In ‘n ‘Out

“Need help?”

“What?” Maggie turned and saw a slender gray-haired man walking up her driveway. His appearance was vaguely familiar like he was SUPPOSED to be there, but still completely random, out of place.  “No,” she answered. “I’m good.”

“I came back to help you clean out that garage mess I left you with.”

Ah, now she knew. It was the most recent Ex. Just like him, too. All that remained of the junk that had once filled the extra-wide double garage was a four foot pile of debris in the middle of the driveway that she could move around with a broom. And what was this junk? Jack’s stuff; boxes of old, moldy magazines. Dozens of broken bicycles — neatly arranged — that might be parts “someday.” Boxes of clothes he might wear. You name it, it was there, bought second or third hand at yard sales, swap meets, thrift shops, and put away meticulously and FOREVER. “This is all that’s left and that stuff there,” she pointed at a couple of bags of old clothes she was going to put in her truck and take to the Goodwill. “They’re going to the Goodwill.”

“I’ll take them for you,” he said. “Then I’ll take you to In’n’Out for dinner.”

“What are you here for?” He’e been gone for nearly three years. His sudden appearance was startling, surreal and yet, expected. He had never been on time for anything, not even their first date some fifteen years earlier.

“I’ll tell you at dinner. OK?” He picked up the two bags and carried them to his car, calling over his shoulder. “Don’t do anything with that mess in the drive way. Leave it for me.”

The Goodwill was only a few blocks away. Maggie finished sweeping up the pile in the driveway and decided to wait and see what happened. Jack COULD come back — though in their married years he had often NOT come back — and finish the job. Twenty minutes later, he returned and she noticed his car was a rental. Of course. She remembered he lived in Maryland now or another one of those mid-Atlantic states she’d learned about in fourth grade geography.

“Let me sack that up for you, Maggie.”

Maggie grinned in bewilderment.

“Why don’t you go get cleaned up while I do this, and we’ll go get a burger,” said Jack.

Maggie nodded and went inside, washed and changed her shirt, wondering if they’d sit inside or go through the drive thru. What was going ON? Jack called through the screen door, “Can I come in and clean up?”

That sounded so strange. He used to live here. “Yeah, come on in. I think you know where everything is,” she answered. The screen door squeaked open and shut.

“The place looks good. You haven’t changed it much.”

Maggie thought, “And what would I use to change it? All the MONEY I’m making from my three part-time jobs?” She brushed it off and said, “Why tamper with perfection, right?”

At In’n’Out, they found a booth. “Tell me what you want — I think I remember — but maybe it’s changed,” said Jack. “I’ll go order.”

“Cheeseburger, ketchup and mustard only, fries and a diet Coke.”

“I knew it! See? I remember. Be right back.”

“OK,” thought Maggie, “this is bizarre.”

Jack came back, they talked about Maryland, his new wife, his job, all that, their number was called and Jack came back with the food. Instead of putting ketchup in the little paper cups that made it so much easier, Jack had about a dozen ketchup packets strewn on his tray. Maggie wondered. Had his OCD gone into remission, or? But no. Jack opened a ketchup packet, carefully tearing off one corner, and began squeezing ketchup onto the length of a French fry. Nothing had changed. As she ate her burger, and listened to him talk, she watched this odd little drama play out over and over, with each fry Jack ate. It was maddening — and surreal.

“Here’s why I’m here,” he said.

“Finally,” Maggie thought. The question was about to be answered.

“When we were together, I cheated on you. I mean a LOT. Like seven times.”

Maggie listened. Her biggest surprise was that she was surprised. She really had had no idea. The last years of their marriage had been bewildering and alienated, but Jack?

“I’ve been in counselling,” he went on. “I really want my marriage to work, and I learned at church that I have a problem. I’m in a twelve step program now.”

“For what?”

“Sex addiction.”

Maggie just looked at him. Three years had passed since he had left. It had taken three years to clean out that garage.

“I have to make amends to the people I’ve hurt.”

“I don’t think you really hurt me,” she said, her voice seeming to come from a remote corner of the restaurant. Jack continued carefully squeezing lines of ketchup on his fries.

“It had to have hurt you,” he said.

“I didn’t know. I think it hurts me now. I was OK not knowing. I think these ‘amends’ are for you, not for me. Now I know something hurtful I didn’t know before. I know you betrayed me. Multiple times.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for all of it.”

“OK.” She piled all the paper left from dinner into the basket where her burger had been and got ready to leave.

“You done?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” she said.

Fan Belt

My radio worked sporadically. I had an old cassette player running on batteries and two tapes. Jane Oliver and Donna Summer. Such music was conducive to melancholy if not a sense of doom. My radio started working as soon as I got south of Las Vegas, and I took that as a good sign.

Ahead about a mile, I saw a highway patrolman spin a wild U-turn across the grass median strip. “Someone’s in trouble,” I thought, singing along to the radio across the open, dry country, my window down. I checked the mirror a little later, and there he was, cherry spinning, motioning me to the side of the road.

He came to my window.

“Hello, sweetheart. Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”

“No sir. My speedometer is broken.” My luck was good. In Colorado, that is something they can give you a ticket for; in New Mexico, it’s almost an excuse for speeding.

“You were going 82 miles per hour, honey.”

All I could think was, “Incredible! In this car? I was going that fast? I am a born mechanic.” I didn’t say that. All I said was, “Really?” The speed limit, of course, was 55.

“Yes, really. Let me see your license and registration.” He took my papers back to his car and made a call on the radio, all the while watching me.

“Do you know your license has expired?”

I knew, but knowledge is not always helpful. “Is it? How can that be? It expires on my birthday.”

“That’s right. Your birthday this year which was ten months ago.”

“Oh no. I thought it was my birthday coming up.”

