When Flowers Came to Desolation

This story owes a great debt to Jack Shaefer’s iconic western novel “Shane.”  My character, Slade, is based on Shane and I borrowed the names of the two combatants, Fletcher and Starret from the novel also.

The sun was straight overhead as I rode down the dry and dusty trail headed toward Cheyenne.  I was tired and sore after three long days of riding, but knew I’d have to stop for the night; I just didn’t know where. I hoped I might come across a town where I could get a bed for the night, after sleeping rough the last two. One more long day of riding before I’d get to see my girl, Jenny, waiting for me in Cheyenne.

Two hours later my hopes were raised a bit when I saw a sign made of grey, worn scrap wood that said “Desolation, Wyoming: Population 337”. Not promising, I thought, but around the name’s inscription, someone had added vibrant, red flowers in every corner. Green vines had been painted between each flower creating a border that belied the grim message of the town’s name. Odd.

I first passed a series of farms and ranches as my single trail turned into a two-track to accommodate the heavier traffic of the town.  The farmhouses were neat and well kept, the fencing tight and true.  The very first barn I saw had bright red doors, and the side wall had been whitewashed and filled with a painting of a distant snow-capped mountain, the very one I had been admiring as I entered the town.

In fact, as I rode through town, it seemed as though every farmhouse and cottage was trying to outdo its neighbor with color.  Some had painted every flat surface with vibrant blues, reds and oranges.  Others hung boxes from their windows, sporting flowers full of blooms.  Still others had turned their yards into gardens full of corn, squash, and sunflowers. It was, by far, the prettiest town I’d ridden through on my considerable travels, and yet carrying the bleakest of names.

I pulled Shiloh over to the hitching post nearest the saloon, watered her, and brushed off some of the dust that had accumulated on her once shiny coat. “Let’s see if we can bed down here for the night, girl,” I whispered to her as I brushed.  She blew and huffed and nipped at my elbow.  I rubbed her face between her eyes and fed her the last couple of sugar cubes I had left in my pocket.

I dusted myself off the best I could and headed toward the double doors of Smokey Joe’s Saloon. As I approached, I spied an old-timer sitting on a barrel just outside the door carving away at a small chunk of wood and as I got closer, I could see a collection of small animals that he had carved placed out on a small table within reach of his perch.

“Hey there, pardner,” I hailed him as I walked up.  “That’s some mighty fine work you’ve done there.”

Without looking up he said, “Help yourself, stranger.  I just make these to keep myself busy.  Kids in town seem to like ‘em.

I picked out what looked to be a mourning dove in flight, delicately carved, and pulled a couple of bills from my wallet.

“Naw, I just give these away.  You can keep your money, but if you’ve got a mind to bring me a cold drink, I wouldn’t turn you away. You look thirsty yourself, and I could use the company.”

I told him I’d be happy to oblige and went in and bought a couple of beers back outside to where my new friend had pulled up a stool for me and gladly took the longnecked bottle.

“Tobias Wolff,” he said, extending his calloused hand.

“Joe Sheridan,” I said.

“Much obliged for the beer, Joe,” he said taking a long drink before returning to his work.

“So, Joe Sheridan, I’m guessing that you are on your way to Cheyenne to see some girl you’re sweet on, and you decided to spend the night here in Desolation.  I’d recommend Missy Mae’s boarding house down the way if you’re looking for a nice, clean place to bed down.”

“Tobias, I haven’t said more than a dozen words to you yet.  How on earth did you piece all that together?”

A grin broke across his face as he looked up from the whittling he was doing and enjoyed my surprise. “Well, Desolation is pretty much a way station for any stranger headed to Cheyenne traveling east to west, so that part was easy.  You picked the dove out of my little collection, and it just looks to me like of thing that a woman would especially like.  Lucky guess on my part.”

I laughed.  “Well, you are as right as rain.  Besides this dove, I’ve got a ring I’ll be giving her tomorrow hoping that maybe she’ll have me for her husband.  Jenny is her name.”

“Well, good luck, Joe. Maybe we should celebrate with another beer from inside.”

I agreed wholeheartedly and paid the barkeep for four bottles and asked him to keep a couple on ice for me.  I was enjoying my time with the old man.

“Tobias,” I said as I passed him his beer, “can you tell me how this town got to be called Desolation?  I’ve been through a whole lot of villages on my travels and they are all pretty dusty and grey.  Desolation seems like a garden spot. I’ve never seen so many flowers and plants—they’re everywhere I look!  And the people here have painted every door, shutter, and barn wall as far as the eye can see.”

“Yessir, yer right. Desolation used to be like every other town.  Worse than most.  It was a lawless place.  Seems we’d have a killing twice a week over some squabble, and sad thing was, people appreciated the distraction.  We had a sheriff for a while, but he was just an orange-faced blowhard who didn’t know what to do, so we ran him out of town on a rail.  There wasn’t a spot of color anywhere and nothing seemed to grow, or maybe people just gave up trying.  A lot of folks were just hanging on, just getting by.

“That all changed the day that Slade came to town.  He rode in and hitched up right there where you tied up, and he was dressed up city-like, fine clothes, but worn, like he’d been on the move forever.  He was dressed all in black except for his brass belt buckle that shined like gold.  Might have thought he was a gunslinger, but he didn’t wear any kind of pistol.  Even though he was a stranger, he moved with a bright energy, walked down the street here like he owned the place, but polite-like. He tipped his hat to every woman that he passed and hauled open a door if he saw someone carrying their goods out the door.  After he made his way up and down the street, he settled in here at Joe’s for a drink, and by then everyone in town had an opinion about him.  Folks were flappin’ their gums about, “Slade, the bank robber”, “Slade, the outlaw”, “Slade, the do-gooder”.

