Nick’s Indecision – a short story

Nick awakes to bird song. He stealthily wiggles out of his warm sleeping bag careful not to wake Alice who sleeps on. He takes time to gaze at her. He thinks to himself how pleasant it is to see this vibrant demanding, nay ofttimes, domineering woman, at peace. Her face is relaxed into the semblance of a smile, a Mona Lisa smile, thinks Nick. He knows that if he lingers too long he will be tempted to stroke her luxurious hair, and then kiss her lips. Past experience warns him that if he woke her up she would probably be annoyed and the morning would erupt into a cacophony of human activity. Right now Nick needs time to think. He peeps out of his tent.

Their camp site looks orderly. It is located on a flat swale at the head of an inlet of Horsetooth Reservoir. A few feet away are the tents of his future parents-in-law and his future brother-in-law and his wife; closer is a park picnic table and residue of last night’s camp fire. The lake waters lap gently at his future in-law’s boat partially beached among the reeds; while behind stand their three vehicles with their orderly stow of supplies.

Nick stands and inhales to absorb the magnificence of the dawn. The reservoir is nestled into the foot-hills of the Rockies. Each of the surrounding hills is capped by a fold of red Dakota sandstone. From Nick’s vantage point, next to the water, the land looks as though it is covered by a giant’s petrified folded red cloth. Under the folds the land, covered with green scrub, stretches down to the water’s edge. The rising sun silhouettes the folds of sandstone and highlights isolated shoreline trees. The lake waters shimmer. The calm before the storm, thinks Nick, for soon an assortment of pleasure craft be on the water making headway for the further reaches of the reservoir where speeding and surf-boarding is permitted.

Nick wonders why he feels so uneasy. Six months ago when Alice invited him to move in with her he’d been happy enough to comply. He tells himself that it has been a good six months even though he, at times, felt trapped. He remembers his mother giving him her engagement ring for him to give to his future wife and how he had carried it in his pocket for weeks. When Alice proposed he had drawn it out and given it to her. He remembers her happiness which momentarily eclipsed his feeling of betrayal, or was it entrapment? He thinks back to admit to himself that his whole life had been that way. Didn’t he always comply with the suggestions of others, and let himself be subjected to their whims? He never asserting himself. He questions whether this makes him less than a man even though, he concedes, that most often he doesn’t know what he wants or what he’d do if he did assert himself. He thinks of himself as being on an unstoppable roller coaster.  Tomorrow they are going to Steamboat Springs to meet up with Nick’s parents and a few friends for the celebration of his and Alice’s ‘destination’ style wedding to be held at the bottom of Fish Creek Falls. It is a place only accessible by foot.

A couple of hours later the campsite is a hive of activity. Everyone is awake and have feasted on freshly cooked bacon and eggs and drunk copious amounts of coffee. Now they clean up in preparation for a boat ride. Nick prefers gentle coasting with the boat moving smoothly through the water making as little impact on its surface as possible, his idea of a quiet communion with nature. His future in-laws, however, love speed and as soon as they are beyond the ‘no wake’ zone his future father-in-law revs up the engine to a roar and they speed throwing up a white plume of water behind them. The boat is tilted with her bow raised as she slices through the water. Other boats are doing the same thing and so they jump each wake wave which meets them. The reservoir is now nosier than a busy traffic intersection at rush hour. Nick’s future father-in-law, although tall, perches uncomfortably on the top of the back of the driver’s seat to be able to see out over the speed induced tilt of the boat.

Then the engine is cut and Nick sighs inwardly. They are going to wake-board. His future brother-in-law goes first. He is expert, he jumps the wake and performs acrobatic leaps and somersaults.  When he tires, Alice has her turn and is equally spectacular. His future brother-in-law’s wife takes a spin. She is hesitant and, although able to stay upright, does not perform maneuvers.  Nick, unable to say no, takes to the water. He vows to himself that he will be safe and content himself with keeping upright but as he sails along his confidence builds and soon he is weaving back and forth across the wake. He is exhilarated. When they cross the wake of another boat Nick flounders and falls. They turn and pick him up. He groans as he is dragged on board his ankle hurts, he wonders if he has broken something.

Back on shore Nick’s future brother-in-law, who is a doctor, examines his ankle and declares that it is a bad sprain but not broken. He bandages it up and recommends that Nick keep it elevated. Nick accepts this counsel and is happy to skip their planned afternoon boating activities. Alice, although solicitous, asks Nick if he faking it to mess up their nuptials of the morrow.  He spends the afternoon in solitude reading and daydreaming. Is this, he wonders, his opportunity to call off the wedding? He evaluates his options, for yes, although his ankle hurts it is not as bad as he is trying to imply.  He now has his own choice to make. He can ‘miraculously’ recover sufficiently to walk to his wedding location at the foot of Fish Creek Falls or he can claim himself unable to walk and call off this marriage. He is not sure that he likes this feeling of power but knows that this time, whatever he does, he will make sure that it is his decision and his alone.

