Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year's Eve Kiss

 "I'd like to kiss you at midnight," a handsome man with incredible brown eyes said.  He peered at his watch. "Not a lot of time left. Half hour."
As I glanced up at him from my table in the Starlight Ballroom, a wide smile curved his lips. Ordinarily, I'd be alarmed at such a request coming from a stranger, no matter how handsome. But this was New Year's Eve. Party time—music and dancing, laughing and kissing.
But tonight my date had walked out on me. "Just spotted an incredible long-lost friend," my date had said, dropping a fifty-dollar bill on the table. "For drinks and cab fare. I don't think I'll be back."
And with that I was left sitting alone at a table, red-faced, humiliated, and angry. Maybe a midnight kiss from a stranger is what I needed—a boost to my damaged ego. But I didn't feel like staying at this party—a thirty-year-old woman by herself. And I certainly didn't feel like kissing a stranger.
"I don't think there's a kiss in our future," I said.
"May I sit down?" the man asked, his voice soft and warm. "Please? Looks like your drink needs freshening."
"You may sit," I said. "But I'm leaving." I brushed the fifty-dollar bill toward him. "If a waiter comes by, tell him that's his tip."
The handsome man pulled out the chair across from me where my date—Eddie—had sat five minutes ago. Easing himself into the chair, the stranger picked up my glass, studied it, then sniffed. His left eyebrow cocked. "It's not wine. Not champagne."
"Ginger ale with a twist of lemon," I said, and shoved my chair back, ready to stand. "I'm a teetotaler."
"I saw what happened."
I blinked. "What happened?"
"The man you were with—I saw both of you talking furiously. Arguing maybe. And then he got up and left."
My eyes dipped. Heat flooded my face. I lifted my gaze and studied his handsome face. Soulful eyes, dark-brown hair cut just a little long, square-jawed—a man like this shouldn't be running loose tonight. He must have a girlfriend or a wife here somewhere. "Do I look so alone and out of place," I asked, "that you're offering me a charity kiss?"
"Your boyfriend," he said calmly, "just left with my date. I watched them go out the door."
I froze. For a second, I couldn't hear the music in the background or the laughter and chatter. I lifted my chin and said, "He's not my boyfriend. I met him three weeks ago. Blind date. This is the second time we'd gone out."
The handsome man shrugged. "I'm sorry. Would you like to dance while I explain what I know?"
When he gently took me into his arms on the dance floor, my heart triple-timed; I forgot about being humiliated and embarrassed. At times the music was fast, sometimes bouncy. But we danced slowly. He said his name was Troy Hamilton. I told him mine—Jodi O'Donnell.
His date was a friend—Liza—who worked in his office; they sometimes escorted each other to parties and banquets so as not to feel awkward and alone. Turns out my date and his date knew each other from long ago in college. Later, they joined the Peace Corp together but became separated and eventually lost touch. Tonight they'd rediscovered each other in the ballroom. "I think they've been searching for one another for ages," Troy concluded.
"And they found each other tonight?"
"I know. Weird, huh? Life is sometimes stranger than fiction."
"Unbelievable."
I discovered Troy and I had more than our dates in common. Books. He was purchasing agent for our school system; I was a middle school reading specialist. I wanted to thank him profusely for not cutting library funds. But before I could say anything, the music stopped; someone started the traditional New Year's Eve countdown: "Ten, nine, eight..."
He looked down at me with those deep-brown eyes. Oh my gosh! Is he actually going to kiss me?
"...five, four, three..."
He drew me closer into his arms. His lips landed on mine, and my heart cartwheeled. "Happy New Year!" rang throughout the crowded ballroom. When we released each other, he said with a touch of shyness, "I hope I didn't offend you."
I swallowed. "New Year's Eve—everyone kisses somebody."
We ambled to our table and sat down. "Night's young," he said. "You still going to leave?" He offered another shy glance. "That wasn't a charity kiss. How about another ginger ale with a twist of lemon?"
For a moment, I didn't know what to say. His date, my date—his kiss—I couldn't believe any of it. I swallowed again. "I'd love a rum and Coke."
He smiled. "That's more like it."
I smiled back and handed him the fifty-dollar bill still on the table. "Let's really celebrate on Eddie and Liza."
The End
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Tree for Christmas



