Alex’s Dilemma

A red convertible wove down a twisting narrow road leading to the beach access point. Alex drove. He was fond of this car, which had been his wife’s before the event. He knew that he would have to sell it soon; however, now he was intent on experiencing a communion associated with her last actions. At the secluded parking area, he reversed into the same corner that she had parked. He closed the convertible top and left the keys in the ignition, as she had done. He made sure that the doors were not locked as she must have done.

He took the narrow path which led to the shore. When he reached the top of the first dune, he paused to look back at the car. The green marine dune grasses contrasted with its brilliant red paint drawing his eye to its singularity. He wondered whether she had paused and looked back as he did now. Had she seen the same scene?

He continued to follow the footpath which he thought to be very narrow and sandy. A sheep bleated at him as it ambled out of his way, and a lone bird rose to the sky with a warning call. He didn’t hear the ocean until he scrambled over the third band of dunes. When they gave way to the shore, he paused to catch his breath. He scanned the beach, happy that he was the only person there.

He took off his flip-flops and slid down the sand onto the beach proper. First, he walked to the rocks on the right-hand side of the beach close to the place where he had immerged from the dunes. He recalled that fateful morning and how her pink towelette bathing coverall and shoes had seemed to wink at him from where she had left them on the grey rocks. He walked over and sat upon the rock to immerse himself in his longing and to revel in the transitional magic of the place. He took off his shirt and laid it and his shoes in the same spot that she had placed hers. He looked out across the beach to the rocks at the far end.

He began to walk. He chose to paddle along the edge of the water where the sand was damp and hard. He let his feet draw in the cool moving wetness of the ocean. Occasionally he dodged when a larger wave broke and pushed itself up the beach. Seagulls squawked and flew overhead. Mingled in with their cries he thought that he heard a faint human voice. It came from the ocean – it startled him as he wondered if it could be Monica’s voice. He paused and gazed out to sea. Far away, beyond the inshore capped waves, he imagined that he saw an arm waving. The call from the waters became more distinct,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

It had been over a week and so logic told him that she couldn’t still be swimming. He waved back, and shouted into the wind,

“I’m here. I love you. What do you want?”

He knew what she wanted, but he had to ask. The wind swallowed his words leaving him a sense of emptiness. Then he heard her voice again,

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

He wondered what would happen if he responded to her call. It came from a long way out. Even if he waded, and then swim he knew that he couldn’t make a round trip. If he swam out until he was exhausted, as they speculated, she had done, what would it be like to find oneself exhausted in deep waters? Would he struggle as he drowned – and what would that be like? Or would he instantly be joined with her again and enter a new existence?

A large wave broke upon the shore splashing his shorts. He turned his attention back to the beach and continued to walk. The gulls seemed to have abandoned him and her voice gone. He concentrated on listening and instead of hearing her voice he heard children’s voices. They weren’t his children but instantly reminded him of his pressing obligation to his sad motherless children.

He longed to be able to tune out the dual calls from inland and sea. He longed for anonymity and peace without responsibility. He tried to concentrate his attention on the shore-line and the path he had chosen along its wet edge. When he reached the end of the beach he turned and began to walk back toward his shoes and shirt. Half way, his toes disturbed something gold mixed among the broken sea shells and sand dollars strewn in the shallow waters. He stooped and picked it up. A wedding ring, he turned it in his hand. Inside it was inscribed

 “Alex & Monica.”

He knew that this was impossible, but no, there it was in his hands. He twirled it over and over and brought it up to his lips and kissed it. He licked his lips savoring the residual salt. He held it in his hand as tightly as Bilbo Baggins and Frodo held theirs. For a while, he stood motionless in astonishment, then he dared to glance off shore. Again, he heard her voice.

“Alex, Alex, come to me, Come…..”

This time he responded: “But the children, your children?”

He received no answer and continued his walk, all the time wondering what he should do when he reached the end of the beach. Turn left and plunge into the waters to make that last swim to give her back her ring as a symbol of their loving union. He knew that was what she wanted. Her ring felt hot in his hand; pulsating and reminding him of his longing for her warmth and loving embrace. Turn right and trudge back to the pressing responsibilities of life without Monica. Left or right, which was it to be? When he had reached that fatal decision point, he paused happy that he heard no more voices only his own inner voice responding to a ring held tight in his fist.

He turned towards the left; a pause, a deep breath, then, instead of plunging into the waters, he flung the ring out to sea.

“Good-bye for now my darling. I love you, now and for eternity.”

Without further hesitation, he calmly turned right. He retrieved his shoes and shirt and scrambled up over the dunes. The red convertible, bright as ever, was waiting for him to drive home down a twisting narrow road.

The Angry Wife

Hi blog readers. Thank you for reading my blog! I’ve been silent for three  months due to a back injury which required surgery and resulted in limited sitting, and therefore writing, time.  At least I’ve been able to read in a supine position! I am almost back to full strength and offer this story. I hope that you enjoy it.

By the time that they were seated in the restaurant Patrick desperately needed a drink. Getting a table, which pleased his wife coupled, with her driving tirade, and worst of all the day’s personal telephone call which he had received from their son’s school had made him wonder if it was all worthwhile. He hoped that the cocktail would soothe him into a happy mood suited for the occasion of their celebratory anniversary night out. He waited alone, because after they were ushered to a new table, and had ordered, she had gone to the lady’s room.

