My entries in a fill-in-the-blanks contest.
I live in Plano, Texas, with a French bulldog named Winkie. Winkie weighs about twenty pounds and requires a lot of attention. He’s patient and kind, but he suffers when left alone. That’s all right. I’m retired and home all day. When I go to the store or anywhere else, I take Winkie with me.
When Janet was alive, she’d spend time with Winkie too, especially before I retired. While I was off at work, Janie and Winkie would keep each other company. I lost Janet eight months ago. Pancreatic cancer. We were married for fifty-one years.
I go for a walk twice a day with Winkie. He’s something of a couch potato, but he’ll put in the effort, at least for fifteen minutes or so. I carry him part of the way. Because he’s a little bulldog, he doesn’t handle temperature extremes very well, so I always take that into consideration. We don’t go out if it’s too hot.
I also swallow one or two of my wife’s left-over pain pills before we go out. I need two new hips. Without the pills, I’d never make it. After the pills kick in, though, I’m good to go. Our house backs up on Bob Woodruff Park. I’ve cut a hole in the fence and Winkie and I have worn a path through the woods to the the South Pavilion. When we get to the Pavilion, the first thing we do is check out the Quincentennial bur oak. This is the largest, oldest tree in Plano – the oldest tree in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as far as I know – and a perfect spot for Winkie to do his business.
We arrived at the tree one day to find a young fellow standing there, staring up at it.
“Do you know how old this tree is?” the boy said to me, as Winkie approached its trunk with his nose to the ground. The boy looked to be sixteen or seventeen, slender and neatly dressed. His bike lay on the ground beside him.
“They used to call it the Bicentenial bur oak,” I said. “Two hundred years old. But they changed that to Quincentennial.”
“There was a storm a while back and a big limb broke off.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Winkie and I were over here the next morning. Good thing nobody was standing under it, because that limb was a monster. It fell from forty or fifty feet up.”
“They thought the tree was two hundred years old,” the boy said, “but when they measured that limb, it was two hundred years old all by itself. That’s when they knew the tree was more than five hundred years old.”
“Nobody around here when it sprouted but the Indians,” I said.
“Indians on foot,” the boy said. “They didn’t have horses yet. The Spanish hadn’t got here yet with the horses.”
I thought his historical chronology was a little off there, but I kept my own counsel about it.
“My name is Morris,” I said. “That’s Winkie.”
“I’m Jesus,” the boy said.
“Isn’t today a school day?” I said.
“I was feeling kind of down. I decided to come over to the park and think about things. I like to hang out by this tree. It probably sounds crazy, but I think it knows things.”
“You go to Plano East?”
“Yes. I’m living in a foster home in Ranch Estates, so East is close by.”
“Those are nice homes over there,” I said.
“Raul and Rosa Martinez. They’re old. They have no children of their own. They keep four of us there at all times. I think it’s like their own personal charity that they do. We don’t see them much. They travel a lot. They’re rich, of course.”
Winkie had come over and sniffed the boy. Jesus squatted down to pet the animal. He grinned.
“Great dog,” he said.
“You’re on your own? Your parents… If you don’t mind me asking.”
“My parents died in an automobile accident. Yes, I’m on my own most of the time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. About your parents,” I said.
“That tree may be five hundred years old, “Jesus said, “but it never had to put up with anything like my folks getting killed.”
“I’ve got a bur oak in my back yard,” I said. “We had a gardener years ago who planted it for us. It’s a youngster compared to this one, of course.”
Winkie and I moved off down the park path and left Jesus standing there, staring at the tree.
Plano is a town that started small a long time ago, got bigger, but is now surrounded on all sides by other communities. It’s part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I’ve heard it called the wealthiest city in America, with the highest per-capita income, and the safest city in America, with the lowest crime rate. It’s on lists as the best place to live.
If you happen to be a fan of the Houston Astros, Texans, and Rockets, maybe Plano is not quite so perfect at that.
The town is also flat. It helps to like flat if you live in Plano.
When Winkie and I returned the next day, Jesus was there again.
“Are you all right?” I asked him.
“What’s that metal up in the tree?”
“It’s a lightning deflector or controller or regulator or something. They don’t want a stray bolt knocking the tree down in a storm… You’ve got to respect this tree. It was old when Shakespeare was born.”
“That’s what I was saying yesterday. I was wondering if I could connect with the spirit of this tree somehow.”
“Like if I were buried at its roots.”
“By the time you’re old and buried, you won’t be worrying about a tree. You’ll have children and grandchildren and you’ll be worrying about them.”
“I mean, if I were buried there now.”
I took a good look at this kid.
“How are you getting along in that foster home?” I said.
“I get pretty low. They’ve got me seeing a shrink. I take a pill.”
“Are you a danger to yourself?”
“I don’t think so, but sometimes I get these ideas. Like with the tree.”
