Here, There and Everywhere

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Connect the Stories


Some writing “experts” once told me that the best way to write a novel is to first write short stories. They said, “If you can write a good short story, with a beginning, middle, and end, then a novel will easily follow. All you have to do is use the same characters in one short story after another and string them together.” Turns out that they were right, in most respects, but not always.

From my experience, it is extremely difficult to write a good short story, and more difficult to string a number of them together for a book. I’ve had some success with shorts, with some of mine appearing in Go World Travel, Listen, Los Angeles Journal, Japan Airlines/Wingspan, Omega, Enigma, and the Roswell Literary Review. As you can see from the following description of my collection of short stories, Saint Catherine’s Baby, which was released 7 years ago, I hadn’t yet figured out how to keep the same characters and storyline for a novel.

Saint-Catherines-BabyAn eclectic collection of short stories that include Ruthie and her obstinate elderly student from Germany (The English Lesson); Stephanie, who waits for the unorthodox return of her deceased father (Dressed In Black); Walter O’Brien, who discovers a young couple and their child in an abandoned monastery on the West Coast of Ireland (St. Catherine’s Baby); Shannon, on the run at a shoe store in Chicago (Sizing Up Shannon); Jacque, meeting Rosalita’s shocked parents in New Mexico (Framed); and Joshua Johnson, a school custodian whose mother may have interfered in his love life for the last time (The Sweetest Man).

It still rings true,  writing a good short story is a great beginning for a novelist, and also some of the most difficult writing to do. Character and scene development, crisis, insight, and/or conclusions, must all be created within a limited number of words. Some writers can also write great books, without ever having written a short, and vice-a-versa. To this rule, if you choose to call it that, does not apply to everyone.

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Land Minds – Part 3

Saint Catherine’s Baby (Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

Land Minds – Part 3 (Conclusion)

Yosh watched in bewildered silence as Mark fought his way upstream, like a battered, dazed salmon, trying to jump one last time over the dammed waterway. He saw him floundering in unseen rapids then make a courageous ascent towards the pearly gates of luxury.

Mark reached the massive, brown, mahogany door, his chest heaving, as if he was preparing to give birth. His hand reached out between contractions, started to knock and froze in mid air. Whirling around like a drunk, he swayed towards the path, collapsed on the steps and screamed like a lanced bull. His glasses fell to the ground, cracking the right lens.

Yosh ran to his side at the same moment the monstrous door cracked open. A tiny woman in her early sixties, no taller than five feet and wearing a double-breasted blazer of black satin, stood her ground with a mixture of unabashed fear and annoyance. “What’s going on?”

Yosh answered nervously, not sure himself, “It’s um . . . it’s OK. He’ll be OK.”

She stared at these strange companions sprawled on her doorstep. “What do you want?!”

“We’re ah . . .,” Yosh stuttered. “It was a mistake; wrong house. Sorry. We’ll be going.” He tried to lift Mr. Keeler, whose head was buried between his knees.

“How . . . long . . . has she . . . lived here?” Mr. Keeler said between sobs. Yosh turned and asked.

The woman hesitated then replied, “About fourteen, fifteen years.”

Mr. Keeler lifted his throbbing head, wiped the liquids streaking his face and asked, “Who were the previous owners?”

“Wheeler or Bueller . . . something like that.”

“Why’d they sale?!” Mark shouted. “Where’d they go?!”

“How should I know? Listen, if you’re OK you better go or I’ll have to call . . .”

Mark raised his arms, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going.” He began to rise and faltered. Yosh reached for his arm but had it pushed away. “Leave me alone.”

“Sorry. I just . . .” Mark was already half way down the path. Yosh turned and said, “Sorry to have caused you any trouble.”

By the time he picked up Mr. Keeler’s glasses and made it back to the car Mark was slumped in the front seat looking like a crushed can.

The can spoke, “Sorry about that.”

“No problem. Here’s your specks.”

Mark put on his glasses without noticing the damage. “I thought it would help. You know . . . face your fears . . . that kind of stuff.”

“You’re the Wheeler she was talking about, right?” Mark nodded. “You lived in this place alone?”

“No,” Mark whispered. “Can we go now?”

“Sure.”

Yosh pulled out of the driveway with an unintended lurch and headed downtown. When he passed 89th Ave. Mr. Keeler looked up.

“Have we passed 89th. yet?”

“Yeah, just now.”

“Damn! I’m sorry. Do you mind back tracking and taking 89th West?”

“No, I don’t mind. I’ve got a couple hours to kill.” He took the next exit, turned back North and veered off at 89th. “Where we headed Mr. Keeler?”

“Jasper Memorial.”

“You mean the graveyard?”

“Yes, the graveyard; the yard of graves; the grave . . .”

After a few bends and turns they arrived. The metal plated sign over the brass gate read JASPER MEMORIAL PARK – LAND OF REST.

Yosh didn’t feel very rested. “What the hell am I doing here?!” he wondered. “I hate these places.” The last time he’d been to a funeral was his grandfathers. They dressed up in ironed pressed suits on a sweltering hot summer day and listened to a bunch of Shinto Priests in stupid hats talking gibberish for over an hour. It had been unbearable.

Mark looked like a hunter scanning the horizon for prey. “There, by that big white cross!”

“Which one; they’re everywhere?”

“That one; next to the hedge of oleander.”

They parked, turned off the engine and disembarked.

