Life Stories


The Diver 2

Whenever the small feeling hits, Patrick takes deep breaths, clenches and unclenches his fists, and purposefully imagines a billion nuclear missiles obliterating every trace of the virus from the cells of his body.

One, two, three, four; He counts the breaths until the calm settles in. Propped up on one elbow on a towel in the grass outside the city pool, he gazes at the length of his right arm, outstretched and pointed up towards the sky.

Of course it’s not shrinking, he thinks. You’re as fit and healthy as ever.

It’s an affirmation he’s working hard to believe as the humid August air brings out a beaded sweat on his forehead and chest. He reminds himself that there’s no biological reason for his grogginess – it’s simply a result of the uncomfortable weather and the call from his sister, Allison, which woke him about an hour too early for a Saturday morning.

“Do you still dive, Patrick?” Allison had asked. For some reason the words echo over and over like a song stuck in memory.

“Not really,” he had replied. “I mean I just don’t think about it anymore.”

“Remember how good you were? I couldn’t believe the stunts you pulled up there.”

He had been good, with enough talent and effort to make the USA Diving Winter Championships two years in a row. Back when physicality was simple and natural, and when the future stretched ahead with infinite possibility and nothing to fear.

The memory stays with him as he turns his head towards the pool behind the chain link fence, a flattened “Z” of shimmering aqua, and looks at the board. It’s a one-meter, not a three, because of liability issues at city pools. But it’s easy to see himself taking three steps and a hurdle toward the edge, the fiberglass springing him up into the nine-foot space above it, his hands touching his ankles in the perfect pike formation, the world spinning around once and a half again; his outstretched arms spearing the water with a tiny, momentary splash.

Ten years ago at the age of 17 the flights were brief, but it always felt as if he could just keep rising, up and up into the space above that board, steered by the radar that was so natural back then.

Don’t let it go to his head, but he has a special talent,” his first coach had told his mom and dad. “I’m not sure what it’s called, but there’s a phrase to describe it. Means something like cat sense.”

Cat sense?” His mother, Faith, had frowned.

When a cat falls or leaps from high distance, it always lands on its feet. It’s automatic because they always have a sense of where they are in the air. They can turn themselves around like expert acrobats. When Patrick twists upside down or spins around he still knows exactly where he is in relation to everything else. It’s very rare.”

So we’ll call him Cat Man,” Faith had said then. “Maybe we won’t think so much about him killing himself.”

God, she worried a lot. Patrick turns his face back to the sky and remembers. At the meets 15 divers would take their turns and 15 mothers along with a few fathers would sit in aluminum mesh chairs and watch from behind the judges. His mother, Faith, had once let out a sharp scream when the back of his head skimmed the edge of the board. He’d heard it the instant he hit the water, then surfaced to see all of the women around her laughing with relief. They were supposed to pretend that the dives weren’t dangerous and that death didn’t happen at nice suburban swimming pools, and certainly not to born athletes who exuberantly defied it in that wonderful, perfect space above the board.

But it still happened, out of nowhere –

Give yourself a break, he thinks, and summons a self deprecating grin.

Don’t dwell . . .

Dr. Jaffe tells him a sense of humor is the single best thing for his mental outlook. She conveys it happily at every Friday session, ignoring professional conventions by greeting him with a hug, her stout body jiggling beneath the loose and garishly colored clothes she always wears. Part psychiatrist, part comedian, she always finds a way to make him hopeful even when he falls apart behind the closed door of her office. She’s the antithesis of the first shrink, a 50ish guy with a gray beard and beady eyes who spent most of their one and only meeting asking probing questions, as if making him squirm was something he had to endure to feel better.

Even now he has a physical reaction to the memory of leaving the gayshrink’s office, his face red and hot; the whole episode a stark reminder of how out-of-place he sometimes feels around the other men he encounters at his gym and at the clubs and in the random meeting spots of his urban neighborhood; never quite connecting with the pulsing music they all seem to love or the faddish clothing they crave; feeling that he simply can’t fit in among them –

“There you go with the lost little boy thing again.”

Dr. Jaffe has used the expression so many times, chastising him in her characteristically cheerful voice, urging him to look beyond the out-of-place feeling that comes to him so often these days. The sense that he’s lost his bearings, especially when he thinks back to his teens; the friendships that endured despite his understanding that he was different; realizing that might have been a good thing because he could do things they couldn’t do, in that amazing space above the board, high in the air.

“You should dive again.”

His sister’s voice comes back to him; with the underlying anxiety that she tries to disguise. She’s his closest friend, and the only one in his family who knows. Unfortunately her devotion to him is sometimes more than he can bear, because he knows she would never recover if his health went in a different direction. Which is why he’s compelled to keep her at a distance, with phone calls as opposed to visits even though she lives just two hours away. It’s the only way to fortify himself against the interactions that remind him of his potential frailty, the moments when he looks into her eyes and knows that, because of her fear for him, she will never be completely happy again.

Still, the conversation was a good one that ended on an upbeat note when he told her about how well things are going at work. It was only after hanging up that the sense of melancholy came back, replete with memories of the high school trophies and the college scholarship and the business degree and MBA earned with ease. The cat sense of always knowing where he was staying with him as the trajectory of his life continued to that magical second job. A real estate development firm that was making serious money as people moved back to the city.

The best part of your life, he thinks now, remembering the long days and late nights and camaraderie. His life in the year 2015, with the good job and good apartment and good friends.

And then it happened . . . or started to happen. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in October, when he recognized from a distance the gaunt face of an acquaintance from college; and remembered the drunken haze of a certain night and the afterward feeling that had made him sense, even then, as if something had changed.

Don’t hate,” Dr. Jaffe has told him so many times. “It’s terrible that this thing has happened to you Patrick. Just awful. But bad energy won’t get you anywhere. You have to love yourself and envision yourself beating this.”

Some theories sound so good unless you’re forced to rely on them. No one’s ever proved that seeing yourself well is anything more than some kind of nonsense to give sick people some kind of mental lifeline. But he holds the thought close as he thinks back to the weeks that followed – the nagging dread of the worst and the desperate hope for the best, all leading up to the decision to get the test at the anonymous city clinic.

That day: a cold, rain-soaked Tuesday in November.

That moment: when the doctor shut the door to the tiny white room and met his eyes.

That feeling: of time stopping and accelerating as the terror came crashing down.

He was seated on a paper-wrapped gurney when the doctor spoke the words; the shock making it almost impossible to move or even breathe; a sensation that took him instantly back to the day 10 years earlier when his lanky, slim body was slammed down flat by a block during a high school football scrimmage. A sudden, complete lack of feeling below his neck as he stared up at his teammates, and then his father, running from the sidelines where he had been watching. The horror of it all magnified by the rage of being there on that field, playing a game he wasn’t built for but acquiescing because his father, the legendary Kevin O’Donnell, had wished more than anything that he would.

It was the turning point, cemented in his mind by the change in his father’s appearance in the weeks that followed: the deepening lines around his face and the graying of the hair at his temples and his recognition that he understood there were other, better things he was built to do.

The diving came next, a whole year of waking up at 4 a.m. for private coaching at the membership club, with Kevin and sometimes Faith watching from the low rise bleachers beside the pool. A year of astounding physical recovery and the discovery of that special cat sense.

The wheels of a bus marked “YMCA Camp” squeak to a stop in front of the pool’s main gate. When the doors open the kids stream out: at least a dozen black children in their early teens, all shouting and jumping around. Patrick sits up and watches as a lifeguard unlocks the gate of the chain link fence. The kids rush past in a swarm. Most simply drop their towels onto the cement and charge into the water, their thrashing severing the calm; their delighted laughter rising and echoing through the air.

He smiles at their exuberance, and thinks of his earliest memories of the suburban pools of his childhood; recalls his father calling out to him as a four-year-old and urging him to jump in and swim to him. A memory of the splash and the sensation of his legs kicking at the nothingness beneath him, the panicked gulping of air until he managed to swim a few strokes forward, and then a few more; his father slowly backing up, beckoning him forward until they reached the far end of the pool. Remembers even now the triumph of making it. The wonderful strength of his father’s sudden celebratory embrace.

His throat tightens as he sits up and watches another wave of people arriving at the pool: several Hispanic adults and children who emerge from a run-down Taurus station wagon and a pockmarked van with the faded logo of a landscaping company, an older couple frowning into the hazy sunlight; three 20-something guys in trendy, skin-tight swimsuits.

One of the guys makes eye contact. Patrick looks quickly away but not before he detects the pursing of the guy’s lips; the subtle sign of awareness.

“Love them Patrick. They’re your brothers.”

Dr. Jaffe’s voice comes to him again, with its gentle insinuation that everything will be better if he simply embraces his genetic disposition; as if he can somehow accept where he is even if it wouldn’t have happened if he was wired a different way. She knows it isn’t quite happening. Yet she’s the first person to remind him of his resilience since his diagnosis, after almost a year of weekly visits, all built around the same theme:

You’ll beat this.

