Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Truth Hurts: A Pumpkin Patch Horror Story

October 16, 2011

One day, a farmer climbed aboard his tractor and tilled the soil.  He walked the garden, picking up rocks and throwing dried bits of last year’s crop over the fence.  When he turned from the barbed wire, he noticed an odd sight.  What had been forgotten, something left behind and ignored, suddenly interested the farmer.  He bent down and dropped to one knee next to a pumpkin.

“Oh my gosh,” the farmer exclaimed, “where did you come from?”

He reached out and touched Jack’s skin, then picked him up and looked where the pumpkin had lain in the straw.  The farmer tested the stem and followed Jack’s vine to the roots near the edge of the garage.

 The farmer scratched his head and said, “Well I’ll be dogged, you lived through the winter.  You’re one strong pumpkin.”
The man hurried away and in a few minutes he came back with his wife puffing behind and trying to keep up.

“Can you believe this?” the farmer asked.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, bending over the pumpkin. “We’ve had a few volunteer tomato vines and flowers come up, but those grew from last year’s seeds.  I’ve never seen a pumpkin plant live through the winter.”

She patted Jack and said, “You are one special pumpkin, aren’t you Jack?”  That’s when Jack got his name.

Other pumpkins grew in the patch, but Jack was different. Now he was the oldest, biggest, and wisest of the pumpkins.  He’d earned the distinction; he was a tough, hardened, second-year inhabitant of the patch.  And, he was the farmer’s darling.   When the farmer walked through the garden with other people, he stopped at Jack, pointed to him, or patted him, and said, “See Jack here?  He’s special.  I’ve never had a pumpkin like him. He’s destined for greatness.”  Even when the farmer was alone, he’d make his way over to Jack, rub him, check him for pests, and say, “How are you today, buddy?”  Jack shined a little brighter orange as he basked in the attention. However, life for Jack had not been without struggle.

The previous year, Jack had been a late bloomer.  When everyone else was harvested, Jack was only the size of a baseball, round, and green.  Somehow, his seed sprouted and his vine grew right along the garage wall, under the overhang, and out to the southern end of the garden.  Jack was a baby when the rest of the pumpkins were cut from their vines, loaded into wheelbarrows, and set in the wagon behind the garden tractor.

Jack had felt sad and unloved, left behind and alone.   When the soil was turned, the plow came within six inches of ripping his roots from the ground.  Jack watched and waited, holding his breath, shaking and feeling his insides tangle, until the farmer parked the tractor in the garage for the season.

Jack was relieved that he’d been spared.  At the time, it was lonely in the patch with no one to talk to, but a solitary life certainly beat death.  This he believed, until the weather changed and temperatures dropped.  He had felt frost on his skin once in a while, but not every night.  When the cold really set in, Jack sometimes wished he’d been turned over with the dirt and left to rot.  At least he would have a blanket of soil over his cold, decomposing body.  Jack’s vine lost most of its color and became brittle.  The smallest leaves froze and dropped to the ground.  The edges of the bigger leaves curled and dried. The pace of the garden slowed and its breath became shallow.

Living in the south saved him from a deep freeze, but Jack was hungry most of the time.  He felt life slipping a little more each day.  The sun that warmed him came up late and set early.  Nights were the worst, especially clear nights, when the stars were like sharp bits of ice that penetrated Jack to his core.

The farmer spent a good deal of time in and around the garage.  That’s what saved Jack. The garage was heated by a wood stove. Jack watched the man take the chainsaw into the forest beyond the garden.  He heard the whine and the crack of timber splintering. The man returned, carrying wood and stacked it near Jack’s vine.  Each day, the farmer came out to the stack, gathered an armload and walked back into the building.  After that, Jack heard the crack and pop of fire and felt a slight change in temperature, warming the soil around him.  He came to love the sound of the saw, the smell of sap from pine shavings, and the sight of the farmer gathering wood. All of this meant heat.

Jack’s growth slowed through Thanksgiving and stopped by Christmas.  When he didn’t think he could stand the cold one more minute, the days began getting a little longer and warmer. A subtle change came over the garden. It breathed a little deeper and sighed under the sun.

Activity picked up. The farmer turned rows for peas and potatoes, planted hills with squash seeds, ran wire for the beans and cucumbers, and planted more seeds around Jack in the pumpkin patch.  They sprouted and bloomed.  Bees buzzed and pollinated the flowers.  Small pumpkins began growing into baseball-size spheres, just like Jack had grown the year before.  Jack welcomed each one as it came to life.  He was already orange by this time, and about the size of a honeydew melon.

The smaller pumpkins looked up to Jack, respected his wisdom, and asked him questions about the garden and the farmer. They asked about birds and bugs, and about their purpose in the patch.

“You are pumpkins,” Jack told his patch mates with a deep voice of authority.  “You will grow to be orange, round and big—not as big as me—but big.  The farmer will nurture and water you, keep the bugs from biting you, and dust powdery mildew off your vine. He will bring his family, children, and grandchildren to admire you.”
Jack was a storyteller. The farmer’s family had talked as they worked the garden and harvested vegetables the year before. Jack listened and now he had tales to tell.  He sharpened his skill in the winter when he shivered under the dark, night sky.  His imagination became a comfort from the chill.  His storytelling grew bolder as he grew bigger and rounder.  Jack was quiet during the day, basking in the sun, keeping his thoughts to himself, but at night, he entertained the others.  The pumpkins’ excitement grew as they learned of their importance.

Depending on his mood, Jack could make the pumpkins feel happy with some stories, and sad with others. He even told a few scary stories. Most of these came from times in his past when he was afraid, cold, and alone. He liked to tell happy stories, the tales that brought him through the hardest situations in his life. What the other pumpkins did not know, there was time enough for scary stories. The pumpkins best days would draw to a close sooner than they knew.

“Hey Jack,” called Autumn Gold one night.  She was a beautiful pumpkin, more golden than orange, and she only had eyes for Jack.“Tell us a good story,” she asked in a sultry voice.

“Well, it’s almost Independence Day,” Jack said.  “The Fourth of July is a holiday for people.  They have picnics, they stay home from work, they attend carnivals, and at night, after dark, they watch fireworks.”

Jack explained what it would look like.  He told the others that the family would come to the garden and choose one pumpkin to take with them to the festivities.  The chosen one got to decorate the picnic table during the feast, ride the Ferris wheel at the carnival, and sit on the blanket under the stars watching the fireworks explode and sparkle in the night sky. Autumn Gold seemed to sparkle herself after listening to Jack’s story.

“Do you think they’ll choose me?” she asked him.

“You never know,” Jack answered.

On the Fourth of July, the farmer and his wife came to the garden and selected several ears of corn from the stalks, a basket of tomatoes, four onions, a handful of lettuce leaves, and a colander full of beets.  Pumpkins were not chosen.

“They didn’t choose any of us, Jack, not one,” Autumn Gold complained. “They even harvested those ugly beets and smelly onions.  How could you be so dishonest? I thought we meant more to each other than that,”  and she didn’t speak to Jack until the next month.

Jack wondered if he should just stop telling stories.

“Tell us a good one, Jack,” Baby Boo said one night.  Baby Boo was small and the only white pumpkin in the patch.  He was often teased by the other pumpkins because he was different.  Baby Boo was the only pumpkin his vine produced.  Jack felt for the little guy and tried to make him happy.

“The farmer and his family go on vacation to the beach each year,” Jack said.  “They come to the patch and choose a pumpkin to take with them on the trip.  That pumpkin gets to ride in the car, swim in the ocean, build sand castles, and lie in the sun on a beach towel watching the ocean waves ebb and flow on the sand.”

“Aah,” said the collection of pumpkins together, imagining all those things.

“Do you think they’ll pick me?” asked Baby Boo.

“You never know,” said Jack.

Vacation time arrived.  The farmer and his family came out to the garden to harvest some vegetables for their journey.  They chose squash, cucumbers, green beans, and tomatoes. They didn’t choose a pumpkin.  The family talked at length about their beach plans.  They asked a neighbor to water the garden and help themselves to anything ripe.  The farmer, his wife, and children, all walked out of the gate and were gone for a week.

“You said they’d take one of us,” said Baby Boo in disappointment.  “You lied Jack. How could you be so mean?”

Jack didn’t want to lie, but he liked happy stories best, ones with fun and warmth.  He didn’t like to think about the future.  He kept those stories to himself.

One night, the farmer came out and walked through the pumpkin patch. The garden breathed quickly and it captured Jack’s attention. Something was up. The farmer lifted some of the larger pumpkins a few inches off the ground, Jack being one of them.

“Jack, I love your size, but you’re a bit lopsided,” the farmer said,  “must have been that long winter lying on your side, like you did.  Too bad.  I think you’d win the ribbon.”

The farmer went back in the house after weighing and measuring several of the biggest pumpkins.

“Hey Jack,” called Big Max. Big Max was the biggest specimen in the garden, other than Jack.  The farmer had spent a long time with Big Max, lifting him onto a scale and winding a measuring tape around his girth, careful not to damage his vine.

“What’s going on with the farmer?  What’s all the fuss about?”

“Well,” Jack said, “every September there’s the County Fair down the road.  The farmer comes out to the garden and chooses one pumpkin to take to the fair.  That pumpkin is washed and polished and put on a wooden display rack in the vegetable tent for the people to come and see.  Other farmers bring their pumpkins, and the biggest, best looking pumpkin, gets a blue ribbon and their picture in the newspaper.”

“Yeah, sure it does, Jack,” Big Max groaned.  “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

All the other pumpkins agreed with Big Max. They turned their backs on Jack and stopped talking to him.  This made Jack mad.  He’d spent his whole summer sharing his wisdom, helping his patch mates understand how things work.  And he kept a secret. Jack saved them the heartbreak of finding out their future.  He sacrificed his own integrity to make them happy, and this was the thanks he got.  Well, he wouldn’t take their feelings into account again.  Jack’s heart turned to pulp.

A few weeks later, the farmer walked into the garden with several bushel baskets. The pulse of the garden seemed to change, its breath grew rapid. The farmer carefully went over every vine in the garden, selecting the very best ears of corn, heads of cabbage, beets, onions, green beans, butter beans, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, and cantaloupe.  He loaded the baskets and put them on the back of the wagon.

“See,” Big Max said. “I told you, not one pumpkin.”

“Yeah,” said Autumn Gold and Baby Boo at the same time.

“You’re nothing but a liar, Jack,” said Funny Face, a bright orange pumpkin with a perfect shape.

Jack sighed.  “Just wait,” he said, “you’ll see.  I know more than you think I do.”

In about an hour, the farmer and his oldest son came out to the garden and carefully sliced Big Max’s vine from his stem.  Together, they hefted him up and carried him out of the garden.  He was placed in the wagon with the other vegetables.

