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The Window Cleaner – Part 2

from Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories. By Gabriel Constans.

The Window Cleaner – Part 2 (Conclusion)

As Rob’s outrage about his mother’s cancer and subsequent death raged on, Steven waited for a pause, a cue, a sliver of an opening to address the pain that boiled below the surface. It came suddenly, when Rob abruptly stopped speaking, placed his hands on his knees and glared at Steven.

“Well?” Rob asked bitterly, “Now what?”

“I’m sorry you had to witness such suffering,” Steven said. “What an awful ordeal.” Rob waited. “You must love your mother very much.”

Every instinct of pride and privacy in Rob’s body strained to keep composure. It felt like his ligaments were tearing apart; his protective shell, of time and distance from his mother’s passing, stripped bare. Repressed liquids of loss and abandonment leaked like a broken faucet. He tried holding back the tears, by covering his runny eyes and nose with his hands, but it was as useless as trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket. He felt dizzy, his cheeks burned and his stomach ached. He questioned his sanity and wondered how he had let his well-meaning wife convince him to attend this torture. “I must be a masochist or a nut case,” he reasoned.

Sure, he’d had some scattered days since his adoptive mother had passed on. “Who wouldn’t?” he figured. “She was only fifty-one.”

Her name was Nadine. She’d adopted him, as a single parent, when he was five years old. Everything he knew about love, security or life had come from her. She’d taken him on faith; not knowing what complications might arise as he got older. Her devotion ran deep. She had spoiled him with attention and confidence.

“How could she leave?!” his mind demanded, not able or willing to match the reality of her death with his belief in how the world should work.

He had admitted to his wife, Soledad, that he wasn’t sleeping well and didn’t feel like doing anything. “It doesn’t make sense; nothing matters anymore.”

Anxiety about the future knocked day and night. He frequently asked Soledad if they were OK; if she was sure she wanted to stay with him being so “messed up and all?” She’d smile reassuringly and tell him their love hadn’t changed since they’d met in high school. He was and always would be, “her man . . . her sweetheart. I’m not going anywhere.”

It was during one of these moments of insecurity that she suggested he call these people for help. She had promised that they wouldn’t do any touchy-feely, therapy kind of stuff on him. Now, here he was, wondering what kind of mess he was in. All he’d done so far was babble on about his private life and cry like a wet baby in front of a perfect stranger.

He should have seen the trap the minute he walked in the little claustrophobic compartment. Soft music; candles; a warm and friendly atmosphere – all there to seduce him into making a fool of himself! And there was something unnerving about this guy, like he could see right through you.

“It’s not fair!” Rob shouted, between chest splitting sobs, “Why’d she have to suffer; why not me?!”

Steven handed him some Kleenex from the conveniently placed box sitting on the glass table, waiting patiently to be of service and discarded. Rob wiped his contorted face.

“You’d want your mother to go through the pain your feeling?”

“No, but why; how could this happen?”

“Her dying or the emptiness you’re feeling?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.”

“Doesn’t make sense, does it?”

Rob nodded, blew his nose again and tossed the tissue towards the small plastic can peaking out from under the table.

Steven said, “It can be painful and confusing. The feelings are so overwhelming; it seems like you’re out of control; nothing fits together anymore.”

“That’s for sure.” Rob dabbed his wet cheeks with another willing tissue. “But why does it have to hurt so bad?” Salt water oozed from the corner of his eye and dripped on to the front of his pressed shirt.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the price we have to pay for loving somebody.”

“Pretty stiff price.”

“Sure is,” Steven leaned forward. “You’d have to be a masochist to choose this kind of pain.”

Rob nodded, “So why go through it?”

“Grief seems to be the one kind of pain that doesn’t change or go away, unless we let ourselves face it, feel it . . . almost embrace it. Most kinds of pain are good to get rid of; put a bandage on it, fix it or avoid it, right?” Rob’s river of tears trickled to a small brook as he threw his last drenched tissue toward the seemingly elusive wastebasket. “With grief there is no easy, quick fix; it’s not something you ‘get over’ or ‘recover from.’”

Steven wondered if Rob was making any connections. He was never sure. Even if the client said they understood, felt heard or thanked him for his time, there was no guarantee that his presence or words had any beneficial effect at all. There was no tangible, physical sign or material exchange, no finished product or sutured wound.

“But,” Steven emphasized, “if you allow yourself to experience it, with people you trust and at times and places that feel safe, it will lesson in duration and frequency.”
Rob shook his head in disbelief. Steven added, “Right now it doesn’t feel like it will ever change, right?”

“You got that right.”

Rob’s apprehension and anxiety flew around in his head like manic butterflies, while Steven, this quiet middle aged man with specs and out of date shoes, continued to provide his attention and seemingly sincere concern. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Rob’s fears subsided, as he realized he was safe and could allow his heart’s storms to rage.

He told Steven all about Nadine. He talked about their favorite holidays, Thanksgiving and Halloween; about where they had lived, in Providence; what she did for a living, working as a home care attendant; how he bought her a home, after working in real estate for several years. He told him about the difficult times they’d had when he was a teenager, when he was embarrassed to be around her; how he had pushed her away and his remorse at having done so. He talked about his wife Soledad; how she felt closer to his mother than to her own. He talked and talked and cried and cried and remembered.

As Rob told him about his mother, Steven thought fondly of his own. She’d had a heart attack and surgery about six years ago, coming precipitously close to death’s door. She was in her seventies now and doing well, but the thought of her dying still gave him the chills. It wasn’t like he was a stranger to loss. Various family members, friends and acquaintances had gasped their last breaths; but there was something about his mother, her solid, life-long presence and care, that struck close to the bone. The thought of her dying and disappearing from this material life, made him feel vulnerable and alone. He prayed it would never happen, knowing full well that such prayers were a futile exercise in self-delusion.

“Yeah, she was, I mean is, an amazing woman,” Rob concluded fondly, an imperceptible smile kissing his lips.

Hearing Rob pause and having a sense that their time was coming to a close, Steven asked Rob if they could meet again in a week or two. He noticed the strained expression, of someone trying to hold together a broken glass, had been replaced with a smile, a smile that said, “Thank God. I’m not going crazy. This is all to be expected. It will change. There is hope.”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Rob replied. “Would you write down the time and date? I’ve been a little forgetful lately.”

“Sure.” He wrote down the appointment, as slowly and carefully as possible, so someone beside himself could read it and handed it to Rob.

Rob checked the time and date, then turned the card over. “Steven Rice, Ph.D.,” he read silently, “Bereavement Counselor.” He stuffed it in his front pocket, stood and firmly shook Steven’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I know this sounds crazy, but I think it helped.”

“I hope so,” Steven smiled. “I look forward to seeing you next week.”

Steven watched Robert walk down the red-stained ramp, back into his life, a life without the woman who had taught him how to live. He went over to the miniature desk, sat on the rolling office chair, took out a pink form that read, “Progress Note”, grabbed his pen and began to write.

The last hour was fresh in his memory as he looked out the dirty windowpane and felt the air through the screen cooling as the sun undressed to put on its nightgown of darkness. The old knotted pine trees stood gallantly in the gully, impervious to the suns disrobing. They stood without feelings of love, loss, joy or sorrow; without consciousness of there own existence or approaching demise.

Steven put on his alma mater’s long sleeve blue sweater and placed his notes in Mr. Hartman’s file. He put the file inside the four-foot high, rusted metal cabinet and attached the combination lock. Picking up his frayed, black-leather briefcase and bottled water, he looked outside once more, before turning off the light, radio and sound machine.

“I’ll have to wash that window tomorrow,” he said to himself. “It’s filthy.”

Steven Rice walked outside, closed the vacuum-sucking door with a bang, inserted his copper key and turned the latch. The flimsy box trailer and its precarious contents were safe for another day. He walked down the shaky ramp and wondered how we keep living with all our scars and open wounds.

THE END

PART 1

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The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2

From short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans

The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2 (Conclusion)

Joanne put her bag in the trunk of her partially rusted Volvo station wagon and closed the beige trunk with a thud; sealing the contents for a safe trip home. She’d just called her husband and kids to let them know she was on her way.

“Drive careful little Sis,” I said sarcastically, both of us knowing she was probably the safest driver in North America. I used to tell her she drove like an old granny when we were teenagers. She’d sit at a four way stop, for what seemed like hours, making sure there weren’t any cars approaching within a hundred miles!

“You big Dufus,” she grinned. “Have I ever been in an accident?”

“No.”

“Have I ever gotten a ticket in my whole life?”

“No.”

“Then shut up already and give me a hug.” She grabbed my arm, pulled me close, put her arms around my back and squeezed hard. I squeezed back. She squeezed harder, as did I, until it felt like she’d break my back.

“OK! OK!” I gasped, pretending to be out of breath. “Man! You’ve gotten strong in your old age!”

“And don’t you forget it!” she teased, as she got in the car, closed the door, strapped herself in, adjusted her mirrors and rolled down the window.

I leaned in and kissed her. “Love ya. Take care.”

“Likewise.” She kissed me back.

