Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

October 2012 022

A rerun, originally posted in June 2011.

We all knew Daddy wanted an ice cream freezer for Father’s Day. He’d been talking about it since Memorial Day. We heard about how nice it would be to make homemade ice cream like he had growing up. How he loved to help pack the churn with ice and salt and would personally sit on top while my granddaddy turned the hand crank. Couldn’t quite say what his favorite flavor was—peach was good if it had been a good season for peaches, and strawberry was a feast for the senses. Then again, there were times when pure vanilla was all that any man could ask for.

So I was hardly astounded when Mama says at supper on the Friday prior to Father’s Day, “Frank, I’ve got your Father’s Day ice cream freezer if you want to try it out tomorrow.”

Daddy stopped chewing ham, says, “Why are you telling me about my Father’s Day present on a Friday night? Don’t you know Father’s Day is Sunday?”

“Yes, Frank, I know that, but I thought you’d like to try the ice cream freezer before Sunday afternoon.” Mama’s voice rose in pitch until the “noon” in “afternoon” sounded like angels blowing the trumpets for Armageddon. Time for Daddy to retreat, but he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of these Father’s Days I’d like to get a damn surprise,” he grumbled low.

Mama heard him perfectly well. She said, “One of these Father’s Days you’re gonna get a damn surprise,” and they finished supper in cold politeness, with exaggerated good manners and a silent passing of the ham, potato salad, and sliced cantaloupe. They only pretend to get mad, though, and they were chatting in a friendly way as Mama cleared the table and Daddy collected ham scraps for our dog, Sarge.  

On Father’s Day I gave Daddy a card from me and baby Bethany, then Mama gave him his ice cream freezer—a slick electric model she had picked out from Consumer Reports.

You don’t have to make a mess with ice and salt,” she explained. “You freeze the tub for 24 hours, add your ingredients, and let ‘er rip.”

“Well,” Daddy said, and I noticed his upper lip curled as he said it, “then I guess in 24 hours maybe we can enjoy a bowl of ice cream.”

“Suit yourself,” Mama said. “I’m going to enjoy mine in 20 minutes. I’ve had the tub in the freezer since Thursday.”

Daddy explained that he had wanted a White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream freezer like the one from his childhood. “This requires electricity from start to finish,” he said. “And Dixie won’t get to sit on it while I crank.”

“This is the 21st century, Frank. Anyway, this marvel of efficiency was one-third the cost of the four-quart White Mountain hand-cranked freezer with the triple gear action.” She said that so Daddy would know she’d done her research. Mama is a great one for research. She added, “And who was it once said, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has’?”

“I don’t know, but I expect whoever said it is dead,” Daddy replied.

We made a batch of strawberry ice cream and ate it on the back patio with Sarge watching every bite. Daddy says it would be folly to speculate on Sarge’s parentage, but if he had to guess he would say Sarge is either a teacup Doberman or a new strain of pocket beagle.

Mama went inside to get more napkins. “You like this, don’t you, girls?” Daddy said, savoring his ice cream. “So do I. Now, Dixie, don’t tell Mama, but I believe ice cream tastes better when you don’t have to turn a crank forever to get it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mama said through the kitchen window.

Sarge edged closer to Bethany. He knew she was the family member most likely to lose a grip on her food. Sure enough, before long Bethany sent nearly a full scoop tumbling onto the grass. Sarge lapped up that ice cream as quick as he could lick. Then he stopped, went stiff, staggered a few steps sideways, shook his head, and stretched out.

“Brain freeze!” Daddy said. “He’ll be all right, Dixie. Mama, look at your dog.”

Mama approached Sarge to rub his head, but he rolled his eyes and showed her his teeth. “Well, he’s not yet over it,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She and Daddy thought it was funny, and Daddy did an imitation of Sarge getting brain freeze until I thought they’d both pass out from laughing.

We stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out. When Sarge recovered from his brain freeze, I threw a ball for him to chase until both of us were panting. I flopped onto the grass at the far end of the yard, and Sarge climbed in my lap to chew on his ball. In the dim light I could see Mama holding Bethany; she and Daddy talked and laughed softly. They looked like people in a dream.

Daddy called out, “Dixie, what are y’all doing out there in the gloaming?”

I wasn’t sure what gloaming was, but I knew what I was doing so I called back, “I’m rejoicing for the things I have!”


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Pluto, from nasa.gov


I sat in the Seahorse Bakery Café on Ocean Street, like always on a Thursday afternoon after teaching English Literature (Chaucer to Pope). I generally celebrate the weekend by having a late lunch at the Seahorse followed by one of their exquisite tiny cupcakes, each one a masterpiece of Swiss buttercream, chocolate curls, mango curd filling, or perhaps golden raspberries dusted with confectioner’s sugar—but not all at the same time, of course.

On this final day of classes for the year, I had claimed my usual table at a window overlooking the boardwalk, as far away as possible from the wedding-cake display. My table has a water view. Not of the sea, but of one of the public showers at the top of the dunes. The shower is situated conveniently near the top of the stairs that come off the beach, and when in use there is a nice spray of sparkling water that lifts my spirits.

The fly in my waterview soup is this homeless guy. His Thursday schedule is nearly identical to mine; he often begins his shower at 2:30 or so, about the time I’m finishing my delicious cupcake. I believe he is homeless because he is always dirty and mostly unshaven and his clothes are a mess and most significantly he’s taking a shower at a public beach facility in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Like me, he has a routine. He arrives at the shower, removes his shirt and terrible boots, digs around the roots of the sea oats that crowd the stairway to the beach, pulls up a buried Publix bag, removes a bar of dark soap, and proceeds to wash himself with it. He begins by removing his shirt and rinsing it in the flow, then he carefully hangs the shirt on the banister to the stairs. He soaps his head and face and neck and arms and torso and even his pants and finally his feet and toes. He always gives his toes a little extra attention, which used to give me serious creeps before I got used to it. Then he puts the soap back in the Publix bag, buries it in the sand beside the stairway, rinses the sand off his hands, picks up his wet shirt, slings it over his shoulder, and swaggers off like a new man. He actually holds his head up higher and looks around with more confidence. The first time or two that I saw him I was appalled, but by this time I had come to admire his attitude.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the Seahorse Bakery Café. I love their tiny cupcakes, of course, but the main reason for my devoted patronage is that I am eating off a $150 wedding cake deposit. My fiancé, Charles, changed his mind a month before our wedding and then took our honeymoon to Jamaica by himself. The Seahorse doesn’t do refunds, but they are allowing me to eat the balance.

I didn’t want a credit at the Seahorse. I want to be clear about that. I wanted my damn money back. I really felt after the Charles blow-up that the only thing that could possibly make me feel better would be a whole lot of money flowing back into my bank account. I was fortunately able to get back my entire catering deposit, and I sold my wedding dress on Craig’s List for a profit, if you can believe that. But the Seahorse remained adamant that “no refunds,” which was printed clearly on every flat surface in the place, meant no refunds. As it happens, “no refunds” did not necessarily mean no in-store credit, but I did have to threaten to bring my attorney sister in to negotiate before I got it. They made me sign a one-page contract stating the deal was null and void if I told anyone about the credit; it also stressed the fact that a 20% gratuity would be added to each meal. Fine. I signed it. Did it make me popular at the Seahorse? It did not. But at this point popularity wasn’t a thing I cared very much about. I was more intent on winning battles.

As I finished my curry chicken salad and my ginger-almond cupcake with apricot cream, two ladies scraped back the chairs directly behind mine. I heard Christine, the owner of the Seahorse, say, “I’ll get the tasting samples. In the meantime, you can look at some of our designs.” Her heavy binder of cake photographs hit the table top, and soon the special language of Wedding Cake filled the air with a sticky fog, turning the sweet apricot cream to dust in my mouth.

I despise wedding cake. I know what you’re thinking, but there is a very big difference between a tiny two-bite cupcake and a wedding cake—which is nothing more nor less than a fraudulent tower of spun-sugar that implies a fairy-tale fantasy is about to unfold. Don’t get me started. It was all enough to make me consider forfeiting my remaining $72.62 in credit and never coming near the Seahorse again.

With remarkable strength of character, I sat silently through the royal icing, the rolled fondant, and even the bittersweet chocolate faux bois. But when the discussion turned to hand-tinted gum-paste flowers (orchids, roses, lilies—in any delicate hue the bride desired), I could stand it no more. I tipped my chair back on two legs and intruded my head into the personal space between the bride and her mother. “Gum-paste flowers are foul luck,” I said. “Don’t even think about ordering gum-paste flowers.”

I couldn’t see Christine’s reaction to this comment, but a long, cold silence raised the hair on my arms. “Gotta go,” I said, striving for a cheery tone. My chair legs hit the floor, hard.

As I hurried out the door, I saw that the homeless shower guy was heading down the sidewalk, too, in his jaunty, post-shower attitude. Albert, who runs the Italian water ice stand on the boardwalk, yelled as he walked by, “Dave! What’s up, man?”

“Hey,” the shower guy said. “Not too much. Just takin’ it easy.”

Odd that a homeless guy should have a name and acquaintances. As Dave continued up the sidewalk, I lingered at Albert’s stand. “You know him?” I asked casually, tilting my head toward Dave’s retreating and scrupulously clean figure.

