World builder. What an incredible responsibility. To take a bunch of words, images, or both and toss them about, piece them together, and create a place that for a limited amount of time, one can inhabit. And to create this place over and over with different situations, different results, different realms is exhilarating, and humbling.
The possibilities can be endless. The outcomes of those possibilities can also be endless. A man sets out on a journey and on each leg he finds obstacles, setbacks, or opportunity. His road diverges and the story somehow changes. A car spins out of control, crashes into a guardrail, and over an embankment. Do the occupants live? Do they die? What trauma might exist for the survivor or the family of the deceased? A woman is offered a new job in a newsroom with a large viewership at the same time she is promoted to editor of her small town newspaper. Does she accept the new big city job or does she become editor making a difference in her own hometown?
Each fictional writing is a world all its own. When opening a book’s pages, images form through eyes cast toward each written word. Separate, words convey their own meaning, but together they form a concept. And in a novel, they create a level of existence apart from its physical surroundings. Being taken to anyplace other than the here and now is magical or it can be. It all depends on which way the words take us. Will the castle fall? The heroine conquer her fears? Will the end be as satisfying as the beginning?
World building. What an incredible responsibility.
Halfway down, on top of haphazardly folded garland and lying under a box of battery lights I find him. He’s reclining on top of crushed greenery and grinning up at me as if to say, “been awhile, nice to see you again.” I pull him out of the green container, straighten his smoky white beard, and in answer to his silent greeting I tell him, “Hello, it’s good to see you, too. Looks like we made it to another year. Merry Christmas.“
To say my dad loved Christmas is an understatement. In movies, he’s the guy that brings home the too big freshly cut Balsam fir. The guy that singlehandedly carries it into the house and directly into the living room, its branches knocking delicate holiday decorations off each table it passes. Though sold several times since, I am sure my childhood home’s living room ceiling bears a hint of a scar attributed to too many tree jabs from a too tall tree. And I’ll wager that, if standing completely still under that part of the ceiling and listening with great concentration, one can still hear a wave of excuses: but the tree looked a lot smaller in the middle of that damn tree lot AND we needed a Christmas focal point. Mom’s reply was to cast a wilting stare in Dad’s direction with his response a shrug and tilt of his head as he innocently tried to gain her approval.
So, as due course would have it in our holiday household, it happened that one cold and snowflake filled night Dad walked in after work holding a gift wrapped package the size of a shoe box meant for very large shoes. As he handed it to my mom my dad smiled in a too broad grin. Although I was only about five at the time, his grin reminded me of childhood pictures of him proudly displayed at my grandmother’s house. His nickname was Sonny, he sported a headful of blonde hair, and always displayed that very same smile.
Mom was of a different temperament. Oh, she had a sense of humor; she enjoyed TV sitcoms, cracked jokes with her friends, and could cast a sarcastic dig with the best of any gagman. But she was also the mother of an everywhere-every minute toddler and a snarky, curious five year-old as well as the title holder of acting chief financial officer for the family. Always tired and always busy, she resonated a distinct no nonsense image. She didn’t grin when Dad handed her the package. Although she didn’t quite scowl either.
Her unenthusiastic response was lost on me and my brother. With wide eyed anticipation evidenced through our obnoxious jumping, we forced our mother into a predicament. She overcame her passivity and sat down on our red velvet couch to open the present. Upon opening the lid she sighed. I’m still not sure if she was pleased, overwhelmed, or questioning the cost. But upon reaching in and lifting the gift out of the box the trepidation was over. She lost. Because the minute we saw what it was, my brother and I stopped jumping up and down, stopped giggling and froze. After a beat, simple delight filled our eyes.
Mom and Dad are both gone now. My brother is happy in a new marriage and I don’t see him very often. I have a husband of almost fifty years and two grown daughters. With one daughter living far away and working non-traditional hours, our family celebrates the holidays on her terms, delighted to make Christmas Eve and Christmas Day whatever two days we can all get together, but always in December.
In this present day the responsibility to feel joy and merriment can weigh heavy at times. Growing older with each Christmas can bring about a breathtaking pause. The rush of time becomes overbearing, particularly at Christmas as a sudden urge to do a personal life-inventory becomes necessary and urgent.
But this feeling falls away when, just as Mom lifted him out of the package for the very first time, I hoist the grinning chubby and rosy cheeked Santa up and out of the green container. This old and scruffy Santa resumes his place once again on our entry side table, greeting holiday visitors with his chubby hand raised in a hello and his red velvet suit cast in a warmly lit glow.
If only for a short time, this Santa stops the clock for me and ushers in memories of a child jumping in exuberant glee with the inability to contain her wild abandon. This Santa guarantees that with each Christmas I bring up the holiday boxes he will be there providing anticipation and a sense of excitement that I can take into the new of each year.
But most of all, this Santa gives me back a part of my dad that I never met. This Santa gives me Sonny and makes me smile, year in and year out. Merry Christmas Dad.
Calypso music permeates the theatre and glides through the night air landing at the feet of our beach chairs. Laughter springs from my friends’ lips while they sit sipping wine as we chatter about our days; both present and past. Dishes clink and clatter together in the kitchen of our favorite restaurant as we sit enjoying our meal while we cover our day, what we did—where we went. Our daughters’ chatter—light, lively banter back and forth as we say good-bye for the day, then hug them, instantly taking in the scent of their hair, the largesse of their embraces.
I line up these thoughts like cut scenes from a movie. To disengage from the incessant loop, I move on, but only to a different loop. Scenes of a brighter tomorrow run through my mind’s projector. For almost a year, my husband and I have waited, so this cut is worn, the film delicate, but still viewable.
My husband and I are currently, and very impatiently, waiting for the vaccine. We are in our state’s Group 1B—Tier 2. Our group’s inoculations were to begin this week, but due to lack of supplies, we have been told to wait. Patiently wait. As we wait, we watch the number of vaccinated increase. With unrelenting sadness, we also watch the daily deaths climb.It’s as if we’re reaching the climactic moment in a film, musical score ratcheting up our emotions, action in high gear, characters pressed into emotional cyclones. But this isn’t a movie, it’s real life playing out in real time changing lives forever and lending more definition to catastrophe than anything our modern world has ever faced.
So, this is what we do. I write queries and begin new tales, reread my Covid short stories, all ten of them. Edit some—laugh out loud at others. My husband calls his daughters, living vicariously through them occasionally, giving them advice on everything from creative budgeting to how to cook a pot roast.
I realize that each day we get closer. And as we wait, each day is growing longer, both figuratively and in reality. Spring will be here soon.
Our friends will sit with us and we will laugh again. We will hug our daughters. The cut scenes will need editing using additions of fragmented new scenes. Our action will resume, our stories will survive. We will all rush back to our lives, fragmented but together, envisioning embraces that right now we can only anticipate with great hope.
Sophie leaned over the bed, “Ready to go home, Pete?”
The elderly man slowly raised his steady gaze, meeting Sophie’s deep blue eyes head on.
“Couldn’t be more ready,” he said without a trace of emotion.
“Well, let’s get you out of here then.” Sophie retrieved her stethoscope and listened to Pete’s rhythmic breathing.
“Wiggle your toes,” she commanded.
“You mean my once purple toes?” Pete asked as he vigorously followed Sophie’s instructions.
“Good. Now stick out your tongue.”
“You’re an awfully demanding nurse, ya know,” he said in the same dry tone.
“I’ve brought your favorite shirt.” Appearing suddenly in the open doorframe, a snowy white-haired full-figured woman held up a Chicago Bears long-sleeved t-shirt.