Jack didn’t say, “I told you so.”  He didn’t offer an explanation.  He let the others stew in their own juices. Jack stayed quiet. He stayed quiet for over a week.

Big Max returned with a blue ribbon tied around his stem.  The farmer and his son brought Big Max back to the pumpkin patch and took his picture with a camera.

“Hey, Jack,” the blue ribbon winner apologized,  “I’m sorry I doubted you.  I’ve been to the Fair and it happened just like you said. You were right. It was a beautiful week.”

“Congratulations, Big Max,” said Jack, “the ribbon looks good on you.”

“Thanks,” said Big Max. The farmer and his son hoisted Big Max again and said they were going to display him in the front yard for everyone to see.

“We’ll sell lots of pumpkins when people see we’ve won this ribbon,” the farmer said.

“Bye, Big Max,” Jack said.  “Hope we get to see you again sometime.”

It was late September, and the days were getting shorter.  Most of the pumpkins had grown into good sized orange rounds.  Jack was still the largest, and so large that some men who came to the patch attempted to lift him, but couldn’t.

The other pumpkins tried to get Jack to tell more stories, yet his heart wasn’t in it.  He gave excuses and encouraged others to take up the hobby of storytelling.  Trick or Treat, one of the tall pumpkins on the other side of the patch, tried, but couldn’t quite get the knack.  He told boring tales of arguments between the hybrid and heirloom pumpkins, or an incident where the farmer’s wife tripped with the clothes basket, fell in a heap, and stomped back into the house to re-wash the clothes after she wallowed around on them.  The stories would have been funny, except everyone had already witnessed them first hand.

“Please tell us another story, Jack,” Baby Boo begged one night.

Jack didn’t have any happy stories left.  He didn’t want to tell another story and he certainly didn’t want to tell the scary stories he knew.

“I don’t think so,” said Jack.

“We’re sorry we ignored you, Jack,” said Autumn Gold.

“It’s not that—” Jack trailed off.

“What is it then?” asked Funny Face.

“I only have scary stories left,” said Jack, “and you don’t want to hear those.”

“Yes we do, Jack.  We want to hear scary stories.  It’s been so long since you’ve told us a story.  Please Jack, please tell us a scary story—please,” pleaded Baby Boo.

“OK,” said Jack and he thought he heard a sharp breath from the garden. He ignored it.

“It’s almost Halloween,” he began, “and Halloween is the scariest time of year.  People lose all control during this holiday.  October begins soon, when the weather gets colder. After the first frost and during the harvest moon, the farmer will come with his sharp knife and cut your vine.”

“Cut our vines?” The others asked.

“Yes,” answered Jack, “one day, he will walk the patch with a long, sharp knife, hunting pumpkins for harvest.  He will come up from behind, and when you least expect it, he’ll sever you from your vine, leaving just a stump at your top, like he did with Big Max.  He will pick you up, load you onto the wagon, and prepare you for the night of terror.”

“Terror?  What do you mean terror?” Baby Boo asked.  “Big Max got to go to the Fair.  He got a blue ribbon.  He gets to be on display in the front yard.”

“Besides,” said Autumn Gold, “the farmer wouldn’t harm us. We’re special.”

“I told you, people lose control at Halloween.  I’ve been around a long time.  I’ve seen things, you know,” said Jack.

“We don’t believe you, Jack,” said Happy Face.  “You’ve told us lies before.”

Jack could hear the uncertainty in their voices.  They weren’t sure. Jack didn’t want to say anymore. As he watched their fear grow, he felt bad. He shouldn’t have gone this far. He shouldn’t have let Baby Boo sway his resolve. Jack grew very quiet.  The garden rustled with anxious leaves.  Jack wished he could turn back time.  He knew their curiosity would get the better of them.  He knew they wanted to know their future, no matter how horrible it sounded. They wanted to know the outcome.

“Where will he take us once he cuts us from the vine, Jack?” asked Baby Boo, with a shiver in his whisper.

Jack decided then that if he was in their place, he’d want to know the truth, too. He knew the horror and it wasn’t fair to hide it from them.  Jack had heard the farmer and his wife talk about it.

“He takes you to—the Farm Stand.”

“What’s the Farm Stand?” Autumn Gold gasped.

“It’s a place in front of the farmer’s house.  He will put you on display and sell you to people for Halloween.”

“Sell us to people—for Halloween?  Why?” Funny Face asked.

“It’s a holiday for people,” Jack said, his voice deepening with emotion. Then he paused, gathering his courage, “but not for pumpkins.”

“What do you mean?” asked the other pumpkins, the pitch of their voices rising.

Jack started, “Halloween is hideous.  Horrible things happen to pumpkins on Halloween.  Most do not survive.”  Then he stopped, afraid to continue.

These pumpkins were his friends, but they’d never understand.  They’d blame him for their fate. Jack felt the change in the seasons. Summer was gone.  He remembered it from the previous year.  The nights were colder now.

“Well don’t stop there,” Autumn Gold whispered.  “What horrible things?  We have a right to know.”

Last year, the farmer’s family members came to the garden for first choice of pumpkins, before the farmer harvested them to sell. The patch listened to the farmer’s tales in disbelief. The accounts were terrifying and left them all shaking in fear. Jack remembered, feeling the hairs rise on his vine.  He never knew for sure whether the stories were true, but the other pumpkins of the patch screamed in horror as they were taken. Jack had never known the farmer to lie, either.

“Come on Jack, you have to tell us. What will the people do with us on Halloween?  What will happen?” asked Baby Boo.

Jack took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  He felt the tendrils around his seeds curl and he thought he might be sick.

“Well,” he hesitated, feeling flushed even as the night grew cooler.

“Go on, go on,” Funny Face encouraged him.

“Well,” Jack began again, “some of you will be carved with knives.  People gut you, slice chunks out of you to make a scary face, then put a burning candle inside your hollowed out carcass.  You sit at the front of the house on Halloween night to scare children.”

There was a pause in the garden.

“Oh, how awful.  To be tortured and then made to scare children.  Who thought of this Halloween anyway?” The pumpkins began to speak together.

“People,” Jack said.

He didn’t tell the other pumpkins that he was special.  He didn’t tell them he’d be spared.  

“You said they’d do other things, Jack.  What other things?”

“Some of you will be peeled, your flesh cut into pieces, cooked, mashed and baked in an oven.  People will eat you.”

Some of the pumpkins began to cry.  Murmurs and moans erupted in the patch.  Jack even thought a few lost some of their color.  Jack took another breath, so he could finish.

“Teenagers sometimes steal pumpkins from front porches on Halloween night and smash them to bits in the street—where cars run over what’s left.  And, for those who have been spared torture, once the season is over, pumpkins are rolled down the hill behind the house and left to rot under briers while mice and other scavengers gnaw at your flesh and nibble your seeds.”

“You can’t be serious, Jack,” said Autumn Gold.

Jack felt smaller than Baby Boo.  If only they hadn’t persisted.  If only he hadn’t known the truth.  He wished at that moment that he was as naïve as the rest of them.  For the first time in his life, he wished to be alone.  What had he done to his friends?

Jack watched Baby Boo. The small pumpkin looked even tinier than usual, sitting there, all alone on his own vine, with no one to comfort him.  Jack wanted to take it all back, to tell them it was all a lie.

He whispered, “It’s the truth.”

“Don’t believe him,” said a voice from the other side of the patch.  “You’ve believed him before, and he’s lied to you.”  It was Trick or Treat, one of the tall pumpkins.

“That’s right,” said Autumn Gold.  “He’s lied before.”

“It can’t be true,” came Baby Boo’s small voice.

“He’s just trying to scare us into thinking he knows more than we do,” said Funny Face.

All the pumpkins began talking at once, trying to convince themselves and each other that Jack was wrong.  Trick or Treat had planted the seed.

“What I think,” said Trick or Treat, “is that Halloween is the grand holiday just for pumpkins and Jack wants to scare us, keep us away from the festivities. Look around you.  All the other vegetables have been harvested.  We are the only ones left.  There must be a reason.  I bet the farmer’s saving us for the biggest party of the year.  Independence Day, Vacation, and the County Fair were just small change compared to our party.  I think the Farm Stand is a happy place. Why, I bet the farmer and his family harvest us, dress us in fine clothes, decorate their house in shades of orange, dance with us and treat us like kings and queens.  We’ve spent a long hot summer in this dirt for a reason, and it’s not to be carved up, eaten, smashed, or gnawed.”

“Yeah,” said Funny Face.  “He’s right—Trick or Treat is right.  Don’t believe what Jack says.  He thinks he’s the farmer’s favorite.  He just wants to leave us out of the fun.  He wants us to be afraid so we won’t go to the party.  He believes he’s the king, but he’s not.”

Jack didn’t defend his honor.  He didn’t want to take away their dreams.  He longed for a fancy party, where his compatriots dressed in fine clothes.  He wanted all of them to be crowned in a grand coronation, like in the stories of the farmer’s granddaughter.  He knew better though, and sat quietly as his friends shunned him.  Jack fell asleep, a dejected and lopsided pumpkin.

That very night, the sky was clear and the weather turned dreadfully cold.  At first light, a sheen of frost coated each pumpkin.  They all shivered under its sparkle.  The pumpkins whispered among themselves.

A sudden breath from the garden awakened Jack. The farmer and his wife opened the gate and the hinges screeched. The couple held sharp knives. They began harvesting the pumpkins, one after another.  The couple moved each one carefully in the wheelbarrow and then lifted it onto the wagon behind the tractor.  Some of the pumpkins talked about the party they might attend, while others were quiet.  A few cried and screamed. The farmer and his wife talked in low voices and pointed here and there. When the harvest was complete, the only pumpkins left on their vines were Jack, Autumn Gold, Baby Boo, Happy Face, and Trick or Treat.

“Why do you think he left us here?” Autumn Gold asked Trick or Treat.  She had stopped talking to Jack.

“Because we’re the best of the bunch,” answered Trick or Treat.

“Do you really think so?” asked Baby Boo.

“I know so, Boo,” said Trick or Treat.

“What happened to the others?” Happy Face asked.

“They’re helping to decorate the party,” said Trick or Treat.  “Planning and creating the biggest party of the year takes some time.”

Three long weeks passed while the remaining pumpkins wondered about their fate. Why were they still in the patch? And who was telling the truth? The farmer still came out to the garden and checked on them like he always had. Autumn Gold, Baby Boo, Happy Face, and Trick or Treat formed a tight bond, talking well into the night, supporting one another, and uplifting each other’s spirits.  If the farmer was still protecting them from harm, maybe it was to keep them.  The group ignored Jack, who waited on their fate in silence. Halloween was yet to come.

One crisp morning, the farmer and his wife came out to the garden.

“This one here’s for carving,” the farmer said, pointing to Happy Face.