Murder Mistake

On the Sunday of Sally’s sixtieth birthday she awoke to find herself in an empty bed. Since her husband, Will, had retired she was always the first to rise to go to work; now the vacant spot next to her struck her as odd. A number of explanations flitted through her mind. She glanced toward their bathroom; the dawn sun streamed in through its east window but she heard no movement, no Will. Could he have already gone downstairs, or perhaps taken their dog, Opie, for a walk. How he loved that dog! You would think that after forty-two years of marriage and four children that he wouldn’t need a dog to shower with affection. Sally, with a tinge of jealousy, often speculated that he loved the dog more than he loved her, perhaps because, they had been together for so long. 

She got up and walked to the head of the stairs. From that vantage point she could see Opie’s leash hanging on its hook beside the front door, she concluded that Will had not taken Opie for a morning stroll. Silence reigned. She wondered if Will had chosen this occasion to leave her. After last night’s fight, when so much had been said in anger it could be possible. But, if he had, surely, he would have taken Opie and his leash with him, or no, perhaps, in his haste, he had forgotten the leash or intended to use the one that they kept in the car. 

She had had her suspicions for some time. The coffee cup with orange lipstick on it, a color that she never wore, his frequent walks with their dog Opie, his growing remoteness. Once or twice she had made a point of going home early to see what he was doing. He was usually in front of his enhanced view computer, the characters so big on the screen that it made her eyes dance.  Once their neighbor, Janet, was in the living room with him. She looked at Will sheepishly as though they shared a secret. Will explained that Janet had helpfully driven him to his ophthalmologist appointment. To Sally’s eyes Janet seemed nervous as she made a quick exit. After Janet’s’ departure Sally gathered up their coffee mugs; recognizing the lipstick color and vowing that one day she would take Janet aside and demand what she thought she was doing with some-one else’s husband. 

When Sally heard Will stumble out of the kitchen she hurried back to bed. She listened to his slow footsteps as he navigated the stairs. The sound reminded her how he could once glide upstairs as noiselessly as a cat burglar. Now every footstep was audible; old age does that to you she thought. She heard him walk slowly across the landing and come into their bedroom

“Happy birthday, dear!” he said and placed a breakfast tray on the dresser. Sally stared in wonder. After all her suspicions, here he was, giving her breakfast in bed. She reached out her hand to draw him in for a kiss. He didn’t seem to notice. He stood awkwardly beside the bed. 

“I made you toast and scrambled eggs.

Sally sat up and allowed the tray to be placed on her knees. She was especially touched to see a pink Mal Maison rose in a bud vase on the tray. She paused to smell the rose, inhaling its sweet perfume.  

“This is simply wonderful,’ she murmured, “thank-you, my darling husband!

The eggs were good, she ate fast. She looked at Will with love in her eyes, their quarrel of the previous night forgotten. There was more scrambled egg than she could eat. Will took the plate and gave the leftovers to Opie who wagged his skimpy tail and wolfed it down as only a dog can do. 

Half an hour later Sally was in agony. She vomited as though her whole intestine was disgorging. She called Will upstairs,

“I need a doctor. Call 911. I am very sick. What did you put into those eggs?  I know it, you are trying to kill me so that you and Janet can cohabit.” 

Will, shook his head and was about to respond to her accusation when Opie began to retch. Sally was still in pain and dry heaving but the sight of the poor dog disgorging his breakfast gave her comfort. Will might poison her to get rid of her, and after last night’s words he might desire to do so; but Opie? No, she knew that Will loved Opie. She knew that he would never do anything to hurt that dog

Sally looked at Will and asked, “What did you put in those eggs?” 

“Just eggs, seasoning and some fried onion.

“Fried onion, but we don’t have any onions.” 

“Yes, we do, I found them in the bottom drawer. They were smaller than usual: must be gourmet onions.

“Oh no,” Sally gasped as she clutched her stomach, “those weren’t onions, those were the tulip bulbs which I as saving for re-planting next spring.” Then it hit Sally, Will’s deteriorating eyesight was more advanced than he had let on. Perhaps he was merely associating with Janet to hitch rides to his doctor appointments. 

