Friday, May 27, 2011

* Songs from the Wood *

Three lefts are all it took to get to Gideon Woods from my house.  I probably could've made it in fifteen minutes.  Maybe even ten. But there was so much to see and do.  It wasn't like I had A.D.H.D. or anything.  Heck, they hadn't even thought of it yet. 
            Back then, Green Oak Drive was cement, not blacktop.  If you looked real close, you could see tee tiny pebbles in it.  It was put down in big, square sections.   If no cars were coming, I liked to run my finger in the little gutter that ran curb to curb between the sections.  When the cement cracked, they patched it with black springy tar.  On hot days, I liked to press my thumbs (or my big toes if I was barefoot) into the warm, smooth, darkness.
            Half a block down, I always stopped to pet Missy, the little black dog with soft curly fur.  I called her Tripod after she lost one of her back legs chasing cars.  She still tried to run after 'em, but with only three legs, she'd get tuckered out quickly and plop down on her rounded, refurred stump.
            Four houses later, I'd wave at Mrs. Meek.  She'd either be sweeping her front porch or sitting in the Adirondack chair out in her yard, reading a library book.  I always wondered what it would be like to have a mom who looked like Barbie with short hair.  Like Cloris Leachman really.
After the second turn, I almost always stopped at the Biebers.'  
            "Should we play whiffleball or kickball this afternoon?" I'd ask Lisa, as we sat on her front porch steps.  Her mom taught fourth grade at our school.
            "Or, we could have a horseshow," she'd say.
            We put on horseshows, on our Schwinn bikes, in the parking lot of Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church.  I didn't always win the blue ribbon for Best in Show, but I always looked the realest 'cause I'd wear one of my brothers' batting helmets.
            I'd say bye to Lisa and walk up the road that ran between her house and the Swisher place.  I liked the Swishers’ house 'cause it had chubby, super tall, white columns in the front.  They had a big, ole RV parked in their extra wide driveway.  I bet they went cool places on the weekends.  
            I'd stare at each of their windows, hoping Jeff Swisher would look out.  When he was younger, people mistook him for a pretty little girl.  Not anymore.  What would it be like if he was your brother?  Or . . . your boyfriend?  I'd swipe the sudden mist of sweat off my upper lip and continue up the hill.

After I made the third left, I'd see Miss Lorna's house.  Miss Lorna was best friends with our next door neighbor, Mrs. McCallister.  Miss Lorna's daughter was a real live Rockette in New York City.  I got to meet her once when she visited.  Her teeth were super white and her lips the color of maraschino cherries.  A couple times, her false eyelashes got stuck in her eyebrows.  I turned my head so she wouldn't see me smile.
            On the corner past Miss Lorna’s, I had a choice.  Make the sharp left down to Gideon Woods, or veer slightly right and walk across the street to the property of the rich people who had two horses.  I only stopped to pet the horses if I'd remembered to bring them a treat.  No carrots, apples, or homemade sugar cubes?  Then it's down the big hill.  I usually ran this part.  You can run faster and longer when it's downhill.
At the bottom of Forest Drive, Gideon Woods was on the right.  There's a trodden and driven down half-circle bald patch by the side of the road.  This was where parents picked up kids who'd scamped around in the woods all day.  This was the spot where teens turned off their headlights and turned toward each other.  This was the place where people dropped twist-tied garbage bags of trash, puppies, or kittens, when they were too lazy to do the right thing.  I always ripped an air hole in the bags.  You know.  Just in case. 
             This spot always made me think of the time John Edwards' giant, super soft, all white sled dog put my whole face in her mouth.  Guess I got a tad too close.  Thankfully, the dents on my forehead and chin went away by bedtime.  Unlike the time when Peaches, our next door neighbors' Peek-a-Poo, gave me puncture wounds on my ankle when I got within nipping range of her.  Had to get a tetanus shot for that.
            Man, I hate shots.  I remember the time Mom tricked me.  Told me we were going downtown to shop at Stone and Thomas.  We were really going to get me a Mump's vaccine.  I flinched so hard I broke the needle and they had to shoot me again.  Mom kept apologizing and she did take me to Shoney's afterwards for a hot fudge cake, extra whipped cream, so it wasn’t all that bad.

