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.

 

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.

 

Mermaid School

mermaid school

Missy paid $3,000 for her tail. It was an expenditure that left her parents gasping. She thought it was worth cleaning out her savings account to be the owner of an iridescent, scaly, surprisingly realistic silicone fish tail. It was an important step toward her goal of becoming a professional mermaid.

“Water shows are always looking for good mermaid swimmers,” she explained to her mother, who was weeping. “I’m learning so much in mermaid school, and owning a tail of this quality puts me ahead of the pack.”

“What kind of pack could there be for such a job?” her mother asked through her tears. “What about college? What about training for a job you can still do when you get older?”

“We won’t be around to support you forever,” her father added.

“I can teach adults and kids who want to swim in fishtails, I can perform in water shows, appear at events – .”

“Yes, and make pennies,” her mom interrupted, “with no health insurance or benefits.”

Missy hugged them both and continued to do exactly as she pleased.

~*~

Mermaid school was tough. Classes started at 6 a.m. in a foggy, chlorine-redolent indoor pool that their teacher, who insisted they call her Ariel, rented under the table from the motel night manager. The girls had to whisper so as not to disturb the guests. There Missy swam in a beginner’s tail made of swimsuit-fabric, learned to hold her breath for minutes at a time, to defy buoyancy and sink at will, to slow her heartbeat and respiration when every cell in her body screamed, AIR, AIR!

But the hard work was worth it. It was magic, pure and simple, to flip her fish tail and dive and somersault. Although she knew she had a long way to go, in her imagination she performed before a mesmerized audience and heard their applause.

“You’ll be a mermaid” Ariel said solemnly, “when you believe it yourself.”

Fellow students Patty and Donna became her friends. They practiced endlessly in Patty’s parents’ pool, honing the moves they felt sure would make them stars. When they weren’t swimming, they were sewing sequins on their costumes and while they worked, they dreamed. The Number One Dream was to be hired by Mermaid World to swim in the huge transparent tank and tour from city to city.

In fact, Missy was on her way to audition for Mermaid World when her car was T-boned by a driver who ran a red light. When she woke up, she couldn’t move her body below the waist.

~*~

Depression was just a word to Missy before the accident. Afterward, it became a watchword. She was only nineteen. Now she not only couldn’t be a mermaid, she couldn’t even walk across the room. Her stay in rehab didn’t produce any miracles. Somehow she just couldn’t put her heart into the exercises. What did it matter, anyway? Her dream was dead. Finally the doctor released her, begging her to keep working at home.

“You’re young,” the doctor said, “your body wants to heal, it wants to make new neural pathways and recapture what it has lost. Don’t give up.”

Missy stared silently over his head until he left.

Her parents rigged up a pulley with which she could lift herself between wheelchair and bed. They modified the bathroom so she could roll her chair right into the shower.

“I appreciate it, I do,” she said, hearing how flat her voice sounded as she looked into their hopeful faces.

She couldn’t share their hope because she knew her life was over. All day she sat in her wheelchair gazing out the window.

That’s where she was when Patty and Donna arrived. Even the sight of their car crunching up the gravel driveway did nothing to elevate her spirits. She greeted them listlessly when they entered her room.

“Up and at ‘em,” Patty said, grabbing her wheelchair and starting for the door.

“Where are you taking me? I don’t feel well enough to go anywhere.”

“Tough,” Donna said briefly.

Over her protests, she was bundled into the car. Her parents didn’t seem to be anywhere around to stop this kidnapping, which was strange. Usually they were hovering. Missy subsided into a corner of the backseat, not even bothering to look at the passing scenery. Sooner or later, they’d have to take her home. She’d just wait it out.

Their destination was the pool at Patty’s house, where the smell of chlorine hit her brain like a drug. Ariel was waiting. The three women stuffed Missy’s limp legs into her beautiful mermaid tail and propped her on the pool’s edge. After they’d slipped into their own tails, they took her hands and pulled her into the water. Patty and Donna supported her on either side, their strong legs working like flippers. As one, they rose and fell, dived and rolled. Missy gave herself up to the freedom of the water, allowing herself to recapture her old dream, if only for a moment.

