13 March, 2009

The March of Mrs. Mary Francis

When the phone rang, she jumped into action. Mary Francis kept a pad of paper and a good pen on the end table next to the phone so she didn’t have to look around for one. She left instructions with every member of the First Street Apostolic Church Prayer Tree to call her any time day or night.

“Hello? Yes, hello Margie. No, it’s not too late to call. I was just sitting here reading. Yes. Oh really? How long ago? Which hospital? Oh yes, of course. I’ll be there as soon as I can. I just have to get out of my house coat and into some presentable clothes. Ok. Ok. God bless.”

She finished writing as she hung up the phone, and then took a beat to look over her notes scrawled in impeccably neat cursive handwriting. Everyone, from the pastor to the bank clerk, always commented on her neat and beautiful her penmanship. Sometimes she smiled when she thought about the compliments her thank you and condolence cards received, even though t conceit was a sin. Looking over notes, she went through her memory trying to figure out where she knew the name Albert Branson. She mouthed it silently. Albert Branson, Jr. ICU Ward. She set the pad of paper down, walked into the kitchen, and opened the freezer. It was three quarters of the way full of frozen casseroles. She used to make them fresh. But then there was the problem of time, and getting to the store to buy what she needed. Then there was the dish – always having to try and get her casserole dishes back without sounding mean or nagging. Now, she made them in advance in aluminum pans and froze them, so all she’d have to do is take one out and pop it in the oven. Voila, she would think. Martha Stewart had nothing on her.

She chose a nice green bean casserole – her signature dish – and put it in the refrigerator to thaw out. Then she walked to her bedroom to change clothes. The full size bed was covered with piles of clothes that would, at some point, end up going to one of the church charities Mrs. Mary Francis worked with. She used to pile them on the floor, but bending over to pick them up hurt her back. She couldn’t leave them piled on the kitchen table – she needed that space for cooking and for writing out her thank you and condolence cards and for putting together holiday care packages for the less fortunate. The bed was the only place put the clothes.

The couch was just fine, though, thank you very much – and it wasn’t like she needed all that space, anyway. Anyway it kept her close to the phone. In case someone called. And someone always called. Since Norman died, all she did, it seemed, was run to the hospital and collect things for the church. She barely spoke to anybody anymore unless somebody was sick or dying or needing a new coat. The only person she really talked to was her husband. Her husband’s picture, actually. She talked to him everyday. It was a habit; she’d grown so accustomed to talking to him over forty-five years of marriage that one he was dead, she simply kept on. Mary only had a few pictures of him – he absolutely hated getting his picture taken, even if it was just for the church directory – and of those few that one was her favorite: young Norman in his Army uniform. He had the picture taken during the war, and he sent it back to her with one of her letters. She used to have all of his letters, but they were destroyed that summer in ’57 when the entire valley flooded and everything in the shed was soaked through. The loss was a heartbreak for her, of course. In those letters he wrote her from Italy, he told her about his days, what Italy was like. Parts of them were almost poetic. At least, what she thought was poetic. It wasn’t a Hallmark card, but it had its own quality. Its own fineness. And when he finally came home, and they finally got married, Mary expected that he would keep talking. But he talked even less. And at that, he rarely talked above a whisper, even to the children when they were living at home. When he died of the cancer (he smoked filterless cigarettes for years, even after Mary herself had quit) he was sitting in his easy chair, drinking a cup of warm milk and watching a rerun of The Lawrence Welk Show. At least he’d been able to pass on at home, she had told herself and others. At least he didn’t die looking like a pin cushion in some hospital bed.

“Do we know Albert Branson, Jr, Norman?” she asked the picture. It didn’t answer her. He wasn’t smiling in the picture. It was more of a cocky smirk, the way a young man smiles. Sometimes she thought about the young girl she was back then – a giggly young thing. Pretty, too. Jack Masterson had chased her pretty hard – he’d gotten a farm exemption and didn’t fight in the war. But she wasn’t one to cheat, and she promised Norman that she’d wait. “Even if it’s forever” she’d said. And she meant it, too; even if silly Jack Masterson started waiting for her to get off work at the bank so he could walk her home and try to hold her hand.