 You must.

On the way through the locker room leading to the pool, he stops to take off his shoes and to slip off his shirt. The walls and floor are slick with disinfectant that has the same sharp pine, dirty-clean scent he remembers from the clinic. A dozen or so black and Hispanic kids from another summer camp bus jump around, tossing swim swimsuits and tennis shoes into the air. Two of them shriek with Caribbean accents, another curiously eyes a man standing under the shower spray, his ragged, urine-stained underwear drooping from the water filling it, his legs covered with sores. The pool is free, and all kinds of people can wander in – from hipsters to day-laborers to the mentally ill and homeless – and today it calls to mind a melting pot of exotic body oils, sweat and bacteria amid gallons of chlorine.

The air is hotter and muggier as he steps out onto the deck and lays his towel flat and reclines on his back and thinks of the week ahead. The once-a-day miracle pill that keeps him symptom-free. The deadlines that he will meet on the job. The workouts with the trainer who continues to push him to be in the best shape of his life. All part of the routine he’s discussed at length with Dr. Jaffe, who keeps telling him there are things – mental things – that he still needs to do.

“You’re a man of conflicts.” It’s one of her favorite expressions, and often accompanied but a typically unprofessional but welcome massaging of his shoulders. “You’ve got so much tension that’s you’ve just got to work out. And the only way to do that is to sit down with your sister and your mom and tell them the truth about what you’re going through. Tell them the truth – .”

“No,” he says out loud, and shuts his eyes against the brightening sun. “Not a chance – .”

He doesn’t even want to think about what it would be like to tell his mother about the perpetual closeness he now has to death; doesn’t want to think about her mind going back to that one high school diving meet and the millimeter’s distance between his skull and the board. Doesn’t want to imagine her being as bereft as she was after the death of his father, taken by lung cancer the year the diving scholarship took him to college.

He feels a catch in his breath as he sits up on the uncomfortable concrete and looks out at the city kids filling the pool, the Hispanic families who wear shorts and shirts instead of swimsuits, the homeless man with the legs full of sores who appears to be arguing with the lifeguard, a muscular black man in a wife-beater T-shirt decorated with a photo of a rapper holding two pistols crosswise over his chest.

The sense of melancholy comes back; his eyes sting as he thinks of the clean, clear water of those suburban pools and listens to the rapid-fire Spanish between bouts of laughter coming from the young families.

“Poppy!” An Hispanic boy who looks to be about six-years-old stands on the edge of the diving board. Then with an excited wave of his outstretched arms he jumps in . . . and sinks to the bottom and swims a few strokes before coming back to the surface. At the edge of the pool his parents clap their hands and watch as he does an awkward dog-paddle toward the shallower end.

Two of the gay 20-somethings are there, squatting down into the water that comes up close to their necks. One of them calls out – “Earnesto!” – an instant before the boy reaches him.

And then they’re all standing in the water, sharing high-fives as the little boy climbs onto the guy’s back.  Patrick watches as the boy pats his hands on the top of the guy’s head as if it’s a drum.

The guy winces slightly from the motion, and then suddenly, from across the pool, looks at him again and smiles, rolling his eyes in a happy, good-natured way.

He finds himself smiling back, as surprised by his own reaction as he is to the sight of the family and their friendship with the men. The kind of friendship that happens in a city, in this kind of pool.

“Here in the land of misfit toys.”

The phrase comes to his mind. He imagines the joking tone he would use in recounting the experience to Dr. Jaffe; imagines her laughing with him; seeing his lightheartedness and acceptance of the oddity of the scene and his place in it as a sign of progress.

But then again he hears Allison; from the back of his mind. Her bangs covered in sweat and her knees under her chin like the eight year old she once was:

Do you still dive?”

He shuts his eyes and thinks about the bad block again; the feeling of paralysis and the look on his father’s face as he was carried on a stretcher from the field and the terror of never being able to move again.

 Yes, he thinks.

 I still dive.

He feels slightly dizzy as he stands, imagines the way he might look from a distance, getting up after being knocked down; his knees quivering as he walks across the warm concrete, his hands and fingers flexing at his sides – an ingrained, reflexive motion to relax his muscles. 

He tests the water with his foot and finds it oddly lukewarm. He blinks, winces from a drop of sweat in his eye and gazes out at the chain link that surrounds the pool. And then he looks back toward the Hispanic family and the guy who smiled at him, all of them watching as he grips the metal rails and steps up the short ladder to the board.

It’s only a meter – three feet above the water instead of nine. He wonders if it’s a metaphor for his new life and his new condition – and then purposefully shakes the thought away.

The motion brings on another wave of dizziness as the sweat drips into his eyes and he looks out toward the other end of the pool and the faint haze that seems to have fallen over the whole day.

His mother, Faith, is there; one leg tightly crossed over the other, alongside his father, Kevin, a globe of oxygen hanging from a pole at his side. They shimmer briefly in what feels like a wide-awake dream as he looks down at his torso and arms and legs; and thinks of the medication working its way through his cells.

And then he moves, his memory and his muscles in perfect rhythm for three steps and a hurdle, the balls of his feet in a perfect strike at the end of the board, launching him upward into the air and that perfect space, up and up into the jackknifing motion and adding a perfect one-quarter twist, knowing then and there exactly where he is. Knowing –

You’ll beat this.

 You will.

# # #


Man in red convertible

They meet at the tennis courts four days a week, reminding me of kids descending on a playground even though they’re all in their 60s or 70s or early 80s. They arrive with straps and wraps to support their knees and elbows, and wide-brimmed caps and sunscreen to protect their lined faces, and stories about doctor visits and grandchildren to be told on the benches while they wait their turns to step into the round-robin play.

I meet them for the first time at the invitation of my friend George, who’s been giving me private lessons and telling me again and again to stop tensing up and grinding my teeth and to simply flow through the strokes of the game. They smile and shake hands when he introduces me and joke about hitting with “a teenager” because I’m only 56.

And then we play, each of us rotating in at the end of every game when the server goes out. I learn right away that I’m the odd one. I swear when I mishit; they tend to laugh. I keep track of how many games I’ve won or lost while they have trouble just keeping score. I stand on the balls of my feet at courtside when I’ve rotated out while they enjoy the opportunity relax and sip their water and chat about all of the things that are on their minds.

If you were a bird flying overhead and looking down you’d see all of us as a group, but even then you’d be able to distinguish the one guy who’s a part of us and apart from us: the one who brought us all together.

His name is Rennie. He’s 85, the oldest of the bunch, and for the last few years he’s told more stories about knee and hip replacements and laughed and cheered about more bad and good shots than anyone in the group. But if you were that bird you’d have to go back exactly four weeks to see us all on the courts at the same time. Four Sundays ago, to be precise. That’s the day I broke Rennie’s heart.

* * *

In retrospect I think the events were probably set in motion the night before, during my weekly Saturday night phone call with my dad. We do it during cocktail hour; me with my bourbon over ice as my wife prepares our best meal of the week, my father sipping good gin next to the fireplace in our family home 200 miles away. My father’s still the first person I want to talk to when something good or bad happens. Lately most everything with us is good, now that we’re at the peak of our working lives, secure in our professions and enjoying the kind of confidence we wouldn’t have dreamed of two decades ago. The only bad moments come from worries about my dad, living alone.

“Before I forget, remember to check your email tonight for something I sent you,” he says.

When I ask him what it is he tells me “it’s a PDF that you have to right-click and save to your desktop. It’s a big file so I had to download what they call a sharing program to squeeze it down so it could be emailed.”

I smile, because it’s the kind of response I get some times when I ask him a question and he either responds by answering a different question, or starting a new train of thought.

“I mean, what’s in the email, dad? What’s it about?”

“Oh,” he says, as if he’s just caught up to me. “I bought a scanner for my computer here at the house. I put a bunch of our old family pictures on it. There are some real cute ones of you and your sister when you were little, and some real good ones of mom.”

“Ah – can’t wait to see ’em,” I say, as the scent of sautéed peppers and onions wafts in to the room. I glance at the Netflix envelope on the bookshelf, containing a film we’ve been looking forward to seeing. It’s one of those ordinary moments when I’m happy to just be home on a Saturday night, looking forward to a great dinner and a movie with my best friend: my wife of 30 years.

After a few more minutes of small talk it’s time to sign off, but not before I confirm what time he’ll arrive for our Thanksgiving celebration the following week. And then I pour another shot and use my laptop to log onto my email and find the document. I skim through dozens of photos and am just about to close it out when I encounter one that surprises me.

I stare at it for a long moment, wondering if I’m seeing it wrong.

“Okay everything’s prepped,” Linda tells me as she steps down into our family room.

There’s a pause while I continue staring at the photo.

“You okay?” she asks.

I show her the photo. It’s me as a toddler, standing up in our living room with my arms outstretched and a big smile on my face. Something about the pose tells me my balance is unsteady, but the sight of my father kneeling behind me with his fingertips just barely touching my arms confirms it.

