The Truth Hurts


Truths a bitch

Like George Washington, Alissa could not tell a lie, even as a child.  Backed into a corner with her mother’s finger waving two inches from her nose, only the truth, however damning, came out.  Questions like, “Who made this mess?” or, “What’s all the screaming about?” always elicited a truthful if reluctant response.  It wouldn’t have been so bad had she only confessed to her own sins, but as often as not she helplessly ratted out a playmate or a sibling.  Even at a young age, she realized this was not the path to a peaceful life.  How she envied those who spread lies like oil slicks over the choppy seas of life.

Time and maturity did not cure what Alissa thought of as her truthfulness disability.  She dreaded questions like, “Do these pants make me look fat?”  Or worse yet, “What do you honestly think of my new boyfriend?”  Try as she might to equivocate, her honest brown eyes gave her away.

When she met the man she would marry, Alissa relaxed in the belief that she had found someone who truly understood and accepted her as she was.  So she was totally unprepared for the discovery early in their marriage that her new husband was a nonchalant liar.

“Little white lies,” he called them, “just ways to grease the wheels of social interaction.”

She shivered the first time he said, “I need you to lie for me.”

“What about?” she asked in trepidation. “You know I’m not good at lying.”

“Just a fib,” Mike assured her. “No big deal. Harmless, really.”

“If it’s no big deal, why don’t you just tell the truth?”

“Look, it’s complicated. You know when I left last Thursday and was gone all weekend…on a business trip?”


“So if anybody asks, like someone I work with or my boss, you just tell them you were sick and I took some time off to take care of you.”

“Wait, what? Where were you? Did you lie to me?”

“No, well, not exactly. I did call on a client in Palm Beach, and then I went to Kent’s bachelor weekend.”

“You knew I was afraid of what could happen at that wild party!”

“Exactly. That’s why I didn’t tell you. You didn’t have to worry about me all weekend, and I didn’t disappoint Kent. Win-win.”

“If you were so determined to go, why not just take a couple of vacation days? That would eliminate one lie, at least,” Alissa said.

“I don’t have any vacation days left this year. Used ‘em all on our honeymoon. But taking a couple of sick days for my new wife – totally acceptable. So you see? It’s just easier to tell a little white lie, and no one gets hurt.”

“And you get to do as you please,” Alyssa said. “How convenient.”  She wondered what else he “didn’t exactly” lie to her about.

As the years passed, Mike’s lies became a commonplace thing in their lives. Alissa’s attempts at covering for him were so clumsy and transparent that she only made things worse. Finally, he left her out of his deceptions, which meant that she, too, was deceived.

“Wouldn’t it be easier, less stressful, to tell the truth?” she asked him after one of her inadvertent exposures. “You wouldn’t have so much to remember, and neither would I.”

“You’re a child.” Mike’s voice was filled with scorn. “You have no idea how the real world works. If you didn’t have me to take care of you, you’d be cut down like a weed.” He sounded like he thought she deserved it.

Alissa told herself to stop trying to change him and accept him as he was, but it was exhausting. As the years passed, she felt tired to her bones. She thought of leaving.

She’d read advice columnists who said you should ask yourself, are you better off with him or without him? Alissa examined that idea dispassionately. She was by now fifty-five years of age and had not held a job since her marriage. Mike earned a comfortable income for one family, but not enough for two households. There was money in the bank, but not enough to support two retirements. Alissa could count on no more than her share of his Social Security in her old age, which wasn’t that far off. Clear-eyed, she assessed her options and decided she was better off staying.

She had her own little world and she retreated into it. There were compensations, she told herself; there were friends and books and music – plenty of things she enjoyed doing alone. So what if she wasn’t living love’s young dream. Who, at her age, was?

Eventually – and it took a while – Mike noticed her withdrawal. “Is anything wrong?” he asked.

Her smile never reached her eyes, but Mike didn’t notice. “Of course not,” she said.

It was her first successful lie.


Lawnmower Man


Lawnmower Man

“He’s at it again!”

Tom was usually a mild-mannered and tolerant neighbor, but really, this was getting to be too much.

“What?” Willa asked. “Who’s doing what?”

“It’s Jake. He’s cutting his grass again.”

“Well, so what? What do you care?”

“He just cut it three days ago,” Tom said bitterly. “Now I’ll have to cut ours, or it will look awful next to his. He used to be normal and mowed once a week like a civilized human being. What is the matter with that man?”

