The Stranger's journey has now come full circle.
Join me in the bright sunshine at When Words Go Free...

There are still stories to be told.
Read them at The Stranger Looks Back.

The Stranger

It's hard to believe it's been five years. Hard to believe it's been that long, and hard to believe that's all it's been. So much of it is still as fresh in my memory as if it were a month or two ago, yet it all seems like a couple of lifetimes ago, which surely must be much longer than five years. Time is a funny thing.

In any case, there I was, and here I am, and no realm of possibility allows me to imagine one without the other; that moment inevitably brought me to this one. As someone I used to be liked to say, "Everywhere I have been has brought me to where I am." It was one of those sorts of profound thoughts that we liked to impress ourselves with as we discovered the secrets of the power of the mysteries of the Universe. Or maybe that was just me.

Is it just me, or does Gotye look a bit like Mr Gold/Rumpelstiltskin? Must be the hair.

Back on topic, now it's just some place that I used to go, like a neighbourhood bar long since reduced to rubble and paved over for the parking lot of a new mall. And just as I finished writing that sentence, the random YouTube mix playing in another tab sang by the time the bar closes and you feel like falling down. If you were there, you know. If you weren't, no explanation would make sense. Every Saturday night I seem to come alive for you baby. Google still freaks me out sometimes.

* * * * *

Anyways, at some point last week I thought I ought to write something to mark the occasion. Add a bout of insomnia, a YouTube mix and a box of, well, you know, and that above is what happened. Now that the day is here (and the box isn't), I realize, finally, that there is nothing left to write.

 

At This Table

The old man sat at the table that had been such a small part of the biggest purchase he had ever made, but that was now all that was left of that deal, and for the first time he realized how much this table had meant to him;

He recalled when he sat there on the eve of his 47th birthday and fell into the looking glass, and for the first time he made a connection between that metaphor and the fact that this table is glass-topped.

He reminisced about the strange and wonderful journey he had taken to the pyramids and back, and for the first time he marvelled at how far and wide he had travelled while sitting at this table.

He reflected upon the night, exactly 42 weeks to the hour after he had embarked upon that journey, when he was finally ready to leave his seat for a road trip, and for the first time he understood that it was the time spent at this table that had led him to know.

But most of all, he remembered the day he fell off his chair at the sight of those three little words, and for the first time it became clear to him just how big a role this table had played in his life.

And then he filled his glass again and thought he ought to write a poem about this table some day.
  

The Night Lenny Got Married

Exactly 30 years ago tonight, Lenny got married.

I had no idea at the time, but it would change my relationship with the Universe in a way that would bring me to where I am today. which is on my back porch, an empty box of red swill at my side, writing this drivel.

I was supposed to have had a date. Her name was Natalie, and we were great friends. I had met her a bit under two years earlier at a screening of some obscure cult film at a repertory house. We had been great friends ever since.

At the time, she was in an ambiguous relationship with some guy named Dieter or Dietrich or something like that. But she was going to come with me to Lenny's wedding, until she didn't. Apparently he called her from Vancouver, where he was at the time, and for some reason I don't remember, that made her decide to not come with me to Lenny's wedding.

In any case, the wedding came and went, and when it was over, I headed downtown. Getting off the metro I noticed this attractive blonde but I lost her on the way out of the station. I saw her again a bit after, and mustering up what little bravado  I had at the time, asked her if I could buy her a drink.

We went to the closest bar, where I bought her a drink. During which time, it turned out that she had been kicked out of her father's home, on account of the boyfriend she had just broken up with, and had no place to go. Naturally, I offered her mine, and there we went. She slept in my bed, I on the couch, because it was only 1984 and I hadn't graduated from decent to opportunistic yet.

The next day, she left to get some things from her father's house, and I never saw her again.

So how did this seemingly insignificant encounter change my relationship with the Universe in a way that has had a profound effect on where I am today, you ask?

30 years later, I have no fucking recollection of the details, but I vaguely remember that something about Brenda (the metro blonde) had to do with Vancouver, which had to do with Natalie, which had to do with the Universe giving me signs, or at least me imagining that it did so. The significance of which those of you who have followed this blog understand. The rest of you can read up, or not.

As I mentioned, I never did see Brenda again, but I did remain great friends with Natalie for several years, including one night when we both got high and she came on to me and I pretended not to notice and she joined the ranks of the top two One Who Got Away. but that's another story, one which will never be told here. (Unless it already has - I can't be arsed to go through the archives right now.)

For at least the first couple of the last three decades, I imagined writing a story with this particular title, but the imagined end result was never quite like this. It was going to be much clearer, much more profound, much more meaningful in the grand scheme of things. Oh well. At least it's done, and I don't have to do it anymore.
  

The Companion

The stranger looked at the lifeless body of his faithful companion of the past four years, and he remembered.

He remembered the day the companion had arrived, looking young and smooth, even though it had already lived over half its life, and he remembered how, when he had first taken a closer look at the companion, he discovered the sordid past that had lain beneath the surface, and how he had painstakingly cleansed the companion of its former sins and given it a fresh start.

He remembered how the companion had been a fellow traveller in some ways, but in so many more ways a guide - a gateway to magical worlds of mystery and wonderment, and, in so many ways, to the world that was his life today.

He remembered the journeys they had taken together to the refugee camps of Africa, the Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad, the wastelands of Russia, Windsor Castle, and other journeys whose stories they had told together. He also remembered the other journeys the companion had joined him on, those whose stories had not yet been told, and which he was now left to tell alone.

He remembered the eve he had planned to leave the companion behind for a night to take a road trip to the-point-of-no-turning-back, and how the companion bade him instead to take a journey to a world of a whole different sort.

And oh, how he remembered that world, where they sojourned together through the pyramids and the enchanted forests and the battlefields and the fashion shows, and even the second circle of hell, those many months, and he remembered the stories they told of their journey as they went along. He remembered the friends the companion had introduced him to, some of whom had travelled with them for but a short distance, and some of whom he still exchanges postcards with to this day.

He remembered the night he knew it was time for that road trip, and how this time, the companion did not bid him to stay, but rather wished him well and sent him on his way, but that's another story...

He remembered the day he set off with the companion to close down an experiment he had been engaged in that had seemingly failed, and how the companion suggested that perhaps he had been so intent on a particular result that he hadn't seen any other possibilities of success, and how, on a whim suggested by the companion, he tried a different approach.

He remembered when the initial result that came forth from that approach, as conveyed by the companion, had knocked him clear off his chair, and how the companion had been with him every step of the way over the weeks and months that followed, as the experiment faded and the wonders of the real world filled his life.

He remembered how the companion, then growing weak with age, had welcomed the more robust arrival that allowed the companion to enjoy a semi-retirement of sorts, still travelling back and forth with him (as the new arrival was rather stationary), but relieved of most of its active duties.

He remembered how he had recently intended to bring the companion out of semi-retirement and back into service, taking back the bulk of the work from the more recent arrival, how he had prepared the companion for the tasks ahead, and how the companion had shown itself capable with one last burst of energy before giving up the ghost.

He remembered how he had told himself that technically, the companion was not dead, but rather in a coma. And he remembered how he realized it would be wrong to attempt the surgery that might awaken the companion, not because it might fail, but because it might succeed. The companion had more than earned its eternal hibernation..

The stranger looked at the lifeless body of his faithful companion of the past four years, and he remembered.  and he knew it was time to let go.

In memory of Wilbury (2004 - 2013)
   

Ticket To Ride: Reloaded

It had been my second time in Vegas, and definitely the more memorable of the two. The first time was a day as part of a teen tour when I was 15; we went to Circus Circus, played video games and pinball, had a great buffet lunch, and that's all I remember.

The second time, I was 26, and it was for a sales conference when I was in the water filter business. Vegas is a great city to go to for a sales conference, but probably not the best place for a sales conference. I think I might have gone to one or two of the meetings; the rest of my time was mostly spent trying to win money and hoping to get laid.

On the first, I wasn't successful in that I didn't, but I was in that I didn't go over budget trying. On the second, I came close (pun inevitable) a couple of times, the third time being the charm. First off, I went to one of those places that pretended to be a bar, met a lovely young lady who chatted me up quite eloquently, and was informed by the barmaid that I could share a bottle of bubbly with the young lady in a private room  for a mere $400, gratuities not included. I politely declined, and went on my way.

After that, I went to an actual bar, met a not-quite-as-lovely-but-good-enough young lady who chatted me up much more abruptly and informed me that she would like to spend some time with me in a motel room which she would pay for with a credit card she happened to come by (pun irresistible), but she just needed $30 first to procure some powdered refreshments. Since it was a mere $30, I obliged, and waited patiently after she said she'd be right back, until I finally gave up and called it a night - my last in Vegas to this day.

The next morning, the sales conference I had  not attended most of having ended, and disappointed that I had neither won money nor gotten laid during my stay in Sin City, I packed my suitcase, checked out, and headed on my way to drop off the rental car and catch the shuttle to the airport. Along that way, while slowing down for a red light, a lovely young lady who had been walking along the sidewalk turned to look at me, then chatted me up in the form of a gesture that means "I want to get into a car with a stranger."