“You want to go get a taco?” I said. “Talk a little?”
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
“You know Crazy Tacos?”
Not the best name for a taco place, at that moment, but it’s nearby in a little strip mall just south of the park.
“Ride your bike over there. Winkie and I will go get our car and meet you. We’ll have a little lunch.”
Which we did. Jesus talked about school at Plano East and about his foster home. I talked about Frito-Lay, where I spent most of my adult working life. The Frito-Lay world headquarters is located on the other side of Plano. Winkie waited outside with his leash tied to a post. I could see him through the window. He was patient but I could tell that he did not approve of being left alone. I could understand that.
I just wanted to be sure the boy wasn’t thinking about doing something stupid.
After that, we’d meet at the tree in the park sometimes and talk for a while. He didn’t show up every day, but he’d come several times a week. We had pizza at Napoli’s, which is in the same place as Crazy Taco. We talked about the death of his parents and my wife.
“My counselor says I’ll get over it,” Jesus said. “Time heals all wounds.”
“You won’t forget it, but as time goes on, it won’t hurt so much,” I said.
“Did time heal your wounds?”
“I wasn’t wounded,” I said, “so there was nothing to heal.”
“I don’t get it.”
“When Janet died, part of me died. No wounds involved.”
Jesus looked skeptical.
“You saying your hurt was worse than mine?”
“Look, Jesus. My wife and I had more than fifty years together,” I said. “I’ve got no complaints. I wish it had been me instead of her that died, but it didn’t happen that way. It was the natural flow of life. For our kids, their mother’s death saddened them, but like you say, their wounds healed. In your case it was worse. Much, much worse. A terrible tragedy. Your parents aren’t supposed to go when you’re still a kid. You’ll need lots of help to get on with your life – to deal with your sorrow and your pain. The difference between you and me is, you have a future to go on to. You still have your life waiting for you to live. You aren’t supposed to leave early.”
We ate in silence after that.
When we went out, Jesus knelt to pet Winkie.
“You’re a great dog,” he said.
As he climbed on his bike to go home, I asked him if he had any use for a car.
“I can hardly drive anymore with my bad hips,” I said. “I usually call a cab. Do you have a license?”
“Sure. I’m sixteen.”
“Drive the Taurus when you need to get somewhere that the bike can’t take you.”
“Thank you, Morris,” he said.
The following week I asked him if he’d like to work part-time at Frito-Lay. I’ve still got a lot of friends there. He told me that he would.
I arranged it. He could hop in the car after school and drive about fifteen miles due west on Spring Creek Parkway to get to Frito-Lay. A half-hour trip when the traffic’s not bad. After he’d been there a week, I called Ernie, the friend who got Jesus the job in his department. Ernie told me that Jesus was fitting in well.
A month later on a Saturday, Jesus was visiting my place for lunch. After lunch we were going to take Winkie to the vet for a checkup. We finished eating and Jesus played with Winkie on the living-room floor while I cleaned up.
“I think you saved my life,” he said when I came out of the kitchen. “I want to repay you but I guess I can’t right now.”
“I didn’t save your life. You’re a strong young man. When we met, I could see that you were just pausing for a minute in your life to take stock – that you were deciding what next step to take. It was easy to help you… but there is one thing you could promise me.”
“If anything ever happens to me, that you’ll take care of Winkie.”
“I love Winkie,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen to you, but I promise anyway. Right now, rest your hips. I’ll take Winkie for his checkup today and then we’ll swing by that dog park at Jack Carter Park. I drive by it every day on the way to work. When we get back, I’ll make you some dinner.”
“Thanks, Jesus. At Jack Carter, please stick to the fenced small-dog area, OK?”
Before finding Jesus, my one big concern had always been Winkie, but I wasn’t worried now. Winkie had a new friend and protector.
As soon as they left, I went into the bedroom and assembled Janet’s remaining pill bottles. I picked out the sedatives, the tranquilizers, and the pain-killers, and I took as many of them as I could without throwing up. I didn’t want two new hips. I wanted Janet. I didn’t like the idea of Jesus and Winkie finding me dead when they got back, but now that my affairs were in order, I was off to join my wife.
Having invented time travel, I underwent a conversion. When I initiated the time project, I had become obsessed with it. I sacrificed my marriage and any hope of a family or accelerated advancement at CalTech in order to create the device that would prove my theories. I thought of nothing else. I cared about nothing else. I was possessed by my sudden understanding of the universe and an overwhelming need to demonstrate it.
Once I succeeded, my obsession evaporated. It departed as quickly as it had come. It left no trace. Gone was my interest in science and mathematics. I no longer cared about cosmology. I did not want to think about anything technical, ever again. I wanted to live. I wanted to feel. I wanted to rejoin the human race.
I found a picture of my ex-wife and sat on the sofa poring over it. I felt as if I had just awakened from a dream. A sense of great loss enveloped me.