There's a slight rise to get into Gideon Woods.  Then, at the top, there are ruts like someone drove a pickup in there awhile back.  And then maybe they changed their mind or thought they'd get stuck, so they backed out.
            Weeds and high grass were everywhere.  Trash too.  I don't think the ad campaign with the Indian guy crying over pollution worked. There were pop and beer cans.  Crushed cigarette packs.  Wadded up, snack-sized chip bags.  Unless the Scouts had been there recently.  Couple times a year, they came and cleaned up that front part.  So it looked nice when the rich people drove by. 

I went to Gideon Woods for lots of reasons.  Sometimes I collected shotgun shells.  The aqua ones were my favorites, but I was always on the lookout for new colors.  If you searched real hard, you could find .22 shells.  I think they're pretty--almost the color of a new penny, or an old one you’ve shined up with lemon juice and salt.  They're dainty looking.  To me anyway.
            I always went to the woods when the warm days started to outnumber the cool.  That's tadpole time.  I'd take a Skippy peanut butter jar with me but first, I'd use one of Dad's Phillips-head screwdrivers and a hammer to jab airholes in the metal lid.
            There were no ponds or creeks in Gideon.  Just really big puddles or places where the ground couldn't hold any more water so it climbed up the rough, sawgrass blades an inch or two.
            I listened.  That's how I knew where to look.  The grown up frogs would make a ton of noise 'til they heard the shush-shush of something coming.  Or, maybe they felt the vibration in the water.  Their peeping would stop.  Everything would get real quiet.  Even the birds hushed.  It's like the danger signal of animals is silence and people's is noise.  "Wheee-oohhh!  Wheee-oohhh!"  or "An! An!  An!  This is a test.  This is just a test, of the emergency broadcast system . . . " or "Clanga!  Clang!  Clang!"  That was the bell on our front porch that Mom or Dad rang when they wanted us in the house.  “Right now.  I mean it!”
            So after I listened, I'd look.  For snot.  I mean really.  That is what frog eggs look like, you know.  Like someone hawked a lugy.  All gelatinous.  Egg whitey.  If you happened to have a magnifying glass with you, you could see the individual transparent spheres with black spots.  They looked just like the googly eyes you get in the craft department of Hill's. 
            At least once every spring I’d get a scoop of muddy water--wiggly egg whites, googly eyes, and all--into my Skippy jar.  Sometimes the eggs had already turned into tadpoles.  I’d speak into the jar.  “Hi, little guys.”  Then I’d screw the lid on.  And grin.  Mission accomplished.

If I didn’t plan on harvesting frog eggs or tadpoles, I’d bring our dog to Gideon Woods.  She was a liver and white Beagle-Spitz mix.  We named her Holly 'cause we got her in December.  Plus, my mom said the mark on her head resembled a holly leaf.
            One day when Holly and I were in the woods, I found this little white container.  It looked like a plastic lip gloss tub.  I picked it up and read the label:  
"Contains 3 prophylactics.  Not intended for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases."  I wrinkled my nose.  Do what?  I unscrewed the top.  Out rolled three slippery, cloudy discs.  I squinted at ‘em.  They look like rolled up balloons.
            I unrolled one.  Thought it looked like a test tube or a sock.  That gave me an idea. 

           "Hey, Holly!  Come here!" 
            I stuck one of the slippery white things on her tail.  Then I let go of her leash and she knew it. She trotted into high grass.  All I could see was her tail.  It stuck straight up with its little see-through rain coat on.  I giggled.  A few minutes later, her tail disappeared.  I heard the crush-schmush of grass and the pleased grunting of dog happiness.  I scowled and ran toward the noise.  Just as I suspected.  She was anointing her back with eau du dead critter.
            I clapped several times.  "Here!  Stop that!" 
            I grabbed her leash and yanked.  She stood and did a get-every-hair-back-in-place shimmy.  The tail decoration was gone.
            I glanced at my Timex and squeaked.  “Criminy!  I’m late for supper.”
            When we stepped out of the woods and onto the trodden down half circle, I frowned at my feet.  Picked up a stick and dug mud out of the treads of my purple Chuck Taylor's.   A car horn honked.  I jumped and straightened.  It was a green Buick Skylark.  My oldest brother rolled down the window. 
            "Mom's been ringing the bell like crazy.  Didn't you hear?"
            I huffed.  "All the way down here?  No."
            "Get in."
            Holly and I climbed in the backseat.  I cranked the window down just enough so her ears and tongue could flap in the wind.  Her wagging tail 'bout put my eye out so I sat back and turned my head away from her.  Shut my eyes.  Listened to my tummy growl.  Won't be long now 'cause there's just three right turns and we'll be home.

