Tag Archives: short story

A Thanksgiving Short Story

thanksgiving - closed(Last year The Curmudgeon used this space to express his dismay over the proliferation of stores that are open on Thanksgiving and their insistence that their employees spend this day standing behind cash registers serving customers instead of sitting at dining room tables serving turkey and stuffing. He is pleased that this situation appears to be receiving more attention, and while it is at least a little encouraging that some stores are making a big fuss over not being open, their numbers continue to dwindle and he suspects they are fighting a losing battle.

The Curmudgeon thinks about this often; as you know by now, he has much too much free time on his hands. He used some of that free time to explore another way to approach this issue: through fiction and a new short story, hot off the presses, about a couple for whom the work-Thanksgiving-or-else ultimatum becomes all too real. Enjoy – and have a good Thanksgiving.)

 

“Squeezed”

 

Danny and Colleen McBride were sitting at their dining room table, eating dinner with their three children, when the telephone rang. Colleen rose to answer it, going quickly into the kitchen.

Danny noticed the look on his wife’s face when she returned.

“What?” he asked.

“It was Marion,” she replied. Marion was the owner of Sissy’s, the girls clothing store where Colleen had worked part-time for the past four years.

“What did she want?” Danny asked.

“She said she needs me to work on Thursday from twelve to eight.”

“What?” Danny asked.

“You heard me.”

“Since when is she open on Thanksgiving?”

“That’s what I asked. She said she had just decided, that Walmart and Target and Macy’s and Kohl’s and a lot of the others were going to be open and she felt that she needed to be open, too, that if people are going to go Christmas shopping and spend money on Thanksgiving that she couldn’t afford not to compete for their business.”

“Of all the stupid ideas,” Danny said. “So you said no, right?”

“Well, I started to, but…”

“Col…”

“And she said it wasn’t a request, that I had to work it.”

“Or?”

“Or I wouldn’t have a job anymore. She apologized, but she said she couldn’t do it to her full-time girls, that in the end, it was more important for her to keep them happy than it is to keep me happy.”

“Why that piece of…” Danny started saying.

“Danny!” Colleen interrupted, moving her head and eyes almost imperceptibly from side to side to indicate that he needed to watch his words in front of the children.

“So what did you tell her?”

“I said I’d be there. Oh, Danny, what choice do we have?”

Working at Sissy’s was Colleen’s second job; she worked one or two three-hour shifts on weeknights and a six-hour shift on alternating Saturdays and Sundays. This was in addition to her full-time job, as a billing clerk for a small group of orthopedists.

“We need to talk about this,” Danny said. “It’s Thanksgiving, for pete’s sake. We’re expecting how many?”

“Sixteen,” Colleen replied.

“I can handle that with our sisters’ help, but that’s not the point. It’s Thanksgiving. Who works on Thanksgiving?”

“I know.”

Danny, too, worked two jobs. He was a butcher for a local supermarket, and after work every Friday night he headed across town to the food distribution center, where he worked an overnight shift breaking down carcasses for early morning delivery to many of the butcher shops in the city’s bustling Italian Market, where Saturday was by far their busiest day of the week.

Even with the four jobs the McBrides were barely making ends meet. Between tuition for Danny Junior and Kathleen and day care for two-year-old Amy and the mortgage and the health insurance, they seldom found themselves with two spare nickels to rub together. When the transmission in Colleen’s car went over Labor Day weekend and the shop said it would cost $800 to repair, they scrapped the car and Danny started taking two buses to work. Every Friday afternoon Colleen would pick him up at work, drive home, and then Danny would take the car across town to his second job and then hurry home the following morning so Colleen could get to work on time when her Saturday shift at Sissy’s started at ten o’clock. Ever since Danny started taking the bus and it took him longer to get home from work, Danny’s widowed father, who lived three blocks from them, would come to the house on the nights Colleen worked in case Danny didn’t make it home before Colleen needed to leave for the store. At times they talked about asking Jimmy to move in with them, it would be so much easier with him around to help with the kids and the bills and they knew how lonely he was since Danny’s mother had passed away three years ago, but the house was so small, just three bedrooms, one of which was more like a large closet, and only one bathroom, and it seemed impossible to squeeze in another person and they were already concerned about what would happen when Amy was finally potty-trained and needed to use the bathroom, too. They had been talking about adding a powder room in the unfinished basement and even started saving just a little money for that, but it was only a little and they thought it was so important that they had agreed not to raid the bathroom kitty to help pay for the transmission – not that what they had saved so far would have put much of a dent in the $800 cost of making the car run again, especially after they had raided the powder room fund the month before when the eye doctor told them Danny Junior needed glasses.

Two hours later the children were in bed and Danny and Colleen were in their living room, Danny with a bottle of beer in his hand as he sat on the recliner and Colleen on the sofa, occasionally sipping from a cup of decaf. The only light in the room came from the television. When the program they were watching went to a commercial, Danny spoke.

“What if you said no?” he asked.

“What?”

thanksgiving - work“What if you called Marion tomorrow and told her no, you won’t work on Thanksgiving, that it’s a terrible idea to begin with and to do it with two days’ notice is especially unfair.”

“She said she’d fire me.”

“And if she did?”

“You know the numbers, Danny.”

Danny and Colleen were far from poor. The both made about $30,000 a year from their main jobs, and together they brought home another $7500 a year from their part-time work. If someone had told them on their wedding day that together they’d be making nearly $70,000 in ten years they would have smiled and thought they’d be living it up on easy street, it seemed like such a huge amount of money, but time had shown them that a house and three children made easy street part of a far more costly neighborhood than they ever would have imagined.

“Tell me.”

Danny didn’t know the numbers as well as Colleen; she was the partner with the bookkeeping skills. She paid the bills, kept an eye on the checking account balance, and maintained a constantly updated index card with a list of every major expense for which she thought she’d need to write a check in the next three months. Too often, she found herself adding unexpected expenses to that card.

“It’s Thanksgiving, Danny, and that means Christmas is a month away. We could scale back, sure, but we can’t eliminate it entirely, so that means the credit card bill will be higher than most other months. A St. Matthew’s bill, too: two tuition payments due January 10. I put some money aside for that every month so we have most of it, but not all of it, not yet. Plus it’s getting colder, so the gas bill will go up. That reminds me, I need to call the gas company and ask them to put us on a budget. And if I leave Sissy’s, I lose my discount on the girls’ clothes. With some work I can make up for that, probably by going to my sister’s house and using her computer to shop on the internet. It’s not terrible, but it’s not pretty, either.”

“Yeah, I’m hearing that,” Danny said. “This is just so…wrong. Even at the supermarket we close at two on Thanksgiving so everyone can go home, and the people who work that day all knew months ago and only after they finished asking for volunteers. This is such shit.”

“I know. But I can’t quit. We need the money.”

“You can’t find ways to cut corners, save a little money?”

“I can always find little ways to save a little money here and there but the thing about cutting back little things is that no matter how much you do, little things never add up to much. I think we’re stuck.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m just pissed, that’s all. We all belong together on Thursday.

“After the new year, though, I want you to start looking for a new part-time job, and when you find one, I want you to go into that Marion and tell her to go fuck herself.”

Colleen sighed.

“What?” Danny asked.

“First of all, you know I’m not going to say that. Second of all, get what other job? Stores opening on Thanksgiving’s been going on for a few years now, so getting a job at Walmart or Target or Macy’s or Kohl’s won’t be any better. Marion’s open because they’re open, it’s self-defense, you know it’s not her and not something she wants to do.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

“Come on, Danny. I’m going to be in the store on Thanksgiving and she’s going to be there, too, the whole day, and you know she’s got four kids of her own and eighteen grandkids and the store’s the last place she wants to be on Thanksgiving.”

“Yeah, I guess. But still…”

“But what?”

“It’s those people who run the Walmarts and Targets, Col. They’re not working on Thursday, that’s for sure, and they put their feet on the throats of people like us because they can, because they know we need them, and because they think if we won’t do it they can pull someone in off the street who will.”

“I know. A few of my friends are in the same position.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Karen Reilly. Suzie Leonard. A few others.”

“These people don’t quit. They just keep squeezing us and squeezing us. Sooner or later there’s not gonna be anything left to squeeze.”

“Tell me about it. Remember, I’m the one who does the checkbook.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know, maybe I can look for something that’s not in a store.”

“Like?”

“I don’t know, but I can look. Maybe some kind of call center job or another doctor’s office at night, or maybe night housekeeping in an office building or waiting tables somewhere.”

“No to those last two. I don’t want you doing that.” Danny got up from his chair and sat close to Colleen on the couch; he put his hand on her thigh. “You do enough cleaning up and waiting on people around here without doing it for other people, too.

“This just isn’t the way I thought things would be. We’re doing better than a lot of our friends, but it never ends. Whether it’s the supermarket making us kick in more for the medical or your boss deciding he wants to extend his office hours an extra half-hour without paying you any more or tuition going up or our kids getting bigger and eating more food and needing new clothes, the pressure never ends. I don’t remember it being like this for my folks.”

“I don’t think it was for mine, either. My mom didn’t work and my dad didn’t make that much, but it was always enough.

“And it never ends. The kids want cable, the school wants them to have a computer at home, and Kathleen’s second teeth are coming in so crooked…”

“Stop. Let’s just get through this one and we’ll worry about the next one when the next one happens,” Danny suggested.

“Yeah, I guess. But when we do it that way, we never have a chance to get ahead.”

“I know, Col, I know.”

 

A Quick Story – and Then, A Short Story

(The Curmudgeon just returned from a brief trip to the west coast, where he went to bury his father.  Dad was eighty-one, and until the past year or so his overall health was about as good as anyone has any business expecting.

Dad moved west in 1983, shortly after he and The Curmudgeon’s mother parted ways.  For the past ten years The Curmudgeon attempted, on numerous occasions and (obviously) unsuccessfully, to persuade his father to return home.  If readers get the impression that The Curmudgeon might be a bit of a stubborn guy, please know that to the degree that’s true he learned his lessons at the feet of the master.  Dad did everything in life the hard way.

As dad aged, The Curmudgeon knew an ending like this was inevitable:  a late-night call, a hurried flight across the country, five hours in the air alone with sad thoughts colored by the past few hours rather than the past fifty-five years. 

Because The Curmudgeon anticipated this scenario for many years he explored some of the issues and emotions they raised in fiction – a short story he started seven years ago and tinkered with for two years before finishing.  That story is below.  The people in it and the circumstances bear no relationship or resemblance to The Curmudgeon, his family, or the particular circumstances surrounding his father’s death, but they do explore what it’s like to have family so far away and to know that there’s only one way that at least one of that family’s stories can end.)

“The Long Ride”

Jerry Milstein looked out the window from his first-class seat and recognized the Grand Canyon 35,000 feet below.  Glancing at his watch, he saw that it was only a little more than six hours since he had received the telephone call that necessitated this unplanned, unwelcome trip.

“Jerry, if  you want to see Gram alive again, you’d better get home as soon as you can.”

The caller was his sister Janice, and within minutes he was on the road for the one hour and thirty-minute drive from his Wilshire Boulevard office in Los Angeles to his home in Seal Beach.  While he drove he called his wife and told her what was happening.  He then called his office, explained to his secretary the flight arrangements he needed and how to handle his schedule for the rest of the week, and had her transfer him to one of his partners so he could inform her about his sudden change of plans.  By the time he pulled into his driveway his wife had already packed his bag and retrieved his flight information and boarding pass from his email and printed it for him.  She offered to join him on the trip, but he said it sounded as if they were all going to have to make this trip again in another week or two anyway so there was no point in twice dragging the entire family 3000 miles east in so short a period of time.  He changed his clothes and had dinner with his wife and children and at around nine o’clock he was out the door again and on the road to John Wayne Airport, this time with his wife behind the wheel, for his flight home to Philadelphia.

Home to Philadelphia.

Jerry Milstein had always viewed himself as a Philadelphian living temporarily in southern California even though he had now lived in the Los Angeles area longer than he had lived in Philadelphia.  After attending Princeton on scholarship and law school at UCLA he had spent two years at a small law firm in Los Angeles before joining the legal department of one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies.  There he had thrived, proving very popular both with his colleagues and his clients.  His clients – singers, actors, comedians, and the occasional professional athlete – loved him because he was sensible, down to earth, and plain-spoken.  Accustomed as they were to being surrounded by people who wanted to look, act, talk, dress, live, and be like them, most of these clients appreciated someone who offered no such pretenses and who could be counted on to be himself and say whatever was on his mind – even if it was something they did not especially want to hear.  The agents at the firm loved Jerry because he did great work for their clients and because they knew that while he liked his clients, he hated the never-ending courtship and schmooze and the hand-holding they had to do to keep those clients happy and out of trouble and was not a threat to steal their meal tickets, as so many lawyers who worked in the entertainment industry eventually tried to do.