When the ER doctor called back he assured Sally that her symptoms, though painful, didn’t appear to be life threatening and that she should let nature take its course, going to the emergency room only if her condition worsened.

 

Honduran Travel by Fishing Boat

This one  isn’t one of my fiction stories but instead an account of an interesting travel experience.                                                             

It is late December when the Honduran November 2017 election fiasco forces us to make drastic modifications to our travel plans. Travel out in early December was thwart by inclement weather and random road blocks but our journey is rewarded by the joys of welcoming a new grandson into the world. But now it is time to go back home to the US. We decide to circumvent the road blocks by taking a fishing boat up the coast. Our son-in-law delivers us to the beach and, after a short wait, leaves to get to a telephone so that he can find out where our boat is.

The beach, if I could call it a beach, consists of a small stretch of sand flanked by disintegrating trees and vegetation extending into the ocean. The shore is strewn with trash as are so many places in poor countries, but, if I raise my glaze up to the bay, I can forget the trash and let myself be transported into the awesome wonder of our planet. Standing there I know that I am at the center of the universe. This is something that, deep down, I knew all along, but am now content to witness in confirmation. The beach is located in the center of a huge magnificent bay. On either extremity the land, with its prolific vegetation, stretches out into the water. I take in the essence of the land’s loving embrace. The sea ripples in the morning light and the rising sun highlights the clouds on the horizon where they float over the barely visible islands of Kios Cochinos. I wonder what these magical islands, ranked by some as one of the most beautiful places on earth, are really like. Right now, they wink and beckon to me, much in the way that Bali Hai called in the 1958 Rogers and Hammerstein movie, ‘South Pacifi

I raise my arms in symbolic prayer to absorb the beauty, and then turn to look inland. My luggage, a small carry-on suitcase, stands next to me amongst the trash. Beyond it I take in the short dirt drive leading to the Honduran shore-line pot-holed dirt road which connects Belfate to La Ceiba. It is 6:30 in the morning and here I am, accompanied by my husband and our bags, standing, marooned, in what now seems like the middle of no-where. I wonder if we are crazy to be here, unable to speak or understand Spanish, in the midst of this Honduran election fiasco. I know that the roads are periodically blocked and there is no telephone reception. If the small fishing boat which was scheduled to pick us up doesn’t come I don’t know what our next action will be. We need to get to the Roatan airport so that we can catch our flight back to Austin tomorrow, and they only fly once a week. I rationalize to myself that someone warned us that the Honduran fishermen are notoriously late. I urge my husband to join me in staying calm by consciously concentrating on absorbing the natural beauty before us. Of course, both of us are also letting our eyes constantly scan the bay for signs of a boat, anything human.

Time passes. I hear a vehicle on the road behind me; it is an ancient bus. I take this as a good omen, perhaps there will be others, perhaps there may yet be a way out. It is almost 7:30 when I notice something red in the ocean bobbing towards us. It seems to have materialized out of nothing for I didn’t see it enter the bay by rounding the distant point. As it approaches I realize several things. First that, surely, it must be our scheduled fishing boat, and second that it is very small. I also quickly deduce that the only way that we are going to be able to board is by wading in the water. I console myself with the reminder that I came for adventure and reach down and take off my shoes and socks and roll up my jeans. I am thankful that Honduras is tropical and that it is warm, even now, in December

There are two men on the boat. I wonder if they are friendly. One jumps out into the water. He gives me a warm smile exposing a set of stained teeth, I notice that one of the front ones is missing. He is shoeless and wears a torn t-shirt and baggy pants. He asks if there are others, we confirm that we are alone. We climb on board and over a pile of suspect-looking grimy life vests to seat ourselves on the bench seat in the middle of the boat. I am happy that we are not told to put on one of those vests. We watch our suitcases being whisked on board and stowed and tucked in under a large blue tarpaulin in the prow of the boat. I ask whether we will get wet. The toothy one shakes his head “no.”

The out-board motor springs into action with a deafening roar and we surge forward. Again, I raise my arms in symbolic thankful joy at the wonder of this enchanted place. The sea which looked so calm from our beach turns out to have a three-foot swell. At times we hit a wave just right and it throws up spray. I resign myself to the inevitable fact that we will get wet for I am too frightened by the boat’s bounce to stand up and put on my rain poncho which accompanies my shoes, socks, money and travel documents in my “purse” under my feet.

I do my best to take in the natural beauty and wonder of this view of the Honduran coast. There is a narrow line of yellow where water meets land and beyond it a flat zone of intense dark green tropical vegetation. Beyond this is the first range of mountains clad in the same tropical vegetation. Behind this range I see a second and in some locations a third range of mountains. These distant peaks look ethereal and blend magically into the sky overhead.