“Please, wait here,” Mark said.

Yosh went back to the car, leaned against the side door and watched Mr. Keeler venture towards the hedge with his arms wrapped around his tightly packaged body, as if he was holding a large pillow to cushion some sudden charge or blow.

Mark was not aware of his spineless body heading towards oblivion. His mind swam with familiar fears as his gut plunged like a boulder falling over a waterfall towards sharp rocks below. His eyes were awash in a salt marsh of tears. He almost fell over Charlene’s headstone, bruising his knee. He knelt on the soft bosom of grass and begged to not see . . . to not see the blood . . . the mutilated bodies . . . the horror. He pleaded to view them before . . . before the insanity . . . before his nerves were injected with a murderous rage . . . before he became a walking corpse of memory. He reached out and felt the cold smooth stone of the adjoining marker. Through the blur he saw Jasmine’s name, as clean and fresh as if the engraver had just laid down their chisel.

“My sweet child . . . I’m so sorry.” The wildfire in his heart burned more acreage, jumping between his ventricles and valves like a flaming jackrabbit. A sudden snap and he swore a two-ton elephant had jumped on his chest. He keeled over, clutching at his lungs, gasping for oxygen and space.

Yosh sprinted to his side with the speed of the young.

“Mr. Keeler! Mr. Keeler!”

Mark squinted and felt air rushing back in to his lungs like a long lost child. He gulped in relief and languished in the momentary freedom from pain.

“You need a doctor!”

“I never felt better.”

“Mr. Keeler I . . .”

“Mark.”

“OK, Mark. Don’t fool around. You need medical attention and . . .”

“Look Yosh . . . it is Yosh?” Yosh nodded; shocked that Mr. Keeler remembered his name. “It’s just a little heart attack. Believe me, it’s nothing.”

“Nothing?! Look here Mr. . . . I mean Mark, this could be serious!”

“It would be a blessing. I’ve never had the guts to do it myself.”

This man once had everything he’d dreamed of. How could he talk about suicide? Then he saw the headstones and read, “Charlene Keeler. May 18, 1952 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved wife, mother, daughter and friend.” He turned and recited the eulogy on the matching stone. “Jasmine Keeler. November 27, 1977 – February 10th, 1984. Beloved Angel Child.”

Mark heard the words “Angel Child” and looked at Yosh’s clean-shaven face. His stunned silence begged an explanation. Mark swallowed, felt his Adam’s apple rise and fall, took hold of any remaining capacities within his possession and ran zigzag through the mind field of his memory.

“I got home from work around six in the evening.”

“Work?”

“I was vice-president of research at Lupin Technology.”

“Lupin? Oh yeah, satellites and stuff, right?”

“I got home around six, threw my bag on the chair and called out for Jasmine. She usually hid behind the sofa or curtain, waiting to pounce. She never thought I could hear her or see where she was. When she couldn’t stand waiting and jumped out, I always acted surprised. Then she’d throw her arms around my neck, give me a big hug and kiss and tell me all about her day. That evening I waited and waited, but nothing happened. No giggles, no movement, no sound. I called again, ‘Jasmine! Charlene!’ Nothing. Charlene’s Audi was in the driveway so I knew they were home. Then the adrenaline kicked in. I looked more closely and saw open drawers and broken glass. We’d been robbed. ‘OK,’ I thought, big deal, we’ve got insurance.’

I figured they must be in the back calling the police. I went to the kitchen, stepped on to the marble-colored tile floor and smelled Charlene’s perfume. It was a mixture of rose and sandalwood. She got it special made from some fragrance shop or aromatherapy place. Of course, when she wore the stuff it didn’t smell anything like it did from the bottle. It was sort of like . . .” his voice drifted off.

Yosh listened, as his composure crumbled like the wall of Jericho.

“I looked out the window, to see if they were in the garden, then went around the chopping block and stubbed my toe. I looked down and saw I was standing in a pool of blood.” Mark’s hands twitched. He stared through Yosh as if he was a cloud of vaporous gas. “It was Charlene. Her neck was cut in half. I moved backwards running into the wall, leaving a trail of bright red foot prints.”

Yosh sat down, as Mark’s description leveled his belief in humanity like a wrecking ball. “My God.”

“Then I saw Jasmine. Her skirt covered her pretty head, like she was trying to hide. I slipped on the blood, crawled to her side and uncovered her face, half-expecting her to yell ‘Surprise!’ Her eyes were plastered open in fright. I tried to lift her up and felt something warm and wet oozing from her chest. Her last ounce of blood covered my hands. I grabbed her arm, which was nearly severed and hung like a piece of string cheese.

“Please!” Yosh interjected. “That’s enough!”

“I must have screamed or yelled. Someone called the police. Somebody’s hands were pulling me away from Jasmine’s drenched little body. It was like being sick on a broken down carousel that kept going round and round and I couldn’t get off.
They caught the guy. There was a trial. He was sentenced. I asked a friend to sell the house and send my checks to my uncle’s old place in the mountains. I’ve been there since.”

Neither man moved. Shadows fell upon their faces and slithered into the undergrowth that covered hundreds of souls.

“Let’s go,” Yosh finally said. He helped Mark to his jellyfish feet.

“Where are we going?”

“To the doctor,” Yosh said, walking towards the car, their arms draped around one another like old war buddies.

“No thanks. Let’s go home.”

“Where’s that?”