Patrick concentrated on breathing slowly and began to relax. He was soothed as he watched his Kate, with an aura of calm, weave her way across the restaurant. He admired her intelligence and quick wit. Watching her reminded him why he stayed married. He asked himself why she couldn’t always be as demure as she now appeared. As he began to adjust to the atmosphere of the restaurant, he allowed himself to sigh in content for he enjoyed witnessing her beauty. Today was no exception. Indeed, he thought, that this evening was extra special for she wore a fitted dress which clung to her body just enough to emphasize her flat stomach and elegant figure. The dress was maxi length and flowed from fitted torso to swirling full skirt. It sported narrow vertical navy blue and white stripes. As she moved the skirt of swaying stripes shimmered like an op-art mobile. Patrick glanced about the room and noticed that several of the other diners were also watching this paragon of loveliness. “That’s my wife!” he wanted to tell them; but he kept quiet and waited in anticipation for her return.

After she passed out of view, his day came back to haunt him. The phone call from their son’s head master was what worried him most for he knew that he was going to have to discuss it with Katherine sometime before next Monday’s school. It was going to be hard for you can’t sugar coat a message like the one he was given. He was offered two alternatives. Either he could place their first-grade son elsewhere, or he was to make sure that Patrick, and only he, communicate with them. They stated that his wife was impossible. When questioned, they explained that she had bombarded their son’s teacher with increasingly irate notes. She balked at their request that the children come to school in pilgrim or Indian dress to celebrate Thanksgiving. She said that she considered it an inappropriate waste of time; they were supposed to be teaching not play acting. She regularly criticized the homework assignments which were generally not done, for she repeatedly told them that they had ample time during school hours to teach. She told them that she resented having to supplement their inefficiency by taking up precious evening time doing school work. She categorically refused to ‘do her share’ in providing snacks for the class. She told them that she regarded this to be an unnecessary and pointless task, especially when the teachers and most of the children were overweight.

On their way into the restaurant, they dropped their son off at Katherine’s sister Bianca’s for a sleep over with her son. It was then that Patrick had decided to try to salvage their evening by temporarily ‘forgetting’ the school discussion, and delaying it to the privacy of their home sometime during the weekend. Even as he recalled that decision, he shuddered in recollection of their drive over. Katherine drove. He remembered how she had commented on every traffic light, “Those idiot traffic engineers might synchronize the lights! It’s ridiculous; if only they had a little intelligence and used it traffic would move so much better!” He relived his attempts to calm her with reminders that they were in no rush, and his urging that she breathe deeply and relax in order to enjoy their night out. But to his chagrin, at each light change she had screamed with angry impatience, “Wake up, move, is everyone brain dead?”

The restaurant was cool and dim inviting relaxation. Patrick’s Margarita arrived. He took an icy gulp and continued to reminisce. He cast his mind back to the day that he met his Kate. He smiled as he recalled how he had told himself that he would make her his wife.

 “That you shall be my wife,………..
And, Will you, nill you, I will marry you!”

Even now he had to admit to himself that she wasn’t the first about whom he had made such a mental vow. He’d said the same thing; of his kindergarten playmate; his high-school prom date; and his college girlfriend. The extraordinary part about this was that, after all these dramatic pronouncements, on that apocryphal day, Patrick was, thirty, and still single. He had never proposed to anyone. Indeed, he had to concede that his first encounter with Katherine could hardly have been called a “meeting.” He, as the engineer of record, was out between construction barricades inspecting freeway reconstruction, when he witnessed a curious fender-bender accident. He had called the police even before the two drivers got out of their cars, and he was overwhelmed by the sight of Katherine. Now several years later, he relived the entire scene.

The police woman who responded to his call appeared to be surprised, probably because fender-bender accidents generally don’t require police involvement. She parked alongside the two cars stopped on the inside lane with the two drivers standing beside the barricade exchanging insulting glares. The already congested freeway traffic was crawling past as each driver rubber-necked to observe the cause of the traffic jam. At first glance, it appeared that the car driven by Katherine had been rear-ended by a second car whose driver stood some distance away from her. Patrick, the traffic engineer who had reported the incident, stood behind the construction median barricade shaking his head in bewilderment.

The traffic cop took out her pad and approached the group. “One at a time please,” she pointed at Katherine, “you first, show me your license and proof of insurance and then tell me what happened?”

Katherine complied and after her documents were returned, she spoke. Her eyes flashed with residual anger. Patrick, watching from his vantage point, taking in her beauty, her elegant polka -dot dress with tight red belt, and her red high heels. As she talked, he was captivated by her musical voice, spunk and undisguised emotion. He heard her say, “He rear-ended me – the brain-dead idiot rear-ended me – it’s clearly his fault!”

It did look as though she was right, but the traffic cop was thorough and asked the same question to the driver of the second car. He was already perspiring in his business suit and looked unhappy. “Yes, I rear-ended her but she made me!”

“Made you?”

“Yes, she pulled in front of me without any indication and slammed on the brakes. The first time I managed to miss her, then she pulled over into the middle lane and did it again. Again, I missed her. I could see her in her car shaking her fist at me – a woman I had never met! The third time she was so fast that I didn’t react in time and hit her.”

Patrick recalled how the police woman turned to him and how he had reluctantly he confirmed that he had witnessed the entire incident. He recalled that he had added that when the two drivers had stopped and got out of their cars the driver of the rear-ended car shouted in anger,

“That’ll teach you not to pull in front of me without indicating!”

He watched the traffic cop give Katherine a field citation for a misdemeanor associated with road rage, not a mere traffic violation ticket.

