Ghosted!

Samantha was used to being ghosted. Ever since high school, when Facebook was still in its infancy and social media as a whole was still a toddler. She was now 32 and had been ghosted on just about every social media platform. Not to mention every real-life stage.

At least her dark sense of humor remained intact (though most replied to this statement in pity), “I could take you on a ghost tour,” she would often to say, “Of all the men who ghosted me.”

She took comfort in the silver lining that she still had a lot of “good” years left, but based on her track record, it probably just meant many more years of rejection and heartbreak. Yet, she somehow still remained a hopeless romantic. She was simply wired that way.

Samantha was always open to new experiences and just when she thought she had tried them all, something new would come along. But nothing could prepare her for her next tryst – for lack of a better word.

Of course, it came when she had least expected it. She wasn’t even looking for anyone at all. In fact, she had just recently got rid of all of her dating apps – not just deactivated them, but deleted them completely, so that it would require a major effort to start over, which in turn would make it less tempting to get on the social media saddle.  

She was flat out tired of the “wild goose chase” (a phrase she always pointed out to her freshman English students was invented by Shakespeare) of dating life – the false leads, the bad dates, and even the good dates that mean recycling the same conversations over and over again. It was so fucking time-consuming and tiresome. She had seen so many dick pics, to the point that she couldn’t stomach the idea of ever seeing a real dick again, no matter how horny she was (though she did recently spend $100 on new sex toys – none of which resembled dicks).  For one fleeting moment, she considered pursuing a same sex partner. It was really the only frontier on the sexual front yet to explore.

She was determined to re-focus her energy on her work and re-connecting with old friends she hadn’t seen in awhile – while she was too busy chasing geese.

Part of her believed that taking a break would open up the possibility of finding the man of her dreams when she least expected it.

What Samantha wasn’t expecting to do during this time was having to move. She had been living comfortably in a rental home for the past five years. Though it was always meant to be temporary, she had never felt more at home and had planned on staying put for as long as she was allowed to. She also knew she could never beat the price. But the owners informed her that they were moving back from out of state and that she would have to move out. Of course, she didn’t bother asking if she could continue living there (though, she was certainly tempted – she spent most of her time in the guest room any way, where there was a better view with better lighting).

She had one week to move out. Did two weeks-notice even apply to housing? The owners made it clear they were in a bind, so she didn’t feel like she had much wiggle room.

And just like, that was not only desperately single, but desperately homeless.

She began searching for a new place immediately, but the pickings were slim. The silver lining was that she wouldn’t have to mull over options. She thought about moving back in with her parents, but it would have felt too much like an act of regression. She finally settled on a dwelling on the edge of town. It wasn’t nearly as nice as her previous place, but the price was comparable and she couldn’t afford much more than that. It also had just the right amount of seclusion that she desperately needed.

            The move went surprisingly smooth. She didn’t have a bunch of extra stuff, which helped tremendously. Being a recovered pack rat finally paid dividends.

As soon as the movers left, the first thing she did was order a pizza. She had a feeling it would be going to bed. When she finally did, she noticed a few odd noises that one would hear in any new dwelling, but didn’t think much of them and quickly fell asleep. She never woke up once.

 The next night, she woke up to what she thought was a loud moan, but chalked it up to a dream. She had trouble falling back asleep. She heard the same noises as the night before, but they seemed louder. Eventually, she drifted back to sleep.

The third night, she heard the moan again. Though she wasn’t certain, it sounded more like pleasure, than pain. But neither one was welcome.

The fourth night, she felt what she could only describe as a presence. She didn’t see anything, but certainly felt something. And was beginning to truly wonder if her new abode was haunted.

She tied to set aside thoughts that the house was perhaps buried on an old Indian burial ground, chalking up all of her paranoia to all the horror films she watched over the years, despite never liking horror films.

By the fourth night, she was having sex with a ghost.

Or, at least, she dreamt it. Though, it was so fucking amazing, she hoped either she would have the dream again, or the same ghostly encounter. Though, the ghost concept seemed much more fascinating to her.

She still didn’t see anything, but heard the same moan she had heard the night before at the same moment she came.

And the next night, it happened again. And she was certain it wasn’t a dream this time. Because unlike the first time, she wasn’t asleep when it began. This time, she was wide awake when the presence came to her – in her. There was no question this was a very well-endowed ghost dick. Or, at the very least, brandished a well-endowed dildo.

And to be clear, it was fully consensual because she wanted it (though she did wonder, if she refused, would the spirit abide? She hoped she would never have to find out). It felt too fucking good to pass up. And it wasn’t like she was having much luck in the physical world.

Instead of a single, powerful orgasm she had the night before, this time, she had three, powerful orgasms, accompanied by a simultaneous, ghostly moan in perfect harmonization with her . At least that mystery was solved now.

The next night, she awaited eagerly for her ghost lover, even slipping into her sexiest lingerie. But he never came. And by default, neither did she.

She gave him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was taking a night off? Some much needed me time? Had other plans? They never established any boundaries such as seeing other people, or – in this instance not seeing.

Mr. Ghost Lover didn’t show up the next night, either. No noises. No moans.

Nothing.

In fact, he never showed up ever again.

Samantha never got the chance to know what he looked like, what its name was, when and how it died, and – most importantly – a why it chose her.

And then it dawned on her.

She was ghosted once again.

By a fucking ghost.

Some things never change.

Especially when it comes to dating.

Specifically men.

Dead or alive.

Amnesty Day

“Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
But will you keep on building higher
‘Til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?

I know we’ve come a long way
We’re changing day to day
But tell me, where do the children play?”

-Cat Stevens

Tragedies either bring couples closer together, or they can drive them apart. Rarely is there a middle ground. Following a miscarriage, Ava and Steve found themselves in the latter category. Things weren’t exactly going great before the pregnancy, the arrival of which had taken them both by surprise. After all, they tried the fertility treatment route for two full years (not to mention most of their savings) in an effort to bring new life into this world. It brought no shortage of strain to their relationship. There were times when both thought about ending things and starting fresh, but usually one would talk the other out of it, or at least do something that would persuade the other that they could make it work. They both had a growing sense that it was only a matter of time before someone pulled the plug. But then lo and behold, she was pregnant. And just like that, their relationship was given the fresh start the were hoping for. Their united front became stronger than ever.

But six months into the pregnancy, they lost it.

Their little boy.

Stephen III.

They would rather have never have gotten pregnant at all, then to do so, only to have it taken away. Both fell into a lingering depression that manifested itself in disparate ways, further deepening the divide between them. And in their own individual suffering, they drifted further apart than they ever had before any point in their relationship. Though neither one said it out loud, going separate ways felt like the only option left at this point.

The summer passed, giving way to fall. And the thought of facing another long Michigan winter seemed suffocating. Any semblance of a happy relationship at this point was usually a temporary mirage A faint echo of what used to be. Like a ghostly visit from the past. Though they both wanted to grab on to these moments and never let go, they were elusive. Like a phantom fading away into the night.

On a perfect mid-October Saturday afternoon, in what was perhaps a last-ditch effort to save their marriage, Steve proposed that they return to the town where they had their first date – the affluent, sleepy town of Yarmouth on the outskirts of metro Detroit. Though they could never afford to live there, they would visit there frequently, though not since before the tragedy. In fact, the last time they had been there was to celebrate their pregnancy.   

Yarmouth was the perfect autumn town in the perfect autumn state – a last hurrah before winter stored in like a lion, destroying everything in its wake. The cloudless blue sky was punctuated by the red, yellow, and orange leaves still on the trees, showing off the height of their beauty before turning to rot.

After an early dinner downtown at their favorite restaurant, they proceeded to take a stroll into the park smack dab in the middle of downtown, holding hands like the old days. In fact, they couldn’t remember the last time they held hands. It felt like putting on an old pair of comfortable slippers that you forgot you had.

They grabbed a coffee, then ventured into a nearby neighborhood. The Victorian-era homes were decorated with an abundance of Halloween dec0rations, which came as no surprise. Yarmouth was a very kid-centric town. If one were to take an educated guess, at least one child resided in every two out three homes.

Ava and Steve both lived for Halloween. In fact, it was one of the things about parenthood they were most looking forward to. But with or without a child, they would always love Halloween. Nothing could take that away from them. Though, it did cross that mind that maybe this town wasn’t the best place to be – surrounded by children – reminders of what they didn’t have. A neighborhood where everybody had it all. It was difficult to fathom that miscarriages could exist in a place like this.

            Something rather peculiar immediately caught their eye. Enormous piles of “trash” along the curbside of just about every house – mostly big items that weren’t typically picked up by sanitation services. They assumed it must be the city’s amnesty day, where anything that normally wouldn’t be taken away by trash collectors would be. But that wasn’t what struck them as most odd: most of the items left behind on the curb were children’s stuff: cribs, beds, tables, toy boxes, swingsets, bikes, scooters, clothing, potties, sandboxes, etc. At least two out of three houses had kids’ stuff at the curb.

            “Why is there so much kid stuff?” she asked.

A perfectly rational question.

Furthermore, why did so much of it look so new and not trash-worthy? Steve couldn’t help but think about the classic, hauntingly succint Hemingway story:

            “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Sure, these were people with disposable income. Throwing away perfectly good stuff wasn’t that unusual in communities such as thesel. But why not donate it? And why was there so damn much? For block after block?

Ava pointed out another rational oddity. Where were all the children? It was a perfect, 65-degree autumn Saturday. The Wolverines had a bye week. Swingsets (the ones not left at the curb) stood silent. And where were the adults for that matter? Perhaps if they saw one, they would definitely ask some questions.           

Where were the children?!

Upon further inspection, the curtains and shades appeared to be drawn in every window of every house. Though it had just turned to dusk, not a single light was on – interior or exterior.

They both had a sudden urge to head back home. They were getting an awful vibe and they had seen enough.

As they headed back to their car, they noticed several ramshackle trucks pillaging items from the curb. Christmas had come!

One man’s trash…

When they got home, they both retreated into their own separate corners of the house. Though they couldn’t quite put their finger on it, there was something about their experience that just didn’t sit well with them. They just wanted the day to end.

Halloween arrived and, on a whim, they drove back to Yarmouth. Not a single kid could be seen trick-or-treating. Nor, was there a single porchlight on.

Over a relatively short period of time, the town of Yarmouth went through a tremendous transformation, in the form of an unexplained mass exodus. Schools shut down in what used to be one of the top districts in the state. Those that stayed behind let their homes fall into disrepair, as did new resident who moved in by taking advantage of plummeting property values. Many homes remained uninhabited. Eventually, it became a modern-day ghost town.

Ava and Steve never did find out what happened to the children. Urban legends soon emerged, but nothing that could be substantiated with fact. And before long, the original inhabitants had all vanished without a trace.

Soon after, Ava and Steve went their separate ways, where they would remain childless for the rest of their days.

But they would always love Halloween.

Nine Lives

(excerpted from Awaiting Identification, Fish Out of Water Books)

Cat Man turned to his favorite passage in the Bible and readied himself to face his congregation, huddled inside a tattered, makeshift tent.

He was dressed in everything he owned: a green, threadbare military jacket, gray sweatpants and Velcro-strapped black shoes, topped off with a knit cap that had more holes than fabric.

His loyal parishioners—a dozen or so cats—listened intently as their caretaker, their human Lord and savior, began to read:

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

As he finished the passage, he broke into an uncontrollable cough—a worsening of the untreated asthma that had plagued him since childhood. The smoke in the air certainly didn’t help.

But nothing could stop him from his daily devotion.

He used to go to a church on a regular basis, and, as far as he could remember, he had never missed a Sunday service.

Until it burned down.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  

Rather than seeking out a new sanctuary, an old, tattered Bible that he found in a shelter became his church. It was his most cherished possession. He never felt closer to God. Cat Man had come to realize that the less one has, the more one has God; the more one has, the less one needs God.

Cat Man gently closed his book and set it down adjacent to a pile of neatly arranged remnants that he had found on the streets of Detroit. He took great care in collecting and carefully curating other peoples’ castoffs. He scooped up the latest addition to his family—a scruffy, malnourished kitten that he brought back from the dead—and placed it into the front pocket of his jacket. He emerged from his homemade tent, a living, breathing piece of performance art in the epicenter of the Heidelberg Project. Despite its deceptive name, the Heidelberg Project was not a low-income housing project. It was an urban art project designed to inject new life into a no man’s land on the east side of the city.

The entire neighborhood was the canvas. Abandoned houses were adorned with colorful polka dots. The empty spaces where houses once stood now showcased displays of mannequins, old phone booths, and discarded stuffed animals—all strategically placed for a specific purpose.

A Salvador Dali junkyard.

Though considered art by many, city officials saw it as an eyesore drawing unwelcome attention, despite the irony that the whole purpose of the Project was to put a man-made bright spot on man-made blight. Despite recent efforts to erase it from existence, the Project continued to subsist through multiple arson attempts and city-sanctioned razes. In fact, a significant portion of it had been razed by city bulldozers just months earlier. But it refused to back down, standing its ground. It embodied the city’s spirit like nothing else.

And Cat Man was its beating heart.

Armed with his newfound comrade, Cat Man was ready to take the town by storm. He was imbued with a great sense of optimism and had a feeling that there was something extra special about this day, although he did not know why. He knew that he could no longer rely on specific, long-term memory. He simply relied on feeling.

He grabbed his rusty shopping cart and went on his merry way, with a slight, but determined limp. He whistled improvised jazz—he couldn’t remember any of the melodies to actual songs—accompanied by an unwelcome percussion in the form of the stubborn cough that often transformed into violent fits.

Despite his limitations and circumstances, Cat Man always remained upbeat. He feared nothing. Not even death—although lately he found himself thinking about death more frequently. Not in a doom and gloom sense, but with the hopeful paradise of an afterlife. Though he was in no rush to get there, he certainly didn’t dread it.

Most of the time, he focused on the present. And he embraced it. It was the only thing he had any control over. His past was as unclear as his future.

The whole night lay in front of him. This meant the possibility of new friends. In Cat Man’s mind, friendship was life’s greatest nourishment—at times, even more so than a warm meal, though he certainly desired one of those, too. Friendship was better than any substance on earth. Then again, as far as substances were concerned, he had never experienced a single sip of alcohol in his entire life. He had been taught at an early age that drugs and alcohol ruined lives.

Cat Man made his way down the surreal, candy-colored confines of Heidelberg Street and headed to an equally desolate Gratiot, toward downtown.

Steam rose from the sewer caps and open manholes down the empty street, like ghosts, surrounded by nothing but abandoned homes and desolate, empty, litter-strewn lots.

Though there was no shortage of trash in the city, Cat Man didn’t let a single piece slip by. He simply tossed it into his shopping cart.

Everything has a purpose.

Every last bit of trash.

Every last, unwanted kitten.

And certainly every single human being.

He was overcome with a sense of pride with each collected piece, like rare jewels plucked from the earth. He received no greater satisfaction than doing the right thing, which he had thrived on and strived for his entire life. He made it his mission to clean up the city he loved so much.

While so many saw the city as a dumping ground, Cat Man saw hidden opportunity. Where some saw danger lurking around every corner, Cat Man saw only hope. Sometimes, hope was only a block away. Sometimes, he had to search all across town. No matter what, he never stopped looking and marveled over the fact that no piece of trash was exactly the same.

Like snowflakes.

