The One-Two Punch

Late one night when I was 9, I awoke to the sound of my own name. In the dim hallway just outside my bedroom stood an inky silhouette, and even though I couldn’t see its eyes, I knew that silhouette was staring at me.

Chills, sweat, panic. As the shadow shifted its weight, I saw something familiar in its posture. I recognized my grandfather. A joy mixed with my fear, but something still wasn’t right. I heard the sound of chains (the dog’s leash?) from the other side of the house, and Grandpa was gone.

I got up and walked down the hall to search for him, but stopped when I remembered it was no use. He’d passed away years ago. I can’t say with certainty that he visited me that night, but I’m sure of the unlikely mix of joy and panic I felt in that moment.  I have felt it on two other occasions— both occasions were just as momentous. I want that mix of emotion to have a name.

It needs a name.

Years later, I was sitting across from a friend in the red vinyl booth of an empty diner. A wobbly table separated us and dusty wreaths hung over our heads.

When our conversation turned to his current boyfriend, I discovered I was jealous. Ok, technically my friend was an ex, but he never felt like one; our friendship never soured afterward like with others. Oh, I wanted him back. I wavered on telling him for a while that night (rejection itself was scary enough; re-rejection was mortifying), but eventually summoned the courage:

“I still compare everyone I date to you.”

His brows turned down with concern; his eyes searched my face. I was hit by that same one-two punch: scared to death of the risk I was taking but elated by my epiphany. After the longest pause of my life, he told me he felt the same way. We’ve been together ever since.

The third time I felt the punch I was sitting next to my supine father a day after his triple by-pass. I’d never seen him so vulnerable— machines watched over him like sentinels, their cords reaching around every part of his limp body. He looked like he was caught in a web.

My mother and I were listening to him fill the room with words. He was terrified. We all were. As some nurse checked Dad’s blood pressure, Mom made a casual comment about how I must have driven 90 mph the entire way to the hospital because I got there so fast. “I thought I’d lost my father,” I snapped. “Of course I sped to get here.” A look crossed my Dad’s face before he slipped his hand into mine, keeping it there as he continued talking.

Dad is not the expressive type— that is the only time he’s ever held my hand in my adult life. I sat there fighting back tears because of the stress of the last two days, but also because I was so glad he was still with us.

What word could I use to describe the terrible gladness of that moment with my father, the scary elation of telling my ex I wanted him back, or the joyful panic of seeing my dead grandfather? Why is there no word for these horribly fantastic moments in our lives? There should be a word for it.

 

 

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Prescriptions

I tried to forgive them—the men in my life—but only one has managed to stay on my good side. Most of the time.

“Chase?” I toss my purse on the sofa, put Skylar down in her cradle and almost trip on Darrell’s backpack. The apartment is dead quiet, which is odd, because the house is never quiet. Chase can’t sit for more than two seconds without turning some crappy music up all the way. He says the music helps him think and that earphones plug up his creativity. Yeah. More like it helps him mask the sound of near-constant texting while he’s supposed to be doing homework.

Plus, we live in the back of that old three-story house at Peters and Lincoln—you know, the one that looks like a barn in the back? Anyways, the house is constantly creaking; you can hear it settling as you walk by on the street. It’s creepy.

My cell phone beeps: new voicemail. I didn’t even hear my phone ring. “Hello, this is Margaret Peters calling for Amanda Heyduk? Amanda, I’m the principal at Chase’s school? I was wondering if it would be possible to talk to you at your earliest convenience?” I stop listening. The careful way all her sentences end as questions means she’s not calling to tell me Chase made the honor roll. I take the stairs two at a time, knock real quick on the door, and I’m in the teenager’s bedroom.

“Mo-om!” he says. Two syllables, not one. He pushes his shaggy blond hair out of his eyes.

There’s nothing embarrassing happening; he’s just listening to his iPod, which, as you know, isn’t normal. Mental note: check what he’s loaded on that thing sometime when he’s gone. He obviously doesn’t want me to hear something.

“I just got a message from your principal. Any idea what that’s about?”

He pops his headphones back into his ears. I yank the closest one out again. “Talk. Before your sister wakes up,” I says.

He gives me this look: the one that tells me I’m not going to like what he’s about to say, not the one that tells me I’m being annoying. I feel sorry for him just then. He says to me, “Mrs. Eichorn heard me tell Linc something.”