“No, honey. It was your last birthday. I’m going to give you a warning. I ought to bring you into the Mora County Courthouse, but I’m not going to. I think you honestly didn’t know your license was expired. But listen here. I want you to go home, get a new driver’s license and get that speedometer fixed. If you do that, I’ll give you a twenty dollar fine. If you don’t send me proof that you did those things within sixty days, we’ll have to send you a summons, you’ll have to come back here and it’ll cost you a lot more.”

“Yessir. Thank you.”

“Drive careful, now. There’s no place so important that you have to drive so fast.”

I chugged along toward Albuquerque, but my good feeling, along with the radio, was gone. By the time I got to Pecos Pueblo, I wasn’t sure I was still alive. I thought maybe I was dead and driving on the Interstate Highway of Infinity. I had to get off the road. I knew that, so I took the exit to the pueblo ruins. I wanted to walk for a bit to clear my head.

The ruined church buildings were vivid red in the late afternoon light. It was depressing to think of the builders, long gone, gone with their crazy hopes of saving the souls of the Pecos Indians. Nothing remained but partial walls, pits, shards, all carefully tagged and identified with the latest anthropological conjectures. I went to the ladies room and looked at myself in the mirror. Who was I and what was I doing? I thought seriously of turning around.

It was nearly six when I finally got to Albuquerque. I parked where Charlie’s map had told me to, took a deep breath and walked to the door. I found a note. “Adrienne, if you come. I have gone to the store to buy something for supper. Go in and make yourself comfortable. Charlie.”

The door opened to a strange, stone room, a flagstone patio that had been enclosed. On the wall over the bed was a full-size poster of a Hong Kong movie star in a bra and bikini. I walked through the house, looking for the bathroom. I found it and washed my face and looked closely in the mirror to see if I were really there. Then I returned to the stone room. I didn’t know how Charlie lived. I didn’t know he rented a room in this house or which room was his. I had no idea where the common spaces were. I sat on a sofa and tried to read my book, but I didn’t like it, the stone room or the Hong Kong actress. I went to the kitchen which seemed neutral and safe. I leaned against the counter and tried again to read.

Finally, the door opened and Charlie walked in.

He had the most graceful walk of any man I had ever seen. His legs were strong, with large, muscular, calves. As he walked past me, his eyes met mine and looked at me deeply and long. I knew those eyes. I had one of those experiences where you feel that you’ve known someone before. I was thrilled — and terrified.

“I thought you weren’t coming.”

“I had a flat tire.”

“Did you get it fixed?”

“Yeah. I bought a new one.”

“What? You bought a new tire?”



“I had a flat.”

“How much did you pay for it?”


“Jesus! For a VW tire? That’s crazy. Why didn’t you go to a junk yard or get the old one fixed?”

“I didn’t think of it and I wanted to come here.”

“Wow.” Then he said, “When did this happen?”

“This morning. In Denver, when I was about to leave. That’s why I’m so late. I didn’t get out of Denver until ten o’clock.”

“I wondered. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”

The words “chicken out” hovered unsaid, but so obvious they were almost visible. “No, I came,” I admitted, feeling like an idiot.

“What are you reading?”

“This,” I showed him the book, Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell. “I don’t like it much. I liked the Alexandrian Quartet, but this? Not really.”

“Are you hungry?”

In my imagination, we were going to Old Town that night, but I didn’t say anything about it. I never suggested it, invited him, nothing.

“Let’s cook dinner.” He opened the sack which contained cheese and two cans of tuna. He handed me the cans and told me to open them, but I, who had never thought of getting my tired repaired rather than replacing it, didn’t know how to use his can opener. I suppose he thought I was some kind of pansy who had used only electric can openers, but that wasn’t the case. My can opener was even more primitive than his. “I don’t know how to use this,” I said.

“You don’t?”

“No. I never used one like this.”

“Here.” He showed me opening one can. “Now you do it.”

I did it and drained the oil from the tuna into the sink.

“What are you doing with all that good oil?” he screamed. “You’re wasting it!”

“You cook,” I said, and he did, winding up with a tuna casserole we ate with carrot sticks. Then, it was over. Everything had been prepared, cooked and eaten from one stainless steel pot. I loved it. No Cuisinart for this man; no fancy pasta machine. Just one pot, two knives, two spoons.

“That’s great,” I said.


“That pot.”

“It’s all they use in Nepal, for everything. Cooking, eating, shopping. That’s what I learned there. You don’t need a lot of stuff. You shouldn’t have more stuff than you need because, one way or another, you just have to carry it around with you. The best thing is a thing you can use in a lot of different ways. So, this pot. I brought back two.” He washed it. “Come on. I have to do something. You can help.” We went into what had been planned as a dining room but was now a study. He sat down at the typewriter.

Next to the typewriter was a model of a molecule. I picked it up and said, “Benzene.”

“How did you know?”

“My husband — ex-husband — was a chemistry major.”

“You’re a writer,” he said, suddenly. “I’m trying to write my application for medical school. Maybe you can figure out a good way to say this.”

“OK.” It was the first time I’d heard that I was a writer. The idea was exciting.

“I need to explain why I want to be a doctor.”

“So why do you want to be a doctor? Maybe if you tell me, you can just write down what you say.”

“I don’t know. Inspiration? Inspiration, I guess.”

Inspiration. Wow. I was knocked hard. No one I knew used inspiration as a reason for anything. Reasons were money, success, prestige. Charlie had beautiful legs, a stainless steel pot and ordered his life according to inspiration. I was very, very frightened.

“What inspired you? Write that.”

“India. When I was in India, I saw so many sick, sick people. You can’t imagine. You want to see some pictures?” he got up from the table and went to his room, and I followed like a puppy. I felt like a puppy. I’d been taken in, fed, disciplined and now I wanted to stay.