It was a rhetorical question. Nobody seemed to know why Jake had suddenly taken to manic lawn-mowing. It was true the whole street competed for the coveted “Yard of the Month” sign, but this relentless shearing was carrying friendly competition to extremes. Well, if Jake wanted to play that game, Tom could too. He’d be darned if he’d let his grass look shaggy and unkempt next to Jake’s. He heard the roar of Jake’s lawnmower so often it was haunting his dreams.

“I’m gonna talk to him about it,” he said, glaring out the window at Jake.

“Don’t you dare!” Willa said. “What would you say – you’re too neat? It’s not worth having a neighborhood spat over.”

Tom knew she was right, but he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of admitting it. Instead, he slammed the door a little too hard when he went out to yank the pull cord that started his own lawn mower. Wearily, he trimmed off a quarter-inch of grass along the invisible property line where the yards met. Hadn’t he just done this?

Jake stepped from the shower where he’d rinsed off grass clippings, pulled on a robe and peeked around the bedroom curtains. He smiled with satisfaction when he saw his neighbor stomping along behind his machine. Tom’s mower had a safety switch that would automatically shut down the motor if he released his grip on the handle. Then it had to cool off before it would start again, and that might take up to thirty minutes. Consequently, Tom never paused until the lawn was finished. He would be occupied for at least an hour, a captive of the shut-off switch, rendered deaf and dumb by the motor’s roar.

Jake turned his head when he heard a tap on his back door. He hurried to answer it, tingling with anticipation. There she was, wearing a raincoat and – he knew – nothing at all underneath.  He swept her into his arms.


“Darling! We’ve got an hour.”


Reply All

Reply All

My Gramps is great, but a techie he ain’t. Teaching him something on a computer is like giving instructions to a bewildered passenger trying to land a 747. I hear my voice get higher and higher. Remember, he taught you to ride a bicycle, I remind myself, remember he taught you to eat with utensils and tie your shoelaces. He was patient with you then; be patient with him now.

But sometimes Gramp’s escapades in computer-land are entertaining. Take, for instance, his foray into what he always refers to as The E-mail.

Nobody my age even uses e-mail anymore. We don’t answer our phones, either. Text it or forget it. If we do go online, we use Instagram or Snapchat. But for Gramps, e-mail was a new and exciting way to connect with old friends. He asked me to give him a tutorial and, heaving an inward sigh, I agreed.

We got through the first hurdles of what e-mail provider to use and what his password would be. I know, I know, gramps42 isn’t exactly hack-proof, but who’s going to hack my Gramps? He totally did not get on board with the idea of using abbreviations, emojis or initials in his messages. No, every word must be typed out in full and spelled correctly. Each message must begin “Dear Somebody” and end “Sincerely yours” like a real letter. That slowed him down, but he said, “What else have I got to do?”

Eventually, he accumulated enough of his old friends’ e-mail addresses to get a nice little group going. He enjoyed hearing what his former high school buddies were up to, although he was quiet for a couple of days after he learned one of them had died. “Gotta expect it at our age,” he said, but I knew it was hard.

One day he called to tell me his computer was “acting funny.” It happened often enough that I’d installed a program that allowed me to sign in to his account remotely and see what was going on. Usually it was a snarl caused by his impatient mouse-clicking when the response wasn’t fast enough to suit him.

“Just give it a minute, Gramps. See the little circle going around? That means it’s working. Let the computer do its thing,” I must have said nine hundred times. But he’d click until he was thoroughly confused and so was his computer.

This time he’d somehow deleted his e-mail account, so I reinstated it. I scanned a few of the recent messages to make sure they’d been retrieved.

“Hey, who’s Cutie Patootie?” I typed, teasing him a little.

“That’s just a nickname for someone I knew in high school,” Gramps typed back, and closed up like a mollusk.

There were no more problems for a while. When I asked him if he was enjoying renewed friendships, he seemed a bit evasive and quickly changed the subject. Okay, I got it. It was probably humiliating to have to keep asking a smarty-pants grandchild for help, and now he wanted privacy. I didn’t give it another thought.

Until the day Gramps called and asked if I could stop by his house after work. His voice sounded shaky, something I’d never heard before. When I got there, he was sitting at the kitchen table, laptop open before him.

“What’s up?”  I asked as I entered.

