Midnight, December 31st

When you’re a kid, you beg to be

Awake at twelve so you can see

The New Year in, except you doze

Try as you might, your eyes just close

You’ll waken to your siblings’ jeer

“Missed it again, like every year!”

 

When you grow up, it’s party time

You raise a glass at midnight’s chime

The night is filled with noise and toasts

And revelry with jolly hosts

You long in secret for your bed

A place to rest your aching head

 

When you grow old, here’s what you know:

The year will come, the year will go

You may as well do what you will

If you’re asleep, it happens still

The New Year doesn’t need you, so

At ten, it’s off to bed you go

 

We watch the years as they stream by

Nobody told us how they’d fly

But for the times we won’t forget

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet

We’ll drink to yours; we’ll drink to mine

For auld lang syne, for auld lang syne

Grace

I hated her when I was thirteen. My mother, widowed at age forty-two, who got the first job of her life to support my sister and me. In her spare time she cleaned the house, tended a garden, mowed the yard, hung our laundry outside in the sunshine and then ironed every stitch, cooked supper after a full day of work – that’s who was the object of my hatred. I felt miserable inside, and of course, I took it out on the safest person: Mom.

At thirteen, every emotion was exaggerated.   But it felt real to me, that hatred, and I’ll bet it sometimes felt real to her, too.  When December rolled around and Mom asked me, “What do you want for Christmas?” I snarled, “Nothing.  I don’t want anything from you.”

In my heart, I knew that nothing was exactly what I deserved.

In 1955, teenagers had no inkling of laptops, tablets or smart phones. We coveted radios. Not the big, boxy, wooden consoles in our parents’ living rooms, but the new, plastic table-top models. That’s what I really, really wanted – my own radio beside my bed, to listen to the Top 40 privately in the dark. How grown-up and sophisticated would that be!  But I was firmly stuck in the nose-cutting, face-spiting mode, so I couldn’t ask, or even hint. And certainly Mom couldn’t guess, because how could she possibly know my secret hopes and dreams?

Christmas morning.  I dragged my sullen self to the Christmas tree, where I was handed a box wrapped in holiday paper.  Silently I opened it and there it was. My own personal little radio, modern in design, red and white with big gold tuning dials. Perfect. Exactly what I wanted.

At that moment, I got my first glimpse of grace:  a gift freely given and totally undeserved. I hope Mom got a glimpse of her true daughter, still there but hidden beneath teenage hormones – the little girl who used to love her and the grown-up woman who would love her again. But then, she knew that all along.

 

 

 

Ordinary Days

Merry wasn’t a Christmas person. It was cruel fate that her mother had named her Merry because she’d been born in December.

“I just like ordinary days,” she confided to her best friend, Jemima. “The Christmas holidays are nothing but a lot of extra work. And it’s all stuff I don’t like to do. I don’t like crafts, I don’t like decorating, I don’t like shopping, I don’t like baking…”

Jemima held up her hands in surrender. “Okay, okay! Let’s stipulate that you don’t like the holidays. Admit, at least, that it’s fun to see your kids open their presents on Christmas morning.”

“It used to be, when they were little and everything was a big surprise. Now they bring me lists in November and then change their minds before Christmas.”

“Why not do it differently this year?” Jemima asked. “Ignore their lists. Surprise them.”

“Oh, sure. As if I can figure out what a thirteen year old boy and a fifteen year old girl would like,” Merry said scornfully.

“If you don’t know, who would? You know your kids better than anybody. Put some thought into it.”

Merry reflected on her friend’s advice when she was trying to fall asleep that night. It was always hard to sleep at this time of year; her brain refused to let go of her To Do list no matter how tired she was. But she did get some of her best planning done during the wakeful hours. Tonight, she thought about her kids and what would truly surprise them.

They had so much stuff. More electronics, jewelry or clothing wouldn’t produce a thrill. Those sorts of presents flowed in abundantly from grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends, anyway. What would really make her children’s faces light up?

Well, Trevor loved dogs. He couldn’t have one, because his sister was wildly allergic, so he spent a lot of time at the fence petting the neighbor’s dog. Merry remembered the shelter she passed on her way to the supermarket. She’d bet they needed dog-walkers after school and on week-ends. It would mean less time in front of the game console for Trev, and more time behind the wheel for Merry, but she was okay with that. In fact, she felt good about it.  She’d make up a book of coupons that Trevor could cash in whenever he wanted a dog-fix.

