Mama’s Voice

Low and sweet Mama called, “Honey Bee,” and when Collette arrived, Mam wrapped her with a smile and glittering green eyes. “Can I have some cold water?”

“Of course, Mama. Want anything else?”

“We have any lemon bars? I’d love a piece.” Mama resumed rocking, eyes closed, mind most likely drifting somewhere in the past.

Collette nodded knowing that Mama was happy. It didn’t matter that names got mixed up. Collette didn’t bother asking anymore if Mama remembered who she was. Suzanne, Maria or Abigail. Or rare occasions when Mama’s eyes were wide open she knew Collette. Maybe today was one of them, but if pressed, Mama grew upset.

“I got your water,” Collette said as she placed the glass in Mama’s hands and a small paper plate with a tiny bite of lemon bar on a rickety wooden table next to Mama’s chair. Collette then sat in the empty rocker, the one Papa used way back when.

“This is nice,” Mama practically sang in that not-quite-southern twang of hers. “I love me some cold water when it’s hot like this.” She closed her eyes and resumed rocking, humming a church song that Collette barely remembered.

“Is that “The Old Wooden Cross”?”

“Nope. Rugged. It’s Rugged Cross. Much more meaning to it.” Mama began singing, “I love that old Cross, but then she stopped and tears filled her eyes. “Darn I forget the words.” Her knees started bouncing, a sure sign of distress. “I forget everything these days. Half the time I don’t even know your name.”

“Collette. I’m Collette, your surprise baby daughter.”

Mama stared at her as if she had no idea what she was talking about. “I didn’t have no surprise baby daughter.”

Collette patted her mama’s right knee, just enough to add comfort. “It’s alright. Not important. Have some lemon bar.” Collette put the plat in Mama’s hand. “Just a piece. No more right now.”

“I haven’t been to church in ages. Not since Matthew died. I just can’t bear walking the same places he walked.”

Mama said in that sweet, persuasive voice of hers, “Maybe it’s time you and I go. Sunday’s tomorrow. Preacher Davis will be leading the service. Oh, my, I love the way that man calls on the Lord.” She set the plate on the little table and leaning on her cane a little too much for Collette’s comfort, headed inside.

“Where you going?” Collette grabbed glass and plate. Can’t leave nothing outside unless ou want birds and raccoons and stray cats coming around.

Mama’s words floated over her shoulder as she turned to go down the hall. “Got to pick a dress for tomorrow. Folks haven’t seen me in a while. Want to make a good impression.”

Collette frowned. She didn’t want to go to that church any more than she wanted to go to the one at home. Matthew loved the Church of Christ chapel in downtown Chillicothe because he felt more comfortable with the merchant families that came to his five-and-dime store. Collette grew up in First Baptist in Sterling Crossings, the church her Mama still loved, but it was a thirty mile drive from home.

Collette pulled a whole chicken out of the refrigerator and washed it off in warm water. Using the butcher knife she cut it in pieces. Froze half. Rubbed the rest in a mesquite marinade. Zipped it up and put it in the fridge for cooking later. Next came shucking corn and peeling potatoes. She didn’t like potatoes, but Mama said it wasn’t a proper meal with spuds of some kind on the table. Tonight she’d bake them so she could control how much sour cream and butter landed on Mama’s half.

“I found me a dress,” Mama said. “Lookee here.”

It was an old yellow cotton dress that Mama last wore to the Fourth of July Picnic four years ago. It hung a bit loose, but the pride in Mama’s voice kept Collette’s mouth shut. “Pretty color. Perfect for summer.”

“Hm, hm. I know. Your daddy bought this for me on one of his trips out of town. I think it’s from North Dakota, but I’m not sure. Every time he went away he brought home something. Sometimes a bolt of cloth. Once he gave me a pretty necklace. When I asked where he got the money, he wrapped me in his arms so tight I could barely breathe.”

“Nice memory.” Collette lead Mama down the hall to change back into her every day clothes. “Lift your arms.” She pulled the dress over Mama’s head and hung it on the closet door.

“That’s what caused me to kick him out. Smelled perfume on him. A kind I never wore. Knew he was cheating. He didn’t deny it. Just picked up his traveling bag and left. When that door slammed shut I yelled to never come back. He didn’t.”

Collette brushed her mama’s hair. She had to be gentle as there wasn’t much left. Mama had what they call female pattern hair loss. She’d asked her hair dresser last time she’s had a trim. Paula, that was her name, said there wasn’t anything to do about it except keep it clean and use a soft brush.

“Why you using that soft thing?” Mama said.

“Paula said it’d be better on your scalp. Like a massage.” Finished, Collette pulled hairs from between the bristles and dropped them in a nearby garbage can. “Let’s get your clothes on so as to be ready for dinner.”

Mama started humming again, this time a song Collette knew and loved. She sang up high in her soprano voice while Mama hummed the alto line. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…”

By the end of the song they’d returned to the porch, Mama in her rocker and Collette heading down the metal steps to pull the laundry off the line. She hated that Mama’s clothes hung out front for the world to see, but everybody in the Wagon Wheel Mobile Home Park did the same. At least Mama’s house wasn’t worse off than the others’. Joe Maxwell’s siding was peeling off and Pete Smith’s windows were covered with plastic to keep out insects, wind and rain.

Matthew had kept up the place, hosing down the outside and replacing any windows that cracked. He’d kept the appliances working and even when he was feeling sorry for something he’d said, installed two room air conditioners, one if the front room and one in Mama’s bedroom. He’d done all that even though it wasn’t his parent’s house and without Collette asking.

Mama was asleep when Collette finished folding and putting the laundry away. She got out the chicken and placed it on a plate for carrying outside. She fired up the gas barbeque she’d given Mama back when her mama still cooked. Thank goodness she’d brought a new tank or she would have had to cook if in the oven.

Her cooking skills were limited. Mam had tried to teach her, but Collette’s head was in books. She was always reading. Most of the time for school, but she’d read just about everything she could get out of the town library. Then she’d gone off to college where she’d shared an apartment with three girls she didn’t know. They rotated cooking duties so she checked out a Campbell’s Soup Cook Book because the recipes were simple.

