Christmas Shopping in Sarasota

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.

Home for Thanksgiving

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.

“Twenty-six.”

“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.

“So what?”

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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?”

Moshe smiled.

“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.”

Going Out

I was hired fresh out of school by Omaha’s top polling organization because I had worked on the last national census and I had a lot of experience going door-to-door. It was an entry-level job. Once I was trained, I found myself out on the street, iPad in hand.

On the afternoon that I met Myrtle and Patrick, I was canvassing the Millard East neighborhood, working the blocks off N Street, collecting opinions on several local propositions due for a vote in the next special election. It was a warm summer afternoon but the streets were lined with trees that provided shade.

A lot of folks were at work. I rang a couple of bells with no luck and then tried one more house before my break. I rang and waited, and an elderly woman answered the door. I explained who I was, displayed my credentials, and asked her if I could record her opinion on a number of subjects. I had to reassure her more than once that I wasn’t selling anything. This was Myrtle.

Myrtle invited me to take off my work shoes and come in. We sat down in the living room. I asked my first question and she told me that I’d better talk to her son. She struggled to her feet and limped off to find him.

“Can you ask him your questions in his bedroom?” she said when she returned.

“No,” I said.

“I mean, he’ll be in his bedroom and you can talk to him from the hall, through the door.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. I wasn’t getting paid enough to do something stupid. “Perhaps it would be best if I leave.”

“Please don’t. Let me speak to him. It will be good for him to get out of his room.”

She left me sitting on the sofa and disappeared into the back of the house. Presently she returned with a handsome young man about my age, twenty-three, dressed in white. Clean white shirt, pressed white trousers, white socks, and white shoes. His hair was trimmed, his face a bit pale but clean-shaven.

“This is my son Patrick,” the woman said. “Patrick, this is Frieda. She has some poll questions to ask. Perhaps you can help her with them.”

Patrick and I shook hands and said hello. I sat down on the edge of the sofa, doing my perky-little-bird thing. Patrick sat facing me in an antique Morris chair that was polished and clean but well-worn.

I don’t know what I expected from Patrick, but we had a pleasant chat. I asked my questions. He saw me to the door. Apart from a couple of glances back toward his bedroom during the interview, he seemed normal. As I left, he handed me a card with his name and several blog addresses on it.

That night before bed, I remembered the card. I found it in my pants pocket and checked out the blogs. They were all Patrick’s.

The first focused on philosophy. I read a well-written, well-thought-out entry on quantum uncertainty and free will, which he had written. Perhaps it was profound or perhaps it was utter nonsense, but either way I was impressed. A discussion followed on the page, in the comments section, between Patrick and a variety of readers from around the world. Evidently he had been a philosophy student at Creighton University and was now part of a community of thinkers of deep thoughts.

The second URL led to his sports blog. Mostly about Nebraska football. Patrick seemed to have hundreds of online friends in that one.

His third blog dealt with video and role-playing games. I read his rave review of the novel “Ready Player One.” I’m not much for video or arcade games, but I made a mental note to check out the book. It sounded like a fun read.

Then I surprised myself by leaving a comment. Nice to meet you today. Something like that. Patrick responded immediately and we began an easy online conversation. We switched to IM and in the end he invited me back to his home for dinner the following night. I accepted.

Wow. Didn’t see that coming. Me? I hadn’t been out on a date in more than a year. Maybe two. He must have spotted my inner beauty. Ha. Dinner in Millard East with Myrtle and Patrick. Dinner with a young man who didn’t like to leave his room. A smart, handsome young man.

The next day when my shift ended, I was back on their porch, ringing the bell. Patrick answered. Again he was dressed in white, neat and clean.

We sat in the living room drinking Wimbledon coolers while Myrtle made dinner. I thought about offering to help her but that seemed weird for a first visit.

“Just to state the obvious,” Patrick said, “I’m severely agoraphobic.”

“For how long?”

“A year and a half. I was with my father when he died. I think that triggered my condition somehow. I had already been having panic attacks.”

“Are you anxious now, being out of your room like this?”

“Yes, but not so much that it shows. I mean, do I seem anxious?”

“No.”

“But if I stepped out through the front door and stood on the porch, you’d be able to see it,” he said.

“Therapy?” I said.

“Online and by phone.”

“Medication?”

“Antidepressants and antianxiety drugs, but I haven’t found a sustainable combination. I’ll keep working with my shrink on it. I also need desensitization. Cognitive therapy and exposure. I can’t do that alone, though.”

He obviously had plenty of friends, at least online. Omaha friends as well as those worldwide. Perhaps some of the locals had already tried to help him. Perhaps the time commitment was too great, or the interpersonal chemistry wasn’t right, or his companions’ reactions weren’t what he needed when the panic hit. Whatever, Patrick was extending an invitation.

“I would be delighted,” I said. I guess he was desperate for help from somebody, even me.

We sat there smiling at each other until we were saved by the dinner bell.

The first step was simply to hang out in the living room together, which we did that night. We cleaned up for Myrtle after dinner. She went to her room to watch television. When we had finished, Patrick and I sat on the sofa and shared a joint and chatted. There were silences but they weren’t uncomfortable. We each had a drink or two and two hours passed in a blink. By the time I left, I was buzzed sufficiently to leave my car at the curb and take a cab back to my apartment.

I came over every night that week. I helped Myrtle make dinner. Afterwards, Patrick and I played bezique or piquet or honeymoon bridge or Scrabble, or we just sat and talked. Patrick knew the card games because his mom was an old-fashioned Hoyle aficionado. Myrtle sometimes joined us for a three-handed game like gleek or red frog black frog, or invited the next-door neighbor over for an hour or two of four-handed whist. Myrtle was also not shy about taking a drink or a toke or two with her son and me.

Saturday, Patrick and I ate lunch on the front porch together. The air beneath the trees had a green jungle cast. We left the porch and sat on the front lawn. Patrick handled it well. The seventeen-year cicadas were appearing early in Nebraska that year and their buzzing had a hypnotic quality.

“I haven’t asked you about this,” Patrick said, “and stop me if I’m being nosy, but are you in a relationship? Seems like you must be.”

“Why would you say that?”

“You just seem sort of special.”

He floored me with that. This guy was way, way out of my league. In brains, in looks, you name it.

“I’ve been helping you,” I said, after an awkward pause. “I think you’re just feeling a little grateful. But thanks for the compliment.”

He was probably so glad to be outdoors that it was making him loopy.

He looked at me and I studied the tree next to us. He didn’t say anything, just sat there, quiet. Of course this had to be a bad skin day for me. My cheeks felt hot.

“No, I’m not in a relationship,” I said, finally.

After that, I gave him a quick course in Pranayama breathing as a relaxation technique. We practiced a bit and traded notes on meditation.