Of course, most people wouldn’t even notice a random piece of trash to begin with. Or, they would simply choose to ignore it. Cat Man didn’t just look on the surface of his accumulated treasures. He studied each piece from the inside out, mining it for its full potential. Take, for instance, a candy wrapper. Cat Man loved to examine its unique imprint of chocolate, dust, and dirt. He would then somehow found a way to turn his finding into art – lil’ trash sculptures that he would give away to those he saw fit, never asking for a single cent.

Though he found beauty in it, he would trade finding trash for a world without trash any day.  

Being homeless certainly didn’t make Cat Man’s life any easier. Not that he ever regarded himself as homeless. He regarded himself as an urban nomad and took great pride in the city he called home. When he picked up after others, he felt both a sense of duty and fulfillment and was hopeful that one day, others would follow suit.

Fueled with hope for what the rest of the night had to offer, Cat Man made his way through the streets, gathering trash and occasionally passing a fellow human being.  Most, however, did not view him as such. Cat Man smiled at everyone he passed, but was mostly ignored. To the general passerby, he was no more relevant than one of his collected pieces of trash. Even his fellow urban nomads ignored him.

But he knew he was better than that. And that’s all that mattered.

As he crossed at an intersection, a beat-up van booming with bass whipped around the corner, narrowly missing him.

He coughed uncontrollably, then continued on his merry way, pushing his cart.

The driver slammed on the gas, disappearing from view like a bat out of hell.

Cat Man recovered, then trudged onward, walking alongside some abandoned train tracks, which always provided him a sense of comfort and security.  

With the sun slipping into night, Cat Man continued to search in vain for human life. As he pushed his cart down one deserted block after another, he couldn’t help but feel as though he were the last man on earth.

But then, finally, signs of life! A young couple with a toddler, approaching a previously abandoned warehouse that had recently been renovated into residential lofts.

Prior to the renovation, the building had been one of Cat Man’s primary shelters. Though the memory had long slipped from his mind, the place felt familiar to him. And he felt drawn toward it.

Cat Man’s eyes lit up at the prospect of making some new friends.

He parked his cart alongside the brick building and entered the lobby, where he spotted the family waiting for an elevator. He could sense their nervousness, but he also knew that anything he tried to do about it would only make it worse. He watched the woman whisper something into the man’s ear. They then both looked away, but the little girl continued to stare at the stranger standing before them. Cat Man seized the opportunity.

“How you doin’ tonight?”

The couple ignored him as they stared straight ahead at the elevator.

“How you doin’ tonight?” Cat Man asked again, assuming they somehow didn’t hear him the first time. They continued to ignore him.

Finally, the elevator doors screeched open and the couple scurried in. Cat Man ran toward them, but the doors bounced off of his body and reopened, before closing again. Somehow, he managed to squeeze himself in. The couple retreated kitty corner from Cat Man, shielding their daughter from him.

“Floor?” Cat Man asked.

“Four, please,” the man said.

Cat Man beamed with pride and pushed four.

“Where you goin’?” “Up,” the man said, as the elevator started clinking and clunking its way to its destination.

“No, I mean, where you going after you go up?” The couple ignored him.

“Do you live here?” The man shakes his head.

“Just ignore him,” the woman whispered—but still audible enough for Cat Man to hear.

“You mean you’re riding the elevator, but you don’t live here?” Though the couple ignored him, the little girl continued to stare with fascination.

“You are so lucky to have parents to keep you safe, young lady. I’m so glad you’re safe. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!”

The parents pulled their daughter closer into their orbit.

“Your parents best always keep you safe, you hear?” They nodded, but it was clear they were very much concerned about their safety. Cat Man continued, building into a feverish pitch.

“You keep that little girl safe! Lord Almighty, please keep this little one safe!”

Cat Man realized that he was probably making them feel uncomfortable, but he knew just the trick to diffuse the nervous tension. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his kitten.

“Hey! You like cats?” he asked, holding out his kitten for them to see. The couple showed no emotion, while their daughter’s eyes lit up with glee. The kitten let out a tiny “mew.”

“You can stroke her if you’d like,” Cat Man said. “She won’t bite.” Cat Man extended the kitten closer toward them, until it was just inches from their faces. They flinched, but he insisted.

How could they ignore such cuteness?

The little girl stepped forward and reached to pet it, but her mother quickly pulled her arm away.

“Honey, no. Don’t touch.”

The elevator doors opened and the family dashed off down the hallway.

Cat Man tucked his kitten back into his pocket, disheartened that yet another friendship opportunity had reached such an abrupt end. He considered following them, but their message was clear.

He wasn’t wanted.

He was now so used to rejections, they bounced off him like rubber bullets. But, still, each one hurt a little more than the previous.      

The elevator closed and Cat Man headed back down. By the time he reached the ground floor, he remembered that the night was still young. As he headed out of the building, he spotted assorted trash and rat droppings. He wished he had a broom so he could sweep it all away, but he knew that he would be trespassing. He gathered a few random pieces of trash, avoiding the ones in direct contact with rat feces, stuffed them into his pocket, and headed out.

Things were already looking up.

As he left the apartment building, Cat Man found himself completely alone. Knee-high grass and weeds surrounded the old brick tenement – the only standing structure on two-and-a-half acres of urban prairie.

He looked up into the night sky.

Where were all the stars? Were there ever any stars?

As he wandered down the street, he couldn’t stop thinking about the little girl. There was something about her. He knew it was important. But he just couldn’t quite figure out why.

Night had now fully taken over the city and the streets seemed even more desolate. It was time to head toward the bright lights of downtown, which beckoned like the Emerald City—one of the few childhood memories he did remember. This was where he was most likely to strike gold and find a friend. Even though it was all in the Lord’s hands, it was up to him to do the walking.

He approached his favorite landmark: the giant Spirit of Detroit statue, the cross-legged-not-so-Jolly Green Giant of Detroit.

A symbol of hope.

“How you doing tonight?” Cat Man asked enthusiastically.  

 To the general passerby, he was no more relevant than one of his collected pieces of trash.

After a couple of blocks, Cat Man once again found himself in one of the countless areas of no man’s land that existed between city hot spots.

The silence was deafening.

In fact, he was convinced that the only sound left on earth was the duet between his labored breaths and his squealing cart. Cat Man couldn’t stand it. This was the language of loneliness.

A couple of blocks over, he heard the sound of a trumpet emanating from an unknown destination.

An acoustic mirage?

It was getting louder. And the emerging bass line and drumbeat confirmed that it was not his imagination. It was live jazz! The DNA of his soul. Could he still play a tune? If only he didn’t pawn his beloved alto sax away years before.

But there would always be music. The question was: where was this music coming from?

Once Cat Man figured out which direction the music was coming from, he was a moth drawn to light. After all, where there was music, there were people. And where there were people, there were friendships waiting to be made. He followed his ears until his reached the art- Cliff Bell’s – an art deco Detroit legend.

In fact, he played here back in the day. Before it closed down in the 80s, being left to rot until it was resurrected a few years back.

An attractive couple sat at a table in front of the window. They seemed like nice people. Cat Man waved at them. At first, they didn’t seem to notice. So, he waved again. This time around, they clearly noticed him, but ignored him nevertheless.

A bouncer approached and Cat Man found himself once again wishing for a world without bouncers. They always assumed nobody wanted to talk to him, but he knew otherwise. He was interesting. He had a lot to say. And he was a great conversationalist. Of course, his memory problems could throw a wrench into any conversation, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome.

“Sir, no loitering,” the bouncer told him.

To be called “sir” was a pleasant surprise.

In Cat Man’s experience, a polite bouncer was a rarity. He never understood why they had to be so rude to him. Didn’t they understand that if they are polite to the universe, eventually the universe will be polite back? Every now and then, at least.

“I love jazz,” Cat Man replied.

“It’s for paying customers, sir.”

“I got seventy-one cents.”

“More like no sense. Sorry. But that ain’t gonna cut it.”

“If I had more, I’d pay.”

“You don’t, so you’re going to have to leave.”

“Can I please use your restroom? I really gotta go.”

“Sorry, but not my problem. Now move on.”

“Okay, okay,” Cat Man surrendered. He grabbed his cart and headed down Park Ave.

It dawned on him, however, that he was more fueled by his desire to urinate than to converse. He grabbed his crotch, hoping it would alleviate the urge. He had too much pride to relive himself in an alley. Any desire to protect any semblance of dignity outweighed his need to pee. He would rather go in his pants. But he was running out of time.

Another light bulb went on in his head, which prompted him to turn his cart around and head back to the jazz joint.

“Hey! What did I tell you?” the bouncer demanded to know as he approached.

In response, Cat Man revealed his golden ticket: his kitten.

“Do you like cats?” “No. I don’t like cats. I hate cats. And I hate people who like cats, so I’m going to tell you for the last time . . .”

“Please, sir. I really gotta go. And I really love jazz. I won’t be long. I promise.”

“Look. I’m going to count to three. One . . . two . . .”

Cat Man surrendered.

“Alright, okay. You win. I won’t bug you anymore.”

Cat Man continued on his way. Every cough increased his urge to urinate. He reached the point where he couldn’t take it anymore. He snuck into a nearby alley, made sure no one was looking, and hid behind a dumpster. Just as he began to unzip his pants, somebody passed by. Paranoid, he zipped his pants back up and headed out of the alley.

While passing by the Park Bar, he spotted an attractive middle-aged woman sitting by herself at a corner table.  

What he did know was the woman looked lonely and Cat Man figured she could also use the company. He waved through the window. She either didn’t notice him, or, as was the way with most people, simply pretended not to notice.

He waved again, with more enthusiasm. This time, the lady noticed and waved back. Ecstatic, Cat Man parked his cart (knowing he was taking a huge risk) and made his way inside the otherwise empty bar.

The woman shielded herself from view, but it was too late. He had already honed in on her. And in his mind, she was already his friend.

He walked right up to her and with more unbridled enthusiasm than ever:

“How you doin’ tonight?” She looked away as she took a sip of her drink.

Cat Man moved in closer. Perhaps she hadn’t heard him the first time over the music.

“How you doin’ ma’am?” “Fine,” she said with a half-smile. It seemed forced. Not sincere. Cat Man was already losing hope. He dug into his pockets, pulling out random pieces of trash, which he assembled into a bouquet. The woman watched with curiosity, but he sensed she was keeping him at a distance.

“Here. Look. I made this for you!”

“How sweet!” she said with what sounded like genuine affection, before she set it down on the table. As Cat Man opened up his pocket, the woman at first seemed taken aback until she saw Cat Man’s kitten greet her with a soft “mew.”

“You like cats?” She smiled warmly.

“I do. I have three of them myself.”

To Cat Man’s surprise and delight, the woman reached out to stroke his kitten, which closed its eyes and purred. Both he and his kitten were finally getting what they had waited so long for.

“Would you like to hold her?”

“Sure! But what if the bartender notices?”

“That’s why we have to make sure we keep it our little secret.”

As he pulled the kitten out of his pocket, a burly man approached the table.

“—the hell is this?!”

“He was just showing me his cat.”

“Get the fuck out of here!” the man growled.

“She just wanted to pet my kitty.”     

The burly man shoved Cat Man, causing him to drop the kitten, which ran toward the door. Cat Man attempted to chase it, but the man grabbed him by his coat collar and lifted him off the ground before slamming him against the wall.

Cat Man looked for help. The bartender stood helpless. He was too old and feeble to raise his voice, let alone take physical action against this unruly customer.

“My cat!” Cat Man yelled out.

“Fuck your cat!”

“Stop,” the woman pleaded. “He didn’t do any–”

“Shut up!”

“Please, gentleman,” the bartender said, finally stepping in. “Nobody means any harm.”

“Stay out of this, old man!” the burly man shouted at the bartender, who retreated backwards a couple of steps. Meanwhile, Cat Man craned his neck in search of his kitten, but she was nowhere to be found. The burly man clasped Cat Man’s chin and jaw in the palm of his meaty, callused hand.

“Now listen to me,” the man threatened. “And listen to me good . . .”

“My cat. I gotta find my cat!”

The man shook Cat Man violently.

“Please! Stop it!” the woman protested.

“Shut the fuck up. You brought this on yourself. I’m just cleaning up your mess!”

“He was just showing me his kitten” the woman pleaded.

“Now listen here: if you ever talk to my woman again, or even as much as look at her, I’m going to kill you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, sir. So sorry. But my cat, you see. I gotta find her.”

Getting a fresh grip on Cat Man’s jacket, the man proceeded to drag him toward the door. The bluesman continued to watch with indifference from the sidelines.

“No, please. No!” Cat Man pleaded incessantly, before the burly man threw him through the door and out onto the sidewalk.

As Cat Man fell backwards, the back of his head smacked against the pavement, his loose change spraying out of his pocket in a shower of clinks and chimes.

 Cat Man looked up and saw the woman lingering in the doorway long enough for him to see genuine concern and pity in her eyes before the door closed.

He gasped for breath, looking every which way for his kitten.  

            She was much too young to survive on her own. He regretted not giving her a name. All he could do was call out through his phlegm-coated voice: “Here kitty. Kitty, where are you? Where are you?!”

There was no response. He started to accept the reality that the kitten was probably gone. Overwhelmed, he began to cry; tears for his lost kitten; tears for everything.

Everything he lost.

Everything he would lose.

Everything he forgot. 

And everything he would continue to forget.

“Dear God, please. Please find my kitten. That’s all I ask. She needs me. And I need her. And if she’s gone. please take my soul.”

But then, catching him completely off guard, he felt something brush up against his leg. He looked down and was greeted by a soft, recognizable “mew.” He scooped the kitten into his arms and hugged her tightly.

The kitten purred in response, as though letting him know that it was going to be okay. She reminded him that there was still good in the world; there were still friends to be made. Together, they would find them. He had already come close. Had it not been for that burly man, the woman at the bar would have been his friend. Now he would probably never see her again. And if he did, he would have to pretend not to notice her.

Cat Man began to look around and noticed his coins spread out around him. Realizing that he had work to do, he placed the kitten safely back into his coat pocket and began picking up his lost treasure. For the second time that evening, he was forced to pick up the pieces of his life, piece-by-piece, cough after breathless cough.

He counted his blessings, taking comfort knowledge made a friend that night – if only for a minute. There was always a bright spot to be found, even during the darkest of times. Cat Man knew this more than anyone.

House Call

(excerpted from Awaiting Identification, Fish Out of Water Books)

The glazed, beady eyes of a stuffed teddy bear stared up at Leaf Man as he hurried down the street on a chilly autumn evening, a battered, rolling suitcase trailing behind him like a lost puppy.

Steam poured out of missing manhole covers like spirits escaping hell.

The stench of dead leaves and smoke assaulted his nostrils. And then he remembered.

Devil’s Night.

He raised the volume on his headphones to Detroit techno legend Carl Craig’s “More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art”. This album not only always settled him down, but it was a reminder that as long as he continued to play his cards right, he would one day be up there with the DJs he had kept close tabs on since the 80’s, when his dream was born.

Though it saddened him to see so much abandonment enveloping him, he found beauty in the squalor. In fact, the industrial blight inspired his creativity as much as did any of his musical heroes. More significantly, where most saw a city on its death bed, Leaf Man saw a blank canvas.

A phoenix emerging in the form of his dream.

A couple of blocks from his destination, the wheel of his case became lodged in a crack, almost pulling his arm out of the socket. After a brief struggle, he wiggled the wheel free and continued on his way until he reached a dilapidated ranch, which one could easily assume was uninhabited, as suggested by its shattered windows and rusted bars.

Leaf Man knew otherwise.    

