In the Cards

Card Shark

There are many, many differences between men and women. Janine knew that and she tried to be tolerant when Ben’s differences were annoying. For the most part, she succeeded. But there was one real sticking point – greeting cards. Janine loved them and Ben just didn’t get it.

Whatever the occasion, Janine searched for the perfect card. She took pride in finding the right sentiments for holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings and new babies. And she didn’t stop there.  She sent cards “For your Daughter’s First Dance Recital,” “For the Loss of Your Pet,” “For Your Promotion.” On really special occasions, there were musical cards, talking cards, pop-up cards.

“Six-fifty??” Ben roared. “You could buy a gift for that.”

“In what dream world, Mister?” Janine shot back. “The card is instead of a gift.”

Honestly. Men. She’d seen them take all of five seconds to make a selection. They just looked at the picture on the front; never mind the message inside. She shuddered to think of the wife who opened a birthday card that read, “You’re Six!”

If Janine did get a rare card from Ben, it would be a jokey one, which was sometimes worse than no card at all. They tended to be about aging and bodily functions gone awry. Insults had no place in card-giving, in Janine’s opinion.

“What’s the big deal? The message is someone else’s words, nothing personal about it. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful to write your own?” Ben asked.

“I write a note inside the card.” Janine shook her head at his puzzled look. It was hopeless. “You just don’t get it.”

So when their twenty-fifth anniversary rolled around, she wasn’t expecting a card. There were a silver bracelet, a dozen yellow roses and dinner at a fancy restaurant – all very nice, but over the top for Ben. True, it was a landmark occasion, but it was almost like he felt guilty. She wondered what he’d have to feel guilty about. Her misgivings were forgotten when he pushed a stiff white rectangle across the table.

“A card? You got me a card?” Janine opened it eagerly and read the printed message.

Happy twenty-fifth anniversary

To my sweetheart

You complete me.

“Oh, Ben! How sweet. I’ll treasure it forever.”

She pictured him bumbling endearingly among hundreds of greeting cards, maybe asking a clerk for help as he tried to find the perfect one. Okay, so it was rather a cheesy sentiment – a line from a movie –  but that didn’t matter. He wasn’t one for flowery compliments, so maybe it was easier to use, as he put it, someone else’s words to say what he felt. Maybe he’d stood reading card after card until he’d found the one that was just right. After all these years, Ben finally got it!

In the morning, she sighed over the card again. As she inserted it back into its envelope to be deposited among her treasures, it stuck on something. Turning the envelope over, she shook it. A small yellow Post-It note fluttered out.

“Boss – Hope this one is okay.”

His secretary bought the card. He’d sent little Miss Perky Pants out to buy his wife a twenty-fifth anniversary card, after all his self-righteous talk about her being impersonal. Her!  The enormity of Ben’s perfidy overwhelmed her. She hated the card now. An unwelcome suspicion flickered in her mind. She’d always had a bad feeling about Miss Perky Pants, and now she had one about Ben.  What was going on in that office, anyway?

Janine bought a box of twenty blank cards and spent a couple of hours at the kitchen table. She had a lot of ground to cover, including a visit to Ben’s office when he wasn’t there.

~*~

The next morning, Ben reached for a towel as he emerged from the shower. A small white envelope fell to the floor.

“What the heck?” he muttered, picking it up.

It was a card. Inside, in Janine’s handwriting, he read, “May your day be filled with sunshine, not showers.”

Okay, she’d finally gone completely around the bend. He wouldn’t mention it, just hope she came to her senses.

His car seat held another envelope: “Drive with care, because I care.”

On his desk: “I miss you already.”

All day, he found sappy handwritten notes. What was Janine trying to prove? Ben wondered uneasily if it had something to do with the anniversary card. He’d thought it was okay, and surely his secretary knew what a woman would like. But Janine had been acting funny ever since. He had an itchy feeling that he was in trouble.

The card shower didn’t stop when he got home. Janine wasn’t there and hadn’t left a note saying where she was, which was unusual. There was a card in the refrigerator when he went foraging for supper; a card under the television remote; a card on his pillow. Where was Janine, anyway? She never stayed out this late.