“You know; that old place next to Mr. Matsuma and his sister,” Mark winked.

Yosh helped Mark into the silver Civic. Mark looked out the window, across the recently cut grass, his family’s death bed. A breeze drifted through the window carrying his dreams to their graves of dirt and dust. He kissed his palm and blew his heart in their direction. “If only the living was as easy as the dying,” he whispered.

Yosh turned onto the highway and headed towards the sanctuary of living trees and solid mountains of iron and granite. His city business could wait. He had to deliver Mr. Keeler, Mark, back to the woods . . . back to safety . . . back to his shattered life of fierce independence . . . of living out his days without interference, threat or judgment. He thought of his fiancée, Rosita, of how he would hold her, protect her and care for her with a new found fierceness she would never understand.

THE END

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Hiranya’s Tongue

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

I was pregnant with words from the day of my birth. They seep through my pores and melt into my blood, swimming downstream to find release in the ocean of the blank page. Words are my heart . . . my body . . . my passion . . . my only possession.”

The second Hiranya lifted her pen from the gray white paper; the crippling reality leaped up and licked her face with unwanted attention . . . the chilling . . . the aching . . . the shutting of lips too swollen to speak, to inoculated with fear to believe in their own unique use of the tongue.

She could smell his obsessively clean scented face a marathon away. His mouthwash breath was tainted with liquorous oat, barley and hops. Her body armed itself in false security, tension wrapping around her spine like a funeral procession for God.

Hearing the front door shutter she shoved her cloth bound journal under the king size mattress, tossed the ball point in the drawer, turned off the bedside light and smuggled herself under the comforter playing opossum.

Within the time it takes to crack a leather whip, Hiranaya’s core could turn as cold as the North Sea or as sensitive as a blind bat in flight. Her mind decided which defensive mode to employ and often chose both, leaving her in a state of adrenaline induced myopathy.

Clarence strode into the bedroom feigning consideration until his pulsating ego skipped a beat and he flicked on the blinding hundred-watt bulb affixed to the ivory- speckled ceiling. Hiranya aroused her eyelids from their fake slumber, raising a wafer thin forearm to protect her constricted pupils from seizures of sudden illumination. Her tired, bloodshot eyes peeked between her fingers and saw Clarence’s sadistic grin. “Surprise!” he bellowed, holding up a rectangular package tied with yellow silk ribbon. He couldn’t keep his dimples from dancing as he paraded masterfully to the bed and sat with practiced precision, making sure not to wrinkle his iron creased slacks.

Hiranya’s muscles flinched with history as the fumes from his alcoholic travels invaded her nostrils. “Play along,” her mind whispered. “It’ll be OK.” Her knotted thighs tight as a spring and stomach turning sour as curdled milk, told her otherwise.

Revealing his smooth incisors he offered the prize of condolence. “Here. This is for you.” A flash of something wicked quivered at his temple, darted below his crystal blues and snapped with a spark at the corner of his plastered smile. He gently brushed some strands of mahogany brown hair from his poster boy mug and shifted his two hundred pound carcass from one hip to the other.

She hesitated. “Don’t you want to know what it is?” he baited.
Uncovering her adjusting eyes and placing her recently mended arm on the covers she replied, “Of course.” Gingerly she removed the package from his hand, as if taking food from the claws of a sleeping vulture.

As she began to unwrap the appeasing token he was so anxious for her to undress, she asked, “Where have you been?”

A flame ignited, desecrating his beatific face into an ugly semblance of humanity as his eyes burned with the devils own. “None of your damn business; just open it!” She fumbled nervously with the ribbon. He grabbed the offending article from her palm. “I’ll open it, you moron!”

While he raped open the package she breathlessly inched away. A few millimeters of distance could mean the difference between common catastrophe and total annihilation.

Having thoroughly plundered his offering and discarded the torn paper like used Kleenex; Clarence thrust a two-bit, thrift store journal in front of her nose. Hiranaya gasped as oxygen played a game of hide and seek in her lungs. “What’s wrong your Highness, not good enough for you?!” he sneered.

Reaching haltingly for the gift, she ventured a faint, “Thank you.” As her trembling hand grazed the plastic cover he drew it away and hurled it at the freshly painted army green wall, where it burst open and fell to the floor.

He stood so violently that Hiranya’s involuntary reflexes of swallowing and blinking went on sabbatical. “You take me for a fool?!” he surmised. “Where’s that crap you call writing?!”

He yanked open the dresser, savaged the walk-in closet, tore the corners of the thick shag carpet from their tacks and smashed the night stand drawer over the lamp when his search failed to produce her lifeline to sanity.

His grotesque, turbulent form careened like a runaway train towards the bed, crash landing with venomous intent. His large, grizzly sized paw grabbed her by the throat and slammed her skull against the headboard. His knuckles turned white. The calluses of death rubbed her heart like sandpaper. Then she heard laughter . . . distant laughter making its way up the shifting sands of her skin like a side-winding snake on a dessert dune. The hand that held her in death’s caress was gone.

Clarence was on his knees, laughing mischievously as he reached under the mattress. She bolted upright gasping for her dearest friend . . .air. He held up her journal triumphantly. “You little cuss you. It was right under my ass all along.”

Against all caution and common sense she grabbed for the journal. He slapped her hand as if it was an infected mosquito, shook his head and admonished, “No no no . . . finders keepers.” She reached out once again, catching only his surprise.