The swell increases and I grip my wood seat with both hands, one behind and one in front. I speculate that if I fell overboard it would be the end, for my water-logged clothing would inhibit swimming. I entertain a frightening thought that we are at the mercy of the two fishermen crewing this boat. If they chose they could pitch my husband and I overboard and make off with our possessions. I tell myself that no-one would ever find our bodies. I am concerned that I never even looked our skipper in the face. I turn to look at him. He is standing close behind me in the stern of the boat with the tiller in his hand. Since we are heading west the rising morning sun casts a silver path stretching from the receding beach where we embarked to silhouette this man. I cannot make out his features although his stance outlined in silver strikes me as being saintly. Partially reassured I return my gaze to the west.

A sole bird swoops into view flying close to the water I watch him as he passes out of view. A fish jumps out of the water. Can it be mocking the bird? We pass several tiny home-made one-man fishing boats with black triangular sails which look like converted garbage bags. By the time that we round our final peninsular and see the La Ceiba harbor wall the swell is up to four to five feet and I can taste salt on my lips.

The water is calm in the harbor which is very small. There is an ancient barge on one side, which        I speculate be abandoned due to its dilapidated state, and two or three other fishing boats not much larger than the one we are on. We approach the harbor wall closest to the ferry dock. For a split second I am transported back to a moment of terror when I was an eight-year-old. Together with my parents we were taking a Spring trip to the Farne Island bird sanctuary. We embarked from Seahouses, at what must have been low tide, for we had to climb down a ladder slung over the wall to get down to the boat. In my recollection that wall was at least twenty feet and the climb down so frightening that I still carry the memory of it with me. The climb up this wall is only a few feet. A man reaches out his hand and then another and I am soon pulled up and onto dry land, our bags follow.

My husband settles up with our fishermen. $275 covers our almost two-hour voyage. It seems reasonable to us, in our American affluence, although I speculate that it is a small fortune to these Hondurans. My comparison is the going rate of $1 US an hour that my daughter pays her gardener, maid and nanny all of whom work part-time for her meaning that they probably only make about $25-$30  a week.

The Funniest Joke

At a recent Christmas party, our host commented that you are the funniest person he knows. On our way home I told you that I didn’t find you to be unusually funny. You responded,

“It’s a dry humor. Perhaps it is mundane to you because you’re British.”

“Hmm,” I said, “now your brother has the dry part down pat. Do you remember…”

I didn’t have to say any more as we chorused his punchline of some five years ago and we both laughed. I laughed so hard that tears rolled down my cheeks.

Afterwards I wondered why we found the memory of this innocuous, not very funny, punch-line so hilarious. I postulate that, like all good humor, it was timing and delivery. To this day I recall the set-up. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving when both our brothers were visiting.  As the day was balmy as Austin, Texas can be in November, you three men had taken up residence on my sister’s patio. Ostensively, you were slow-cooking a brisket on the BBQ although I recall that large quantities of beer were being imbibed. Your brother sat on the right, mine in the middle, draped rather than sitting, with his feet upon the wrought-iron patio table. You sat on the left, rising from time to time to baste the brisket or to get more beer. We, women, were inside chatting and preparing accompaniments for the brisket.

Then my brother began to laugh. A good rich belly rumble of a laugh. His feet came off the table and he rocked back and forth in his mirth. You echoed his laughter and your brother, who looked somewhat surprised at the reaction to his joke, joined in. It was at least half an hour before we, women, could get one of you to stop laughing long enough to share the cause of your mirth. My brother pointed at yours,

“Out of the blue he asks, ‘What did the mother turkey say to her disobedient children?’ No warning, nothing.” At this point you all three took up laughing again. We wondered what that punch line could be, and waited for you to regain composure.  At last you spoke to your brother,

“Go on tell them!”

Your brother, in his dead pan voice gave us the line “If your father could see you now, he’d turn over in his gravy!”

Of course, the mirth resumed again and, we, the women, joined in, chuckling, not at the joke, but at our men-folk.

Ski Romance

Amie loved skiing. She was always passionate about her loves, and this one began when she was in elementary school. It intensified every year. When she graduated from high school, her parents suggested that she take a ‘gap’ year to pander to her appetite for the slopes and to help her forget her high-school sweet-heart who ditched her after prom. Her parents managed to get her a waitress position including accommodation, in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Amie arrived in Colorado in mid-September. She had never visited the State in the fall and was greeted by a land of color instead of the white wonderland of winter. She immediately texted her best friend, Betty.

