Breakfast with Lou Ann

 

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He was older than she’d thought he would be when she had glanced at the photo of him in the newspaper. In person there were more gray hairs at his temples and some grizzling along his jawline which was not unattractive. He sat across the restaurant from her, with a sallow faced young woman, scowling a bit as he looked down to stir his coffee. Of course the newspaper could have used an old photograph of him.

Nobody else in the restaurant seemed to recognize him. Her husband Gregory sat across from her, preoccupied with his cellphone as he nibbled on a piece of toast. She gently cleared her throat and Gregory looked up.

“Don’t look now,” she said, “but isn’t that Roberto Talenski?”

“Who?”

“Roberto Talenski. The man who rescued all those children from the sinkhole at the school in New Mexico last weekend. He was on the news. It was in the newspaper.”

“You keep up on those things much more than I do,” her husband said mildly.

She sighed. “It was kind of a big deal,” she said. “He carried most of them out himself. He helped lift the few remaining ones out too. He’s a big hero. BIG hero.”

Gregory glanced across the restaurant. “He seems like an ordinary guy.”

“Well that’s what’s so wonderful about it. He’s not a firefighter, he’s an accountant. Just a normal guy who performed a heroic act when he was called upon to do so. It was really amazing what he did.”

“You want to talk to him I bet,” her husband said.

“No, I don’t want to bother him. But I have an idea. Let’s buy his meal. It would be a way to thank him for what he did.”

“That’s a splendid idea,” said Gregory, and signaled the waitress over to their table. He explained to her what they wanted to do and the waitress went across the room and talked to the man, gesturing back to them. They waved at him. He didn’t wave back.

He shook his head no and made a shooing motion with his hand. The waitress backed away and came to their table.

“He doesn’t want you to buy his meal,” she said.

She didn’t know what to say and blinked away tears. One ran down her cheek and she swiped at it with the back of her hand. The man was watching her and pushed back his chair to come over to them.

” I didn’t mean to make you cry,” he said. “I can’t accept your offer, that’s all. I am not Roberto and I am having a crappy morning and I should have thanked you for the gesture and I didn’t.”

“Oh,” she said. “Oh I feel so stupid now.”

“Don’t feel stupid,” the man said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at their table. “I am flattered, now that I think about it. I haven’t done anything especially heroic lately. ” He looked over at the young woman and then back at them.

“I just, I just…..this is so hard to put into words,” she said. “I just was so excited to see a real hero. We have a real shortage of heroes right now in our world, and so many people behaving so badly, and I guess I just wanted to believe.”

Her husband reached over and took her hand. “I love that about you darling.”

“Can I ask you something?” she said. Why are you having a crappy morning?”

He hesitated, looking over at the young woman. “It’s my daughter. She just told me she’s going to quit school to move to Missouri with her boyfriend and work on civil rights issues there.”

“That sounds pretty heroic to me,” she said.

He looked at her for a long moment.

“I never thought about it that way. You might be right.”

“Maybe I was buying breakfast for the wrong person at your table,” she said, and smiled.

He laughed. “Maybe you were at that.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Mike Watson. It’s been a pleasure to meet you…..”

“Lou Ann,” she said and shook his hand. He walked back to his table.

“Well there you go,” her husband said and smiled fondly at her.

“Yes, there I go,” she said.

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The Last Train

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She had missed the last train and there was only one person she could see on the opposite train platform, walking briskly towards the station after a train going the other direction had stopped and started again. She was now stranded in a small town many miles from London.  She had gotten off the train to take pictures of the town park she had glimpsed while slowly pulling into the station. It was in her head that there was one more train that evening but she had read the schedule wrong and now here she was.

She heard a quiet ahem from the door of the station.  A gray-haired man dressed neatly in pressed slacks and shirt was holding the door open and looking at her.

“Need help, Miss?”

“I suppose I do,” she said. “I’ve missed the train and will need a place to stay in your town. Are there any hotels close by?”

“The nearest hotel is two towns over, Miss” he said. “We’re a wee bit small to attract the likes that need a hotel.”

“Oh, dear,” she sighed.

“You might ask down at the Camel,” he said. “They usually have a room they let the utterly pissed wankers sleep it off in. The least that can happen is you have a good pint while you sort it out.”