“What’s this?” he dangled the journal like a carrot, answering his own question, “It’s garbage; useless garbage from an ungrateful slob. Oh yes,” he nodded, “I read every stinking lie in here.”

He rose to a crouch and concluded his literary court martial. “Don’t worry, it’s good for something. It should get the fire going on a cold night like this.”

She abruptly pounced from the sheets, snatched the journal from his disbelieving hands and darted into the closet. Closing the hollow door, sliding to the floor with her back to the wall and crushing the journal protectively against her breast, she awaited her sentence. Her blood changed color as she heard his hissing respiration’s boil with rage.

His polished black patent leather shoes squeaked loudly as he approached. The latch clicked. The door opened. A flood of fluorescent light smothered her senses until being eclipsed by his massive frame.

An unearthly voice growled, “Give it . . . now!”

“No!” she said.

“Give it now or I’ll wring your scrawny little neck!”

“No!” she shrieked.

A rumbling thundercloud moved upon her. She felt her body take the blow and hit the floor. She heard his footsteps and the tearing of paper as he slammed the bedroom door and casually made his way downstairs.

There was nothing left between her fingers except splintered space. She clutched at the emptiness as she lay on the closet floor and silently prayed, “I was pregnant with words from the day of my birth”.

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The Sweetest Man – Part 3

Excerpt from short story book Saint Catherine’s Baby.

The Sweetest Man (Part 3 – Conclusion)

Mr. Johnson and Ms. King, who now referred to one another as Joshua and Leslie, met the next day and the day after that. With Mrs. Johnson’s insistence, Joshua started seeing Leslie in the evenings as well, usually at Leslie’s home for dinner. When Leslie could arrange a babysitter, even though Sevon insisted he could stay by himself, “I’m TEN Mom!” they would go out to a movie, dinner or a walk around town.

It wasn’t long until mouths’ were talking and tongues’ a wagging at school.

“You Wiley Coyote you,” Maria exclaimed one afternoon to Leslie. “All this time. Not one look and here you come. Pow! He practically falls over himself chasing after you.”

Eloise laughed. Leslie chided. “Come on. It’s not like that. We’re just good friends.”

“Friends?!” Maria almost shouted. “Just friends my foot. You think we’re blind? We don’t see the way you talk?”

Leslie rolled her eyes, but didn’t deny the accusation as she walked away, leaving Maria and Eloise grinning, both genuinely happy for their new found friend, the “mother of Sevon.”

***

“Can we go to your place tonight?” Leslie asked sweetly, as she and Joshua left the Thai Kitchen, which had become their favorite dining spot.

“Well . . . I don’t know.” Joshua hesitated. “Don’t you think we should get back home? Ginny probably needs to leave soon.”

Ginny was the babysitter Eloise had found for Leslie. A freshman at the community college, she and Sevon had made a great connection. She didn’t treat him like a little kid and when he discovered that she had played soccer throughout high school and was on the college team, it was admiration at first goal.

“It’s only six-thirty,” Leslie replied. “She doesn’t have to leave until nine.”

“Oh yeah,” Joshua said, already knowing that was the case, but stalling, not sure what to say.

“Sure, sometime soon,” he said, giving her a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. “Let’s go see that new flick by Spike Lee.”

“Soon, soon, soon,” she frowned. “You always say that.” She looked at the wet pavement as they walked, water still streaming down the gutters from the downpour an hour earlier.

“Are you hiding something?” she inquired.

“Hiding something, from you?” He looked hurt.

“You’ve never invited me to your house,” she said. As he lifted his arm off her shoulder, she stopped walking, braced herself and took a risk. “You got another woman at home?”

Joshua rolled his head and looked up at the dark sky. He hadn’t told her about his mother. He was afraid she’d think he was a loser, “a coward,” his previous lady friends had said or implied, because he still lived at home.

“Oh my God!” Leslie gasped. “How could you?!”

The expression of anguish on her face almost killed him. She abruptly turned and started to run. He ran after her and grabbed her long coat by the sleeve.

“No! No!” he panted. “It’s not like that.” He could tell she didn’t believe him, but she had at least stopped to listen. “Yes, I live with another woman . . .”

She raised her hand to slap him, restrained herself and turned to flee, but he wouldn’t let go and turned her around. “It’s my mother!” he shouted.

Leslie’s mouth dropped open. She stared at Joshua, flabbergasted. “Your mother?!”

He nodded, waiting to hear a litany of judgment, deprecation and farewells.

“Why?” was all she said. She took Joshua’s hands and held them in her warm gloves. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Joshua had tried to avoid this moment at all costs. How could he explain that he’s the last and only family member living that can care for his mom? How could he tell her that he’d promised to never put her in a home with strangers? How could he tell her he owed his mom the world; that she was the only one who stuck by him when he returned from Viet Nam addicted to heroin; the only one waiting when he got out of jail for robbery; the only one that called and visited every week during his rehab? Every other woman he’d known had left him for someone successful, someone who wasn’t such a “Mama’s boy.” How could he tell her all that?

“I was afraid,” was all he could manage. “I was afraid you’d leave.”

“Leave?” she said pulling him close. “You’re the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.”

She wrapped her leather coat around them both; re-heating the bond that had been temporarily frozen, extinguishing the fear that had drained the blood from their bodies.

“When can I meet her?” she whispered, after gently kissing his soft cheeks. “Tonight?”