Jerry, in turn, loved the work.  He specialized in exceedingly complex contracts, and few contracts in the business world were as complex, as idiosyncratic, and as personal as those between entertainers and those who employed them.  He loved negotiating those contracts and he loved writing them, monitoring their implementation, enforcing them, and reporting on their status to his clients, their families, and their agents.  He also enjoyed protecting his clients, many of whom were exceedingly talented people who also were naïve and undereducated – in a few cases, to the point of near illiteracy.  In return for all of this work he earned a great deal of money – more than $400,000 a year in base salary plus his partner’s share of the firm’s very healthy profits, which typically exceeded and in some years were twice as great as his salary.

He lived a very good and comfortable life.  Although just thirty miles south of Los Angeles, Seal Beach had few celebrity residents of note and was as low-key and unpretentious a place to live as any small town could possibly be while still having dozens and dozens of seven-figure homes.  His wife Lisa taught high school math in nearby Long Beach, their two children attended public schools, and they lived one-and-a-half blocks from the Pacific.

Jerry always looked forward to his trips home.  There, he had a large family:  his mother Pauline, a widow of a dozen years; three sisters, nearly twenty cousins, and more than thirty nieces and nephews; and of course his grandmother, Molly.

Gram was now ninety-one and lived alone, except for personal health care workers and family visitors – the latter especially on weekends and in the summer – in a large, rambling Victorian house on the beach in Ventnor, New Jersey, just a dozen blocks from the southern border of Atlantic City.  Her husband – Jerry’s grandfather – had purchased the house in the early1960s, more than a decade before casino gambling came to Atlantic City at a time when the town was in the midst of serious, seemingly irrevocable decline, slowly being abandoned to younger black and older Jewish families.  The city’s deterioration was expected eventually to drag down nearby towns as well, making even a house as large and as grand as this one available for a relative pittance.  The arrival of casino gambling had changed all that, of course, and now the house – seven bedrooms, four baths, and a deck overlooking the beach – was probably worth nearly five million dollars.

“Home” for Jerry was now just a place he visited as often as he could – generally, at least four times a year:  for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, for Thanksgiving, and for a week each summer.   He also managed to squeeze in a few quick trips each year when he visited his firm’s New York City office, sometimes stopping by just overnight and even, on occasion, only long enough to have dinner with members of his family at a restaurant in or near the airport or train station while waiting for a connection to his next destination.  In addition, he and his family frequently traveled east to attend major family events:  brises and bar mitzvahs, weddings, and the occasional funeral.  Fortunately for him, his wife and children enjoyed these visits nearly as much as he did:  Lisa was an only child of only children whose parents had passed away shortly after they married and had no family but Jerry’s, and his children – Jennifer, fifteen, and Max, thirteen – marveled at how many relatives they had, loved their aunts and uncles, and could hardly wait to spend time with all of their cousins.  In fact, his children enjoyed their visits so much so that they typically cadged an extra week or two of visiting time each summer, coming before their parents or staying after their parents returned home.

The travel between the west coast Milsteins and the east coast Milsteins was hardly one way.  Jerry and his family lived in southern California, after all – home of Hollywood, Disneyland, beaches, year-round warm weather, and many other attractions – so seldom did more than a few months pass without family visitors from back home.  The family was close, so Jerry had always known it would be like this – so certain was he that he and Lisa intentionally bought a home with two extra bedrooms to accommodate their expected guests.  They even had a third car for those guests to use when they visited.

After having a drink about an hour into his flight, Jerry slept for nearly two hours and then did some paperwork, putting it aside only when the crackling in his ears told him the plane had begun its descent.  As it did, he looked out the window in search of familiar sights, and when, after about twenty minutes, he saw those sights – the Walt Whitman Bridge, the four sports stadiums, and the naval shipyard, jammed with a mothballed fleet – he felt the hair rise on his arms as it always did when he came home.  Within minutes he was on the ground and immediately called his wife – even though it was in the middle of the night back home – and she gave him his car rental information and promised to call later.  Two of his sisters had offered to pick him up at the airport, Lisa reported, but she had told them that Jerry did not want to inconvenience anyone and would drive himself.

Just minutes after picking up his rental car, Jerry was already on the Atlantic City Expressway, and forty-five minutes after that the expressway ended and he turned onto Atlantic Avenue.  Two minutes later he reached Atlantic City’s southern border, and just a few blocks after that he turned left into a small side street and immediately spotted his sister Janice’s car at the end of the block on the left and pulled behind it.  His was the fourth car in the driveway:  in front of Janice’s Honda sat his mother’s Buick, and since it was summertime, he assumed that the third car, another Honda, belonged to Franny, another of his sisters.  Janice and Franny both were teachers, which afforded them the freedom to move back and forth during the summer between their homes in suburban Philadelphia and the family shore home in Ventnor, where their grandmother had taken up full-time residence more than ten years ago, and they had long taken advantage of this freedom to spend large chunks of their summers at the beach.

Jerry looked up at the old familiar house and smiled.  He removed his duffel bag from the back seat, locked the car door, and climbed the stairs to the front door.  He never knew the appropriate way to enter a home that had been part of his life for as far back as he could remember and where his arrival was now anticipated yet where he ran the risk of startling those inside if he entered without warning.  His compromise was to knock hard three times, open the door and enter, and call out “Anybody home?” in a voice loud enough to be heard downstairs yet not so loud that it would disturb or awaken anyone upstairs.

“Hey there,” his sister Janice called as she approached and threw her arms around him.  He kissed her.

“Lisa called and said you were on your way from the airport.  The woman’s a saint for calling at that hour.”

“How’s Gram?”

“Not good.  Dr. Jenkins was here yesterday and explained that nothing in particular happened to precipitate this, it’s just that her heart’s out of gas and that’s all there is to it.  He said there’s nothing left to do but keep her comfortable.”

“His prognosis?”

“A week, maybe two.”

“Is she awake?”

“No, she just went to sleep a little while ago.  She’s sleeping a lot, a combination of the drugs and fatigue, I think.”

“Where’s mom?  Are your kids here?”

“Mom’s on the deck and my kids are with Franny and hers, taking a walk on the beach.”

“I figured the second Honda might be hers.  How long have you been here?”

“Three days for me this time, four for Franny, about a month for mom.  Mom practically lives here now.  Eleanor and the boys will be down tonight.”

“Would it be easier if I got a hotel room?  I could even take a few of the kids with me if it would make it easier for everyone.”

“No, it’s a huge house, there’s plenty of room.  We’ll just move some of the kids onto air mattresses, which you know they’ll like more than a bed anyhow.  And you may have a roommate or three.”

He laughed.

“You know that’s fine with me.”

“How long can you stay?”

“Two days.  I have a flight out of A.C. International early Sunday afternoon.  Let’s go see mom.”

They walked arm in arm to the deck, where their mother sat, looking out absently over the beach.

“The mountain comes to Muhammad,” he announced as he pulled aside the screen door.  His mother sat forward with a start, then rose and hugged her son.  They talked for a few minutes, and as they did, Jerry spotted his sister and nieces and nephews a few blocks down the beach.  It would be hard to miss Franny and her daughters, with their bright orange-red hair.  After a few minutes he excused himself, removed his shoes, and climbed down the stairs from the deck down onto the beach and started in the direction of his family.  He walked for two or three minutes until Sarah, Franny’s fifteen-year-old, spotted him from a distance and called out “Uncle Jerry” and broke into a sprint, not stopping until she nearly ran him over.  The rest of the children followed – Franny’s Jessica, twelve, and Emily, nine, and Janice’s Eric, fourteen, and Sharon, eleven – with Franny arriving a minute after them.  For a few minutes everyone spoke at once, telling their uncle about the latest developments in their lives since they had last seen him, in April.

Once the reunion ended, Franny directed the children to return to the house, took her brother’s arm, and led him down to the water.

“You look good, big brother.”

“As good as someone can look after taking the red-eye, I guess.  Nice car.”

“Thanks.  All part of being newly single.  New house, new hair style, new car, new a few other things.”

“You getting along okay with Lance?” he asked, referring to her ex-husband.

“A few minor skirmishes, but all in all, we’re doing okay.  How’re Lisa and the kids?”

“Great.  The kids are at day camp.  We decided I should make this trip myself.”

“Well, I’m going to see them soon enough, I guess.  Oh, Jerry, this is so sad.”

She burst into tears and buried her face on his shoulder.

“It’s so hard watching someone you love die slowly right in front of your eyes.  It’s like you can practically see the life leaking out of her.

“And it’s like a zoo here, too:  too many people, too much family, as if such a thing were possible, in a place we all associate with good times.  The kids’ve been great – we all have such great kids, Jerry, it makes me so proud – but you can feel the tension in the house when someone says something funny and your instincts tell you to laugh and your head reminds you that you’re sitting a few feet from someone you love who’s dying.  And then there’s mom.”

“What about her?”

“Didn’t you notice?”

“Well, she doesn’t look good, but I figured that was just stress and fatigue.”

“That’s part of it, I’m sure, but I suspect there’s more going on.  She’s lost weight and has her own heart problems, you know.  She seems short of breath a lot, low on energy.”

“Has she been to the doctor?”

“Not for a few months, since Gram took this turn for the worse.  We suggested that she make an appointment with Dr. Jenkins here but she said she’d rather wait until she goes home so she can see Dr. Kalodner.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

“All three of us have.”

“Maybe a fourth voice.”  Jerry immediately felt bad; he knew his words carried more weight with his mother than those of his sisters – and he knew his sisters knew this as well.

They returned to the house, where most of the family was sitting on the deck.  There they remained for a few minutes, talking, until they were interrupted by Lucille, Molly’s daytime private duty nurse.

“Mrs. Milstein is awake.  I’m bringing her some soup.”

Jerry rose.

“Let me take it to her.  I need a helper, please.”  He tapped Eric, Janice’s son, on the shoulder and he and the boy followed Lucille to the kitchen.  Lucille put a bowl of soup on a tray, which Jerry gestured for Eric to carry, and the three of them walked toward the stairs.

“Carrying soup’s easier on this,” Lucille said, nodding toward the elevator the family had installed years ago when it became clear that Molly no longer could handle the stairs.

He shook his head, climbed the stairs with his nephew, and knocked on the frame of the door outside his grandmother’s room.

“Room service,” he said, poking his head into the room.  “Did someone order soup?”

Molly, who was propped up in her bed, sat forward, smiled, and quietly declared, ”I knew you’d come.”

Jerry and Eric entered the room, where Eric set down the tray on a table.  Jerry gently hugged and kissed his grandmother.  He then pulled a chair to the foot of her bed and, after motioning to Eric that he could leave, began talking to his grandmother as he had so many times in his life.

Nearly two hours later Jerry emerged from the room, quietly closing the door behind him.  When he turned around, Janice stood before him.

“Shhh,” he said, holding his fingers to his lips.  “She’s asleep.”

“For how long?” Janice asked.

“About a half hour.

“So what’ve you been doing since then?”

“Watching.”

They returned downstairs.

“Time for lunch,” Franny announced

“I’m starved,” Jerry declared.

Moments later Jerry, his sisters, and the five children were seated around the large dining room table eating chicken and roast beef sandwiches and munching potato chips and apple wedges.  As the most recent arrival, Jerry was still the center of attention:  everyone wanted to hear about him and Lisa and Jennifer and Max and at the same time, they all wanted to tell him what they had been up to since the last time they were all together.

When lunch ended the children changed into bathing suits and headed back to the beach.  As they left, their mothers checked them for sunscreen and told them to listen to Sarah, who as the oldest participating child was placed in charge of this expedition.  After the children left, Janice, Franny, Jerry, and Pauline sat on the deck and talked for about forty-five minutes, until Pauline excused herself to take a nap.  When she closed the sliding door behind her, Jerry spoke.

“I see it more clearly now.”

“See what?” Janice asked.

“Mom.  She looks awful.”

“I was telling him earlier,” Franny said.

“She really needs to see a doctor,” Jerry continued, “regardless of which one it is.

“Your kids, on the other hand,” he continued, “are just wonderful.  I don’t know if you can appreciate how amazing they are, seeing them every day like you do.  They’re bright and warm and interesting and articulate and I could go on and on.”

“Please do,” Franny said.  Janice giggled.

“It’s interesting.  When you see them a few months apart, you can see the kinds of changes that you don’t see when you’re with them every day.  You especially get to see their emotional growth – it just jumps out at you.”

“Such as?” Franny asked.

