Under the Oak Tree

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There was just one person she needed. And he’d moved to another city far away from the farm she still lived on with her parents.  The night before he left they sat together under the oak tree, watching the horses  in the pasture softly move together, and then apart. Much like us, she thought. We’ve done this little dance for the past several years, so scared to make it more than just a flirtation. It could be the real deal, if we both opened our hearts. But he was afraid, although he said he had other reasons. That last night the air was cool and had a sweet grass smell. They’d sat apart on the horse blanket, their feet almost touching. They’d talked of many things, like they always did. He’d hugged her goodbye, and held on for a little too long, groaning a little in the back of his throat as he bent his head down to nestle in her neck. And then the sound of his pickup and she went into the house.

She sat there tonight under the oak tree again. There was a slight sound, almost a whisper. It sounded like a horse nicker and she glimpsed something white off to the left. Casper, she thought. Ever since her mother had told her about the doomed white colt and how he’d saved her brother she’d occasionally see something that looked like him. You couldn’t look straight ahead and see him…only out of the corner of your eye. So elusive. Just like love. He seemed to show up when emotions were running strong, when her heart was beating faster. When something strong and wild was moving through her. She didn’t know why. He was just there. She wondered if she moved away if she would still see him. If she too went off to live in a city far away, would Casper still appear. Would she hear him and catch that glimpse on a street corner? Sitting at a cafe? In a high rise building? No, she thought. He belongs here on the farm, just like I do. He’s a part of the cycle of the farm, the animals and the people and the different seasons. And maybe there’s seasons for love too.

There was the nickering sound again. She saw headlights coming down the long stretch of the driveway. It was a pickup truck. Her heart beat faster. She waited, on the blanket,  stars glimmering through the branches of the tree.

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The Brotherhood of Shopping Carts

shopping cart

As he opened the car door there was a loud rattling noise behind him and something slammed into the back of his legs. He turned to look and there was a shopping cart nudged up behind him. He pushed back and turned around.  There were only a few cars in the parking lot that late at night and there wasn’t anyone in sight. How odd, he thought.  Where did this shopping cart come from?

Leaving his car door open, he started pushing the shopping cart back to the corral on the other side of the lane. He heard the rattling sound again. Another shopping cart clattered across the pavement behind him, seeming to block his path back to his car.  He stopped short. Now I am just seeing things, he thought. It’s not blocking my path, it’s just a random thing.  He pushed the first cart into the corral. It seemed reluctant to go into it, but he shoved extra hard and it finally went behind the barrier, bumping two carts, which rolled out the other end. He looked at them and they stopped rolling. Thank God, he thought, his stomach churning. He turned to walk back to his car and heard more rattling….No, he thought. No. It can’t be. He glanced over his shoulder and the two carts had separated and were rolling towards him, one on his left and one on his right. There was still the shopping cart straight ahead.

Screw this, he thought and started running towards his car, but the cart in front of him moved into his path and the front pivoted left and right, like a fighting bull pawing the ground. He shoved at it and it didn’t budge…it just moved forward a bit and nudged him. The other two carts came up and the three formed a tight triangle around him, wedging him in. He shoved at each one and they moved away a bit and then back…and then started rolling a slow circle around him.

This is crazy, he thought. I can’t panic. Something is going on. Maybe I’m being filmed for a goofy show. Maybe the world is coming to an end, even there’s something so damn humiliating about shopping carts being my demise. No…I have to figure this out.

He stood still. “What do you want?” he said.

One cart moved away, towards the back end of his car. Another cart gently nudged the back of his legs. When he didn’t move the first cart stopped, waiting expectantly. The other cart nudged again. Something clicked in his head.

“Ah. Do you want me to follow you?” he asked, and began to move towards the first cart, which rattled around the end of his car and out towards the end of the parking lot. The other two carts rattled alongside him on either side. Their little caravan traveled about 100 feet before reaching the edge of the pavement. He walked closer and saw there was a little gully wash beyond, with a three or four foot drop. And there at the bottom of the gully was a shopping cart, lying on its side.

He climbed down the gentle slope of the gully and lifted the shopping cart back up on its wheels. With some effort, he lifted and pushed the cart back up out of the gully and onto the pavement. The other three carts moved gently towards the wayward cart and clicked until they were all linked together. He stood there for a moment. And then pushed the connected carts across the parking lot to the corral. They rolled freely and went into the corral with ease.  His car door was still open. Nobody is ever going to believe this, he thought, and got into his car.