“Well, see, I don’t know what I did wrong,” Gramps said with unaccustomed humility. Usually he got mad at the computer and then at me for being on the computer’s side. “I’ve been e-mailing a, uh, friend from high school days. Good to get back in touch, you know, catch up on each other’s lives.”

“Yeah, so? What’s wrong?”

“Now some people are apparently reading our correspondence.” Gramps definitely was blushing.

“Shall I take a look?”

“I guess.”

Seems Gramps had gotten reacquainted with an old high school friend, all right, the aforementioned Ms. Patootie. As I scrolled through their numerous e-mails, I saw the acquaintance deepen to friendship and then to something more. There were other e-mails, too, butting in like brats, quoting Gramps line for line and adding the kind of teasing you get with your first girlfriend or boyfriend in middle school. My dear Gramps was deeply embarrassed.

“I don’t know how those other fellas hocked into The E-mail,” Gramps said, “but I don’t appreciate their smart remarks.”

“It’s hacked, Gramps, and they didn’t. I think I see the problem. Look here, where you replied to her e-mails, you hit ‘reply all.’ That means it goes to everyone on the address list of the original e-mail. You were part of a group and then when you thought you were writing only to her, you kept on including everyone.”

I got it straightened out. Gramps and Patootie, whose name was actually Caroline, kept writing to each other, then meeting, then dating. Finally, in a triumph of hope over experience, as Gramps put it, they got married.  We all liked her just fine and I was happy to take some credit for the happy ending.

E-mailing ceased to be a priority now that Gramps and Caroline had each other. I relaxed. For a while. Then Gramps called.

“Say, Caroline and I want to get on The Facebook.”




“Of course, with our Hayley in prison, we don’t see as much of her as we’d like.”

Richard smiled inwardly when all conversation at the table stopped and every head turned toward him.

“She’s doing well, though, especially in her painting class. She sent us her latest work of art and we would love to hang it in our house except it’s just so graphic and gory it scares people. Well, I guess lifers have to vent their anger somewhere.”

Heads nodded politely. “Uh, Richard, I didn’t know you and Vee had a daughter,” one person ventured.

“Oh, we don’t! I’m just messin’ with you,” Richard said, allowing his inner smile to develop into a hearty laugh.

“Oh.” Everyone looked blank and laughed along nervously.

“We were having so much fun, we forgot to have kids,” Vee said, smiling at Richard fondly.

“But I decided it’s not too late to have a virtual daughter and while we’re at it, make her interesting,” Richard added.

At first it was just a party gambit, this imaginary daughter. Something he and Vee would kid about at home.

“The windows need washing.”

“Let’s ask Hayley to do it.”

Richard brought home a child-size rocking chair with the name “Hayley” painted in fancy letters on the back.

“Why?” Vee wanted to know.

“Just to get people going,” Richard said, placing the rocker carefully on one side of the fireplace.

“Maybe…do you think you could be carrying this a bit too far?”

“You know, Vee, I’ve been thinking about it. If we’d had a daughter, she’d probably be about forty years old by now. I got to wondering what she might have been like and what I picture is a bad ass kind of woman. Black leather, rides a Harley, won’t take crap from anybody.”

“Hmmm, this is sounding more and more like personal wish fulfillment,” Vee said, shaking her head.

“No, come on, just imagine her with me.”

“Well, okay. Our daughter would have long dark hair like my Mama’s.”

“And green eyes like my Daddy,” Richard put in eagerly.

“She’d be tough and strong, a woman not to be trifled with,” Vee said. “Is that why she’s in prison, do you think?”

“Hayley told me she killed a man who needed killing,” Richard said. “In Texas, that’s considered a solid defense.”

“So she was actually doing the community a service,” Vee said.

“And was unappreciated – and in fact, punished.” Richard was indignant. “Bet she had a lousy defense lawyer.”

“Maybe she was saving some helpless soul from a bully…or from a violent robbery…or it was self-defense or something.”

“That’s what I thought. Hayley was never one to brag, so she didn’t go into details.”

Soon a day didn’t go by without one or the other adding to Hayley’s story. She became strangely real to them. When Richard brought her up at a party, Vee frowned at him and shook her head. She didn’t like Hayley being made a figure of fun. The poor girl had been through enough.

