October 05, 2008

Vignette 7

Rob walked into the house hungry.  He wondered if his wife had cooked tonight.  Dinner was a haphazard thing in their home.  Two adults working full-time, and two sons who were busy with sports and other after-school activities meant that there wasn’t often time to sit down together as a family.  This always made him feel guilty, somehow, because he knew he was depriving the boys and himself of something special.  Perhaps that is why he couldn’t hear the song Cat’s in the Cradle without leaking a few tears.  He was a busy man, managing a large hotel.  Guests didn’t stop checking in at five pm.  His wife was an accountant at the same hotel.  While her hours were a bit more stable, she still often arrived home too late to cook anything elaborate.  It was a house of takeout food and microwave magic.  Hamburger Helper was a treat, because at least it was cooked on the stove.  Nina was a good cook, but with no captive audience, and too little time, it hardly seemed worth it.

He didn’t smell anything fabulous coming from the kitchen.  A small splash of disappointment washed over him as he wandered in to find the kitchen pristine.  No dirty dishes meant the boys hadn’t eaten dinner at home.  A clean stovetop meant that Nina hadn’t cooked.  He glanced at the weekly calendar on the fridge and groaned.  Thomas had a soccer game tonight.  He was missing another game.  This was going to cost him a week of sullen silence from both Thomas and Nina.  He promised himself that he would do better.  He promised himself that he would make it up to Thomas by doing something special with him this weekend.  Then he poured himself a bowl of cereal and took it into the family room to watch the news.

“The latest information we have from the high school in California is that almost all of the hostages have now been released.  According to the principal of the school, only four people remain unaccounted for:  Ellen Jones, a guidance counselor at the school, Tina Acevedo, a senior at the high school who is on the cheerleading squad, and is believed to be the girlfriend of the hostage-taker, and Dr. _______, and English teacher at the school, and Brandon Hawkins, a senior at the high school who is a star point guard for the team, and who has taken the hostages.  According to witnesses already released, Hawkins announced that there was an explosive device planted in the gymnasium, and he is armed with a semiautomatic weapon.  Jones volunteered to stay when he released the other hostages.  Principal Norman Matthews has informed us that she has worked closely with the student for a number of years, and believes that she remained to try and talk him down.”

Rob sat open-mouthed and watched the report.  His cereal sat untouched in the bowl getting soggy.  Suddenly, he jumped out of his recliner and ran to his bedroom.  On his dresser was a wooden box, its purpose much the same as a child’s old cigar box.  Inside were old ticket stubs from concerts, matchbooks from restaurants and bars, his high-school prom picture signed by his date, and other miscellaneous important items from his past.  Nina often teased him about the box, but often smiled when he went through it.  The wrist and leg bands from the births of both boys were also in there.  He dug through the box impatiently, and finally pulled out a fragment of a one-dollar bill.

He had met Ellen at his first job out of college.  He was the assistant manager of service at a mid-range hotel in the Borscht Belt, read: glorified bellboy.  He started on Memorial Day, which was the official opening of the summer season.  Two weeks later, the manager over him hired a new receptionist, as they now needed one for both day and evening shifts.  Ellen had started in June.  She worked the night shift.  Things on the night shift were pretty laid back, as there were few employees working, and not much to do.  Rob had quickly noticed that she was efficient and dependable.  He had just as quickly noticed that she liked to drink.  A lot.  There was a fresh gallon jug of Carlo Rossi in the ice machine every other day.  But she borrowed his books to read in the quiet times, and discussed them with him as often as possible, and he grew to like her a great deal.

The daygirl quit two days after Ellen started.  Ellen started working doubles.  She claimed she didn’t mind, because the work was easy, the hotel fed her, and she didn’t have much else to do.  “No boyfriend?” Rob had joked.  Ellen had turned beet-red and looked down at the floor.  “Not any more,” she replied.  She asked Rob if he knew of anyone looking for a roommate.  The doubles, she explained, were making it too hard to stay awake for the hour-long drive back to her father’s house.  The doubles combined with the wine, thought Rob.  He had only considered for a few minutes.  He thought that if she moved into his place, perhaps he would have a chance at having a relationship with her.

“Marco and I could use a third person, if you don’t mind living with guys.”

“Actually, I’d prefer it.  I don’t do well with other women.”

“You’re not going to expect us to remember to put the toilet seat down or anything like that?”  Rob was thinking about what a pig Marco was.

“I think I can handle remembering to put it down myself,” as she grinned at the thought.  “You think Marco would mind?”  

“I don’t know.  I’ll ask him later.”  Rob didn’t spend much time with Marco.  He was a pretty boy from the Bronx who believed himself to be an Italian Stallion.  He actually annoyed Rob more often than not, but since they worked opposite shifts, it seemed to be working out so far.  Ellen worked with Marco as well, and he knew that she was aware of his foibles as well as his exploits.

The next day, Ellen had moved in.  She also wasn’t around much, as she was working as many hours as possible to save some money for college in the fall.  Often, though, the three would spend time together at the end of the evening shift, either going out to the local club or just hanging out getting wasted and watching movies.  Getting wasted was a big part of summer activities at the hotel.  The manager of the service desk had the reputation of being able to provide ANYTHING a guest asked for, and he lived up to the reputation.  Marijuana, cocaine, book making, you name it; you could get it if you had connections to the manager.  Ellen did.  Her dad had handled some legal issues for the boss a while back, and his eternal gratitude meant that she had access to some of the finest drugs in the area.  Rob suspected her dad would have dropped dead had he known how his work was being repaid.

One night, they were all sitting around watching television.  After a couple of joints, they were all facing a wicked case of the munchies, and decided to order pizza.  All of them threw in a five to pay for it.  When Marco came back from the door, he had the pizza and a dollar bill in his hand.  Solemnly, he put the pizza down, and carefully tore the bill into thirds.  “Your change,” he announced, and handed Ellen and Rob each a third of the bill.  They had all laughed maniacally, but they also had all carefully tucked their “change” into wallets.  

That was the same night that Marco convinced Ellen that being friends with benefits would be a grand idea.  Rob had been devastated.  Tall, thin, already beginning to lose hair, and with remnants of adolescent acne still visible on his face, he hadn’t stood a chance against Marco if looks had been what had mattered.  He had thought more of Ellen than that. He had lain in his bed with his head buried between two pillows trying not to listen.  Fortunately, Marco only relied on Ellen when he couldn’t find some other pretty young thing at the club.  That was a rare occasion, so most mornings found a strange girl coming out of the bathroom or trying to find coffee makings in the kitchen when Rob and Ellen were getting ready for work.  He asked her once how she could still sleep with Marco and watch the parade.  She shrugged.  “It’s convenient.  It scratches an itch without the complication of a relationship.  If I don’t want a relationship, it seems this arrangement makes the most sense.”

Rob was curious.  “Why don’t you want a relationship?”

“Because the one I just ended was too ugly.”

“Ugly how?”  He really wanted to know.  He wanted to figure out how to convince her to give him a try.

“He hit me.”  That was all she would say about it.

After three weeks of this strange version of “Three’s Company,” Ellen took a day off of work. Rob was surprised.  She hadn’t seemed too hung over that morning.  When he arrived home after work, he found her sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of vodka.  No mixer.  No glass.  Just the bottle.  She was in a place far, far away, insulated by about half a bottle.  Marco walked in.  “Holy shit, Ellen, that’s a lot even for you.”

She said nothing.  She merely picked up the bottle and took another slug.  Rob sighed, and started a pot of coffee.  When she put the bottle down, he grabbed it, closed it, and put it away.  “Enough, Ellen.  It can’t be that bad.”

“Really?  You want to know why I took the day off?  I took the day off to go to the clinic.  I went to the clinic because I have a goddamned yeast infection that will NOT go away.  Only at the clinic, they said it wasn’t a yeast infection. “

Marco interjected, nervous, “Well what the fuck is it, then?”

“Oh, Marco, your concern about MY health is touching,” Ellen acidly responded.  “Actually, after finding out it wasn’t a yeast infection, they asked me for the date of my last menstrual period, which, of course, I couldn’t remember at first.  Then I realized that I haven’t had my period since before I left college at the end of May.  No yeast infection.  Not even an STD.  I’m pregnant.”

Marco, not too bright, blurted out, “It’s not MINE is it?”

“Not too good with the math, are you, Marco,” Ellen retorted.  “No.  It’s not yours.”  

Rob wanted to kill him for expressing his relief so obviously.  

Rob said, “The boyfriend’s?”

Ellen nodded miserably.

“You going to call him?”

“Hell no.  He’d want to get married and have it.  I can’t have this baby.  First of all, I can’t get back with its father, and I sure as hell can’t do it alone.  Secondly, I have been pouring whatever mind-altering substances I could get my hands on into my body this summer.  What kind of damage have I already done to it?”

Rob asked, “What can we do to help?”

Ellen said glumly, “It costs two hundred and fifty bucks for an abortion.  I don’t have that much.”

Marco, so relieved to be out of the responsibility loop, chimed in.  “I can spare fifty if that helps.”

“Gee, thanks, Marco,” Ellen acerbically replied.

Rob quietly said, “All the bell hops will kick something in.  We’ll get the money.  You make the appointment.  I’ll take you.”  He poured her a cup of coffee.

The anguished look in her eyes as she thanked him almost ripped his heart to pieces.

True to his word, Rob took her for the appointment.  He sat in the cold lobby and waited for what seemed like an eternity.  The receptionist was giving him dirty looks the whole time.  He couldn’t read, he couldn’t think, he could do nothing but wait.  Wait he did.  When Ellen finally came out of the door she had been led through two hours earlier, her eyes were swollen, red, and still tearful.  They did not speak as he walked her to the car.  They did not speak on the long drive home.  Ellen went to her room and closed the door.  She was still weeping silently.  Two hours later, Rob went in to check on her.  She was curled in a fetal position on the bed rocking.  He couldn’t tell whether the pain was physical, mental, or both. He didn’t know what to do.  Finally, he got on the bed and curled his body around hers and just held her.  