A sudden premonition made Ben yank open the closet door. A few forlorn hangers rocked gently on the rod – her clothes were gone. The big suitcase on wheels was missing, too. In the empty space he saw another of those dreaded white envelopes. He opened it with trembling fingers. It contained only one line in Janine’s handwriting:

I’m gone. Get it?

 

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Blue Pajamas

blue pajamas

When I was a patrolman, I got called to the same mobile home park every shift. It was a well-known trouble spot; there was at least one on every beat. We all tried to do community outreach in those places. The residents were beaten down from juggling too many needs and not enough money and they didn’t especially like cops, so we made friends with the kids. Shot hoops or kicked a ball around with them if we had time, hoping to store up credit against the day when we’d need friends in their neighborhood.

I usually worked midnights, the time when whatever was wrong in somebody’s life seemed unbearable and solutions were only cruel jokes. When the inevitable 911 call came and my black and white appeared at the mobile home park in response, people boiled out of their doors to watch whatever entertainment was on offer that night. The park had three main dirt roads running through it, and a lamentable lack of house numbers, so I’d just pick a road and drive until I saw a crowd. On this night, I came upon the gathering early. When I got out of my squad car, I was surrounded by people all talking at once, telling me about a bad guy, drunk or high out of his mind, running through the park with a baseball bat breaking windows.

“Here he comes!” a woman shouted, pointing over my shoulder.

Turning, I saw a large man running toward me full tilt, baseball bat raised, ready to make scrambled eggs out of my brains. My training kicked in. Reflexively, I drew my duty weapon, aimed at center mass as I’d been taught, and started to pull back on the trigger. Then a blue flash flew across my field of vision. By some miracle, I was able to stop and point my pistol at the sky.

The baseball bat clattered to the ground. The guy had his arms full of a little kid, maybe three or four years old, in blue footie pajamas.  Against his chest, he cradled the boy who’d leaped through the air into his Daddy’s arms.

There was a roaring in my ears. I’d come so close, so damn close to shooting that baby. The whole thing happened in a nanosecond, but it would reverberate in my head for the rest of my life.

Thirty years later, I’d made rank and no longer patrolled the streets, but the streets…they still patrolled me. I was one of the old guys now, nearing retirement, but I dreamed sometimes about the little boy who almost took a bullet for his father. I’d see him flying through the air into my line of fire and sometimes I could stop my trigger finger and sometimes I couldn’t. I’d jolt awake, shaking with the same adrenaline rush I’d felt that night. I usually got up then, knowing there’d be no more sleep.

I’d sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee from a thick mug that said, “World’s Best Dad,” and think about that little boy. He must be an adult with a family of his own by now. I wished I could see him, just to know that he was all right. Odds were against him – poverty stacks the deck – but I hoped he’d grown up okay.  I didn’t even know his name.

Life has a funny way of working out. I was sitting in the court house waiting to be called to testify before the grand jury when one of the young Assistant District Attorneys came over and introduced himself.

“Hi, I’m Jeremiah Jackson,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You don’t remember me, but I know you.”

“You do? How?”

“You spared my life a long time ago. I was too young to remember, but Dad told me the story of that night over and over – how I ran out in my little blue p.j.’s  and jumped off the porch onto him, how you could have shot us, but you didn’t. My Dad changed after that. He quit drinking and got a job. He said he had a second chance because you were one of the good guys. It made a huge impression on me as a kid. I wanted to be one of the good guys, too. In fact, that’s why I went for a job in the D.A.’s office.”

“You can’t be that kid from the mobile home park!”

“I sure am. Got a little boy of my own now. My wife laughs at me for making sure he always has a pair of blue pajamas.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Neighbor

The Good Neighbor

Being retired is nothing like I always thought it’d be. Gladys and I, we figured we’d travel some. Got one of those silver Airstream trailers to pull behind the truck. She liked to plan where we’d go: Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Muir Woods, Pacific Ocean. But then she got sick, and then she died. I sold the Airstream. Wouldn’t be fun without Glad.