Richard didn’t say a word of remonstrance when Vee brought home a beautiful Madame Alexander doll and propped it in the little rocking chair. He bought a black leather jacket that cost as much as a month’s groceries.

“It just made me think of her when I saw it,” he said, stroking the buttery sleeve. “It actually fits me and Hayley said I should wear it and enjoy it while she’s in prison, and she’ll wear it when she gets out.”

“But I thought…life?” Vee’s face was puzzled.

“With the possibility of parole,” Richard said.

“Will she need us to speak for her when she goes before the Parole Board?”

“You know Hayley. She’ll handle it.”

Somehow, neither Richard nor Vee was surprised when the doorbell rang late one night after they’d gone to bed. They both got up, put on their robes and went downstairs to answer it. Sure enough, a dark-haired, green-eyed woman stood on their doorstep.

“Mom, Dad, I’m home.”

They were overjoyed to have her, of course. The first couple of days were like a honeymoon. Everything seemed fresh and new. They couldn’t do enough for Hayley, bringing her breakfast in bed, taking her shopping, driving her around in their car. At first she was helpful around the house, but as time passed it seemed Hayley did less and less and Vee and Richard did more and more. They went behind her all day, clearing away her dirty dishes, wiping rings off the table tops, vacuuming crumbs, picking up her clothes and running endless loads of wash. Many nights they’d stumble into bed at midnight, only to be awakened an hour later by Hayley yelling, “Mom! Dad! I can’t find the remote. Is there any pie left? Where’s my pink shirt?”

Vee developed big dark circles under her eyes, and Richard pulled his belt in another notch.  The night Hayley shot a hole in the ceiling while playing with Richard’s gun, he called the police.

The young patrolman listened politely to Richard and Vee as they described what their lives had become. “And she’s up there right now, sprawled out on our guest bed, fooling around with a firearm!” Richard ended.

The policeman took the stairs two at a time. He returned more slowly, looking at Richard and Vee quizzically.

“Did you arrest her? Are you waiting for back-up?” Vee asked.

The cop shook his head. “There’s no one there.”


Tomorrow the World



There are dogs, and then there are dogs! We always seem to get the latter kind, the ones with the big personalities, the ones all the neighbors know by name. I’m talking about a small (only in stature) Jack Russell terrier named Pearl. A more fitting handle might have been Osama, but we didn’t know she was a terrorist when we named her. We were deep in puppy love and it took a while to realize that our Pearl was made up of irritants, just like the real thing.

Walking her was an exercise in humility. “Hi, Pearl!” Hey there, Pearl!” “Yo, Pearl!” rang out on all sides. I was seldom greeted or even acknowledged. Pearl would accept these tributes regally unless there was another dog involved. Then she’d lunge viciously, snarling and snapping. The message was clear: “I am queen. Bow down, commoner, or I will end you.”

A friend confessed she always goes for dumb dogs, “just so I have a fighting chance.” There’s something to that. A dog doesn’t have to plan meals or cut grass or remember to fill up the car. All a dog has to do is plot how to outwit you. Pearl figured that out in record time.

For instance, there was the bell we hung on the door so she could signal when she wanted to go out. At first, she hated the whole idea. We’d lift her paw and swat at the bell. She would turn her face away, refusing to even look at it. But then one day, she realized the power of the bell. Her eyes sparkled as she understood that she could make us stop whatever we were involved in and do her bidding. She could interrupt conversations in person or on the phone. She could tear our eyes away from our screens. She could suspend forks midway to mouths. From that day forward, we would jerk like marionettes when we heard the ting-ting-ting of the bell. Who was training whom?

If she’d been human, Pearl definitely would have been an intelligence agent. There were no secrets in the house. When the basket of take-out menus came down from the top of the refrigerator, it meant food would magically appear when the doorbell rang. Pearl would go to the door and wait for it. The best kind of magical food was Chinese because Mingmei brought it. Mingmei might have been new to the English language, but she spoke American marketing perfectly.

“Herro, herro,” she’d carol, standing on the doorstep with her bags of delicious-smelling cuisine. Bending down, she’d hold out a yummy morsel. “And here is Miss Purr. Hi, Purry, who’s a good girl? Who’s my little friend?”

Pearl would take the treat delicately, then sprawl on her back offering up her belly for rubbing, grinning maniacally. This love-fest would go on until I could manage to pay Mingmei, retrieve Pearl from la-la land and get our rapidly-cooling dinner on the table.