Friday, May 20, 2011


She's a Polaroid photo except she's seeping back into the paper, not vice versa.  Her color is dissipating, not saturating.  Four color, pastel, black and white, g-r-i-s.  That's French for gray, but I pronounce it grizz, not gree.

Her outlines blur, lose focus.  Edges bleed to background.  Reading glasses don't help. 

Her voice sounds sleepy, drunk, drugged.  Slow motion combined with Novicaine.  A refrigerator hum.  A television channel that went off the air at midnight.

When she walks, it's cautious, fearful.  Hands out, fingers splayed, anticipating the ground.  Carpet or cement in the palm of her hands.  Her gait?  Shush, shuffle, shish.  But not necessarily Parkinson's-y.  It's more ambulating-an-inch-at-a-time-seems-safer. 

Curb?  Step? 

"Hold my hand."


"What'd you eat for breakfast?"

"What did you eat for breakfast?"

"It's yellow, and it's all around your mouth,"

She looks for her eyebrows.  "Cereal maybe?"

"It's egg," I say.  "Here, take my tissue.  Spit on it.  Wipe there."  I point to one corner of her mouth.  "Now the other side.  Use your fingernail maybe."



"What time is it?"

I glance at my watch.  "Noon."


"What time is it?"

I swallow.  "Stilll noon."

In the woods behind her house, birds sing.  Auditory joy.

"What'd you say your name was?"

My gnashing teeth sound like she looks—gris.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Tattoo You

“Tell me again how old I have to be to get my nose pierced?” Mini Me said.

“Eighteen.  Maybe.”

She snarled her face.  “Same for a tattoo?”

“Oh, baby.  You don’t want one of those.”

“Uh.  Yeah, I do.”

I patted the sofa.  “Sit.  Let me tell you a story.”

There we were.  In the third floor bathroom.  Me and my co-worker.  She’d worked  in the advertising department of our Washington, D.C. publishing company for a year plus.  I was the office newbie with six months on the job.  She and I, and another girl, who had pale green eyes that tilted like a cat’s, did everything together.  The three of us, and the guys we hung out with?  We were friends way before Monica, Phoebe, Ross, and the rest of the gang ever set foot in Central Perk.

She looked at my reflection as we washed our hands.

“Hey.  I’m going to backpack through Europe with one of my high school friends this summer.  Want to go with us?”

I pumped soap into my palms.  “Did you ask Laurie?”

“Naw.  She’s too pretty.  She’d steal all the guys.  Plus she’s moody.  Moods are dangerous when you travel.”

“Ask me again,” I said.

She squinted.  “What?”

“Ask me to go to Europe with you again.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head.  “You.  Okay.  Do you want to go to Europe for the summer with Heather and me?”

I jumped up and down.  Water went everywhere. 

“Do I?  Do I?”

Don’t say it.  Don’t even open your mouth.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m gonna.”

It was Super Bowl Sunday and my co-worker and I were preparing a stuffet of staggering proportions.

“Boyfriends will come and boyfriends will go, but guy friends and girlfriends are forever.”

She paused mid-avocado-mash.  “What’re you saying?”

I kept cutting carrots.  “We’re sick of it, all of us.  Ever since I introduced you to him, you all are love hermits.  I mean, you never come out of the bedroom.  Ever.  ‘Cept to eat and pee.”

She huffed.  I paused.  Took my left foot out of my mouth and inserted my right.

“I know he’s really cute.  And an engineer.  That’s why I introduced you all, but for crying out loud, you never play with us anymore.  You don’t go to happy hour.  You won’t go dancing with us.”