“That sounds like a plan,” she said, and smiled. “Thanks.” She walked past him and through the station and onto the main street of the town. The air had that soft quality that happens at dusk just before it gets dark. As she walked down the street she could smell roses from the small front yards she passed.  I am happy, she thought. This moment, right here right now, I am happy. And what a grand gift to recognize it at the time, and not afterwards!

She was smiling as she walked in the door of The Camel & The Artichoke.  It was an unremarkable pub, with the usual sturdy tables and chairs, and the fireplace in the corner had a large fire burning, despite the mild late Spring air outside. She took off her coat and sat down at a table close to the bar. There were about a dozen people, including an older woman sitting by herself close to the fire. A young red-haired woman tending bar behind the counter called over to her and she ordered a pint.  It was brought over to her within a minute.

“Thank you,” she said. “I missed the train and I need a room to stay in for the night. I was told to ask here?”

“I dona know,” the bartender said. “My da isn’t here and he usually deals with all that. He’ll be here later, I can ask him then.”

“That’s fine,” she said. The older woman sitting by the fire looked at her and waved across the room.  She waved back. The woman motioned to her to come closer so she picked up her pint and her purse and moved across the room to sit across the table from the woman.

“I couldn’t help but overhear,” the woman said. “I’m Francy and I help out here too. I can take you upstairs to the room when you like. It’s no problem whatsoever.”

“That’s so nice,” she said. She sipped her beer and talked with Francy about life in the little town. Francy had funny stories to tell about all the locals, including a few stories about her own life there. An hour went by and then another and she had another pint and basket of chips. She told Francy she was tired and Francy stood up and led her to the curtained back door.

“It’s right this way,” Francy said.

She glanced over at the bartender and the woman had a questioning look on her face, staring at her. She gave her a little half wave and followed Francy behind the curtain and up a steep narrow staircase. Francy opened the door to a small room with a single bed and a few small pieces of furniture.

“Thanks so much,” she said.

“No worries, love,” Francy said. “Sleep well.”

She closed the door and sat down on the small bed. The room had few furnishings but was neat and tidy. There was the same scent of roses she had smelled when walking down the street.  There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” she called.

The bartender opened the door and looked at her. “Why are you up here?” the bartender asked.

“Oh,” she said. “Francy brought me up here. Didn’t you see?”

“Francy?  Francy? That’s not possible,” the bartender said.

“Well of course it is. She was downstairs sitting by the fire. Surely you saw her. She said she worked here or actually she said she helped here and she said I could stay in this room. I sat and talked to her for over an hour. You saw us.”

The bartender came in the room and sat on a chair by the dresser.

“I saw you sitting by yourself,” she said slowly, shaking her head. “And then you wandered up here by your lonesome.”

Her mind was reeling. “What? No,” she said.

“Yes,” the bartender said. “And furthermore, Francy is me gran. And she’s been dead for five years. Her name was Frances but everyone called her Francy. I don’t know how you’d even know that.”

“But I talked to her. I saw her. She was wearing a housedress and a yellow cardigan. Her hair was short and curled about her ears. She had bright blue eyes. There was a red rose brooch pinned to her cardigan. I saw her!”

“Sounds like Francy alright.”

“I don’t know what to think.”

The bartender stood up. “Well she wanted you to stay here.  That much is clear. My da has seen her a few times since she passed. I wish I could. I’m jealous you did…..but you are welcome to the room. We serve a good rashers in the morning. You’ll smell it up here. Come down and share it with us, if you like.”

“You are so kind,” she said. “thank you.”

“Good night then,” the bartender said and left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.

She shook her head and then laughed. I’ve always wanted to see a ghost, she thought. And to think I saw one and didn’t even know it!  Goodnight Francy, and thanks for the hospitality. You Brits are the best!

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Keeping the Faith

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He had kept their mother alive in their thoughts. Too alive, perhaps.  Her favorite chair still had her half finished embroidery project draped across the seat so they couldn’t sit in it. Her shoes were still neatly lined up by the front door. The glass of iced tea she’d last drank from sat on the kitchen window sill, with a line of dark crud at the bottom of the glass and a cobweb across the top. He wouldn’t let anyone wash it.

He’d been very upset when the house plants began to die one after the other from his relentless over-watering, but he hadn’t been able to stop himself from watering them more.

His father had tried to talk to him about it, gently at first, and then more urgently.

“Look, Robby, I understand,” he’d said. “You miss your mother. You don’t want to forget her and you don’t want us to either. But we won’t. She’ll always be a part of us.”