What to do next?
First of all, I decided, I would not use my device to venture even one second into the future, ever. I didn’t want to know what the rest of my life might hold, or when I would die, or what would become of the world I lived in. If disaster awaited me, or all of us, so be it.
In fact, now that I had proven that the device worked, I didn’t want to visit the past either. Time travel? I’m no history buff. Is that ironic?
Second of all, I wanted no fame, not for a lifetime, not for five minutes. No celebrity. Rather, I wanted to avoid notoriety at all costs. I wanted the quiet life above all. I dreaded becoming some new Einstein.
Third of all, I wanted to make a fortune off my invention. I wanted to become rich enough to live lavishly for the rest of my life. Lavishly, but as unobtrusively as possible. I wanted to sell my device. I wanted to turn a profit. Let others figure out how to use or misuse it. Not me.
Or, no, did I just want my old life back, the way it was before this madness ran my marriage and my life off the rails?
How to sell the thing without calling attention to myself? The answer, I finally realized, lay close at hand. Or at least down the I10 in Santa Monica.
Dr. Mary Adams. My ex. A world-class archeologist, a full professor at UCLA, and one of the best-known popular-science authors in the nation. She never remarried. She remained childless. She blamed me for ruining men and marriage for her. Other than that, we got along OK.
I stopped by her office in the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at lunchtime on a Wednesday.
“What are you doing here?” she said.
“I’ve completed my work. My project. I’ve build the device.”
“Good for you,” she said. “Now scram.”
“I just want you to see it. You won’t regret it.”
Mary wasn’t mad at me anymore. She had regrets, deep regrets, and after coming to my senses, so did I. She was a writer with her ear to the ground. She was an inquisitive scientist. She always knew that I was a genius. She just wanted me around the house a little bit more. She wanted me to care more about her than about the nature of time. Unfortunately, for a long time, I didn’t.
“What do you have in mind?” she said.
“I’ve got the device set up in the Winnebago. Out in visitor parking.”
She stood up.
“This better be worth my lunch hour,” she said.
“It cost us our life together, so I hope it’s more important than a sandwich.”
“Should I be worried about you luring me into the Winnebago?”
“We might want to celebrate after the demonstration. For old time’s sake. I brought champagne.”
“Forget it. But thanks for the offer.”
In the ‘Bago, we sat down in adjoining seats in front of my console.
“We’ll go together,” I said.
“Is this still about that two-dimensional hologram at the edge of the universe?”
“It is indeed.”
“Isn’t the edge of the universe fourteen billion light years away?”
“The universe doesn’t have edges like that, or a center. It’s a self-contained spacetime entity. You’re as close to its edge as anyone or anything else. In the two-dimensional holographic sense, you’re in the edge – you and everything else – now, before, and since.”
“I know you aren’t crazy,” she said, “unless you’ve gotten worse. Is this thing safe?”
“Perfectly safe. The system simply allows you to view any part of the universal hologram that you choose. I’ve embedded the input in a virtual-reality context, or substrate, to allow the human brain to process it. It’s been thoroughly tested. By me. On me. No side effects. Just pick a time and a place.”
Mary rolled her eyes. I couldn’t blame her. In spite of my reputation at CalTech and her protestations to the contrary, I had a hunch that she suspected I was nuts.
“Go ahead,” I said. “Time and place.”
“Well, I’m writing a paper on the first true trees. It’s based on the new Devonian finds in the Canadian arctic and at Red Hill. So let’s say Late Devonian – the Famennian stage – and for place, central Gondwana.”
“Remind me,” I said.
“Three hundred and sixty-five million years ago. On the southern supercontinent.”
I set the coordinates.
“Where are the wires?” she said.
“It’s wireless,” I said.
I picked up the controller and clicked Start and we found ourselves standing on high ground. The feel of land under our feet was an illusion that our minds thoughtfully provided.
Mary turned slowly, taking in the panorama. Marshy land, thick with vegetation, stretched to the horizon in all directions. A wide river crawled through it and small lakes dotted the landscape. The blue of the sky seemed a little off to me, perhaps caused by a serious lack of Los Angeles smog.
“Wow,” Mary said.
She looked down. We were up to our shins in groundcover. Every square inch of land was rank with vegetation. It all had a strange, alien, look to it.
Bushy growth in a thousand shades of green struggled for space. I must have expected the place to be teeming with gnats and mosquitoes, because I reflexively waved a hand in front of my face.
“No flying insects in the Davonian,” Mary said beside me. “Wings haven’t been invented yet… John, I’m speechless. Did you program all this? This is virtual reality? How did you know I’d choose the Davonian, because this is Davonian to a T.”
“I didn’t program anything. I couldn’t. This is all real. Look at the detail.”
She crouched down.