After a while, she spoke.  “You know what?  I was crying while I was still under the anesthesia.  Even my subconscious knew that what I was doing was terrible and wrong.”

“It wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t wrong.  You did what you needed to do.”

“What I needed to do, yes,” she said bitterly.  “It was wrong, Rob.  As much as I rationalize it, as poor as the timing was, for two days, I was immersed in the potential, the possibilities.  For the rest of my life, I will always be thinking of those potentials, those possibilities.  I will always be thinking, ‘This is the year kindergarten would have started,’ or, ‘This would have been high school graduation.’”  

Rob had no response.  He just held on tighter until she finally drifted off to sleep.

September 30, 2008

Plot 3

Ellen dropped Norman’s coffee off with the secretary and returned to her office.  The headache had worsened with the stress of the meeting, and all she really wanted was a few minutes of quiet to regroup.  She left the lights off, and sat at her desk with her coffee.  All she really wanted to do right now was go home and sleep off the headache.


She mulled over the meeting in her mind.  As predicted, nothing had happened.  The boys were off the team.  Despite the parents’ agreement that the boys would attend the adult program to make up the credits, Ellen knew that it was likely they wouldn’t graduate in June without constant attention.  She turned to her computer and emailed the adult program, requesting verification when the boys enrolled.  If they enrolled.

A soft knock at the door interrupted her reverie.  She looked up and smiled.  “Hey Brandon.  What can I do for you?”  

“You have a minute Ms. Jones?”

“Always for you.  What class did you skip out of to come talk to me?”

“Calculus.  Bellon has a sub, and no one is doing anything but talking.  It was getting on my nerves.”

“You sure that was all that was getting on your nerves?” Ellen asked.

“I don’t suppose you can tell me what happened this morning,” Brandon replied.

“You know I can’t.”

“Ms. Jones, if they can’t play, we won’t win.  If we don’t win, my chance at that scholarship is shot.”  Brandon was getting increasingly distressed.  In his mind, he had one ticket out of this place and the life he knew would be his if he stayed here.

“Hon, we’ve talked about the scouts before.  From what Coach Mark says, they are most definitely coming to see you.  They aren’t interested in what the team does, they are interested in what you do with the team.  No matter what happens, you just have to get out on the floor and do your thing.  They’re going to see how well you play and how well you lead whether or not the team wins.  In fact, let’s imagine the worst case,  that they ARE off the team.  It actually gives you a chance to shine even brighter when they see how well you cope with adversity with the rest of the team.”

Brandon looked doubtful.  He was an athlete through and through, and for him, the win was paramount.  “Still, I hope they can play.”  He looked narrowly at Ellen.  “They can’t, can they?”

She didn’t reply, and that was answer enough.

“Shit!”

“You need to calm down, Brandon.  You won’t be able to show them much of anything tonight if you spend the rest of the day worrying about it.”

“Can I stay here and work on my Calculus this period?”

Ellen looked at him.  She didn’t like how he was reacting.  Something else was going on.  “Is your great-grandmother okay?  How are things going at home?”  Brandon’s great-grandmother, with whom he had been living for most of his life, had Alzheimer’s.  

Brandon shrugged.  “Pretty much the same.  She don’t do much, and she don’t remember who I am most of the time.”

Ellen sharply retorted, “Vernacular, Brandon!”

He grinned sheepishly.  “She doesn’t do much, and she doesn’t remember who I am most of the time.”

“How’s your Auntie May holding up?”  May was Brandon’s great-aunt, daughter of Mrs. Hawkins.  

“She’s okay too.  I do most of the hard stuff with Grandma in the morning before school and at night before bed.”  

Ellen inwardly winced.  She knew that ‘hard stuff’ referred to bathing and dressing the old woman.  Not many seventeen-year-olds could handle that.

“You make sure that you tell me when it gets to be too much for you and Aunt May.  We can get a visiting nurse and a home-health aide in there to assist when you can’t handle it.”

Brandon calmly responded, “No thank you, Ms. Jones.  There’s more family if we need it.  No stranger is going to take care of Grandma.  People from the church are already bringing enough food to feed us three times over during the week.

Mrs. Hawkins was a much beloved member of the community.  Ellen knew that Brandon was right, that they would rise to the occasion of tenderly caring for the woman until it was time for her to go.  

“Okay.  I want that calculus done before the end of the period, though.  Don’t you dare ask me for help, either.”

Brandon cracked up.  The thought of asking Ms. Jones for help with anything related to math was pretty funny.  She was hopeless with math.  “Oh, don’t worry, I won’t.  I don’t want to get it wrong.”
He pulled out his book and got to work.  Ellen turned to her computer and worried about the game tonight.  She knew she was right about the recruiter, knew that how Brandon handled the adversity of having two of the best players out of the game would be critical, but still, she felt awful about the situation.  He was already nervous about it.  He didn’t need to be, but he was.  The recruiter had actually spotted him at basketball camp during the previous summer.

She looked over at the handsome young man in front of her.  He was tall, but not very tall for a b-baller, only 6’4”, and built rather more solidly than most of the team.  The solidity was all muscle, though, from years of religiously working out with weights.  At the moment, his brow was furrowed in concentration as he worked through the math problems, but when he grinned, it was infectious.  His smile lit up his entire face, and yours with it.  Somehow you managed to overlook the other minor imperfections that kept him just this side of good-looking when he smiled.  He smiled often, which still astounded Ellen.

She had met him when he was a puny sixth-grader with none of the height and muscle he now possessed.  She had been on her way home from school, and saw a group of high school students all grouped together at the park.  Years of experience told her a fight was about to start.  The crowd had that animal intensity present when violence is brewing, circling in to prevent witnesses from seeing.  Never one to shirk responsibility, she had pulled the car over and got out yelling.  Her cell phone, as usual, was somewhere not on her person, so she couldn’t call for help.  As she marched into the fray, she gratefully realized that she knew the kids in the middle.  Knowing names was a powerful thing.  She didn’t know the victim, though.  He was small, but it didn’t seem to matter.  He was standing up straight, and he looked unafraid, even though he was bleeding from a cut over his eye.  “Pedro! Adolfo! Miguel!  Israel!  What the HELL are you doing?”  Pedro turned toward her with a sneer.  “Getting this nigger punk out of our park.”  Ellen stopped dead still.  She began quaking with rage.  “Get. Out. Of. Here.”  Miguel, as the lone senior, knew her best.  He watched the red creep up Ms. Jones’ neck and knew what it meant.  “Come on, bro.  This lady don’t play, and I don’t have time to deal with the cops right now.”  Adolfo, who sort of liked Ellen ever since she had helped his family out with a problem, grabbed Pedro’s arm.  “We’re outta here, Pedro.  Come on.”  Pedro glared at Ellen, just to make sure she understood that he wasn’t afraid of her.  He spat toward the little boy.  “Pendejo!  You stay out of our park.”

The crowd gradually dispersed.  When they were alone, Ellen knelt in front of the boy.  “Are you okay?” she asked.
 “Fine,” he muttered.  
“What school do you go to?”
“Washington.”
“Why are you all the way over here today?”
“Auntie had a meeting with my cousin’s teacher at the high school.  I’m waiting for her.  She said I could play basketball while I waited.”

Ellen nodded toward his head.  “Do you mind?”  He shrugged.  The cut was shallow, but it had bled quite a bit.  The child’s thin t-shirt, graying with age, was covered with blood.  He was remarkably calm.

“Who’s your Auntie?”
“Sonia Miller.”

“Who are you?”

“Brandon Hawkins.”

“You related to the Hawkins on Bradford?”

“That’s my Grandma.  I live there too.”

“Tell you what.  Let’s go back to the high school and have the nurse look at that eye.  Then I’ll find your auntie, so she knows where you are.”

Brandon shrugged again.  “She won’t care.  Didn’t want to pick me up today anyway.”

Ellen dug through the mess on the back seat of her car, and handed him some tissue.  He got in, and she drove the block back to the high school.  Once the nurse had cleaned him up and declared that he would live, Ellen brought Brandon to the gym where the girls’ basketball team was practicing.  “Hey Coach!  Can this young man get a few lessons from the girls while I’m talking to his aunt?”  Jennie Dixon looked over at her, saw the boy, and nodded.  

“Brandon, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Grimly, she went off to find the aunt.  The woman ought to have known better than to leave her African-American nephew at that particular park.  The Hawkins clan had been around for a long time.  She couldn’t claim ignorance about the territorial disputes between the black and the brown students in this town.  Leaving a sixth-grader at that park as the high school was dismissing had been asking for trouble.  

“Ask and ye shall receive,” thought Ellen, as she marched back up to the office.




September 29, 2008

Interlude 2

Alan Jones knew there was a problem when he walked through the door and was greeted by silence.  Hannah always flew to the door and began complaining the moment he opened it.  Tonight, the house was quiet.  Perhaps she took the baby out?  The thought vaguely worried him.  Oh well.  He could at least enjoy the peace and quiet for a few moments.  Although he had studied hard for the exam, he had that uncomfortable feeling that he had not responded correctly to a single question.  He loved his wife.  He adored his daughter.  Nevertheless, he wished Hannah had not been in such a hurry.  He was walking through life on automatic pilot, feeling as though he was not accomplishing anything very well.  What was the expression?  Spread too thin.  He was spread too thin.  It didn’t help that Hannah had turned out to be so high strung about everything.  Lately, he didn’t much want to talk to her at all, since all she could do was complain, about him not being home, about the baby being abnormal, about the fact that the nanny frightened her, about not being able to party they way they used to.  He sometimes thought that Ellen was more grown up than Hannah.  At least she was quiet most of the time.

He wandered into the kitchen, wondering if there were any beers left in the refrigerator.  He didn’t often drink, but tonight, in the quiet, he felt like celebrating.  He heard quiet noises coming from the baby’s room.  Immediately he became infuriated.  If she had DARED to leave the baby in the apartment unattended, he thought he might get violent.  He was not a violent man, but he loved that sweet-smelling bundle more than he could have thought possible, and the fact that his wife clearly did not share his enthusiasm left him profoundly confused and unhappy.