Patrick took another draw of margarita and smiled as he recalled his subtle follow up to the incident. A few days later, he had called his lawyer brother and asked him to follow up on the incident. He obtained Katherine’s name and address and discovered that the judge assigned to her case had sentenced her to take a course in anger management. He even discovered that she took her course with a rather unconventional, but most effective counselor, named Donna Wright.

Several weeks later after he knew that the counseling was complete he managed to bump into Katherine accompanied by Bianca, in the Starbucks shop closest to her apartment. She was easily recognizable as she wore the same polka-dot dress with red sash and matching red heels. His initial approach had been to flatter Bianca, who responded with flirtatious giggles. Even now he recalled how his attentions annoyed Katherine so that when they stood up to leave he was able to surprise her into officially giving him her telephone number.

Patrick signaled to the waiter and ordered a second Margarita. He was beginning to wonder what Katherine could be doing in the rest room. He hoped that she hadn’t launched into another altercation. That course of anger management had obviously worn off. He wondered how he was going to convince her that she needed some top-up sessions. When she finally emerged, he stood and assisted her with her chair. She took a long drag from her drink and sighed.

“I needed that” she said. Patrick agreed with her but said nothing. She continued “It took so long because, you see, I had to alert management that the handicapped toilet stall was cluttered with a table and flowers. Not to code and inappropriate. Why are people so stupid?”

Patrick didn’t have time to consider an answer to her rhetorical question because the waiter delivered their wine and food; lamb chops mounted over a small mound of mashed parsnip and potato surrounded by a choice selection of baby carrots, and tiny green peas. Patrick took a bite. It melted in his mouth, lamb with a faint hint of garlic the flavor accentuated by the mint sauce giving a faint touch of sweet and sour. He looked across the table at Katherine she, predictably, was frowning, and launched into a loud tirade.

“This lamb is ruined – it is overcooked. It should be bright pink inside! Doesn’t anyone use their heads – it is too bad.” She beckoned to the waiter. This time Patrick snapped. He thought to himself that if they were to have a scene, it might as well be effective. He stood up and gave the waiter his credit card.

“We are leaving. My wife is sick”

“I, I’m not sick.” she stammered, but Patrick merely hushed her with a quiet hiss of a whisper,

“Only the very best for my Kate. We can’t tolerate second best!”

“But, but I’m hungry – it isn’t that bad, in fact, I’m sure that it’s good. I was merely making an informed comment.”

“No,” he said firmly, “only the best for you, and right now we are going home. I’m driving!”

Katherine looked at him in awe. She let him guide her out to their car. Patrick reveled in his newly acquired authority. Now was the time to tell her about the school. Now was the time for him to explain to her that he had been working late specifically to avoid her ire. Now was the time to tell her that she had two options either another course of anger management with Donna Wright or divorce. If divorce, she would lose both husband and son; for he would make sure that he was awarded full custody.

My Precious

Tatiana looked forward all day, indeed all week, to this moment; the special time when she could curl up in her easy chair and watch The Antique Road Show. In her lap, she cradled a small dark-blue velvet bag with a woven yellow draw string. She wrapped her hands around it cupping the soft velvet, and letting her thumbs gently trace the content’s shape through the cloth.

During commercial breaks, she loosened the draw string and peered at her treasure inside nestled in the golden sheened satin of the bag’s lining. As the show unfolded, she felt an expected rapport with the purveyors of the articles which the experts examined, after all she too had a strange story and a beloved object of great value. However, she also distained the anxious looks and what she felt, feigned surprise when the experts identified something of value.

She enjoyed forecasting the way that the exchanges would begin. As each was presented, she made private bets with herself, to predict which of the standard stories was coupled with the owner and item on camera. Like a child with a favorite story, she knew most of the introductions by heart. 

“I found it in an old trunk in the attic……”
“I bought it at a garage sale for next to nothing….”
“I inherited it from my grandmother, it has been in the family for years….”  

Today Tatiana’s attention kept wandering for tomorrow was March 15th, 2017, her twenty-fifth birthday, and she had a date with her boyfriend, Peter. She worried about the planned date for, although she loved Peter, she suspected, through various subtle and not so subtle, hints that he had dropped over the past month, that he intended to ask her to marry him. Her dilemma was complex; she knew that she would accept his proposal, and looked forward to becoming his wife, but she also worried about what marriage entails. She didn’t fear the living together and increased intimacy – no, she looked forward to this; what she feared was her belief that there must be no secrets between husband and wife. This meant that she would be obliged to show him her treasure and tell him its story.

When the Antique Road Show ended Tatiana undid the yellow draw-string and emptied the bag’s contents into her hand. Her eyes sparkled with pleasure just as the diamond fractured the evening light and glowed as if on fire. She paused and touched its flawless surfaces, which seemed to her to be accentuated by the contrasting coarse leather necklace from which it hung. She slipped the leather over her head and let her diamond hang on her chest in the exact location that Elizabeth Taylor had worn hers. She walked through her apartment pausing in front of each reflective surface to admire herself wearing this extravagant article. She recalled her mother telling her that she had joined the thousands who viewed the Cartier display of the 69.42 carat Taylor-Burton diamond in 1969. She recalled her mother’s glowing comparison of the two diamonds, and her conclusion that their diamond was of equal quality and size.