“Remember,” I kidded, “it doesn’t matter how you feel as long . . .”

She shook her head, having shared this joke a hundred times. “Yeah, yeah,” she completed the line, “as long as you look good.”

I jerked my finger, like shooting a gun and blew away the smoke, completing our leave taking ritual. She waved and rolled up the window, then suddenly rolled it back down. I leaned in.

“Call her,” she said.

“What?”

“Call her tonight.”

“Who?” We’d been talking about Robin every since we’d left the beach.

“I mean it Rueben. There’s something between you two, something special.”

I’d planned on calling the minute Joanne was out of sight.

“Sure,” I grinned.

“Promise?”

“Promise,” I said and crossed my heart.

She rolled up the window, checked for oncoming cars, for what seemed like an hour, then slowly eased onto the highway. She looked in her rear-view mirror and waved one last time.

I stood and waved to my beautiful little sister. As she drove away, I remembered telling her once, after she’d interrupted my cowboy game once to often, “Leave me alone! I wish you were dead!” The memory filled me with shame.

“Hellooo stranger,” Robin answered, with a seductive, languid drawl.

“Is this Robin?” I asked, “The surfing consultant?”

“Rueben! I knew you’d call.” Without skipping a beat she said, “Can you come over tonight?”

“Tonight?” I think . . .”

“Think!” she interjected. “There’s no time to think.”

“Well . . . sure.”

“Can you pick up some wine and flowers? I was thinking about you all the way home and plum forgot to . . . oh yeah! Make sure they’re . . .”

“Fresh cut,” I finished her sentence, “right?”

“You devil. How’d you know?”

“I don’t know.”

“That place next to . . .”

“Shopper’s Corner,” I surmised. No problem. It’s right on the way.”

“You sure?”

“No problem, I’d love too.”

“Love too,” she repeated. “Isn’t that a great word – love?”

“Yeah, it’s a great word, but don’t you think we’re moving a little fast here?”

“Fast?! Are you going to wimp out on me before we even get started?” She quietly added, “We’re mates and you know it.”

“Mates?”

“I may not know a lot, but I know when I’ve been thrown a pearl.”

“A pearl?”

“This kind of thing is rare,” she went on. “Some people don’t know when it’s come up and bit them in the bud and others keep thinking it’s somewhere they’re not.”

“That may be true, but . . .”

“I’ve only felt this way once before,” she said. “I may be about to die, maybe not; but I’m not about to let your fear screw things up.”

She got that right. I’d been burned before. In my early twenties I’d fallen in love with a slim, nineteen-year-old redhead named Francine. We were stupid enough to get married. It lasted about a year. I was so dependent on her approval I would have leapt off a cliff if she’d asked. She had to literally jump in bed with my best friend before I crashed and burned. That experience had embedded its tentacles deep under my skin and been tediously removed, one by one, year after year.

“You’re right,” I said. “I felt that way before and this feels like the real thing, but…”

“No buts about it. The only butt I want to see is yours.”

I don’t know where she got the courage to be so blatant, but she was right on the button. Something in my chest had been cracked open like a safe and she had the combination.

“I’ll be there in an hour.”

“One more thing,” she said. “I love you.”

“Likewise.”

“Likewise?” she teased. Is that the best you can do?”

“Robin,” I paused, “what can I say? I love you too. Be there soon.”

“Not soon enough,” she whispered.

I started to hang up, then quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “Robin! Robin!”

“I’m right here,” she replied calmly. “It would help if you had my address, right?”

“Yeah.”

“6427D South Cliff Drive. You know where that walkway is by the harbor?”

“Sure.”

“A half mile from there, off Seabright, take a left on Surry.”

“Got it.”

“You got it all right; you got it all.”

“See ya.”

“See ya?!” she protested. “I hope you’ll do more than that.”

“You know what I . . .”

“Of course,” she interrupted. “And you know what I mean.”

“Sure do,” I said, twisting the smooth phone cord tightly around my index finger.

Beyond all logic, the magic continued. We spent days and nights “being in our skin”, as Robin would say; listening to the rhythms of the world; the sensations of our bodies; touching, sensing, smelling, gazing upon one another’s human form, with mournfully explicit awe and delight.

Entering her small, cozy apartment by the sea; felt like committing myself to a religious sanctuary where all our prayers were offered and received.
She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved here mother, her brother, her nieces, her eighty-year-old grandmother and her friends and colleagues. She’d worked in public relations for the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Bureau for over fifteen years and was missed by her peers, who often stopped to visit. Indeed, public relations, was an apt description. She had an uncanny ability to put people at ease.

Her best friend, Bessie, told me about a bigoted movie producer visiting from Los Angeles, who’d locked horns with Robin’s supervisor, Mary Lou, a tall, intelligent woman, who’d been born and raised in Texas. During a meeting with Robin, Mary Lou and Bessie, the movie producer had made a snide remark about cowboys and rednecks all being “stupid hicks.” “Mary Lou’s cheeks turned fire red,” Bessie explained. “Her jaw was tighter than a vice. If this guys company shot their film here it would bring the city a couple million bucks. Mary Lou was just about to let the jerk have it when Robin smiled and said, ‘You’re right. There are some stupid cowboys.’”

“Well,” Bessie continued, “Mary Lou and I gasped and stared at Robin in disbelief; until she added, ‘There’s idiots everywhere, aren’t there?’ ‘You got that right,” the producer said, shaking his head. ‘I must say’, Robin continued, ‘I’ve said some pretty stupid things my self. I bet there’s a lot of lame producer’s in Hollywood.’ “The producer jumped right in and said, ‘You have no idea,’ and started telling us about one ‘incompetent ass’ after another.”

“Needless to say,” Bessie concluded, “we made the deal.”

Robin’s charm remained intact in the midst of purgatory. You name it, she tried it: medications, transfusions, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxifications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormones, prayer, meditation, visualization . . . but the cancer kept chipping away.

The last weeks found me sinking, looking for a branch to hold onto. I was being pulled under by emotional quicksand. There was nothing solid to stand on. Her face had turned black, blue and yellow, as if she’d been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic; her arms as thin as straws. She struggled to take in a full breath. The body I loved was disintegrating like melting snow.

“I hope I’ve made a difference,” she said softly, one gusty morning.

“Without a doubt,” I assured, with a lump like a clod of dirt stuck in my throat. “You’ve given so much love.”

“Yes, I have.” She stroked my cheek. “That’s been the best part.”

“What now?”

She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair being blown by the wind.

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“What do I think?” I wanted to run, jump off the earth, find a black hole and hide. “I don’t know, but you can’t leave.”

“Nice thought, but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at my naivety.

“It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words. “How do you keep this up?”

“I have no choice,” she said, without hesitation.

“I know we don’t always have a choice,” I blundered, my mind racing with useless, crazy thoughts. “If it was me, I’d be screaming and yelling.”

“I don’t have a choice,” she reiterated. “This is who I am.”

We heard someone knocking. Our intimacy departed, as we turned our heads. The door flew open, pushed by gusts of cold air and Robin’s mother, who entered the tiny living room with the electric hospital bed looming in the center. She struggled to close the door behind her, pushing against the tenacious wind and patting down her gnarled hair. She took off her floor-length wool coat and placed it on the corner chair. With a forced cheerfulness that belied her dread, she exclaimed, “There’s my girl.”

“Hi Mom,” Robin smiled, holding out her shaking arms.

Joanne was making a return visit in a few days. We’d kept in touch. She knew the story. I wish she was here. She’d know what to do. She’d help her big brother learn how to say goodbye to the Barking Seal Societies lifetime member. She would know how to say “I love you” without clinging to hope. She and Robin understand life from a place I do not know. They know that “take one day at a time” and “seize the day” are not cliches; they’re the essence of our reality.

If only Joanne was here and Robin wasn’t leaving. If only . . .

THE END

Part 1

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Child of the Holocaust – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.

Child of the Holocaust – Gitta Ryle – Part 2 (Conclusion)

Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many it symbolizes evil incarnate. Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.

Mrs. Ryle survived the holocaust by being hidden in French schools with her sister and was reunited with her mother at the war’s end. While pregnant with her third child her mother died of a heart attack. Gitta’s years of family separation and loss were compounded and reawakened with the death of her husband from cancer.

Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevancy to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.

GITTA: My mother told me that when Dad got his paycheck he would go to the market and get groceries for his brothers and take care of everybody that he knew who didn’t have much. Then he would give the rest of the money to my Mom for the household. He was very generous to other people, a very caring man. When he came to France he worked in a nearby nursing home run by nuns. He’d do any labor he could in order to be close to us. We were his joy. My mother was also very generous helping neighbors.

We had nice neighbors. They were not Jewish. There was one family whose daughter was my sister’s best friend. Her and her sister are still alive and we continue corresponding to this day. That’s another thing I’ve discovered has helped. There were Jewish people that helped me and there were not Jewish people who helped.

I still feel connected to those who’ve died. Sometimes at night I hear my name very clearly. Sometimes it’s my Mother’s voice and at others it’s my Dads. And I’ve definitely heard Bob’s voice.

