NOWHERE MAN

Vivian looked up from her book and stared at her husband Ray as he fiddled with his iPod. At one time he knew every little detail about that thing; now the device totally confused him. In frustration Ray cursed and threw the iPod across the room.

Damn thing’s busted!” he yelled.

Vivian sighed and retrieved the iPod, placing it on the table between their recliners. She glanced sadly at Ray who just sat in his chair looking straight ahead. Where was her husband of 55 years? He was gone, replaced by this ‘nowhere man’.

We’ll look at it together after dinner, Ray. I’m sure we can figure out what’s wrong with it” Vivian calmly suggested.

Don’t patronize me, Viv!” Ray shouted. “I’m not a child!”

Sorry, Ray. I was just trying to help. I’m going to make dinner. Soup and salad sound ok to you?”

Whatever!” Ray snapped. “I’m not hungry anyway.”

In the kitchen Vivian wept silently. It was like this ever since Ray’s diagnosis of early onset dementia. She and Ray squabbled over everything. He used to be very handy; now he couldn’t set his alarm clock. When Vivian offered to sort out his meds for him, Ray lashed out saying he could do it himself. He mixed up the dosage and had a terrible reaction leaving him feeling hopeless and helpless.

Ray came into the kitchen and started helping Vivian make the salad, perfectly cutting vegetables and chatting amiably.

The old Ray was back … at least temporarily.

NAR © 2021

VAFFANCULO!

So, what brings you here today, Lou?” asked Dr. Patterson.

I can’t sleep, Doc!” replied Lou in despair. “I’m so tired! I haven’t slept a wink!”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that!” laughed the doctor. “Look, Lou. Of all the ailments people discuss with me, the greatest number of complaints isn’t about body aches, irritable bowels, erectile dysfunction or psoriasis: the most talked-about topic is lack of sleep. Falling asleep at bedtime and getting a good night’s rest is a problem that plagues millions so you’re not alone in this. I’m going to ask you some questions; let’s see if we can come up with a solution.”

Lou yawned and nodded in agreement. His wife Marie chimed in. “Maybe you should start by telling the doctor how much coffee you drink every day.”

Ok, that’s an excellent suggestion. How much coffee do you drink, Lou?” asked Dr. Patterson, his fingers hovering over the keys of his computer.

Oh, I guess about eight cups a day and an espresso after dinner. We have one of those – whatchamacallits – Keurig machines. Fantastic things! Just pop in a little plastic cup and brew yourself fresh coffee in thirty seconds!”

Whoa! That’s a lot of caffeine!” the doctor replied in disbelief.” You need to cut back. If you drink that much coffee at least half of it should be decaf. I’d like to eventually get you down to just one cup of regular coffee in the morning. How about alcohol?”

Go ahead, Lou. Answer the doctor” Marie said, giving her husband a nudge with her elbow.

I’ll have a couple of glasses of my cousin Carlo’s homemade vino while Marie’s preparing dinner. And another glass or two with dinner. Oh yeah, I like a nice sambucca while I’m watching “The Tonight Show” with that Jimmy Fallon. He’s a funny guy!”

The doctor stared at Lou allowing his words to sink in.

What form of exercise do you engage in?” the doctor asked.

Exercise!?” squawked Marie. “The strongest parts of his body are his fingers … from pushing himself away from the dining room table, surfing the net and using the remote control.”

Lou’s eyes shot daggers at his wife. She shrugged. “What? It’s the truth and you know it.”

What about your diet, Lou?” asked Dr. Patterson while eyeing Lou’s sizeable belly.

Diet? I ain’t on no diet, doc! My Marie is a fabulous cook!” Lou exclaimed, making her blush. “She makes everything from scratch, including her pizza, pasta, braciola, arancini – you name it, she can make it. And her ricotta cheesecake? Fuggedaboutit!”

Well, it’s wonderful that Marie’s such a great cook but it sounds like you’re eating a lot of heavy and fattening foods” the doctor replied with concern.

What’s wrong with pizza?” Lou asked incredulously. “It’s the perfect food – something from all the food groups. You got your carbohydrates, your protein and your dairy, right?”