“These plants are clearly vascular,” she said. “My lord, this is a bed of some type of barinophyton. All we have in the lab are its strobili. I can see three species of stauropteridales right here. Extinct early ferns. Look at them. Can we take a picture somehow?”
“Sorry. This is all in your head.”
She reached out to touch the bushes and her hand passed through them.
“Hologram,” I said.
I adjusted my controller and a sudden breeze caused the vegetation to stir.
“We were paused. Now we’re advancing in time at a normal rate,” I said.
Mary stood up. Something buzzed by.
“No wings?” I said.
“The Davonian fossil record is short on insects. There was a recent find that hinted at flight… It’s unbelievable. I’m actually standing in Gondwana in the Davonian era.”
“Imagine,” she said. “The planet covered with vegetation like this for millions upon millions of years. Too bad humans came along.”
“Paradise?” I said.
“Well, all these plants are sucking up CO2 and manufacturing oxygen. A major extinction event is coming up. Reverse greenhouse. So not totally paradise.”
“Does this help you with your tree work?” I said.
“Do you see that stand down there. The trees that look like peculiar conifers? Those are archaeopteris. We used to think archaeopteris was the first true tree. They can grow to fifty meters. Live fifty years. Develop a deep root system. Their wood is like that of a conifer.”
She scanned the area at the foot of the slope.
“Those skinny ones that look a little like palm trees?” she said. “That’s wattieza. They’re our current candidate for first tree. They evolved twenty-five million years earlier than archaeopteris. Still looking perky, though.”
She turned and stepped up the slope to a smaller tree, which looked like an overgrown fern.
“This one,” she said, “is new. I’ve found an early tree that has never been seen before. More primitive than wattieza. I give you our new First Tree.”
She walked up to it and studied it.
“See,” she said, pointing up at its top. “It uses only its axial growth tip to grow.”
I laughed. Professor Adams. She passed a hand through the tree.
“Stick your head into the trunk and you can see what the wood looks like,” I said.
She did. When she pulled her head back out, I hit the Stop button and we were back in the ‘Bago.
“What!” Mary said. “No!”
“We have to talk.”
“About what? Take me back there!”
“We need to decide the next step.”
She started to speak but then just looked at me.
“You didn’t come over here for old time’s sake,” she said. “What have you got in mind? Publicity? My connections in science writing?”
“Far from it. The last thing I want is publicity.”
“What, then? I should have known you didn’t come over here just to see me.”
I didn’t argue with her about that, although I wanted to.
“I want you to file the patents,” I said. “I want you to own them.”
She stared at me.
“Listen,” I said. “Yes, I do want you to quietly use your connections, to license the system’s use around the world. Go to Apple or Sony or Motorola or all of them. It’s easy hardware to assemble. Everyone in the world will be using it in no time. When that happens, nobody is going to care who invented it. I’ll be left in peace.”
We sat in silence for a while.
“If I do what you say,” Mary said, “I’ll end up with billions. Hundreds of billions.”
“Huh,” she said. ” I don’t know about that… Take me back to my tree.”
I clicked Start. We were standing in front of the tree again.
“You’ve got a whole little city of organisms calling this tree home,” Mary said. “See this early arachnid? No spinnerettes. Like wings, or so I thought, they haven’t been invented yet. We don’t know much about Davonian insects. Even as they spread out and take possession of the land.”
She turned and looked out over the sea of green.
“Tens of thousands of square miles of life, growing day after day for millions of years. The biomass is unimaginable.”
“Are there any animals out there?” I said.
“Besides the insects? This is really the age of the fishes, but the first arthropods are crawling around in the mud. Four-legged chordates. They can’t get their bellies off the ground yet. We’ll take a walk later. Right now, I want to do a quick census of the life on this tree.”
I stood back and waited while she worked. Finally, she came over to me.
“Scholars will go back and watch the lost Greek plays,” she said. “They’ll read lost Roman literature over citizens’ shoulders in the ancient libraries. This is going to change the way we think about the world. But…”
“What about the future?”
I tapped Stop on my controller and we returned to the Winnebago.
“Searching the past seems wonderful,” Mary said, “but I’m not so sure about doing the same in the future. Suppose that you see yourself dying in an accident. Wouldn’t you come back and try to prevent it? What happens then?”
“Whatever you see in the future is what happens. Has already happened, in a sense. Of course you can try to change it, but whatever you do will turn out to cause the very future you’re trying to prevent. There are no paradoxes in spacetime.”
“Can you disable the future part of the system?”
“I can, but somebody else will just figure out how to restore it. This isn’t rocket science, you know… Well, it is, but still…”
“I just worry about the effects on society,” Mary said. “What’s going to happen if everyone knows how and when they’re going to die?”
“Maybe something good,” I said.
“Or maybe not. What if I don’t file your patents for you? What if I don’t shop your device around? What will you do then?”