Not only did he know exactly who lived there, but he had timed his arrival for when he knew no one was home—not by choice, but by court mandate.

He headed toward the back door, past a pile of putrid trash bags. The corroded handlebars of a child’s tricycle poked through overgrown weeds.

Leaf Man removed two-hundred dollars from his wallet and slipped the money inside a box of chocolates from his suitcase. He sidestepped the rotted wooden step that led to the door and placed the box inside the torn screen door.

He walked away, saddened that he couldn’t deliver the gifts by hand and fully cognizant of the fact that the intended recipient—his three-year old son, Marcus—might never even get it.        

Leaf Man’s desire to once again see the joy on his son’s face was the driving force behind everything he did. He was confident that day was only just around the corner.

Just have to make it through the night.          

Of course, he knew that one slip-up would mean losing everything, which is why this final deal couldn’t be over soon enough.

He wanted to make headlines someday.

But for the right reasons.

He arrived at an empty bus stop, en route to soon becoming free from his self-made prison. Leaf Man was never one to place blame on others for his situation, or for the choices he made. Blaming himself meant that he alone was in control.

As the minutes rolled by, his hopes for a bus diminished. He knew one was supposed to arrive, but he also knew better.  He could possibly reach his destination faster if he walked.  

He would give it ten more minutes. Nine minutes later, he was on a bus. As it rumbled over streets strewn with potholes, he twirled his lucky ring on his right ring finger—gold, with an embossed marijuana leaf on it. As he thought about Marcus, pangs of panic settled in.

Every day that he couldn’t see his son was a day he would never have back. Now that he was a father, Leaf Man had become fully aware of the importance of each and every day. His precious little boy was the only reason he was saying goodbye to the only life he had known for the last decade.

After several years dealing marijuana and, for a short time, heroin, he had turned his focus to the illegal distribution of legal prescription drugs and medical marijuana. In his mind, the pharmaceutical companies were the real criminals. Not him.

Robin Hood of the hood.

But none of this meant shit in the eyes of the law. As far as child custody law was concerned, it didn’t matter if the drugs he sold were legal or not. Sure, he had the financial means to support his child, but he had to find a legal way for it to count in the court of law.

Despite his illicit trade, Leaf Man took pride in his strong sense of ethics. His clients knew this. He saw himself as no different than any startup entrepreneur with legit business dealings. But it was no longer about his clients. It was all about Marcus.

In Leaf Man’s line of work, he couldn’t fear death. What he did fear, however, was leaving his child without a father. In many ways, that was already the case. But he had done everything he could within his legal limits. And he was trying everything he could to do even more.

Though the danger factor had diminished, the downside to his decision to point his moral compass toward pharmaceuticals was a steep drop in available cash flow. He still managed to turn a profit and—most importantly—could live without the guilt and fear of a harsher penalty if the time ever arrived for a long-delayed comeuppance. He could also sleep better at night in the knowledge that the prescription drugs helped keep his clients alive, unlike heroin. As for the ones who were dying, he could at least make their death more tolerable.

The magnitude of this night weighed on him like an anchor as he struggled to stay afloat as the bus rolled past his grandmother’s old neighborhood in the Brightmoor district (aka “Blight More”), where, once upon a time, he knew true happiness. Going home to one’s roots was bittersweet in ordinary circumstances. Returning after years of blight and neglect was downright tragic.

“Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.”

Marvin Gaye, one of his heroes, knew what was up.

In fact, most of the neighborhood was not only gone, but had since been returned to nature; the wilderness rapidly reclaiming what had been lost.

The vast majority of the businesses that lined the edges of the old neighborhood had long been boarded up, including the toy store his grandmother used to take him to every Sunday after church. Though the church was now a burned-out shell, at least the embers of his faith that were fostered there were still burning.

Ten minutes later, Leaf Man disembarked at the intersection of 7 Mile and Greenfield and walked a couple of blocks until he reached his “legitimate” employer, the Ma & Pa Pharmacy—an unknowing accomplice to his illegitimate one. In a few short hours, he would begin his new, legit job.

And if everything went according to plan, this would be the only job he needed.

The Ma & Pa Pharmacy was a bygone from another era—one of the few that hadn’t been eradicated by the national, corporate chains. Unlike in most cases, it wasn’t so much a matter of time; it was more a matter of nobody else wanting to set up shop in this particular location.

Leaf Man entered to the sound of a laughing Halloween skeleton, and was greeted by a familiar voice behind the counter.

“Well, well, well. Look what the cat dragged in,” the elderly pharmacist exclaimed.

“What’s up, Doc?”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I’m no doctor,” the pharmacist sighed.

Leaf Man simply shrugged.

“So, what brings you in here on a day off?”

“Just making sure I’m on the schedule for tomorrow. And while I’m here, pick up my dead presidents.”

“You always work Sundays. Why would this one be any different?” Leaf Man sensed a degree of skepticism.

“Just double checking. It’s gonna be a late night tonight, so if I ain’t on the schedule for some reason, I’d hate to be comin’ in for nothing.”

“You couldn’t have called?” the pharmacist continued.

“Yeah, well, I was in the neighborhood . . . and, well, I figured you could use the company, you know.”

“Well, it does get lonely in here, that’s for sure. Want me to take you off the schedule?” “No! No. I need the money.”

“I’m sure there’s nothing our customers want more than someone with little sleep filling their prescriptions.”

“No worries. I’ll be fully caffeinated and ready to go.”

“Trembling hands caused by over-caffeination, in combo with lack of sleep, is also low on any customer’s wish list.”  

“Have I ever let you down?” Leaf Man asked.

The pharmacist looked away, sighed, and changed the subject.

“So. You got big plans tonight?”

“Gotta work,” Leaf Man replied.

“What? I don’t pay you enough?”

“I landed me a gig. A big-time gig!”

“What kind of gig?”

“DJ.”

“Like a mix master? Wooka-wicky?” the pharmacist said, pretending to scratch invisible turntables.

Leaf Man chuckled. “You know it!”

“I know of it.”

“You should come down, Doc. Tonight. Saint Andrew’s.”

The old man laughed and peered over his glasses. “You know, I might have a pill for delusional thinking. If I can find some back here, they’re all yours.”

“I’m serious, Doc!”

“Let’s just say the last time I went to a club, they had a separate section for folks like us. And they also used all live instruments.”

“Well, then come see how things have changed.”

“Maybe next time. I better get your dead presidents before they start to rot.”

The pharmacist disappeared into an office tucked away in the back of the store. This was Leaf Man’s cue. He grabbed some empty bottles from his suitcase and filled them with stock from the shelves. Efficiency was key and he had mastered that long ago. He hadn’t been caught yet and he intended for tonight to be nothing short of business as usual.

Normally, he had numerous prescriptions to fill.

But tonight, he had just one.

His final curtain call.

Just as he managed to stuff the bottles into his coat pocket, the pharmacist stepped out of his office with a wad of cash and handed it to him. Leaf Man didn’t even bother to count it.

“Gotta roll,” Leaf Man said. “Can’t keep my fans waiting!”

“You mean the ladies?”

“Now you’re talking, Doc!”  

“Break a leg!”

“And I’ll know exactly where to come for painkillers afterward!”

“I’m sure,” the pharmacist said with a wink.

Does he know?          

Leaf Man could never quite figure out if the pharmacist was clueless, or whether he simply turned a blind eye. He leaned more toward the latter. The old man was way too smart. But if so, why so generous?

 “Alright, Doc. I’m out,” Leaf Man said.

“See you at the break of dawn.”

 Leaf Man headed back out into the world and looked at his watch. Still ahead of schedule. Barely.

He quickened his pace –also for his own safety. The sooner he could get to work, the sooner he could get his mind off . . . everything. His music was the only way to do that.

Leaf Man put Carl Craig back on his headphones as he made his way down Livernois and through yet another neighborhood dotted with more empty lots than homes. The homes that were still standing were burned out beyond repair, defiant shells of buildings, daring to be torn down, cocky in their confidence that it would probably never happen.

It begged the question: is a neighborhood still a neighborhood when there are no neighbors?

This particular tract of land at least had a pulse, faint as it were. And that pulse belonged to Mrs. Harris, his favorite and most tenured client. Though he wouldn’t miss much about his soon-to-be-former life, he would certainly miss her. Mrs. Harris always felt more like family and it was only fitting that she was supposed to be his curtain call.

Leaf Man approached Mrs. Harris’s well-manicured sidewalk, which seemed even more immaculate against the backdrop of its tumbledown surroundings. When he reached her warmly-lit porch, he noticed one blemish he promised to tend to: her broken mailbox, still lying propped up against her porch as it had been for months. He wouldn’t have time to fix it tonight, but at least he would have an excuse to visit again—not as her dealer, but as her friend. It saddened him that nobody else had taken the time to fix it. It was even sadder that he was probably the only one who would.

He gave three hard knocks. He knew the door would be unlocked and that he would be expected to come in, but he didn’t like to go in unannounced. It was no secret that Mrs. Harris kept a loaded 9 mm in her end table—a gift he had given her in response to her request. And it was also no secret that she had successfully used it to ward off intruders on a couple of occasions. He didn’t want to become an accidental third victim.

Though she was expecting him, it appeared to Leaf Man that Mrs. Harris was beginning to lose some of her marbles. He didn’t know what to expect anymore.

Leaf Man knocked one more time, but Mrs. Harris didn’t answer. He entered with caution and walked past a long, doily-draped table, lined with framed portraits of the disappearing act known as her family. Though still alive, they all might as well have been ghosts.

When Leaf Man reached the end of the hallway, he saw a familiar sight: Mrs. Harris sitting in the ragged, vintage orange and brown recliner she affectionately referred to as “the best seat in the house.”

In fact, Mrs. Harris’s entire home was a time capsule hearkening back to the city’s hey-day.

Before everything became lost.

Despite the immaculate exterior of her home, the interior was a lot more “lived-in.” It was cluttered, but not like that of a hoarder, but rather, in a warm and inviting sense.

“Throwing away old newspapers is like throwing away history,” she always said, with no evident awareness of modern media.

This same philosophy clearly applied to everything else in her house. In fact, Mrs. Harris had lived in this house for over sixty years, along with her husband who had passed away four years earlier. When they bought the house, the neighborhood was still fairly new.

Before it all changed. Before big industry had moved in and before everything became coated with a strange, colorful dust that many believed to be a cause for the upsurge in cancer diagnoses among Delray’s residents.

Though Leaf Man found it hard to believe, Mrs. Harris told him frequently that he was her favorite visitor. And it wasn’t a stretch to say that the feeling was mutual. She reminded him of his own grandmother, who raised him until she passed away when he was seventeen. Fortunately, by that point, she had taught him everything he needed to know about being a gentleman, with old-fashioned decency and respect.

With Mrs. Harris, it felt like he was making up for lost time, which was perhaps the main reason he dreaded telling her that he could no longer be her personal pharmacist.

“Is that the gigolo I ordered?” Mrs. Harris asked in a creaky, dry voice when she heard his footsteps.

“You wish,” Leaf Man said, laughing, somewhat taken aback by her uncharacteristic, ribald greeting.

“So, when you gonna start locking your door, Mrs. Harris?”

“The day I leave for heaven,” she responded, in the dry humor he was more accustomed to. Despite her frail frame and sunken face, her spirit shone brightly.

“So how you doin’, Mrs. H?” Leaf Man asked.

Before he had even finished his question, he already knew the answer. Although Mrs. Harris has been losing weight for some time, the change was now becoming increasingly obvious. Mrs. Harris was looking more like a living skeleton with each passing day.

“Still vertical,” she sighed. “Still living. Just ain’t livin’ too well.”

“Well, hopefully I can help with that.”

“Just having you visit me is all the medicine I need, sugar.”

Though she lived alone, she did have a son, a daughter, and five grandchildren, all living in the metro area. But in their minds, Detroit might as well have been on the other side of the world. While she remained in the family home, the rest of her family fled for a comfortable suburban existence the first chance they got.

Like so many others in post-rebellion Detroit, her family fled north of 8 Mile. As Mrs. Harris’s family proved, it wasn’t just “white flight” that contributed to population loss. It was a matter of who could afford it. Despite constant pressure from her family to join them across the 8 Mile divide—especially after yet another break-in—Mrs. Harris stood steadfast.

Over time, once the excuses had run out, her family simply stopped coming to visit.

“The only way I’m leaving my home is in a box,” she would insist, along with “my next home is in the promised land.”

Next to Mrs. Harris on a cluttered end table was an empty, stained, plastic camping mug—the only cup she used—and from what Leaf Man ascertained, the only one she owned. The only thing she drank out of it was water. No juice. No tea. No coffee. And certainly no alcohol. Never a drop in her life.

“Let me get you some more water,” Leaf Man insisted.

“My feet still work, honey.”

“And so do mine, Mrs. Harris,” Leaf Man said, taking the cup over to her cluttered kitchen, where a week’s worth of dishes lay piled up in the sink. He would wash them, as he always did.     

He turned on the tap. Rust-tinged water spurted out, so he waited several seconds until it became a light yellow, which was about as clear as it got. He filled up the cup, and brought it to Mrs. Harris.

“Thank you, honey,” she said. She took an extra-long sip. He wondered how long it had been empty—and how long she had been thirsty.

“We gotta do something ‘bout those pipes,” he said.

“Son, I’ve drank that water for over sixty years. Ain’t no reason to change the recipe now.”

“Is it possible it’s getting worse?”

Mrs. Harris shrugged him off.

“I’ll be right back.”

Leaf Man headed back to the kitchen to wash the dishes. Despite the time crunch, he was still in pretty good shape. He couldn’t help but wonder who would clean the dishes when he was gone.

“Glad to see you’re eating again,” he said, taking note of the dirty dishes.

“Don’t bother with them dishes, honey,” Mrs. Harris said from the other room. He ignored her plea.

He left the dishes in the rack to drip dry, and then made his way back to the living room. He paused to examine Mrs. Harris’s wedding portrait, which hung next to a picture of a little girl in a ballet costume. She appeared so vibrant—so alive—in contrast to the withered old soul whose emaciated frame barely dented the cushion of her recliner. But she still had that same spark in her eyes.

Leaf Man sat down on the sofa, adjacent to the recliner. It was time to get down to business. He removed a prescription bottle and a single blue pill. Mrs. Harris took it from him, popped it into her mouth and, with a trembling hand, took a large sip of water, nearly choking on it. Leaf Man had to tilt the mug upward to prevent her from spilling the water on her lap.

“Easy there, Mrs. Harris.”

She laughed, triggering yet another cough.

“Now don’t forget, Mrs. Harris. Three times a day, okay?”

“Haven’t forgotten once.”  

“And don’t take it on an empty stomach. Take it with your meals. You remember what happened last time, right?” She shook her head, confused. It wasn’t like her to forget details such as these.

“And avoid operating any heavy machinery. Or driving.”

“The only machine I’ll be operating is this old, knock-off La-Z-Boy.” Leaf Man laughed.

“Why do you insist on telling me all of this every time?” she asked. “Protocol, Mrs. H. I’m a professional.”

Mrs. Harris reached deep into her bra and removed a couple of twenty-dollar bills. Leaf Man was totally caught off guard.

“Here you go, sugar,” she said.

“Naw, this one’s on me,” Leaf Man said.

“Stop talking like a fool,” she said.

“Consider it my goodbye gift.”

No turning back now.

Mrs. Harris’s joyful demeanor sunk.

“Oh, Lord. My time is up isn’t it? And you’re really the Grim Reaper in sheep’s clothing coming to reap your just reward.”      