She stood in front of her closet, looking through her clothes. It was important to choose an outfit that sent the correct message. Nothing too black, of course; there would be time enough for that, and it looked ghoulish. But it couldn’t be too bright and cheerful, either. That tended to put people off when they are coming to terms with the imminent death of a loved one. Mary chose one of her favorite winter outfits – a thick corduroy skirt, long sleeve white blouse, and her wine colored sweater with the floral print – that her daughter Jean bought for her two Christmases ago. Jean, she thought. Does Jean know an Albert Branson, Jr.? She couldn’t remember the name from when her daughter went to school. It was late, or she’d call Jean; and Jean had to be at work early. Working extra because that no account husband of hers left. Mary told her daughter to marry somebody from the church; if not THEIR church, then any church. But she’d married some boy she met in college, instead. Mary had been proud of her daughter when she had gone to school; but now she realized that the place had ruined her. She ran off and fell into temptation… came back with a TATTOO, purple hair, and a bunch of outfits that made her look like a New York City hooker. (Mary had never been to New York but she watched enough police shows to know she didn’t need to go just to get mugged and raped and maybe murdered.) What was worse was when Mary learned that her new son-in-law was JEWISH. Norman didn’t say anything about it, though, so Mary kept her silence and her opinion to herself and to Norman.

She shook her head and refocused on the task at hand. Her mind was wandering more than it used to; though she supposed that was just old age. “Albert Branson Jr. There weren’t any Bransons at the church. She hoped it wasn’t a child; it just about broke her heart when children died. It wasn’t as common as it used to be, and whenever it did happen, it was always something tragic. Like the Miller boy, who was swimming in a creek and decided to dive in to impress some girl – she couldn’t remember the girl’s name, but she remembered hearing she was wearing a skimpy little bikini that didn’t leave anything to the imagination. No wonder, she’d told herself and others, that the boy went and did something dumb. He jumped in head first, shattered his neck bone, and drown.

Going to the hospital made her feel useful. It was an important service, she thought, to gently remind people near death that there was an afterlife. That they had to be Right With God. People, she knew, got all tied up with life and everyday things, and they forgot about their God. Norman had been like that, too. After Norman died, she dove straight into her church work: gathering the clothes for charity. Then getting on the Prayer Tree. Then she talked to Pastor Roberts and he put her on the Grief and Funeral Committee. She’d tried to get put on the Baptismal Committee, too, but Pastor Roberts told her that might be unfair to other people in the church who wanted to serve. (Even though, she noted to herself, there was an empty spot on the committee until Nora Richards agreed to do it after her husband was finally saved.)

Besides, after Norman died she understood she had a calling. It came to her suddenly in the middle of the night. She was sitting up on the couch, watching some late night infomercial about skin cream – one of those things that was supposed to erase the years and make you look younger. She was sitting there telling Norman’s picture about how it was vanity, pure and simple, and that the problem with those women was they were in Hollywood and never went to church. No one in Hollywood went to church as far as she could tell. Just look, she told herself and others. Look at the kind of movies they make nowadays. It’s not a movie unless some girl takes her clothes off or somebody gets killed in some bloody and horrible way. She considered it a shame, too, because she used to love going to the movies. It was the one treat she used to allow herself while Norman was overseas. She loved going to the movies and seeing all the glamorous women in the flowing gowns and the men dressed up in their suits and snappy looking hats. Everybody danced and the endings were always happy. She didn’t even mind when Jack Masterson sat next to her and tried to get fresh; she slapped him away and went back to watching her movie. She couldn’t think of the title. She could swear, though, that it had Van Johnson in it. Or maybe not.

Thinking about those things always made her sad; so Mary did was she always did when she was sad. She read her bible and prayed. The insomnia was bad back then, which was why she was awake at such a late hour. She hadn’t slept a full night through for six months after Norman passed. She read her bible and prayed that God would let her sleep.

About twenty minutes later, the phone rang. At first, she wasn’t going to answer it; but she thought it might be Jean. When she picked up, it was Margie, her branch in the Prayer Tree. Jack Masterson – her husband – had fallen off his roof trying to fix the shingles – which he had no business doing at his age, anyway – and he’d broken his back. The doctors thought he was probably going to die between his age and the internal injuries, and Margie begged her to come to the hospital and sit with her. She didn’t know what to do, she said. The doctors were telling her one thing, but she didn’t know what to think, and would she just come and listen and be another set of ears and keep her company? Without missing a beat, Mary Francis told Margie she’d be there, stood up, got dressed, and was at the hospital on the ICU ward. Normally, nobody but family was allowed, but the night nurse was a member of the church (event though she sometimes worked on Sundays, anyway.) And there was broken up old Jack Masterson, lying in his hospital bed, dying. The doctors were telling Margie that there was very little they could do. If they operated on him, the trauma would probably kill him. If they didn’t operate, he was probably going to die, anyway.