“Here.” He handed me a big book filled with pictures. I was behind him, still looking all around me. On the wall was a photo of the Taj Majal. There was the dome, some minarets, a slight haze, a reflection; water in the foreground in which beautiful curves moved, curves like the necks of swans or a woman’s arm, everything your mind visualizes with the words, “Taj Mahal.” But, the curves were the necks of camels, not swans; the water was a lake, not the rectangular reflecting pool; the dome was not centered perfectly between the minarets, but stood to one side. The photograph did everything I believe art should do, force you to turn around and look beyond your expectations.

“I love this picture,” I said with solemn reverence.

“It’s mine,” said Charlie.

“You took it?”

“It took me a long time to get everything just right.”

So, now I had to imagine Charlie sitting on an unknown dusty hill in Agra waiting for things to get “just right” so he could take this picture, develop it, hang it on his wall in Albuquerque so that I, a person he didn’t even know, would see it. There was no longer any chance for coherent conversation between us. I sat down and put the book in my lap.

Faces came out of the pages, dirty children smiling in bright red clothes. Mud houses. I remembered a woman I’d known in college, a woman from Afghanistan, whose husband was studying architecture. “What do you build houses with in Afghanistan, Akbar?”

“Mud,” he had replied.

“You mean adobe or bricks?”

“No. Mud.”

Here were mud houses and walls painted with huge, vivid eyes, stupas (for which I had no word at that time) with golden bells, prayer flags on strings waving in the wind, frozen in the pictures. “Is this Nepal?”

“No. That’s Ladakh. That’s where the Dalai Lama lives now since the Chinese threw him out of Tibet.”

“Were you there?”

“No. But that’s what Nepal looks like. You find scenes like that in Nepal. We did. You approach the mountain by hiking through all of these small villages. The children came out of the houses to get money. Nepal is beautiful, but terrible, too. Have you been to Mexico?”


“You know the bridge between Juarez and San Antonio?”

“Not really. I haven’t been there since I was five years old.”

“Well, anyway, Nepal is like that in places. Very poor. They are destroying their forests to get land to grow food. Here’s a Japanese book about the climb up Everest,” said Charlie. I opened it and looked at snow peaks. Since I had known Mark, I had unconsciously avoided the mountains; my one hike with Anne that July had been my first trip up into the mountains in three years.

“Listen,” said Charlie. “Are you hungry?”

“Uh, uh, no, but if you are…” I mumbled, not wanting to look up.

“Let’s go get something to eat.”

He had a motorcycle. We went out back, and he said we could take the bike. It was a big cycle, I don’t remember what kind. I had, fortunately, ridden a motorcycle before so it wasn’t another affair of the can opener. I got on, he started it, we were on our way.

“Do you like motorcycles?”

“Yeah, I do. I used to have a dirt bike.”

“What kind?”

“A small Honda. My ex-father-in-law bought it for me. When I divorced his son, he took it back.”

“That’s mean,” said Charlie. Charlie was trying to help me to relax. I was so scared and so tense that even the least perceptive person would notice and Charlie was NOT the least perceptive person. A fast trip on a big cycle would give us lots of chances to touch, and touching would have helped, but I kept my hands in the back pockets of my jeans. We rode around Albuquerque, by Old Town and downtown, stopping in a small, unfinished, mall. His old girlfriend was an architect; maybe this was one of her projects? I think he still loved her then; I think it was she who broke it off, but I don’t know. Anyway, we drove past her house, then down a busy street filled with low-riders and neon lights.

He stopped at a hot-dog stand and got a hot-dog, which he ate, telling me about filmmaking school in San Francisco and a three minute film he’d made about The Doggie Diner, hot-dogs and dachshunds. Then we went back. We sat in the living room in the dark and talked. Charlie tried to “draw me out.” “Do you climb?” he asked.

“I did in high school,” I answered. “Free climbing.”

“Didn’t you like it? Why did you stop?”

“I loved it. Most of my friends were climbers. I never got into the technical bit, though. I never did a big climb. I have problems telling my right from left and I was afraid of the knots I would tie. I just climbed around on the rocks in The Garden of the Gods, some rocks in Eldorado Canyon, places like that. Some of my friends did a lot. One of them lost his toes on some mountain, I don’t know where, California? It didn’t seem worth it to me.”

“I thought you loved mountains.”

“I love mountains, but it seems like a long time since I’ve been in them.”


I didn’t want to tell him what I thought the reason was. There was something luminous about Charlie and I didn’t want to throw shadows on the moment by revealing anything about my life with Mark, or the suddenly stupid, vapid, supposedly sophisticated evenings I spent with my “successful” attorney friends. Charlie was touching something I’d been about to leave behind.

“I guess I haven’t had time. I just finished my thesis, you know. And I work full time. What about you? How do you feel when you’re up there?”

“You know, I was reading, here, look at this,” he handed me a magazine, but it was too dark in the room to read. “Well, anyway, these guys are hang-gliding. Imagine that, imagine putting these wings on, walking to the edge of a cliff, then — bam! — stepping off, trusting the wind and the wings to carry you. What that must take!”

I had been reading a lot of Hemingway. The question of courage in his books seemed to point not so much at the kind of courage it takes to step off a cliff, but the kind of courage it takes to live what Thoreau termed “a life of quiet desperation.” For all of his wars and bullfights, Hemingway spoke of heroism in the modern, urban world; maintaining your soul and integrity — and life! — when life offers no real adventures for sustaining courage. Charlie had another courage in mind; something that had to do with death. I didn’t have anything to say because, at that moment, I recognized my own position. I was on the edge of a cliff and I didn’t know if I had wings.

“You’re probably tired,” he said, standing. When he came back, he had his sleeping bag and pad. He rolled them out on the living room carpet. “You can have my bed.”

I followed him into his room. He was carrying a small tin can in his hand. Placing it on the table next to his bed, he said, “This is for you.” It was a peanut butter can from India, “Prutina Peanut Butter.” On the side was a face of a blonde girl in pigtails who looked like she came off a wrapper for Swiss chocolate. It was a present for me. I imagined it being in his bag on his climb.