And Caitlin loved clothes. Merry thought it was more than an adolescent preoccupation; Caitlin was interested in design and her notebooks were full of sketches. At the mall, she inspected the insides of garments with a discerning eye and refused to buy anything that wasn’t well-made, no matter how trendy it was. Merry would set up her sewing machine and dust off her sewing skills to pass along to her daughter.

When the kids brought her their Christmas lists, she accepted them with a smile instead of her usual martyred sigh. “Not promising that anything on these lists will be under the tree,” she said. Caitlin and Trevor looked at her in surprise.

Merry decided to put out only the Christmas decorations that she particularly liked, or that were specially requested by someone in the family. As a result, three big boxes remained unopened in the attic, but what was on display sparked stories and memories. She ditched all the plastic berries and fake snow, got a rosemary wreath for the door and a fragrant garland for the fireplace mantle. The shiny metallic tree went to Goodwill, and in its place stood a small living tree with its roots wrapped in burlap. It would be planted in the yard after the holidays. After they got back to ordinary days.

But somehow, Merry thought, the New Year might be filled with extraordinary days.

 

Last Call

“Call me any time,” the boss liked to say. “I’ll be happy to assist you in any way I can.”

Of course, he wouldn’t be available. He only wanted it to seem that way. He ran a huge hospital, after all, and had a packed schedule. The person who really was available was his assistant, Ruth.  She sat in the outer office of the Most High, and on her desk resided a big, black, multi-button telephone. It was her voice that callers heard first and last. If she could solve their problems, and she usually could, they were content to leave it at that.

The people who called Ruth, whether patients or relatives of patients, were by definition not happy.  Fuses were short. The cost of parking made them mad. The food in the cafeteria made them mad. Too-busy nurses made them mad. Snotty cashiers made them mad. They complained. The savvy ones took their complaints right to the top. It was up to Ruth to take everything seriously, like a homicide detective trained never to smile on the job lest her happy face show up beside a dead body on the six o’clock news.

Still, she found entertaining moments.

“Hello? Hello? I’m callin’ about my wife. She’s up’ere with y’all, and she’s got one ‘a them hyena hurtles.”

Ruth bit her lip hard, knowing instantly that the caller meant hiatal hernia. She managed to speak with the gravitas she knew the poor man needed. It couldn’t be easy, having a wife with a hyena hurtle.

Then there was Mr. Important Guy, who phoned with a complaint. “My wife,” he pronounced, “is in a semi-private room with a woman who groans day and night. It’s driving her crazy.”

“Of course, sir. Let me just check and see what we can do.”

The next day, with Mrs. Important Guy happily ensconced in a private room, a Rolls Royce pulled up at the front entrance. The chauffeur entered Ruth’s office, carrying a giant arrangement of orchids and a note of thanks. That was a good day.

Sad, unsolvable problems arose, too, like the one from a mother in another state: “My son was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. He says he wants to die, and he won’t answer my calls. I’m just beside myself, but I can’t get off work to come there. Would you please check on him and call me back?”

Ruth took the elevator up five floors and into the room of an angry young man whose legs were bandaged together to aid the healing of skin grafts.

“This is hell,” he snarled. “I’d rather be dead than lie here trussed up like a damn turkey.”

“I know it must be tough,” Ruth said, “but your mom is worried about you. Could you talk to her on the phone?”

He turned his face to the wall. Conversation over.

Later, Ruth received a call from the head nurse, who said she’d thank her kindly not to come spying for management on her floor. So everyone was upset, the patient, the mama and the staff. Ruth wasn’t feeling too perky herself.

On her last day, she packed up her personal belongings, cut the cake at the party held in her honor, and said good-bye to her co-workers.

She’d intended to duck out early, but the phone pulled her back every time. When she finally finished solving the last caller’s problem, everyone else had gone home, making rueful, apologetic faces as they departed. She was alone in the office. She smiled at the big, black phone perched on the corner of her desk. No little green lights blinked. No warbling ring disturbed the quiet.

“Good-bye to you, too,” Ruth said. She reached into her purse and pulled out the claw hammer.

Rapunzel, a Fractured Fairy Tale

“Rapunzel, for cryin’ out loud, are you fooling with your hair again?”

