Posthumous

I see your bedroom. First, the slanted ceiling angled over the twin beds, Sam’s on one side, yours on the other. Sassy, your beagle, dozing on a blanket on the floor. One small window, a view of the snowy yard below: the burn barrel with a few blackened aerosol cans around it; a listing swing set; Elizabeth trundling about in her blue snowsuit; Rick leaning against the fence, smoking.

“Get out,” you’d say to Sam; being the younger, he would leave without protest. (This impressed me, the straightforward way brothers interacted. I came from a family of girls; all requests were negotiated.) We’d kiss for a few minutes—you loved to kiss—then take off our clothes and fall into your unmade bed, where we would leave the world behind and thrill each another with endless, steamy foreplay. You were the best sex I never had. At last we’d notice the time and pull on our clothes before your mother, if we were lucky, pulled into the driveway. Afterwards, you would escort me home along the half mile of abandoned railroad tracks that separated our houses. You did this unfailingly, whatever the weather. On the days it snowed, I would pause at the edge of my yard and watch you fade into the white distance, waving at me just before you disappeared. Although I could not see your face, I knew you were smiling.

No two people recall the same things, and I wonder what images you were left with. Remember your navy-blue blanket with the roping cowboys on it? The cracked “Little Ben” clock ticking away our time? Maybe those details, those afternoons, didn’t linger in your mind. I can accept that possibility, reluctantly.

In any case, you are gone, leaving me with sole ownership of the year we were together. It feels like a responsibility, holding onto this copy of you. We fell in love at 15, built ourselves into each other. Your wife is grieving the man she was married to for forty-seven years; I am mourning a phantom. 

Though I had moved across the country after college, we eventually managed to reconnect. I can’t recall who found who, only that we began writing letters, real letters, typed and tucked into envelopes. You were married and working at IBM; I was cooking in restaurants, living in Berkeley, in love with the woman I would one day marry (as soon as the law allowed it). Your letters were earnest, your focus familial. You wrote about your three children, the ways they made you proud, the fear you had when your youngest daughter left for Europe. Your wife, Margie, was in daily pain and needed a hip replacement. You wished she wanted to spend more time with you; she lived, you said, for the kids. You enjoyed hunting and skiing, didn’t much like your job.

We finally arranged to meet for lunch during one of my trips to Vermont. I was nervous, distracted, ecstatic, and there you were, standing at the bar, grinning at me in that boyish way, your light blue eyes squeezed into crescents. There was a settled look about you, a solid heft to your frame. You were still handsome, still Sam, but in a grown-up version that excluded me. I was struck by the rights I had lost, the knowledge turned useless.

We ordered lunch, though I don’t recall eating, and shared our middle-aged almanacs. We worked over some common ground—news of our parents and siblings—before offering up the people who had become our spouses. I had only a faint recollection of your wife (she was not in our class at school), and hearing you speak of her sent a gust of something that felt like jealousy through me, as if my teenage ghost had risen up and shaken her fist. You did not seem the least surprised that I was with a woman, and I silently credited you with that. I mentioned that I had dated several men in college but probably shouldn’t have bothered. “None of them held my interest.” I laughed. “You must have ruined me for other guys,” I added, realizing just then that it might be true.

I asked if you were happy, and you said, “Pretty much,” and shrugged. “Nothing’s perfect, right?” You said you were planning to surprise your wife with a vacation in the Bahamas, hoping that a trip to paradise would help. There was a co-worker, you added, who liked you, a lot. “It was a few months ago. I liked her too, but I couldn’t do that to Margie, you know?” I winced inwardly, thinking of my own heedless affair several years back, from which my spouse and I had eventually, but barely, recovered. Honestly, I was annoyed with Margie—couldn’t she see that you were a god?

We talked on. Every so often, I looked at your hands or lips, marveling that they once traveled over my skin. Did you think about this too? At one point while you were talking about your children, I saw us lying behind a glossy privet hedge not far from my house; it was our hide-out. When our mothers were home (our fathers were gone: mine by way of divorce; yours, desertion), when sofas or bedrooms were not possible, nature turned to clemency, a place to disappear, and you and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain. I remember the spent white flowers that drifted down around us, the bits of fall leaves that clung to our coats. How odd it was now to see you now, to regard you without need or urgency.

At last it was clear we’d exhausted every topic, and there was nothing to do but give up on each other again and say goodbye, promising to write more often. We did and then we didn’t.

They say you died in your sleep, a heart attack, which sounds peaceful, lucky, though not for your wife, who tried to wake you. I keep starting to send her a card, but I’m not sure there’s any point in a sympathy card from a stranger. I do feel sorry for her, and the kids, and their kids, and everyone else who knew you far better than I did.

But I knew you then, when you lived in a rundown house with a broken swing set and had a dog named Sassy and a weary, overworked mother who was always pleasant to me. There you are in the yellow kitchen, making a bologna sandwich for your little sister, dropping a slice into Sassy’s mouth, grinning at me. Ask me anything about that year and I’ll pour my heart out.