“Let’s go to the balloon festival tomorrow morning,” he said. “I went today. There was a mass ascension. You can’t believe how beautiful it is when eight hundred balloons take off together. We have to get there before sunrise.”

“That sounds great,” I said.

“Pleasant dreams.”

“I have a lot to dream about. All the pictures.”

“Yes. A lot of new visions.”

Charlie’s words struck me. I have always understood things as images, visions, contours. The images in my mind that night were not entirely new.

“Goodnight,” I said.

“If you get cold, pull that sleeping bag up over you.”

“OK. Goodnight.” I lay on the bed a long time, trying to relax.

Suddenly, I remembered what made the images from the books familiar. When I was a child, I never missed Lowell Thomas Presents. It was on Wednesday nights at 7:30, at the same time as my little brother’s Little League games. I loved baseball, and I practiced with his team, but I wouldn’t miss Lowell Thomas for anything. Strangely enough, although we never had a color television set, my memories of those travelogues are in color. In color Lowell Thomas chased down the Dalai Lama; he visited the dye pots of Timbuktu; he climbed the High Atlas Mountains. I drifted to sleep, Charlie’s pictures and Lowell Thomas’ trips melting together in my brain. Still, it didn’t account for the frightening sense of recognition I felt when Charlie’s eyes met mine in the kitchen.

It got cold in the night. October in New Mexico — maybe warm days, but the nights are cold. I was awake early because of the cold, but not awake enough to cover myself better. At 5:30 Charlie knocked on the door. “Come on if we’re going to eat breakfast and make it in time.”

“I’m awake.” I got up. I was even more tired than the day before, but I was determined to be less catatonic and stupid.

“Hi. Do you like yoghurt?”


“I got this thing for Christmas.” He pointed toward a yoghurt machine. “Here, try it. It’s good. How about sprouted wheat? Can you eat that?”

I was thinking, “Health food?” but I said, “Why not?”

“My mother can’t. She can’t seem to digest it. I made bread yesterday. Do you like honey?”

“Sure.” He poured honey over my yoghurt and on my bread. The bread was tough and chewy, dense like a brick. “That’s my dad’s honey,” said Charlie. “He keeps bees.”

My resolution to be articulate vanished. Homemade, sprouted wheat bread, homegrown honey and yoghurt. I thought of my usual — Carnation Instant Breakfast and espresso. Charlie appeared with dental floss. He flossed comfortably, happily, talking. I had quit flossing when my first husband told me it wasn’t appealing. Every small, everyday thing this man did pushed me further into my pit of silence. We got on the motorcycle and went to the fairgrounds were the balloons were firing up. I managed the ride to the fairgrounds without touching him.

Truly it might be the most beautiful sight in the world, 800 balloons in dazzling colors, expanding in the early morning sunshine, then taking off steadily higher with the sun until all the balloons and the sun are well above the Earth. The balloons drifted silently toward the mountains. Near eleven, Charlie said, “Let’s go. I have work to do today.”

We went back to his place. Once there, I actually opened my mouth and invited him for dinner that night.

“I didn’t know you could stay so long,” he said. “I have plans to go to a volleyball tournament tonight. We only have a few tickets, or I’d ask you to come along. But you can stay if you want. I’ll be back around eleven.”

I should have felt rejected or brushed off, but I felt relieved. I was off the hook. It wasn’t just images of children’s dirty faces, snow peaks and the Taj Majal. Other things had happened and were clamoring to be thought about. I knew at that moment that I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home and write stories. I realized it was all I had ever wanted to do. Succeed, fail, whatever the outcome, there was nothing else. Inspiration, no other motive, deserved my life.

“No, I’ll head out. It’s sort of ridiculous to hang around if you have to study and have plans. I would have to leave early in the morning, anyway, if I leave tomorrow, so what’s the point? I’ll go get my stuff together. I went to his room and put my few things into my backpack. Charlie stood at the doorway watching me. The most important thing, to me was to remember the peanut butter can and take a long look at the Taj Mahal.

“Do you have a spare fan belt?” he asked.

“No. Why?”

“You should have one.”

“Oh no,” I said, “I don’t want to be outside of Walsenburg in the dark changing a fan belt.”

“I don’t want you to, either. That’s why you should get one before you leave.”

Now that I was leaving, my personality was returning. I thought to myself, “What is it? Some kind of charm?”

Charlie said, “It’s like a talisman. If you have one, you won’t need it. Your fan belt won’t break.”

“So, do I wear it around my neck?”

“Yes, exactly,” and he smiled. “Here, go to Target. It’s on your way out of town.”

We walked out back together. I decided to check my oil. I opened the hood of my VW and pulled out the dipstick. “Did I tell you I got a speeding ticket?”

“No. Where?”

“South of Las Vegas. I was going 82. Can you believe it? I was so excited. It was fantastic!”


“Oh yeah, you see, three months ago I tuned up my engine and cleaned and rebuilt the carburetor myself. Isn’t it beautiful?” I put my hand on the carburetor.

“That’s amazing! I just did the same to my car!” His Karmann Ghia was sitting next to my Bug. He opened the hood. I was curious to see what the differences were between the Karmann Ghia and a Bug since os many of my friends seemed to think the Ghia was a piece of junk. It was not as simply and elegantly laid out as my engine, but it was OK. Charlie reached in a gently placed his hand on the carburetor of his car. We stood together, our hands on our respective carburetors, as if they were small, cherished pets. It was the first time I had felt relaxed with Charlie. Obviously we shared the same affectionate feelings toward our carburetors. It was something. “It’s incredible, you know? It’s something I couldn’t have done before I took chemistry. It’s been good, taking all of these courses.”

“You mean in summer school?”