Linda frowns, taking notice of the same thing that surprised me: the thick metal braces around my ankles and knees.

“You never told me you had problems with your legs,” she says.

“I haven’t,” I say. “Because I don’t remember.”

“You’re wearing metal braces.”

“I have no recollection of them at all.”

* * *

I’m still thinking of the braces as I step onto the court the next day. I’ve always been a bit pigeon-toed; always a bit shorter than average, but never had any indication that I was born with any physical problems that needed to be fixed. Although I’m still wondering why my parents never mentioned them I have to assume the braces were a short-lived measure and that they did whatever they were supposed to do.

These thoughts slip away as we ease into the game in picture-perfect autumn weather. I’m more tense than usual because there are 11 players on our two courts. At any given time there are three on the bench waiting to cycle in one-by-one when servers go out, which means I spend a lot of time standing still instead of playing. I’m antsy and unfocused when I finally rotate in, and over-hit several balls past the baseline and miss two easy volleys in the very first game.

Half an hour later I’m acutely aware that I’ve been on the losing team for six games while winning only four. I’m frustrated by the sense that I can’t get into the right rhythm, a feeling that’s exacerbated by the long breaks between games. It’s always this way when the players sitting on the bench get into a conversation and stop paying attention to what’s happening on the court. They’re slow to get up when it’s time to rotate in, and often delay things further by deciding just then to shed a jacket or re-strap a knee support or take a long drink from their plastic bottles before they finally step in and play.

I’m telling myself to keep calm as they determine that it’s Rennie’s turn to come in and be my partner for the next game. Unfortunately he’s telling one of his jokes to the people on the bench. He has to finish it, with pauses that characterize his perfect timing.  I take deep breaths and stare down at my strings as he gets to the punch line and slaps his thighs and joins the laughter, then walk in a little circle as he looks for his sunglasses. As always when I’m down a few games I start thinking about what it will take to get back up. I know I’m going to be at a disadvantage because Rennie doesn’t move very fast anymore, and has suffered a bit after his second cataract surgery. And also because he no longer takes the game too seriously.

Just like to come out here and be with my friends,” he’s apt to say.

After a moment my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about the point at which I’ll be able to play tennis any day of the week. It depends a great deal on our current finances and future earnings and investments, which should get us to the perfect retirement date on my 60th birthday. And then because of the bizarre way my mind works I think of the plan in context of the last three months of tennis. Thanks to a couple of bad weekends I was only at the break-even point for wins and losses before now, and I’m now two games behind for the season. I want to end up at least a dozen games ahead by the time Christmas rolls around; want to be able to go into the New Year feeling like I’m on track with my tennis and my plan for our future.

I’m still thinking all of this through as Rennie finally ambles onto the court. He smiles at me an instant before his cell phone rings.

I stand there, almost disbelieving as he answers it.

The rest of the crew is laughing, making good-natured fun of him for taking the call from his wife and assuring her he’ll pick up things from the store on his way home. I can’t manage to laugh; I’m just too uptight as I stare down at my legs and try to shake the tension loose.

And then, when he’s finally ready to play, I double-fault on my first serve.

“That didn’t work out to well son,” Rennie says with a laugh.

I respond with a tense “I know.” Then in a brief moment of easy athleticism I hit a fast, deep serve that forces my opponent off balance.

The ball comes back as an easy sitter right in Rennie’s perfect hitting zone. Everyone watches, ready to cheer.

But then he hits it down into the net.

“Awww shucks,” he mutters, then looks back at me with a sheepish smile.

“What happened there?” I ask, in a tight voice.

He tilts his head, as if he didn’t quite hear me.

And then his smile vanishes. “Beg pardon?”

I’ve clearly hurt him with my reaction – my expression and my tone of voice.

“Nothing,” I say. “It’s okay.”

I try to smile to reassure him but can’t get my face into the right shape. So instead I turn my back and walk purposefully back to the baseline, concentrating on my strings in preparation to serve again.

Each of the next two returns comes right back at Rennie. He misses them both, and nearly trips in going for the second one.

“Goddamn it!” I snap, and in a flash of temper over losing the game I pull a ball out of my pocket and hit it hard into the chain link fence at the side of the court.

My reaction draws a heavy silence from the group. I stand there for a moment before I hear someone asking Rennie if he’s all right, and turn to see that he’s limping off toward the bench.

He looks back at me, his eyes red underneath bushy gray eyebrows

“Sorry about that, son.”

In my peripheral vision I see several faces turn toward me, a silent but certain chastisement in the air as I step forward along with everyone else who’s crowding around him now. Rennie’s limp is mild but two of the women players are reaching out to support his elbows as they walk him toward the bench. Someone’s talking about being a retired nurse and the importance of icing injuries, and the players on the next court have also stopped in the middle of a point to make sure Rennie’s okay.

I watch as he slowly sits down on the bench, then gives me an apologetic wave as he meets my eyes again. I stand there; part of the group and apart from it, the sound of my cursing voice still ringing in my ears; the hurt on Rennie’s face ingrained in my mind.

* * *

The winter holidays have always been a big deal in our family, the sense of joy and expectation rooted in my earliest childhood experiences and flourishing even now. Our house looks especially wonderful this Thanksgiving, with gold and rust mums still hanging on in the late November garden, and pumpkins and gourds and candles throughout the house.

I keep reminding myself of how wonderful it all is despite my troubled sleep over the past several nights. I’ve awakened several times to the memory of Rennie’s face the moment I lost my temper and haven’t been able to shut the images away. My exhaustion is yet another reason to make Thanksgiving an especially simple event for Linda, my dad and me, with single servings of turkey, stuffing, a couple of vegetables, and fresh fruit for dessert.

It doesn’t work out that way though, because my father shows up the night before and surprises us with a small ham, and a bag of sweet potatoes, green beans and mushroom soup for a casserole along with apple and pumpkin pies. “All my favorite things,” he tells me, “just to add to the table.”

Linda and I are both a little unnerved at the extra work this is going to entail but manage to stay relaxed and even jovial even though it takes two hours to cook everything, about 15 minutes to eat it, and a solid hour of cleaning afterwards.

And then it’s time.

As planned, Linda tells us she’s going for a walk with friends. After stoking the fire I open another bottle of Cabernet and ask my dad to come sit with me. The long-awaited “talk” that I’ve planned immediately becomes more difficult as he describes how great the fall fishing has been in the spring-fed lake enjoyed by the few neighbors in his semi-rural community, and how good the gutters looked after he cleaned them out, and how he’s switched to a riding mower to deal with the two rolling acres of grass that surround our family’s house.

I see the segue, and take it. “I think I’ve got a lot better proposition for you,” I say.

There’s a small drawer in our coffee table. I open it and pull out a glossy brochure for the retirement community near our home. I tell him I want him to downsize because his house and property are obviously too much for him, and because I know he’ll enjoy a more simplified life with a one-bedroom apartment with its own kitchen, plus the common dining room for when he doesn’t want to cook, plus the community library and nearby walking trails.

He looks at the brochure for a moment and puts it down.

“I’m going to finish off the space above the garage for Mandy,” he says.

He’s referring to my niece, who’s in her senior year of college a couple of miles from his home.

“Why?” I ask.

“So she can save money by not renting an apartment.”

I remember a conversation I had with Mandy a couple of weeks before, when she told me she was looking forward to moving into the house that her fiancé, who runs a small but prosperous construction company, just built for the two of them. I can’t even imagine her deciding to live in my father’s house instead.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I say. “It would take a lot of work – “

“I did the basement for our rec room but your mom always wanted to do the attic.”

I feel a slight tremor around my heart; the warning of an uncomfortable memory as he leans slightly forward on the couch across from me.

“I’ve got plans drawn up,” he says. “Some guys to do the electrical and plumbing, so I’ll just do the drywall once I get my balance back.”

I frown. “Your balance? What do you mean?”

He presses his right index finger against his temple. “Been having some dizzy spells. I’ve got an appointment next week.”

I sit up a little straighter, my breath coming up short at the thought of him trying to stand up straight under the cumbersome weight of drywall . . . and cleaning gutters high atop a ladder . . . and riding a mower that could easily tip over on the slope of his property.

“Dad, you’re almost 80.” I pick the brochure back up. “Now’s the time to relax. Enjoy your retirement – “

“I can get it done in less than three months if I time it right.”

“You’d still be making a big mistake,” I insist, thinking of all the money my father and I have already spent on Mandy’s tuition – the tens of thousands he and I still have to pay off once she finishes.

“You should also think of the money you can save by downsizing and being closer to us –.”

“There’s room for a living space and a bedroom that faces north for the light your mom always loved –.”

Jesus, have you heard a word I’ve said?”

It comes out like a reprimand – a verbal slap in the face.

His lower lip starts to quiver as his eyes mist over.

I feel a panicky sensation in my chest, and purposefully lighten my voice. “Come on, pappy. Just please consider it. Think of how great it will be to have us close by to spend time with, all the things we can do together – “

“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me like that, son,” he says.