“Such as your Emily, actually,” Jerry said.  “She’s just a happy, happy child.  You have no idea what it feels like when she spots you for the first time and you see such joy and unconditional love in her eyes.

“On the other hand, there’s Sarah.  She’s very sensitive, isn’t she?”

“Very.  Like mother like daughter, I guess.”

“So you know how much all of this is upsetting her.  I hate playing shrink, but I’ll bet that between the divorce and understanding that her great-grandmother is going to die very soon, she feels like she’s been losing everyone who’s important to her.  You’d better keep an eye on her.”

Franny turned to Janice.

“Damn, he’s good,” she said.

The sisters laughed together.

“I have her seeing a counselor.”

“Damn, I am good,” Jerry laughed.

“But it’s not just Lance and Gram.  According to the counselor, she feels loss when you and Lisa and the kids visit and leave, too, or even when a friend from school moves away.  She says she’s been working with Sarah on this and thinks she’s learning to handle it better, but I guess the next few weeks will give us an idea of how much better.”

The three of them continued talking for another half-hour – about their families, their mother’s health, old and mutual friends, the kinds of things that siblings talk about when they are together and at leisure.  When Lucille informed them that their grandmother was awake, they climbed the stairs together and spent a half-hour in her room until she fell asleep again.  In the hallway outside the room, Jerry said he wanted to join the children on the beach.

“I’ll go with you,” Janice said.

“I’ll stay behind,” Franny volunteered.

Fifteen minutes later Jerry planted his sand chair amid his five nieces and nephews.  At that moment Sharon, Jessica, and Emily were molding wet sand into the shape of a shark while the two older children, Eric and Sarah, were sunning themselves.

Jerry was exhausted.  It was nearly seventeen hours since he had received Janice’s call in his office, and except for his light nap on the plane, he had not slept in twenty-eight hours.  Consequently, when Janice looked over at her brother less than five minutes after he had taken his seat, she found him fast asleep.

Twenty minutes later he stirred, sat up, and looked around, reorienting himself.

“Welcome back,” his sister greeted him.

“How long?” he asked.

“About fifteen minutes, I guess.”

“I really needed it, but I feel good.”  He stood.

“Let’s take a walk.”

Janice knew how much her brother liked long walks on the beach.

“Sure,” she said, rising from her chair and tapping Sarah on the shoulder to let her know that she again was in charge.  “You mean you don’t get enough of this at home?”

Jerry laughed.

“You mean when I get home from work by six o’clock, during the hour between my return home and dinner?”

She looked at him.

“I haven’t been home from work before 7:30 in five years.  I take this kind of walk on Sunday mornings pretty faithfully, usually before Lisa’s even up, but other than that, maybe just a few times a year.  Living at the beach, I’ve learned, doesn’t exactly mean you’re living on the beach, if you know what I mean.”

“Your choice:  which way?”

“Let’s go toward Margate so I can see which beautiful old houses were torn down last winter to make way for some new monstrosity.”

So they headed south, and as they did, they talked about their spouses and their children, their jobs, their homes, their lives.  Of his three sisters, Jerry had always been closest to Janice, and they had a special bond that was always and instantly renewed the moment they laid eyes on one another.  They had similar sensibilities, similar outlooks on life and the world, similar senses of humor.  Often, they finished one another’s sentences, and independently – this was one thing they had never discussed – they each suspected that the other’s spouse was a little jealous of this relationship.

They returned a half-hour later and were greeted by the children, who wanted their uncle to toss a frisbee with them.  Together they all retreated to an unoccupied part of the deep beach, and for the next twenty minutes Jerry laughed and played with all five of his nieces and nephews.  They all applauded one another’s good catches, laughed at their misses, and roared as one by one all of them fell while trying to reach just a little farther than nature intended for them to reach.  At the end, the two youngest – eleven-year-old Sharon and nine-year-old Emily – tackled their Uncle Jerry for no particular reason.  The three others – fifteen-year-old Sarah, fourteen-year-old Eric, and twelve-year-old Jessica – immediately came to their uncle’s rescue, pulling the children off him and playfully picking them up, whereupon the three older children and Jerry carried the two little ones – two bearers per child – all the way down to the ocean, depositing them in waist-high water.  Jerry and the older children high-fived one another and returned to their blankets and chairs, where Janice sat, shading her eyes with her hands and laughing.

“Where do you get the energy?” she asked her brother.

He laughed.

“I think I’m running on fumes.  When are you expecting Herb?” he asked, inquiring about her husband.

“I just spoke to him.  He said was going to try to hitch a ride with Ellie and Phil, if they have room and can hook up.  I’m guessing between seven-thirty and eight, depending on the arrangements and traffic.”

“What time is it now?”

“Three-thirty.”

“I think I’m going to head back and take a nap.”

“Good idea.  It should be quiet enough.”

Jerry packed his bag, folded his chair, and started back.  As he did, a voice called out after him:  it was Sarah, Franny’s fifteen year-old.  She ran to catch up to him, took his arm, and walked him back to the house, talking about school and her friends and her mother and father, whom she now saw only occasionally, and asking Jerry about her cousins in California and when they would be making their annual summer visit.

When they reached the stairs, Sarah changed the subject without warning.

“Gram’s going to die, isn’t she?”

Jerry lowered his eyes momentarily.

“Yes, she is.”

“When?”

“I don’t know for sure.”

“But soon?”

“Yes.”

“I knew when mom told me you were coming.  You came to say good-bye to her, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And Aunt Lisa and Jenny and Max didn’t come with you…”

“Because I think we’re all going to be coming back very soon anyway.”

“I thought so.”

Jerry could see that she was crying big, silent tears.   He sat her down on the steps leading up to the deck and she started sobbing and threw her arms around her uncle, burying her face in his chest.  All he could do was hold her and hug her until after another minute, she spoke.

“I guess I shouldn’t cry like that.”

“Why would you think that?”

“Because I’m getting a little old for that.”

“I don’t think you’re ever too old to cry – especially when you have a perfectly good reason to cry.”

“I’ve been crying a lot lately.”

“Do you think you have good reasons to cry?”

“Yes.”

“Then I don’t see the problem.  If you had no reason to cry and were crying anyway I might be worried, but since you have reasons, it seems like a perfectly healthy outlet to me.”

“Do you cry sometimes, Uncle Jerry?”

“Yes.”

“And Jenny?”

“Oh, yes, believe me.”

“I can’t wait to see her.  We can talk – sort of like you and Aunt Janice.”

He was surprised – surprised that a fifteen-year-old who saw him three or four times a year recognized his special relationship with his older sister.

“Well, whatever happens with Gram, we’re all going to be here next month – August 15 or 16, I think – for our vacation, and like I said, probably sooner, too.”

“Maybe, if sooner, Jenny could just stay.”

“Maybe.”

“You need to talk to my mom, Uncle Jerry.  She needs a fresh face.”

“She does?”

“Yes.  Aunt Janice and Aunt Ellie are nice and sympathetic and all, but they’re elementary school teachers.  All they know about the world ends with ten-year-olds.  You know more.  You have a different perspective, and I think she could use that.”

“It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this.”

“You know I’m seeing a shrink?”

He nodded.

“She asks questions, it gets me to thinking.  The thinking doesn’t stop just because the session ends.”

“Sounds like you’ve got a pretty good shrink.”

“She’s okay.  She doesn’t treat me like a kid.”  She paused.

“Neither do you.”

“Thank you.  It’s hard.  My Jenny is the same age as you, but I bet if you asked her, she’d tell you I treat her like a kid.”

Sarah laughed as she stood.

“Can I have your cell phone for a minute?”

He looked at her.

“Please?”

He reached into his pocket and handed her the phone.

“I’ll ask her right now, on my way back.  Thanks for everything, Uncle Jerry.”   She hugged him and jogged toward the water.  Jerry turned and climbed the steps and saw, at the far end of the deck, his sister Fran – Sarah’s mother.

He looked at her.

“You heard?” he asked.

“Enough.  Jesus Christ, Jerry, Jesus H. Christ.  How does a fifteen year-old walk around with the weight of the world on her shoulders like that?”

“She’s a very perceptive and sensitive young woman, Franny.”

“So Dr. Silverberg keeps telling me.”

“You didn’t tell her Gram is dying?”

“The kids know.”

“But not telling them, I guess she interprets that as a lack of confidence or just being treated like a kid.”

“I think it’s her sensitivity,” Franny said.  “She says we need to talk.”

“Do we?”

“I’d like that, but when?  It’s already a zoo here, and we’re expecting five more tonight, and everyone wants a piece of you.”

He paused for a moment.

“Tonight, after the kids are in bed, we’ll go to White House for steak sandwiches – just you and me.  I haven’t had a good steak since, well, probably last summer when we were here.”

She smiled.

“I’ll hold you to it.”  She kissed him.

“Now, I’m going to take a shower and a short nap before I keel over.”

Jerry went into the house, where he found his mother asleep on the sofa while the television played.  He climbed the stairs and peeked into his grandmother’s room; she, too, was asleep, with Lucille seated in a chair at the foot of her bed, quietly knitting.  Fifteen minutes later he also was fast asleep.

*      *      *

Ninety minutes later Jerry awoke, and while he lay in bed collecting himself he heard footsteps in the hallway and the sound of running water.  With six people coming in off the beach, he knew it would be a while before everyone was ready for dinner, so he remained in bed for another ten minutes before rising.  When he did, he felt refreshed – at least enough to keep him going for the rest of the evening.  He glanced at his watch:  it was five-thirty.

After dressing he went to his grandmother’s room, where he found her and his mother watching television; an unpleasant woman pretending to be a judge was verbally abusing the people standing before her.

Seeing him standing in the doorway, his grandmother said, “Tell your mother she needs to see a doctor” in the strongest voice she had used since his arrival.

“Ma, you need to see a doctor,” Jerry said.

“Why?” his mother replied, her tone verging on defiant.

“Because you look like hell,” Jerry responded.

“A nice thing to say to your mother,” she retorted.

“Seriously, mom, look at you,” he continued.  He realized this was his chance – perhaps his only chance – and he was not going to let it pass.  “Your skin is a sad shade of gray, your posture is awful, and I can hear you breathing in the next room.  When was the last time you saw a doctor?”

“I saw Dr. Kalodner back in Abington about two months ago.”

“Franny says it was more like four months ago.”

“Your sister has a big mouth.”

“My sister – my sisters, I should say – are worried about you.  Why not let Dr. Jenkins have a look?”

“Because he’s not my doctor.”

“But he’s a doctor, and a good one, right, Gram?”

“Yes.”

“Ma?”

“When I go back home I’ll see Dr. Kalodner.  He has all my records.”

“Here’s another thought:  on Monday, Janice gets you an appointment with Dr. Jenkins – at his office, not here while he’s checking on Gram – and then she calls Dr. Kalodner’s office and gets them to send a copy of your records to Dr. Jenkins.  Don’t worry; Kalodner will understand.”

“This will keep,” Pauline said defiantly.

“No, it won’t, Ma.”

She sighed.

“I guess this is why you’re a successful lawyer,” she replied.  “You beat them over the head in court until they give you your way just to shut you up.”

Jerry laughed.

“Yes, Ma, aside from the fact that I’ve been in a courtroom maybe three times in the past ten years and barely spoke those three times, yes, that’s exactly how it works.  So, you’ll go?”

“I’ll go, I’ll go.”

He winked at his grandmother.

“Then I guess my work here is done for now,” he declared, bending over to kiss his mother on the cheek as he departed.

Back downstairs he found Janice, Eric, and Jessica in the living room; everyone else was still upstairs.  Jerry took a seat next to Eric and talked to him for about ten minutes, then moved onto the floor to join Jessica for a brief conversation.  A few minutes later Franny came down the stairs, and as she walked past her brother, still on the floor, she playfully nudged his calf with her foot.

“So, what’s the plan for dinner?” he asked.

Janice and Franny looked at one another and laughed.

“We ask each other that every night,” Janice said.  “With so many people here, it’s a lot of work.  We usually take turns, but neither of us planned anything for tonight.”

“How about Chinese?” Jerry asked.  “My treat.”

“Then Chinese it is,” Franny declared, and Janice shook her head in agreement.  “But we should order extra, for when everyone else gets here.”

“Franny, let’s go find the take-out menu and figure out what to order.”  Janice and Franny rose and had just reached the kitchen when Janice turned back to her brother and called out, “The usual, Jerry?”

He smiled; his sister knew how to take care of him.

“Of course.”

About twenty minutes later, Jerry announced a need for helpers and grabbed Sharon and Emily to go with him on the ten-minute ride.  They were halfway out the door when Jerry stopped, turned around, and addressed Franny.