She put the smasher down.  Went over and washed her hands. 

“What if you break up?” I said to her back.  “What if he’s not the one?”

This isn’t going well.  That thought occurred to me one night as I sat on the top bunk in the girls’ dormitory of a hostel in Brugges, Belgium.

We’d flown into Heathrow two weeks ago.  Spent a week scamping around London. I looked around.  Nobody here but me. 

“Actually, they sedately toured,” I said to the ceiling.  I scamped along behind them.” 

Then we took the really cool hovercraft thingy to Paris.  J’aime Paris.  Beaucoup.  My first tiny cup of French coffee kept me up ‘til four in the morning.  And standing under the Arc De Triomphe?  It was awesome!  Man, did the traffic zoom, zoom, zoom, or what?  It was like the city was a cat--always purring.  I loved the Louvre.  The Mona Lisa?  If I’d had enough time with her, I swear, I could’ve made her bust a gut.

Things got really crazy the night we rendez-voused with our friend, Dave.  He was a flight attendant on layover, and he let us stay in his really fancy hotel room.  We bought a couple baguettes, some wine, some cheese.  Then we left the hotel and--  Why did the police make us leave the Eiffel Tower grounds?  Oh, yeah.  We built a pyramid down below, in the grasss.  I got to be on top ‘cause I was the smallest.  Parisian cops are so mean.  I couldn’t make ‘em crack a smile to save my life.  Apparently, they take that green space in front of their precious landmark very seriously. 

I threw my pillow up in the air.  “If it wasn’t for me, we never would’ve met those guys in the change bank.  Which means we wouldn’t have eaten in that restaurant that dated back to 15 hundred something.  Where you filled your wine pitcher from a wooden cask.  And that steak?  I’m pretty sure I heard it moo, but I’m telling you what.  It was the best piece of meat I’ve ever tasted.  Ever.”

I think they’re shunning me.  I dug in my backpack for my journal. Gotta write that down.

            “June 15.  Epiphany.  Thing One and Thing Two are shunning me. 
            They don’t talk to me.  Much.   They plan.  I follow.  I meet people. 
            The two things pretend to like me while we have cool adventures
            with our new international friends.  Once new people leave, they
            put me back in my closet of silence.  Something’s got to change.  \
            But what?”

Suddenly a tiny young girl bounced into the room.  She couldn’t see me up on my bunk.  I stuck my head over the side. 


She jumped.  Squealed.  Turned around.  Grinned up at me.

“Oh, hello up there.”

Within fifteen minutes, I knew everything about her.  Almost.  Charlottesville, Virginia was her hometown.  That was her natural hair color.  She just graduated college. This trip to Europe was a graduation present from her wealthy grandmother.  

"And you're traveling all by your wee, little self?"


She gave me the high and low lights of her trip.  Warned me that some people on Greek beaches go topless and bottomless.   Told me how a thief snatched her passport in Spain, but the embassy got her a new one in a few days.  She threw her arms up in the air and twirled around in the middle of the room. 

“I am having so much fun!”

“Wow,” I said. “You're way younger than me and half my size. If you can travel Europe alone, I suppose I can too.”

"Sure you can!" she said. “And the bonus is, you meet a lot more people when you travel solo.”
The next day at breakfast I said, “See you, wouldn’t want to be you,” to my travel partners.   Well, that’s not really what I said.  But seriously, there was no way I wanted to be them because let’s face it, the life of the party, that would be me, was leaving.  The expressions on their faces?  Bug eyes, mouths gaping?  I liked it.  Liked it a lot.

So there I was.  Alone in Europe. I headed south ‘cause my travel Bible, Let’s Go Europe, said I should. Pretty soon I paired up with a girl named Kim. She was from California. She’d run away from a guy who never got around to popping the question.

Kim told me on more than one occasion, “Let me tell you one thing.  If a guy doesn’t ask you to marry him in three years, he never will.”

I didn’t tell her I was engaged.  I’d left my ring at home after I heard sometimes thieves’ll cut off your fingers to get your rings.