“I’m listening.”

“I was telling him about the box under the couch. I think it’s Darrell’s. I didn’t touch anything once I opened it to see what it was, I swear. I put it right back, Mom.” But I was already up off the bed, and halfway down the stairs. I crouch down on the carpet and slide the super-light box out. I hear Chase behind me.

Prescription bottles—about fifteen of them—lay on their side in a small Amazon box: Xanax, Codeine, Adderall, Ativan, Seconal. Different people’s names on each label.

I am such an idiot.

Darrell’s this guy who works at a gas station, a “friend” I know from the bar who was talking late one night about hitting a rough patch and needing some help. I’m letting him stay on the couch for a few weeks. Should have known he was a loser as soon as I saw his stupid motorcycle helmet with the pierced nipple on the side of it.

“How long have you known about these?” I try hard to keep my voice even.

“Found them last night.” He looks down at the floor. “There’s more in the basement.”

“More?”

I grab my phone from my back pocket. “Do me a favor? Put Darrell’s stuff in one of those boxes.” Chase grabs a diaper box and walks into the bathroom. I take a quick trip to the basement. Two more boxes full of them sitting next to my Christmas decorations. I shout up the stairs to Chase. “You okay with Sky for 20 minutes?”

“Where you going?” he says. I hear his footsteps above me crossing out of the bathroom.

“I have to run up to the gas station for something,” I says as I walk back up the stairs. Making a point not to look at my face, Chase hands me Darrell’s backpack and the box he’s filled.

“Call upstairs if you need anything, baby. Be right back!” And I’m out the door.

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The continuation of this story can be read here. It’s the one about the confrontation with the gas station clerk.

*Constructive criticism is always appreciated. I am not a parent; how convincingly did I write from the perspective of one?

Precious Little Without Them

In the span of a breath, everything changed. The bees chirped. The birds buzzed. And I sat reading a letter next to a gnarled tree. Alone.

I had watched as Eleanor packed our things, only leaving six chickens, the contents of the root cellar, my clothes, and my razor and strop. What precious little I had in my life without them. I held my chin steady as she picked up my youngest, adjusted her bonnet, and walked down the drive. She took my sons and my daughters with her. All ten of them pitied me as they lifted their valises and hefted them onto the stagecoach. I saw a joy inside each of them waiting to be loosed like the voices of a chorus during Easter services. My children were eager to start their adventure.

I picture them as they were in the stagecoach before Charles set the horses in motion. Helen, oblivious, demanded a gum drop and Sarah, my young lady, bent down to Helen’s ear. “Not now,” Sarah whispered. “We’re saying farewell to Papa.” My quiet Aileen held Felix’s hand. Mary Ellen, Langham, and Millicent sat lined up in a row, their legs dangled over the edge of the stagecoach platform. Standing up front, lanky William soothed the horses after the jostling and ruckus of loading their things. I said a silent prayer asking the Lord to watch over each one of them. I knew once they left my sight I was powerless to protect them.

Charles held the reins tightly and gave me his most solemn good-bye. The steeliness in his eyes reassured me that he knew what I expected of him. Man of the house. Settling a family in the frontier wouldn’t be easy, especially without their father; I hoped in that moment that I had sufficiently prepared Charles for the months ahead: the river crossings, the Indians and thieves, the unpredictable weather. All forces set on punishing my loved ones for aspiring to a better life. The thought of it has brought me to my knees more than once these past months.

Eleanor, my faithful wife, was the only one of them that looked peaked. I worried after they departed if I had witnessed the specter of illness on her face. Now, with this first letter, I know what I saw that day wasn’t illness. It was a secret. It was fear.

She had stepped onto the stagecoach that day knowing she was with child. I will meet my new son or daughter when I join them. They arrived the first week of July and I did not lose a one, praise God. Now all that’s left is the selling of the farm,  the wait for warmer weather, and my own journey west.

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The Closet In the Basement

On my ninth Christmas Eve, my parents went out— probably to finish Christmas shopping. They had put Arnold, my 17-year-old oldest brother in charge of my other brother, Hans, and me. Arnold told me he wanted to show me something in the basement. It was thrilling following him and Hans down the stairs. My brothers actually wanted to do something with me for once! This could go either very well or very badly.