“Sure,” Albert said. “It’s Dave.”

I waited, but further information would have to be requested. “Is he okay?” I asked carefully.

“I guess,” Albert shrugged. “Looked okay to me. What did you hear? Did he fall out of a palm tree and damage his skull?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Does he climb palm trees?”

“What are we talking about here?” Albert was certainly touchy. “Dave trims palm trees; it’s possible he could fall out of a palm tree. And by the way, are you going to order anything?”

“I wasn’t planning to,” I said. “I’m not hungry—I just had lunch with a cupcake for dessert.”

“Then move along, girlie,” Albert said. “You’re blocking my sign and costing me business.”

“Can I ask one more question?”

“Only if you’re walking away while you’re askin’.”

I began to back away from the stand. “How do I get in touch with Dave to trim my palm trees?”

Albert shook his head in disgust. “How do you ever find a guy to trim your palm trees? You look in the classifieds of the Beaches Leader.”

I picked up a copy of the Leader and drove home, where I spread the paper out on my tiny kitchen table and turned straight to the classifieds. And there he was! “Palm trees trimmed, brush cleared. Call Dave.”

I can’t explain why I called him. But I had a couple of months free before classes began again, and there was a sort of tangled mini-jungle at the side of my house that did need to be cleared out. I couldn’t do it, because it looked spidery and scary. Charles had promised that he would take care of it for me, but Charles obviously found the solitary true jungles of Jamaica more alluring.

Dave showed up pretty close to the time he’d said he would, and in half a day my little jungle was gone and I had a strip of cleared land between my house and the neighbor’s fence for the first time ever. As Dave drove off in his tiny gray pick-up truck with my jungle debris packed into the bed, I contemplated the amazing ease of hiring a man to do hard work.

“I’m better off than I was,” I mused. “I have found a guy to do the yard stuff when I need it done, without any contractual commitment. That’s all I need a guy for! Plus, I have weekly lunches lined up for the entire summer, at least, at no charge. This is going to be perfect. I’m really happy about the way things turned out. I’m very, very happy.”

I was so happy that I spent the rest of my afternoon lying on the couch, pointing the remote at the TV and sightlessly channeling around. PBS had a beautiful gardening show on, and I supposed I should try to figure out something to do with my new side yard, but that seemed like an impossible task. Instead I hit Mute and fell asleep.

When I woke, the room was dark and PBS was receiving photos from a satellite that was hurtling into outer space. Space is so beautiful. I turned up the volume. The narrator was talking about Pluto. The photos of space were replaced by a graphic that showed chunks of space rock being pulled together to form the tiny planet (or whatever it is considered now). Poor Pluto. Stripped of planet status. I thought I could understand how Pluto must feel—desolate, barren, unwanted. It was especially touching because for a period of time it had been a part of something grand and beautiful, only to be cast off and left spinning in terrible, limitless darkness.

I tried to pick up the narrative of the program: Where did that debris come from? Was that what had happened after the Big Bang—chunks of stuff began whirling around, and some of it started attracting smaller chunks and they began to stick together? I liked this idea, and in my personal world it made sense. Something blows apart into a million pieces, and some of the bits find others and make connections.

Then it hit me: This is what happens when your heart is hit by the Big Bang of a failed relationship. At first it breaks apart and seems as if it will never be fixed, but then it begins to clump back together like those chunks of gray space rock that were still on the screen, turning into Pluto. All I had to do was wait until the chunks began to orbit back around and started clumping together again. Once it was back in one piece, it would be harder, and stronger, and cold.

* * *

I hired Dave to help me plant the side yard. Over the course of several weeks, we planted three climbing roses and a variety of annuals. Dave devised a trellis, then cleaned the gutters. When all that was done, he insisted that it was long past time for my two palm trees to be trimmed. “Fine,” I said.

I can’t say that all this togetherness furthered my knowledge of Dave much. I still had no idea why he showered at the beach and where (if anywhere) he went afterward. But that was what I wanted—a cold, businesslike contractual relationship where we both knew exactly where we stood. It seemed to me the perfect—perhaps the only possible—male/female relationship.

On the other hand, I sometimes felt that it was not too smart to get tangled up in Dave’s world. What if, once the weather turned cooler, he started turning up on my back porch to sleep? It could happen. I was probably his most consistent employer, and I was pretty sure that he knew I kept a spare key in the mailbox. Maybe it wouldn’t have to be winter, either—the rainy season was upon us, and during a bad storm he could easily show up seeking shelter. I looked at him now. He was tightening the laces of his hideous boots in preparation for going into my front-yard palm tree.

“What are your plans for this weekend?” I asked. “I think they’re calling for rain.”

Dave looked up at me. “I’m going fishing with my buddy,” he said. “If you ever want fresh snapper or whiting, I can set you up.”

“Thank you.” To be set up with snapper or whiting—this was what my life had come to.

Dave summoned up the rags and tags of some nearly forgotten social graces and said, “You?”

I waved a hand. “Oh, nothing planned. My life is in a holding pattern. My wedding had to be canceled, and now I’m taking time to re-evaluate and see what new connections develop.” It was the most I had shared with him to date.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Must have been tough.”

“Actually, I got most of the money back.”

He said, “I meant it must have been tough on your heart.”

“I’m recovering,” I said brightly. “I have a heart like Pluto.” I explained about how tiny, icy Pluto had been a wreck before it formed into an almost-planet. It just took time and solar magic. “Anyway,” I finished, proud of my powers of Pluto-like recovery, “I sold the dress, and got my deposits back for the catering and flowers and photographer. The only thing left to recoup is my wedding-cake deposit, and the bakery is letting me eat on credit until it’s used up.”

Dave gazed at me as I talked. He said, “For God’s sake, let it go. You’re staying stuck by going back there every week. Walk away.” He was silent for a beat, then added, “Who wants a heart like Pluto? An icy slab of rock? Give me a heart like the sun.”

“Why?” I asked. “I mean here we are, unloved and unwanted. Much better to have a heart like Pluto, right?”

“Speak for yourself,” Dave said curtly. “I have a mother, a brother, a girlfriend, and a six-year-old son. I’m not unloved, or unwanted.”

He seemed to emphasize the “I’m,” and that annoyed me. “Oh, I see. Well, lucky you. My mistake. I’ve noticed you taking showers down at the beach, and you know, it made it look as if you might not have a place to go. I thought you were homeless, frankly.”

“You thought wrong. I’m not homeless, and I’m certainly not heartless.”

“I’m not heartless, either!” I said. “I’m like Pluto. And PBS says that Pluto is not just a lump of ice and rock—it’s a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. I’m having a dramatic atmospheric change, too, but once it passes, I’ll be warm-hearted again. I know I will.” I stopped, then I added, more calmly, “I haven’t always been like Pluto.”

He wouldn’t look at me. He shimmied up the palm tree. Two minutes later, a browning palm frond slapped the ground near my feet. I went inside so I wouldn’t get hurt. Spiders are fond of palm fronds.

I wondered how in the world it had happened that a guy I had seen bathing at the public beach shower was in my yard, trimming my palm trees, taking my money, and criticizing my heart. There was something very wrong with this picture.

That reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle I had gotten for my 13th birthday. Unlike normal jigsaw puzzles, the box didn’t have a picture on the front that showed what the completed puzzle would look like. It had a vague, surreal outline of a landscape and a large black question mark in the middle. At the top right corner was this message: “Can you complete this 750-piece Mystery Puzzle? Unveil a beautiful garden with a mystical fountain at its heart.” I had worked really hard on that puzzle, but in the end I had to refer to the color photo that was tucked inside the box for emergencies.

Life was like that now. I had imagined a picture on my personal Life Puzzle Box that was simple and distinct—a wedding, a marriage, a life with Charles. A dog. Now that Charles was out of the picture, so to speak, the entire puzzle was a mystery. I didn’t have a husband at all; I had a yard man who wanted a heart like the sun.

I took a bottle of water out to Dave, but he was still up the tree and now there was a pile of brown fronds beneath it. I waited, and soon he scuttled down the tree backward. He used the cold water bottle to wipe his forehead, then uncapped it and drank the entire thing. “Nice job,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to pick ’em up and haul ’em away,” he said.

“I wasn’t being sarcastic. I think the tree looks great.”

Actually, the tree looked weird. It only had three green fronds sticking out of the top now. I thought perhaps he had overdone the trimming by quite a lot, but just then one of the neighbors passed by on his bike and said, “Wow, great tree, dude. Can you do mine?” He and Dave made arrangements for a future trimming, then Dave turned back to me.

“I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon to do your other tree,” he said. It was only 2:00, but I remembered that he had a strict shower schedule.

“All right,” I said, and he left. The palm fronds remained behind. I wondered if he would come back and get them, or if once again I had been jilted and left to pick up the pieces. That idea caused another dramatic atmospheric change. I started crying and couldn’t seem to stop. Pluto was in for a bout of heavy weather.

On Monday, I went to the Seahorse Bakery. When I walked in, Christine came over and opened her mouth, probably to yell at me.

“Wait!” I pre-empted her hissy fit by holding up my contract for the wedding-cake credit. Then I tore it into six pieces, and handed them to her. “I’m done,” I said. “Thank you for your patience, if not exactly your kindness, during what has been a difficult period in my life.”