The point of desensitization, according to Patrick, was to stay within a situation until the anxiety passed. Otherwise, nothing was accomplished.

We did the breathing until he announced that he was feeling quite calm, and we went back inside.

A week later, I asked Patrick about the all-white clothing, and whether he’d be willing to try something different. He said that he would, but that he wasn’t ready to go out and buy anything for himself. He gave me a credit card and I drove over to the Oak View Mall and picked out some pants, shirts, and socks at The Gap and Eddie Bauer.

We invited an internet friend named Jack and his wife over for dinner. Myrtle and I made pot roast with vegetables and gravy. Patrick wore a new pair of khaki pants and a blue Oxford shirt and looked even more handsome and together than usual.

After that, he and I graduated to walks down to the corner. I cut back on my hours at work. When I wasn’t helping Patrick, I was taking Myrtle to the market or beauty shop.

Patrick and I ventured beyond the block together for the first time on a trip to Riverside Park. I drove. We got on I80 and crossed the Missouri and parked in a lot by a trail down to the river.

“You OK?” I said.

He nodded.

We put on red Cornhusker caps and dark glasses and got out and walked toward the water. Birds were singing and the river looked quite muscular flowing past. There were a few folks here and there but we were alone on our part of the path.

“Anxious?” I said.

“Excited,” he said.

I was too. It felt great. Scary, but great.

The success of that trip led to visits to Doorly Zoo and Durham Museum and the Lauritzen gardens. Patrick had some tricky moments in public but he’d look at me and we’d talk quietly until he felt better. I got used to being looked at. Sort of.

In time, we agreed to visit a spot where Patrick had experienced several of his worst panic attacks, on campus at Creighton. We drove into Omaha and parked in the visitor’s lot across from the Harper Center. We strolled down the Mall, across 24th to Dowling Hall. Halfway there, Patrick took my hand for the first time. The summer campus was quiet. I felt the sun on my shoulders and hair. For a moment I thought I was floating.

Dowling Hall was built in 1889. Patrick had had two major attacks inside it during philosophy lectures. There were black wrought-iron benches along the Mall. We sat down on one facing the building’s facade of gray sandstone. A student came out, swinging an old green Harvard Co-op book bag. Inherited from his mom or dad, no doubt.

“Let’s do some breathing,” I said.

We sat without speaking, slowing our breath, attending, calming ourselves. Or, in my case, trying to. Eventually, Patrick stirred.

“Frieda, if I make it… If I can stay out of the house and get my life back…”

He turned to me. The focus had changed, away from his illness and onto our future. I never felt so ugly. Or so vulnerable.

Then, sudden tears and a strong rush in my chest. At first I thought it was fear but then I realized it was love.

Busman’s Holiday

I’m one of those women with terrible taste in men. Every time I escape from a disastrous relationship, I swear that I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never make the same stupid mistake again.

I lick my wounds and fall for some other dope.

Is that what happened when I met Joshua Smith, or did I finally get it right?

I was volunteering for his campaign and we came face to face at a fundraiser. This handsome, powerful-looking man. And bright. But not too bright.

After a brief chat, he asked me out to dinner the following evening. To discuss the campaign. The next think I knew, we were dining at Carbone’s in Hartford, me in my new Anthropologie cocktail dress, which I bought that afternoon for the occasion.

This guy. Perfect. I mean it. The most positive, optimistic, unambitious person I’ve ever known. Not a whiff of phony.

I kept waiting for the bad news. It never came. That week, anyway, or the next. Josh had lost two elections in the past ten years, but this time he was in the lead. Ten years ago, he was an amnesia victim who decided to run for local office. Quixotic. No one knew who he was or what he had done. He was slaughtered in the election. Then he involved himself completely in community affairs and the second time he ran, he did much better, although he still lost. This third time, the voters had ten solid years of his political and community history to go on, and they liked what they saw.

Josh moved me onto his personal staff. I was a total amateur but none of the others seemed to mind. It felt like family.

We got seriously serious, Josh and I. The temperature was rising. That’s when he popped my balloon.

We were eating barbecue at Black-Eyed Sally’s before heading back to his place.

“Eloise,” he said, “there’s something I must tell you.”

Oops. Here it comes. Wife? Impotence? Gambling addiction? The mob?

“Yes?” I said. Kept eating. Didn’t want this to spoil a great dinner.

“This is going to sound strange. Unbelievable. You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“You’re probably right,” I said, “based on my previous experience.”

“Only a few people know this. I’ll never be elected if it gets out. I’m telling you because I know that I can trust you. I’m falling in love with you, Eloise, and I know that you have feelings for me too.”

“I have a feeling those feelings might be heading in the other direction soon.”

“Maybe so. That’s why I’m telling you this now, before we get in any deeper. To be fair to you.”

I studied my plate with its remaining rib. Could this be a good excuse to order a few more? A silver lining? A consolation prize? I’d be a fool to miss the chance if it were.

“I’m an alien,” Josh said.

“You’re not documented? I don’t believe it. You’re running for office and you’re not even a citizen? I must be dreaming. I thought you weren’t a dope. I was convinced you weren’t a dope. You know what? You’re a dope.”

“It’s worse than that,” Josh said. “Or better, depending upon your point of view.”

Uh oh. What happened to my appetite? I put down my fork. Suddenly I didn’t even want dessert, never mind more ribs. Now the rib on my plate looked lonely. Unappreciated.

Another drink might be good, though.

“Well, go on,” I said.

“There’s no easy way to say this… When I tell you that I’m an alien, I do mean alien.”

I put my head in my hands.

“Tell me this isn’t happening. I finally, finally get it right with a guy… What, you’ve got a tinfoil hat in your pocket?”

But hold on. In a case like this, being a little crazy is a lot better than being undocumented. Congress is full of crazies. In fact, they could be getting crazier. Sometimes it seems that way.

“Great,” I said. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first crazy person I’ve dated, and with my luck, probably not the last.”

I was glad I bought the cocktail dress, even if it was for barbecue with a Martian.

“Of course it sounds crazy,” Josh said. “I won’t mention it again. I was honor bound to tell you, but now I’ve done that. If you want to break it off, I’ll understand. I won’t like it, but I’ll understand.”

I sat there. I thought about getting up and leaving. Gosh, he was so darn handsome. So quiet and self-assured. But intense. Intense in a mild, good way. A way that led to high poll numbers. Would it be so bad, dating a guy who thought he wasn’t human? He had all the human parts I needed. We had proved that. He’d already sent me to outer space a time or two.

I sighed. My appetite came tip-toeing back.

“You told me,” I said. “I appreciate that. You risked the love that we’ve started to feel for each other. That took courage. Let’s try to move on, without discussing the matter further.”

And so we did. The campaign intensified. Not another sign of weirdness from Josh. I was thankful that we were all so busy, because otherwise I would have just swooned into a puddle of love.