Dame Gothel stood with her warty hands on her ample hips, watchig as Rapunzel tried to French-braid her long, golden hair.

“Well, there’s sure as heck nothing else to do up here,” Rapunzel said.

A pretty girl, she wasn’t so pretty when she sulked, which was most of the time. But, as she frequently noted, what was there to be happy about, walled up in a one-room tower with only a witch for company?

Oh, sure, she’d heard the story about how her parents had agreed to hand her over to Dame Gothel at birth, just because her father got caught sneaking into the witch’s garden to steal rampion. Her pregnant mother craved it, just had to have it no matter what.  On Father’s second expedition into the garden, Dame Gothel nabbed him rampion-handed. She only let him go when he agreed to give her his first-born child, which Rapunzel thought was not exactly the best bargain of the century. And where was her mother in all this? Presumably munching away on her salad, with no thought for her future daughter.

Rapunzel had been living in the tower since she was thirteen, because that was the age when she’d developed curves in all the right places and Dame Gothel decided she was a flight risk.

“I don’t even like boys!” she’d shouted, as the witch and her work crew disassembled the ladder.

“Just concentrate on growing your hair,” Dame Gothel yelled back.

“It’s not like I can will my hair to grow,” Rapunzel said.

But the next morning it had grown nearly a foot. And the next night, another foot. And the next, and so on, until it was so long Rapunzel had to bundle it up in her cape.

Her food supply was almost gone and the chamber pot was filled when at last she heard Dame Gothel calling, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your hair, so I may climb the golden stair.”

She looked down and saw little witch below. “Ride your broom,” she said.

“Nope, has to be your hair,” said Dame Gothel. “Just toss it out the window.”

So Rapunzel did, and immediately felt such a pulling on her scalp that tears sprang to her eyes. “Ow! Ow! Ow!”

Dame Gothel pulled herself up Rapunzel’s hair hand over hand, stepped in through the tower’s one window and plunked down the packages she’d carried on her back. Rapunzel’s head hurt for days afterwards.

The next time she heard the witch’s command to let down her hair, she threw the contents of the chamber pot out the window instead. Dame Gothel didn’t seem to mind, just stood there dripping and yelling, until finally Rapunzel sighed and flipped her mane downward. Despite the pain, it was the only thing she had to look forward to, those once-a-week treks up her tresses. It helped when Dame Gothel brought an IPod, but still, the days were interminable, and the years glacier-like in their creeping passage.

Rapunzel was singing along with Beyonce one day – “All the single ladies, all the single ladies, put your hands up, oh, oh, oh”- when she heard a different voice below.

“Hail, the tower,” the voice said. “Who is singing that haunting melody?”

“Me,” Rapunzel said, popping her head out the window. “Who’re you?”

“Handsome Prince here,” said the young man on the ground.

“Is your name really Handsome Prince?” Rapunzel asked, laughing.

“None of us can help what our parents name us,” he said stiffly. Rapunzel could see his blush.

“Well, what do you want?” she asked.

“I heard you’re a beauty. Thought maybe we could mess around. How do I get up there?”

“You’d have to climb my hair, I guess. That’s what the witch does. Are you game?”

“Uh, I guess. I’ll try, anyway.”

And up he clambered. The young couple spent blissful nights in the tower from then on, with Handsome leaving only when it was time for the witch’s weekly visit. Dame Gothel noticed the change in Rapunzel’s attitude. No longer sulky, the girl was positively radiant.

“Hmmm,” Dame Gothel said, tapping her fingers on her nose. “What’s with the radiance? Have you had any company besides me?”

“Why, gosh, no,”Rapunzel said, big blue eyes round with innocence. “Only you, Dame. Nobody else even knows I’m up here.”

“If I ever catch a man with you,” Dame Gothel said, pushing her ugly face right up into Rapunzel’s, “I’ll fix him so he never sees the light of day again.”

With no warning, she sprang upon the girl, pulled a pair of scissors from her pocket and hacked off the long golden hair. “There! Let’s see how you like a pixie cut,” she said with her trademark cackle.

Handsome didn’t like the new haircut a bit. He tried repeatedly to scale the smooth sides of the tower, but to no avail. Rapunzel hung out the window and watched his awkward scrambling. Finally, he gave up.