“Clara, are you prepared to deal with this cantankerous man?” Sophie said as she wrote on the clipboard.
“No. But I have no choice now do I?” Clara smiled as she walked to the bedside and smoothed back Pete’s thick gray hair. “Besides, I can’t leave him here. You nurses would kill me!”
“Okay, that’s enough. And ironically, you are quite wrong. They tried to kill ME!” A slow smile crept across Pete’s face.
“I think it’s the other way around, dear. They did everything in their power to save you. And, thank God, it worked.” Clara said as she smiled down at Pete.
“Well, Pete, are you ready to go home?” A tall, gangly man strode in, his white coat fluttering in time with the briskness of his walk.
“Dr. Regada, please tell these women to get off my back.”
“I promise to do just that, after I examine you.”
Dr. Regada pulled the curtain around the bed as Clara and Sophie left the room and stood outside the door.
“I’d better make my rounds.” Sophie said to Clara. “Pete will be fine now.”
She patted the older woman’s hand. “He’s a real stinker, but I am going to miss him.”
As she started to leave, Clara took her arm, “Sophie, wait.”
“I wanted to thank you—“
“I’m just doing my—“
“No. You are doing more than your job, and under such difficult circumstances. I’m so glad for you and the other medical staff that Pete is the last one.”
Clara gave Sophie a tight-lipped smile. “When Pete was so bad, well, you know how it was, all I could do was wait. And for some reason this one thought kept running through my mind.”
Sophie’s interest was piqued. “What was it Clara?”
“I kept thinking I wasn’t going to have that spumoni date ever again.”
Sophie gave her a puzzled look, “Spumoni date?”
Clara laughed, “We had a recurring date, first Friday of the month. We went to our favorite Italian restaurant and had spumoni. Oh, sometimes we had dinner, too, though not always. But we never missed our spumoni nights and most of the time we sat in the same little booth in the corner.”
“Anyway, I realize it’s just a stupid little thing, but I couldn’t keep the image out of my mind, the two of us sitting in our booth eating that wonderful dessert! I think that image was subconsciously planted in my head to keep me from thinking about all the other moments I might not get a chance to share with the old coot. Spumoni, huh? Crazy!”
Sophie tilted her head, smiled, and grasped Clara’s arm with a firm hold, “No, Clara, it’s not crazy. Crazy would be if you didn’t have more spumoni moments with him. Now, go back in there and get that man ready to go home before he starts bellowing loud enough that the noise echoes down the hallway again.”
“Okay, you take care, ya hear?”
Sophie walked to the nurse’s station. Her coworker and friend, Marnie, looked up from the computer screen as Sophie approached.
“Did you know that Pete and Clara have a spumoni date every first Friday of the month?” Sophie asked as she laid down her clipboard and stretched her neck.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Pete told me. Why?”
“Clara just told me.”
“What’s up, you two?” Another nurse, Beth, walked briskly up to the desk.
“Pete. He and his wife have a spumoni date every— “
“Yeah, Pete told me.”
“Why didn’t I know that?” Sophie asked with a slightly annoyed tone.
“I’m sure he told you. Or, he’s quite a jabberer, maybe he jabbered on about other things to you.” Beth replied.
“You’re right, he did. He told me stories from his days working at the post office and said he still attends retiree breakfasts. He relayed a story he heard there about a fellow mail lady and a cat.”
“And he mentioned that his granddaughter works in some newsroom. Oh, and his other daughter is working from home and slowly going crazy, what with family always under her thumb.”
Beth laughed. “That’s Pete. He was here a long time. I’m going to miss him. But I’m glad he is going home.”
After a few laughs about their last critical patient in C-Ward, the nurses quieted down as they worked separately, reviewing new patient information, and gathering more supplies. As a welcome change, these new patients arrived with familiar issues of old routine illnesses and injuries such as flu, bronchitis issues, or mending of bones.
The silence allowed the sound of the waiting room TV news. Newscasters announcing the latest catastrophes, crime, and a few random acts of kindness.
“Too bad we don’t know each other’s spumoni stories.”
“Well… if we did, maybe we’d realize we’re all a part of the same story and maybe this world wouldn’t seem so cold.”
Marnie laughed. “Like spumoni?”
Sophie’s name came over the loudspeaker with instructions to visit Room 221.
“That’s Emily Bellows. She’s in with some kind of blockage that no one can figure out. Better get going. As my mom would say, making hay while the sun shines or something along that line.”
Marnie laughed, “Ellie would have said that and more. The doctor in her, ya know.”
As Sophie walked to Room 221 she met Clara and Pete coming down the hallway.
“Goodbye, you two. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad to see our last C -Ward patient leave.” “You and me, both, Sophie!” Pete hollered. “You and me both!” As he passed, he threw his arm up in a salute. She heard his laughter until the elevator doors shut.
There are a handful of places my husband and I go nowadays. Grocery store, the drugstore, convenience store (for gas—we venture in on only rare occasions), friends’ backyards, and the occasional winery (outside of course).
Originally—at the beginning, we only ventured as far as our mailbox. Because we didn’t know or understand what the hell was going on, our brains shifted into survivalist mode. In turn, our primitive instincts alerted us to the horrid possibility of viral and veiled threatening air vapors that could very well descend from the sky at any time to claim scared out of our wits bodies.
Those first few weeks were the worst. That first morning? You know the one. The initial time each of us thought “this is really serious.” It’s different timelines for everyone (with the exception of those that believe a crazed lab scientist wanting to wreak havoc on all of mankind created the virus). My own life-as-we-know-it-ending timeline began the morning I told my husband maybe we shouldn’t go out for breakfast. We haven’t been out for breakfast since. We haven’t been out for lunch, dinner, or appetizers either. Instead, much later in the game, we began getting takeout.
Within a few weeks, our youngest daughter traveled back from her newly adopted city bringing her 11-year-old puppy dog. Although furloughed from her job, she didn’t want to leave, but family wanted her home. She lived with our oldest daughter and husband and our other grand-pup for over three months. At the time we all thought things might get back to semi-normal in the coming weeks. We were wrong.
Eventually, we did what we humans do best, we acclimated. But acclimating during this point in our history translates into something like descending virtual flights of stairs. Some travel further down than others, but all the same, our descent is real. And after a while it’s hard to tell how far we’ve gone. Because we grow used to the place we’ve landed.
After a few months of groping in the suffocating darkness that has enveloped all of us, my husband and I discovered our perimeters. Like newly mobile toddlers, we ventured out. Instead of ordering everything from grocery delivery services, we donned our masks and stepped into the fully lit grocery store. Instead of depending upon mail order companies for shampoos, cleaning supplies, or hand sanitizer, we walked through the automatic doors of our local drugstore and purchased sundry items. We still scrub our hands each time we come home, but we understand how much we need to go—traveling even a short distance— to see people and find that there is a world out there beyond our mailbox.
The first time we visited our daughters we were still in the mailbox only mode. Sensing our anxiety, our kids sat in chairs in their front lawn. Each armed with their own puppy dog, they sat holding homemade signs; hearts carved in red markers—“We can get through this!” written in large block lettering. We remained in our car and shouted to them encouraging memes—“This will be over in no time! We’re okay! Stay safe!”
It wasn’t over in ‘no time.’ But, baby step by baby step we started ascending the flights of stairs slowly out of the dark. By the time our daughter went back to her as she phrases it ‘home,’ we were holding court in each other’s backyards, celebrating the 4th of July in style (eating catered bbq), and playing croquet as we practiced social distancing and creative dining.
