The Night the City Flamed


                                      (Photo by Helen Levitt)

I remember the library was shadowy and spacious, with books towering above us that could only be reached by a ladder. We had gone there with my parents. It was soon to be Halloween, and Aunt Iris told them the streets of Detroit were more unsafe than most in the world. Devils’ Night was an occurrence we must avoid, she told us with a warning frown. Mother was convinced after only two days in the city, having heard and seen things she didn’t relay to us.

Father had to fly there for work, mother said, a most important trip, so he’d brought her and us two kids. Everything he did was important, I thought, but the trip was a surprise, an exciting event for Mallory, barely five and me, six-going-on-seven. I liked planes and she didn’t, but we both loved Aunt Iris and Uncle Henry, our cousin Susan, a baby at four, and the big brick house they lived in. It was a whole other world. The thing I didn’t like was that we wouldn’t be trick or treating out in our small town neighborhood. I had planned on being a monster, a hairy one.

The lace curtains in their library intrigued me. Our living room had heavy green curtains; we didn’t have a real library. When I touched the white material it felt frail; I was afraid it might crush or crumble in my hands. I had been waiting for Susan and Mal. They were playing dress up and called to me a few times from the stairway but I wanted to touch the leather spines of the books and twirl the big globe by Uncle Henry’s desk. The world was so big I couldn’t believe it all fit on that smooth, glossy ball. Glass and brass objects–a small tray, a swan, a horse and a fancy box–sat on stacks of magazines and letters. There were plants bigger than me in the deep corners. I thought they would be happier outdoors with the huge old trees.

“Lucas, come on! Upstairs!” Mal yelled again, then laughed with our cousin.

I heard my mother tell her to keep it down. I left the library with a backward glance, seeing dust spin in streams of light and each book waiting for me to be a better reader. A lot better.

Aunt Iris met me in the hallway. “Go on, Lucas. They’re trying on costumes. You won’t go trick or treating but you can have fun playing. We’ll have candies and a roaring fire and spooky stories later.”

I was disappointed as it was the first I’d heard that we had to stay in all night. But she was my favorite aunt and I knew she told good stories at bedtime. Mother said she had been an actress on stage.

Up the many stairs–I quit counting at twenty–and down the narrow hall and around the corner, to the third large bedroom where the door was open. There they were. They had Aunt Iris’ scarves out, using them like skirts or long hair. But they also had hats, ties, vests, feathers, dresses, capes and jackets, jewelry and more. Some things were fancy, probably from my aunt’s plays. There were animal heads made of cloth, a donkey, raccoon and pig. The raccoon was especially good so I put it on and liked how it looked. I could see pretty well, and scampered around a bit.

Susan had gone into the adjoining bathroom to try on make up. My sister watched me, eyebrows raised, as she refashioned a silky gold and blue scarf into a dress. She was happy, humming to herself; she knew what I was about to do. I hid behind the free-standing, full-length mirror. When Susan came out and admired her reflection I jumped out with hands raised high, fingers crooked like claws, and roared my best. I didn’t know what sounds raccoons made but it was effective, anyway. She screamed long enough that my eardrums hurt and mother and Aunt Iris came up. I had to take it off and remind her who I was while our mothers stood laughing in the hallway. Mal looked a mess with ruby-red color smeared on her lips and cheeks but I gave her a hug so she’d stop sniffling.

We had dinner in the long, chilly dining room, father back again and happy, everyone chatting except for us bored kids.  The rolls and roast beef were good. Afterwards as the adults left for the living room, we asked to go out on the porch, or stoop as they called it there. Since they would be close by it was decided we could for ten minutes if the door was left open a crack.

It was a lot longer than ten minutes and it was good to be in open air, pollution and all. Good ole Mal had stuffed little masks in her coast pocket, so we put them on and stood watching passersby and cars. Some people waved at us or smiled. We weren’t very impressive, I’m sure. A few called out a “Happy Halloween” which made me miss my best friend and costumes left at home. I leaned against the bannister while the girls fidgeted with their masks and chattered about who knows what. The sun was going down a little, the blue sky brushed soft pink and orange above the skyline. Detroit was enormous, big enough to make its own wall map. It made me a little nervous thinking about that but going inside did not seem interesting yet.