“That little white one can sit next to him on the porch tonight,” the farmer said, motioning to Baby Boo.  The farmer took out his sharp knife and came toward the two pumpkins.

“No, no, please don’t!” screamed Happy Face.

“No, not me, not me,” cried Baby Boo, “I’m too little.”

Jack, Autumn Gold, and Trick or Treat watched in horror as the farmer and his wife cut the two pumpkins off their vine and carried them into the house. The three pumpkins remaining in the patch listened as Happy Face begged, pleaded, and wailed until, some minutes later, he fell silent.

They could still hear Baby Boo sobbing, repeating in his tiny voice, “No, no, no. Why did you do it, why? He was my friend. Why were you so mean?”

Jack cried right along with Baby Boo.  He no longer wanted to be the farmer’s darling.  He wanted his friends back.  He wanted summer again.  Even the stark cold of winter was better than this.

The screen door squeaked as the farmer’s wife came out of the house with a knife in one hand and a large metal bowl in the other. She walked slowly toward the pumpkin patch.  Her hair hung loose from the scarf on her head and gray strands covered her face.  She blew them away from her narrowed eyes. Her face was smeared with pumpkin juice. Her hands and dress were stained with pulp, seeds, and what could only be the entrails of Happy Face. She set down the bowl and unchained the gate. The garden held its breath.

Jack and the others tried to glance into the bowl. They couldn’t see over the rim.  The farmer’s wife picked up the bowl and stepped into the garden. She walked over to the compost pile and emptied parts and pieces of Happy Face into the rotting leaves, and egg shells, and peelings.  All that was left of their friend were some seeds, a few jagged chunks of flesh and stringy innards. They felt their own insides turn and tangle. Their vines constricted and they felt dizzy.  All three shivered, waiting as the woman slowly turned toward them.  She walked to Autumn Gold and bent over.

Autumn Gold screamed in terror.  She wailed and yelled, and never stopped screaming until she, too, was silenced once inside the house. An hour later, Jack and Trick or Treat smelled cooked pumpkin flesh as it simmered on the stove then baked in the oven.

Neither of the two pumpkins said anything.  There were no more stories to tell.  They each awaited their fate.

Late that night, Jack heard the rumble of a car on the street.  The moon was high and the hour was close to midnight. The car stopped in front of the farmer’s house. Then Jack heard young voices—teenagers.

“There’s two pumpkins on the porch right there,” a voice said.

“Yeah, I’ll keep watch, you go grab ‘em,” another said.

“Not me, Earl. You go do it,” the first one said.

“Ya’ll ain’t got no guts,” another voice said. “Give ol’ Earl a job, and it gets done,” it said.

Jack listened to someone grunt and pick up what was left of Happy Face and all of Baby Boo.

Baby Boo was crying and hollering again, “No, no, no, please don’t do it.  Don’t throw me. Noooo!”
Baby Boo’s voice arced through the air and then Jack heard two distinct smacks as pumpkins hit pavement.  The voices laughed. Car doors slammed and a vehicle roared off.  Jack heard the thump of pumpkin rind hit the curb and land with a crunch in the ditch. He imagined the tires mashing parts and scattering bits of his friends.

The rest of Jack’s night stretched long and dark.

The farmer wasn’t finished. The next morning he and his wife came to the garden.  They sliced through Trick or Treat’s vine and lifted him into the wheelbarrow. Then they came over to Jack.

“Gosh,” the farmer said, “I hate to harvest him.  He’s lasted two seasons and he’s still going strong.  No way he’ll last through winter this year.  He’s too big and his vine’s too brittle.  We’ll collect his seeds, though.  You’re one hearty pumpkin, Jack old boy. I wish you could have won that blue ribbon. You deserve it for all you’ve been through.”

With that, the farmer took out his knife and sliced through Jack’s vine, leaving a stem bleeding a trickle of sap.

The farmer and his wife hefted Jack into the wheelbarrow and the two of them wrestled him into the house and onto the kitchen table. The farmer’s wife brought Trick or Treat in a few minutes later and laid him beside Jack.

Trick or Treat was quiet, but Jack could sense his fear as they sat on the table.

Jack wasn’t frightened anymore. He knew his fate and rested.  His friends had suffered and it wasn’t fair to their memory for Jack to worry over his own life.

Jack looked around.  He’d always wondered what the inside of the house was like. The temperature was warm, like summer, but Jack felt a chill. He recognized some of the odors that wafted out to the garden. The smells were stronger here—no vegetables that he could discern, but definitely cantaloupe and egg, and maybe a trace of pig. Mid-day and night time smells were different, each with their own aroma.  Jack recognized a hint of Autumn Gold lingering in the air.

“Did you see how good the pie turned out?”  The woman asked the farmer, holding up a dark, orange disk. She brought it over and placed it close to Jack.

“Yep, looks good,” the farmer said, “believe I’ll try me a slice after I get the seeds out of these two.”

“I know why you want Jack’s seeds,” said the wife, “but why the other one?”

“That’s full of seed passed down from my Granddaddy’s pumpkin.  I’m choosing this tall one to carry on the family tradition.”
The farmer had the knife in his hand, running it over a gray stone. Every so often, he would stop and run his thumb over the blade. Then he’d go back to scratching the knife against the stone.  Jack watched, fascinated by the sound and movement, wondering how the blade would feel, slicing into his rind.

Trick or Treat finally spoke up.  “Jack?”

“Yeah?” Jack said.

“I’m really sorry I doubted you—and turned the others against you.”

“It’s OK,” Jack said. “I’m glad you gave them some hope.  It’s more than I did.  I’ll never forgive myself for that.”

“Hey, you were just trying to be truthful. I was the one who lied to them,” said Trick or Treat.

“If I had it to do over again, I’d have lied, too. Besides, you didn’t know any better,” said Jack.

“Yes I did,” Trick or Treat said. “I knew you were telling the truth, but I wanted to tell stories just like you.  I want you to know, it has been a real privilege knowing you, Jack.”

“You too, Trick or Treat.  Maybe our vines will meet up in the garden next season and get to know each other. That would be nice.”

“Yeah, it would,” Trick or Treat said.

The farmer laid down the knife and reached into a bowl.

“These toasted pumpkin seeds are right good,” he said, tossing back a handful.

Suddenly, the farmer sputtered, turned red in the face, and clenched his neck. His arm swept across the table in front of Jack, knocking the bowl of seeds and the pie onto the floor with a clatter.  He stamped his feet and looked toward his wife. The farmer was turning purple and his eyes rolled back in his head.

The woman came running across the room, but when she reached the farmer, she slipped on the pie and seeds.  Her feet shot out from under her and with her mouth opened wide, she let out a screech.  Her hands grasped, but found nothing to hold.  Her head came down hard on the corner of the table, and she crumpled to the floor.

The farmer began to topple backwards into the glass cabinet against the wall.  He crashed, breaking the glass, splintering the shelves, and landed on the floor with dishes and cabinetry piling on top.
Jack and Trick or Treat sat on the table surveying the mayhem. They waited for the farmer and his wife to get up.  They did not.  The two pumpkins waited, and waited, and waited. Still, the couple never recovered. Their son walked into the house later that night and found the two people deceased.  Police and rescue people arrived, loaded the farmer and his wife onto gurneys, then drove them away in wagons with sirens. A man in uniform said the farmer and his wife were dead.  Jack and his friend continued to sit on the table, waiting.

“Hey Jack, what do you make of this?” asked Trick or Treat.

“I guess Halloween is over,” said Jack.

“What holiday do we celebrate next?”

“Thanksgiving, Trick or Treat. Let me tell you about Thanksgiving—” Jack began.

Outside, the garden sighed and began a winter’s sleep.

Poe’s Cabin

September 14, 2011

“You know, Edgar Allan Poe once lived in a cabin on Ragged Mountain,” our landlord tells us a few months after we moved into our first rental as newlyweds. It’s an old farmhouse in Ivy, Virginia.  I am an English major in college and Bruce works for the Department of Forestry.

“Really?” I ask, intrigued. I’d studied a few of Poe’s works, knew a little of his history. I’d not heard or read this.

“Yep, the foundation is still there, along the ridgeline behind the house here,” the owner says, pointing toward the mountains east of us. “Stories handed down in the family say that’s where he got the inspiration for The Raven.  You’ve seen them flying around here, haven’t you?”

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I’ve seen some big crows.”

“Those are Ravens,” our landlord corrects me. “They’re bigger than crows and their call is different, more a croak than a caw. When crows fly, you can’t hear ‘em. Raven’s wings make a ‘swishing’ sound.”

After that, I watch and listen for the Ravens. I wonder about that cabin in the woods on Ragged Mountain.  

I imagine a cabin unlike the chamber in Poe’s poem The Raven. That chamber was fancy with purple curtains and velvet upholstery, a place fit for a woman named Lenore. Poe was thirty-six when he published The Raven. It was four years before he died. He wasn’t the youngster he would have been when he lived in this area. His opulent chamber was only a dream when he lived in the Ragged Mountains.

The cabin I imagine is a primitive one-room dwelling crafted of hand-hewn white oak logs, chinked with Virginia’s red clay.  I picture Poe standing by a four-paned, wavy glass window, hands in pockets, his eyes fixed on the traces of sunlight filtering through the tall trees of Ragged Mountain. His front door, simple, made of unfinished wood plank, stands open, allowing the scent of pine and the sound of summer birds to reach into the cabin. I imagine him dreaming of Lenore, hearing her laughter in the warble of a goldfinch, her tears in the mournful call of a dove.  The woman he loves lives in Richmond near Poe’s foster parents. She may or may not be waiting for him.

I stand on his threshold, feeling the cool of the place. Even in summer, the interior is cooler than other structures, a kind of cool where a sweater doesn’t warm the body. Poe’s hearth lays bare, scraped clean of ashes.

His cot in the corner is just large enough for him to stretch out his frame and throw his arm over closed eyes, making his vision darker than dark. A sturdy wooden table of straight lines serves his need for writing and repast.  His papers, scratched with ink, lay scattered on the surface.

He turns from the window, sits at the table, picks up his pen and marks through the lines he’s written that day. He begins again.  

“Let’s walk to the cabin,” Bruce says one morning. “I’d like to see it.”

We decide to make it an adventure, pack a small lunch for a picnic. It’s a perfect summer day for a hike, with low humidity. We call our landlord for directions.

“You go straight back behind the house to the old apple orchard, turn left at the fresh water spring, and head east toward ‘Bear Rock’, that’s the big  gray piece of limestone that juts out near the top of Ragged Mountain. The cabin’s foundation is five hundred feet north-east of the outcropping. “You may have to kick around in the leaves a bit to find it,” he tells us.

