RUTH Z. DEMING - SHORT-STORIES
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
A WOMAN OF SUBSTANCE
Kip Sugarman always followed the Ten Commandments when it came to his father and mother – “Honor thy father and thy mother” - unlike his older sister, the smart one, who severed all ties with them once she was old enough to get her own apartment. She never forgave them for making her abort her love child when she was sixteen. Kip missed his sassy sister who ran rings around him academically and tried to make up for her thirty-year absence by being a more attentive son than he otherwise might.
“I’m slowly coming out of my comfort zone,” he had confided to his chief auto mechanic at the gas station he owned on the corner of Byberry and York in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. “Sugarman’s Sunoco” had such a banner year that Kip could well afford to celebrate his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary by sending them to the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring training camp. His parents would leave on tomorrow’s plane for Clearwater, Florida.
Kip wished he could wear earplugs when he picked them up at their retirement home to drive them to the airport. Clad in red baseball caps and white jerseys, they asked about his business and his nonexistent love life and if he’d made his yearly donation to the American Jewish Federation, which he had yet to do. He didn’t really consider himself Jewish. The ride to the airport was long and wearying, a good hour on the Philadelphia expressways.
“We sure appreciate this, Kipper,” said his father, an older and fatter version of his son, who could not stop eating once he took early retirement.
“You decided to take the Mustang?” his dad asked from the passenger seat. Kip owned a fleet of six vehicles, including two pick-ups. He kept some of them at the station and let his men borrow them, even his new souped-up gray Shelby Cobra coupe he bought at a car show.
“Yeah, Pop, it’s nice and roomy,” said Kip. He looked in the rear-view mirror at his mother, who must be in her seventies by now, and wore a blond wig to hide her thinning hair.
“We found a nice girl for you, Kip, if you’re interested,” she said. “She works with your sister at the bank. Never been married, just like you. Loves animals. Was engaged once but broke it off. Something to do with …. do you remember the story, Dave?”
Dave turned around and looked at his wife. “She caught the loser in a web of lies, that’s why,” he said, smacking one hand into the other. The Mustang was in the fast lane. “Comfortable? Need more heat back there, Mom?” asked Kip.
“I’m all right. So you want us to tell Debbie to fix you up with this girl?”
Kip shook his head. “That’s all right, Mom. I’ll find her in my own time.” He had just turned fifty. The boys at the station had bought him a cake from Weinrich’s Bakery. The cake was decorated with colored icing that revealed a man in a navy-blue jumpsuit, bald, with a huge black mustache that swirled upwards into curlicues onto the white icing. “Happy Fiftieth, Boss” was written on the cake. Kip was a small fellow but all muscle from working out in his basement gym. He needed heft and bulk to lift the heavy auto parts. He was always the last to leave. The station was neat and clean. He’d installed a stainless steel sink in the garage with two tubs and a Gojo soap dispenser that when pushed ejected a glossy milky-white liquid for the mechanics to clean their hands. After each car was fixed and ready to go, he instructed his men to spritz each car with a hose and soap it up as if it were a Jaguar XK120. His men called him “the Mother Teresa of Cars.” Like her, he knew how to generate business and popularity.
Twenty years earlier he’d bought out Big John’s Texaco. Big John was a slob with a missing front tooth who couldn’t even keep the numerals on straight for gas prices. Kip revamped the dying station into an “ultra-service Sunoco station” for the gas-hungry in the tiny storefront town. Hatboro was famous as a gathering place for teenagers and beer guzzlers standing on the corner and peeing surreptitiously into the street. His success was legendary at the Rotary and Kiwanis meetings he never attended. He had shooed out the Exxon and Mobil stations that once flanked the town.
No, love was for everybody else, not for Kip Sugarman, he reminded himself as his mother droned on. “You can’t choose who you fall in love with,” he’d confided to Matt, his chief auto mechanic. “It’s a decision that’s made for you by your genes,” he halfheartedly believed. “Never had much luck with it.” When he was nineteen and worked as a mechanic at a Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership, the owner’s wife took a shine to him. She’d wear skirts with no panties underneath and flash herself to young Kip when they were alone in the showroom while he scrubbed down the hubcaps from test drives. Sure, he fell in love with her, who wouldn’t, she had the legs and the walk and the personality and the smile but no way was he ever going to touch a married woman. She was what he called “a nonperforming exhibitionist.”
Was it self-defense, he always wondered, why he went after Marsha? He and the boys from the Ford dealership were at a party in Northeast Philadelphia, a section of brick rowhouses that linked walls and shared driveways and back yards and hedges and rose bushes. The boys loved their beer, none more so than Kip. They sat around someone’s kitchen. He still remembered the red checkered plastic tablecloth stacked high with Rolling Rock beers and nearly empty bowls of salted peanuts and Doritos and that one girl, Marsha, who pushed her way drunk to the table and practically fell down into his lap. He steadied her and sat her down next to him. People had started going home.
“A Jewish auto mechanic,” she said to Kip. “C’mon, you got to be kidding me.”
Kip, who, three minutes earlier, had dozed off in his chair, now jerked his body into an upright position. “Can’t all be doctors and lawyers. Someone’s got to get their hands dirty.” Marsha, who smelled from alcohol, cigarettes and something delicious about her hair and neck, picked up Kip’s hand and held it in her own. No matter how many times he washed them and scrubbed his fingernails, they never came out white. They were as gray as a gloomy day in February but Marsha didn’t seem to notice. “I always liked big strong hands like yours,” she said, holding his hand straight up and measuring hers against his. His hands were only a little larger than a child’s, but again she didn’t seem to notice. He couldn’t believe how this tall woman with big swaying hips, who could have doubled in attractiveness for the owner’s wife, had singled him out.
That was the beginning of a series of disastrous relationships Kip got himself into, believing he had no control over a woman’s charms. He quickly moved from his parents’ home to Marsha’s small flat in a rundown neighborhood. First love is always sweet, he learned, until you get to know the girl. She liked her booze and was too restless to stay home. “Take me here, take me there,” she wanted from Kip. “Buy me this, buy me that.” He was a lowly auto mechanic. How could he please her? He moved out quickly, back to his parents’, then repeated the process with two more heartbreaks – Janine and Laura – and then quit in disgust. How could women with such beautiful names have such troubled personalities? He retired from love in his mid-thirties to the sanctuary of Sugarman’s Sunoco where he built up the business. The baseball coaches were right, he thought, either play ball or screw, you can’t do both. When the pre-fab yellow-gold roof of his station went up, it was his sister he wished he could call to share it with. Some day he would find her. Or maybe even a woman with a beautiful name.
A stunning pearl-white Volvo wagon drove up one morning making a noise like Fourth of July firecrackers. Kip and Matt had been deliberating over an old apple-green Nissan Maxima that had nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer. Its owner, a woman who looked much older than his parents and wore Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks no matter what the weather, said she wanted them to fix the latest oil leak she found on the floor of her garage. “No sense buying a new car at my age is there?” she asked Kip.
“Of course not, Mrs. Diener. If you treat them right and pay attention to the tiniest symptoms these Japanese cars can last twenty, thirty years.” But she’d have to give them a week, he said, to phone around and get some good used parts from Bullock’s or Biello’s.
“Matt’ll run you home,” he said patting her arm.
He looked over at the Volvo lady. Tall with short dark brown hair, she leaned against her gas tank. She walked over to Kip, shaking her head. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “I was passing through town when my car began making these horrible frightening noises like I was being gunned down by terrorists. Luckily, this station appeared just when I needed you. I don’t even live around here.” Her home was half an hour away in Doylestown.
“We have a nice comfortable bench for you inside and some magazines and newspapers. Just relax and we’ll give it a nice diagnostic test. We’re the car doctors, you know,” said Kip opening the door for her.
Boy, if he were a dating man, this woman would be his next date. He quickly put that idea out of his head and put the car up on the lift.
From the bay, he saw her in the waiting room paying Matt for some candy. It looked like a chocolate bar. He hoped it was fresh. Kip knew it wasn’t like him to be entranced, enamored. He shook it off at first as if he’d walked into one of those early morning cobwebs that clung to his front door. On second thought, maybe he shouldn’t fight it. Maybe he should give in and get all goofy over her and her chocolate bars.
He reminded himself that everyone was married.
The car needed a tune-up. Normally Volvo owners kept their cars in tiptop shape, driving them to the dealer for regular check-ups. Had his girl been remiss? He lowered the car back down, stuck out his head and called out, “I’ll take it for a quick test drive. I think she’s fine.”
