(This is another inspired story, from a stolen picture…)
She’d been gone five long years. Jane. To think her name caused John’s head to pulse with remembrance.
John stood at the low curb, looking up at the tree. Jane’s father Jack planted it when her parents owned the suburban house. Jane shyly let John kiss her for the first time under that tree, one Thanksgiving afternoon. There were many more such moments, each melting into the next.
A month before their wedding, her parents told them, “The house is yours. Fill it with love and children, if that’s what you want.”
They moved in three days after their simple wedding. Every fall, John jokingly complained about the mountain of leaves that the vibrant tree produced. Jane laughed like she always did, knowing that he’d faithfully rake and mulch the crimson leaves. Eventually. Often, they were still piled dutifully, awaiting John’s attention, by the time Thanksgiving graced the calendar.
After the diagnosis, John went outside each night to stand under the tree and imagine how it must feel to spend one’s entire life without fearing the next day. Or whatever day would bring finality to the love of his life.
Five years later, he stood with his hand on his daughter Jenny’s shoulder, pointing up at the polychromatic leaves. “Your mother loved this tree, Jenny, like she loved you. When the leaves fall, it’s your mom telling you that everything has its season.”
Jenny looked at the tree, then at John. “Oh Daddy, you’re so cute!”
May every crimson leave bear your name. . . Happy Thanksgiving, especially to those with a heavy heart or a burdened mind. . Love, X
I stole a picture from someone because it struck a chord in me. In a minute, I wrote down what flowed out of me:
She sat on the pole fence, swinging her legs, laughing.
I watched her, trying to resist taking a picture. I sensed that the moment was fragmentary and fleeting. Her green dress amplified the natural color of the overcast beauty around her. Because my eyes were attuned to notice, I looked at her with wonder.
She said, “Hey, watch!” And she hopped from the fence and ran to jump into the air, vainly attempting to reach the highlighted branches just beyond her reach.
She twirled around to see if I’d been watching.
I had, of course. How could I not?
She twirled around twice more, her hair billowing out and away from her shoulders.
“Come here and dance with me under this magical tree,” she yelled.
The day was perfect. That moment. That place. And her.
Hey guys, I probably changed a couple of people’s lives tonight. Really.
Recently, someone surprised me with a kindness. It gave me a little breathing room. I can’t think about it without feeling like I owe the universe a big hug.
Because I had already worn myself out exercising, I left the apartment to visit my local inconvenience store. Today was a light day: I had 20,000 steps without taking a “walk.” I don’t get bored, but I do miss the interaction with people sometimes. This evening was one of those times. As I stood near the case of odd corndogs and snacks, a pretty young lady stood at the counter, vainly attempting to get her visa card to work. The clerk was showing her a video of his puppy. It was apparent that both of them were doing the dance of interest, even as the young lady became frustrated. “Try the card again,” the clerk told her. She tried twice more to prepay $10 in gas.
I interrupted them both and said, “Ma’am, I’ll pay for your $10 in gas. In fact, let’s make it $20 if your car holds it. We’ve all been there.” She looked at me in wide-eyed surprise. I pointed at the clerk, “He would want me to.” The clerk smiled a huge smile, realizing that I had shifted my surprise act of generosity to him.
The young lady almost started crying. “That is so nice of you!” I thought she was going to hug me. “Yes, my car will hold $20 of gas. It’s basically on empty.”
I thought of all the times I was poor or needed help. Her wide-eyed features and noticeable relief and gratitude rendered me a bit floorless.
“Then have a great night and pay it forward. It’s really okay.” I smiled at her. She smiled at me, then smiled at the clerk, who watched it unfold. It’s hard to describe how beautiful that smile was, as she reacted to a total stranger giving her such a gesture.
When she exited, the clerk shook my hand and introduced himself. “Ryan,” he said. “That was really cool of you.”
I introduced myself too and then showed him my ID. People often don’t believe my name is X. “Whoa, that’s cool!”
I told him, “You ought to ask her out. She already thinks I paid for her gas because you’re a nice guy. You’re halfway there.”
He smiled, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to ask her out for quite a while.”
Y’all know me, so you know I couldn’t leave it there.
“Then ask her out,” I said. “It’s obvious she likes you. I’m 54. I’m telling you that you should take 100% of the shots you want when you’re young. The worst that could happen is she’ll say no. The best is that you will have a great story to tell about how you got the nerve to ask her out. Me.”
The clerk said, “That’s some wisdom right there. Thank you.”
We both laughed as I grabbed my bag of Cheetos Puffs and left.
As I started the car, I decided to forget the rules of life and social etiquette. I rolled down my window (yes, my car has actual rollers) and drove over near the white car at the gas pumps. The young lady looked over at me.