One day a strange young man appeared holding the familiar white bags. Pearl was not amused. She hung behind me, sniffing the air furiously. Yes, it was the same food, but it wasn’t Mingmei. Not cool. Not cool at all!

“Delivery from Golden Dragon,” the young man said.

“Thanks. What do I owe you?” I reached for my wallet.

He told me, then added, “Oh, one more thing: I say herro to Purr.”

“You know her?”

“I know of her,” he said with an enigmatic smile. “Here, Purr, I got something for you from Mingmei.”

He held out an eggroll. Pearl came forward, sniffed, grabbed the eggroll rudely and devoured it in one gulp. She looked up at the stranger. After a moment of deliberation she flopped over on her back. He dutifully scratched her belly – what else could he do?

“Does everyone at the Golden Dragon know Pearl?” I asked nervously.

“Oh, yes. You are good customer. We all know with Purr, you give eggroll.”

The canine galloping gourmet looked up at me smiling. I could read her mind: “Today eggroll – tomorrow the world.”


Best Day Ever

best day ever

“Okay, let’s go around the table and everyone describe their best day ever,” JoEllen said.

It was girls’ night out, and they were having dinner at their favorite Mexican restaurant. JoEllen was the social director of their group; she always came up with ways to keep their time together interesting.

“We’ll all say the best day was our wedding day, or the day our children were born,” Rhonda protested.

“No, we can’t name those things.” JoEllen was inclined to bossiness, but the others forgave her for it. “We’ll agree that those days were the best of the best. But for this purpose, tell about a day when everything just fell into place – a day that stays in your memory because it left such a good feeling.”

“Why don’t you go first, since you’ve had the unfair advantage of time to think about it,” Maria said.

“Sure. My best day ever happened when I was really young – I might have been four or five. Dad was putting up hay in the haymow and Mom said I could watch if I stayed right beside the lilac bush. She put a little yellow chair there for me. I remember the herbal smell of the hay, the drone of bees in the lilacs, and realizing for the first time that I lived in a beautiful world. I felt I was exactly where I belonged. Daddy died a couple of years later.”

The others nodded. JoEllen had grown up without her father.

Katie spoke next. “My best day ever was when I sold my first article to a national magazine. It was the closest I’ve ever come to walking on air. Just to know that professionals valued what I wrote and paid me for it – wow! I’m still happy for a sale, but the first one convinced me I was a real writer. That validation gave me the courage to keep at it.”

Maria looked down at her hands. “Are you sure we can’t talk about the day our children were born? Because when Brian came into the world…”

“No!” JoEllen was firm. “That day was the best of the best, no question. But what we’re talking about is different. It’s an experience unique to ourselves. Something that changed or clarified the way we saw the world.”

The group was getting into it now. Rhonda spoke next. “The best day for me was the day I finally broke up with Toby.”

There were groans. They all remembered the drama – they’d secretly called him Toby the Terrible. But Rhonda couldn’t see it for the longest time.

“I thought I’d never survive without him, but when it was over there was a wonderful feeling of liberation. No more worrying about whether Toby was in a good mood. No more fear that next time he’d actually take a swing at me. I realized I was a person of value, if not to him, then to myself.”

There was a pattering of applause and Rhonda took a little bow.

All heads turned toward Maria. She was the last to speak.

“Maybe you’ll think mine is stupid,” she said.

The friends chorused their encouragement. She continued.

“Last week I was pulling weeds. I was hot and thirsty and my back ached from all the stooping. I just wanted to get done. There was this one stubborn weed that had come up in a crack in the driveway. You know how dry it’s been – this weed was parched for water. It lay over on its side, completely wilted. But boy, did it resist being pulled! Part of it broke off, but the root held. I finally gave up.”

“What did it clarify for you?” JoEllen asked.

“I guess for me that weed exemplified perseverance. It was just a weed, but it was fully engaged with its life and refused to be uprooted.”

Maria stopped, fighting back tears. The others looked at her in surprise. Where was all this coming from?

“Why was that a good day?” Rhonda asked gently.

“Because…because I need that same perseverance. I haven’t been ready to tell you this until now. I have breast cancer. Chemo starts next week and I know it’s going to be rough, but I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stay alive.  That weed, well, it wasn’t giving up. And when I let it live, I promised myself that I wouldn’t give up, either.”