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Pie and Ice Cream

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He sat alone in the coffee shop by the window. Cold grey sleet made a ticky ticky sound on the glass before it turned to water and ran like tears down the pane. Loosely he held the hot cup in his hand–the warmth felt good against his cold fingers. It had been a long miserable drive from the funeral parlor in the town he used to live in.  His mother had died on a Sunday so at least the traffic wasn’t too bad. It’s almost like she planned it that way, he thought. She never wanted to inconvenience him. She never quite understood that he wanted to help, he wanted to be there for her, even though he had taken a job a couple of hours away. She’d mind the rain, though. She’d worry about him having to drive through the stormy streets at dusk. He took a sip of coffee and grimaced at the bitterness. There’s nobody to worry about me now, he thought. He wasn’t sure at this moment if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Ugh, this rain,” the waitress said as she poured more coffee into his mug.

“I don’t mind it,” he said, not looking up. “It’s actually perfect for my mood.”

“Bad day?” she asked.

He glanced up at her. She had a kindly face with smile crinkles at the corners of her eyes.

“You could say that,” he said. He didn’t want to burden her with his troubles, even though the pull to unload his sad story was strong. He looked back out the window. This is actually perfect weather, he thought. It would be so wrong for it to be sunny. I don’t think I could stand it if it were sunny.

She went into the diner kitchen and came back with a piece of pie and sat it down in front of him.

“I didn’t order this,” he said.

“Oh, someone in here thought you might need a piece of pie. It’s Dutch Apple and I heated it up just a bit. You’ll like it.”

He looked around the small restaurant. There was a college age kid typing away on a computer off in one corner. An older man sat at the counter, chewing on a hamburger. A middle aged couple sat two tables over, talking in hushed tones over dirty plates.

“Thank you for the pie,” he said loudly. None of them glanced over at him. “I said, thank you for the pie,” he said, even louder. The couple glanced over at him and then at each other and then kept talking. He stood up.

“THANK YOU FOR THE GODDAMN PIE!”  There were tears on his cheeks. Why were there tears on his cheeks?

“Oh God,” he said. “My mother’s dead. My mother’s dead. I think it finally just hit me. I’m so sorry. I’m being an ass. I have to go.” He fumbled to put on his coat. The waitress put a hand on his arm.

“Don’t go,” she said quietly. “Sit down and eat the pie. It came from me. I wanted to help you feel better. Please sit down and eat the pie.”

He sat down and wiped at his cheeks.

“I almost forgot the most important part!” she said. “I’ll be right back! Don’t move!”

She picked up the plate and went into the kitchen and back again a minute later. “Vanilla ice cream on top. Now that’s the ticket. It’s almost impossible to be sad when eating ice cream.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“You didn’t say that NEARLY loud enough this time,” she said and winked. He laughed and took his fork and made sure he had equal portions of pie and ice cream on it, before raising it to his mouth. His mother had loved ice cream on pie too. They’d laugh together over her large mound of ice cream on a small piece of pie. “Is there pie somewhere on that plate, or is it just a huge scoop of ice cream?” he’d tease. “Gotta get my calcium,” she’d say right back. Eating this pie and ice cream was like getting a hug from her. And maybe that was the point. Maybe he was meant to be here, with the sleeting rain outside, eating ice cream and thinking about the good memories with her. He took another bite.

“Thank you mom,” he thought.

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What Would Henry Say?

cubicle

If you couldn’t arrange a solar eclipse to darken your day, there was always Henry. He sat two cubicles over in our smallish office area. We had a smaller team than some of the others so there were only 8 of us and we all went out for drinks at least one night a week. Except for Henry. He always had an excuse for why he couldn’t go, and secretly we were glad, as we’d have enough of his booming strident voice during the day.

No matter what the situation Henry could be counted on to contribute a dour note. In meetings he’d always be the first to nay say any suggestions, pointing out all the reasons  why an idea wouldn’t work. “It’s just not protocol,” he’d screech. Or he’d say it was too much work. “Do you know how many extra hours it would take to make that change?” he’d frown. Henry did the IT for the group and he never let us forget how important a role he had.  “You guys would be toast without me!” he’d chortle. “Good luck getting anything done!”

