Cedars in the Parking Lot

Nate Newman arrived early on the first day at his new job in Austin. He drove into the parking lot which flanked six recently-constructed new buildings interconnected by covered walkways and looked for his assigned building. The rows of cars were separated by continuous beds of trees which Nate saw as attractive rows, almost walls, of Christmas trees. When he located his destination, he parked and got out of his car, stretched and paused to take stock of his surroundings. That is when he noticed that the trees were not Christmas trees but cedars – Austin’s scourge.

Nate was a procrastinator and now wondered if he was doing the right thing in starting to work for a company which must be crazy. Yes crazy, he thought, nuts or plain stupid to plant this invasive tree. He thought back to numerous articles urging responsible Austin landowners to cull cedars where possible citing it as an alien predator, which sucks moisture from desirable indigenous trees, like oaks and pecans. What worried him even more was the thought that he would have to park among these monsters in the cedar fever season. Annually, in late December and early January, when the cedars were covered with pollen and release their loads into the air with dramatic puffs, he succumbed to congestion, headaches, sneezing and hot flushes and was so miserable that he always had to have his doctor give him a series of curative shots. He wondered how he was going to cope with a parking lot immersed in the source of his annual affliction. He almost got back in his car and drove off.

Inside the building Nate’s new boss, Wallace Walker, greeted him warmly and undertook to give him an office tour. He apologetically pointed to boxes strewn everywhere and explained that they were in the process of moving into this just completed building. He guided Nate to his assigned office and then, as they ambled toward the coffee station they paused at a perimeter window to gaze outside. The view reminded Nate of his concern about the cedar trees. He looked at Wallace and asked,

“Isn’t it odd to have a parking lot planted with cedar trees?” he paused to assess Wallace’s reaction and continued “that lot is going to be lethal for a cedar fever sufferer like me!” Wallace’s reply was instant,

“Don’t worry it is going to be changed!”

“That’s a relief!”

“I’d better explain so that you don’t worry. We instructed our Houston based architect to retain an award-winning, Californian landscape designer. His signature is dramatic plant groupings, and his design concept for the parking area was that we should have walls of living green dividing it into ‘rooms’. It wasn’t until the trees were planted that we realized that they were cedars!”

“That must have been quite an awakening” said Nate.

“Yep. You could say that. Guess that’s what you get with designers from out-of-town. Of course, we have instructed them that it is an unacceptable design error and must to be changed. They balked at first but have agreed to remove all sources of ceder pollen allergens from our site.” Wallace paused and looked around then he lowered his voice into a confidential whisper, “It will probably cost them $70,000; but then we can’t and won’t have cedar fever trees where people park!”

Just then they saw a young woman wearing a bright-red tea-shirt with the words ‘MISS CHEAP’ in bold white letters across her chest. She was weaving in and out among the trees. Wallace noticed Nate’s stare and gave an explanation,

“That’s our architect’s project manager!” he chuckled, “It is part of the same story associated with our famous Californian landscape designer. Before the cedar tree fiasco, he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give us a landscape design in budget. Our senior management called for a meeting at our New York headquarters to discuss the problem. At the meeting the young lady you see out there, repeated her plea for a less costly landscape design.” For a moment both Wallace and Nate stood gazing out. Then Wallace continued his narrative,

“Upper management agreed with her as the landscape budget was set at $1 million while the cost estimate for the Californian’s design was over $2 million. Our company has also has an in-house architectural design manager who feebly attempted to support the expensive design concept. Suddenly, our Californian stood and walked to the floor-to-ceiling glass window. For a few seconds, he stared out onto New York, and then he turned to face the meeting, stamped his foot like a petulant child, and shouted,

‘I quit! I can’t go on. I’m stuck between Miss Cheap, and Mr. Good!’

“It was memorable moment. Ever since that meeting our architect has gone by Miss Cheap and our design manager by Mr. Good.”

After his tour, Nate spent the morning getting settled in his new office. At lunch-time, he slipped out to his car and was surprised to see Miss Cheap weaving in and out between the trees near his car. She was an attractive woman and looked friendly. She smiled at Nate. He stepped over to face her,

“Good morning, or is it afternoon already?” he began. Then, encouraged by her friendly smile and responsive greeting he continued, “You’ve been out among these cedars all morning. I’m curious to know what you are doing especially as Wallace Walker, my boss, tells me that they are all going to be replaced? Cedar fever and all…….”

Miss Cheap paused and smiled.

“Yes, I agree, we can’t have cedar fever allergens in the parking lot. But it is not that simple. You see the Austin cedars are not cedars.”

“Not cedars? But, but cedar fever is very real.”

“Oh yes, I know, cedar fever is real. The culprit is actually a juniper, Juniperus Ashei whose pollen has a biochemical coat which irritates the nostrils. These trees are Juniperus Virginiana whose pollen is larger than that of Ashei and generally not allergenic. However, in a population already sensitized by Ashei the Virginiana pollen can aggravate symptoms.”