As she walked Tatiana mused about how to make her revelation to Peter. Should she start at the beginning or tell about her parents and then work backwards? Of course, Peter already knew most of the details of her parents’ story. He had met her mother and knew that she had raised Tatiana as a single parent. He knew that Tatiana’s father had left her mother a few months after Tatiana was born and later divorced her. Tatiana’s mother had even revealed that for a while, she tracked her exe’s activities. She marveled at his sudden apparent wealth manifested in a new wife, an expensive house, jet-setting, cars, boats, and then, after a few years, an unexpected spiral into obscurity. So, she concluded, it might be better to start from the beginning.

Tatiana wanted her story to impress upon Peter that possession of a beautiful, unusual and valuable item brought its owner inner peace and a sense of superiority. She wanted him to understand, and agree, that ownership far outweighed any temporal riches which they might garner through taking and selling it. She had heard stories about lottery winners whose sudden riches brought misery and speculated that an infusion of several million dollars might, likewise, disrupt and destroy their happiness. Tatiana worked as a beautician cutting hair in a local salon, she was good at her job and made good money. When her wealthy clients talked to her, often unconsciously bragging about their houses, jewelry, expensive cars and lifestyle, she nodded with complaisant pleasure as she whispered to herself,

“And you don’t know what I own!”

****************

After Peter’s proposal and Tatiana’s acceptance they adjourned to Tatiana’s apartment for coffee. She had already alerted him that she needed to tell him a precious secret. He sat beside her, patient and loving, looking at her intently while she sat silent. She held her coffee in her hands and admired her engagement ring. It was a beautiful diamond in a tasteful setting; she would have expected no less from someone who worked in a jewelry store. At last, she began:

“My great-great-grandfather was a Russian serf who lived in the open steppes close to Lake Baikal.”

Peter looked at Tatiana more intently and interrupted, “Isn’t Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake, calculated to hold 20% of the world’s surface freshwater? I recently read about a treasure hunt out there looking for the lost Romanov treasure. I recall that the article got my attention.”

“Yes,” Tatiana was warming up to her narrative, “Lake Baikal is where Admiral Alexander Kolchak is reputed to have lost the majority of the Romanov treasure. Stories differ on how he managed to do this, one tells of a transport derailment and another of carts frozen to the ice and sinking when the spring thaw came. What is important in our family is that my great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother were there.”

“Awesome!” Peter clapped his hands in excitement, “Are you sure, they were there when the Romanov treasure was lost?”

“Well, yes and no. My great-great grandfather witnessed the transport’s passage. It was very cold, and he kept concealed for fear that he would either be conscripted or killed. He was there when one of the carts hit a frozen rut and spilt. Most of the boxes remained intact but one spewed gold on the ground and another, the one of interest, dropped a horde of Romanov crown jewelry on the ground. My great-great-grandfather watched Alexander Kolchak’s men retrieve the fallen treasure, and meticulously scour the area to make sure that they retrieved everything from the snowy ground. He was still there concealed in the undergrowth when they left. Long after they had disappeared, and their voices were swallowed up by the silence of the steppe great-great-grandfather emerged. He stood where they had stood and tried to understand what he had seen. That’s when he saw the gem. It was half concealed in a bank of snow. The snow glistened in the sunlight as each snow crystal caught the light but the diamond shone brighter and more brilliantly. He picked it up. It was set on a golden chain.”

“A Romanov diamond!”

“Yes,” Tatiana hesitated, and drew her velvet bag out of her purse, opened it, and poured the contents into Peter’s hands.

 “Wow! Amazing! A Romanov diamond! This one is huge!” Peter stood in excitement and then sat down again, “So why did he keep it?”

“Simple, for what else could a Russian serf do with a diamond? Great-great-grandfather determined that their only option was to leave Russia. He and great-great-grandmother immediately began to plan a getaway. They had always wanted to escape from the debilitating war between White and Red armies; now, the diamond gave them their final impetus. They left on the day that they heard the miserable rumor that Romanov family deposed on March 15th 1917 had been murdered on July 17th 1918.”

“What a story!” Peter took out his jeweler’s monocle and held the diamond up to the light. Obviously, they made it, but what about the gold chain?”

“Yes, they made it. They took the route described by Ayn Rand in her book ‘We the Living’. When they were clear of Russia, great-great-grandfather sold the gold chain to pay for their continued journey to the US. At first, they thought it too risky to attempt to sell the diamond but soon came to see it as a good-luck talisman. Odd really, because most large diamonds have always been regarded as being cursed. So, they kept it, and in time, passed it on to great-grandmother, and she to grandmother and she to mother. My mother had told me that of all the husbands, the only one who reacted negatively was my father. The others endorsed the concept that the jewel brought an inner peace and sense of confidence and security more valuable than any sudden riches that it might bestow.”

Peter was getting very excited. He stood and drew Tatiana into his arms. He kissed her. Then he murmured, “I hope that I am wrong, but surely, you do realize that this beautiful gem, which I hold in my hands is probably not a diamond, worth, who knows, several millions!”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ll need to verify in the store laboratory, but I think that it is a modern high-grade cubic zirconia worth several thousand, probably a copy of the original made by a specialist copy shop such as The Jewelry Prop Shop.”

Tatiana groaned, “My father, his sudden riches!”

The Accident

Carl and I generally wake up at about the same time. As he gets showered and dressed a lot faster than I do, by the time that I emerge from the master suite, he is sitting reading the Austin American Statesman. That morning was no exception except that he complained that he felt exhausted and a little ‘woozy’. I stared at his familiar face, and decided that he did look grey. His skin had a dank cast and, instead of their usual lively glow, his brown eyes looked dull and listless.
“You OK?” I asked.
 “Like I said, a little woozy, but its passing!”
 “I worry about you Carl. The doctor said that you might have another heart attack at any time. Do you think that this is one of those times? If so you should take it easy, and we should go to the clinic.”
“Nope, please, dear, don’t worry. I tell you, this coffee has done the trick. I feel great. As I mentioned last evening I have some pressing paperwork to attend to. I’m going to drive to the office and take care of it.”  