Margie was inconsolable. “What do I do, Mary?” she asked through her tears. “I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed, and I still don’t know what to do. The only thing I could think of was to call you. Jack always said you were the most pious woman he’d ever known.”

That made Mary blush, just a little. “We ought to pray over him again,” Mary answered. “And we’ll pray until something happens.”

And they prayed. And prayed. The nurses had never seen so much praying; one of them, who wasn’t in the church, was so moved she cried and prayed along with them. They prayed loud and they prayed hard. They sang hymns. They quoted Psalms.

An hour later, Jack Masterson died. But two other patients on the ICU ward started to improve. One of them ended up leaving a week later and lived another two months. That was when Mary made the connection, and her calling was born. From then on, whenever somebody was near death, they called her and did the Calling Back. This was especially important if the people weren’t right with the Lord. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But it had given her something else to do. And from then on, she slept soundly every night, unless the phone rang.

Mary checked that she had her car keys and her bible. It was the family bible – the one that had hers and Norman’s and Jean’s and the grandchildren’s names listed in them. The corners were worn thin from use and the binding was coming apart. She turned to Norman’s picture. “I’ll be back soon, she said to Norman’s picture. The picture didn’t respond. She grabbed her coat, bundled up against the winter cold outside, and opened the door. The rush of cold wind surprised her a little, and made her drop her keys. When she bent down to pick them up, she realized she was wearing slick bottom shoes that might cause her to slip on the ice and snow between the house and her car; then she turned around to go back in and put on more appropriate shoes when the wind gusted again, caught her bible, caused it to fall in the snow bank next to the porch. When she reached down to pick it up, she slipped and fell head first off the porch.

Gilda, she thought. The name of that movie was Gilda. After that, she thought nothing at all.

05 March, 2009

Person of the Year, Part 2

When he lost his spot at the flea market, JJ knew he didn’t deserve Tess. Her family had been right. His family – the ones worth talking to – were right. Tess was smart. If she hadn’t gotten with him, she might’ve done something. Gone somewhere that wasn’t so damned depressing and where the only thing to do was get fucked up.

“You’re just a bum,” Tess’s grandmother had said at the wedding. “I just hope she sees you’re a bum before it’s too late.”

It didn’t seem to matter how much he drank or how late he stayed out or what he did; he could never get Granny’s pronouncement out of his head. Tonight was no exception. He left before Tess got home from another double shift. Seeing her coming home, dragging her ass through the door only served to remind him that he wasn’t working. Darryl and Billy thought he had it made, though. Tess was the hottest girl in school, back when they were kids. Straight A student. Went to church. When JJ tagged her, they figured anything was possible. And when she worked doubles while he sat on his ass, they called him a genius.

“Where can I find me one of them?” Billy crowed. “She got a sister or cousin?”

“Hell, yeah,” Darryl agreed. “The younger the better. Gotta raise ‘em up right.”

They were dumbasses; but they were his friends. And Darryl was also family – first cousin on his mom’s side. Tess didn’t like them coming around; but she didn’t run them off, either. They’d come by as soon as they rolled out of bed – usually around noon or so – and by one the three of them would be well on their way to their first buzz of the day.

When they knocked on the door, JJ had half a mind to tell them to go away and leave him be. He needed to think. He needed to do something. He was supposed to fix the thermostat, and it might be nice if he picked things up. Tess wasn’t the kind of woman who wanted grand romance and expensive presents; but a clean house would certainly perk her up. He ignored the first few knocks. They just banged on the door louder. Billy threatened to turn the trailer over. Darryl said he’d piss in JJ’s gas tank if he didn’t wake his ass up and open the door. Some friends.

“I know you’re exhausted from all the working you been doing,” Billy said. “But you knew we were gonna drop by.”

“Yeah,” Darryl piped in. “We didn’t interrupt anything did we?”

“Tess is at work,” JJ muttered.

Darryl smiled and took a drink of his Mountain Dew. Three of his front teeth were missing. “We’re not talking about TESS. Where’s that cute little piece you were talking to last night at the bar?”