Since her thumb was out and I was now stopped at the red light, I obliged in the form of a gesture that means, "Come on baby take a chance with me." Once in the car, she informed me that she would like to go to a motel with me. To my surprise, she did not want money or refreshments of any sort, but really just wanted to go to a room and have some fun. My skepticism vanished at the next red light, when she asked, very politely, if it would be okay if she kissed me. Of course I obliged, and it was better than okay. Eventually, the nice motorist behind us informed me that the light had turned green, and we were off to the first motel that we could find.

Ever-conscious of the importance of personal hygiene, I suggested that we take a bath, which we did, during which we talked. She told me her name was Lisa (which is rare for me to remember after so many years), and she seemed really very nice, really very down on her luck, and really very hornier than both combined. By which I mean not just physically horny, but emotionally horny as well, if that is a thing. It must be, because I felt the same way.

Thus, for the next couple of hours, we were lovers. Not just sex partners, but lovers - two lonely people who, for that little slice of Now, erased each others' loneliness. During that brief time, the world outside that room - the world in which we were strangers who had just met - did not exist. In that room, we had always been lovers, and always would be.

Eventually, it was time for me to drop off the rental car and catch my flight (which I did just in time). I left her in the room, which I had paid for the day. We did not entertain the notion of me missing my flight, we did not exchange phone numbers (I don't even know if she had one), we did not pretend that we would ever see each other again. We just said "I love you" and kissed good-bye, as it always had been and always would be in the eternity that was the inside of that room.

It had not been my first one-night-stand (or one-morning-stand, as it were), nor would it be my last. But it was the only one during which I had been in love, and it was an experience of being in the Now unlike any that I would have for another 21 years or so.

But that's another story...
 

42 Weeks

That's how long he spent in an imaginary world between the time he was supposed to get laid, and the time he actually did.

I should probably explain. It was just another Saturday night, and he was all revved up with no place to go. Well, there were actually lots of places he could have gone, and he fully intended to find the one that would lead to the ultimate act of moving on with his life. But, as it turned out, he wasn't quite ready.

So all dressed up with any number of places to go, he stayed home and fell into a land of make-believe, and for ten months or so, fancied himself to be on some sort of magical mystery tour across the universe to the centre of his soul. Of course, it was all just an illusion, but it was one that served him well at the time, his reality having been way too depressing to give any more than the absolute minimum of attention to.

As escapism goes, it was arguably less damaging in both the long and short run than the substance abuse he had been flirting with, and from which his imaginary world almost certainly saved him. As he had liked to say, the Universe gives us what we need when we are ready for it, or summat™. And thus, after most of a year immersed in such clichéd pseudo-philosophical wisdom and other prophecies, he was ready to get laid.

But that's another story...
  

The Notice

The bartender grabbed the envelope pinned to the wall as he unlocked the door, went inside, and tossed it onto the counter as he went about his business. Every now and then he would glance at the envelope, then look away.

He knew what was in it; he had known it was coming for a long time. He had been waiting for it ever since he first heard the news, long before the rumours started flying, long before similar envelopes had been delivered elsewhere.

Finally, he sat down to open the envelope and read its contents. He was surprised to read that the bar did not have a spot reserved in the new mall, but that didn't bother him much; he hadn't planned on going there anyways.

He was pleasantly surprised to see that the bar, and the Main Street on which it stood, would not be razed, but rather preserved as an historical site. Nevertheless, he continued to pack the boxes to be shipped off to the museum, just in case.

When he was as done with that as he was going to be, he crumpled the notice, tossed it into the trash, and got on with the rest of his life.

Last Call (When Words Go Free...)
 

Epilogue

The bartender hesitated a few moments, the key still in his tightly-clenched fist. He looked around the place that had been his home for the past year, and wondered if it had all been a dream. He decided, like Alice, that it had been real enough to him, and that was all that mattered.

He then looked in the small mirror he held in his other hand, and he knew the face that looked back at him. He wondered where the stranger that had been there a year ago had gone to. It took him a minute to realize that the face was the same; he simply hadn't recognized it then.

The bartender kicked the jukebox one more time, looked at the key in his now open palm, and smiled as he handed it to the barmaid. As he walked through the door into the bright sunshine, he took off the mask and turned off the light that he no longer needed.
      

Brown-Eyed Girl

I was nervous, as one might be before a first date. That it was my first first date in almost 20 years probably added to the nervousness. When she finally appeared and we shared the perfunctory hug, I was still nervous. As we walked to the car, I was still nervous. As I gave her the three different coloured roses and explained the meaning of each, I was a bit less nervous.

On our second date, she told me that she always knew on the first date whether it was "yes" or "no", but with me, she hadn't. I asked her how it had worked out with those who had been a "yes". We were on a date, so the question was somewhat rhetorical. By the end of our second date, she still didn't know about me. I took that as a good thing, because I wanted to.

Our third date did not go exactly as planned. We were "asked" to sit with the rabble, the squirrels went hungry, I had to call for a boost, and she defied a personal tradition. It must have answered the question for her, because we never had a fourth date; spending the weekend together with our kids was not considered a date. I was nervous about that, too. Very nervous, for various reasons. I needn't have been, for any of them. All in all, it was the best fourth date ever.

* * * * *

I spent almost a year wandering around a strange town, more than a little inspired by a modern fairy tale there, fully expecting to find my treasure among the pyramids. Once or twice, I thought I might could have, and even threw caution to the wind, but no. What I did find was the path to somewhere I had not been for a very long time - my self. Only after I discovered the treasure that had been sleeping there could I follow the signs to the one waiting under the blue sycamore tree. 

* * * * *

First I had to be alone so that I could learn how to not be lonely. Then I had to be lonely so that I could want to not be alone. Now I don't have to be either.

The End
   

Maktub

There is a strange town, just over yonder. The boy looked back at it, wondering if this time he was really leaving. He thought back to all the times he said he was, and he knew he wasn't. It was so much a part of him now that even if he did leave, it would always be with him. But he also knew that his lodging there had come to an end - his time there would now be as a visitor, not a sojourner.

He had arrived there broken and tattered two lifetimes ago, seeking shelter and escape from the storm that had been his sorry existence. He thought of all the wonderful people he had encountered there, all the glorious adventures they had shared, all the stories not yet written. And he thought of the girl whose eyes had kept him there in the first place, when he had meant to be on his way to somewhere else. Eyes he had never even seen, but that had called to him just as powerfully as if he had; this was something he never quite understood.

Although the girl had been out of his reach even before he arrived, she had shown him that there were still things worth reaching for. In that, she had saved his life without knowing it, or perhaps she did; either way, he could never put into words what she had done for him, nor properly express the gratitude he would always feel. He gave up trying to explain it to others long ago; his friends just figured he wasn't the type to hold a grudge.

And then there was the lad, who he had first thought of as an arrogant little twerp. Or maybe that was him, he didn't remember anymore. Despite what he had said, what he really didn't like about the lad was his ability to tell him about himself - to see through the mask that had hidden him from the others. It was only when he saw what the lad had seen that he grew to appreciate the favour.

He thought of some of the folks who had made his stay enjoyable. The clown whose dry wit had caused him extra laundry more than once, the awesome chick who reminded him of his own sister, the manly dude who he still intended to meet at the burger place, the faithful skipper who had stood by his side through the fiercest storms, the one there from the start whose dedication to his children had inspired him to be a better father to his own, the young romantic who he hoped had come to see the love in the eyes of her Romeo, the girl and her dog with whom he shared many a breakfast, the math nerd whose images captivated him and who was surely one of the two smartest people there, the science nerd who was nothing like the science nerds he knew at that age and who was surely the other one of the two, the widow whose poetry had so moved him for a moment until the phone rang, the young mother whose fortitude had inspired him to face his own challenges, the schoolboy who was mature beyond his years and quick as a whip with the binoculars, the schoolgirl who took such beautiful pictures, the prophet who was always sure to hide a pearl in every bucket of rocks, the classy schoolteacher with whom he had gone as far as propriety would allow, the bar wench who had seemed much younger than her age, the future historian who had been the first to honour his presence there, the novelist who had become a welcome regular at his favourite watering hole, the preacher whose droning served as the backdrop for many a night by the campfire, the crazy cat lady whose tales of sales had made him laugh so hard, the boy who was really a girl who he hoped was okay, the little lady who mistook him for a wise man (which he quite enjoyed), the young couple who reminded him of another young couple so long ago, the asshole who had taught him that questions are not answered simply by asking them, the lady whose colourful balloons brought many smiles and the occasional sly grin to his face, the dragon master who helped him out of many a tight spot, the college professor who was nothing like his college professors, the friendly young man with the quaint idea that Canadian football was a real sport, the consort of a Nigerian prince who had so cleverly fooled him, the wise man with whose voice of reason he tended to agree, the golfer who had arranged for his Hebrew lessons, the kindred soul who had given him the guidebook for the next part of his journey and to whom he now entrusted his flock, and his dear friend to whom he had first shown himself without the mask and title and who had awakened something within him that he forgot existed - something he needed for the next part of his journey.