He couldn’t tell if she was serious.    

“You know damn well that you’re going to outlive all of us, Mrs. Harris.”

“Dear Lord, I certainly hope not. Now, tell me, son, what’s this goodbye business all about?” “Before I explain, please, put that money away.”

She stuffed the money back down her shirt. He expected more resistance.

“It’s time to finally go after what I’ve been chasing my whole life.”

“Music?”

Leaf Man nodded.

“Praise the Lord! About damn time!”

When her joy quickly morphed into concern, he knew exactly what she was thinking.

“And don’t worry. I already lined somebody up for you next month and beyond. He’s good. You’ll like him.”

“Nobody can replace you,” she said. “But I understand. Best get out while you still can. I’m happy for you.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Harris. Can I get you anything before I go?”

 “Son, what I need, you wouldn’t want to give an old lady like me.” Leaf Man was thrown for another loop.

“Easy now, Mrs. Harris,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

She had never flirted with him before.

“Don’t mean I won’t be back,” Leaf Man assured her.

“Thank you. You’re one of the good ones, son. Lord knows you’re a dying breed.”

“For the sake of the planet, I hope not,” Leaf Man said. “On both counts.”

“You are. And you know it.”

“Take care of yourself,” Leaf Man said. “And remember, you were always my favorite customer. And not just because of all the business you brought me.”

“Whatever you do, don’t look back. Unlike me, you’re still writing your prologue. I’m finishing up my epilogue.”

“Like I said, you’re gonna live forever, Mrs. Harris.”

“Shiiit,” Mrs. Harris said. “Come give me a hug, you son of a bitch.”

Until tonight, swearing—like flirting—was simply not in her character. Mrs. Harris was a genuine Christian in all the right ways—his type of Christian. She even went so far as to watch church on TV when she could no longer leave her house. In fact, it was her stubborn insistence to go to church that led to an unfortunate slip off her icy porch. Fortunately, she suffered only a few scrapes and bruises, but she knew right then that God was telling her that the time had come to become an armchair Christian.

Leaf Man wondered if she’d ever leave her house again, especially with another long Michigan winter looming. He would see to it that he would take her for a stroll every now and then.

As they continued to hug, he tried to push back the tears swelling in his eyes, but it was no use.   

“You take care, Mrs. Harris.”

“It has been a true pleasure knowing you, you hear me now?” Mrs. Harris said, through tears of her own.

“Hey, come on, Mrs. H. Enough of that. I’m gonna be back. I promise. Somebody gotta fix your mailbox. And if you ever need me for anything else, you got my number. You take care, okay, Mrs. Harris.”

“Don’t you worry about me, son. God bless you. God bless.”

And with that, Leaf Man headed out into the cold, dark night, his back illuminated by the warm glow emanating from Mrs. Harris’ home—like the dying embers of a fire set ages ago.

Homecoming

(excerpted from Awaiting Identification, Fish Out of Water Books)

NYC Girl stepped off the now vacant bus that had been her prison for the past twenty hours.

“You take care out there, okay?” the driver said, a split second before she turned her ankle on the broken concrete of a city she no longer recognized.

Welcome home.

She bent down to rub her ankle, grabbed her suitcase, and glanced around the empty bus terminal as though she were expecting a welcoming committee. But despite her brief self-delusion, NYC Girl understood one simple truth: nobody was expecting her.

I’m a ghost.

In fact, not a single soul even knew she had returned home from her seven-year Big Apple experiment. At one point, she would have preferred it this way. But not now. Not even close. And what did “home” even mean now?

Seven years.

Seven years of rejections and wrong turns.

Fitting that it all began with a nasty argument between a daughter and her coked-up mother over dirty dishes, followed by a broken mirror while frantically packing for a fresh start, on the heels of a vanished “mercy” scholarship for graduating from the school of hard knocks. Despite her flaws and the endless roadblocks, she somehow managed to keep her grades up. Before she simply threw it all away.

Life had been a conveyor belt of bad luck ever since. There wasn’t a day that had gone by when she didn’t replay that scene in her head. If only she had tried to be the better person and just washed the damn dishes.

Would her life have turned out differently? Or, was that simply just the straw that broke the camel’s back? After all, the dam of built-up resentment can only hold water for so long before it bursts.

And rather than picking up the pieces and trying to make things right, she did the “easier” thing.

She fled.

Her homecoming felt like self-surrender. But it was time.

Time to make things right. A return to starting position. Sometimes a fresh start means returning back to where you started, before you begin anew.

How in the hell had it been seven years?

She wanted to believe that her luck was about to turn, but she knew better. Her whole life was a shattered mirror. Fractured shards of glass interlaced with sharp, invisible slivers.

But that certainly wasn’t going to stop her from trying to sweep up the mess. She was never one to quit, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to start now. On the other hand, it would have been the logical thing to do.

Now that she had found the guts to return home, she wished she had a better idea as to where her life was headed.

For the majority of her ride aboard the sweatbox of a Greyhound bus, she was convinced that she had it all figured out. But by the time the bus had entered the Detroit city limits, her thoughts had begun to waver. One thing was clear: she needed food and shelter.

But when your only option isn’t really an option . . .

NYC Girl was getting ahead of herself. What she needed more than anything was rest. But where?

I just have to get through the night.

And then, maybe, just maybe, she would finally see things more clearly.

Without doubt, she would need a concrete plan beyond tonight. She had to find work. She would rather die of starvation than turn another trick for a lukewarm meal and bed.

She needed a restroom. Again. A natural, irritating side effect of the unwanted, bastard parasite she was carrying. Adorned in knock-off gray and pink-trimmed workout clothes, she dragged her rolling suitcase and headed inside the Greyhound building—which appeared to function more like a halfway house. It smelled of piss, shit, and vomit.

If any of the few, scattered bums happened to look up from their own misery, they would have seen someone who—in a different lifetime – could have been a model, a dancer, or a Broadway star. It wouldn’t have been a stretch. After all, that was her plan. But in NYC Girl’s dark, lonely corner of the universe, the spotlight only shone on the unpolished poles of seedy strip clubs.

She made her way toward the restroom door.

Locked.

Seriously?

She approached a ticket clerk, who was asleep with her head propped up by an ashy, callused hand.

“Excuse me…” she began, startling the clerk awake.

NYC Girl was equally jarred by the sound of her own voice.

When had she last spoken?

“I need to use the restroom.”

“It’s locked,” the clerk said with a disdainful yawn.

“Well, can it be unlocked?”

“No.”

What the fuck?  

This was her welcome committee.

She headed outside onto the broken, familiar streets of her youth. Steam rose from sewers like smoke serpents.

Home sweet home.     

Rainbow smoke billowed out of smokestacks above dirty, stained civilization, in tandem with scattered, half-lit skyscrapers aglow like orange embers in the night—anchored by the massive, not-quite-as-promised Renaissance Center. She was waiting for her own, personal renaissance.

Waiting to mend the broken pieces of her life.

A phoenix of the night in a world afire.

She boarded a city bus en route to the only home she knew prior to New York. She took her usual seat at the back of the bus and immediately felt something squishy beneath her foot.

A used condom.

She nudged it loose with the broken heel of her sidewalk-ravaged shoe and shoved it until it was hidden beneath her seat.

Her preference for the back row was a safety measure—to be able to see everyone ahead of her, rather than wonder who might be lurking behind.

NYC Girl struggled to wrap her head around the fact that she was back in the place she vowed to turn her back on forever when she charged out of her house, suitcase in hand, toward a smoke and mirror-coated dream that had quickly turned into a nightmare.

And now. Back to the place where her dream was first born.

Once upon a time, a little girl with big dreams danced in a pink tutu. If only she could go back in time and beg herself to give it all up before it was too late, before the damage was done.

If only . . .  

Maybe then, she could have avoided boarding a bus that was in even worse condition than the one from which she had just escaped, headed to southwest Detroit.

At least this ride would be shorter.

NYC Girl noticed a few scattered construction cranes rising above the city skyline. She never remembered seeing a single crane during her childhood. They resembled the skeletal remains of dinosaurs, shrouded in smoke, juxtaposed against rows of abandoned buildings—tombstones of a bygone era.

An echo of an ancient civilization.

What could they possibly be building?

Yet, the nostalgic factor made the decay strangely comforting.

She realized that less than an hour ago, she was riding on this same stretch of road aboard the Greyhound bus, heading in the opposite direction.

Her life was an endless loop. 

She clutched her faux gold and ruby-encrusted “I Love NYC” medallion with one hand and, with the other, her lower abdomen, where a new life grew—just like her mother almost thirty years prior.

The rotting apple doesn’t fall far from the rotting family tree.

A tree that her mother gave two shits about, evident in an abundance of ways. After all, if you don’t give a shit about your own offspring, why would you give two shits about the ancestors that came before?

For instance, even though her abuela had raised her mother to speak Spanish, her mother—despite NYC Girl’s pleading—had been too lazy or too strung out to teach her daughter any part of her heritage.

Most kids could give two shits about their heritage. And most parents practically have to force it upon their children. But not NYC Girl. She wanted to learn. To keep the past alive, before it could be erased from history altogether. Her mother, however, all but erased herself. It was up to NYC Girl to somehow find a way to carry the torch. To keep the past alive. Before it was fully erased. Before it became a ghost. Or nothing at all.

Meanwhile, NYC Girl was following the footsteps of her mother. But for all the wrong reasons. Just like her mother’s situation, the father was a roulette wheel of possibilities.

The only evidence as to the identity of NYC Girl’s own father could be found in her dark caramel complexion, several shades darker than her mother’s Mexican DNA.

However, unlike her mother, NYC Girl refused to bring a child into a world of suffering. That would be the immoral choice.    

Yet, she couldn’t help but waver over what she had earlier considered a slam-dunk decision. Then again, is there such a thing when it comes to a matter such as this? She had thought so back in New York. But the closer she got to home, the murkier everything became. And whom better for a girl to discuss such matters than with her own mother?

The closer she drew toward her destination, the further her mind drifted from the certainty of her decision. The bottom line was, going home meant facing her greatest fear: her mother.

But who the fuck was she fooling? Even if she wanted advice from her mother, would she be available? And even if she were available, what kind of advice could she expect to find from someone who had been through countless abortions herself?

She had no choice but to make this decision on her own.

NYC Girl had not attempted to contact her mother during her seven-year exile. In fact, she had vowed never to talk to her again—just as she had vowed never to return to Detroit.

But if anybody knew anything about empty promises, it was her.

Had her mother tried to look for her? NYC Girl certainly didn’t leave an address. Besides, there were so many, it wouldn’t have made a difference. But in all likelihood, her mother never gave a shit.

Which was worse?

Every time she convinced herself that making amends was the right thing to do, she talked herself out of it. Partially out of stubbornness. But mostly out of fear.

But deep, deep down, no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t shake the instinctual bond that could only exist between mother and daughter.

What hurt the most was the fact that her mother had so quickly severed the cord.

Though NYC Girl pretended not to care, she did wonder from time to time if her mother ever felt the remnants of their spiritual synapses.

Like a phantom limb.

NYC Girl could justify a child cutting ties with a parent—but not the other way around. Though it made leaving so much easier, it was this bond that had indirectly led to her slow, full-blown implosion.

Would her mother want to take her back? Did she even want her mother to take her back? Her biggest fear was being turned away at the doorstep. This led to the onset of a panic attack settling into every fiber of her being. To calm herself, she just had to remind herself that she didn’t have to go through with it. She could choose to continue. Or she could choose to simply get the hell out.

The world was her motherfucking oyster.

But she wasn’t fooling herself. She was only choking on its pearl.

She had returned to the rotten corpse of her childhood home; not because she wanted to, but because she felt like it was the only thing to do.

But was it?

She realized that a major reason for her apprehension stemmed from the fact that as long as she did not contact her mother, she could continue to perpetuate the illusion in her mother’s mind that she was fine, thus proving her mother—and in some way, herself—wrong.

Besides, how does one tell their estranged mother news such as this?

Her bus passed the hollowed-out ruins of the former Michigan Central Station, which stood tall like a gateway into hell. A land-dwelling, urban Titanic.

A lump formed in her throat as she passed beneath a railroad overpass onto the edge of Mexicantown. She knew she was getting closer to home – not just by sight, but by smell.

The bus finally reached her destination—Delray—which, like much of the city, had seen better days, but refused to go down without a fight.

Essentially isolated from other parts of Detroit, and in many ways a no-go area, Delray felt like a ghost town within a ghost town. Much of its population had moved out once big industry and a giant wastewater plant moved in, but a small number of residents showed their true grit by refusing to budge, still living amid squalor and the industrialization that had replaced people with belching smokestacks and an omnipresent stench.

Around the time NYC Girl had left town, you were more likely to encounter gang patrol than police patrol. Of course, NYC Girl had firsthand experience. It was almost impossible for a neighborhood kid to avoid it. Fuck a gang member and you’re fucked for life.

But in this moment, there were no signs of human life, aside from the distant, haunting cries of trains, accompanied by the diesel driven rumble of semi-trucks, rattling as they hit pothole after pothole. It all felt strangely comforting. It was the sound of home. And it was music to her ears.

Maybe things were better? Maybe nobody was left?

Looming in the distance along West Jefferson, she could see the industrial behemoth of Zug Island, a man-made island floating in the middle of the Detroit River.

A dystopian habitrail.

Zug Island’s black towers resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ topped with orange and green flames, accompanied by a techno cacophony of clicks, clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.

A couple of blocks down Dearborn Street, in the heart of an old Hungarian enclave, NYC Girl plopped down on a graffiti-laden bench to pop the loose heel back into her shoe, chipping one of the long nails that she kept both for aesthetic and self-defense purposes.

At that moment, an all-too-recognizable refrain rang out behind her.

“Excuse me! Excuuuuse me!”

She immediately got up and walked on, not even bothering to turn around.

“I don’t mean no harm,” the voice continued, working off a familiar script as he closed in. “But I’m hungry. I’m homeless. Please, can you spare a little change to help a brother out?”

NYC Girl quickened her pace, certain that surrender was imminent. But he continued to nip at her heels. At least he wasn’t giving up on her.

She could hear loose change in a cup. From the sound of it, it was very likely that he had more change on him than she did.      

“Hey, sweetheart!”

She detested being called that—by anyone. He was lucky that she was too exhausted to let him have it.

She he was holding s a tiny, paper American flag, hoisted on a toothpick, held by a homeless man with a slight limp who bore an uncanny resemblance to Redd Foxx.

Despite a constant twitch, he seemed harmless enough. She was smart enough to know that the moment she laid a finger on his flag, payment would be expected, a rule she understood all too well.

She tried to ignore him, but he waved the flag in her face, trying to force surrender. She bit her tongue to suppress her growing rage.

“Please, sweetheart. Help a vet,” he begged, in an obvious ruse to fill a prescription from Dr. Smirnoff, Hennessey, or Colt.

She remained silent and held her ground.

“Well, have a nice evening, ma’am, and God Bless!” he said, waving his flag in self-surrender.   

As he limped and twitched away, she realized she had more in common with him than she wanted to admit. Only, he had found a way to make money.

She had no place to call home . . . so, by definition, was homeless.

And all before the age of thirty.

At least she still had her faculties intact.

Or did she?

She had never been more in doubt of her own sanity.

As she continued to watch the drifter fade into the distance, she felt an unfamiliar twinge of compassion. She chalked it up to exhaustion.