“She’ll be back,” Robby said stubbornly. “And she’ll be mad if we change things.”

“She’s not coming back, son,” his father said. “We’ve talked about this. We’ve had this talk. Over and over. I am so sorry.  I know you are sad. I am sad too. We all miss her.”

“I don’t think you miss her. You took her coat out of the hall closet. It’s not there anymore.”

“Of course I miss her,” his father said. “I miss her a lot. But there was no point in holding onto her coat…..” His voice trailed off.

“I am the only one who cares,” Robby said, and walked out the room.  He climbed the stairs up to his parents bedroom and stood with his hands on his hips, looking around.

Robby took his mother’s hairbrush out of the wastebasket where his father had tried to hide it.  He put it back on the bathroom counter, next to the sink. He looked at himself in the mirror and tried to smooth down his hair.  He was growing it out, to the length his mother wore her hair, curling around her ears and down to the base of her neck.

He went to her closet and bent to sniff at a few of her blouses.  They still smelled like her, although the scent was growing fainter.  He rubbed his cheek against one of the blouses and it snagged on the stubble. He’d forgotten to shave for a day or two.

Robby walked down the hallway and into his boyhood room. He’d moved back in right before his mother had died so he’d been there when she was taken by ambulance to the hospital. They’d said that she died but she had told him when she was on the stretcher that she’d be back and she’d smiled sweetly at him. So he knew she’d be back.  He just had to be patient and ignore all the lies.

He laid down on his twin bed, his feet dangling off the end. He spent most of his time here, now, other than patrolling the house several times a day to make sure they hadn’t changed anything. He’d toss a whiffle ball up into the air again and again, and sometimes bounce it off the wall. His little clock radio buzzed pop songs into his left ear. Every once in awhile he’d hear soft noises, like the squishy slippers his mom liked to wear. Was that her out in the hallway?  No, not yet. He tossed the ball up. He caught it. He tossed the ball up.  He caught it.  He tossed the ball up and waited for his mom to come tuck him in.

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The Loop

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To his horror, he realized he’d been this way before, but it had been a dream then, and it was very very real now, as the road curved to the right and then to the left.  He slowed his car down to look, and yes, there was the burned out building on the left, with the business sign on a 20 ft pole by the street, the front cracked and mostly missing, except for the silhouette of a black cat on one corner. Now there was going to be a grimy local convenience store on the right, and there it was.

He wasn’t sure why he had chosen to take this particular road home from the business meeting.  He’d been preoccupied with thoughts of what his wife was going to make for dinner and trying to remember if there was a basketball game on tonight, just simple thoughts really, although he’d also thought briefly about the peculiar mole the man he’d met had above his left eyebrow. It was darkest brown and large and in the shape of a gum drop, and it kept moving as his potential client talked. It was quite distracting, actually. He’d tried to put the mole image out of his head, because it mildly repulsed him and the man was very nice, otherwise. He’d like to have him as a client. Perhaps mostly by phone and computer though.

He could turn around and go back to find his normal route home but his car had only a quarter tank of gas and he had no idea where there was a gas station in the area. It was probably just a coincidence that he’d dreamed about driving this road. What was up ahead? Ah, yes the same row of apartment buildings, with kids playing ball in the parking lot. And right there–was an L shaped single level business complex, with most of the windows empty. There were no other cars on the road, just like in his dream.

A feeling of dread grew in him as he saw familiar landmarks to the right and to the left and to the right again.  And up ahead, if things continued like this….the bridge over the river. And after he crossed over the bridge, he’d see the same burned out building again, and the convenience store and he’d drive and drive and drive on an endless loop with no way out.  He’d always wake up from this dream sweaty, his heart pounding, and his wife murmuring half awake soothing sounds.

Was there a way off this path? Could he turn down a side street and break free? He wasn’t sure, and was afraid to try. What if there was something worse waiting for him down a dark side street?

He kept driving.

There was the bridge ahead. It was the moment of truth and his heart felt like it was going to leap out of his chest. The car tires hummed as he drove over the bridge and then he was on the other side. Was there going to be the burned out building ahead?  Could he bear it?  He stopped the car on the side of the road.