Potatoes in the oven. Chicken cooking. “Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes. You need anything?”

Thinking maybe her mama was asleep, Collette stepped as lightly as her two hundred pound body would let her. Mama’s floor creaked and groaned anyway.

At first glance, she thought Mama was asleep. She often slept ten or more hours a day. That’s why Collette had come home. Someone needed to be with Mama night and day and there was no one else to do it. No money to pay for help and even if there had been, Mama was too embarrassed about the condition of her house to let people inside.

Nobody with money lived out here, far from the center of town. It wasn’t on the wrong side of the tracks as no train came through, but it was the neighborhood that even the police didn’t like to enter. Not because of gangs, but because everything was so run down and dingy that it broke hearts to think that people actually lived there.

The tilt of Mama’s head wasn’t right. It leaned too far to the left at a crazy angle that made it appear as if someone’d snapped it. And her left arm hung limply over the chair’s arm, fingers too loose for comfort.

“Mama,” Collette said as she touched her mama’s shoulder. “You okay?”

She wasn’t and Collette knew it when she first saw her leaning like that. Mama had grace, even asleep. It didn’t matter how ragged the hem of her dress was, that dress was spotless and freshly ironed. A wide-brimmed fancy hat sat on that head everywhere she went, but her best ones only came out for church. She had ones with feathers, some with ribbons, a few with both. Mama knew which hat matched which dress and nobody ever changed her mind.

And when Mama walked about town with her head high and back straight as steel, people thought maybe she’d come from money. One of them debutante girls who’d fallen from grace.

Truth is, her family was dirt poor. Her daddy had been a tenant farmer who moved the family wherever he could find a bit of work. One time they lived in the barn with the horses. In summer it stank of moldy hay and manure. In winter their breath froze in midair.

The woman in the porch, this person leaning over the chair, was not her Mama. No pretty tune emanated from her lips, no humming “Precious Lord” in that sultry sound of hers.

Collette sat in her rocker and picked up her mother’s hand. She turned it over and rubbed the palm, over and over in gentle circles. “Mama, I guess your time has come. Too bad we’ll miss church tomorrow.”

Sobs broke loose, the loud racking kind that indicates a hurt so deep that it’s hard coming back. Just as in a movie, Collette felt a ray of sun warm her tear-streaked face. She looked up and noticed a flock of starlings high above, swirling in massive ever-changing streaks of black. They’d been Mama’s favorite birds because, as she’d said, “Them birds are like some people. They run in crazy circles, doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. Ain’t gonna happen.”

Mama’s voice was the sweetest thing Collette had ever heard. In times of trouble Mama sang to her soft, gentle songs of love and redemption, “Jesus Loves Me” a favorite of both of them. Collette closed her eyes and listened for the words:

Jesus loves me! He will stay,
Close beside me all the way;
He’s prepared a home for me,
And some day His face I’ll see

Even though Mama was gone to a better place, that home that Jesus has waiting for her, Collette would miss her Mama. No more late night bathroom runs. No more stories about the granddad she’d never known. No more cleaning this rickety home. No more humming in her precious Mama’s voice.

 

 

 

 

The Teacher’s Report

Mrs. Adams gripped a math test, correcting mistake after mistake.  Her oversized glasses slipped down her nose making it difficult for her to see the backwards numbers. Even after pushing them back into place, the child’s writing didn’t become any clearer.

She picked up another paper, placed marks here and there, sighing as she worked. The next paper, that of Shelly Winters, was one hundred percent correct. Mrs. Adams wrote a giant Excellent at the top in purple ink.

A smile crossed her face until she saw the next paper in the pile: Billy Chalmers. Something about that boy made her curly gray hair stand on end. She tried to like him, but it was difficult.

With furrowed brow she found Billy slumped in his desk chair. She sighed, knowing that his paper would be riddled with errors. She hated using all that red ink. No matter how many corrections she made, Billy made no improvement.

Mrs. Adams was not known to be kind. Her reputation was one of distributing cruel remarks and harsh with punishment toward those who offended her sensibilities. This was not a good quality in a second grade teacher. In fact, her personality worked in reverse: her students did not prosper and none of them developed a love of learning while in her classroom.

Students learned because they were terrified of the scathing words that signified Mrs. Adams’ displeasure.  She never smiled, never offered praise or compliments on work well done.  There was never any laughter in her classroom: students were to be seated quietly, at all times.

The only student who seemed to escape criticism was little Shelly. She was a bright, pleasant child, always clean and neatly dressed. Her mother was also the School Board President which was probably why Mrs. Adams never directed her wrath at the child.

Billy was not so lucky. His nose poured no matter the season. His clothes were torn and faded, his shoes had holes in the soles. His hair was greasy tangles that fell below his ears. Breath? Repulsive. There was nothing about Billy that motivated her to want to teach him. In fact, he repelled and disgusted her.

So when Mrs. Adams looked about the classroom and finding the student she sought, she commanded, “William Chalmers, come here immediately!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said as he shuffled to the front of the room.  As he stood next to his teacher’s desk, his downcast eyes begged for kindness..

“The answer to question number three is incorrect.  Go back and fix it,” Mrs. Adams rumbled.  She thrust Billy’s paper into his face, then without a word of encouragement waved him off and then returned to correcting the remaining tests.

Billy did not leave the side of her desk.  Despite his fear of angering her, Billy mumbled, “But I don’t know the answer.”

“What did you say, young man?”

“I don’t know the answer, Mrs. Adams.”

She stared at Billy as she put down the pile of tests and picked up her spanking ruler in one svelte move. His eyes widened as the ruler rose far over his head, then came down with lightning speed on his left shoulder, striking with so much force that Billy fell to the floor.

“Get up off that floor, Mr. Chalmers, and quit sniveling.” She watched as a tearful Billy pushed himself into a standing position, picked up his now wrinkled paper, and turned toward his desk.  “Do not approach this desk until you have completed the assignment.”