“I’m giving you the plans,” I said. “The issues you raise are beyond me. You decide what’s best to do.”
“Why don’t you come over tonight?” Mary said. “We’ll make dinner together and share a bottle of wine.”
“We might not be able to settle this in one evening,” I said.
“Bring a toothbrush,” Mary said.
Elvis is seventy-seven now, closing in on seventy-eight, but in the right light he can look a lot younger. He lost his extra weight a long time ago. He runs on the beach. He’s deeply tanned by the Florida sun. Sometimes when I look at him, I can see the handsome young man in his old movies. I’m only fourteen but I have all his movies, so I’m familiar with the sweet bird of his youth.
Elvis lives in a small bungalow on Coconut Bayou, Siesta Key, in Florida. It’s perfect. A wall and a lot of trees hide his home from the street. It’s well kept up. The grounds around it are thickly planted, practically jungle, always full of color and tropical birdsong. And cats. Elvis has come to love cats.
He rarely goes to the mall anymore, but he will catch a ride over to Westfield Southgate on the Tamiami Trail in Sarasota during the Christmas season. It’s a smaller mall than Westfield Sarasota Square, farther down the Trail, but it’s got the shops he likes best.
He’ll spend a couple of hours, picking up a few gifts. Last year he sang the blues in the Saks back showroom with Loose Johnny Booker, who was working as mall Santa at the time. That was the day my grandmother Myrtle connected with The King. She moved out of Sunshine Harbor Assisted Living and into his place shortly thereafter.
I’m Agnes, by the way. I live in Sarasota with my parents and little sister. I like to hang out with my grandmother and Elvis. Who wouldn’t? They are two of the world’s all-time special people.
They decided this year to return to the mall on the anniversary of their first meeting there. I recognized Elvis in Pottery Barn on that day one year ago, when he was buying little gifts for the waitstaff at the after hours club where he sings occasionally. Grandma had been hugged by Elvis at one of his concerts when she was a teen in Biloxi and she never forgot it. After speaking to The King in Pottery Barn, I ran off to find her and bring her back to meet him herself. We found him in Banana Republic.
Grandma was at the mall with a group of her neighbors at the time. They were having a Sunshine Harbor outing. Word about Elvis got around the group and most of them joined us in the clothes store. The song requests began and Elvis led us over to Saks and performed for us after the store manager, Mr. Gold, got him set up on the showroom stage. It was right there onstage that he and Grandma struck up their special friendship.
I tagged along on their anniversary-day return trip. We started the celebration with a visit to The Pretzel Twister. I chose cinnamon, Grandma garlic, and Elvis Italian. We also got three dips: cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and honey mustard. Yum.
Next we visited Banana Republic and Grandma and Elvis reenacted their meeting over by the changing rooms, this time ending it with a kiss. Old as he is, Elvis still radiates a magnetism and charm that can’t be described. Grandma is no slouch either.
This man. Elvis. What magic does he possess? Fat or thin. Young or old. The gods gave him something that most of us don’t have. He’s surrounded by an electric aura. Whenever I visit his home and he comes into the room, I never need to look up. I always know that Elvis has arrived.
Ditto when Elvis leaves the building.
After their romantic moment in BR, we walked over to Macy’s to check out the Christmas puppet theater. The mall was mobbed with locals and snowbirds doing their last-minute shopping.
Macy’s had cleared some space near the Customer Service area. The puppet theater faced out from the wall and a large audience of children sat on the carpet in front of it. Elvis knew the store manager in charge of the event and the owner of the theater. They prevailed on him to do Santa’s singing part in the show that was about to go on. He obliged them in that cordial way of his.
Grandma went around with him to the back of the little theater, out of sight, and the show manager fitted Elvis with a mike. He unfolded chairs for the two of them. I went out front and sat with the kids. A lot of parents were leaving their children there for the duration of the show, and heading off to shop. The store had a security detail acting as uniformed babysitters, although I don’t think anyone had planned for this to happen. I took charge of the children around me and maintained some kind of order. It was a lively, boisterous crowd, especially when the lights went down and a spotlight lit up the little velvet-plush theater curtain.
The curtain went up and the play commenced. The plot was something about Santa running late on Christmas Eve. His sleigh needed fixing. He sang about it. Elvis sounded good as Santa. His voice has roughened with age but it grabs me just as much as his old recordings. Santa got into a little duet with an elf and I realized that my grandmother was singing too. Very cool.
The children mostly behaved themselves. The guards snatched up a couple of young troublemakers and removed them from the area.
Then came a moment in the play that amazed me. The scene was set in a family’s living room on Christmas Eve. A fire was lit in the fireplace. Not some winking red lights or red ribbons blown by a fan or any other version of theatrical fire. The set designer for this production had included a small working fireplace with an actual fire in it.
“What the…?” said half the security guards at the same time.