“I know this is awkward, but the clerk likes you and has wanted to ask you out for quite a while. He’s a great guy. Have a great night, young lady.”
She smiled so big that I thought her face might shatter. “Thanks! And thank you.”
I drove away, glad that I’d decided to leave the apartment for a dumb snack. And ignored the ridiculous social expectations of perhaps going too far. I can thank Lexapro for making me more “me.” Where life and love are concerned, there is no step too far.
I was glad I’d been able to help someone randomly.
I was glad that someone had helped me to be able to.
And that it was likely that the clerk and the young lady with the defunct visa card might be able to overcome the ridiculous shyness and distance that so often separates people who are interested in one another. There is no reason for such attraction not to find purchase in people’s lives.
Somehow, I think they will.
And I love that I might be at the nexus of their story, however it unfolds.
More than that, though, I would love for them both to take a risk and find out how their mutual interest might blossom.
What a life.
Thank you, universe, and thank you, kind souls who made it possible.
I’ll say a little prayer for love, for kindness, and for humanity.
And for Ryan and the nameless pretty young lady who needed a little bit of help tonight.
It was a beautiful moment, one whose aura has not been extinguished, despite the hurt. It was a moment of bliss. He had no way of knowing it would be the last time that he would touch her. Thanks to the picture, he now measured all pleasures and memories by that standard: was it a great movie, especially if it were his last? Would the knowledge of its numeracy trace an additional groove of recognition in his brain? Because he practiced this often, he learned that knowing one’s time to pass would render all moments useless. Nothing could be enjoyed in and of itself. The approaching darkness of a loss would cloak everything in its shadow. If you knew that your next cup of coffee would be your last, he guessed that you might never take a sip of it all.
But he sometimes looks at the picture and can’t help but get trapped in a labyrinth of what might have been. It’s a quintessential human emotion. Not regret precisely. It’s impossible to slice away the happiness that envelops the memory, just as it’s difficult not to take a moment to consider the pain that resulted from it. It’s an endless war with neither side of the emotional scale winning. He nevertheless gets comfortable and takes a minute to think back while looking at the picture. At times, he’s left with a light buoyancy, one derived from lingering happiness that he had the experience at all. At other times, he feels as if someone punched him while he was napping. “We always take away something from our moments,” he thought. “Why must we insist on a polarizing method to evaluate our experiences and memories?” Of course, he didn’t have an answer, so he did what we all do and came up with a temporary distraction, one which would occupy him until the next time he visited the memory.
He could only hope that time might continue to help him clear his mind.
He sat on the couch, his legs folded under him, the picture held between his curled fingers.
It wouldn’t matter if he slipped the picture back inside the book on the discolored end table. The image was graphed in his brain, now complexly tied to the emotions he felt during and after the hug and the picture.
When he dreamed, the picture became fragmented, polychromatic, and elusive. While he could no longer see the picture, he could feel it, like the hug itself, one radiating presence and acceptance. He put the picture aside and laid down on the couch, welcoming the dreams that might come.
The woman sat by the long window of the coffee shop, making ridiculous and exaggerated faces at her laptop screen. I sat at least ten feet away, studiously not looking directly at her. Her hair was dyed a deep jade hue and tied into a ponytail, one which seemed to be centered on nothing except perhaps imagination. She wore a red shirt and had a long blue tie loosely around her neck. The tie was thrown over her left shoulder.
My coffee was too hot and as a result, I found myself furiously blowing on it. I realized that this was largely ineffective, given that the lid was still on the cup. I laughed. As I did, I looked briefly toward the green-haired woman. She was looking directly at me. I quickly looked away. And then back. She was still looking in my direction.
She motioned with her hand for me to join her at her table.
Not sure about what might happen next, I took my laptop and coffee and walked to the window, pulled the chair away from the table, and sat down.
“Hi, I’m Sue,” the woman said, smiling. “You must be John,” she said.
I hesitated. “No, I’m not John at all. I’m Kirk.”
“You look like a John. Are you sure your name isn’t John? Take a moment and think about it.” She continued to smile.
“Uh… No. I’m Kirk,” I said. I knew I sounded a bit stupid.
She reached her left hand across the table, presumably to shake mine. I thought about putting a sugar pack in her hand. Instead, I grabbed her hand as she shook it.
Sue turned her laptop around and showed me the screen. On it, a picture of me from a few years ago was displayed. My mind went blank for a second as I tried to bridge the gap of just meeting her and seeing my picture on her laptop.
Sue laughed. “Relax, Kirk. This is something I do.”
“For a living?” I asked.
“No, as a hobby. I write freelance to pay the bills. That and buy and sell nonsense on the internet.” She turned her laptop back in her direction.