As he started out on the path before him, he looked back one more time, and thought again of the eyes that had drawn him there, the ones he had never seen - the weird mention of which had opened his own eyes to the real ones beckoning him now, as if they had been meant as a sign waiting to show him the way. And at last, he understood.

Maktub, the boy thought, as he continued on his journey. His sycamore tree was waiting.

I love you because the entire universe conspired to help me find you. 
    

Happily Ever After

After she moved in, we fell in love, and were going to live happily ever after. Like everything we did, starting with that first night in the van, we did it hard and fast. When it was over, I sometimes wondered if it was just me, but when I heard, years later, that we had been engaged, I figured it must have been her too. Honesty, however, was not our strong point.

Throughout the three years of our on-again-off-again-mostly-in-and-out romance, we both fucked around. A lot. I suppose it is poetic justice that I didn't know how much she did until much later. She never knew I did, except for the one time I told her about. Her freakout over that ended with a visit to a hospital, where they gave her "vitamins" that was really Valium. She didn't react well to Valium, and I never fessed up again.

Then there was the abortion I paid for, not knowing, also until much later, that it had been paid for three times over; at least I was the one who took her. And my VCR and ghetto blaster that I had to buy back from her dealer. I never did get my great-grandfather's watch back - I hope whoever took it for a kite of snow came down with a bad case of dysentery.

The winner was when she went to a private rehab in another city, at great expense to me. When I made the long drive to visit a few weeks later, I found her waiting in front of the main entrance with her suitcase. She had been kicked out for going to a motel with one of the male inmates during an unsupervised sortie.

Ever the dreamer, I went to plead her case with the powers that be, to no avail, only to find that she was no longer waiting in the car when I came out. After two days of searching, I headed home. That night, the phone rang around midnight - I had to go rescue her right away. I borrowed a fuzzbuster and made the 500-km drive in three hours flat.

After a weekend of sex and drugs and rock'n'roll in the country, I got her into another rehab, this one a freebie. A week there and she disappeared with motel guy, who, coincidentally, was also there.  They made their way back and spent two weeks living in a tent on my future wife's rooftop, another fact I learned much later.

Long story short, it didn't work out. There was something about us that should have worked, a connection that went beyond all the bullshit we went through. There were moments when love could not possibly have been more pure, but history and psychology and addiction prevented those from being anything but few and far between in this lifetime.

Even after she moved out for the last time, and was living with her new boyfriend, I still hoped that God would answer my prayers and make everything the way it was supposed to be. The way it should have been. But when prayers are answered, it is often not in the way we expect.

The day I finally knew it was over was the day I hit it off with the future mother of my beautiful daughters. A mutual friend was getting married, and she asked me if I could give "D" (one of her friends, whose words earlier in 1991 I still recalled) a lift. Geography led me to pick D up first; I helped her get dressed, and played KerPlunk with her daughter while she applied the finishing touches to make herself even prettier than she already was.

I was seated with her, D, and a few of their friends. She got royally plastered and started hitting on the old men. At least one got an impromptu lap dance. At one point the mother of the groom, whom I had never met, came up to me and asked, in her heavy east European accent, "You are --?" I said I was. "Carol is yours?"

"Not any more," I answered.

* * * * *

The last time I saw her was on my 30th birthday, in passing. I later heard that she moved out to the west coast, where she was never heard from again. D thinks that she ended up on Pickton's farm. She's not on any of the lists, but nobody will ever know how many aren't. I prefer to think that she finally cast out her demons and is living happily ever after somewhere.
   

Song of The Blue Tree

He thought back to that first blue tree. The one that had sprung up, seemingly out of nowhere - he is still not quite sure who planted it. It was just there, and he was happy to make himself comfortable beneath it. He had liked that tree, had quite enjoyed sitting beneath its branches on a quiet spring afternoon, the shade it provided still allowing the warmth of the sun to envelop him.

He remembered the day he cut it down. It had pained him to do so, but he knew he had no choice. The fruit had gone sour, perhaps because he had watered it too much. He placed a flower where it had stood, to remind him of that spring afternoon. As if he could forget.

After that, it was a long time before he sat under another blue tree. He was careful not to plant any unintentionally, but one would pop up from time to time. These were more like bushes - there was hardly any room to sit under them, and they would never last very long. He never seemed to miss these very much when they were gone.

In the autumn, as the leaves fell and the sky grew cold, he planted a new tree. For a little while, he spent much time under it, sometimes with a bottle of red, often sitting there into the wee hours of the night. At times it was bright and full of foliage, bringing much joy and laughter, and at others it drooped sadly, seeming to need his tender skills as a gardener.

He began to think that this tree might someday bear sweet fruit, that he might someday climb its trunk and perch in its branches. But it was not to be. One day in early winter, a cold wind blew over from the remnants of that very first blue tree, and seemed to leave a stain on its branches. Leaves grew over the stain to hide it, but he knew it was there. The few times he sat under the tree after that, it was never quite the same as it had been. The tree still stands, but he no longer wonders when he will sit under it again.

There were other blue trees that appeared in the grove that winter. One gave him some moments of mirth and merriment, which he enjoyed while knowing that it was simply a nice spot to pass the time. Another was one he had visited briefly in his earlier days, and his visits now were just as brief, although quite pleasant.

One blue tree in particular gave him a place to ponder and reflect, and he gained much insight while sitting under it. He felt a special connection to this tree; not a chemistry like that he had felt with the autumn tree, but more of an alchemistry, something that grew from the depths of understanding. He had a sense that this tree might remain a welcome part of the grove for a long time to come.

One day, he happened across an Old Friend, and they got to talking about trees and other things. The friend claimed to have some magical seeds, of which he was quite skeptical. The two agreed to test the seeds, just to see what might come of it. They scattered the seeds in a different grove than the one he was familiar with, and they watched to see if something might grow whose fruit they could share.

It did not, and he somehow knew that they were not to sit under a blue tree together. Some bushes had sprung up among many weeds, and just as he was on his way to clearing the grove of these, something caught his eyes. It was a sapling, a tiny blue tree barely poking out of the snow, but something strangely familiar about it told him he ought to water it.

There must have been magic in that water, because that little sapling started to grow, faster and stronger than anything he had seen before. There were times he would stand back in awe of its growth. He spent every possible moment under it, basking in its radiance; the more he basked, the brighter the tree radiated.

When he was away from the tree, he found himself tending to his affairs more diligently than he had been doing, as though he wanted no pressing concerns to interfere with his time under the tree. Music was played in the tree, and soon after, there were voices - something that had never before come forth from a tree for him. It was the second time he heard those voices that somehow, he knew.

It was time. Time for him to reach for the fruit of a blue tree while standing on solid ground. Time to come out of the blue, and into the here and now. His world was about to change forever, he hoped with all his heart.

His heart, it seemed, was not to be disappointed.
 

Into My Life

So after breakfast at the diner, I drove her to where she was staying at the time. No plans were made to see each other again, no phone numbers were exchanged. That, it seemed, was the end of that. The following weekend, I got stood up for a romantic adventure, but that story has already been told...

The Friday after that, I was in her area, and on a whim, stopped by where I had dropped her off. Nobody was home, so I left a note on the door with my phone number. By the time I got home an hour later, she had left a message. I called back, she asked what I was doing. I said I was getting ready to leave for a weekend in the country.

I don't remember if I invited or she asked, but another hour later, I was back at her door to pick her up. The next two days were a blur. There was some vodka left over from my catharsis of the previous weekend, she brought some hash, I brought some grass, and we picked up some beer and wine. I know we did a lot of something other than get drunk and high, but the details are not as clear as those of the night in the van.

It must have been good - really good - because early Sunday evening, we were back at her door so she could pick up her stuff, and when we drove away, it wasn't her door anymore.
 

I Know This Bar

The bartender polished the last of the glasses and slid it into the rack. The jukebox was playing James Carr, which seemed to please the young lady who had asked him to give it a kick. He didn't remember her having been to the bar before, but he did recognize her from a poetry competition he had attended in town earlier.

He noticed that she was much younger than she had seemed at that first meeting; in fact, he now wondered if she were even old enough to be there. The wedding ring on her finger told him she probably was, and the look on her face told him she probably needed to be there.

She sat in relative silence, occasionally getting up to pick a tune, then returning to her seat in the shadows. A few of the regulars dropped in and out for some banter and music, and the bartender filled the intervening silence with his own picks. Some of them brought a smile to her face, others seemed to evoke a bittersweet tear. When she asked him how he picked the perfect song for every moment, he said it was just luck of the draw.

She came in almost every night after that, always sitting at the same table. One of those evenings, a stranger who would not remain one wandered in and pulled up a seat beside the juke. As they took turns dropping the quarters, the bartender appreciated the newcomer's own luck of the draw. The young lady enjoyed the attention from these duelling d.j.s, and the three of them had a most pleasant time together.

One evening when they seemed to be alone there, the bartender noticed that she looked particularly sad, and ventured to ask what was on her mind. She told him of her lover, and how she sometimes doubted his love for her. She showed the bartender a picture of him, one that she kept posted on her bulletin board, and the bartender asked if she had taken the picture. She had.