The hall clock chimed 8:00 as I watched him drive out. I turned into our home office and sat down. Then I was with him in the car. We had already turned from Foster Ranch Road onto the east bound three lanes of Southwest Parkway. The median between us and the west bound traffic was bright green in the morning light. The risen sun was brilliant and, since we drove due East, it almost blinded us. We passed the Boston Lane light and then the one at Travis Country Boulevard. He began to drive erratically. I put my hand on his arm,
“No Carl, no, pull over. You are having a heart attack!” At the point where the road curves to the south he kept driving straight across lanes. We ploughed off the road, through a mound of bluebonnets and made toward a tree.
I shouted “NO” and braced myself for impact. An impact never came. We were still in bed.

 Carl was shaking me, “Calm down Mary, calm down. It is only a dream.”
I relaxed and snuggled up behind his back. I held him in my arms as I drifted off to sleep. How I loved this man! A few minutes later, I decided to get up early and make him his favorite breakfast of pancakes. I crept out of bed leaving him snoring peacefully. In the kitchen, I discovered a shortage of milk and eggs. I decided to make a quick trip to Randall’s to buy these items and berries for a dessert which I planned for our son’s nineteenth birthday celebration that evening. Driving down Foster Ranch road felt like ‘deja vue’, then I turned onto Southwest Parkway and, as in my dream, bright dawn blinded me. The road was empty, and I enjoyed the translucency of the new March leaves on the trees. Everything seemed alive, but I didn’t share in its exuberance. I felt an ominous foreboding. The deer appeared right after I passed the Travis Country Boulevard light. I don’t know why I swerved, instinct, I suppose. Then I was going through the grass and bluebonnets. I saw the tree, already marred by Carl’s car. I screamed as I tried to brake and felt the car gliding toward it. 
Carl had stopped snoring and was shaking me, “Mary, Mary, wake-up. You are having another night-mare.”

Relieved, I snuggled against his back and slept, I think. Soon I heard noises in the kitchen and went to investigate. It was Margaret, our first-born, making herself coffee.
 “Good morning, dear, you are up early for a Saturday?” “I know, Mum, but last night I was called to do a morning fill-in shift at the clinic. They are short staffed.”
“Do be careful dear, at this time in the morning, the rising sun is blinding on Southwest Parkway.”
“I know, Mum, but I’ll be fine. It is not as though this is my first time to make this drive.”
 I watched her reverse out of the drive-way and turned into the study. I sat at my desk examining e-mails, then I was with her. We were stopped for the light at Travis Country Boulevard. She was sipping her coffee. When the light turned, she started with a jerk, coffee spilled out onto her lap.

“Ouch,” she yelled. I knew what was going to happen. As we swerved across the road, I saw the tree already standing a little crooked with its bark marred by the morning’s previous impacts. I knew that she was going to die. This time I screamed. 
Carl had me in his arms, “Mary, Mary, wake-up, wake-up.”
“It’s a recurring dream, or should I say night-mare,” I explained.
“Let’s get up,” he suggested.

Even though it was only 7:30 we did so. When we were seated at the breakfast table reading our newspapers, our son Andy appeared. He wore his biking gear, clinging tight to his body. You would see every lean muscle. I thought that he looked gorgeous, so fit, so healthy, so full of life.
“Good morning,” we chorused,” happy birthday, nineteen today.”
 He bowed in acknowledgement. “Yes, good morning,” he responded, “I’m meeting up with the team. We are going on a twenty miler, be back in plenty of time for the birthday celebration.”
My heart sunk, could my nightmares be a warning? I looked at him with motherly love. I didn’t want to sound overly interfering but had to give my warning.
“Drive carefully, dear! And, please don’t speed, the limit on Southwest Parkway is 55.”
He gave me a dead pan look of resignation. “I’m safe,” he said, “and anyway there is no traffic on Southwest Parkway on a Saturday morning.”
“Good,” was all I could counter, “But please, son, no texting or phone use while you are driving. It is illegal for good reason.”  

He leant over and kissedd me on the forehead and prepared to leave. Carl and I followed him to his car. We stood and watched him drive out onto Foster Ranch Road. He sped off far too fast. I could hear the roar of his engine, even after he had turned onto Southwest Parkway. After a few seconds, I experienced a wave of terror more profound than any that I had experienced in my nightmares, then nothing. 

By 8:45 am Carl and I were on Southwest Parkway driving east to Randalls to get the milk, eggs and berries. At Travis Country Boulevard, the road was blocked by a police car. A policeman directed traffic to U-turn and find another route.
“It’s a fatality!’ I said with sinking heart.
“So early in the morning,” mused Carl, “Who was out so early on a Saturday morning?”  I strained my neck but could see nothing. Carl continued his monologue, “I wonder if it was a heart attack, or someone avoiding a deer, or someone texting, or spilt coffee.”

I wasn’t listening to Carl’s speculations; my nightmares were too vivid. They came back to me striking me in the heart, so that all I could do was worry. I pulled out my phone and called Margaret.
“Good morning dear. Sorry if I woke you up but have you heard from Andy this morning?”
“Come on Mum,” her voice had the tone that you use with a small child, “He is on a ride with his team. Of course, I haven’t heard from him. They don’t let phones distract them.”
“I suppose that you are right, I just wondered,” I explained, “It’s his birthday!”
“Mum, of course I know that it is his birthday,” again her tone was gentle as though she was talking to a small child. “I texted him a birthday wish early this morning.”
It was my turn to be instructive but my foreboding pressed upon me and I couldn’t speak. I rang off.