We make the trek. I think about Poe and his time in this area, how he’d come to the University, a smart man,  ready to learn, but given less money than he needed for tuition and books by his foster father. He tried to make up the difference by gambling, and lost. He left the University, in debt and shamed.

As we walk, I talk about Poe’s poem The Raven, the sadness of it, and then his story, The Tale of the Ragged Mountains. “Poe called  them ‘wild and dreary hills,’” I tell Bruce.

 “They are wild,” Bruce agrees as we beat down briars, and trip over fallen tree branches, “but I wouldn’t describe Ragged Mountain as dreary.” Bruce was born and raised a few miles from where we live.  He’s hiked the mountain’s ridges, hunted in their stands of pine, and picked blackberries along their edges. This particular area is new to him, but the Ragged Mountains are his home.  He’s had a different experience than Poe.

The directions lead us to Bear Rock and beyond. I’m following Bruce’s footsteps and admiring the wild violets, may apples and pipsisewa that grow under the tall trees.

“It should be here pretty close,” Bruce says, stopping to  look around, directions in hand.

I pause behind him and visually search for some sign of a dwelling, a clearing, partial walls, steps, anything. I see nothing that would hint at the history of a structure.

Bruce starts sweeping leaves away from the forest floor with his boots. I follow his lead.  He moves in a straight line, I zigzag. He kicks a rock, moves to the right, and kicks another, and another, all of them in a row. We follow the line to a corner and sure enough, another line of rock extends at a ninety-degree angle to the one we’ve uncovered.  When we finish, we expose a rock foundation measuring roughly ten feet by twelve feet. The logs of the cabin have long since rotted away and trees now grow within the confines of the former living space, but this is the spot we were searching for, Poe’s cabin.

I sit down on one of the rocks and look to the west at a view that I’ve come to take for granted. The Blue Ridge Mountains rise in the distance in varying shades of azure,  rolling hills, one in front of the other, with crests and gaps. The interstate winds through a pass. The sun winks off the chrome of cars and trucks making their way up the grade. Big puffy clouds throw shadows on the mountain’s surface as they move with the wind.  

 I contemplate someone living way up on this ridge some hundred and seventy years ago. What road lead here? Who marked the foundation and lifted the rocks? Who felled the trees and carved their sides flat, then hoisted them for walls and roof?  Who walked to the spring for water and how far did he go? Who lived in this lonely place?  

Bruce and I sit together, open our pack, and eat our sandwiches and slices of apple in silence.

“Do you think he really lived here?” I ask after a while.

Before Bruce can answer, there’s a rustle of leaves above us in the tree, then a swish of wing and the rough, throaty call of a Raven.

Tornado Warning

April 24, 2011

 

My grandma said dark clouds hold wind.  Some of those clouds blew in from the west.

 Everything got real still. The air held its breath. Birds found a place to settle in trees, held fast, quieted. Crickets and frogs stopped singing and listened instead.

 The air shifted to cool and heavy. Wind picked up from the southwest, and the sky turned greenish–gray.   Eerie, that’s what I remember about the afternoon. It was eerily quiet just before the wind really picked up. 

 I opened the front door and looked toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Black clouds moved east, toward the house. Usually, clouds close in slowly, gradually inching east over the mountains and through the sky, covering the clear and filling the empty space.  They form a line and don’t cross the treetops until all of them are together in formation, a unified front. 

 This time, they rolled in faster and with a force.  It was like they were in a hurry to create battle and needed to sneak up on everyone.

 “Watch out for those dark clouds,” I heard my Grandma say. “Pay attention. If they start to reach for the ground with little fingers, get down low, cover your head,” she warned.

 I gathered the children.  Our basement is a hole under the house, more like a root cellar than a family room. The door faces our vegetable garden. There’s one tiny, dingy window that puts the yard at eye level. 

 The boys wrestled our scratching, meowing ball of fur and claws, and held him tight as we ran through the downpour.   We pushed the door open and entered the musty, damp, cold space.  A grave came to mind.  

 When my life is in turmoil, I dream of tornadoes. I can’t find my children or get to the basement in time. Just as my last fingertip grip is pulled away by the wind, I wake to a fast heartbeat in my ears.

I’d done everything right, gotten us all down low and the drum of my heart still beat loudly in my ears.  

 The boys jumped up and down, squealing with excitement, opening the door to peek out.

 “Close that door,” I yelled.

 The door slammed shut and the children used their sleeves to wipe the dirt off the window. We had our backs to the weather outside. The storm was swirling toward us from the west, and the basement faces east. With an increase in the wind, hail arrived. It hit the ground and bounced, nickel size pieces of ice falling from the sky, bright white in the green grass of spring. 

 “It looks like popcorn,” one of the boys said.

 The sky turned late-evening dark and I kept waiting for the sound of a freight train.  We didn’t hear it, but the rain fell in curtains across the yard.  We couldn’t see the clothesline.

 Then, as suddenly as it came, the clouds lifted and the sky lightened.  The boys ran out and began throwing pieces of hail at each other, ducking and laughing, splashing barefoot through the puddles in the yard.

 I took a deep breath, cradling the cat as I stepped out of the basement, and  lifted my eyes to the sky in search of a rainbow.

For the Love of a Trailer

February 20, 2011

We’re sitting at the kitchen table.  My eyes are closed as I savor the smell and  taste of my first cup of morning coffee.  I have a whole day ahead of me with no plans.  Bruce has his nose up close to the screen of his Mac.  He’s reading  the specs of some piece of heavy equipment out loud.  I’m not paying too much attention. He does this a lot.

“Look, I found one in Alleghany County,” he announces, turning the laptop around so I can see.  “It’s what we’ve been looking for.”

I focus my attention to the rusted hulk on the screen. “I haven’t been looking for a trailer, you have.”

“Ok, I found the one I’ve been looking for.  Its tongue is longer. It’s more heavy duty.  It’ll carry the backhoe.”

“We already have two trailers,” I say. “They look big and heavy enough to me.”

He looks at me and sighs.  This is where he usually starts talking like he’s explaining something to our youngest son, in simple words with bulleted specifics.  I’m not interested in the explanations. I give up listening, and leave to start putting together my day pack for the trip.  

We head out a half hour later toward Clifton Forge, that’s the location listed in the online Government auction. We’ve been there before.  We honeymooned at Douthat State Park, just outside of Clifton Forge thirty years ago.  Our cabin was a rustic log structure with a huge fireplace.  I remember spreading a blanket there and eating our first meal together picnic style. The food was left over from our wedding reception. The bubbles in the champagne tickled my nose. At nineteen, I wasn’t old enough to drink legally, but my new husband was. We planned that honeymoon week and our entire life together that night.   

Clifton Forge is a small railroad town set in the midst of the Alleghany Mountains. Houses and businesses line the sides of Main Street.  At one end is the train depot. I remember that. At the other end is a Community College. That’s new.  I can’t imagine what they teach there, Coal Mine Management, Train Engineering, Principles of Logging?  I’m surprised that there are enough young people living around the tiny town to attend the college. 

I’m more excited about the drive than I am the trailer. The road is straight, the mountains are beautiful and the leaves are turning. It misted rain all night, but the clouds are lifting and the weatherman forecasts sun by afternoon to our west.  I pack the camera and two books.  I never know exactly how long a three hour trip will take.  Ones in the past have sometimes carried over into the next day.

When we leave home, the trailer lists for $365.  We climb up into Bruce’s new dump truck, my first time in it, two steps up, grab bar, hoist self, sitting on top of the world. This dump truck dares smaller vehicles to pull out in front of it. It’s a diesel road tractor with air horns. When Bruce makes a decision, he goes all-the-way-big.  We can barely hear each other over the roar of the engine.  I wonder why the International even has a radio.

We bump along the interstate.  The further west we drive, the lighter the sky becomes, but clouds still hang low and drift along the tops of the mountains.

“Help me watch for the exit,” Bruce says. 

I’ve been taking pictures from the passenger window, but the side mirror is hindering my artistic abilities.  I’m glad for the diversion.  The Dabney S. Lancaster Community College is at Exit 150-B in Clifton Forge.  I’m amazed that Clifton Forge warrants two exits. 

“There it is,” I say.  “At the end of the ramp, take a right.”

As we pull off the interstate, the entrance to the school is right there. The road dead ends at the school.

Bruce follows the parking lot around to the rear of the college until he finds what looks like a buildings and grounds garage. It turns out to be the welding shop.  Students are busy at work, helmets donned, sparking metals together.  A man hurries out to Bruce and points him in the direction of the saw mill.  That’s where the trailer waits.

We backtrack to a small gravel path, just wide enough for the dump truck. It’s  guarded by a Keep Out sign.  Bruce drops into a lower gear and we descend a steep hill.  A saw mill appears on the left, students at work there too. A bulldozer and log truck with knuckle boom watch us from the parking lot.  A tree planter squats in the bushes. Bruce pulls up to the trailer, where it lies dying in the weeds, tires flat, metal rusted, floor rotting. It’s worse than the two we already have. Even I can see that. We couldn’t even drag it home if we bought it.  We’d have to have a trailer to haul it.

Bruce drops down to the ground, and I struggle, trying to find my footing on the steps, grabbing for the handle to ease my landing.  We walk over to the trailer.

“It’s ugly and broken,” I say.

“Let me measure it,” Bruce says.

How he finds promise in this wreck, I can’t imagine.   I get back in the dump truck and open my book.  My decision is already made.  Leave the monstrosity here.

It takes Bruce an hour to inspect the behemoth.  He puts on his coveralls, takes out his tape measure and begins calculating.  He’s busy with numbers and schematics.  He lifts parts, slides under on his back, shines a flashlight, measures some more and decides it could work.

“Needs fixing, but it’ll work. We can’t haul it away like it is,” he says.  “We’ll have to pull it out into the parking lot, repack the bearings….”  I’ve stopped listening. I shake my head and wonder again just why I married this man.

He pulls himself up into the truck and starts the engine. “I’m taking you to lunch,” he says.  “Where do you want to go?”

We had stopped at the Outdoor People Store in Clifton Forge for fishing supplies on our honeymoon.  It was right across Main Street from the C&O Railroad Depot Restaurant. Lunchtime sent us in that direction.   It was a small, square, block building next to the railroad tracks. The interior was bright and clean with a lunch counter and several small wooden tables dotting the tile floor. We opened the door to the tinkle of a bell and the aroma of fresh baked biscuits drew us in.   The food was almost as good as what came out of my Mama’s kitchen.

“I wonder  if the C&O Depot Restaurant is still there,” I say.

Bruce heads in that direction  The small building is still there, feeding railroad workers and townsfolk.  The door bell tinkles, and I’m nineteen again, just married and hungry.  A sign boasts Today’s special:  Chicken and Dumplings, mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuit, all comfort food.  A glass case displays home baked apple, cherry and peach fruit pies. We decide on two specials with sweet tea.  Bruce orders cherry pie. I choose apple. We sit at the counter and watch trains filled with coal roll slowly by the window. 