The bartender pointed at how her lover was looking at the camera she had been holding - how he was looking at her - and said she had no need to doubt this man's love for her. Perhaps, the bartender thought aloud, he was not as skilled at romance as she would sometimes like, but she should not confuse that with any lack of love. He was young, he would learn.

They talked long into the night, and said their goodbyes as the sun came up. After that, she dropped in less often, and the bartender hoped this was because she was spending the time with her lover. Her visits became more infrequent, and eventually, she stopped coming by at all.

The bar grew and flourished, attracting a loyal crowd of regulars and many passers-by, but the bartender never forgot the young lady who had been so much a part of its early days. Sometimes, as he polished a glass or kicked the jukebox, he would glance at the window, and wonder if he had just seen a shadow pass by.
 

Ticket To Ride

I could hardly believe my luck. It was a long shot, but what else did I have to do at two in the morning? It must have been the largest block in the city, what with the colleges and the hospital and the pharmacy that used to be a museum, further complicated by the maze of one-way streets.

Yet there she was, her thumb still out, right where I had passed her the first time around, when the bus had prevented me from pulling over. I knew she wasn't a hooker - it was the wrong place, and she wasn't dressed for it. Had I thought she was, I would have saved myself the trip around the block. She was going my way, and asked if I wanted to party. How could I not?

She wanted to stop at the friend's she had been on her way to see, to pick up some hash and some beer. I was fine with that. Our route took us down my street, so we ditched the Civic and continued in my extended length 1975 Dodge Tradesman, red inside and out, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling carpeting, captain's seats, and a double bed, complete with privacy curtains. You couldn't ask for a better van to deliver garbage bags with. My grandmother/business partner had called it a whorehouse on wheels, but that's another story.

As her directions brought us to her friend's apartment building, I realized why she looked familiar. "Hey, is your friend Gerry?" "Yeah," she said, "you're the guy who gave him the couch, aren't you?" Small world. I hadn't recognized her at first without the page-boy haircut and bobby-socks. The janitor's niece had mentioned that Gerry's friend thought I was cute, but she had been a little too excited about the couch, and I had thought I wasn't ready for another crazy chick just yet. Silly me.

She got some hash and half a two-four, and we headed off into the night. We ended up in the parking lot of a large urban park. She rolled a joint, and we smoked it as we cracked our first beers over small talk, our captain's seats turned to face each other. I appreciated that the designers had thought to put the engine cover that served as a cup and snack holder far enough ahead of the seats so as not to intrude.

The small talk turned into a small kiss, which turned into a big kiss, which became quite passionate, which led to me picking her up and carrying her to the bed in the back, the kiss uninterrupted. I forgot all about the privacy curtains. Perhaps envious of our lips and tongues, our hands decided to get in on the action, which must have upset our clothes, because they left us rather hurriedly.

Our kiss was interrupted only long enough for her to push me onto my back rather vigorously, but not nearly as vigorously as what came next. I wondered at one point if she thought I was a mechanical bull, but that thought was interrupted by wondering if my lip might be bleeding. I had never been with a biter before, and until then didn't know that I had wanted to be. I also found out that it hurts when it bends, but it's a good hurt.

Some time and another joint and a couple of beers later, it was her turn to face the ceiling. What seemed like a blissful eternity later, I had just enough energy left to rip the open curtain from its track and throw it over us as a blanket before we passed out. At some point, I had a strange sensation of the presence of light, opened my eyes to see the flashlight shining through the windshield, and remained still until it went away. As I watched the car drive off from the back window, I wondered why some people thought all cops were assholes, and fell back asleep.

Over breakfast at a nearby diner in the morning, she told me that we would probably never see each other again. I asked why not, and she said, "That's just the way these things usually go." I said that if we wanted to see each other again, we would. I probably should have gone with what she said.
 

The Old Schoolyard

He had done well in the playground. Afraid of it for the longest time, one day he mustered up his courage, left the classrooms, and ventured cautiously outside. He had a rough time of it at first, trying (rather awkwardly) to play with the big kids, and getting into his share of scraps before finding his place there.

One of those scraps had been particularly brutal at the time. He knew that it was at least partially his fault, but he thought that the beating was a bit too much - he came close to dropping out of school altogether because of it. Instead, he stuck it out and licked his wounds, and came to realize that what doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.

The next time he had a run-in with the same bullies, he held his own quite well, and seemed to earn their respect for it. Eventually, he came to see them not as bullies at all, but as really tough teachers - the kind you hate at the time, but appreciate once you've grown up and understood the lessons.

After that, he had a lot of fun in the schoolyard, and became one of the big kids himself. He often marvelled at how much he had learned there, and how well much of it served him at home. He made some friends, passing notes away from the other kids, and sometimes even hopped the fence with them to sit and chat under the blue spruce tree that stood in front of the schoolhouse itself.

One time, the principal made a rare visit to the playground and mentioned that they were looking for some new teachers, if anybody cared to spend some time in the classrooms inside the building. Along with the other kids, he listened politely and then resumed his playing, thinking little more of it.

Not so very long after that, he was sitting under the blue spruce when he noticed a ruckus in the playground. He headed back across the fence to find that some kid just passing through had dug up an old spool with footage of a particular scene from that earlier fight, and some of the newer kids had gathered round to watch. One even made a valiant effort to defend him, thinking perhaps that the fight was ongoing.

He took the opportunity not only to point out that the brawl was long over, but also to finally thank his former nemeses for the lessons it had taught him and the strength that it had given him. Just as one of the other big kids mentioned that all's well that ends well, he noticed that the part of the blue spruce that he had been sitting under lately had seemed to wilt a bit, perhaps from the stale air that had escaped the tin that held the spool. He did his best to clear the air, but worried that the damage might already have been done.

At that moment, he realized that it had been a while since he had actually learnt anything in the playground, and that he was now spending more time reminiscing about his earlier days there than enjoying new schoolyard games. He also realized that many of the older kids that he had had so much fun with were gone, and that even some of his newer friends seemed not to enjoy being there so much anymore.

He looked at the schoolhouse and realized that he missed its classrooms, missed the tutoring he used to do there, even missed the notion that he might one day be a teacher. He sat quietly in the corner of the playground for a little while, then got up and walked into the building. He did his best to help some kids with their questions - he was more than a bit rusty, and hoped his answers would be helpful.

After a bit of this, he went to get some air on the front steps. He looked over at the tree and saw that his worry had been misplaced - it seemed different somehow, but was fine. He saw that the part that he had thought was wilting had simply spread its branches in the opposite direction, away from the playground.

He knew then that it was time for him to do the same. Recess was over.
  

Old Friend, Reconsidered

I was thinking that I may have had an affair...

After I left that morning, it wasn't the same between us. We may have both realized that we might not show such restraint the next time, so we avoided a next time. Not because we didn't want there to be, but because it would have been wrong. At least that's what I led myself to believe.

As it was a trial separation, it was my understanding that our marriage vows were still in play, although I probably should have confirmed that my wife had the same understanding. But that's another story. For me, a physical relationship with someone else was simply out of the question.

The only thing that stood between us, it seemed, was my marriage. As a real friend, she encouraged me to work things out with my wife, which I did at the time. When I reconciled, I ended almost all contact with her, not because it was demanded of me but because I knew I had to if my marriage was to survive. I would regret that now, except that I can walk away from my marriage knowing that she had nothing to do with its failure.

We never had sex, never even touched, other than that one time on the subway. So why do I think that I may have had an affair? Having heard much of other people's affairs, I have come to realize that the only real difference between us and them was the absence of physical intimacy. We even said that we loved each other, although not with any romantic connotation, and we made sure that it sounded to be in jest.

We did not give each other our bodies, but we gave each other every other part of ourselves that lovers do, even as we never thought of ourselves as lovers. We shared our minds, our hearts, even our souls. We "what iffed" about what might have happened under different circumstances. In every way other than sexual, it was very much like an affair. In Jimmy Carter's conception of things, I committed adultery in my heart.

During the years that followed, in fact until discussing it with a dear friend very recently, I took the high road and convinced myself that what stopped us from crossing that line was my commitment to marriage, the unthinkableness of cheating. I now know that wasn't the reason; that if not for the real reason, my marriage vows would have been cast aside in a heartbeat.

The real reason was my lifelong companion, fear. I was afraid of rejection, despite having already admitted our mutual attraction. Because I am an equal opportunity coward, I was afraid of the intimacy, emotional as well as physical, that it might have led to had I not been rejected. I was afraid that I wouldn't live up to her expectations, or she to mine. I was afraid that it might not be perfect, or forever.

In short, I was afraid of all the usual things that some people are afraid of when circumstances do not stand in their way. I was afraid of everything other than the one thing that I convinced myself was the reason I didn't walk up those stairs. If not for all that fear, I wouldn't have walked down those stairs in the first place.

And that is why I think I may have had an affair.
  

Confusion

He woke up in a daze. His surroundings seemed both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He wasn't quite sure whether he was here or there, what was real and what was not. Until then, he had always been able to separate the two, even when there was some overlap.

Now, the bridge that he walked seemed more like a balance beam, on its way to becoming a tightrope. He didn't know if he was more afraid of falling off or staying on. And if he were to fall off, which side he was more afraid of falling into.