She did not see the tears coursing down his face, or the embarrassed flush to his cheeks.  Her focus had returned to the remaining tests, resuming her glower as she scanned each one.

By the time Billy was seated his tears of pain had turned to tears of anger. “I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams,” Billy mumbled over and over.  He could barely see the numbers on the paper through his tears, but he picked up his pencil and erased his previous calculations.  He reworked the problems, getting the same wrong answers.  So he did them again, and again, and again, checking the clock now and then hoping that the time to go home would soon arrive.

After the fifth attempt Billy was pretty sure he had the right answer, so he sheepishly walked to his teacher’s desk and handed her the paper.  She said not a word as she took the paper from his outstretched hand. Not expecting anything other than an insult, he simply returned to his desk and sat silently, like all his classmates.

“Students,” Mrs. Adams screeched, interrupting the strained silence.  “Please put away your pencils and books.”  In unison all desktops opened, materials were put away, and tops were gently closed.  “Stand.”  Mrs. Adams pushed her bulky body out of her chair, stood, and walked slowly down Billy’s row until she stood next to his desk.  “Give this note to your parents when you get home,” she barked as she handed Billy an envelope.

“Yes, Mrs. Adams,” Billy sniveled.

“Class dismissed.”

Billy streamed out of the room as his classmates joined the throngs pouring into the hall, and out the front door.  He walked the blocks home behind a couple of boys who lived on the same block.

When he got to his house, without saying goodbye, Billy walked in the door.  His dad was in the kitchen, cutting celery into tiny pieces.  He smiled when he saw his son.

“Hi, Billy.  Did you have a good day today?”

“No. Mrs. Adams doesn’t like me.”

“I’m sure Mrs. Adams likes all her students,” he said as he scraped the pieces into a bowl.

“Then why was I the only one she yelled at?”

As he added in cream of celery soup, his dad said, “Maybe she’s trying to help you learn.”

“If she wanted me to learn, she’d be nicer,” Billy said, brightening for the first time that day. “I liked First grade a lot.  I did real well because my teacher made things fun.”

“School isn’t supposed to be fun.”

“But if Mrs. Adams smiled it would be better.”

“That’s the way it is, Billy.  You don’t always get nice teachers.  Mrs. Adams is a good teacher.  Her students always get the best awards.”

“Oh,” Billy said as he handed his dad the envelope. “She sent this note home.  I think she wants you to call.” Billy stood nervously rubbing his left shoe on top of his right one while his dad opened the envelope.

Mr. Chalmers pulled out a folded piece of binder paper.  He looked it over carefully.  A huge smile lit his eyes as he said, “Congratulations!  You got an A+ on this Math test! You should hang this on the refrigerator for your mom to see when she gets home.”

Disbelievingly, Billy took the paper from his dad.  Written in purple ink at the top of the page was not only the grade, but also a huge happy face.  Billy held his paper as if it were made of fine china, pulled a magnet from off the refrigerator door, and pinned his paper in place.

He skipped outside to the back yard where he ran in circles screaming, “Yes!” as he pumped his fists into the air.

 

Learning Curve

She’d always heard that Catholic girls go wild when they enter college, but she didn’t believe it. That didn’t mean that Jessie wouldn’t wonder what would happen once her classes began in the fall. Would she adhere to the morals and values she’d had drilled into her head? Or would she date recklessly, use drugs and drink until sloppy drunk?

On her first day at Chabot College Jessie stepped on campus with her nerves a tingle. Everywhere she looked were couples walking hand-in-hand with serene looks on their faces, while others sat on benches, walls and lawns, with arms and legs entwined. A few leaned against trees with lips locked and bodies pressed firmly against one another.

Which would she be? A wanton hussy? A tender lover? A lonely spinster? All she knew and hoped was that someone, some nice young man would find her interesting. Years ago she had reconciled herself that, because she wasn’t pretty, not even comely, but a frumpy, old-lady-like ultra conservative spinster, she would be single for the rest of her life.

Jessie learned the names of her classmates. The easiest to know were the outspoken types who knew everything and wanted their voices to be the only ones heard. The most challenging were the silent, but giggly cheerleader-types with skinny bodies, lanky legs and long hair well past shoulders. There were some like Jessie, not many, with limp hair, blotchy complexions and puffy bodies, and they were the ones who always sat alone. She thought about joining them, but realized that even at her current age you were still defined by your friends. She was socially awkward, but didn’t want to hang out with her kind. She wanted to establish a new identity: that of a smart, datable woman.

Months passed. Despite using her mother-taught sewing skills she created more fashionable clothes, nothing changed in her social status. Day after day Jessie ate alone, walked alone, spent study hours alone in the library or in some quiet alcove. While her life was unaltered, that of her classmates changed. Pregnancies blossomed as winter neared. Were those the wanton hussies she’d heard about? Catholic girls gone wild?

Jessie wanted to feel what it was like to be held in a tight embrace, to be kissed tenderly, passionately, until her body responded in the way she’d read about in books. Maybe not to the point of losing her virginity, but it would be nice to come close.

Second semester a George Atwood sat next to her in Advanced Calculus. He was a good-looking guy, but not what you’d call handsome. Not built like a football player with broad shoulders, but more like a golfer. He smiled at her and said hi every class period.

One day he slipped her a note like kids did in high school. When Jessie opened hers she discovered a quiz which George must have copied from a magazine. He had listed a variety of activities and placed a box in front of each. She was supposed to check all those she liked and then return the note.

This was exciting! A man was interested in her!

Jessie checked off bowling, walking, reading, movies. She didn’t know what spelunking was and didn’t like going underwater, so diving and snorkeling were out. She didn’t want to swim because she was ashamed of her lumpy body. She did mark sports because she enjoyed playing soccer, baseball and had bowled for many years, and she loved watching almost any sport on television.

When George arrived the next day  Jessie slid the note to him, then waited to see his reaction. His face remained blank, his focus on the professor.