          I didn't know how I was going to get through the holiday season this year—I hadn't even looked for a tree.
My husband had died five years ago. I'd learned to deal with that, but my daughter, away at State University, suddenly seemed so independent she no longer needed me. Looking for a shoulder to cry on, I called my sister Celia a week before Christmas and told her my sob story: My daughter Ashley had called and said, if I didn't mind, she'd like to go home with a friend just until after Christmas Day.
Please, Mom! She'd spend all the rest of her holiday with me.A young man was involved. Someone "very special."
"Didn't you tell her," Celia wailed over the phone, "that she was leaving her forty-year-old mom high and dry?"
"I didn't want to ruin her plans—I remember being that age. Being in love."
"Tell you what," Celia said. "Why don't you help me this week?"
Celia spent a lot of time during the week before Christmas at the Children's Hospital, delivering little gifts she purchased during the year from a novelty store. She and her husband had lost their only child to leukemia. The boy had spent a long time in the hospital, and this was Celia's way of cheering up other youngsters who were ill. I told her I'd be delighted to help.
During that week, in the afternoon, Celia and I sported Santa hats—hers red, mine green—and delivered tons of little gifts that we each carried in a basket: Christmas pins—angels, Santas, reindeers, snowmen, snowballs. And candy canes tied with a red or green ribbon. Miniature cars, trucks, dolls, dogs, kittens.
Suddenly I felt my own spirits lifting because I was lifting someone else's.
On the third afternoon, just before getting ready to leave the hospital, I sat in the waiting room on the third floor waiting for Celia. She'd gone to the restroom.
While I browsed though a magazine, a tall man with sandy hair stepped into the waiting room. "Nice hat," he said, and smiled.
My heart did a little flip-flop, and my hand flew up to the green Santa hat I wore. I pulled it off. "I'm pretending to Mrs. Claus," I said. "Sort of..."
I felt myself blushing.
"I know. I saw you and your friend yesterday in the first-floor hallway, and today my son said you'd visited him. Room 2030."
I prayed the boy's illness wasn't serious. "His name...?"
"Danny. Danny Wilson," the man said. "He's ten. He has mono—pretty serious—but he's recovering. Though I don't know if he'll make it home for Christmas. It'll be a pretty lonely house without him."
"I know what you mean. My daughter is gone."
The man looked stricken. "I'm so sorry..."
"Off to college," I said quickly, waving a hand. "Not like you were thinking..."
Just then Celia appeared. She smiled at the tall man and they both said hello. I rose and told him I hoped his boy got better soon. As Celia and I left the hospital to get our cars in the parking lot, she told me she knew the man—Patrick Wilson. His family and he had once lived down the street from her. He was a widower. His wife, in her late thirties, had died during childbirth. "He's handsome," she added, pointedly. "Don't you think?"
I wanted to tell her I hadn't noticed. But I opted for the truth. "Very handsome."
I met Patrick again the next day, accidentally. We were both climbing out of our cars in the hospital parking lot, all bundled up because of the cold and snow.
"Where's your buddy?" he said, puffing out a frosty breath.
"Probably waiting for me in the lobby."
"We haven't been officially introduced—I'm Patrick Wilson."
"Ellen Thompson."
"It's a wonderful thing you're doing, Ellen, cheering these kids up during the holidays."
"Thanks. I'm having a lot of fun."
"Watch out!" He gripped my elbow, guiding me around a patch of ice hidden under the light snow that was falling. His touch sent my heart flip-flopping again.
"I'll find out today for sure if Tommy will be home for Christmas—I've got to get a tree tonight. I've been so busy—I manage a furniture store in the mall, and sales are booming."
"I don't have a tree either. Tying it onto the roof of the car, lugging it into the house, getting it balanced in a stand—my daughter always helped me with that."
"Your husband....?"
"I'm a widow. Five years now."
"I'm sorry."
"I'm getting along fine," I said.
Inside the hospital lobby, where I met Celia, Patrick and I parted. But before he stepped onto an elevator, he smiled and waved at both of us.
"I think he likes you," Celia said.
"Don't be silly." But I wondered if it could be true.
After Celia and I finished our rounds, emptying our baskets, we headed for the hospital doors. We both spotted Patrick sitting in a chair in the lobby as if he were waiting for someone.
"He's waiting for you," Celia whispered.
"He is not!" I hissed.
"Why do you think he's sitting there?" She tugged the empty basket from my grasp. "I'm going home. Talk to him." With that she gave me a nudge in the back.
When I approached Patrick, he stood up looking so uncertain I thought something might have happened to Tommy. But he said, "Tommy will be home for Christmas—and I wondered...well, I wondered if we could look for trees together."
I blinked. I was so surprised I couldn't talk for a second.
"I'll help with the lugging and all," he said. "Even the balancing."
I tried to breathe evenly but couldn't. "I'd love to look for a tree."
He smiled at me again. "Nice hat."
But this time I left the green Santa hat perched atop my head. The hat, it seemed to me, echoed the warm holiday spirit I felt bubbling inside myself.