When I’m doing things, like driving, I have a different calmness about me then I did before Bob’s death. I don’t know if it’s because of the time I took in grieving or not.

For a while I kind of separated myself, emotionally I was cut off from everybody. I let my adult kids know that if they needed help they’d have to get it from somewhere else because I had no energy or anything left to give them. I’d always been a nourishing mother and this didn’t fit that image. It was a complete change for me. I had no thoughts for me or anybody. It was like a blank. Everything was gray and passive. There was no color, no life, just existence. My body was in need of replenishment. In some way you need to shut off for a while, otherwise you go nuts or kill yourself. I mean, you know, go into a deep depression. Anyway, that was my analysis of it. I allowed the process to happen. It wasn’t easy. It was very hard and I don’t remember all of it. I know people came to visit me but I couldn’t tell you who.

I am very, very fortunate. I have a lot of people that love and care for me. I had one girlfriend call me every single day from the day Bob was diagnosed. At times I definitely felt more connected with the dead then the living. I felt Bob’s presence off and on.

Lately I don’t like where I am. It was better where I was. I will get there again. I want to work on getting cleaned out of attachments to my ego. I would not have wanted my life to continue like it was in that first year, but I know a lot of people who live like that.

Somehow things finally changed. I can’t tell you exactly what happened but I remember talking with my counselor one Monday morning and saying, “Wow, I see color! I see color clearer now then I have ever seen in my life. I’m taking everything in.” I didn’t know that it would ever come back, especially feelings of joy. I feel it in my body and a lot here in my stomach (rubs stomach). I remember feeling little butterflies when Bob would hold me and we would hug and be loving. I never thought I’d feel that type of feeling again, but it happened. I felt life all over. Now I can feel both, the heartaches and the joy.

It’s funny; I never looked into the rhyme or reason of the whole thing. I just allowed the process. A lot of Europeans take a year for grieving; they wear the armband and all that stuff. I just shut down because I didn’t have anything left. It’s like you know this is it, there is too much trauma, I can’t go through another one. I think I shut down for safety, to not get hurt again. If anything had happened to anybody else during that time I wouldn’t have felt it.

I’ve had other deaths since Bobs. My cousin died of cancer and an associate of Bob’s died suddenly. I have quite a list of deaths of people that I’ve loved. When it happens now I say a little prayer for them. I love and bless them. I show my love each time, because they are part of my life. I think of the blessing that they don’t suffer anymore.

I think my life has been more of a struggle then pleasure. I had a good childhood that was suddenly cut off. My marriage wasn’t ecstasy because I always worried that something would happen to him. I was always afraid that I’d lose him. In fact, I remember telling Bob it was difficult for me to say, “I love you.” because if I did something might happen to him. I don’t have that fear anymore. It has dissipated. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, you know?

This stuff was all being worked on without me really knowing it. I came out of it with more peace. At other times there is still a hole, a loneliness and sadness that I can’t share this or that with Bob. That is reality. He will not be here and I need to work on healing that. Nobody can feel that hole. Sometimes I use food to numb that feeling but it just makes it worse.

Most of the time I am OK because I have the comfort of tapping into those I love whenever I wish. I live in reality. I don’t know if they hear me or not, but you know that is not important. It’s important that I can use it for what I need. It’s a comfort that I need for now.

When you go out and watch couples, the age that we are, I realize it is something I will never experience. I will never experience being retired with my husband and having weekends away. My old age will be alone. When I think of being ill without a partner it gets a little scary. There’s nothing I can do about it. If it happens, it happens.

Helping others has been easy. It makes me feel good. It’s like second nature. I enjoy going places and doing things. What life is about is getting joy from watching other people have joy. I think the ultimate thing that I can do is give some peace, joy or understanding to someone else.

My daughter is married to a young man whose father left home when he was five years old. He had another brother and a long history but no contact with his father. Ever since he married my daughter she’s said, “I wish he would find his dad. He says he wants to sometimes but then doesn’t do anything about it. When it comes down to it he says he can’t afford to search.” I told them that if that were the only obstacle I would not mind funding it. They agreed and just last Sunday, after conducting a search, my son-in-law calls me up excitedly and says, “I just talked to my dad. He called me!” I started crying with joy. My whole body became alive with emotions. I thought about all the connections, for someone to have the possibility to make such a connection. He also discovered a half sister whose mother died a month ago. He’s going to meet her too.

That is what life is about for me. I do not understand why I am here most of the time. I get up in the morning and am glad I can get up.

When things are good and I am feeling physically and mentally good, I’m with people and realize I need people more. When I’m not feeling well I tend to isolate myself, thinking I can be strong and take care of everything. It doesn’t work well and I don’t feel good when I do it. I pushed some people away when I was working very hard on that and I need to open up again and allow people in.

About a year after Bob died I became involved with the Griefbuster’s program. I have a lot of compassion and can relate with children, while also being detached and seeing where they are at. I love children.

My niece lives here and she has two daughters Heather and Chloe, age three and five. They are here every Thursday. It is my day to play. I do not think about responsibilities and problems. I’m in the moment of simply playing. I’m teaching them. We learn together. I crawl up on the stairs with them and they laugh. It is wonderful.

Families are important. I had that and it was taken away. So many families now don’t have that connection, they are to busy working. I don’t identify with adults anymore, not those looking for the next goal, the next profession where they can make money, where they can do this and that. I’m trying to simplify my life.

I have wonderful children. They are loving kids. If I had a heart attack or got sick, whatever, they would be here. They’d drop everything else and come help me. But that is not what I want. I want them when I am well. Maybe I’m selfish in that way but I think a nurse or doctor can take care of me when I’m sick.

Today is today and tomorrow is tomorrow. I notice that I am in a very strange place. Grieving is a deep thing, but it’s also your life. When you grieve all your past comes up, your childhood experiences and how it affected you.

A woman who takes care of a newborn down the street comes over once a week and we play with the baby and I am fine again for a while. I wish I could bottle that feeling and put it someplace else. That would be good. And when these girls walk in the door on Thursday and come running to me with open arms, giving me hugs and kisses, so full of joy and liberation. No pretensions just clear, loving and happy. What more could you want? It’s so empowering. I am whoever they want me to be for the day.

I hope when I’m dead and gone that I will have given some pleasure to others. That it was a joy for people to know me. That the children who have been in my life know that I love them unconditionally and gave everything I could unconditionally. I feel the same way with my children. I’ve let go of attachments to my children. As far as I know they are healthy, intelligent beings. hey have their own habits and behaviors. I do not own them. There was a time when I wanted them to be different. I did a lot of work with my daughter and myself on that.

I am responsible for my actions and that is what I want to relay when I talk to kids. I try to show them that they have choices and whatever choice they take, that they take responsibility for it. I think that is the hardest lesson to learn but also the best. Whatever it is, even if you felt somebody did you wrong; you have to take responsibility. That is how I have to deal with life, even when I am angry and spout off, “This isn’t fair! I’m a victim!” As soon as I let it out I then take responsibility for it. I don’t blame others for my state of being.

The other thing I try to share with kids is to love them selves and to feel that specialness we each have, which has often been taken away by our experiences. If we can let go of all that stuff, we can see the preciousness. That is what I’m really trying to learn. I can see the beauty of every human being around me – adults and children. I don’t see it as much in me and that is what I’m learning to do. Self-judging, self-hate, self-abuse, whatever you want to call it, we don’t have to do it. That is what I am here to do. This is my work. This is what I need to do to move on.

THE END

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Child of the Holocaust – Part 1

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call by Gabriel Constans.

Child of the Holocaust – Gitta Ryle – Part 1

Auschwitz. The word is synonymous with death, loss, murder and extermination, the worst barbarism that can be inflicted by one human upon another. For many it symbolizes evil incarnate. Most of us know it only as that: a symbol, a word, a dreadful image from the past. Yet for others, such as Gitta Ryle, Auschwitz is a living, cold reality that consumed her beloved father and grandparents who were starved, beaten, gassed and incinerated in its Nazi machinery of hatred and racism.

Mrs. Ryle survived the holocaust by being hidden in French schools with her sister and was reunited with her mother at the war’s end. While pregnant with her third child her mother died of a heart attack. Gitta’s years of family separation and loss were compounded and reawakened with the death of her husband from cancer.

Over the years, Mrs. Ryle has spoken of her life during the war with increasing frequency to elementary, high school and college students. Her living, breathing, realistic account of her experiences has brought history and its relevancy to the present, before the hearts and minds of many generations. On a more personal and less publicly noticed form of engagement, she has provided support and comfort for young people who, like herself, have had to cope with the death of a family member or friend.

GITTA: I was born in Vienna in 1932. In thirty-nine Hitler invaded Austria. Since my family was Jewish we had to flee from the Nazis. My father was in the most danger. To avoid capture, he and some other men left almost immediately. My mother, older sister and I stayed on for a while. Mother eventually heard of a children’s organization called the OSE that took Jewish children out of the country to try to save them. After a few preliminaries, my mother decided to have us go and put us on a train with other children to France, where my sister and I stayed throughout the remainder of the war. My mother answered a job announcement and got a job as a cook/dietitian in England. They sent her a ticket and she stayed there until the war ended.