“No can do,” he said. “Much as I want to see you.”

“Well, see this!” Dame Gothel said, leaping out from behind a tree. “Eye of newt, rooty-toot, blind this prince so he ain’t cute!”

The spell was cast, and instantly Handsome lost his sight. For years, he wandered the forest blindly, picking up tip money by singing in taverns. He never forgot his love, Rapunzel, and the magical hours he’d spent with her. In his dreams, he climbed her long, shining blonde hair only to be met at the top by the horrible visage of Dame Gothel. He feared Rapunzel was lost to him forever.

Meanwhile, Rapunzel had grown quite rotund, with nothing to do but eat. Her hair never again reached staircase length. Finally the old witch got tired of hoisting supplies up to the tower in a basket, and freed Rapunzel.

“Nobody would want you now, anyway,” Dame Gothel said. “Nobody with eyes.”

So Rapunzel, too, wandered the forest, always searching for Handsome Prince. She heard of a blind troubadour who worked the bar scene, but somehow their paths never crossed. Then one night, she heard a familiar voice murdering her song (“All the single ladies, all the single ladies!”), and there he was.

“Handsome!” she shrieked, and with that shriek the enchantment fell from his eyes and he could see again.

“But I’m older, my hair is sort of dishwater blonde now, and I’ve put on a pound or two,” Rapunzel said sadly. “Maybe you don’t like what you see.”

“Are you kidding?” Handsome replied.  “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any women at all, so my standards aren’t exactly sky-high. You look good to me, baby.”

And with that, Rapunzel and Handsome Prince fell into each other’s arms. But they couldn’t go on wandering in the forest forever; there was the little matter of making a living to consider. Handsome was the third son, so he wasn’t in line for his father’s kingdom. Rapunzel had long been forgotten by her rampion-crazed parents. But one thing the couple could do was sing, and they auditioned and won a spot on Fairy Tale’s Got Talent. Their cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” zoomed to the top of the I-Tunes hit list.  They became the Next Big Thing, and lived happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

A Dish Best Served Cold

If you stop and think about it, Thanksgiving is the perfect time for a family murder. All those relatives gathered under one roof; all that food setting out on the table for hours. A murderer couldn’t ask for a better alibi than a bit of ptomaine poisoning. Or perhaps a sleepy drive home, zonked out on tryptophan; who’d ever think to check the brake line? So when I decided to kill my cousin, Megan, I zeroed in on Thanksgiving.

Megan had been a thorn in my side for years. She was one of those kids that would pinch you black and blue under the table while smiling sweetly at Aunt Nell. I’d get in trouble for screaming, and Megan would look at me with big, innocent eyes. Then she’d pinch me again. I knew better than to tattle, and no adult ever figured it out.

As we grew up, we realized that Nell Abernathy was our only rich relative. One of four siblings, Nell was a prune-faced single lady who lived very well indeed, though she had no visible means of support. I often heard my family’s bitter remarks about the sister who stole their inheritance. Dad and his brothers and sisters stayed angry about it their whole lives.

Maybe Megan and Nell shared some family DNA for meanness, I don’t know, but they grew closer and closer over the years. Megan was especially attentive as Nell aged, driving her to innumerable doctor appointments, gathering in groceries and crawling about on the floor to dust the deeply-carved legs of the Chippendale chairs. Sometimes, she’d go over to Nell’s and spend the whole weekend cooking up big meals so there’d be leftovers for the next week. Then the two of them would giggle late into the night over old movies.

I didn’t particularly like Aunt Nell, but still, I resented Megan for once again pinching me under the table, figuratively speaking.  As Nell’s only nieces, we’d inherit a small fortune when she died, but at this rate, only Megan would get her paws on it. I contemplated cutting in on some of Megan’s do-good attentions to the old bat, but really, I had better things to do. It just seemed simpler to take Megan out of the picture, and poison was the neatest way to do it. I volunteered to bring the dressing to Thanksgiving dinner.

“You know I always make dressing to stuff the turkey,” Megan said.

“That’s stuffing. This will be dressing. Of course, it won’t be as good. Everyone loves your stuffing so much, there’s never enough. When it runs out, they can eat my dressing.”

Flattery always worked with Megan. She agreed.