You can learn a lot about a person by the interior of their car. Not that Kip was a detective or that he was nosy, he was not a woman, after all, but this Volvo wagon told a story. He had five minutes to size it up. Candy bar wrappers rustled on the floor on the passenger side, next to used Kleenexes. The passenger seat had a stack of magazines all opened up to certain pages. On top was an article “Ten Ways to Grieve for Your Loved One.” A Shark vacuum cleaner lay diagonally in the back seat perched atop a case of plastic water bottles. The car sounded good, that nice sweet purr of the foreign automobile. People of stature drove Volvos, he thought. People with steady regular lives with backyard gas barbeques and magazine subscriptions that arrived weekly to your mailbox. Doctors. Doctors’ wives. Real estate agents or business people from the Rotary or Lions Club. People of importance.
He pulled back into the station and parked. She was waiting on the bench in her well-tailored black skirt and matching jacket with silver buttons, legs crossed, and put down a House and Garden magazine with porch furniture on the cover and fresh fruit spread on a glass table. “Good as new,” he said moving behind the counter and slipping on his reading glasses. She got up and stood on the other side, eyeing his rows of candy and gum and beef jerky, then stepped over to his super-large bank of coolers. He heard her sliding it open and looked up to see her holding a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. “You have good taste, Mrs…..”
“Oh, just call me Leah. Not too good for the teeth but ….”
“Good for the tummy,” he said. I need your full name and address for the bill.” Her name was Leah Diamond. She paid with a credit card which he asked her to slide through the machine. She was flustered so he came around and helped her do it. He imagined putting his arm around her and nuzzling his face against her soft hair. She smelled delicious. Perhaps all those chocolate bars seeped constantly through her pores.
“I’m not a very good modern woman,” she said with a laugh.
“I think you’re an excellent modern woman,” he said, guiding her card through the machine. “Easy as pie,” he said smiling at her as he stepped back behind the counter. “Here’s a coupon for an oil change,” he said and handed her a brilliantly colored coupon.
She looked up and flashed a smile. “Why, it’s color-coordinated with your gas station.”
“See that! We think of everything. We’d love to have you as one of our valued customers, Leah.” He realized to his surprise he was engaged in the act of flirting.
“Thanks,” she said tucking it in her pocket. “It’s a bit of a drive but I’ll definitely think about it.” He watched her get into her car, lifting up her skirt and settling herself behind the wheel. He turned his head to the side so he could listen to the sound of the motor. He knew he’d forget about her by tomorrow, unless that pink leather pouch on the bench was her cell phone.
He couldn’t see the sunset from the station, only its reflection in the windows of the savings bank across the street and a blaze of glory from Burdick’s News Agency that always looked like the building was on fire. That’s when he called her. He explained he could only bring the phone to her in the evenings after he’d locked up. After tucking some Hershey bars into his jacket pocket, he cruised up Easton Road into Doylestown. Like Hatboro, it was a matter- of- fact town on a larger and more expensive scale. It had its own museum district which he bet Leah loved. Her stone-front rancher was down the road from the county courthouse. He smoothed down his wayward eyebrows in the rear-view mirror before getting out of his pick-up and rang the side bell. Her white Volvo was in the garage. A gas grill was covered with a black tarp.
She was wearing a blue terrycloth bathrobe when she opened the door. She was laughing. “I told you I’m not a very good modern woman,” she said. “At least if you have a cell phone you’re supposed to bring it along with you.” She invited him in. “I made some decaf, if you like,” she said.
“Sure,” he said, sitting down and putting the Hershey bars on the table next to the cell phone case.
“You are so sweet,” she said. He noticed his coupon was up on her refrigerator along with dozens of photos.
“Those your kids?” he asked.
“Are you in the mood for a tour of my refrigerator door?”
“Always,” he said, leaning his head on his hand.
She came from a large Jewish family. Her two sons were away at college. She didn’t name the colleges, he supposed, because an auto mechanic isn’t expected to know about these things. He didn’t. “I went to Penn State,” he said, “but I flunked out the first year. Math was the only thing I was good at.”
“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “You’ve got quite a business in Hatboro. I am really impressed.”
“Knock wood,” he said tapping his knuckles on his bald head.
He told her about his sister, the one that had disappeared. “What a live wire she was. It really hurt when she abandoned the family. There’s talk she really went to the dogs and got hooked on drugs,” he said rubbing his forehead. “I think I’ve been too scared to track her down.”
“You will someday, Kip, when it’s the right time.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You’re right. To everything there is a season. I studied the Torah for my bar mitzvah.”
She laughed. “The auto mechanic’s bar mitzvah.”
They drank their coffee and talked as the sun went down. He could see through her kitchen window it was dark outside. Was that a moon above her garage? He tapped her on her arm and pointed.
“Yes, almost full. Tomorrow it will swell to its full size. I’m a big fan of the moon,” he said.
She refilled his coffee cup and broke off a piece of chocolate. “Dip it into the coffee,” she said. He sucked on it and told her he had a nice house in Willow Grove on a quiet street where he grew tomatoes and cucumbers and early asparagus and brought them to the boys at work. He said Matt was his best friend but that he missed the companionship of a woman. He pointed to her ring finger. “Where’s the wedding ring?” he asked. “A beautiful woman like you should have a real dazzler. What happened to him?”
“Now that’s a very long story for another day,” she said.
“I’d like to see you again. Soon,” he said, getting up from the table. She walked him to the side door, linking her hand in his. They stood and looked out the door. In the moonlight they could see her daffodils beginning to bloom. Spirals of forsythia braided themselves across her back yard fence. He gently turned her around and held her. He closed his eyes and pressed her against him. Her smells enfolded him like a garland of flowers. This is where I belong, he thought. It was all so easy. It had happened. He had been in hibernation, with a silent faith that when spring came, any spring, he would become a new man who would find himself a woman. This was the way it was when you lived on the East Coast. Spring washed away all your cares from the long cold colorless winter. He barely knew Leah but he knew her body. It fit. She purred like a cat in his arms. He lifted her face and looked at her. Her eyes were closed, her big black lashes fluttering like tiny butterflies. He kissed each cheek and pressed his forehead against hers. “I never want to leave you,” he thought.
They went down to Lake Galena. She packed the sandwiches. He brought drinks from the cooler, Dr. Brown’s cream soda and root beer. With paper-wrapped Flex-Straws. It was still chilly so they decided to eat in the truck and watch the geese come in for a landing across the lake. They wore their warm clothes and gathered up the trash and walked the path. “This was my husband’s favorite place,” said Leah. She told Kip how her doctor-husband would jog here six times a week before going to the hospital where he was the head psychiatrist. “Len Diamond,” she said. “I still can’t get over it.”
They sat on a bench. The mood of the day was somber. Overcast. One of those gray days that seemed to put every Philadelphian in a bad mood. Will winter never end? was the prevailing thought. He picked up her soft hand and held it in his lap. “They say an eagle’s got a nest on the other side of the lake,” said Kip. “Did your husband ever mention it?”
“My husband, my dear Lenny, was incapable of living in the present moment. If he was jogging, he was planning what he’d do in the afternoon. He didn’t have time for the birds or the flowers. You might say he lived in the future, if that’s possible, while all the world passed him by. It’s too late now.”
Five years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, she explained, they ate their dinner and toasted each other with Heineken beer. Len had gone up to bed while Leah watched a movie on television. She had forgotten the name. She fell asleep on the couch, as she often did and spent the night in front of the noisy television wrapped in an Afghan. When she awoke at dawn, her husband was still upstairs in bed. She began to brew the coffee and set the table for breakfast. There was no noise from upstairs. Not a toilet flushing, nor a sink gushing water. It was too quiet. Had he slipped out the house, not wanting to disturb her?
When she went up, her husband was still in bed. She knew instantly he was dead but a part of her refused to believe it. And still didn’t. He lay on his back with an arm over his chest like a man guarding a secret. Perhaps he’d been thinking about a particular patient, she told Kip. “He looked so studious, so deep in thought. His eyes were closed. Whatever was he thinking?” She sat on the bed and beheld her dead husband, just as she did her dead father years earlier. She lifted his left arm which seemed to have sprouted black and blue marks all over it. She remembered them from her father’s death. They called it “mottling.” Len’s arm was cold. Cold as a block of ice. She gripped it hard. He didn’t budge. Not one single movement, not one breath nor one eye-blink. She tried to raise his arm in the air but it was heavy as a concrete baseball bat. As if in a trance, she picked up the bedside phone and dialed 911.
“And that was the end of my husband. Just like that! As if he never existed. As if I had imagined the whole thing. All that’s left are his clothes which must prove he was once alive, wouldn’t they?” She gazed out over the lake which moved in little ripples that made a lapping sound.
She rubbed her hands together.
“Are you cold, Leah?”