I am not sure who started it, but somehow it became part of our happy hour beers to poke a little fun at absent Henry, by imitating his voice and saying some of the annoying comments he’d make over and over. Josh or someone would raise their voice to almost a falsetto and screech “Kiddies, that’s NOT how we do things!” Then we’d all laugh. It became a thing. We’d talk about some random subject and someone would say, “What would Henry say?” Then someone else would answer something snide in Henry’s voice and we’d laugh and laugh. It progressed to us sending little messages to each other during the day, after hearing him bark at someone on the phone….

HS – Burn in hell mofo before you call me again!

When you’d hear laughter in another cubicle you’d know they read your HS- Henry Says message. It was all harmless fun, just blowing off steam. After all, we had to put up with him. But there’s always someone in a group who will take a joke too far. Randy started putting sexual innuendos in his HS messages–

HS- It may not be protocol, but I have a woody!

HS- We do things by the rules here…and I have a ruler in my pants!

HS- It’s not porn, it’s artistic photographs of children!

It made me uncomfortable so finally I said something. “Guys, I LOVE all the WWHS jokes, but let’s lay off the risque stuff, okay?”  There was silence at the table and then they started laughing at me. Saying that I was a prude. Saying that maybe I had a crush on Henry. Saying all kinds of rotten things. I left and after that I didn’t go out for drinks with them any more. They excluded me from all the jokes, but I knew they were still doing them because of the stifled laughter in the office from time to time.

Then Henry’s wife got cancer and Henry became very subdued. There was no more loud talking coming from his cubicle. There were times you wouldn’t even know he was there. The jokes stopped too, thankfully.  It was so quiet those days. I actually missed hearing his voice. So funny to say that, right? His wife went into hospice and Henry took unpaid leave to spend the remaining of her days with her.  And he was right. The office was a complete mess without him.  I went to visit them one day and brought flowers and Henry was so grateful. I swear he almost cried. It wasn’t something I ever imagined I would see.

After she passed he came back to work but he wasn’t the same. No more bluster or posturing. It was like the stuffing had been knocked out of him. It just goes to show…be careful what you wish for. I wish more than anything that he’d been able to stay the old irritable annoying Henry, with the doting wife at home. Instead of this new hangdog Henry, with nobody to go home to. I hope he heals in time. I hope he starts saying things again.

Say something Henry. Say anything Henry. Please.

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GUM

gum

The three judges from the Guinness Book of World Records peered closely into her mouth and then nodded. She was handed three pink pieces of Dubble Bubble Bubblegum and she put them into her mouth. She chewed furiously as she stepped up to the edge of the stage, the large crowd cheering. Her husband was in the front row, wearing a bubblegum pink polo shirt and a matching hat, and holding up a handmade sign that said “BLOW IT BIG BABY!”

The gum was almost ready, it was almost to the right consistency, she was almost ready to do this. Her jaws moved up and down in a ratcheting motion.  She now realized that every turn, choice and action that she had ever made was for a reason and had lead her to this very moment in time.  She had trained for many months, with deep breathing exercises and jaw workouts. She had studied the YouTube videos of the masters. She had practiced over and over and over again. 

She took a deep breath, and then another. This is it, she thought. It’s showtime. She began to blow a bubble. The crowd went crazy, stamping their feet and screaming. The bubble got bigger and bigger and then popped. Damn. Two tries left. She began another bubble and this one looked more promising. The judges leaned towards her with their complicated measuring devices. It needed to be more than 20 inches in diameter. The bubble popped and it wasn’t nearly large enough. One last try.  I’ve got this, she thought.

She tuned out all the yelling and noise and hummed to herself. Another breath. She began to blow a bubble and it kept growing and growing…..the judges moved closer, grinning, it grew and grew, this was it, this was it, it grew oh so huge, this is it! One judge threw up her hands in a victory pose and the other two nodded yes. She had just broken the world record for the largest bubblegum bubble!!

The bubble burst and she grabbed at it with both hands, stuffing it mostly back into her mouth. It tasted so good still, it tasted like victory. Her husband scrambled up onto the stage, dropping the sign.

“You did it baby! You did it you did it!” he yelled, grabbing her and kissing her and getting an unfortunate amount of gum onto his beard. This was the picture that made all the papers, the two of them pulling away after kissing, with strands of pink gum like a thick spiderweb between their faces.

She began to cry once they reached backstage.