Our opponent, Bruce Parducci, liked to compare Josh’s past to his own humble beginnings and extended family. Josh met the issue head on.

“My opponent grew up poor, but in a loving family,” Josh would say, never mentioning the Parducci family’s criminal connections, which were well known in Hartford. “I congratulate Mr. Parducci on his success in life and his strongly held values. I simply don’t agree with his political philosophy. Meanwhile, as he points out, my past extends back only ten years, to a time when I was afflicted with total amnesia. Perhaps in my youth I too was a member of a loving family. Perhaps I was poor. Perhaps I was rich. We don’t know.

“As voters, you have only my record for the past decade to go on. It speaks for itself.”

It seemed to speak well, according to the polls.

I didn’t move in with Josh officially, because of the campaign, but we were effectively living together. After that one little bump in the road at Black-Eyed Sally’s, I just kept falling.

Then came a crisis. A fellow in Waterbury accused Josh of murdering his brother a dozen years before. Without any memories or clues as to his whereabouts during that time, Josh couldn’t effectively deny the accusation. Parducci declined to comment.

“This is baloney,” I said to Josh. “Parducci is behind it.”

“Probably. Don’t worry about it,” Josh said.

“Have you seen the polls?”

“They’ll go back up when I’m proven innocent.”

“And how is that going to happen, pray tell?”

“There are some folks working on it.”

“There are some folks? What folks? Which folks?”

“You haven’t met them yet. They’ve been important in getting me on the right track to office this time. The first two times I ran, I was on my own.”

“Why don’t I know about them? I thought we had no secrets from each other.”

“It’s not a secret. It’s connected to that confession I made to you. The one we don’t talk about.”

I knew what he meant.

“Don’t say any more,” I said.

He didn’t.

I assumed he was sunk, but lo and behold, the Waterbury police announced two days later that they had procured, in fact, DNA associated with the case. The candidate was invited to provide a sample of his own, for comparison purposes.

“You’re going to do it, of course,” I said. “I’m sure there is no chance…”

“I can’t give them a sample. My DNA would raise eyebrows, to put it mildly,” he said. “Besides, my friends planted the DNA that the police so conveniently just found. It isn’t mine.”

“There is only one way your DNA could raise eyebrows and that’s if it matched the police evidence.”

“No, there’s another way. The way we don’t talk about.”

How silly of me. Of course. Alien DNA!

“We’re in love, right?” I said.

“Absolutely.”

“Our mutual love… it has implications.”

“A lifetime together,” Josh said, “for example.”

“I can live with a guy who thinks he’s an alien,” I said, “as long as it doesn’t impact me, or us, day-to-day. The police have to see your DNA. I don’t think you’re a murderer, of course, but let’s do a little diligence here.”

“The murder accusation is a fabrication created and bruited about by Parducci,” Josh said. “Without resolution of the charge, I’ll lose the election. So this is what I propose. Today, you find a local DNA testing center. There are plenty of them in Hartford. Call one. Make an appointment. They all have a menu of tests you can order. It’s all confidential. Most of them don’t even provide their address until you make an appointment and pay a fee.

“We’ll drive over to the lab and let them take a sample from me and run the test. OK? If the results come back normal, I promise that I’ll drive over to Waterbury immediately and let the police test me there. But if the test results aren’t normal, my friends will help us with a sample that will resolve the issue in my favor. With that, we’ll put this behind us.”

I agreed. I didn’t bother asking him what he’d say if the tests came back normal. I’m sure that in his delusion, he’d have an explanation handy. Fine. Just as long as he drove over to Waterbury and proved that he wasn’t a murderer. Proved it to me, that is.

I scheduled us at a lab on Farmington. Josh provided a sample on demand. We waited.

The tests did not come back normal. The lab apologized and speculated that the sample had been corrupted somehow. It was “all messed up.”

The following day, the media reported that Josh’s DNA (provided by his friends) had been checked by the Waterbury PD and that he was not the killer.

What did I make of all this? As a woman in love, I was relieved. Confused, but relieved. If I can love a man who thinks he’s an alien, I can love a man with goofy DNA. I think.

We were in bed with the lights out the following night.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What about children?”

“That won’t be a problem,” Josh said.

“Why not?”

“I can’t explain why not without talking about the forbidden subject.”

“We’re having breakfast together in the morning, right? You won’t be rushing off?”

“I won’t rush off.”

“Let’s talk about this then. I need to think about it.”

Obviously, the simple statement that Josh was an alien was not going to be quite enough for me. Not in view of this DNA development, and Josh’s mysterious “helpers.”

“Just tell me enough,” I said at breakfast, “to reassure me that we can spend a normal life together.”

“I can do that,” Josh said. “It’ll make me sound quite delusional, but you already think I’m delusional.”

I sat there and held my breath. Yes, I was in love. Desperate love. But how much could I hear before I’d be forced to walk away? Josh looked so calm, so contained, so handsome, sitting across from me. I was still in one of my total-swoon periods.

“I’m risking our relationship, talking about this,” he said. “I understand that. Unfortunately, reality has a way of intruding into life. If this DNA issue hadn’t arisen, something else would have come up.”

I drank some coffee.

“I’ll give you the short version. If that’s good enough, we’ll resume our silence about this. If it isn’t, we’ll take a walk down at Great River Park after the rally this afternoon, and we can talk some more.”

I nodded.

“I’m on vacation,” Josh said. “I’m a politician on sabbatical. I bought a tour package through a travel agency. I’m here for sixty years, from age thirty to age ninety. It’s a political package. I’m guaranteed election to state office within three tries or ten years, whichever comes first. I thought it would be fun.”

“You’re vacationing on Earth,” I said, though I had sworn to myself that I’d keep my mouth shut.

“Lots of… of vacationers come to Earth. It’s primitive, it can be dangerous, but you can buy anything you want here. Sort of like spending a weekend in Tijauna.”

“And this vacation will last sixty years.”

“We’re long-lived. The tour was on sale. I got a deal.”

“OK, stop,” I said. “I think I’ve reached my limit.”

I left him to finish his breakfast. I took a shower, dressed, and went to to work.

How could I have let this romance go on for so long? But why not? I can’t describe how lovable, how steady, how altogether totally cool this man was. I couldn’t stop looking at him. I melted when he paid attention to me. I couldn’t keep my hands off him. I was in love. My God, I wanted this guy.”

We walked by the river after the rally. I told him to continue.

His current body, it seemed, had belonged to a George Martin, who died homeless and unidentified in Los Angeles ten years ago. Aged thirty at the time of his death. The travel bureau obtained his cadaver, reanimated it, did some work on the face so that he wouldn’t be recognized in the future, and then stuck Josh’s mind inside him somehow. Voila.

“The bureau usually doesn’t bother with backstory,” Josh said. “An amnesia claim is simpler and safer.”

“How can you love me if you’re an alien?”