“No. She’d be livid if we showed up unannounced. She’ll want to make a big to do about it.” He smiled sadly, returning Leslie’s kiss with one of his own on her wet lips.

“Oh. I hope she won’t go to all that trouble.”

“She won’t,” he corrected. “She can’t be on her feet long. It’ll be me who does the actual cooking. She’ll be the general in charge, ordering me to do this and that.”

“I hope she likes me.”

“Like you?” Joshua’s replied. “How could she not like you?”

His gut tightened into a knot, knowing that his mother had always found some fault or perceived character defect with his lady friends.

***

Leslie and Sevon closed the doors to the Camry and walked across the street. They opened the gate of the chain link fence to the old brownstone and headed towards the front porch.

“You be on your best behavior, you hear,” Leslie reminded Sevon. “This is very important for Mr. Johnson and me.”

Sevon nodded for the hundredth time. “How old is his mom? I bet she’s ancient.”

“Sevon!” Leslie sighed. “She’s not ancient, just older.”

“How old?” Sevon asked, as they stepped on the creaky steps.

“Shhhhh!” Leslie cautioned. “I don’t know.”

***

“Don’t forget the crystal wine glasses!” Alberta Johnson shouted from the living room.

“I didn’t!” Joshua yelled out from the kitchen, were he was nervously watching the clock. The table was immaculately set with silver utensils, which had been passed down from his great-grandmother. Bright red roses splayed out from a vase in the center of the white lace cloth, which blessedly covered most of the gaudy Formica top.

When he returned to the living room to help his mother out of her chair, the doorbell rang. He turned back towards the kitchen, wondering if he should get his mother up first or answer the door.

As he hesitated, looking at the front door then at his mother, Mrs. Johnson yelled, “What are you standing there for? Hurry up before they run off already.” He started coming towards her. “Go get the door you fool,” she snapped. “I can make it on my own.”

He watched her rise, with great effort, using her cane to steady herself, as he hurried to the front door.

“Come in. Come in.” He ushered Leslie and Sevon into the entrance way. “Who are you two fine looking people?” he kidded.

Leslie kissed him on the cheek. evon nodded a perfunctory hello.”

“Where’s you’re Mom?” Leslie asked, noticing the beautifully laid out table setting.

“I’m right here,” Mrs. Johnson replied, huffing and puffing her way into the kitchen.

Leslie, taken aback by how bent over and breathless Mrs. Johnson was, stood and stared. Catching herself, before it was noticed, she went up to the matriarch; shook her hand and said, “What a pleasure to meet you.” Turning towards her son, who looked like he’d just seen someone raised from the dead, Leslie twitched her head to indicate he should move closer. “And this is my son Sevon.”

Sevon bowed, reluctantly took the outstretched wrinkled hand and said, “Nice to meet you Mrs. Johnson.”

Mrs. Johnson laughed. “Now, aren’t you the little prince?” Sevon backed up closer to his mother. “You keep that up and the girls will be all over you.”

Looking a little sick at the thought of girls being “all over” him, Sevon nodded politely and decided then and there to keep his distance from the old lady.

“Please,” Joshua motioned towards the table. “Dinner is just about ready.”

Leslie pulled out a chair for Mrs. Johnson, who was so focused on landing gracefully in front of company, that she didn’t bother to say thank you. Sevon sat as straight as he could, like his mother had instructed, at the opposite end.

Leslie sat down next to Mrs. Johnson, put on her napkin and complimented their hosts. “This is beautiful.” She smelled the roses, then picked up a silver knife. “And these are exquisite. Where did you get them?”

Joshua put a plate full of steaming hot lasagna in front of his mother, who replied, “They’re from my grandmother. They were a wedding gift from the woman she worked for.”

“What company did your grandma work for?” Leslie asked, grateful to have something for conversation.

“Company?” Mrs. Johnson stared hard at Leslie. “Where are you from?”

“What?” Leslie said, as Joshua placed dinner before her, smiling lovingly, not having heard their interaction.

“She was a cook, a cleaner,” Mrs. Johnson continued sternly. “She was a slave.”

“Why yes, of course,” Leslie acknowledged, feeling like she’d just slipped and fallen into a mud puddle. “I meant . . . I was just wondering …”

“What company?” Mrs. Johnson muttered, shaking her head, wondering how her son could find someone who had no sense of history, no understanding of what they’d been through, of who they were.

Joshua put a big helping of Lasagna in front of Sevon and a large portion at his own seat, then placed a bottle of wine and one of apple cider next to the roses. He sat down across from Leslie, between his mother and Sevon. After putting on his napkin, he glanced over at Leslie. His smile disappeared when he saw her look of confusion. Without wasting a second he looked at his Mom for an explanation, but received none.

Leslie watched Mrs. Johnson and Joshua bow their heads to pray and did likewise. Sevon, not being brought up in a religious household, reached for his fork and took a mouthful of lasagna before his mother could stop him.

Alberta Johnson shot an inquisitional look at Sevon, then his mother. “Sevon!” Leslie admonished. “What on earth are you doing?” Sevon was at a loss. His Mom nodded frantically at Joshua and Mrs. Johnson’s bowed heads.

Sevon put down his fork, whispered “sorry” and bowed his head.

The rest of the evening was civil, but no matter what Leslie said or did, she couldn’t erase the mortal sins Mrs. Johnson insinuated they had committed at the dinner table.