I sit back on the couch as my own eyes begin to sting. For most of the last two days I’ve been keenly aware of his physical agility and sense of humor and still-bright mind, but in this one moment he looks as if he’s aged 10 years.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m just trying to –.”

“It hurts my feelings when you talk that way.”

* * *

I lie awake most of the night. My whole body is rigid with tension, and every time I shut my eyes I see alternating visions of my dad’s face the moment I barked at him and Rennie’s face when I lost my temper on the court. I know I’ve been a complete idiot in both instances, and feel more like a temperamental preschooler than a grown man who’s been brought up to genuinely respect his elders.

As Linda has reminded me time and again, however, every day brings an opportunity for a fresh start. The thought is foremost in my mind until I come downstairs and see my father’s overnight bag next to our front door, then step into the kitchen to find him sitting by himself at the table.

“I thought you were staying till Saturday,” I say, in a shaking voice.

He leans forward, his shoulders slumping as he grips his coffee cup with both hands. “Nah, I gotta’ get on the road. Got a long drive ahead.”

I feel a dry, scraping sensation at the top of my throat. “It’s going to be a beautiful day,” I say. “We can walk on the beach.”

He stands up, his posture awkward as he turns and pours out his coffee and rinses his cup. “I appreciate that – appreciate everything you and Linda did to make it a nice holiday.”

I stare at his back as he walks out of the kitchen. I follow him to the door. He picks up his bag and steps out to the porch and looks up at the pale blue sky.

“Looks like a good day to drive,” he says.

I try to think of something – anything – that I can say to keep him with us as he pops the trunk. I look in and see his tennis racquet and envision how the day would go if I hadn’t hurt him; what it would be like to pull up to the courts and introduce my dad to my friends.

My eyes tear up. “Dad, I am so sorry about last night.”

He sighs, looking past me for a moment, then offers me a weak smile. “It’s really okay. I’m just not as tough as I used to be. That happens with old people.”

I swallow hard against the lump at the top of my throat.

“I didn’t mean for it to come out like that,” I say.

He nods, looking more worried about my feelings than his.

“I know you didn’t. You’re still my best boy.”

I nod back, trying to convince myself that everything is going to be all right between us as I lean against the car and feel a soreness in my lower spine, undoubtedly from the lack of sleep.

And then I remember our conversation the Saturday before.

“I went through all the pictures you sent us,” I say. “I saw the one that showed me with braces on my legs.”

He squints, as if he needs a moment to remember, then nods. “Yeah you were a pitiful little thing for a while there. Wasn’t sure you’d be able to walk without tripping over your own feet.”

My surprise lingers, because I still have no memory of being hobbled at any point in my life.

“Well I’m glad you fixed me up.”

“Yeah.” He looks me in the eye. “I always knew you’d grow up to be a champ . . . just needed to help you out a bit.”

He gives me a brief wave as he slides into the driver’s seat, his posture telling me he wants to avoid a goodbye hug, because it would be an emotional tipping point that he just can’t deal with now.

I wave back, and stand on our porch and watch him drive away.

* * *

Five minutes later I’m back in the kitchen, gazing down at his empty coffee cup in the sink and just barely resisting the urge to burst into tears. Then with a manic sense of avoidance I go straight out into the yard to rake the leaves and then go for a long run, doing my best to stave off the mixture of sadness and guilt that clings to me like a physical presence.

Later in the day Linda and I sit down to have a drink. I briefly consider the possibility of telling her about the outburst that hurt Rennie and the way I talked to my dad but know she’ll probably verify that I’m at fault. That’s the way she is – my most stalwart ally, but never one to keep quiet when she thinks I’ve screwed up.

We watch a movie together on the couch, which limits our conversation, and go to bed. By now I’m so exhausted sleep comes easily, as if my body and my nerves finally give in. After a good 10 hours I feel more rested than I have in a week and realize, as I drive to the tennis court, the best way to make things right with Rennie. I’m going to start off right away suggesting we pick partners and play alongside them for at least four games. I’m going to pick Rennie as my partner with the hope that we’ll win while staying relaxed and supportive of him if we don’t. In my mind I see it as the righting of a scale, a chance to make amends to a friend and become a better sport in my favorite game.

None of that happens, because as soon as I arrive George announces to the group:

“Rennie’s decided he’s not going to play anymore.”

There are murmurs all around; questions about why.

“He thinks he’s too old,” George says.

The players look at each other with disbelief, and make comments about how the gatherings won’t be the same without him.

No one mentions my outburst, but after a moment I pull George aside and whisper: “it’s because of the way I reacted when we lost that game, isn’t it?”

He looks down at the ground, and sighs.

“Just tell me the truth,” I say.

“It didn’t help.”

I feel a shadow passing over me as I look toward the rest of the crew, who are still talking about Rennie, sharing memories formed over decades of friendship.

“I’m so sorry, George.”

He sighs again, then makes an unconvincing effort to shrug. “Rennie’s a tough old guy. He’ll be okay.”

He leaves it at that as the first round of players head onto the court.

I sit down on the bench, my sense of shame coming back tenfold as I watch them. They’re noticeably subdued; there’s much less of the usual banter without the presence of the beloved ringleader. “Rennie started the whole group 20 years ago,” I remember George telling me, “but he’s been playing with some of these guys and gals even longer.”

I think about everything else I’ve learned about Rennie over the past few months. The 40 years he spent as one of the most beloved teachers at our local high school; his early country-boy life on a large plot of wooded land on the back bay that he eventually transformed into a campground for vacationing families; the tennis court erected at the center of that campground, a testament to his lifelong love of the game.

And then I think of his friends on the court. Most have been playing tennis since they were teenagers, transitioning from singles to doubles only after they finally admitted they couldn’t run as fast as they once had. They learned to emphasize the power of spin as opposed to the undependability of power itself, to work better as teammates regardless of who they were paired with; to simply enjoy the camaraderie and appreciate their ability to play.

I’m reminded again of the contrast to the way I play – running hard and hitting hard and thinking of nothing beyond a way to win every point as I watch Lucas Shoup – the handsomest man among us – shank a volley off to the side of the court.

The reaction is exactly what I expect – laughter and good-natured jeers and even a high five from one of the opponents on the other side of the net, coupled by a joke from the other opponent – Lucas’ wife – “That’s my hubby – Mr. Smooth!”

The laughter continues as they get into position for the next point, the moment of levity momentarily lifting their spirits past worries about Rennie, and bringing back the feeling of how it’s always been with him there. True to the cliché, the laughter is contagious, boosting my own mood as I suddenly imagine myself 10 years from now, thicker at the waist; braced up at the knees and elbows; knowing that I’ll live for these moments on the court with my friends.

A short beepbeep comes from the roadway beyond the courts.

I turn around on the bench, and watch as Rennie drives by in his 30-year-old red Mazda RX 7 convertible, his silver hair reflecting the sunlight, smiling and waving as he slows to a stop.

Everyone waves back. There are a few catcalls urging him to get off his lazy butt and get back on the court.

He cups a hand to his ear, pretending he can’t hear any of it, then pauses and gives us all a long, intent look, as if he’s memorizing the sight of us here.

There’s a long moment of near-silence as we look back at him. His smile is a little shaky, as if he’s working hard to convey high spirits even if he doesn’t feel them.

“He can’t play anymore but he’s still checking on us,” says one of the players.

“Yeah, checking on his kids,” says another.

* * *

I go home in a funk, back to our beautiful house, decorated now for Christmas. Linda and I both have extra time off to enjoy our life over the holidays. I should feel grateful but am still saddled with worries about my father and flashbacks over the way I treated Rennie.

The melancholy feeling is bad enough on its own – but it worsens on the two consecutive Sundays when Rennie drives by the tennis courts in his red Mazda again, slowing down and waving and lingering for a few moments before driving off.

Watching us, I think.

Keeping watch.

I learn from George that since giving up tennis Rennie has eased into a Saturday and Sunday morning routine. There’s the 8:30 a.m. breakfast, where he charms all of the waitresses at Denny’s, then a visit with his older brother at a nursing home, then the drive past the tennis courts, where he slows down, and waves and watches us play for a few moments before driving on.

The courts are close to his home, so it’s plausible to think he’s simply passing by, yet I know that to do so he has to take a few extra turns and sit through two traffic lights in order to get there. So there’s really no doubt: He’s checking on us because he misses us. I know everyone else in the group simply regards him as an 85-year-old man making a conscious decision to step away from an activity that could cause injuries while still wanting to stay connected to the people who made it matter. But I’m more conscious than ever of what I did to drive him to this point – that one verbal outburst; that one disparaging look across the court.

Eventually it all becomes too much – and on the last Saturday before Christmas, after a brief hour of hitting with the crew-minus-Rennie in blustery, chilly weather, I tell Linda everything that’s happened.

I tell her I want her honest opinion, expecting her to tell me I’m a jerk.

She laughs, a bit uncomfortably, and confirms it: “yes, you were, but who isn’t from time to time?”

Her candor over my confession relaxes me a bit.