We both enjoy time with friends as we sit outside at various wineries and breweries. However, we still won’t eat out, not even on a restaurant patio, but we order takeout and watch TV as our hometown baseball team plays to an empty stadium (with the exception of cardboard cutout people).
Our baby steps have hurled us into this new world with an unavoidable viciousness. The coping mechanisms vary per situation. For example, I have several themed face masks, each worn to match the mood of the day. The bright white flowered mask is becoming my favorite. I refer to it as “Steel Magnolia.”
More and more each day, my mood is beginning to transcend the original dark cavernous emotion I wore when all this started. With the days shortening and night descending earlier each evening, my anticipation increases – allowing that eventually—perhaps when the daylight wains the soonest, our world will be the brightest again.
I know. So… is everybody all right? I mean, there?
You, uh… have your face mask on.
Oh, that. Damn. I just came from the store. It’s gotten to the point that I get confused. It’s like—am I in a… well… friendly environment? OR am I in enemy territory?
Yeah, I don’t mean, like, people are in the produce aisle hiding behind fake plants while they’re wearing combat helmets. I just mean, you know, things are crazy!
Yeah, I get it.
Where is everybody? I thought this was a mandatory meeting.
It is. As was the meeting this morning at 10:00 a.m., the meeting at 11:30, then the lunch meeting. Yep, mandatory.
Hey, Allen! Tessa! What’s up?
Not much, Dan. What’s that behind you?
That’s my background, boss. You like it?
What is it? It looks like some kind of ship from outer space.
Yeah, Tessa. It’s a new feature. It’s called Beam Me Up, Scotty. Where is everybody? Hey, I hear Newman wrote an OpEd for the paper. It’s called: Why a Pandemic Now?
What does that mean, exactly?
Well, Allen, I guess he’s pissed. His wedding is on hold, his cruise is on hold, and his sewer backed up costing him a fortune.
What’s his sewer got to do with anything?
Nothing, Tessa. He’s just pissed so he’s blaming everything that’s happening on the present situation.
They’re not printing his article, are they?
Yeah, Allen, I guess they are. The paper said they needed a different slant on all the bad news. I don’t think HE meant for the column to be funny, but the editors thought it was a scream.
That’s great. All the shit going on right now and Newman is complaining about his sewer and a cruise he can’t take.
Well, Tessa, you might do the same if—
Hey, you guys! Where is everybody?
Hey, Heather. See you made it back in to work, today.
What are you talking about, Dan?
Well, last night at Vanity Bar and Grill? You were a little… crazy.
Okay everyone. I think we have enough staff to start the meeting. Dan, do you have those numbers—
Hey everybody! How’s it going?
Hello, Sam. We were just getting started.
Hey, sorry. I had a meeting that went a little longer than it should have. Have I missed anything?
Just the fact that Heather is here after—
Dan was about to—Dan? Where did he go? He literally just said something to you, Heather.
I don’t know, Allen, but I think I see little green men going into his spaceship. Maybe he was abducted.
Not funny, Tessa. Okay… We’ll just move on. Tessa, please report on your findings regarding—
Well, Allen, my most recent report indicates—
Okay, okay, sorry. Wait, I’m not sorry. Jesus! Have you ever been in a conference with that guy Carter? He’s from the Omaha office. He can drone on and on…
Hello Matt. We were just going over Tessa’s report. Tessa? Can you continue?
I don’t have a copy of the agenda. You never sent it to me. Wait, found it! Sorry, I threw it in the Amalgamated Products File – that agenda was lame.
Tessa, for some reason you’ve changed over to mute. No one can hear you. I’m pointing to the mute button, do you understand?
Sorry Allen, I haven’t eaten since this morning with all these meetings. My brain is a little foggy. Can you hear me now? I hear some kind of smacking noises.
Sorry, I was hungry. Dashed over to the cabinet and got some chips. We can eat during this meeting, can’t we Allen. You’re not one of those virtual overlords, are you?
Dan, can you stop making those smacking noises? They’re gross!
Sorry, I grabbed a protein bar out of the cabinet. Dan’s making me hungry with his chips.
Dan, you’re back. Can we go back to your numbers on the… Cynthia, when did you load in? Is that a cat?
Yes! This is Horatio! Say hi Horatio!
Cynthia, please stop waving the cat’s paw and put him down for a minute.
OMG! Who’s that?
What? What? What?
Did anyone just see that Chat Box text? The one that says it’s time to party?
Wait! Did you see that? Who is that guy?
I don’t know, but what is he wearing?
A mask. A real honest to goodness mask! Like Batman or something! And a cape!
Okay, okay. Apparently, we’ve been Virtually Bombed. Hey, whoever you are, you need to leave.
I’ve got this, Allen. Just give me a second, dude. I have my mouth full of chips. There… –Hey, fella, I just took your photo. You’re toast. I just happen to have advanced face recognition skills on this baby.
Sorry, Allen, I have to get the door. There’s a package of frozen tilapia from that really good market along the coast and if I don’t get it—
Go ahead, Matt. Get your tilapia.
Dan! I’ve made you a sandwich!
You’re living with your mom?
Yeah, why, Heather?
So, that’s why you left Vanity early. Your mom gave you a curfew!
That’s not why I left early. I had an early morning today. Needed to be at about two dozen meetings starting at 7 am.
Is that someone cutting your hair, Sam?
Yeah, I asked my hairdresser to stop by. Sorry, Allen, I had to grab an appointment with her whenever I could. She’s really popular right now.
Okay. We were discussing Dan’s numbers. And Tessa, you are up after Dan with your report. Heather, are you on another meeting right now?
Umm. Not sure what you mean, Allen.
You have one of those decorative mirrors behind you. I can see your propped up I-Pad.
Oh, that? You’re right. That’s just a meeting for “Marvelous Yummy Gourmet.”
Marvelous Yummy Gourmet! Geez! Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of them? They are only the fastest growing prepared food product distributorships in the whole world! I’m a dealer. I have parties? So, we are having our weekly regional meeting right now and—
Shut it down.
Shut it down? Allen, I can’t just leave my team hanging!
Heather, close your I-Pad now or—Whoever is sitting right by a train right now, can you mute your computer?
Oh, sorry it’s me! I just moved and I live by trtpgbmlkjwzx…
Okay, I can’t understand anything you’re saying. Mute your button, man!
Hey, Allen? I have another meeting in about five minutes. Can we speed this up?
In driving my mom crazy during this crummy time of not-going- anywhere-ever, not doing anything whatsoever——sorry, I already got off track. Anyway, Mom told me I’m watching too many “Babysitter in the House” reruns and eating too much junk food.
So, I said to her ‘what else do you think a 12-year-old stuck in the house all day should do?’
I meant that rhetorically, but she didn’t take it that way. As a punishment, she’s making me write a letter. A letter? Who does that anymore?
Anyway, she really didn’t have to make me write you. I told her that if I HAVE to write a letter I’m writing to my grandma. I’m sorry if it sounded like I was FORCED to write you. I love talking to you and texting you. But well… letters are so lame, don’t you think?
She gave me this huge, long, boring lecture on the importance of letter writing. That it’s a long ago art, no one appreciates the practice anymore. So, I asked her when she wrote a letter last and she told me not to be a smart ass and just write the damn letter. I think I’m getting on her nerves.
How are you doing? It’s great Skyping with you and all. I wish I would have been doing that instead when Mom caught me watching TV (she commented that it was the millionth time).