Kim and I eventually wound up in the little German town of Baden Baden, on the edge of the Black Forest. I wasn’t impressed with the food in Germany. It was meat, meat, and more meat.  Kim, however, was a big time carnivore. She loved German food. One night she talked me into sharing a wild game platter. Thank goodness there was German beer, lots of it, to wash down the seared bear and boar, lots of it.

“Okay,” Kim said.  “I’ve read up on Baden Baden in Let’s Go. Did you know there’s a spa here?” she said in between bites of hasenpfeffer. “It only costs fifteen American dollars on Tuesdays.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

She proceeded to read the list of spa services included in the surprisingly affordable price.

“That sounds awesome,” I said.  “I’ve never been pampered before.”
The next day it became quite clear why the spa was only fifteen American dollars on Tuesdays. Tuesday was co-ed day at the Baden Baden Day Spa. Every other day of the week, only one gender at a time was admitted. As a result, on Tuesdays, all the old men in Baden Baden came to the spa to see all the young tourist girls in the buff.

I wasn’t too freaked out by the situation. I was pretty sure I’d never see any of these people again, even Kim. There weren’t any cute guys there either, just really old German men. I wanted to ask them, “Do your wives know you’re here?” but Ich spreche kein Deutsch.  I mean, I don’t speak German.

Our fifteen American dollars bought an extensive array of spa services. We steamed and saunaed. We got scotch sprayed which entails getting drenched with a fire hose by a burly fraulein. Next we were supposed to dip briefly into a vat of ice water so as to be energized. I opted out of that activity. I was pretty sure it’d give me a heart attack.  Then, we were directed to a giant swimming pool of mineral water. You could float and/or swim as long as you wanted. As long as you could stand the rotten egg smell.  It was there I saw what would make me never want to get a tattoo.

Have you ever seen the buttocks of a seventy year old man? I have. Once I went to Baden Baden, I knew what the front and back of a nakey old man looks like. Gravity is not kind. I won’t talk about the fronts of those men, but I will talk about the backs.

I’ve worked for an interior designer. I know what swagged window treatments look like. Every time I think of the buttocks of the old men in the Baden Baden spa, I think of swagged drapery treatments. The skin on each buttock does a swoopy thing. It starts high on the left hip and swoops down and then comes back up again to attach to the tailbone. It does the same thing on the right side. It kinda looks like the golden arches of McDonald’s if they were a) pastey pink and b) upside down. Or, if you’re familiar with the work of Salvador Dali, imagine if he’d painted old men’s naked heinies instead of clocks.

Given this experience, I can only imagine what a tattoo would do as the body ages. The once taut and firm skin canvas would soften and succumb to gravity. The mermaid, the anchor, the first wife’s name?  I doubt they’d be recognizable a few decades after their creation. They'd be like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz after Dorothy throws water on her.  “I’m melting . . .”

I turned to my daughter.  “And that, sweetie, is why I’ll never get a tattoo.”

“But I still want one, Mom,” she said.  “Can I get one if I promise not to get it on my butt?”