The fire was contained and no doubt safe, although how the puppet folks could guarantee that, I have no idea. The problem wasn’t the fire. The problem was the cute little fireplace and its chimney, which stuck up through the roof of the house and from which a pretty little plume of white smoke was rising, rising, rising up to the sensitive smoke detectors in the ceiling.
My eyes followed the little curlicues as they rolled up to caress the detector sensors. After a pregnant pause, during which I held my breath, the fire alarms began to screech, the emergency lights sprang into life, and the ceiling sprinklers gushed out torrents of water, which fell like rain in a monsoon. After a moment of open-mouthed paralyzed amazement, the children jumped up and began capering and prancing and screaming in delight. The security guards and a few parents tried to round them up and herd them out of the store, but none of them wanted to go.
The kids had to be run down, one by one, horse-collared, and carried out to the crowd of frantic parents who had gathered at the store entrance. I ushered Grandma and Elvis toward daylight through the perfume section.
When we emerged from the store, we encountered a scene of chaos. Hysteria reigned supreme. However, no one seemed to be hurt. Elvis stepped over to the Santa area. Loose Johnny Booker was Santa again and Elvis joined him up by his throne. Without further ado – without any ado – the two of them launched into an a capella rendition of Blue Christmas.
I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me
Loose Johnny pulled two guitars out from under his throne – he never went anywhere without them – and he and Elvis filled the instrumental break.
And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas
By the time they finished the song, the crowd had quieted and gathered around. Elvis launched into his personal holiday favorite, the bluesy “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” In that one, Santa rolls into town in a black Cadillac.
They followed with the sad “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and then the inspirational “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and the classic “Merry Christmas Baby.”
By the time they finished the set, staff from Call Day Spa was handing out towels, Gap Kids had donated clean underwear and shirts, and Starbucks and Toojays were serving hot chocolate.
Elvis and Loose Johnny in his Santa suit got a big hand. I toweled off and was ready to go. This was Florida, after all, not the icy north.
It was my second year in a row of great Christmas shopping with The King. The beginning of a tradition, I hope and pray.
My 67 entries in a fortune-cookie contest.
My three top entries:
Your fortune has expired.
Your cookie has passed its Pull By date.
Sorry about the bad food. The rest of your day isn’t looking too promising, either.
[Flames of Hell Chinese Restaurant]
She loves you. Propose, you fool.
I brought Moshe Bat-Lev, my love, my squeeze, my I-hoped-to-God future husband, home to Somerville for Thanksgiving. We arrived two days early from Cornell, giving us time to relax before the extended family arrived on turkey day. The weather was great. No snow yet, and mild.
Moshe parked on the curb in front of the house. It’s an old, two-family, two-story structure on Chetwynd Road, built in 1925, still in great shape. We lived downstairs while I was growing up, but my parents bought the upstairs when I was in high school. They rented it out for a while and then my dad renovated, merging the two floors into one home.
My mom and dad came out onto the porch to welcome us while we pulled our packs and duffles out of Moshe’s vintage Volvo. The house had a fresh coat of paint, pale yellow, and it felt good to be home, nervous as I was about my folks meeting my fiance for the first time.
“I can’t predict how this is going to go,” I said to him in a low voice. Moshe gave my arm a squeeze.
My dad was home for lunch, and he greeted Moshe with a formality that should have been ludicrous, but, for me at least, was just embarrassing. Moshe shook his hand in that serious but totally cool way he has.
“I’m Seamus,” my dad said. “This is Molly.”
“Mr. O’Reilly,” Moshe said. “Mrs. O’Reilly.”
“Welcome to our home, Moses,” my mom said. I opened my mouth to correct her, but Moshe winked at me and I bit my tongue. We all went inside.
My mom directed Moshe to the guest room upstairs. I got a cot in my old room downstairs, sharing the room with my younger sister Sheila, who inherited it when I left for college.
We freshened up and sat down with the parents for lunch. Mom and Dad were glad to have me home, but focused mostly on Moshe.
“How was your trip?” Mom asked him, as if he had driven the three hundred and thirty miles from Ithaca to Boston alone.
“Very pleasant,” Moshe said. “Your daughter is great company. Doesn’t keep asking if we’re there yet.”
I hurried us through lunch because Moshe and I had an appointment at the Semitic Museum at Harvard that afternoon, both of us taking advantage of the holiday to access research materials at the museum for the day.
We got back to Somerville late. I showered and put on my PJs and almost made it to bed before my mom intercepted me.
“How old is Moshe?” she asked me in the bedroom, after some chitchat.
“You’re only twenty-two.”
“When he’s ninety, I’ll be eighty-six.”
“You know what I mean. You’re still very young.”
“I’m in graduate school. So is he. We have a lot in common.”
We left it at that.