In the meantime we learned that father had escaped to Belgium. Through the Red Cross in Switzerland, we were all able to keep in touch with occasional letters. When father discovered where we were he came to France and worked close by the school we attended, so he could visit. We saw him a few times before some French citizens denounced him. He was captured, put into a camp and shipped to Auschwitz. That is where my father died in 1942. I was seven when I left Vienna, so I must have been about nine and my sister twelve. My grandparents, on my mother’s side, also died there. They were not able to leave the country because of health reasons. There was also my father’s brother Moses and his wife and son, Martin, who were captured and listed among the dead in Auschwitz. My father’s parents died before I was born. Luckily, my mother’s younger brother and sister had left before the war and lived in America.

Other friends and some of our teachers were also killed. Each time the Germans infiltrated our school they’d rush us out. I was always in the younger group and my sister in the middle. We went from one children’s home to another until they hid us in a Catholic convent. When the convent also came under suspicion, they put us on individual farms.

I grieved especially hard for some of the teachers that were taken away. One was Boris and his wife. Another was Moses and his wife. As a child I didn’t know what was happening to me. After awhile you start to become numb when somebody dies. There was no place for grieving. You think that this is the way life is. It was a protective mechanism. I guess I established a personality which was just, I don’t know . . . not trusting . . . never knowing what was going to happen.

At one point when we were hidden in a farm cellar, and fighting was going on all around us, I just said, “OK, this is it. They’re going to bomb us anyway.” We said good-bye to each other and it was kind of peaceful to think it was going to end. I think that is partially how I lived my life. When I have done some work or process of trying to get rid of some of the deeper feelings, I’ve thought of how peaceful it would be to just follow them to the gas chamber. That is what I have been working on from this loss, this last loss. I thought I was doing pretty good, but I guess I’m not there yet because it comes up again and again, as now. All of the past deaths, all of the losses, come up each time. It’s harder and harder.

My father was gone, then my mother. I reunited with her when we came to America and she died when I was pregnant with my third child in August of 1965. She died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was her third such attack. She’d had two mild ones before. I believe she died from a broken heart, when she’d had to give us up during the war. I don’t know if I could have done that. She was a very courageous lady. After the war she always worked and kept busy. I don’t think she ever went too deep into herself because that was scary. Part of me wishes I were the same way. Instead, I delve into it and work with it because that is the only way I know how to live.

It makes a difference how you lose someone. When I lost my mother I was quite pregnant. There was a different type of grieving because of bringing someone to life just when another is leaving. I took it very hard. The initial reaction was, “Oh God no!” Her death triggered a lot of stuff, but I didn’t have the time to deal with it like I did when my husband died. I had three small children to take care of. I guess that is what they mean when they say being busy is good, though I don’t believe it. Maybe it helps other people but for me it just pushes things down and puts it away.

When my husband became ill, he was sick for eight months, I started grieving upon hearing the prognosis and kept hoping he was going to make it; hoping for some miracle even though the death sentence was three to six months. Up front I did not accept that he was going to die, even though in the back of my mind there was that stuff going on that realized it was indeed going to happen. This made his death the most traumatic. It brought up all the others I had not had time to deal with. For the first year and a half after his death I was numb. I had Hospice and saw Norma (a bereavement counselor) once a week and there was a wonderful social worker named Betty. She talked with my children. I told her when it was all over that then I could see her. She was very good. She came a month or so after his death and it was very helpful.

A month before Bob (husband) died, his ninety-one-year-old father died. So while I was taking care of Bob I also took care of his father. He was a very difficult man but through me being with him I learned a lot of compassion and he always said he loved me and appreciated that I was there for him. When he died Bob didn’t want to go see him but at the last minute said OK. I drove him to the funeral home, went up to his dad and touched him and gave him a kiss on the forehead. I cried. I think in some ways I was saying good-bye to my own dad. After the war we searched in vain for my father, until we found a listing that said he was shipped to Auschwitz. Taking care of my father-in-law and Bob gave me a way to do what I couldn’t do for my dad.

For the first few months after Bob died I didn’t accept the reality and being alone. It was the first time I’d ever slept alone in my entire life. There was always somebody around . . . children, parents, husband.

I always felt Bob was around though. I wasn’t afraid. I closed the door, went to bed and that was it. It’s been like that ever since. That is why the house is good for me. There are all kinds of beliefs about this. We each have to pick what fits for us. I put a bench out by the ocean, just a half block from this house, in his honor and I put some of his ashes close by so I can go there anytime. He used to love the sunlight, so he faces the lighthouse (South).

Growing up I knew a little about Judaism, but not that much. We didn’t have schooling or anything during the war and being in the Catholic Church for only six months, in a convent, I learned the rosary in French and listened to the chanting and stuff. I liked it. It made me feel safe, so as a child it was OK. I did a lot of work on myself but not too much on religion. I couldn’t give up my Jewishness, but I did survive for a reason, whatever that is, so I needed to keep it.

When my children got to the same age that I had been when we were separated from our parents, I started getting ulcers. I was physically sick and there was a lot of fear in me. Bob said, “You need to get some help.” My kids were six and seven-years-old. I went and talked to a counselor. At first I talked about things that bothered me everyday and then we got deeper and deeper, to the point where the guilt and not understanding why someone would want to kill me when I didn’t do anything wrong . . . all that stuff came out. That is when I say I started the work. When anniversaries of the war occurred, forty then fifty years, people started asking me more questions and I told them my story.

Before that I hadn’t talked to my children, only when they asked because of something at school. They just knew I was from Europe. I think each one of them was affected a little differently about it.

When the schools began to discuss the holocaust they became interested in what a live person who’d lived though it would say. It’s had a big impact on those I speak with. I’m OK about doing it when I’m asked, partially because we don’t want to forget about it. When I talk to kids I give them a little lecture and try to put across, “Yes, what happened was terrible.” and “Yes, I went through it and survived. I am who I am because I survived. It’s the yin and the yang, nothing is all bad. I could have gone another way. I could have become a killer, but for some reason I choose not to. I chose to be an OK individual, to be healthy and honest.”

The reason I chose good over evil came from my beginnings. I had a very loving mother and father. It was my sister and I and mother and father. We lived in a small apartment in Vienna and I remember a lot of love and compassion. I was very special, especially to my dad. So I have some real positive food that was given to me very early and I think that is why I talk to young people who have children about how important it is, that beginning. If I hadn’t had that I don’t know which way I would have gone. When the family was separated I didn’t understand, but as I became an adult the nurturing and caring stayed with me and helped me go the right way.

I remember a lot of hugging. There was always greetings, comings, goings, holding and explanations of things. My dad was quite religious and he would explain what he was doing. I vaguely remember going to temple as a little girl and having happy memories. My mother was a fabulous cook. She gave us wonderful food and was always there for us. I was never left alone. When I went to kindergarten, right before Hitler came to Vienna, my sister always went with me on the trolley. She would drop me off when she went to her class. We were a unit. We were a very strong unit, then just like that . . . it was all cut off.

Part 2 (Conclusion) Tomorrow.

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Land Minds – Part 2

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

Land Minds – Part 2

Late that afternoon the sun caught him breathing heavily and glared questioningly into his fearful eyes just before he disappeared into the woods towards town. He carried all he owned in a small leather shoulder bag flapping loosely against his spine.

Instead of going to the bank or store, as was his custom, he found himself standing precariously at the edge of the sultry blacktop being lured by an invisible seductress called hope. When the occasional car or truck sliced through the air with its metallic precision, he reluctantly lifted his thumb skyward. He wasn’t sure if he could be seen. He felt invisible.

The town’s eyes glistened with surprise, from Jesse down at the corner gas station, to Stella at the store, who promptly hollered at Frank to come outside, “and see for your self!”

Mark heard their thoughts rattle and hum before he saw them staring. Their investigations crawled up his hairy legs and under his cotton shirt like a voyeuristic spider. He slowly turned counter-clockwise and took in the town and its’ citizens, as if he had just arrived from Mars.

Frank waved. Jesse nodded. Mark noted their movements and felt his barrel chest rise and fall. His glasses slid down his sweaty nose, as his eyelids drooped and his bones sunk into his earthbound feet. The receiving instruments in his ears vibrated with the trees’ caution. “Don’t go! They’re animals . . . human animals . . . savages . . . whores of power.”

A silver Honda Civic had slowed and come to a stop about a meter from Mark’s khaki pants before he sensed its presence and opened his far-sighted eyes. His pupils adjusted to the light bouncing off the chrome fender as he realized the car was waiting for him to acknowledge its existence. Warily, he moved towards the open window on the passenger side, bent his knobby knees and slightly bulging waist and peered in to the interior.

“Hey, Mr. Keeler, where you headed?” The blurry face came into focus. “Don’t remember me, do ya?”

Mark’s head wobbled side to side acknowledging the correctness of the man’s assumption.