“Why not? I’m using George Martin’s brain, with a little superego smeared over it. I do love you. In fact, I want to marry you.”

That took a minute to sink in.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My lifelong dream come true. A marriage proposal from a tourist from Quidrxxixz.

“What about children and your corrupted DNA?” I said.

“George Martin’s DNA got tweaked during the reanimation. That’s normal. The travel bureau has a supply of Martin’s sperm for us.”

“When would this marriage happen?”

“If you want a fancy wedding, after the election,” Josh said. “Otherwise, let’s get a license tomorrow.”

“And then… work, and raise a family, and grow old together?”

“Yep. Neither of us will ever get sick. Nor will the children. That’s part of the package. At age ninety, I’ll need to leave. If you choose, you can come with me. Transformed, of course. Our children and grandchildren will have to stay here, but we can visit, for years if we want.”

I said yes. Since we’ve been married, I’ve never caught a cold and I’m no longer allergic to cats.

Halloween

The year I turned twelve, my big brother invited me to go out with him on Halloween. I said yes. I always said yes when he invited me on one of his adventures. This time, though, I didn’t really want to go. I wanted to go to the Halloween party at the Whitaker’s farm. I had fallen hard for Hannah Blumenauer. My first, unspoken, love.

“We’ll go to the party, I promise,” Steve told me. “Scarlett expects me there too. But first we’re going to sneak around and tip over some privies.”

Steve had just broken up with Scarlett. I was surprised to hear him mention her. She was just about as wild as he was, so they made a good match, but their split-up was famous all over the county because of the public fireworks it produced.

“I don’t think Scarlett is going to be waiting for you,” I said.

“Sure she will,” Steve said. “You’ll see. She’ll forgive and forget.”

Since I had never had a girlfriend, I let it go at that. Just the same, everybody said Scarlett was still mad as a hornet at Steve. She was telling anybody who would listen that she was going to get even with him for being a two-timing rat.

“We’ll never tip over a privy,” I said. “You know how careful everybody gets on Halloween.”

“We’ve got to tip one,” Steve said. “I’ve got a bet with Charlie that we do. He’s got to tip one too.”

I just shook my head. Maybe I was only twelve and he was older and wiser, but I knew from the start that we weren’t going to get near an outhouse after the sun went down, never mind turning one over.

When dinner was through and we had cleaned up the kitchen – Steve washed and I dried – we put on our costumes and set out. I was a sailor and Steve was a soldier. Our dad left at the same time, taking our younger brother and sister to a party for the little kids at the church. Mom stayed home with a pie she had baked, in case somebody showed up.

The farms in Greene County are all spread out. If you want to trick-or-treat on Halloween, you can’t get to very many farmhouses on your bike. On the other hand, you’ll be given a nice, fresh-baked treat at every place you go. After you’ve sat and eaten a couple, you’re ready to quit for the night.

We headed over to the Olafsen place first. We left our bikes by the road and made our way through the orchard next to their house. The moon was almost full so we didn’t need our flashlights. We had cut through that orchard a million times before.

“I wish a cloud would come along,” Steve said. “I feel like we’re as easy to see as if it were daytime.”

There weren’t many clouds in the sky. We were in for a bright night, getting brighter as the moon rose higher. We climbed through the fence rails and circled behind the barn. We hadn’t got halfway to the privy when the barking started.

Olafsen had chained his mastiff Chuck out by the privy to keep watch. We were old friends with Chuck. The problem was, he was making a lot of noise. Olafsen would hear Chuck’s barking turn happy and know what was what before he even came outside. We turned tail. Chuck’s disappointed whine followed us.

Next we rode over to the Kelly place. We took the dirt road that ran between our pumpkin field and a fallow alfalfa field. As we came on, we could see a glow up ahead. By the time we pushed through the corn stalks behind the farmhouse, we could see that Mr. Kelly had set out lanterns all around his privy. Never mind the moon. The lanterns lit the structure bright as day.

“We should have brought masks,” Steve said. “We can’t do anything with all this light.”

So much for the Kelly place.

We had to ride a mile down the county road to get to the Rickenbacker farm. We left our bikes on the shoulder and took a path that skirted a lot of blackberry bushes. No dogs. No lights. The only thing we spotted as we crept toward the privy was a solitary figure sitting in a cane back chair smoking a pipe.

“Rickenbacker,” Steve said in a whisper. “Who sits out all night guarding a privy? That’s just stupid.”

With that, we gave up and headed over to the party at the Whitaker farm.

“Are you interested in a girl at this party?” Steve asked as we rode. He knew that I had started noticing the other sex.

“I told Hannah I might dance with her,’ I said.

“Hannah. Good for you. She’s real cute,” Steve said.

“Are you still going to try and get back with Scarlett?” I said.

“Absolutely,” he said.

“She hates you,” I said. “You broke her heart.”

“Brother, you just don’t know girls yet. If I play my cards right, I’ll be back on track with her by the end of the night.”

“You’re nuts,” I said.

The party was well along when we got there. The Whitakers had a large family room in the back of the house and it was decorated with black and orange crepe paper and bats on strings and cornstalks and so forth.

They had already played Murder and Bandage the Mummy and now they were listening to records and dancing. I went over to Hannah, who was talking to her friends Anne and Daphne. They were all dressed as princesses and Hannah looked like one for real.

“Where have you been?” she said.

“Nowhere,” I said.

“Un huh. Did you have any luck nowhere?”

“Nah. We should have come here in the first place.”

“Why is Steve talking to Scarlett over there?” Anne said.

“He thinks he can get back together with her.”

The three girls all shook their heads.

Hannah and I danced. We drank punch and ate cake. The Whitakers had some candy for everybody to take home.

I saw Steve and Scarlett go out back. I knew he had a pack of cigarettes. If Mom or Dad caught the smell on him, there would be the devil to pay, but Steve would just laugh it off. He got me to try cigarettes and cigars and a pipe, but I didn’t care for any of them. Not yet, anyway. I didn’t want to chew or dip either. I didn’t mind drinking beer when the opportunity arose. No sign of any at this party, though.

When it was time to go home, the Whitakers brought out a hay wagon pulled by a tractor. Most of us climbed on. Steve and Scarlett had disappeared somewhere. It was a swell hay ride, passing by each farm and dropping off kids as we went. Hannah and I held hands, which made me a little light-headed. Luke Whitaker on the tractor waited at her house while I walked her up the drive to her door. I didn’t have the nerve to kiss her but we did agree to see each other at school the next morning. Which wouldn’t be hard because the school was so small.

When I went to bed, Steve still hadn’t come home. The next morning at breakfast, he came down with a cast on his arm. Mom wasn’t talking to him but on the way to school on our bikes, Steve told me that Scarlett had talked him into going with her and Mary Beth and Charlotte to tip over the privy at her house. She told him she was mad at her parents and wanted to pull this trick on them.