As we eat our meal, we reminisce about our time spent here years ago.  Bruce taught me how to bait a fishing hook, and fry the catch over an open fire.  I taught him how to make a bed, only to have it in complete disarray a few minutes later.  We laughed, talked, and made plans for a house, and babies.   He lifted me up under my arms and sat me on the hood of his truck.  He laid his head in my lap and told me he didn’t know he could be so happy.  I was a tiny thing back then.  Thirty years later, we’ve spread about the middle and  we’re contemplating broken-down trailers.

Bruce takes out his wallet, pays the tab, leaving a few bills for a tip.  We head to the truck and turn toward home. The auction ends at seven p.m. and the drive is several hours long.  At exit A, Bruce unexpectedly veers right,  and turns in the direction of Douthat State Park.  At the entrance, he pays the fee and we rattle over the speed bumps toward the dam and cabins.  It hasn’t changed in thirty years. We park in the lot overlooking the lake.  The sun has come out and the wind has picked up. The ripples on the lake sparkle and a few boats float here and there on its surface. 

“Want to get out and walk around some?” Bruce asks me.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

He opens the door to the truck and hops down.  I reach over, lock his door, slide my purse under the seat, and turn to open my door.  Bruce is standing there waiting.  He reaches up, puts his hands under my arms and lowers me to the ground.  He kisses me and we walk hand in hand toward the path to the lake.

“Wonder if they have a cabin open tonight?” he asks.

“What about your trailer?  The auction ends at 7:00.”

“We’ve already got two trailers,” he says. “I can do without another one for awhile longer.”

Now I remember why I married this man.

Jeff and Me

February 12, 2011

Jeff and Me

      He was five days older than me, and my best friend.  Two doors separated our apartments and we came and went as we pleased without knocking.  Our parents worked and we had keys on strings around our necks that let us in after school.  Lemon Cooler cookies and milk didn’t taste the same unless Jeff was sharing them with me at the table.

     We were ten, and planned our lives in a hideout under the steps in the basement storage room of our building.  We stacked milk crates to display our rock collection and kept a paper bag to fill with glass soda bottles. The nickel deposits on each one added up to purchase forbidden bubble gum and chocolate bars. Every day we opened the secret cigar box and selected a treat. Jeff taught me how to blow a bubble. I showed him how to whistle with a blade of grass between his thumbs.

     Our Mamas were friends.  They were both single and went out on Friday nights sometimes. I sat on the corner of my Mama’s bed, watching her at the vanity, applying mascara and lipstick, brushing and curling her hair, fussing over which blouse to wear with what skirt and how high her heels should be.  She twisted and turned at the mirror trying to see all sides, making sure that everything was tucked in and perfect.  It seemed like a lot of work to me. I liked my jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and hair in braids.  It was hard to ride a bicycle in a dress, and I knew I’d poke my eye out with the mascara wand.  

     Jeff and I shared a baby sitter.  It was cheaper that way, and fun for us.  We got to stay up late, and watch cowboy movies on TV.  While Cindy took over Mama’s bedroom, locking the door, to talk to her boyfriend “privately” on the phone, Jeff and I pulled sheets out of the linen closet and draped them over the kitchen chairs we dragged in front of the television, making a tent. We pulled pillows and blankets off my bed to create a prairie pallet, camping out in the open range of my living room, and cooked a cowhand’s meal of popcorn and chips.  We turned off the lights, kept warm by an imaginary fire, star gazed, and listened to the cows in the distance.  We planned to drive our cattle over the plains and through the river the next day. We both knew how to swim.

     We must have fallen asleep before our Mama’s got home because when I woke up the next morning, Jeff was still under the tent, curled in blankets beside me.  I poked him in the ribs before turning the TV to cartoons.  He sat up blinking and rubbing his eyes.  His hair stuck up all over his head and I laughed at him.  He punched me in the arm.  Our range breakfast was two bowls of cereal and orange juice.  We sat Indian style and watched the Roadrunner outsmart the Coyote over and over again.

    Jeff went home to brush his teeth and change his clothes.  We met in the storage room where I scratched around and found a piece of rope.  Jeff knotted a loop in its end and we practiced lassoing a broken mule ear chair in the corner.

      Outside on our bicycles, we drove cattle all day, down the grasslands of Berkshire Road and through the river of Cedar creek at the foot of the hill. I slipped climbing the creek bank  and Jeff caught me by the arm, pulling me up onto the grass.  We reached the apartment building patch-of-grass-Ranch  by late afternoon.  We were tired, having driven five hundred head a hundred miles in one day. Our knees were grass stained and scraped. Our sneakers were muddy.   The saddle packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from lunch were long gone and our stomachs grumbled.

     We flopped down in the grass and stared up at the clouds waiting for our Mamas to call us for supper.  

“Look at that one,” I said. “It’s a turtle.  See his shell, and his little tail?”

“Where?” Jeff asked, putting his head closer to mine.

“Right there,” I said, pointing. “See?”

“That’s not a turtle,” he argued. “That’s a heart.”

“How does that look like a heart?” I asked him, turning my head closer to his angle.

Then he sat up, leaned over and kissed me on the mouth, just like that, right on the mouth.  My eyes opened wide and I sat straight up.  “What did you do that for?” I asked, pushing his shoulder so hard he fell over.  I jumped up, wiped my mouth on my sleeve, and stomped home.  Jeff Hentslie sure did know how to ruin a perfectly good day.

The Pawn Shop

January 9, 2011

We don’t do “new.” I’m not sure whether it’s born in us or if it’s leaned behavior, but we don’t know how to go into a Big-Box store and buy something with dangle tags or peel off stickers. No unopened box with Styrofoam protected item for us. We’re on a treasure hunt. Our cars, clothes, tools, and furniture are all second, third or forth hand. Today we go in search of a chain saw at the pawn shop.

“The pawn shop?” I ask. Pawn shops sell used guitars, bongo drums, stereo systems, used wedding band sets and wicked looking knives in leather sheaths. Going to look for a chain saw in the pawn shop sounds to me like going to look for a set of pots and pans, or high thread count sheets, a wasted trip.

“I called,” Bruce said. “It’s a used Steihl, five hundred dollars, worth a drive for a look.”

“I might ride with you,” I say. I haven’t been to a pawn shop since we stopped at one on a whim coming back home from the beach.

“OK,” Bruce says. “Ben’s going. He said he’d drive.” Ben’s looking for a deal on some electronic gadget I’m sure. He has the buy-used gene too.

When we leave, it’s sunny outside, but cold. I wish I had wrapped a scarf around my neck. All four of us squeeze into Ben’s Explorer. At ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, Ryan is usually immersed in dreamland under a quilt, but he’s in the back seat, leaned against the car door, face covered to the nose by his hoodie. I’m not sure of his motivation, but know he has one.

Bruce is a no-nonsense shopper. He pulls his cap down, focuses his attention straight ahead, ignores all flashy bargain signs, and trudges to the item of interest. The rest of us browse.

I look into the glass jewelry case at the rows of engagement and wedding rings, sad symbols of lost love. Someone working in the shop has shined the tarnish off. The gold circles and diamonds sparkle. “Who would buy those, Mom?” Ryan asks, then lowers his voice an octave to simulate a man. “Come on Honey, let’s go down to the pawn shop to buy some divorced couple’s rings, see if we can make them work a second time around.”

Farther down the case is an assortment of belt buckles. Two especially gaudy ones are six inches across and four inches tall, proclaiming “ELVIS” in silver letters. “You know, today is Elvis’ birthday,” Ben says, always a font of historical facts and useless trivia. “Maybe we should buy them to wear in tribute.”

Both boys walk around looking at bicycles, scooters, a motorcycle that Ben swears he could resell for four thousand dollars at school. Everything wears price tags higher than we are willing to pay.

Ryan wanders off to a case in the back of the store. There’s a young man next to him in a wheelchair. The two of them are surveying the contents of the case. They are pointing and talking. Ben and I wander over to Bruce as he barters for the chainsaw.

“It doesn’t even have a chain break,” Bruce says.

“A chainsaw just like this one is selling on ebay for four hundred-fifty dollars, with three days to go,” the salesman says.

“When I left home, it was listed for four-thirty, and it has a chain break,” Bruce says.

“You can buy a chain break,” the salesman says.

“Yeah, but that adds another fifty dollars to the cost.”

“Let me go check my books,” the salesman says, slipping around us and heading to the back of the store.

Bruce looks at me and shakes his head. “It’s older than I want and doesn’t have a chain break.”

The man returns. “I can’t go lower than four seventy-five.”

“Thanks for your time,” Bruce says shaking the man’s hand.

“Here let me give you my card in case you change your mind,” the man offers.

“Thanks,” Bruce says putting the man’s number in his pocket. Ben and I follow him out the door.

Halfway down the block, Bruce turns around. “Where’s Ryan?”

“I thought he was behind us,” I say.

“I’ll go back and get him,” Ben says.

Bruce and I stand together, huddled, backs to the cold wind and wait for the boys. “I’ve decided I don’t like pawn shops,” I say.

“Why? I’ve found some good deals in pawn shops over the years,” he says.

“It’s sad,” I say. “people taking their belongings into the place to trade for some small amount of money.” I look down at my wedding and engagement rings.

“You know, a long time ago, I got those…” he starts.

Our attention is drawn to the the boys as they hurry toward us. Ryan is waving a bag. “Hey look what I got,” he says, pulling a video game from the bag. “Half the price you pay at Best Buy.”

“You got what at the pawn shop years ago,” I ask Bruce.

“Never mind,” he says, putting his arm around me as we walk to the car.

Things Remembered

December 13, 2010

The existence of Things Remembered is spread by word of mouth because it sits off the main road, three miles from town, next to the old boarded up Greenwood School and across the paved road from the square, cinderblock post office. The building was a general store in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Worn pine board steps lead up to a long covered porch. It stretches across the front of the wood-sided structure.

An old bedstead, seven rickety and broken apple boxes, a Radio Flier wagon, missing its back right wheel and some of its letters to rust, and an orange and white Gulf sign from a closed service station, all clearance items, sit outside, stacked and forlorn, leaning their rusted bodies against each other, trying to look salable. Silver tinsel is laced through the junk. A life-size cardboard cutout of Santa smiles next to the front door. The jolly man’s coat buttons strain with his girth. He looks happy though, holding his green-gloved hand up, pointing an index finger, like he wants to interrupt a visitor to announce his Christmas secret. His pack of presents rests between black boots. The doll peeking over the top of the bag is missing her smile; it’s smudged away with age.

The door to the shop has one of those brass handles with a thumb-push latch, polished shiny from use. A bell tinkles above the door and the warmth generated by a cast iron woodstove squatting in the floor, greets the visitor before the saleslady behind the counter has an opportunity.