He had not expected this, not even a little. In fact, he hadn't been so thrown for a loop since he first started walking that bridge, so long ago. Despite appearances, he generally knew where he was, the impression of omnipresence entirely by design. It was not that he had any specific plan - he knew better than that - but he did have a general direction in mind.

He had very recently been reminded, quite serendipitously, that there was a time he was indeed looking for answers to questions that didn't need any. Then, there had been an answer that now seemed almost prophetic; considering the source, this did not surprise him at all. The apparent randomness of the reminder made him wonder if the universe was going out of its way to prove the point.

He knew that things would unfold as they should, and that the best he could do is enjoy the unfolding. As far as he had come in this respect, he was having trouble with it now. As much as wanted to just be wherever this was, at least some part of him wanted to believe that it would bring him somewhere else some day. But he knew that's not how it works.

As he considered these things, he realized that his confusion was just part of where he was, something to be experienced, not overcome. It would find its own way to where it should bring him; all he had to do was try to keep up while remaining true to himself. As much as this scared him, and as much as part of him still wanted answers and reassurances to magically appear, he accepted where he was and welcomed the next leg of his journey with open arms.

At that moment, he did know one thing for sure. The lines that he had so diligently drawn were now blurred beyond recognition, and for that, wherever his road led him, his worlds would never be the same again.
  

Old Friend, Revisited

I am starting to think that I may have had an affair.

I was separated from my wife at the time. She was a friend of a friend of my wife. At one point, she had been a friend of my wife, but they had a falling out. I don't know why.

We had become friends, in a casual sort of way. We just kind of clicked, as people, not as a man and a woman. At least not that we would acknowledge to each other. We had many common interests, a similar life view, whatever that is, and a sense of camaraderie.

A couple of months into my year-long separation, a singer was coming to town that we both liked. I bought tickets. I asked my wife if she would mind if I went with her. My wife didn't mind. I asked her if she wanted to go. She asked me if my wife would mind. I said she wouldn't. He didn't sing my favourite song of his because he never sings anything from his first album. Other than that, the show was magical.

Over the next several months, we went to two other shows together, also with my wife's "permission." They were also magical. For one of them, we took the subway. On the ride back to where I had parked my car, our bare arms brushed against each other for a second or two. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before, or since. That was the only time we ever actually touched during that time.

During this time, the time of my separation, we talked. A lot. A real lot. We would spend hours on the phone, so much that we both upped our long-distance plans, after those first devastating bills. We talked about anything and everything. We acknowledged our attraction to each other. We discussed life, music, politics, children, relationships. You name it, we talked about it. We fell asleep on the phone together at least once, maybe more.

Once, when I dropped her off after the last of those shows, she invited me in for coffee before my long drive home. We had coffee, we smoked cigarettes, and we talked. A lot. A real lot. At some point I said I should go. She stood at the top of the stairs as I walked down them, where I stopped at the door to outside, and turned towards her to say goodbye. Then we talked. A lot...

That whole time, that night, I wanted to walk up those stairs. I wanted our skin to touch again. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to kiss her. I didn't do any of those things. Some time after we noticed that the sun had come up, we said our goodbyes from our respective ends of the stairwell, and I opened the door to outside and left.
   

The Thin Blue Line

Sometimes he wondered if he would ever get there. With each step, he knew that he must be getting closer, but it always seemed just out of reach. It looked like he was getting closer, but it didn't feel like it, as though it were all an illusion. Maybe it was.

Each morning he would wake up thinking, "Today. It will be today." Each night he would go to bed thinking, "Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow." Each day the line got thinner, to the point of being almost invisible, but it was still there. It seemed like no matter what he did, not matter how hard he tried, it didn't make a difference. Like running on a treadmill, going as fast as he could without getting anywhere.

Then it occurred to him that maybe he was trying too hard, that he was too desperate. He had always believed that the universe in which he lived gave back what was put into it, but now he thought he might have misunderstood that at least a bit. That it wasn't simply a numbers game, a question of put more in, get more back.

He came to realize that in doing only for the promise of reward, he was denying himself that very reward. That the doing had no value, because he did not value it other than for what it could achieve. He understood now that he had been so focused on the destination that the journey had become meaningless.

His newfound understanding in hand, he let go of the "goal." He just put it out of his mind and went about his business, doing for the sake of doing, being for the enjoyment of being. He embarked upon the journey, and found that it was it's own reward.

Not long after this, it happened, seemingly without any effort on his part. While he wasn't even looking, he reached his original destination, and found that it was simply a step in the journey.
  

Vodka & Coke

It's her fault, that vodka and coke is my drink. I had always been a rum and coke kinda guy, Captain Morgan and all that, until I asked her what she was drinking. Vodka and coke? I never heard of that. Try it, she said. So I did. That's when I learned that vodka goes with just about anything, but not rum.

I might have gotten drunker that night than any other in my life. And why not? After all, it was an Irish wedding. My cousin's wedding. Her cousin's wedding. Our cousin's wedding. In case I might have forgotten, my grandmother's nurse was kind enough to remind me: "You know she's your cousin, right?"

I didn't much care. Or wouldn't have cared, had there been a reason not to. We danced. I don't dance, but we danced. We drank. We sat together on the bus back to Middleton. I think we may have fallen asleep. I don't remember how or why, but I didn't go back to the hotel. I went to her father's house. I think I might have prayed to the porcelain god - that would have been the rum and the vodka fighting it out.

We fell asleep on the sofa. I don't know why, but I'm sure it was a sofa, not a couch, even though I still don't know the difference. In any case we fell asleep on it, and woke up on it. All I remember of that is how peaceful it felt, how right, falling asleep like that, waking up to find our arms wrapped around each other, so close and yet so far.

There was nothing even remotely sexual, or even romantic, about any of it. It just felt good to be beside her. God she was beautiful. And so sad, it seemed. I knew she was married. I knew she wasn't happy. I knew that her husband, I think his name was John, was an asshole. That's what everybody said, anyways. I wondered why he wasn't there with her, at her cousin's wedding, at her father's house. She had said he had to work, but the looks on the faces of the others when she said that told me it wasn't so.

So what of it? I met a distant cousin, we seemed to hit it off in some sort of way, we had a really nice evening enjoying each other's company. We traded addresses and promised to keep in touch. And we did, for a short while. She wrote, I wrote back, she wrote back, I didn't. Her last letter scared me, so I put it off, meaning to write, but never did. I just didn't know how to deal with the awkwardness of it.

All these years later, I know there was something there, some unspoken connection between us. When two people meet and just take to each other, like that old cliché about how it feels like you've known each other forever, there is something there. At the very least, a friendship that could have been lasting and true. Maybe more, maybe not. I'll never know.

But hey, I saved myself from some awkwardness.
  

Mastery Of The World: Part I

They were as sorry a ragtag bunch as ever tried to rule the World. They seemed to know that they were doomed to failure from the start, but they didn't care. They were in it for the fun, and they had much of it. Mostly descended from Islanders, they answered the Alpha's query and set to properly assigning themselves rank and title. By general consensus, the Horseman became the leader, but there was some confusion as to who was second-in-command, and nobody seemed to care much.

Hopped up on amphetamines thanks to the Dealer, their plan of attack was distracted by the arrival of lunch. Not wanting to take over the World on an empty stomach, they ate and drank and forgot why they were there in the first place. The men among them sought after amorous diversion, some of the women among them became men so as to join in, and at least one of the men among them became woman for no apparent reason. The Hermaphrodite wasn't sure which way to turn, but did so several times anyways.

Eventually, they had it all sorted out and awoke from their slumber, only to find that their leader had left them for the dubious pleasure of feline company. By this time, the World had caught wind of their plans, or at least their intent; they were still a long way off from having any actual plans. The World thought to put an end to their enterprise, then decided otherwise, confident that they would hang themselves, given enough thread.

After a breakfast of haggis and frites, they noticed the remains of the veela they had ravished and devoured the night before, and wondered if that should be thought of as cannibalism. After a brief discussion they decided not, finished up the leftovers for lunch, and wondered what they would have for supper, during which discussion the Eggman was chastised for referring to the veela as french fries. The Cyclops pointed out that indeed, the lovely ladies had been grilled, not so much for taste as to avoid trans-fat.

The Cowboy wandered off, muttering something about having been invited to play golf with a nice but manly-looking Baroness in a plaid skirt, while the Princess inspired the others with her awesomeness. This sort of thing went on for what seemed like quite some time, and while weapons were designed and tested, no advance was made upon the World, and recruitment efforts failed miserably. A few others, among them the Jester, the Referee, the Venerable, the Queen, the Harpie, and the other Giraffe, dropped by out of curiosity, but none were impressed enough to join in.

In the end, they didn't so much give up as forget about the whole thing, and when a random pillock came by to hawk his wares, nobody was left to notice. The World smiled.
    

Zombie Breakfast

I looked at the pieces of the smashed camera on the sidewalk. As shocked as I was that I had done that, I was more afraid of what I might do next. I wondered how fast I would have to go to be able to drive off a pier into the river, like in the movies. I wondered if there was even a pier in the area where I could do that. So I got into my car and drove.