Tobias’s throat had gone dry from all the talking and I hurried in to retrieve two more beers so I could hear the rest of the story.

“Thank you, son. So, Slade hadn’t been in town an hour before he was the main attraction and had become everybody’s friend.  The bar was full of friendly conversation like we’d never had before.  Bobby Joe, the barkeep, even found a clean rag to wipe down the counter and polish up the glasses.

“Well, it warn’t no time at all before these two ranchers, Fletcher and Starret, started getting into it over a fence line that they had been feuding about for years.  Everyone got tense and started to move for cover except for Slade.  He just sat there cool as can be and looked at the two fools who were facing off against each other.  “Ain’t nothing bad gonna happen here today, fellas,” he announced and offered to buy a fresh round of drinks for everyone.  You could feel the room relax and the crowd gathered around Slade once again.

“But Fletcher and Starret were having none of it. Starret called Fletcher a cheat and a liar. Without a word Fletcher drew on him and fired twice, two dry clicks, and the crowd turned in time to see two daisys fly from the gun and plunk Starret right in the chest.  I’m telling you God’s honest truth, Joe. And then, Starret raised his double-barrel, aimed, fired and showered Fletcher with an explosion of petunias! It was the damndest thing we’d ever seen.  They each grabbed a second gun and pretty soon the air was filled with bluebells and periwinkles.  The crowd at the bar was laughing so hard at the damned fools that they had no choice but to make up and join Slade at the bar for that drink he had offered.

“From that day forward, every gun raised in anger produced nothing but flowers.  All the town took it up as a badge of honor and that’s why you see vegetables and flowering plants in every single household.  We even sent a crew into Cheyenne to bring home a wagon full of paint for anyone who wanted to spruce up their house or barn or business.”

“Tobias, I’ve heard some tall tales in my time, but that is by far the tallest,” I said with a wry smile on my face.

“You can ask anyone, pardner.  Anyone at all.  Every word is true.  Changed every single thing about this town.  It’s when I started carving these gee-gaws.  I just wanted to have something to give away, to make people happy.” He seemed a little embarrassed by the admission.

“But the name. Everything changed except the name. Seems to me that this town is the opposite of desolate.”

“Yessir,” he said, “we talked about it. There were a lot of folks who wanted to change the name to Hope. Hope, Wyoming.  Had a nice sound to it.  In the end though, we decided to keep the old name so we’d never forget what we had been.”

“And, Slade?”

“Slade stayed for a month or so, helping people who asked for help.  Doing some painting here, some planting there.  Then one night, he packed up and slipped out of town in the middle of the night without so much as a fare-thee-well.”

I thanked Tobias for sharing his time and his memorable story with me.  He thanked me for the beers, and I left him as I had found him, carving away.  I pulled myself back in the saddle and eased Shiloh down the main street, such as it was, enjoying the gardens, the flower boxes and the brightly painted doors of the town on my way to Missy Mae’s boarding house.

I felt in my pocket for the dove Tobias had given me, pulled it out and marveled at the simple artistry of it.  I wondered if Jenny would say yes when I proposed to her tomorrow.  I wondered how she would feel about settling down in a small town with an awful name.

 

The Seer

Tomás lived his entire life in the small fishing village of Polanco Negro.  Like his father and his father’s father, he lived the life of a fisherman just as all of the men of the village had done.  He learned all of the tricks of the ocean and how the sea could be generous in one year and miserly the next.

He was clever though and thrived.  In the lean times, he learned how to build with mud and brick.  He learned to mend his nets and, for a price, the nets of others.  He added rooms to the house he had inherited from his father and a fine kitchen for his wife.  He bought his neighbor’s land when his neighbor grew weary of life of a fisherman, and planted rows of hemp and taught his children to make rope that the men always needed and rough sandals that the children liked to wear.

Tomás was the most prosperous man in the village because rather than waste his time drinking with the other men when the seas were too rough or the rains came, he used his time to think and learn, to build and invent.  When he rested, he told his children wild stories of the sea, of beasts and monsters he had seen in the distance, and of gigantic fish he had battled for days, but sadly, had lost.  Their favorite story was the one about the wise man who lived on a jungle mountaintop far away, a seer.  “Some men from this very village,” he told them, “have left everything to try to find him and seek his wisdom.”  He let his voice drop into a whisper, “And they have never been heard from again.”

When the children would sleep, Tomás would make love to his wife all night long with a fierce passion, as if he somehow knew that any night with her could be his last. But they had many nights and grew old together.  They watched as one by one, their children moved to the cities to start their own lives, not one of them wanting the life of a fisherman.

One day, as he returned from a long day on the water that had produced no fish at all, he saw the village women surrounding his front door, and knew right away that his beloved wife had passed.  She had complained for days of a pain in her belly and had begun to take to her bed in the afternoons, but even though he begged her to go and see the doctor, she had assured him she would be fine.

He slid past the women and their whispered blessings and sad looks and saw that they had already washed and dressed her for burial, the only woman he had known or loved.  Just that morning, she had bustled about her fine kitchen making him coffee and pan dulceand teasing him about how thin his hair was getting, about how the sun would someday burn him down to ashes.

That night, he piled his nets into the bottom of his boat and poured kerosene over everything he used for fishing, set it all afire, and pushed his boat out into the water. He stood on the shore and watched it burn with all of the sadness that he felt in his heart until it sizzled and sank into the sea.