That’s when she felt the first electric tingling of nerves and muscles in legs long dormant. She flipped her fish tail ever so slightly and Patty and Donna moved away. Missy floated, buoyed by hope, her hair drifting in the water like seaweed.

And in that moment, she passed the final exam of mermaid school. She believed.

Dreamcatcher

dream-catcher-3299832_1920

The minute she saw him, she knew he intended to kill her.

He stepped from behind the car parked next to hers, appearing suddenly in the dusk. He was a stranger, yet familiar – there was something about the set of his ears, the shape of his chin. He didn’t speak, but no words were needed. The blade he cradled in his hand spoke for him.

“What do you want?” She’d meant to make her voice strong, but it came out a gasp.

“Now take it easy.” His thumb caressed the hilt of the knife. “I’d hate to have to hurt you. Why don’t you just come with me like a good girl?”

She remembered her self-defense classes: don’t show fear, don’t back down, and above all, don’t go quietly. Straightening her spine, she met his eyes and shouted, “Get the hell away from me.”

“Why, Mattie, is that any way to treat your long-lost brother?”

She awoke, as she always did, sweating and trembling. The dream came so often these days, and for no reason she could pinpoint. Just my brain cleaning house while I’m asleep, she counseled herself. It means nothing.

She wished she could believe it.

Why this persistent dream of a brother she never had? The feeling of doom and danger that came with it – what was that about? Despite her determination not to succumb to superstition, she couldn’t help speculating whether the dream was some kind of omen. But if it was, what was she to do about it?

If only I had a brother or sister. If only Mom and Dad were still alive. I could talk it over with them, with family. But she was the only child of two only children – no aunts or uncles or cousins, let alone siblings. When people began remarking on the dark circles under her eyes, she decided it was time to seek help.

“I don’t think I really need a shrink long-term,” she said to Dr. Musgrove at their get-acquainted session. “I just have this one dream that is…troubling.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?”

She did, looking anxiously at the doctor’s face as she finished. “So, what do you think? Am I Cuckoo for Coco Puffs?” she asked, trying to laugh although her voice shook a little.

“Not a bit,” Dr. Musgrove said with a smile. “But I think it would be good to explore the meaning behind this dream, don’t you?”

“I guess,” Mattie said doubtfully. “I was kind of hoping you could give me a logical explanation.”

“I wish I could. You’ll have to do the heavy lifting on this, but I’ll be here to help.”

The dreams continued during that long, stifling summer without any hint of a therapy breakthrough. Mattie was discouraged and ready to quit when Dr. Musgrove suggested hypnosis. At first, she said no.

“I don’t want to surrender my will to anyone, not even you,” she protested.

“Hypnosis doesn’t work like that. You’ll still be in control. It’s just a state of deep relaxation that frees the mind to solve problems.”

It did seem to help. When the dream hadn’t disturbed her sleep for a whole week, she began to hope it was over. But then a few nights later, her “brother” was back, flicking his knife, leering at her. Her own strangled scream woke her.

“Enough! I refuse to be a victim to this irrational fear any longer.”

That day, she bought a handgun and had her first shooting lesson.

~*~

She wasn’t even surprised when she recognized him. Out for the evening at an unfamiliar pub with friends, she saw his face reflected in the mirror behind the bar. When she met his eyes, he smiled. Then he came over.

“Don’t I know you?” he said.

“No!”

Mattie’s friends looked at her in surprise.

“Oh, sorry, my mistake,” he said, holding up his hands, backing away.

She left soon after that, unable to sit still with the fierce anger that consumed her. Her heels hit the sidewalk hard and her hand closed on the gun in her purse. She knew he’d be waiting for her in the parking lot. Let him try it. She was ready. Let him just try it.

He stepped from behind the car parked next to hers. “I know we don’t know each other, but – well, this sounds crazy – I dream about you all the time. I dream that you’re my sister.”

He fumbled in his pocket. He was reaching for the knife, and she knew exactly how he’d hold it, how his thumb would rub along the hilt. How he’d sink that knife into her. She pulled out her gun and fired.

When he fell, his hand came out of his pocket and his cell phone skittered across the sidewalk to her feet. That’s what he was reaching for? She’d shot him for assault with a cell phone?  Shuddering, she bent and picked it up. The screen was open for a video call.

He looked out at her with the leering smile from the dream and said, “Why, Mattie, is that any way to treat your long-lost brother?”