Quietly, he walked down the hall.  For a brief moment, he allowed himself the hope that he would find both of them in the room, and that Hannah might have finally given over to the boundless love of parenthood.  He imagined her cradling the baby and reading quietly to her.  When he looked through the door and saw Nanny in the rocker rather than Hannah, he was both disappointed and relieved at the same time.  At least Hannah had made arrangements for the baby.  He wondered how they were going to pay Nanny for the extra hours.  Nanny finished reading the page, and looked up at him.  He knew by the expression on her face that the news wasn’t good.

“She gone, Mr. Alan.”  

“What do you mean gone?”

“Gone.  Packed her bags and told me to stay and mind Ellen until you get home.  Said she was gonna go to her Momma because her Momma was sick.”

Alan placed his head in his hands.  The timing of this couldn’t be worse.  He had a major paper due next week.  “Did she say when she’d be back?”

“You don’t understand, Mr. Alan.  I spoke to her Momma this morning.  Her Momma isn’t sick.  I don’t think she coming back at all.”

Alan looked horribly confused.  He had known that Hannah was frustrated, but in his wildest dreams, he never imagined she’d leave.  He ran down the hall to the kitchen and picked up the phone.

“Hello, Mrs. Levine?  It’s Alan.  Has Hannah come home?  Nanny Moses told me that she packed a bag and left suddenly this morning because you were ill.”  

He started scrounging through the kitchen drawers for a cigarette.  He had quit in an effort to economize, but Hannah left the damned things all over the place.  He found a pack on top of the refrigerator and listened grimly to the voice on the end of the line while he lit it.  

“Well have you heard from her, at least?  She didn’t leave a note, she didn’t leave a message at the university, she just left.  I need to know if she’s coming back.  I need to make arrangements for the baby.”

He listened some more.  A frightened look came over his face.  “No, no, no, Mrs. Levine.  You don’t need to do that, you don’t need to come down here to help.  I think you can best help by waiting for Hannah to show up and talking to her this.  I need her to TALK to me about this.”

He looked at the cigarette with distaste and violently crushed it out in the ashtray.  “Yes, Mrs. Levine, I’m sure that Nanny will stay, and I can call my mom if we need extra help.”  

“Uh-huh.  That would be great if you could keep paying her salary while Hannah and I try to work this out.  Okay, I need to go check on Ellen now.  Please call the minute  you hear anything.”

He hung up the phone.  Curiously, he couldn’t define exactly what he was feeling at the moment.  Part of him was devastated that his wife had apparently left him.  The other part was strangely elated to be free of her negative presence in the apartment.  

He went back to Ellen’s room.  Nanny had just changed her, and she looked well-fed and sleepy.  He saw the bottle as Nanny was trying to hide it. “Don’t worry about it, Nanny.  I think that doctor is full of horse manure.  She can have bottles, as far as I’m concerned.”  Nanny smiled.  Alan picked up the soft bundle and sat with her on the rocker.  “It’s just you and me kid.  At least for a little while.  You think we can handle it?”  The baby turned her deep green eyes toward her father’s voice.  She almost looked like she was examining his face.  He looked into those eyes, and suddenly thought that they were going to be okay.  Gently, he rocked her.  Nanny slipped out of the room.  

Twenty minutes later, Ellen was sleeping peacefully in her crib, and Alan wandered out into the kitchen.  He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the counter.  Nanny chided him gently, “Now, Mr. Alan, you don’t really be wanting those, do you?  How’s about I fix you some supper?”  Alan put the pack down.  Then he leaned over the counter with his head upon his arms and began to weep.  Nanny gently put her hand on his shoulder.  “S’long as you need me, I’m here.  You need me extra hours, I’m here.  You want me to move in, I will.  Until you get this worked out, I be here with you and Ellen.”

This kindness seemed to make Alan sob harder.  

Eventually, he raised his head.  “I can’t afford to pay you, Ms. Moses.”  

Nanny chuckled.  “Don’t you worry about that.  The Levine’s shore will be happy to continue to pay me.  They’se gonna be so embarrassed by her leavin’ that they will pay.  Otherwise, you just tell ‘em that they don’t need to see Ellen.”

She took a plate of food out of the oven for him and set it at the table.  Then she grabbed her carpetbag purse, and headed for the door.

“See you in the morning, Mr. Alan.”


September 25, 2008

Plot 2

Ellen walked into the main conference room with her head down, shuffling the folders, dossiers, really, containing the high school histories of the two boys.  Michael Rogers and Ian Jameson were considered privileged students in this small district.  They had passed through the first three years of high school by the skin of their teeth, relying on their moderate athletic ability and parental influence more than intellect to pass classes.  

Ellen shook her head as she approached the seat farthest away from the heavyset man already red with anger.  The single most important thing she had learned about raising children, though she had none of her own, was that overly indulgent parents created students with a sense of entitlement that was hard to shake.  Few of those students had the smallest clue about personal responsibility and accountability.  Cheating was rampant.  Most of the teachers turned a blind eye, unwilling to deal with the wrath of parents who did not believe that their children would ever do anything seriously wrong and who also didn’t view cheating as a problem.  George Jameson, florid already, and undoubtedly headed toward neon red in the near future, sat, as close to the table as his beer gut would allow.  His t-shirt proudly pronounced his former membership in the brotherhood of fire fighters.  High blood pressure had forced him to retire early, and he was bitter about it.  He was bitter about many things, but not nearly as bitter as the bottled blonde with the heavy make-up sitting next to him.  Ellen had been on the other end of the phone receiver to her too frequently to think otherwise.  On the opposite side of the table sat a much more conservative looking couple.  Both dressed professionally, the Rogers already looked annoyed at the prospect of missing another hour of work to discuss their son’s problem.  Clearly the educators sitting at the table with them did not understand the genius of their son, or themselves.

Norman strode into the conference room, with just the right half-smile on his face.  He was walking a tightrope here, and he knew it.  Both the Jamesons and the Rogerses had friends on the school board.  He thought wryly how conveniently the board members forgot policy that they themselves had either reviewed or written, and that had been sent home to all students at the beginning of each year.  Still, he needed to handle this situation with kid gloves.  He looked down the table at Ellen, and hoped that she was able to keep her tongue in check today.  She was very good at what she did, but she did not do well with adults, usually.  She seemed to expect them to behave like, well, adults.  

Lisa Rogers looked pointedly at her watch.  “Can we please get this meeting started?  I have an appointment with a client in an hour.”  Norman watched Ellen roll her eyes.  This was not a good sign.

“Let’s just call for Dr. Baldwin, and we can get started.”  Ellen stood up, walked to the door, and asked Maria to page Dr. Baldwin to come to the office.  Inwardly she cringed at the title.  The man refused to answer to anything other than Doctor.  Ellen thought that this bit of arrogance aptly described the man in general.

She returned to the table and the four pair of glaring eyes.  A knock at the door, and Baldwin entered the room.  He had the audacity to be smiling jovially.  He was a rather large man, dressed in a manner that could only be described as foppish.  He probably affected the look intentionally.  He was unmarried, no one had ever recalled seeing him with a date, male or female, and rumors ran rampant about his proclivities.  Ellen shook the idle speculations out of her head, and got down to business.

“Dr. Baldwin, the Rogerses and the Jamesons have come to discuss the status of their sons’ English grades.”

Baldwin peered at the group over his half-glasses.  “Really, I don’t see what there is to discuss, Ms. Jones.”

George Jameson heaved himself to his feet and started in on Baldwin.  “Look here you.  My son is the star forward of the team.  If he doesn’t play, the team doesn’t have a shot in hell at the playoffs.  But you just give him an F.  You could have given him an extension on the project.  You could have passed him with a D based on his other work…”

Baldwin interrupted him. “Based on WHAT other work, sir?  The boy has done nothing all semester.  When he bothers to show up to class, he spends his time doodling, and flirting with the girls, and cannot be bothered to open his book or even simply pretend he is being productive.”

“Oh sure,” snarled George.  “I’m SURE that my son hasn’t done any work.  He’s passed every English class he’s ever had, never had a problem, until this year.”

Peter Rogers interjected, “Same here!  Michael has always maintained a solid average.  I don’t see how he is having problems all of a sudden.  It MUST be something about your teaching style or classroom management.”

Ellen thought about that solid C average and suppressed a comment.

Baldwin jumped back into the fray.  “I’m terribly sorry.  I have sent home progress reports expressing my concern and asking for a parent meeting.  I have not received a response, and therefore I had to assume…”

“What goddamned progress report?” Mrs. Jameson leaned forward.  Saliva sprayed from her mouth, and Lisa Rogers made a moue of distaste.  “I never saw a progress report.”

“You’re a fucking liar, Baldwin!” added George.

Peter Rogers began looking a little ill.  It didn’t keep him from adding his two cents.  “Frankly, Baldwin…”

“That’s DR. Baldwin, if you please.”

“Frankly, Baldwin, I don’t believe you sent any progress reports, and I’ll be damned if I watch my son lose his chance at a scholarship let alone miss out on his final year of playoffs simply because you claim he hasn’t done any work all semester.”

“Perhaps we should call these fine, upstanding citizens into the meeting,” Baldwin retorted.  “Surely they would have saved their work had I graded it.

Ellen had had enough.

“Stop.  Please, everyone, return to your seats.  Clearly we need to step back for a minute and review what information we have in front of us.”

Ellen pulled out the folders.  She had made copies of the pertinent information, including the mysterious progress reports.  

She passed them to the parents.  “If you could please verify that the address on this document is the correct one?”  

Lisa Rogers scanned the paper, looked surprised, and nodded.  George Jameson didn’t bother looking at the report, simply the address, and grunted an assent.

“OK.  Now that we’ve established that Dr. Baldwin did, indeed, send progress reports, perhaps we can move on.  I’ll tell you what.  To keep things more neutral and simple, I’ll review the facts on the whiteboard.  If you feel I’ve missed anything, please wait until it is your turn, and we will add the information.”