JJ opened the kitchen cabinet above the stove, looking for the coffee. He found the can. It was empty. He was supposed to go grocery shopping, too. Fuck. I need caffeine to deal with these assholes.

“She looked pretty nice,” Billy said, lighting a cigarette. JJ was about to remind him that Tess didn’t like people smoking in the house when Billy continued, “and she WAS all over you last night.”

“Some nice tits on that one,” Darryl said, nodding his head. “And that skirt! She might as well not been wearing anything at all.”

JJ thought her name was Claire or Claudine or something like that. She was somebody’s baby sister who snuck into the bar; though sneaking in wasn’t all that difficult. Scotty, who watched the door and checked ID’s let in any cute piece of snatch. The younger the better, since Scotty liked them young. Scotty was like Darryl; they closely adhered to the if they’re old enough to bleed, they’re old enough to breed philosophy. Billy, at least, liked his women old enough to drink. But he got laid less often.

“She’ll probly be there tonight,” Billy said.

“Uh-huh,” JJ muttered.

“Wake the fuck up, dude,” Darryl said. “We got shit to do.”

“Out of coffee.”

“So? Come on, we’ll get you a cup at the AAMACO station,” Darryl said. “ That one bitch who’s so sweet on you might be working… you know, the chubby one who used to give blow jobs during high school football games…”

“Yeah,” Billy, smiling. “She certainly made losing a little less painful.”

“I think her old man left her again,” Darryl said. “You might could tap that. If you wanted.”

“Nah,” JJ said.

“What’s the matter?” Billy asked. “Chubby chicks need love, too.”

JJ didn’t feel like dealing their bullshit, so he changed the subject. “I gotta get cleaned up.” He seemed to remember that the AAMACO station was looking for somebody to cover the early morning shift. Maybe if he went in and filled out an application…

“Cleaned up??” Billy was incredulous. “What the fuck for?”

“Put something on and let’s GO,” Darryl pushed. “And remind that woman of yours to do the laundry every once in a while.”

The day went on like that. The minute they got in JJ’s truck, Billy lit up a joint and passed it around. JJ took his hits and said very little. Driving through town, JJ was struck by how gray and depressing the place was. He knew it with his eyes closed, backwards, and forwards. It never really changed. Most of the businesses along Main Street were boarded up and empty – but they had been ever since Wal-Mart moved in up on the interstate by-pass. Hardly anybody stopped on Main Street. JJ had been thinking about opening up a business there. The space was cheap enough. When he’d had the table at the Flea Market he sold trinkets and things he found in yard sales, estate sales, and auctions. Most of the time he didn’t even look at what he was buying until after he got it. Boxes of everything from baby clothes to comic books to little figurines of angels. Sometimes he stumbled onto something that looked valuable – antique, even. He liked doing that – taking the stuff people didn’t want and selling it to somebody who did. It felt almost useful. Almost. Tess liked the idea when he mentioned it the week before – though she wasn’t sure how they would get the money.

“We’ll go to the bank,” he had told her. “Get a loan.”

“But it’s not that easy,” she’d said. “You have to have a plan, and some money set back, and…”

“If I had money set back,” JJ countered, “there’d be no reason to go to the bank.”

“I could ask my uncle,” she offered. “He might give us a small loan if we…”


“But Jay…”

“I said ‘No’ god dammit. I’m not asking your family for a goddamn thing.”

“What?” she said. “You going to ask YOUR family?”

She was right, of course. Tess was right most of the time. But there was no way he was going to go begging to her family for money. It was bad enough that they were right about him. He didn’t see the point in proving it even more. After that, he and Tess didn’t really talk. She was working all the time and JJ tried never to be home when she was. He’d been sleeping on the couch for a while, anyway, because she didn’t like smelling him when he came home from the bar.

He’d planned on doing something when he got up. He wanted to do something so Tess would talk to him again. So she would look at him they way she used to. So he could look at himself in the mirror and not feel like he was the failure everybody (except Tess) had always expected him to be.

Naturally, the three of them ended up at the bar. One of Billy’s cousins was working the bar, and it was Ladies Night. The four of them went into the back office and smoked a little before it got too busy. Billy and Darryl were doing what they normally did. Darryl was ogling and chasing the girls that looked underage and Billy was striking out at the bar. Claudine was indeed at the bar again, looking very cute and accessible in a purple tube top that barely held her in and a skirt that was really more of belt.

“Do you have any dreams?” he asked her.