The screen went dark. In the distance, she heard sirens.

 

Just Friends

Just Friends sunflowersRainey was less than happy when Joe asked her to accept a very important delivery he was expecting. It had to be signed for, he told her, “and I’ll be at work.” She knew that was code for, “while you get to stay home and do whatever you please, so the least you can do for me is this one, small favor.” Words like that were better left unspoken, but they rolled around underfoot like unexploded ordinance.

She’d had plans for that day, a day of sunshine after ever-lasting showers. It would have been good to get out. Instead, she was stuck waiting for the doorbell to ring. But she acquiesced because that’s what married people do for each other. It meant she’d miss the second monthly Friends of the Library meeting. Not that her presence was essential, but it was a group she enjoyed and she hated to miss two meetings in a row. They’d think she was sick or something.

With her plans laid waste, she found it hard to settle herself. She read the morning paper for a few minutes, then tossed it aside. Picked up her library book, but couldn’t get interested. Watched ten minutes of the morning news before giving up in disgust.

She phoned Joe at work. “Are you absolutely positive your package is coming today? Do you have any idea what time?”

“You know better than to ask. Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away, but Amazon saith not what time. They did say what day, though, and it’s today. Why? Is it too much trouble for you?”

“No, no, I’ll do it. Just wondering.”

“Look, I don’t ask for much,” Joe’s voice took on the whiny tone she hated.

“I said I’ll do it. There’s the doorbell now.”

She hurried to the door, but was only in time to see the delivery guy swing into his truck and zoom away. So much for the all-important signature. She looked right and left, but there was no large brown cardboard box on the porch. Then she spotted a florist’s arrangement of bright yellow sunflowers tucked beside the doorstep. They flared like a beacon against the brick of the house.

“Wow! What special occasion did I forget?” She scooped up the flowers and searched for a card, but there didn’t seem to be one.

“That Joe! He’s making up for ruining my day. How lovely.”

She reached for her phone and punched redial.

“Hello?”

“Joe, you’re a sweetheart! Thank you for these beautiful flowers.”

“Flowers? I don’t know what you’re talking about, honey.”

“Oh, c’mon. Who else would send me flowers? There’s no card, but I know they’re from you.  What a nice way to thank me for staying home to receive your delivery. Which, by the way, hasn’t come yet.”

“Yeah, that would’ve been nice, all right. Wish I’d thought of it.”

“You really didn’t send them?” She heard her voice go soft with disappointment.

“Sorry, I really didn’t. Look, gotta run, see you tonight.”

And he was gone, leaving her with what she was beginning to think of as the Mystery of the Flowers. Maybe they’d been delivered to her house in error. But no, there was her name and address on the little envelope. The enclosure had apparently gotten lost.

Could it have been her parents? They’d never done such a thing in their frugal lives. Her sister, ditto. Her brother – forget it, not if he lived to be a hundred. One of her friends? It wasn’t her birthday, nor had she done anything noteworthy that called for a floral tribute.

An old boyfriend then, someone who still thought of her fondly. Her memory turned to a certain boy she’d dated in college. She remembered his soft brown eyes, his kiss. But that was thirty years ago; she was married now and undoubtedly so was he.

Maybe the flowers were sent by a shy neighbor, someone who thought she was special, who liked to see her walking the dog or weeding the flower-bed. Glancing down at her frayed jeans and stretched tee shirt, she ruled that out. Neighbors saw too much to have any illusions. No, it had to be someone else. But who?

The sunflowers were losing some of their appeal. In fact, they were beginning to give her a headache. Hoping Joe’s package wouldn’t come for a few more minutes, she headed down the driveway for a mind-clearing walk.

Her eye caught on a square of white at the curb where the delivery truck had paused. Stooping, she saw it was a florist’s card. Aha! Here it was, the answer to the Mystery of the Flowers. All her speculation was about to end. She’d know who admired her, who wanted to brighten her day, who might be thinking of her that very minute.

She postponed looking at the card, savoring the moment, speculating. Life was full of unexpected twists. What might be set in motion by the little piece of card stock in her hand? With a shiver of anticipation, she raised it to her eyes and read:

“Get well soon. Friends of the Library.”