We were taking it slow because Steve was riding his bike using just one arm.

“Once we got to her place, the four of us sat in Charlotte’s car for a while, drinking beer and smoking. Once we were drunk enough, or at least once I was drunk enough, we snuck around the house and headed out back. Scarlett told me that after we tipped over the outhouse, she’d take me back to the barn and we’d snuggle. My reward for helping. But you know, I don’t think the girls had drunk much at all.

“We got back there and all of a sudden, Scarlett shushed us. Then she told me to hide for just a minute in the privy until the coast was clear. I wasn’t thinking too well and I went in and because of the beer, I decided to do my business while I was waiting. But Scarlett had mounted a latch hook on the door in advance and now she locked me in. Then the three girls tipped the thing over. I landed on my arm and got a fracture.

“The girls ran off. Mr. Hutchins came out and dragged me into the house and called the sheriff. The sheriff took me over to Doc Morris to get my arm set and then brought me home. Mom and Dad were up and worried. The three of them gave me a good talking-to.”

“I told you Scarlett was crazy,” I said.

“I can’t help it,” Steve said. “I’m in love with her. I can’t wait to get to school today and get my one good arm around her.”

This is a good example of how I learned about life from Steve while we were growing up, although in this case I’m not exactly sure what the lesson was.

Out the Office Window: Sean

Backstory for a character in Out the Office Window.

Sean was born in Warkworth on the Mahurangi River. One quarter of his DNA came courtesy of an American soldier stationed in Warkworth during World War II. Another quarter originated in Cambodia, perhaps explaining the yellowish tint to his skin. The providers of the final half were exclusively colonial.

Sean suffered from early-onset Alopecia universalis. The disease, benign in other respects, renders the individual completely hairless, including eyebrows and eyelashes. Teased by his mates at school, Sean developed into a shy and socially awkward young man. He decamped to Auckland at the earliest possible moment, anxious to lose himself in the anonymous society of the big city.

Like many of the most bashful, Sean was at his best when performing before a crowd. Something about his odd appearance appealed to tourists. His first job in Auckland was narrating eight-hour bus tours. He would entertain the passengers with facts on the ride though the inner city, out the Waitakere rainforest, and, on foot, across the black sands of a beach. He was a bit of a dag and the customers liked that and were satisfied and smiling at his final gidday.

Nonetheless, did he not have a heart that could love and break? Did he not have the desires and needs of a man, albeit a man without hair? Was he not ready to reach out to others, not as a guide but as a simple human being? Yes.

To increase his contact with others, he left his bus gig and guided walking tours instead. He would lead his flock up from the waterfront through the lower city to Albert Park and back. He’d introduce his audience to a thousand years of history, beginning with the Maori, who settled Tamaki Makarau, “the land of many lovers.” Other times, they would stay down by the water, covering the area’s history from Polynesian migration to the early Europeans to the life of Sir Peter Blake. For the fit, he’d choose the Coast-to-Coast Walkway with its ten miles of neighborhoods, vistas, and volcanos, all the way to Onehunga, with a bus back.

It’s quite possible that he passed Brittany on some of these rambles, as she was living on the street at the time.

Sean met a number of women in the course of his work, and formed a number of brief relationships. However, because he was lonely, or needy, or motivated by some other deep-seated psychological condition, every time, with every woman, he took a step too soon, so to speak.

“That’s crook, mate,” said Rachael, an Aussie from Sydney. “Try that with the wrong woman sometime and she’ll break your jaw with a left hook.”

“I misread your signals.” Sean said.

“There were no signals. Forget the signals. Keep your paws to yourself. You can’t go too slow with a woman.”

“No worries, mate,” Sean said, but in a lugubrious tone. “She’ll be right.”

Every slap was an occasion for introspection and self-searching and depression for Sean. He resolved never to jump the gun again. Resolved it repeatedly. Where did this inappropriate optimism come from, which caused his hands to venture onto and over forbidden territory?

It was at such a time of self-doubt that Sean abandoned his guide work. Satisfying – fun – as it had been, he withdrew into himself and sought work in one of the tall buildings of the city, where he could gaze out over the society that made as if to draw him in, only to reject him with a ringing blow to the head as one of his nerveless hands fell away from some ripe hip or buttock.

Black and White

Mary White sat in the Remington Bar at the Houston St. Regis with three Kentucky county commissioners. A rose among celery roots.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “you are doing your country a great service. America needs the coal lying under Hickory Mountain. America needs to sell that coal to China. It’s unfortunate that Hickory Valley will be affected adversely by the strip mining and consequent erosion and runoff, but in a hundred – well, two hundred – years, you won’t know that a mining company was ever there.”

The three men glanced around the bar, showing some white in their eyes. Mary took a hit from her Old Fashioned.

“Relax. You’re safe here,” she said. “No prying eyes. You’re in oil country. Nobody’s skulking around, trying to catch you selling your votes. When the deal goes through and I receive my commission from Apex, you’ll each get your three million.”

“We’ve been discussing that,” one of the men said. He sat a little straighter, though he was still looking up at Ms. White. “We need to make that five million, not three.”

Mary raised her eyebrows and looked at the other two. They nodded, uneasy. She lifted her glass and toasted them.

“Done,” she said, quick enough to let them know that they could have gone higher. Should have gone higher. Just to be clear with them, who was in charge.

“Gentlemen, let’s eat some steak,” she said.

The next morning, back home in Beverly Hills, she told her husband about the deal.

“Apex now owns the complete set of tracts,” she said, as they sat on their back patio next to the pool. “They can strip off the top of the mountain and dump it right down into the valley.”

“You bewitch me,” said John Black, “but you know I can’t condone these deals. I abhor them. You’re a menace to the planet, Mary. You’re probably responsible for more environmental damage than anyone else in the nation. Breaking all sorts of laws in the meantime. Shame on you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Mary said. “I just want to ensure energy independence for America. That’s no crime.”

“Selling coal to China?” John said. “Never mind. I’ll be in Kentucky for a day or two.”

“Have a good trip.”

As he pulled out of their driveway later that day, in his new, fully charged Tesla Model S, John spotted a van, sprouting antennas, parked down the street. It could have had “FBI” painted on its side, so out of place was it in the luxury neighborhood.

John thought about that van on his way down the 405 toward LAX. On impulse, he left the freeway at Mar Vista and parked in a supermarket lot on the Venice border. He got out, pulled an undercar dolly from the back of the car, lay down on it, and rolled under the vehicle. It took him ten minutes of maneuvering around on the asphalt to find the tracking device. He left it in place and rolled back out. He fished a disposable phone out of the glove compartment and called a cab and then his wife.

Mary White answered on a disposable phone of her own.