“Yeah. I was a literature major — you know that. I had to get as many of my pre-med requirements this summer as I could because I’m almost too old to be accepted anywhere. I don’t have them all, yet. Now I’m taking Inorganic. It’s tough.”

“I know what Inorganic is. The one that killed my ex was Physical Chemistry.”

“I liked that one. So, you’re going?”


“And you’re going to get a fan belt?”

“Right. Well, thanks for the pictures and the balloons.”

He looked at me intently and strangely. “Could you at least give me a hug good-bye?”

“God,” I thought. “Maybe not.” I walked to him and put my arms around him. Since I’d been asked for it, I didn’t die or faint. “Well, bye. If you’re ever in Devoid, let me know.”

“I will. Be careful. Get your fan belt, OK?”

“OK.” He followed me to the car. There in my back seat were my hiking boots. “Hey,” I said. “There are my boots.”

“Are those the ones you wrote me about?”

“Yep. That’s them. Probably have blood stains on the heels.”

“Why do you still have them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why would anyone keep boots that hurt their feet? Give them to me. I’ll sell them for you and send you the money.”

I handed over the boots, awed by Charlie’s simple sanity. Why would anyone keep boots that hurt their feet?

“Well, goodbye,” I said, “thanks for unloading the boots. That should help my mileage not to tote them back to Denver.”

“They are heavy, but they’re good Italian boots.”

“They are, but they don’t fit me.”

I headed out of town, stopping for a fan belt. I felt light, luminous. In the sky I could still see balloons drifting off. I drove the short way, through Taos, but I got lost and found myself driving dirt roads in circles in aspen filled canyons at the base of Taos Mountain.

I love Taos. Miracles can happen there — or could, years ago. One day, as a tourist at Taos Pueblo, I stood on a bridge over a stream and looked at the mountain. My eyes wandered down to the buildings, the piles of homes that make up the pueblo. I saw that the rooms were heaped in such a way that they mimicked the shape of the mountain. It seemed that was true from every point in which I stood, the pueblo and the mountain were the same shape.

I found the highway and drove through the San Luis Valley at sunset. I climbed the pass and dropped into Walsenburg at dusk. I stopped for gas and got a burger at the A&W. The way home was dark, and I felt slightly paranoid about the fan belt, but at least I was no longer suffering from neurotic flat tires. The drive was long, the car unheated, but I was warm with excitement. I knew what I was doing and why for the first time in years, maybe ever. I was a writer, and I was going home to write. All the difficulties of my life and relationships were minor, now. They were food for stories. I couldn’t wait. The Law School Admission Test, which I was taking the following Saturday, seemed like a big joke. Let others be lawyers; I had decided to take the step off the cliff. That was the only way I could know if I had wings.

Just after midnight, I unlocked my door. I turned on my desk lamp, opened my bag and unpacked. In the bottom I found the peanut butter can. On the bottom was written “CM Glass Jar.” I took off the lid. Inside I found plastic bubble wrap. I carefully pulled it out and unwrapped a stone jar small enough to sit in the palm of my hand and exactly the right shape.

90 Degree Angles

“You don’t smoke.”

“I do when you’re around.”

“I love you. I’ve loved you a long time.”

“Yeah? So?” Inhale, exhale, smoke rings.

“You’ve never smoked.”

“Like I said. You’re here.” The man in the haze of smoke was uncompromisingly uninterested in her.

She woke up. Another bizarre message from beyond? Whoa. And not that subtle. Who smoked like that? Who didn’t care whether she loved them or not — or, rather, who used her love as a hook?

“There’s something in this,” she thought, shuffling around her room, getting dressed. “I’ll figure that out later,” she thought, wishing badly she had one of those coffee makers where a person could set a timer and wake up to the smell — and taste! — of fresh, hot, coffee.

Long ago someone had drawn her astrological chart. “Squares,” they’d said. “Here, here, here.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Triangles are when things come together for you. See how squares are open at one end? Things don’t come together. You’re going to have challenges in three areas; work, love and money.”

“What else is there besides work, love and money?”

“I guess you’ll find out,” the astrologer had told her. “You’re clearly an interesting person, see here? You’ll have an adventurous life. But, no. Love relationships won’t work out. You’ll find love, but it won’t work. The timing will be wrong, communication problems, all that kind of thing, you know? You’ll have personal satisfaction in work, but no success, no advancement. And money? You’ll have enough, but…”

“Thanks,” she’d said, and plopped her money down.

“Don’t you want your chart?”

“No,” she’d said. “Whatever it is, it’ll come. Whoever it is, I am.”

“But it could be helpful.”

“I don’t see how,” she had replied walking out into the pink light of a beach winter sunset.

“I guess this is just another one of those squares,” she thought, pulling her sweatshirt over her head. “I really want some coffee.”

Real as Real

“Well what??”

“Look, I can’t explain it. No one can explain it. We’ve tried everything. Psychics, child psychologists, experts in Norse Folklore, NO one has any idea HOW this is happening, but the kids come back. Your kid will probably come back.”

“Probably isn’t good enough, officer,” said Joan, guilt prodding her, pushing her to make a bigger deal of it than she actually felt. What IF Miranda were gone? It was horrible, yes, horrible and sad and Joan was terrified, but the little voice inside her said, “She’ll come back or she won’t, right? That’s what the officer said. They come back.”

“Yes,” thought Joan, “but how can that be OK with me? Shouldn’t I be frantic? I’m just sad and guilty.”

“I’m going after her.” Tom picked up the pot-holder and reached for the door knob. He lifted the door and looked again at the tiny, forbidding steps. He couldn’t go after her. The opening was way too small for a grown man.

“I could’ve told you that,” said the police officer. “Listen, folks, the best thing you can do is go have breakfast and go on with your day. If it’s Trolls it’s Trolls. Nothing you can do. Nothing I can do.”