I wake up early. By seven, my day’s well underway. Watch some morning TV., but not those shows where people scream like banshees every time the camera points their way. What gets into normal folks to make them scream like that? I do my outside work while it’s still cool, but I’m careful about using power tools too early. It’s hard to know how to live in this world without Glad, but I try not to be that bothersome old geezer.

One morning I’d finished what I could do without making noise and was sitting on the porch. Couldn’t have been a nicer day – birds shouting, sun pouring down. I noticed the new kid whose family just moved in next door trying to start a lawn mower. I could smell the gas, but he kept on yanking that rope. Finally, I walked over to him.

“It’s flooded,” I said. “If you wait a bit, it’ll start right up.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I never mowed before. My grandparents are coming and Dad said I had to get the yard looking decent.”

“Oh, yeah? Where your grandparents from?”

“India. They’ll be staying for three months.” He looked worried. “I don’t remember them; the last time they were here, I was only three.”

“I reckon it’ll be all right,” I said. “Grandparents and grandkids always seem to get along just fine.”

“Yeah. I don’t know what they’ll do all day, though, while Mom and Dad are at work.”

I shrugged. “Try that mower again.”

It roared to life and the kid gave me a wave and took off mowing. The wavy lines in the grass made me smile, but he was doing his best. After that, we talked whenever he saw me outside. He said his name was Chad – good-looking boy, big dark eyes and inky blue-black hair. He called me Sir, capital S.

When the doorbell rang on a Saturday afternoon, I was surprised. I don’t get company. It was Chad and he apologized right away for bothering me.

“Sir, my Grandpa wants to build an arbor in the back yard like the one you have,” he said. “He wants to make it for my Mom’s birthday.”

“Well, that would sure be nice,” I said, puzzled as to what this had to do with me.

“But Dad doesn’t have much in the way of tools.” He held out a small fishing tackle box, lid open. Inside was a cheap hammer, a couple of screw drivers and a plastic box with a few nails. Chad looked at me hopefully.

“Now, I don’t loan out my tools. Good tools are expensive and I saved up over the years to buy mine.” I heard myself – scolding, selfish.

Chad nodded. “Yes, Sir.” He looked down as a dull red flush crept up his cheeks. I felt like a jerk.

“But what I can do, if you want, is come over and give you and your Grandpa a hand, bring my tools with me.”

So I met Grandpa, whose name was Hakim. He had calloused hands – a good sign – and knew how to swing a hammer. I took along the plans I’d drawn up for my arbor and Hakim studied them carefully.

“I will make a few changes, just so it is my own,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, and we got started.

Chad’s parents left early in the morning for their jobs at the Centers for Disease Control and returned at six or seven in the evening. The grandparents kept busy. Hakim worked on the arbor. His wife, Deeba, cleaned and did laundry, and then cooked a big meal in the evening. They always asked me to stay for dinner, but I was afraid the food would be too spicy until Deeba convinced me to try it. It was delicious. It got so I was eating with them nearly every evening. I’d contribute whatever was ripe in my garden and Deeba would make it into something wonderful.

Then the arbor was finished, and Chad painted it by himself. Did a pretty decent job, too. There was no reason for me to be hanging around their back yard anymore, so I packed up my tools and went home. Didn’t want to make a pest of myself. Hakim and Deeba kept inviting me to dinner, but I’d make excuses. Always better to leave before they wish you’d leave.

I was sitting on the porch one evening, waiting ‘til it was time for Jeopardy to come on. It had been a day when the hands on the clock didn’t seem to move. I miss Glad a lot on days like that. So I was happy to see Hakim and Chad walking over to join me.

“Sir, Grandpa and I were thinking,” Chad began, “we’d like to make a garden like yours. But my Dad doesn’t have much in the way of gardening tools.”

I looked at Hakim and he looked back in perfect round-eyed innocence. I grinned.

“Now, I don’t lend out my gardening tools,” I said, and we all laughed.

 

Aunt Selena

Aunt Selena 2 (2)

I had one job to do, just one job, and I blew it. When my friend Becky prepared to move to a new house, she brought me Aunt Selena swathed in bubble-wrap and blankets.