She used to feel sorry for people like him—no matter how many shits life took on her. Now, having pity on them would mean feeling sorry for herself—which she absolutely refused.

She now realized that the embers of empathy still burned deep inside. It reminded her that she still had a soul—or, at least, the charred remnants of one.

The remnants that mattered most.

Her only belongings were jammed into her tattered, secondhand rolling suitcase with a busted wheel that trailed behind her on the crumbling concrete of Vernor.

As dusk folded into night, downtown loomed through a heavy fog as NYC Girl dragged her broken suitcase, which made a rhythmic clunk-clunk sound that reminded her of the techno rhythm of Detroit’s factories.

From a distance, one might assume that a beautiful city filled with promise was on the horizon. Detroit always looked best from afar.

It was all one, grand illusion.

And to think that once upon a time, she thought she could find her utopia in New York. Never has she been more wrong.

She wished that desperation wasn’t a factor in her decision to return home. Even though she felt it was the right thing to do, she still wasn’t fully convinced it was what she wanted to do.

No matter how things had transpired with her mother, she tried to take solace in the fact that coming home was a giant first step.

But in what direction?

She was in the heart of one of the most dangerous and most polluted zip-codes in the nation. However, it was so deserted, it was difficult to imagine anything left for criminals to pillage or plunder. She probably had a better chance of being attacked by wild dogs than being mugged. From as far back as she could remember, this stretch always consisted of an endless slideshow of abandonment and decay.

Now, it somehow seemed worse.

How was that even possible?

When the pimps and hos have to go, a neighborhood reaches a new low.   

So many places from her past had simply vanished, replaced by vast expanses of unkempt land. What remained were burned out homes and empty lots, morphed into urban prairies fecund with trash. Existing structures adorned with graffiti and broken windows reflected the broken tenements.

And there didn’t appear to be a soul in sight.

She took a short bus ride over to Mexicantown, getting off on Vernor, dotted with Mexican restaurants and littered with fast food joints, barbershops, gas stations, auto repair shops, storefront churches, thrift shops, Cash-4-Gold emporiums, beauty parlors, and nail salons, with names such as Sis’ta Sa’lon, Nailz ‘n Such, and Bongz & Thongz.

Ahead of her was the neon glow of Mo’s Fuel Palace—her former hangout spot—where she and her friends could be themselves: raw, uncensored, and unrated. When she was sixteen, she served a brief stint as a cashier, eventually tripling her earnings by turning tricks in the restroom, which ultimately paved the way for her current predicament.

She entered and was instantly greeted by a familiar face shelving liquor behind the bullet-proof glass-enclosed counter: Mo Jr., the owner’s son―put to work at a young age to run the store while his father had his way with hookers in the backroom, herself included, or frequented the neighborhood strip club. Unlike Mo Sr., NYC Girl didn’t have to blow Mo Jr. for cash. She did it for free.

“Holy shit, am I seeing a fucking ghost?!” Mo asked.

“Yeah, something like that,” NYC Girl replied, dreading any obligation to provide details.

Mo came out from behind the wall of bulletproof glass and gave her an enormous hug. Though NYC Girl wasn’t “huggy” by nature, this was far better than the physical attention she was accustomed to. And to her surprise, it felt good.

“I kept looking out for you on TV! And now you’re back!”

She was already forced to admit defeat. And though she once craved entertainment headlines, she realized that the headlines she once sought were more likely to have been traded for the crime beat.

“Yeah, well, you wasted your time,” she replied.

“Maybe you should have tried Hollywood instead?”

“I wanted to be on stage. Not screen,” NYC Girl snapped.

“So, what brings you back?”

“Still trying to figure that out. You hiring?”

“Wish we were. Barely staying afloat as it is.”         

“I understand,” she said.

One down …

 “Can I use the restroom?” she asked, hoping to at least accomplish an even more immediate goal.          

Mo headed back to the counter and slipped a key through the rotating door on the counter.

“You know where it is.”

She grabbed the key, still attached to the same late 80’s Winston-Salem keychain from her high school days, and, dragging her suitcase, headed toward the restroom in the rear of the building. She could already smell its putrid, yet oddly nostalgic, stench.

She pushed the key into the graffiti-littered door, but the lock was broken.

Great. Just make it easier for them.

Did Mo know the lock was broken? If so, why hand over the key?

She hesitated, then entered anyway.

The first thing she noticed was that the door to the stall was now completely missing. Piss and shit were smeared over the toilet seat.

She tried to keep things in perspective.

The only roll of toilet paper was half submerged in the bowl, which contained a mixed stew of shit, piss, tampons, and condoms. The leftover shredded remnants of what was once a bar of soap sat on the sink, next to a rusted-out cloth towel dispenser, from which hung the torn, yellowed remnants of what once passed for a towel.

If Detroit is the armpit of America, this restroom is the armpit of Detroit.

She squatted over the toilet, still managing to graze the cracked lid, distracting herself by reading juxtaposed graffiti, splattered with caked feces and other human waste. One scrawled quote was untouched by excrement:

“They have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness is in her skirts.” Lam. 1:8-9

Unable to wipe herself, she headed to the rusty sink, then decided that not washing her hands there was the more sanitary choice. Anxious for a fresh change of clothes, she opened her suitcase and removed a skirt and halter-top. Sure, it was cold, but that wasn’t going to stop her from looking good. Besides, she had a job to do: finding a job.

Once dressed, she pulled out a make-up bag, and fumbled to add a layer of pretty over her damaged interior.

She looked at herself in the cracked mirror.

Still look damn good!

Despite it all, the one thing she never lost confidence in was how fucking hot she was. She knew it. And men knew it. By that token, it was also her downfall. Before she headed out, she turned to glance at the fractured reflection of her hot ass and put her jacket back on.

She hadn’t looked―nor felt―this good in weeks. It was amazing what a little makeup could do.

Even if nobody else gave a fuck.

Back inside the gas station, NYC Girl set the keys on the front counter.

“Wow!” Mo said.

“You sure you’re not hiring?” “Trust me, I really wish we were.”

“So, when was the last time you cleaned that shithole?” Mo shrugged with a smirk. The fact that he didn’t seem to give a shit came as no surprise.

NYC Girl searched the aisles for a snack. She settled for a granola bar. While Mo’s back was turned stocking shelves, she debated over whether she should steal it, before she remembered the promise she made to herself before she left New York: she was never going to steal again.

Easier said than done.

“How long you in town?” Mo asked. “Maybe we could meet up for a drink once you get settled?” “Time will tell,” NYC Girl replied. “And, yeah, a drink would be nice.”

But she didn’t mean it.

Now that she was back home, part of her preferred to start over with a blank slate, rather than dredge up the ghosts of her past—even if that meant starting with a primer made from arsenic and shit.

As far as drinking was concerned, she knew she technically shouldn’t drink in her condition, but also knew it didn’t really matter. Even though her mind was almost made up regarding her condition, she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt whenever she drank. Perhaps there was a motherly instinct buried somewhere deep inside her after all. Or, maybe she knew deep down that there was still that one percent chance she would keep it. Maybe coming home would somehow alter her view?

“How’s your dad?” NYC Girl asked, attempting to change the subject. By the same token, she really couldn’t give two shits about the motherfucker.

Mo pointed upward, to a heaven she didn’t believe in.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Robbed. And shot. Right where you’re standing.”

NYC Girl looked down, half-expecting to see a bloodstain; not feeling a twinge of sympathy for the dead fuck.

“I’m sorry,” she said. But really she wasn’t. She’d be kidding herself if she didn’t fantasize about killing the fucking asshole herself.

“His legacy lives on,” Mo said, surveying his inherited Fuel Palace with pride.

As NYC Girl continued to mull over her beverage options, she caught Mo’s reflection in the door, staring at her ass from behind the register.

Like father, like son.

She whipped around, catching him off guard. He pretended to be looking over an invoice. She brushed it off and grabbed a bottle of non-fat milk and headed back to the counter. He rang her up.           She dug through her purse until she managed to find a couple of crumpled dollar bills. Her wallet had been stolen months earlier, her knife even more recently. The sad truth was if she could only afford to replace one, she’d probably have more use for the latter. At some point, she would need an ID, although in this town, nobody usually gave a fuck.

She scrambled for loose change to make up the difference.

“Shit. I don’t have enough,” NYC Girl said, needing to keep enough for bus fare downtown. “Just the milk, I guess.”

“No worries, it’s on me,” Mo said. “Like old times.”

“These ain’t old times no more.”

“Ain’t no problem.”

“Well, I ain’t here for charity.”          

She put down enough for the milk, leaving the granola bar behind. “It’s not charity,” Mo insisted. “Just trying to help a friend.”

Had he offered to give it to her free from the get-go, she would have been more inclined to take it. But now, the whole transaction just reeked of desperation.

NYC Girl grabbed her milk and turned toward the door.

“Bye, Mo.”

“Nice seein’ you. Take care out there.”

As she made her way out the door, he added, “Don’t be a stranger.” But NYC Girl headed out into the night without a response. She looked back once, but Mo had resumed shelving liquor, as though she had never been there at all.

Like a fucking ghost.

She gulped down her milk like a hungry baby on a tit. She already regretted that she hadn’t accepted Mo’s offer of the granola bar, considering she hadn’t had an actual meal in over twenty-four hours—which was half the amount of time since her last full night’s sleep. She would have to find a way to sleep and eat eventually.           

If not, then nothing else mattered.

It wasn’t too long ago that she would have gladly given a lap dance in exchange for a bag of chips, or a hand job in exchange for a warm meal and bed. Pride could only outlast hunger pangs for so long. But she wouldn’t go back—couldn’t go back.

She would find a way. She always did.

But how? And when?

She realized that despite all the uncertainty, she did at least have some semblance of a game plan; and, so far, she was sticking to it:

Step 1: Come home.

Step 2: Find a job.

Step 3: Make things right with mamá.

It all made sense when she first mapped out her plan two weeks earlier, lying in a bed belonging to some corporate fuck whose face she never even saw outside of a thrusting blur.

And thus far:

Step 1: √

Step 2:

Step 3:

As she finally reached her old neighborhood, the lump in her throat felt as though it would explode, as she passed by abandoned houses that were once homes she knew so well. Some ceased to exist at all. It would come as no surprise if some of the vacated houses were in better condition than the inhabited ones.

Nobody was around to do further damage.    

NYC Girl turned down her street, pausing in front of the one lone bright spot on the block, illuminated like an urban Thomas Kinkade painting. This was the residence of Mrs. Harris, the grandmother everyone wanted, or—in NYC Girl’s case—the surrogate mother she desperately needed. As long as Mrs. Harris was still alive, so was the neighborhood. Even criminals knew better than to prey on Mrs. Harris. Break into any other house and they might get away with it. But break into Mrs. Harris’s home? No way. Not without retribution. NYC Girl lost count of how many times her own childhood home had been robbed.

Seeing Mrs. Harris’s habitat still in such pristine, immaculate condition could only mean one thing: Mrs. Harris was still alive and well.

And the day she goes, so goes the city.

Some could argue that the city had already gone a long time ago. If so, then Mrs. Harris had outlived them all.

Mrs. Harris was truly a guardian angel. And not just to NYC Girl, but to the entire neighborhood. She longed for the fresh-baked cookies and milk after school, often followed by a warm, tasty meal, contrasting with the expired, processed food from her real life. She used to pretend that Mrs. Harris was her actual mother. However, it wasn’t long before reality erased any remnants of the fantasy life she longed to one day have for herself.

More important than her cookies was the fact that Mrs. Harris not only helped a young girl realize that the way she was treated at home wasn’t right, but she taught NYC Girl how to keep her head up high as she waited for brighter days ahead.

The latter was key.

“And as God as my witness,” Mrs. Harris proclaimed during one of her annual outings to Boblo Island. “Those days will come, child. Those days will come.”

As much as Mrs. Harris disapproved of NYC Girl’s mother, she never once badmouthed her.

“She’s sick, dear,” Mrs. Harris said. “And needs help she can’t afford. She doesn’t mean to do what she does.”

For the first time, NYC Girl understood. This was no small feat, considering NYC Girl’s disdain toward her mother began before kindergarten. It doesn’t take a child long to discover what love is—and isn’t.

And the gap between the two couldn’t be wider.

Incidentally, there was only one person on the planet who ever took issue with Mrs. Harris: NYC Girl’s mother. This stemmed from an argument that was sparked when the former attempted an intervention with the latter, after eleven-year-old NYC Girl came over with yet another black eye.

“For the love of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of your only child, get your damn shit together, woman.”

It was the only time NYC Girl had heard Mrs. Harris swear. Chances are, it was the only time she swore, period.

When NYC Girl’s mother reared back to slap Mrs. Harris in retaliation, she slipped and tumbled on the porch. Weak and feeble Mrs. Harris rushed to help NYC Girl’s mother to her feet and cradled her like a child, repeating over and over, “God is listening, honey child. God is listening.”

For once, NYC Girl felt something she never thought she would ever feel for her mother: pity. And it was no surprise that Mrs. Harris had something to do with it.  

She continued to stare at Mrs. Harris’s house, overcome with bittersweet feelings of nostalgia and regret. She had never said goodbye to Mrs. Harris—the person she would most miss—before she skipped town; the guardian angel who actually encouraged her to follow her dreams when nobody else cared—which at times, included herself. She learned early on that it’s difficult to follow your dreams when you’re too busy chasing after your next meal.

Mrs. Harris taught her to keep an eye on both.

At the time, she couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye because deep down, she knew that she would probably never see Mrs. Harris again. Now, due to circumstances fucked up beyond belief, she was being given a second chance, though she dreaded admitting defeat to the one person who believed in her more than anyone else; more than she ever believed in herself. NYC Girl couldn’t help but feel that in letting herself down, she was really letting Mrs. Harris down.

As she passed Mrs. Harris’s house, she noticed a broken mailbox, hanging lopsided by a rusted thread. Though not unusual in this town, the Mrs. Harris she knew would never stand for something to remain broken for so long. She would have found a way to fix it.

And usually with her own hands.

How long had it been broken? Hopefully not long. She would make an effort to fix it. But when?

NYC Girl finally reached her mother’s modest single-story ranch. It was shrouded in darkness. It had fallen into such disrepair she wondered if her mother still lived there, or whether she was even still alive for that matter.

Overcome with trepidation, she held a hand over her swollen belly, as though expecting to find an answer there.

She attempted to move toward the weed-covered sidewalk that lead to the front door of her former life, but she felt as though her feet were encased in concrete. She peered toward the window to see if her mother was inside, but giant ghetto palms obstructed her view. She had travelled more than six-hundred miles to get here and now she was unable to take ten more steps to reach the front door.

Fuck it. Maybe it was simply time to leave everything buried in the past. But did burying the past mean going in, or avoiding it all together?

Like sewage water under a rotting bridge.

Once upon a time, she would pray during moments like this. Now, she knew better. The way she saw it, prayer was no different than talking to herself; it was not only a sign of being crazy, it simply expended unnecessary energy.

NYC Girl felt her body pull away from the house, as though she were a marionette, toward the warm illumination of Mrs. Harris’s domicile. For a brief moment, she considered seeking refuge there, but she refused to beg. Those days were behind her—or so she hoped. She also realized that doing so would probably mean never going home. Then again, maybe this was her home. She finally made up her mind: she would return after she got her feet back on the ground. When she had both the upper hand and the ability to hold her head up high. First to make peace. And then to find it, rather than crawling back on her hands and knees—to give Mrs. Harris any reason for further concern. And she absolutely refused to give her mother any reason to have the upper hand. That would be the greatest act of desperation of all. Furthermore, the last thing she could stomach was another “I told you so,” at least not until she had something resembling a plan.