“I talked to your dad a bit too,” she says. “On my own. Truth is, he isn’t as unhappy as you think he is, but probably won’t ever be as happy as you want him to be.”

“I know that,” I say.

“He misses your mom.”

The words hang in the air. I look past her, toward the neat lines of our patio and empty winter planter boxes, my mind drifting in the direction of memories I’ve shut away.

And then after a long moment she adds:

“He’s at an age where he has to acknowledge how many things have changed . . . and all of the things he wishes he could have changed.”

I think about that for half a minute or so before she leans over and kisses my cheek. We’ve been cooking, Italian this time. The house smells wonderful, and the happiness I feel in our companionship reminds me once again of the emptiness of my father’s home, with my mother gone.

“He’s going to be fine,” Linda tells me, as if she’s reading my mind. “He’ll spend Christmas with your sister and then he’ll go home to where the memories are, which is where he wants to be.”

The memories, I’m conscious of the nervous blinking of my eyes as I think of childhood Christmases and Thanksgiving spreads with all of the same dishes my dad brought to our house this year . . . and recall the easy companionship between my mom and dad living alone in our family house after my sister and I went off to college and onto our lives . . . and remember my father tending to my mom day in and day out as she struggled to beat cancer, and beside her in their bedroom as she passed on.

“I should have realized how important it is for him to be there,” I say. “And sure as hell should have held my temper -.”

“Enough of that,” she says, with a touch of impatience. “You didn’t singularly tear your dad’s world apart . . . and you don’t have to be completely on your own to fix it. Remember, you’ve got a niece nearby.”

“Mandy,” I say.

“Who’s got a fiancé who’ll do anything for her . . . just like you and your dad have done everything for her. Last I heard, college doesn’t come cheap these days.”

I remember the last weekend we spent with Mandy and Brandon, two lovebirds who will soon head to the altar for a marriage that I expect will stick for the duration.

“Well he is pretty crazy for her,” I say. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking about a way to fix half of what’s bothering you about your dad.”

I start to say I’m all ears, but then I ask “what’s the other half?”

“Rennie,” she says. “In his red Mazda, with those drive-bys.”

I nod, then get up to mix another round of drinks as we make a plan.

* * *

December 24th has me on edge . . . the rule for the group is that the Fahrenheit has to hit 45 for us to play. The forecasters promise that’s the temperature we’ll see that at midday but it’s barely 40 at 8:30 when I head out of the house. I drive out to the tennis courts first. The gang won’t be there till the 10 a.m. gathering time but I want to make sure I’ll be able to snag a single court away from those that will be occupied by everyone else.

On the way I take a mental inventory of everything in the back of my Jeep; all of the devices of my deception, then call George to verify that his wife Janine has likewise bought into that deception.

And then I think about the text message I received from my niece the night before:

Brandon’s on-board – and super excited.

I make the call. My father picks up on the second ring, answers with a “Merry Christmas.”

There’s half a minute or so of small talk about the season and about how happy he is to spend the holiday with my sister. And then he lowers his voice just a touch.

“Got a call from Mandy and her boyfriend last night,” he says. “And a nice little surprise.”

I can hear the emotion in his voice, and it’s easy to imagine his reaction to the news that a team from Brandon Myles Construction will soon be transforming the space above his garage, in gratitude for the big bucks we’ve spent on Mandy’s education.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” I say, remembering his need to be independent. “They’ll do it all according to your plan. You’ll be in charge.”

He laughs, sounding decades younger, and says:

“Your mom would have loved this.”

I try to laugh as well, but feel just a little shaky as I think about that room over the garage and all the times my mother suggested it would be a good space for her to paint in, because of the nice northern light over the lake . . . and remember my dad’s decision to build a basement recreation room for his pool table instead.

And then I recall Linda’s words – He’s at an age when you regret things you might have changed, and regret what really has changed – and imagine what that space will be like – a shrine to her absence but also to their life together.

I tell him I love him, and choke up a little as I say goodbye.

I sit for a few moments, knowing we’ve left things on a high note, but still feeling a bit shaken as I glance at the clock. I expect that Rennie’s close to finishing up at Denny’s but I drive over and scan the parking lot just to be sure. I spot the red Mazda immediately because it’s at the edge of the lot, far from the doors, probably because he wants to minimize the chances of dings and scratches from other cars. I know from our conversations that it was rescued from a parts auction and brought back to life by his oldest son, a working-class guy who loves taking things apart and putting them back together. It’s one of those cars that would be described in a catalogue as being in “mint condition” and so much more attractive now than it was in its day. A relic from the 80s, I think, when Rennie was my age, and probably near the top of his tennis game.

Convinced that we’re on schedule, I head back to the road that runs alongside the courts. I park near the entrance to the complex, at a spot I know Rennie will travel past, then wave to George and Janine as they step out of their own car 200 yards away and onto a court that’s set apart from those that will soon be occupied by the rest of our crew. As promised, George has a compression sleeve around his elbow, black and shiny against his pale skin.

So far, so good, I think, and reach into my tennis bag. I pull out a roll of gauze and wrap it around my right knee, then strap supports under both knees, then take a few steps around the Jeep, mimicking the motion of someone just barely on the mend after an injury. I figure I need the practice because the real injuries won’t be long in coming. There will be a day, fairly soon, when I’ll be just like the rest of the gang, wrapped up and braced up and happy to simply be in the game.

I take a few deep breaths, convincing myself that everything will work out the way I imagine, but worried that the routine will change as I watch all of the other players gather on the other courts where we play. But then I turn and look back toward the entrance to the development just in time to see the red Mazda turn in.

Rennie’s driving with the top down, wearing mirrored sunglasses and and scarf around his neck.

I quickly step out of the car, with an open tube of Ben Gay. I quickly squirt about half of the entire contents into my hand and rub it on my legs and pretend to notice – just then – the red Mazda’s approach.

I wave and step into the roadway, so Rennie has no choice but to slow down. I give him a big smile, which he sort of returns, with a twitch of nerves in his cheek.

I step closer, with a barely perceptible limp, as he eases to a stop. His ears are red from the cold; his hair glinting bright white in the sun.

I reach over and squeeze his shoulder. “What’s happenin’ young man?”

He makes a visible sniffing motion, a reaction to catching a lungful of the menthol from the Ben Gay, then glances down at my legs. “Doin’ good – but what’s with you?”

I loosen my knees and make a slight up-and-down motion. “Ah, I’ve got all kinds of problems today. Sore joints, stiffness.”

He frowns slightly, still taking it all in.

“Gettin’ a little older,” I say, with a smile, “and now I’m in a bind. I set up doubles with George and Janine and Lucas because I wanted to play slower and easier . . . probably not even for real points but just because I wanted to get out here and move around . . . unfortunately Lucas just called and told me he’s got a cold.”

There’s a minor false note in my voice; an anxious shortness in my breath. Rennie’s eyes are hidden behind the mirrored sunglasses, but I know he’s looking straight into mine.

“That’s too bad, son” he says.

I make the loose-kneed up and down motion again; shake out one leg and then the other as I look toward George and Janine. They’re on opposite sides of the net. They should be hitting, warming up. Instead they’re anxiously watching me and Rennie.

Rennie follows my gaze. I notice the rise and fall of his chest, a slight tilt of his head, and know almost for certain that he’s on to us. I think of what I’d planned to say next – my suggestion that since he’s here he should join us; the underlying understanding that with my injuries and his age that it’ll make good sense for us all to be playing together.

I’m still trying to figure out how to say it just right when he says:

“George looks a little off today too.”

“He is!” I say, a bit too emphatically. “I told him he shouldn’t even try to play with that thing on his elbow but he can’t stop himself. Which means we’re both a little crippled I guess.”

There’s another twitch in Rennie’s cheek, another rise and fall of his chest. My heart quickens as I ask him:

“Can you join us, Rennie?”

When he looks at me again there’s absolutely no doubt that he knows exactly what we’ve planned. For one moment I think he might call me on it – maybe even reprimand me like he might have done to one of his students, back in the day. Yet in the next moment all I can think of is him saying no, and driving away.

“Please,” I say in a quiet, pleading voice. “We really need another player.”

He sits very still, giving me no indication of which way it’ll go as I stand there, my knees genuinely quivering now – a nervous sensation that recalls that picture of me as a toddler, the braces around my legs, my father propping me up.

“I’ve got an extra racquet in my bag,” I say.

I see another twitch in his cheek, an unmistakable sign of emotion as he absently glances down at the floor of the Mazda’s passenger side. I lean a little farther over the car, and see the Slazenger logo on the dark gray bag that’s lying there.

I smile, realizing then that he gave up playing but kept the bag in his car; realizing that he never gave up hope that he’d be back in the game.

And then I sigh, breathing in deep, as he tells me, “I’ve got that covered, son,” and just barely manage to hide the tears as he gives me a little salute, then eases into a parking place and then gets out with his bag on his shoulder.

I sway on the balls of my feet as I watch him, my heart quickening with happy anticipation.