Our basement has this closet in one corner that was locked year-round. That was where they led me. The door of the closet is made of raggedy, gnarled barn board slats. Up until that night, I was always scared of that door. It looked like what a gate to Hell looks like in old movies, you know? Now that I think about it, one of my brothers probably planted that image in my head.

Hans inserted a key into the lock, then threw open the door. Christmas presents! Tons of them in various states of dress. We ogled the ones that weren’t wrapped, and Hans showed me how to carefully peel back the Scotch tape from the presents that were.

Before I peeked at my first present though, Arnold prepped me on how to act surprised when I opened the gifts the next morning: “Remember exactly how you feel when you see what’s inside, Nathan. That way you can recreate it when you open this in front of Mom and Dad.” I had to ask what recreate meant. Once they told me, I couldn’t get over how smart my brothers were.

After we had our fill looking at the presents, we patted the tape back down. Arnold locked the closet door. When my parents came home that night, we were primly seated in front of the television, quiet as mice.

*****

A few weeks ago, Arnold told me he is moving to Seattle. It’s really good news. He needs a change. His announcement just shook me and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I remembered the night my brothers showed me the Christmas closet.

That’s the memory that comes back to me whenever I walk into my parents’ house and see the presents under their tree. Now that even my niece and nephew are adults, the holidays are less about presents and more about appreciating being together as a family.

That’s what jolted me about Arnold’s announcement. His moving to Seattle is the beginning of the end of that. His son and daughter will still be in Michigan. He’s not abandoning us, but his Christmas visits will inevitably dwindle. I’ll feel his absence. I’ll want to go down to that basement and throw open that creepy closet door hoping Arnold’s in there waiting to surprise us.

 

Retirement

The days of the week lined up like buckets, ready to catch whatever fell in. The idea of such vast amounts of empty time intimidated her. On the nights leading up to her last day of work, Anne had a recurring dream of floating in a listless raft on an open ocean. Every time she crested a wave, she’d crane her neck to look for palm trees on the horizon. She felt Tom’s presence on the raft, always silent behind her. She woke up annoyed at the obvious meanings of her dreams.

She imposed structure to her days on her first day off. The habits of a thirty-five-year career on the police force couldn’t just be forgotten. She filled her mornings with cream cheese Danishes and spent her afternoons on the green or talking clubs with the guys at the Pro Shop until 7 or so.

Tonight she came home early though, threw her keys on the console table, and sank into the couch. Tom plopped down next to her after putting a casserole in the oven. They watched Chicago Fire together for a while. During the commercial breaks, which she refused to fast forward through, he talked himself out of saying something to her. The oven chimed and Tom got up.  “Want any?”

“Ate at the club.”

He returned with steaming peas and sausage crumbles heaped on his plate. His lips smacked as he ate. She turned up the volume. When he was done eating, it was her turn to get up. She took his dish to the sink, poured in half the bottle of dish soap, and watched the suds form a hive on top of the water. Tom leaned into the kitchen.

“Do you know it’s been 35 days since you’ve asked me how I’ve been?” Tom said.

“You’ve been counting?” She grabbed the sponge and began to scour.

“I wanted to see how long it lasted. It’s lasted too long. I feel like a ghost.”

She turned toward him. Noticed how pale he was. “You look like one.”

He smiled. “We should do something.”

“We just ate dinner.”

I just ate dinner. You shut down in front of the TV like a robot.”

“I was just relaxing.”

“No. You weren’t. Do you remember anything about the show we just watched? What happened to Shay?” She could picture the bright-eyed actress that played the paramedic on the show, but she couldn’t remember anything that had happened on the program. Her face fell.

“My guess is you were thinking about a case. Some dark and incomprehensible character whose file is probably still sitting on your desk, and I’m pretty sure I’m right because it’s all you’ve done since you retired. You start to mope as soon as you walk into this house and I get it: you miss having a puzzle to solve. I’ve just been sitting around like an asshole waiting for you to realize it.” He put his hand on her shoulder, then left the room.

Anne finished washing the casserole dish, turned off the faucet. Tom came back in with her coat and her gun. He offered them both to her. Her hands were still covered in suds.

“C’mon. Let’s go shoot.”

 

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