“There’s a surveillance van down the street from our place,” John said, “and my car is bugged.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” Mary said. “You’re an environmental activist, after all. It’s a wonder they haven’t set the dogs on you.”

“Let’s assume the house is bugged as well. I’m guessing it’s the Fibbies. Look into this, will you? We’ll need to know if they’re after you, or me, or both. I’ll check too.”

“Will do. See you when you get back.”

The cab took him to the airport, where he bought an economy ticket to Lexington using a fake ID. He brought a vegan lunch on board with him in his briefcase.

He met with the three Hickory Valley commissioners in the Blue Moon Saloon on East Euclid in Lexington.

“You boys are responsible for the coming devastation of a mountain and a valley and a community. You should be ashamed of yourselves, especially since you’ve acted for base profit.”

All three sat frozen, drinks forgotten.

“I expect you to make restitution,” John said.

“Is that tall woman involved?” one of them said.

John frowned.

“Restitution how?” said the quickest of the three.

“There’s a wind-power project in Paducah that I like. I’m thinking that all three of you will make anonymous donations to it. Twenty percent of your ill-gotten gains will satisfy me.”

“Blackmail, pure and simple,” said one of the commissioners.

“I’m here to heal the Earth,” John said. “No jury would convict me.”

The commissioner opened his mouth.

“Let’s not negotiate,” John said. “I’ve a dislike for it. I’ll check with WindWorks in Paducah in two weeks. If you’ve all done the right thing, the matter is settled. If not, you’ll be arrested… But that’s enough about that. You’re losing a mountain but gaining a crowd of windmills. Let’s change the subject. I’m ordering some fried potatoes, and how about those Wildcats?”

Before returning to California, he put in a call to one of his government contacts, in Albuquerque.

Back in Los Angeles, he caught a cab to Mar Vista and retrieved his car. There had been no sign of surveillance in Lexington and there was none now. The car was bugged but he hadn’t been followed to Kentucky, which meant the Fibbies hadn’t bothered to figure out where he had gone, or hadn’t been able to. Which meant that an A team hadn’t been sent. Yet, at least. John got into the Tesla and, once on the 405, crept home at a walking pace due to a traffic jam that engulfed every lane including the HOV he was in.

When Mary came home from her office, she found John out on the patio with a drink in his hand. A Beethoven quartet was playing. She wrinkled her nose at the music.

He put a finger to his lips, not for the music but for the bugs, if present.

“Dinner at Valentino?” he said.

“Excellent.”

She ate gamberi in padella and he had a plate of boiled vegetables. They drank a Phitos Bianco and kept the conversation light. Afterwards, they walked along the Santa Monica beach. A swell was rolling in from a storm five hundred miles over the horizon. They faced the surf. The breakers glimmered under the moon and curled over with a rippling crack and thump they felt through the soles of their feet in the sand. An onshore wind blew spray onto their cheeks.

“Anything?” he said, under the boom of the ocean.

“A tracker under my car too, but the van disappeared,” she said. “I’m flying north on Friday for a quick conference with a friend.”

“I’m hopping over to Albuquerque. I don’t think anyone followed me to Lexington. Seems like we’ve got a little time to work with. By the way, I’m expecting WindWorks to send a check to our account in the Bahamas.”

“Nice. You deserve it for your efforts to save the planet.”

On Friday, Mary paid Diego Aviation at the Santa Monica airport for a flight up to Seattle. The big Cessna filed a flight plan for the trip, but made an unscheduled stop at Oakland International. Mary stepped off the plane wearing a blond wig and caught a cab over to the Tapioca Express on Shattuck in Berkeley, where she met one of her FBI informants. She ordered a Mango Snow Bubble.

“A client of yours had a come-to-Jesus moment,” the agent said. “He didn’t know your name of course, but when he described you, the Bureau came up with a picture that he recognized. However, rather than reel you in at once, the Bureau sees this as a wedge that can be used to begin building a case that exposes the corruption prevalent in certain major energy companies. They know they’re poking a stick into a dragon’s cage, but they’ve got a hot new agent in Washington who thinks he can ride that dragon to the top of the mountain.”

“Who is he?” Mary sucked on her straw.

“Special Agent Gray. He’s working on a list of acquisition projects that fit your profile, with the idea of identifying others you’ve corrupted. If he’s any good at all, he’ll find several officials who haven’t washed their money well enough to hide your bribe. In the end, once the Agency has all the information it thinks it’s going to get, you’ll be sent away for a long, long time. But as I say, that’s not Gray’s main focus. He’s got his eyes on the multinationals. To make a name for himself, you understand.”

“My hubby says he’s using scrubs. A van that stuck out like a sore thumb on Loma Vista. Obvious trackers on our cars.”

“Gray trusted the L.A. office on that. He won’t make the same mistake again. I’ll tell you this. The man has got his motor running. When he’s done with you, you’re going to be a sweet memory and not much more, if you’re not careful. Assuming the oil and coal fat cats don’t get wind of this and jettison you first.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Mary said.

“Don’t thank me,” the agent said. “Just remember me at Christmas.”

“I’ll stop at Wells Fargo,” Mary said. “Santa is going to visit your bank account this afternoon.”

Gazing out the cab window at Telegraph Avenue on the way back, Mary thought about Special Agent Gray.

“Can I reason with him?” John asked her later, as they strolled along Rodeo Drive.

“No, it’s all by-the-book with Gray. He thinks the goose has laid a golden egg in his lap. He’ll be looking at the other packages I’ve put together. Talk to the participants.”

“The executives you work with are all rich anyway,” John said. “They’re good at covering their tracks. Hiding the money they make from their deals.”

“No. If he’s any good at all, he’ll pick up some vibrations. One leak and there’s blood in the water. And the guy who fingered me hasn’t mentioned coughing up twenty percent of his take to some green company yet, either. A smart guy like Gray might figure out that two hands wash each other.”

She held up her right hand. John held up his left hand.

“A hand can’t wash itself,” Mary said. “We’ll have to get rid of Special Agent Gray.”

“We can do that,” John said. “We’ll need to go to Washington.”

“That’s fine. But I refuse to miss the new stegosaurus exhibit again. Be warned.”

Two days later they embarked for Washington from the airport in Burbank, using a modest Cirris Vision SF50 jet leased from Executive Air. After takeoff, they caught up on their email, made a few calls, texted, checked the markets on three continents, and drank champagne.

They stopped in Denver and Chicago to refuel and conduct a little business and landed at Ronald Reagan National in Washington. A limo delivered them to their townhouse on the waterfront in Anacostia. Their cook and housekeeper had it open and ready for them when they arrived. No sign of a tail on the way over from the airport.

“Good hunting,” Mary said to John in the morning.

They spent Thursday and Friday from dawn until midnight, separately, in meetings. They returned to the airport Saturday morning, wilted and drained, and departed for home.