I could tell Christine was moved. “Listen,” she said, “I promise I’ll create a magnificent wedding cake for you when you do get married. The next guy will be the right one, I’m sure of it. You know what I think you should do? I think you should have a cake made up of our mini cupcakes.”

I stared at her. “That’s brilliant!” I said. “I adore your mini cupcakes, and I could have every flavor!” I pictured my future cake coming together like Pluto, with mini cupcakes spinning through space and glomming together.

“I’ve got a birthday in October,” I said. “Maybe I’ll order a cupcake cake for that.” Christine beamed at me in a really nice way, and I think a chunk of my messed-up heart fell back into its proper place.

I walked out of the bakery feeling freer and anticipatory. I stopped at the water ice stand and bought a mango ice from grumpy old Albert. I ate it right there on the boardwalk, looking out over the beach and the tourists and the skateboarders and all the terrible color and confusion of a typical beach community. It’s a fragile world, as easily broken as a coral reef and constantly under threat of hurricane, nor’easter, simple erosion, and a steady onslaught of fat tourists and their trash. Frightening things are hurtling toward this world, with no warning of sudden atmospheric changes.

For now, though, the sun shone upon us all. I squinted up at it, and tried to imagine my heart as a bright, burning sun instead of a cold and lonely planet. It felt pretty good. Maybe there was some life left in it yet.

I stopped at Big Lots on my way home and bought a pair of spider-proof gloves. I had palm fronds to pick up, and there was no earthly reason why I couldn’t take care of them myself.


Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review in Spring 2011.

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tree jar(2)What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality. – Plutarch

A winter storm bore down hard on the Persimmon Tree Lodge Bed and Breakfast overnight, surprising even the meteorologists. They had assured us hours before that we would get something festive and superficial—the lightest sprinkling of powdered sugar to freshen the ski slopes. Instead, shrieking harpy winds and a curtain of wet snow swept over the county, blotting out the electricity from time to time and leaving my night manager, Raul, and me trapped in the lodge overnight.

Raul napped at the front desk, confident that no one would attempt to check in on this mad night. But I was fearful of leaving my three sleeping guests to the possibility of no lights and no heat. So instead of walking to the owner’s cottage 20 yards away, I napped on the sofa in the main lodge and fed the fire in case the power went out for good. I’d felt mildly claustrophobic for the month and a half since the Lodge’s grand opening. After the initial flurry of transforming a defunct Girl Scout camp into a bed-and-breakfast lodge, the magic was gone. This freak snowstorm had buried the last of it in heavy, icy snow.

At dawn, the wind subsided. I prepared breakfast for my guests, who were excited about the snow and hungry for cranberry nut pancakes and gallons of hot coffee. As they left the dining area tables and gathered in front of the fire, I cleaned up quickly. I wanted very much to go lock myself inside my cabin, but I could hardly abandon Raul. He should have been able to clock out and leave at 7:00 a.m., but he was stuck here until the snow plow came through and cleared the road.

I also knew I should work harder to amuse my guests until the snow plow passed by. If they were too miserable, they might cut their visit short and check out. Pleasant as it was to imagine them gone, bills must be paid. I gritted my teeth and left the kitchen to join them.

Sylvia Lang, a 20-something who seemed charged with more energy than she could safely handle, and the Colliers, a couple in their mid-60s, chatted in front of the fireplace. So far they still saw the snowstorm as a fun adventure. Since they were occupied I decided to plan lunch.

The one bright spot in this dismal day was that I would have to feed everyone until the snow plow reached us. I was apparently a washout as an innkeeper, but I still loved to cook.

I pulled on my parka and high-stepped through the snow to my cottage. Phillip, my morose maintenance man, had cleared the walks twice since 7:00 in the morning, so it could have been worse. I raided my personal freezer and pantry for non-breakfast foods and lugged the box of provisions to the back door of the lodge kitchen. Naturally it was locked.

I shuffled through snow to the front walk, and entered in the main lobby. “Food for lunch,” I explained to Sylvia, Raul, and the Colliers. Mr. Collier perked up.

I pushed my way rear-end first through the swinging door to the kitchen. I had a loaf of homemade bread from the freezer and several cheeses, plus I had scored four gallon-sized freezer bags of Brunswick stew. I peeled the frozen stew out of the bags and into a stock pot and set it over low heat. I would serve the soup with grilled four-cheese sandwiches.

It was tempting to stay in the kitchen, but I forced myself back to the lobby. All was still serene. Phillip had been in, tracking dirty snow and bark as he brought in firewood. I fetched a Swiffer and wet cloth and mopped up his tracks.

I had never intended for people to stay inside the lodge for this long. Persimmon Tree Lodge was meant to be a cozy refuge between bouts of casual winter sports and shopping excursions to the town of Blowing Rock. My role was to provide lovely guest rooms, a delicious breakfast, and hot tea with fresh cookies in front of the fireplace in the late afternoon as guests drifted in from hiking, shopping, or skiing. They were to sit in front of the fire and enjoy a snack before showering and changing for dinner in town. That was my vision. Not this.

After our soup-and-sandwich lunch, the guests moved back to the sofas in front of the fireplace, and I kept them supplied with hot drinks between cleaning up the kitchen and trying to plot out a more substantial dinner. Mr. Collier checked the depth of the snow every hour and reported the results with tedious regularity. Sylvia told the Colliers that she was making a fresh start, having abandoned a boyfriend and a job as a horticulturist at a botanical garden in Memphis. “I want to tend a smaller garden, something shaggy and natural and a little wild,” she said. She had come to Blowing Rock to clear her head and ski until she figured out her next move. I made a mental note to check that Ms. Lang’s credit card payment had gone through safely.

Mrs. Collier explained they were here to add to her collection of dried-apple dolls and look at antiques and quilts and folk art. I could tell that the ladies were nearly at an end to the possible avenues of conversation, but the mere thought that I should be organizing fun activities sapped me of strength.

Sylvia mentioned the possibility of bundling up and taking a short hike up the path to St. Agnes-in-the-Woods Church, which looked down on the lodge from its loftier height and was picture-postcard adorable—one of the reasons I’d chosen the old Girl Scout camp property. I was desperate for them to go do something, so I lied.

“Legend says the church is haunted.” I tried to dredge up a convincing detail, and remembered an actual fact. “On Christmas Eve, the Christ child disappeared from the church nativity scene and has never been found.”

“Never found,” Raul repeated mournfully from behind the front desk. “A Baby Jesus that fits the manger will cost my church $210. Plus taxes and shipping.”

Mrs. Collier clucked, though it was Mr. Collier who was small and birdlike. Mrs. Collier reminded me of an iceberg, with her twirl of white Dairy Queen hair in a peak representing the visible and her voluminous wraps—soft skirts, tunics, and shawls—concealing the more massive real estate below.

“Your church should have a bake sale,” Sylvia suggested. “You’d raise the money in no time. Grace could make some of her wonderful tea cakes or scones and donate them to sell!”

I could?  Raul looked doubtful, too—over the bake sale in general, or in the role I would potentially play, I’m not sure which. “I didn’t know you went to St. Agnes,” I said to Raul, hoping to divert the conversation.

Sylvia Lang said, “We should always help each other when we can. I feel all givey and Christmassy right now. Don’t you think it feels like Christmas Eve?”

It was mid-January, for God’s sake.  

“It does!” Mrs. Collier agreed heartily. She is a hearty iceberg, the type that could sink even a sturdy, triple-steel-plated ship.

“Let’s draw names for a gift exchange!” Sylvia’s lethargy seemed cured. Her eyes shone maniacally in the firelight. I wondered if her new life involved running from a criminal past.

Mrs. Collier turned her head to consider this idea, then clapped her hands once. “Let’s do!” she said. “Raul, can we borrow some paper and a pen?”

Raul had been gazing dejectedly at the snow falling. He snapped out of his reverie and pulled out two sheets of Persimmon Tree Lodge stationery and pens.

“We can’t just draw names with three people,” Sylvia said. “Raul, you and Grace will have to draw, too!”

Like Phillip, Raul always looks gloomy, and now he appeared as unenthused as I was. But these were my precious few paying guests, and I did need to make an effort to keep them happy until the final feeding of the day, so I said, “That might be fun.” I looked meaningfully at Raul, and he nodded.

Sylvia and Mrs. Collier wrote names down on torn slips of paper. Phillip came in to tend the fire again, and Mrs. Collier said, “Oh, our good fire keeper must play, too. What’s your name, dear?”

Phillip looked at me. “This is Phillip,” I said. “Phillip, our guests are pretending that it’s Christmas, and we’re going to draw names and give each other presents.” It sounded remarkably stupid when explained, so I half-expected the scheme to fall apart right then. It did not.

“How are we going to shop?” Phillip asked, glancing toward the window. “I cleared the driveway, but the road to town isn’t cleared yet.”

“Fourteen and one-third inches!” Mr. Collier announced.  

“Oh, we’re not going to shop,” Sylvia said. She was fired up over this Christmas idea. The tips of her spiky dark hair trembled, glistening with some exotic gel. She seemed electrified. “We’re going to find things around the lodge to give each other. We’ll use imagination and creativity.”