I didn't know where I was going until I got there. I didn't even know that I knew exactly where it was until I saw the sign. I pulled into the parking lot and walked to the main entrance. I was still wearing the camera strap. I told the lady at the front desk that I thought I was going crazy and might do something crazy, and could I stay here for now?

She asked for my health insurance card, which she put into the little machine with a form that I had to sign on the bottom. A few minutes later, I was sharing my angst with a nurse, who then brought me to my room, where I was to just try to relax and wait for a doctor to see me. I didn't wait very long, and after a short interview, the doctor instructed the nurse to give me two little green pills. I slept very well that night.

Not long after I awoke, I was ushered to breakfast in the dining hall. I was a bit taken aback by this - I had never been in a hospital where you didn't eat in your room, and I really wasn't in a mood to be around a lot of people. That turned out not to be a problem at all. The first sign was the way they shuffled to their seats without any indication that they were aware of the presence of others. The second was that their eyeballs didn't move.

The clincher was the green slop. When my bowl was put in front of me, I eyed it suspiciously, not quite sure for a minute if I was supposed to eat it or wait for someone to bring newspaper for a papier-mâché project. I looked around and saw the others methodically dipping their plastic spoons into the bowl and depositing the substance in their mouths. I dipped my own spoon and slowly brought it to my face. It had no smell at all; I wasn't sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing, so I cautiously put the tip of the spoon to my mouth.

I had never known that tastelessness could taste so bad. I was rather hungry, so I tried my best to eat it, but two spoonfuls was all I could take. When I looked up to see that many of the others had finished their bowl and were lining up for seconds, as lifelessly as they had earlier walked in, that's when I knew for sure.

A little while after I got back to my room, a nurse came in to escort me to a room where I was to wait for a doctor. When he came in, I was surprised to see that it was the same doctor I had seen elsewhere several years earlier, when he had told me that he could give me something that would work much better after I had taken a bottle of Anacin. He didn't recognize me, and I didn't mention our earlier meeting.

He asked me how I was feeling, and why I had come there the previous evening, and I told him about the girl and my father's camera and my thoughts about driving into the river and my seemingly unintentional itinerary that brought me to the hospital. After we chatted a bit, he looked at his watch and asked me if I would rather sign myself in until I was better, or leave. I thought of my breakfast companions, and imagined seeing them again at lunch.

"I feel much better, doctor. I'd like to go home now."
  

Devil in a Green Dress

(Continued from Lady In Red)

Twenty minutes passed before I realized that she wasn't coming back, that she hadn't gone to the bathroom at all. Torn between the concert I had been looking forward to and the woman I thought I was in love with, I left. I was not at all surprised when I found her at the bar. She was not at all surprised to see me, as though she had left just to make sure I would follow.

It was a week or two later that the cop told me I should go home and forget about her. That I seemed like a bright young man who could do better. That she was nothing but trouble, had been for a while, and so was he. Her ex-boyfriend, that is. Or more accurately, her other boyfriend. When they finally found her hiding in a dresser drawer (no shit), he grabbed a steak knife and started cutting across his forearm. "Rodney," the cop said,"you're doing it wrong. You need to cut here, like this." To my dismay, Rodney dropped the knife.

Fool that I was back then, another couple of weeks later and we were staying up in the country while I drove into the city to work every day. It was at least a week and a half before I found out that another one of her admirers, a moron named Eric, had been sleeping in a shed and visiting her at the house while I was gone during the day. Bigger moron that I was, I gave him  money for the bus and told him to get lost, only to be genuinely surprised that he was still there the next day. This time, I bought the ticket myself and watched him get on the bus.

The great flood ended my daily commute, and with it our stay in the country. When we got back to the city, she went off on her merry way, and I didn't see her again until she showed up at my apartment with Eric and a guy named Vic, whose intent was to rob me, which he did. I remember asking as he drove me to the bank machine, with a bunch of my stuff in the trunk of the stolen car, if he was going to kill me. I don't remember his answer, but I do remember finding myself surprised at how calmly I had asked. Needless to say, he didn't kill me.

Despite his warnings, I did report the crime, and didn't hear from her for another couple of weeks, when she called to say how sorry she was about what had happened. I told her to come over and we would talk about it. When she arrived, my roommate said he had to go to the store, and called the police from a neighbour's, as planned. I have never seen such sad eyes as the ones she looked at me with when they put the handcuffs on her. She had not expected this betrayal.

Of course I felt bad about the whole thing, sure that she hadn't known that Vic was going to rob me. So when the judge at the bail hearing read the usual condition about not communicating with the victim, I asked if that were really necessary. I was posting her bail, after all. At trial, she said that she didn't know that Vic was going to rob me until he did, and then was too scared to do anything other than go along with it. My testimony did not disprove this, and she was given the benefit of reasonable doubt. I left immediately upon hearing the verdict - I had just enough time to run to a nearby store to buy a modest bottle of bubbly and get back to the courthouse to offer it to her and her mother on their way out of the building.

Another couple of weeks later and she stood me up on what was supposed to be a romantic weekend in the country for her birthday. So I went up alone and smoked and drank and smoked some more and spun some vinyl and screamed at my ancestors until I passed out. I woke up with a wicked hangover and a cannabis fog, but something was missing. That uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that had been so familiar to me was gone. I wasn't worried about where she might be, wasn't concerned about who she might be doing, didn't seem to care about her any more at all.

Several months later, she called me out of the blue, and we had that weekend. It wasn't quite romantic; I felt no emotion towards her beyond physical attraction, and there was enough of that on both our parts not to care about anything else. A gentleman never tells, but she was no lady, and I'm okay with saying that we went at it like rabbits for two days until we could barely walk, and then we went at it some more. I never saw her again after that, nor ever wanted to. That weekend alone would have made all the other crap worthwhile if the cat hadn't already done that.
  

The Gardener

He had never really gotten involved in the affairs of the town. Like Arthur Dent, he was the sort who minded his own business, and left others to mind theirs. In this equation, the town was part of "theirs." Until the town decided how his garden should be displayed. Then it became his business.

At first, he wasn't quite sure what was going on. He thought he might have made an error somewhere, maybe checked the wrong box on a form, and the whole thing was a misunderstanding. He headed out for the repair shops, and happened upon a crowd gathering at City Hall. It seemed that he had made no mistake; a new ordnance had been issued, and a number of other gardeners were in a similar situation.

The crowd demanded that the invisible overlords repeal the ordnance. They circulated petitions. They wrote letters of protest. They demanded answers. They threatened to leave and grow their gardens elsewhere. They ranted and raged. At first, the rent-a-cops that were generally the only visible sign of authority at City Hall didn't know exactly what was going on. They had known about the ordnance, but hadn't expected it to cause some of the problems it did. It became clear that the invisible overlords had made a few mistakes in the drafting of it.

The invisible overlords sent out a couple of emissaries to circulate among the crowd and gather information about these particular problems, something almost unheard of at the time. Eventually, they amended the ordnance to remove the severest of the new restrictions, but said nothing about the rest. His own immediate problems had been resolved, but by then he was already drawn into the fray.

While others left to tend to their own affairs, he stayed with the crowd to protest what he still thought was an injustice, even though it no longer affected him directly. He explained his continued involvement with the old maxim about them having first come for the communists and there eventually being no one left to speak up. He realized that rules concerning the display of gardens was a long way off from the situation that inspired Niemöller's words, but it was a matter of principle.

The most glaring of injustices having been dealt with and the emissaries having left, the rent-a-cops took a marked turn in their dealings with the crowd. Their initial sympathy disappeared, replaced with a hard-line justification of the ordnance. They spoke of limited resources, criticized greed among the gardeners, and made it clear that the ordnance was here to stay. They implied rather than stated that this was the final decision of the invisible overlords, who remained as silent as they were invisible. The rent-a-cops openly invited those who were still upset to uproot their gardens and replant them elsewhere, and many did.

His own fervour had subsided somewhat. Early on, he had left the crowd for a brief period to take a look around the exterior of the fortress that was City Hall. He had come across what appeared to be a back door, and rang the bell. Eventually someone answered, apparently having been awakened from a deep slumber. They knew nothing about the situation or the crowd that was protesting in front of the building; in fact, they knew very little about gardens beyond the fact of their existence.

Nevertheless, they expressed polite interest in his concerns, and promised to pass them on. After another long wait, someone else appeared at the door. This person seemed to be somewhat less somnolent, but almost equally ignorant about issues relating to the display of gardens. They asked him to write a summary that they could pass on to the invisible overlords,  which he promised to do.

He returned to the crowd and began by compiling a list of the various petitions and letters of protest - he thought that surely this would impress the invisible overlords with the gravity of the situation, as well as form the basis of his summary. Having completed this list, he found that he had become weary and could use a short break before writing the requested report.

He wandered into the repair district and helped a few gardeners with some unrelated problems. He strolled through the school district, where he popped into some classes to share some of what he had learned about gardening. He found that he quite enjoyed this, and began to forget all about the ordnance; by this time he had stopped screaming about it and had started to advise other gardeners on how to live with it.