You can find anything on the Internet. With a little Googling, I came up with a plan. The eggs…they’d be a little off. Just enough to show up in the toxicology tests, if there were any, hiding the trace of cyanide. Now, I had to make sure only Megan ate the bad dressing. No point in slaying the whole family. I’d make a test batch and take it to her the night before. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but mine would be warm and tasty.

“I don’t think I have the spices quite right. Just taste it and tell me what it needs,” I’d say. “You’re a much better a cook than I am. Here, have some more. ” And she would comply, happy for the chance to tell me my food was lousy.

All went as planned. I knocked on Megan’s porch-lit door on Thanksgiving Eve, carrying my covered dish of death. She ushered me right into the kitchen, where she was cooking for the next day. I was surprised when she offered her own stuffing for a taste test; she who was always totally confident that everything she did was perfect. Oh well, I could play along.

~*~

From the Tipton Times:

Two cousins, June and Megan Abernathy, died the day before Thanksgiving. Cause of death is suspected food poisoning. Relatives became alarmed when the women didn’t show up for the family’s annual dinner and went looking for them. They were found dead on the kitchen floor of Megan Abernathy’s home.

Their aunt, Nell Abernathy, said, “They were such lovely girls, and so close. My only comfort is to think that now they will be together forever. ”

 

 

 

 

 

Saucer Boy

Bill waited impatiently for the teacher to call his name. It was Report Day in Mrs. Henderson’s room, the day when each child stood before the class and gave a talk. They were allowed to bring something to show and then tell about it, but it wasn’t called Show and Tell because that was for babies. Fourth graders were ‘way beyond that.

On Report Day, it was hard for Mrs. Henderson to keep order. There was a lot of fidgeting, whispering and note-passing. Fear of public speaking took root at an early age.

Bill was as nervous as everyone else. His past efforts hadn’t exactly lit the place on fire. In fact, his classmates’ faces took on a flat look of boredom when he spoke. But today he was actually looking forward to his turn. He had an important report about something everyone needed to know. He could hardly wait.

“William,” Mrs. Henderson said with an encouraging smile, “You’re next.”

He strode to the front of the room and began. “There is something called a UFO, an unidentified flying object, that looks like a fat Frisbee, and it has lights that change color depending on what’s happening. Amber for landing, blue for resting, red for flying.”

The kids rolled their eyes at each other and stifled their giggles behind open hands. Mrs. Henderson stepped forward and touched Bill’s shoulder. “William, today’s report is supposed to be factual, not a make-believe story.”

“This is factual,” Bill said. “There is such a thing as a UFO. I’ve seen it.”

“Now, William, it’s okay to have fantasies and I love your imagination, but remember, today’s assignment is to tell about a real person, place or thing.”

“But it’s real.” Bill didn’t mean to argue, but he couldn’t give up. He needed to say this, even if Mrs. Henderson didn’t want to hear it. “The UFO moves so fast it looks like a shooting star. Maybe you’ve even seen it and thought it was a shooting star. But it’s not. It’s a space ship and there are…beings…inside. And they’re not humans, exactly, but really good beings who would never hurt anyone. People shouldn’t be afraid of them, or chase them away.”

The class exploded in laughter, and Mrs. Henderson rapped on her desk to restore order. She had thirteen more reports to get through before the end of this very long Friday.

“William. Please take your seat.”

“But what about the rest of my report?” Bill asked, his face tense with anxiety.

“That’s all for today. Next week, I expect you to be prepared to follow the assignment.”

~*~

“Saucer Boy! Saucer Boy!”

The taunts began immediately when the children were dismissed for the day.

“Silly Billy’s got a flying space ship!”

“Billy, Billy, U-F-uh-O!”

Bill felt his face burn. He should have known better; would he never learn?

Ignoring the line of yellow school buses, he set off on foot. It wasn’t allowed; if you were a bus-rider, you were supposed to get on your bus. But Bill slipped away, losing himself in a crowd of town kids who walked home. He knew the bus ride would be torture today.

The family’s isolated farm house was a long trudge from school. It took him almost an hour, and when he got there, the door was locked. That wasn’t unusual. Bill got the key from beneath the third flower pot on the left and let himself in. Nobody was home, but he knew what had to be done.