Jessie’s heart was broken before it ever had the chance to fall in love. She sat with downcast eyes, struggling to contain a fountain of tears. Sadness sat on her shoulders like a huge weight.

But after class, instead of rushing out like he usually did, George lingered. He smiled shyly as he rubbed one toe on the carpet. “Want to go on a date?”

Jessie smiled. “Yes.”

Without saying a word, George placed his hand on her back and led her outside the building. “Are you free Saturday?”

She nodded.

“What would you like to do? See a movie? Go bowling? Go for a ride? We could go to Garin Park and hike.”

“Garin Park would be nice,” she said. “I’ve never been there.”

“Great. Do you want me to pick you up or would you prefer to meet there?”

“I don’t have a car, so how about you pick me up? If you tell me what you like to eat, I’ll pack a picnic lunch.”

They exchanged information, then said goodbye. Jessie smiled all through the rest of the day. She smiled on the way home on the bus. But when she walked through the front door, her mother gave her a funny look and then the cross examination began.

“Why’s that smile on your face? What have you done?” her mother demanded.

“Nothing wrong,” Jessie said. “A nice guy asked me on a date. We’re going to Garin Park.” She wasn’t prepared for the snicker that erupted from her mother’s lips.

“You’ve got to be kidding. Any guy who dates you is only looking for one thing and you’d better not give it to him.”

Jessie’s cheeks burned. She knew what her mom was implying and there was no way she was doing that. She’d never been kissed, but she wasn’t so naïve as to not understand the implications of going further. “Nothing’s going to happen. It’s a picnic and a hike. That’s it.”

“I’d better meet him first,” her mother said.

“Don’t worry. He’s picking me up.”

The next two days Jessie worried about what to wear, what to fix for lunch, and what would happen when her parents met George. She’d seen movies where the parents were rude, embarrassing both the daughter and the date. She was sure her parents would be horrendous.

When Saturday arrived, she put on her best jeans and a royal blue Warriors sweatshirt. She brushed her shoulder-length hair a thousand times, convinced that when she was finished, it was smoother and shinier. Jessie fixed ham sandwiches with mayo, tomatoes, pickles, and a slice of Swiss cheese.  She put two cans of soda in a bag along with two chocolate chip cookies she’d made that morning.

Jessie stood by the window, hiding behind the sheer curtains that were supposed to keep prying eyes from spying inside. As the time grew nearer for George to arrive, beads of sweat popped out on her forehead. When ten o’clock arrived and he wasn’t there, Jessie sighed, believing she had been stood up. Just as she turned to go to her room and change into her sweats, a recently washed gray Hyundai Sonata parked in front of her house. George emerged with neatly combed hair, a Chabot College sweatshirt and clean black jeans.

He wasn’t handsome, but pleasant-looking. Jessie’s heart began beating rapidly and she found it hard to breath.

Just as George was reaching for the bell, Jessie opened the door with a smile on her face and then escorted him to the front room where her parent lay in wait. Neither responded to his polite greeting, instead they glowered as if he was evil incarnate.

“So,” her dad said, “why are you taking her on a date?”

George stammered a bit before responding, “Jessie’s nice and smart.”

“But she’s ugly,” her dad said as he shrugged his shoulders. “There’s only one thing a guy would want, and that’s not going to happen.  If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk out and never come back.”

George grabbed Jessie’s hand tightly in his own. “I don’t think of Jessie that way. She’s a friend, someone I’d like to get to know better.” With that, he led her out of the house and into the car. “Wow, that was intense.”

“I’m sorry. I was afraid he would act like that, but I hoped not.”

“Listen,” George said as he drove down Mission Boulevard, “if you’re uncomfortable being with me, we can call this off. I’ll take you back home.”

“No,” she said as she brushed her hand against his arm. “I want to be with you. Really, I do.” She folded her hands primly in her lap and stared at her fingers. “I mean, I should tell you that I’ve never dated before.”

His smile was so perfect, so beautiful that Jessie knew she had made the right choice. “It’s going to be alright,” he said as he paid the fee at the toll booth. “We’re going to have a great time. As friends. Right?’

All went well. They found an empty picnic table right away. George ate everything, even praising the cookies when Jessie said she’d made them. They talked, shared stories, and discussed Calculus problems, which was a bit weird as Jessie’d never talked about schoolwork with a guy before.

“Let’s go for a walk,” George said after they’d stowed the bag in the trunk. “There’s a nice trail that encircles the park. If we’re lucky, we’ll see deer.”

The trail encircled a little pond where dragonflies hovered, their wings gossamer pastel colors. They wound their way into the hills, talking about the blue sky dotted with cumulus clouds and the possibility of rain. About the flowers that in bloom, typical for California. The giant moths and even a herd of cows grazing near an apple orchard.

The further away from the parking lot they got, the fewer people they saw. The branches of trees formed a canopy overhead, cooling the warming air and silencing sounds of insects. When no more people were about, when there were no sounds of laughter, kids playing or conversation, George led Jessie deep into a copse of trees. He leaned against a sturdy trunk and he pulled her to his chest. “I really like you,” he said as he brushed his hand over her hair. “You’re smart and kind and thoughtful.”

“Thanks,” she said as she felt her cheeks turn crimson. “I like you too.”

His breath tickled her neck as he gently kissed her, over and over.

Jessie had never felt loved, not from her parents who had ridiculed her for her whole life, calling her ugly, dumb, stupid, idiot, and many other terms that she preferred not to think about.  There had never been a boyfriend who held her tight and whispered in her ear. Never even a pet cat or dog to cuddle with on long, lonely nights.

George was the first and his words filled her insides, making her feel light as air.

When his lips met hers, she kissed him back. His lips weren’t squishy, but firm. Not too firm. His breath hinted of chocolate chip cookies, a bit sweet but also bitter. His arms enfolded her waist, pulling her into his chest.

She responded in kind, not sure if she was doing it right, but when George intensified the pressure of his lips, Jessie began to question the safety of her situation, nestled in this hidden cove.