After breakfast on the plane – a grilled chop for Mary, mixed strawberries and blueberries for John – and a few online business transactions, plus, for John, an extended conference call, they settled down together to compare notes. Below them, the country scrolled past like a quilt.

“That felt like an annual pilgrimage,” John said.

“Actually, it’s been two years,” Mary said. “Senator Brown is showing his age but he’s as strong as ever for oil and coal. As are his friends in the Department of Energy.”

“Senator Green still looks like a kid,” John said. “He was downright frisky. He seems to have an army of backers at the EPA. They’re funded for a change.”

“I got off pretty cheap,” Mary said. “Under the table to the oil-and-gas lobby, under the table to the senator, under the table to two directors in the DOE.”

“The depressed economy. Bribes are hard to come by. You know things are rough when the lobbies are taking more than they’re giving.”

“The cost of doing business is going down. How about you?”

“The same. We have some pleased and grateful friends in the nation’s capital.”

“The FBI investigation into our activities has been terminated,” Mary said.

“Special Agent Gray has been transferred to Omaha with a big bump in pay grade. He’s to focus on kidnapping cases in the Midwest,” John said. “Did you make time for the stegosaurus exhibit?”

“I did. Amazing.”

“I wonder how many extinct species you can take credit for.”

“I wonder how many you’ve saved. Listen, why don’t we take a little time off. Visit Rome,” Mary said.

“And the cottage on Lake Como. And Venice.”

“Enjoy the world a little before I destroy it or you save it.”

Wild Asparagus

Our school was made of logs and on the first day of class, there were seven of us kids in it. Our teacher was Mr. George Pine.

“The first thing we’re going to learn today is how to catch a rabbit,” Mr. Pine said. “After we catch it, we’ll skin it and cook it and eat it, if we can catch it by lunchtime. You might already know how to catch a rabbit, but I’m going to teach you my way of going about it. If it’s different from your daddy’s way, then you’ll know two ways.”

“We got a wild turkey the other day,” little Boone said.

“You can trap a wild turkey,” Mr. Pine, “but generally you’ll just shoot it instead. It’s a project to trap a turkey. Not like snaring a rabbit… Now, if you haven’t skinned and cooked a rabbit, well then you’ll be learning how to do that too.”

“I almost got a squirrel with my slingshot,” Brockton said.

“Slingshot, bow and arrow, just plain old chucking a rock, there’s a lot you can accomplish out there in the woods with such,” Mr. Pine said. “We’ll be making our snare out of a loop of wire. You’ll each make one. We’ll be staking our snares into the ground along rabbit tracks. We’ve got a lot of rabbits around here and they are creatures of habit. They’ll stick to their paths. Rabbits can be somewhat of a pest, but they’re good eating, for us and for plenty of foxes and coyotes and such. We’ll be checking our snare so a fox or a coyote doesn’t beat us to our catch.”

“My dad shot a coyote,” Annie said.

“Coyotes help keep down the vermin, but a man will shoot a coyote from time to time,” Mr. Pine said.

“We don’t eat meat,” I said. “We don’t slaughter animals.”

“Well, Sue, that’s OK. You can just come along for the company. We’ll have you carry the water.”

“I was thinking that I could go over and pick some of that wild asparagus along the south road, and maybe some blueberries on the way back. We could use them for lunch too.”

“You know how to cook up that asparagus?” Mr. Pine said.

“Just roast it with olive oil and butter, and a little salt and pepper. That’s how we do it.”

“That sounds good,” Mr. Pine said. “You know what a porcini looks like?”

“Sure.”

“There’s some of them up now. Perhaps you could pick us a sack of those as well.”

“OK,” I said.

“But you can’t go alone, that’s the only problem.”

“I’ll go with her,” Tom said. “I’ve caught a thousand rabbits.”

That’s how the first day of school and the first day of me and Tom got started and they were both great.

Cursive

We moved across the country between my first and second grades. On the first day of school in second grade, I knew that I was in trouble. The teacher was writing on the board in a way that I couldn’t read. I knew my alphabet, but I hadn’t learned “writing” yet.

I sat quietly and tried not to attract attention. I liked the school. It was new and the desks and books were new and the kids were all clean. I didn’t want to get kicked out because I couldn’t write, or read writing.

The teacher eventually called on me and asked me a question about something that she had written on the board. I was sitting toward the back of the class and claimed I couldn’t see the board clearly. She invited me to move up to a desk closer to the front, and also told me to get my eyes checked – that I might need glasses. I said OK.

“I mean, move up now, Mary,” she said, but in a kindly way.

At the closer desk, I had to admit to her that I wasn’t sure what the words on the board meant.

“That can’t be,” she said. “They’re very simple words.”

I hung my head.

“I mean, I can’t read that kind of writing,” I said. “I only know regular letters. But I do know capitals and little letters.”

“Which class were you in last year, dear?” she said.

“I went to a school in Virginia.”

“Aha. You were in a school that teaches cursive in the second grade, not in the first grade. That’s OK. We’ll teach you to read this writing very quickly. In the meantime, don’t feel bad that you can’t read it. We’ll help you out as we go along.”

It turned out that there was another kid in the class who didn’t know writing at all, like me. I was glad to hear that. I made friends with him. If I had thought to look around earlier, I would probably have seen other kids squinting at the blackboard as they tried to remember what they had learned back before summer came.

The class spent some time that first day just practicing writing, so I got started with that. We would write a row of a’s and then a row of b’s and then a row of c’s. The paper had lines across and you had to stay on the lines. That was a help. Some of the kids got bored but I was glad for the chance to sit and learn to write on my very first day.

The Fourth

Mike began learning to keep his special talent to himself at the age of three.

He could see things that no one else could see, but when he spoke about these things, nothing good ever happened. His parents told him to quit making up stories. His friends at preschool did not understand what he was talking about. His teachers assumed that he was playing a game and told him to stop.

Worse, he could touch and affect objects in ways that others couldn’t. After doing so and experiencing the concern that it provoked in his parents, he learned not to do it.

It took Mike quite a while to understand the ways in which he was the same as everyone else, and ways in which he wasn’t. The things that everyone could see, he saw too, but with differences. The things that only he could see were simply out of sight for others – behind a wall, for example. He was left to puzzle all this out for himself. In the meantime, he became diffident in the extreme. Seeing his increasing lack of confidence and reluctance to act, his parents assumed that he had special needs of some sort, but their concern never reached the point of having him evaluated.

If, for example, he was walking with a friend past a backyard with a high fence around it, the friend could not see into the backyard, but Mike could, not through the fence or over or around it, but in a way that he couldn’t exactly describe. He kept his mouth shut.

One reason, perhaps the principal reason, that Mike did not talk about these things was that there weren’t any words handy to do so clearly. There were words like “width,” “length,” “depth,” and “height” at his service, for the aspects of objects that everyone could see. There were no words for the added aspects of those objects that only he could see.