“Just keep her here until the dust settles,” Becky said. “I don’t want her to get damaged by the movers. The frame is at least a hundred years old and very fragile. It crumbles if you so much as look at it.”

We surveyed the ornate gilt frame surrounding Aunt Selena. Blackened with age, it was  a battered remnant of its formerly splendid self. But nothing could detract from Selena’s commanding presence.

“Okay, sure, she can stay here,” I said.

Aunt Selena glared at me from her fragile frame, light glinting off her round glasses. She had those eyes that followed you everywhere. From the looks of her high, tight collar, she must have been fighting for every breath. No wonder she seemed cranky. But Becky loved her ancestor, warts and all, and the portrait always hung in a prominent place in her home.

We propped Aunt Selena against a table in a quiet corner of my basement where she would ride out the commotion of moving vans and packing peanuts until she could be tenderly installed in her new digs. Should have been a simple favor for a friend, end of story, right? Wrong. One day when I was cleaning, I bumped against the table where Aunt Selena leaned and sent her pitching face-first onto the hard tile floor.

“Oh, nooooo, Selena! Are you okay?” I wailed, rushing to inspect the damage.

She was okay. Her icy stare was intact behind unbroken glass, but oy vey, the frame! It was not composed entirely of wood. The ornate rosettes and scrolls were made of something else – papier mache? Plaster? Insulted by such rude treatment, Selena’s frame shed like a shaggy dog. I gathered up the fragments, some the size and consistency of dust, and took Selena to a handy friend.

“Can we glue the pieces back?” I pleaded.

My friend looked at me suspiciously. “And when you say we, you mean me?”

“Well…yeah. You know I’m not good with my hands.”

She got out her brushes and paint pots, her glues and magic potions, and bent over Selena’s frame. Hours later, the larger pieces were glued back into place, but the frame still had bare, pale spots where pieces were missing. To make them less noticeable, she brushed on a mixture of copper, gold and black paints, blended to match the existing colors.

“How does it look?” she asked, standing back and squinting. “Like crap,” she answered herself. “I guess you’re going to have to find a new old frame.”

“But maybe this frame is part of what makes Aunt Selena special,” I said.

“Well, she isn’t special with all those bald spots. Go shopping.”

Which I did. For once in my life, the stars aligned. I happened upon a frame of the same vintage in an antiques store not a mile from home. It was in good shape – a bit too shiny, but an application of black wax took care of that. Carefully, we transferred Selena’s portrait. I imagined her beady little eyes looked a trifle less disapproving.

Next came the hard part: telling my trusting friend Becky that I was a veritable Wreck-It Ralph and Aunt Selena had suffered in my care. In my mind, I ran through several scenarios.

“Look, a better frame for Aunt Selena! It’s your housewarming present!  Isn’t it great?”

Too hard to sell. How about groveling? “I’m sooooo sorry, I’m a clumsy clod, not worthy to be your friend…”

Groveling never works for long; everyone gets bored. Maybe a stab at the supernatural.

“Selena’s portrait just fell over, like she was a poltergeist or something. I think she was trying to tell us she was tired of that ratty old frame.”

Becky would never go for that.

Finally, I settled on the truth. “I knocked Selena over and chunks fell out of her frame, so I reframed her. If you don’t like it, I’ll put her back in the old one. I’m really sorry about the missing parts.”

Becky nodded, but said nothing. She looked at Selena’s new frame. She compared it to the old one. I waited breathlessly. Would this be the end of a long friendship? Becky spoke.

“You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”

“Well, I know how much you love her, so….”

“No, I mean you shouldn’t have.  I’ve decided on a new style in my new home, minimalistic and modern. This fancy gilt frame just doesn’t go with my décor. I’m not sure I’ll even hang Aunt Selena again.”

I gasped. “You mean you’d put her in the attic?

Becky shrugged. “That’s where I found her in the first place, in Mom’s attic.”

I darted a glance at Selena to see how she was taking it. She met my eyes sternly. I’m not sure, but I think she winked.