After her funeral, which everyone in the village agreed was the finest, most expensive funeral anyone had ever seen before, the man retreated into his house and did not come outside for many weeks. Even though his children begged him to come and live with them in the city, he could not imagine leaving the village where he had spent his entire life. Once everyone had left, though, he found that the house was now much too big and quiet.  It was not just that he was alone, but for the first time in his life, he felt he had no purpose, nothing to live for, no one to care for.  He thought and thought and thought, but for once, he had no answers.

Tomás began to think of the old story of the seer, the mythic tale he had once told to help put his children to sleep.  He became obsessed with the idea of taking the journey to the mountaintop to ask for guidance, for wisdom, and for purpose, everything he felt he once had possessed, but now had lost. Surely then, he could return and enjoy the rest of his life in peace.

The seer’s mountain had no name.  The story went that the only way to find him was to walk toward the rising sun, and to travel with nothing but an open heart.  Tomás needed no time to prepare.  He dressed in simple clothing, put on his best walking sandals and struck off into the jungle as the sun began to rise.

The hiking was hard at first, but he walked with the same fire with which he had lived his whole life. He walked from sunrise to sunset, stopping only to feed on the fruits and berries that were plentiful. At night, he found it simple to fashion a crude basket to catch fish in the streams which he would gut with his rough fingers, eat raw, and give thanks for the sustenance that gave him strength for another day.  Then he would fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and dream about the sea.

His journey stretched into weeks and then into months.  His body became nothing but skin and sinew and bones.  He began to walk through the day and into the night at times, stopping in the rain to drink the water that ran from the leaves and coming to know which plants and insects he could eat.

Tomás no longer thought about day and night. He slept when he was tired, ate when he was hungry, and drank whenever he could. He no longer thought about purpose or wisdom.  He simply walked toward the sun and did what he had to do to stay alive.

One morning, the trail turned into a jungle that was so thick that it turned the day into night. And then, before a massive tree, the path ended.  He was surrounded by trees and brush.  The only break in the greenery was a powerful waterfall that crashed down a steep tumble of boulders.  For the first time on his journey, he could see no way forward.  Exhausted and defeated, he propped himself up against the base of the giant tree and slept.

When he awoke, he felt weak and steadied himself against the tree with his hands.  He stood for a long time feeling the bark of the tree, allowing the tree to hold him up.  Before long, he could feel the bark pulsing, pulsing in rhythm to his own heart.  The wind through the trees whispered to him, and he turned to study the waterfall that had seemed impassable the day before.

At that moment, he could see one single stone in the midst of the rushing water that he could reach from the bank, a stone that he swore to himself had not been there the day before.  He stepped out to it and felt the current pushing hard against his legs.  From that stone, he could see another, and another, and another, each one rising up the face of the waterfall. The current crashed into him as he pushed himself from boulder to boulder, but the vibration from the tree was now in the water and seemed to give him strength even as it beat him down.  He thought of nothing except the next step and pushed himself for what felt like hours.  Suddenly though, he pitched over the edge into a beautiful pool where he was able to pull himself up onto a stone ledge and see that he had reached a clearing on the top of the mountain.

As he looked at the clearing, paved with stones that had been carved from the rocks of the mountain, his heart was certain he had found the home of the seer.  The stones created an intricate mosaic of the sea and the sky.  Facing east was a stone hut large enough to sleep in and be safe from the rain. A small fire pit sat near the entrance and next to it, wood neatly stacked next to a crudely fashioned bench. Inside the hut, he found shards of flint, a sharp knife, two simple bowls, and a sleeping mat woven from leaves and fronds that were plentiful in the jungle. He gazed around the clearing as the long shadows of the afternoon creeped in but saw no one.

“He will return in the morning” Tomás thought to himself.  Grateful to have a roof over his head and something other than the ground to lie on, he crawled on to the sleeping mat and slept deeply and dreamlessly throughout the night.

He awoke with the sunrise but lay there for another hour and let the sun warm him in the shelter.  Surely the seer would return today.  He set about gathering food and stripping the bark of trees that he could use to repair his clothing that was little more than rags after his lengthy trek.  He fashioned snares and traps as he had learned to do on his journey and filled the two bowls with water from the stream that fed the emerald pool.

Once that was done, he was content to sit and watch how the light changed as the sun crossed over the mountaintop, and listen to the birdsong, sip his water as the day became hot, and hear night sounds as the sun went down.  He learned how to use the flint to start a small fire for heat and for cooking the game that he had caught during the day.

The seer did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next.  Tomás contented himself with his life of waiting on the mountain top.  The journey had stripped him of desire, and he began to relish every new sunrise, the sounds of the creatures around him, the rushing of the stream, the comfort of his hut during the rain. He felt himself heal and grow strong.  He no longer thought about the past.

He lost track of how many days he had been waiting for the seer and began to forget just what it was he had hoped to learn from him.  As the months went by, he didn’t think about anything but what wonders might visit him each day—a passing hawk, the call of owls, the chatter of frogs, the hum of insects, the crack of a passing thunderstorm.

Months became years and Tomás found that he began to lose his words; his mind was filled with what he could see before him and the only wisdom that he found came on the sound of the wind during the day and the beating of his heart at night.

One morning at sunrise, he was wakened by the sounds of a splash from the emerald pool and of a person struggling to climb out of the water.  He rose from his mat, and padded over to find a disheveled, ghost of a man collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

Tomás touched the man’s shoulder and roused him from his stupor.  When the man saw Tomás standing over him, he wept and circled his arms around Tomás’s legs and cried, “Master, I’ve come so far to see you. There is so much I need…”  But Tomás put his fingers to the man’s mouth to stop his supplication and helped him to walk to the simple bench and sit upright while he served him.  In one bowl he gave him the remains of the rabbit he had roasted the night before and a then gave him a fresh bowl of water all of which the man consumed gratefully.