“I’m fine, Kip. Thanks for listening. Five years have passed. I still hear the phone ring to tell me he’s on his way home and I still hear his car pulling into the drive. This is the first time I’ve been down to the lake since he died. Do you suppose we’ll see him jogging by?”
“If we do, I’m gonna ask his permission to marry you.”
She shivered into his arms and snuggled close. It was one of those days in April, those windy chill April days with the buds coming in red on the trees, that wasn’t quite able to shake off winter and waltz confidently into the spring. A cluster of white wildflowers dotted the ground beside their bench. Kip reached down and plucked one, cradling it in his hand. “Spring beauties,” he said. “Look at the dark purple veins. It’s enough to make you believe spring will finally come.”
“Shall we get married under a chuppah?” asked Leah.
“You tell me. I’ve never been married before.”
“What I want to know is what is our wedding cake is going to say. I think we should use your real name. Would you mind telling me, Kip dearest?”
“Now that’s a story for another day,” he said and reached into his pocket and offered her a double-pack of Reese Peanut Butter Cups.
THE MAN WITH THE THINNING HAIR
She drove her red Jetta convertible, top down, into Neptune Mobile Homes. He couldn’t possibly be here yet and of course she began doubting herself as she pulled under the green awning, which was flapping softly. Climbing up the steps, she laughed to herself, thinking as she often did of James Garner in The Rockford Files and that trailer of his where he got into so much trouble.
Once you got inside, you forgot it was a, well, trailer, and thought of it as a lovely home for one, with a view out the southern window of the rippling Atlantic Ocean. Jerry would be here in an hour. She had spread the dining room table with her best china and pink linen napkins. Jerry was the younger brother of Pastor Tom Burns.
“When Jerry got out,” he told Tricia, “I immediately thought of you. Just be yourself,” he said looking at her shoulder-length brown hair knitted with a few wisps of gray. “And if anything worries you, give me a buzz.”
Tricia had just put the bottle of pinot noir on the table when she heard his car drive up. She peeked out the window and saw an older model of a long Bonneville – did they make them anymore? – and a man stepped out. He was tall with thinning gray hair. She heard his feisty knock on the door. Yeah, she thought, I’ll bet he can’t wait to meet me and wring the life out of me the way he did his wife.
When he came inside, he grasped both of her hands with an unusual strength. “You’re even lovelier than Tommy said.”
She smiled and hung up his lightweight spring jacket on a handy hook. To live the mobile-home life, compression was essential.
“Mind if I look around?” he asked and wandered through the kitchen, dining room and living room. His sneakers shuffled softly across her wall to wall carpet.
Tricia was taken aback by his forwardness, bordering on aggression, she thought.
“My cell was as big as your dining room, one size fits all, toilet, lumpy bed, calendars on the wall, family photos, and a huge wooden cross my brother gave me that kept me sane.”
They sat at the table. She looked up to see if he wanted to say grace, he did not, but she saw his large muscles and a few tattoos. She averted her head. She did not want to read them.
“Have some Dutch potato salad,” she said, ladling it into his plate. “Help yourself to the rye bread and ham and cheese.”
He laughed. “It’s been a good long time since I had genuine deli food.”
They both sat there enjoying the food.
“May I?” Tricia asked, holding the wine bottle.
He held his wine glass out for a toast.
“The beginning of a bold new life,” he said, smiling at her with crinkled, old-looking eyes.
When they finished their lunch, Jerry brought the dishes to the small stainless steel sink.
“My wife used to yell at me for not helping her with the dishes.” He gave a little snort.
Tricia proposed a walk on the beach. She gave him his lightweight jacket and took one of her own. She turned her back and put on her sandals. She didn’t want him to see her naked feet. They might arouse him.
They walked along the sand, not sinking too deep. He still carried his glass of wine. They approached the ocean with its small ringlets of waves. She watched him stare across it, framed by quick-moving clouds, and fishing ships in the distance.
Quickly, he put down his glass and took her in his arms. And squeezed. Hard.
“Stop it!” she shouted, looking around. “You’re gonna kill me.”
He held her by the shoulders and looked at her.
“Silly, beautiful woman,” he said. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.”
She stared at him and knew she should never do anyone a favor if it caused her grief.
“Let’s just sit down and chat,” he said. “Then I’ll go and you’ll never see me again.”
He lay down in the sand, staring up at the sky.
“I was the prison librarian,” he said. “The con men studied the law books, hoping to get sprung free. I did a lot of book-learning while I was there. You name it, I’ve read it!”
She yawned from the wine and settled herself next to him. Not too close.
“Decided that when I got out, I’d visit Paris where Stendhal’s Madame Bovary took place. Ever read Stendhal, whose real name was…”
“…Marie-Henri Beyle. And, yes, I did visit Paris.”
She explained she had money back then. Came from a wealthy family, but they were spendthrifts and gamblers and their fortune whittled down like lightening decimating a tree. She was forced to move into a trailer home and take a job sitting all day as a telephone solicitor.
She laughed. “I depend on the kindness of strangers to buy pots and pans and exercise equipment that will slim your belly that are advertised in the wee hours of the morning on various TV stations.”
“Pat Boone’s tub for the elderly?”
He reached over and patted her hand, then quickly withdrew it.
“Most of all,” he said, “I wanted to be outside and see the stars.”
She turned over and leaned toward him on her elbow.
Florida State Prison was a huge noisy place, he explained. “There was never a moment of quiet,” he said. Keys jangling, men shouting, their voices echoing in the cavernous prison, rap music scaling the walls. “This may sound funny, Tricia,” he said, “but I didn’t have anyone to tell. Show some tenderness and they’d call you, you know, fag, pervert, pansy.”
Now she patted his hand and let it stay there.
He told her about his life as a young man. Before he got married, he was a fisherman. “Oh, and that Hemingway book, The Old Man and the Sea, might be my favorite book of all,” he said.
He and his buddies had a small motor boat. Early mornings when the moon shown low on the horizon they’d go out and sail for marlins.
“Ever seen one?” he asked.
She shook her head “no.”
“Real beauties,” he said. “Symmetrical, a long sword-like snout that glistens like gold. Shame to kill them. But we did. We’d pull over onto the sand, cook and eat ‘em. More delicious than filet mignon. Just us boys.”
“Did they visit you in jail?” she asked.
“Sure did,” he said.
“I’m glad,” she said.
They stood up together. Wiped the sand off themselves.
“Turn around,” he said, and gently brushed it off her back.
“I forgot dessert!” she said. “Do you like banana cream pie?”
“Sure do, sugar,” he said. “And if you have a glass of milk that would make it even better.”
“You know what, Jerry? I like the full-fat best. The two and four percent just don’t cut it.”
They walked back to Jupiter Mobile Homes to the sounds of sea gulls squawking and the Good Humor Man ringing his bell on the beach.
THE MAESTRO WHO DISAPPEARED
Miss Rosen faced the classroom as the last of the noonday sun splashed into the room. It lit up the white eraser board where Miss Rosen, with black marker, had written notations from Peter and the Wolfe by Prokofiev and Sleeping Beauty by Peter Illyich Tschaikovsky.
“Lisette,” she said. “Please repeat your homework assignment to the whole class.”
Blonde-haired Lisette stood up. She was among the tiniest in the children’s class. “We’re to listen to these two children’s pieces that are right here in the library and we will bring in a few notes of our own com-compositions, they don’t have to be very long.” She smiled and sat down.
“Good job, Lisette,” said Miss Rosen. “Class dismissed.”
A black-haired boy approached her. “Miss Rosen,” he said after clearing his throat. “You really think we can compose a song of our own?”
“I know you can, Harold,” said the teacher. “Of that I am positive. Each of you fifth graders plays piano on a ninth grade level and your parents wouldn’t have let you sign up for Composition unless they were sure of your abilities.”
Harold scratched his head. “Well, all I can do is try” and walked away.
Lila Rosen, who happened to be the assistant director of The Settlement Music School in Cleveland, tidied up her desk, primped her short blonde curls and walked over to the one of the twenty practice rooms.
Choosing her favorite one – it was large and faced a window revealing a man-made lake outside – she began humming her own work, a composition she was working on. No one but herself had ever heard it. Unlocking the room, she leaned the sheet music on the music stand. “Looks real professional,” she laughed out loud. Locked in the fire-proof vaults of the Settlement Music School were priceless musical scores by more than one hundred renowned composers, including her favorite modernist the late Martin Katovsky. When she knew the man, they were great friends and would have been more, had he not have been married. She had refused his advances, knowing the dangers of getting involved with a married man.
Sitting down at the piano, she smoothed her skirt, closed her eyes to let all thoughts pass from her mind, then looked up at the white ceiling and began to play. “Song of the Lake” began slowly, the music sounding like icicles tinkling, rather like the fugues of J S Bach, repetitive notes that only climbed higher and higher, until at last the listener was out on the wide lake skimming along with the well-dressed mallards, their missus, and finally, with more tinkling, the little ducklings.