“Great fun,” Mrs. Collier said determinedly.

“You find something for me to give, Eunice,” Mr. Collier said.  

I snorted. It had suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Collier was a penguin, and when threatened by a predator he leapt nimbly, comically, onto his iceberg wife. I had seen penguins do that on the Nature channel, and it tickled me every time to see them pop straight up out of the water and onto the ice.

Sylvia held all our names protectively in her long, white hands. Raul, in a fit of creativity of his own that I would not have expected, handed her a canoe-shaped basket that I kept on the front desk. Sylvia dumped the slips of paper in and mixed them with delicate flicks of her fingertips.

“Okay,” she said, “be sure you don’t get your own name, but don’t tell whose name you draw! It should be a surprise.”

I picked last. Sylvia. Great.

Sylvia made up the rules: “The gift must be something here in the lodge or around it. Wrap it as best you can, and meet back here at the fireplace at 4:00.”

Four o’clock was tea and cookies time. It was 1:55 now, and I still had to come up with a suitable dinner for six people. I crushed the Sylvia paper in my hand and tossed it into the fire.

The guests left. Even Mr. Collier disappeared. I looked at Raul and Phillip. “Here are my rules,” I told them. “No lodge property may be given away. No office supplies, no complimentary mini-toiletries, no food from the kitchen. Got it?”

They nodded. Phillip went back outside. Perhaps he would present his giftee with a special piece of firewood. Raul stared thoughtfully into the fire, then went behind the front desk. Sighing, he poked through the trash can with a pencil. I left him to figure it out and went into the kitchen to devise a dinner menu.

My anxiety and irritability began to melt as I peeled and diced sweet potatoes and put them in a bowl of cold water, marinated a semi-frozen pork tenderloin in white wine and fresh garlic, and rinsed turnip greens. I had brought over several jars of homemade applesauce from the cottage; they would be perfect with the pork. As I prepared the food, lulled into serenity by the combination of humming refrigerators and a breath of cloves and cinnamon, my shoulders unknotted and I grew happy again—until I completed my tasks and began to think about the need to conjure a not-Christmas present for Sylvia. I put on my parka and nodded to Raul, still sitting glumly behind the front desk.

“I’m going outside,” I said. “You can look outside for something free, too. Pine cones or whatnot.”

“It is fine,” Raul said. “I am thinking.”

The snow had finally stopped. Something about the complete stillness, the stark whiteness, the feeling of being cut off from everyone and everything in the world, made me want to scream. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so deeply dissatisfied.

I followed Phillip’s boot-tracks to the lean-to that protected our firewood. Phillip himself was nowhere to be seen, but he had his own hideaways on the property. He was probably in the old barn, with his tools and equipment. It had a little woodstove, and I could see a thin line of smoke coming from the vent pipe.

I looked at the firewood. What the hell was I doing? Taking inventory? All right then. I noted that Phillip had arranged lovely rows of cut oak and pine from deadfall, there was a large stash of purchased cordwood, and tucked in a far corner, an ancient rotting bushel basket held kindling. It was so orderly and abundant that it lifted my spirits, until I realized I had forgotten my mittens. I yearned for them passionately.

A slender, nearly straight offshoot angled down from one of the oak logs, interrupting the symmetry of Phillip’s stack. I took the base of the offshoot in my hand and wrenched it, twisting it around until it broke loose. Freed, it became a magic wand. I closed my eyes and wished fervently, like Sylvia, for a new life. I closed my eyes and waved my oak wand in the air.

Nothing changed. I clambered through the snow back to the lodge and found Sylvia in my kitchen. “I’m snagging some of the leftover coffee,” she explained. She took away the entire half pot of strong, stone-cold morning brew.

I sat on a wooden stool in front of the food prep island and contemplated my oak stick. I felt as if were the only thing I had to hold onto—a sort of handle for the world.

The stick was about 15 inches long, and slightly thicker than my thumb at its base. I peeled the bark away, at first idly, then with more purpose. Like the sudden yearning I’d felt outside for my mittens, I now felt the lack of a magic wand in my life. I was determined to make a real one. I went to the barn and filched wire clippers and sand paper. There was no sign of Phillip.

Back in the kitchen, I put the pork tenderloin in the microwave to finish defrosting. At first I could hear noise from the guest rooms, which I supposed were the sounds of everyone seeking out and preparing their gifts. I thought I heard a distant blow-dryer. Then I became too absorbed in my project to hear anything.

I clipped the handle end of my wand to even it, then sanded it smooth. I whittled a bluntish point at the other end with a paring knife. Even with the sand paper, I couldn’t get all the bark off, but what was left gave the wand character. I had a marker in a drawer that was meant for touching up scratches on the cherry kitchen cabinets, and I used it to stain the unbarked parts a deeper golden brown. I had not felt this sort of deep happiness since the day I had placed the last vintage mixing bowl on the shelves in my dear kitchen, and had looked at it all from the height of my step-stool and felt a surge of pride in all I had accomplished.

I threw my parka back on, ran home—Phillip had cleared the walks again—and dug out a bottle of gold nail polish. It had been a mistake as nail polish, but it was perfection for adding metallic details to the wand: a ring of gold near the handle end, a dot of gold at the tip. I held the finished piece in front of me. It was brilliant.

While the polish dried I preheated the oven for the afternoon batch of cookies and put the kettle on the stove for 4:00 tea. I was humming. Until it occurred to me that I was preparing 4:00 tea and that meant my not-Christmas deadline was an hour and a half away, and I still had no gift for Sylvia.

I ran out to the front desk. Raul still sat there. “Did you find something?” I demanded. “Whose name did you draw?”

“I cannot reveal this. It is secret.”

“What am I going to do?”

But Raul’s dark eyes held no answers, and I realized that I was going to have to make a terrible sacrifice.  “Hand me the stapler,” I said. “Please. And the hole punch.”

Raul lifted the Swingline and with an expert, one-handed gesture he opened it to check the magazine. “It is full,” he said.

I took the stapler, then stopped and looked at him directly. “Dang, Raul, I’m lucky to have you working here. Phillip, too. You both do nice work. He is a wizard with the firewood, and frankly I appreciate the fact that you keep the printer full of paper, and the stapler fully loaded, and you never complain even when you probably should. Thank you. You’re wonderful.”

“De nada.” But Raul almost smiled.

“Why don’t you open up the East Room and get some rest in there? You don’t have to work tonight, of course. I’ll stay in the lodge, and if you like you can stay all night in the East Room. But I’ll pay you for overtime.” He flashed a real smile and took the key.

Back in the kitchen I made an envelope to hold the wand, using two lengths of parchment paper stapled shut along the sides. The back piece of paper was several inches longer than the front. Maybe Sylvia will leave it when she checks out, I thought, as I punched holes in the long end, then corresponding holes in the short end.  I folded the long piece until the holes matched up, and threaded a bit of kitchen twine through to close it with a bow. I used more nail polish to decorate the envelope with what I considered to be magic swirls. I was ready for not-Christmas.

Just before 4:00, I took a plate of dark chocolate walnut cookies and the tea tray to the lobby. By the time I returned with tea cups, my three guests had gathered in front of the fire. Sylvia’s hair looked more electric than ever. She had changed into a long-sleeved red t-shirt with a giant snowflake on front. Mrs. Collier had also changed. She wore an odd purple knitted shrug over a black turtleneck. The noise of everyone gathering in the lobby brought Raul out of the East Room to join us.

Before I could change my mind and run away with my lovely magic wand, I handed the parchment envelope to Sylvia. Her eyes grew large and dark as she pulled the wand from its wrapping. “How did you know?” she breathed. “This is magnificent! Gosh, Grace, I had you pegged as a Muggle. How could I be so wrong?”  Sylvia flicked the wand toward the fireplace, and as if in response the bottom log shifted and broke apart in a fury of red sparks.

“Ohhhhh.” Everyone laughed. Even me. It was impossible not to share Sylvia’s delight.

“My turn.” Sylvia handed Mr. Collier a soft package wrapped round and round with the high-quality toilet paper I stocked in the guest rooms.

As he unwound the wrapping, we were all amused to see Mr. Collier tuck it incrementally into his right pants pocket. “Well, you never know,” he winked. Finally he pulled an exotic silky scarf with an interesting tan pattern. It reminded me of Indian batiks, or the henna patterns on Indian women’s hands. Sylvia explained that she had tie-dyed her white muffler using leftover coffee, then blew it dry with her hair dryer. “It might have shrunk a little in the process,” she admitted. “But I wanted a masculine look. And see? It’s even got your initial. Sort of.”  Sure enough, she had managed a rather crooked Gothic “C” on one end. “I think that’s where I used my barrette on it,” she said. “I ran out of rubber bands. A happy accident.”

“Look at that!” Mr. Collier exclaimed. “Now that’s a neckerchief that will keep me warm and won’t show the dirt.” He wrapped the scarf around his jowls and grinned. We all grinned back.

Phillip came through the front door with two chunks of firewood and a misshapen bundle, a little bigger than a breadbox.  He handed the package to Raul. “Merry Christmas,” he said, in all seriousness. 