“That woman,” Mrs. Johnson gasped, after their guests had left. Joshua helped her back into her “Big Daddy” chair and raised the footrest. “That woman doesn’t deserve you.” She looked at the picture of her dead husband on the bookshelf, realizing once again how much she depended on her only son. “She’s got no religion.” She took a few skeletal wheezes. “A kid with no manners. And . . . worst of all . . . she doesn’t even know she’s black.” Joshua remained silent, as his mother gargled on. “Did you see her hair?!”

***

Driving home, in her new luxury Toyota, Leslie knew she couldn’t blame Sevon, who had never said grace in his life and she couldn’t take back her naive question about Mrs. Johnson’s grandmother.
“How on earth,” she told herself, “was I supposed to know? I’m not a mind reader.” As they drove on she became more incensed and less self-effacing. “What century does she live in? she told herself. “Praying never got us anywhere!”

Two minutes later she found herself arguing for understanding and patience. “So, she finds it comforting. Who am I to say what works best for the old lady?”

***

Joshua finished up the last of the dishes, got his mother’s night time medications and brought them, with some water, into the living room.

“Here you go Mom.”

“Thanks son.” She plopped the handful into her mouth, took a big swig and swallowed them all at once, coughing a few times to clear her throat.

After making sure they’d all gone down OK, he said, “I’m going to go read a while.”

When Joshua came out of his room, about twenty minutes later, his mother said, with a slight slur, “I, I think I’ll go . . . my prayers and . . . to bed. I’m pppretty tired all of a sudden.”

He helped her rise. She leaned on him hard and dragged her cane behind her. Her shuffling was worse than usual as they entered the bedroom. He sat her on the side of the bed and pulled back the hand-knitted bedspread. Gently removing her shoes, he laid her down and pulled the covers over her shoulders.

“Thanks sweetheart.” They kissed each other goodnight. “You’re sssuch a swweet, sweet boy. What . . . what would I . . . I ever do . . . without you?”

Joshua turned off the light, closed the door and went to the bathroom. He took the few remaining barbiturates he’d switched with his mother’s medications and flushed them down the toilet. As he watched them disappear, he realized he had been so taken with Leslie King, that he’d forgotten to find out the name of that cute little girl with pigtails that he’d seen on the playground several months ago and promised himself he’d find out first thing in the morning.

THE END

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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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The Sweetest Man – Part 1

Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

Joshua Johnson stopped hauling the garbage can towards the bins and watched the Kindergarten children laughing, jumping and skipping on the playground.

“What a sweetie,” he thought, looking at a child with ribbon tied pigtails flopping on the side of her head like rabbit ears, as she ran playing freeze tag with another girl. “She’s just too cute.” He smiled to himself, picked up the can of discarded lunch plates and food and walked without haste towards the trash receptacle.

Joshua and smiles went together like popcorn and warm butter. He was one of those folks that could drive you nuts with his pleasant disposition. It could be the coldest, wettest, dreariest day of the year and he’d find something nice about it.

Just as you ran into the hallway, pulling your child in out of the storm, drenched and shivering, he’d walk by and say, “Good morning.” If you looked at him frowning, wondering what was good about it, he’d nod out the window and add, “Sure is a God- send for the trees.” As you forced a crooked smile, he’d be off, whistling some cheerful tune that sounded familiar, but he’d made to be quite his own.

Mr. Johnson, who was fairly good looking at fifty-one years of age, with short, curly gray-black hair, skin like rich dark earth and a prominent dimpled chin, had a gift for remembering names. He knew almost every child in the school. On his way to dumping the trash, Joshua realized he didn’t know the name of the little girl he’d seen playing tag and resolved to find out first thing in the morning.

***

As the bell rang, announcing the end of the school day, Leslie King made her way through the swarming hallways and met her son, Sevon, outside his fifth grade classroom.

It was only the second week of school and she and Sevon had hastily moved to the area a month ago. Though she’d known about the move ahead of time and prepared all summer, it had taken them much longer than she’d anticipated to find a decent place to live and a school district she found acceptable. It had just been their luck to move to an area of the country that had one of the highest costs of living and the lowest vacancy rates.

As a marketing manager for a major software company, she was required to relocate when needed. She was fine with the traveling, but didn’t like the impact it had on Sevon. She’d decided that this would be their last move. She was already looking into starting her own consulting firm and had some good leads on a few venture capitalists who might be interested.

Her mother, a professor of literature at the University of Texas in Austin, said she’d pitch in a couple grand if she needed it. She’d been able to keep her head when her mother had offered and simply said, “Thanks Mom. I’ll let you know.”

Yeah, her mother would give her some dough alright, but she’d have to pay some painful penance, hearing about how she was an idiot for dropping out of graduate school in her final year. And knowing herself, as she did, she knew that that sickening childhood shame, of never being good enough in her mother’s eyes, would once again creep under the door of her watchful radar and infect the healthy self-esteem she’d struggled to develop and protect.

Since Sevon’s father had left, over four years ago, Leslie had been too busy simply surviving to concern herself much with dating or meeting anyone new. he’d gone out a few times, usually with executives or colleagues, but found them to be conceited or consumed with accumulating material goods. She didn’t see herself as knocking guys out with her looks, but knew that for someone thirty-seven years old, she could easily strike a pose with her high chestnut cheekbones, accentuate her firm hips and legs and still turn some heads.