 By 9:00 am we returned from Randalls and took the short cut up Boston Lane, the two-lane road was full of traffic for the police had now moved their barricade to the Boston Lane light. 

Hours later, when the police arrived, I let Carl talk to them. I didn’t need to hear what I already knew. I refused to look at the body. I let Carl do the identification. Later, much later, in the afternoon, Carl and I drove to the spot, the place that I already knew. We parked, and Carl got out to take pictures. You could see how a moment’s distraction for someone driving way too fast in the middle lane would go straight into the median, across the grass and bluebonnets into the tree. It stood there just as I had seen it in my nightmare, its bark torn and marred. The ground was churned up where the team who cut him out had parked and there were ruts where the tow truck had pulled the car out.

The Tree

There is an oak tree hulk standing on the banks of the River Wear in Durham City. The tree is dead and is black inside. It looks, for all intents and purposes, as though it was burned out after being hit by lightning. At one time there was a plaque on the tree supporting the local folklore that this was the tree in which Charles II hid after his defeat at the 1651 battle of Boscobel. It is true that the Durham tree is hollow and could be used as a hiding place, but as the battle took place near Worchester in the south of England while Durham is in the north; geography doesn’t support the legend. Charles’ epic escape from the battle field across England to find an eventual passage to France is a well recorded narrative; worthy of a Hollywood movie. It involves numerous disguises, many close calls, and imaginative hiding places including an oak tree. Boscobel Park now has a “Son of Royal Oak” grown from an acorn from the ‘original’ Royal Oak which was destroyed by visitors who gradually hacked it to pieces as each took their small souvenir. The tree on the Durham river banks is too large to have been one of those souvenirs although it could be a son or even grand-son of the original Royal Oak.

This tree was the reason that Zoe selected Prebends Bridge as her rendezvous spot. It stood close enough to the bridge to offer a good view of anyone standing on the east end. This point is the confluence of five pathways. There is the river bank path going upstream; the path going downstream, an oblique path climbing the steep river banks to a tunnel under the ancient monastery buildings leading to the cathedral close; the pedestrian only road across the bridge and its continuation up to the ancient city gate leading into the old Bailey. Zoe planned to conceal herself inside the tree’s charred interior so that she could watch whoever came to the bridge head. She had hidden there before and watched lovers ambling arm-in arm along the treed river banks. She had seen tourists, guidebooks in hand, staring up at the Norman cathedral perched on the promontory encircled by the river, and watched an elderly woman, who vaguely reminded her of her mother, with two white corgi dogs walking across the bridge, and then up the oblique steep path to the cathedral cloisters.

The only drawback to her place of concealment was that it smelt of urine; Zoe was not the only one who used the spot. She was careful not to touch the tree fearing that any contact might mar her clothing. She had arrived wearing a red combination summer / rain coat which she had now taken off and folded lining side out. Underneath she wore a pale green and white gingham summer dress with a flounced lace petticoat very much the fashion in 1960. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders with an elegant curl. It shone in the sun and haloed her youthful twenty-three-year-old face. She wore white pumps comfortable enough to walk in for she had walked to this spot from the home on the outskirts of the city where she worked as a live-in nanny. She arrived, several hours before their appointment at which time she didn’t mind being seen but now she felt that concealment was essential She was prepared with mace and a lethal looking kitchen knife both of which she clutched concealed in her purse.

 At about 2:45 pm Alex appeared. He walked through the ancient city gate and ambled to the bridge head. He was a sturdy good looking youth with blond hair and clean complexion. He wore a white shirt and dark pants clearly his Sunday best. He stationed himself at this, their agreed meeting place, and waited. Zoe smiled to herself, this was a good sign. She waited and watched. He carried a blanket. She deduced that, somewhere along the banks, he intended to invite her to sit on it with him. She suspected that he’d start gently moving on to necking or more if she was complaisant. She imagined that he would willingly get her pregnant and the abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother.

 “Men are all the same.” she told herself and clutched her purse tighter. She was waiting until she and Alex were the only people on the banks; for she didn’t wish to be seen with him. By well after 3:00 pm she saw her opportunity. By now Alex was becoming anxious.  While he peered in the opposite direction she stepped out from her hiding place and walked toward him.

When he saw her he started, “Where did you come from?” He held out his hand in greeting. He smiled, “You arose like a nymph out of nowhere. How did you do it?”

 “Oh, Alex,” she said, ignoring his question with a toss of her head, “I’m glad that you came. When we met at the rink I wasn’t sure.” She smiled her best coquettish smile while her hate for men simmered.

 They exchanged a casual embrace and then Alex held her at arm’s length. “You look lovely. When I first saw, you gliding across the ice in your pristine white skates I knew, from your graceful movement, that you are special.” He sighed, “Now I see you clad in white shoes looking like a wood fairy. Will you walk with me along the river banks? If we go around the loop we will end up at Elvet bridge where we can have tea.”

 “So sweet, so innocent; but not really! I know what he is up to, just like my Dad so many years ago. I won’t let myself get distracted by his nice gestures.” thought Zoe. She didn’t comment on his blanket but smiled as she slipped her arm into his. They walked slowly as she let him lead her along the exact path that she wished to take.