She smiled and rubbed his leg. “Honey, I dream ALL the time.” That smile. JJ knew he could ask her out the truck and she’d go.

“No… I mean. What do you want to DO? Are you planning on staying here for the rest of your life? Going to college? What?”

She snorted and her appletini almost shot out of her nose. “College? What? Are you serious? Who wants to go to school more than they have to? I can just get a job here in town and be FINE.”

He sighed. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.” He signaled Billy’s cousin for another drink.

She rubbed up next to him, making sure to give him a good view down her tube top. “Listen, Jay,” she whispered, running one of her fingers up and down his inner thigh. “I know where this is coming from. She doesn’t get you, you know? She was always too good for the rest of us. Her family, too. Bunch a snobs. Darryl told me how they acted when you got married.” She smiled up at him and licked her lips.

Oh yeah? JJ looked over at Darryl, who was trying to impress some little girl who looked like she was playing hooky from a junior high dance. He looked back at JJ and smiled that toothless shit eating grin. What ELSE did you hear from Darryl?

“You need somebody who UNDERSTANDS you, honey.” Her hand stopped at his crotch. She was running her fingernail up and down his zipper. “Let’s you and me go for a walk and talk about it, huh? I’m a GOOD Listener.”

JJ stood up and pushed her off of him. “I gotta go,” he said. Claudine looked shocked and confused. He looked over at Darryl and fought the urge to walk over and punch out the rest of his teeth. Like I need anything from that asshole. Instead, he turned and walked out of the bar without paying his tab. Let that child fucking prick pay it, he thought.

He didn’t realize how drunk he was until he stood up and tried to walk. He nearly pushed over Scotty trying to get out of the door. He got to his truck, climbed into the driver seat and, after fumbling with his keys for a little bit, got it started. He wasn’t worried about making it home. He knew the roads with his eyes closed. He just wanted to get home and talk to Tess. He knew she wouldn’t like that he was drunk, but he wanted to make things right. He wanted to tell her he would ask her uncle for a loan. He wanted to tell her he was sorry. He wanted to tell her he was going to sober up and apply for that job at AAMACO until they got the money together for the store. He wanted to tell her to stop working doubles. He wanted to fix the thermostat.

He was trying to remember all of the little chores she had wanted him to do, like fix the support beam under the front porch, when a deer ran out in front of him. He swerved to avoid hitting it, felt the truck flip, and went black. The next thing he heard were the sirens. And then he didn’t hear anything at all.

03 March, 2009

Every Man’s a VIP [For the Old Man]

At first I didn’t recognize him. Riley saw me at DeQuincy’s bar just as I was starting my second beer. When he said my name, the tone reminded me of the way people used to talk to me when I was a kid. The way other kids used to talk to me. I didn’t like it back then, either. The last time I remembered him talking to me was when he sat across the aisle from me in Mrs. Gorskey’s sophomore English class. He kept failing his writing assignments. I told him to borrow essays from old copies of The Reader’s Digest.

“Is that what you do?”

It wasn’t. I actually wrote mine; but I wasn’t going to tell him that or he’d try and get me to write his too. “Trust me,” I said. “She’ll never know the difference.”

She never did. Neither did he.

Riley sat on the empty stool next to me like we were long lost friends. “Shit, man,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder. “How the hell are ya? You living around here now?”

“For about two years. You?”

“Ten years,” he answered. “Off and on.”

The bartender came over and Riley ordered a beer. “So what’s it been?” he asked after his beer arrived.

“Twenty years.”

“Well shit,” he said, raising his glass in a toast. “It’s good to see somebody from the old hometown.”

“Yeah.” I raised my glass, too, though for no particular reason. “You ever go back?” I asked.

He nodded. “I went back once, for about six months. I hated it. You?”

“I haven’t lived there since I graduated high school.”

“I hear you’re a big college professor now.”

He heard? Who the fuck does he talk to? Who do I talk to?

“I WAS a college instructor. Now I’m a full time bar stool warmer.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah, well, the hours are better and the general company is not so full of bullshit.”

“Politics,” he answered.

“And economics,” I said. “It’s one of those ‘We’re all in this together’ scenarios…”

“… where you’re the one who gets fucked.” he finished.

“Well said.”

He smiled. “I’m familiar with that.”