“Merry Christmas, by the way,” he says as we walk together, slow and easy, toward the court.

# # #


f-Snow Dunes Beach 1.22.2014_1940

Helen stood at the foot of the steep stairs that led to her attic, and reconsidered the risk of going up. There was a handrail she could grasp all the way to the top, relieving some of the strain on her wobbly knees.

But coming down . . .

She saw herself in the minutes ahead, both of her arms wrapped around the old cardboard box that she had to retrieve, which was awkwardly shaped and difficult to hold on to, setting her up for a hip-shattering tumble if she wasn’t very careful.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other; looked toward the window at the end of her second floor hallway. The light was fading. In an hour the darkness would descend completely, and if the box wasn’t down soon she’d have to wait until tomorrow, Christmas Eve.

She didn’t want to wait. She wanted all of her decorations up now; wanted a house full of colored lights to ward off the gloom.

She took the first step and then the second before she felt the stab of pain under her left kneecap. She cursed with a “damn it” that came out louder than she’d intended, reminding her of the house’s emptiness, the solitude of the night ahead. She grasped the rail, feeling angry that the box had been shoved up into the attic in the first place, as if it had intentionally been put out of her reach.

“Oh, damn him,” she said, putting the anger where it belonged; fortifying herself for the next step as the phone began to ring.

* * *

John sat next to the café’s large front window and looked out Lewes, Delaware’s Second Street. The main commercial avenue of the historic bayside town was decorated with wreaths and ornaments on every storefront, and the sidewalks were crowded with families and couples who made him self-conscious of being alone, a 26-year-old man with a potted poinsettia and a gift-wrapped box of lemon scones

Now or never, he thought, and dialed Helen Marvel.

The phone rang several times.

Should have called her before now, he thought. Set this up, thought it through –


He felt a catch in his breath at the loudness of her voice, a tensing in his backbone as he sat up a little straighter.


“Who’s this?”

“It’s me, John.”

There were several seconds of silence.

“Oh . . . John. How are you?”

He exhaled, his shoulders loosening with her upbeat tone. “I’m good.”

“Are you well?”

“Yes,” he said, because physically it was true. He sat forward, at the edge of the cafe chair, which felt a bit too small for his weight and size.

“I’m here,” he said. “In Lewes.”

“For Christmas?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

There was a pause. “Why aren’t you with your family?”

He remembered how he had answered the same question two Christmases before.

“They’re in upstate New York. It was too far to go with just a couple of days off.”

“Oh,” she said, as if she didn’t quite believe him.

“I’d like to come over if I can,” he said. “I have some presents for you.”

“Oh I don’t need any . . . presents.”

He heard a quiver in her voice, a vulnerability that was completely out of the character he knew.

“Well I have them. Can I please come by?”

Of course you can, John,” she replied, as if he hadn’t had to ask.

* * *

Helen might have termed John Falzone’s surprise visit and his willingness to deal with her attic stairs as a divine intervention if she hadn’t given up any belief that there was some kind of Godly direction in her life. Still, it was nice seeing him trot up on his stocky young legs, knowing he wasn’t the least bit worried about falling down. Nice to see his handsome young face at her door even though she knew he had been fibbing when he said he was only visiting Lewes for the holidays because his family lived too far away.

He was twisting the facts a little last time too.

She heard the creak of his weight on the attic floorboards, felt a twinge around her heart.

Because he was in love.

She moved around the parlor with her electric candles. There were half a dozen of them, a gift from her grandson Tom, two Christmases before.

“From both of us.”

She heard Tom’s voice in her mind, a memory of that same visit with Tom and John, finally acknowledging they were more than college roommates even though she had known better for years. She relished the memory as she went to every corner of the room, concentrating on the precise placement of each candle.

“Mission accomplished,” John said from the top of the stairs, holding the box carefully in his nicely formed arms.

He made it halfway down before sneezing loudly.

“Bless you,” she said. “My house is a hundred years old. It gets dusty.”

He set the box down on the coffee table and sneezed again, then rubbed his nose with the back of his sleeve.

“You need a Kleenex?” she asked.

“Nah. I’m okay. It’s like you said – the dust.”

That’s as good an excuse as any, she thought. There was a fleck of insulation in his black hair and his blue eyes were bloodshot. Two minutes of rummaging through the junk in her attic had brought him to the edge of tears.

She glanced down at the floor to save him from embarrassment, then stepped toward her writing desk and pulled a pair of scissors from the drawer and gently pressed them along the seam at the top of the box.

“I taped it up tight last year but only expected to store it in the coat closet,” she said.

John cleared his throat. “How’d it end up in the attic?”

“That was Red’s brilliant idea. He put it up there and told me afterwards.”

“Red was here at Christmas?”

She looked at the console table next to the vestibule, which held at least a dozen framed family photos. There was only one shot of Tom’s father, Richard McCoy, nicknamed “Red” for the tint of his hair, alongside her daughter Cathy on their wedding day. She had removed all of the photos of Red with Tom and Cathy in later years.

“He showed up on Christmas day,” she said. “Suffering from the worst hangover of his life from the looks of it. He came back a week later to help me put everything away.”

“Oh. He didn’t tell me.”

For a moment she thought she heard him wrong. It was hard to even imagine Red McCoy and John Falzone in the same room.

“You’ve talked to Red?”

He nodded. She waited for him to elaborate but he avoided her eyes, and looked down at the box.

“Do you need help with that?”

She still held the scissors. The treasure in the box was fragile, and there was a mild tremor in her hand.

“Maybe I do,” she said. “It’s the most important decoration I have.”

He took the scissors and deftly sliced the masking-taped seam at the top, then carefully reached into the box and lifted the ceramic Christmas tree from the Styrofoam popcorn packing. The tree was made from a kit that Tom had bought as an eight-year-old at a crafts store. It had required a bit of skill and a lot of effort to assemble and paint. It was a significant undertaking for a little boy, but the quality of Tom’s work had not surprised her.

John carefully held the base of the tree with both hands, and set it down on the table. “I remember this from two years ago.”

“Then you know about the year he made it.”

He nodded.

“The year my daughter finally accepted what Red was really like.”

Her mind went back to the memory of Cathy, red-eyed and white knuckled as she gripped the steering wheel during what was supposed to be a pleasant mother-daughter drive through town to look at the Christmas decorations; Cathy’s voice halting and strained as she talked about Red’s infidelities and her decision to finally cut him loose.

Not really something you want to talk about on a holiday, she thought.

But in the next instant she was talking about it some more.

“Children don’t miss much. Tom knew something was wrong between his mom and dad that year. A lot of kids would have acted out in some way, but he just concentrated all his attention on building and painting this little tree, for his grandmother. At a time when he was most vulnerable, he chose to do something for someone else.”

John smiled. “He loved you like crazy Helen.”

“I know. Unfortunately for some reason he loved his dad too, even with all the mess he put Tom through.”

She carefully unwound the power cord at the base of the tree as she recounted some of her worst memories of her daughter’s ex-husband. The son of a farmer who sold out to real estate developers, leaving him a pile of money that he gambled away. A father who always seemed disappointed in Tom, punishing him for striking out in little league, ridiculing him in front of his friends on a hunting trip when Tom couldn’t bring himself to fire his gun, belittling his decision to study engineering instead of finance at the University of Delaware, despite Red’s assurances that his deep roots in real estate would have made it easy for Tom to become the millionaire Red had always wanted to be.

“And on top of that he was a bigot, and too damn foolish to keep his feelings to himself and too dense to even think of what it was doing to Tom – .”

God, Helen . . . “

John’s voice was quiet, a subdued interruption. He was sitting slightly forward on the couch, his eyes full of concern and a bit of admonishment, she thought, at how long she had rattled on.

Like a bitter old woman. At Christmastime, for God’s sake.

She felt a pang of guilt, because in truth there was more to Red McCoy than she was accustomed to admitting. Like herself, he was born and raised and forever rooted to Sussex County, where attitudes and old ways were slow to change.

“I’m sorry John – sometimes I don’t know when to shut up.” She tried to offer him a wry smile, but couldn’t quite make it work. “I admit he’s not all bad . . . not anymore. He calls me at least twice a week; pretends he has to check in on me because I’m an old lady. Although I know it’s just because he’s a sad man who wants someone to talk to.”

“Your prodigal son-in-law,” John said.

“Yes . . . that’s right . . . That man never could hold a poker face – I can always tell when he’s feeling shaky, trying to wear me down so I’ll forgive him. And of course I don’t have the heart to turn him away, since he’s trying so damn hard.”

John sat back slightly, with a deep, gentle laugh that surprised her.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, crankypants.”

He laughed again, and after a moment she was laughing with him, thinking about the nickname that she had coined for herself.

“Tom loved calling you that,” John said.

“Good thing he had my permission.” She made a shooing motion with her hand. “The little brat.”

“He said you earned it after hearing you complain so much about that blizzard back when he was a kid.”