 Three days later a jogger found his body wrapped in a blanket hidden in the undergrowth not far from the tow path. The cause of death was a lethal looking kitchen knife thrust up his rib cage into his heart. He appeared to have died without a struggle.

 

 

The Bamboo Floor

For several years, Ralf and Rosie dreamed about replacing the carpet in their bedrooms with wood. The carpet was a white Berber which looked fantastic when they moved in but over the years, the passage of children and pets had made it lose its pristine look and become worn and stained. By the time that they had enough spare cash to make their dream a reality, their pets had died, their two daughters married and moved away, and they were retired empty nesters. One warm fall morning Rosie spilled coffee onto the master bedroom floor. The resultant stain gave them the final nudge, and they went floor shopping. Rosie wanted a light-colored finish to harmonize with the décor which she had assembled to go with the Berber. Ralf was anxious to be environmentally conscious. Their two desires led them to select a bamboo floor.

“The stuff grows like weeds!” said Ralf. “The row that our neighbor, David, planted on his side of our north fence a year ago, is already up to his eaves.” Rosie nodded in agreement, and Ralf continued, “David says that he planted a non-invasive variety, but it is sending up shoots in our yard. I’m convinced that you can see it growing. One day nothing and the next a long shoot pointing straight as an arrow toward the sky. When I missed cutting one off because it was concealed behind a bush, it grew to four feet tall in a week and was stiff as a spear shaft. You could almost have harvested it right there and turned it into flooring!”

The wood flooring salesman confirmed Ralf’s knowledge about Bamboo, “Our supplier,’ he said,” harvests bamboo by cutting off the stacks, or culms, at ground level; the truncated stump then regrows. In about five years this, the ultimate renewable resource, is ready to be harvested again.

Rosie looked at the bamboo flooring sample and traced her finger along the recognizable shapes of bamboo culms. “How do you prevent these stalks from coming alive and re-growing.”

The salesman laughed, “It’s dead!”

“You may laugh;” Rosie responded, “but did you know that in Honduras the branches put into the ground as fence posts grow? The Hondurans like it that way because termites only eat dead wood, it also ensures a good sturdy footing. So, you see, I was thinking that some ‘dead’ wood isn’t really dead.” Rosie studied the salesman’s look of rejection and became apologetic, “and, well you see, bamboo is so invasive and virile, I wondered if maybe ……?” Rosie’s voice trailed off in a question.

The salesman took a sample in his hands and fondly rubbed its smooth surface, “This bamboo will not regrow. As I said, it is dead. It is well treated; let me explain. The split culms are cut into strips and bundled. They are then boiled, yes boiled, in a solution of boric acid and lime to kill insects and to remove sugars and starches.”

“There are insects to kill?”

“Yes, but don’t look for bodies in the final product. After the boiling, it is allowed to dry. If a dark final product is desired it is carbonizing by steaming under pressure and heat. Most bamboo flooring is then laminated using urea-formaldehyde. It pressed to cure the adhesive.”

“Is this when it is beginning to look like wood planks?”

 “You got it! It then has to be planed, sanded and milled. The last step is the application of an ultraviolet curing lacquer to give the floor its final durable finish.”

Rosie felt reassured. Ralf said that the urea-formaldehyde gave him some concern but rationalized that it was a small premium to pay for the ability to utilize such a renewable resource. They contacted an installer and were soon carting furniture into their garage to vacate the bedrooms. The carpet came up easily with a lot of dust. Rosie hoped that their new floor would house less dust and help reduce her allergies. Of course, their floors proved to be irregular obliging the installation team to spend a day grinding and pouring concrete. The dust made Rosie miserable. When the bamboo planks arrived, they proved to be warped and unacceptable. Ralf called their salesman who undertook to try to locate a replacement product. Several hours later, he called back with good news. He had located a new supplier, one with whom he had not worked before, who had enough, slightly less expensive, product in stock. He told Ralf that he would be happy to know that this supplier’s product was reputed to use less boric acid and lime and decidedly less urea-formaldehyde.

The replacement bamboo looked good and wasn’t warped. The installer laid it in one day, and the next-day Ralf and Rosie moved everything back out of their garage. They were delighted with the end product and luxuriated in the new look it gave to their home. The distinct reduction in dust meant that Rosie felt better than she had felt in years. This time of satisfaction might have been the end of our story, but it isn’t.

The problems began the next spring when Rosie began to have nightmares; and to sleep poorly. She told Ralf that she heard tap-tapping, crackling noises, particularly on the north side of the bedroom. At first, even she, dismissed the noises as imaginary, but it seemed to her that each night, they got louder and more intrusive. Ralf suggested that they might have rats in the wall. He inspected the attic – nothing. Just to be sure he placed rat poison in strategic locations. He checked the outside of the house to see if there were any rat entry points – nothing. He did find a row of sturdy bamboo shoots growing like giant spears planted in the ground along the house perimeter and in the area up to the north fence. He suggested to Rosie that, perhaps, the wind had been causing these to tap-tap upon the bedroom window. He meticulously cut them all down. By now, David’s side of the fence was an impenetrable thicket. He and Ralf discussed it as they stood in their respective driveways. David said that the bamboo kept his south wall cool but that his wife wanted him to remove it. He told Ralf, “The ladies have a way of insisting on things! One of these days I know that she will get someone to come in and eradicate it!”