“Oh, honey, I know, I feel like crying too,” her husband said, his arm around her shoulders. “It’s so amazing and wonderful what you did.”

“That’s not it,” she sobbed. “Yes, it’s wonderful. But now I have nothing. Nothing to work towards. Nothing to look forward to. It’s all over.”

Her husband was silent for a moment.  And then he whispered in her ear. “Don’t you worry, darling. There’s a blueberry pie eating contest in Buck City in a month and a half.”

She perked up right away. Yes, yes there was. She could train for the pie eating contest. Why, it was possible she might make it to the nationals, if she worked hard enough at it. There’s always hope, she thought. Especially with my sweet husband by my side.

 

(For Sheila)

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Casper

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‘This is what we do with the horses,’ she said as she sponged her mother’s hot face, dripping water everywhere. Her mother smiled a shaky little smile. The sky was blue from horizon to horizon on the flat grasslands. Not a cloud in sight. Their car was parked as far off the road as she dared. She didn’t want to worry about trying to get back on the road and getting stuck in the soft dusty dirt.

“Did I ever tell you about the ghost colt?” her mother said softly, her eyes still shut, her body slumped down in the passenger seat.

“No, Ma,” she said. “But it’s okay. Just rest now and we’ll get back to the house soon. You just got overheated, that’s all. You’ll feel better soon.”

“We named him Casper. Not real original, but there you go. He was white like a dream, so beautiful. Not real skittish, just easy going from start to, well, end.” Her mother paused, and opened her eyes. “Cassie, you would have loved him.”

I’ve never met a horse I didn’t love,” she said and poured more water onto the ragged towel. She wiped at her mother’s face again until her mother pushed the towel away with the back of one hand.

“I’m trying to tell you a story now, so settle down please.”

Cassie tried to keep from smiling as she moved back and relaxed into her seat. Her mother was feeling better, she could tell.

“A couple of the help didn’t want anything to do with him, just superstitious, I guess but everyone else loved him. He had a sweet nature through and through.  He had this funny thing where he was terrified of snakes, and you know we get quite a few out there. He’d make this strange high squealing sound when he saw one. I’ve never heard anything like it. He’d squeal and then race down to the other end of the field. It happened a couple of times a week at least, so we all got used to it.  Then one day, we heard him squealing and squealing and squealing and it kept going on and on. Finally somebody went to go see why.”

Why was he squealing, Ma?” Cassie asked.

“Your older brother Peter was just a baby then and we had him in a playpen out under the big oak tree next to the field where the horses are. He loved to play out there for hours and I could hang laundry and do chores and not have to worry about him, just checking up on him from time to time. Casper was standing by the fence line under that oak tree just squealing away…and when we went to look there was a rattler in Peter’s playpen, just a foot or two away. Peter was happy playing with some blocks not knowing. You remember Sam?”

“Yes, I remember Sam. He was gruff but had a good heart.”

“Sam saw what was happening and before the rest of us could think of what to do, he acted quick as a flash. He pulled his knife out of the holster and swooped up Peter with one hand and stabbed that rattler in the skull with the other. I screamed, that’s about all I was good for. I couldn’t believe he was that fast. I couldn’t believe it.  And then Casper finally stopped squealing. We all turned to look at him and he just looked back at us, then he slowly trotted off.  With a little swagger I might add.  It was something to see, alright.”

“So what happened to Casper?” Cassie asked. “I don’t remember him.”

“Ah, well, he died when he was four, never made it to full grown. Something with his kidneys, if I remember right. But he played his role. We all have our role to play in life, we do, and Casper sure played his. Magnificently. It just goes to show that a quirky characteristic that we have might end up being our greatest strength. I truly believe that.”

Her mother’s face was much less red now and her breathing was back to normal. Cassie felt it was safe to get back to driving and get her mother home to some air conditioning. The sky was blue, the road shimmered ahead and it was time to head home.

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Brad Koehly, 35 Years Later

It’s been 35 years since my college boyfriend Brad Koehly was killed on this day, December 11th.  He’d be 56 now, most likely with grandkids.  He’d still have that big grin and be goofing off for the camera, like he was in this picture. You are remembered, Brad.  You are missed. It’s one of the miracles of life how certain people can profoundly touch our lives and change them forever.

You are with your mom now…what a joyful reunion that must have been!

RIP Brad, and thanks for the love.

Brad

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