She nodded, the moment of levity staying with her as she thought of the week Tom had spent with her as a 15-year-old when the Wilmington schools shut down due 30 inches of snow. It was shortly after Cathy had been taken by cancer, and once again young Tom’s emotions and energies had been directed away from the sorrow of losing his mother and toward helping others as he shoveled sidewalks from one end of the street to the other. There were four houses occupied by old widows like herself. The shoveling had saved them from being shut-in and they had celebrated with a potluck dinner in her kitchen; her grandson the star of the show.

“He loved coming here,” John said. “He called it his escape.”

“That’s the way I wanted it to be for him,” she said. “A place where he would always feel happy.”

“Well you succeeded.” John’s smile was relaxed, easy now. “I started thinking of him as the two Toms because he was a whole different person here. It was where he learned to surf – .”

“That was the summer he was here for two whole months. I taught him how to play Rummy, Hearts and Poker . . . and how to make my crab cakes.”

“Yeah he told me. Back fin and lump together, with Old Bay and Italian breadcrumbs.”

“It took both of us to do it right.”

“And an hour to clean up afterwards.” John laughed again. “Taking him out to the Yacht Club would have been easier.”

She made another shooing motion. “Fancy name for nothing more than a little restaurant with some boat slips – .”

“Fancy enough to make him feel special when you took him there that Easter when he was 10. In his little blue blazer and white shirt and red bow tie.”

The detailed description surprised her. “Is that what he told you?”

“Yep – plus you showed me the pictures the last time we played cards.”

She felt a tremor in her smile as she remembered the last night of cards between the three of them; a half hour of Texas Hold ‘Em, which offered a big advantage to herself and John because, unlike both Tom and his father, they actually could both keep a “poker face.” But then John had insisted they switch to three-hand Gin Rummy, a game that depended more on luck and calculation and less on hiding emotions – “better for just passing the time,” as John had put it.

Because he wanted to make the night better for Tom, she thought. To give him a better chance to win a few games.

It was a gesture that characterized the way they would have been for life. John with his perpetually pleasant calmness; a ballast that steadied Tom’s temperamental and impulsive nature. A perfect pair, even if they were both a bit too sensitive for their own good.

“He talked a lot about you, too,” she said.

There was a small twitch in his cheek. “Really?”

She nodded. “He told me you were crazy about dogs and old people, and that you made friends easily and were loyal to the end. He also told me how important it was for you to always tell the truth.”

He sat slightly forward, hanging on every word, she thought.

“You made him happy,” she said. “No doubt in my mind.”

There was a tensing in his shoulders, a surprising reaction to the words she had thought he would be thrilled to hear. She watched the drop of his Adams apple as he broke her gaze and looked down at the floor, and said:

“He had a plan.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He looked up. In a matter of seconds he had gone pale, as if he was about to tell her something terrible.

“What kind of plan, John? You can tell me. Please.”

* * *

And so he did, wondering all the while if he was truly living up to Helen Marvel’s expectation of complete truth as he described the rest of that Christmas holiday two years earlier. About Tom’s easy happiness after a three days of big meals and beach-walking and endless card games with his grandmother. About the long walk they took before the long drive back to the group house at school where they always slept in separate rooms. And about the moment they turned a corner and saw the For Sale sign on the bungalow on Savannah Road, vacant but with a Christmas tree at the front window.

“The realtor was Jack Simpson. He was just locking up after showing it to someone else,” he said. “He saw us on the sidewalk and waved. And then we went in.”

“Must have been the Burton’s house,” Helen said. “She and I came up together. They had to move because of the stairs. And I know Jack – he was a volunteer football coach when Red played at the high school. “

He nodded. Tom had told him more than once about her connections to virtually everyone in the small town, and her wariness of the realtors, like Jack Simpson, who were selling so many of its houses to “summer people who were taking over.”

He stared down at the braided rug on her pine floor, and continued.

“Something happened to Tom when we went in. He asked all kinds of questions about the history of the house. And then he made a crazy, surprise decision. He told Jack he wanted to buy it with the money his mom left him, and when we got back to the car he said he wanted to share it . . . with me.”

He heard the crack in his voice, but kept on.

“We planned the whole thing out on the way back to school – how we’d take down some inside walls to open it up, without losing any of the details, like the craftsman stairway. We knew we’d have to get the fireplace relined, and we wanted to refinish the pine floors ourselves. We talked about how we could go there off and on all year, whenever we wanted to get away, and how he ‘d surprise you with the news, as soon as the contract was signed, and about how being here would give him a chance to take better care of you – .”

“Oh my . . . word.” Helen raised her hand, halting him, then pressed it against the base of her neck and closed her eyes.

He watched the rise and fall of her chest, a deep breath to calm herself down, then leaned forward and touched her elbow. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, slowly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She met his eyes again. “So what happened?”

He thought of the underlying truth in what he had told her about the two Toms. In Lewes he was forever the gentle boy who spent his days smiling and unguarded, true to himself, as Helen might have put it.

But not in Newark, at the University of Delaware, where he was always his father’s son: the star goalie they called “the Terminator” for his absolute absence of fear. A frustrating enigma to the young women who openly pursued him and a guy who stayed at the pinnacle of popularity among his fraternity brothers despite a tendency to pick fights after drinking too much – a trait inherited directly from the great Red McCoy, star running back on the football team 30 years before.


Her voice was steadier now. She sat very still, tense with expectation.

“The house was empty when we got back. All of the roommates were still gone for the break. Tom was still in a happy state of mind. We ate the turkey and pie you sent us home with and drank wine and talked about what it was going to be like to live here, at least some of the time. We were feeling so great – because we were completely alone. And when we finally went to bed we went to his room, which was one of two on the third floor.”

“What happened then?”

Her tone was hard, demanding.

“We’d had a lot to drink. We left the bedroom door open. Weren’t really thinking – because the house was empty. We went to sleep. He held me. Most of the night. But then . . .”

He paused, and shut his eyes.

“The lights came on.”

His mind went back to the sudden brightness that had filled the room, the memory of the other third floor roommate, arriving home drunk and stumbling in the hallway, his eyes wide at the sight of the two of them in bed.

And then the memory of Tom’s reaction – pushing him away as if he was suddenly radioactive, and the shock, and shame, on Tom’s face as the roommate stepped back into the hallway, still watching them as he couldn’t believe what he had seen.

“And then it was over.”

* * *

But it wasn’t really, Helen thought. More of a turning point, toward a bad direction.

She hadn’t known about Tom’s intention to use the money Cathy had left him to buy Elsie Burton’s house on Savannah Road. But she had known something had happened that Christmas. Something that led to the phone call a week later, when Tom had mentioned he had moved out of his house at school. And when she had asked “what about John?” he had simply said.

“He stayed.”

So much meaning in those two words, she thought now. Separation. An end.

John was sitting back on the couch, his arms at his sides. He looked sad, depleted, but at ease, as if he was relieved to have gotten the story out. She felt the urge to talk about Red again, to tell him more about how Tom had grown up, with constant reminders of his father’s old country-boy attitudes. A childhood of hearing again and again that his true nature made him unworthy.

She stopped herself, because by now John had to know most of everything else she might have told him about Red, who still lived in Newark and still went to every football game, like all of the other old-timers forever tethered to the school and its teams.

Too close to escape from once the news began to travel, she thought, understanding for the first time the terrible decision Tom made after that Christmas.

She looked at John again, and knew she needed to give him a break from all of the sad reminiscing. “It’s after five o’clock. Would you like a drink?”

“Sure,” he said, and started to get up. “I can help.”

“No, let the old lady do it.” She said, and placed her palm on the wall to steady herself as she stood up. “I have some wine, and beer – and that good bourbon we had last time you were here.”

He gave her a grateful smile. “Bourbon would be good.”

She flipped the wall switches in the dining room and pantry as she headed back toward the kitchen, then took two lead crystal tumblers from the glass-fronted cabinet. She filled them with ice and a long pour of Woodford Reserve and topped them with a splash of water.

John was back up and moving around as she stepped back into the parlor. The poinsettia he had brought her was now on the console, surrounded by the photos. The garland was wrapped around the balustrade. The cord to Tom’s ceramic tree was dangling off the side of the table between the sofa and her wing chair, probably because he hadn’t yet figured out where to plug it in, but John had placed the tree right where she liked it.

Like he automatically knows where everything’s supposed to be.

It was a comforting thought, a sense that he was taking care of her as Tom would have. She gave him his drink, and took a long sip of her own. The scent of the good bourbon filled her head; the taste taking her back to Tom’s last visit; the sight of him stepping out her front door.

She felt the floor tilting beneath her; a shakiness in her knees.

John gave her the same concerned look he had given her minutes before.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’m all right.”

But she felt lightheaded as she sat down, and bothered by the depressing tone of the conversation so far. Make it happier, she thought. Ask him what he’s been up to for a change. What’s he been doing with his time these past few months?

“I’ll never forget the day he left,” John said.

She wasn’t sure how to respond. After a moment he met her eyes, and frowned.