In the same way, there were elements of touch, smell, and taste that nobody ever mentioned, but that he could experience. There might be a hot pie, say, way over there, but if Mike positioned himself in just the right way, it might seem to him that his nose was just about sticking right into it.

Years later, Mike learned to put a name to the area of perception involved in his special ability: dimension. Two-dimensional persons would not be able to see through a line drawn in front of them, but a three-dimensional person could see over that line. Just so, three-dimensional persons could not see into a closed box, but a four-dimensional person could. Mike alone was aware of the fact that the world and everything in it was four-dimensional. Or more.

This knowledge and his perceptive ability relating to it never proved useful to Mike. In high school, for a change, he tried sharing his secret again, with a friend named Damon.

“Whoa,” said Damon. “You could rule the world.”

“The thing is useless,” Mike said. “I never need it and I never use it. It’s been a troublemaker from the word go.”

He had given in to temptation one day, however, when walking past the high-school gym. He was a sophomore at the time and a class of sophomore girls was in the women’s locker room, the girls showering and changing. Mike took a quick peek and immediately felt shame at the sight of his female classmates partially dressed, or less, innocent in their trust and assumption of privacy. He never did that again.

“You explained to me the advantages available to a man who can see three dimensions in a two-dimensional world,” his friend Damon said to him. “How come that’s not a tremendous advantage in the same way to the man who can see 4-D in a 3-D world?”

“First of all, because you’re a freak,” Mike said. “You can’t have a normal life. Second of all, suppose I can see over a wall or into a locked room. So what?”

“Couldn’t you rob a bank? Reach into the vault in the fourth dimension and pull out the money?”

“That question is so stupid in so many ways, let’s quit talking about this.”

Once, parked on a date with a girl he liked, after drinking too much, he held up his hands.

“See how far apart they are?” he said.

The girl nodded. He moved his hands farther apart.

“Now they’re farther apart, right?” he said.

The girl looked at him. He moved his hands even farther apart, but now up and down, not side to side.

“Now they’re farther apart up and down, but almost touching another way you can’t see,” he said. “That’s the weird part about how it works.”

“Yeah, and where do you plan to put those weird hands next?” the girl said.

Every object in the world, it seemed, possessed qualities in that extra dimension that no one except Mike experienced, qualities that particularized the thing in unique ways. Mike might meet a girl, for example, who had an ineffable beauty that no one but he could appreciate – not even the girl herself.

In college, in his dorm, Mike could know in advance if a room were empty or occupied, but he wouldn’t allow himself to look. He’d knock and wait to find out. He respected everyone’s privacy.

He had several extended conversations with mathematicians. He learned that there was nothing special about a world of four spatial dimensions, or more. The ins and outs of the thing had been worked out long ago in a general way. Mike could see in as many dimensions as he wanted and it wouldn’t change anything. This knowledge reinforced his long-standing determination to keep his secret ability to himself and avoid the myriad inconveniences that discovery or disclosure might cause. He did not want his five minutes of fame.

Mike met Jane while working for an engineering consulting firm in Seattle. Jane had been married once before and had a six-year-old daughter. The couple began dating and in time found themselves speculating about the future. Mike’s extra dimension never found its way into the conversation.

Mike and Jane and Clarice, her daughter, were hiking near McClarens one Sunday, a week after a heavy storm had blown through. The day was clear and dry but the trail they were following remained muddy, puddled with residual rainwater.

Clarice, impatient with the way that Mike and Jane kept stopping to examine wild flowers, walked ahead, out of sight. Jane called her back several times but Clarice would return, fidget, and then take off again. Halfway around Bray’s Loop, the couple heard a shriek. They ran ahead and found an empty trail. A chunk of loopback had broken loose and Clarice, who had edged up to the break to look down into the canyon, had been dropped down the slope when another piece of the trail gave way beneath her.

Mike and Jane stayed clear of the fresh break, looking down the slope while clinging to trees on the edge. Jane was crying and screaming and calling out her daughter’s name. Mike could see Clarice sprawled motionless against a boulder, halfway down to Broken Creek. He opened his cell phone. No coverage.

“I’m going down there,” Mike said. “You run back and call nine one one as soon as you get a signal.”

“You can’t climb down. It’s too steep.”

“I’ll slide tree to tree. It’ll be rough, but I can get to her.”

“I should go down,” Jane said, but they both knew that Mike was twice the athlete she was.

“Run back, but pace yourself,” Mike said. “If you feel panicky, slow down and walk until you calm down. Keep your eyes on your feet. If you sprain an ankle, you won’t be able to help your daughter.”

Jane took off and Mike went over the side and began his controlled slide from obstacle to obstacle. By the time he reached Clarice, he was scratched and bleeding.

He reached out to turn the girl onto her back and straighten her out, but then stopped himself. She was breathing and still. If something was broken, he didn’t want to make it worse; but perhaps moving her would help, maybe save her.

“I’ve never looked inside anyone but myself,” he said out loud, to her and to himself. “I apologize, Clarice, but I’ve got to do it.”

That closed package, the human body, in four-space was as exposed to him as a flower in bloom, if only he chose to open the fourth door of his perception. Mirrored on a microscopic scale, every nucleated cell folded out.

He knelt close to Clarice. After a couple of false starts, he let himself see inside her. He surveyed the young girl in front of him and immediately spotted fractures in her cervical vertebrae. The spinal cord, while exposed, showed no obvious damage. However, edges of bone were poised like knife blades over it.

Mike covered the girl with his jacket. He unbuttoned his shirt and formed it into a pillow, which he slid under her while holding her head motionless. Clarice regained consciousness for a moment, and he kept her perfectly still, speaking to her in a quiet voice. She answered him. She still had feeling in her limbs. Her eyes closed again. Then Mike sat holding her hand until a park vehicle arrived on the trail above. Two park rangers rapelled down the slope.

“She’s got fractures in C3 and C4,” Mike said. “We’ll need to stabilize her head and neck completely before doing anything else.”

“How do you know they’re fractured?” the older of the two rangers asked.

“I could feel something before the swelling started,” Mike lied.

The rangers exchanged glances but didn’t pursue it.

“We’ve got a Reeves sleeve in the van,” one of them said.

He climbed up and lowered the flexible sleeve and its immobilization stretcher down to them. With Mike watching the damaged area in Clarice’s neck from the inside, the men transferred her into the sleeve. They climbed back to their truck and winched the stretcher up to it.

Mike and Jane rode back with the rangers. At the first moose meadow they came to, they found a Medevac copter waiting for them.

Later, at the hospital, after they learned that Clarice would recover without damage to her spinal cord, thanks to the care that had been taken with her after the accident, the couple settled down to wait for her to regain consciousness.

“I need to share something with you,” Mike said to Jane. “I think I can have a career in medicine and I want to explain to you why.”