As he served the man, Tomás realized that the man had mistaken him for the seer.  In his heart he felt he had no answers, no wisdom he could possibly share.  He had not thought about his own journey to find the seer for many years, but his years of solitude had brought him the peace which he had once sought.

Refreshed, the man turned to him and once again began to speak, and once again, Tomás stopped him, holding two fingers to his lips.  He had no words for the man. Instead, he grasped the man’s hand and pressed it to his own breast, sighed deeply, and held it there until he was sure the man could feel the beating of his heart as they gazed out over the trees where the sun was just cresting the ridge.  He then took the man’s hand and pressed it to his own heart and let him feel the warmth of his own soul.  Together they sat for many hours, warmed by the sun, their silence only broken by the whisper of the wind in the trees.

 

 

 

 

 

Helpless and Radiant

 Jason was in love with Sarah in the way that only a 17 year-old-boy who has never spoken a word to his loved one can be.  He both hurried and trudged to math class where he knew he’d be spending another long and fleeting hour sitting just slightly behind and across from her, close enough to reach out and tap her on the shoulder to ask for a pencil that he did not need if he only had had the temerity to do so.

She was beautiful in a sort of girl-next-door, I’m-not-looking-to-crush-your-heart, Zooey-Deschanel kind of way.  He loved her for how her knee bounced all through math lectures, for how she alternately frowned, and smiled, and tapped her pencil eraser against her forehead all the way through a math test.

But what held him helplessly and hopelessly in love was how she would, in a moment of boredom or contemplation, suddenly sit up straight and, using both hands, gather up her lustrous brown hair, begin to twist and swirl it as if she was going to tie it in a knot or whip a rubber band around it to create a pony tail, and for a moment hold it atop her head like an elegant updo, before giving her head a shake and letting it all fall once again to her shoulders.  It was just such a girlish and sensuous thing to do.  Something about that simple motion killed him every time.

Today though, she just sat through class, looking quietly radiant in her everyday jeans, a vibrant t-shirt, and jean jacket. As the class was nearing the end of the period, and he pretended to be working on his homework for the night, he watched her doodling on a piece of rainbow-colored paper, surely a note for a girlfriend that she would pass on her way to fourth period.  He wrenched his thoughts away from her and tried working his way through the math problems, enjoying the brief respite from the pleasure of thinking of her.

He was trying to finish the last one, still immersed in gradient equations, when the bell rang, and so he was startled to look up and find Sarah standing next to his desk with her dark eyes fixed directly on him. She placed the note that he had assumed was for a girl friend on the corner of his desk and slid it toward him.  She smiled as she let her fingers linger on the note.

“You know, Jason, nothing is ever going to happen if you don’t try talking to me rather than just staring at me all through class every day.”

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth and she let her hand trail from his desk as she turned, slung her backpack over one shoulder and made her way through the crowd and out the door.  

He opened the note.  It simply said “Call me!” with her phone number written underneath and the entire message surrounded with swirls that filled up the rest of the page except for a heart in one corner and a smiley face in the other.  A heart and a smiley face!  That was important, wasn’t it?

In the course of just a few moments, he suddenly no longer hated being 17.  He thought that maybe this year could turn out to be the best year of his life.  Or maybe the worst. He really wasn’t sure at all.

Death By Fortune Cookie

I pushed away the remains of my breakfast plate, squinting at the morning light that filtered through the dingy restaurant window. The newspaper was still in the corner where I had tossed it after scanning the banner headline “SCIENTISTS DECLARE ROMANCE IS DEAD.” The subhead continued, “Romantic feelings deemed a fraud, delusion.” I had tossed the paper away without reading on, disgusted. Not that I had lost anything to science. I had given up on romance long ago. Too many missed chances. Too many broken hearts. Maybe they were right—delusional. As a consolation, I cracked open my fortune cookie. The message inside read, “Your destiny is not your own.”

Good to know, I thought bitterly as I threw down a few bucks on the plastic checked tablecloth and only then started to wonder what I was doing in a Chinese/Thai/ fusion buffet restaurant for breakfast rather than my usual diner.

Stepping through the ornate red door, instead of finding myself on a cluttered LA sidewalk in the brilliant morning sun, I walked into the hall of a grand palace bustling with servants who all seemed to be preparing for a great feast. The walls were hung with red tapestries embroidered with golden dragons. Guests were arriving dressed in traditional European formal wear and servants swarmed about in colorful outfits that looked—I didn’t know—Chinese, maybe?

I felt dizzy and disoriented as I tried to take in this unexpected setting and the swirl of activity. My head swam as I, for the first time, noticed that I was wearing loose pants and a matching shirt, both made from heavy, gold brocade instead of the suit I was sure I had put on this morning.

It was as if I had entered into the set of a movie or a play, but I had no idea which one. Who was I? What was my part? I could swear I wasn’t dreaming.

I felt a gentle tug at my elbow and turned to see one of the serf-like attendants at my side. He kept his eyes downcast as he whispered, “Don’t worry, your Majesty, you will catch up.”

At that moment music swelled from the orchestra and the guests all stood aside emptying the dance floor. A beautiful young woman glided to the center of the room, her eyes fixed on me, arm extended, and the attendant gave me a respectful push toward her. She took my hand and curtsied beautifully and then began to sing:

                        We’ve just been introduced

                        I do not know you well

                        But when the music started

                        Something drew me to your side

                        So many men and girls

                        Are in each other’s arms,

                        It made me think…

                        We might be…

                        Sim-i-lar-ly occupied.