Friday, May 6, 2011

The People Next Door

What was that?  I ran to the window.  Pulled the curtain back and peeked out.  A truck backed into the driveway next door.  Two guys got out and headed for the porch.  I glanced in the mirror over the mantle.  Presentable.  I smiled.  Pretty, actually.  I zipped my hoodie and walked outside.
            I craned my neck around a rhododendron bush.  “Hey!  What are you all doing?”
            The men held a crowbar under the door knob.  The bigger of the two glanced over.
            “Changing the locks.  Bank owns this house now.”
            I nibbled my lip.
            What if it becomes a student rental?  What if college renters play Beer Pong until the wee hours of the night?  What if they take all the on-street parking?              
            I put my hand over my heart.  Felt it go vroom. 
A week later I spied a woman with a clipboard in the yard next door.  I ran out in my pajamas.  Pressed myself against the chain link fence.
            “What’s up?”
            “Bank appraisal,” she said, eyes on her paper.  She was all business, sealed up tight as a Ziplock bag. 
            I stood on tiptoe.  Tried to read her notes.  “Shame the house never sold.  Four bedrooms, fenced in back yard.  What’s not to like?”
            “Oh, but it did,” she said, as she fished a tape measure out of her tote bag.  “Bank sold it last week.”
            “To who?  A couple?  A family?”
            She shrugged and turned to leave.  “I think a family’s moving in,” she said over her shoulder.
            I smiled at the thought of a family next door.  I’d make them cookies.  Maybe give them directions to the closest Walmart. 
            I put my hand up to my chest.  To see if my heart was beating faster.
When I came home from the grocery store one day, there was a man next door.  He had power tools and a blue pickup truck.  Maybe he’s the new owner.  Gonna fix up the house before his cute family moves in. 
            I saw my neighbor, Michelle, head toward him, so I lingered in my back seat.  Fussed with my grocery bags. 
             As I walked up our front steps, I caught the tail end of their conversation.  Michelle seemed to know the guy, called him by name.
            “So it’s a rental now?” she said.
            I dropped my bags on the porch, went inside, and called Phil.
            “There’s a guy with a pick up and power tools next door,” I said to my husband.  “I thought he was the new owner, but he’s a landlord.  It’s a rental now, Phil!  What are we gonna do?”
            “Dana, breathe.  Maybe he’ll rent it to a nice family.”
            “But what if he doesn’t?  What if he rents it to party animals who play Beer Pong and cuss in front of the kids?”
            Phil sighed.  “Why don’t you say a prayer, Dana?  You’re good at that.”

A week later a different truck was parked next door.   It was white and bigger than the landlord’s.  
            Wonder if it belongs to a sub-contractor or the new renters? 
            Days went by and the big, white truck remained.   Funny thing was, no people seemed to go with it.  Eventually though, I heard something.  A bark.  And then some yips.
            There was a dog in the backyard, and it sure was cute.  It came up to the fence and sniffed my hand whenever I put our dogs out.  I guessed it was a she the day she sashayed over, wearing a dress--black with neon lightning bolts.  Anyone who puts a dog in a dress can’t be half bad. 
            Then I saw him—a man, thin and dark.  Make that swarthy.  I’ve never met someone I’d describe as swarthy, but in his case, the word seemed to fit.  And he smoked. 
            Oh great!  There goes the neighborhood air quality. 
            “Howdy, ma’am,” he said, as he smiled and walked toward me.  He dropped his cigarette and stepped on it.  He extended one hand and fanned smoke with the other.
            I rolled my fingers in the air.  “Morning.  You settled in yet?”
            “Where’d you all come from?” 
            “Down Texas way.”
            I whistled.  “Wow!  You sure are far from home.  Bet you don’t like this cold.”
            “No, ma’am.  I can’t say we do.”
            I felt my eyebrows go up.  “We?” 
            “Yes’m.  I have a wife and four kids.” 
            All of a sudden the little black dog raced out of the garage toward us.  “And you’ve met our dog, Foxy.”
            I bent and scratched Foxy’s ears. “You all have four kids?  We have three—17, 14, and 10.”
            “Yes, ma’am.  We’re gonna homeschool ‘em ‘til we figure out if we’re staying or not.  I need to find work.”
            Did he say homeschool? Homeschooling could mean they’re Christians, and that could mean they’re nice folks.
            I looked back at my house. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, I best get inside.  I’m Dana by the way.  And you are?”
            “Name’s Ricky, ma’am.” He pinched the bill of his hat.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“I think there’s something fishy with the new neighbors,” I said to Phil.
            He didn’t look up from the newspaper.  “And you say that because?”
            “He said he has a wife and four kids, but I’ve never seen ‘em.  Do you think he lied?”
            “It’s winter, Dana.  Maybe they’re inside ‘cause it’s cold outside.”
            I shrugged.  “Maybe.”

I had my own theory.  Ricky had said they were from Texas.  Texas is right across the border from Mexico.  And Ricky, he was swarthy.   The way I figured it, they were probably illegal aliens.  That could be why they homeschooled their kids.  So they wouldn’t have to present social security numbers and that kind of thing.  It all made perfect sense.
            I told my friend Cathy about the people next door.  She laughed.  “You should make them muffins or cookies.  Welcome them to the neighborhood.”
            “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I said.  “I never see anyone but Ricky.  Well, I might’ve seen one of the kids last week.  He had saggy britches on and his underwear stuck out.  You know, like the kids wear when they’re in a gang.” 
            Cathy snorted.  “Oh, Dana, make the people some muffins.  It’ll soften their hearts and yours.”