“You HAVE to do something!” shrieked Joan. “She’s a missing person!”

“All right, all right lady. Let me take down her description. How old is she?”


“How tall?”

“About 40 inches.”

“Features? Hair? Eye color?”

“Brown hair. Hazel eyes. Long brown hair, in two braids.”

“Pink footed jammies you said?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s about it, folks. I wish I could tell you more, but you just have to wait. I’ll call you as soon as — and if — I learn anything different.”

The day wore on. Joan wrangled with the voice inside, disturbed by the revelations in her heart. She tried to hate herself for her “unmotherly” feelings toward her daughter, but she couldn’t. The voice insisted it was as natural not to like one’s child as it was to love it. Did she have any problems with Jordan? No. But Miranda? “Just the kind of kid to go off with a troll,” Joan thought to herself as she helped Jordan finish a puzzle with no interference from Miranda who would’ve been at school anyway. “I guess I can just do a good job as a mom and forget about it,” sighed Joan. “It’s not like it’s forever.”

Late that afternoon, Joan heard the back door open. She ran to the kitchen to see her daughter coming in, dressed for school, her book bag on her back.

“Where were you, missy?” said Joan through clenched teeth. “We were frantic — we called the police. We looked for you everywhere, everywhere, we even found…”

“The door under my bed?”


“I told you but you wouldn’t listen. It’s OK. They’re just Trolls, and now I know there’s nothing scary about Trolls. They’re just like us with families and everything. They even have lemonade. But they have magic powers.”

Joan was torn. Should she spank her daughter for being, being, being WHAT? For lying? Should she hug the little girl and tell her, tell her WHAT?

“I don’t know what to say, Miranda. We’ll just have to wait until your father comes home. Go change your clothes.”

Joan followed Miranda to her room to see what she would do. Standing in the door way she watched her little girl hang up her school clothes and put on her play clothes.

“What about this, young lady?” Joan pointed at the floor.

“What about what, mom? The door is gone, see? They won’t be back. When you understand Trolls, you don’t have to be afraid any more. Can we put my bed back? Didn’t you ever go with the Trolls, Mommy?”

Joan shook her head. “No such thing as Trolls,” sounded hollow and mistaken. She took her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans and pushed her husband’s work number. “She’s home. She went to school. She just now walked in the back door cool as you please as if nothing happened. She said she went with the Trolls, and now there’s nothing to be afraid of. Honey, what? It IS? I’m sorry but it doesn’t make any sense to me. What do you mean ‘If I believe in something strong enough it’s REAL?’ No it isn’t. All right, look, I’m putting her on time-out until you get home. YOU deal with her.”

“I’m coming right home, honey. I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

When Tom walked in the door, Miranda and Jordan were working on a puzzle and Joan looked on, glowering and weeping.

“Tell you what, Joan. She’s home and safe. The cop was right. I don’t know how any of this happened. It makes no sense to me. But I think…”

“You think WHAT?”

“Calm down, Joan.”

“Calm down. My little girl vanishes and she comes home from school like nothing happened, and tells me she went with Trolls. And the cops believe it. You believe it. I think…”


“She played a trick on us.”

“Pretty amazing trick, Joan. How did she get a trap door, a blazing hot lava doorknob and tiny stairs? How did she get dressed and go to school without our knowing about it or seeing her? Too much here that I can’t explain. I say we just go to bed like normal and start again tomorrow. What do you say, honey?” He took his wife’s hand and held it to his lips. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in all your philosophies.”

“Maybe you’re right.” Joan sighed. This had been one of the worst days of her life. She had to face the fact that she was a terrible mother who didn’t even like her own kid. “You might like her when she’s six,” said the little voice in her head. “Give yourself a break.”

That night there were no bedtime stories. Tom tucked his little girl into bed and asked if she would like a night light or for him to check under the bed, in the closet, behind the dresser and under the rug.

“No, daddy. I’m fine. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

But Tom knew that there was plenty to be afraid or, and he decided not to tell his little girl. She had her whole life ahead of her to learn that. He hoped she’d always be brave enough to descend that little staircase and lucky enough to come out the other side not needing a nightlight.

Part One: Bad Dream

Part Two: Hot Knob

Part Three: Blasé Cop

Hot Knob

Tom was astounded and scared. The smell of burnt mush wafted down the hall on the waves of Jordan’s screams. He stood up.

“Honey,” he said to his wife, “You have to get up. Miranda’s missing.”

“It’s just one of her games. You’ll find her somewhere.”

“I don’t want to argue. The mush is burning, Jordan is crying and Miranda is gone.”

“Welcome to MY world,” said Joan. But she sat up, slipped her feet into her fluffy bunny slippers and put on her robe. Tying it around her, she went to the kitchen, picked Jordan up so he would stop screaming, and turned off the fire under the mush. “Whoever said children change your life was right. I don’t know about the ‘for the better’ part.” Jordan grabbed a wad of her hair and pulled it. She went to Miranda’s bedroom and found Tom sitting on Miranda’s bed. He’d moved Miranda’s pink fluffy rug and the bed to one side and was staring at the trap door..

“Did you KNOW about this?”

“The question you should be asking, Tom, is whether it’s a real door or not.”

“Oh come on. Miranda couldn’t have drawn this. She’s five.”

Tom leaned down and touched the lava doorknob. “Good Lord!” he screamed, pulling back his hand. “This is crazy. That doorknob is as hot as fire.”

“Probably something wrong with the furnace. I think you should call somebody.”

“Get me a hot pad from the kitchen.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I had a funny feeling last night when Miranda came to our room, a premonition, that there really was…”

“A TROLL? Tom, call the cops. If our daughter is really missing — and hasn’t just found the perfect hiding place — but seriously?” Joan lifted her voice and called, “Miranda! Miranda! Come out from wherever you are. This isn’t funny any more. Miranda!!!!