Well, technically, yes but I wouldn’t call it ‘the perfect food’. Dr. Patterson entered all Lou’s information into his computer. “Let me get this straight, Lou. Your caffeine and alcohol intake is off the charts, you eat rich foods and desserts, you spend a lot of time in front of some type of device, you stay up late and you don’t exercise. Is that about right?”

Yeah, I guess” Lou admitted begrudgingly.

Do you realize that everything you’re doing is adversely affecting your quality of sleep? And what about you, Marie! How well do you sleep?”

Who, me? Why, I sleep like a rock” Marie answered proudly.

You’re not kidding! You should hear her snore, doc!” Lou guffawed. “What a racket! It sounds like bocce balls rolling around the court! That’s probably why I can’t sleep!”

Marie huffed indignantly.

You snore, Marie? Sounds to me like you could have sleep apnea – a serious disorder. Considering everything we’ve discussed I’m referring you, Lou, to a life management specialist. And Marie, I’m scheduling a sleep disorder study for you.”

Lou and Marie stared at the doctor in shock.

Can’t you just give me some sleeping pills?” pleaded Lou.

And maybe all I need are some of those nose strips” Marie suggested hopefully.

I’m afraid not. You need to make some serious life changes” replied the doctor showing Marie and Lou out the door.

Thanks a lot, Marie, making me tell the doctor everything!” Lou griped. “This is all your fault!”

Oh, shut up, Lou! You can get your own damn dinner tonight. I’m on strike! And another thing – vaffanculo!”

NAR © 2021

THE GET-AWAY

It had been quite a long while since Rob and I had a chance to take a vacation, to escape the noise of the city to someplace remote and peaceful. Skiing sounded like a nice idea, a break after the uncomfortably hot summer. All we wanted was a little get-away to relax and unwind.

Our Google search brought us to a place called Marmot Basin located in Jasper, an alpine town in Canada’s Alberta province. The photos were breathtaking; the area was one of the most natural and unsoiled landscapes we’d ever seen. The site said Jasper was “an authentic mountain community that managed to retain a cozy, warm and ‘real’ atmosphere with a laid-back vibe”. It was also one of North America’s largest protected nature preserves. It would be great to get lost for a few days, forget about our hectic lives.

The flight to Jasper was interminable; eight hours with a connection in Denver. The time change did a number on us physically but our welcoming and romantic chateau more than made up for the tedious travel. It was rustic yet charming with beamed ceilings, comfy furniture and a huge fireplace. We spent our first night snuggled up in bed.

Right after breakfast the next morning we set out for a day of skiing. Hoping to find a secluded trail, we consulted one of the guides who gave us a couple of suggestions. We headed out, delighted to see a pristine layer of powdery snow. Looking around we realized we were the only people in the area and there was nothing in sight except evergreens on the hillside.

We started off slowly then gradually picked up speed; the conditions were perfect. About ten minutes into our run we came upon a split in the trail. Taking a break, Rob leaned against a tree and consulted a map, deciding which way we should go. Suddenly we felt movement beneath our feet and the ground gave way in what sounded like a whispering waterfall. In an instant we were tumbling down, enveloped by cascades of snow.

It seemed like an eternity before I came to a stop. I was unable to move but realized I was still clutching my pole. Somehow I managed to wrangle my arm free from under my body and began whacking the snow above me. I didn’t know if I was under three feet of snow or thirty; I had to try to free myself. Snow kept falling on me as I hacked away. Slowly my grave became brighter and I realized a sliver of sunlight was peeking through. I heaved myself into an upright position and broke through the snow.

It was a struggle but I managed to climb out and started yelling for Rob. All I heard was my echo; everything was deathly silent. I found my phone in the inside pocket of my ski suit and dialed Rob’s number hoping to hear his phone ring; I heard nothing. Checking my phone I noticed there was no cell service in the area; I couldn’t even call for help. Gingerly I walked around a bit, all too aware the ground could give way at any moment. My only hope was to try to find help.

I must have walked for miles; the sun had set and I found myself surrounded by trees. I had no idea where I was. Exhausted, I fell to my knees, sobbing. If Rob was still buried in the snow there was no chance of finding him alive.

Through my tears I thought I saw a glimmer of light. I squinted and could barely make out the shape of a cabin in the woods. Was it real or was I hallucinating? I had to keep moving or I would surely die during the frigid night. Slowly I got to my feet and walked toward the light, praying it was not an illusion. I was so very tired; maybe just a little rest before I continued.