I heard on the news that Cleveland is doing okay. Are you staying in? I bet you hate it. You love to go places. Just like me, your granddaughter. I guess it runs in the family.
My friend, Staci, came by the other day. She stood in the driveway and I stayed put in our open garage. We talked for over an hour. She said her aunt is doing okay now. Remember? She’s a nurse here at one of the hospitals. She just went back to work.
We started talking about being cooped up in the house all day. Staci is by herself a lot because her mom works all the time. Being a firefighter, she’s always on call, especially nowadays. She misses her but she’s glad that she can watch whatever TV shows she wants when she wants to. I’m glad my mom can work from home, but sometimes I just wish she would go on a long drive and take Mattie. Little brothers are such a pain!
The entire family is going cray cray over school starting. I’m a little edgy myself. I mean, I would love to see my friends and show off new clothes, but, that’s just stupid. It’s so hard to take all this serious, but it sure looks like we should, right?
This may sound like, what is it you say?—hogwash, to you, but with all this crud going on and all the different opinions about it, it helps me to think about what you would do. You ALWAYS know what to do, Grandma. I’m pretty sure you would say don’t be an idiot. That for now, we have to all just hunker down. That the storm will eventually blow over.
I just heard Dad come in. Mom said we were all going to eat together, even if Dad came home really late. It’s pretty late now, but I’m glad she wants to do that. Besides, I’m helping make nachos, my fave!
And, I want to hear if school officials are any closer to a decision. I know it’s tough on Dad, being a high school principal right now. He’s pulled in all different directions. It’s so embarrassing that MY dad is the principal at MY school, but for now I just feel really bad for him.
Well, take care, Grandma! I’m super hungry and well, I mean… nachos?!! Tonight’s meal will rock. So much better than that lame vegetable lasagna Mom made last night. I hope you write me back. I think it would be super cool to get an actual letter in the mail. Maybe Mom was on to something.
Dana glanced over at Chad, her usual shrug and sigh followed.
“Hey, girlfriend, don’t be too hard on old Roger. This stuff is getting to be a bit too much for the old chap to handle.” Chad said from his desk, the appropriate length of space away.
“I know. I really try to remember that. It’s just a tad difficult at times.”
Dana opened her desk drawer pulling out a dark chocolate covered nougat candy bar.
“I see you’re stress eating again.” Chad smiled as he tilted his head to one side.
“Yes, asshole, I’m stress eating again.” Dana cocked her head as she smirked. “I ate a whole pint of Chunky Monkey last night.”
“That’s all.” Chad shrugged.
“With half a sleeve of peanut butter moose tracks cookies.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” he said.
“Dana! Where is the quote from that infectious disease specialist? You know, the doctor that…”
It wasn’t hard for Dana to tune out the news producer’s question. She knew where this was going. Certain requests followed an algorithm all their own. For instance:
Where are the—that would be the new cases stats, CDC current guidelines, hospitalization rates, in that order.
Bring the report on—would be ‘the-most-affected- at- the-present-time’ state data on testing sites, various countries’ safety guidelines, or air flow analysis.
Have you seen—that phrase ended with Roger. As the network evening news anchor, Roger is legendary. Chad will say that Roger is about 900 years old with over 800 years of television reporting experience. And that back in the day his reports were directly from God.
Roger’s reporting style was like no other. He had ‘presence’ as the news magazines described his aura. Tall, husky, and built like a freight train, Roger gave off an air of authority with any news story he reported. The action could be across the world, but it was as though Roger swooped down into the nation’s living rooms to speak personally from the center of shag carpets everywhere–microphone in hand, eyes cast directly on the Mr. & Mrs. as they sat spellbound, glued to their spots, senses heightened.
During his career, Roger had reported on countless wars, unforgotten presidential elections, million strong marches and protests, historical earthquakes and hurricanes. But the recent turn of events had taken a toll on him. His swagger diminished, his sharp tone now hazy, made everyone in the newsroom ache with the desire to turn their heads away. They didn’t want to watch. It was like watching a great massive bull slowly succumb to the arrows thrown his way.
Before, when the world wasn’t in hiding, Roger was everywhere. He could be found in his office preparing a broadcast, out among the staff cubicles-standing arms crossed listening to a news story, or in the production control room leaning over the panels like a kid in a pastry shop eyeing the donuts along the opposite wall.
But now, it was as if he decided to make a last stage career switch. He became a magician specializing in disappearing acts. No longer was he in the control room, his office, or even the restroom. He didn’t even patronize The Town Crier, the bar he and everyone else in the media business frequented.
On most days, staff could predict with uncanny accuracy, the exact time the producer would begin his search for Roger. This could go on forever. At which point staff began predicting when the producer would start stretching his tie away from his neck as he looked for Roger. Betting would become involved, dollars flying, Chad running the betting table. It all ended as the exasperated producer in desperation began yelling “Roger!” traipsing through cubicle rows or opening and shutting hallway doors.
Miraculously, Roger would come out of whatever shadows he found to gamely sit behind the anchor desk and report the evening’s news. His coverage wasn’t always bad. Sometimes his old swagger would reappear, his mouth would move in tangent with the teleprompter, and his eyes would focus on his viewers as he reported the numbers once again.
But for the most part, Roger’s voice would shake; his hands would tremble as he held them together on the anchor desk. The producer would stand in the control room, either shaking his head or burrowing it in his hands.
As Dana scanned her virtual files for the report her phone vibrated. A photo of a man with stubby gray hair and deep blue eyes resembling Dana’s appeared on her screen.
“Dad? How’s Mom?” Dana asked as she stopped scanning.
“Well, I had to call an ambulance. She couldn’t catch her breath and her pulse was racing.”
Elbow resting on her desk, Dana planted her forehead into her palm. For a moment her words were clogged in the middle of her throat, unable to reach the surface.
“Dana? It’ll be all right, honey.” Her dad was saying into the phone.
“I’m coming over. You can’t be alone right now.”
“No. That is the last thing you are going to do. And it’s the last thing your mom would want you to do. She would want you to keep doing your job. You know how proud she is of that job of yours.”
“I don’t care about that right now. There’s nothing here that’s more important than you two.”
“No. You’re right; there is nothing more important than family and being together. But for now that can’t happen. I have to stay here. Alone. That’s the rules. I might be… toxic.”
“If anyone isn’t toxic, it’s you Dad. But okay. You will let me know if anything happens… one way or the other?”
“Of course, I will.”
She stared at her phone as the two sharp beeps sounded signaling the end of the call. After a few minutes she hit the text button:
-Dad just called. Mom’s in the hospital.-
After a few moments as Dana waited, clenching her phone and staring at the screen, the three small dots appeared. Then:
-Babe, I’m so sorry. I want to be there so bad. Just to hold you.-
At the end of the text the red heart symbol displayed.
-I know. I will let you know if I hear any news.-
She plopped her phone down on her desk and sighed as her eyes became moist. She wiped away at them and sat still, taking deep breaths, and focusing her eyes on the always hectic scene before her.
Dana didn’t leave the newsroom. If she couldn’t be with her family she wanted to be there. This room was the one place that knew. Moment after moment a newsroom knows. Being there was right next to being constantly aware. She started looking for the virtual report again.
At nine p.m. Dana gathered her metro card and purse to head out the door. Earlier, Chad had tried to convince her to go with him to meet his husband for a late downtown restaurant dinner. After she told him she wasn’t really up to dinner, he tried without luck to get her to go home with him. He said that he would call Sam and explain. They could sit on the couch and watch a housewives’ reality show or something. Although his invitation was kind, Dana didn’t want to disrupt their evening. She said she would be fine. Besides, she told Chad, her dad had called telling her that her mom was stable, no change.