She pushed back, trying to put some distance between them, but George pulled her tight against him. He ran his right hand up under her shirt, rubbing her back in circles that at first were soft and enticing, but soon became firm and painful.

“Stop,” she said as she took a step backward. “I don’t like this.”

George increased his grip around her waist until she was smashed against him, barely able to breathe. His hand undid her bra and then moved to her chest.

“Stop. I don’t want this.”

“Yes, you do,” he said. “You must have dreamt about this. I’m going to be your first. You’ll love it.” He bent over and kissed her breasts. His tongue made her insides warm, but at the same time she was repulsed. When his hands went under the waistband of her jeans and began rubbing back and forth, back and forth, she tried again to disengage.

“Stop,” she yelled. Salty tears streamed down her cheeks and along the edges of their compressed lips. Her sobs escaped despite the increased pressure he applied as she planted her hands on his chest and pushed.

A sound from the trail caught his attention and his grip relaxed so that Jessie could step far enough away to pull down her sweatshirt and run toward the parking lot. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she cursed herself for being so stupid as to think he liked her, really liked her for who she was, not what he could take from her.

George followed, whistling a merry tune. No matter how fast Jessie ran, she could hear him. She knew he was there, probably smirking at her stupidity. Her foolishness.

When Jessie reached the parking lot, she realized her mistake: she had no way home. She had no money, so couldn’t call her parents. She wouldn’t do that anyway as it would reinforce their belief in how undesirable she was. How they had told her over and over that no many would marry her, that men would only want her body, not her as a wife.

She ran past George’s car and toward the ranger booth, hoping someone would be inside to rescue her. But it was empty.

Her only choice was to walk down the long hill, but it was a street with no sidewalks, no way to get out of the way of passing cars. She headed that way, hoping that one of the  fast-moving vehicles would sense her plight and stop. None did. In a way, Jessie was relieved because one of those drivers might be as dangerous, if not more so, than George.

His car pulled alongside her and through the open widow, he said, “Get in. I’ll take you home.”

Jessie stepped off the road, backing into a barbed-wire fence.

He got out of the car and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I knew you liked me,” he said  He kissed her, fondled her, all while ignoring her mumbled cries to stop.

“Is there a problem?” a deep voice asked.

“No,” George said as he pulled away.

“Yes,” Jessie cried when she saw the park ranger. “Please, help me.”

“Sir, let the lady go.” The ranger glowered as he pulled Jessie aside. “Get in your car and drive away.”

“She’s got no way to get home. I’m her ride, so let her go.”

The ranger looked at Jessie. “Do you want to go with him?”

Jessie shook her head no. “But I’ll need help getting home.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take care of that.”

Once George was long gone, the ranger led her back up the hill to the booth. He had her sit on a folding metal chair next to his desk. “Now,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

“No. I’m okay. A little shaken up, though.”

“Do you have money for a cab?”

She shook her head.

“Can someone pick you up?”

“My parents, but I don’t want them to know about this. Please, don’t call them.”

The ranger nodded as he picked up the phone and made a call. He had her stay inside the booth until the cab came. He handed the driver money, then wished Jessie a good rest of the day.

Jessie dreaded what was waiting for her at home. Her parents would laugh uproariously, making fun as they’d done as she was growing up. This time would be worse, though, because George has proven them right, that no man would want her except for her body.

“Well, what happened?” her mom asked when she came through the front door. “Why didn’t that guy bring you home? Who paid for the cab?”

“Nothing happened,” Jessie said as she headed to her bedroom, her mother trailing behind.

“You’re lying.”

Jessie turned on her mother, her face contorted with anger. “You always think the worst. You never see anything good about me. You don’t trust me to know right from wrong. In fact, I’ve never heard you say you love me.” She closed the door to block out her mother’s shouts.

Jessie knew she’d have to see George again since he was her table partner, so she dreaded returning to class on Monday. But when the professor began his lecture, no George had appeared. She sighed. It was over. No love, no boyfriend, nothing except her parents.

Saddened, but relieved, Jessie wrote down copious notes as she fought to keep tears from flooding her eyes. George was yet another example of her failure to find the love that she so desperately yearned for.

When the professor stopped to turn on the projector, Jessie looked about the room, hoping that no one had noticed her distress. Everyone in front of her sat facing forward. For that she was grateful. No one behind her looked her way. To her left pairs of students were conversing quietly.. To her right an average-looking young man winked at her, shrugged his shoulders and then turned away.

Jessie’s eyes couldn’t pull away from him. His hair stuck out in crazy angles. His t-shirt was faded and a bit loose. When the man looked at her a second time, she smiled.

He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across the table that separated them. It simply said, “Meet me after class.”

Jessie’s heart soared. Maybe this rumpled, faded guy with a sweet, crooked smile was the guy she’d been waiting her whole life for.

 

Elias’ Ride

After a summer of camping trips all around California, Utah, and Nevada, the stuff on the shelves in the storage shed out back looked more like leftovers at a thrift store.  Keefe Kegan, a born-again “neatnik,” decided to tackle the mess, but not wanting to do it himself, Keefe invited his wife Daira to participate in the fun event. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “Think of all the treasures we’ll find out there.”

“This is what I’m thinking,” Daira said as she stepped into the family room dressed in paint-stained jeans and a faded blue t-shirt.  “I’ll help, but only is you turn off the game.”

“After one more play.”

“Nope.” She grabbed the remote from his right hand.  “You’re the one who wanted to do the cleaning.  I agreed only because you promised I’d be free to go shopping when we finished.”  She turned off the television and opened the door to the back yard. “Come on. Times’ wasting.”

Keefe followed.  She looks good even in her worst clothes, he thought as his eyes drifted down his wife’s well-built body.

“Where should we begin?”  Daira’s eyes scanned the garage.  From rafters to the floor, detritus took up space.

“Top down.” Keefe set up the ladder.  He zipped up the rungs and opened the first box to inspect the contents.  “Winter boots, gloves, hats.”

“Leave it.”

“Photo albums.”

“Nope. Don’t want them.”