Marge Jameson muttered, “This is bullshit.”  Lisa Rogers replied, “Amen, sister.”

Ellen distributed the packets of information.  She went to the whiteboard and drew a line down the middle.  On one side, she wrote Ian’s name and on the other, Michael’s.  

“First, you receive the student handbook each year.  I’m assuming you all received a copy?”

Four heads nodded yes.

“Okay.  That handbook outlines grading policies.  In addition to the handbook, the district requires all teachers to send home a syllabus with specific information about participation, homework, and other grade requirements.  I assume you received those as well?”

Lisa looked at her husband.  “Did we get that one?”  He shrugged.  “I never saw it.”  George Jameson snorted again.  “I KNOW I never saw one of those.  Did you get it honey?”  Marge shook her head.  

Baldwin looked positively triumphant.  “Ah, but ladies and gentlemen, I have signatures to PROVE that you received my syllabus.”  He pulled the small, torn-off slips of paper from his briefcase.  Faux leather.  Very posh, Ellen thought.

Baldwin then pulled a copy of the syllabus out and read aloud.  “Semester grades are based on the weekly homework grades, the weekly test grades, and the final project, which will be handed in NO LATER than one week before the close of the semester.”  He flipped the page and read again, “With the exception of serious illness, no late work will be accepted.”

Jameson looked more furious than ever.

“You have never made an exception?  Not once?”

“Never, sir.  I don’t care if they are ball players or not.”

Lisa Rogers threw in, “Yes?  Well I hear that you DO care if they’re ball players, and that you will do everything in your power to make those poor children miserable and cause them to fail.”

Baldwin managed to look shocked.  Ellen chalked acting skills up on the tally sheet in her head.

“Madam!  I treat all of my students equally!”

Marge Jameson shouted, “Except for the cheerleading squad.  They always seem to wind up with A’s.  Why is that, Mr. Baldwin? Huh?  Explain that one to us, you pompous ass.”

Ellen cheered silently in her head at the end comment, but managed to keep her glee to herself.

“I find the girls to be more conscientious about submitting their work, “ Baldwin sputtered.  “And it’s DR. Baldwin, if you don’t mind.

Norman, who had not said a single word until this point, finally spoke up.  “Dr. Baldwin, thank you for your time.  I’m sure you are eager to get back to your instruction.”

Baldwin left the room.  All four parents started yelling at the same time.

Ellen finally stood up and yelled back.

“ENOUGH!”  Shocked that the mousy little guidance counselor would raise her voice to THEM, the four adults stopped speaking.

“Frankly,” Ellen began, “We have a much worse problem then whether or not the boys play in the finals.  Without senior English, they won’t graduate.  They are going to have to attend an evening adult program to make up this semester’s credits, and make damned sure they pass next semester.”

Jameson sputtered, “But the scouts…”
“Are only interested in students who are going to graduate.  A scholarship doesn’t do much good if the player can’t attend the college.”

Jameson sat down, suddenly deflated.

Lisa Rogers looked at her watch again.  “Tell me how to sign him up for the adult program.”

Ellen handed over the paperwork.

Marge Jameson looked at Norman and announced, “This isn’t over.  I WILL have that man’s job if it’s the last thing I do.”

Norman calmly responded by handing her a list of her uniform complaint rights, and pointed out the address of the superintendent to which the complaint should be sent.  Marge looked at the paper.  Peter Rogers grabbed one and began reading it.  “Shit!  This process takes MONTHS,” he complained.  Norman shrugged.  “It’s really out of my control.”

George, blustery again, stood up and added, “You can be SURE the school board will be hearing from us. Let’s go Marge.”  

They left the room, followed by the Rogerses.

Ellen sank her head into her hands.  “Much ado about nothing,” she tossed at Norman.  He smiled and said, “More like ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  This got a grin out of Ellen.  “Shall we get back to the real business, Ellen?”  “Yes sir.  We most certainly should.”  

“Hey Ellen.  Where’s your coffee?”  “I forgot it this morning.  Too frazzled about the meeting, I guess.”  “Tell you what, go to Starbucks and get yourself some real coffee.  Pick up one for me while you’re at it.”  “Bless you, boss.”

Ellen walked out of the office, yelping as she bumped her knee into the file cabinet.  Norman just shook his head and smiled again.  He couldn’t figure out how she made it through the day in one piece.

Vignette 5

Selene wearily stripped off her scrubs and cleaned herself up.  She sat in the doctor’s changing area and prayed for a few minutes, as she did after each surgery she performed.
Today, she prayed with anger, being furious with a God that would allow a four-year-old child to be hurled against a wall and then held there by the throat while her head was banged repeatedly against the wall.

The child had been rushed into the emergency room by the mother several hours earlier.  She had a compound fracture of her left ulna, and was unconscious.  A CAT scan revealed bleeding in the brain.  As the pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Selene was called into the surgery along with the neurosurgeon.  Grimly, she had set about repairing the damage to the child’s arm.  The nerve damage was extensive, and she hoped that the child would eventually regain the full use of her arm.  Then she looked over at the neurosurgeon and realized that it might not matter.  His eyes blazed with fury over the protective mask.

“Not one but three fractures to the skull.  I can stop the bleeding, but I don’t know that it’s going to matter.  Extra prayers for this one Selene.”  The other doctors reacted with amusement to her post-op ritual.  She didn’t much care.   Elias Martinez looked over at Selene.  She was a striking woman, tall, and athletic with very dark skin.  Her eyes, hidden behind her thick glasses were doe-like when they weren’t filled with anger as they were now.  Her hair, hidden under the surgeon’s cap was kept close cut.  

“Yes, well, I’m guessing that after the shithead threw her and broke her arm, he did a little more headbanging.”  Selene pointed out the clear imprint of an adult sized hand on the child’s neck.  “Make sure we get photos of this, and call law enforcement and CPS right away,” she informed one of the nurses.  The nurse nodded curtly and left the operating room.

Since the most threatening injury was the skull fracture, Elias went to talk to the mother.  The police were already there as well.  Selene had heard this story too many times, had, in fact, lived a large part of it as a child herself, so she went directly to the staff room for some coffee, and a little peace and quiet while she waited for news from the recovery room.

The television was on but muted, and she was moving over to it to turn it off when she recognized a face being flashed on the screen.  She turned the volume up rather than turn the television off.  Her eyes became even angrier, and she began her discussion with God again in earnest.  

By the time she had entered junior high school, Selene had lived in more homes than she could count.  Her mother, who had been fifteen when Selene was born, fell in love with crack shortly thereafter.  For her first four years, Selene had lived with her maternal grandmother.  She had no idea who her father was.  When Selene was four, her mother had stolen the few items of jewelry that Selene’s grandmother had owned, and they were summarily thrown out of the house.  Selene had spent the next few months moving from place to place until her mother had hooked up with a dealer.  Then she spent almost a year looking for hiding places.  Her mother had a job.  She worked nights.  At five, Selene didn’t understand that her mother was standing on street corners soliciting business, she only understood that on the good nights she was left alone in the apartment, and on bad ones, she was left with Marcus.  Some nights, even when she was quiet as a mouse, Marcus would get a rage on and come looking for her.  If she was lucky, all she got was the belt.  Sometimes, the belt wasn’t handy enough, and he would hit her with whatever was closest to hand.  

During the day, she should have been in school.  Sadly she watched the other neighborhood children walking to the bus stop with their mothers each morning.  Selene’s mother hadn’t been together enough to register her for kindergarten, so she spent her days watching television while the adults slept.  She would pour her own cereal, when there was some, or scrounge for edibles when there was not, careful to leave no sign in the tiny kitchen that she had taken anything.  She would watch Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, and wish desperately that she knew how to read, though with nothing in the house too read, it wouldn’t matter much.  In the afternoon, if her mother was in any shape to do so, and if she had managed to hold onto any of the cash she had made the night before, they would sometimes go to McDonald’s for lunch.  Selene didn’t mind playing with the younger kids, as it was the only interaction she got.  Too soon, they went back to the apartment and her mother prepared to go to “work.”

One night, Marcus got a rage on indeed.  This time, the item handiest wasn’t the belt, or the hairbrush, but rather the baseball bat he kept by the door.  When he was done, he stormed out of the house.  Selene managed to crawl to the next apartment, and the woman who opened the door screamed.  An ambulance came, and whisked her away to the hospital.  

It was at the hospital that Selene decided that she would be a doctor.  She had fallen in love with the gentle man who had fixed her broken bones, and took the pain away.  She loved the nurses who came in to check on her, and to bathe her, and who read stories to her when they had time.  The doctor had sat with her when the police came to talk to her.  She had been too afraid to tell them what Marcus had done.  But she would tell the doctor.  At one point, his eyes had gotten so angry that she stopped talking, but he stroked her head gently and said, “Selene, I am not angry with you.  You did nothing wrong.  But I am VERY angry with Marcus.  He had no right to hurt you.”  She relaxed and continued the story.  She left out the really bad parts, though, because she didn’t want to make the doctor angry.

One morning, Dr. Gerry came in and told her that she would be leaving.  A woman from social services was going to take her to a new home where she would be safe.  Marcus was in jail, and was going to be in jail for a long time.  Her mother was in a rehab, and would be coming to get her when she was out.  In the mean time, she would stay with a nice family who would take care of her, and get her into school.  Selene cried and cried.  She didn’t want to leave the hospital.  But Dr. Gerry said that the people would be nice, and so she went with the social services lady.

Dr. Gerry was wrong.  The people weren’t nice.  They didn’t beat her, or hurt her, and she got to go to school, but aside from feeding her, they didn’t pay much attention to her.  There were five other kids in the house, mostly older, and they didn’t pay much attention to her either.  But they sure did lots of other things.  Selene learned that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  

The first day she broke something, she didn’t get in much trouble.  Her foster parents thought it was an accident.  The next time, she made sure to do it in front of her foster mom.  She was sent to her room without supper.  She became a regular Tasmanian devil, like her favorite character from the cartoons.  She would destroy whatever she could.  Pretty soon, the lady from social services came back and took her away.  So began the transition from foster home to foster home.  She was lucky.  Most of the families were nice people.  They just weren’t equipped to deal with her rage. No one realized how bright she was.  No one realized how desperate she was.