One evening after making the rounds of several classes, he felt a bit tired and thought that a strong coffee would perk him up, and maybe he would get to that report that he was supposed to have written. He headed toward the café district, where he met up with a few other souls wandering around aimlessly. It was a quiet evening during which the coffee that was being offered for consumption was not particularly full-bodied or flavourful.

He began to wonder what he was doing there, and thought that others might be asking themselves the same question. He picked a spot at which he could present this query to passersby. To his surprise, people started to drop in to chat with him. Few actually answered his question, but the conversation was engaging enough for him to stay.

He started visiting many other gardens, and became inspired to grow a second one of his own, which he has found to be quite rejuvenating, even at his age. Sometimes he imagines the flowers in his new garden to represent other gardeners he has met.

He still puts in a hand at the repair shops and wanders into a classroom from time to time, and once in a while he walks past City Hall to see what the issue of the day is. The crowd protesting the ordnance is long gone, its participants having learned to live with what is.

He hasn't been to the back door of the fortress since his initial visit, but he always carries a little map reminding him of where to find it, just in case. And of course, he never did write that report.
  

Lady In Red

"You, come here," she said. What else could I do? I went. She grabbed me and kissed me. I kissed back. She told me to get in the cab. I did. On the way, her mother asked what I was doing there. I said, "She told me to get in." Her mother asked, "Do you always do what people tell you?" I answered, "When they look like her." I paid for the cab.

We slept on the floor. There may have been other people around - I was too drunk to notice. At some point I woke up to hear her coughing. She went to the bathroom and came back without her nylons on. When she lay back down, she pulled me on top of her. It was not spectacular, but it was nice. And quiet. If there were others around, they either didn't notice or pretended not to.

The next day, she told me about her boyfriend. We were in a bed then, she was naked, I was not. She wanted me to be. I didn't. I was afraid of her boyfriend showing up. This was before I knew she was telling people that I was her boyfriend. Apparently she had a few boyfriends.

Then there was the car chase. She had been at the bar, drunk and stoned, and left in a cab. Some girl that said she was her friend thought that we should follow her, so we did. In those days, I usually did what girls I didn't know told me to do. There should have been an accident. I still don't know how there wasn't. There was a car directly in front of us, then it was directly behind us. If I went around it, I didn't remember. Eventually, we lost the cab, and I drove the other girl back to the bar. Apparently she was a lesbian.

I bought tickets to a concert. We were to go together. Her grandmother was to buy her a dress for it. I couldn't stop thinking about how beautiful my lady in red would be, how we would kiss while he sang that song. I was in seventh heaven on my way to pick her up; it was going to be a magically romantic evening. I should have known better when I got there. The dress was green.
 
(Continued at Devil in a Green Dress)
 

The Prisoner

The prisoner was brought to the town square. The judge read the charges, rendered the verdict, announced the sentence, and retired for the night. The prisoner stared at the small crowd that had gathered. The crowd stared back. The assassin approached the pile of stones that had been left there for the occasion, picked one up, and hurled it towards the prisoner. It missed.

One of the townsfolk asked whether there should be some sort of appeal. The prisoner said none was needed. The assassin hurled another stone, and missed again. The prisoner whistled. The crowd got bored and left. The prisoner fell asleep. When he awoke, he was alone in the town square, so he left to join his friends at the bar.

And that was the end of that.
  

Old Man

You sonofabitch. Do you have any idea how many times I've said "I wish you could have met my father?" I've said it to friends, girlfriends, my wife, my girls - your granddaughters that you didn't bother to stick around for. To the others, who knew you only briefly, I've said, "I wish you could have got to know him better." What was so interesting in that bottle that it was more important than being Grampa Paul?

If you had been a dumb fat fuck, nobody would have missed you. People would have nodded their heads in mock sympathy and said, "He's in a better place now." But you were a bright fat fuck. You had ideas. You inspired people. Remember when you started the company softball team? We were proud to wear those t-shirts, no matter how badly we lost, and we always lost. We had fun, and that was all your fault.

Remember Lily and Fritz from up here? I run into Lily in the village sometimes. Yesterday she told me I walk like you. It's been 30 years since she last saw you, and she remembers how you walked. Who leaves that kind of impression on people? A few years ago, I saw Aunt Belle not long before she died. She had no idea who I was, but when I said "I'm Paul's son," she looked up and whispered "Paul?" with what was left of her feeble voice. I said, "No, I'm not Paul - I'm Paul's son," and she looked away. As far as anybody knows, your name was the last word she ever spoke.

So why'd you do it? What was so terrible about your world that you couldn't face it with all your wonderful wits about you? Why was it that every time you started to get somewhere, every time you began to achieve success in whatever you were doing, you dove back into that bottomless vat of vodka? What the hell were you so afraid of?

Now that I'm almost older than you ever were, it's a bit funny to me that I used to call you "old man;" it brings a smile when my girls call me that. Then a tear, knowing you would have had them call you the same thing. Saddest is that we will never know what you would have called them, only that it wouldn't have been their given names.

Not so funny is that my last words to you were "Call me back when you're sober." And you weren't even drunk that time. Of all the words I've ever said to anybody, those are the ones I wish I could take back. I'm sorry, old man. But much sorrier that you never called me back.
  

Strange Days

They met at the strangest of times,
When both were between here and there,
When each were just starting to climb,
Each one on their way to some where.

They met in that strangest of places,
Where their eyes did first catch a glance,
Where the masks that they wore as their faces
Made it safe to join up for a dance.

They danced to the strangest of tunes.
They danced through an afternoon fair.
They danced to the light of the moon.
They danced 'til it gave one a scare.

The season did turn to the next one,
The song then did come to its end,
The game at last all out of  fun,
The stranger no longer a friend.

As they pass now there's hardly a word,
With barely a glance to remind
Of the memories already blurred;
They're looking for new things to find.

They met at the strangest of times.
They met in that strangest of places.
When they danced they were each in their prime.
When they danced there were smiles on their faces.
  

Original Sin

"I don't consider myself a black person." As soon as she said it, I knew she was black. I didn't care. She was a girl, and she wanted to meet me. She could have been green with pink polka-dots. She was a girl, and she wanted to meet me. Besides, she was a full year and a bit older than me. And she was a girl, and she wanted to meet me.

I met her at the end of her street, across from the dep. I went up to her and asked, "Looking for someone?" She said, "No one but you." Or it might have been the other way around. Or that might just have been something we told people when they asked us how we met. I think we walked around a bit. I might have bought some soft drinks. If there was a parting kiss, it was not one I remember.

I remember our second date more clearly. We drove to the lookout, and everyone knows what that's for. I had very little experience French-kissing; I had never done it with anyone who knew how, and I sure as hell didn't. I must have learned quickly, because about 10 minutes in, she stopped suddenly, stared at me, and said the words that a 17-year-old boy least wants to hear from the girl whose tongue has been dancing with his: "I love you." I must have blacked out then, because the next thing I remember is we were snogging again, apparently having forgotten about something, but I wasn't quite sure what. All in all, it was a good second date.

As I was getting ready for our third date, I had two songs in my head, Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad and Tonight's The Night. I have always been a fan of Marvin, and never much cared for Roderick, so naturally I went with the song that made me think I was going to get laid. She was a girl, and she wanted to meet me, again. This virgin child was ready for the secret to unfold.

We drove around looking for a place to park. I was to become a man in a 1972 yellow two-door Gran Torino with brown vinyl upsholstery. We settled on a quiet street with houses on one side and a field on the other. Just as we were going over what I had already learned, the porch lights went on at the house directly across from us, the front door opened, and a silhouetted figure emerged to peer intently in our direction. I was not to become a man on that street. Or any other, it seemed; we couldn't find one that was suitable.

We abandoned the Torino at the north end of the park that borders Chester Ave. We took the blanket, found a nice spot near the swings, and continued where we had left off. I must have remembered what I had learned, because about 10 minutes in, she stopped suddenly, stared at me, and said the words that a 17-year-old boy most wants to hear from the girl whose tongue has been dancing with his: "You wanna fuck?"

I was a bit unclear on the question, so I asked her to clarify: "Do you?"  I don't remember the exact words that followed, but we clarified the question. Twice. I must have learned quickly, because afterwards she asked me when my first time had been, and didn't believe me when I told her. All in all, it was a good third date.
 

The Girl With April In Her Eyes

The bleakness of the winter had passed, its last raging storm now a memory, the snow replaced by the sprouting blades of grass. Recently barren branches flourished with green buds. A newly planted tree blossomed in two directions, chirping birds flitting back and forth between the branches of the double trunk that was yearning to touch the sun.

The gardener was pleased. The winter had been a bleak one, the sun making only feeble efforts to break through the grey. Little snow had fallen, as though the constant clouds couldn't be bothered to wake up very often.  The more the gardener had wondered if the winter would ever end, the less he had cared.

The last storm had been a violent one, a welcome contrast to the unending bleakness. In its way, the struggle to survive it had given the gardener something to care about. A winter's store of unspent energy had unleashed itself without warning; faced with its fury, his complacency quickly drowned in a flood of adrenaline. At the point when he genuinely feared for his safety, the howling winds and blinding snow stopped as suddenly as they had begun.