Keefe held one up. “This is our wedding book. Shouldn’t we keep it?”

“You can if you want.”

“Okay,” he said as he placed it back in the box. “How about baby clothes?  Why in the heck do we have them anyway?  We don’t have any kids.”

“Remember when we thought I was pregnant?  There was a baby shower.” Daira whispered.  “Give them away.”

Keefe scooted the box to one side. “Maybe you’ll get pregnant again. Better keep them.”

Daira wiped tears from her eyes. “Whatever.”

And so the day went. One box after another, one pile gone, another kept. Keefe parted with some camping gear that he hadn’t used in years, some old fishing poles of his dad’s, and a down jacket that no longer fit.  Daira got rid of clothes that were out of style, a carton of garish dishes her mother thought Daria might like, and some paintings that she started in her teen years, but never finished.

By late afternoon, they were filthy with dust, drenched in sweat and exhausted, but the garage was back to its pre-summer state.  They washed their hands in the garage sink.

“What should we do about dinner?” Keefe asked.

“I’ll get the phone while you figure out dinner,”  Daira said as the garage door creaked shut.

“Sure.”  Keefe brushed his dust-covered hands on his jeans and then his fingers through his hair, removing leaves and dirt that had fallen.

“It’s for you,” Daira handed him the phone as he entered the house.

“Who is it?”

“Elias.”

While Keefe talked to his friend, Daira searched through the freezer and pulled out some hamburgers and buns. Keefe would barbeque them later. Just as she began shucking an ear of corn, Keefe returned.

“Elias is starting a limo business. He’s out front with one he says is a good deal.  He wants us to check it out.”

“Is he looking for money?”

“Probably.  What do you think?”

“I’m dirty and tired,” she said as she leaned against the sink.  “You go.”

“Just a minute.”  Keefe’s forehead wrinkled as he listened to Elias. Daira heard blah, blah, blah, straight from a children’s cartoon.  “He says he values your opinion.  He doesn’t care what you look like.”

Daira learned long ago that Elias was as tenacious as a shark, so there was no point in arguing.  She took off toward the front door, wriggling her fingers in a “let’s go” sign at her husband.

As Keefe passed the computer desk, he dropped the phone in its cradle.

In front of the house sat a bright red stretch limo.  Elias stood beside an open door dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform.  Giggling like a little girl, Daira scooted into the dark interior.  After slapping his friend’s hand, Keefe did the same.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” Elias said.  “Check out the refrigerator.”

“The leather is so soft I could fall asleep and take a long nap.” Daira slid toward the front of the passenger space.

Keefe found a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator and held it up. “should we open it?”

“I guess. But don’t give any to Eias.”

After popping the cork and pouring champagne into two glasses, Keefe offered a toast. “To us.”

They tapped glasses and sipped simultaneously. “How much money does he want?” Daira asked.

“Don’t know. Darn, this stuff tastes good.”

As exhausted as they were, it didn’t take long for a buzz to set in.  Daira nestled close to her husband, finding that special spot in which her body fit nicely with his.  With Keefe’s arm draped over her shoulder, it wasn’t long before romantic notions trooped through her head.  “Have you ever done it in a limo?” she asked.

“Nope.  You?”

“No.  Can  Elias see through that glass?”

“Who cares,” Keefe said as he kissed his wife.

As the limo glided along a road that neither of them cared about, the kissing deepened and the temperature rose.  Clothing pieces fell off, hands groped, and lips swelled.  They were oblivious to anything but themselves, and so they failed to notice when the limo stopped.

“Slide over,” Elias’ cheerful voice sounded.

Daria pushed away and held her t-shirt across her chest.  Keefe, intent on the object of his desire hadn’t heard his friend. He thought she was playing a game, and so tore the shirt from her hands and flung it to the far end of the limo.

“Idiot!” Daira hissed.  “Go get it.”

“Why?”  Keefe gazed into her eyes.  Shocked by the glare coming his way, he leaned back.  Only then did he hear the muffled sounds of movement, “What’s happening?”

“Surprise!”  A chorus rang out.  Now seated around them were their best friends:  Josh and his wife Nancy, Pete and Marisol, Kimi and her partner Spirit, and Elias’s wife Helene.

“Happy anniversary,” Elias said.  “It’s a come-as-you-are party.  I just didn’t realize that you two would be the entertainment.”

“What are you talking about?”  Keefe said as he zipped his jeans.  “Our anniversary was six months ago.”

“I know, I know,” Elias said.  “The thing is, back then I couldn’t figure out a way to make it special.  Ten years together is worth celebrating.  When I got a chance to take the limo for a test drive, I got this great idea and called out friends.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Daria’s eyes traveled from one friend’s face to another.

“I know you hate people making a fuss, Daria.  Once we decided to have a party, we all swore to keep it a secret,” Elias said.  “When Keefe told me you were cleaning the garage, I called everyone and told them to wear jeans. If you notice, none of us are dressed up, except for me, but I’m the chauffeur.   See?”

 

It was hard to stay angry as Elias.  Daria smiled, as did Keefe.  “You could at least have warned us before you opened the door,” Keefe said.  “That was hecka embarrassing.”

“I called over the intercom, but you two were way too busy back here to notice,” Elias said.  “Now it’s time to party!  Champagne, everyone!”

Keefe opened the refrigerator, and took out another bottle of bubbly. He opened it and poured glasses for everyone.  Toasts were offered and laughter filled the limo. Elias dropped a CD into the stereo and soft music floated in the air.

Elias’ wife unwrapped a basket filled with cheese, crackers, and salami.   Deviled eggs appeared, as did lumpia, veggies and dip, and shrimp cocktail.  There was even a pre-sliced cake with tiny candles.

Stories of embarrassing moments were shared, with one friend attempting to outdo another.  Laughter filled the crowded limo.

As dawn broke, Keefe offered one last toast.  “To my wife, to my friends, and to Elias, for his bizarre party idea.  This has been one terrific evening!”  After clinking his glass with his wife’s, he bent over and said, “To my come-as-you- are wife.  I’ll love you forever.”