“Muchacho,” Raul said awkwardly. He turned the bundle over in his hands, giving it a judicious squeeze. Phillip had wrapped the gift in a piece of newspaper fastened with silver duct tape.

“Well, open it!” Mrs. Collier said.

Raul did, and we were all stunned mute.

“Where did you find it?” I asked Phillip.

“Resting in the cedar tree above the pump house. I walk under that tree a hundred times a day, but I didn’t see it until about an hour ago. I walked to the pump house to try to find a gift, and a clump of snow fell right on my head. I looked up, and there it was. I guess the wind blew it down this way.”

The Christ child, missing from the St. Agnes-in-the-Woods manger scene since real-Christmas Eve, gazed up at Raul with disconcerting knowingness. “We’ll give it back to the church, of course,” Phillip said. “But it was the only thing I could find.” He gave me a sideways glance.

Raul wrapped the Christ child, whose composition swaddling clothes did not seem sufficient cover for a January snowstorm, in the newspaper up to the neck like a homeless guy’s bottle of booze and laid him gently on the hearth. “You have saved my church $210,” he told Phillip. “It is truly a wonderful gift.”

Raul straightened and looked at me solemnly. “This is an auspicious occasion,” he said, “and so I seek a favor from you, Grace. Would you allow my niece, she who is to be married in April, to have her wedding reception here at the lodge?”

“She’s getting married at St. Agnes?”

“Yes. St. Agnes does not have the room for gatherings—a hall. There is no hall. But if my niece Miranda could get married at St. Agnes, then the wedding party could come down the path to the lodge and meet here for the cake. There does not need to be dancing.”

I pictured the wedding party, led by a bride in a floating white veil, coming down the path through the trees to the lodge. “How many should the cake serve?” I asked.

Raul dazzled us all with a smile. “You will make the cake!” he exulted. “This is auspicious, so auspicious. I will be the greatest uncle.” He cleared his throat. “Now I have my gift for Mrs. Collier,” he announced.

Mrs. Collier gasped and leaned forward.

Raul held nothing in his hands; he didn’t reach into a pocket. “I have composed a couplet,” he said gravely.

Mrs. Collier appeared as if she might levitate. “You did?” she whispered.

Raul nodded. “Allow me to recite.”

Raul’s Couplet

I am hoping very much that your Christmas is merry,
With gifts piled high—too many to carry.

Mrs. Collier made him repeat the couplet twice more while she wrote it down on lodge stationery. Like Sylvia with her oak wand, she was nearly beside herself with delight.

“Look at you,” I said to Raul.

When she finished the transcription and had hugged Raul savagely, Mrs. Collier handed a bulging, fuzzy striped sock to Phillip.

“It’s a clean sock,” she said anxiously. “The mate had a hole in the heel, but I’ve always loved those socks so I packed them for this trip anyway. And it turns out that was auspicious, too, because you see I unraveled the sock with the hole, and added yarn from this sweater, and made you a pair of mittens to fit into the good sock, like a stocking. I noticed you weren’t wearing any gloves when you brought the wood in, so I thought they might come in handy. I guess they look a little silly.”

“Thank you,” Phillip said. And then he surprised me very much by stroking the sock as if she had given him something uniquely valuable. He fished the mittens out of the sock and held them up. They were an interesting mix of striped sock yarn and Mrs. Collier’s purple sweater – explaining why it was now an ill-fitting shrug.

“You sacrificed your sweater!” Sylvia exclaimed. “That is so ‘Gift of the Magi.'”

“I hear the snow plow,” I said.

Through the large front window, we saw the headlights of a county snow plow churning up the road past the lodge. “You should be able to get out of here now,” I said. “I expect you all have cabin fever.”

“Hey, now, don’t forget about your gift!” Mr. Collier handed me a small package wrapped in smoothed-out newsprint. Inside it was a paperback book about gardening: Cottage Garden Magic.

“Picked it up in town yesterday at Reread Books,” he said. “I just thought the cover was mighty pretty. But the funny thing is, it has your name on it! Look at those first coupla pages. It’s on one of them.” 

I found the quote on the title page.

Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace. ~ May Sarton

“Oh, Grace is crying!” Mrs. Collier said in her hearty way. “It is nice, isn’t it, dear?”

“I’m not crying,” I said. But in fact the firelight blurred into starry suns when I looked at it. I said, “I have a pork tenderloin in the oven, so everyone is invited to stay for dinner here, if you like.”

“Dinner here!” Sylvia yelled, waving my wand madly. “It’s Christmas! We want to be home for Christmas! ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly….'”

“’Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!” the Colliers sang.

“Stop waving that stick around,” I told Sylvia. “It’s wreaking havoc.”

I watched my wand wistfully, as Sylvia ignored my request and darted about the lobby, continuing to confer magic.

“Sylvia, I wonder if you would like a job here?” I heard a voice say. It was my voice. “You could be my activities director during the winter, and garden beginning in the spring. I’d been thinking about putting in some herbs and flowers, and organic vegetables.” I held up my new book. “A cottage garden.”

Sylvia stopped spinning. “And plan garden activities all summer long—not just for guests, but for anyone in town, with a small fee paid for snacks or something? And in winter we could do pinecone crafts and make natural Christmas decorations for a gigantic tree!”

And we would need to decorate the lobby and arrange tables for Raul’s niece’s wedding reception. The lodge could become the unofficial fellowship hall for the church.

As if she had read my mind, Sylvia lightly tapped my head with her magic wand. “Grace, it will be fabulous! You are a goddess.”

And in that precise moment, I was.


Note: Originally published in January 2013. Sometimes re-runs are fun.

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We were walking up Hillsboro Street in Pittsboro last weekend when I saw Circle City Books and Music for the first time. The shop sits on a corner, and it has a row of giant books painted on the side of the building, visible from a block away. As we got closer, I saw that they were titles written by Southern writers, mainly North Carolinians. I had to stop and examine them all.

Two of the writers represented on the building were my favorite creative writing instructors from long time back:  Lee Smith and Fred Chappell. I had a class with Lee Smith during my freshman year in college, and although I also loved two of my other instructors at Chapel Hill, James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas, Lee Smith was my first class with a real writer, and she made a deep impression. She was one of the most charming people I had ever met, all beautiful curly hair and electric enthusiasm. She was kind, and encouraging, and funny. Listening to her talk was a lesson in how to weave personal experiences into stories.

In 1988, Lee Smith published the novel Fair and Tender Ladies. I had been reading her fiction for years by that time, but this book was special. I disliked it as soon as I opened the first chapter and saw the words, “My dear Hanneke….”  I had always hated books that were written in the form of letters. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I thought that the author needed to direct her attention to me, the reader, and that the insertion of some unknown addressee between myself and the narrator got in the way. But I stuck it out, and by the time I got to the end of that book, it had become a part of me in a way that few books have. It was like a garment that I had worn for a time, and then when it came time to step out of it and change into something fresh, I couldn’t. It had soaked into my skin and rested there, just beneath the surface. I used to think I would be a writer, the narrator, Ivy, wrote toward the end of the book. Oh, the end of that book.

My sister read Fair and Tender Ladies about the same time that I did. “How close are you to the end?” I asked her.

“Pretty close.”

“Well, you better watch out where you are when you get to it,” I warned her, “because you don’t want to be out in public.”

But that’s exactly what happened. “I came to the end while I was sitting at Jiffy Lube getting the oil changed,” she told me afterwards.

Oh, no. “Did you cry?”

“Did I cry? I wept like nobody’s business for ten solid minutes.”

“Was the waiting room full?”


Here’s the thing:  It’s not really the words or the images that the words conjure that leave you a blubbering mess at the end of the book, it’s the punctuation. That’s all I’m saying, and if you want to know more you have to read the whole thing. (Skipping to the end to read the last page is evil and you won’t understand it, anyway, so don’t try that.) So one of the lessons I learned from Lee Smith, six or seven years after leaving her class, is that punctuation has real magic in it, at least in the hands of a master.

Fred Chappell was a master storyteller, too. He was my thesis advisor in graduate school, which you might think would make him too exalted a personage to  play a mean, dirty trick on his students. Such was not the case.

Writing workshops were, unless I am remembering it wrong, three-hour sessions in the evening. These sessions took place in a sort of dimly lit, smoky lounge in the building that housed the English department. Fred’s method was to read our work anonymously in his dirt-road voice, a voice that probably made the stories sound more complex and interesting than they really were. After the reading, we would discuss what was wrong with the piece. Theoretically no one knew who the writer was—although sometimes we suspected, as we did the night that a classmate’s girlfriend suddenly dropped by the workshop and then led the discussion afterward, finding much to praise. But the general anonymity left us free to be as critical as we wanted—all in the spirit of being helpful, of course.

One night, Fred pulled out a story and said, “This is not one of yours. It came to me by mail from a high school student, 18 years old.” He began to read it. The tale was of a father and his young son, and the teenaged orphan who came to live on their farm as hired help. Every word of that story clicked into place and fit perfectly with the next one, the characters were lively and likeable, the situation the characters contrived was funny and skillfully handled. We were enchanted.

When it was over, we literally had nothing to say. Finally, somebody cleared his throat and asked, “You said that was from a high school student?” Fred nodded. Little more was said, but a pall fell over the room, thick as the cloud of cigarette smoke, as we each contemplated our own unworthiness.