“Come on in,” she says looking up from her work. “It’s cold out there.”

“Thanks, it feels good in here,” the last-minute shopper says.

This store isn’t crowded like the mall. The latest technological gadgets are not found here. Bing Crosby croons from the CD player on the counter. There is no bustle, no artificially sprayed scent of holiday baking or forest pine. This place smells of dust and old stories. Nothing new is sold here, just nostalgia shelved and labeled with tags baring a price and the initials of each antique dealer.

“Anything I can help you find?”

“No I’m just looking. Some people are so hard to buy for. I was hoping for last minute inspiration.”

“Let me know if I can help you. I’ll be here working on my Christmas cards.”

“Thanks.”

The store is divided into separate booths, each arranged differently. The ones decorated as particular rooms draw the shopper. One corner booth is set up like a kitchen. It reminds her a little of her Grandmother’s. The kitchen table is different, the dishes too, but the cake stand is familiar. She reaches a finger out to touch the glass stand, remembering the cake from her eighth birthday, chocolate, with nine pink candles, one extra to grow on. She had blown them out with one breath. Everyone clapped. Her Grandmother would be ninety-one now.

A little further on, she spies an enamel chamber pot. It has a red ring, just like the one her mother told the story about. Two sisters, sent to town to buy it, neither wanting to carry it to the car, for embarrassment. Her mother drew the short straw and huffed out of the store, hurrying down the street. She tripped, jarring the top loose. It rolled half a block, her sister chasing it down, turning as red as the ring. The shopper stifles a giggle, remembering her mother’s own laugh.

In the very back room of the antique shop, the girl catches the glint of an aluminum Christmas Tree from the 60’s. Its shiny silver branches sparkle with reflection. Some years ago, when she asked her mother what became of a similar tree they had at home, her mother said, “That tacky thing?” It hadn’t seemed tacky at the time. It was the most beautiful tree the girl had ever seen. She remembers blue glass ornaments on the tree from her childhood. Multi-color decorations hang on this one.

The vendor decorated this stall as if Santa had just emptied his bag. A Lionel train chugs around the base of the tree. A curly haired doll sips tea from a china set on a miniature table. A red Radio Flier wagon with all its wheels and lettering, holds a stuffed bear, lion and tiger, all friends, anxiously awaiting Christmas morning. A bright yellow ball and a red book, round out the toys. The vendor even left a plate of sweets for Santa. The girl picks up the shiny red book. It is The Night Before Christmas, just like the one she had at home, the one her mother read to her on Christmas eve. She opens the book to an inscription: Little One, May all your Christmases be Merry and Bright. With Love, Mama and Daddy. She stands and reads the book, cover to cover, remembering. The price tag reads, $2.99 sc.

“Find what you were looking for?” the saleslady asks.

“Sure did,” she says, paying for the book.

“You have a Merry Christmas,” the saleslady says.

“I will. You do the same.”

A man opens the door. He’s holding a cardboard box of attic finds. He smiles and holds the door open as the shopper leaves. She looks at the man, thanks him for his courtesy and glances at the contents of his crate. Peeking over the edge is a doll like the one in Santa’s pack by the front door. She notices that this doll has her smile intact.

A Kitten

November 30, 2010

Mama’s frown deepened, her hands went to her hips and I knew I’d pushed her limit. I also knew a kitten was what I needed. “I want a kitten,” I begged. “Just one little kitten.”

“We aren’t home enough to give a kitten the attention it needs. I work and you go to school.”

“Molly, in my class, has a cat and her mother works,” I countered.

My mother rolled her eyes. I thought maybe she’d say, ‘If Molly jumped off a bridge would you do it too?’ But she didn’t.

“We live too close to the road. It’ll get killed,” my mother said.

“I won’t let it out of the house.”

“Who’s going to feed it and clean up after it?” she asked. That sounded like a maybe, like she was giving in.

“I will. I’ll do it all, feed it, clean up after it, brush it, everything.”

“Pets are expensive. It’s all I can do to feed the two of us. Besides…”

“Please Mama, a kitten’s small. It won’t eat much.”

The phone rang.

My mother answered it with a smile, but that faded and her head dropped into her hand. She rubbed at her temples with her thumb and middle finger, keeping her eyes closed. She only answered with “yes,” or “no.” Her voice was quiet and she sounded sad. I knew the look on her face, the tone of her voice. My Daddy was back in town and he was coming for me.

He showed up every six months, fresh off the ocean, tall, handsome, and bearing gifts from foreign lands: a set of dolls with costumes and matching hats, a tiny leather purse with labels like “Paris”, “London”, “Sweden”, and “Japan” stitched on it, a royal blue tapestry decorated with solid white kittens, and two days of his time.

I kneeled on the couch, holding the sheers back, my faced pressed to the glass, waiting. He drove a shiny black convertible with a silver stripe that ran across the hood, and trunk. I got to ride up front with him. He pulled to the curb, looked up into the mirror, ran his hand through his hair and put on his sunglasses.

I jumped down from the couch and ran outside to meet him, a whirlwind of arms, legs, ruffles and ribbons. He picked me up and swung me around, laughing and calling me doll baby. Mama handed him my overnight bag. I didn’t look back.

“What’s my girl wanna do?”

“Go to the park. The one with the train.”

My Daddy and I had fun, went to the park, and rode the little train through the tunnel. He folded up his long legs so he could sit beside me, his strong arm wrapped around my shoulder, his sunglasses on my face. He smelled like spice and his face was a little scratchy. We laughed and ate ice cream and drove fast with the top of the car folded down behind the back seat. My hair blew into my eyes, and it didn’t matter.

“I bet Grandma fixed a good dinner for us. We’d better head over there before we’re late and get in trouble,” he said, throwing his head back, laughing.

While he was in town, we stayed at my Grandma’s house. Her kitchen smelled like black pepper. We sat at her red, Formica and chrome table, eating pot roast, pull-apart tender, green beans cooked with new potatoes on top, corn pudding baked golden with yellow kernels nestled in custard. Grandma’s biscuits rose thick and hot. Her homemade blackberry jam dripped out the sides, all the food, my Daddy’s favorites.

At the supper table, he winked at Grandma, then told adventure stories about pirates with peg legs and hooks for hands, how he turned the tables on the meanest one with an eye patch and made him walk the plank. The Navy sounded exciting with sunny ports and big adventures. My Grandma looked at Daddy like I wished my Mama would.

Two days went as fast as six months went slow. Before my father left, I watched the clock over the mantle in my Grandma’s living room. The second hand ticked his time away, pushing me closer and closer to my mother, further and further away from him. I couldn’t talk in the car.

“No tears,” my Daddy said, “we’ve had too much fun to cry.”

He carried me to the apartment door. My fingers tightened into the back of his shirt, my face pressed into his shoulder. He hugged me tight and then began to push me away. I clung. My mother was behind me, trying to pull me away from him.

Both of them were talking to me, wanting me to stop crying and clinging, wanting me to give up the struggle so everything could return to normal. My father needed to rush off to some other part of the world and my mother needed to pull me inside the apartment and close the door, so things could go back to the way they were before the weekend started. My sound was a wail; my grief, determined.

Every six months, he turned his back and left me crying. My mother was left to try to put a small broken child back together.

“I found something special for you,” Mama said, her hands behind her back.

I looked up, tears running off my chin. I still couldn’t talk, but my mother had a gesture. She smiled at me and presented me with a small orange-striped kitten. I reached out and took the ball of soft fur. I held him in my arms as I cried, my tears making wet spots on him. He was nice, but he wasn’t my Daddy.

Too Late

June 19, 2010

Mama pulled me by the hand, as we ran to the car,  “Hurry Baby, come on, we’ve got to get home.  I didn’t realize how late it was.”

We’d stayed at the park too long.  The sun wasn’t hot anymore. The slide didn’t burn my bare legs when I went down.  It was the best time to be at the park, but we couldn’t stay. It wasn’t a good time to be away from home. I didn’t argue. I wanted to get there as fast as she did. 

She started the station wagon and we lurched into traffic. Cars kept getting in our way, stopping at lights, or taking a long time to turn.  The mailman kept putting mail in people’s boxes and Mama banged her hand on the steering wheel.

“Dammit,” she said.

My Daddy’s truck wasn’t home when we got there and Mama let out a long breath.  “Let’s hurry,” she said.

Pork chops sizzled in the skillet and Mama was washing lettuce in the sink when the screen door squeaked. Our heads turned at the slide of the key in the lock.  It happened every time the key slid in, even if Mama was humming a song or washing a dish in the sink, she stopped, turned, and watched the doorknob.  The key made a scratching sound, then a click, and the knob turned.

When my Daddy came in the house singing or whistling or carrying a grocery bag, everything would be OK. He might pick me up and swing me around, calling me his doll baby, or kiss Mama and dance her around the kitchen.  It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we had fun. Even Mama looked happy.

When he came in quiet though, I held my breath.  Tonight, he was quiet.  The door of the trailer opened into the living room.  The sofa faced the kitchen and the TV was between the two.  I was sitting on the floor watching the Roadrunner outsmart the Coyote.

“Shut that damn racket off,” Daddy said.

I turned the knob on the set way down so I couldn’t hear the “meep, meep,” and backed myself up until I was sitting in the hole between the sofa and the green chair.  There was a space just big enough for me to curl into, if I pulled my knees up real tight, and held them with my arms.  I squeezed my eyes shut, and waited.

“Where have you been all day?” he asked Mama.

“Here mostly,” she said.  “It was sunny, so I took Maggie to the park this afternoon, for a little while.”

“Uh huh, sure you did,” he said.

I heard the refrigerator door open and the beer bottles rattle.  He popped the top off of one and the cap rolled around on the kitchen floor.  He kicked it, and it hit the wall under the window.

“Must have had fun today,” he said, “going to the park and all.  That why you’re all dressed up?  That why you have on lipstick?”  He asked Mama.

“I’m not all dressed up,” she said in a quiet voice with a shake in it.

She wasn’t dressed up.  She had on a dress, but it was an old one with a hole at the bottom where she got it caught on a nail outside one day.  She always wore lipstick.

“Can’t I give my wife a compliment, tell her she looks nice without an argument?” He said, his voice getting louder, as he slammed the bottle down on the kitchen table. 

“I’m sorry, Honey,” Mama said.  She said she was sorry a lot.  Most of what she said wasn’t right or didn’t come out like she meant it to.

“You’re sorry alright,” he said.  “I should have listened to my mother.  She said you were no good.  She said you’d run around on me and lie.  ‘Too pretty for her own good,’ she said.  ‘Don’t go and marry her, you’ll regret it,’ she said.”

Then their voices stopped. I could smell hot oil in the skillet, hear water splashing in the sink. My heartbeat was in my ears. I opened my eyes. 