 

 

 

Redemption

Once again there was no Christmas to celebrate with family: Sarah had outlived all of her relatives. That’s the problem with getting old. Everyone she knew had disappeared, leaving her all alone. Part of Sarah’s problem, however, wasn’t that she was considered ancient, but that she had never married, never had children, and because of choices her parents had made when she was young, had no idea if she had any cousins, aunts or uncles.

Last year in mid-summer, a pretty young woman dressed in a yellow-flowered shift knocked on her door claiming to be a niece. Sarah thought there was some resemblance to her mother, the shape of the woman’s chin, the color of her hair, and so she’d let her in. The woman, named Vickie, visited a couple of times, always polite and always refusing a cool beverage or a sweet treat. On the fourth visit, Vickie entered in tears and proceeded to share a sad story about being broke, being stranded in an unfamiliar city, and being desperately in need of money. Vickie never asked outright for money, but it was certainly implied. No dollar amount was specified, but Sarah’s guess what that it was in the thousands.

Sarah was smart enough to know it was a scam, so after the hints became more of demands, the woman scuttled out as Sarah called the cops. Several days later the newspaper carried a story in which the woman was killed in the nearby park during a scuffle, possibly over drugs. While she hated reading about the Vickie’s death, Sarah breathed a sigh of satisfaction that she hadn’t fallen for the “poor is me” story and handed out wads of cash. Or invited her to move in.

There were friends at the senior center that Sarah enjoyed seeing. People she ate lunch with nearly every day or that she’d talk with over a cup of coffee and day-old snacks that a volunteer brought in. She’d invited one woman, Sandy, to join her for lunch and a movie, but Sandy declined and never reciprocated.

Because no visitors would walk through her doors, Sarah hadn’t bothered to put out what few decorations she still had. The artificial tree, kept in the basement, hadn’t seen an ornament in years. The tree wasn’t too heavy for her, but because of its shape, it was awkward to lug up the narrow stairs while clinging to the handrail.

To bring up the tree first she’d have to rearrange the furniture. Sarah used to set the tree up in the front window, the one that overlooked the street, so that when the lights were on, everyone could enjoy the beautiful sparkles. Sometimes neighbors would comment about how cheery it looked, but these days Sarah wasn’t cheery.

The other issue was that she didn’t know if any of the light strings worked. That would be another hassle. Carry them up, plug them in, replace burnt out bulbs, repeat over and over. If she didn’t have enough replacements it would mean a trip to the store and facing endless questions about if she was going somewhere or having folks over. It she had said that she was celebrating alone, then there’d be sighs and condolences. But no invitations.

She owned a ton of Christmas CDs, but she didn’t play any of them partly because they were buried behind stacks of more recent purchases and partly because it was too much effort when she could hear all the music she wanted, and more, on the little radio she kept by her chair.

Years ago she’d bought a fancy receiver, multi-CD player and desktop speakers.  The last time she’d turned it on all she got was screeching noises. She’d tried everything she knew to get it to work, but gave up. Probably new speakers were needed, but at her age, why bother?

There was a time when she would have enjoyed the challenge of fixing things, but not now. She lacked the strength and agility to bend, pull, push and connect. Therefor things remained broken if unessential. Otherwise she hired someone. Because she’d lived without the stereo for years, that would be an unnecessary expense.

Sarah had every right to be gloomy despite the cheery Christmas music and the colorful displays in every store, but she tried not to let loneliness drag her down. The sun was shining this fine Christmas Eve, and since it was relatively warm for the San Francisco Bay Area, she put on a jacket and headed out for her daily walk around her neighborhood. This was a ritual she loved so much that she timed it so that dusk was just beginning to fall as she closed the door behind her. She wanted it to be not too dark for kids to still be outside and just dark enough for the colorful lights to come on as she walked. And since it was nearly Christmas, almost every house would be lit up.

Today she headed north toward the park at the end of the block. A pair of young boys rode bikes past her, their high-pitched voices shrieking with excitement. Sarah bet they were dreaming of all the wonderful gifts they’d open the next day. She smiled even though there were no presents for her. Hadn’t been for years.

When she was in her twenties she’d fallen for George Miles, a not-so-handsome teacher at the high school where she worked. His neatly combed black hair, his crisply ironed button-down shirts and his funny way with words warmed her heart. Sarah sat near him every day at lunch so she could laugh at his not-quite-funny jokes and enjoy his riffs of contemporary music. She kept a dreamy look off her face so as not to scare him away and never, ever stared at his face even though the cleft in his chin tickled her pink. If word had gotten out that she fancies George, she would have been the laughingstock of the campus. Handsome George would never have fallen for plain Sarah. And then the most severe deterrent was that it was unseemly for a teacher to flirt with a peer.

For years she’d dreamed of the dates they’d go on, the kisses and the proposal after a fancy dinner, followed by a summer wedding in a lush backyard garden. Never once, however, had he asked how she was doing or engaged her in conversation or said good morning or dropped into her classroom to share curriculum even though they often taught the same level of math.

One August about fifty years ago, when school resumed, George did not appear. Sarah learned from the gossipers that he’d transferred to Fremont High School where his salary would be substantially higher. Her dreams crushed, Sarah swore there would never be a workplace romance, no marriage, no children and resigned herself to a life lived alone.

Other teachers teased her about her single status and one tried to set her up with a new hire, an odd-looking fellow with such a heavy accent that he was hard to understand. Sarah declined, but that didn’t stop further attempts at coordinating blind dates. After a while even those dried up.

At the park Sarah set on the one bench that wasn’t covered in bird poop and watched four little kids climb up and slide down, over and over, laughing and giggling as watchful parents stood guard. She imagined herself as a mother and how she’d walk hand-in-hand with her child everywhere they went, the snuggles on the couch while she read book after book and nighttime treats of vanilla ice cream and macaroon cookies. It saddened her that she’d never held her own newborn, never know the joys of motherhood, but what’s done is done. No going back now. Not at her age.