She realized these thoughts were probably all an attempt to justify her apprehension.

To somehow seek an easy way out.

But since when is anything easy?

Certainly not in this life.

As she began to walk away from her childhood home, she caught herself off guard when she realized how much part of her wanted to be seen. She imagined her mother watching her only child turn her back on her one more time, after waiting so long for her to return home.

Minute by minute.

Hour by hour.

Day by day.

Week by week.

Month by month.

Year by year.

She still couldn’t shake the feeling that her mother didn’t care at all. Or couldn’t. But deep down, she knew better. That beneath the drugs, and abuse, and neglect her mother did care. Despite the rage and hatred bubbling at the surface, it was because of this deeper understanding that NYC Girl continued to imagine this same woman—hobbling from a body ravaged with crack, and a life of slipping through cracks—walking into her daughter’s bedroom, untouched since she left seven years earlier. She envisioned her mother picking up the framed picture of her when she was six, in her ballet costume, and staring through the dusty glass, wishing that she could go back in time and make everything right.

As she passed Mrs. Harris’s house, she took note of the broken mailbox. And in its demise, she saw unexpected hope. That despite being broken, things can be fixed. As she rounded the corner, she encountered a tiny break on the horizon of gray clouds up ahead, as though the sun wanted to catch one last glimpse of the dying city before it turned in for the night, even as the moon suddenly revealed itself from behind a cloud as if to remind the sun of its place. Surreal rays suddenly made of a mix of moonlight and sunlight burst through, shining upon the city, like some sort of blessing from a heaven she didn’t believe in. As she looked around at the density of ashen desert, the sudden presence of otherworldly light seemed to defy all logic, giving her a respite from despair.

Another cruel illusion of hope?

As quickly as it came, the sun and the beams of light were swallowed up by the same clouds that momentarily parted for this glimpse of temporary beauty.

For the first time in ages, she felt a tinge of steely determination, evaporating the clouds of doubt plaguing her since she first made the decision to return home.

Dead End

Despite everything that happened over the past several months, the bottom line was this: his parents were getting a grandchild. And although the circumstances surrounding this fact were suspect, they were finally getting what they always wanted. 

Rob and Ellie already told her far more open-minded, liberal parents. It was now time to turn their attention to his far more conservative, Catholic parents (who were still reeling from the shock of his recent divorce) during their weekly Sunday dinner gathering at his parents’ place.

            Rob first received the news while on a business trip to Chicago. He was sitting at a bar, enjoying his second Old-Fashioned and a plate of potato skins when he noticed he had three missed calls from Ellie. He assumed she had already turned into bed hours ago and wasn’t actively checking his phone.

            Slightly inebriated, he stumbled out of the bar area to call her back.

            “Everything okay?”

            “Congratulations.”

            “Huh?” he said, confused.

            “You’re going to be a daddy!”

            Silence.

            “Rob?”

            “Yes.”

            He was too stunned to say another word.

            “Are you still there?”

“You—you’re…?

“Pregnant. At least according to two pregnancy tests.”

“How?”

            “I think you know the answer to that.”

            Inside, he couldn’t feel happier, but he was too stunned – and drunk – to respond. Little did she know that he had actually been praying for this. But he was rationale enough to realize that prayer doesn’t automatically transform one’s internal biology. But he figured it couldn’t hurt, especially since her doctor never told her it was impossible. Just highly unlikely.

            “Are you sure?” he asked.

            After all, she tried for five years in her previous marriage to no avail. And doctors maintained the issue was with her – not him. In fact, the doctor said he had “super sperm.”

            So, what did this make his sperm?

            Despite everything they had gone through in the past year – right now, in this moment – as he stood in the lobby of his hotel– all was right with the world. They could both forget about the fact that they were both still recovering from their failed marriages. As were their respective parents. In fact, her divorce wasn’t even technically finalized yet.

            But if there was anything they both learned over the past year, it was that nobody can predict anything.

            It was exactly one year ago at this time that they were still mired in their joyless marriages that for years, appeared that no amount of abuse or neglect could rescue them from the trap that had become their lives. But then came the escape route neither one knew they were looking for, hitting them like a ton of a brick. A shot of heroin straight to the heart.

Rob and Ellie had worked together for five years, but it wasn’t until they didn’t about a year ago, when the floodgate of fate opened, turning their lives upside down. Their connection was immediate. Then came the first kiss. At that point, there was no turning back. They were runaway freight trains, recklessly and selfishly pursuing their own selfish wants and desire.

As Ellie pointed out, as much as they wanted to be together, there was only one rational, conceivable outcome: “a dead end”.  Yet they continued on, despite neither one of them ready to get out of their current situations, as toxic as they were. Even if most would have agreed that their relationships should have ended a long time ago (in some cases, some even urged for this to be the case), it certainly didn’t make it any easier to get out.

Making matters worse was the free license for everyone to openly bash their exes without regard to lingering pain, guilt, regret, and shards of their still-pulsating broken hearts. Until one goes through divorce, there is no way to fully fathom the myriad of layers and complexities that await them. An endless whirlpool of emotion. And cesspool of grief, anger, and spoiled nostalgia.

For him, it was the taboo of divorce, compounded by the lingering perception of a fairy tale romance, which had everything to do with the magical way they met and little to do with the marriage itself. For her, it was being resigned to a marriage of resigned mediocrity.

Over time, the clarity prevailed and they did what was necessary to be together, never fully realizing just how much pain and regret lied ahead, despite the overall happiness they had never felt to this degree before. As his ex, said through tears: “You can’t build love on other people’s misery,” she said through bitter tears. 

            But no matter how much the past had cast its shadow over their relationship, perhaps no greater sign existed that they were meant to be than the situation they now found themselves in, validating everything they sacrificed. And everything they risked.

She had always wanted children, but nature had other plans for her. Years of fertility issues never suppressed her desire. But it certainly deepened her depression. She tried just about every possible fertility treatment available. She tried acupuncture. Prayer. But all she got in return was grief. Along with resignation and growing acceptance that she was never going to have children.

As for him, it wasn’t that he didn’t want kids. He just always wanted them to come later, hopefully after (if?) he established himself as a writer. He knew once a kid arrived, his writing would take a backseat if he were to be the kind of father he wanted to be. But after several close calls, he realized that he was simply chasing rainbows.

Perhaps the pregnancy was a sign that it was finally time to move on, but he knew he probably could never quite shake the feeling that the time he invested into his dream would all be for nothing if he gave up now. Like a gambler, always certain that one more roll would be the big one.

It is fitting to note that the catalyst to his current predicament was when his ex-wife demanded that he give up his writing and focus more on her…and their marriage. For a short time, he did, but it led directly to his first bout with depression. It wasn’t a matter of not contributing around the house. He cooked. He cleaned. He did yard work. Sure, he wasn’t much of a handyman, but he made for it in other ways.  But it was never enough. And soon, the clouds of depression made him even less effective. The beginning of the end. He had proven for years that he could deal with the insults. The slaps. And the fists. But being told to give up his dream – which she had once supported with equal passion – was the final straw.

The good news is, he began to write again. And Ellie made that possible. And much to his surprise, it wasn’t long before he began to picture himself having a family with her. That’s when he realized it wasn’t a matter of not wanting kids. It was a matter of not wanting kids with his wife. And that’s when he knew that he had to end it. This was the clarity he was seeking. Of course, he was knowingly entering into a relationship with someone who was unable to bear a child and leaving behind somebody who constantly begged him for one. But then life decided to throw a giant curve ball.

She had no choice but to tell her family almost right away. She would have preferred to tell them after 12 weeks, but not drinking wine in front of them was going to be a dead giveaway.

Though her parents handled her news with grace and excitement, they were still struggling to fully accept her daughter’s seemingly sudden decision to leave her husband behind to be with her “lover,” of whom her mother bluntly and flippantly described as “not a relevant person.”  They had no idea how relevant he was about to become! After the initial shock wore off, they embraced her and shed tears of joy.

Now, it was time to face his family. It wasn’t so much his parents he was concerned about. It was his grandmother. In his grandmother’s world, there was only right. And there was wrong. There was no in-between. No gray areas. No flexible morals. Although he didn’t always agree with her, his grandmother was the greatest influence in his life and he hated to let her down. He was always the grandchild who listened to her the most – and in her mind, could do no wrong. Fair or not, she expected more out of him as a result.  

He couldn’t help but think about the elephant that would be in the room when they finally told them. That he himself was a child born out of wedlock. On one hand, it gave his parents no room for judgment.  On the other, his grandmother never got over it. In over 30 years.

            Despite the one glaring similarity to his parents’ situation, there were huge differences that they were certain would work in their favor. For one thing, they were literally half his age at the time. His father was holding a newborn baby in his arms days just days after barely finishing high school. 

            Even after his parents announced their intention to marry – to do “the right thing” – his grandmother refused to accept reality. In fact, she didn’t even attend the wedding as a matter of principal. Nobody ever fully recovered from this. The pain. The guilt. Though it had faded over time, it all still lingered there. Like a ghost.

And his grandmother had been trying to make up for it ever since. 

Little did they know, that something – God?…fate?…luck of the draw? – was about to give everyone a rare second chance.

            The big day arrived and with it, a giant snowstorm. They had postpone until the following Sunday. They decided the hour trek (but probably 3 hours in the snow) wouldn’t be worth the risk So, they would have to wait until next week.

            It was the longest week of their life.

            But the day finally came and with the ultrasound pictured safely tucked away in her purse, it was time to face the music. 

On the way up, they began to break down all the possible ways to break the news.  

For example, would they first announce the pregnancy, and then explain her past fertility issues? Or, would they preface things with the fertility issues? They anticipated and analyzed every possible reaction they were likely to face and the resulting responses, ranging from disownment to his mom immediately beginning to plan a baby shower. Each scenario had its own unique set of pros and cons. They ultimately decided to just let things play out in the moment, doing what felt right when the time came.

            “One of the first things my family is going to ask is if we plan to get married,” Rob stated.

            “What are you going to tell them?” she wondered.

            “That we’ve gone through too many life changes in recent months to rush into any other changes. But that we intended to raise our child together. And if they continue to bug us about it, I’m going to make it very clear to them that they have to stop.”

            “It’s so funny,” she said. “If I told my parents that we were going to get married, they would probably urge us not to rush into anything.”

            They both laughed. The ideological gap between the two families couldn’t be any wider. Despite the two of them both being fairly moderate, they certainly had their differences, but vowed never to let their differences come between them. They both knew where each other stood and figured there was no use trying to get one of the other to budge. Fortunately, they saw eye-to-eye on most issues.

            For now, the only issue that mattered was the task at hand: Telling his parents.  

            They tried to play it as cool as possible when they first arrived, not wanting to let on. They waited until everyone was seated at the dining room table, which included his parents and grandmother. The only question that remained was whether they would tell them while they were eating and risk ruining everyone’s meal, or telling them after the plates were cleared. They elected to tell them near the completion of their meal, before his mother got distracted with the business of doing dishes.

            He took a deep breath, took Ellie gently by the hand, then began:

            “We have something we need to tell you.”

Nervous anticipation filled the room. From the looks on their faces, it was obvious what they were already thinking.

“As you all know, we’ve been dating one another for awhile now. It didn’t take us long to envision a future together. We realize it’s never a good idea to rush into something …”

They hung on his every word, trying to decipher meaning where there seemed to be none.

He decided to cut straight to the chase, rather than ratcheting up the tension and anxiety.

            He removed a small photo from his shirt pocket and slid it toward his parents.

            “Mom. Dad. Meet your new grandchild.”

            They stared at the photo in stunned disbelief for what felt like five full minutes. Nobody seemed to know what words to say next.  Or, who should speak. So he did:

            “No matter how you perceive this, realize that we don’t see this as an accident. We see this as a miracle. And just know that we are committed to raising this baby together.”

            He was confident he was saying all the right things. But until they got a verbal response from his family, there was no way to know for certain. Finally, his mother broke the silence:

            “I have never been one to cast stones. Especially in a situation like this. I have always wanted what’s best for my children. I know you guys are happy together. And I am very happy for you guys. How could I not be? Plus, I’m getting a grandchild!”

            It was exactly the type of response they had hoped for – well, from his mother at least. Both his father and grandmother remained mute in stunned disbelief.

            “So, do you guys plan on getting married?” his mother finally asked.

            He gave the exact response he practiced over and over again in his head:

            “Although we can’t promise when, we can assure you that it will happen eventually. With all the life changes we’ve had this past year, I can’t say if it will happen before or after the baby is born. But once again, we will be functioning as though we were married. And no matter what, the baby is our priority.”

            Then Ellie chimed in: “I just want to say that I recognize that this news isn’t easy. I just want to be clear that for years, I had fertility issues. And I honestly didn’t think I would ever get pregnant. But I couldn’t be happier to be having a baby with your son.”

            “You’re very lucky to have my son.”

            “I know I am. I’ll be honest, when I first got married, I thought it was for life. Just like your son did. We both have parents who have been married for a long time and we were both hoping it would be the same for us. But it didn’t work out that way. But I couldn’t be more content with the way it did work out.”

 “I appreciate you saying this,” his mother said. “I’m so glad you see this as a blessing.”

Then, turning to her son: “And to be honest with you, I was beginning to think you were never going to have children. Now I don’t have to worry anymore. I can’t wait to start planning the shower.”

            Just as he predicted, his mother had already gotten over the initial shock and was already in planning mode – just had she done eight years ago when he announced his sudden engagement to a pen pal from Europe.

            One down, two to go. His father remained both speechless and expressionless, which was incidentally the same reaction he had when he announced his engagement, later breaking his silence with divine eloquence: “You’re nuts.” Only now, there were no words. Not yet, at least.

            The greater challenge, of course, remained his Grandmother. He wondered if his parents were having flashbacks.

And then she finally broke her silence.

            “The thing I have always wanted for my kids and grandkids more than anything, was their happiness. And if there’s anything that I have come to realize after a lifetime of experience, it’s that even though I don’t change, the world changes. As do people. And because people change, so does life.

“I might not always like everything, but I’ve learned from my mistakes. And I’m very happy for you two. And for my future great-grandchild. Just realize that raising a child is a tremendous responsibility. You are not just looking out for yourselves. But you must always love each other. No matter what, you must always love each other.”

He responded with echoes of a wedding vow. “We do.”

Ellie nodded in agreement.

A long bout of silence permeated.

And then suddenly, his father’s blank expression to take shape into something more concrete, yet indescribable. It was an expression that he had never quite seen on him before – something between shame, shock and anger and somewhere buried deep – relief and happiness. Slowly, he raised his hands to his reddened face. He remained that way for what felt like an eternity. It seemed as though everything hinged upon the outcome of this one moment. Suddenly, he got up, his face filled with tears, and headed out of the room. Of all the possible reactions they envisioned, this was not one of them.

            “You should probably go to him,” he said to his mother, who got up in agreement.

             “I know you will do the right thing,” his grandmother said.

            “We are,” Rob said in response.

Moments later, his parents entered. His father was no longer crying, but his face was red and puffy.

            “I wasn’t crying because I was upset,” his father said.

            “I know,” his son responded, realizing that in a heartbeat, thirty years of unresolved pain and regret was washed away by an unlikely, rocky miracle. And although nobody alluded to what was actually taking place, everyone knew that all was finally forgiven.