Part One: Bad Dream

Bad Dream

“Go back to bed. You can’t sleep with us. You have your own room.”

Miranda looked all around her parents’ room.

“Mommy, there’s a troll after me. He wants to eat me.”

“It’s just your imagination, Miranda. Trolls aren’t real. They’re just in stories.”

“They ARE!” Miranda began to cry. “Trolls ARE real!”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble,” said Miranda’s father, translated to, “Let her in bed so we can get some sleep!”

“You know, Tom, I don’t believe in children sleeping with parents! It’s not healthy!”

“Mumble, mumble, mumble,” translated to, “I don’t give a good god-damn what you believe, I have to work tomorrow.”

Miranda crawled into bed beside her mom, but her mom made sure Miranda would NOT be comfortable. She gave her six inches on the edge of the bed. Miranda lay wide-eyed, awake, waiting. She was sure the troll had followed her and was right UNDER the bed waiting for her to put a leg outside the covers. Then the trolll would GRAB it and drag her down, pull her under the bed and take her through a secret doorway in the floor to the netherworld where he would cook and eat her.

The sun hit the huge roses — or were they peonies? — on the bedroom drapes. The light was golden and brief.

Miranda’s mother moaned, “Morning already?”

“Don’t worry, kitten. I’ll fix breakfast for the kids.” Miranda’s father kissed his wife on the cheek, sat up and ambled to the bathroom in his shorts and t-shirt. He washed and shook his head awake. “What a NIGHT,” he thought. “I’ll be so happy when Miranda gets through this nightmare phase.”

He returned to their bedroom, got dressed for work — all but his suit jacket — and went to the kitchen. He made coffee, put water on to boil for mush, waking up bit by bit as the sun rose higher. “Where are the kids?” he wondered. They were always awake the minute the sun peeked over the edge of the world. Miranda usually let her little brother out of the crib and they came running to the kitchen to “help.”

The coffee perking, the mush boiling, he went to wake up his children. Jordan was standing in his crib, waiting to be let out. “C’mon big fella. There you go, now go to the bathroom while I get your big sister.” Jordan hugged his dad around the neck and ran to the bathroom.

Tom found Miranda’s bedroom door open, but no Miranda anywhere.

“That’s right,” he thought. “She slept with us last night.” He went back to his bedroom and quietly opened the door.  “Honey,” he said, “did Miranda sleep with us all night?”

“What? What is it, Tom?”


“I don’t know. She had a bad dream. She went back to her room about 4 or so.”

“She’s not there now.”

“She’s hiding. She thinks that’s funny. Look under her bed.”

“OK. Go back to sleep.”

Tom went back to his little girl’s room. “Miranda, this isn’t funny. Come on out now. Your mush will be burned.” He looked in the closet, behind the door, beside her dresser. Finally he moved her bed and underneath it he found not his daughter but a trap door with a tiny doorknob made of lava.

Continued here:

Then here:

Of a Sunday

“Big congregation.”

“More than 300 every Sunday,” said Marjorie to the woman next to her, a guest, apparently.

“Must be a good pastor.”

“We like him.” Marjorie settled in the pew as the organist struck the first chord of the first hymn.

All around were fragrant ladies in Dorothy Grey makeup, with fancy hats that matched their brightly colored dresses. Their gloved hands lay neatly, one above the other, on their laps. All the stockings were nude, their heels were black or brown, in summer white, beige, navy or even two-colored spectators.

Marjori sat between her two children. They were her pride and joy, but she wasn’t good at communicating this to them. Her daughter, now twelve and almost a young lady,  had her own Bible, and her son — still a little boy — wore a tie.

The morning light came through the stained glass window, casting a golden glow on everyone and everything.

After the sermon, everyone stood for the doxology and praised God from whom all blessings flowed, then they left in a friendly procession as the organ played a jubilant hymn at march tempo. The pastor waited at the door to shake everyone’s hand and say a few words that showed he really did know them.

And then…

Marjorie saw the family car parked at the bottom of the steps. Everyone would have to pass it as they left. They would see that her husband had not been in church and, worse. Her husband sat  behind the wheel reading the Sunday funnies in plain view.

“How could you do this to me?” she asked, opening the passenger door.


“Couldn’t you park somewhere else, somewhere where everyone won’t walk past our car and see you weren’t in church?”

“Marjorie, I…” Jack began, then he looked at his wife. The look in her eyes resembled the gathering clouds of a late afternoon summer thunderstorm. “OK, honey. Next time I’ll park over there.”

“And the funny papers! A slap in the face to Reverend Seibel!”


“It isn’t even noon!”

“What does the time of day have to do with the comics?”

“GO! Everyone is staring! Go. We can talk about this at home.” Marjorie’s mouth formed a  terse hard line across her chin.

It was a long Sunday afternoon for everyone. The roast was overdone. The mashed potatoes lumpy and dry. The cooked carrots were, well, cooked carrots. The jello salad watery. The comics — which the kids regarded as their reward for two hours of looking at old ladies’ nose hair and trying to breathe air saturated with the random mix of Fabergé scents piled on top their mother’s Chanel #9, were OUT. OF. BOUNDS.

“When I was a girl,” began Marjorie in a stentorian voice, “we only read the Bible on Sundays. We couldn’t read the funnies, or Elsie Dinsmore, or anything else. Only the Bible.”

Jack looked up from his roast, “Pass the horseradish?”

Marjorie set it in front of him with the force of a pile driver.

“I said I was sorry.”

“Sorry doesn’t make up for the humiliation of all those people seeing that my husband would rather ready the funny papers than go to church of a Sunday.”

Of a Sunday?” thought Meg, the little girl, picking up the archaism in her mother’s speech. “Mom is channeling grandma.” She wondered if her grandma would really care about the funny papers or where her dad had parked. She shook her head.