She was sent to a group home as soon as she was old enough.  Yet again she was exposed to older kids who taught her things she really didn’t need to know.  She knew, for example, how to curse a blue streak.  She knew, for example, exactly which sullen expression would best set off the housemother.  She went to school, and she eagerly read all of the books, but she never turned any of the work in, so she received failing grades.  

Then, in seventh grade, the counselor called her in to her office.  Selene knew how to talk the talk.  She’d been seeing therapists for years now, and somehow always managed to talk a great deal without saying much of anything at all, which seemed to make the therapists happy.  She slouched in the chair and prepared herself for the battle.

“Selene?  My name is Ms. Jones.  I am your guidance counselor.  It is my job to help you figure out where you want to go in life and how to get there.”  Selene snorted.
Ms. Jones stayed calm.  She pulled out a fat folder and put it on the desk in front of her.  “You know, I’ve read everything in that folder.  Now I’m going to put it away, and we can start from scratch.  What’s in that folder isn’t important, do you hear me?  What’s important is the person sitting in the chair across from me, and not what other people have said about her.”  Selene raised her eyebrow in the universal symbol of disbelief.

“Tell me, Selene, if you could be anything, what would you be?”  Suddenly, that five-year-old voice came out of Selene’s mouth unbidden.  “I want to be a doctor.”  Selene looked shocked, as though she didn’t know where the reply had come from.  She scowled, sank even lower in the chair, and waited for the inevitable.

It didn’t come.  Instead, Ms. Jones smiled broadly and replied, “That’s AMAZING! Listen, can you do me a favor and take some tests for me?  Can you really take them seriously, and do the very best you can do on them?  Because I think you would be a great doctor, and I want to show the teachers how smart you are so that they pay attention to you in class and help you learn.”  Selene shrugged.  She hated tests.  She usually tried to do poorly on them, so that people would leave her alone.  But if Ms. Jones thought that she could really be a doctor one day, then she would give it a try.
She did give it a try.  Ms. Jones called her back in and told her that the tests said she was gifted.  “You know what that means Selene?  It means that you are more than smart enough to be a doctor.  Now we just have to work with your teachers so that they believe that too.  I want you to bring your homework here after school today so I can check and make sure they are giving you hard enough work.”

For weeks, Selene brought her homework to Ms. Jones office and worked on it while she did paperwork and made phone calls.  One day, Ms. Jones asked her if she was happy at the group home.  Selene shrugged.  “It’s okay.”  “Would you be willing to try another foster home if I promised you that the foster mom is a great person, and will have your back?”  Selene frowned.  At the group home, she knew where things stood, and the staff pretty much left her alone.  Another foster home meant another disruption, learning new routines, dealing with more expectations.  Ms. Jones spoke up again.  “Selene, Mrs. Serrano has fostered many children.  In my years here, she has always helped the child.  She has adopted several of them.  Many of them are in college.  They all come home for holidays.  She will not turn you out at 18, which is what I am worried about.”  Selene reluctantly agreed to meet Mrs. Serrano.  She moved in two weeks later, as soon as the paperwork went through.  She finally had a family.

A month after moving in, a girl in her class called her a nappy-headed ho.  Selene beat the crap out of her.  Waiting for the police and Mom Serrano in Ms. Jones office, Ms. Jones looked at her seriously.  “Selene, you’ve got some righteous anger built up inside.  You’re life certainly hasn’t been kind to you so far, and I understand why you are so angry all the time.  You need to get it under control.  You are a female.  You are African-American.  You have an attitude.”  At this, she raised her eyebrow in Selene’s direction, just in time to stop the blurted response.  “This will get you one of two places.  It will either get you to medical school, or it will get you to jail.  It’s your choice.”

Selene got house arrest.  She spent those six months attending school, studying, and reading the books that Ms. Jones had brought to school to give her.  She had asked Selene to take good care of them, as they were her favorites from long ago.  

After junior high school, Selene hadn’t seen Ms. Jones often.  But she had made her decision, and it didn’t lead to prison.  It led to this staff room.  She’d never gotten to give those books back.  She had them still.

Once again, she bowed her head and prayed to the God she had finally come to believe in and trust after she found a family.  Selene Serrano suddenly longed to be able to return those books in person and show Ms. Jones what she had become.


Vignette 4

Opening the door to his childhood bedroom was like entering a time machine.  Although he hadn’t lived here in over 20 years, it was as though he had woken up this morning and left for high school.  If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could find all of those things that had mattered most to him by touch alone.  

Bemused, he wandered around.  After 20 years, was there really anything here that he needed to salvage?   He thought of his kids, and realized that there might be stuff here worth saving for their sakes.  He went immediately to the bookshelves.  He ran his hands over the spines of his much beloved friends.  He idly wondered whether any of the comic books stored in the box on the bottom shelf had any value.  Opening the box, he realized that they had not been purchased with an intent to collect, but instead with the desire to escape.  All were well thumbed through.  The covers bore the crease marks of frequent reading.  He remembered the hours he had spent getting lost in those flimsy paper books. Those lost hours had helped keep him sane during some of the most uncomfortable times during his preadolescence. He grabbed a shopping bag and started placing some of the books he thought his kids would enjoy into it.

When he opened the closet, he got another blast from his past.  Did people really ever WEAR this stuff?  Granted, he had always been a jeans and t-shirt sort of guy, so the disconnect between past and present wasn’t incredibly blatant, but there were a few shirts in there that surprised him.  Tucked away were a few vintage concert shirts.  Taking these off the hangers, he folded them and added them to a new shopping bag.  He was sure the girls would get a kick out of them eventually.  Behind the t-shirts, he saw an object that made him gasp.  It was his denim jacket.  He had believed it to be long gone, victim of one of the wild party nights at college.  The jacket was so well worn that the sleeves almost looked greasy.  The shearling lining had pilled, and overall it was much the worse for wear.  He immediately began figuring out how to explain to his wife that this objet d’art would require space in the closet at home.  For old time’s sake, he slipped the jacket on.  “Not too shabby,” he thought to himself.  Still as trim as he was in college.  The jacket fit perfectly.

There was a bulge in the pocket.  He reached inside and pulled out a collection of folded notebook paper.  Curious, he opened the packet and began to read.  “Holy shit,” he thought.  He was holding a collection of letters from a girl he had a long distance fling with his junior year of college.  He had taken a road trip to visit a friend at school.  Upon arriving, he met a girl who quietly sat at the table in the bar and matched the guys beer for beer. The place wasn’t a serious drinking joint, though.  Too popular, too crowded, and too many pretty people looking to get laid.  He asked Rob if there was a place where they could go shoot darts or pool.  Rob shrugged.  He was enjoying eying some of those pretty people.  The girl nodded, though.  Eric had barely paid attention to her all evening.  She was clearly accepted as one of the boys, and hadn’t said much for most of the evening.  “How far?” Eric asked.  
“Not too,” she replied.  “Just around the corner, actually.”  
Rob laughed.  “You’re not seriously thinking of taking him to Frank’s, are you?”  She nodded.  “Fair warning,” Rob told Eric, “They have a trough instead of a urinal.”  Eric was just drunk enough that a trough seemed to make perfect sense.  He had had enough of loud music, especially since someone in the place was obviously lovelorn and playing the same song over and over again on the jukebox.  He just wanted someplace less busy.
He stood up and shrugged on his denim jacket.  “Coming with?” he asked Rob.  “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Rob snorted.  Eric looked at the girl.  “You play darts?”  She nodded.  “Let’s go, then.”  She stood up and he looked at her for the first time.  Overweight.  No makeup.  Jeans and a t-shirt that were too big for her.  Then he noticed her eyes.  They were a tranquil green, and right now they expressed nothing but a mild curiosity.  Rob pulled him aside.  “Don’t fuck with her, my friend.  She’s like a little sister to me.”  Eric shrugged.  “I’m in no condition to fuck with anyone, Rob.  I just want to shoot some darts and drink heavily.”

Eric and the girl left the crowded bar.  The early spring night was breezy and cool.  She shivered, and then began walking.  He was impressed.  She had been matching them drink for drink all evening, and was walking without a hitch or stumble.  “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t catch your name back there.”  “It’s Ellen,” she replied softly.  “Ellen Jones.”  “You like to play darts, Ellen?”  “S’okay,” she responded.  They rounded the corner and Eric knew why Rob hadn’t wanted to come.  The garish neon screamed, “DIVE!” Perfect, he thought.  Just perfect.  He had come up for the weekend to get away from crazy crap at home, as well as an unrequited love situation that was currently driving him insane.  A quiet person to shoot darts with in a sleazy hole in the wall seemed just about right.

He learned something about her as they walked in.  The place was dark.  The bartender greeted her by name.  “Hey, Paul.  Pitcher tonight.”  Paul checked Eric out carefully.  Eric took out his wallet and put a twenty on the bar.  “Please keep it full for us?”  Paul looked at Ellen and raised his eyebrow.  She looked back at him and nodded.  Eric understood that she belonged to the brotherhood of drunks.  He grabbed the pitcher, Ellen grabbed the glasses, and they found a table near the dartboard.  They played a few rounds of baseball, and then realized that they were missing more shots than they made.  They started to talk.  They talked, and they talked some more.  All the while, they drank.  At quarter to four, Paul called last call.  The two amiably wandered out of the dark bar.  They continued talking on the long walk home.  She laughed often and naturally.  His humor was dark, tinged with bitterness.  The quiet girl was no more.  She had fallen into an easy comfort, and talked honestly and openly about herself.  They stopped at a greasy spoon and spent another two hours talking and drinking coffee.  Coffee was not such a good thing.  Eric didn’t really want to sober up.

Outside the door to her dorm room, she fumbled with the key.  She dropped it, and they both bent down to pick it up at the same time.  “How trite,” he thought to himself, and then kissed her anyway.  He was surprised at the urgency of her response.  She didn’t seem the type.  He had seriously underestimated her loneliness, though.  One outcast had recognized another, and the clinging would begin.