                        Shall we dance?

And as she continued to sing, we began to waltz around the grand hall. Waltz! She sang, and then I sang, and we spun about the dance floor and everything seemed effortless, lovely, and romantic. I matched her song with my own:

Or perchance, when the last little star has                        

                        leave the sky

                        Then will we be together with our

                        Arms around each other and will

                        You be my new romance?

             The words seemed to burst from my chest. It was all just so goddam romantic. I don’t know how I knew the words or the song or the dance or anything that I was doing, but in that moment, I could feel myself falling in love. Her eyes were lively and mischievous, and she felt lovely in my arms.

For that very brief moment, I believed I was a king, and that this dance, this night would last forever. The thought filled me with joy and wonder, and at the very moment I started to believe, she began to fade, become unsubstantial in my arms, and disappeared. The palace walls melted away, and I was alone once again. I found myself looking out over a darkened city skyline, standing on a gritty, city street dressed in blue jeans and a black leather jacket. I felt a surge of youthful energy and could hear my friends calling to me, “Tony! Hey, Tony!” in the distance. But I left them behind as I ran through the streets, simultaneously with no idea of where I was going and absolutely certain of my destination.

There! I thought, when I spied a fire escape that had been lowered to the ground. I dashed up the rungs until I came to the third landing, near a lighted window.

“Maria!” I whispered loudly, “Maria!” I’m not sure how I knew that I should be calling out her name, but my heart swelled when I saw her face appear in the window. We were both so young, and I felt myself consumed with such passion for this dark-haired beauty. I felt just as deeply in love as I had been a few minutes before, or was it centuries, since I had danced with that woman—since I had been a king.

It didn’t matter now. We whispered our intimacies furtively, her parents apparently nearby, but soon, our love was just too great, and we found ourselves singing to the stars, no longer afraid of anyone or anything:

Tonight, tonight the world is full of light

            With suns and moons all over the place

            Tonight, tonight the world is wild and bright

            Going mad, shouting sparks into space…

We sang, we whispered, we made plans for the next time we could be together, and then she disappeared behind her curtains. I slid down to the bottom of the stairs and sat, still feeling like I would burst. This is what love feels like! How could romance be dead? I suddenly no longer cared if I had control over my destiny. If my fate was to live in a whirlwind of passion and to experience love across the globe and across all of time, then so be it. I stood and walked away with Maria on my lips and filling my mind and looked back one more time at her window just as her building, the streets, the skyline, all began to melt away.

I barely had a chance to whisper, “Maria” one last time, when I found myself entombed in what must have been a crypt. The smell was dank, and in the dim light I could see corpses, big and small, shelved on either side of me for all eternity. I walked down the narrow entrance, full of dread until the tomb opened up and in the center was a bed of marble, a place for the newly dead. And there upon that bed, was my Juliet. I knew it was her before I saw her name engraved. As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear, I remember thinking when I first saw her at the masked ball. Oh, bitter destiny, I thought. If Juliet be dead, then romance could not live.

This time, I knew the play. I knew my part.

I sat beside her and traced the cold cheek with my hand one last time. Even in death, her beauty warmed me–the warmth that had struck me the night of the masquerade; the warmth of our one night together. Oh god, just one night.

Oh, my love, my wife,

            Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath,           

            Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty.

            Thou are not conquered. Beauty’s ensign yet

            Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks,

            And death’s pale flag is not advanced there.

I felt inside my pouch and fingered the bitter vial I had purchased from the apothecary just hours before. In the distance, I heard a disturbance. Someone was coming to take me from my love once again. No more. I pulled the stopper from the bottle and offered one final toast to sweet Juliet before I drank the potion and felt it seize my heart, my very soul.

Oh true apothecary,

                        Thy drugs are quick.

                        Thus, with a kiss I die.

I could barely see, but forced myself forward to leave one last kiss on her lips. I imagined, with my last breath, that I felt her return the kiss ever so lightly. It rendered death just a tiny bit sweeter.

Harry and the Cool Girl

Becca’s Journal   8/1/18

This journal will be the death of me. Required by my therapist.  “A safe place to work out my feelings.”  Blah, blah, blah.  There, worked them out.  I’m bored already.   Oh, god, senior year.  I’m exhausted just by the thought of all the pretending I have to do at school. Think I’ll take a nap. Bye, journal.

Note from Harry  9/3/18

Becca,

First off, I’m not a stalker.  It’s just that I’ve noticed you ever since freshman year, but it’s taken me until the first day of senior year to write you this note.   I’ve always admired your sort of fierce independence.  I like how you wear the same ripped jeans and your assortment of flannel shirts almost every day.  But you’re also kind to people in class.  You never snub anyone.  You have a nice laugh.  You speak your mind, but don’t seem to hate on people who are different.  You’d probably even be nice to me if I had the nerve to talk to you, but being invisible still feels safer to me.

Anyway, we’re seniors now. I thought maybe it was time to tell you that someone here at school thinks you are the cool girl.

You can think of me as “Harry” (as in Potter?–cloak of invisibility, get it?).  Nerdboy works also.

Becca’s Journal  9/3/18

WTF!!  My first thought was that I wanted to punch him for messing with my stuff, but now that I’ve read the note obsessively as if I was in middle school or something, I see he actually sounds really nice.  I mean, he said nice, almost entirely, non-creepy things about me.  Noticed me since freshman year??!

Yeah, freshman year–the year I came out to my parents and they lost their shit.  They cried and prayed and prayed and cried and I never again mentioned that I liked girls.  They got me a good Christian therapist and pray every night that I get healed.  Got that, journal?