She wasn’t ready yet to progress to the next part of the composition, hadn’t thought of it yet, but knew that by repeating what she’d written, the next bars would come to her. Which they did. “Thank you, Lord,” she thought automatically, looking upward and then out of window at the lake, smooth as pudding, nothing upon it but a glowing reflection of the sun.
She had placed her golden watch upon the piano top, keeping an eye on it as her next class would be in two hours.
There! The piece was finished. All finished. She reached in her pocket, grabbed a thin Cross pen, a gift from Katovsky – “May you use this and remember my love for you” – and scrawled out the notes in her brown composition book.
Her heart was pumping with joy. She stood up and went over to the window. What a glorious day.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Lila Rosen was startled. Rarely did anyone disturb her when she was practicing or composing. The door practically had her name on it. Who could it be? One of her students, most likely. Possibly the director, her boss, but why would she disturb her now?
Lila walked over to the door, unlocked it – yes, she always locked it, how dreadful if someone barged in and disturbed her – and opened it a crack. All she saw was black. Blackness. Her first thought was, “Death has come for me.”
“So sorry to disturb you,” said the man’s voice with some sort of accent.
Lila opened the door and stood outside in the hall with him.
They stared at one another. He was tall, slightly stooped over, dressed all in black. He removed his hat, a black beret, and asked if they could speak somewhere in private.
“Follow me,” she said, her heels tapping on the floor.
They entered the cafeteria.
“Please,” he said. “May I buy you some tea?”
They got in line and a chef in a white hat asked, “What is your pleasure?”
Tea boxes of many colors were displayed along the side.
“I’ll have the Bigelow’s Mint. Piping hot, please.”
The man in black ordered the same.
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a wallet. Inside, the money was clumped together, no order to it. Lila couldn’t help but stare.
She led them to a table near the window which gave onto the front of the building. You could see students scurrying up the steps, backpacks strapped on, some holding music cases – violin, cello, guitar.
They both sipped on their tea, loudly, as it was, indeed, piping hot.
“May I know your name?” he asked.
“Miss Rosen,” she said. “Lila Rosen, I am the assistant director here.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “I looked over your website before I came here. I, myself, Miss Rosen, came here from Finland. Helsinki to be exact. You may have heard of me.”
She looked up expectantly.
“Trevor Sikes Cobham.”
She stared at him, her blue eyes wandering over his face.
“Mr. Sikes Cobham, is it really you?”
He nodded and put his beret on the table.
“It is well-known in the musical world, Mr. Cobham, that you disappeared. No one, not even your family, knows where you are.”
“I would like to explain, if I may,” he said, taking another sip of tea and leaning back in his chair.
What he told her was well-known in the world of music. Sikes Cobham, a violin prodigy, had composed hundreds of beloved works, from piano concertos to violin concertos, to “Englandia” an elegy about the British wartime years. He was among the most famous of British composers, including Ralph Vaughn Williams, Benjamin Britten and Edward Elgar. Like many in his country, he had been knighted so he was officially known as Sir Trevor Sikes Cobham. After his wife, Elena, lost her battle with manic-depression and took her own life, he felt he could not go on without her. Days and weeks he spent at her grave, weeping and begging God to let him join her. He saw no one, sold his London flat and disappeared. He journeyed to many lands, he told Lila, hoping to die in an airplane crash, which finally brought him to Finland. There he visited the grave of Jean Sibelius, who spent the last years of his life as an alcoholic, and had lost his ability to write. The Finnish composer’s “Finlandia,” his “Kullvervo,” his string quartets, symphonies and concertos were his lasting legacy that would stand the test of time.
As he wept at the grave, he traced his fingers through the indented words “JEAN SIBELIUS” on the cool stone. Suddenly, he felt refreshed.
“Maestro,” he said aloud staring at the gravestone. “I am a lover of your music. Please bless me, if you will, as I pursue my own musical journey.”
He bowed his head in prayer as the clear blue sky seemed to wrap him up as if he were a newborn babe. Walking toward his hotel, he knew there was no way he could return to England. It reminded him too much of his wife. Once inside the hotel lobby, he sat in the café and ordered his usual. A foaming cup of cappuccino. Balancing it carefully in his two hands, he rode the clanking elevator to his room on the second floor.
He placed the hot drink in the kitchenette and looked out the window. Songbirds of every variety twittered and sang, oblivious of the woes of the world, oblivious to the deep wound in Sikes Cobham’s heart. He was not ashamed as his tears flowed once again. Taking a sip of the hot liquid, they’d done a splendid job brewing it, he thought, he went into the bedroom, where his laptap rested on the end table.
“Where should I write?” he thought. The melodies were already flooding his mind. He brought the laptop to the kitchen table and sat himself down on a comfortable chair, with cushion. The laptop was ready. He began to compose. He’d always been a maverick, so he cared not that sorrowful music, which he scored with a violin, was juxtaposed with joyous music on the piano. He hadn’t realized that he drained his coffee cup or that twelve straight hours had passed, yet in this city in Finland the night was as bright as day.
When the last of the piano began playing, he stood up and stretched. He walked slowly about the hotel room, stretching his back and walking in his stocking feet back and forth, playing the melodies in his head. He returned to the kitchen table, moved aside the empty coffee cup, and made some revisions.
Exhausted, he fell in bed on his back, his clothes still on, and slept a good six hours. Next morning he rang downstairs and ordered breakfast – a croissant filled with a cheddar cheese omelet – and the same cappuccino.
The knocker sounded. “It’s open,” he called.
A woman with a large tray entered the room, smiling.
“I will tip you later, please,” he said. “Put it right here.” He tapped the glass table.
He took a few bites of the croissant, then pushed it away, and sipped on the strong coffee. Warm in his mouth and going down to his belly. So good! He re-read his musical score.
“This is good, damn good,” he thought.
But what should he do with it?
For twenty minutes he did an Internet search. He would leave Europe behind and visit America again. He had conducted his own music at Carnegie Hall, in Chicago’s Symphony Center, and in Cleveland’s Severance Hall. Now that was an underrated city. He vividly remembered Cleveland and how he and the first violinist, Martin Adams, toured University Circle, the cultural area within a few kilometers of the symphony hall. Many of the performers in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra were also instructors at the Settlement Music School.
“And that, Miss Rosen,” he said at the table in the cafeteria, “is why I’ve come back to Cleveland.”
“And you’ve brought your musical score,” she said.
“Indeed. When can you review it?”
“Today is Friday. I’m busy all day. Well, wait a minute. How about if we meet here at the center this evening. Say, 7 o’clock. We have all the instruments we need to give it a proper audition.”
“You are magnificent,” said the composer, touching her hand.
Picking up his briefcase, he returned to his hotel. He asked room service to phone him at 6:30. He lay in bed and fell quickly to sleep. When his wife was alive, he rarely got enough sleep, worrying about her desperate moods and when she might take her own life. She was a real beauty, once an actress on a par with Vivien Leigh, another manic-depressive, but he was only awaiting the day when her misery caused her to finally leave the earth and her husband.
After his wake-up call, he picked up his brief case and set out for the school. It was a lovely night, with buildings dimpled with light. The stars shone bright. His wife once wrote him a letter. He could still see her slanted blue writing, and told him, “My darling, Trevor. You are the stars, the moon and the sun.” A smile played upon his lips.
The stairway of the Settlement Music School awaited him. He had showered, shaved, and had put on a suit and tie. As he climbed up, he prayed all would go well.
A sign read, “Symphony Hall” and an arrow pointed the way.
When he entered he saw many people gathered around, many with instruments in their hands.
But what was a uniformed policeman doing there?
“Are you Mr. Trevor Sikes Cobham?” he asked.
“I am. What’s going on?”
“I’m to arrest you for nonpayment of your bill in Helsinki.”
“Oh, my goodness,” he said. “I forgot. I’ve got the money.”
The police officer pulled out a set of hand cuffs.
Trevor looked around the room, helplessly.
Lila Rosen spoke up. “Officer, before you take him away, may we just play his little piece one time?”
“Fine,” said the officer. “Make it snappy.”
Lila sat at the piano, Maurice held a violin, the teenager Little Tony sat at the drum set. Other teachers held musical instruments in their hands, completing the ensemble.
“Go ahead, Trevor,” she said. “Conduct your piece.”
Copies of the music had been set up near each musician, and were projected on an overhead viewer.
“I’ve never felt so confused in my life,” thought Trevor. He turned around, hugged himself tightly, shook his arms and his hands, and then faced the makeshift orchestra.