The End
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Shave and a Haircut



When the lanky man strolled into my Hair Care Beauty Salon, my head swiveled, and the heads of my two other stylists and their clients popped up. "Oh my!" Mrs. Ellison, the elderly, gray-haired lady sitting at my station said. 
"Such a handsome young man."
"Just a second," I told her. I set my scissors and comb on the sink. I stepped up to the reception counter and said in my most customer-friendly voice, "May I help you?"
The lanky man tried to smile through his scruffy beard and mustache. "Umm...I found your salon listed on the Internet." He cleared his throat. "I'm checking...you participate in the Locks of Love program?"
"Yes, of course," I said. "We cut hair, bundle it properly, and send it on so it can be made into a wig for youngsters who have lost their hair. For whatever reason."
His deep brown eyes turned solemn. "My niece—my sister's little girl—may be in need. She's eight."
"Oh no! I'm so sorry."
"Just checking..." At this point, the lanky man flipped the longest ponytail I'd ever seen over his shoulder—beautiful, silky, chestnut-brown hair. "I may want to donate this."
I blinked. "It's certainly long enough. Not bleached. You realize it takes a number of ponytails to make a hairpiece. Your hair mostly likely won't be included in a wig for your niece."
"I understand that."
"You'd like to make an appointment?"
He gave the ponytail and long look. "Two weeks from now," he said. "I'll call to cancel if...if I don't need it cut."
My heart ached for him and his niece. With a deep sigh, I wrote his name into my appointment book—Jeremy Foxx—and we said good-bye.
During the next couple of weeks, I thought of Jeremy. So handsome. Such long hair. His poor niece. Of course I knew why he wanted to donate his hair: If his niece lost hers, he wanted to prove he'd be there for her in every way. I wondered if I'd see him again. I hoped so. But then I hoped not.
My pulse spiked when Jeremy stepped cautiously into my salon at the appointed time. "Shave and a haircut," he said simply.
Once he was seated, I pulled the elastic from his ponytail and braided his luxurious hair. "Ready?" I asked. He gave a nod, and I snipped his ponytail off with two quick strokes. I glanced at him in the big mirror in front of us. "You all right?"
He nodded again, his face expressionless.
"I'll give you a wash," I said. "Then cut your hair short on the sides, a little long on top? Is that all right?"
"Shave it all off," he said. "Beard and mustache, too."
I gulped. "You're sure?"
"Positive."
While I shaved his head, I tried to get him to relax. I told him my name. Patti Albright. I asked him questions about himself. He was an elementary school art teacher. During the summer he worked as a wood carver, sculpting animals—owls, bears, eagles—from tree stumps in people's yards. We were both single. Never married. Doctors feared his niece Lisa had a cancerous tumor on her brain.
When I finished, he stood, scowled at himself in the mirror, and rubbed the top of his head and his chin. "Smooth," he said with a rueful smile.
"You've done a wonderful thing," I said. I forgot to breathe when I added: "With or without hair, you're handsome."
He shrugged sheepishly.
"Call me," I said. "Keep me posted. Please."
He called to say Lisa would have to undergo surgery to remove the tumor. He called again to say that nearly all of Lisa's tumor had been removed but because of its location a bit remained. Doctors were optimistic that with chemo and radiation therapy they could destroy the rest; Lisa's prognosis was good.
I knew that chemo and radiation meant Lisa would definitely lose her hair, and I was delighted to have played a small part in having a wig made for her. My staff and I pooled our money and sent flowers to Lisa in the hospital.
I didn't expect to see Jeremy again. But a week after his last phone call, he appeared at my salon. While my staff and their customers smiled at us, he fished a cell phone from his pocket, clicked a button or two, and said, "Look at this picture."
A grinning Lisa, her head still bandaged, held a chestnut-brown wig in her hand. "She can't wait to wear it," Jeremy said. "And she's expected to recover fully."
"I'm so happy for her. And for you." I glanced at him. My heart danced. Dare I speak?  "Looks like you'll need a haircut soon."
"First how about dinner and a movie over the weekend. We'll discuss it."
I smiled. "A shave, too?"
He smiled back. "All right," he said. "Shave and a haircut. Just for you."