NAR © 2021

SOCIALLY DISTANCED

Both men lived in the same apartment building, one on the ground floor and the other, two flights up. They would see each other in passing, nodding ‘hello’ or muttering the occasional “How ya doing?” They were approximately the same age and had seen each other often but a friendship never developed.

Then the corona virus hit and everything changed.

They happened upon each other in a nearby park, masked up, walking their dogs. One had a golden retriever, the other a chocolate lab. They struck up a socially distanced conversation, at first talking about their dogs then, of course, the craziness of COVID.

They were both unemployed computer engineers, laid off because of company closures. Each one contemplated moving back in with their parents but that was impossible; neither one came from accepting or understanding homes.

They started biking and jogging together, often running the six miles that made up the full loop around Central Park. As they talked they discovered they had much in common: their nonexistent love lives, their passion for chess, a fascination with micro-brewing and their dream of working from home as computer app designers. And how gut-wrenching it was coming out as gay.

The next step was so natural: moving in together. They could share one apartment and save money, work on ideas for app design programs, dabble in a little home-made beer and totally, passionately, fiercely fall in love.

A new year, a new start. Love in the time of corona.

NAR © 2021

RULERS OF THE CASTLE

Scorching weather we’re experiencing, Maureen. Quite odd for June. You and Jamie should consider postponing your holiday. As you know, your Aunt Camilla detests air conditioning and I fear you will be terribly uncomfortable. Perhaps September would be a more suitable time to visit. Do let us know your decision. Hope all is well in New York.”

I stared at my uncle’s email in dismay. It had been eight years since I visited England. My husband Jamie’s family is from Scotland and we spent our honeymoon there, setting aside a few days to visit my aunt and uncle in Kent. I was looking forward to a return trip and an early summer vacation. Now Uncle George was complaining about an oppressive heatwave.

We had just booked our flights that morning and made reservations at some of the many attractions in the area. Our plans included a visit to Canterbury Cathedral, Port Lympne Animal Reserve, Chiselhurst Caves and Hever Castle with its incredible labyrinthine gardens. I could just picture our five-year-old daughter Josie running through the vast field of mazes, giggling at every dead end.

If my aunt and uncle agreed to watch Josie for a few hours, Jamie and I could go on a tour of Shepherd Neame Brewery. I must admit after years in New York I preferred my beer served ice cold in a frosty mug – not at the traditional ‘English cellar temperature’. I never did care for the taste of a tepid brew.

After telling Jamie about my uncle’s message, he reminded me that we had 24 hours to cancel our flights and reservations without incurring a penalty. The first thing we needed to do was check with the airline, then we could look into our other plans. Luck was on our side; we were able to reschedule our flights and all our activities without any problem. In fact, our new agenda was going to be even better than originally planned.

Hever Castle had recently opened an area called “Adventure Playground” where kids ruled the castle. Josie could discover and explore Tudor Towers with its 2 metre high willow structure, a giant sandpit and grassy mounds with hidden tunnels. There were secret dungeons, moats and turrets plus climbing frames, swings and slides. Josie would never want to leave!

I began having serious thoughts about moving back to England permanently. My parents chose to retire in Spain and I had no other family here in The States. Jamie, I knew, would love the idea of being closer to his relatives. Josie had just finished kindergarten and Jamie’s firm had a branch office in London. It would be an experience of a lifetime and the perfect surprise for our families to learn we’d be living in the UK again.

Good news, Uncle George! We were able to change our travel plans to September. Josie can’t wait to finally meet you in person and I’m looking forward to being with family again. We also have a big surprise planned which I’ll share with you very soon. Try to stay cool! Maureen”

Hever Castle Gardens

NAR © 2021

ON THE WAY

David’s decision to flee the scene was fueled by fear, self-preservation and adrenaline. An electrical storm during the night wreaked havoc with the streetlights causing them to flash at indiscriminate intervals. Even though his was the only car on the dimly lit road, the strobe effect from the lights was haphazard and dangerously distracting. There were shadows looming everywhere; David never saw the cyclist cross his path.