The police officer leaned against a wall.
“One, two, three,” said Trevor as he raised his baton.
The music sailed through the brightly lit room. As each musician played his instrument it seemed to Trevor that Elena was right here in the room, a dancer in a long white gown, twirling with glee and leaping across the expanse of the room. There she was now flirting with the unsmiling police officer. Her presence was everywhere, with her manic energy. The performers were intensely focused in this unique atonal composition, unlike anything they’d ever heard before, a bit of Stravinsky perhaps or Shoenberg, and certainly Jean Sibelius. Yet completely Trevor Sikes Cobham, the man who had returned from the dead.
As the last sobbing chords were heard, the composer put down his baton,
exhausted. He put out his two hands in front of him.
“Arrest me,” he said.
The officer came up to him and took off his hat.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said. “As long as you promise to pay your debt.”
The composer nodded. “I promise,” he said with his British accent.
Lila Rosen walked over to him.
“What do you call this piece?” she asked the Englishman.
He thought a moment.
“CleveLANDia,” he said. “CleveLANDia.”
They stared at one another.
“Trevor,” she said, “you must make this your new home. We can use you as a teacher and your composing career is far from over.”
He gave a deep bow and said he’d stop by the next day.
“What I need now,” he said, yawning…
“…is sleep,” finished Lila Rosen.
HOW GREAT THOU ART
We Christians do try to control the temptations that pass by like endless cars on the highway. But put us on a cruise ship and some of us do stray. I am one of them. The city on the water was called “Mother Katherine Drexel,” the only saint born in America.
Prayer lectures aboard inspired us. We heard them by the famous and by novices. The jubilant Michaela Carnacci spoke about “Pace Yourself: Take time to reflect and pray.” Wisdom based on Ecclesiastes. The priest Vincent Della Guardia spoke about “Love is the Greatest of Them All.” Who isn’t familiar with these lines from One Corinthians. But hearing Father Vince speak them from a microphone while we rocked gently on the Mediterranean Sea was an experience not to be forgotten.
If Brother Thomas Merton had written The Seven-Storey Mountain, our ship was the equivalent of ten stories high. There is always a Bill Wilson Room. Everyone knows what that means. Substance abuse has been known since the Bible Days. I saw men and women – even those wearing the cloth – enter a large room on the fourth deck. Passing by quickly, I kept my head down, so as not to cause any of them embarrassment. All the while, every deck played its own Christian music, including my all-time favorite “How Great Thou Art” sung, I believe, by Chris Rice.
I was determined to make the most of this seven-day cruise. At night I would sit at a table by myself on the deck, close my eyes, and thank the Lord for my wonderful life. So my husband and I led parallel lives, rarely interested in one another, and rarely making love. Besides, at age forty, there were more important things. As the head of a landscape company – Gardens of Glory – I’d finally taken a vacation, let my fingernails grow and gotten a manicure aboard the ship.
A sexy red!
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
A woman belted out the song now. I stood up and leaned over the railing. The water churned while the stars smiled down upon the water, which glimmered with their reflections. Although I’d been alone on the deck I felt the presence of someone else. Not wanting to be disturbed, I sidled along the railing, embracing the calmness of the sea.
Of course during our trip the Mediterranean had not always been kind. Once at our table where six of us sat, a great tsunami-like wave – but I exaggerate – had our plates rushing like falling dominoes across the table. We ended by laughing and praising God that “this was no Titanic.”
Watching the stars, how did I know that the presence I still felt was a beautiful one, but that something strange was afoot. Could I stop it? I looked down at my red nails, then turned around and saw him standing at the deck a few feet away from me.
He looked so familiar but I had never seen him before. He smiled at me and introduced himself as Karl with a “K.”
I blinked. “You mean ‘K’ as in, uh, theologian, Karl Barth?”
“The same,” he laughed.
Prudence required we did not exchange surnames.
We talked for about an hour at my table, while he fetched me more tea, plus some lemon biscuits. Karl’s marriage was much like mine. I could feel myself making faces as I said words like, “How we ever grew apart is a mystery to me” or “Like in the film ‘Citizen Kane’ he stopped looking at me while he read the morning paper.”
I wanted to laugh but silent tears floated from my eyes. Karl reached over to wipe them away.
As if on cue, we stood up from the table, and Karl put his arm around my waist. I led him to my state room. Medron had prepared it for bedtime. My lacy green nightgown lay on the bed. On the end table was a Ruth Rendell mystery I had checked out of the tiny library.
We spent the night together. As we made love, I said, “I feel you are healing every part of my body and my soul.”
“I am, my darling, I am,” said Karl, who had scant red hair. And kissed my fingertips.
We avoided each other for the rest of the trip. Had we sinned? Would God forgive me?
For some reason, I felt saved. On the last day, Karl found me drinking chamomile tea on the deck, while the sea spit up curls of foam. He sat down at my table and said he had something for me.
Into my hand he pressed a watch with a huge friendly face surrounded by glittering rhinestones.
I opened my mouth to speak but he said, “It’s something to remember me by.” Then he stood up and reached into the pocket of his shorts.
“Don’t look at this until you get off the ship.”
During my cab drive home, I reached into my pocketbook and read a love letter that made me blush and read Karl’s full name – Karl Jacoby – and his place of business. He was a literary agent in Manhattan. It was up to me if I wanted to get in touch and begin a new life.
I thought about it for six months and finally made the call.
YE OLD REVIVAL TENT
Ever seen on the television how a mean father takes his son by the ear and marches him off to the bedroom to punish him? That was my dad. Just plain mean. Back then, we lived in the apartments. We were saving up to buy a house. I had a paper route and emptied all my tips onto the kitchen table and Dad put them in a Mr. Planter Peanuts piggy-bank and pretended he’d use it to buy a house. Mom told me, “It’s his drinking money, Scottie, but don’t you let on. You don’t want another beating, do you?”
Mom worked at the drugstore in town. I used to go visit her after school. It was huge, filled with magazines and comic books, and a soda fountain where Mom made me anything I wanted. I can still taste those root-beer floats, which I ate with a long spoon and drank through a green plastic straw.
Mayor Celano came in one time and sat next to me at the counter.
“See these hands, boy,” he said. “These hands can do anything. I can sign bills into laws, I can give permission for car shows every September, and I can even swim at the Hatboro “Y” with these here hands.
“Show me yours, boy.”
I looked at the mayor. He swiveled on his seat and had kind blue eyes.
I stuck out the palms of my hands and stared at them.
“You can tell a lot about a man by his hands, Scottie,” he said, staring down at hands half the size of his own.
“Good hands, boy,” said the mayor. “You will go far in life. What are you, nine now?”
“Ten, sir,” I said.
“Well, Mayor Celano certifies that you’ll amount to something.”
After finishing his ice cream, the mayor got off his stool and picked up his brief case.
“Lillian!” he called to my mother.
“Got something to post on your window.”
He pulled out a poster, not very large, but large enough to catch our eye. “Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking Coming Soon!”
My mom laughed. “He’s coming here? To our tiny town of Hatboro, Pennsylvania?”
“You betcha,” said the mayor. “Post it on your window. But if you go, get there early.”
I supposed I wanted to go. Mrs. Becker, our teacher, spoke about it in class. “Norman Vincent Peale is a great preacher,” she told us. “Never miss an opportunity to be in the presence of greatness!”
That night I lay in bed reading an Archie comic book when my dad barged in.
“Who gave you permission to read a comic book?” he said, looming over me. His face was red and so was his nose. Drops of spit came out of his mouth. I wasn’t afraid of him. I just hated him.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, quickly changing the subject.
“Norman Vincent Peale is coming to town. He’ll be in a white tent at the end of town.
“And I suppose our little angel Scottie is going to see him.”
I nodded and stuck my nose back into the comic book.
“Not if I have anything to do with it,” he said. “You’re grounded.”
When five o’clock came ‘round the night of the revival meeting, Dad came home early from his job as a cook so he could make sure I didn’t leave the apartment.
“Chef Boyardee!” called mom from the kitchen. “We need to eat quickly so we can get to the meeting by seven.”
The little raviolis with pieces of meat were my all-time favorite. Even better than pizza.
“Scottie, you’re picking at your food. What’s the matter?” asked Mom.
“Nothing,” I said, and went into my room and closed the door.
Dad pushed a chair over by my door and sat on it so I couldn’t come out.
Shaking my head, I looked out the window onto the parking lot of our apartment building. Without even thinking, I pushed up the window and removed the screen. In fire drills at school, we learned to hang out the window, not to jump.
I landed on my feet and took off at a run. In twenty minutes, I saw a long line of cars parked on York Road, the setting sun glancing off their roofs. The white tent looked so still and perfect off in the distance. The mayor and Mrs. Becker would be proud of me and so would Mom. Dad would whip my butt raw.