The next day, Moshe and I drove down to the Cape to visit an artist friend who lived out in the woods in Truro. We hiked down to the beach. The day was warm for November but the ocean turned winter-gray every time a cloud passed in front of the sun. I took the bright and friendly autumn sun as my omen for the day, not the clouds.
“We’re not spending much time at home,” Moshe said to me on our way back that evening.
“You know why,” I said. “I don’t want any fights breaking out.”
“Between me and your parents?”
“Of course not. You’re much too polite and so are they. Between me and my parents.”
“I’m the first guy you’ve brought home. We’re engaged. They’ve got to be worried. Who is this guy? Is he right for our daughter? They’ve got questions. We need to be there so they can ask them.”
“It’s my dad I’m most worried about. He won’t say anything to me. He’ll talk to my mom. He’ll also talk to you.”
“I hope he does,” Moshe said. “Let’s get everything straight, right from the start.”
“My mom thinks you’re too old for me. She told me so last night.”
“I feel a little guilty about that myself. You’re so young. So innocent.”
“Very funny. All right. But that museum work was a must and I was determined to get down to Truro today. We’ve still got tonight and Thanksgiving and the weekend to spend with them.”
That night, it was my sister Sheila who wanted to talk.
“You’re taller than him,” she said.
“I mean, do you ever wear heels? You must tower over him. What’s it like when you dance?”
“Haven’t you ever gone out with a guy shorter than you?” I said.
“Eddie Granger, but I was doing him a favor. He wrote a report for me.”
“You meet a guy you like, you don’t care how tall he is,” I said. And couldn’t resist adding, “Did you notice the size of his arms?”
“Are you going to sneak down to the guest room tonight?” she said.
“Sheila, Moshe and I are living together.”
“Oh my God. If Ma ever finds out. Or Dad. It’s hard enough around here when a guy picks me up for a date.”
“I’m trusting you to keep quiet,” I said.
Later that night, my mom cornered me in the bedroom again.
“I’m just going to say one thing and you already know what it is, I’m sure,” she said.
“When you marry your own kind, your future chances are a lot better. You marry someone different, it’s much harder on you+. You can’t know exactly how they think. They have different values. It’s hard even to argue with them. It’s like your husband would be a stranger, in a way.”
“And you know this how?”
“I read. I watch TV. I stay informed. Plus, there’s your Aunt Rose.”
“I knew you’d bring up Aunt Rose,” I said. “Aunt Rose is a handful. She was always a handful. The man who married her was going to have his hands full. You predicted it. Everybody predicted it. Please don’t throw Aunt Rose in my face. I am not anything like Aunt Rose.”
“Alright, alright,” Mom said. “Take it easy. Calm down. You’ve gone all red. I wasn’t… I’m just telling you something everybody knows.”
“I don’t know it,” I said. I stormed out of the room and waited in the bathroom until I heard her leave.
The next day, everyone showed up. My brother Tom. Aunt Fiona and Uncle Clancy. Aunt Meara and Uncle James. Grandma Joyce, born in Galway.
They were introduced to Moshe as they arrived. Every time, it seemed to me, glances were exchanged. This got me steamed. Moshe has a heavy Brooklyn accent and when they first hear it, some folks think that he might be putting them on. My relatives managed somehow to ignore their own heavy South Boston accents.
With all present and accounted for, and all the men fitted out with drinks, I left Moshe and went to help the women with the dinner’s final preparations.
Moshe got questions at dinner from Uncle Clancy and Uncle James, who were sitting on either side of him.
“You are studying what?” Uncle Clancy said. “Summersology? What the heck is that?”
“Sumerology,” Moshe said. “I’m translating ancient clay tablets from the kingdom of Sumer, It’s the part of Iraq nearest the Persian Gulf, only back three thousand years ago.”
“How did you get interested in something like that?” Uncle James said.
“I was over there. I learned something about the history of the area. When I came home, I thought I’d like to learn more. Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences has a Near Eastern Studies department.”
“What were you doing over there?” Uncle Clancy asked. “Something with your religion?”
“I’m not religious,” he said. “I was in the Army, stationed in Kuwait.”
“The Army? What were you doing in Kuwait?”
“I was in the Engineering Corps. I spent most of my time in oil refineries.”
My uncles digested this while I got up to help with dessert. They both worked in the trades.
When the meal was through, Moshe and I helped clear the table.
“Go join the men,” I told him. “They’ll think I’ve got you whipped.”
“You do have me whipped,” he said.
“Later,” I said.
“Ladies,” my mom said as Moshe was leaving the kitchen, “we’re going to wash everything by hand. The dishwasher is on the fritz again.”
“What’s wrong with it?” Moshe said.
“The top rack don’t get cleaned.”
“I can fix that for you,” Moshe said. “There’s a little filter screen that’s clogged up. Water can’t get into the hose to the top. It only takes a couple of minutes. Once it’s cleaned, it’s good as new.”