I was just staring out at the city’s lights like specks in the landscape, when I thought I saw a sudden brightness, a flare above a bunch of buildings. I called the girls over and pointed to the area I had seen it. They hung on to me. Something brilliant flashed again and then, a few buildings over, again. And then the brightness grew and grew, and another area brightened and pulsed. Gradually I figured out what it was, dread creeping up inside me.

The city was catching fire, just as the sun–a huge ball of exploding, flammable stuff, hotter than heck, I knew that much–was putting itself away for the night. The sky glowed fierce orange.

We stood riveted, waiting for grown ups to notice, too. A man  running past stopped and stared in the same direction, then told us we should get inside and where were our parents, anyway? Susan whimpered a little as Mal and I wondered where all the firemen were and what might happen next. Mal took my hand.

Father and Uncle Henry flung the door wide and my uncle shepherded us in, but Dad hung back a few seconds surveying the city. His face looked stern. I swear there was firelight on his skin.

W gathered in the living room where a fireplace harbored another fire, a cheery glow that danced and threw off warmth. I went to a big window and looked out, absorbed by the twilight being slashed by red, orange and yellow, a terrible and beautiful light show taking over parts of the city. I could hear the adults talk about Devils’ Night, damage done, craziness stirred up. Who would do such things? What did those fires really mean? I wondered who was out there right then, on the streets with danger on their minds and was grateful for the big door with all the locks, our grown ups sipping coffee and eating cookies nearby.

But it was still a sight to remember, a wild night like none other even from the window of my aunt’s and uncle’s house by one of the Great Lakes. I had something fantastic to tell my friends. And that was before treats and ghost stories Aunt Iris told us, making the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks. After I finally fell asleep my dreams were haunted by little beasties slinking from the library walls and fire eating up the fancy curtains. It was a relief to wake up to fresh cinnamon buns and eggs, my cousin and sister ready for more mischief of a minor sort.

I found out years later that during that trip our father was given the opportunity for a great job in Detroit and he’d decided against it. I was caught off guard; it wasn’t often he talked so openly.

He leaned forward and spoke confidentially. “That night it all changed, seeing things from the stoop with you kids. I had been offered a big job in a big town, Lucas. But I realized what I wanted for us in the end was something more steady and quiet, something that wouldn’t burst into flames so easily. Life would throw enough surprises and shocks at you. I wanted to buy a little more time.”

I thought about how much he loved us and what I would have done if it had been me. I might have taken the job; I’m a risk taker. But I had to tell him it was the most peculiar and memorable Halloween of my childhood. I thanked him for that, and our safe return home.

(The photo prompt is from Patricia Ann McNair’s blog. Thanks as always, Patricia.)

Escape: Part 2


The SUV hummed along as the sunset melted away. The tires on pavement, the heater fan and warmth brought Darla to the edge of sleep. She speculated about whether or not she was being kidnapped by benign but nutty elders or if soon she would actually be at Granny Robb’s, eating something good. Curled up with a big mug of tea. Darla had called; Granny said she was up north but to come on. She’d be back soon, tomorrow probably. Just lock the doors, lay low. Darla could think in front of a crackling fire at her  grandmother’s; that was crucial. She’d feel like herself there, a semi-whole person. Separate from Abe.

It was too good to be true, these Gentry people picking her up. She imagined they were angels–that told her just how desperate she was–but she still had a world of trouble ahead.

“Got any kids?” Kenneth asked. “Or are you footloose?”

Darla sat up straight and blinked. “No, just a dog, a husky named Dixie…”

She felt a longing for Dixie that ached. She was mostly Abe’s dog but Dixie and she had become friends as she worked outdoors, the big dog padding after her when Abe was too busy or gone.

“Want a cat?”

Kenneth chuckled when Roslyn flicked his shoulder hard.

“Never mind him. Noto is her name, short for Notorious–I know, strange name but leave it to Kenneth. At the start she was notoriously fussy and expensive due to health needs. But he indulges me. He enjoys making me happy, lucky me! He’s got his parrot–talks back to me and Noto! You married, dear?”

She didn’t want to talk about personal things. This was a ride to safety, not a social excursion. She could tell them anything she wanted. She could as easily say she was single, a visiting professor from British Columbia. She had gotten lost after a seaside conference and then her car broke down so she decided to just have an adventure and see the States, not go home until she made it to Vancouver via hitchhiking. That she was spontaneous, independent, loved a good challenge.