~*~

Rainey didn’t cook supper that night. When Joe came home, he found her in bed with no sunflowers in sight.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” he asked.

“Apparently, and I’m not getting up until I’m better,” she said. “From now on, you can sign for your own darn deliveries.”

 

Obsession

 

 

Suddenly, nothing on the dashboard worked. The speedometer fell to zero, the clock went dark, the heater fan and radio stopped, and worst of all, the headlights faded and died. Jean stood on the brakes and brought the car to a halt. Automatic locks went “thunk,” trapping her inside. The hair on her arms rose and her pulse quickened. This could only mean one thing: alien invasion.

It’s exactly the way they said it would be. Everything electrical shuts down when there’s a spacecraft in the vicinity.

She peered through the windshield at what she could see of the black sky, but no eerie light appeared. Maybe it’s directly overhead with the lights off. Right above me where I can’t see it. I need to text David and tell him I love him one last time… but no, of course my phone doesn’t work. This is it. It’s happening.

In her agitation, she involuntarily pushed on the gas pedal and the engine responded with a roar. All the dials on the dashboard came to life again, the windshield wipers whispered, the radio blared and the door locks disengaged. She drove home, raced into the house and found her husband snoozing in front of the television. She got right in his face, her words tumbling over each other.

“Everything in the car quit working, then it all started back up again, I know there must have been a spaceship overhead, it was exactly the way it’s been described. Did you see anything? Hear anything?”

David yawned, stretched. “It’s probably the alternator. I’ll look at it tomorrow.”

“But…”

“Geez Louise! When you hear hoof beats, you cut straight to zebra, don’t you? I’m goin’ to bed.”

~*~

Jean had a thing about creatures from another planet. Her mother claimed she’d been permanently scarred by seeing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as a child. Jean had identified so completely with Drew Barrymore’s character that for days she practiced her piercing scream so she’d be ready when her own personal E.T. showed up and tried to phone home. Everyone agreed the screaming practice was a trial, but for the most part, her family was indulgent. Jean had a lively imagination, a sign of superior intelligence, they said fondly; she’d outgrow her preoccupation with alien invasions soon enough.

Only she didn’t. She reported sightings of saucers and landing lights on a regular basis. Her school essays were full of pseudo-scientific “findings” she gleaned from the Internet. She saved her allowance for a trip to Roswell, New Mexico.

Teachers tried to reason with her. A psychologist was consulted. Even the family’s minister took a swing at Jean’s obsession – because that’s what it had become – but all appeals to logic failed. She was unshakable. She knew what she knew.

When she started going out with David, Jean did try to behave more normally. She practiced yoga and meditation, went for long walks, read a lot. After they married, she promised to forget about extra-terrestrials, or as David called them, her little green men. For a week at a time, she’d manage not to go outside before bedtime to check the sky. It made her more, rather than less tense because what if they came when she wasn’t watching? It was better to be alert and ready. Besides, they might very well be friendly aliens. She didn’t want to miss that.

She knew David was growing increasingly impatient. He organized an intervention in which the whole family gathered to express concern. Jean listened politely, but nothing they said connected with her.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You just don’t understand.”

That last summer Jean began staying outside most of the night. She’d spread a blanket on the grass and doze, waking frequently to scan the swirl of stars overhead. In July, David packed a suitcase and left. He said he couldn’t take life with a nut case anymore. No one blamed him. Her baffled family tried tough love: “When you’re ready to accept help, let us know.”

The house felt wrong without David in it and Jean seldom went inside after he left. Her days were spent waiting for night, for that was when they would come. In darkness.

~*~

Jean woke slowly. It was an effort to open her eyes in the white light, such painfully bright light. Her brain took a while to process what she saw: a huge circular shape centered in a radiant nimbus. Was she dreaming, or was this was what she’d been waiting for all her life? A hatch opened and a ramp whirred softly to the ground. Deeply-buried memories stirred and lifted her to her feet.

“You’ve come back for me,” she said. She walked into the light.

~*~

Her father reported her missing after twenty-four hours. Authorities were dismissive; the woman had a history of instability. She’d probably decided to go off somewhere and eventually she’d come back, that’s all. There was some puzzlement over a discarded shoe in a circle of burnt grass, but that was just the kind of odd thing you might expect from Jean. Who on earth could understand why she did what she did?