“I seem to recall New Jersey law being strange about young kids in front seats.  What’s the deal for these two?”

“Aw, Uncle Jerry,” Emily whined.

“Aw, Uncle Jerry,” Jerry mockingly whined right back at her.

“Back seat for Emily,” Franny replied.

A half-hour later, as Jerry and his helpers returned and were getting out of his car, an SUV pulled into the driveway alongside them:  it was his sister Eleanor and her husband Phil, their two children – Laura, ten, and Matt, six – and Herb, Janice’s husband.  They exchanged hugs and kisses and handshakes in the driveway and entered the house together.  As he entered, Jerry called out, “They gave us something extra with our order” as the latest arrivals burst into the living room, where the rest of the family awaited dinner’s arrival.  Another round of greetings ensued and then everyone adjourned to the dining room.

A massive feeding ritual then began, with fourteen people passing around white cartons and foil-lined paper bags, parents chiding children for taking too much or too little, and never fewer than three people  – some, with food in their mouth – speaking at once.  Janice and Franny had erred on the side of over-ordering, so it seemed as if a never-ending stream of cartons went around and around the table.  It took nearly an hour for the meal to conclude, and when it did, Jerry suggested that everyone adjourn to the living room or deck while he and Eleanor cleaned up and stored the leftovers.  Eleanor sarcastically thanked her brother for volunteering her services while everyone else beat a hasty retreat before they, too, were added to the clean-up crew.

“Why me?” Eleanor asked when the last child straggled out of the room.

“Sorry,” Jerry explained, “but with a house full of people, I thought this might be my only chance to get a few minutes alone with you.”

“To do what?”

“Just talk, that’s all.”

And they did.  Clearing the table, sealing the cartons, loading the dishwasher, and hand-washing the overflow took twenty minutes, and as they worked, Jerry and Eleanor caught up on one another’s lives, talking about their children and spouses, their jobs, and even the little aches and pains that creep up on people after they turn forty.

“You look different,” Jerry observed as they were finishing.

“Different how?” Eleanor asked warily.

“I don’t know.  Happy, healthy, something like that, but different somehow.”

“If you say so.”  She hesitated.  “New hairstyle maybe?  Slightly different color?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.  “I don’t think so.”  He paused.  “I don’t know, maybe that’s it.  Whatever it is, you look very lively.”

“Lively.  That’s good, I guess.”

They finished working and joined the rest of the family – half of them in the living room in front of the television and half on the deck overlooking the beach.  There, everyone talked for nearly two hours.  At around eleven o’clock, mothers started ushering their children off to bed.  After a discussion of logistics, it was decided that Eleanor’s little son Matt and Franny’s youngest, Emily, would spend the night on air mattresses in Jerry’s room.  Jerry playfully put his hand on Emily’s shoulder.

“You don’t snore, do you, kid?” he asked.

Emily giggled.

“Why do you think we’re sticking her in with you?” Franny asked, and everyone laughed.

“Yeah, yeah, pick on ol’ Uncle Jerry,” he declared.  “Well, I’ve got news for you, Miss Emily:  I snore, too.”

The child laughed as her mother directed her toward the stairs.  While the women went upstairs with their children and Pauline retired along with them, Jerry quickly looked in on his grandmother, who was sleeping fitfully, and returned to the living room to talk to his brothers in-law.  After a few minutes his sisters returned, one by one – first Eleanor, then Janice, and finally Franny.

“Are you ready, Jerry?” Franny asked as she entered the living room.

“Ready for what?” Phil asked.

“Jerry and Franny are going out for steak sandwiches and we’re not invited,” Janice explained, her voice evoking mock indignation.  The men played along, expressing outrage, but less than a minute later Jerry and Franny were out the door and barely three minutes after that they were seated in a booth in the Atlantic City sandwich shop they had visited ever since they were teenagers.  Though now nearly midnight, the restaurant was almost full.  Somehow, more than thirty years after casino gambling came to Atlantic City, the White House Sub Shop managed to remain one of the few signs of commercial life in the city not located on the boardwalk.

“Do youse need a menu?” the waitress asked.

“Not for me.  Franny?”

“You’re not really eating again, are you?”

“Of course I am.  I’ll have a large cheesesteak with sauce, onions, and green peppers and a side of fries.”

“Good lord.  Just coffee for me, please.”

And then they talked.  Franny described the new challenges she now faced as a single mother:  making and enforcing all the rules by herself, finding a way to lend a sympathetic ear one minute and then lay down the law the next, dealing with homework and school, cleaning and maintaining the house and paying the bills by herself, having no one with whom to share chauffeur duties for kids with growing numbers of activities, and more.  She also spoke of the loneliness – the one thing about this whole experience, she noted, that she had never anticipated.

“So, do you regret it?” Jerry asked.

“Oh, no, not at all.  The last five years, I was alone even when he was laying next to me.  But I thought I’d be able to get back into circulation, but so far, I haven’t found the time.”

“When you want it badly enough, you’ll make the time.”

“I guess.”

“And how’s Lance been?”

The waitress brought Jerry’s food; his eyes grew wide.

“You’re really going to eat that at midnight?”

Jerry smiled.

“Only nine o’clock my time.”

He bit into the sandwich and chewed enthusiastically.

“Damn, this is good.  Just like I remember it.  So, Lance?”

“Lance is… Lance.  His support checks are always on time and he picks the kids up at the appointed hour and drops them off when he says he will.  But he was always a disengaged father, and now, he acts like he has license to be disengaged.”

Jerry swallowed what was in his mouth.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that he shows virtually no interest in the children’s lives – not even what Sarah’s going through.  He insists it’s just a phase that she’ll grow out of, and I had to twist his arm to get him to go half with me on the counselor.  He doesn’t ask about how they’re doing in school.  Most of all, the word ‘no’ is no longer in his vocabulary.  When the kids are with him, they do whatever they want.  They eat what they want, they stay up as late as they want, he does or gets for them whatever they want.  Part of being a parent is saying ‘no’ once in a while.”

Jerry shook his head.

“What?” Franny asked.

“C’mon, Franny, this isn’t brain surgery.  When you say no, you’re feeding them a half-hour later or driving them to a friend’s house later in the day.  If he says no, he has to worry that they’ll stew over it during the week between visits and hold it against him.  I’m not saying it’s right, but in his own strange way, it’s how you can tell that despite his shortcomings, Lance loves his kids.  He’s afraid of losing them.”

“You think?”

“Sure.  I have a client like that:  Luke Geary, the country singer.”

“You know him?”

“Yeah.  He goes on tour for nine months at a time, barely sees his kids while he’s away, won’t be involved with them in any way when he’s on the road, but when he comes home he lavishes them with presents and takes them on amazing trips.  His ex gets angry because he takes them out of school and lets them run wild, and they go at it for weeks.  He means well, but it’s wrong, and I’m pretty sure he knows it, but it’s the only way he can figure out to have a role in his kids’ lives.”

Jerry picked up his sandwich and continued eating.

“Give me a bite of that,” Franny said.

*      *      *

Jerry slept well:  Emily did not snore, and despite the presence of sixteen people in the house, he was not awakened by the pounding of feet outside his door, the constant sound of running water, or the company in his bed; sometime during the night, both Matt and Emily had abandoned their air mattresses in favor of joining their uncle.

After dressing he stopped in to see his grandmother and, finding her awake, he spent about forty-five minutes telling her about the latest developments in his children’s lives.  While they talked and thumbed through a photo album that Lisa had packed in his bag, others wandered into and out of the room and into and out of the conversation.  Toward the end, Lucille brought Molly a few pills to take and she had trouble swallowing them, breaking out into a brief fit of coughing and breathing heavily.  Shortly thereafter she dozed off.

Downstairs, he entered the kitchen and was greeted by several members of his family and the smell of coffee; beyond the kitchen, he saw others out on the deck.

“So, what’s on the agenda for today?” he asked after exchanging greetings.

“There’s no agenda,” Eleanor said.  “We hang out, we check on Gram, we take turns going down to the beach with the kids.”

Jerry rummaged through the cabinets.

“What’re you looking for?” Eleanor asked.

“I don’t know – breakfast, I guess.  Some oatmeal, maybe cereal or an English muffin or some fruit.”

He continued looking as he spoke, moving to the refrigerator.

“Perfect, yogurt,” he declared.

“The cupboard’s pretty bare.  Jerry, what do you say you and I take a couple of the kids and do a little food shopping this morning?  We’ll stock up and get some food for a big barbecue tonight.  I had the pit cleaned a few weeks ago, so it’s ready to go.”

After finishing his yogurt and a cup of coffee and going onto the deck briefly to say good morning to the rest of the family, Jerry, Eleanor, Sarah, and Eric piled into Eleanor’s SUV and drove to the supermarket.  When they returned and finished unpacking the groceries, Jerry joined some of the others on the beach.

The rest of the day was more of the same:  different groups gathering in different places – the living room, the kitchen, the deck, Molly’s room, and the beach – with everyone more or less rotating from gathering to gathering.  In the evening they had a big barbecue, cooking steaks, chicken, and ribs and roasting vegetables and fresh Jersey corn in the brick barbecue pit that Jerry and his father and grandfather had built together so many years ago.  There was a brief discussion about bringing Molly down for the festivities – a discussion aborted when little Emily pointed out that although her great-grandmother’s hospital bed was on wheels, the bed would not fit into the elevator.  During dinner, Jerry’s sisters and the older children plied him for information about some of the celebrities he knew through his job, and he offered them a few small, interesting bits of information they would not find in the press.  After dinner, Franny, Jerry, and the husbands took all of the children into Ocean City for caramel popcorn, rides at the boardwalk amusement park, and a round of miniature golf.

Late in the evening, the two husbands shepherded the children to bed and then stayed in the house to watch the Phillies on television, leaving Janice, Franny, Eleanor, and Jerry together on the deck, where they talked about old times until three o’clock.  It was just the four of them, together like this for perhaps the first time in more than fifteen years without spouses present, and they reveled in every moment, their faces alive, their voices youthful and energetic, their bond unmistakable and strong despite the years and the miles.  It ended only when a brief shower chased them indoors and they realized the time.

Despite getting little sleep that night, Jerry awoke early and took the three oldest children onto the boardwalk, where the four of them rode bicycles together from end to end – the first time that eleven-year-old Sharon had done so.  Returning to the house, Jerry showered and dressed and was eating a bowl of sliced cantaloupe when Janice entered the kitchen.

“Jerry, Ellie asked me to bring you up to Gram’s room.”

“Is something wrong?  Is Gram okay?”

“She’s fine.  Come on.”

Jerry and Janice climbed the stairs and entered Molly’s room, where their mother, Franny, and Eleanor were already gathered.

“I’m glad we had a chance to do this before Jerry left,” Eleanor began.  “I have an announcement.”

They all looked at her.

“I’m six weeks pregnant.  I’m going to have a baby.”

Everyone spoke at once, expressing surprise –  Eleanor was forty years old – and offering congratulations.  When the tumult ended, Eleanor turned to Jerry.

“I thought you were going to guess the other day.”

“What?” Janice asked.

“Friday night, when he and I were cleaning up after dinner, Jerry said I looked different – healthy, happy, lively.  He used every adjective except ‘glowing.’”

Everyone laughed and hugged and kissed Eleanor and again offered their congratulations.  Pauline seemed particularly pleased.

“This is such a wonderful surprise, Ellie,” she said.  She turned to her mother, who lay smiling in her bed.

“How about that, Mom?” she asked.

Her daughter and grandchildren looked to her for a response.

“So nice, so nice,” she said softly.  “And the timing is so good.  It’s like god is touching us and helping us renew our family.”

They all smiled, but the feeling in the room changed.  Pauline kissed her mother on the forehead; Janice leaned sadly against Jerry; Franny left abruptly to hide her tears.

Jerry looked at his watch.

“I’m afraid I have to get moving.  May I have the room for a minute, please?”

The others nodded and left.

“Are you driving back to Philadelphia?” Molly asked.

“No. I have a short flight from here to Baltimore, then directly to Long Beach.  I’m sorry my visit was so short.”

“You came, that’s what matters.  I’m so glad you did.”  She stopped for a moment to catch her breath.  “I wanted to see you, wanted to tell you one more time how proud I am of you and your family.”

“Thank you.  We are how we’re raised, you know, so a lot of the credit for that goes to you.”

“And I have one more bit of raising to do.”

He looked at her quizzically.

“Your mother’s not well and I can tell that Franny is having a hard time and now Ellie is going to have a baby.  They’re your family, and I want you to keep an eye on them.”

“I will, Gram.”  Tears filled his eyes.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

He leaned over and kissed her cheek.

“I love you,” he whispered – the only sound he was capable of making.