“Yosh, Yoshi Matsuma. My sister and I moved in just a ways down from your place last August, remember?” Again Mark’s head motioned his ignorance. “I’m going to the city if you want a ride. You are wanting a ride, right?”

Mark forced his haggard face to nod a meager yes, opened the door stealthily and willed his body to sit. He reached out with his sunburned and peeling arm, grabbed the plastic door handle and slammed it shut with a dull thud. As the mechanical convenience accelerated a renegade breeze blew in the open window. The stoic, composed redwoods cried a warning, their limbs rustling with nervous jitters and ancient fears.

Five minutes into the ride Yosh opened the curtain of silence. “We’ve fixed the place up pretty good; a little paint, some elbow grease and voila!” Mark’s tongue remained frozen. Yosh thought he saw his passenger’s eyebrow ascend slightly but couldn’t take his eyes of the road. “Of course my sister, Janey, added all the nice touches. You know, flowered curtains, pictures, table cloth, that kind of thing.” No reply. “Yes indeed, she’s made it quite livable.”

Yosh sipped his coffee from a lidded cup below the dashboard. “Like something to drink?” Replacing his cup he reached behind the seat, grabbed a bottle of Geyser Natural and offered it to his guest.

“No thanks.”

Yosh flinched at the sound of Mark’s voice, which had crept from his face like a toddler peeking out from behind their mother’s skirt. “If you change your mind just help yourself.”

The car left the winding mountain fortress and glided along the golden, rolling hills of brown and yellow grasses.

Yosh took a deep breath and felt the knots in his shoulders sigh with relief. “Always happens,” he said. “I never realize how uptight I am driving that part of the road until it’s over.” He took another sip of coffee. “We’re buying you know. No more money down the drain renting. It’s our place now. We’re going to be neighbors for a long time.” He looked at Mark’s backpack in the rearview mirror. “That is, if you’re coming back.” Mark looked out the window at the receding mountains. “Are you?” Yosh reiterated.

It took Mark a moment to realize he was being asked a question.

“What?” he said, looking out the windshield.

“Are you leaving for good or just going on vacation or something?”

He looked casually at the man who had been speaking. Yoshi Matsuma was a young, dark-haired man, without a wrinkle or hint of severity or judgment in his friendly face.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, it’s none of my business really, but you seem a little, I don’t know, a little out there.”

Mark’s mouth contorted into a grin, shocking them both. “You could say that.”

Yosh, surprised and encouraged with the sudden reply, gently pushed the boundaries, “I hope you come back.”

“You barely know me.”

Yosh slowed for a long curve. “There’s something . . . I don’t know . . .” He rounded the corner and let the wheel straighten itself out. “Just something about you I trust.”

“Trust! What does he know about trust?” he started to say, but Yosh interrupted.

“Look, I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Oh my God,” thought Mark, “not the truth.”

“Janey isn’t my sister, she’s my fiancée.”

Mark tried acting surprised, but wasn’t good at faking indifference.

“I know,” Yosh persisted, “it sounds stupid, but we weren’t sure how people in town felt about these things, so we thought we’d play it safe.”

The words rolled around in Mark’s head like a lead marble in a pinball machine. “Play it safe. Play at safety. Safe at play.”

“We plan on getting married, but our parents kind of freaked out about it. She’s not Japanese and my folks are real traditional about this stuff, you know?”

Mark nodded, he knew about prejudice. He knew how hate could consume your soul like fire, brand your hide and leave permanent shrouds of black ash lodged in your heart.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?” Yosh pleaded. Mark sat encased in his private inferno. “Mr. Keeler. Mr. Keeler!”

“What?”

“This is between us, right?”

“What?”

“Janey and me.”

“Yeah, sure.”

The sigh of a man who’d just been pardoned escaped from Yosh’s wound-up body, as they drove towards the concrete encampment. Over a hundred minutes of dead time ticked methodically on the dashboard clock until the cities outstretched fingers, delicately referred to as suburbs, fondled them with their manicured yards of caged nature.

Mark sensed the turnoff for Enterprise Estates before the green and white sign flashed into view. “Enterprise Estates,” he said out loud. “This is it.”

“You sure Mr. Keeler? These places are pretty ritzy, if you know what I mean.”

“Yes,” he replied, “I know.”

The exit overtook them quickly as Yosh veered right and turned into the walled subdivision. He slowed for the speed bumps and kept his eye on his hitchhiking friend. Mr. Keeler was trembling like someone with Parkinson’s.

“You sure about this?” Yosh said with concern. Mark nodded stiffly.

Yosh drove slowly along the squeaky-clean street until they passed a large, white, Mediterranean style home with blue fabric awnings and a long, brick driveway which stood out like a parading peacock.

“Turn here.”

Their small, Japanese model transport hesitantly crept up the wide u-shaped drive. Mark felt each indentation between the bricks thump, vibrate and spread to the soles of his feet from the rubber tree tires below. They came to a smooth stop in front of the extravagantly landscaped walk, which was lined with red and yellow roses, pink carnations and purple Mexican Sage.

Mark opened the car door gingerly and stepped into the external atmosphere of opulence. His knees buckled. He quickly recovered, grabbing the door and slapping his right cheek until it turned bright pink, then headed like a kamikaze pilot towards the front entrance.

END OF PART 2

(CONCLUSION TOMORROW)

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Moving Up – Part 2

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)

Moving Up – Part 2 (Conclusion)

There I was with my stuffed dog and my mother’s eyes. The neighbor’s door slammed and the TV in the apartment below squawked like a rap song on downers. The water in the pot I’d put on the stove was boiling, the shrieking whistle increasing in velocity. I looked in those eyes, saw my reflection and wondered out loud, “Why did you leave? Where did you go?”

I went to the stove, turned off the kettle and poured what little water was left over my oolong tea. I turned up the volume on the radio, which I must have left on went to work. The announcer said the guy playing the violin had once played for change on the streets of Paris and now graced the stages of concert halls around the world.

I returned to the recliner, put the dog in my lap and hugged its neck. I closed my eyes and drifted off, as my reassuring nightmare gracefully returned.

The snake-eyed woman oozed out of the festering sore, her hands and bony fingers reaching for my throat. She whispers, “Die my love. Die a slow death. There is nothing but pain and sadness.” Her cold fingertips tighten on my Adam’s apple, as I flail with clenched fists to beat my way free, my knuckles smashing into her skeletal face without any impact. Her face changes into a tornado, sucking me in and spitting me out between her thighs. My heart muscle has been shredded into little pieces and is being flushed down the sewer.

My hand slid off the armrest and hit the floor. I found myself sitting in a chair, holding a stuffed dog with marble eyes. The phone was ringing again. I answered.

“What? Oh, hi Annie.”

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Where were you? I called earlier.”

“I must have been in the shower.” I lied.

“How’s your new job?” she asked, disdain seeping through her cheerful “everything is always great” voice.

“OK, I guess. I found the coolest dog.”

“A dog?!” her voice raised an octave. “I thought animals weren’t allowed . . .”

“No, they aren’t allowed here. Not a dog dog . . . it’s a stuffed dog. It’s in great shape. I can’t believe somebody threw it away. And it’s big. I mean really big! If I stand on end it almost reaches my head. And the coolest part is its eyes. They don’t look normal. They’re all glassy, deep black and vacant like. They remind me of . . . well . . . they’re very cool. You’ve got to see it.”

“I’ve got Springer,” she replied, “a real dog. Why on earth would I care about a fake one from the dump?”

“Well, no. I guess you wouldn’t.”

“You could have a real dog,” she pleaded, “if you weren’t so stubborn and moved out here.”

“Well . . . I’ll just have to enjoy my ‘pretend’ dog by my old stubborn self.”

“Don’t go all sad and sorry for yourself on me. You know what I mean.’

“Yeah, I know. Grow up, right?”

“You said it, not me,” she laughed.

She always wanted me to be someone or somewhere different, but she kept calling and seeing me anyway. If I could mint how many times she’d said, “Grow up.” I’d be a billionaire. I have grown up! I like my life just fine. It’s safe, secure and pathetically terminal . . . except for my nightmares. They may leave me sweating in terror, but they’re consistent, predictable and more painfully present then anybody I’ve known dead or alive. She keeps hoping I’ll change. She’s like that, full of faith and seeing the good in people. Some folks can’t help it.

“Why don’t you come stay with me this weekend? We could take Springer to the lake, go fishing and camp out at Crescent Cove.”

“Sure, but I’ve got to work Saturday morning. I’ll drive out in the afternoon. Maybe we could get in a little hook and sinker Sunday morning.”

“I guess that will have to do. See you then.”

“Later,” I said and hung up.

The truth be known, I could only handle being with Annie for a day, two max. Something about her always made me feel inadequate, like I was lacking some prime ingredient for her stew.

I looked at the chair and saw the dog had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, brushed it off and found myself staring at those eyes again. They held me like a voodoo curse. I shook myself free and placed it by the wall, under the window with the dirty blinds I never open.