A few years ago she’d straightened her kinky black hair and had liked it so much she’d continued to torture herself with the weekly process to keep it that way, though it had now become more habit than enhancement.

She didn’t really care about how she looked anymore, just enough to keep appearances and have Sevon be proud of his mom. He was all that mattered. Any men in her life were a sideshow, at best a momentary pleasure, at worst a nuisance.

“Hey little man,” she said, carefully restraining herself from giving him a big luscious hug, knowing that would embarrass him beyond comprehension in front of his classmates. “How goes it?”

“OK,” he replied, smiling.

As they walked towards the exit, Leslie bent down slightly and whispered, “I missed you today.”

Sevon glanced up, frowned and looked around quickly to make sure nobody had heard her. “Mom!” he hissed.

He’d grown so much in the last two years that he came up to his mother’s chest.

“It won’t be long until you’re a big man and I’ll be looking up at you,” she would tell him fondly, when they were in the privacy of their own home. He would try to act like he didn’t hear her, but she could see his pride burst like fresh seeds from a pod and would have had to take sandpaper to wipe the grin off his face.

One of two women, standing in front of the school office, talking loudly, glanced at Leslie as she and Sevon started to walk by. The woman, wearing shorts and a bright yellow-orange jogging sweater, stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hello. I’m Eloise, Eloise Jacobs. Alex’s mom.”

Leslie stopped, shook Eloise’s pinkish-white outstretched hand and wondered if she was supposed to know this woman.

“Our sons’ are in the same class with Mrs. Rios,” she explained. “Your son’s name is Devon or Givon . . . I’m sorry I don’t remember.”

Leslie turned to her son. “This is Sevon,” she pronounced clearly, accentuating the short e.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Eloise exclaimed, reaching out her hand to Sevon. “Glad to meet you.”

Sevon shook hands quickly and he and Alex, who had just appeared, both scurried down the hall.

Leslie called, with a little anxiety in her voice, “Where are you going?”

Sevon yelled, “We’ll be outside Mom, by the basketball court.”

Before Leslie could say another word Eloise started talking. “Alex has gone here all his life. It’s a great school. Sure, there’s a few teachers that are so so, but most of them are good. And the parents really help out.”

Leslie noticed the other woman Eloise had been talking to start to leave, as did Eloise.

“I’m sorry,” Eloise said quickly, grabbing the other woman by the sleeve. “This is Linda Chang. Her daughter’s in the other fifth grade class. She helps out with the tutoring program in the library.”

Linda shook Leslie’s hand. “Is this your son’s first year?” she asked, a solid silver necklace around her throat and an aqua blue suit adorning her medium frame. “I don’t remember seeing him before.”

“Yes,” Leslie said hesitantly, still looking for Sevon out the window. She saw him playing with Alex, relaxed a little and turned back towards Linda. “We just moved here last month. Is it always so hard to find a place?”

Both women gave knowing nods.

“Where were you living before Mrs. um . . .?” Eloise inquired. “You do have a name besides Sevon’s Mom I presume.” All three women smiled, understanding how they often were referred to as someone’s mother instead of by their own names.

“It’s Ms. King, but please call me Leslie,” she replied. “We were living on the East Coast until I got transferred.”

“Transferred?” Linda inquired. “What do you do?”

“Well,” Leslie explained, “I have been working as a marketing consultant but I’m looking into . . .”

“Hey! What’s up?” yelled a short woman with long braided hair, high heels and bright red lipstick. A little girl that looked like her miniature was pulling her by the hand.

“Go play with Stacey,” she told the little girl. “She’s right out there.” She pointed to the playground. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

The little girl looked outside and took off running.

“Don’t run in the hallway!” the woman said and joined Eloise, Linda and Leslie.

“She’s such a doll,” Eloise told the woman.

“Yeah,” the lady replied, “a wind-up doll that never stops.”

They all laughed.

Eloise made the introduction. “Mrs. King, I mean Leslie or better known as Sevon’s Mom.” They all chuckled. “This is Marina. Marina Higuera.” They shook hands.

“Marina is the queen of the PTA,” Eloise continued.

“And about everything else,” Linda said satirically.

Marina lifted her chin and sauntered a few steps.

“It’s a good thing our husbands don’t attend PTA meetings,” Eloise smirked, “or Marina would have hijacked them all.”

They all laughed, as Marina batted her eyelashes playfully.

“Welcome,” Marina said sincerely.

“Thanks,” Leslie exclaimed.

Joshua entered the hallway, pushing the empty garbage can on a handcart and walked past the front desk whistling. He was reminding himself to find out the name of the new kid he just saw playing outside with Alex Jacobs.

Leslie, in the midst of explaining once again what she did for a living, stopped mid-sentence and watched the handsome, seemingly distracted older gentleman walk past whistling. The other women saw her eyes wander.

Suddenly, Marina called out, “Hey! Mr. Johnson!”

Joshua tipped the handcart forward, so it stood by itself and turned around to see Eloise Jacobs, Linda Chang, Marina Higuera and a lovely woman he didn’t know. With his easy, “I’ve got all morning” attitude, he walked over and nodded hello.

“Good afternoon,” he said, trying to keep from staring at Leslie. “Beautiful day out today, isn’t it?”

“Yes, indeed,” Marina exclaimed, and without much hesitation introduced Leslie.

“Pleasure to meet you Ma’m,” he said with pleasure, unable to hide his admiration.