“What are you shaking your head at, missy?” demanded Marjorie.

“I just wondered if grandma would care what dad did or if she’d just be happy to be here with us and go to church.” She badly wanted to add, “Of a Sunday” but thought better of it.

“That is neither here nor there,” said Marjorie. “Your grandmother is not here. She’s in Heaven with the angels.” Marjorie’s lips disappeared completely.

Somehow the family made it through the day. As the sun began to dip below the horizon, Marjorie said, “If you kids want to read the funny papers, you can.”

It was the end of the sabbath.



Sticky Notes

“Good luck with that!” Tiffany softly giggled to herself.

“I’m serious. I insist you clean up your room.”

“Mom. I’m 38. You don’t have that kind of leverage any more.”

“You’re living in MY house under MY roof. You’ll do as I say.”

“Yeah, but mom, I took over the payments six years ago. It’s really MY house and yeah. I have to go to work.”

“Tiffany! I’m your mother! Come back here! Listen to me when I’m talking to you!”

Tiffany was relieved to hear the front door open and close followed by footsteps in the hall. “Thank goodness,” she thought.

“Hi Mrs. Baumgarten.”

“Who are you?”

“Jenny? Your nurse? Remember? I come every day, Mrs. Baumgarten. Have you had your breakfast yet?”

Tiffany’s mother shook her head and looked around Tiffany’s room in confusion. It wasn’t messy. It was as neat as a pin. She shrugged and followed Jenny to the kitchen.

“Jenny, can we have a word?” Tiffany passing the kitchen on her way out.


“She just had an episode.”

“I thought she might have. She gets that lost look in her eyes afterwards, sort of ‘What was that?'”

“If you need me I’m only a text away.”

“We’re going to sit down after breakfast and write sticky notes to ourself to help us with the day.”

“I love that. I come home and see everything mom did while I was gone.”

“It keeps her on track. Don’t worry, Tiffany. Have a good day.”

“You too, Jenny, and thank you.”

“No worries. Remember, you pay me!” Jenny smiled and gave Tiffany a quick hug.

“Yeah, I know, but…”

“I know.”

“Bye mom!”

“Bye honey! Have a good day!”


The cars sped around the track that had been part of an airfield only a year before.  The fans — mostly young girls in tweed skirts, heavy sweaters and warm shawls pulled tight across their shivering shoulders — cheered from the sidelines. Men in cuffed trousers and brown brogans with heavy socks, bent over their stopwatches. In the announcer’s box — a wooden affair, quickly cobbled together out of old boxes and scrap wood after the war and painted the high gloss gray left over from painting runways — a man with a microphone called the names of the three drivers closest to the finish line.

“In third place, but coming up quickly, is Denis O’Callahan from Donegal. In second, driving hard to overtake the first place driver, is Paddy O’Murphy from Coleraine. In first place and fighting to hold his position, is Seamus Kennedy from Galway. With only seconds left — oh, an upset, O’Murphy has overtaken Kennedy, and he’s, he’s, HE’S WON, FOLKS! The first place trophy goes to Paddy O’Murphy of Coleraine! We’re going down to talk to him now. Mr. O’Murphy, congratulations on your win. For a time it was looking like you’d be taking second place.”

“I don’t take second place. It’s not in me blood, second place.”

“Automobile racing is a dangerous game. There were a few close calls this afternoon. Tell me somethin’.”


“You survived that godawful war, so why are ye’ riskin’ yer life out here on the track?”

“Och, dat’s easy. I race for duh trill of it, dontcha’ know?”

Satori of Pit Bull

“I think so, too. Roger. You were right. I’m not interested in anything, not here, anyway. I don’t know why. I mean we have a great place to live, good jobs, you’re a good looking guy, we’re pretty much free to do what we want…”

“Uh, I didn’t mean that talk.”

“WHAT talk, then?”

“Jasmine, I saw the green flash.”

“Comic books again, Roger?” Jasmine suddenly knew why she was so bored with this man.

“It was amazing. Miraculous, I didn’t even think it really existed.”

“Of course it doesn’t exist. He’s a comic book character. You are such a CHILD. If I wanted kids, I’d have some.” Jasmine stood up from the bed, looked into the contents of her suitcase, decided there were stores everywhere and she had money. Why was she packing ANYTHING? OH well. She closed it carefully, making sure it was latched. She didn’t want her dramatic exit to turn into a comedic movie scene where the lid popped open and lingerie spilled everywhere. “Roger, I’m leaving. I don’t know if I’m leaving for good or not, but, yeah, this isn’t making me happy.”

“Wait, Jasmine, what I learned is that NOTHING makes us happy. We’re either happy or we’re not. You know what? A bum, a homeless fucking bum, on the beach who’s got NOTHING, offered to share his beer with me. He said I looked ‘forlorn’.”

“So? Were you?”

“Well, yeah. Trev and Candace were, I dunno, and then you didn’t want to go with me, that was, I dunno. I took a walk and kept meeting weirdos. I ended up sitting on the sand with a pit bull and a teenager waiting for the green flash.”

“A pit bull and a teenager?”

“Yeah. Sweet dog.”

“OK, well, you know, it’s been real, Roger, but…” She walked down the hallway to the foyer pausing to take a look around at their “home.”

“If you leave, we’ll have to sell this place.” Roger thought for a moment. What would be so bad about that?

“We can talk about the details later, babe.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know right now. I’ll be in touch.” The door closed behind her and Roger found himself in their barn of a house. Its decorative touches, the vaulted ceiling, the giant fireplace they never used, the wallpaper frieze of undulating patterns that had once so enchanted Jasmine all seemed like silly adornment on a world that didn’t need adornment, a world that had a green flash.

Part 1: Allergic to Life

Part 2: Something about Cake

Part 3: Connectivity Issues

Part 4: Crowd Control

Part 5: THAT Sentence