The impact was powerful yet made only a quiet thud like the subtle reload of a gun’s magazine. The visual impression, however, was appalling. The tableau switched to slow motion; David watched in horror as a mangled body performed a ‘danse macabre’ across the hood of his car while musical phrases from “O Fortuna” screamed in his head. The cyclist soared through the air like an acrobat and landed in a twisted heap fifty feet or so from the car.

David sat motionless in his car; no other living creature was anywhere in sight. “What to do? What to do?” raced through his mind. He’d never had a car accident, not even a parking ticket. Now he had run someone down – an innocent cyclist. Was it a man or a woman? Surely this person would be missed by family and friends, perhaps his or her parents or – God forbid – their children. What a terrible fate, a horrible accident. Yes, David had a few drinks with friends after work, just a few; the alcohol had to be out of his system by now. But wait; the cyclist wore no reflective clothing, not even a warning light on the bike’s handlebars or wheels. Out cycling in the night, alone; wasn’t that tempting fate? Maybe they got what they deserved.

Slowly David opened the door and looked around; the deafening silence was pounding in his brain, the absence of people other-worldly. With measured steps he approached the crumpled body. A gentle push of his booted foot confirmed what he already suspected: the cyclist was dead. A battered helmet sat near the edge of the road; the bright orange and black ‘KTM’ emblem of the bicycle manufacturer in Austria stared at David accusingly. The longer he looked at the emblem the more he realized he had two choices: he could report the accident to the police and face the consequences or he could clean up this mess and get on with his life.

As he walked back to his car David knew what he had to do. A look at the front end showed very little damage, a small inconvenience he could deal with later. More pressing matters prevailed; first he had to extricate the bicycle from under his car. David sat in the driver’s seat, shifted the car into reverse and gently backed up. After a couple of seconds he could feel the car and the bicycle disengage.

The bike was a wreck but there wasn’t much debris on the road. Retrieving his jacket, David wrapped it around the top tube bar and carried the bike back to the dead cyclist. Taking a few steps away from the road he realized it would be easy to throw the bike over the edge, making it look like the cyclist had swerved off the road – if the body was ever found at all. He gave the bike a hefty toss and it disappeared onto the woods below. With his foot David then rolled the cyclist’s body and helmet down the hill.

David walked back to his car and broke off a low hanging branch from a tree which he used to sweep the road clear of any pieces of glass or metal. Getting back into the car, he turned on the radio and cranked up the volume; the song was Euclid’s “On the Way”, his favorite revolutionary political heavy metal band.

Ok” David murmured to himself. “It’s all gonna be ok. Just one last thing. Got to take care of that little dent in the hood of my car.” David kept driving until he reached a busy gas station. He drove up to a pump, intentionally smacking into a metal barrier; witnesses could attest to the mishap.

David drove home feeling much more relaxed and confident. He reached for his jacket but it wasn’t there. His face went pale and he broke out in a cold sweat. Closing his eyes he could clearly see his jacket wrapped around the bicycle, his phone still in the pocket, as it made its final descent into the woods.

NAR © 2021

For Part 2, “When The Fog Rolls In“, please click here: https://wp.me/pc3LSm-1az

I’M ONLY SLEEPING

Where am I? What’s happening? I thought I heard screams in the night. Could I have been dreaming?

I’m supposed to be sleeping, waiting for the Spring. It’s too soon to be warming up like this. My lower extremities are aching as though someone as been tugging on them but I’m not in pain. Some of my friends have suffered excruciating agony.

My limbs feel a little heavy and there’s a slight pressure on my head. I can hear faint voices now. It’s hard to make out the words but they sound like “brilliant”, “wonderful idea”. What does it all mean? What is a wonderful idea?

I have no clue how much time has passed; I think only a week or so but I’m very tired. I need to sleep.

Now it feels like I’m being carried somewhere; I’m a little afraid. What’s happening to me? Am I being placed in a hole? I can feel something familiar and soothing covering my base and I smell the crisp outdoors. I detect the fragrance of fresh soil.

I’m feeling a chill again; that warming sensation is passing. It feels like I’m bound up but I’m comfortable – like being enveloped in a blanket of snow. I feel safe, as though in a cocoon.

Thank you for not taking an ax to me. Thank you for digging me up and keeping me alive. I will grow strong in your yard in the Spring.