That was a low-down, shameful trick because the high school student did not exist. The story he had read was in fact the first chapter of Fred’s beautiful book, I Am One of You Forever. I realized this only when I bought a copy of the book when it came out two years later. Like Fair and Tender Ladies, it is always with me; certain passages are as clear and unforgettable to me as my name and much clearer than my mailing address, which has changed twice in recent months. It is a book with two endings:  One comes at the end of the narrative, and the second one comes at the end of an epilogue. They are both perfect. The narrative ends with a scene in which the narrator (the boy, Jess) is listening to his grandmother and her sister sing together in the parlor:

The piano was in disastrous condition since no one in our house played any more. The keys were chipped and broken, the strings green and rusty, and the notes that were not out of tune were mostly ciphers.

Nevertheless the bargain had been sealed, and my grandmother sat on the wobbly stool while Aunt Sam stood beside her with her fiddle and struck up “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies.” It sounded very strange, and not entirely beautiful.

Then Jess is pressed into singing a song, and though he fights against the idea like a wild dog, he finally submits. And that is how the story ends, with Jess singing for his family. He concludes:

My face burned like a comet; I mumbled and choked. I couldn’t sing then and I can’t sing now. If I could sing—sing, I mean, so that another human being could bear to hear me—I wouldn’t sit scribbling this story of long ago time.

That sums it up about right. In spite of the help I got along the way from Lee Smith and Fred Chappell, from James Reston, Jr. and Daphne Athas and Robert Watson and others, it’s hard not to read my own scribblings and notice that they are often very strange and not entirely beautiful.

But you sure don’t want to hear me sing.

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Rosemary had invited a few friends over for an afternoon party, and asked that they dress in the style of the Roaring Twenties. The guests had all arrived together, and after admiring each other’s costumes became restive.

“What’s the entertainment, Rosemary?” Cecil asked. He wore a straw boater and a pink bow tie with his old seersucker suit. He hadn’t worn that suit since graduating from seminary, and the jacket felt tight across the shoulders. “I don’t see a jazz quartet, and I haven’t been offered a martini.”

Rosemary explained, “I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it, so this year I decided to have a little garden party on the first day of summer, to mark it properly. And you’re just going to love the entertainment, Cecil. We’re going to read The Great Gatsby out loud, in parts! Clyde, you’ll be Gatsby, Howie can be Nick, Franklin is Tom, I’ll be Daisy, Dana can be Jordan Baker, and Lizzie is Myrtle Wilson.”

The guests shifted uneasily. Lizzie looked irritated.

“Anyway, you left me out,” Cecil observed.

Rosemary closed her eyes to think. “You can be Wilson,” she said slowly. She held out a hand, imploring. “I read Gatsby every spring, and I woke up one morning not too long ago and said to myself, ‘Oh! I’ve forgotten to read Gatsby!’ Haven’t you ever done that? So that’s why I invited you all here, on the longest day of the year. Now, follow me down to the pond.”

“It’s sure going to feel like the longest day of the year,” Frank murmured in Dana’s ear.

Rosemary led the party down to the pond behind her house, a pond that once served to water a field of cattle. It had since been domesticated. The field was planted with bluegrass and flower beds to set off Rosemary’s two-story yellow brick Colonial with its emerald front door and matching shutters.

The back lawn, shining green and flawless, ran in a smooth green ribbon that rippled around mosaic birdbaths and gravel paths before circling the pond. Pools of bright flowers clustered around the water on the far side, and on the near side was a casual scatter of Adirondack chairs, ingeniously designed of wood-grained plastic. A long table nearby was covered with a white cloth that swept the grass and blew gently when the wind stirred. It held a silver punch bowl the size of a baby’s bath, an equally large silver epergne filled with blue hydrangeas, a tall white cake under a glass dome, covered platters of hors d’oeuvres, fruit, and a scattering of clear glass punch cups, napkins, and china plates.

Rosemary turned when she reached the pond and opened her mouth to speak when a cry of alarm, followed by loud laughter, stopped her.

“Dana broke her face!” Lizzie announced.


“Her heel snapped off, right in the lawn. I wish you’d seen! Her face twisted into the awfullest knot as she caught herself! Frank can’t stop laughing.”

Frank was doubled over.

Lizzie said, “She might have broken every bone in her face. Is your face all right, Dana?”

Dana, disgruntled, kicked off both shoes and smoothed her white linen dropped-waist dress. She’d ordered it from J. Peterman, and fear of smearing it on the grass had helped keep her upright. Dana had thought herself the essence of the Jazz Age until she saw Rosemary, in her silver beaded dress with the matching head band.

The party assembled near the table by the pond.

“Let’s go fishing,” Lizzie said. “Got any poles?”

“No. Anyway, we’re going to read Gatsby.”

“Who’s that?” Dana gestured across the lawn, to the sloping yard that ended in a bed of pink and yellow flowers, across to a rougher yard in front of a small dusty house. Two little girls presided over a table of glassware, toys, and household items. “A mad tea party?”

“That’s Nick’s place!” Rosemary said happily. “Isn’t it perfect that I have a little shack next to my place, like Gatsby had next to his? I should have sent a guy over to mow the lawn before my party.”

“They’re selling things,” Lizzie said. “It appears to be a yard sale. I wonder if they have a fishing pole for sale?” She drifted across the lawn, stepped through the flower bed, and walked up the slope toward the girls.

“It’s a perpetual yard sale,” Rosemary told Cecil. “Those people are out there all the time. I can’t imagine what they’re peddling.” She sank into one of the plastic chairs and waved her copy of The Great Gatsby toward the chair beside hers. He sat.

Dana followed Lizzie, but stopped at the flower bed rather than walk across it with bare feet. “These are some unusual flowers,” she called. “What are they, Rose?”

Rosemary sighed, and let her book fall to the grass beside her chair. “Anyway,” Cecil said, patting her arm, “you only have one copy of the book. We can hardly read parts with only one copy.”

Rosemary stood and walked to the flower bed, with Cecil behind her. Frank, Howie, and Clyde were pouring themselves drinks and sampling the hors d’oeuvres.

Rosemary and Cecil surveyed the flower bed with Dana. “They look like teacups!” Dana said. She had a smidge of red lip gloss a bit to the east of her mouth.

“Those are my teacup tulips,” Rosemary explained. “They aren’t really tulips, of course—after all it’s June, right?  They are a hybrid lily, but I call them my teacup tulips. Aren’t they darling?”

Each lily had a rounded, scallop-edged cup, yellow with deep pink striping, and one petal on each curled around sharply like a handle on a teacup.

Rosemary allowed them a moment to enjoy the novelty lilies. “Now come along, both of you, and let’s read Gatsby. We’ll pass the book and read it in chunks.”

“Hey!” Frank said, “These chicken livers are delicious. Are they bad or good for cholesterol?”

“Save me some of those livers for bait,” Lizzie said. She descended the slope, stepped through the flower bed, and walked over to show off her acquisition—a pink plastic Barbie fishing pole. “This wasn’t up for sale, but I gave the kids $2 to rent it. Now be a pal, Frank, and thread one of those livers on that hook. It’s okay to put the bacon on, too. Oh, and I told the kids they should come over and have a piece of cake.”

“Thank you,” Rosemary said. She did not sound grateful.

Everyone sat and watched as Lizzie made a tentative cast into the pond. “Aren’t there any fish?” she asked. “Look how the chicken liver and bacon made a greasy spot on the surface. What fish could resist that?”

“Come sit, Lizzie,” Rosemary said. “We’re about to start reading, and we need you. There aren’t any fish. Let’s read, and we’ll skip all the gray, ashy parts. We don’t need the Wilsons, really, do we?  Or the trips into the city? We’ll just read the parts about the parties, and the music, and the moonlight.”

“Can’t stop now,” Lizzie said. “I’ve invested two bucks in this fishing pole, and I’m determined to catch a fish, if this pond will produce one.”

To distract her from Gatsby, Rosemary’s guests brought her plates of food, and three cups of champagne punch from the silver bowl. Howie and Dana walked across to invite the yard sale girls to come have some treats. They came, blonde and freckled and solemn, accepted plates filled with the white cake, and disappeared.

“I suppose I’ll have to go over there and buy my plates back,” Rosemary said.

“Hush, they’ll hear you,” Howie scolded. “Do you think they’re deaf?”

Rosemary stretched her legs out in front of her and crossed them at the ankle. “All right, Howie. You just go over there and get my plates back. Give them however much money they want, because those are my granny’s china pattern.”

Howie made binoculars of his hands and trained them on the yard sale table. “They’ve disappeared. No! There they are. They’re on the other side of the yard.”

“What happened to the sun? Wasn’t there a sun shining a minute ago?” Rosemary felt that her entire party was slipping away from her. She had meant for it to be so nice.

“It’s behind a cloud,” Cecil said. He pushed the copy of Gatsby beneath Rosemary’s chair with his foot and handed her a cup of punch.

“We’ll have to make our own sunshine!” Rosemary stood and took a deep swallow from the cup in her left hand. The drink made her close her eyes and throw her head backwards.