“Hey, Bets, Wish you were here. It’s beautiful. Bet you’ve never seen aspen in their fall color. Pic attached, It’s better than that Nat Geo article Mrs. X made us study last year. So much gold; and the silver bark adds to the image. All this haloed by giant rock outcroppings and dark evergreens. Even though it is too early for snow I’m off to inspect the slopes on Sunday – hope that it swarms with unattached handsome men. LOL, A.”

As planned Amie took the Sunday gondola up to the lowest ski lodge and staging area. Although she was accustomed to ski lifts, she found the ride scary. She kept thinking about a dramatic rescue which and been shown on national TV in which a passenger moved down the open wires to rescue a boy hanging by his back-pack. The support system struck her as precarious – one small connector between gondola and cables and a fifty-foot plunge to the slopes below.

She was relieved when she arrived at the top and walked briskly through the building to view the slopes beyond. A grassy green carpet surrounded by brilliantly colored trees spread out from the building. Visitors dawdled on a paved veranda at the top of the swale and gazed at a sole moose. The magnificent animal, with his head of multi-pointed antlers and large hanging dewlap under his chin pawed the ground and returned his audience’s stare. A park ranger stood between the animal and the spectators making sure that no-one got too close. Cameras snapped wildly. Amie overheard the ranger explaining to a group of boys that the moose is the most dangerous animal in Colorado. Unlike the black bear that avoids people, the moose is fearless and will charge at random. When it ambled sedately into the trees, the ranger waved his hand and allowed visitors to walk across the swath of green to a pedestrian trail leading up the mountain.

Amie followed the crowd. The wind was blowing up the mountainside through the trees. It roared like the sea as it swayed the evergreens. It rustled the stands of aspen whose brilliant golden-yellow leaves danced making a noise like rain upon water. Many of the leaves detached and floated onto the footpath and branches of the evergreens. Amie took photographs of this golden snow. By now, she was feeling tired and so, when she saw a bench next to the path, she sat down. She took a long drink from her water bottle, proud of herself in her knowledge that altitude adaptation requires the body to make more blood and needs extra water to do this. She took out her phone and texted a picture to Betty.

“It’s beautiful, would be even better if there were some beaus around! Feeling tired, must be the altitude. LOL, Amie”

She felt comfortable on her bench and watched other visitors walk by as they also enjoyed the well-used trail. She exchanged greetings with them and shared friendly comments on the beauty of the aspen. Gradually, she felt a presence next to her and turned to find that she was sharing her bench with an attractive young man of her own age. She deduced that she must have dozed off and not noticed his arrival.

“Hi,” he offered a gloved hand, “I’m Chas. I hope that you don’t mind sharing this bench with me.”

Sharing, heck no, Amie was happy to have him beside her, she shook his hand and murmured “Amie, pleased to meet you!”

They sat and chatted about the beauty of the fall colors. Then they joined the other visitors hiking up the path. Their conversation never lagged as they talked about skiing and their mutual expectations for the season. When they returned to the bench, they sat next to each-other. Chas took Amie’s hand in his. She already felt at ease with him and rested her head on his shoulder. She must have dozed off again for when she awoke he was gone.

That evening she called Betty and told her about the strange young man who had caused her heart to flutter. She described his tanned face, resolute stride, teasing blue eyes and gentle voice. During the following week, Amie worked learning the ropes of her waitress position and the layout of Steamboat Springs, all the while speculating about Chas and looking forward to Sunday, the only day the gondolas run in the pre-season. When it came she dressed carefully and took her ride.

This time the aspen stood bare and the golden landscape gone. The ground was bathed in a light cover of fresh snow. It silhouetted the bare aspen branches and coated the tops of the evergreen branches of green needles. Amie took photographs to text to Betty and her parents. She hiked up the path. She didn’t want to admit to herself that she was searching for Chas, although she knew that this was her purpose. He was nowhere to be seen. Each time that she saw a man she hurried to scrutinize his face hoping that one of them would turn out to be him. Disappointed, and tired by her exertion, she returned to her bench.

The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone warm melting the snow. She took out a book and began to read. She wasn’t sure when she first felt his presence, for it seemed to invade upon her gently. She turned and smiled. He put his arm around her,

“Been waiting long?”

“Not really,’ she lied ‘I’m glad that you came.”

“Me too.”

They conversed and walked up the path holding hands. She shared some of her innermost secrets with him and found him to be a sympathetic listener. He responded with stories about his youth but omitted to tell her why he was on the slopes. When they returned to the bench, and she cuddled up against his chest eventually dozing off. She awoke with a start as a park ranger shook her.