The four friends continued meeting over the years and when the did, they gave thanks for gray hair, aches and pains, and the privilege of growing old. They agreed that just being together made it the best day ever.


Carl Does Costco

pickle crock

She could never get him to go shopping, either with her or without her. He just wasn’t interested, and on the occasions when she shamed him into accompanying her, he behaved very badly. Stomping around, glaring at people, being rude to clerks – really, it was just easier to leave him at home. So no one was more surprised than June when Carl announced he’d bought a membership to Costco.

“What were you doing there?” June inquired. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d even know where it is.”

“Went with Tom,” he said.

Tom was their next-door neighbor, a fellow retiree. Carl and Tom spoke at length over the fence every day, and sometimes they’d jump in one or the other’s pickup truck and roar off on errands. These errands often involved the purchase of tools and lawn equipment which apparently didn’t count as shopping, or might result in an empty-handed return home with outraged reports of ridiculous prices and snotty salespeople. As far as June knew, they’d never before ventured to Costco.

“What were you after?”

“Hedge trimmer, half-price.  Got it, too. Tom’s a member.”

But why did you decide to join? You hate to shop.”

“Hate to shop for twiddly little stuff. This is different.”

He went out to his truck and began carrying in things. There was a 30-roll package of toilet paper, a 10-roll package of paper towels, 24 light bulbs, a 12-pack of shaving cream and several trees-worth of nuts. June scurried around trying to find places to stash it all.

The coup de gras was a giant crock of pickles. Carl shuffled under the weight of it. With a grunt, he heaved it onto the kitchen counter. They both regarded it in silence.

“I like pickles,” Carl finally offered.

“Where the hell am I supposed to put that?” June asked.

“Let’s open it up and try ‘em.”

“No, once that crock is opened, it’ll have to be refrigerated. I can’t get it in the fridge up here or the one in the basement. That’s if we could even lug it to the basement. What did you think you were going to do with all those pickles? There are only two of us, you know.”

“Yeah, I had noticed. Well, as I said, I like pickles. Maybe I just wanted to buy what I like for a change. Wonder what a frozen pickle would taste like.”

“Frozen…why would you freeze pickles?”

“Make pickle-sickles.” Carl snorted at his own humor. “Grand-kids might like ‘em.”

“I don’t see that happening,” June replied. “Now, you figure out what you’re going to do with all those pickles because I’m not touching them. And I’d better not find the shelves taken out of my refrigerator to accommodate that crock.”

She stalked from the kitchen. Carl watched her go, then turned his attention back to the pickle crock. It was big. That was a lot of pickles. He wouldn’t have admitted it for cash money, but like the dog that caught a car, he didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with them now that he had them.

Maybe he could give some away. He called over the back fence to where Tom was getting ready to try out his new hedge trimmer.

“Hey, y’all could use some pickles, right?”

Tom looked up briefly. “No thanks. We don’t much care for pickles.”

Next Carl called his children. Offers of pickles fell flat there, too. No one seemed to be a big pickle fan. He contemplated toting the crock into the garage and covering it with a tarp, but June had some kind of radar that warned her of such ideas.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” she called from the living room. “Don’t you even think of hiding those pickles. You bought them, you figure out what to do with them.”

“Dang, that woman not only has eyes in the back of her head, she has eyes on stalks like a snail. She can see around corners,” Carl muttered.

“Okay, then,” he called back. “Just stay out of the kitchen because I have work to do and I want to do it in peace.”

June heard clinking and clanking and smelled pickle brine. She had to struggle not to peek – heaven only knew what kind of mess he was making. But in the end, she went to bed and left him to it. Whatever it was.

The next morning, neighbors going out to pick up their newspapers were greeted by  jars of pickles on their doorsteps.  Notes were stuck to the lids with masking tape:

“Good pickles make good neighbors.”

They looked up and down the street, shook their heads in confusion, shrugged, picked up their jars of pickles and went back into their houses. Carl watched with satisfaction from his vantage point behind the big holly bush.

“See there,” he said to June as she served him his scrambled eggs. “I handled it. Pickles all gone.”

“I’m not even going to ask what you did with them, or why you were sneaking in and out of the house all night.” June knew, with the experience of the long-married, that some rocks were better left unturned.

“Are you going to Costco today?” she asked.

“Nah. Doubt if I’ll ever go back. You know I hate to shop.”


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?


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.