“Now go and leave this old woman to get some sleep.  This has been a very exciting morning for me.”

He kissed her again, this time on the forehead, and walked to the door.  When he reached the threshold, tears rolling down his face, he turned to her again.  She raised her hand to her lips and blew him a kiss – just as she had done so many times when he was a little boy.  He heaved a deep, deep sigh, smiled, and closed the door behind him as he left

Jerry went directly to his room to compose himself and pack the last of his things.  When he finished he picked up his bag and went downstairs, where everyone was gathered in the living room.

“I’m afraid I have to go,” he said.

“We know,” Franny replied.

Little Matt, who had slept with him the past two nights, stepped up to Jerry and asked, “Will you be back soon, Uncle Jerry?

His cousin Sarah stepped forward.

“He’ll be back soon, Matty,” she said as she scooped up her cousin with one arm and hugged her uncle with the other.

Jerry walked around the room, giving hugs and kisses and handshakes to everyone.  He then started toward the door, and everyone moved with him. He laughed.

“Please, not everyone to the curb.”

Janice stepped forward.

“Okay, little brother, I’ll walk you to your car.”

She took his arm and they walked to the door, he opened it, and they stepped outside and walked down the steps to the driveway.

“I’m so glad you came,” Janice said.  “It meant so much to Gram, as I’m sure you could tell.”  She paused for a moment.  “To all of us, really.”

“And to me,” he replied.  “Geez, Dickens really knew what he was talking about when he wrote about the best of times and the worst of times.”

“What?”

“I came for a terrible purpose, but that aside, I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful time.  I can’t believe what a great family I have, and I never realized how much I missed you.  I mean, I always knew I missed all of you, I just never realized how much.”

“It goes both ways.”

He was now seated in the car and talking to Janice through the open window.

“Have a safe flight.  Call me when you land.”

“By that time it’ll be the middle of the night here.  I’ll wake everyone up.”

“Just me and Herb.  Call.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I love you, Janice.”

“Me too.”

He wiped the tears from his eyes, put the car into reverse, and backed out of the driveway.  Seconds later he was gone.

*      *      *

One by one, four black limousines pulled up in front of the large suburban home.  From each emerged people of all ages wearing dark clothing.  Although barely noon, the heat was oppressive, the humidity was high, and the shock the people received as they emerged from the air-conditioned automobiles was palpable.  They walked in twos and threes to the house, pausing for a moment at the doorway to rinse their hands ritually in cool water and dry them with paper towels.  Inside they were greeted by a few neighbors who had volunteered to stay behind and prepare the house for visitors.  Vacant spaces in the living room and family room were filled with low, backless benches; mirrors in the entranceway and living room were covered with crisp white sheets; the dining room table was piled high with food

This was Janice’s and Herb’s house, but her sisters Franny and Eleanor immediately made themselves at home, going into the kitchen to check on the arrangements and make some last-minute adjustments.  Jerry led his mother to his sister’s bedroom and suggested that she take a nap, promising, when she protested, that he would awaken her in forty-five minutes so she could spend time with the expected visitors.  Jerry’s wife Lisa ushered all nine children upstairs, explained to them what they should expect over the next few hours and how they should act, and told them all to change their clothes; the four families had met at the house right before the funeral and, by arrangement, had brought changes of clothing for everyone, with the expectation that the children would change immediately upon returning from the cemetery and the adults after the guests departed.

For the next ninety minutes friends, neighbors, and relatives wandered into and out of the house.  The family sat, mostly on the low benches, and greeted those who had come to pay their respects.  Molly had been ninety-one years old and in fading health for many years, so her passing had not been unexpected.  She had outlived most of her friends, and at least some of those who remained arrived to express their condolences; others undoubtedly would come in the evening, when they could find a child or grandchild to drive them.  As guests came and went the children made occasional appearances, at first to fix themselves sandwiches and then occasionally out of curiosity or in response to familiar voices they heard from the basement, where they were quietly watching television and playing and otherwise occupying themselves.

Shortly after two o’clock the last guest departed, and all of the adults joined the two servers they had hired to help clean up; Pauline returned to her daughter’s bedroom to rest.  They all knew that this ritual – the arrival of guests, expressions of grief, and the consumption of food and drink – would begin anew that evening.  After a brief discussion, Eleanor and Phil and Franny decided to go home, even though it would just be for a few hours, and return later; they agreed this would be easier for the children.  Jerry’s daughter Jenny went with Sarah to Franny’s house.  Eventually, Janice’s children and Jerry’s son Max changed into bathing suits and went into the yard, where the pool awaited them.  Herb followed, to supervise, leaving Janice, Jerry, and Lisa in the kitchen, where they sat at the table, sipping soft drinks.

“I haven’t seen some of those people since Pop died,” Jerry observed.

Janice nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, there are only a few of them still left.  Tonight, though, we’ll have more of mom’s friends, plus the cousins who had to get back to work.”

“Is everything set with the caterer?” Lisa asked.

“I just got off the phone with them.  They’ll be here.”

“Famous?” Jerry asked, referring to the delicatessen of his youth.

“Who else?” Janice replied.  “I didn’t even have a chance to ask you:  how was your flight?”

Lisa looked at her husband.

“Long, but not bad,” he replied.

Lisa looked at him again, and Janice noticed.

“What?” Janice asked.

“Jerry,” Lisa said.

“It was awful,” he began, “just awful – one of the worst experiences of my life.  If I thought ten days ago was bad, racing here for one more chance to see Gram alive, this was ten times worse:  racing home to bury her.”

He started to cry; Janice reached out and touched his arm.

“And?” Lisa asked.

“And,” Jerry started, “I’ve decided… no, we’ve decided… that we don’t ever want to have to make a trip like this again.  You’re all too important for us to be getting onto airplanes for three-day visits, whether if it’s for Gram’s funeral or for Jessica’s bat mitzvah next year.”

“Or for mom’s angioplasty,” Janice interjected.

Jerry and Lisa looked at one another, and then at Janice.

“Dr. Kalodner called yesterday afternoon.  He wants to do it next week.”

“Where?”

“Holy Redeemer.”

“Jeez,” Jerry said.  “Well, that just reinforces what I’m saying.  Lisa and I discussed it on the plane, and we’re going to move back here.  We’ll get a place a little north of here, maybe in Bucks County or in the Princeton area, and I’ll work in our New York City office.  I know that seems like a huge commute to you, but it’s really not much more than what I’m doing now.”

“Oh, Jerry,” Janice said, smiling, “this is wonderful.”  She paused.  “And this is okay with you, Lisa?”

“It was her idea,” Jerry said.

“And the kids?  Leaving California probably won’t go over real well with them.”

Lisa spoke.

“We told them in the car on the way here from the airport.  They didn’t blink an eye – said they thought it was great.  You know Jenny and Sarah are really close, and Max, bless his heart, has a totally east coast personality.”

“When?” Janice asked.

“A few months,” Jerry replied.  “We have to find a place to live, which I hope you’ll help us with when we come back in a few weeks for our visit, and I have to work out the logistics with my partners, which won’t be a problem but which’ll probably take a little time.  We also need to sell our house, which I don’t think will be hard.”

“We’re sort of pointing toward getting the kids enrolled in new schools here so they can start after Christmas break,” Lisa added.  “And I’m assuming a high school math teacher like me won’t have a whole lot of trouble finding a job.”

“This is so exciting,” Janice said.  “And you’re really sure about this, Lisa?  This would be a huge change in lifestyle for you.”

“Absolutely.  I can’t wait.”

“Tell her what you said to me,” Jerry said.

“What’re you talking about?” Lisa asked.

“When you suggested it and I agreed.”

“That’s not necessary,” she replied.

“Go on,” Jerry persisted.

“Please, Jerry,” his wife responded.

“Fine, I’ll tell it.  When I finally agreed to do it, she looked at me and said, ‘Schmuck, what took you so long?’”

A Short Story

This past weekend, The Curmudgeon’s high school class held an unofficial reunion.  He says “unofficial” because thanks to Facebook and one tenacious organizer, his classmates circumvented the school’s formal alumni association and put together, more or less on the fly, an informal reunion at, miracle of miracles, a place people might actually want to go to socialize and get reacquainted.

The Curmudgeon, of course, did not attend.  There were 900 people in his graduating class, and when he looked at the list of those attending, he found that he had never heard of one-third of them at all and knew another one-third by name only and had never shared so much as a “hello” with them.  Also, to be fair, The Curmudgeon has never attended one of his reunions because he is, after all, a curmudgeon, and curmudgeons simply do not do social things like attend class reunions.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think about them.  A few years ago he wrote a short story that needed to be set at a class reunion, and when he did the math to figure out how old his characters needed to be, it turned out they needed to be his own age (and we shall not get into the Freudian implications of this “coincidence,” thank you).  For this reason, he decided to set his short story at his own thirty-fifth reunion, which he also did not attend.  While the setting is real, everything else about the story is fictitious – unless, of course, the people in the story are among the 500 or so people in his graduating class whom The Curmudgeon either never met or didn’t know at all.

So in honor of Philadelphia’s Abraham Lincoln High School class of ’75, this one’s for you.

Enjoy.

 

“Hello and Goodbye”

The letter arrived as it always did, right after Labor Day, bearing the insignia of the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association and addressed to someone who had not lived in the house in more than a generation.  For the first time since such letters started arriving, Phyllis Levy did not insert it into another, larger envelope and forward it, along with other correspondence and items, to wherever her daughter happened to be living at the time.  Instead, she opened the envelope, read that Allison had been invited to her thirty-fifth high school class reunion, circled “yes” on the reply card, enclosed a check covering the cost of attending the event, and put the envelope in the mail.  A few days later, when she confessed what she had done, Allison – much to her mother’s surprise – did not express even a mild objection.

It’s not like I have anything better to do.

Only those who knew Allison best understood that when she had pleaded to previous commitments that prevented her from attending past reunions, she had been telling the absolute truth.  Those who didn’t really know her doubted it:  how she could conceivably have commitments months ahead of time that could not possibly be moved to accommodate this single event that was always held the day after Thanksgiving – the biggest holiday weekend of the year?  Allison knew she had long exhausted her credibility with these skeptics and resigned herself to some people believing that her absence signaled her disdain for the people, the past, or both.  Those who knew her knew better, and that was all that mattered to her.

When the invitation arrived Allison was still in Florida, serving out the three months’ notice she had given of her intention to resign from her position as executive director of the Orlando International Airport.  Allison returned to Philadelphia, unannounced except to her family, the Monday afternoon before Thanksgiving and had been so busy settling into her new apartment and seeing her sisters that she did not contact even a single friend or classmate.  In truth, she’d had enough time to do so, but she still had not figured out how to have these conversations and hoped that if she put them off a little longer, she might be struck by divine inspiration about how to address the seemingly unaddressable.

How can you possibly talk about such things without tears?

In the meantime, she told herself that she would simply explain her presence as a long-planned surprise.  This visit – at least the reunion part of it – was so unplanned, in fact, that even as Allison walked through the door of the Cottage Green banquet hall, she still had little idea of how she would handle the evening, or herself.  She did, though, hold out what she thought was a reasonable hope that amid the natural tumult of an event like this, her surprise might barely be noticed at all.

“Welcome, Class of ’75,” declared the large black and gold banner strung across the restaurant’s entrance.

Hello, class of ’75.  I’ve come to say goodbye.

Allison approached the reception table, where she recognized the two women checking in their arriving classmates.  Both were casual acquaintances, not friends, but they all greeted one another warmly.

“You look great,” one of the women said to Allison.

You should have seen the ‘before’ pictures.

Allison put on her name tag and looked around in search of friendly faces as she stepped up to the bar and requested an iced tea.  She knew she would find good company quickly:  over the years she had kept in touch with nearly two dozen of her classmates, some quite regularly, at first by mail and phone and then, in recent years, by email as well.  She knew who was doing what with their lives, what her friends and their families looked like, and more.  She may have been a stranger to reunions, but she was not a stranger to many of her old friends.

“Ten-hut!” a familiar voice called out from behind her.  Allison turned to find Jen Lindley giving her a salute that would have made a veteran proud.

“Permission to hug, colonel?” Jen asked.

“Permission granted,” Allison replied, and the women embraced.  “It’s so good to see you, Jen.”