The sun, in a red sky, was setting behind the building to the west, and she realized that she was cold, very cold.

“It’s time to leave,” said the ranger “you don’t want to miss the last gondola.”

She looked into his friendly face and asked, “The young man who was with me. Did you see him?” The blank look on his face worried her. She went on, “He is tall, very good looking, and is wearing a navy-blue ski jacket and matching pants, both with hot pink stripes on the sides.

“Sounds like Chas!”

“Yes, yes,” she breathed with pleasure, “yes, that’s him, Chas.”

“You must’ve been dreaming. Chas is no longer with us.”

“But’ she stammered ‘he was here, beside me. Yes, what is more, he promised that he is going to ski with me when the slopes officially open.”

The ranger sighed, and touched Amie’s arm again, “My dear young lady. It’s been three years.” He raised his arms in exasperation, “You must remember, at the time it was all over the newspapers; our Olympic hopeful, Chas, died in an unfortunate skiing accident.”

Amie shook her head and turned away to disguise her clouded eyes. The ranger pressed on,

“Don’t you remember the story, just before his big jump he was spooked by a moose and landed wrong.’ He pointed at the bench,

“Look at the plaque on this bench, it carries his name. It was donated by his parents. You’re sitting on his memorial.”

Broken – a short story

The coffee mug slipped out of my hand. I watched it, seemingly in slow motion, as it fell to the floor. I wondered if this might be my lucky day, and it wouldn’t break. That was a vain thought, and I knew better. When it hit the hard Saltillo tile floor, it exploded and sent shards of pottery across the kitchen. “Oh well,” I thought, “at least it didn’t have coffee in it!” By the time that I’d swept up the pieces the muffins were ready. I took them out of the oven and placed them and the fresh coffee on the kitchen counter. I hoped that the aroma would draw out my visiting daughter and son-in-law. It seemed to have my desired effect, and they emerged smiling

It was an inviting Houston spring morning. We took our muffins and coffee outside and sat around the patio table. The dogs greeted us thrusting their soft expectant noses in our laps. Their tails waged in happy greeting. The garden, always its best during the spring, was bursting with growth, and our roses bloomed in a magnificent profusion of color. The setting was peacefully idyllic. For a while, we chatted about the garden, and then my daughter turned to me and casually asked, 

“Mum, what did you break this morning?”

I had already forgotten my mishap, and so I replied, “Oh, nothing, just a coffee mug. Why do you ask?

She smiled and looked at her husband, “This morning David remarked that he hadn’t heard anything being broken this visit. I was just chiding him when we heard the crash echoing down the hall. We had to laugh because he is so right!

I nodded in accord. Sometimes I wonder why I break so many things. Is it because I move too fast, or is it my eyesight or perhaps eye/hand coordination, or merely a case of pathological clumsiness? It has always been a problem. Nowadays, I am thankful for Replacements Inc which I have bookmarked in my computer. My casual one item accidents are so commonplace that they don’t upset the household. Sitting there sipping coffee and enjoying the spring air, I let my daughter’s question prompt my recollection of a more dramatic calamity during my early teens. Looking back, I wondered whether it was the natural precursor or jinx which set me on my clumsy path

It happened when I was growing up in Durham in the north of England. From time to time, my parents gave dinner parties. My mother was a superb cook, and my father had an excellent wine cellar, and so these parties were elaborate affairs. Guests were first ushered into our formal ‘drawing room’ with its full-length pale blue curtains, and robin’s-egg-blue upholstered chairs. Here they were served my father’s signature ‘gin and it” cocktail. After an appropriate time, the party would adjoin to the adjacent dining room where a magnificent table awaited them. Against the backdrop of full-length golden- -yellow damask draped windows stood a long mahogany table polished to such a high gloss that you could see your reflection in its surface. Each place setting was immaculate, fine China, antique three-pronged Georgian silver, crystal glasses, brilliant linen and sparkling candles in silver candelabra

My mother didn’t have kitchen help so first course was generally already set out on the table. My father usually poured a light white wine to accompany this delicacy. When it was finished my parents would hurry the dirty dishes out of the room. The kitchen was remote from the dining room, and so they stacked the dirties on our large breakfast table in our breakfast room adjoining the kitchen. With a flourish, my mother would then present her main dish, and my father would pour an accompanying wine. So, the meal progressed, the dirties were again whisked into the breakfast room, and desert was served together with a sweet white wine. When they had finished eating they would go back to the drawing room to drink coffee and nibble on After Eight chocolates. I imagine that my father served after dinner drinks, brandy and scotch, although I don’t remember. Conversation would wax loud, and they sat and talked until late