So, Dana donned her face mask and headed toward the station floor’s elevator. As she walked down the hall, a shadow moved across the corridor. Startled, she drew in her breath and clutched her bag.
“I’m sorry about your mom, Dana. Have you heard anything?” A voice said. As Dana recovered, she crept toward the voice. Roger stood in front of the newsroom door, arms folded, his sports jacket thrown over his shoulder, a black and silver mask across his mouth and nose.
News spreads fast in a newsroom, Dana thought to herself smiling for the first time in hours at her little pun. She looked up at Roger and answered.
“My dad called earlier. He said she was holding her own. Thanks for asking.” She smiled at him realizing that over her five years in this job Roger barely spoke to her outside of demands for data or details on news items.
“Well, please know that your mom is in my thoughts. I’m hoping she will be out of that hospital soon.” Roger sighed as the elevator doors opened and he gestured for Dana to go in first.
As the doors slammed shut he said, “As it turns out, I had a late phone conference with L.A. I’m usually home by now, with a Manhattan in hand, anticipating a good night sleep. Since all this stuff started though, it’s been a little harder to convince myself to go home.” He looked down at the elevator floor. “My wife died a few years ago. That was hard. But, back then I could go see people if I started feeling… you know. I could enjoy a drink with friends. Now this—it’s… well…”
“I know.” Dana volunteered. “My boyfriend, Clay, he’s stuck in Germany—he’s a colonel in the Army. It would be nice to have him home.”
“So…” Roger said as the elevator doors opened to the lobby and outside. “Did you know the Town Crier installed those Plexiglas dividers? At the bar? Anyway, would… never mind…”
Dana stood silent for only a nanosecond as she observed Roger. His shirt, usually crisp and smooth as glass, sported wrinkles and ink stains. His always fastidiously groomed hair stuck out in random places. He had on reading glasses which he never wore, giving off a deer in headlights impression.
Dana shot him a half smile. “Roger, I can’t think of a better thing to do right now than to sit at a bar with a Plexiglas divider.”
“So, do you think these things will stay after all this is over? I mean, I’m sure they might come in handy in certain circumstances.” Roger said. Divided by the glass, the two sat at the bar. Dana had no trouble hearing Roger’s deep baritone anchorman’s voice.
“Like when you’re on a date and the guy you’re with is a total creep?” Dana laughed.
“Or just to get away from a rowdy bar group?” Roger offered.
“Or you are at the bar when it’s crowded and a rude drunk spills his drink. The red Jägermeister hits the Plexiglas and not your brand new white dress?” Dana countered.
They both laughed as they sipped their drinks, Roger’s a Manhattan, Dana’s a Whiskey Sour.
Roger raised his glass saying, “A toast.”
Darla picked her glass up in confused preparation.
“To twenty years as an anchor for a top network news show!” Roger said as they clanked their glasses together.
Darla lowered her glass and added, “And I’m sure there will be many more years.”
“Nope.” Roger took a swig of his drink. “I handed in my retirement paperwork a month ago. Today was my last day.”
Darla shook her head trying to justify the words Roger spoke. “Wait. You just said your last day was today?”
“Yep.” Roger’s knee hit the Plexiglas as he turned toward her. “I’m done. About time, right?”
“No.” Darla said in a sharp tone. “It’s not time. Now is the worst time. How can you do that? Why, you’re the voice of reason during this particular time in history.”
Roger chuckled. “The voice of reason,” he repeated as if to himself. He smiled at her, “It’s not that I’m headed out to pasture.”
“What?” Dana asked.
“Headed out to pasture? It means, done, dried up, old. You are a young whippersnapper.”
“Oh my god.” He turned again hitting his knee on the hard plastic. “I’ve got things to do still. But, it’s time to pass the torch.”
“I do know what that means.” Dana said as she sipped her second drink. “It’s just that I’m not sure our newsroom can withstand any changes given the immediate circumstances.”
“What newsroom can? But isn’t that what the news is? Reporting change?”
“You know what I mean. Sometimes I feel as if no one is listening.” Dana shrugged.
Roger moved closer to the glass. “Oh, but child, you’re wrong. People do listen. Sometimes they just don’t want to hear the truth. So, they spin their own version or listen to skewed voices of those behind anchor desks willing to give them what they prefer to hear. Now, more than ever, we all need the truth.”
“So, now is when you decide to give up?” Dana glared at him, shaking her head.
“I’m not giving up. And I’m not leaving the news.” Roger shrugs “I’m just pivoting a bit. And you? What are your aspirations? Are you planning on a career here?”
“I don’t think so. At first, the fast pace mesmerized me, the gathering of important information, the ability to reach so many people at one time for a single worthy purpose. But now, especially now, that purpose seems flat. No one seems to care anymore.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. People care. They are just a little misbegotten. It’s our job to steer them to port. To help them sort the chaff from the wheat.”
“There ya go again. I have no idea what you are talking about.” She took another swallow of her drink and banged her glass down on the bar.
“It’s in the Bible. Actually, the verse goes, ‘In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.’ Matthew 13:30. For me, it helps to explain separating the false from the truth.”
“I went to Sunday School,” Dana declared in a defiant tone of voice.
Roger laughed. “Just promise me you will keep that fresh view. And don’t give up on the news media. Stick with it.”
Dana considered his words then said, “I don’t know that I have the stamina needed to stick with it.”
He then did something she will remember the rest of her life. He placed his hand on the Plexiglas. Dana hesitated a moment, smiled, then placed her hand on the other side of the glass over his.
As he leaned closer he said, “I believe you do. Just never let lies fog the gathering of facts. Research and research again. Don’t get caught up in anything just because it’s easier to follow. Always search for the truth, report it, and the rest will take care of itself.”
With that Roger sighed, took out his wallet and laid cash down on the bar. “I have to go. It’s way past my bedtime. You take care of yourself. Your mom will be fine. We’re all going to be fine.”
Dana watched him amble out the door and walk out of sight. She ordered one more drink as she sat and reflected on their talk. As she sipped the last of her drink her phone vibrated.
“Tonight’s news begins with a story of breakthrough technology that will revolutionize the medical field.” Dana spoke into the camera with ease, excited to report the exhilarating news to her over five million viewers.
When the broadcast ended the producer walked up to the desk. “Good job tonight, Dana.”
“Thank you. Well, I have a date with a good looking man and his darling children. Have to go.” She got up from the desk, putting on her shoes under her seat.
The producer slapped the desk, smiling. “Tell Clay hello. And give those two little girls an enormous hug from their Uncle Chad, okay?”
“You got it.”
Dana picked up her purse. Her phone vibrated displaying a photo of an attractive elderly woman, a bright smile on her face.
“Mom, how’s it going? Are you and dad packed for your trip?”
“We are! And excited! It will be an entire day and a half of travel to get to Australia, but well worth it! Your dad is practicing his embarrassing Aussie accent, right now.”
“It’s not embarrassing! I’m getting good!” Karla could hear her father’s voice in the background.
“Well, keep me posted! I’m off to dinner.”
“Give the girls big kisses for me! We’ll be calling and texting.”
As Dana hung up the phone she walked down the hallway toward the elevator glancing in particular at one of the photos lining the wall. She patted the photo as was her habit each night upon leaving.