Leslie shook his hand gently and felt a warm strength returned.

Nodding his head towards the basketball court he said, “And that must be your boy out there?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Sevon.”

“Well well,” he said, not sure what else to say with all the ladies staring at him. “I ah, better get back to work.” He nodded over at the can in the middle of the hallway. “I can’t leave that standing there now, can I?”

“Take care Mr..Johnson,” Marina cooed.

“You all have a good night now,” he replied.

As he turned, he flashed a quick smile towards Leslie, but not enough for anyone to notice. He started whistling as he walked away from the desk and through the door to the cafeteria.

“Now wasn’t she something,” he told himself, as he replaced the trash can and put in a new liner. “Whoever she’s fixed up with is one lucky man.”

It had been a couple of years since Joshua had even considered getting involved with another woman. He enjoyed their company and was just as drawn to the opposite sex as most men, but things never really worked out and he’d decided it was better to leave things alone, considering his circumstances at home and all.

CONTINUED TOMORROW

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The English Lesson – Part 3

Conclusion of The English Lesson. An excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.

After several moments of silence, Mrs. Frankel closed her eyes and whispered, “That man save my life.” Her eyelids parted slightly. “After war, our town in ruin from bombs. Many months go here and there. Much poor, much, how say, puberty?”

“Poverty,” Ruthie nodded, choking down her urge to laugh.

“We have little to eat. Most people in country same. Our haus destroyed. No verk. Father dead.” A smile caressed her lips. “Then comes Claude. He intrepoter, inturp . . . you know, talk for. He verk with Americans because he speak Deutsche, English and French,” she blushed. “I just young girl. He came in night, after verk and ask my muter if he can take out me. She say, ‘Ask her, not me.’ Of course, I say yes. He is so nice and looking good.” She smiled so broadly that Ruthie could see her scrubbed white dentures.

“He bring our family extra bread and ration coupons. I not help but fall in love with man. He very gentle and true.” She stopped and caught her breath. “One day he tell me his story. Claude’s parents were arrest by Nazis, just as he home from school in afternoon. He been told what to do if something happen, so he go hiding and join sister, who already live in château in France, where brave owner save many refugee.”

Mrs. Frankel suddenly stopped, got up stiffly and moved down the hall. “I show something,” she mumbled, then disappeared into the back bedroom. Ruthie could hear her opening drawers and struggling to close them.

After several minutes she returned with a small, torn envelope and drew out its crumbling contents. She handed the paper to Ruthie who looked blankly at the German correspondence. “I found letter going through his thinks. It is to man who survive death camp and write Claude to tell him how his parents horrible finish. He know and see Claude’s parents go into gas death. Claude’s letter back to this man is scream of anger and how you say, griefing?” The handwriting was neat and precise up to the final shaky sentence. Mrs. Frankel read it to Ruthie. “His last words say, ‘I have to stop writing . . .’”

A shadow fell upon the room, as a limb outside the window blew in the gathering wind. Ruthie folded the letter with tenderness and handed it back to Mrs. Frankel.

“He end up verking as journal speaker for Radio Free Europe, then as soldier for underground,” she said proudly. “He speak languages good.” Ruthie’s smiled. “Not like me.”

Mrs. Frankel’s smile subsided as her story continued. “It hard to think my sweet Claude as soldier boy. He live in woods and mountain caves two years until allies, how you say, ‘parasite’ vepons from sky?”

“Parachute,” Ruthie gently supplied the word, not wishing to intrude.

“Yes, parashut,” Mrs. Frankel agreed. “Then they have guns and bullets to fight. He say he lost many friend . . . many French friend. He very brave. Not only he stood his place, but run back and forth during heavy fight to bring friends bullets. He grew above self and after war was honor the la Croix de Guerre by French guvermant.”

Mrs. Frankel took a blue and white embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her plain, neatly ironed dress and blew her nose. “‘One of happiest day in life?’ he say, when he and thousand of French people greet American soldier boys and march down Champs de Elysees.”

“What was the other?”

“Other what?”

“Happiest day of his life.”

She gazed at her husband’s picture. “When he meet me.” Her tears flowed freely. “He always say I best thing in his life.” She resorted to her hanky once again, dabbed her eyes and apologized. “I sorry. Please . . . I just old, sad woman. Not your problem.”

“It’s OK.”

Mrs. Frankel blew her nose one last time and pocketed her handkerchief. “Enough.” She picked up the pages, pointed, and demanded, “What this say!?”

***

Sy was half-asleep, lounging in the car, when Ruthie left Mrs. Frankels. The wind had picked up, blowing a multi-colored curtain of autumn leaves around her. She stopped at the front gate to wave to Mrs. Frankel, who watched through the living room window. The shades had all been opened.

She went to the car. With the English lesson resting on her lap, she looked fondly down the maple and elm-lined street.

Sy sat up slowly and turned the ignition. The old Plymouth hummed to attention.

“How goes it?” He put the transmission into drive.

“Not bad.” Ruthie’s seditious smile lit her face. “Not bad at all.”

Sy put the gear back in park. “Not bad?” he said incredulously.

Ruthie buckled her seat belt and said, more to herself then to Sy, “Not bad, once you get to know her.” She leaned over and kissed Sy, who stared at her blankly. “I’m awfully lucky to have you,” she grinned.

“What brought that on?”

“Let’s go home,” she nodded towards the street. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

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