The Stranger Upstairs

Spooky, isn’t it,
when you pull into your driveway
and realize you don’t remember the trip,
not one light or turn or stop sign.
While you argued with yourself, heedless to hazards,
your mind, loyal as a dog, brought you home.

For something we carry around every day,
we don’t know much about the brain.
How can a wad of lumpy grey tissue
run the show?
Do our fears and memories live in its folds?
When we sleep,
how can that cold blackness inside our skulls
create the smell of bacon,
a sun-spangled lake,
an orgasm?
How are we fooled night after night,
dropped inside a carnival world,
made to do unspeakable things?
For whose amusement do we perform?

“Where are my glasses?” we say to ourselves,
as if we are speaking to someone else,
a steadfast companion forged at birth.

Just a little bigger
than two clenched fists,
the brain is a riot of neurons:
100 billion twitchy cells,
each one connected
to thousands of others
in a tireless bombardment
of electricity and chemicals.

I picture it as a city.
A crisscross of streets
with lights and signs
controlling the traffic,
some roads well worn,
others unknown;
one ways that limit us,
dead ends that stop us.
There are places we frequent,
shadowy neighborhoods we avoid,
here and there
a rousing new enterprise.

Aim for the horizon
or stay on the tracks—
it’s your life,
at least for a while,
until all the streets
begin to look strange,
one after another
going dark and quiet,
leaving you stranded
in perfect stillness.
Home at last.

Lovers and Loners, a Short Story Collection

Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.

The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.

Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.

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For Audrey

One of our customers died last week. I didn’t know her well. I just knew that I liked her, that I wanted to see more of her, that I wish I could have told her what she gave us.

Audrey was her name. Tall, generously proportioned, she always came into the store smiling. Because of this, everyone wanted to assist her, to be part of this easy joy. We would ask her what she needed, and she would invite us to help her choose, would listen closely to our recommendations and defer to our knowledge of the plants and products we sell. Audrey never objected to our prices, higher of course than the box stores, evidently understanding that independent nurseries are struggling to survive. Each time she came in she told us how nice the stock looked, and she thanked us for the time we spent with her. How she loved flowers!

She was not elderly; her death was sudden and wrong. I am still recovering from it, trying to understand my feelings so that I may move on. Not that I expect to make any sense of her death. We live in a wild world of chance, and asking: why, why her, is a pointless pursuit. People die too soon all the time. What does bring me comfort is the certainty that she was happy: people mired in suffering don’t offer themselves so freely. Audrey’s was a spill-over joy, something she couldn’t help, something that rose from a private, boundless well.

Can I dig such a well for myself? Now there’s a question worth asking. Certainly we are born predisposed to certain behaviors. Joan Didion wrote that some people (especially writers) are “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I do believe that many of us are glass-half-empty people, and we must work harder at finding the things that bring us cheer.

Working in retail has given me ample opportunity to study the various ways people engage with the world. Some are meek, some are nervous; some are resentful, others punitive. I recall a woman who stunned me with her rancor. I had rung up her purchase and carried her plants to her car. As she was starting to drive off I wished her a good day, and she stopped short and glared at me. “What do you care? You don’t know me. You shouldn’t say things like that to people you don’t know. It’s phony. It’s meaningless.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My heart was beating in my ears. I did the oddest thing then: I waved good-bye, helplessly—a gesture that probably irked her even more.

As I walked back into the store, my shock gave way to indignation. I probably should have let it go—I couldn’t. All the rest of that afternoon, I fumed over this meanness, this assault. I wondered how much wreckage, in just one day, this woman left in her wake. I found her charge slip, noted her name and copied her address from the phone book. By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do.

In the drawer of my desk I located a blank card with bluebirds and flowers on the front. Using a pretty font on the computer, I wrote a note, printed it out, then cut and pasted it into the card: “Some people, with their charm and warm smiles, make the world a better place. You are not one of them.” I typed her address and supplied no return identification.

Though this deed brought me ample satisfaction, it was not the end of the story. A year later she came back into the store, utterly changed. She was kind and complimentary, and when she signed her charge slip that day, she told me we had a nice staff. “If you can’t be nice,” she said, “then what good are you?” She looked up at me when she said this, but there was no malice in her eyes, and if she suspected that I was the card-sender, I saw she held no grudge. I carried her plants to her car and once again wished her a good day. “You too,” she said. She started to drive off, then stuck her head out the window. “Hey. I like your hair.”

I am a fretful sort, a woman too quick to retreat, a woman who doesn’t smile often enough. There is plenty in me to work with. Change is what life wants.

Though Audrey might have been born good-natured, she was a mortal like the rest of us and must have known pain and loss and fear. But what she put forward was her best self, the side of her that made us feel better.

This is for you, Audrey, with love and thanks.

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