***

It’s been a year since I started working at the dump. Annie finally got smart and left me alone. I heard she’s hooked up with some organic strawberry farmer who loves the country and has lots of “real” dogs. I’m still living in the same immaculately disastrous apartment, enjoying a Sunday to myself and reading the paper. The stuffed dog I found last year is still lying under the window, sagging a little more in the midriff, obediently collecting dust. I pick it up now and then, whenever I need a good shot of collected misery.

I put down my cup of cold coffee and am drawn to an interesting add.

WANTED. NIGHT DRIVERS. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. WILL TRAIN. REFERENCES REQUIRED. CALL SEASON’S MORTUARY. 639-4518.

“Well now,” I say out loud, “talk about a dream job. I think I’ll call them first thing in the morning.”

THE END

Part 1

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Hazel Johnson – Part 2

Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Interview with Hazel Johnson (Born: January 25, 1935 Died: January 12, 2011). Photo of Ms. Johnson holding her Presidential Medal.

Hazel Johnson – Part 2

Looking back at dealing with the environment, I don’t see anything that I’d change. We did a lot of protesting and we had a lot of people working with us. When I started out it was just me. Later, we started organizing, we got people of color in, started working together, you know? We all work together, whether you’re white, black, brown or whatever and one group does not make a decision alone; we do it collectively.

We were at a University of Chicago meeting and one media person came and was really surprised that not one person was trying to make any decision on what was going on . . . that we talked it over and discussed it . . . and it worked very well. He said he’d never seen that done before. We still do that today. Somebody needs support we are there and if we need support they are here.

I wasn’t educated or nothing. I self taught myself. I have a girlfriend who just died a couple months ago and I was talking to her about my personal problems. You know when you’re stressed out you want somebody to talk too? She’d always be the person I’d talk too since I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. She said, “I’ll be your sister.” She said, “God has you here for a reason.” You see I’m the first of four children and the other three didn’t live past a year. So she always said, “God has you here for a reason.”

When I started getting in to the environment and questioned people about different things, everybody was willing to share information with me. A lot of times when you’re doing things you look for a little negative, or something that throws you off, but I never did have that. By people being so willing to share information with me, I thought about what my girlfriend said and thought, “Maybe this is my purpose in life.” Then, as I went along, things started going well for us. I decided this must really be what I was here for. Even though I had a lot of negatives, I didn’t let it stop me because I felt this was something I had to do. That’s what makes me continue working as hard as I’ve worked. I’ve had some problems with the politicians and I say, “Forget them. I’m going to do what I have to do.” I felt I had to do it and I done it. Like four or five o’clock in the morning, I had little visions of somebody, like an inner spirit would say something to me about how to go about doing things. That’s when I really started thinking that this was my mission in life. A lot of things could have fallen apart, but they didn’t. Not everybody can say they’re successful, but I can say that.

Sure, I’ve cried on many days from the situation I was dealing with. It was giving me a big headache, but I didn’t let it stop me. One of the most painful times was when my husband died, just ten weeks after he’d been diagnosed. That’s what really pushed me out, because I looked at him then later looked around and saw some of my neighbors that had died of cancer and it got me wondering, “Why are all these people having cancer?” I wanted to know why. I wanted to know what was actually going on. There were so many people. In one given week I knew of eight people that died from cancer. At another time we had seven infants that were born with tumors and died very early. One of them was a boy and the rest were girls.

We’d been married seventeen years. He was a construction worker. He was on a job and they called me and said he’d took ill and gone to the hospital. It was way on the North side. So I went to the hospital. During that time the hospitals were packed with senior citizens. They even had them in the lobby. Some kind of illness was going around that year. They didn’t have a room available to put him in. Then we took him home and he stayed there awhile. Then we took him to Rosen hospital, not to far from us. He stayed in there a week, came home, stayed a week, then went back in the hospital and that’s when they found out he had cancer. The reason I remember it all so well is the day he took ill was my oldest daughter’s birthday. She’d just turned sixteen. Ten weeks later he was gone. He had lung cancer.

We have seven children. The oldest one was sixteen and the youngest was two when he died. The youngest is thirty now. I have eight grandchildren and one great grand. I’m sixty-two. That’s why I’m tired and ready to retire. I’ve been working all my life.

My husband’s death was my first major loss as an adult. My mother and my little brother died and my father too, when I was young. I don’t have hardly no relatives, but I have some good friends and two of my husband’s sisters and I are real close. There were a few neighbors of mine that really stuck with me during that time. When they called and told me about my husband, they didn’t tell me he expired, they just said come to the hospital right away. I called my husband’s brother and my neighbor, who by the time I got a ride she came with me.

Come to think of it, I’ve always been helping other people. Just thinking about Lionel . . . that was a hurting thing for me. I had sit up with him that night and went home about twelve o’clock. I’ll never forget that. By the time I got home from staying with him in the hospital I got a call saying he’d expired. And that really hurt because having just left him he looked pretty well. I’ve been finding out that many people who are real ill, that just before they expire, they do a lot better. That happened in my husband’s case and in this young man’s case. He was like a son of mine, you know? In fact I’ve had a lot of sons. You’d be surprised. (Laughs). Um hum. And now they all call me granny.

And I’ve always been helping older women. Um hum. An older friend of mine just passed last January, who I’d been looking out after. Her name was Irene. Before her was Ms. Austin and before her was Ms. Bessie. Maybe I catered to these older people because they were like a mother to me. You know, a mother figure. Mine died when I was twelve. And dealing with older people, they can tell you things that happened when they were young. Some very interesting stories they be telling. I’d like to listen to their stories and the things they used to do.

I grew up in a Catholic school. Years ago the Catholics were much stricter than they are now. I think that really helped me to be more of a religious person. I guess it just stuck with me. The majority of the things I’ve done had to be with the Almighty’s help in order for me to be successful.

I feel good now with a program we have that trains young people how to remove lead and how to respond to emergency crisis. Some of them got jobs from that. We’ve been doing this around three years. We help them to be certified by the state of Illinois. We have a list of contractors that we call and tell them about our trained folks and they get work.

We’ve also been getting into rehabbing apartments. This is our first try. We’ve just about completed it and the city likes what we’re doing so now they’re going to give us some other apartments to do. They’re really happy with the work the people have done.

We’ve been pretty fortunate. The only thing I wish is that we had a little more money coming in so we could do more. But when money is like peanuts, you can’t do the things you’d really like to.

Some universities have been ripping off community people. I was at a meeting in March and a lot of people were complaining about the same things. Here I was having problems with a big time local university. A lot of times they write these proposals and the community don’t know anything about it. They get money for a supposedly joint project with the community and we don’t even know anything about it. So I went to NEJAC (National Environmental Justice Advisory Counsel) and proposed some issues to help resolve the problem we were having with universities. And I spoke to a lawyer who helped me out a lot. Now I’ve got to fight to make sure it gets enforced. Because a lot of times they’ll come up with something then just leave it there and it does no good. That’ll be my next project.

If I died tomorrow I’d want people to remember that I tried to make a difference for the enhancement of folk’s lives. That’s how I’d like to be remembered. The way I look at it is that maybe by me doing some of the things that I’m doing it may help other people. It can’t help those that have already expired, but it will help make people aware of some of the problems like the lead program, where we’ve had the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) go into the apartments and remove the lead. That’s my biggest concern now, is how lead poison is effecting so many children. They eat the paint because it tastes sweet.

Another thing we’re soon going to be working with is water pipes. A lot of our pipes have been installed so many years ago that they’re starting to deteriorate.

My daughter’s interested in helping also. We’ve been here fifteen years and she’s been working with me ten. She knows the inside and the outside of everything that’s going on.

It’s not really that important about me. The thing I’d like to see is people standing up for their rights. That is my biggest concern. People don’t know that they can move mountains. I want people to see that if they stand up for their rights a lot can be accomplished.

Some people say, “Watch out, you say that stuff and they’ll put you out!” People are afraid to do some things, but I’m not. I don’t care who you are. If I feel that you’re violating me, then I’m going to stand up to you. And I don’t do it in no nasty way. I tell people, “You can like me the next moment if you want to or dislike me, it doesn’t make no difference.”

THE END

Hazel Johnson – Part 1

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His Mother’s Arms – Part 3

His Mother’s Arms. Excerpt from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.

His Mother’s Arms – Part 3 (Conclusion)

When Jon and his mother made their return visit to the hospital, Jon let slip a comment about his mother’s headaches. The doctor, a young, auburn-haired woman, named Sally Shapiro, quickly questioned Clarisa. “When did she first have these headaches? What was their frequency and how long did they last? What was the pain like? Were there any stressful events in her life? Did anyone in her family history have similar ailments?” The last question unloaded the cart.

To her surprise, Clarisa found the attention comforting and was relieved to finally reveal her private world of apprehension and fear. She made an appointment with Dr. Choate for tests the following week. To her delighted and infinite surprise, the tests discovered nothing other than high blood pressure, which was successfully treated with medication and a change in diet.

Jon’s feet pushed hard on the rubber pedals of his new used bike. He broke free down the straightaway and didn’t let up rounding the corner towards home. His mother was in the front yard with Grace and little Mary playing in the flowerbed. Clarisa was planting spring bulbs and chatting away when she heard a holler.