The father then walked over to his son and hugged him. The last time he had been hugged by his father was on his long-ago wedding day, when this particular moment wouldn’t have made any sense to anyone in that room.

When everything was different.

He then walked over to the woman carrying his future grandson and hugged her. And then they all had dessert.

The Tuxedo

Jimmy Thompson got his first job at a retirement home not far from his school. He had just turned 16. Though the home did have an assisted living component, it was not a nursing home like most people assumed. The majority of the residents were perfectly healthy, functioning, active seniors who just wanted to spend their golden years surrounded by liked-minded – and like-aged – individuals.

Though not the most exciting job in the world for a teenager, it certainly could have been worse. It was the perfect entry into the “real world” for a boy trying to find his footing in the world. He learned about the job at his school, when a rep from the Henry Ford Village Senior Living Community came in to tell students about how two full years of employment would be rewarded with a scholarship. Time would tell if he would stick it out for so long, but so far, so good.

 His primary job duties consisted of serving and/or bussing in the home’s spacious dining room. Gratuities of any sort were not permissible. The customers were friendly for the most part, but with the expected amount of cantankerousness one would expect from a dining room filled with senior citizens. Some were downright mean.

Though he made several friends his age at work, it was the relationships he made with the residents he cherished the most (just like his teachers at school).  The hardest part of the job (aside from dealing with the meanies) were the constant reminders of mortality – an unwritten part of the job description. Though thoughts of death haunted him for as long as he could remember, they had certainly become more frequent ever since he started this job. It seemed at least one resident passed away on a weekly basis (there was always a new resident on a waiting list waiting to take the deceased’s place). Jimmy never personally experienced the loss of a loved one, so it was unchartered territory for him. Both sets of grandparents were still alive, though his maternal grandmother was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, so his family had been mourning her loss in a slow drip.

Though he was close with many of the residents, there was one resident in particular that he forged an early bond with: Mrs. Shirley, a sweet, petite woman in sound health and mind, whose husband died a few years back. (Though one wouldn’t know it, as she spoke of him as though he were more alive than ever).

Mrs. Shirley took a special liking Jimmy on his very first day. Until he met her, he had been an absolute nervous wreck, barely sleeping the night before. And it was Mrs. Shirley with her calming presence who gave him the confidence he needed.

“No need to be nervous, young man,” she told him “You’re not a heart surgeon. Nobody is going to die if you make a mistake. They might just complain. It’s how we old farts are.”

 And from that point on, she treated him like the grandson she never had. Mrs. Shirley never had kids of her own.

“Wasn’t part of God’s plan. But he gave me a husband who loved me more than a woman could possibly be loved.”

From that first day forward Mrs. Shirley insisted that Jimmy was her server. She was too kind of a person to “demand” it, but certainly fell just short of it. It wasn’t long before his co-workers teased him by referring to Mrs. Shirley as “Jimmy’s girl”.  On his days off, it was impossible not to her notice that her lively spark was diminished.

One night, Mrs. Shirley caught him off guard when he was clearing her table.

            “Jimmy, could you take me back to my apartment?”

            “Sure!” he said.  “At least I think so. Is everything okay, Mrs. Shirley?”

            “Yes. I have something I want to show you.’

            “Okay. Was about to start my break, so perfect. Let me just take these dishes to the back.

            He took the dishes to the kitchen, wondering just what exactly he was getting into. He couldn’t help but feeling like he was doing something wrong. Like that he needed permission. He considered asking for permission, but had a feeling they would say no. It was a risk he was willing to take.

            He headed back to Mrs. Shirley’s table.

            “Well, then. Shall we?”

            “Yes, Mrs. Shirley.”

            She got up and took Jimmy by the arm and lead him toward her apartment, with key in hand, ready to go.

            She seemed to be walking slower than he remembered. Maybe it was his imagination, but she seemed frailer than he had remembered her ever being.

            As they walked down the long hallway toward her apartment, neither spoke. Talking always made him nervous anyway and she seemed to need every ounce of her strength to focus on walking.

They finally reached her door. As she struggled to insert the key, Jimmy noticed her hand was shaking heavily.

“Would you like some help, Mrs. Shirley?” 

            “Would you be so kind?”

            “Of course, Mrs. Shirley.”

            He opened the door for her. She entered.

            “Come on in,” she said, inviting into an apartment that smelled of mothballs and cold cuts, and overripe bananas.

            “Have a seat,” Mrs. Shirley said, pointing toward her sofa.

            Jimmy sat down, noticing a wedding portrait hanging on the wall.

            “Is that you, Mrs. Shirley?”

            “Hard to believe, but yes. Wasn’t I pretty?”

            Jimmy nodded awkwardly. She was beautiful.

            Mrs. Shirley headed over to an old record player and put the needle on a Nat King Cole record on an old player just like his grandparents had in their basement.

            He spotted a bowl of strawberry candies sitting on an end table. Just like his grandmother used to do, before the Alzheimer’s made her a shell of herself.

            “Go ahead. Have one.”

Jimmy took one. He was pretty sure it was the same end table his grandmother had, too.

            “Would you like some tea?”

            “No, thank you. I will need to get back to work soon.”

            “Do you like the music?”

            “Oh, yes. I played this song in jazz band last year. ‘Autumn Leaves’, right?

            “Oh, you are in a jazz band? How lovely! What instrument do you play?”

            “Sax. Alto.”

            “Just like my husband!”

            “Oh, nice.”

            “He played in the Army. After the war, he started a band of his own for a bit.”

            “Oh, wow. That’s great!”

            “Follow me,” she said.

            Jimmy followed her to the bedroom. He suddenly found himself growing anxious. Once again, he felt like he was doing something wrong. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.

            She began search for something in the deepest recesses of her closet, before finally pulling out a tuxedo inside an old dry cleaner’s bag. She carefully removed it from the bag.

            “This was my husband’s. He wore it on our wedding day.”

            Jimmy wasn’t sure what to say.

            “It’s very nice, Mrs. Shirley.”

            “Try it on.”

            “Um, are you sure?”

            “Please?”

            As much as he hated trying on clothes, he realized he didn’t have much of a choice. Just like when his grandma used to take him clothes shopping before the school year began.

            She handed him the tux.

            “Where should I…change?”

            “I will leave the room so you can change right here.”

            She stepped out, slowly closing the door behind her.

            He stared the tux. He had only worn a tux one other time in his life – when he was a ringbearer for his aunt’s wedding. He was five.

            He took off his work clothes and put on the tux. Though he had to get back to work, he made sure to handle it with care. He could tell it was old. The dress shirt was more yellow than white. And everything smelled like mothballs. He debated whether he should put on the cummerbund and cufflinks, but decided to just stick with the coat and pants. He looked at himself in the mirror, still not really sure what to think of the whole situation. He fixed his hair a bit, then stepped out of the room for a geriatric fashion show for one.

            Mrs. Shirley covered her face with her hands with delight, then shed tears of joy.

            “You look so devilishly handsome! And just like my husband!”

            “Oh, really?”

            “We were teenagers when we got married. Not much older than you. I just knew it would fit. Not only do you remind me of him, but you are about his size.” 

            “Really?”

            “If you wear this, you’re going to have fight the girls off with a stick.”

            Jimmy begins to blush.

            “Yeah, right.”

“Surely, there must be one special girl who would love to see you in this tuxedo.”

            Jimmy shakes his head, looking down.

            “I don’t believe that.”

            “Well, there is one girl I really like. Just not sure if she likes me.”

            “And what is her name?”

            “Aimee.”

            “Such a beautiful name.”

            Nat King Cole’s “Stardust” begins to play.

            “This was our wedding song,” Mrs. Shirley said. “Will you dance with me?”

            “Sure,” he said, sheepishly. “This was my grandparents’ wedding song, too!”

            “You don’t say!”

            He had only slow-danced with a girl once before. He felt no less confident now than he did then. And the last thing he wanted to do was step on Mrs. Shirley’s feet. But somehow, by following her lead, he managed to do just fine. And though not part of his job description, he supposed it beat washing dishes.

When the song was over, she gave him a grandmotherly peck on the cheek, just like his grandmother used to before she forgot who everyone in the family was, with the exception of fleeting moments of recognition that faded as quickly as they came.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” Jimmy said, blushing.

“You can get changed now.”

He went back into the bedroom and changed, carefully putting the tux back into the bag. When he came back out, holding the bag, Mrs. Shirley was sitting in her chair, trying to catch her breath.

“Are you okay, Mrs. Shirley?”

“I will be. Just not used to so much excitement!” she said with a laugh, before taking a sip of water.

 “Where would you like me to put this?” Jimmy said, still holding the tux.

“You’re taking it with you!”

“I can’t do that, Mrs. Shirley. We’re not allowed to take gifts…”

“It’s not a gift. And I will insist if anyone gives you any trouble!”

“Okay, Mrs. Shirley.”

“I don’t need it anymore. And it’s a perfect fit.  It was waiting for you all this time! And this way, you will always remember me. And also keep a piece of my husband alive.”

            “Are you sure?” Jimmy said, wondering what on earth he would do with this tux. His mother certainly wouldn’t be too thrilled that he was bringing home an old, stinky tux.

            “Of course, I’m sure! It’s yours now.”

            “Anything else, Mrs. Shirley?”

 “You’re dismissed. Would you like one more candy for the road?”

“Sure!” he said, reaching for one.

“Thanks again, Jimmy.”

“You’re welcome. And thank you…for the tux. And the candy. Have a good night Mrs. Shirley.”

“You, too. Jimmy. Sweet dreams.”

She remained in her chair, staring straight ahead at her wedding picture, as though traveling back through time.

He headed back to work, still trying to process what had just happened. He couldn’t stop thinking about the young and beautiful Mrs. Shirley.

The next day at work, he learned that Mrs. Shirley was gone. She passed away in her sleep, in the same spot he had left her. At dinner that evening, her seat at her table was empty. Her tablemates solemn. Another reminder of where they would also soon be heading.

            Years passed. Jimmy became Jim. And yet, the tux has remained with him year after year. In one closet after another.  As time went on, he got married. Had two kids. Three grandchildren. Lost his wife to cancer just short of 70.  But the tux remained, as did the mothball scent.  

He never wore it again in his lifetime until –  as instructed to his loved ones – he passed away into eternal rest.

Farewell Norman Rockwell

Though they had been separated since January, Johnny and Melissa were still living together by spring. They decided to wait until the school year was over to do what they had been dreading most since this whole nightmare began: telling the kids. Savannah was finishing up first grade. Thomas was finishing kindergarten. And they were about to get the hardest lesson of their young lives.

Months of therapy prepared Johnny and Melissa for this moment – at least to the point where they could both tackle the situation without having a major meltdown in front of their kids (behind closes doors was best). They certainly experienced no shortage of those over the past several months, and presumably several months to come.

The last thing either one of them wanted to do was fall apart in front of Savannah and Thomas. And though therapy helped prepare for them for this moment, it was impossible to shake the thought that no matter how the therapist spun it, the kids would only see this as bad news – that their lives were about to change forever. And by extension, they would turn out damaged as result. This was by far, the most difficult part about this process – at least, up until this point. No amount of therapy could really prepare one for this?

They both had their own way of expressing their emotions in front of one another. For him, it was tears. Her outlet was anger. It wasn’t surprising. He wore his emotions more outwardly on his sleeve than she did. She tended to keep her emotions bottled up. However, since their separation, her wrath toward him skyrocketed exponentially.

Crying only pissed her off more.

“You asked for this,” was her stock response.

And yes. He did ask for this. But what he did not ask for was a marriage lacking in every possible category of the Five Love Languages – a book his therapist suggested he read. In fact, that book was the true tipping point. A wake-up call to what should have been obvious all along. As it turned out, she freely admitted to not being fluent in any of the love languages. When he brought this up with her, her defense was that he had no idea how hard it was to be a mother. True. He did not. His therapist called bullshit. And for months, he was torn between what his wife was telling him…and what his therapist was telling him. A tug-of-war that he had become more and more convinced would end in a stalemate.

Was he being gaslit? If so, by whom? Or, was he gaslighting himself into thinking he was being gaslit? It was thoughts such as this that kept him up at night in what he referred to as the “pit of despair” – usually between the hours of 3 am and his 5:30 alarm.

So, he dredged on through therapy trying to work it out in his jumbled, scarred brain. Meanwhile, she quit her therapy before the winter began its long thaw toward spring. He didn’t dare ask why she quit. The last person she wanted questioning her or even offering advice was him. That is how it had always been. If he were to guess, it was that she must have heard something she didn’t want to hear. She was fine, of course. He was the one with the problem. Though in her defense, she was the one who initially fought for couples counseling. But by that point, his mind was already made up. And nothing, nothing would ever make him reverse course.

Coinciding with the end of the school year was his need to find a place of his own. They were both teachers and the idea of being home together all summer long was the one thing they both agreed upon. He eventually found an affordable condo for rent in a neighboring town.

Now came the hardest part: telling the kids. There was no getting around it. Only then, would it all feel real. And that was what scared them the most. He would no longer be able to hide from the truth, where everything was still wonderfully “normal”.  Even though they had both told their families and a handful of close friends, until the kids knew and one of them moved out, their separation wouldn’t feel real. It would only exist in the abstract. It didn’t help that at times, she seemed to be in denial.

The school year crawled its way to its inevitable end – which was typically cause to celebrate. This year, summer would mean mourning. A week passed and they still hadn’t told the kids. They finally picked a date, a few days before taking the kids up north for a couple of weeks to visit her parents. An annual tradition. They hoped the trip would provide a safe buffer and sense of “normalcy” before they had to get used to the idea of ping-ponging between parents.

The day of reckoning arrived and they decided to tell them after dinner. As the day dragged on, dread and doubt spread like an accelerating cancer in his mind. It was the longest day of his life.

But all things must come to pass.

They jointly prepared their kids’ favorite meal: he made burgers on the grill. She made mac & cheese. As he stood at the grill, he realized that someday, it would no longer be his. He also couldn’t help but feel that feeding the kids their favorite meal moments before delivering news that would negatively change their lives forever was a bit cruel. In fact, it made him feel sick to his stomach. As much as he thought he wanted a divorce, he hated being the one responsible for having control over this decision. In fact, there were times that he would have much preferred to be the victim. But he knew the old adage well enough: the grass is always greener…

Dinner was served. As they ate, he couldn’t help but realize that if a passerby were to peer into their living room window, they would have seen a perfectly happy family of four seated at the dining room table. But when looking into windows from afar, things are rarely what it seems.

The kids ate, oblivious to the fact that their parents hardly touched their own food (a simple salad for her; hot dog and mac and cheese for him). They waited toward the end of the meal to tell them, as not to spoil their supper. They were poor eaters in ordinary circumstances.

When the time came to deliver the news, he took the lead as agreed upon. As she reminded him beforehand, this was all his idea to begin with. He stuck to the script he repeatedly rehearsed in his mind – as suggested by his therapist. Somehow, he managed to hold himself together. She did, too. Both kids were initially stoic, but probably because they couldn’t fully process what was happening. But then Savannah began to weep. Thomas, meanwhile, responded by asking for another hot dog.

As Johnny went to retrieve more food, Savannah jumped into her mommy’s lap to be consoled, as Thomas took comfort in his second hot dog. Moments later, everything returned to normal again and Johnny was overcome with a sudden sense of relief and realization that maybe everything was going to be okay after all. Just as his therapist said, it is usually harder for the parents, than it is for the kids. At least short-term. Long-term was to be determined.