Cecil steadied her by placing his hand on her spine. Her dress felt like a damp silver cobweb, with hard knots of beading caught up in the threads. He wondered if it would break and pull away like cobweb when he removed his hand.

“I think the clouds are here to stay, but anyway, how would you make sunshine?”

“Don’t know yet. Why is Frank eating the hydrangeas? I thought he liked the livers.”

“Too much cholesterol, and he thinks the hydrangeas look like raspberry snow cones.”

Rosemary shook her head. “He mustn’t eat the flowers. Did you hear that Dana broke her face?”

“I did hear that. Her face looks fine now. See? She’s drinking champagne punch from one of your teacup tulips.”

“We mustn’t eat and drink the flowers. That’s not what they’re for. Let’s go get some breakfast.”

“You’ve just polished off a plate of cake. Anyway, it’s only five o’clock. And it’s the longest day of the year, so you want to see it out to the end, don’t you? What do you want breakfast for?”

“Here they come!” Howie announced. “And I think they’re bringing your granny’s plates back, so you should beg their pardon.”

The girls carried their plates and placed them on the table. “Thank you for the cake,” the oldest child, who was possibly nine or ten years old, said. She patted her smaller sister on the back encouragingly.

“Thank you,” the sister whispered. She had tiny front teeth, like pearl beads. She raised her eyes, a pale gray-blue, to look at Rosemary in her silver dress. “It’s a beautiful birthday party.”

“You’re welcome,” Rosemary said. “Only it’s not a birthday.”

The smaller sister held up a cloudy silver bud vase from the yard sale table. It held two blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace.

“Are these for Miss Rosemary?” Howie asked. “Isn’t that lovely? Let’s set them right here, beside the cake. Aren’t they wonderful, Rosemary?”


Lizzie came up from the pond and handed the Barbie fishing pole to the older sister. “Thanks for letting me borrow it,” she said. “I didn’t get a single bite.”

The girls took the fishing pole and ran home, leaping over the teacup tulips like yearlings.

“Wasn’t that nice?” Dana said. “What sweetie pies. What are their names?”

“Let’s skip the gray and ashy parts,” Rosemary said, waving her hand. “Let’s get some breakfast. I love breakfast.”

Cecil rolled his eyes. “Rosemary, what is it with breakfast?”

“It’s the most important meal of the day. I feel like having a toastel struder.”

“We’ll get you a struder, my sweet. We’ll get you several struder. What’s the matter? Is your face broken?”

Rosemary considered this carefully. “I believe it is,” she said sadly, and she pressed one of her white hands with its brilliant silver nails, hard and shining as ice, to her cheek.


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House and gardenIt appeared to June Ellis that her Easter vacation was about to be ruined in several different directions and on sundry levels.

“It’s going to be a spectacular Easter,” her daddy declared several weeks in advance. Then he casually delivered Easter’s death-blow: “Your aunt and uncle from up Cincinnati way are coming to spend spring break and Easter weekend. You’ll get to meet your only cousin, Ethan!” He held up his palm for a victory slap, but June ignored it.

Distance had been her only cousin Ethan’s single attractive quality. Four months her senior, throughout the eight years of their nearly consecutive lives he had naturally reached many important milestones before June could. He had talked, walked, and sprouted a tooth first, then he had taken up piano lessons and soccer. June was sick of hearing about his achievements.

Now he was coming here, to her part of the world, and at the season that she most loved. She knew his coming would add nothing and could only diminish the pleasure she took in egg-dyeing, egg-hunting, and having her picture taken in a new dress in front of the lilacs. Sharing these things would turn all her joy sour.

“I don’t want company at Easter,” June said. “I love Easter the way it is, by myself.”

“You’ll love Easter even more with a little company,” Daddy said. “You and Ethan can dye eggs, and have a real egg hunt. Won’t it be nice, having someone to find eggs with? A one-girl egg hunt is a mighty lonesome thing. In fact, it’s pitiful.”

“I thought I might do my egg-dyeing early this year,” June said. “Maybe this weekend.”

‘You’ll wait for your cousin Ethan,” Mama said flatly. “Now finish your supper.” Where Daddy would cajole, employ sweet-talk, and tease, Mama forged iron rules and regulations that came down hard and left a mark.

After supper June climbed up the tier of logs inside the old tobacco barn at the edge of the woods. The barn had not been used in decades except to shelter the lawnmower and garden tools, but it still smelled faintly of sweet golden leaves. At the top of the tall, narrow barn was a tiny window, a fine observation post. Daddy had fastened a sturdy board across two of the upper logs to give June a platform. He knew she loved to look out that window, so it made sense to give her a more secure perch and save her from leaning over to the window from one of the side tiers. Even with this improvement June’s mother was lobbying furiously to have the barn torn down before someone got hurt.

But June relished her view over the house to Weddlesville Road. When she looked to the right, the road ran straight and true for three miles, ending at State Road 79, a mostly rural  byway that meandered from the town of Ark to the south until it reached the more bustling city of Grantham, 75 miles north.

To the east, Weddlesville Road curved into green woodlands and disappeared. Presumably, the road led to Weddlesville. June had never gone in that direction in her entire life. Church, school, commerce—everything of value was located somewhere on or near State Road 79.

State Road 79 also brought Ethan and his parents. June sized him up in a day and a half. He may have been four months older, but he was no taller than June and not one bit bossy or arrogant despite his four months’ advantage. He did not offer to play a tune on the piano, and June got her own way during the egg-dyeing and decorating project. She kept her management low-key so as not to arouse adult displeasure, but Ethan proved agreeably compliant. He had strong lungs and turned red with blowing out the raw eggs—always a difficult task. Besides this, he revealed himself to have excellent taste.

” Now, that’s a real egg,” he said, holding up an egg that June had decorated with glued-on bits of tissue paper and metallic gold pen. “If you’ll let me have that one, I’m going to put it in a jar and keep it.”

Flattered, June said he could have it. Her mother found him a wide-mouthed Ball jar with a two-piece lid. Ethan padded the bottom of the jar with a little grass from an Easter basket and nestled the egg inside.

“But why in a jar?” June asked. “Why not put it in your Easter basket?”

“I always want to preserve things that I like where I can see them.”

Ethan’s voice was husky and low. June imagined that he sounded like the state of Ohio. He seemed exotic, somehow, though he dressed the same as anybody. There was something about the light in his clear gray eyes, the life in his dark bristly hair, that reminded her of Weddlesville Road—a mystery, unknown and unknowable. She found her animosity toward him unsustainable. After their egg-dyeing and a riotous three days of hiding, finding, and sometimes crushing eggs, she had shown him her platform at the top of the tobacco barn. They were there now, having finished Easter dinner and changed into their regular clothes.

“Where do you reckon that road really goes?” Ethan asked. He was crammed uncomfortably into the window with June, but she couldn’t push him out of the way without risking both their lives, since their platform was thin and a slip would take one or both down a good 25 feet into the dirt below. Not that the fall would kill them, but it would surely hurt and Mama would pitch a fit and no doubt have the barn sealed shut.

“Goes to Weddlesville, I guess. That’s why it’s called Weddlesville Road. Stop moving, Ethan. This window is too small for you to be twisting around like that.”

“You ever been?”


“Wonder what it’s like.” He turned toward her, and she noticed again that his gray eyes had a strange light in the back, as if stars in a distant galaxy shone there. “Let’s go find it,” he said.

The minute they turned the corner and were out of sight of the house, the air felt cooler and foreign. The abundant greenness of the woods pressed at them from both sides; tendrils crept toward the asphalt and climbed the road sign posts. June chose to walk down the center line of the road.

“We’ll hear a car coming from a mile off,” she promised.

“What if it’s an electric car?” Ethan wondered. June moved toward the shoulder, and they walked on the painted line at its edge.

“We ought to build a summer camp out here,” Ethan said. “Have you ever been to camp? I’d like to run my own place. We’d have nothing but fishing and boats, swimming and horses. You could run the arts and crafts part. We might have to dig a pond.” He spotted something in a thick tangle of deadwood and weeds near the ditch, and down he went to see about it.

“It’s a balloon!” he said. “Who’d be having a birthday party out here in the woods?”

“Probably it just blew here from somewhere else,” June said. “From Weddlesville, I guess. Maybe there’s tons of kids down there that I could be playing with. Maybe I’ll go to the next birthday party they have, if I ever meet them.”

Ethan extracted the balloon from the ditch, a procedure that ate up a bit of time and required careful untangling of the long blue ribbon that was snarled among the deadwood. Finally the balloon popped up into the air, only slightly low on helium, and Ethan’s eyes glowed with triumph. The balloon bobbed and dipped on the ribbon, and then a light gust of air seemed to raise it up, and up it stayed.

June expected Ethan to release the ribbon and let the balloon fly free, as if it were a live wild thing. Instead, he tucked the end of the blue ribbon firmly into his front jeans pocket and let the balloon jerk along beside him.

“You don’t have many neighbors, do you?” he said. “I guess it’s not much fun during the summer, being all alone most days. But I’ll come back when school’s out, and we’ll get started on our camp. Don’t worry. Having a cousin is better than having a next-door neighbor, because we’ll always be kin.”

The road wound up a good-sized hill, and the cousins felt more hope with every step that at the top they would finally see their destination. But when they reached the summit, they saw only more woods and some abandoned fields further ahead.