The salute was a sign of respect for Allison.  Growing up, Allison knew she wanted three things in life:  she wanted to go to college, to fly, and to see the world.  She eventually figured out that the best way to do all three was to go into the service, so she attended college on an ROTC scholarship and then spent twenty years in the Air Force.  Almost everyone had been appalled by the path she had chosen:  such a life was virtually unheard of for a woman in 1975 because of both her gender and the general antipathy toward the military in the years immediately following the Vietnam debacle.  But Allison knew what she wanted, and an uncle who had spent his entire career in the Navy ran interference for her with their family and with her high school guidance counselors, who had objected to helping a girl pursue what they believed to be such an ill-conceived plan.  Allison spent two years at the University of South Florida and then two at Northwestern, transferring only because she thought it was time to see another part of the country.  By the time she left the Air Force twenty years later she had done exactly as she had always hoped:  she had flown and seen the world and done much, much more with her life.

“We weren’t expecting you,” Jen said.  “You always call and plan for months before you come home.”

“Well, I thought I’d live dangerously for once and surprise everyone, and I guess I succeeded.”

“You certainly did.  A bunch of us were sitting over there and Matt Blaisdell said ‘Could that be Allison Levy’ and a few of us laughed at him, but they sent me over to investigate, just in case.  No wonder we weren’t sure.  Look at you – so slender.  Must be all that clean military living.”

“Exactly,” Allison replied, forcing a smile.

Yes, clean living and poisonous drugs that they pour directly into your veins that make you puke until you’re sure you’ve got nothing left to puke and then you puke some more.

Jen grabbed Allison’s hand.

“Come with me, everyone wants to see you.”

Jen led Allison to a table where they found many of Allison’s old friends.  There was jumping and screaming and hugging, there were pictures of children – and in a few cases, grandchildren – passed around the table, there were good-natured remarks about hair lost and pounds gained, but most of all there was a great deal of warmth and love.  Allison had arrived only moments after the others, and even before she finished hugging and saying hello to everyone, more people arrived and the greeting and hugging started anew.

“I think Allison just ran out of excuses,” declared Jack Miller.  “Let’s review, shall we?  1980, if I recall, was officers training in Virginia, just a four-hour drive away but no day passes permitted.  1985 was…”  Jack hesitated.

“The Philippines,” Allison interjected.  “1990 was Turkey, 1995 Colombia, 2000 Dallas, and 2005 San Francisco.  And believe me, it’s easier to get leave from an assignment in Turkey than it is to get away from an American airport Thanksgiving weekend.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard this all before,” someone said.

“Well, we’re glad you’re here,” another person called out, and just as quickly as Allison had become the center of attention, that attention shifted to an even newer arrival.  After a few minutes, members of the group began wandering off in search of fresh faces.  Allison did the same, circulating around the room and mixing comfortably as she encountered people she had remained in touch with over the years as well as others whom she was seeing for the first time in decades.  Nobody cared that she had missed her class’s six previous reunions; all that mattered this evening was that she was there for the seventh.

“Allison Levy, it’s been years,” said a deep voice.  It was Mark Goldman, Allison’s first love.  She turned, saw him, smiled, and threw her arms around him.  Only when they parted did she notice the tall woman standing beside him.

“Oh, I hope you don’t mind,” Allison said.

The woman smiled kindly.

“No, I’ve had twenty-six years to get used to it.  My husband seems to have been quite a popular boy.”  She extended her hand.  “I’m Elaine.”

“Allison Levy.”

“I’ve heard that name before – all good things.  I love your hair.  Really short hair is so hard to pull off, but it really works for you.  I tried but it just wasn’t me.”

“Thank you.”

You should have seen me six weeks ago.  Not a single hair on my head.  Stick a lollipop in my mouth and you’d have sworn I was Kojak’s sister.

“Have you been by the school?” Mark asked.

“No, but I read about it on the alumni association web site.”

“Yeah.  It’s gone.  They invited us to walk through the building one more time last spring, so a bunch of us went together and hung out by the ramp in the 140 hall, just like old times.”

“I’m sorry I missed it.  Paula Kessler called and told me about it and I tried to get here, but I just couldn’t make it happen.”

“That’s too bad,” Mark said.  “When you drive by, all that’s left is a fenced-in field of dirt.  It’s like a piece of us is gone.”

Yeah, and another piece of you won’t be around much longer, either.

Allison and the Goldmans chatted for a few more minutes, parting when Allison returned to the bar for another iced tea.  There, she ran into Judy Danzler, whose mother still lived on the same street as Allison’s.

“I hear you’re back in town for a while,” Judy said.  “Your mother told mine.”

“Yes,” Allison replied.  “I’ve been down in Orlando for the past three years, and I thought it might be nice to take off a few months before taking my next job.”

“It’s nice that you can do that.”

“That’s one of the great things about running airports:  there are more airports than there are people who are qualified to run them, so there’s always someone knocking at your door.”

By now they were part of a group, and Judy took Allison by the elbow and pulled her aside.

“I heard you’re back to take care of your mother,” she said softly.

No, I’m back so my mother can take care of me.

Allison nodded but said nothing.  She saw her mother’s protective fingerprints all over this surprising suggestion.

“So while you’re in town,” Judy continued, “Why don’t you take over our airport?  Lord knows they can use all the help they can get.”

Allison laughed appreciatively.

Allison’s dream of being a pilot in the Air Force had been short-circuited by a combination of the then-prevailing rule that women could not fly in combat and by her own education.  During flight training, a commanding officer noticed that she had a degree in civil engineering and directed her into a military career in air field development, construction, and operations.  During her twenty-year career in the Air Force Allison had managed air fields in seven countries on four continents.  During Operation Desert Storm she had overseen the construction of an air field in Turkey in less than thirty days.  The day after the September 11, 2001 attacks, she voluntarily returned to active duty for two years and led the construction of two landing fields in Afghanistan and two then-secret fields in Pakistan.  As a civilian she had run airports in Dallas, San Francisco, and Orlando, focusing each time on managing major construction and other capital improvements.

“Worst job in the profession,” Allison explained.  “If it was the only job available, I’d go back into the Air Force or even go to work for an airline or a package delivery company before I’d take it.”

“Why?

“Philadelphia politics.  Totally unmanageable.”

“Well, who knows, maybe things’ll change for the better in the future.”

Not for me.  I’m running out of future, and what little I have left isn’t going to be a whole lot of fun.

Allison continued mingling, and a few minutes later she found herself back with the original group she had encountered upon her arrival.  Some new faces had joined them and the area again was alive with hugs and laughter.  Among the newcomers was Allison’s oldest and dearest friend, Amy Strasser, who was struck momentarily speechless by the sight of her friend and amazed by how successfully she had kept her visit a secret.  Allison and Amy chatted for a few minutes and agreed to catch up later and Allison took a seat at the table around which they were all gathered and joined the conversation.  A few minutes later Amy sat across from her, and Allison got the uncomfortable feeling that her old friend was scrutinizing her closely.  After a few minutes Amy gestured for Allison to join her off to the side.  Allison did, and Amy took her by the arm and led her off a few more feet, away from everyone else.  As she did, she opened her purse.

“Here,” Amy said, handing Allison her business card.  “Come see me at my office on Monday morning at eight o’clock.  I’m at Holy Redeemer.  You remember where that is, don’t you?”

Allison looked at her, not comprehending.

“I think I do, yeah, but what’s up?”

“Come on, Allie, it’s me.  We’re practically sisters.  You can’t fool me.  I’m also a doctor, and I know what I’m seeing.”

“And what do you see – or, should I ask, what do you think you see?”

“Your arm that I just grabbed, for starters.  All I got was bone.  You weigh nothing, your hair, your skin tone.  I can even smell it through your perfume – which, by the way, is an abomination.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Amy snatched the glass out of Allison’s hand.

“And what’s this you’re drinking?”  She sipped it.  “Iced tea?  I’ve never known you to drink anything but water, milk, and Coke.”

“It’s been a long time.  A girl’s tastes can change.”

“Of course they can.  But I’m guessing your system can’t handle the carbonation these days.”

“You’re coming on pretty strong there, girl.  What’ve you been drinking?”

“I’m not finished.  This business about you being home to take care of your mother.”

“I never said that.”

“But she’s saying it – including to my mother.  I see your mom a few times a year, at least twice at synagogue during the high holidays and just around the neighborhood once in a while.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a healthier-looking seventy-five-year-old woman in my life.”

“She mentioned that she told you I was coming home.”

“She tried to suggest that it was to take care of her.  I wasn’t buying it then and I’m not buying it now.  I’m practically her fourth daughter, she can’t pull that kind of thing with me.

“So what I’m seeing, what I’m smelling – please, don’t make me ask to see your gums.  Is it Abraxane?  Lomustine?  Or maybe Taxol?”

“Gemzar.”

“Oh, Allie.”

“Yeah, ‘Oh, Allie.’ I’ve been hearing that a lot lately.”

“How many courses?”

“Two.  I vetoed a third; enough is enough.”

“How long?”

“C’mon, Amy, it’s pancreatic cancer.  It’s not impossible, but I’ll be lucky to see spring.”

I said it out loud.  I was so sure I could get through the evening without uttering that word.

“Well, come to the hospital at eight on Monday morning.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re going to need a doctor and it’s going to be me, that’s why.”

“What’s the point?  You’re not an oncologist.  My doctor in Orlando gave me the names of a few people at Fox Chase.”

“I’ll need to look at your records, but it sounds to me like at this point, there’s nothing an oncologist can do for you that I can’t.  I can bring in an oncologist to consult if we need one.  Besides, I want to see you through this.  That’s the point.”

“You don’t need to do this, Amy.  I almost didn’t come home because I didn’t want to drag everyone through this with me.  I’m still thinking that when it really starts going downhill, I might just slip away to a VA hospital a thousand miles away.”

“But you did come home, and you can’t do it alone.  Who better than me, when you think about it?”

“Thank you.  I’d like that very much.  My mother kept telling me I should talk to you.”

“Your mother’s a smart woman.

“So when you get home, email me the names and numbers of your doctors and I’ll get your records and have a chance to review them before I see you at the office on Monday morning.”

“Okay.”

Amy paused for a moment before speaking again.

“Are you afraid, Allie?”

“No, not really.”

“How’s that possible?”

“I’ve been in war zones, Amy.  Iraq and Afghanistan.  The DMZ in Korea.  Guantanamo.  That’s scary.  Rocket-propelled grenades are scary.  Anti-personnel mines are scary.  This isn’t scary.  I’m not afraid of dying.  I am afraid of dying a slow, painful death, but you should know right now, before you take me on as a patient, that as long as I’m in control of my faculties, I’m also in control of how I die.  It doesn’t have to be slow and painful if I choose not to let it be.”

She paused for a moment.

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me you understand what I’m saying.”

Amy looked at her briefly.

“I understand what you’re saying, Allie.”

“Good.  That’s important.”

“So are you moving in with your mother?”

“Not entirely, no.  I rented an apartment within walking distance of the house, so when I’m feeling okay, I don’t have to be under foot and can have my privacy and live independently.  And when I need help, well, my old room is still there, waiting for me.  All I have to do is pull the David Bowie poster out of the closet.”

“Your sisters know?”

“Yes.  And their husbands.”

“And your nieces and nephews?”

“We’re all doing lox and bagels together at Marcy’s Sunday morning before a few of them head back to college.  I’m going to tell them then.  That’s going to be so hard.”

“So what’re your plans?”

I’m planning to die, my friend.

“I’ve been warned that making plans is pretty fruitless because how I feel will vary a lot from day to day.  Notwithstanding my constant expressions of hopelessness about the airport here, a friend of a friend has put me in touch with the executive director and he seems pretty eager for any help I can give him.  I’m going to do what I can whenever I’m up to it.

“But I do have special plans for tomorrow.”

“What?”

“I’ve arranged to go to the Willow Grove Naval Air Station and they’re going to let me take up a an old E-2C Hawkeye for a spin.”

“You think you’re up to it?”

“Two weeks ago I would’ve said no, but right now I feel pretty good.  I suspect that between closing on my condo in Orlando, packing up my stuff and driving up here, moving into the apartment, and getting ready for tonight, I’m pretty much running on adrenaline.  I figure it’ll still be pumping for a few more days, so if I wake up tomorrow feeling like I do now, I wouldn’t hesitate.  But I’m not going to be stupid about it, either.  It’s still too soon for stupid.”

“And you now have plans for tomorrow night, too.”

“I do?”

“Yes.  You’re not the only classmate who’s back in town for the reunion, so I’m having people over.  I started out with about twenty and think it’s closer to fifty now.  My house, eight o’clock.”

“I’ll be there.

“Can I ask you for a favor, Amy?”

“Sure, what?”

“Let’s keep this between us for tonight – and for the entire weekend, for that matter.  I haven’t figured out how to handle this, how to tell people or even who I should tell, but I want to try.  I just haven’t figured it out yet.”

“We can talk about that on Monday morning.  I’ve been through this with a lot of my patients, so I have some ideas.  And tomorrow night, we’ll sneak off for a few minutes and talk about how to deal with your nieces and nephews.”