Whole families were filing into the tent. Man, it was hot in there. I sat in an aisle seat right in the front. To thunderous applause, a tiny man in a tight blue suit strode up to the podium. His balding head shone with light. He began to speak.
“Stand up to an obstacle. Just stand up to it, that's all, and don't give way under it, and it will finally break. You will break it. Something has to break, and it won't be you, it will be the obstacle,” said the preacher.
I outright laughed when he said that. And saw Dad come into the tent.
“Young man,” called the preacher to my father. “Step up here and pray with me.”
Dad looked at me from the podium.
“That’s my fine son, Scottie,” he said into the microphone as he smiled at me and bowed his head. What a liar, I thought.
At home, Dad said to Mom, “Something came over me tonight, sweetheart. I’m gonna start going to AA again.”
I closed the door of my room and looked out the window. The stars were out in full force and one lone airplane blinked its way across the sky.
“Mr. Norman Vincent Peale,” I whispered to the brightest star I could find. “Please help my daddy. He’s a good man. He just don’t know when to quit.”
DARLENE, COME BACK
Her name is Darlene. It has been five years now. She came regularly to our writers’ group, held at a Starbucks, with its divine smell of coffee as soon as you walked in. Amid the buzzing of coffee machines, the six of us discussed our work, marking up each copy of a short story or poem to show the parts we liked or that needed work. Darlene wrote odd short stories in the manner of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor.
One day a Flannery O’Connor story wove itself into Darlene’s life. She and I had been phone pals for weeks. I was so happy to have met this brilliant woman whose cork-screw blond curls framed her thin face and dark eyes.
My heart thrilled when I saw her name on my Caller ID. “William Adams,” the name of her husband.
She was sobbing when I picked up the phone. I could barely understand her.
“Kitty, you know a lot of people,” she blubbered. “I wouldn’t trouble you but I need your help.”
“Sure,” I said. “Slow down. Relax. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Peter, you know, he’s my son, my only child, and he’d been having headaches.”
She paused and I could hear her body heaving.
“We thought it was nothing.”
She paused again.
“Kitty, it’s a freakin’ malignant brain tumor. Can you believe this shit?”
No, I couldn’t. We were both stunned. I had many friends but this was the worst thing I’d ever heard of.
“I can refer you to a good,” I hesitated – “uh, oncologist” and gave her the one my sister used for skin cancer.
“We’ve got one already,” she said. “I can use your guy if I need him as a back-up.”
“Listen,” I suggested. “Why don’t you attend our next writers’ group. It’s this Saturday. You need to be distracted.”
She and I arrived early at the coffee shop and sat at a large table in the back, near a huge window, where cars ambled through the drive-through. She sipped on her tea, while I blew on my decaf.
With her voice breaking, she said, “He finally found the perfect girl. They’re engaged. I’ll never have grandchildren.”
With that, she began to sob uncontrollably. I put my hand on her wobbly arm and began to plan.
From her wallet, she extracted a photo of Peter. He was a handsome young man of forty-two with a mound of Apollo-like golden curls, like his mom’s.
He was an emergency room nurse at Abington Hospital right up the street.
When I saw those curls I thought, “He’ll lose them when he gets chemo and radiation.”
And then I spoke my mind, my stunner, my whopper. As I spoke, I was unaware as I am now that it would be either the best thing I ever said or the worst.
With my hands folded on the table, I began to talk, enunciating every word. Told her that Peter should impregnate his girlfriend now, or have his sperm frozen.
I don’t mind telling you that I still think it’s a great idea.
She said nothing, but she never came back to the writing group. Her calls ceased.
I was devastated to lose her.
A woman, Emily, who lives down the street from me, is a young ER nurse at the hospital. One day she was walking her dog past my house.
“Emily,” I said. “Whatever happened to that nurse Peter?”
“Oh, he died about a year ago,” she said matter of factly. “It was one of those tumors” – and she used a scientific name – something “blastoma” – that keeps growing back. You can only get so much radiation and chemo for it.”
“Dead?” I said. “He’s actually dead?”
“Yes,” she said, “nice guy. Too young to die,” and waved goodbye to me.
Numb, I went into my upstairs office and found a letter Darlene had typed to me five years earlier that I’d pinned to my bulletin board.
“Kitty,” it read. “So loved your story ‘The Last Lawn Party’ with its richly developed characters.’”
My ego soared.
I unpinned it from the bulletin board and fairly hugged it to my chest.
Then I emailed her, spending ten minutes crafting the note.
“Please return to our group, Darlene. We all miss you like crazy.”
It was me that missed her like crazy.
There’s always one particular email we await that would cause unaccustomed bliss.
It never came. Darlene is lost to me, like the evening star fading into morning.
THE SILVER TRAILER ON THE NEXT STREET
Was it a phantom? A ghost? A dream? I know what I saw and no matter what, I was going to see it again. It was sitting plum in the middle of Barrington Road, shiny as a newly minted dime. I drove by real slow, there’s always someone behind you even on these back streets, so I put on my flashers, and stared as if I were seeing a spacecraft landed from the depths of space.
One view was all I needed. Ever seen something like that? Never to be seen again. Like a homer by Ryan Howard at the Phillies’ game or an eclipse of the sun. I remember my late father saying to me how he admired Nixon’s daughter, Tricia, who wanted to be married in the Rose Garden. Rain thundered down, but she insisted it would soon stop. And it did.
Well, Daddy isn’t with us anymore but I know he’d be proud of his now forty-year-old daughter, determined to discover the mystery of what I learned, via the Internet, was an Airstream Trailer.
You see, when I first drove by, I heard noises inside. And no, it was not my imagination. I’d lie in bed – I lived with my mom on the next street – in a small yellow bungalow – and went over in my mind what the noises sounded like.
As the director of Pennypack Nursing Home, I would idly drive down Barrington, hoping to catch another glimpse. A month later, I did. Parking my Toyota Camry behind the trailer, I smoothed down my skirt – it was August and everything stuck to you – and fairly ran out of my car, as if the trailer would fly away again.
A little kid came running out of his driveway.
“Ya like that?” he asked.
I nodded my head of bouncing red curls as I circled the trailer on foot taking pictures with my iPhone. “It’s not against the law,” I thought. “What if they called the cops. Oh shut up, Bonnie,” I told myself.
“What’s your name,” I asked the frisky little kid.
“Sammy,” he said, “and I know where they live.”
He pointed to their house, blue and white, with pots of geraniums and marigolds on the front porch.
“Sammy, thank you so much,” I said, telling him I’d return and talk to them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Akyal,” he said.
“Akyal?” I asked.
“Yeah, they came from Turkey over the ocean.”
“Wow, you’re a pretty smart guy,” I said, reaching into my pocket and giving him a couple of peppermints that I’d give some of the residents at the nursing home.
“Ask your parents if you can eat these,” I said, mumbling under my breath, otherwise they’ll think I’m a pedophile.
As I zoomed off toward work, I wondered at my great attraction to the trailer. Why was it calling me? Was there anything in my childhood that it reminded me of? No trailers back home on Glenmore Road in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Once parked on our street was a very long Jaguar sedan, maroon, with that lunging beast on the top. I fondled it a moment, hoping no one saw me.
Our nursing home had a lovely green and white bus where we brought our residents on shopping trips or to the movies. I had often driven the bus when Jimmy the driver’s arthritis was bothering him. The residents loved going places, like excited kindergartners.
I had two weeks of vacation. There was a mystery about that Airstream trailer and I was going to solve it. Often I use Daddy as my lodestar. We have imaginary conversations.
“Mom,” I said from our three-bedroom yellow house. Finished with her gardening and cooking duties, she was in bed and as usual still wasn’t asleep at three in the morning. The remote control had slipped from her hand as Martha Stewart was making pumpkin chiffon pie. By Mom’s face I knew she would make it come Thanksgiving.
“I’m going out now. Don’t worry about me.”
“In the dead of night, Bonnie?” she asked. “Of course I’m going to worry.”
She paused. I knew what she was going to say.
“What would Daddy think?”
I kissed her soft cheek and smoothed down the patchwork quilt she had made from Daddy’s ties and other scraps of material. It’ll be mine, I thought when she passes. I hated myself for thinking that. Can one control the mind? Or their need to solve a mystery?
The light August breeze rustled my hair as I walked down our dark street toward Barrington. Sure, I was dressed in dark clothes like a thief. Dark jeans and jersey, my keys from home and the nursing home, silenced in my pocket. The love calls of the late-night cicadas and crickets accompanied me as I walked toward the trailer. The light of the half moon shone on it. A side door was open.
I walked over and peeked inside.