“Hey, Mom! Look!” Jon yelled with delight. He felt like the sky had lifted him from gravity’s grip and pulled him, flying, up the driveway. He skidded to a stop and stood beaming like sunlight. His mother clapped her dirt-covered hands and ran to his side. She gave him a long hug, pulling his head to her tummy and exclaimed, “That was fantastic! You’ve gotten so good! Your father will be very proud.”

Unfastening the strap to his helmet, Jon unconsciously felt above his eyebrow, adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and basked in his mother’s presence and praise.

THE END

Part 1
Part 2

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Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 2

Excerpt from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.

Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 2

Now I was being pulled, like an obsessive magnet, towards Sapporo’s alluring illusion of happiness. I was infected with a virulent virus known as TRISSES (The Rice Is Sweeter Somewhere Else Syndrome).
I wasn’t sure how to make my break – work, elope, runaway or hijack a bus? My teenage desire contradicted all financial logic. Our family had no savings account, wealthy relatives or hidden cash to save me from the purgatory in which I wallowed. My parents had no inkling of my nightly anguish and I wasn’t about to let them in on the secret. If they discovered my desire to go to Sapporo, their fears about “that depraved city of immorality” would descend upon me like a swarm of locusts. I had never forgotten the promise I’d made my father and neither had he.

When times were tough, I’d always been harangued into attending the local temple and praying for understanding and humility. After awhile I discovered that the prayers and priests divination’s often coincided with the will of my parents, teachers, and other illustrious icons of the community, but I figured I might as well give it one last try.

On a sunny Saturday in July, I decided to attend temple on a personal quest. I was turning eighteen in two weeks and could see the tiny grains of sand falling through the hourglass at the speed of light.
I wasn’t the kind of girl to stay home and play house or get married. Having grown up with six younger siblings, I was certain I’d rather be tortured and hanged then ever marry and have children! I didn’t mind if other women want to live that life, but it wasn’t my cup of tea or so I thought at the time.

I entertained the thought, rather briefly, about being a teacher. There were a few teachers I admired, respected and even fell in love with. Mr. Sato was my favorite. He had the nicest smile and always complimented my papers. Simple comments like, “Nice work.” would send Kiri and I into spasms of joy and late night talks about how one of us would make Mr. Sato our boyfriend. The fact that he was married, with children and twenty years our senior, seemed irrelevant at the time. Why should that matter when he was “so nice and cute”?
With somewhat more mature reflection, I doubted I could stand in front of thirty pairs of beady little eyes to impart any semblance of knowledge or words of wisdom. I’d surely wilt on the spot from fright.

Then the thought of working as a nurse embedded its tentacles in my skimming mind. That was something I knew absolutely nothing about. What could be so hard about that, I reasoned, handing doctors instruments, putting on bandages and saving people’s lives? I didn’t know about the ugly stuff, the pictures you don’t see on television – people throwing up on your newly washed uniform; exhausted interns screaming obscenities at your “incompetence”; wiping the bottom of a smelly old drunk dying from liver disease.

Haha (Mother) couldn’t believe how anxious I was to go to temple that day. “What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you so fired up.”

“Nothing special, I just want to recite sutras and pray for Buddha’s compassion.”

She looked me up and down, smiling with a look that said, “Yeah, sure.”

We arrived ten minutes early, dressed in our finest attire. I didn’t even mind wearing the totally embarrassing dress Haha had made for me to wear on special occasions. She had hand-stitched it from some strange fabric my aunt had given her. She gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. You could see the pride she had felt when she handed me the package and bowed. Internally I had moaned. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that old-fashioned fake-flower monstrosity!” But all she heard was my dutiful reply, “Thank you Haha. It’s beautiful.”

I rushed inside and sat on the mat. The rest of my bewildered family soon caught up and joined me, looking around nervously, ill at ease to be sitting so close to the altars.

Reverend Tsukiyama recited his ancient incantations, the followers paraded there off key voices with theatrical vengeance and everyone responded with stifled coughs and yawns. Silently, I plunged the depths of my imagination and begged the Ancestors and Buddha’s to reward me for all my good karma. “Please, please!” I begged. “Take me away from these endless fields of wheat, barley and chickens and deliver me to the Pure Land – Sapporo!”

“Get up child,” Haha whispered. “Service is over.”

The priests were shuffling down the corridor towards the hall entrance.

“Over?” I said in shock. “It can’t be! Nothing happened!”

“What are you talking about?” She felt my head. “You feeling OK Musume (daughter)?”

“I’m fine,” I mumbled, as we formally bowed and headed out. Haha kept eyeing me like a suspicious inspector.

What went wrong? I’d done everything! I helped take care of my brothers and sisters, seldom argued with my parents and never even thought about sex or drugs – well, not about taking drugs anyway. I said my nightly prayers and didn’t even hit Sashi Mutsui when she called me a “stupid little pig”.

I was a good girl. Why was I being singled out for punishment? Who were these dead priests and Bodhisattvas anyway . . . the farmers of suffering . . . the divine bean keepers? “This one’s good. That one’s bad. You deserve pleasure. You deserve pain. And you, Yuki, you have to live in Hamatombetsu until you shrivel up and die!”

I swore I’d never set foot on temple grounds again. “You call this a temple?” I admonished, looking at the empty space between the high, engraved ceiling and polished floor. “If I’m going to be stuck here the rest of my life, I might as well jump into the funeral pyre now and let my ashes blow away with the wind!”

As we reached the entrance, Reverend Tsukiyama motioned our family aside. The Reverend was somewhat of a village icon. In his forty years of service he had initiated, married and/or buried almost everyone in town. He’d known me since I was a wailing little bundle of flesh. He was a creaky, robust, silver-haired representative of communal devotion and tradition. Seeing his face reminded me of the day he caught Kiri and I orange-handed, sort of speak, on these very grounds.

We had snuck into the temple courtyard one day after school, like teenage fruit-stealing ninjas and devoured some delicious temple persimmons. They had been hanging invitingly on the lowest branch when we’d first eyed them after service the previous week. We had gleefully conspired then and their to stop by, when we thought the reverend was out making house calls and help ourselves to one of our favorite treats. Everything had gone according to plan, until we’d turned to leave and Reverend Tsukiyama entered the courtyard.
What could we say? We had orange persimmon juice all over our hands and faces. At first, it looked like he was about to laugh, but then his face turned very stern and he admonished us severely, naming every hideous realm of suffering we would end up in if we continued our lives of crime. We hadn’t known that after we’d gone running home that it had taken every ounce of control he had to not break out laughing when he’d discovered our shocked, setting-sun colored faces.

“Yuki,” the Reverend whispered. “Have you thought about your future?”

“What?” I said, still in a belligerent, melancholy daze.

“Your future. Have you thought about your future?”

“My future? It’s all I think about.”

“Well,” he chuckled mischievously. “If you don’t want to be a teacher or politician, I heard about a hospital in Sapporo that trains young girls to be nurses” his eyes sparkled, “and it doesn’t cost a single yen.”

I was stunned. He smiled a rapturous grin, then put on his stern, fatherly face. “Of course, it’s not entirely free. There is a catch.” My eyes were as big as saucers. “Once you finish their two-year program you have to work at their hospital for another two years. They provide room and board.”

I felt like I’d just been hit in the head with a large rock. “I thought you knew about this,” he said. “I’ve been telling all the girls about it.” My mouth hung open like a hungry carp.

I managed a few syllables, “No. I never . . .”

“If your parents don’t mind,” he continued, “I’d be glad to stop by later this week with the application and phone num . . .”

My shouting drowned out the good reverend before he finished his sentence.

“Yes, yes, yes! How do I apply? When does it start?”

He didn’t have time to answer. I turned to Haha and Chichi and pleaded shamelessly, “Please, please say yes!” I was jumping up and down like a kid who wanted a sweetened dumpling.

They hesitated, then Haha anxiously asked, “You want to be a nurse?”

“Yes!” I shouted. “With all my heart.”

“You never mentioned this before.”

“I thought it was impossible.”

Chichi turned stoically towards my black-robed savior and stated calmly, “We’ll think about it Reverend. It’s most kind of you to consider Yuki worthy of such a program. You know you are always welcome in our home.”

“They’d think about it?!” I screamed in my head. The answer to my prayers had just been delivered like a divine telegram and all they could say was, “they’d think about it!” I took a deep breath, put on my best face and managed a feeble semblance of control. At least they were considering it. In my vocabulary, that was as good as a yes!

At that moment my little girls promise to my Chichi to never leave our village had been washed away in a flood of excitement, but he hadn’t forgotten. Caught up in the moment, I didn’t allow myself to see the pain and sense of betrayal that was boiling under my father’s skin.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

PART 1

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The Sweetest Man – Part 2

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The Sweetest Man (Part 2)

“If he wasn’t a married man, I’d have honed in on that honey years ago.” Marina whispered to the mothers.

“Married?” Eloise exclaimed. “I don’t know if he’s married or not.”

“Really?” Marina replied. “I always assumed . . . he never even looks at me.”