Allison hugged her friend.

“I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off my shoulders.  You know, this thing eats away at your mind almost as much as it eats away at your body.  It never goes away; it’s always just…there.  I’m sure it’ll be back tomorrow, too, but right now, I think I’m going to sleep a little easier tonight.”

Allison gestured wordlessly with her head, took Amy by the arm, and the two women rejoined their friends at the table.  Allison smiled; she was used to this by now.  Amy fought to hold back the tears.

 

Fiction: A Short Story

More than a decade ago, one of the only real fights The Curmudgeon had with his then-girlfriend came when he observed that he would gladly give ten years off the end of his life to play major league baseball for just one year.  The woman was furious; even though she was a sports fan, we were close enough at the time for her to think those ten years would come at her expense, and she took the observation very personally.  After absorbing a few minutes of her abuse, The Curmudgeon made a simple request:  present the proposition – one year as a major league baseball player in exchange for the last ten years of your life – to a few men you know who love baseball and see what they say.  She said she would – and The Curmudgeon never heard from her about the matter again.

Flash forward ten years.  The Curmudgeon was working on a satirical novel about urban politics, and after laboring for about a year, he knew he needed a break.  Somehow, the conversation with his ex came to mind, and before he knew it, he wrote the first draft of the following story in three sessions of about ninety minutes each over the course of three days.  The story required a great deal of reworking, editing, refining, and polishing, of course – first drafts of The Curmudgeon’s short stories are always a bit of a mess – but when he was finished, he was pleased with the final product.

He hopes you are, too.

“The Devil and Johnny Kimball”

 The old, refurbished Greyhound pulled alongside the ballpark shortly before 2:00 a.m., belching diesel fumes even after the driver turned off the engine.  Almost immediately about thirty men, most of them young and fuzzy-cheeked, climbed down the steps and stopped only long enough to retrieve their duffel bags from the storage area in the bus’s belly.  They then walked off in several directions to their cars – almost all of them older automobiles that they fervently hoped would start after sitting idle for nine days.  Among them were Johnny Kimball, a twenty-five-year-old infielder for the Reading Phillies, and his roommate, twenty-year-old outfielder Byron Williams.  They walked about thirty yards to Kimball’s 1961 Comet station wagon, a hand-me-down from Kimball’s father, who had recently purchased a brand-new 1970 Buick Electra.  Business was good, and dad had shared his good fortune with his son.

The two young men were hungry, so they headed off to the twenty-four-hour diner a few blocks from the furnished studio apartment they had shared since April.  Kimball’s name was on the apartment lease, and at times that worried him:  Williams was the real deal, a genuine major league prospect, and a lot of people thought the Phillies might promote him from their AA team in Reading to their AAA team in Eugene, Oregon in the next few weeks.  If they did, Kimball would lose his roommate and half of the rent payment.

At twenty-five, Kimball was in his third year as a player in the minor league system of the Philadelphia Phillies, joining them from the University of Delaware.  Players who actually graduated from college, as Kimball did – with a 3.8 average and a degree in accounting – were still fairly rare in baseball, and this set him apart from his teammates.  He was the oldest player on the team by three years, and only recently had he come to the conclusion that unlike his talented roommate, he was no longer viewed as a potential major league player by the Phillies.

For his first two years, Kimball had every reason to believe that he, too, was a real prospect.  A sure-handed fielder with a strong throwing arm but just average running speed, he could play solidly, if unspectacularly, at second base, shortstop, and third base.  During his first minor league season, at A-level Spartanburg, he played every day, performed well, and earned a promotion to AA-level Reading the following year.  While his performance at Reading had been almost identical to his year in Spartanburg, it did not earn him another promotion:  he was now in Reading for a second year, the first sign that his progress had stalled and that the Phillies now questioned his potential.  The second sign, however, was far more ominous:  he did not have a regular position in his second year in Reading, which meant that other players had leap-frogged ahead of him in the organization’s view.  Now, he played only when someone was injured; otherwise, he just watched the games from the bench.  As spring turned into summer and sweltering August began, he was finally beginning to comprehend, and even accept, that he had no future in baseball.  Meanwhile, back home in Florida, his family tried to be supportive:  they, too, understood his situation, but their willingness to indulge his baseball dream was growing thin.  His wife made no secret of her desire for him to come home; a few of the players on the team were married and their wives lived with them during the season, but she had a career of her own and could not pick and move from small town to small town while her husband learned to master the unlikely skill of striking a fast-moving orb with a two-pound stick.  Kimball’s father, who owned five tire, muffler, and transmission shops in the greater Tampa area, was skeptical of the very notion of a grown man playing baseball for a living and wanted his son to return home and take over financial management of his fast-growing business interests.

Kimball and Williams pulled into the parking lot of the all-night diner and entered the almost-deserted eatery; the only other patron was an old man who sat slumped, and possibly asleep, at a table.  The two men took a booth and the only waitress on duty approached them with menus but the players waved them off:  they both knew what they wanted and ordered as soon as they took their seats.  They exchanged small talk with her; they were regulars and treated well.  When she returned a minute later with their large glasses of orange juice, she also brought two large, opaque mugs of something they had not ordered:  ice cold Rolling Rock, which was not on the menu because the establishment did not have a liquor license.  This was one of the privileges of being a member of the Reading Phillies and one of the benefits of eating at a time of day when there was no one around to see what they were being served.

As soon as the waitress left, Kimball excused himself and went off to call his wife from the pay phone outside the rest rooms.  This was their ritual:  when the bus returned to Reading, he called her as soon as he could to report on the game’s outcome and on his own performance and to say goodnight and that he loved her.  They spoke for about five minutes, after which Kimball returned to his table.

“You had a great night tonight, By,” he told his roommate.  “That ball you hit in the gap was a rope, and when you turned on the jets and stretched it into a triple, well, it was just gorgeous.”

“I don’t hear people telling me I’m gorgeous very often,” Williams said, laughing.

“I guess not.  But I’m guessing you’re hearing more people talk about Eugene now, too.”

“Don’t you start, too.”

“Why not?  The Phillies were awful this year, so it stands to reason that on September 1, they’re gonna call up some guys.  When they do, they’re going to need bodies at Eugene to take their place.  If you’re not at the top of the list, you have to be pretty close.”

Williams smiled.

“I don’t want to get my hopes up, but if I do go, maybe we’ll both go.”

Kimball shook his head.

“Now we both know that’s not going to happen.”

The waitress came and set food in front of them – along with another mug of beer.

“Why not?  You’re having a good year.”

“C’mon, I’m a sub.  Utility guys at double A don’t go to triple A.  You’re ticketed for bigger things, you’re gonna get a taste, a chance to show what you can do.  I don’t even have a regular job here anymore.”

“Hey, you’re getting a shot, what with Freddy out.  You’re doing well.”

“I am, I know, but when Freddy’s knee’s better, he goes back to third and I go back to the bench.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yeah, I do.

“Look, remember when you were at Spartanburg last year and you looked around at your teammates and wondered what some of them were even doing there?”

“What do you mean?” Williams asked.  He knew exactly what Kimball meant.

“You know:  the guys who were no better than half the players on your high school team and you knew they didn’t have a chance in the world of playing major league baseball.”

“Yeah, sure.  I still don’t get it.”

“Well, listen, here’s what that’s all about.  On every minor league team there are only five or six players who really matter.  They’re the prospects:  the guys who the big league club thinks have a chance to play in the majors.  The rest of the guys on the team, including the ones you know can’t really play, they’re only around so that each team has enough players to play games every day.  Like if two of those five or six real prospects are starting pitchers, they can’t pitch every day, so you need some warm bodies to throw some innings between the turns of the guys who really do matter.  The same thing is true up and down the lineup.  Maybe a team doesn’t have a real shortstop prospect at double A, so they use another warm body to play short because you can’t play a game without a shortstop.”

“I think you had a point to make somewhere.”

“Yeah, here’s my point:  you’re one of the five or six.  I’m one of the warm bodies.  The Phillies think you have a chance to be a major league player someday.  Last year when I came to Reading, I was one of the five or six, too, but they saw enough of me to decide that it’s not going to happen for me, so now I’m one of the warm bodies.”

“No.”

“C’mon.  Of course I am.  Two years ago I played every day at Spartanburg and did well enough to earn a promotion to Reading.  Last year I played every day here in Reading, but not only didn’t I get promoted to Eugene, but I also lost my job as an everyday player.”

“You’ve played plenty this year.”

“Only when someone’s hurt, or like when they called up Jerry to Eugene and it took them nearly two weeks to decide who to promote to take his place.  And they did promote someone else instead of giving me the job.”

“You’re sure about this?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t realize it at first, but I figured it out when they sent Hector to replace Jerry.  Last year I was ahead of both of those guys.  Now they’re both ahead of me, and the only time I get to play is when somebody else can’t.

“You know, Carol keeps telling me that she wants me to come home, and my dad still wants me in his business, and for the first time, they’re starting to make sense to me.  I’ve got a college degree and a great wife and a good job waiting for me, but it seemed worth investing some time in this to see if I might be able to make it to the bigs, but I think my opportunity has passed.  It’s too bad, too:  I want it so much I can taste it.  I’d sell my soul for it.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“No, not literally, but I’ll tell you this:  I’d give ten years – no, fifteen years – off the end of my life for one year in the majors.  Just one year, that’s all.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

Byron looked at his roommate for a few seconds before speaking.

“Those beers went right through me.  I’ll be back in a minute.”

Williams rose and set off for the men’s room.  Kimball was putting the last bite of pie into his mouth when someone slid into Williams’s seat across from him in the booth.  It was the old man who had appeared to be sleeping when the two ballplayers entered the diner.

“Ken Overton,” the old man said, extending his hand.

“John Kimball,” Kimball replied, extending his own.  He looked at the old man:  he appeared to be seventy years old, maybe seventy-five, with gray hair, and in need of both a shave and a haircut – and perhaps some fresh, clean clothes and a bath as well.

“Yes, of the Phillies.  I’ve seen you play.  You’re a nice little player.”

“Thank you,” Kimball replied.  Reading was a small town and the players were accustomed to being recognized and approached by fans.  Most of them enjoyed it, Kimball among them.

“I couldn’t help overhearing you,” the man explained, “when you said you’d give fifteen years off the end of your life for one year in the majors.  Were you serious when you said that or were you just kidding?”

“For the chance to play big league baseball?  Only every boy’s dream growing up?  You bet I was serious.”

“I thought so.  I could tell by your tone of voice, the passion I heard.

“So what if I told you I could make it happen?”

“Make what happen?” Kimball asked.

“One year in the majors in exchange for fifteen years off the end of your life.”

Kimball laughed.

“Who’re you, the devil?”

Now Overton laughed.

“Of course I’m not the devil.  The devil only engages in wholesale mayhem on earth:  bringing insane dictators into power, spreading disease, wiping out crops and causing famine, that kind of thing.  I’m one of the devil’s emissaries:  I work the retail end of the business, you might say.”

“Yeah, right.”

“You don’t believe in the devil?”

“Should I?” Kimball asked.

“How else would you explain the resurrection of Richard Nixon?”

Kimball laughed.

“That’s almost a plausible explanation.  But then, he is president, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, well, there’s a price yet to be paid for his resurrection,” Overton said, “and we haven’t seen the last of his dark side.”

“I see.”

“So, are you serious about one year in the major leagues in exchange for fifteen years at the end of your life?”

“How can you possibly make that happen?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Overton said. “Leave the details to me.  If you do what I tell you, you’ll get your one year in the major leagues:  not next year but the year after.  It’ll be one year and one year only, with no chance for a second.”

“What do I have to do – mug a little old lady or something?”

“You’re not taking me seriously, young man.  Are you interested or not?”

“I’m still talking to you, aren’t I?”

“So then no more smart mouth.

“Your catcher got hurt tonight, right?”

Kimball was stunned.

“How did you know that?”  Kimball knew the game had not been broadcast on the radio and that the newspapers would not be out for a few hours yet.

“I…know things.”

“Yeah, he tweaked his hamstring.  He’ll be out for a few days, but they think he’ll be fine.”

“He will.”

“You know that for a fact, do you?”

“Yes.”

“So, what about it?”

“Tomorrow, when you go to the clubhouse, you go up to coach Seminick and tell him that if he needs an emergency catcher, you’re game.  Ask if he can give you some pointers, just in case.  He’s an old catcher himself, you know, so he’ll really like that.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

“Your catcher will recover, but in a few weeks, your team will be getting clobbered in a game and they’ll put you in to catch the last inning.  You’ll catch a few more times before the season is over, and when the season ends, the Phillies will tell you that they’re going to give you some serious instruction in how to be a catcher in the spring.  You can use that to justify to your family giving your baseball dream another year.”