While the dinner was in progress on my sister, and I were banished to our room. My parents didn’t have a dish-washer and so after the guests left they would clear the table and slowly work their way through the accumulation of dirty dishes stacked upon the breakfast room table. On the occasion of my recollection, my sister and I decided that we would creep downstairs and do the washing-up as a surprise for our parents

The design and layout of our kitchen was a mess. Looking back, I am amazed that my mother managed to produce her trade-mark culinary marvels in such poor surroundings. It was a large room but, unlike modern American kitchens, it didn’t have lengths of built-in cabinets or continuous counters or an island. Along the side with a window was a large double sink with draining boards on either side and beyond these on either side were full height built-in cabinets in which china and glass were stored. My mother had two trestle tables which she placed in front of these built-ins to serve as staging areas / work surfaces when the ‘good’ china and glass were not in use. On the occasion of a dinner party, they were pulled out into the room to give access to the cabinets. Along an adjacent side was the oven, cook-top, another small table, and tiny under-counter style refrigerator. The other sides were mostly taken up by doors, larder door (it is cold enough in the north of England for the larder to serve like a refrigerator), an outside door, and the breakfast room door leading into the rest of the house. My sister and I adopted the two trestle tables as staging areas and began with the glass.

We took turns being washer-up and drier. Sixty glasses got washed and successfully put away. Then we began on the plates, bread plates, appetizer plates, and dessert plates all without mishap. The next step was the dinner plates which we stacked on one of the trestle tables ready to wash. That was when I noticed that the heavy Waterford crystal water jug was also on the trestle table. I decided that it could be emptied and put away without washing and took it off the table.  To my horror the table tilted and deposited all twelve crown-something dinner plates on the floor. They all shattered

At this point, I showed tremendous presence of mind and had to comment that at least they were still dirty! Looking back, I can only speculate that sometimes nervous laughter is the best way to relieve tension. We shoveled up the mess, and disposed of the broken pieces in the trash. We swept and washed the floor and finished our self-imposed task by washing and polished the antique silver flat-ware. By now the enormity if the breakage had begun to sink in and knowing how wild my mother could be I decided that I’d rather not face her initial outburst and that the better part of valor was to retire to my bedroom

The dinner party broke up soon after I went upstairs. When my parents returned to the breakfast room and kitchen to begin their clean-up my mother’s first comment was

“It’s immaculate – so clean!” Then she looked around and asked, “But, where’s Jane?” I’m sure that my absence was odd and that she wished to thank us together.

My sister, with her honed sense of drama, responded. “Oh, Jane ……, – she’s upstairs committing suicide!

The Locked Room – short story

Philip stood next to his parents and stared at the locked door. It was obviously a bedroom door except the hardware, unlike the other bedroom door privacy knob-sets in this luxurious ski rental property was a deadbolt lock. An elegant gold-tone plaque was attached to the door; on it, in black letters, was the word “Ursula.” Philip looked quizzically at his dad.

Sensing his son’s question, his father returned his glance and remarked: “Yep, I agree. A dead-bolt locked bedroom in a rental property doesn’t make sense. I can’t imagine why an owner would want to turn a four-bedroom, sleeps-eight, into a three-bedroom, sleeps-six. I can only assume that it has been converted to some kind of store room.”

“Okay. Dad,” responded his eighteen-year-old son, “but why the second-best bedroom on this upper floor, why not one of the lower level bedrooms like the one I am to sleep in?”

His mother looked at the two and chimed in, “I agree with you, Philip. What’s more there are almost a dozen lockers in the mud room and a couple of locked closets in the other bedrooms all with names on them. Surely there couldn’t have been a need for an additional store room. In my book, it is very odd!”

Philip’s father disliked conundrums and so, he waved his hand dismissively and turned away from the offending door. “I say, whatever the reason, we should be happy as it got us this lovely extra-large home with the three bedrooms that we need together with all the amenities of a larger home, Jacuzzi, sauna, large dining and living room, the list goes on!”

At that moment the two teen-age girls of the family pounded upstairs accompanied by shriek’s and giggles. “Come on, you slow pokes, we only have a few days, why are you staring at a locked door? It is gorgeous outside, let’s get some skiing in before dark!”

They descended to the main level. As they passed through the living area they paused to admire a magnificent view of Steamboat Springs and the ski slopes. The afternoon sun made the snow sparkle white on the west facing slopes. They could see the skiers in their multi-colored clothing weaving down the slope making fantastic blurs of color.  Philip and his dad exchanged a high-five as they hurried after the girls. This was the first year that the family had taken their annual ski holiday here, and they liked what they saw.