Yeah, right.

“No, well, once, but things changed.”

“Hmm.” Kenneth took off the weathered straw hat and scratched his head. “Took us awhile to meet up and get hitched. But good thing, as it all worked out.”

Noto climbed up on Roslyn’s shoulder and meowed in assent. The cat sat there, tail twitching back and forth like a serpentine thing.

Roslyn scratched Noto’s ears. “We met at a gym when we were nearly forty. That’s twenty five years ago. We both ran marathons then and worked out. Both teachers, well, Kenneth became an administrator. I taught sixth grade. He was all about science. I was single and he was widowed young. So there we were, working up a sweat and trying not to steal a glance at each other week after week. He had good legs! One thing led to another. Coffee out, running dates, then dinner at my place…I guess some are meant to be married and some are not.”

Darla looked out the window. Could they go faster and talk less? She felt something rise up from her gut and it clutched her with misgiving. She and Abe: three years, six months, nine days. Too long. That’s what she finally decided even though he had this delicious appeal, the way he made her laugh, how he could rejuvenate things with a hammer and nails. His boldly good looks. His way with the campers, which was oddly patient. His lasagna and pot roast dinners. The way he held her when things were good. Up to Abe’s standards, that is. Yes, long enough. Now she had to keep out of his reach. Convince him she was not the one. They were a mistake that needed undoing.


The coastal road was full of switchbacks and Noto was thrown forward, landing on Darla’s lap, claws extended to catch hold. Darla tried to lift her and give her back. The cat hung on to her hoodie, then turned three times and settled on her lap, throwing Darla a look that indicated tolerance and possible appreciation. Darla smiled at Roslyn when she looked back.

“See? Noto’s good with people when she trusts them. Great instincts, too. So tell me about your grandmother.”

Kenneth grunted, either at the Noto remark or a truck that passed going around seventy instead of fifty.

“She helped raise me and now that my mom’s in Seattle, she’s my family. Granny used to own a gift shop in town.”

Why did she have to say that? The less information the better. Or was she being paranoid? Abe always warned her to say nothing.  Treat everyone with suspicion, except the campers and their families. They brought in money. Used to. He made less money since he married her, he said. All her fault, her shyness, her laziness.

Breathe, just breathe slowly. Think first, speak judiciously, act later.

“A gift shop in Winton? I wonder if I’ve been there.”

“Not likely! She sold it four years ago, or is it five? I was in college  when that occurred. Now she’s retired.”

Roslyn reached back for Noto but the tabby was purring, rumbling against Darla’s legs.

“The shop was called what, dear?”

I didn’t say, she thought. I don’t want to talk about anything, let you know me.

She considered asking them to stop, let her out, but the heat inside, the cold outdoors, the way the cat had snuggled close…Or she could just spew it, how terrified she was getting, how she didn’t know what to do. How Abe could be wonderful and then not, just like that.

No, keep steady now.


“Cornucopia? My goodness, I know that place! I’ve shopped there for years because she’s had the best jewelry and special things. I made it a habit to stop there for some Christmas gifts. You said her name was… Lisa? Lela? No, Lena! I did note there was a change in staff.”

Darla didn’t answer. She had lain her head back and closed her eyes. Roslyn got quiet again. The car swayed along the narrow road. The cat seemed to snore. Maybe she had cats wrong, they could okay companions, smaller and less willing to play but still… She recalled Dixie, those blue eyes, that furry breadth when Darla hugged her. Dixie had been consistently gentler than Abe had ever been and that undisputed fact brought a prickling of tears.

Kenneth spoke in a whisper to his wife. “Do you think something is wrong or is it just me?”

“Of course.” She whispered back. “Just trying to figure it out. What woman would hitchhike alone?”

“You know that shopkeeper?”

“I know of her but can’t recall her whole name.” Her voice grew  louder. “Well, we’re going to her house so we’ll meet.” She looked back at Darla to find her eyes still closed. “I think she’s running away.”

“Why that? From what?”

“I just feel it. She’s secretive. Worn out. Something desperate about her look.”

Darla didn’t care. She just wanted to sleep, dream of solutions, awaken somewhere else to find morning light greeting her like a balm. No fear. No wondering what was next. So what if they suspected something? She’d be at Granny’s soon. Never see them again.