My illegal alien theory grew some teeth at the grocery store one day.  I walked in, and there was Ricky and his wife, in line at the cash register. 
            So that’s what she looks like.   Kinda pretty.  Needs to get her roots done though.  
She should get a combination of Polished Penny and Burnt Gold.  Like me.   
            I raised my hand to wave, but they both turned away.  Their movement seemed synchronized, like they planned it or something. 
            They don’t want me to see them.  Wonder why?  They definitely have something to hide.

I parked in front of the house one afternoon and glared at Ricky’s yard as I unloaded groceries. 
            Mr. Ellsworth, our neighbor across the street, saw me check out the knee-high grass.
            “Pretty bad, isn’t it?” he said.  “I might call the city. It trashes up the neighborhood.  Don’t make a lick of sense, especially with an able-bodied, teenager in the house.  He should cut the grass if you ask me!” 
            I smiled.  “I’ve got supper for you, Mr. E. I’ll bring it over later.”
            “Thanks, Dana,” he said.  “I look forward to it.”

Mr. Ellsworth’s wife wasn’t long for this world.  When I took him spaghetti that night he told me the nursing home doctor said it was time for hospice.
            “She wants to come home real bad,” he said.  His shoulders sagged.
            I reached out and touched his shirt sleeve.  “I’m sorry, Mr. E.”
            “She’s slipping away, Dana.  Lost five pounds just this week.  She’s nothing but skin and bones.”
            I squirmed.  “I gotta go now.  Let me know if you need anything, okay?”
A few days later the deep grass at Ricky’s was gone and so was Mrs. Ellsworth.  Phil and I went to the funeral home.  We didn’t like death, but we liked Mr. Ellsworth.
            I gave him a hug.  “I’m sorry you lost your sweetheart, Mr. E.”
            He shrugged.  “It was coming.  Didn’t I tell you?”
            I nodded.  “That’s how it was when my daddy died.  He had dementia.  We knew he wouldn’t last forever, but that didn’t make it any easier.”
            Mr. Ellsworth glanced at the coffin in front of the room.  “I’ll miss my little gal.”
            I squeezed his hand.  “You were the best husband ever.  The way you came home every two hours to check on her?  That was so sweet.  I hope Phil’s like that with me.”
            “He will be.  Phil’s a good man.  You’re good people.”
            Phil stood in front of the Memory Lane photo collage of Mrs. Ellsworth.  I caught his eye, and he came over to pay his respects.  They did the man thing—shook hands, briefly made eye contact, nodded. 
            “You ready to go?” Phil said. 
            I tucked my arm through his and steered us toward the door.  I glanced back at Mr. Ellsworth to say bye one more time, but his eyes were on his shoes.

Later that week I saw Ricky on Mr. Ellsworth’s porch.  They sat in rocking chairs.  Mr. Ellsworth smiled at something Ricky said.
            I called Phil.  “Ricky’s over at Mr. Ellsworth’s house.”
            “Doing what?”
            “Nothing.  Just talking.”
            “That’s nice,” Phil said. 
A few weeks later, I saw a Rent-a-Center truck next door.  I phoned Phil.
            “The Rent-a-Center guys are at Ricky’s house,” I said.  “They’re taking stuff away.”
            “Maybe they’re redecorating.”
            “Maybe they can’t afford to pay for their stuff.”
            “Is this the only reason you called?” Phil said.  “I’ve got a truck to unload.”  Click.

It took summer a long time to come that year.  We had frost into May.  Ricky came over one day and watched me trim the ivy along our front steps.
            “How old’s your house, ma’am?”
            I smiled back at our big old brick home.  “It’ll be a hundred next year.”
            I watched his eyes take in all three stories.  “Wow.  Sure is pretty.”
            I tossed my long hair behind me.  “Why thank you, Ricky.  You need something?”
            “Actually,” he said, “I was wondering when the weather might warm?”
            “Ordinarily, it would’ve been warm by now.  You miss Texas?”
            He reached out and stroked a daylily bud.  “I don’t know.  It’s real pretty ‘round here.  I like all the green.”
            We were silent for a minute, then Ricky turned to go.
            “Have a nice day, ma’am.”
            “You can call me, Dana, you know.”