They stumbled into her room and removed their clothing.  It didn’t go well.  They were both too inebriated.  Instead, they lay in the bed and talked and laughed some more.  He couldn’t remember when he had had such an easy time with a girl.  Eventually, she fell asleep.  He lay next to her and wondered what time the bars opened.  They spent the remainder of the weekend together, drinking, talking, laughing, and generally making each other feel good.  He stayed an extra day.  

When he left, the letters began.  Some funny, some vitriolic, some depressing, some brilliant.  She would write about anything and everything.  He looked forward to the letters more than to the occasional phone calls.  He wished he hadn’t slept with her.  It complicated things.  There was an air of expectation in her letters that he was unwilling and unable to address.

He didn’t write back.  Not once.  He went up one more time to visit, and she came down to a summer grain-alcohol party thrown by one of Rob’s friends.  They wound up at a sleazy motel.  It was an experience, she said.  But the next morning, for the first time, he saw shame on her face.  She had begun to understand that he was not at all interested in the same thing that she was.  She dropped him off at his parents’ house, kissed him one last time, and that was that.  No more letters.  No more anything.  She quite conveniently removed herself from his life.  

He thought, ironically, that she had managed to do a very good job.  Aside from idly wondering why she had stopped writing, he had forgotten her.  He had moved on with his life, grown up, got sober, and started living.

He sat on the bed in his boyhood room and began to read.  It only took an hour.  He carefully tucked the letters back into the pocket.  He shrugged the jacket off, and folded it and placed it in the final shopping bag.  He took out his cell phone and called his mother.  “I’m done,” he said. Then he hung up.

He put the three bags into the trunk of his car, got in, and headed home.  Flicking on the radio, he caught the news.  “This is just too fucking weird,” he thought.  On the news was a breaking story about a hostage situation at a high school in California.  One of the names announced was Ellen Jones.  “Can’t be the same one,” he argued with himself. “It’s California, for chrissakes.”  

He arrived home and headed for the computer.  He got on the Internet and hit the first major network station he could find.  

It was, indeed, the same one.

Vignette 3

Andrew ran into the house yelling, "Mom, turn on the news!  Turn on the news!"

He flung his backpack onto the kitchen table and took a flying leap over the back of the couch.
His mother looked at him, rolled her eyes, and asked "What's so all-fired important about the news?  You NEVER watch the news."  She looked with exasperation at her 18 year-old son.  He was tall, and tow-headed.  His hair was cut very short because he had the worst cowlick on the planet.  His brilliant blue eyes were covered by glasses.  For the millionth time, she regretted not having had the surgery done to correct his lazy eye when he was a baby.  She hadn't wanted to hurt him that way.  She had had no idea how much pain would come later on from leaving it alone.  He smelled like chicken wings.  He had just gotten out of work at the bar/restaurant she owned.  

"It was on at the bar, Mom.  It's about Ellen!  Do you remember Ellen?  She's in trouble, Mom.  Turn it ON!"

Katie remembered Ellen.  Ellen had been a regular at the restaurant for a number of years.  When Ellen got laid off from her teaching job, Katie had hired her to babysit the boys on weekends so that she could work the bar. Ellen had been quiet, and pleasant, and had a teaching degree but no teaching job.  Her spur of the moment decision made out of a mixture of desperate need and innate kindness had turned out to be a very wise move.  Ellen had become a good friend and an honorary member of the family.  One day she had announced that she was moving across the country.  The boys had been devastated.  Katie had been furious that she was leaving on such short notice.  She had not heard from Ellen since.

She changed the channel from the cooking show she had been watching to one of the news channels.  They were talking about the war.  She pointed the remote at the screen, and Andrew said, "No, Mom!  Please leave it."

"What's going on that she's on the national news, then?"

"She's a hostage at a school, Mom.  Someone took her hostage at a basketball game.  She's in trouble!"

Katie sighed.  Andrew had always been a little slow in his thought.  This was made up for with the speed of his emotions.  The oldest of the two boys, she had not realized that there was a problem until Mark, the younger one, had started meeting milestones that his older brother had not yet accomplished.  Mark was a bit more than a year younger, and a year behind in school.  Mark had learned to ride a bike first, to swim first, and to read first.  As the boys got older, Andrew began to realize that this was not the way it should be.  At 18 and 17, the boys barely spoke.  Mark harbored anger for the years of temper-tantrums and out of control behavior that had taken so much of the family's attention away from him.  Andrew was still jealous of the fact that Mark was normal.  Andrew was in special education classes at the high school, and would be graduating this  year.  He wanted to go to college.  She wasn't sure he could handle it.

Andrew stared at the television screen and waited for the story to come back on.  He remembered Ellen well.  He had been so angry when she left.  She had been the only person in the world who had been able to deal with his tantrums.  No matter what he did, she wouldn't let him hurt himself, and she wouldn't cave in.  In his world, this mattered.  When she was with him, he had fewer tantrums and felt less out of control.  He had felt safe with her.  

He remembered being six.  He was in the first grade and doing poorly.  He couldn't hold his pencil correctly.  He couldn't figure out how the letters on the paper were supposed to make words when they jumped around all the time.  No one in his class would play with him at recess.  He was too aggressive with both his words and his actions, and his eye and hair made him look strange to them.  He was routinely shunned, even though he kept trying to be part of the group.  His teacher was annoyed with him most of the time.  His mom was annoyed with the teacher most of the time, because she always had to go to school for meetings.  His step-dad thought that a kick in the behind was a good way to fix things.  Ellen had sat down with his mother one afternoon for a long time.  She had been the one to convince Mom that the "happy" pills were probably a good idea.  His life had gotten much better once he had gone on the medication.  His moods stabilized, he was able to focus better in class, and his aggression was held in check.

One night, while Ellen was tucking him in, he got brave enough to ask her, "Why did God make me funny?"  Ellen looked at him, puzzled.

"Why did God make you funny?  Do you mean why do people laugh at you?"

"No.  Grandma said that I'm a bad boy because God made me funny."

Ellen looked very angry.  He got a little afraid, and drew back onto the bed.

"Oh, baby, I'm not mad at you.  I'm angry that someone would think that God would make anyone 'funny,' because God makes everyone exactly the way he wants to."

"So God made me this way because he wanted me to be this way?"

Ellen tried to hide her feelings.  She was more than a little annoyed at a God who would make such a beautiful child suffer so much.  She shared too much differentness with Andrew, and understood how painful his life was becoming for him.

"God made you the way you were supposed to be.  He didn't make you wrong, he made you different.  Different people are important to have in this world, Andrew.  If we were all the same, nothing would ever change.  Nothing would ever get better.  It would be very boring if we were all the same.  God made you YOU, and the only thing you need to worry about is becoming the best YOU that you can be.  That's hard work, Andrew, becoming the best you, but I know you can do it."

Andrew snuggled under the covers and thought about this.  He thought about the things he was good at.  He thought about the things he wanted to do better.  He thought that if he worked hard, he could do it.

Twelve years later, he sat on the couch in the living room and waited to see her picture again.  She looked pretty much the same as she had when he was six.  He wanted her to know that he was going to be graduating from high school this spring.  He wanted her to know that he had a job and he was good at it.  He wanted her to know that he had a girlfriend, and that he was going to the prom.  He wanted her to know that he had decided that he wanted to work with little kids, and that he had talked to his guidance counselor and was going to go to college for Early Childhood Education.  He wanted her to know all of these things, because she had been the only person in his life that had not believed that God made him funny.

His mother was getting annoyed at having to watch news about the war.  "Andrew, I want to watch my show.  Go watch in your room."

Andrew picked up his backpack and walked slowly to his room.  He took out the community college catalogue and it's well worn cover automatically opened to the pages for the program he wanted to attend.  He took out his homework and put it on the desk.  He turned on the television on his nightstand, changed the channel to the news, and started his homework.  Then he stopped to pray.

Interlude 1


This. Was. Not. How. It. Was. Supposed. To. Be.
She stood over the crib and looked at the lump.  That was how she referred to the baby in her own mind.  The lump.  She shook a rattle vigorously in the babies face.  Other than a turning away, no response.  She tickled the baby.  No response.  She thought about pinching the baby just to see if she could make it cry, but thought better of it when she realized she'd have to explain any bruises to Grandma Moses.  

Nanny Moses scared the shit out of her.  Nanny Moses was a seemingly ancient woman, six feet tall and of mixed African and Native American descent. She was imposing, and she brooked no back talk when Hannah tried to explain modern child-care theories to her.She took care of the baby with a quiet efficiency, often praising the baby for such calm and quiet behavior.  Hannah thought the behavior was unnatural.  She spent most of her time with the baby trying to get a response.  Any response.

The lump ate, and ate well.  At her last check-up, the pediatrician told Hannah to switch the baby to a cup as it was gaining weight too rapidly.  Hannah had complied.  She knew that Grandma Moses was still giving the baby bottles during the day when she was at school, but she NEVER gave the baby bottles.  The lump cried very little.  It spent most of its time eating and sleeping and staring at the walls and the ceiling.  Occasionally, the lump would coo at her husband Alan.  She never got a coo.  Never got a smile.  Just that placid bovine stare coming from eyes so unlike her own.  The lump had tranquil green eyes that seemed to see everything and absorb it without reacting.  The lump was bald.  The doctor thought that the hair would grow in red.  The lump was already fat.  In short, the lump was NOTHING like her mother.

Oh God, thought Hannah.  I forgot.  The lump fills diapers too.  She gingerly started to change the diaper, trying not to gag at the odor.

This is what I get, she thought.  I was in such a hurry.  I couldn't wait until I could get pregnant on my own.  No.  I had to adopt.  Now look at me.  I'm stuck here with this lump of flesh that is totally unconnected to me. It doesn't love me.  It doesn't care what I do as long as I feed it.  It won't play with me.  It won't respond to me.  Alan loves the lump more than he loves me.  I know he does.  The first thing he does when he gets home late for the library is pick up the lump.  He doesn't even kiss me hello any more.  