Roger stared down at her from his elevated spot. He died a few years back, but his image remains a huge legacy at the network. She thought of the conversation they had years before, at the Town Crier. Recalling his words, she smiled; he wasn’t giving up, and he wasn’t leaving the news. ‘I’m just pivoting a bit’, he had said.
Roger went on to write a bestseller; a scathing account of the condition of broadcasting, social media content, and a cry to humankind that if we ignore truth and justice, the world will not be able to ignore the chaos and madness manifested as a result.
His book, along with ethical leadership and monumental strides toward education and cultural cultivation resulted in a societal shift in attitude towards the credibility of news reporting. Dana reaped the benefits of the chaff separated from the wheat. She worked her way up the news ladder from investigative reporting to production, then on to a significant series investigating the criminal justice system.
For the last ten years she has occupied the news anchor spot delivering eventful stories from catastrophic weather to consequential Supreme Court decisions.
But for now, it was time to head out into the darkness. Darkness that enfolded her for only a brief while as she anticipated the glow inside the restaurant while dining with her husband and family among the many restaurant patrons. The day was over, and she reported it as good.
I used to think there was something inherently wrong with cats. My argument involved the fact that they creep up on you, or slowly slink by as they rub their sides across your legs. And when they sit and stare up at you, I believed it was a sure sign that they would like to pounce on you, much like their Tigris species descendants.
I’m a mail carrier. I drive one of those white box trucks with the red, white and blue insignia on the sides. Nowadays, I have a mail route that Alexander the Great would have been proud to call his own. Yeah, it’s that big. Consequently, I work pretty long hours. With everyone on the home delivery band wagon nowadays, my route can take me past sunset. That can get pretty annoying. But most particularly it can get annoying when a stray animal darts in front of the truck.
You know where this is going. I had a crazy, suicidal cat on my mail route. This feline is what they call a a tabby cat. Its color is striking, but perhaps because of its agility (for lack of a better word) this cat resembles a smallish Bengal tiger. Orange and black stripes run parallel down the sides. But its best feature is its eyes. They’re copper. I know this because the damn thing stares at me after racing across the street in front of my truck. Its look is brutal. It’s as if it’s beaming a challenge —next time, lady—next time.
A large portion of my route is within a tree lined, older but generally kept up neighborhood. This area holds multi-aged, multi-incomed, and generally friendly residents. The streets are urban-community narrow and perpetually crowded with cars that are parked along the sides. To navigate the streets takes Mario-Cart prowess. The only added frustration would be an object darting in front of your vehicle. Hence, the cat.
And for that matter, isn’t it dogs that chase vehicles?
There was no question in my mind that this cat wasn’t constantly on the lookout for me and my mail truck. I could sense its gearing up for attack as I began my drive through its territory. Most of the time, I was ready. I would drive very slowly down the street, my eyes darting right and left. If I was lucky that day I could breathe a sigh of relief as I turned and headed at a right angle down a more mail-friendly road. Those are the good delivery days.
But on this particular evening I was done in. I yawned as I tried to focus. Suddenly, a dark shape careened in front of the truck, a pair of iridescent eyes staring straight at me. As I slammed my foot down on the brake, the cat calmly lowered its feline shaped body down on the asphalt directly in front of my truck. Then it began licking its fur.
I forced myself out of the truck and onto the hard pavement. As I rounded the corner of the truck to the front I began yelling. Not expletives. As a mail person I maintain a distinct dignified decorum. But I yelled nevertheless. It didn’t matter. The cat was gone. I’m sure I posed a solid Instagram worthy picture as I knelt down in the middle of the street looking for the cat underneath my vehicle. It was of no use. I got back in and finished my route.
Due to a lighter load the next day I was able to deliver on the challenging cat road at midday. Because of the time of day and cooler weather, there were several masked residents outside; sitting in lawn chairs, watering their flowers, or simply waiting for their mail. I took this opportunity to ask if anyone knew anything about an orange and black striped cat in the neighborhood. I asked from the respectable distance, of course. No one knew anything of the demon cat. Of course, there were people that had cats; they had tabby cats, calico cats, Persian, but not MY cat.
This line of questioning did allow me the opportunity to converse with the neighbors. As a mail carrier I don’t get that chance very often. Many of us are captives of our trucks, delivering to the boxes waiting for us at the side of the roads, and we are on a very tight schedule. And that doesn’t include the time we spend delivering packages to residents’ front doors.
Up until a few months ago, my mail recipients weren’t home to receive packages. But now, with so many people working from home or sadly, unemployed, my residents are home. It’s still the same. I’m usually not able to converse with the package recipients. Leaving their parcels at their front door is safer. And actually this isn’t a change—with carriers long routes now, we can’t indulge in much chit-chat. If we did, we’d be delivering mail all night long. I do have to say that for the most part, I’m fortunate in that I don’t have a large constituency of packages to deliver. Some of my carrier friends are inundated with packages. Guess it depends on the neighborhood.
But there’s this one older guy, Felix Halton at 814 that receives packages all… the… time. Most of the time, Felix waits at the door for his parcel. I believe he sees me as I approach in my truck. His most distinguishing feature has to be his beautiful shoulder length white hair. Sometimes his hair is up in a ponytail trailing down the back of his neck. Felix is a tall guy, about six-three, and wiry thin. He looks like he’s been through the ringer, his features rugged and dark from too much sun.
It just so happens that the same day the damn cat decided to lounge in front of my mail truck I had a 25 pound, five foot long package for Felix. As usual, approaching his door I see Felix in the door frame, leaning against the door, a red bandanna across his lower face. He resembled a forlorn aged bandit. One of those sneering outcast characters you might see in an old spaghetti western.
“Looks like you have a situation on your hands,” Felix said from the doorway.
“You must mean the cat that likes to play chicken with my truck?” I laughed as I placed the package on the porch.
Now, Felix doesn’t like small talk. I know this as a course of the way things go. Most of the time I gently lay down his package and he waits for me to walk away before he picks it up.
So, I was a bit surprised at his remark. but he was done. He just smiled at my question, not bothering to answer, and walked back in his house shutting the door behind him.
My route takes on a film-feed not unlike a shady neighborhood version of Rear Window . The family in the two story creamy yellow house has five children. The mom perpetually looks haggard.
The bungalow on the end of my first block is home to four “Generation S’rs” (per up-to-date social media). The occupants run out to cars day and night, doesn’t matter the time, headed to jobs or a happy hour. A quiet elderly couple occupies the brick federal style house at 810. No matter the time of day that I load mail into their box, their little yippy dog waits outside to greet me.
Out of all of my residents, it’s Felix that puzzles me the most. His packages vary in shape and size, coming from all over the world. And he receives tons of mail. Not only ads or promotional stuff like a lot of mail nowadays, but envelopes with actual handwriting on them. Don’t see a lot of that these days. Especially now, everyone is Skyping or Zooming or Facetiming. Old fashioned letter writing has become obsolete. Kind of like me.
I just left a twenty-two year-old marriage. Harry, my ex decided the grass was greener on the other side of the cul-de-sac. Seriously. He literally told me that he was in love with our neighbor, at the end of our circle block.
So, most days I run solo. Harry and I have a fantastic daughter but she moved into her own apartment a year ago. Running around with a group of good friends helped me pass time, that and this job. But now my time with friends and even my daughter are limited. We might get together the social distance way—outside on patios or under trees in park settings—but there are a lot more nights at home now, with a bowl of popcorn and subscription channels as I binge watch the newest British detective series or follow house flippers.