They were close now. She opened her eyes a small slit and took in the lights of town. Saturday night and everything was lit up like a celebration in little Winton, tarnished jewel of the coast. It gave her a headache. If she had had money she’d be somewhere far from here. Mexico. Hawaii. Even Alaska sounded good tonight.


She sat up. Noto jumped off her lap.

“Turn left here,” Darla directed, “then turn left again and down four blocks to the beach. Otter Road; the house is an A-frame.”

They drove slowly up to Lena Robb’s dark house. Darla felt her jaw tense and then…no, really? There, parked right before the driveway, was her apparently repaired Volvo. Abe sat in it. He turned his head toward the Gentry car.

Darla fell over and bent down.”Keep going! Don’t stop! Abe is there!”

Kenneth said nothing but kept driving at a steady pace. Roslyn patted Darla’s back with her warm, thin hand. They drove on, right out of Winton and then sped up.

“Say now, Darla…how about coming to our place, having dinner? You can rest, call your grandmother.”

Darla clutched the back of Roslyn’s seat. Tears had breached her  will to just carry on and she could not stop. She cried so hard, the painful breaths emptying in small heaves, that Noto cried out with her. Roslyn took her hand and asked Kenneth to pull over.

“Please–right now, Kenneth.”


Darla could barely make out the dash lights but she felt like she was in an airplane or a space ship going somewhere strange and unknown and all she could think was I’m leaving I’m leaving I’m leaving I am really leaving.

The Gentrys waited until the crying stopped.

Roslyn spoke softly. “You’re safe, my girl. We’ll shelter you until you get Lena to come.”

“Yes, please let us help, dear,” Kenneth said, his voice husky.

They drove on to the Gentry cottage. Darkness was like a silky veil on Darla’s hot face as night accompanied them in a quest for comfort. Darla hummed to herself, an old lullaby her mother had sung to her when she was a kid and life was an unblemished horizon. How to get back? Or was she finally going forward? Noto curled up on her lap to better watch her the rest of the journey.


Escape: Part 1


The wind changed from ferocious to more familiar and the afternoon sun seeped into her skin but Darla gave up and sat down. She had been walking more than an hour, ever since the car broke down. It had shuddered and coasted to the edge of the road, right before the highway exit. She knew it was a bad idea to take Abe’s car but, then, she didn’t see that she had a choice. He was working on her beat up Volvo at his buddy’s–she had dropped him off, ostensibly to go to work. She had thought it over. It was either take her chances or try to placate him again. But she just couldn’t put the effort into peacemaking anymore. Not because she didn’t care because she did, sometimes. It just didn’t work.

She’d kept on until she got to this stretch of beach. It was easier to walk than the roadside. Abe would first look at her best friend Sarah’s, then Teddy’s studio above his café, and lastly the Knit and Purr (the owner’s sickly Persian cat had died during summer) where she worked three days a week. He wouldn’t try Granny Robb’s until tomorrow, likely–he did have to work later. And he didn’t like Granny, had told her a thousand times to stay away from her so he assumed she took his opinion and advice to heart. Darla hoped to be at Granny’s by nine o’clock and in the morning to be somewhere else. Had to keep moving, otherwise Abe would catch up and haul her back home.

Her new tennis shoes were chafing her left foot. A blister was ballooning on her heel so she took them off and stood up. The wet, smooth sand was soothing.

If Darla knew anything, she knew the ocean. She grew up not far from there; all this had been her playground. Kept alive in her memory were tidal secrets and all the places she could hide and explore. The weather’s shifts and turns here were an intimate part of her knowledge. She had lived to surf and kayak before Abe. Today the sea was restless as ever, gleaming waves muscling their way in, carrying humans, boats or debris with an indifferent elegance. She tilted her face to sea spray, then tied her tennis shoes together and tossed them over her shoulder. Darla’s feet pounded the wave-carved beach, hair loosening, legs lengthening. This is how it felt to be free. Like she had no origin or destination or ending, as if she was one hundred percent bona fide alive only in this moment. Every cell sparked and danced, primed for joy. Nothing–no one–could claim her as theirs.


Salt kissed her lips and light burnished her skin. She was turning to gold and snared by the rhythm of running so imagined she was a wild horse as she did when a child, galloping and cavorting past waves, rocks, driftwood, crabs, mussels, the world. Only when her breathing was pinched by the pounding of her heart did she slow and drop to the sand, gasping.