The nocturnal noises continued and became more intrusive, tap-tap, creak, creak, groan, groan, pop, pop. Rosie moved out of the master bedroom into the largest spare room on the south side of the house. About a week later, when she was cleaning Rosie noticed what appeared to be a bamboo shoot under the window, behind the dresser on the master bedroom north wall. At first, she thought that it was an optical illusion and was actually a shoot growing outside. Then she wondered whether it was a shoot placed by Ralf as a joke. Ralf assured Rosie that it was no joke and pulled out the dresser. There to their utter horror were several bamboo shoots apparently growing through their new floor. The floor along the entire north wall was discolored and a little warped. Ralf took photographs and called on David. Together Ralf and David cut off the offending culms, and Rosie patched the floor with wood putty. All agreed that now was the time to call in an expert to eradicate David’s bamboo. They learned that bamboo grows from rhizomes, which spread under the surface of the ground. The eradication team worked from the outside of the patch cutting out the rhizomes followed by cutting the culms. They installed root barriers along the foundations of both houses, although they said that they had never, ever, heard of bamboo pushing through a concrete slab. They warned that no eradication is one hundred percent effective the first time but if David and Ralf diligently dug up shoots as they appeared in a few years they would be bamboo free.

 For a while, things were calm and then Rosie began to hear noises again. She said that they were worse than ever. Ralf was pleased when Easter rolled around, and they left town to visit grand-children. After Easter, they returned, anxious to take up residence again in, ‘the palace,’ as Ralf called it. It was raining when they got home. Ralf the found the house to be eerie and un-naturally quiet, wrapped in the soothing patter of rain on the roof. Rosie paused as she entered; she said that over the music of the rain she heard a chorus of groans, pops, squeaks and crackles; she looked terrified. They trundled their suitcases to the master bedroom which they found to have transformed itself into an impenetrable bamboo grove. Their new bamboo floor was warped into living hills and valleys. Culms even grew through their bed and some of the tallest were already pierced through the roof. Rain dripped in.

 

THE HEALER part 4 of 4

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I was astonished, and felt weak inside. I couldn’t imagine what Dr. Wendy could tell me that might impact our long-term relationship. I stood before her riveted to the ground until she urged me to sit beside her on the porch. The seat was a rocker, together we rocked back and forth the night air refreshing after the heat of the day. She took her time as if she was seeking for the right words; then she spoke,

“My first secret is my heritage.” She handed me a small framed photograph. “Look at this picture of me with my parents. My mother is Caucasian and my father black. By some fluke, I inherited my mother’s looks and so most people see me as a gringo. That’s fine by me but know that if I were ever to have children they might well inherit my father’s looks. They would be handsome but not white. Some people couldn’t live with this thought. I want you to think about it.”

Wendy’s secret surprised me and I soon bid her “good night”. I walked slowly down the hill to my apartment. I regard myself as open-minded, especially as my mother is Hispanic and father very white American; but I was surprised to find myself hesitating with an uncomfortable admission that I wondered what friends and family would say. I’m glad that these foolish thoughts were soon eclipsed by my yearning for ‘my Wendy.’ By the time that I reached my apartment door I was singing for I had determined that I didn’t care about Wendy’s heritage. Skin color didn’t matter what I wanted was Wendy in my future. That hurdle vanquished, I spent the night speculating what on earth Wendy’s second secret could be.

The following day dragged slowly as I counted the hours, then minutes and finally seconds to the time when we’d be together again. When I finally walked up to her door she emerged looking the most alluring that I had ever seen her. She wore a loose wrap-around dress. On her neck hung the same magnificent amulet that I’d seen that first evening with her. She poured us lemonade made, she told me, from lemons off the tree in her garden. It was sweet with a tart overtone and most refreshing. Again, we sat side-by-side on her patio slowly sipping our lemonade and gazing out into the night. She touched my hand and spoke,

“My second secret is my healing power. I explained to you about body, mind and spirit, that’s my secret. I administer to the mind and activate it to heal the body.”

I took a gulp and tried to be calm as I knew that I was about to hear her second secret. I asked,

“But how? How did you acquire this skill, this mind activation? You are going to tell me that it wasn’t in medical school, right?”

“Yes, you are right, it wasn’t in medical school!” She paused, it was her turn to gulp, “Have you ever heard of a witch doctor?”

I wondered where this was going and nodded, then seeing her look of surprise felt foolish and shook my head,

After a moment’s silence she spoke again, “People always quote stories about debilitating spells cast by witch doctors, but in reality, most of their work in their community was to heal not to cast evil spells. Often they were very effective.”

Wendy had my attention, I murmured “Yes!”

“Now think how powerful one could be if one could combine the knowledge and skill of modern medicine with the ancient powers of the witch doctor and then overlay it all with a Christian message.”

“So?”

“Well, I learnt the skill of a witch doctor from my father who got it from his father all the way back to Africa.”

She paused and took off her amulet. She handed it to me. It was smooth and heavier than I expected. I looked at it closely and saw that it was covered with hierographics and miniature images of plants and animals. I gently ran my fore-finger across its surface. Dr. Wendy smiled,

“The symbol of the power is in this amulet. It is my second secret. It has always been in our family passed down from generation to generation. It dates back to a time in Africa when my many-greats-ago-grandfather was a Juju man, or witch doctor. I always wear it when I heal, generally I wear it hidden under my clothes, You, apart from my mother who was Caucasian, are the first white person to touch it.”

That evening I e-mailed my ‘Honduran Healers’ story to Carl together with my resignation. I’d have to return to the US to wrap things up but I now knew where my long-term future lay. The third night was to be the start of my new life.

The end.