My brother fetched him a screwdriver and watched as he cleaned out the filter. It didn’t take long. We washed all the dishes in the meantime, but my mom was delighted to get her dishwasher back.
“Thanks, Moshe,” Tommy said. “Ma, call me the next time it gets plugged, now that I see how to fix it.”
He and Moshe left the kitchen to join the men. My mom gave me a look.
“What?” I said.
“He’s good with his hands for a guy studying old Arabs,” she said. “Your dad’s been saying he’d fix it. A plumber, he can’t do ten minutes work at home?”
“They weren’t Arabs,” I said, “but you’re right. He’s handy.”
“Just the same,” my mom said. “He isn’t… you know… He don’t go to Mass.”
“Ma, I don’t go to Mass.”
“You’re young. Sew your wild oats. I was the same way. But later, you’ll come to your senses. You marry a nice Catholic boy, there won’t be a problem.”
“When I come to my senses,” I said, “I’ll convert him. I checked. He’ll complete the Pre-Cana. We can get married by a priest. Don’t worry about it.”
“I like a handy guy,” my mom said. “It’s one thing attracted me to your father.”
“And is my guy handsome? Or is he handsome?”
“He’s got a nose on him, but yeah. He’s a dish.”
Later, before sunset, Moshe and I walked down to the Tufts campus at the end of the street. We strolled around, letting our dinner settle. Canoodled a little in the shadows by Barnam Hall.
In the morning, we got up early for breakfast with my dad, before he went off on a call. He was counting on my brother to help him during the holidays because some of his regular guys were off. This morning, however, Tommy called to say he was sick. I could tell my dad was disappointed.
“I’ll come help out,” Moshe said.
“You’re not done at Harvard,” I said. “The Akkadian artifacts.”
“Will you reschedule that for me?” he said.
“That’s all right, Buddy,” my dad said. “No offense but I’m already gonna have my hands full without babysitting somebody.”
I could feel my face get hot but Moshe just grinned.
“What are you doing today?” he said.
“Replacing an old steam boiler,” my dad said. “It’s going to be a real pain in the a… pain in the neck.”
“You work with steam?” Moshe said.
“What do you know about steam?”
“I mentioned to your brothers last night that I was in the Army Engineering Corps. I trained at Fort Leonard Woods and shipped out to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. I was detailed out to an area refinery project as part of a support crew. There were a number of steam systems installed. I scraped some knuckles on them.”
“Well…,” my dad said, “yeah, why don’t you come along then… Did you have any trouble with those Arabs, you being… you know… in the Army and everything?”
“Not once I learned Arabic,” Moshe said.
They took off and I went out in my sweats and jogged along the Alewife, and then spent the rest of the day with my mom and sisters. My mom started up once, while we were having lunch at the Greek Corner on Mass Ave.
“It’s not easy, living with somebody,” she said. “You can’t practice in advance, so you’ve got to have other ways of knowing what they’re going to be like.”
“What other ways?”
“Oh, how they handle money, for example.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. Sheila and Colleen both told Mom to knock it off. They could tell I was seeing red and they wanted to head off anything serious.
“Now hold on,” my mom said. “I like the boy. I never said I didn’t. I meant no offense.”
“We all like him,” Colleen said. “Where do you get that stuff?”
“I’m her mother,” my mom said. “It’s my job to look out for her. If everybody says everything is fine, maybe everything is fine. Only, when I have doubts I’m going to speak up. I’m supposed to.”
So we made peace. I was more worried about my dad, anyway.
We had dinner late because Moshe and Dad stopped for a few drinks with the boys after work, at the Sligo Pub in Davis Square. The two men came home acting like bosom buddies.
“It was a good day,” Moshe told me. “We got to the site and I grabbed a tape and offered to walk the building and double-check his EDR ratings, just to made sure the new boiler had been sized right. That was OK with him. It’s SOP. When I finished, our figures matched. After that I just worked as a pipe fitter for most of the day, but I also consulted with him a time or two. In the Army, we’d get guys who showed up in the unit saying they knew hot water, so they figured they could handle steam. Steam is a whole different thing, though. Tricky. Your dad told me he’d had the same experience with guys who wanted to hire on with him.”
“Does my dad know steam?”
“Your dad knows steam.”
Later my dad said, “The kid is strong as an ox and he can hold a drink. I told him if he ever gets tired of the Arabs he should come work for me.”
Moshe went with him again the following day. When we left Sunday morning, there was a lot of hugging and promises about coming back, and a little sniffling by me and my mom.
Moshe and I didn’t say much in the car at first, as he negotiated his way down School Street and Prospect and Western and over the Charles onto the Mass Pike. As we headed west on our six-hour drive back to Ithaca, I punched him in the shoulder.
“Whew,” I said.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” he said. “We’ve got Hanukkah in a month in Brooklyn. It’s not going to get any easier with my mom and dad, believe me.”