One day I heard Ricky’s wife and kids in the backyard.  I couldn’t see them because of the thick hedge of forsythia between us.  At least I knew the kids existed.  Up until then I’d only seen Ricky’s baggy-pants son. 
            As the weather warmed, Ricky and his wife took to sitting in the truck’s cab.  I wasn’t quite sure what they did out there.  Did they want privacy--away from the kids?  Did they go there to argue?  Maybe they did something else in there.  The cab of the truck was awful smoky.

Most years, we have about three pretty days after school lets out before it’s too hot to venture far from air conditioning.  Not that year.  Temperatures hovered in the low 80s with hardly any humidity.  One day though, it got up into the 90s.
            I parked my Honda and glanced over at Ricky’s place.  Now that it was warm, when he wasn’t in the truck cab with his wife, he was usually on his cell phone in the driveway, yacking up a storm in Espanol.  Not that day.  That day he was washing his truck.  He sprayed the hose with one hand and waved with the other.
            I hitched up my T.J. Maxx bags.  “Is it Texas hot yet, Ricky?”
            He smiled at me.  His white teeth accentuated his tan. 
            “No, ma’am.  Not even close.”

One Saturday Ricky hit the sauce before noon.  I saw him get a suitcase of Milwaukee’s Best out of his truck.  Throughout the day, guys stopped by to help drink it.  I think they were in the garage.  I could hear them, but I couldn’t see anybody from behind the living room curtains. 
            The party was still on when I got ready for bed that night.  I could hear the music over the hum of our white noise machine.  I looked at the clock.  Almost midnight.
            “This isn’t good,” I told Phil when we got in bed.  “You should call your friend, Terry.  See if he’ll send a cruiser by.  There’s bound to be some drunk driving with all those empty beer cans in the driveway.”
            Phil sighed. 
            I rolled to face him.  “What if this is just the beginning?  What if they do this every weekend, or a couple times a week?”
            “Dana . . .”   Something in Phil’s growl made me hush.

One evening Phil worked late.  I peeked out the living room window and dialed his number.
            “Guess where Ricky is?”
            “Do I really want to know?”
            “Actually, it’s kind of nice,” I said.  “He’s jumpstarting Mr. Ellsworth’s car.”
            “Thanks for the update, Dana.”  Click.

Summer was almost over.  School would start in a week.  I walked out on the porch to get my mail.  I spotted Michelle in front of her house, cell phone to her ear.  When she saw me, she snapped it shut and put it away.  Cupped her hands around her mouth.
            “Have you seen Ricky?” she said.  “He has your little guy.”
            I sucked in air.  “He what?”
            Michelle pointed behind me.  I looked back.  Ricky and my son were walking up the street, hand in hand.  I ran toward them.
            Tyler, where have you been?”
            Ricky looked down at him.  “I think he just wanted some ice cream, ma’am.  He was at the Kwik-Mart.”
            My heartbeat pounded in my ears.  I knelt in front of Tyler so I could get in his face. 
            “I can’t believe you did this,” I said.  “What if a stranger took you?  What if you got hit by a car?”
            Ricky touched my shoulder gently.  “It’s all right, ma’am.  He’s safe now.”
            He patted Tyler’s back.  “Aren’t you, son?”
            Tyler nodded and grinned.  “I’m fine, Mom.  Ricky bought me a Drumstick.  And a Hot Wheels car.”  He opened his fist to show the shiny blue P.T. Cruiser.
            My nose burned.  I rubbed my throat to get the lump out.  I looked back at the house, then at Ricky.
            “I made some muffins today,” I said.  “I baked ‘em to take to church tonight, but maybe you all would like them instead.”
            Ricky’s mouth pulled to one side.  Almost a smile.  “I’d like that.  Dana.”


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