Goddam, you Nerdboy.  That was one cowardly thing you just did–dropping me a note with no way for me to write back.

Note from Harry 10/23/18

Hey Cool Girl,

You seem sad today.  I saw you sitting over in the corner of the student center and you weren’t with your usual crew.  It was just you and your notebook.  Looked like you were drawing one of those epic fantasy scenes you like to work on in class.  Yeah, ok, I might have looked over your shoulder once–maybe twice.

About the invisibility thing.  My family moved a lot when I was a kid and I found making and losing friends all the time just made me sad.  So, I just became one of those kids who never raises his hand, or joins a club, or goes to a dance. I did ask a girl out once. Sort of a “wanna-go-get-something-to-eat-after school-sometime?”–awkward attempt.  She laughed and walked away.  Friendships are hard.

Anyway, I hope you are OK.  I don’t like to see you looking sad.  Or maybe you just have a lot on your mind. I’m sending you good vibes.  I’ve got your back, Cool Girl.

Harry

Becca’s Journal  10/23/18

Nerdboy,

I’m so mad at you right now.  How can you say you’ve got my back when you sit in the shadows across the student center and watch me hurt like that?

Last night’s session was brutal.  The theme was perversion.  The counselor, who is supposed to be a healer, a compassionate person, looks at me with such disgust.

Yeah, I was sad today, Harry.   I’m going to tell you a little secret because I know you will keep it.   After ever session, I peel back my sleeves and find a fresh place to draw the razor across my forearms.  The scaring is becoming pretty impressive.  So, those flannels you like so much, are more for coverage than for style, poor boy.

I cut because I’m drowning in disapproval.  It’s stupid, I know, but I have all of these hating voices in my head, and cutting makes them silent, gives me myself back for a while.

Yes, Harry, I look sad today becauseI didn’t pack enough Tylenol and my cuts were throbbing like a bastard all day long.  I could use a lot more than your “good vibes,” asshole.  Got any Norco to go with those?

I actually don’t think you are an asshole.  Finding your note in my backpack is the only good thing that has happened today.  You’ve really got that invisibility thing down pat.  It makes me feel good to know someone nice is thinking about me.  It would be even better if I could somehow get this note (oops! journal entry) to you.

Note from Harry  11/15/18

I thought I ought to drop you a note before we go on Thanksgiving break. I don’t know how you feel about the holidays, but I pretty much hate them.  How does a season that’s supposed to be so nice end up with so much drama?  Maybe your family is not like that.

My vibes aren’t working on you.  I watch you every day in class and you are becoming one of the “invisibles,” like me.  I haven’t heard your laugh in a month.  I almost came and sat with you at lunch because you’ve been keeping so much to yourself, but now I’m scared.  If you’ve been hating the notes or if I’ve made you afraid, you might turn me in for harassing you.  Naw, knowing you, you’d probably just punch me out. I can see the headlines now  “Cool Girl Clobbers Nerdboy–Claims Harassment!”

I don’t know what to do, Cool Girl.

Harry

Becca’s Journal   11/15/18

He finally wrote again!  I’d been waiting and waiting.  God, that’s so pathetic. Searching my books and backpack every night hoping for a note from my friend, one of the misfit toys.

My parents want to send me to this gay conversion camp over Thanksgiving break where they try to “pray the gay” out of me.  I’m drowning, Harry, I don’t know what to do.

I’m tired of waiting.  I’m done with this crap.

On November 16, 2019, Becca Anderson came to school early with six envelopes, all of them with the name “Harry” written in big block letters across the front.  She went to each of her teachers and asked if she could pin one to the front bulletin board in each of her classrooms.  She promised that it was nothing sinister and because she was a good girl, none of her teachers minded.  Inside of each envelope was the same message:

Nerdboy,

Please, don’t be afraid.  I need you to become visible.  I. Need. YOU. Today.  Meet me for coffee today at Sam’s. If you are not there by 3:45, I really will find you and punch you out.

Cool Girl

 

From Singapore, With Love

He was contemplating the advantages of suicide as he sat in his cubicle when his thirty-third call of the day rang in.  “LoveActually Dating support services.  This is Brian, how can I be of assistance?”

“Hi, Brian,” replied the female voice, “my name is Judith and I’ve been using your dating app for the past 6 months and it has matched me up with an unparalleled string of complete losers.  You advertise an 85% satisfaction rate and, excuse the pun, but I’m not getting any satisfaction.”

“OK, Judith, thanks for calling.  I’m sure that I can help.  Have you tried powering down your phone any time in the past 6 months and then re-starting it.”

“Of course,” she replied impatiently, “It’s the first thing I tried.”

“Great, now do you mind if I mirror your phone and take a look at your dating profile and your settings?”

“OK, I guess.  Don’t you need my passwords or something?”

“No, actually your first name and phone number are plenty. Let’s see…. OK, you are 35, from the Bay Area, currently living in Fresno, California, and enjoy skiing, snowboarding, long nights, fireplace, wine, conversation, etc., etc.  Do I have the right Judith?”

“Yep. Sounds like me.”

“OK, let me get into your settings.”

“I usually don’t allow that on the first phone call,” she quipped.

“Ha!  Good one, Judith.  You didn’t mark “sense of humor” on your qualities.  Let’s add that now, OK?”

“Sure.”  Her trepidation at calling was disappearing in Brian’s apparent enthusiasm and confidence in the task at hand.

“OK, now under the question “How anxious are you to find a suitable partner?” you clicked on “beyond desperate.” What if we move that up to “very interested” and see if we can weed out some of those unsuitable matches.”