It was a joy spending Christmas with you!

I’m not dead; I’m only sleeping.

One of the saddest things is seeing all the dead and forgotten Christmas trees discarded after the season.
Next time you go looking for a Christmas tree, consider buying one with its root ball intact;
you can replant it in your yard
or place it in a pot.
It gave you so much joy
during the holidays;
why not give it a chance to live!

NAR © 2021

CANDLE IN THE WINDOW

One of the first things I noticed about the house across the street was the candle in an upstairs window.

It was December 1980 – two weeks before Christmas – and we had just moved into our new home. My mom quickly located the boxes marked ‘CHRISTMAS LIGHTS’ and put my dad to work decorating outside. When he was done every house on the street was aglow except for the one with the solitary candle.

I was fascinated by that candle; it was lit twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. When I told my dad I was afraid the house would burn down, he assured me that the candle was either electric or battery-operated; the ‘flame’ didn’t flicker and the candle never melted. That made me feel a lot better.

About a week later there was a knock on our front door. Mom answered and I scurried along behind her, anxious to see who was visiting us for the first time. Standing on the front porch was a chubby little old lady with silver hair, twinkling eyes and rosy cheeks and I couldn’t resist blurting out “Are you Mrs. Claus?” She chuckled a bit saying no, she was Mrs. Granger from across the street and had come to bring us an angel food cake as a welcoming gift. Mom introduced herself and invited Mrs. Granger inside but she declined saying “perhaps another time”. Before she left I told her my name was Eleanor and I had just turned ten on December 1. She smiled slightly at us but there was sadness in her eyes.

Mrs. Granger’s angel food cake sat on one of her beautiful Spode Christmas plates. Mom said we should return the plate on Christmas Day brimming with sugar cookies, which is exactly what we did. We rang the bell and mom apologized for showing up unannounced, adding that she hoped we weren’t interrupting her Christmas festivities.

No, dear. Not at all. I was just preparing myself one of those frozen TV dinners – turkey, for a special treat.” Mom made polite small talk while I glanced around the living room. There wasn’t a single Christmas decoration in sight, not even a card. A fading ember in the fireplace made me think that Mrs. Granger was probably very lonely.

I suddenly found myself asking the question: “Mrs. Granger, why is there a candle in the window upstairs?”

Mom gave me a withering look as Mrs. Granger slowly walked to the sofa and slumped down. I felt awful when she started crying, dabbing her eyes with a lacy handkerchief. Mom sat next to her and held her hand, not speaking.

In hushed tones Mrs. Granger told us her story: she married late in life and was blessed with a son, Edward. Her husband died in an accident when Edward was three years old and she raised the boy by herself. When the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, Edward enlisted; he was declared MIA on December 1, 1970 and she hadn’t heard a word in the ten years since then. The candle in the window was her way of holding vigil for Edward, steadfastly waiting for any news. We sat together for a few minutes, then Mrs. Granger politely said she wanted to be alone. Silently we left. It was then that I understood why she looked so sad when I told her my birthday – the dreadful day her son went missing.

Two days later mom returned to Mrs. Granger’s. She apologized for the intrusion on Christmas Day and said we hoped she would join us for New Year’s Day dinner. Mrs. Granger said gently “No, dear. I haven’t celebrated a new year since Edward disappeared.”

All week I thought about Mrs. Granger. Our New Year’s Day table was set for three, sparkling with mom’s best dishes, silverware and crystal glasses. I sat in the bay window watching the lightly falling snow; then I noticed the candle in the window of Mrs. Granger’s house was not lit.

Mom!” I gasped. “The candle is out.”

Mom, dad and I walked across the street on leaden feet. Mom rapped softly on the door; we could see a dim glow coming from the fireplace. One more knock and the door opened slightly; Mrs. Granger appeared, her face wet with tears.

Are you alright, Mrs. Granger?” mom inquired with obvious concern in her voice.

Oh, my dear! My mind has been preoccupied all day” she replied, her voice trembling. “You see, I received some news today.”

Mrs. Granger turned and walked back inside, leaving the door ajar; apprehensively we followed her. By the fireplace stood a smiling soldier; her long-lost son Edward had finally returned home.

Mrs. Granger

NAR © 2021