The kids were rounded up as the sun set lower. The parents dutifully buckled them up in car seats before pulling away from the curb. Sarah fought back tears that inevitably fell after such events.

She resumed her walk, this time one block over where there were a series of blowup decorations. Her favorites were Snoopy and the Grinch. Whenever she passed a Nativity scene she stopped for a minute to thank God for the blessings in her life. That left her feeling buoyantly proud of how well she’d managed despite being alone. A paid-off house, car, and an ability to live on her retirement.

Felling a bit chilled after the walk, Sarah brewed a cup of Chamomile tea as her microwaved dinner cooked. She turned on the evening news and listened, in horror, about shootings and stabbings and thefts all around the Bay Area. It was depressing how violent the world had become. She didn’t recall things being so bad before.

After eating she cleaned up a bit, wiping down kitchen counters and washing her fork and cup. She settled into her recliner and pulled the new sherpa-lined throw she’d ordered from JC Penneys that had come the day before. Just as her body warmed, an unfamiliar noise arose that drove Sarah to her front window from where she could see all the goings-on in her courtyard.

Outside stood a group of carolers, young and old, smiling despite the steam pouring from their open mouths. Their sound was beautiful even though a few loud voices sang off-tune. Sarah opened the door, saying, “Oh, my, how beautiful. Would you like to come in?”

Once inside with caps removed, she recognized her neighbors. “Oh! Thanks for coming. I’d offer you seats, but as you can see, well, I’m sorry, but I can’t seat you all.”

“No matter,” the youngest little boy said, “we’ll sit on the floor.”

There were four children spoke who quietly among themselves while the adults, in singles and pairs, approached with gifts. Ms. Bern offered a tin of homemade shortbread cookies, Mr. and Mrs. Smith a foil-wrapped plate of lasagna and the Mendoza clan of six gave her tamales and enchiladas. “We wanted you to have a special Christmas,” Mrs. Mendoza said, “so we made our favorite holiday foods to share.”

Sarah beamed. “This-this is wonderful. I don’t know what to say.”

“Just enjoy,” Mr. Bern said. “Now, we’d like to sing for you.”

Song after song rang out in her normally quiet house. For the first time in a long time, Christmas joy spread enlightened her. Sarah felt so buoyant that she feared her feet no longer touched the floor.

It was over way too soon, but the carolers had others they wanted to bless. As they left, Sarah shook hand after hand, saying, “Thank you so much.”

The last to leave, the Smiths, folded her into a group hug as Mrs. Smith said, “You’re invited to Christmas dinner. We’ll have snacks around four, so come then. You don’t have to dress up as we’ll be wearing jeans.”

That night Sarah couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t shared Christmas joy with another soul in over thirty years, after her parents died in a horrific car accident. To be with the Smiths was a chance to laugh and enjoy good food. The Smiths were a happy family of four, so there’d be plenty of stories told and friendly teasing and tons of joy to go around.

Even though she wasn’t supposed to bring anything, the next morning Sarah searched through cookbooks to find something simple, yet tasty to make. She settled on a cheese log that was once a big hit at potlucks.

Prior to leaving, Sarah tried on a variety of outfits: light blue jeans with sweaters, dark jeans with tunics, black jeans with blouses. Eventually she settled on blue jeans with a dark green sweater. A Christmassy look, but not too formal.

At precisely three-fifty-five Sarah slipped on her jacket and strolled down the street, cheese log wrapped and balanced in her hands. Before she could ring the bell, however, the door opened, a smiling Mrs. Smith welcoming her with a smile and hug. “Come in, come in. It’s freezing out there.”

She led Sarah into the front room, indicating a chair before a fire in the gas fireplace. “Would you like something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Hot coco? Soda?”

“Tea would be nice. Do you have Earl Gray?”

With Mrs. Smith off to the kitchen, Sarah looked around. A beautifully decorated artificial tree stood in the front window, all reds and silvers. Underneath were opened gifts, mostly books and board games and bits of clothing. On every flat surface was a symbol of Christmas: santas, nativity sets, angels and snowmen. Cinnamon filled the air, reminding Sarah of the freshly baked cookies her mother made when she was a little girl.

The front door opened and in rushed two boys followed by Mr. Smith. The three tossed boots and coats in the entryway, then the kids disappeared down the hall. “Well, hello,” Mr. Smith said as he stood with his back to the fire. “I’m glad you came. Christmas is a time to gather together. We just couldn’t bear the thought of you being alone.”

“I don’t mind,” Sarah said. “I’ve been alone most of my life.”

“Well, it’s time to establish new traditions.”

Mrs. Smith entered with a tray of tea cups, hot water and a variety of what most likely were homemade cookies and brownies. “Help yourself,” she said, then turning to her husband, said, “turn on some music please.”

The kids appeared when the music began. Everyone sang along, even Sarah, who hadn’t sung outside of church since her teen years. It was great fun.

“Dinner is ready. Time to eat,” Mrs. Smith said as she led the way into the dining room.

Sarah sat next to Mr. Smith who turned out to be a lively conversationalist. He was well versed in politics, sports, literature and local affairs. The kids entertained by sharing jokes that weren’t quite funny but that everyone thought hilarious anyway, so Sarah laughed with them. Mrs. Smith was also a joy, because she shared stories of her students’ sillinesses.

The evening passed quickly. Around seven Mr. Smith offered to walk her home. He helped her with her coat after ordering the kids to say goodbye. Mrs. Smith hugged Sarah so tightly that it was difficult to breathe, but Sarah didn’t mind at all.

“Did you have a nice evening?” Mr. Smith asked when they arrived at Sarah’s door.

“Yes, yes I did. In fact, it’s the best Christmas I’ve ever had. Thanks for inviting me.”

After hanging up her coat, Sarah turned on her television just in time to catch a Christmas movie. It was one of those with a predictable storyline: woman meets man, they don’t like each other, they talk, they fight, they fall in love and live happily ever after.

Sarah didn’t mind one bit. She’d just experienced her own storybook evening. This will be a Christmas to remember, she thought.