“But I am beyond desperate, Brian.  This is my fifth dating app in three years and I haven’t gotten… I haven’t had a really good date in a really long time if you know what I mean.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I think I get it.”

There was a long pause.  “Judith, are you still there?” he asked.

“Brian, you didn’t just call me ma’am did you?”

“I–um–it’s just the training we get, ma–ah, Judith.”

“Brian, can you activate the camera on my phone?”

“Well, yes, I can, but I’m not supposed to. It would take me a minute.”

“Just do it.  I’ll wait.”  She could hear him clicking frantically at his keyboard in the background. “Ok, I just saw the green light come on.  Do I look like someone you should be calling ma’am?”

She could hear him gasp as he saw the live picture of her flash on his screen.

“Ah–uh, no, Judith.  A-Absolutely not.  I-uh-if you could just button your shirt back up I think we can fix your profile and get you a much better result.”

“Just breath, Brian, it’s OK.”

“May I just say, that I don’t think your current profile picture does you justice.”

“No?  I don’t think they will let me post one topless, do you?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Yes, I can fix that later. What else can we do.”

His breathing had almost returned to normal as he scanned the rest of her settings. “What I’m thinking is that it pays to be more selective so that you can attract someone who really fits your interests.  What if we change your “absolute requirements for a match” from ‘under 60 years of age, breathing, and must be employed’ to something like ‘under 40, fit, and interested in both indoor and outdoor activities.’”

“Ha, I like that!  ‘Indoor and outdoor activities’–a bit suggestive, don’t you think?”

“I can take that out if you don’t approve.”

“No, let’s stick with it.  You have a kind of cute sense of humor also, Brian. Any other recommendations?”

“Why don’t you go with the changes we’ve already made, select a new profile picture, and see how things go for the next few weeks.”

“And if I’m not satisfied with the results?”

“I just texted you my direct line.  I’d be happy to be of assistance to you for any of your future needs.”

“Goodness, Brian, I do believe you are flirting with me.”

She could hear him sigh audibly over the airwaves.  “Believe me Judith, I certainly would be if I weren’t slowly dying in my cubicle here in Singapore.”

“Story of my life, Brian. Story of my life.”

Talking With Hank

“I am dying here,”  he said with a quiet fury, sitting across from his pretty wife in their small, Brooklyn apartment.  He looked into her deep, brown eyes and hated her calm composure as he tried to express the sense that his world was caving in around him.  The tears that streamed down her cheeks were the only evidence that she too could feel his despair.

“How could you possibly understand?” he railed. “You emigrate from India and in five years are vice president of R and D for a telecom giant.  I went to Columbia, earned a degree in literature, and I have reached the lofty position of being a chief claims adjuster for an insurance conglomerate.  My boss is a fucking gecko!

“I literally do nothing for a living, and you’re working for the people who are going to be ruling the fucking world.  Hell, they probably already are.  You are a part of the storm troopers that are going to ruin everything.”

He got like this at times.  She breathed deeply and vowed to let him finish venting.  She knew he wanted her to give him advice he could reject, and she refused to do anything other than listen, lovingly, attentively.

“That’s it?” he yelled at her. “You’ve got nothing for me?”  He looked wildly about the room, as if there were an escape hatch somewhere, before he rushed down the hall and disappeared into their bedroom.

She could hear him slamming open the closet and rummaging through his drawers.  He carried a bag into the bathroom, threw in some toiletries and came back to the living room, packed and wearing his camping jacket. He moved toward the door, and she came to him and put her hand on his arm.

“Jack, I wish you wouldn’t.” Her voice always sounded like liquid caramel.

“I have to get out of here.”

“But where will you go?”

“I-I don’t know.  I just have to do something–go somewhere.”

***********************

It was 3 AM when he finally pulled into the empty parking lot of the Walden Pond State Reserve in Concord, Massachusetts. As a student, he had always admired the writings of Thoreau and his decision to abandon civilization for the simple living he hoped to find by withdrawing to cabin that he had built from scrap here on the pond, growing his own food, living a solitary life, and writing volumes of journals that later became his book about his two years here at the tiny lake.

He climbed over the gate and made his way along the shore by the light of the moon, to the stone pillars that marked where Thoreau had built the cabin.  Nearby was a pile of rocks where pilgrims like him left a token of their visit.  Jack sank down on the ground and rested against one of the pillars, turned up his collar and vowed to sort out just what he was going to do with his life while he waited for the sun to rise.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the click of a single rock hitting the top of the pile.  He looked up into the dim grey of the moonlight and saw a portly man dressed in a worn winter coat and wool cap.

“Oh, sorry, buddy.  Didn’t even see you there.  Not many folks here this early.  I don’t sleep much these days and kind of like visiting this old pile of rocks every morning.  Nice place to watch the sunrise, if you don’t mind me joining you.”  He circled around next to Jack and perched on a nearby tree stump.

“No, it’s fine.  I’m Jack, by the way.”

“Hank.  Nice to meet you Jack-by-the-way. Ha!”

The fog in Jack’s brain started to clear and he stared at the grey-bearded stranger.

“Hank, as in Henry?’

“Yes sir, Hank Thoreau, at your service.”

“You are Henry David Thoreau?”

“Afraid so.  And yes, this pile of rocks is right about where I built that damn cabin a few years back.”

“I’ve read everything you wrote about that damn cabin and the years you spent out here.”

“Oh, Lord, you’re not an acolyte I hope.  I wrote a lot of bullshit back then.”