“What kind of writing do you do?” Writers always fascinate me.
“All kinds. I even write dialog for screenwriters. That’s fun. Want to hear an example?” She quizzically titled her head, knowing I was going to say yes.
“Okay. A couple of years ago, a writer for an ABC sitcom needed an excuse to get someone to a cemetery. So I had the character say, ‘Anytime I need to cry a lot, I go to the cemetery, because no one questions someone crying there.’ That’s pretty good, huh?”
I was already nodding my head in agreement.
“Another one? I had the idea that the character should put a greenscreen inside his car, so that everyone would think he was at home, instead of driving to Dallas.” She laughed. “But that’s been done six hundred and two times now, thanks to the pandemic.”
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“I accidentally burned down the neighbor’s house when I was 14,” Sue said.
When I looked at her face to gauge her sincerity, she winked.
“That is some secret, yes,” I told her.
“It’s not a secret now, though, is it?”
“No, but I also meant what’s your secret for success?” I smiled.
“I have no clue. It’s mostly been luck and being in right place at the wrong time and sometimes vice versa. But you know that.” She smiled.
“Well, I guess I’m in the right place at the right time now, aren’t I?” I laughed.
“Touché! Ha! But yes. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”
I leaned back in my chair, not questioning her assumption. It turned out she was right.
Two hours later, I knew both nothing and everything about her. It seemed like the best start possible.
Jane stood by the bridge railing, peering down to the surface of the river below. It didn’t seem so far down now. Every year on May 5th, she drove a county over and illegally parked on the bridge, got out, and peered down at the river. It was a ritual to mark her survival. Until this year, she made a point to drive over around the time of the original accident. For no discernible reason, she waited until five in the afternoon to drive over today.
Eleven years ago, she had plummeted over the railing and landed in the river. She had no idea who rescued her. The man who witnesses saw leaving didn’t come forward afterward. Some thought that the man was the driver who clipped her from behind and spun her out of control, sending her car over the railing. While it was possible, Jane didn’t believe it. She knew that whoever saved her had a darned good motive to stay out of the spotlight.
Jane returned to her car, turned off the emergency hazard lights, and pulled away from the railing. She slowly rolled the length of the bridge. As her car reached the end, she noticed an older yellow Chevy Cheyenne pickup on the side of the road past the bridge. A man wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt stood in front of the truck, looking down toward the river.
Not knowing why she did so, Jane pulled a little further along and parked on the grass. She didn’t bother with her emergency lights this time. She reached into the passenger floorboard and picked up her flask of whiskey. Exiting the car, she walked along the far side of the Cheyenne pickup and stopped a few feet from the man in the white t-shirt.
She stood silently, staring at the river. She took a pull from the flask. As she wiped the side of her mouth with her hand, the man turned to look at her. Without a word, he took a step and reached for the flask. Jane didn’t hesitate. She handed him the flask and watched as he took a long sip.
His eyes widened in surprise, as he probably expected something of lesser quality. Jane never skimped on whiskey and she certainly wouldn’t have thought to do so during her yearly visit over to the bridge that changed her life.
“What are you watching?” Jane asked. “My name’s Jane, by the way.”
The man made eye contact with her and smiled. “The name’s Mark. Just thinking about a day a long time ago.”
“Oh? Me too. This bridge changed my life. It woke me up, if that makes sense.” Jane didn’t know what propelled her to speak honestly.
“I know exactly what you mean. This bridge saved my life. I used to come here every year, thinking I might find what I was missing. This is my first visit in five. It’s still beautiful.” Mark stopped talking and seemed wistful.
Jane took another pull from her flask and handed it back to Mark.
“This is great whiskey, Jane. Thanks!” They looked at each other and held eye contact for a second longer than normal. “I saved someone’s life here once. On a beautiful day exactly like today. It went from sunshine to hell in three seconds that day.”
Jane held her breath, calculating the odds of such a coincidence.
“I had my life saved her on a day exactly like today, Mark. One minute I was driving and the next, I was waking up on the riverbank right there.” She pointed below as she spoke.
They each took another sip of whiskey and let the silence accumulate between them.
Mark turned to face Jane directly. He seemed to struggle to say something. He shrugged and said, “Can I hug you?”
Jane stepped toward him and allowed Mark to wrap his arms around her, holding her against him. The sun beat down upon them and they held their pose. A vehicle passed slowly. Neither looked up to see who it was or whether they noticed the odd couple hugging on the side of the road and bridge.
Mark pulled away. “Would you be interested in going to eat, Jane? There’s a pretty spot up the road a couple of miles.”
“Are you kidding? I’d love to.” Jane smiled.
Mark smiled, showing his teeth. Jane watched the smile travel to his eyes.