Sammy was inside, fast asleep. Three young women were inside with him. None of them saw me. The women looked foreign. Turks? Like the Aykals? One of them, I noticed, had rubber tubing around her upper arm, as if she were a drug addict. Heroin? There was a heroin epidemic here in Pennsylvania. It was easy to get and cheap. But what could be going on?
Suddenly my head began to spin. The word “human trafficking” popped into my mind.
Human trafficking, right here in the neighborhood.
Who would believe me?
They’d be gone, I was sure, by the time I reported it.
The phantom ghost of the Airstream would fly away.
“Dad,” I said. “Tell me what to do.”
With quick feet, I walked away, then trotted around the corner to home. I unlocked the front door – “That you, Bon?”
“Yeah, I’ll be right back.”
My blue iPhone sat on the red couch. I grabbed it and raced outside, back to Barrington Road.
“Please, please, please,” I said to myself. “Be there!”
The Airstream was gone! But Sammy had told me where they kept it. Up the long driveway I walked and entered what looked to be a barn.
“Help me Daddy,” I whispered, as I attempted to gain entry into the garage. The door was locked. Now I was really going to get in trouble. Taking the keys from my pocket, I twisted and twisted the lock but nothing moved. Sherlock Holmes I was not. Finally, I knocked loudly, cocking my head to hear who was inside the trailer.
The garage door opened.
Sammy’s head popped out.
“What are you doing here?” he said when he saw me.
Quickly I got my iPhone out and took pictures of him and the three women, who were nodding on and off.
“I’m in charge here,” he said. “I’m the brains of this operation.”
He grabbed a heroin needle and stuck me in my forearm.
How long would it take to work and what the hell should I do?
Davisville Road was just up the street, the main road. I ran toward it, Sammy following me, the little bastard. The Rio Olympics had just been broadcast on television. I pictured myself as the fastest female runner in the world – Elaine Thompson of Jamaica. I ran like a gazelle, never looking behind me. On and on I ran down Barrington and then onto Davisville Road. At three in the morning there was little traffic but I stood in the center of the road waiting, just waiting, for a car to pass by.
It was just a few seconds that seemed like ten minutes before the first car came by. I held up my arms high over my head to stop them. The blue SUV screeched to a halt. Sammy was right behind me.
“She’s crazy,” he said when they opened their front door. “She’s mental and needs to go to the hospital,” he lied.
“Please,” I begged them. “He’s a liar. Can you drive me to the police station?”
A young couple sat in the car.
“Why don’t you both get in and we’ll see what the police have to say.”
Thank goodness. I opened the back door and got in, my head starting to spin. Never in my life had I used heroin or even marijuana for that matter. They drove to the police station. As my mind began to relax, I began to feel, well, euphoric. I had no control over my feelings. Sammy was nowhere to be found.
But I had my camera and held it tightly in my hand.
The couple accompanied me to the police station. We walked up the steps to the building with columns like the Parthenon in Athens, at least that’s what it looked like to me, and they rang the bell. A police woman opened the door in her navy-blue uniform and motioned for us to come inside.
She took us into what appeared to be a conference room and asked us to sit down. The chairs were so comfortable I felt like the Almighty himself was cradling me into his loving arms.
It was terribly hard to get the words out. Human trafficking. Airstream Trailer. Sammy in charge.
I handed her my iPhone.
“Here’s the, uh, proof you’ll need.” Part of my brain was proud of myself but mostly I was simply nodding on and off.
“We were following the case,” said Officer Andrea Copeland.
“You knew?” I asked.
“Yes, we’ve known for seven months but weren’t ready yet to make our case.”
I laughed and said, “I’m high on heroin. What’s gonna happen to me?”
“Well,” she said. “We can take you to the hospital until you come down….”
“Please, no,” I said. “My mom is waiting for me at home. She’s a worrier and will wonder what’s happened to me.”
The officer thanked the married couple and told me to get in her car.
“We don’t know how long your ‘high’ will last,” she said, “but you can sleep it off at home in the comfort of your bed.”
She drove to the house where Mom’s light was on upstairs. Holding my arm, the officer guided me into the house.
“That you, Dear?” called Mom.
The officer walked me up to Mom’s bedroom.
“Your daughter has had quite an adventure,” said Officer Copeland. She explained to Mom’s shock that I was high on heroin and that I needed to be watched to make sure my breathing wasn’t affected as I came down.
“Just call us at 9-1-1 should anything suspicious happen,” she said.
I crawled in bed with Mom in my black thief’s clothes and slept better than I ever had.
In the morning Mom brought me black coffee with a buttered English muffin, lightly toasted.
The thrill was mostly gone. Truthfully? It was the best feeling I’d ever had in my life. Better than being director of a nursing home, better than walking in the deep dark woods of Pennypack nature center, better even than sex.
Would I do it again? You bet I would! In a parallel universe.
It was the sixth time in a month she had fallen. Even her sixty-year-old mother didn’t fall. The worst thing about falling is that everyone at the police station had watched her plummet onto the cold tile floor. And, of course, with her
girth, she couldn’t get up.
“I’ve fallen and can’t get up,” she would think, mimicking that horrid TV commercial.
Barbara Lynn Ionetti was an award-winning cop. She had her own office at the Willoughby Police Station in suburban Philadelphia. A sign on her door read, “Honesty, Authority, Compassion.” Just the sound of her stentorian voice could stop a brawl in a bar – “Romeo’s” in particular – or a man, such as Billy Green, beating on his wife again – or, armed with Foster, the drug-sniffing German Shepherd – had arrested a “cartel” of drug traffickers, a maneuver she and her team had carefully planned.
When she got home to her apartment, off came the cumbersome blue suit and its attachments: the Glock, handcuffs, the shiny cap rimmed with sweat and straight to the living room sofa they went, ready for duty the next day.
She never ate at work. But at home, she brought out two Miller High Lifes – what respectable cop didn’t drink a beer or two? – a loaf of whole wheat bread, Velveeta cheese, Hellmann’s mayo and spicy mustard. From the top of her fridge she grabbed a box of Tastykake Krimpets.
As she prepared dinner, she turned on the television. “Botched” was a favorite show. Plastic surgeons worked on repairing mistakes other physicians had made.
As she bit into her sandwich, she was flabbergasted as the two surgeons did breast reduction work on a former Playboy bunny whose breasts, at the suggestion of Hugh Hefner, were as enormous as miniature dachshunds.
She slowly sipped her beer. When she was good and full, she checked the phone calls on her land line. Her mom had called, saying, “Hope my little girl had a good day catching bad guys.”
And the dreaded phone call had arrived.
“Ms. Ionetti,” said the assistant for Doctor Rosenberg, “we’re looking forward to seeing you this Thursday to discuss the possibility of bariatric surgery at Abington Hospital.”
This was the worst thing that had ever happened to her, even worse than her divorce to the so-called great love of her life, a fellow cop, Lieutenant Michael Simms, who, simply could not stand her eating habits. He let her have their condo at Twin Brooks. She knew he felt sorry for her, something she couldn’t abide.
“Barb,” he would say. “You have a problem and you’ve gotta face it! Your eating habits suck! It’s called ‘emotional eating.’
She would grimace and grit her teeth.
“In case you don’t know, every police district has their own psychotherapist.”
“I’ll see the therapist,” said Barbara. “I promise I will.”
She knew she never would. Therapy was for really impaired individuals like soldiers returning from war, with their post-traumatic stress disorder.
Just as she was going into her bedroom to finally sleep, the Willoughby Police station was called on a 9-1-1 by the wife of a traumatized vet. This was not the first time they had been there. Barbara called her partners while in her car as they sped down to Red Barn Road, where Stephen Collins, a decorated veteran from the Iraq and Afghan wars, was holding his wife hostage at knife-point.
Instead of arriving in their black-and-white Ford SUVs, they took their own cars, and surrounded the house.
“They’re back here in the kitchen,” said Kelly Evans into her iPhone. She was a pretty woman with blonde hair, a husband and two children. And a beautiful figure.
It should be easy, thought Barbara, as long as we don’t blow it.
The entire Willoughby police staff had been trained in entering a private home and finding the perpetrator. At all costs, they wanted to keep everyone alive.
The back door of the house was locked.
Barbara knocked loudly on the back door. She could see the married couple in the kitchen.
“Mr. Collins? Mrs. Collins?” she called.
When there was no answer, she motioned to Alex. “Break down the door.”
With his large booted foot, he kicked open the back door.
Stephen, who held a knife against his wife’s neck, looked surprised.
“Oh, c’mon, Steve,” said Barbara. “What would your platoon say if they saw you now. What were those awards you won?”
He looked at Barbara.