What is the worst that can happen? he asked himself. There might be the burned out building ahead, which means he is stuck in a loop. But maybe there isn’t. There was only one way to find out. And maybe if he IS in the loop he only thinks he’s not dreaming. Maybe he’s in the dream….and then he’ll wake up with his lovely wife lying next to him. And he loved waking up next to her.

“I’m on my way to you, one way or another, Margo,” he said out loud.

He moved his car back onto the road and began to drive.

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Casper and the Lamb

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She held the baby lamb in her arms. It was cold in the barn stall and she could hear the rustling of horses in the other stalls. The lamb was growing cold too.  It had died the hour before. She held the lamb and thought about the fresh grave in the family cemetery up on the hill. She’d lost the baby just shy of 6 months along in the pregnancy and the pain was still raw and ferocious. She held the lamb and rocked from side to side, crooning under her breath.

Her husband had gently tried to coax her away from the dead lamb but she wasn’t ready. Life is just endless letting go and letting go and letting go, she thought. “I need just a bit more time,” she said and he’d kissed the top of her head and eased out of the stall. She knew he was standing outside the barn, his hands tucked into his wool jacket, waiting for her.

She needed to go into town, she needed to buy supplies for the farm, she needed to start getting back into life, but the first time she’d tried it went okay until she saw the Easter baby outfits in the window of the children’s store. It took her breath away and she bent over in pain. She’d had to get back in the truck and wait for her husband to finish the shopping.

She heard a shuffling noise behind her in the stall.

“I’m guessing that’s you Casper,” she said. A little snicker sound of reply.

She rocked back and forth slowly. “One of these days you’re going to show up when everything’s just fine and dandy,” she said softly. “I’d like that. You listening, Casper?”

Another little snicker, a bit closer and then she could feel a warm breath on her ear. A horse muzzle was lightly resting on her shoulder and she could hear him breathing. She stopped rocking and sat there several minutes, her eyes shut. It was as close to a hug as a horse could give.

She reached up to pat the muzzle and it wasn’t there.  She sat for another moment, then got up on her knees to lay the lamb in the little box her husband had built.

“Jon?” she called.

She heard the barn door creak open.

“Yes love?”

“I’m ready. I’m ready to bury the lamb now.”

 

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Word of the Year 2019

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Particles in Space

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Space always looked so beautiful from inside the spacecraft but now it had a whole different feel, he thought. He gazed out the window at the stars. There were so many millions of them to see, when one was floating miles above the earth and away from light pollution. He touched his swollen abdomen again and grimaced. They were sending a doctor up to him, but the weather was stormy at the cape and there was no knowing when it would clear enough to be able to launch. All the signs indicated that he had appendicitis, and it was growing worse by the hour.

He loved looking down at the earth from spacecraft. He never grew tired of it. There was so much clarity in space. Everything was crystal clear and close and yet far. The dichotomy intrigued him and led his mind down spirals of poetic thought. Every politician should be required to spend a month in space, he thought. It would change every single one of them for the better. How could it not? You lose your ego in space and realize just how small you are. You see how you are just a wee particle in the grand scheme of things and how all particles either repel or attract. That all particles have their role to play.

He knew he needed to drink something but he didn’t feel like it. He felt dreamy and wanted to float so he unlatched his harnesses and drifted. There was something new out the window and he languidly kicked his legs in that direction. There was a woman floating just outside the window, her long red hair like a rippling burning lake around her face. She was smiling at him. There was part of him that knew she was just a hallucination but she was beautiful and he really didn’t care. He waved to her. She pointed to something off her left side. He drifted closer to see. There was a spaceship coming towards him. She motioned towards her ear. He tapped his own ear. She motioned again. He put in his earbud that had fallen out.

“Mission control calling. Come in please. Mission control calling. Readying to dock. Ready all at your end. Please confirm.”

He knew he needed to do something. What was it again? He glanced at her. She made the motion of putting on a helmet. He put on his helmet. She motioned to push buttons.

He floated over to the docking control panel. There were so many buttons and he was tired. Maybe he could close his eyes for a bit and do it later. He looked at her. She lifted her arm in an exaggerated motion to her right and pretended to push five buttons in a row. He looked down at the panel and pushed the five right side buttons that were blinking.

He could feel a whoosh in the air pressure of the cabin. There were more noises in his ear. He was so tired.

“Mission Control, we’ve docked and are going in.”

He looked at the window. She blew him a kiss and began to drift away. He closed his eyes and what seemed like hours later he felt someone grasping him from behind.

 

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