“I might have a few questions for you, though, if that’s okay.” Jane watched Mark’s smile grow larger.
“I figured you might. Let’s eat and see what comes next.”
It was love at first sight. He stood between the well-stocked aisles, mouth agape, shocked at the beauty in front of him. He had successfully ignored the growl of hunger inside himself for what seemed like days. A woman stood to the side, wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved blouse, a smile as big as Christmas on her face. She wore simple casual white shoes. More importantly, a wall of chips stood behind her, a collection of colors and flavors as diverse as any he’d witnessed. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on those chips, his fingers covered with a variety of flavorings. If only the woman would get the hell out of the way so he could get started.
“Where were you a year ago, Wilson?” Amy half-jokingly asked her laptop.
On a random Thursday morning, Amy woke up to discover that her boyfriend of four years had left her. Eleven months of ensuing loneliness had hardened her a bit.
She had a message notification, alerting her that a non-friend wanted to send her a message. On a lark, she hit ‘accept.’
Below the picture of an attractive man, Amy saw the words, “Hello, beautiful.” Next to the message, his name: Wilson.
There were worse alternatives, she knew. She’d accidentally read dozens of them over the years. Few were noteworthy except for the depth of the lengths they would plummet to in an attempt to get her attention. Any reply at all immediately brought an onslaught of emboldened clichés, anatomically correct pictures, and strange requests.
Like so many women in today’s world, Amy learned to stop being curious. She marked all of them as spam and blocked them if she had the option. When even that option grew tiresome, she ignored the folder where such messages automatically went, thinking that any legitimate follow-ups would happen anyway.
Deciding that “Hello, Beautiful” wasn’t beyond the line, she went to her folder of hidden messages. To her surprise, there were thirteen. The first eight were horrendous and undoubtedly crafted by the King of Creeps. A few more were just unimaginative. Because she had started the process, she would finish.
She clicked open the thirteenth.
To her surprise, she saw a thumbnail of an average-looking man staring back at her. He was smiling. In his message, a single link. Though Amy knew not to click it, she did. Expecting the worst, she found herself looking at an online journal from a man named Evan Croft. It sounded like a Hollywood name or internet troll. Amy didn’t mind the idea of being famous – just not for being the star player in a true-crime documentary on Lifetime.
As she began reading his latest entry, Amy leaned in to read more closely. Thirty posts later, and Amy was a bit embarrassed to find herself fascinated by his life. It wasn’t that he lived an adventurous life; he appreciated people and moments that clarified more significant moments.
Before she could talk herself out of it, Amy answered Evan’s original message: “Hi, Evan. Let’s talk.” She watched the message go through. Unread.
“Well, I’m not doing anything else, so…” Amy continued reading. She took time to make a light supper for herself but forged ahead. Divorced, two children, creative job, and interested in everything. There had to be a catch, and not just because he wrote her as a stranger.
At six, Amy jumped a little when her notification ping sounded. Evan read and replied to her message: “I would love to talk. Over webcam, text, call, or shall we meet in person, like two savages? I leave the decision at your feet.” Suddenly, Amy felt a pang of buyer’s remorse and uncertainty.
Swallowing her fear again, she wrote, “My phone number is: xxx-xxx-xxxx.”
Ten seconds later, her cellphone lit up.
Without regard to waiting for a reasonable interval, Amy scrambled and grabbed the phone, sliding the ‘answer’ option as quickly as her fingers could manage.
“Hey, this is Amy!” She blurted out, smiling through her voice.
“I hope so, Amy, unless you’re accustomed to strangers answering your cell!” Evan laughed deeply at his own joke.
“Duh, yes I am. I do my best work at random bus stations and park benches.” Amy found that she, too, was laughing.
An hour later, both Amy and Evan were still animatedly trading comments and barbs back and forth.
“I’ll call you later, Amy, if that’s okay?” Evan’s voice sounded uncertain.
“Yes, please do!” Amy told him, unable to conceal the enthusiasm.
“Okay, have a good evening,” he replied.
Amy hit ‘end’ on the call. She sat at her computer desk, looking at the phone.
She was startled when it lit up and began to vibrate. Excitedly, she answered the phone.
“Hello? This is Amy!” For once, she was glad to answer her phone.
“Hi, Amy. This is Evan. It’s later, so I decided to give you a call back.” Though he didn’t laugh, Amy heard the impending laugh waiting in the back of his throat.
“Dork!” she said. To her, “impending laugh” sounded like an ideal recipe for a new life.
“Guilty as charged.” He laughed.
Amy couldn’t remember why she had doubted she would find interesting people in the world. Maybe even in the spam folder.
Evan and Amy still laugh about their first conversation, being lucky thirteen in the spam folder, and their two years together.