Going directly to his room, he reached up to the top shelf of his closet and got down his duffle bag. In it he placed his favorite book, Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, his warm fleece jacket and his toothbrush. Last, he tossed in a couple of granola bars. That should be all he’d need. He went to the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and munched his way through most of a bag of Oreos. Then he settled down to watch cartoons. His eyelids slowly closed; it had been an exhausting day.

He woke instantly when amber light flooded the room.  Casting one farewell glance around his home, he grabbed his duffle bag and ran out the back door. A deep blue glow emanated from the airship that rested silently on the grass. When a hatch slid open, Bill moved forward.

“Mom?”

 

In the Arms of the Angels

Burt wished Sarah McLachlan would stop singing that darn song on T.V., the one about the arms of the angels. When he heard it, he’d hurry to hit the remote or even leave the room. The pictures of those sad-eyed dogs cowering in cages or back alleys just killed him.

I can’t save them all, he told Sarah in his head, as he wrote a check to the SPCA. Save just one, then, she replied soundlessly. He tried not to hear.

Burt loved dogs, but he really wanted to own a big, pedigreed animal that would excite envy and attention. His dream dog. Maybe a mastiff. Or a Doberman. One that told the world Burt was a special guy, a force to be reckoned with, not just another cog in the machine.

He’d do research and visit breeders, get enthusiastic and ready to plunk down several thousand dollars for one puppy or another, but then Sarah would sing again and he’d be lost. Finally, in self-defense, he made his way to the shelter. I’m just looking, he told himself sternly, in case a good dog got hauled in with the strays.

Burt walked along the concrete corridor between the tall wire enclosures. His nose stung from the mingled odors of disinfectant and despair. The noise level was deafening. He’d read dogs in shelters go a little crazy from the din, and he could understand why. But the dogs couldn’t help themselves; his presence brought excitement and hope. They barked. His ears ringing, he peered at the hopeful faces.

Just looking.

Here was a quiet one. She was smallish, with rough brown fur, one floppy ear, and a sagging belly from too many litters of puppies. There was absolutely no resemblance to his dream dog, but when she calmly met his eyes, he felt a jolt of recognition.

 I’m your dog. Take me home.

He did. Their song began.

 

 

Lesson Learned

A door slams, jolting little Tom from sleep to terror.  A raised voice, a curse, a crash as something falls over.  Oh no. Daddy’s drunk again.

Tom’s big brother, James, leaps out of bed and catapults down the steps.  The old farmhouse has a narrow enclosed stairway. At the bottom is a door that opens in.  James sits braced with his back to the door, feet against the bottom step.  Tom scurries to his brother’s side, although at eight, his legs aren’t long enough to reach the step.  He sits beside James for solidarity and because he’s too scared to stay in bed alone.  Both boys tremble as the doorknob turns, jiggles. The door vibrates against their backs.   A fist hammers just inches from their heads.  Tom cries soundlessly.

Daddy says, “Dammit, you boys open this door right now. You’re gonna get the belt, you little bastards!”

James is crying, too, but he keeps his legs straight and strong – a human doorstop to keep Daddy out.  Tom feels a rush of gratitude to his brave big brother, who is ten years old.

The hammering stops.  Silence.  Then Daddy is shouting a song.

“He’ll pass out now,” James says.

The  boys crawl back upstairs and into bed.  It’s over this time.

~*~

Tom is a strapping fellow, well over six feet tall with the muscles of a gladiator. He criss-crosses the American prairie in a gleaming silver truck that winks in the sun like the eye of God. His load? Whatever shippers care to send, mostly hazardous materials. It’s a dangerous job, but he’s a careful man.

Tom has a family, a wife and two little boys. He doesn’t see them as often as he’d like, but the trucking money’s good. His brother, James, lives close by and if Mandy or the boys need anything, James is right there. His father still lives somewhere around, but Tom has nothing to do with his parent. The old man is forbidden to set foot on Tom’s place.

He’s glad to be home early today. James has been out of town all week, and Tom’s felt uneasy about that. He picked up a couple of toys for the boys at the last truck stop and looks forward to surprising them, so he parks beside the road and walks down the long driveway.

Almost there, his ears are filled with the familiar roar of his father’s drunken anger. It’s coming from inside the house. Tom’s heart pounds and his breath quickens. He pulls off his belt, swinging the big metal buckle as he breaks into a dead run that will propel him through his kitchen door straight into the past. He knows exactly what to do.