Ethan began to generate explanations. “Maybe Weddlesville doesn’t really exist,” he said. “Maybe it got swallowed up in a sinkhole, like in Florida, or a tar pit. Maybe it got vacuumed up by a UFO. Maybe all this kudzu and mess covered it up and strangled the life out of all the people. I bet—”

June stopped walking and held up her hand. “Stop rattling, Ethan. Be quiet for two minutes.”

Ethan stood still and was quiet for thirty seconds before the silence ended.

“Good afternoon, sir!”

June and Ethan lifted their heads like bird dogs. They realized that they stood at the corner of a yard. The front lawn was nearly indiscernible for a riot of growth at the corner—periwinkle and creeping phlox; loose-limbed forsythia; thick, wild azaleas; ungroomed beds of past-blooming daffodils and hyacinths—all of it mixed in with an encroaching green-woods growth that blurred the edges and threatened the stability of a small section of driftwood-gray fence. June peeked through a gap in the waving arms of forsythia and discerned the corner of a small white house. She detected movement, heard a creak, and realized that a man must be sitting on a porch swing. 

She looked at Ethan, who stared back at her. They were entirely concealed by the shrubbery and overgrowth—how could he have known they were there?

“Hey!” Ethan said, uncertainly. He hiked up his hand and waved, causing his captive balloon to dip its broad, silvery head in a clumsy bow.

“Where you headed?” the man called.  He sounded grandfatherish and perhaps a bit deaf. “And what you got there on your face? Tattoos?”

He had mistaken the balloon for a passer-by. June sat on the ground and chewed her sleeve to keep from hooting. Ethan grinned but remained composed. June admired him and wondered if there might be a decided advantage to an extra four months of maturity.

“Yes, sir,” Ethan said, in his most gravelly Ohio voice. “I’m working for the circus. We’re… I’m trying to find Weddlesville. Am I about to Weddlesville?”

The porch swing stopped creaking. “Mister, you’re up to your assbone in Weddlesville! The town limits run right through there. Now, the center of town is about two miles further up, but you won’t find no circus there, nor nobody to buy a ticket.”

June snorted wetly into her sleeve, and Ethan coughed, loud and hoarse, to cover it up.

“Well, reckon I’ll head on back, then,” he said. “Thank you, now.”

“Don’t you want to come up here on the porch and have a cold drink before you start?” the man asked. June imagined that the man had to hide and find his own Easter eggs, too.

The sound of a car coming up the road made Ethan and June look back. It was Daddy, with Uncle Scotty. The car slowed as it approached.

“Thank you,” Ethan said, in a hurry. “Best be getting on,” and to June’s wonder and eternal delight he pulled the ribbon from his pocket and loosed the balloon.  It drifted up slowly and bobbed drunkenly below the redbud tree. They heard the man on the porch swing exclaim, “Gah!” before the swing creaked crazily as he thumped into the house.

June and Ethan ran back to meet the car, and jumped in the back.

Daddy tried to look stony. “What in the world are the two of you doing? And why, when you’ve been caught in a flagrant act of truancy, are you grinning like possums?”

“I don’t think we’re grinning like possums,” Ethan said. “How do possums grin? We just wanted to see Weddlesville.”

“Weddlesville, is it?” and Daddy kept straight, finished the two miles, and they saw that Weddlesville was mainly an abandoned country store and a broken-down, decrepit grist mill near a pond of thick oily water. Across the road from these features was a tangle of wild woods. A slice had been carved into the trees, a section of shoulder mowed, and within this alcove a large sign read:  “Rustic Meadows. Home lots from $30,000.”

“Oh, me, I should say it’s rustic,” Daddy remarked. “Nothing but rust and ticks for miles.” He looked at the children in the rearview mirror. “What have you all been doing? Taking laughing gas? You sure do have the sillies today. Too much Easter candy, I expect.”

Up to your assbone in Weddlesville, June mouthed at Ethan, and the two stripes of color in his cheeks turned a deeper red and his eyes closed as he surrendered to the hilarity.

Monday morning, Ethan and his family were to begin their drive back to Cincinnati. Ethan had a jar with June’s egg in it in the backseat with him, and another jar that June hadn’t seen before. “What you got in that one?” she asked, and he held it up for her to see an old Atlas mason jar with a heavy screw-on lid. Inside was a copy of the photo that Mama had taken of the two of them in their Easter clothes in front of the lilacs. June felt something strange inside her lungs, like she needed more air.

“I’m going to go to the barn to watch your car go up Weddlesville Road,” she whispered.

By the time she got up to the window, the car had pulled out of the driveway and turned right toward State Road 79. Ethan had unsnapped his seat belt and leaned out the passenger-side window to wave.

“Bye!” he hollered, leaning out as far as he could to see her. “Didn’t we have a time?”

“Bye!” June yelled back. “We sure did!” She saw Ethan’s mama turned around in the front seat, trying to get him back inside and buckled up. Then all she saw was the back of his dark, bristly head and the gleam of a jar in his right hand.

“Bye,” she said, again. She stood alone at the tobacco barn window, and when she could no longer see the car she looked to the left, toward Weddlesville. She stood there dreaming, wishing that she had a jar that she could keep Ethan in. Maybe she would get a copy of that picture, too. But she wouldn’t put it straight into a jar, as Ethan had. No, she would cut out their figures, letting the lilacs fall. She would get a square of fresh white paper and draw her own background of greenery and flowers, a section of driftwood fence, and put in a silver balloon rising up toward a redbud. Then she would paste the June and Ethan figures in that new setting, place the picture in a jar, and preserve their trip to Weddlesville forever.

June looked toward State Road 79. It was empty now. Her tobacco barn window seemed mighty big. June rattled in it like a loose tooth, grieved and aching, and certain to end up lost.


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The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

The Snow Maiden by Victor Vaznetsov, 1899

A nutshell story.

“I’m thirsting for a little cultural refreshment, Mel,” Daddy said. “I feel like we’ve gone through a long, hard drought with regard to the higher arts.”

Mama looked wary. “What did you have in mind, Frank?” she asked.

“A string orchestra is playing this Sunday afternoon at the Tillbury,” he said. “Why don’t we take the girls and expose them to what I feel sure will be an uplifting experience for us all?”

“They’re forecasting snow this weekend,” Mama warned, but Daddy assured her that it never snowed to amount to anything in January and anyway the car had excellent tires—as she should know, since she had insisted he buy the expensive, high-performance brand that could carry us through fire, deep water, or glacial ice without incident.

That is how we came to be sitting in the Tillbury Theatre just before 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon, with a light snow falling on a day of cold so bitter that only a clutch of folk had gathered for an afternoon of Bach and Tchaikovsky. 

“Cold and snow are ideal for Tchaikovsky,” Daddy said. “It will make us feel like we are there in Russia with him, don’t you think? We should be wearing bearskin hats and coats. Only we don’t have any. Which is just as well, because it’s hot as a match inside here.”

It was warm inside the Tillbury, which is the prettiest theatre in the world. Sitting in it is like sitting inside a red-enameled jewelry box with diamond earring chandeliers. While we waited for the concert to begin, Daddy read to us from the program. This is a habit of his, one that makes Mama clench her jaw.

“Tchaikovsky has said of this particular selection, ‘I am violently in love with it.’ He also referred to it as a ‘piece from the heart,’ and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic merit. Always remember, Dixie, that if it comes from your heart, it is a true and beautiful thing.”

The conductor came on stage, and soon the theatre filled with music like warm silver water, until we were all swimming in it, oblivious of the cold and the snow outside. The conductor led us through Bach, then showed us Tchaikovsky as if he were revealing a magnificent dream. Then, In the last Walzer, which was lively, the conductor lost his grip and flung his baton across the room.

Every person in that tiny audience rose, clapping with such vigor that the diamond chandeliers trembled and quaked.  “We were warned there could be violence,” Daddy whispered. “Dixie, go see if you can find that baton.” 

Mama looked as if she intended to contradict this directive, but I slipped out and went to the side of the theatre where the baton had last been seen cartwheeling over the second row. I found it against the wall—a thin gleam of light-colored wood, I thought, with a darker wooden bulb on the end. It felt alive in my hand, and I wondered if it had flown of its own will out of the conductor’s hand, a sort of magic wand.

I crept back to my seat and showed the baton to Daddy as the orchestra completed its encore, a reprise of the Walzer portion of Tchaikovsky. The tiny audience once again stood and roared its approval, as Daddy whispered that I should take the baton up to the stage and give it back to the conductor, who had turned to take his bows.  “I don’t think it’s like a foul ball that you get to keep if you catch it,” Daddy added, with an air of regret.

At first the conductor didn’t see me, and I knew that I would not be heard in the tumult of the ovation. But then he caught sight of his baton, which from his perspective must have appeared to rise from the edge of the stage on its own power, and he smiled as he reached down and took it from me. He tapped me with it, first on my left shoulder, then on my right, and we all went out into the soft white world, lifted up, and shining.


For more nutshell stories about Dixie and her family, see: “Father’s Day,” “A Mad Tea Party,” “Ode to Autumn,” “Bearing Witness,” “Collectors of Ice,” and “There Is No End.”

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