He wasn’t naïve to think it wasn’t all temporal. But in this moment – and the long and arduous days and months to follow – he quickly learned that small victories were the best he could hope for.

After discussing how daddy would sometimes be living somewhere else, Savannah immediately asked:

“Will daddy have popcorn and bourbon at his condo?” (or, as his Thomas would come to call it, his “combo”).

“I promise you that daddy will have all the bourbon and popcorn he could ever want,” he said, stopping just short of admitting that there would be more, in fact.

“Who wants to go out for ice cream?” Melissa suggested.

And the kids rejoiced.

Never underestimate the therapeutic powers of ice cream.

As they ate their ice cream at their neighborhood ice cream stand, nothing seemed out of ordinary.

And ordinary was exactly what they all needed more than anything that night.

The next night, Johnny spent the first night at his other place. And yes, he had bourbon and popcorn. Then cried himself to sleep.

A new sense of normalcy was still a long way off.

The battle was far from over.

But it was a start.

First Crush

Lillian had only recently become obsessed with the idea of smooching. One more step on the journey into loss of innocence that parents have no choice but to helplessly watch their children traverse.

She was eight.

Totally normal Kevin reminded himself.

He didn’t consider himself an overly protective dad – at least, not yet. But he wasn’t naïve, either

There was certainly a charming innocence to her recent fascination, which he assumed – hoped – was limited to what she saw on TV and in movies.

Perhaps he was naïve.

Maybe it was already happening on playground. If not now, then probably someday soon.

He tried not to think about it.

One place she certainly wasn’t seeing it was in own home. Of course, she received no shortage of affection from her parents, but she certainly never witnessed any affection between them.

Did she even notice? Perhaps not. Maybe she just assumed it only happened in the land of make believe. Then again, she had surely seen other family members and friends showing affection. So why not her parents?

He considered it no coincidence that her with love and smooching was piqued shortly around the time her parents started living separately. Shortly after that, came her first official “crush”. Or, at least the first crush she openly admitted to. He suspected she had earlier crushes. She just didn’t know what that meant at the time

“Sounds like somebody has a crush,” he teased.

Much to his surprise, she admitted it. Then blushed. He didn’t push it any further.

His name was Alex. He was in the other 2nd grade class.

For the days and even weeks that followed, she shared a daily Alex report:

“Alex told a funny joke.”

“Alex burped the alphabet at lunch.”

“Alex farted.”

And then one day, she sprinted out of school with the biggest smile he had seen since the separation. In fact, he couldn’t remember when she looked that happy.

“Alex smiled at me today!” she exclaimed, as giddy as – well, a schoolgirl.

“From across the lunch table!”

From what he gathered, Alex still hadn’t spoken directly to her. But never underestimate the power of a smile. Especially through the point-of-view of a second grader.

It filled his heart with so much joy to see her walking out with a smile on her face, rather than tears. How many times did that happen that school year? Too many. Between the separation and her struggles to make friends, real, or perceived, it broke his heart every time, triggering the sting of being a former victim of bullying himself.

It never goes away.

Weeks passed, but her crush didn’t. He quickly learned not to bring up Alex to spare her the embarrassment. However, she freely talked about him so much, there was no need to bring it up.

Not lost in all of this was how open Lillian was about sharing all of this with him. As much as he hoped it would always be like this, he knew better. Someday, sooner than he even realized, she would be a teenager. And before long, an adult. And no matter how close they were, he would never be privy to everything. And someday, her biggest secrets would be trusted with someone else. Some of these men would up hurting her. And yet, her secrets would remain with them. Some might even use them against her. It sickened him to even think about it.

Someday, she would probably find out his biggest secrets He would own up to it, but he knew the potential damage it could do to the bond they shared. For now, he would continue to savor their mutual love for The Beatles, the annual Daddy-Daughter Dance that she recently told him that she wanted to do forever, and bike rides through the neighborhood – a neighborhood that was still his, as long as he continued the “nesting” arrangement with his ex, Jennifer. As far as Lillian knew, mommy threw daddy out of the house. In reality, she didn’t want any of this at all. And once she understood the truth, how could he possibly explain to his daughter that he left in the best interest of the kids?

Someday, he would face the music. But for now, there was daddy. And Alex. Alex was momentarily winning. And there would always be another Alex waiting around the corner to contend with.

He was all she could think about and Kevin soon began to wonder how much of it was in her head. If so, she took after him more than he even realized.

A few weeks into her crush, she sprung out of the building with a new level of unbridled joy:

“Guess what?! Alex gave me a note!”

There was another note the next day. And the day after that.

But then, in typical fashion, reality came and reared its ugly head.

It began with a call from Jennifer. He naturally assumed it would probably have something to do with finances, or, some nitpicky thing he did wrong last time he was at the house.

“You know those notes that Lillian keeps bringing home from school?” Jennifer began.

“Yeah?”

“I don’t think they’re from Alex.”

“What do you mean?”

“I looked at the handwriting. And then I looked at her best friend Chloe’s handwriting. It’s identical.”

“Are you sure?”
“Positive. I’ll send you pics.”

“Should we tell her?” he asked.

“I think so.”

“She’s going to be heartbroken.”

“Won’t be the last time,” she said in her typical glass half-empty fashion.

“True,” he agreed. “But is there any harm in delaying the inevitable?”

She thought on it.

“I will call her Chloe’s mom first. Just to be sure. And then I’ll talk to her.”

As much as he wished it didn’t have to be so, it was for the best.

“Okay.”

When they got off the phone, she sent the pics. There was no question it was the same handwriting.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first hard lesson she learned. And he had no doubt she could handle it. After all, this is the same girl who at the age of five, taught a little boy on the playground a lesson in sexual harassment after he a got a little too handsy:

“That’s my ‘gina’,” she shouted. “It’s very dangerous and could get you fired.”

As confident that he was that his daughter could handle it, helplessly watching her emerge from the cocoon of innocence was almost too much to bear at times.

As it turned out, Chloe confessed to forging the letters. She used the defense that she didn’t want Lillian to feel left out since she was the only one in their friend group who didn’t have a “boyfriend” and knew that Lillian had a crush on Alex. She would later write Lillian an apology. And though Lillian she was disappointed in her best friend, she knew she meant well.

“What do they need boyfriends for?” Kevin asked. “They’re eight!”

“Don’t be naïve,” Jennifer said.

A familiar refrain.

“But you’re right,” she continued. “Why do we need boys at all?”

He knew well enough to back down.

They agreed that Jennifer should be the one to tell their daughter after school the next day. Though he felt a protective instinct to talk to her himself, he knew it was for the best to let her mother handle this one. The last thing she needed to hear in this instance was advice from a man. At least he would be at the house when the conversation happened for their weekly family dinner night. This was part of their agreement when they separated, so that their daughter could continue to have family memories throughout childhood. Neither one knew how long it would last, but for now, it worked for them.

When Kevin picked Lillian up from school that day, he could tell she wasn’t her usual giddy self. She wasn’t sad, but not nearly as happy as she had been every day after school. She didn’t mention anything about Alex. Nor, did he want to ask. He assumed there was no note today. She remained pretty during after dinner, too. He dreaded how she would take the news.

After dinner, Jennifer talked with their daughter in her bedroom, with the door closed. As tempted as he was, Kevin did the respectful thing by not eavesdropping.

A few minutes later, mother and daughter emerged from the bedroom. There were no tears. Lillian simply carried the notes “from Alex” that she had been saving in her jewelry box that she got for her 4th birthday. Without saying a word, she simply tore them up over the recycling bin, then grabbed her Harry Potter book and curled up on the couch to read.

Business as usual.

The next day, she took down all of her Disney princess stuff off her walls.

That night, as he tucked her into bed, he asked:

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, daddy.”

“I’m sorry Chloe did that to you.”
“It’s okay. She meant well.”

“I just want you to know, you are so pretty and smart and boys will always have crushes on you, but you will always be able to pick among the very best. Life will be full of crushes and broken hearts, but you have the strongest heart of all.”

“Thank you, daddy.”

“I want you to know that I’m always going to be your umbrella beneath the rain. I might not be able to stop the storm, but I can shield you from it.”

She nodded with the assurance she probably didn’t even need. But as long as she was his little girl, he was never going to stop trying.

“And no matter what, you will always be daddy’s little princess.”

“Not a princess. A queen.”

Kevin laughed, fighting back tears.

He knew right in that moment that even though he wouldn’t always be able protect her, this experience proved she wouldn’t always need protecting.

“And with a daddy like you, I don’t really care about any other boys.”

She then kissed him on the cheek, rolled over, and closed her eyes.

There was nothing else to be said.

She already knew the moral of the story.

Tick

They were on a runaway train heading toward an abyss. And neither one of them knew how to stop it, nor did they know how much track was left. One thing was certain – to him, at least: every argument moved them one step closer to the cliff.

With the arrival of spring, Brian found unexpected refuge in nature. He was never much of an outdoorsman, nor, was he one to take walks. But for the sake of his own sanity, he had grown accustomed to leaving for a walk after – or even during – an argument. It was only a matter of time before he would walk out the door for good. He was hopeful his wooded sojourns would provide the clarity he needed to move on with his life. For his sake as much as hers. Most importantly, for the sake of their children.

Of course, taking walks was so uncharacteristic of him, it wasn’t long before Christine became suspicious of his increasingly long walks. He went so far as to take pictures as proof if it ever got to the point where he needed to provide it. In fact, one time it did.

“But how do I know you weren’t there with someone?” she continued to ask.

He had no way to prove otherwise.

And though he realized that turning his back on an argument was rooted in selfishness, he couldn’t bear the thought of his children having to suffer through it. In fact, the potential damage their arguments were having on the kids was a primary reason he wanted out to begin with (or, at least his primary justification). He had a litany of other, more selfish reasons, of course. But once he realized just how much his kids were impacted, he decided to get serious about formulating his exit strategy. Or, at least thinking about formulating one. He just had to get out his own damn way. And ultimately learn to live without guilt.

Then again, was that even possible?

Though he had his go-to trails, he decided to take advantage of living in a town that had no shortage of parks and trails to seek out different paths.

As he drove toward his favorite trail, he found himself once again mired in regret about not hugging his kids goodbye. The again, what choice did he have in the midst of an argument? He tried to assuage his guilt by reminding himself that he wouldn’t be gone for long. The guilt was deafening. It was finally put on pause when what appeared to be an unmarked trailhead caught his attention just off the side of the road. He found it odd that he had never noticed it before. Then again, it was pretty well-hidden.

Under ordinary circumstances, he wasn’t one to take the road less traveled, but if there were ever a time to break the mold, it was now.

In typical fashion, he initially passed on the opportunity and kept on driving, but then slowed down and parked on the side of the road. No other car was in sight. In fact, no other cars even passed by, which was unusual for such a perfect, sunny spring day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. And the temperature was approaching 70. Though he typically enjoyed the solitude, he didn’t mind the occasional passerby. It reminded him that he wasn’t completely alone. It gave him hope for a future he was trying to get to. As much as he wanted out of his situation, he sometimes feared being alone even more.

But taking the road less traveled, meant facing it alone.

He entered the narrow trail head. Though there was a path, it was partially obscured by

undergrowth. His inability to identity poison ivy lack certainly demonstrated his lack of nature expertise. So, he treaded carefully. He was also mindful of the possibility of ticks. He regretted wearing shorts.

The deeper he got into the woods, the narrower and less worn the path became. And the more alone he felt. Before long, there was no path at all. He was forging his own path until he happened upon an intersecting trail, followed by one fork in the road after another. Before he knew it, he was lost. And he had no idea if he was getting further away from the point of entry, or if he was just going around in circles. Sometimes, things looked familiar. Other times, it did not.

He had no internal compass, so this was nothing new. He reached into his pocket to grab his phone to use as a compass would help. But then he realized he left his phone in the car.

Just his luck.

He tried not to panic, figuring he would eventually figure out his way back. Or, at least come out on some road – if not the one he parked on.

He continued to wander aimlessly. He had lost all sense of time. If only he had his phone. Every time he thought he had it figured out, he reached another fork in the road. Before long, everything looked familiar no matter which path he chose.

In fact, the only thing that changed was the sky. It had gone from cloudless blue to a dark grey. At first, he thought he was just in a densely-shaded part of the woods. After all, there were no clouds in the forecast.  But then he looked up. A storm appeared to be brewing.

Two wrong turns later, he felt the first drop. Then a steady drizzle. Then a downpour. At least, there was no lightning.

But then there was.

Panic set in. Of being lost. And of the eventual hell to pay when he returned home. Then again, maybe she would be worried enough not to be mad. And his poor kids. The last thing he wanted to do was make them more stressed and worried then they probably already were.

He realized he had no idea how much time had passed. He would have been no less surprised if it were 45 minutes or two hours.

He took shelter until the storm stopped, leaving behind just a steady drizzle. By that point, he was already soaked.

Sheltering in place wasn’t going to get him anywhere, so he set out, determined to find his way out of the unexpected labyrinth he found himself lost in.

He thought he finally found his exit, only to lead to a dead end. So, he turned around and kept on his journey, of which every one must come to an end.

He considered cutting through woods, but was worried that might get him even more lost. He would stick to the trail – for now, at least.  There were a couple of times he thought he happened upon the way out, only to reach another dead end.

Just when he thought he traversed through every possible inch of the forest, he came across a new sight: train tracks! Though they were clearly abandoned, he decided to follow them. Surely, the would lead him out of the woods. They didn’t. They, too, came to a dead end.

He had just about abandoned all hope when he noticed a patch of sunlight at the end of the trail, despite the rain that was still falling overhead. He walked toward the light and lo and behold, he made it out of the woods.

Not only was the sun back out, but there was no sign of rain at all. The ground was bone dry. And not a single cloud in the sky.

He headed back to his car and quickly checked his phone. He had no missed calls or texts from home, which was surprising considering that she would ordinarily begin to bombard him if he was gone a minute longer than expected. He looked at the time. 2:45. He could have sworn that was the time he had arrived. He must have been wrong.

He sent a text to his wife Christine to say he was on his way, but it bounced back as “undeliverable.” He tried again. Sane result. The natural assumption to make would have been that there was no signal. But his phone indicated otherwise.

Just before he drove off, he noticed a black dot on his leg. He examined it more closely.

A tick!

It hadn’t had a chance to burrow itself deeply, so he was able to pluck it off with ease, relying on his childhood memories of the occasional tick during family vacations up north.

As he headed home, he continued to see no sign of rain, except for the fact that he was completely drenched.

He tried calling Christine, but her number was “no longer in service.”

He pulled into the driveway. The garage was open and something seemed off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Did she clean out the garage while he was gone?

He entered. Christine stood at the counter, chopping vegetables. Noting unusual. But then she stopped mid-chop and looked at him with an expression he never quite noticed before. A look that could only be described as confused fear. She appeared “off” in other ways, too. She looked… younger. Like when he first met her.

“You won’t believe what happened—” Brian began.

“May I help you?” said a man’s voice he didn’t recognize:

Brian turned to look in the direction of the voice.

“What is going on?” Brian asked. “Where are the kids?”

“Get out,” the man demanded. “Or, I’ll call the police.”

“Christine…”

“Do you know him?” the stranger asked.

“I never saw this man before in my life,” Christine said to the man who clearly wasn’t a stranger to her.

He walked backwards out the door and quickly headed to his car once he got outside. As he drove off, he realized he recognized the man from somewhere. And old Facebook post. Her ex – years before their first born.

He kept driving, with no idea where he was heading. Then again, who really ever does?