That’s after I get off work though. There can be a lot of long work days, stretching way into the later evening hours.
On one such day the sun started disappearing over the horizon as I began the final part of my route. I had a lot of package deliveries and a not anticipated break in my schedule earlier, making the day even longer.
As I inched down ‘cat street’ my combat companion made a beeline for the truck. Slamming on the brakes, once again, tires screeching, the dominant smell of rubber permeating the air, I clinched the steering wheel in wary anticipation. I must have hit him, I was sure of it. But there he was, his copper eyes staring at me from the side of the road. Before I could get out of the truck to throttle his sneering, sleek composure, he had vanished.
Still shaken, I got back into the vehicle and, in an attempt to collect myself, I grabbed a package: Felix Halton. The name cascaded across the label. I grabbed the parcel and headed for Felix’s front porch. As I rounded the corner of his sidewalk a voice called, “I’m around back.”
I decided to follow the voice and walked around to the back of Felix’s house. There he sat on an old orange and white webbed lawn chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles. For quite some time, I hadn’t seen him without the bandana face mask. He was drinking a bottle of beer, his face relaxed. A smile, hidden for all this time, stamped on his face.
I sat his package down on the patio, smiled, and started to leave. It was then that I glanced into his back window. Aided by several lit lamps inside I could make out the interior of his house. It looked warm and inviting. But what caught my eye was a drum set situated in the middle of the room. Inscribed on the bass drum were the words: The Basic Essence.
Back in the 1970’s and 80’s The Basic Essence rock band was the epitome of the music world. They won Grammies, performed in capacity filled arenas, and sold millions of records. But the 1990’s weren’t kind. Because of grunge, alternative, and country’s explosion, there wasn’t room for their brand of music. Their lead singer tried to make a solo go of it, but he tanked. The other members slowly advanced into obscurity.
Felix Halston’s stage name was Hal and that basically was the only name he was known by. There was no question that the man sitting in the frayed lawn chair was Hal.
I turned around. “You’re Hal.” My brilliant skills honed through dozens of hours of British detective shows did not go unmerited.
“That’s right. I was Hal.” He shrugged and smiled. “And now I am Felix Halston once again.”
Felix took a swig of his beer, then said, “I’m that stereotypical person that haunts all those news stories, books, and movies. The person that dropped out of society, never to be heard from again. The guy that leaves his billion-dollar CEO wrecking ball of a job to repair old boats on some seashore. The woman that makes a bundle on Hampton Place Housewives that chucks it all for a server job in New Mexico. That’s me. Only I play drums.” He nodded toward the drum set on the other side of the window.
I shrugged and tried to comment in a wise sage kind of way, “Sometimes that’s what it takes. Dropping out of society.”
“I suppose you’re right, my dear. I dropped out a lot of years ago, but now, it’s pretty easy to hide. Isolation is the new ‘under the radar.’ Not crazy about the times we’re living in, but for a fella like me, it’s not that hard to get used to.”
I gave a half-smile, “I get it. I’m not one to complain either. Right now I don’t mind the alone time. It’s curative. Well, it’s been nice. This conversation.”
As I waved a goodbye a sudden movement against my legs caused me to jump.
“C’m here, Gilda.” Felix said as he slapped his hands on his lap.
The orange and black striped cat sprang into his lap, meowing a soft purr in contentment as he or I guess she settled down, then stared at me with sleepy content copper eyes.
“You know this animal?” I asked.
“You mean Gilda? Yeah, she’s been coming around for about four months now. I’m not sure if her owner had to move or what.” The ‘what’ stayed unexplained. “She looked through this window at me one morning so I started feeding her and leaving cream outside. At night she’ll wander over, sit in my lap for a spell, then leave. I’m not sure where she goes. It’s her business, I guess.”
That was a year ago today. I’m still delivering mail. Most of my customers are still on the same route. The cars are still parked all over the street and the two story house with the bunch of kids is still a creamy yellow color. And Felix is still at 814.
Gilda still comes to visit. And so do I. After that night, Felix left a note in the mailbox that said he enjoyed our visit and anytime I felt like having a beer on the patio, six feet apart, he would welcome my company. About two nights after that note, as I was considering which detective series to start watching, I changed into my jeans and a t-shirt, and drove to Felix’s house.
We now have a routine. I’ll text, if he doesn’t answer I know he just doesn’t want company that night, and some nights he will text and I will do the same. But most times after a green light, I find myself on Felix’s patio, drinking a beer, celebrating life, and exchanging cat stories while we both sit with cats in our laps.
You see, the surprise was not only that Gilda was a female, but that she was a pregnant female. Her litter is a part of the neighborhood now. The five kids in the two story have a golden brown kitty, the elderly couple—a brown and white male named Alexander that actually does get along well with yippy dog. Three of Gilda’s kittens went to the Gen S kids. But I got the best of the litter—Cleo.
Gilda no longer runs in front of my mail truck. She wouldn’t dream of stirring up the guardian of her precious baby. And for now, Felix and I are kindred spirits in a world full of kindred spirits.
We’re all just now coming back out of our houses and into a new world. We’re finding that people we love and know have been there all along, maybe with a beer and a chat—perhaps leaving us with a sense of relief, a flicker of a thought that we are a little less vulnerable.
All kinds of threatening situations stare us down, exposing our frailties. But we can stare back. And refuse to run; realizing that these situations can oftentimes become a source for something good.
Lily leaned on the counter while she waited for an order, rubbing one foot with the other, then trading off. Dressed in the required black slacks topped with a black polo, the ‘Pièce de Résistance’ logo and her name Lily stitched across the left pocket, her demeanor resembled that of a slouching, sleek cat. Her black and white face mask completed her ensemble.
“Your guy’s outside,” her friend and coworker Becca remarked.
“He’s not my guy,” Lily retorted as she stood straighter, using her pen to scratch the scalp of her short cropped hair.
“Uh, yeah, he is,” Becca cocked her head, aiming her hidden gum smacking mouth at Lily. Lily knew there was a sideways grin hiding behind Becca’s face mask.
Lily shrugged. “Just because he comes around a lot means nothing, except that he likes the food.”
“He comes here every other day. AND, he asks for Lily.” Becca spoke her name with the same deference afforded when eating a mouth full of soggy French fries.
The restaurant’s ordering app came alive as it rang a notification.
“It’s your guy! Jonathan Evans. Oh, and take a look-see. He’s asking for Lily.” Becca raised one eyebrow as she stared at Lily.
In less than an hour Lily grabbed Jonathan’s order and ran outside.
“Here ya go.” She handed the order to him through the car window. Although he wore a navy colored face mask, his bright blue eyes gave away his smile underneath the mask.
“Thank you, Lily.” Jonathan took the bag and placed it on the passenger seat. “Are you having a decent day?”
“It’s going pretty well so far. How about you?”
“Not too bad.” Jonathan toyed with the sack, folding and unfolding the top.
“Do you live around here?” he asked.
A few cars pulled in behind Jonathan’s car.
“Uh, yes. A few miles away,” Lily said as she planted one foot on the other, making no attempt to leave.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that I only recently moved here and don’t know many people.”
“No, that’s okay. I enjoy chatting with you, anyway.”
“I’m glad. It’s just that I’ve been here a few times, and I didn’t want to come across as a perv or something. I would like to explain—”
Becca came out the back door, holding four to-go bags in her clasped together arms. “Lily, I’m getting bombed. Can you take the order out to the blue Chevy?”