She was growing increasingly angry with everything.  She looked at the clock.  Another hour at least until Alan got back from the law library.  She couldn't wait until he had finished law school and passed the bar.  She'd be finished with her own Master's by then, and could start enjoying the life to which she had been accustomed prior to marrying the penniless jerk.  The only reason she had married him was because she knew he was going to go places.  She wanted that life, and the chances of being able to obtain it on her own were slim and none.

They had started trying to get pregnant right away.  Month after month of trying.  Then came the tests.  Nothing.  No apparent reason for her inability to get pregnant.  At twenty, she was getting frantic.  They had been married for two years already.  Her mother talked her into applying with an adoption agency.  She had agreed, anticipating that the process would take time, and that she and Alan would be done with school.  To their surprise, the agency had contacted them within three months of the home visit.  Mrs. Jones?  We have a baby girl for you.  She had been SO excited.  So thrilled.  The first couple of months had been wonderful.  Family came to visit.  Gifts were given.  There was a seemingly endless round of social activity that came with the baby.

Then the visits slowed down and eventually trickled to a stop.  Nanny Moses had been hired by her parents so that she could finish her degree.  Now it was just the lump, Nanny Moses, Alan, and herself.  They had no social life.  All the other young marrieds went out all the time.  Not us, she thought, bitterly.  We have to stay home and save our money.  We can't afford a babysitter in the evening.  We can't afford to go to restaurants and out dancing.

She propped the baby up on pillows and practiced making faces at her.  Nothing.  Maybe the lump was retarded.  What if they had gotten a defective baby?  Her mother, the pediatrician, and Nanny Moses all pooh-poohed her worries.  She knew that this child wasn't normal.  

She was tired, even though it seemed that all she did was sleep.  She woke up, drank her coffee, smoked her cigarettes under the disapproving eyes of Nanny Moses, and went to classes.  Some days, she got to meet Alan for lunch on campus.  Most days, she ate alone.  She could have gone home for lunch, but didn't want to see the baby.  She arrived home at the last possible moment.  Nanny Moses usually had dinner ready.  Once Hannah got home, she left for the day, leaving Hannah alone with the lump until Alan arrived.

She heard the door open and heaved a sigh of relief.  She ran to Alan and started sobbing.  Alan rolled his eyes.  The drama was increasing in its intensity each evening. He was having a harder and harder time leaving the library each evening.  He walked right past Hannah to the baby.  Hannah started in immediately.  "There is something WRONG with her.  She doesn't love me.  She doesn't want me. Nothing I do matters.  She must be retarded or something."

Alan took a deep breath.  "Hannah, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this baby.  Everyone we know talks about how lucky we are that she eats well, and is sleeping through the night."

"But she won't PLAY with me!"

"Hannah, babies this age don't exactly PLAY."

As if on cue, Alan blew a gentle raspberry on the baby's stomach and sang to her. "Ellen, ellen bo bellen, banana fana fo fellen, fee fi mo mellen, ELLEN."  The baby gave him a toothless grin.

This sent Hannah into a fit of rage.  "WHY?" she screamed.  "No matter what I do she just stares at me or turns her head away.  She HATES me.  She KNOWS I'm not her mother."

"Hannah, she does NOT know you're not her mother.  You ARE her mother.  You just need to figure out what she likes."  Alan was thinking that part of the problem was the screeching tone of voice that Hannah used so often.

Alan ate some of the dinner that Nanny Moses had left in the oven.  Hannah drank coffee and smoked.  Alan bathed Ellen, gave her some milk in a cup, and rocked her to sleep.

"Play cards with me, honey."

"Hannah, I'm tired.  I have an exam tomorrow, and I have to finish that paper for Professor Thornton."

"Come on, honey.  I'll type the paper for you."

"I'm sorry, Hannah.  I've got to go to bed."

They slept, as they increasingly did, with their backs to one another.  

In the morning, Alan got up early and went to class.  Hannah drank her coffee and paced relentlessly.  Ellen sat and stared at her mother walking back and forth, back and forth.  Hannah smoked a cigarette, and made a phone call.  She then went into the bedroom she shared with Alan and pulled her suitcase out from under the bed.  She ripped through the dresser and the closet, shoving everything she could fit into it.  She scooped all of her toiletry items into the bag.  She dug around in Alan's dresser for their emergency cash.  There were three twenties in there, and she hoped it would be enough.

Nanny Moses opened the door and walked into the apartment.  She put out the cigarette Hannah had left burning in the ashtray and fanned the smoke away from the baby.  She watched as Hannah left the bedroom with her suitcase.  

"I'm going to have to go up north for a few days, Nanny.  My mother is ill, and needs me to help out.  I'm sure you won't mind waiting for Alan to get home, would you?  I can't take care of Mother and Ellen at the same time."

"I'll wait," Nanny replied.  She knew damned well that Hannah's mother wasn't ill.  She had spoken to her this morning on the telephone about a delay in her last pay check.
Poor Mr. Alan, she thought.  

Hannah grabbed her suitcase and walked out the door, down the steps, and into the waiting taxi.

Nanny Moses picked Ellen up and rocked her.  "What a life you's gonna have baby girl.  Six months old and done left by two mamas already.  Don't you worry none.  Nanny Moses ain't gonna go anywhere.  She gonna stay right here with you and your Daddy until this all gets isself straightened out.

She sat on the rocker and waited for Alan to get home.

Plot 1

Norman Matthews watched Ellen Jones trudging up the path from the parking lot.  He shook his head and smiled ruefully.  He had been pushing her to work on an administrative credential, but watching her, he knew she'd never be in administration.  She tended to wear discount store specials that were two sizes two big, and made her look more overweight than she actually was.  It wouldn't kill her to try some mascara and lipstick either.  She had beautiful green eyes, but you couldn't see them behind the overly large glasses she wore, and this was aggravated by the fact that she was constantly pushing them back up on her nose.  Her dishwater blonde hair was flying away in the wind, and she often joked that she was having a bad hair life.  She had made an effort to dress a little better than usual today because of the meetings they would be having.  She wore a floral dress, with no appreciable waistline.  It looked like a maternity dress, though Ellen was single and childless.
Her shoes were flats, as usual, simple slip on loafers.  She owned at least four pair of those shoes, and alternated them based on the color of her daily outfit.  He had a sudden memory of the Garanimal clothing his wife used to dress their children in.  That's what Ellen looked like most days, like she was wearing Garanimals for adults.

He opened the door for her and she blustered past, almost tripping on the protective door mat.  She saved herself from falling gracelessly, losing her briefcase in the process.  Papers spilled everywhere, and she blushed furiously red as she bent to pick them up and shove them back in the case.  Norman calmly helped her gather her things and gave her a minute to recover her poise.  "Are you ready for them, Ellen?"

"No, Norman, I am NOT ready for them.  I am not ready to meet with a group of adults who believe that their children have been singled out for torture by a teacher who tortures all children equally.  They didn't turn in the project,and they failed the class. It's pretty simple."

"Well, they need to vent.  These boys got kicked off the basketball team a week before the playoffs.  The parents are upset.  They blame the teacher."

"Those boys have been on academic probation all semester.  If the parents were that concerned about them, why weren't they here earlier?  They're received several notifications that the boys were in danger of failing the class.  For crying out loud, the boys only needed to pass English and Government this semester.  I can understand them blowing off their electives, but they know the CIF policy as well as anyone else.  They knew that if they failed more than two classes, they'd get cut."

Ellen was trying hard to stay calm.  This was an extremely difficult situation all around.  The boys had been jerks, and had deserved to fail.  The teacher who had failed them, however, had a nasty reputation of unfairly picking on jocks.  He seemed to delight in the number of students he could personally have removed from a team.  Since he was the only senior English teacher at the school, every senior had to pass his class in order to graduate.  Rumors had been rampant for years about the teachers sadistic behavior, but no one had ever actually come forward and made allegations until now.

"Excuse me, Norman.  I'm going to go put my stuff away and get the conference room ready."  Ellen trudged through the office and opened her door.  The office was neat and tidy.  The only decoration was a wall full of pictures of former and current students.  Based on the inscriptions, Ellen was a beloved staff member.  She sat glumly at her desk and transferred papers from her briefcase to her desk.  She shuffled them around for a minute, then put her head on the desk. She was really dreading the meeting.  She despised both the teacher and the particular parents that she was supposed to be mediating.  She reached into her briefcase and pulled out a bottle of Aleve.  "Damn.  No coffee."

Ellen wandered into the faculty room, and poured herself a cup of tepid dishwater out of the faculty pot.  She wasn't allowed to make the coffee any more because people complained that it was too strong.  She looked at the cup and decided that it wasn't worth it.  She dumped the full cup in the trash and returned to her office.  Nothing on her voice mail was critical.  Nothing in the email needed to be attended to.  She pulled out the stack of graduation checks she was working on and began to slowly double check each one.  She kept a list of the names she needed to follow up on.  She wondered, as she did each year, whether a senior class could be in any worse shape than this one was.  She smacked her head with her palm and wrote a post-it note to herself to call the students in for financial aid checks.  The deadline was less than one month away.

She was really angry with Norman.  He had passed the buck in a big way on this conference.  It wasn't her job to deal with parental complaints about teachers or grades.  It was his.  He had sweet-talked her into facilitating the meeting.  "You are so great at mediating, Ellen.  I really need an assist on this one.  Otherwise it could get really ugly."  The only problem is, Ellen thought grimly, that not a single person involved is interested in mediating anything.  The teacher won't bend, the parents are insisting that their kids be able to play ball, and I get to sit there and listen to them insult each other for God knows how long until they all feel like they've said enough.  Nothing will change.  We all know this.  She sighed loudly and pushed her glasses back up on her nose.

The phone rang.  "They're here Ms. Jones."

"Thank you, Maria.  I'll be right out."