Mama turned with the lettuce in her hand just in time to catch the back of my Daddy’s hand with her cheek.  She spun around on the floor, letting go of the lettuce.  It smashed into the kitchen window and bounced off the table and ended on the floor.  Mama fell in a heap at my Daddy’s feet.  She was curled up, holding her face, and crying.

“Don’t lie to me again,” he said, picking up his beer as he slammed out the front door.

I waited a few minutes, until I heard the truck roar, back up, and take off again, scattering rocks against the side of the trailer.  I crawled out of my hole and over to my Mama.  I sat on the floor rubbing her back.

“I’m sorry I made us late,” I said.  “I won’t do it again.”

I looked at the TV. The coyote was pushing an anvil to the edge of the cliff, waiting for the roadrunner to stop underneath.

The Couple

June 1, 2010

 

I

Gillian saw darkness, felt it pressing on her chest. She heard voices calling for IV’s and stretchers, backboards and help. Above the blare of sirens someone said, “Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?”

Gillian felt arms reach under her, lifting her onto something hard and flat. A man’s voice, very close to her ear, said, “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask – to help you breathe.”

A radio crackled with medical terms and Gillian drifted back. She was lying in a moving vehicle and couldn’t understand why. Gillian continued to fade in and out of consciousness until the ride ended. Then she heard the doors open and felt the stretcher being lifted and unfolded. Her chest hurt. The automatic doors of the ER slid open and bright lights blurred overhead. Gillian was in a hallway. Her glasses were gone.

“Patient name?” someone asked.

“ID says Gillian Hill,” answered another.

“Anything else?” asked the first voice.

“Several pill bottles found in her purse – Digoxin, Elavil, Lipitor, Toprol.”

“Bag that. Right now she’s critical. Surgery two, stat,” ordered the first voice.

Gillian could tell people were hovering over her, pulling equipment, lifting her onto a table.

She felt her shoes slide off, then her socks. The cold metal of scissors slid along her leg as someone cut through her pants. Then she felt John’s sweater lift. Someone was cutting John’s sweater from her body. She wanted to scream “No!” but couldn’t. She wanted to tell them they couldn’t take it. She needed his sweater. Then it was gone. John’s warmth was gone and Gillian felt colder than she ever had.

***

Gillian fumbled on the bedside table for her glasses. Their thick lenses magnified her faded blue eyes. She pushed the covers off and lowered her stiff legs over the edge of the mattress. Her knees creaked. John was standing there, with a steaming mug of coffee in his hands. Gillian reached out and her fingers covered his before she took it. 

“Mmm,” she said, “smells just like heaven.” The warmth of the ceramic eased the arthritic ache in her hands.

“Yep, good and strong, too.” John leaned down and kissed her softly.

She tasted the coffee on his mouth and smiled. He was tousled. His sparse, silver hair stuck up in all directions and his eyebrows needed a trim. He hadn’t put his teeth in yet and his thin face looked all the more gaunt. The treatments had taken their toll, though his blue eyes still twinkled – the same eyes that drew her to him fifty years ago. Their wedding picture on the nightstand was black and white, but Gillian remembered the colors.

“I’m going for a shower.  What time is your appointment again?” he asked.

“At 11:00 , but they want us there a little early to fill out more forms. You go ahead and turn on the water. Let it get warm and I’ll get us a refill. Be there in a few minutes.”

“All right,” he said.  “I could go for some –”

“Oatmeal? That would be good,” she answered.

“Good, I think we have –” he started again.

“Raisins, yes we do. I saw them yesterday when I was looking for your ginger ale.”

John shook his head and smiled. “Always amazes me how do you do that,” he said.

“Do what?” she asked.

“Never mind, here’s your robe,” he said, holding it up for her to put her arms in. She tied the sash and reached for her cane before shuffling out of the bedroom, heading for the kitchen. She heard his slippers scuffing on the floor behind her as he made his way to the bathroom.

Gillian followed John’s path of discarded clothes. For someone so organized, he never picked up an article of his clothing. It was harder and harder for Gillian to bend down and scoop up his underwear and socks. She had a good mind to leave them until he ran out of clean ones. “Raisins,” she reminded herself.

John was already in the shower, washing, when she returned. Steam fogged her glasses and she set the mug down on the vanity and slid open the shower door. John handed her a washcloth. He had already soaped it. She felt the hills and valleys of vertebrae along his spine as she rubbed him with it. She remembered when the muscles of his back were strong and supple under her hand. She remembered when her fingers were long and straight. Time had changed their bodies, but not their touch. She scrubbed the right side of his back, just under his shoulder blade.

“Ah, that’s it. You’ve got the spot.”

He turned, rinsed, and stepped out of the shower and into the towel Gillian wrapped around his middle. She hugged him tight, then slipped off her robe.  When she turned to face him, he waggled his bushy eyebrows and smiled a lecherous grin, growling low in his throat.

“I’m glad you put in your teeth,” she said. “A toothless tiger is not very sexy.”

“It’s not my teeth you like, Jilly.”

Gillian made a sneer, but John took her hands and held her close. For a full minute they embraced, standing in the bathroom, the shower running and the fan spinning. “We’ll always be together, Jilly, I promise.”

“Here,” she said, handing him the mug of coffee. “This will have to quench your thirst. We don’t have time for anything else this morning – and you have to eat your fancy breakfast.” 

She flashed a smile then stepped into the shower, soaped the washcloth and handed it to him before turning. He chuckled as he washed her back. It seemed he knew just the right spots on her, too.

Gillian dressed in a comfortable pair of pants and button-up shirt. Her gray hair was straight, cut short, in a bob that would have been a cute style, except this morning she pulled her bangs severely to the side and anchored them with a pin. Her thick ankle length socks were visible through the buckled sandals she wore.  The socks were loose from years of wear. Before she and John left the house, Gillian asked for the third time, “Did you turn off all the lights?”

“If it isn’t the coffee maker, it’s the stove, or the fan in the bathroom. Yes Jilly, I turned off the lights.” John sighed deeply, holding the front door open for her.

“Don’t forget to lock the door,” she said.

The appointment with Dr. Stevens was a referral from Dr. Davis. One day, not too long after John’s treatments started for the lung cancer, Gillian experienced a shortness of breath that was unusual for her. Small exertions winded her to the point that she’d have to sit down and rest before finishing a simple task like washing dishes or making the bed. John was concerned about her heart. 

“You are going to the doctor, Gillian. I’m worried.”

“I’m just a little winded, John.  It’ll pass.” 

But the condition continued, and John made the appointment.

Tests revealed no conclusive reason for Gillian’s difficulty breathing. Her heart was strong and her lungs were clear. She had no wheezing that would suggest asthma, and no signs of bronchitis.

During the check up, however, Dr. Davis noticed a spot on Gillian’s forehead.

“How long has this been here?”

“What?” she was puzzled.

“This spot on your forehead.”

“I haven’t noticed a spot. Where?” 

Dr. Davis pointed to the area in question.

“Oh, that. I’ve had it awhile. Just an age spot. I have them all over me. I tell John they’re my beauty marks. I should be gorgeous by now.”

“This spot concerns me, Gillian. I think it might be an issue. I want to send you to a dermatologist who can tell us some more. I’d like her to look at it.  I believe it needs to be removed.”

The biopsy was done three days later. Gillian received the call from Dr. Stevens’ office a week after that.

“The lesion is malignant. We need to schedule you for surgery to remove it.”

Gillian couldn’t speak. She handed the phone to John, and sank down into her rocker. She had cancer. She had been strong for John. Now, she felt her own strength start to slip away. She heard John say, “Okay Dr. Stevens, we’ll be there. Thank you.”

Today’s appointment was for the surgery. Here they were, facing another threat, and another worry.

At the parking lot, John circled, looking for a vacant space close to the front of the office building. All the handicapped spots were taken. 

“I know all those people can walk,” John complained.

“Just  park, John.  I don’t want to be late and you going around and around is wasting time.” 

This happened every time they went somewhere.  He had to search for the closest space. Male pride and territory, she thought.

“Look, there’s someone pulling out of a space, right there, in front,” he announced, whipping the car to the right.  Gillian braced herself, holding onto the door handle as the car careened, sliding her over toward John.  Words came up, but she bit her tongue to keep them from spilling out. 

They walked up to a metal and glass door marked “Dermatology/Surgery.” The entrance was tall, reaching almost to the second floor and wide enough for two couples to pass. They stood side by side, looking at the sign.

“Not the place for us, they must treat giants here,” John said. He grasped the handle and pulled, using his cane for leverage. His breathing was labored due to the tumor and his weakened condition. The exertion taxed him, but he held the door for Gillian.

The waiting room was almost full, and the only young people in the office were staff. They worked behind a glass partition, like the barrier protected them from age, or the skin cancer that dotted the assembly of ex-sun worshippers on the other side.  Staff busied themselves, not looking at each other. They seemed like drones in a beehive, scurrying. The waiting area was a contrast, people sat silently, staring straight ahead, or thumbing through old magazines, not really reading. They flipped time away until they were called for a prognosis. John and Gillian stood just inside the entrance and surveyed the room. It felt like they were on a precipice, waiting to fall into a world of worry.

John spotted the only two chairs available side by side and pointed them out to his wife. Eyes turned to the couple as they walked into the waiting room. Gillian was taller than most women of her generation. She was thin and had taken on the square look that comes to a woman as she moves into later decades. She had pilfered John’s dark cable knit sweater from his closet earlier in the fall. She wore it all the time now – since his diagnosis – and it hung on her frame. The sweater was too big, but cozy, and it made her feel like she was wrapped in John’s warmth.

John was also slim and not much taller than his wife. He wore a denim button down shirt, tucked into faded Chinos. His black belt was thin. His hair was silver, combed back from his forehead and neatly trimmed, but sparse from the chemo treatments. John wore socks like his wife’s and the same kind of leather buckle sandals, only his were heavier, dark and wide. Along with his cane, he carried an attaché case with handles and the round imprint of an insurance company’s logo.

The couple was a matching pair, like a set in Gillian’s salt and pepper shaker collection. People had commented for years that John and Gillian looked more like brother and sister than husband and wife. When Gillian looked back at their early photos as a couple, they didn’t resemble each other. Funny, how almost fifty years together could mold two people into one shape. Yet that seemed to be the extent of their likeness. John was the logical one. He balanced the checkbook to the penny, kept his tools organized on peg boards, and put up with her intuition but didn’t understand anything about it.

Gillian was the emotional one, an artist, disorganized and flighty. John often said, “I got caught up in the whirlwind of Jilly and ran behind her picking up pieces to save in my pockets until she needed them again.” He carried his cane in his right hand, she carried hers in her left.