“Oh yeah Helen.” His voice had a tinny sound, an echo. “He left me too. Because he wanted a change. Wanted to be different than he was.”

Wanted he had to redeem himself to Red, she thought. To prove he was a man.

“It’s still a mess over there,” he said.

Over there.


She looked toward the front door, the sight of her last goodbye, and felt a weight on her chest. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought of what Tom had done, his rash and terrible decision to leave college – to enlist – .

“You must be proud of him,” John said. “He was a hero.”

He was a hero here too, shoveling my walk, fixing the things in my house, always loving, my beautiful, beautiful boy.

“It wasn’t worth his life, John.”

Her words hung in the air. Hard and judging as she saw the flash at the corner of her vision; her worst imagining of the explosion of that roadside bomb that killed him, and felt the pressure of a fist, closing around her heart as the light dimmed. John’s eyes widened as he stood up and came toward her; asking “are you all right?” in a barely audible voice, looking at her and not at the cord for the tree that dangled from the table, under his foot –

The cord tensed and pulled the tree to the edge of the table. John saw it the instant she saw it and tried to catch it but the movement of his foot yanked it over the edge.

They watched it fall together in the wavy slowness of a dream as it hit the carpet that just barely muffled the crack of ceramic as it broke apart.

* * *

Later, she would remember the night through senses and images – the tightness in her chest; the electrical cord under John’s foot; and the touch of his fingertips at her collar as he rushed to loosen the buttons, and asked if she could breathe.

She nodded, and inhaled, knowing from the steady flow of air into her lungs that the episode wasn’t as bad as she had feared.

Not quite a heart attack, she thought. Not yet.

One more breath, and then she assured him, “I’m all right. Honestly. I’m fine.”

He watched her for a few more seconds before he looked down at the fallen tree, and then sat back down on the edge of the sofa and put his hands in front of his face, as if he couldn’t bear the sight of it.

She leaned forward, remembering the night Tom had presented it to her, gripping it so carefully around the base, his freckled face beaming with happiness over her gleeful reaction.

A hard lump came to her throat. She was an instant away from crying, but it looked like John was going to beat her to it.

Have to calm him down, she thought. Act like it doesn’t matter, at least not so much.

She gripped the armrests with both hands, girding herself as she told him:

“Oh John don’t worry it’s just . . . “

“The most important decoration you have. From Tom – .”

She felt her heart quickening again. “Why don’t you see if you can put it back on the table?”

He slowly squatted down, taking a moment to look a little closer at the damage before slipping his hands beneath the base of the tree and lifting it up. There were at least three shards that fell back to the carpet, but she could see that at least some of the tree remained intact.

You could call him “clumsypants,” she thought. Make him laugh.

The look on his face stopped her. His skin was still beet-red and his big hands were still shaky as he carefully set it down.

She gave it a gentle three-quarter turn, so the good side was at the front, and looked again at the decorations John had set out around the room. By any account it was going to be a terrible Christmas, being alone because she had told Red she hadn’t wanted company, and maybe even worse now that John had come by with his recollections, and with the mishap that would probably stick in her mind for the rest of her days.

Still, the sadness she would have expected to feel was somehow numbed, overwhelmed by the sense of John’s sorrow as he gazed at the broken tree.

Because he loved Tom as much as you did.

She felt oddly grateful for the realization; his reaction to the damage the most telling testament to the depth of his feelings as he took another long sip of bourbon, and held it in his mouth for several seconds before he swallowed, and met her eyes again.

“There’s something else I have to tell you,” he said. “About me. And Red.”

* * *

Through all the weeks of planning it was the uncertainty that had remained constant. Even now he wasn’t sure which way it would go. But he felt a slight pressure around his shoulders as he looked around the room, a feeling of being observed, and encouraged. It was the same feeling he had had in the early morning hours as he crossed the long bay bridge that led to the eastern shore, under a gray December sky, driving toward the uncertain reward that awaited him in the small coastal town. The start of a day he had been planning for months, every moment of it moving him toward this conversation.

“Red told me what happened the day before the service,” he said. “When he saw you at the funeral home, where you wouldn’t talk to him.”

She tilted her head with a frown. “When did he tell you that?”

“Not till a few weeks later. Red and I had known each other for the whole four years Tom and I were . . . together. But he always kept his distance. I’d pretended I didn’t care even though I did.

“But then I started seeing him, everywhere. By himself at school, pounding like a maniac at the boxing bag in the gym on the same days I worked out. Watching me from across the room at a fundraiser the soccer team held in Tom’s honor. And then – so randomly – on a Tuesday afternoon when I got the job offer in Washington, and then went out to the cemetery to visit Tom’s grave. He was standing next to my Jeep in the parking lot when I came out. Waiting for me.”

He paused, his throat tightening with the memory, sad but strangely happy now.

“He looked like he wanted to kick my ass.”

He laughed, but Helen shook her head, seeing no humor in it.

“I know that sounds ridiculous,” he said. “But you know what he’s like. So . . . gruff, with that hard knocks attitude of his. But there he was, making a point to shake my hand, telling me he needed to talk to me, and then asking – and sort of begging – if I’d come to his apartment for a drink.”

“I know about that apartment,” Helen said. “He lived with a woman there, for awhile.”

“Yeah well he lives there alone now.” He nodded toward the console, next to the door. “He’s got a table full of pictures too. They’re all of your family . . . lots of pictures of Cathy and Tom, and you.”

Her jaw slackened. She crossed her arms over her chest, still working to hold onto her anger.

“He wanted me to know he was sorry. For everything that had happened.”

She looked past him, toward the photos, and then down at the floor as he took a deep breath and told her:

“He and I made a plan too. That’s why I’m with you here, tonight.”

* * *

In the end it was the audacity of the bargain Red made with Jack Simpson that got to her; forcing her to acknowledge that years ago she had liked Red very much, before it was clear that he was going to hurt Cathy; before she came to the understanding, when Tom was just a little boy, of the way he would treat him as he became a man.

Because they had once been alike; Sussex County natives, children and cousins of farmers and fisherman and boat pilots. Good, simple people, she thought, as John told her the rest of the story about Red’s apology.

“The money your daughter left Tom was still in a savings account when he shipped out,” John said. “It went to Red when . . . Tom was killed. Red hadn’t known Tom wanted to buy the house here in Lewes. But he and Jack had talked about it after the funeral. Jack told him about the day Tom and I saw it, and about what Tom had wanted to do. And about how he knew we were together.”

She gave him a questioning look.

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Jack’s a tough old bird, like Red. Cranky – .”

He smiled, but his eyes were glazed.

“But he’s smart, and kind. And the thing about a guy like that, an old timer who’s been selling houses here for 30 years, is that he knows where all of the other old ladies like your friend Peggy live, and when they decide to move.”

He paused, as the words sank in. She looked toward the tall windows that faced her front porch; counted back how many months it had been since Peggy Squires had moved from her pretty Victorian house at the end of Market Street, and remembered the Sold sign she had noticed that morning.

“It’s mine,” John said, as if he had read her mind. “Thanks to Red, who made the down payment, and to Jack, who made it happen.”

“I don’t . . . understand,” she said, even though she did as she looked toward the console and the photos and the poinsettia at the center, and thought of the photos that had been there in the past; thought of the maddening persistence of Red McCoy’s attention, never quite enough to earn her forgiveness.


She swallowed against the tightness at the top of her throat, felt another sensation in her heart, a thumping, steady beat as she looked back at John again. He tilted his head to the side, with a smile that said come-on-now, as if he felt her bitterness, fading away.

All right Red. You’ve finally done it.

Broken me down.

She looked at the tree again.

“John, do me a favor. Look behind the table. There’s an outlet there.”

He rose up, and then reached down. “I see it.”

“Why don’t you plug it in?”

He sighed, looking as if he couldn’t quite manage another disappointment.

“Go ahead. No reason not to try.”

She followed the motion of his arm as he grasped the cord, and then the plug, and pushed it into the outlet,

The bulbs on the tree flickered and cut off, then flickered on again before holding steady.

She clapped her hands. “Will you look at that?”

He stared at it for a long moment before the tension left his shoulders.

“My new house has a workshop in the basement,” he said. “I can use Epoxy to put it back together. And I can paint over the seam. It’ll never be perfect, but only the two of us will know that.”

Our secret, she thought. “That’s a lot of work John.”

“That’s okay,” He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You can add it to my list of projects. All the things you need done.”

She frowned. “John, you really don’t need – .”

“Part of the deal. Red wants me here as much as I want to be here. Watching over you. Oh and by the way Cranky – .”

“Oh stop it.” She rolled her eyes, now glazed with tears.

“Merry Christmas.”

Merry Christmas to you too, she thought.

“We should play some cards,” he said. “Hearts or Texas Hold ‘Em – your choice.”

There was a drawer in the table that held the tree. She opened it slowly and carefully, and pulled out the deck she kept handy for Solitaire on her days alone.

“Or a little Rummy,” she said. “Just to pass the time.”

# # #