I recited from memory, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not…”

“…when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” Hank interrupted. “Yes, that part–that’s not half bad.“

“Well, I’ve utterly failed to live a meaningful life. It’s why I came here.  I was looking for some kind of answer. I work in all day in a cubicle, talking on the phone to people suffering through tragic circumstances, trying to figure out ways to help them as little as I possibly can because that’s what my bosses expect of me.”

“Sounds bad,” he said, chewing on a reed he had plucked from the ground.  “Not exactly sucking the marrow out of life are you lad?”

“I’m an asshole is what I am.  I’m angry all the time because I feel like I’ve wasted my life.  I have an amazing, beautiful wife, who I left crying at home when I said a lot of stupid things and then stormed out of the house to come here.  I…”

“Stop, please.  Look.  You can see the pond now.”

Jack looked up, and sure enough there was a pink tinge around the surrounding hillside and he could just make out the grey shadows of the loons beginning to scoot across the pond.

“Look, Jack.  I don’t have the answers for you.  I wrote a lot of stuff a long time ago.  I was true to some of it and some turned out to be utter nonsense.  This whole living in isolation thing?  It was a lonely life.  Why don’t you get back home, make up with your amazing and beautiful wife and then quit that horrible job.  You feel trapped by it, yes?  You can’t even see how very young that you are.“ He got up from his perch and stood directly in front of the younger man.  “You have time.  Time to start again.”

He sighed.  “And I am out of time.  I think I might be able to sleep a bit now.” He reached out and shook Jack’s hand.  “It was nice talking with you, son.”  He began to walk away but then turned.  “Jack!  One thing.  Read less, and do more.”  And with that he walked away into the morning mist.

Jack watched as Hank strolled down the path that would take him the rest of the way around the pond.  He got up, dusted himself off and walked in the opposite direction, back to the parking lot and his car.  He climbed inside, pulled out his phone and called his wife.

“Jack? I’ve been worried.  Where are you?”

“I took a long drive.  I’m about four hours away. I had some time to think. I-I met someone.  We talked a while.”

“Are you OK?

“I’ve been such an idiot.”

“Yes, I agree completely.”

He smiled, “I think I can do better.”

“Why don’t I take the day off and you can try to show me just how much better you can do.”

“You can take a day?”

“We storm troopers have excellent benefits.”

“I’ll be home by 10.”

“Make it 9:30.  I promise to pay all of your speeding tickets.”

Baseball Stories: The Kid

The batter kicked the dust off of his cleats and settled into his stance and put on a face that he hoped looked like a glare as he faced the monstrously large pitcher standing 60 feet, 6 inches away.

He was no more than a kid, just two years removed from high school, playing ball in the low minor leagues.  When he was told he had been invited to spring training with the big-league club he was ecstatic, but realistic.  As he stood in to face the veteran pitcher, he knew he was considered more of a “suspect” than a “prospect.”  His game was on a practice field far from where the major leaguers were working out.  It was little more than a scrimmage.

But all that mattered to him, was this moment, this at-bat.  It was the only thing he could control.  He set his hands and saw the pitcher move into his wind-up and felt, more than saw, the image of the ball whiz past him.

“Strike one!” called the umpire.

The ball had smacked the catcher’s glove before the kid had even been able to focus on the pitch.

“Nice one, kid,” the catcher said, gently taunting the rookie as he flipped the ball back to the pitcher.  “You almost got the bat off your shoulder.”

“I can do this,” he thought and squared himself up and studied the pitcher who wandered off the mound rubbing the baseball and staring into the catcher for the sign.

“Go ahead,” he thought.  “Bring the the heater again–you think I can’t hit it.  I’ll see this one.”

The pitcher wound up and reared back and the kid picked up the ball coming out of his hand as he had been taught, the same spin, the same scorching fastball, and this time he swung as had all through high school, his sweet, natural swing, perfectly timed but just an inch or two low and the foul ball ticked high off his bat to the screen behind home plate.

“Aww, that was close, kid.  Hey, Kirby,” he yelled to the pitcher, “he almost got you on that one.  Let’s step it up my brother.”

The pitcher just shook his head at the catcher’s incessant chatter, looked in for the sign and rocked back and fired another fastball, the hardest one the kid had seen yet.

But the ball sailed high and the kid could hear the pitcher curse his own wildness as he stood at the edge of the mound facing the outfield and the deep, blue sky of another spring–another spring of having to prove himself against a new crop of goddam, wet-behind-the-ears kids.

“You shouldn’t have gotten him pissed off like that kid,” chided the catcher.  “He’s likely to drill you with the next one.”

The kid could see the irritation on the veteran’s face, but he calmed his mind.  “See and react,” he said to himself as he swung a couple of lazy, practice swings.

The pitcher’s arm reared back and suddenly it was as if everything was in slow motion for the kid.  He could see the pitcher’s wrist curl forward and snap the ball as he had not done before and he watched the ball spinning fiercely as it arced toward his head, but he waited, waited, and yes–the curveball began to dive toward the middle of the plate.  He swung effortlessly and when he connected, he could barely feel the impact, but he could see that he had caught the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and sent it soaring toward the outfield.

He dropped the bat and ran toward first because he knew that he should, even though he desperately wanted to watch the ball.  He rounded first and, without breaking stride, glanced over his shoulder to watch the ball drop over the fence and on to the lawn in left field as fans swarmed to grab a souvenir.

He glided around the bases on the hot afternoon with his head down, respectful of the game, trying to act as if he had done this before, and as he touched home plate he felt the catcher tap his behind with his glove.

“Nice hit, kid.”

The kid grabbed his bat and trotted back to the dugout.  It was a home run in a meaningless game on an Arizona practice field both miles and years away from the major leagues.  Today, though, it meant everything.