“Just because a man doesn’t look at you Marina, doesn’t mean he’s hitched,” Eloise chided.

Marina good-naturally pushed Eloise on the shoulder.

“Just because he’s not married,” Linda broke in, “doesn’t mean he’s worth your time. After all,” she scoffed, “look what he does for a living. He’s not going very far.”

“I don’t care if he was washing dishes or the president of IBM,” replied Marina. “If there was more like him in this world, we’d all be better off.”

“It matters,” Linda insisted. “And you know it.”

They all nodded, agreeing with both Linda and Marina.

Leslie bid farewell and went out to the basketball court to get Sevon. By the time they got to her new car she had forgotten all about Joshua Johnson.

***

After putting the old three-speed bike away in the garage, the one he rode to work for the last twenty-three years, Joshua entered the house by the back entrance. The weathered screen door squeaked and slammed shut behind him.

“Hey Mom, I’m home,” he shouted, as he hung up his lightweight windbreaker and walked through the kitchen. On the scratched cutting board, by the sink, were some carrots and potatoes; half of which had been sliced; the other half lay silently by themselves, waiting for someone to rescue them from their wilting future.

“Mom,” Joshua said, a little more urgently. “Mom! You OK.”

“I’m just fine.” He heard her reply from the living room. “Stop your fussing.”

Joshua saw his mother, Alberta Johnson, sitting in her favorite “Big Daddy” chair, as she always liked to call the worn and tattered green suede recliner. Her feet were raised on the chair’s movable leg rest.

“Started dinner,” she explained, “but couldn’t get my breath. Had to sit a spell.”

She took in a few quick gasps that sounded like someone taking a drag on a water pipe.

“Mama,” Joshua scolded. “You leave that to me. I don’t mind cooking when I get home. It sort of relaxes me.”

“After you been out working your buns off all day?” his Mom shot back. “I’ll have no part of that.”

“You know what the doctor said,” Joshua replied. “You’ve got to pace yourself, stay off your feet.” He went back into the kitchen and kept talking. “That congestive heart stuff isn’t something to play around with.”

Alberta almost spit, as she hollered after him. “If the good Lord had wanted me to sit on my behind all day, he wouldn’t give me the legs or the gumption to use ‘em.”

Joshua returned and handed her a glass of water and some pills. “And if you don’t stop hovering over me,” she frowned, then winced, as she swallowed the pills. “I’m going to die from being babied to death!”

Joshua smiled, took the glass back in the kitchen, returned to the living room, sat on the matching green sofa and propped his feet up on the coffee table.

“How goes it with the rest of the world?” his Mom asked earnestly.

“Couple new kids today,” he replied, as he picked up the daily paper and began scanning the headlines. “One of the cutest little girls you’ve ever seen.”

“And the other?” she nodded, having expected him to tell her without her having to ask.

“Well,” he said slowly and lowered the paper to see her inquisitive eyes over the top. “The other’s name is Sevon. Nice looking kid.” He paused for effect, then said dreamily, “and his mother . . . man, was she something else.” He shook his head with pleasure, remembering the way she looked at him from behind, after they’d met and parted. He put the paper in front of his face once again, to hide the enormous smile from his mother.

“Put that thing down!” she insisted, pointing at the paper. Joshua folded the daily news neatly and placed it on the table by his feet. “Now, are you going to tell me more or do I have to beat it out of you?” she said, raising the cane she used for walking, like some menacing spear.

Joshua chuckled. He knew she enjoyed the banter and played it out as long as possible. She got pretty lonely during the days and loved a little intrigue. He wished he could afford to stay home and keep her company, but it was financially impossible. She had always been self-sufficient and independent, but since his dad had died from lung cancer in 1986, she’d been quite lonesome. It wasn’t long after his death before she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that was on top of her already existing arthritis and high blood pressure.

“Her name is Leslie,” he recalled. “Real nice. Real nice indeed.”

“Well?” his Mom said, almost coming unglued.

“Well what?” Joshua teased. He knew what was coming.

“Well?” she said sharply. “Did you ask her out, talk a little, make a move?”

“Make a move?” Joshua laughed. “Where do you come up with this stuff, TV?”

“For God’s sake Son,” his Mom exclaimed. “You said she was pretty. You said she was ‘something’.” She shook her head. Do I have to spell it out for you? Have you forgotten your single and a man? A good looking one, if I may boast,” she said proudly.

“Mother,” Joshua replied with a hint of irritation, as he got up to head back to the kitchen to finish dinner. “She’s probably married.”

“Are you sure?” she asked as he bent over and gave her a kiss.

“I don’t know,” he said standing, turning to leave. “She seemed pretty high class.” He walked towards the kitchen and muttered. “What would she ever see in a janitor?”

“Come back here!” Mrs. Johnson demanded, as she thumped her cane on the floor like a gavel.

Joshua turned and waited for the inevitable motherly pep talk, realizing he should have kept his thoughts to himself.

“You do honorable work for an honorable daily wage,” his mother instructed. “You help keep a clean place for God’s children to learn.” He lowered his head. “Look at me when I’m speaking!” He looked up quickly. “And to top it off, you’re an intelligent and kind man.” Joshua listened, knowing what she said was true, but also understanding how a man was measured. “Anybody says otherwise, is either a fool or blind,” she concluded.

“Yes Mom. love you too,” he assured her, then turned and headed towards the counter to finish cutting the vegetables that had been waiting so patiently for his arrival.

***

Without making it to obvious, Joshua made a point of taking out the cafeteria garbage at the same time the following day in hopes of at least seeing, if not talking too, Mrs. King. Discreetly, he looked up and down the hallway when the bell rang and saw hundreds of students, parents and teachers, but no Leslie King.

“Forget it,” he said to himself, carrying the can on the pushcart to the garbage bin. “What was I thinking?”

As he was about to re-enter the building, the door flew open and hit the metal can in his hands. It was Sevon.

He looked at Joshua briefly, muttered, “Oh. Sorry.” Then ran down the path towards the parking lot.

Mrs. King followed close behind yelling, “Sevon! Wait up!”

She almost walked right past Joshua, who stood silently behind the open door, then felt his presence and turned.

“Mr. Johnson?”

“Good day Mrs. King,” he nodded, unable to keep his pleasure at her acknowledgment under wraps. “And how are you and your son today?”

“Quite fine, thank you,” she replied; glancing once more down the path to make sure Sevon was safe. Turning to face Joshua directly, she asked, “And you, Mr. Johnson, how goes it for you?”

“Much better,” he said, looking down at the ground shyly.

“Much better?” she questioned.

“Much better, having seen you today,” he blurted boldly and looked her square in the face.

Now it was Leslie’s turn to look away, suddenly at a rare loss of words.

If someone had been watching this encounter from afar, they would have thought these two adults were acting like young teens experiencing a crush for the first time.

“Mr. Johnson, please,” she rebuffed.

“Mr. King’s a lucky man,” he offered. “Yes indeed.”

“There is no Mr. King, Mr. Johnson.”

“Please, call me Joshua.”

“Leslie,” she said, matching his dismissal of formalities. “King’s my maiden name. Sevon’s father is Albert Wilson.”

Joshua could hardly contain his ecstasy, but all the world and Leslie saw, was a slight nod of acknowledgment.

“And you Mr., I mean Joshua,” she wondered out loud. “Surely a man such as yourself is happily married, I presume?”

Joshua saw Sevon walking quickly towards them. “Married?” he answered. “I’m afraid not.”

“But Eloise Jacobs said . . .,” she started to blurt out, but was saved by Sevon.

“Mom! Come on!”

“Sevon,” she said sternly. “Don’t interrupt when people are talking! You hear me?” She looked in Joshua’s direction.

“Sorry,” Sevon said quietly. Joshua acknowledged the boy’s apology with a grin.

“Mothers,” Joshua said, shaking his head and smiling understandingly at Sevon. “They can be such a pain.”

Sevon stared blankly, having no idea that Mr. Johnson was joking, then grabbed his mother’s sleeve. “Come on! The game starts at four o’clock on channel eight!”

“Soccer,” Leslie explained, as she was being ushered away by her increasingly excited son. “He’s become a fanatic. Talked me into getting cable so he could watch every week.”

Joshua didn’t budge. His heart was beating like a time bomb.

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” Leslie hollered, walking half backwards, as she and Sevon made their way to the parking lot.

He remembered nodding and grinning stupidly as they left; feeling like everything was in slow motion until Mr. Duncan, the principal, opened the door to leave.

“Good night Mr. Johnson,” he said, taking a double look at the school custodian, who was frozen, with an empty garbage can in hand, looking towards the parking lot. “You OK Mr. Johnson?”

Joshua shook his head, like shaking off a vision, when he realized Mr. Duncan was addressing him. “Oh yes. I’m great, thank you,” he replied and opened the door to take in the can. “It’s a beautiful afternoon, isn’t it Mr. Duncan?” he said, looking up.

The principal looked at the cloudy gray skies and back at Joshua. If you say so.”

“See ya tomorrow,” Joshua closed the door and stepped lightly; pushing the empty trash can down the hallway; whistling an improvised tune all his own.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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