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 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


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.