter finally obtained her dream and became a regular member of the dance troupe.  She will, of course, never be another Paula but I hear she has a junior law partner interested in her.  I am still writing and trying to sell short stories to whoever will publish them.  And I have a book started, one I think just might see the light of day.  Dora has forgiven me, she wants me to use my supposed influence to get Paula into that society social circle of hers.  But I demuir, claiming that I am just an acquaintance and have no powers of friendship.  I also never review this secret hideaway to anyone.  It’s more than a secret, its a good way of life.  Life and love are too precious to waste on superficial people.

 

Dance with me.  I want to be your partner, can’t you see.  The music is just starting, night is calling, and I am falling.  Orleans