“My wife was trying to hurt me,” he said in a firm voice. “She was one of those Taliban wives and told me she’d kill me.”
“Did she, now?”
He nodded and looked at his trembling wife.
“Why don’t we all sit at the kitchen table and talk about it. First, though, you’ll need to give me the knife.”
She walked toward him with her hand outstretched.
Obediently, he placed it into her hand, handle-first, a long steak knife with serrated edges.
She pointed toward the table and the three of them sat down.
Stephen put his head in his hands.
“They’re gone,” he said. “The thoughts went back.” He tapped on his skull.
“I’m so glad to hear that, Stephen,” said Barbara.
“You won’t like to hear this, but you’ll spend the night at the police station” – meaning in a jail cell, which she didn’t say – “and then we’re going to get some help for you so this won’t happen again.”
Collins was led out to one of the private cars and whisked away to the jail.
His wife collapsed on the floor, crying hysterically.
“It’s up to you, Ma’am, if you want to continue living with him. Treatment is available but you never wanted him to go.”
“I know, I know. I thought he and I were getting somewhere.”
“You can’t handle it alone, Mrs. Collins. Call us tomorrow and we’ll discuss rehab facilities in the area.”
Barbara fell into bed that night, with only her panties on. They were a large size men’s boxers. Blue checkered. She lay exhausted on the king-sized bed where she and Michael had slept. Her bedside table had a selection of crime thrillers she loved to read: John Sandford’s “Golden Prey,” Lee Child’s newest Jack Reacher novel, “Night School” and a debut novelist whose territory was Minneapolis: Allen Eskens, “The Life we Bury.”
She only had one more chapter in the “The Life We Bury.”
Outside the window in her second-story bedroom, the quarter moon cast an eerie glow, in sync with the domestic violence.
As was her habit, she began to massage her belly, her huge breasts and arms, which her husband said were the size of pork chops.
It actually felt good and soothed her from the tensions of the day. Her skin was ivory white and shone in the moonlight. Caressing it felt like baking a bread. Her mom was an expert baker. She also controlled the portions she would allow her daughter to eat. Barbara thought of baking her own, but knew she didn’t have the time. She did, however, buy Mrs. Smith’s frozen peach pie with a latticed crust. She’d polish off the entire thing while watching the program “Fear Factor.” And wondered if she’d eat a live snake for ten thousand bucks?
She readied herself for her appointment with Doctor Rosenberg. She fried an egg for breakfast and toasted an English muffin. She took out a Miller’s High Life and drank half a can for her nerves. Her red VW Jetta was parked just outside the condo. In one of the cupholders, she had a tin box of peppermint Altoids and began chewing them on the way to Abington Hospital.
She parked in the parking garage and jotted down on her police pad, Level 10, space 6.
As she entered the elevator with several other people, she became self-conscious. She was no longer Barbara Lynn Ionetti, the chief of police, but was a private citizen so overweight that people stopped and stared at her. Weight Watchers did no good, nor did diet plans like “Lorene’s Frozen Dinners,” guaranteed to help you lose weight or your money back.
Not only was she falling but it was often difficult for her to breathe.
Thankfully, when she opened the door to the doctor’s office, no one was there. How shaming it would be to see other well-endowed individuals. She sat down and pulled out a book her husband had given her years ago: The Complete Short Stories of John O’Hara. Talk about shame! The way these upper class people comported themselves! Drunks, marrying the wrong people, being kicked out of country clubs for embarrassing behavior. The only decent characters were their dogs.
Doctor Rosenberg greeted her with a handshake and took her back into his office. He asked her to sit on a comfortable couch. He sat opposite her on a matching green upholstered chair.
“You are indeed a candidate for bariatric surgery,” he told her.
“I supposed as much,” said Barbara, as she pushed her dyed blonde hair behind her ears.
“I’m going to explain the procedure to you. I know it might be scary but I’ve done over a thousand of these operations.”
“Has anyone died during surgery?”
“Not yet,” he laughed. He was around forty with thinning curly black hair. A portrait of his family sat on his desk behind him. His wife was slender, as were his two teenagers – a well-proportioned son and daughter.
“We’ve got a new procedure we call ‘sleeve gastrectomy.’ The procedure removes a portion of your stomach—including the part that secretes your ‘hunger hormone’—in order to restrict the amount of food you can eat and make you feel less hungry.”
The doctor looked over at Barbara who seemed not to be paying attention.
“Mrs. Ionetti!” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was lost in my own thoughts.”
“Understandable,” he said. “I’m going to show you a video of what to expect.”
On a mahogany desk, a small flat-screen monitor began to project a video. A female surgeon explained the procedure, using phrases like, “Your Abington Hospital surgeon will remove the left side of your stomach (called the greater curvature) in order to decrease your stomach's overall size. This also involves the removal of your stomach's fundus—which is responsible for secreting the hormone that causes you to feel hungry (called ghrelin). So, you feel fuller both because your stomach is smaller and because of hormonal changes.”
The doctor told Barbara to go home and think about the procedure. It would take about four hours, he said. She would stay in the hospital about three days.
The surgery, she learned, would cost a mint. But that’s why the Willoughby police were very well insured. Just about all 52 members of the force sustained injuries on the job. This would be their first weight-loss surgery. And she was “the honored one.” Cripes!
On April 25, the surgery was performed. When Barbara awoke, she felt mildly nauseous, which Doctor Rosenberg said was to be expected. He didn’t know she had watched a video where one Jennifer told her 53,000 viewers on YouTube what to expect.
“You won’t be hungry for a few weeks. Your food addiction will still be there, so you’ve gotta work on it. You’ll feel horrible if you eat too much. Or if you eat too many sweets. You’ll get drunk faster. You’ll get heartburn and acid reflux. I keep Tums in my pocketbook. I started drinking soda again which stretched out my stomach like a helium balloon. Do not start drinking soda. It’s a terrible addiction. Counter it by going to the gym.
“It does suck,” continued Jennifer, a beautiful young woman who wore a cross between her cleavage.
“And pray,” she added. “Pray every day and I will pray for you.”
Dozens of comments were posted under her video.
Candace Jarvis wrote: I'm doing good. First month was VERY hard. Now that I can eat and have a lil more energy I'm doing alot better. I'm working out too.”
Barbara Lynn stayed home and recuperated on the ground floor of the condo, which had its own lavatory. The shower was upstairs. The entire police force visited and every surface was covered by bouquets of fresh flowers.
At first, she couldn’t wait to get back to the force. In her upstairs bedroom, she stared into the floor-length mirror and saw an absolutely stunning young woman.
“Barbara Lynn,” said her mother, who visited every day, bringing her a small salad she made with cold-pressed olive oil.
“You must take care of yourself. You’re back to being the daughter I gave birth to.”
“I know, Mom. No way I’m going back to living with all that friggin flab. How did I ever allow that to happen?”
She knew she could never go back to toting a revolver and hand cuffs. Had she actually been the police chief! It was in another life time. Just like she once had that name-calling husband.
She tried her luck on Match.com and dated several men, whom she met at the Starbucks café at Barnes and Noble. She watched as heads turned as she entered. And why not? She was all of twenty-eight years old and could have children if she wished.
In the glassed-in case she viewed all the tasty treats: croissants, chocolate covered doughnuts, and a marvelous looking chocolate layer cake with raspberry jelly in between.
She caressed them with her eyes but had no desire to eat any of them.
With the determination she used when she learned to be a sharp shooter, she willed herself to eat healthy.
Religiously, she followed the diet plan. No need for Tums or for booze. Why ruin the gorgeous new body Doctor Rosenberg had given her.
At her six-month post-op appointment, she and the doctor shook hands and Barbara said, “Guess what, Doctor Rosenberg?”
“You’re no longer a cop,” he said.
“You are one smart doctor!” she said.
“And your new career will be?”
“Still thinking on it,” she said. “You’ll be the first to know.”
One day at the LA Fitness Gym, she was riding a stationery bike with great vigor and was watching a boring TV show. With the remote control she changed the channels and came upon “The Great British Bake-Off” with Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. In gorgeous living color she watched the two of them bake a Black Forest Cake.
In a Cuisinart Food Processor, they creamed butter and sugar, added eggs and then drizzled in chocolate that had been cooking in a double boiler.
Her mind was made up as she neared the seventh mile on the bike. She would become a baker. An expert baker like that gorgeous Paul Hollywood with his steel-grey hair combed straight back. His wedding band shone on his ring finger.
There were so many bakeries in the Willoughby neighborhood.
She would learn to bake with the same enthusiasm as when she learned to be a cop.
Who knows? Maybe she’d keep her police uniform and wear it on Halloween, as she served the young trick or treaters devils food cupcakes.
Her life had meaning again. “Honesty. Authority. Compassion.”
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