I looked at him. I shuffled through the card catalog in my mind trying to remember something about him. He moved slowly and deliberately, lifting the glass to his mouth. His head was shaved and he’d put on weight. There was a squareness to his jaw that suggested he’d gone the military route. Even chinless wonders end up, somehow, looking more Greco-roman when they get out of the military. “Didn’t you go into the military?”

“Yup. The Army.”

That’s right, I thought. I was getting a clearer picture of who he was back then. Used to come into school wearing camos and black boots. He even shaved his head to look like a grunt. That was back during the first Gulf War. I’d met a few guys who came back from that one; some of them in bars. A few of them had been students at the same time I was – using the GI Bill to try and figure out how to get back into regular life. Most of them seemed to adjust ok. A few didn’t. Some came back with health problems they didn’t go there with.

“I stayed in,” he said.


He shrugged and laughed a short, bitter laugh. “I guess so.”

“Did you end up going back to Iraq this time around?”

He shook his head. “Afghanistan,” he said.

“You’re a pretty lucky guy, then,” I said.

“I guess so. Lucky.”

His beer was empty, so I bought him another one. We talked some more. I found out how he’d heard about me. His sister’s kid had my mom for homeroom last year. “Apparently she talks about you all the time,” Riley said. “She must be proud of you.”

“She leaves a lot out,” I said.

“It’s gotta be kind of nice, though,” he said. “Maybe she’s just proud that you followed in her footsteps.”

No. Actually she always wanted me to be a lawyer. I shrugged. “Moms,” I said.

“I hear ya.”

We drank and talked and drank and talked. We traded off rounds. Had a couple of shots. We talked about people from home – where they were the last time we’d heard of them. Who was married. Who was divorced. Who had kids. Who found religion.

“I seem to remember that YOU were pretty religious back in the day,” he remarked.

“I guess.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he went on. “You used to carry your bible and shit to school.”

“I remember.”

“So what happened?”

I shrugged. “It passed.”

“It passed? What do you mean, ‘It passed’?”

Like gas. Like the flu. I shrugged and drained my beer. “I reached the age of common sense,” I said. That made me think about what my mom had told me. That college had ruined me. Exact words. Ruined. It was time to change the subject. “Are you still in the army?”

He snorted. “No.”

“What happened? I didn’t think they were letting anybody out.”

“They didn’t want to let me out,” he said. “Tried to stop-loss my ass.”

I’d heard the term. There are two things you can count on in academic circles: that new terminology is dissected to the point of meaninglessness and political issues are discussed with the same intensity as the importance of poetic metaphor in literature.

“So what happened?”

“I let them the first time,” he said. “They sent me back to Afghanistan. I led a convoy unit. When my bit was up, they wanted to do it again. So I told them to shove it up their ass.”

“That couldn’t have gone well.”

“When I didn’t report, they arrested me. I spent a year in prison and was dishonorably discharged.”

“They didn’t consider all the years you put in?”

He smiled. It was almost sardonic. “Sure they did. That’s why I only got a year.”


“They talk the talk about respecting service and those who serve. But really all they really say is ‘What have you done for me lately?’”

That sounded a little familiar. I bought him another beer. “That sucks. So what are you doing now?”

“I was working construction. Then the real estate collapse happened. So now I’m drawing unemployment and sleeping on a buddy’s couch.”

“You really told them to shove it up their ass?”



His face darkened a little. The lines became harder, more defined. “I also told them I was tired of watching kids get blown to hell. I told them they either needed to let us fight or get us the fuck out.”

“They couldn’t have handled that very well.”

He snorted. “Chain of command bullshit. Most of those guys haven’t seen action in YEARS, man. Fucking assholes. I bet their kids aren’t get blown up in the desert.”

Probably not.

We sat and drank and talked about other things. We talked about baseball and how much the Series sucked last year. We talked about not missing the snow, and about how the old hometown never really changes – how nothing ever really changes. The bar was starting to get crowded and happy hour was nearly over. He gave me a phone number.

“Give me a call,” he said. “We should do this again sometime.”

“Sure thing,” I said. “You know where to find me.”

He laughed as he stood up. “You better be careful,” he joked. “I might just take your stool out from under you.”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

We walked out together. Then he turned and shook my hand. I always fancied myself as having a firm hand shake; his nearly broke my fingers. “Take it easy,” he said.

“You too.”

“See you around.”

“Sure thing.”

He went off across the parking lot, heading west. When I was sure he was far enough away, I shook the life back into my fingers and headed towards the bus stop.