Now, the gardener was enjoying the soft breeze, the melodic twittering of the hungry chicks, the warming rays of the vernal sun. The intermittent light rain was the finishing touch on perfection. From time to time, a raucous crow would happen along, and the chicks would scatter in confusion, returning to their perches after the scavenger departed. The occasional thunderstorm would give the garden a much-needing washing down.

Although at times it seemed as if it would, the spring did not last forever. The gardener did not mind very much when it was over, not nearly as much as he had once imagined he would. This particular spring had played out its role in the cycle of things, as he always knew it would, as it always does. While he would ever cherish the memory of it, it was time for another season, and he welcomed the dark clouds that had just appeared over the horizon.
 

For Crying Out Loud

I thought she was the most beautiful girl on The Main. She probably wasn't of course, but I thought she was. "Exquisite" might be a better word. She approached me as though she took it for granted that I had already decided to go with her. She was right.

The first time was business as usual. The second time I saw her was... different. We did things we weren't supposed to do, things that lovers do. Tender things. I don't know if she felt what I did, and I never asked. I told her afterwards that I couldn't see her like that anymore. She said simply, "I know," and it never came up again.

After that, we would hang out, grab a bite every so often, sometimes have a drink or two. I took her out for her birthday. Once,  she invited me over for breakfast. We talked, we laughed, she told me how she got there. It always killed me a little, what she did, but I knew enough to leave it alone.

We'd known each other about six months when I got home from a vacation to find my answering machine full. She was in the hospital. I didn't call, I didn't even unpack, I just went. She had been stabbed. She was barely conscious when they had found her. They told her she was lucky to be alive. She didn't look very lucky.

She had nowhere to go, so she stayed with me while she recovered. I took care of her, and she took care of me. We never touched each other, except when I dressed her wounds. It was a tiny apartment with only two beds and I had a part-time roommate, so when he was there we would have to double up. One night, she said I could sleep in her bed. I muttered something unintelligible, stayed where I was, and regretted it for a long time afterwards. It never came up again.

Her wounds healed. We both knew that she couldn't stay, that she had to leave the city to get away from where we had met. She went back to her home town, got a job in a department store, went back to school. We spoke regularly. When my father died, she was the first person I called. I wouldn't have been able to make the drive otherwise.

For years, we kept in touch, visited each other every few months. Over time, we drifted apart. She got a boyfriend, I got a girlfriend. The visits stopped, the calls were less frequent. The last time I ever spoke to her was when I told her that I was getting married. As I hung up the phone, I knew that it would be.

For crying out loud
You know I loved
you
  

Song on the Radio.

In the soundtrack of his life there, that song clearly represented that particular time.  Not only because of its lyrics, classically appropriate as they were (although he was never really sure if he should think of them as directed at him or from him), but of when it was played. It was played a lot, as it was at the top of the charts then, but it seemed to be played only at moments when it was particularly relevant.

Of course, there were a lot of those moments, but there were a lot of other moments as well, and it never came on the radio during those. And the radio was almost always on. Nor is it that he just didn't notice it; when that song played, he noticed it. And when that happened, it was one of those moments. It did freak him out a bit some times, although he knew it was merely strange coincidence.

When that time ended abruptly, or so it seemed to him, that song's time on the radio ended as suddenly as it had begun, as often happens with hit songs. To be sure, it was still played, but not nearly so often, and when it did, it was just as likely to be during one of those other moments. Eventually, he just didn't notice it anymore.
  

Old Friends

From the moment we became friends, we were old friends. We had known each other in passing, then, a random encounter, a chance to talk, and we were old friends.

We remained old friends after the time that ended that night, when we both stood talking for hours, each waiting for the moment neither would allow, just because it would have been wrong. That time ended that night  because we knew we could not resist again. Or would not. So we stayed away, but stayed old friends.

We spoke on the phone recently, for three hours, longer than we have spoken in total in the four years since that night. It didn't take a minute to know that we were still old friends, it didn't take a second. We already knew.

We spoke briefly about that time (but not about that night). Able to look at it from here, we could talk about then. Then, we had talked about music, kids, other of our many common interests. Now, we talked about then, and about what we couldn't talk about then. Not because it wouldn't be wrong now. Because it doesn't matter. That was then.

We joked about how we might have been soulmates. We agreed that it could have been perfect. I gave her insight into then and now. She gave me insight into here and there. We talked about how things fit together, and why they didn't. We both knew when it was time to go. We didn't make plans to speak again. We just know we will.
  

Death of a Stranger

The stranger stumbled out onto the street, his cheek still stinging from the well-earned slap. The evening had not gone quite as well as he had hoped. It would get worse.

He wandered the dark streets, stopping occasionally to collect another bruise. He passed it off to his unfamiliarity with the town and its customs, but the truth was that he just wasn't as clever as he thought himself. Or maybe he was, but cleverness was no match for stealth.

As he walked away from yet another unfortunate encounter, a passing figure on the street pressed a paper into his hand. He looked at it. "No," he said, "this must end here." He crumpled the note and let it drop to the ground as he walked towards the edge of town. He left the buildings behind him and entered a wooded park.

After a time, he arrived at a clearing. There was a crowd. Trumpets blared. Swords were brandished. In the distance, a herd of wild horses rode by. The stranger knew this would not end well for him. As the dagger was withdrawn from his side, he fell. The crowd laughed.

As he lay on the ground, through the laughter he heard a voice. He was about to say something when he realized he knew those words. As his heart was about to beat its last, he found them in the recesses of his mind. With his last breath, he gave the answer. The crowd fell silent. Life flowed back into him. He stood up and walked away from the crowd, back towards the centre of town.
  

At The End Of The Rainbow

I told her once, not long after we separated, what I saw, and she saw it too. We cried, together. Whether that was because we believed it or because we didn't remains unclear. We never mentioned it again.

I still see it, sometimes. That same picture, almost as clear as the first time I saw it. There we are, as we once believed we were meant to be, sitting together, smiling, surrounded by our...

I try not to think about it too often. It saddens me that we will not share the journey that we each must take to get there, even though I know it cannot be any other way. We travelled together further than we probably should have, long past the point where we were only holding each other back. I know that we have to go our separate ways. I don't have to like it, but I will learn to.

As I do, it will fade, what I saw. It has to, or it will stop me from seeing anything else. In time, I will forget all about it. The thought of it will seem absurd, and the picture will bury itself somewhere deeper than I will be able to reach. Before that happens, I will look at it one more time, and remember those words she said to me so long ago, and wonder...

And then I will forget, and continue on my journey.
 

Then and Now

It was strange to see, after all this time. To see that place that he know so well, looking like that. The place itself looked the same. Sure, some tables had been moved around, the barmaid was new to him, but it was the same place, wasn't it? He recognized a couple of faces, but they didn't seem the same. It was clear that then was not now. What he noticed more were the ones who weren't there. If your presence doesn't make an impact, your absence won't make a difference. It did.

He wondered if that was just because he know these faces, and he didn't know those. Had he been there at a different time, would he miss the faces he didn't know now? He tried to look for counterparts. You know, you walk in to a bar you haven't been to in 20 years, and you see that guy. He's not the same that guy, but he's still that guy. Same people, different faces, like the daughter on 'Til Death.

He looked for types. You know, which of those people was "me", which was "him", which was "her". Didn't work. He thought maybe "we're" not types. Maybe types only work for people you don't really know, like that guy. Try as he might, he couldn't identify with those people, couldn't see himself fitting in there. He couldn't help but thinking that it was no accident that he showed up there when he did. That any other time he wouldn't have stayed. That those people just didn't interest him.

So he left.
  

1991

It was in her eyes, and it was unmistakable. As much as I tried to turn away, I could not. They drew me in, and it scared me. Because at that moment, I knew. I kept looking over at the others, wondering if they had noticed, hoping, so that they could put a stop to it. They hadn't. There was no stopping it. Not then. Not now.

But I had to try.

"Sorry," I said, "you're too late."

"Or too soon," she replied.
 

Into the looking glass

Alice wondered at the strange looking glass. She had seen it before, but had never paid it much attention. Busy with her classes, she had little time for recess. Then one day, tired of her studies, she decided to take a closer look. She leaned towards the looking glass, wanting only to catch a glimpse of the strange goings-on, when suddenly she found herself drawn right in.

She picked herself up off the floor to find herself in the type of place her parents had always told her to stay out of. A lady floated by, muttering about some cleaning she had to do. Alice blinked, and some people were considering things Alice thought quite impolite for social discourse. She blinked again, and they were gone. She drifted off...

When she awoke, she saw that she was not alone. She looked at the time, and told the stranger, "I think you should leave now." The stranger thought not, and some discussion ensued. As soon as Alice conceded, the stranger left and Alice fell back into her slumber. She awoke again some time later to find that the stranger had returned, and had brought some others. Alice quite enjoyed their company and when they left, she followed them out.

She found herself in somewhat of a maze, and feeling a bit lost, she began to wander. As she did so, she thought to herself, "I might just like this place." She had no idea.