There was no time for this foolish play. What an idiot to dredge up memories made of childhood innocence. A naiveté not yet shredded by disappointment and loneliness. Now Darla had to deal with facts that required she come up with a better plan. Soon. She was an escapee, after all. Broke right out of Abe’s Coastal Camp–that’s what he called it since it was his summer camp. Abe’s work camp, he should call it, for all she had done for him to keep him even halfway placated. He loomed in her mind: that furrowed forehead signaling dissatisfaction, the immediate or delayed anger instigating more ridiculous demands–“corrective actions”, he called them. And too often the force of his broad hands marring her face or grasping on her shoulder, hair, neck. Those were “reminders”. Of who was in charge.

She had to climb the hill and get back to the road, find a ride to Granny’s. She was gone this week but she’d told her to come on. Darla put her socks back on and then her shoes, her heel tender. She had four protein bars in her bag and ate one as she hiked up the twisty trail. Two women passed her laughing, a blanket and a tote full of food between them. She kept her head down, not to be unseen but to avoid their normalcy, their happiness. She wondered if they carried wine, then banished the thought before it stole her mind away like a thief. The last thing she wanted ever again was a drink.

When she reached the road she loosened her shoe and stuck out her thumb. There were trees standing close together here; the ocean roar was gentled. An October sky was dissolving into a powdery grey-blue and coral. The sun would soon begin its disappearing act on the vast celestial stage. She had to be off the road by then. Fear pricked her innards. What had she done? Did it really have to come to this?


She waggled her thumb at several cars but they sped by, sometimes honking or swerving, as though her small presence might be a serious threat to them. She stepped back, close to underbrush and the darkening forest. After about twenty minutes she started walking fast even though her heel was hot and stinging. Darla took in the sea between treetops like a gulp of hope. She considered praying when headlights blinded her. She turned at the sound of the vehicle as it pulled up nice and easy.

The interior lights went on. They looked okay, both man and woman, each with greying hair. A brownish tabby cat curled up on the woman’s lap. The car was a new model SUV, deep blue. The woman rolled her window halfway down and stuck her face out.

“You need a ride, dear?” She peered over her glasses and smiled with pale peach lips closed. “You shouldn’t be out here all alone.”

“Well, about 60 miles is all. To Winton, up north. You know it?”

The older woman nodded, loose curls bouncing. “Oh, we go right by it on the way to our cottage. We’re eighteen miles past there.” She looked Darla up and down for a quick assessment then made a motion to the left with her head. “This is Kenneth, my husband. Just get rid of sand, please.”

Darla bent down and looked in the car. Kenneth had on an old straw hat but he pushed it back from his forehead, then peered at her. His hooded eyes made an attempt at smiling. He looked sixtyish or more, ruddier and younger than his wife.

“Well, I guess…”

“What happened, dear? No car? How on earth did you get here?”

Darla could feel the heat being leached from the air as the sun stayed its own course. She shivered; she had to get out of here. She stomped her feet to rid them of sand and brushed off her jeans.

“It broke down. I’m on my way to my grandmother’s, Lena Robb’s.”

The man gestured for her to get in back. “Pile in. I want to get to our place before it’s too late.”

Darla took off her backpack, tossed it in and settled in the leather seat. The cat jumped from between the front seats to the seat by Darla, walked over her twice with a sniff or two, then jumped back to the woman in front with a plaintive meow. Darla didn’t like cats that much but here she was, stuck with one again.

“I’m Roslyn Gentry, by the way.”

“Darla, ah, Darla Robb.” She took a painfully deep breath as they started off down the road, then looked out the window, through the pines. The ocean was receding; the sky was aflame. The SUV was warm and smelled faintly of cinnamon and, possibly, sausage. A tangy hint of sweat. No one spoke the first mile except the cat, who hissed at her once from her mistress’ shoulder.


(TO BE CONTINUED. Please come back for Part 2, to be posted this week.)

Artifacts, Ibsen and Me


                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for creative types, thus our tolerance of “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I only peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a dirt buster handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Four fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, an old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new votives. A box of matches was in a coffee can along with two ripe bananas. I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire hazards but I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath the crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen the flickering glow from the sidewalk. I backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?


Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a wooly bear caterpillar between us.


I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

1730_Stoopendaal_Map_of_the_World - low

Big Surprise


                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”


I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.


“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.


After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.