“So, they are going to be replaced?”

“Well, yes, and no; you see the Juniperus Virginiana has dioecious reproduction.”

“Err, yes? dioecious reproduction?”

“Yes, that’s the botanist’s way of saying that the Juniperus has both male and female trees. Only the male trees produce pollen. I’ve spent the morning tagging the males for replacement with more females. Thereby we retain the design concept and save half the cost of replacement, some $35,000.”

“So, Miss Cheap, that sounds reasonable, but how do you know which are which? They all look the same to me.”

“Simple, the females have berries on them!”

Gifts of Thanksgiving

Keith looked miserable when he shared his sad news with his smoking buddies. He was a charismatic character who generally livened up the group with his jokes and good humor. He could extract something to laugh at from almost any mundane office meeting. The smoker’s group stood in an otherwise unusable corner of the parking garage in the area defined by building management as ‘The Smoking Area’. It was equipped with a dismal-looking park picnic table with attached seating together with a large trash container. The smokers generally didn’t use the bench but stood looking out onto a patch of green weeds growing along the building’s property line. Today even the sunlit highlighted greenery looked forlorn while the rest of the spot with its hard-grey concrete surfaces made a gloomy back-drop much in keeping with Keith’s mood. The smokers inhaled desperately as they tried to draw calm out of the tobacco. Keith, the saddest looking of them all shared his news.

“Another miscarriage!”

The whole office knew his story; how he, and his wife Kitty, had been trying for years to have a child. Each time that she conceived they thought that this pregnancy would be different. But then their joy would be turned to sadness when she miscarried. Of course, they had been to numerous doctors but all the medical profession could tell them was that sometimes these things happen. It wasn’t reassuring. Everyone offered their condolences but no-one had a pat soothing platitude to offer; they had all been used up in response to Kitty’s earlier miscarriages. Keith dolefully told his colleagues, that although he and Kitty were in their late thirties, they were going to see if they could adopt.

Six months later, Keith blissfully announced that Kitty was now into her second trimester and was carrying this baby longer than in any of her previous pregnancies. The staff shared his happy mood. Kitty got to her ninth month. They staged an office baby shower, and when the baby was born all went to the hospital to view the cute baby dressed in blue, who, all agreed, already looked like his Dad.

When Keith returned to work after his paternity leave, he no longer came the smoker’s corner. Standing in the break-room holding a mug of hot coffee he explained that he had given up smoking in thanksgiving for the birth of his son. He received appropriate congratulations while all secretly monitored his actions to see if his vow was serious. He never faltered. Several of the other smokers took inspiration from his action and also gave it up. General office gossip endorsed his action with the additional rationale that it was a wise action as smoking doesn’t go with small children.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. The miscarriages of the past were in forgotten. Keith was ecstatic. He told the entire office that he, and Kitty had always wanted two children. In due course, a beautiful baby girl was born. After his paternity leave, Keith talked freely about his next act of thanksgiving.

“I want to give my daughter every advantage. I gave up smoking as an act of thankfulness and celebration for the birth of my son. I’ve thought about this long and hard. I know that I have to give up something as an act of thankfulness for my daughter. So, after due thought I am giving up alcohol to acknowledge the blessing of having a daughter.”

He explained that both, he and Kitty were second in the birth-order in their homes and had often felt twinges or resentment that parents become increasingly blasé with each successive child. They, neither of them, wished this to happen to their children. The office gossips discussed this decision of Keith’s. Some rationalized that alcohol also doesn’t belong with responsible parenting, while Keith’s drinking buddies sadly accepted that Keith’s increased home responsibilities would keep him away even if he hadn’t given up booze.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. Keith’s joy was less effusive as he said that he and Kitty had only wanted two children. However, when he returned to the office, he announced that for this child, his act of self- denial was to give up caffeine. He still frequented the break-room where he took to standing holding a huge mug of iced water and amusing everyone with his wit.

“No more children,” he declared, “We can’t afford three as it is; and besides, I’ve nothing else to give up in thanksgiving!”

The office gossips found it harder to pin an additional rationale onto the ‘no caffeine’ decision. Some observed that three children in diapers meant many sleepless nights, which might make caffeine a morning necessity. Others said that the nocturnal interruptions made anything, which inhibited sleep a ‘no-no” even in the morning.

Life has a way of taking over and about nine months later, Keith announced that Kitty was pregnant with their fourth. He didn’t ask for input on what he should give up in thanksgiving for this child, who he stated absolutely had to be his last. No-one helped him make his decision, although the topic was hotly discussed behind his back. No-one needed to tell him for he knew; of all his children, this child, his last, was to receive the dedication of his most significant act of self-denial.

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.