Hours later, they returned tired and happy. They entered through the ‘back’ mud-room door next to a bear-mauled trash room door. Philip took out his phone and snapped a picture of the bear’s strange claw marks. He wondered whether they were merely an attempt to break down the door or a more significant marking of territory. While his parents and siblings played cards upstairs he surfed for bear information and posted the image on Facebook. He found time to re-read Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury’s children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” which was displayed in a helpful collection of children’s books in his allotted bedroom. He ruminated on the possibility that even when the object of a quest is known the final denouement may defy that initial preconception.

The next evening, the family took a hot steamy sauna upon their return from skiing. The sauna with its glass door was adjacent to the locked door affording Philip time to stare and wonder. He still couldn’t rationalize the concept that the room had been converted into a mere extra store room. Did it house a piece of forbidden equipment or maybe crime-scene evidence? Later he returned to try to look through the keyhole without success; he even attempted to pick the lock. Lock picking looks easy in movies but, to his chagrin, he discovered that in this case it wasn’t. He listened intently and thought that he heard grunt-like sounds inside the room. He also noticed a faint shadow of a stain in the tan-colored Berber carpet immediately outside the door. He mentioned his observations to his dad who dismissively stated that the house was part of a duplex, and the sounds were undoubtedly coming from the adjacent tenants muffled by the wall insulation. As for the stain, well people often spill things on carpets.

The following morning, Philip went and stood outside the door to ruminate on its mystery. As he stared he had a break-through thought. The room was a bedroom, surely it had windows! He quickly slipped down to the main level and outside to investigate. He was right; the room did have windows. He identified two, which overlooked the main entry porch roof. There was a planter on the porch and, over it, a hole through the roof to allow natural irrigation. Philip saw that he could easily climb up on the planter and haul himself onto the roof. Then it would be easy, he thought, to navigate the roof and look in through the windows. He decided to return from the slopes early so that he could put his plan into execution unhindered by parental scrutiny.

The climb onto the roof was easier than he expected, however the crawl across ten feet of snow covered roof was more challenging. The snow was not thick. He brushed it off with his gloved hands and found footholds on the anti-slip roof hooks. To his amazement he found that both windows were open. He peered in and saw what looked like a normal bedroom; queen-sized bed with attractive cream and red comforter, bedside tables with lamps, a dresser with TV on top, and a closet. Hard as he tried he could detect nothing unusual. He pushed his anti-glare ski goggles onto    his head and looked closer. He observed that the closet door was ajar enabling him to see its contents strewn on the floor. They consisted of a grey blanket and an enormous stuffed animal. It was the sort, he thought that one wins at carnivals; except this one wasn’t pink, it was black. He noticed that a couple of small teddy bears like the one he had as a child were also mixed in the pile. He was disappointed and wondered whether he should give up or climb into the room for further investigation.

He was still considering options when one of the teddy bears moved its snout and made a small grunt. Philip shuddered and griped the cold window sill. Was he hallucinating? No, this was no delusion for the movement triggered a chain reaction. The large furry object also grunted and gently rolled; then it shoved the small teddy bear towards it’s stomach. Philip’s feet slipped, the snow-covered roof was slick and he almost fell off as the realization came that these were not toys but a live black bear and her cubs taking their annual winter torpor.

Some notes about Black Bears
The black bear’s torpor is a winter sleep in which breathing and heart rates slow down, and body temperatures are slightly depressed. Hibernation refers to a sleep in which the sleeper’s body temperature is drastically reduced. A bear in torpor does not drink, eat, urinate or defecate but can respond to danger signals and moves occasionally. Although Colorado Black Bears generally weigh between 100 – 450 lbs. they are not aggressive toward humans. The most dangerous animal in Colorado is the moose who is fearless and will charge at random. In the fall the bears, who are intelligent with good memories and a very acute sense of smell (ten times better than a dog) will raid dumpsters and anywhere that they can smell food (even in unlocked cars which they know how to open.) Their fall hyperphagia, or voracious eating, is to get fat enough to support their winter torpor when they will lose about 27% of their body weight. Black bears copulate in June after which the fertilized embryos go into stasis and, if the mother gets fat enough in the fall, they implant and grow. A litter of one to three 1 lb. cubs are born in January. From then until spring the cubs nurse on their sleeping mother. Bears have been known to make a basement of an occupied human residence into a winter den. The upper bedroom at the house, featured in my story, was visited by a bear in the fall. The animal got in the same way as Philip. I speculate, that the bear visitor may have been looking for a convenient winter den.