The rest of the day went like that, busy. To which Lily was glad. Before she knew it, the crew had worked an hour overtime. It was almost midnight when she got home, took a shower, and went to bed.
The next day Becca found her the minute she walked into the restaurant.
As she tied her black apron on Becca apologized for interrupting her parking lot date with Jonathan.
“It’s all right, Becca. I needed to help.”
“Yeah, but I hate getting in the way of a budding romance.’ Becca tilted her head.
“It’s not a budding romance and who says budding romance anymore anyway.” Lily countered.
“Okay, hot romcom, then?”
As Lily started to say something in her defense, her phone vibrated.
“Sorry, I have to look,” she said.
“Hey, kid, don’t worry about it.” Becca said with a half-shrug.
Minutes later, Lily came back from the call, swiping away the wetness in her eyes.
“I have to go. It was the hospital. My aunt just died.”
The heavy hospital doors were even harder to push than usual as Lily entered the building. She had been in this place one other time, the day her aunt was admitted. Because of her aunt’s condition upon arrival, Lily, as the only living relative, arranged her admittance. But, because of current hospital regulations, she wasn’t allowed to visit and her aunt’s stay had stretched into over a month.
Although Lily needed the work, she couldn’t go back to her job for fourteen days after her aunt’s admittance to the hospital. Eventually, her boss allowed her to go back when it was evident that she was ‘un-communicable’- as the new employee handbook read. As a good employee, he needed her and she was glad to be back at work again. Besides the money, it gave her something to focus on.
In less than an hour, Lily struggled with the heavy doors again as she left. In her hand, a bag with her aunt’s personal belongings that came with her to the hospital. As she drove back to her apartment, her stomach lurched and her head started pounding. Relieved as she turned into her complex, she longed for her couch and her old crocheted blanket.
About an hour later, as she lay under her blanket on the couch, hair washed and stomach relieved of its misery, she opened a box. In it were photographs of her parents, a withered dollar bill, and a children’s book.
At the age of five, Lily’s parents died in a car accident. On their way home from a night out, a distracted driver, reaching for a hamburger in a fast food sack, swung into the other lane, just for a second, and hit her parents’ car head on.
At the time, Lily was at home with the babysitter. Her aunt arrived and only as her aunt could, she told her what had happened and that Lily was going to come live with her.
Now, as she half lay–half sat on the couch, Lily kept looking through the contents of the box. She held the dollar bill for a moment, remembering how carefully her dad had placed it in her hand right before he and her mom left for their dinner date that night.
“Here ya go, Sassafrass.” Her dad smiled, calling her by his nickname for her. “It’s Mom’s turn to be my date tonight. Tomorrow is our date day. We’ll get ice cream. Then, we’ll go to the dollar store, like we always do. You pick out your treasure and I’ll pick out mine.” Her dad then showed her his dollar as he stuffed it in his shirt pocket.
“Casey, I really need you tonight.” Lily next lifted the children’s book out of the box. The hardbound cover displayed an illustration of a small brown-haired boy. In jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt, he stood with his arms crossed, his head held high.
Lying there, Lily remembered her aunt giving her the book during those first days after her parents’ death.
As she sat beside Lily on her bed in her new bedroom, her aunt had told her, “Here, Lily. You’re always talking about Casey. I don’t know who Casey is, but I came across this book at the bookstore during my lunch one day and knew I had to get it for you.”
From that day on, when Lily couldn’t fall asleep, her aunt read her the book.
Her earliest memories always included Casey. As an only child, she had very few playmates. Casey became her constant companion. He would tell her that he would always be there for her. She could tell him everything and he would understand.
Lily’s aunt would explain Casey’s existence by saying he must have been Lily’s imaginary friend. That imaginary friends are very real. They help with growing and coping, all that stuff that needs sorted out. ‘Why,’ she said. ‘It’s quite all right to have an imaginary friend.’ Then her aunt confessed that she had one growing up and she was very glad that she did.
As Lily grew older, she started making friends and slowly came out of the grief of losing her parents. She left Casey behind. Only once in a while, when her best friend Edith moved, or later, when her first boyfriend broke up with her, she recalled Casey and knew that he would always be there for her, if only as a sweet memory and a heartfelt connection to her girlhood. She would remember and somehow, that comforted her.
Lily gently put the book back in the box, closed her eyes, and finally allowed herself to drift off to a not-sound sleep.
Several days later Lily was back to work. Everyone was very nice, but that just made it all the more awkward.
Everyone but Becca. Becca had visited her after her aunt died, knocking on her door and holding a bottle of wine. They had sat on the roof terrace of Lily’s apartment, six feet apart, drinking the wine and not saying much of anything. Just what Lily needed at the time.
Apparently, Lily’s ‘guy’ had been by for his usual takeout order, Becca told her. She said that he was disappointed when Becca brought his order out and asked after Lily.
A few days after Lily started back to work, the usual order came in: Jonathan Edwards—-Braised Short Ribs/Mashed Potatoes/Grilled Vegetables/Roll with butter—Request server – Lily
Lily’s stomach tightened as she read the order. Becca made an off-hand joke as Lily grabbed a takeout order under the hot lamp and smiled at her as she backed out the exit door with the order.
A half hour later, Lily grabbed Jonathan’s order and headed to his car.
“You’re back!” Jonathan took off his sunglasses as he spoke through his mask.
“Yep! I am back,” Lily handed his order through his window as she shrugged. She wasn’t sure he could see her smile behind the mask but hoped her enthusiasm was apparent.
“I want to explain something to you,” Jonathan said.
Oh, boy, here goes, Lily thought. He’s going to reveal that he is weird after all by rambling some demented crazy talk. Or, he’ll tell me he’s moving on, relocating, and can’t order from here anymore. I hope I’m wrong, but be prepared for anything.
“When I was small, about four years old, we lived here according to my parents.” Jonathan began looking down, toying with his sunglasses, his voice low. “We had to move for my dad’s job right before I turned five years old.”
He looked up and continued, “As an army brat, we moved a lot. My mom loved flower gardens and always had one in each of the yards we had. For some reason, I always wanted her to put lilies in her flower beds.”
“Years later, Dad left active duty, retired. They moved back to this town because they loved it here. Right now, I’m living in a townhouse not too far from them, working from home. I’m an attorney, but for now, working remotely isn’t a problem. I visit my parents often, outside of course, allowable distance apart and all that. I get their groceries for them, putting them on their doorstep. Generally, I’m here for them for the time being.”
Lily smiled, not knowing where this was going. All the same, she still felt a tug at her heart as she listened to his story.
Jonathan sighed, then continued, “Anyway, as we sat outside one day, I said something about Mom’s garden and pointedly about the lilies, laughing about how weird it was that I liked them so much.”
“At that point my mom said, “Don’t you know? It’s not that you like lilies. It’s because you had a childhood friend named Lily. You used to adore her. You two were inseparable and you were heartbroken when we had to move. You would say to me, ‘I told her I would always be there for her.’ But you were very young, and in time forgot about your friendship, all that is, except for the name.”
His story puzzled Lily. She didn’t recall a childhood friend named Jonathan. She became disappointed and sad, thinking he had the wrong person. “Jonathan, I’m sorry, but I didn’t have a childhood friend named Jonathan.”
Jonathan peered out the car window at her. Lily could see herself reflected in his eyes as she stood on the other side of the window.
Jonathan explained, “Lily, when I became an attorney, my mom told me I should go by my first name, Jonathan. It sounded more professional. My full name is Jonathan Casey Edwards. I’m Casey. And I’ll always be here for you.”