Vignette 2

The two women sat companionably in the parlor of the old farm house.  The room was worn, but comfortable, with a perfectly sprung sofa and an ancient Lazy-Boy recliner upholstered in a floral pattern that had faded unevenly over the years.  There were hand-crocheted lace doilies on the armrests.  A large woman in her late sixties sat in the recliner and contentedly crocheted what looked to be yet another doily.  On closer examination, evidence of the doily madness was present on the sofa, the mantle, and the table.  Retirement was not always what it was cracked up to be.

The farmhouse had been in the family for four generations.  Rooms had been haphazardly added over the years, but the parlor was original.  The most recent generations of grandchildren delighted in dropping marbles onto the pine plank floors and watching them roll toward the inner wall, taking a zig-zag path determined by the scars of too many feet, too many paws, and too many crawling children banging heavy objects.

"Mama, what do you think I should do about Sally?" asked the younger of the women.  "She's driving me insane!  I can't trust her for a minute these days, and she bites my head off if I say even the smallest thing about anything."

The older woman shook her head.  Millie would never understand Sally.  She was too good.  She had always been the dutiful child; the child who listened and obeyed.  She was a little plain, but had married well.  Sally, her only child, was a hellion.  Apparently it skipped a generation in this family.

"Well what all is she doing that's making you so crazy?  She's mostly a good girl from what I can tell.  She just doesn't like being told What to do and who to be."

"It's that new boyfriend of hers.  If she's not with him, she's on the phone with him, or on the computer talking to him.  She's sixteen for goodness sakes.  She's going to get herself into trouble."

"So take her to the doctor and make sure she DOESN'T get herself into trouble."  

Millie looked a little shocked at the vehemence with which her mother had uttered those words.  

"Mama, I can't do that.  It'd be telling her I thought it was okay for her to be having sex!"

"Millie, she's going to do that whether you tell her it's okay or not.  You might as well make sure she doesn't spend the rest of her life paying for it."

Millie got a hurt puppy dog look.  Damn it, thought her mother, why the hell does she always think that everything is about her?  

"Millie, you were NOT a mistake.  You were a much wanted child.  You were planned.  This is NOT about you. I just know that Sally doesn't need that kind of trouble right now, and neither do you."

Millie looked at her mother dubiously.  "You know that Bobby isn't going to like it."

"Screw Bobby.  Don't tell him."

Millie looke shocked.  "Mama, he's her father, for crying out loud.  I have to tell him!"

"No, you don't.  There are some things that fathers don't need to know.  Details about their baby girl's sex life are some of those things.  I'll tell you what, Millie.  I'll take her.  She'll go with me, and I'll make it all seem like it was my idea.  You can pretend to her AND to Bobby that you have no clue."

Relieved, Millie sunk back into the couch and picked up the T.V. Guide crossword puzzle she had been working on.  In the background, the canned laughter of a syndicated sitcom was abruptly cut off.  The two women both looked up at the television.  

"There is breaking news on the school hostage crisis in central California.  Sources in the sheriff's department have confirmed that there is one armed suspect and three hostages in the gym at the Allenville High School.  The suspect and one of the hostages are reportedly students at the school."  Pictures of a handsome, athletic boy and a pretty and equally athletic girl flashed on the screen.  "The other two hostages are staff members at the school.  Mr. Marvin Henning is an English teacher, and Ms. Ellen Jones is the guidance counselor at the high school."  Two additional pictures of adults, awkwardly posed in formal yearbook photos, flash on the screen.  The newscaster droned on providing further information about the suspect and the hostages.

"Mama!  Look at that woman!  It's like looking in a mirror.  Well, not really.  I'm quite a bit thinner, and she sure could use some makeup, but isn't the resemblance amazing?"

Uncharacteristically, her mother didn't respond with a sarcastic comment about her weight.  Millie turned to look at her mother.  Her mother had gone white.  

"Mama!  Mama!  Are you okay?  What the hell is wrong with you?" Millie came over and started fussing. The older woman pushed her away violently.

"Damn it Millie!  I'm fine...just a little surprised by the resemblance myself.  You'd better head on home. I'm tired.  I'm going to bed."

Millie frowned.  "Maybe I should stay with you for a while. You don't look so good, Mama."

"Just GO, for God's sake."  Alma got up out of the recliner, and headed up the stairs.  When she heard the door slam angrily, she slowly climbed the rest of the stairs.  She headed into her room, and dug through the closet until she found a small box, battered by the years.  She sunk slowly to the edge of the bed, and opened the box.  There were two pictures inside.  She had to turn them over to check the dates to make sure she had the correct one, as the infants pictured were almost identical.  She chose the picture with the earlier date, and held it up so she could see it better.  They hadn't wanted to let her mother take the picture.  They said it would be a bad thing to have any kind of physical reminder, as if the scar from the emergency c-section wouldn't have been enough of a reminder, the scar that she explained away to her future husband as surgery to deal with ovarian cysts.  Her mother had insisted.  She wasn't being kind when she did so, although it had turned out to be a kindness after all.  She wanted Alma to remember and suffer.  

So tonight, Alma remembered.  She thought she finally knew her eldest daughter's name.  She curled up into a fetal position on the bed, holding the picture and suffering some more.

Vignette 1

The kiss had been lingering and sweet.  The tears began to roll down his face, and he pulled back, embarrassed.  She ran her fingers through the blonde hair, not yet turning gray, and smiled sympathetically.  He reacted badly to the sympathy, because she did not understand why he was crying.  

"It's too soon," she said.  "We can slow down.  I'm in no hurry."  

"It is NOT too soon," he replied angrily.  "You have no idea what is going through my head."  

He turned and began to walk down the gravel path back to the safe haven of his car.  He knew he had hurt her, but he was too confused to turn back and try to sort it out.  

He turned back for a moment, and watched her standing in the halo of light spilling from the open, inviting door.  He wanted to accept that invitation and enter the warmth.  He wanted a chance at living again.  Instead, he waved feebly.  "I'll call you tomorrow."

He got in the car and watched as she walked back into the house and revoked the invitation.  He wondered if he had ruined it.  The tears began as he took the car out of park and began the long drive home.  They lasted throughout the drive, and the music on the radio was a further reminder of what he was really upset about.

Alice had assumed that she was crying because of his dead wife.  She thought that he was still mourning, still not ready to get involved with another woman.  He drove on, and tried to figure out exactly what he had gotten so upset about.

The date had gone so well.  The restaurant was perfect, comfortable and not so dim that they couldn't see each other's eyes as they slowly ate and talked and ate some more.  He had ordered the house specialty, and they finished the meal with the chocolate soufflee and tiny cups of hot, bitter espresso.  They had talked about many things, but not about the most important things.  This had been fine with him.  There was time for that.  

He had driven her home, feeling the warmth of her body so close to his, radiating her vibrancy and her willingness.  He was looking forward to spending some time with her, renewing his aqcuaintance with desire.  It had been so long since he had even been tempted.  

All through his wife's long illness he had kept it at bay.  On the rare occasions when she had been feeling well enough, he had often thought it more important to spend that precious time doing other things.  They talked.  They played cards.  They made plans for a future that both of them understood would never happen.  They sometimes sat silently and regretted things together, but more often tried to celebrate what they had achieved together.  At night, when she wasn't hurting too much, he would curl up behind her in the too-narrow hospital bed they had installed in the den.  He would stroke the nape of her neck gently and tell her fairy tales of the things they would do when she got well.  She would smile and let the pain killers do their work, both the literal one that came in the morphine pump and the figurative ones that came with his words and gentle touch.  She would drift off, and he would unentangle himself and sit in the dark next to the bed and wonder how he was going to survive without her.  They had been high school sweethearts.  It had been an incredible twenty-five years.

He pulled into the driveway and hit the remote for the garage.  He almost couldn't bear going into the house tonight, and thought, for the thousandth time, about selling it.  For the thousandth time, he realized that he could not.  Wiping the remnant of the tears from his face, he parked the car and got out.  Slowly, he walked into the house.  He wandered into the den, restored to its rightful role, and poured a glass of single malt scotch and sat down in the leather recliner.  How could he explain to Alice what had actually happened?  

He hadn't betrayed his wife with the kiss.  The betrayal was deeper than that.

At the moment when his lips met Alice's, the moment when he should have been thinking of Alice alone, although perhaps he could have been thinking of his wife and it would have been understandable, he had been thinking of neither of them.  As Alice's tongue had gently traced the outline of his lips, he had, instead, gone back even further in time.  He had gone back to a junior high party and a game of spin-the-bottle.  He had gone back to the girl who had french-kissed him for the first time ever.  He could't remember her name.  He remembered that she hadn't been particularly pretty, and that she hadn't been nervous when the bottle spun and landed on her.  She had just watched him as he crossed the circle to kiss her.  He was terrified.  He didn't want to be giving his first real kiss away in front of an audience, most especially not this one.  He knew he was going to take ribbing later on for having had to kiss HER, of all people.  He awkwardly put his hand on her neck and pulled her toward him, none too gently.  She put her hand over his, and pulled back a little bit and looked at him mischievously.  Then she leaned in and kissed HIM.  For an instant, he was confused.  Her lips were against his, gently, yet insistently.  He yielded.  He felt her tongue gently probing his mouth, and he parried back.  Then she pulled away, smiled, and grabbed the bottle to take her turn.  He was blushing furiously, and hoping that people would focus on the blush on his face rather than other obvious signs of his arousal.

He dreamed about that kiss for months.  Then he met Karen sophomore year, and while he occasionally saw the girl in the hallways of the school, the memory faded.

The tears began again, as he wondered how he could have remembered a relative stranger and NOT his wife when he had given someone the first kiss he had given since he had kissed his Karen's cold lips one final time.

He turned the television on.  He sipped the scotch and let his mind wander through the alleys of memory.  Suddenly, the television screen flashed a bulletin.  He figured that a car chase couldn't hurt in his current frame of mind, but this was no car crash.  He sat and watched as a SWAT team deployed at a school across the country.  Violence had erupted after a basketball game, and there were still hostages in the gym.  He stared at the screen in disbelief as the name he had been unable to remember scrolled past in the list of known hostages.