“Justify to my family?”

“Well, they’re not coming right out and saying it, but you know they want you to give up baseball and come home, right?”

“Yeah, but…hey, how’d you know that?”

“Like I said, I know things.  Maybe now you’ll take me a little more seriously.

“Anyhow, you’re not going to get promoted next year, so you’ll be here again in Reading.  You won’t have a regular position again, but between all of the positions you play, now including catcher, you’ll see plenty of action.  You’ll take to catching pretty well, and because big league teams always need a lot of catchers in spring training to work with all of their pitchers, you’ll be invited to spring training with the big team the following year.  That’ll buy you another year with your family.  If you work hard you’ll make the team, play just a little, do only fair, stay with the team the entire season, and that’ll be your year in the big leagues.  There won’t be a second year.”

“So all I have to do to get it started is go to the manager tomorrow and volunteer to be the emergency catcher?”

“That’s all – that and never tell a soul about any of this.  You do and all deals are off, plus there’ll be serious consequences.”

Kimball paused for a moment before speaking.

“So now that I know what to do, what’s to stop me from going ahead and doing it without agreeing to your terms?”

Overton laughed.

“It won’t work, that’s all.”

“No?”

“You really think you can mess with the devil and get away with it?”

“Gotcha.”

“So, do we have a deal?”

Kimball shook his head in the affirmative.

“I don’t see why not.  I don’t believe any of this, but then I don’t have anything to lose, do I?”

Overton arched his right eyebrow.

“Yes you do.”

“What?” Kimball asked.

“The last fifteen years of your life.  One day, at some point in the future, I’m going to show up unexpected and unannounced and tell you that you’re down to your last three days.  And I’m not going to tell you how you’re going to go, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“So, do we have a deal?” Overton asked.

“Yeah, we have a deal.”

Overton extended his hand and smiled.  Kimball shook it.

Just as their hands parted, Byron Williams returned.  Kimball was flustered for a moment but quickly regained his composure.

“Hey, By, this is…”

“Ken Overton,” Overton said.  “I’m a big fan of you, Johnny, and the team and just wanted to come over and say hello.”

He extended his hand and Williams took it.

“You gentlemen have a good evening,” Overton said as he turned and departed.

*        *        *

Kimball did as he was told and was rewarded as promised.  He spent all of 1972 in the major leagues as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.  The Phillies that year were the worst team in baseball and one of the worst teams in the history of baseball and Kimball was just another bad player on a very bad team.  Despite the misery of knowing they would probably lose nearly two games out of every three, Kimball managed to squeeze an enormous amount of joy out of the experience.  He reveled in the large crowds that came out to cheer for the team in its still-new stadium; in the fans who – despite the booing for which Philadelphia was so well known – really did love their team; in the travel from major league city to major league city – traveling on airplanes instead of buses, staying at first-class hotels, seeing places he might never otherwise have seen, and eating at first-class restaurants with the help of generous meal money handed to the players in bulging envelopes every time they traveled; and the luxury of having his equipment and luggage taken care of for him and his pre-game and post-game food provided by members of the team’s staff for whom such work was their full-time job.

He also took great pleasure in playing major league baseball in major league stadiums.  Every time he climbed the dugout stairs and stepped onto the playing field or looked into the stands or up at the lights he felt a genuine thrill that never dimmed or grew old as the season progressed.  He did not, however, get to experience these thrills very often:  over the course of the six-month, 162-game season, Kimball played in just fifty-eight games, and the baseball encyclopedia summarized his career succinctly:  he hit .238 with six RBIs in forty-eight at bats, hit two doubles, and scored six runs.  What it failed to capture was what would remain with Kimball for the rest of his life:  in his last game, on the last day of the season, he started for the first and only time in his major league career, playing second base, and in his last at-bat, he hit a home run over the left-field wall and trotted casually around the bases, reveling in every moment because he knew he would never do it again.

By then, Kimball knew that his major league career was over – knew not because of Ken Overton’s warning but because the team’s general manager, who also managed the team for the last part of the season, had told him the previous week that he no longer fit into the team’s plans and would be released after the season’s end.  The general manager also said that he liked Kimball very much and offered him a job coaching in the team’s minor league system.  Kimball told the man that he had a much better offer back home, helping to run the family business, declined the offer, and asked, as a final wish, if he could play in the team’s last game of the season.  The general manager was pleased to grant this reasonable request; by this time, most of the team’s players only wanted to go home and put the disastrous season behind them, and he therefore was happy to be able to give an opportunity to a fine young man who clearly wanted to treat this meaningless game as the most important of his life.  When the season ended, Kimball – not unhappily and without regret – packed up his 1972 Chevrolet Impala that still had a hint of new car smell and drove the 1000 miles back home, to Plant City, Florida, where his wife, his family, and his new job as controller of Kimball Enterprises awaited him.

For the next thirty years Kimball worked in various capacities in the family business:  controller, vice president of human resources, vice president of marketing, chief financial officer, and – after his father’s retirement – president and chief executive officer.  Over the years the company grew and grew, expanding to forty tire, muffler, and repair shops; Toyota and Honda dealerships; three storage rental facilities; and a company that operated shuttle bus services between the airport and the region’s many hotels and motels along the Gulf of Mexico and near Busch Gardens.  Kimball also became a prominent member of the community and a tireless cheerleader for his fast-growing hometown.  He had been the driving force behind the town’s successful effort to attract a major league baseball team to train in the city each spring, served four terms as president of the chamber of commerce and two terms as a city commissioner, ten years as commissioner of its Babe Ruth little league, and on the board of directors of the major bank in town, the United Way, the American Red Cross, and the community college.

Although Kimball’s father retired in 1992, he stayed active in the business in one way or another until his death in 2002 at the age of eighty-two.  One month after the funeral, Kimball, now fifty-seven himself, told his wife that he thought the time had come to sell the business and retire.  She was pleased:  her husband had worked very hard for many years, none of their four children worked for the company, and he deserved the opportunity to sit back and enjoy life and everything he had accomplished while he was still young and vigorous and able to enjoy retirement.

Retirement, however, did not agree with Kimball.  For the first year after he sold the last of his businesses he and his wife traveled the world, including visits to all four of their children, who were scattered around the country, each taking up permanent residence near where they had attended college.  Once they returned home, though, Kimball found himself restless:  other than playing a great deal of golf and reducing his handicap to just six strokes, he felt he had nothing constructive to do.  To fill this hole in his life he decided to launch a new business:  a sports bar.

For a year he plunged into his new venture:  finding the right location, working with a designer, developing a menu and the sports themes, furnishing and equipping it, hiring a staff, promoting it, and getting the business off the ground.  The sports bar was successful from day one, and because he had done such a good job hiring staff, Kimball again found himself with relatively little to do.  He would come to the bar most mornings around 11:30 and stay through the lunch hour and come again for dinner, or right after dinner, but he did little more than greet customers and watch his employees go about their business.

One of his favorite activities at the bar was watching Tampa Bay Bucs football games with his customers.  Come Sunday afternoon in the fall, every one of the twenty-four large-screen televisions in the restaurant was tuned to the Bucs game while patrons watched, ate, drank, and cheered together.  Kimball always set himself up at a table in the middle of the bar area, surrounded by friends and a never-ending parade of people who came by to say hello.

One Sunday afternoon in mid-November the Bucs were engaged in a particularly tight game with division rival Atlanta.  Kimball was anxious, but not because of the game:  he was expecting a call from his son in-law, who he expected would tell him that his daughter had just delivered his first grandchild.  Many of the patrons knew about the imminent call and stopped by his table to wish him well.

During the third quarter, the bartender called across the noisy room.

“John, it’s Ron.”

Heads turned as Kimball rose, walked to the bar, and took the phone from his bartender.

“Hey, Ron.”

He listened for a moment before speaking again.

“Yes.  Six pounds, nine ounces, healthy.  Kathleen.  Wonderful.  And Jeannie?”

A pause.

“Great.  Congratulations, son.”

Another pause.

“Okay, so like we planned, Carol and I will fly up in a week.  I’m so happy for you, son.  Tell Jeannie I’ll talk to her tonight and see her in a week.  Bye.”

Kimball looked up, a tear in his eye, toward the many people who had momentarily turned away from the game to watch the proprietor.

“It’s a girl,” he announced.  “Kathleen.  Ten fingers, ten toes, healthy.  I’m a grandfather!”

A roar went up, people applauded, and Kimball called for a round of beer on the house and spent the next ten minutes circulating throughout the bar, handing out cigars and unable to wipe the smile from his face.

About forty-five minutes later the game ended and most of the patrons departed, with many of them stopping by Kimball’s table to offer their congratulations again.  Once most of the people were gone, the manager joined Kimball and they discussed a few matters related to that night’s dinner service.

As the manager departed, a voice called out from behind Kimball.

“Congratulations on your granddaughter.  You must be very happy and proud.  Your first, I understand.”

“Thank you, thank you,” Kimball replied as the man circled the table to face him.  Kimball thought the elderly, gray-haired man looked vaguely familiar but could not place him.

The man extended his hand.

“Ken Overton,” he said.

Kimball turned white.  He did not take the outstretched hand.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“That’s not possible.  You were ancient back in 1970, you couldn’t possibly…”

“Yes, it’s me, and this is my perpetual age.  Back in my real life I was unkind to the elderly, so my punishment is to live forever as one of them.

“I’ve come to tell you that it’s time.”

“Time?” Kimball asked.

“Yes.  As we agreed in that diner in Reading, Pennsylvania thirty-four years ago.”

“But…”

“I delivered on my promise.  You did as I told you and enjoyed a season as a major league baseball player.  I have to tell you, people sell their souls for much less, even for silly things, but you appeared to enjoy your wish as much as anyone I’ve ever dealt with.

“And you did enjoy it, didn’t you?”

Kimball said nothing.

“Didn’t you?” Overton repeated.

“Yes,” Kimball finally whispered.

“And now I’ve come to collect, as I told you I would.  I also promised you three days’ notice.  The clock starts now.”

“But…my daughter…my granddaughter…my wife and I are flying to see my granddaughter, our first, next week.”

“I can’t speak for your wife, but I know you will definitely not be accompanying her.  Of that I’m certain.”

“But…”

“You knew there would be a price to be paid, Mr. Kimball, and you agreed to pay it.”

“Yes, but…”

“But you never entirely believed it.  I know.  That’s how it usually goes.  People want what they want, they make sacrifices to achieve their goals, they compromise to get what they want, but they think there’ll be no consequences, no day of reckoning.  But you knew exactly what the consequences would be thirty-four years ago.

“By the way, By Williams turned out to be a brilliant ballplayer, didn’t he?  I was truly touched to see you sitting with his family at the hall of fame induction ceremony.  I can also tell you, if it’s any consolation, that he’ll drop what he’s doing to come to your funeral.”

“Yes, but…”

“But you have more important things to think about right now.  Like your last three days.”

Kimball paused for a moment, thinking.

“Three days?  I couldn’t have another week, just long enough to see my granddaughter?”

“I’m afraid not.  The devil has an ironic streak a mile long.  You have three days and there’s no way around it.  We made a deal, I lived up to my end, and now it’s your turn to live up to yours.”

“Yes, but…”

Kimball did not have a chance to finish the thought.  The bar’s fire alarm sounded and the manager came running out of the kitchen.

“Fire,” he shouted.  “Everyone out.  Fire department’s on the way.”

The few remaining customers made their way quickly to the door.

“What happened?” Kimball asked.

“Grease fire, we have them once in a while, but this one spread too fast for us to put it out.  The whole kitchen’s ablaze.  Let’s go.”

They all headed for the door and stood in the mostly empty parking lot.  Overton remained by Kimball’s side, with the manager standing with them.

“Is everyone out?” Kimball asked.

“I’m thinking,” the manager replied.  He was running through a mental list of all of the employees on duty at the time.  Meanwhile, the kitchen’s exterior wall began to burn.

A woman came running out the door.

“Pablo’s still in there,” she said breathlessly.  “He fell.  I think he broke his ankle.  I tried to drag him but he’s too big for me.  He’s trying to crawl.”

Overton touched Kimball’s arm.

“Mr. Kimball?” he asked.

“Yes?” Kimball replied.

Kimball paused for a moment.

“Did you do this?” Kimball finally asked.

“No.  I said you had three days and I meant it.  Still, if one has to go…”  He did not finish the thought.

Kimball said nothing.  He just looked skyward for a moment, sighed deeply, and then dashed back into the restaurant and into the fire in search of Pablo.