The pair walked to the seats and John helped his wife settle into one. A minute later, he came back with a clip board. She took his cane and leaned it against hers.

“There are four pages here,” he said.

“Did you bring your glasses?”

He patted his front shirt pocket. 

“I must have left them on the kitchen table.”

“Here,” she said, taking hers off and handing them to him. He put them on and began to fill out the papers.

Midway through the first page, he reached for his case, opened it, and pulled out a flat wallet. He slid out several small cards, and copied information onto the forms. Every once in a while he would turn and study her, as if looking would help him remember the answers, then he went back to writing.

“Did you bring the medicine bottles?” he asked.

“Here they are,” she said, taking them from her purse. He looked at the four brown bottles one at a time and copied their names onto the form, calling them out so she could tell him what they were for, “Heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, depression.” 

He limped the clipboard back to the receptionist and returned.

“Jan called this morning while you were finishing in the shower,” he said. “She wanted to know if we needed a ride. She rattled off about twenty things she had to get done before the kids got home from school. I told her we’d be fine.”

“Those kids and that husband of hers are going to kill her,” Gillian said.  “It’s no wonder she’s so thin and doesn’t sleep at night. She worries too much. Why did you tell her we were even coming for this today?”

“Well, I think she needs to know. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“Of course I would, but you know how she worries and frets. I just hate to add one more thing to her plate. She’s worried about Jim’s job. They’re downsizing, and Sam is failing something he has to pass to graduate. Ellie’s running around with that boy who’s too old for her with tattoos on his body and earrings all over his face, and that damned dog of theirs just had puppies. You just shouldn’t have told her, that’s all.”

The nurse approached and motioned for them to come to the examination room. John stood, took his cane and slipped his hand under Gillian’s arm.  She pushed up from the chair and rocked forward a couple of times before gaining enough momentum to get up. He steadied her and then slid his case under his arm and placed his free hand on the small of her back.

“Hello, Mrs. Hill. Good to see you again.” said Dr. Stevens, a young woman.

 “Hi, Dr. Stevens,” John said. “Thank you for scheduling the surgery so quickly. Gillian’s worried herself silly since you called.”

“It’s melanoma,” the doctor said. “It’s the most dangerous of the skin cancers. The cells that produce skin pigment start growing aggressively. We see melanoma more in fair skinned people with blue eyes, like you Gillian. This lesion is fairly large. I would say it’s been here awhile. Is that right?”

“Yes, but I just thought it was an age spot,” Gillian said quietly.

“The most important thing is that you are here. We can remove the lesion and treat the area,” said Dr. Stevens. The surgery shouldn’t take too long. Sit here Gillian, and let’s take a look.”

Dr. Stevens adjusted her glasses and snapped on rubber gloves.  She pressed on Gillian’s forehead and bent close to examine.  Gillian could smell mint on Dr. Steven’s breath. It was fresh, but reminded her of a medical office.

“What’s going to happen?” John asked.

“We’ll remove the lesion, freeze it and slice it into small sections, looking at the cells under a microscope for any malignancy. Hopefully, when we reach the bottom slice we see no more of the bad cells. If we do, though, we’ll remove more tissue and repeat the process. We only need to use local anesthetic, Gillian, you’ll be awake the whole time.”

“What happens after the lesion is gone?” asked Gillian.

“Well, depending on the depth of the tumor, we may need to follow up with treatment, radiation or chemotherapy, sometimes both.”

“Oh,” said Gillian, her eyes downcast.  She had seen the effects of the chemo on John and couldn’t fathom how they would manage treatments at the same time. She felt like the chemicals were killing John slowly, right before her eyes. He was brave and put up a good front, but his thin, bent body told the truth. Gillian wasn’t afraid of dying. She worried about not being able to care for John. She looked at him, tears welling in her eyes. He reached out, squeezed her hand and gave a smile. Gillian took a deep breath.

Dr. Stevens patted her shoulder and said, “Let’s get started, alright? 

“Can I stay with her?” John asked, not letting go of Gillian’s hand.

“Of course,” said Dr. Stevens.

When they left the examination room two hours later, a large bandage graced the middle of Gillian’s forehead.

“Do you have some aspirin with you?” John asked her as they approached the elevator. “My head is killing me.”

She opened her purse and rummaged around until she found the small white bottle. She opened it and spilled two tablets into his open hand. He threw them back and drank from the fountain by the elevator.

John pushed the button and they waited.

“You call Jan when we get home and tell her,” Gillian said.

“Okay,” he replied.

They walked out of the medical office and turned left onto the sidewalk. Gillian reached out with her free hand and grasped John’s. Their fingers tightened. Together, they walked slowly to their car, an older Chevy, its blue paint, faded like her eyes and his pants.

John opened the passenger door. Gillian put her cane and his case inside. Then shestraightened up and turned around to face him, backing herself up until she felt the edge of the seat behind her. She stopped and looked up at John. He rested his cane against the open door and lifted his thin hands to frame his wife’s face. He leaned close and kissed the bandage on her forehead.

“We’ll get through this together, Jilly, I promise. We always do,” he reassured her, gazing into her eyes. He helped her into the seat and closed the door, then walked around the vehicle and got in. “How about a cup of coffee?”

“Sounds like just what we need. We’ll share one.”

John pulled up to the intersection. He put on the left blinker and accelerated, proceeding through the turn that would take them to their favorite coffee shop. He glanced to Gillian, she was still smiling, even with the silly bandage.  He didn’t see the tractor-trailer coming. John’s light was green.

***

One second Gillian was smiling at John and the next she saw the square glass headlights and silver grill of the truck.  Her mouth opened as she lifted her hand to point. John turned to look just before it hit them. Gillian screamed.

Darkness. Darkness and then chaos. Sirens wailed and men yelled. The smell of gas so strong it burned her nose and throat. Heavy footsteps ran on the pavement. No focus. Blurry figures bending close. The sound of metal wrenching. She thought she heard John say, “Gillian.” But his voice sounded weak and then it was gone. Big yellow boots. Flashing lights. Gillian closed her eyes, trying to make sense of it. Where was she? What happened? Where was John? He always steadied her when things were confusing or chaotic.  His voice soothed her and his touch calmed her. Where did he go?

“He’s not breathing, his heart’s stopped. Give me those paddles,” Gillian heard a man say. “We’re losing him. Clear –”

Then a jolt. Pain in her chest stole her breath and Gillian knew. John was dead. She felt it. She didn’t need to open her eyes and see. 

Gillian could feel John’s spirit rising from his body and pulling hers with it.  “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.”

II

He heard Gillian and she was mad. “Don’t you dare leave me, John Hill,” she whispered. “We’re supposed to be together – you promised.” He could hear her, but he couldn’t see her. If he got to her quickly enough, told her a joke, kissed her, he wouldn’t get the cold shoulder tonight. She’d forgive him.

This dream was like one of those new 3D movies where things and people floated out of the screen and over the audience. John was up, not in the sky, but above everything going on.  The colors below him were bright, but the sound was brighter. John couldn’t remember the last time he could hear this well. Sirens wailed and rescue people called out.

“Hurry, there’s a woman in the passenger side, on the floor,” came a voice from under a scuffed yellow fireman’s hat.

 “He’s gone,” another said, in a defeated tone. John looked over to the rescue worker and saw the man pushing himself up from the side of a body covered in blood.

The smell of the gas spilling on the asphalt assailed John’s nostrils, but didn’t burn his nose and eyes. A firefighter in heavy bright yellow pants was spraying foam under and around the car and truck. Others were working feverishly to get the passenger side door open.

“Get that door off, there’s gas all over the place,” said a deeper voice.

“Use the Jaws,” yelled another.

A firefighter came running with a large metal tool. He and another squad member wrestled with it at the passenger side of a car. John could see clearly, every color, every shape, even the tiny pieces of gray gravel scattered on the pavement. The painted white and yellow lines on the road were bright and clear. The truck was pitched to the side yawning over a mashed car. The car was a faded blue, 70’s model Chevy, just like his. The car even had a dent on the right front fender. Then it dawned on him.

“It’s my car. Oh No!  Not my baby.”

Forty years ago, John had saved every extra dollar he could find in a Dutch Masters cigar box to buy that car. He’d walked onto the lot and handed the salesman a wad of cash, leaving the man open-mouthed. John smiled thinking back to that moment. Those keys in his hand, that motor under his command was almost as good as –

“There, got it,” the man’s voice interrupted John’s thoughts. The sound of metal wrenching made him want to cover his ears. He looked at his car, his baby, ruined. He washed and polished the Nova every week, vacuumed the interior religiously and changed the oil more often than the owner’s manual instructed. His car was under the wheels of that huge truck. No one ever drove that car but John. Who had stolen his car?

He noticed that the rescue worker covered the bloody body he had been working on with a blanket.  John’s first  thought was, “Served him right, for stealing my car,” Then he admonished himself. No car is worth a man’s life. “Grab that backboard. Be easy, watch her neck,” another cautioned,

“Get me an IV.”

“Ma’am, Ma’am, can you hear me?” asked another.

John wanted to move to see who the worker was referring to. He was interested in seeing this “she” who was with the man who stole his car. He kept trying to move, but this dream had him suspended in one spot.

The rescue squad workers pulled the stretcher and a backboard from the van and hurried over. Gently, they lifted the woman from the wreckage and onto the backboard. As they moved the body, John’s body moved in tandem.  The woman’s feet came into view. Her sandals looked like Gillian’s.

A squad member bent over the woman with an oxygen mask. “It’s gonna be alright Ma’am. You’re gonna be fine. This is an oxygen mask, to help you breathe,” John heard the young man say.

John yelled, “Get out of the way so I can see,” but no one seemed to pay attention. The man with the oxygen stood up and John recognized his own cardigan sweater, the one Gillian had been wearing lately.

“Oh my God, it’s Gillian on that backboard, under that oxygen mask. She was in the car.” John wanted to wake up. “Wake up, Dammit!” he yelled to himself. He pinched himself, slapped his own face. Nothing worked. “Gillian!” he called loudly.  She didn’t open her eyes, no one looked up. He continued to hover over his wife, helpless.

It was as if he were an invisible helium balloon attached to Gillian by an invisible thread. They loaded her into the ambulance and John floated in the ceiling of the van right over her. They rode to the hospital together as the squad members inserted an IV and applied a neck collar to his wife. The workers talked back and forth, never noticing John suspended there right above them.

“Hey, you with the red hair, that’s my wife. Be careful. Hey, you with the needle, she hates needles. I need to hold her hand when you do that. Wait a second, I can’t reach.”

No one paid any attention to his directions. John heard everything clearly. No one heard him.

He hovered over her as she was taken from the ambulance, wheeled through the hallway, as they sliced off her clothes. They cut away his sweater from her body. She was cold; he could feel it and he couldn’t warm her. His heat had risen.