 

A Day at the Races

“C’mon, go to the track with me. It’ll be good for you,” Geraldine said. “You’ve been cooped up in the house since Bill passed.”

Geraldine had a point, Bertha thought. Maybe she did need to get out more. But she’d never been to a race track. She’d never gambled on anything. The idea of losing even a dollar was frightening. Her husband had worked hard to earn that dollar, so she’d have something to live on after he was gone. However, Geraldine said Bertha didn’t have to bet; she could just watch. So she went.

~*~

The minute the horses took the track, she was mesmerized. They were so beautiful, their long, skinny legs kicking up puffs of dust as they streamed effortlessly around the oval, warming up. There was one she especially liked, a black mare named Jinx.

“But she looks lucky to me,” she said daringly to Geraldine.

“Well, go on, have a little flutter,” Geraldine said. “It makes it more fun. And who knows? This might be your lucky day.”

Bertha felt a jolt of temptation that short-circuited her usual common sense. “You know, I think I will bet just a little on that Jinx horse.”

She approached the window and held out a ten dollar bill to the bored man behind the bars. “On Jinx, to win.”  It’s only ten dollars, she counseled her pounding heart.

There wasn’t time to rejoin Geraldine, so Bertha stood at the nearest vantage point. The gates swung open and the horses were off.  Jinx had a good position on the inside and exploded like a rocket, taking the early lead. Bertha pounded the rail and screamed. Just when it looked like Jinx would disprove her name, she stumbled, dropping back as the pack surged around her.

Bertha’s mouth was set in a straight line as she tore up her ticket and, uncharacteristically,  let the pieces flutter to the ground.  I’m an idiot. Might as well be a litter-bug, too.

“So your horse didn’t win, either,” a well-dressed gentleman said, taking her arm as if they were old friends. “Come, let’s drown our sorrows at the bar.”

“I’m not accustomed to drowning anything,” Bertha said, pulling her arm away. “Besides, I need to get back to Geraldine.”

“Of course, your friend is welcome to join us,” the man said, and as if she’d heard her name, Geraldine appeared.

“Oh, I’d love a little drinkie,” she said, ignoring Bertha’s frown and tiny head-shakes.

The ladies were propelled firmly into the bar and settled at a table. Without asking, their new companion – she didn’t catch his name – ordered martinis all around. Bertha had never tasted a martini, but she was hot and thirsty and there wasn’t anything else to drink. She downed it in three gulps, wrinkling her nose at the taste. Immediately, another drink appeared. She sipped this one more slowly.

Bertha drifted into a fuzzy, pleasant place where nothing seemed to matter much. Mr. – what did he say his name was? – talked about odds and handicapping and what the trainers and jockeys told him in confidence. Inside information, sincere brown eyes, and alcohol in the middle of the day conspired to make his offer of help with their bets seem like an opportunity not to be missed.

“So, ladies, how much would you like me to wager for you on the next race? Simpatico is the favorite, but I think it’ll be Danny Boy by a length. He’s a long shot, but he’ll pay ten to one if he wins. Just think: for a mere fifty dollars, you go home with five hundred.”

Dreamily, Bertha rummaged through her pocketbook and handed over two wrinkled twenties and a ten. It was next week’s grocery money, but what the heck.  Mr. Whoever bowed slightly at the waist, and disappeared in the direction of the betting windows.

~*~

Somehow, Bertha was back at the rail. She’d lost Geraldine, but what mattered now was the race. When Danny Boy won – by a length – she would have jumped up and down had she not felt so light-headed. Partly it was the drinks and partly the idea of pocketing five hundred dollars.

Now where’s that Mr. What’s His Name with my winnings? Wait, is that him heading toward the exit? He must be looking for me. Weaving slightly, she hurried after him, catching up when he stopped to talk to another man. She waited politely behind him.

“Easy pickings today. I’m leaving with a cool thou,” Mr. Whosit said, laughing. “Pretty good for an hour’s work. The old dears loved the attention, and I think they got their money’s worth. It’s a day they’ll remember.”

He turned to leave, slinging his sports coat over his shoulder. A fat white envelope slipped unnoticed from the inside pocket, landing with a plop at Bertha’s feet. Quickly, she covered it with her sensible shoe.

This just might be a memorable day for Mr. Whosit, too.