Who on Earth…

 

Idiot!

  

Idiot two men in bar

“I’ve just been sitting here thinking.”

“Yeah? A bar’s a good place for that. Are they deep thoughts?”

“Sorta. The older I get, the more my thoughts turn to the past and all the stupid things I’ve done. I guess it’s an age thing. You know what I need?”

“What’s that, besides another round?”

“A big red stamp that says IDIOT! I could use it on so many of my memories. Maybe if I stamped ‘em, I could forget ‘em. Pretty sure I’d need an extra ink pad, though.”

“What did you do that was so bad?

“I wasn’t a criminal or anything like that. I was just an idiot. Still am, I guess.”

“Give an example.”

“Well, the first idiotic thing I remember doing was back in first grade. I became convinced that the girls’ bathroom must be really special. We all lined up, boys and girls, for bathroom breaks, and the boys would file into their bathroom, and the girls into theirs. I wanted to see what those snotty little girls were up to in their private bathroom, so I sneaked into the girls’ line. Caused quite a stir, screaming and all. Little girls sure can scream.”

“I see what you mean.”

“I started young, and that was just the beginning. I have a genius for being stupid. There was that time in high school when Izod shirts were the rage. My parents thought it was a waste of money to pay extra to wear some guy’s trademark, so I drew crocodiles on my shirts with a green felt-tip marker. They looked pretty good, too.”

“Hmmm. How’d that work out?”

“The marker ran in the wash; everything I owned was green. That’s why people who knew me in high school still call me Croc.”

“That’s only kid stuff, though. No reason to be so hard on yourself.”

“Like I said, just the beginning. It got worse. There was the time I introduced my wife to my boss, but I called her by a former girlfriend’s name. And once I went to a party in cut-off jeans and flip-flops because I thought the Dressy in Dressy Casual meant women wore dresses and men were casual. That was before I got married, needless to say.”

“We’ve all done something like that. Women think up those codes to trick us.”

“I don’t shy away from the classics: I’ve walked into a job interview with toilet paper stuck to my shoe, fell in public and broke my wrist, but was so embarrassed I pretended it was funny, ‘replied all’ with insulting comments about one person on the distribution list…Oh, my God, there’s no end to my need for the IDIOT! stamp!”

“You’ve got me thinking now. I remember when I’d had maybe one or three too many and told my priest a really dirty joke. I thought, in my inebriated state, he’d find it hilarious because it began with, ‘A priest, a minister and a stripper walked into a bar.”

“He didn’t think it was funny?”

“He invited me to come to confession.”

“I got into a stranger’s car that looked just like mine and then couldn’t figure out why my key didn’t fit. I was still puzzling over it when he opened his car door.”

“You think that’s bad? I walked an entire parade route with my zipper down.”

“Well, I sat on a woman in a dark movie theater.”

“And I asked directions from a blind man.”

“Top this: bit my dentist.”

“On purpose? How old were you?”

“Forty-one. She hit a nerve.”

“I asked my mother-in-law how she was doing with her sensual tremors. She said, ‘It’s essential tremors.’ I never knew a voice could be so icy. Things haven’t been quite the same between us since.”

“Tough to beat that, but how about this: I gave my wife a vacuum cleaner for our silver anniversary.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, I went through the car wash with the back window down. In my wife’s car. I was going to surprise her. She was surprised.”

“Okay, hold my beer. Here’s one you’ll never beat. You know how I always carry little zip-lock bags and pick up after my dog when we go on walks?”

“Yeah, you’re a good citizen. Bartender! Gold star for this man.”

“Yeah, yeah. So one day I put a bag of poop in my coat pocket, just until I got home.”

“Uh oh.”

“Forgot to take it out, wore the coat to church. Reached in my pocket for a couple of bills, pulled out the bag instead and dropped it in the collection plate.”

“Really, there’s nothing you could say to explain that one. What happened?”

“I got invited to confession, too. And my church doesn’t even have confession.”

“Gotta admit, that one was the winner.”

“Yep. The worst thing is, being an idiot can’t be fixed and it seems to get worse with age. Hey, where you going?”

“Gonna stock up on red ink pads. Want me to pick you up a few dozen?”

stamp for Idiot