The End

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good Sports

           "Do you really like living alone in that little town of Grinnell?" Mom said. "Are you working too hard? Do you have enough fun?"
We were sitting on her deck just off the kitchen of her condo in St. Petersburg, Florida, drinking coffee in the cool morning sunshine, palm trees waving in the background.
"Mom, I have tons of friends in Grinnell, and you know I love my work..."I skipped the part about living alone.Being lonely.
I'd been raised in Grinnell. After dad died two years ago, unable to stand the harsh winters any longer, Mom moved to this retirement community where several of her friends had relocated after their husbands' deaths. This was my first visit.
"We're going to play golf later, Amy."
I frowned. "Mom, I don't play golf anymore."
"You'd be surprised at how many nice people you can meet on a golf course."
She meant how many nice men I could meet. Single men. I'd played golf in high school to please Mom and Dad, but sports simply weren't my thing. Music, art, drama—these were my passions. They made my heart go Bump! But Mom didn't seem to understand that. She and dad had been high school and college jocks.  Football for dad. Golf and volleyball for Mom.
My two weeks with Mom in the Florida sunshine was wonderful, but it ended too soon. The evening before my flight home, Mom's friend from Grinnell, who'd played golf with us, appeared on the porch waving a putter. I'd known her since I was a little girl. "Would you please take this putter back to my son, Amy? It's one of his dad's. A new design. Somehow it ended up in my golf bag when I moved."
 "Sure," I said. "What's his address?"
"I'll have him call you and arrange to pick it up."
The next day aboard the plane, a good-looking guy with curly black hair sat next to me. After the plane was airborne, he said, "You must've played a lot of golf—you have a really nice tan."
"I love the beach," I said. "Plus my mom dragged me around the golf course a lot."
"Do you play well?"
"Not at all."
He laughed. "Lots of women play better golf than men—I've known a few."
Now it was my turn to laugh. "Well, I wouldn't be one of them." We talked about our vacations. He'd been visiting a former college roommate from his football team. Then he told me he was a lawyer.  Single. I told him I was a high school art teacher. Single. I told him I especially loved visiting museums and art galleries. Our little museum back in Grinnell was one of the best in the state. He was a big pro football fan—the Patriots—and hadn't been to a museum since high school.
Oh, well, I thought, when we landed in Atlanta and he had to change flights, it's not like we were meant for each other. And my heart didn't go Bump! when I met him. No passion at all.
My second day home, Charlie Bennett called about his putter.
I told him where I lived and sat on my front porch swing, waiting for him, reading my mail, the putter beside me.
Charlie parked in front of the house and strolled up the walk. He was tall and brown-haired with glasses. Nice-looking. Wavy brown hair. My heart surprised me with a little Bump!
I stood and held the putter out for him. "Your mom thought you might want this."
"I don't play golf," he said, and took he putter from me.
His dark-brown eyes seemed to study me cautiously.
"You probably shoot in the low seventies? Right?"
"I played in high school. I wasn't any good. Never been into sports."
"Then why would your mom—?"
Before I could finish the question, the answer hit me. Charlie had already figured it out. Smiling, he said,  "Meddling moms."
"Oh wow! I can't believe how devious they are."
"Blame my mom," Charlie said. "Last year she sent one of her friend's daughter home from Florida with a tennis racquet for me."
"Really?" I said, laughing.
"I knew all along this was a set up.
I could've told you over the phone to toss the putter. But actually I wanted to meet you. I sort of remember you from when we were kids. Our moms used to take us to the park."
"I don't remember—"
He noticed the flyer for the Young American Sculptors exhibit lying on top of my opened mail on the swing. "I want to see that show," he said.
I'm sure I looked surprised. I felt my eyebrows rising. "Honest? I understand it's going to be a great exhibit. Pieces by some highly talented people."
He cleared his throat. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Would you like to go?"
"I—" My tongue seemed stuck to the roof of my mouth.
"Maybe have dinner first?" he said.
I managed to swallow. "I would," I said, sitting back down on the swing. A little bewildered, I made room for Charlie. "Sit—we need to talk about a few things..."
"Like our busybody moms...and why I like museums?"
"Exactly," I said.
Bump! Bump!


Monday, October 31, 2011

A Pumpkin Patch Match

     A hunk of a man with chestnut-brown hair, Calvin Johnson shouted, "Climb board, everyone. We're headed for the pumpkin patch!"
I watched as kids and parents cheered and then scrambled onto the three, horse-drawn hay wagons. "Might as well sit up front with me," Mr. Johnson said, and hoisted me up to the front end of his wagon. I flushed as he settled in next to me and grabbed the horse's reins.
Dressed in jeans, boots, brown-flannel shirt, and a billed cap, he smelled delightfully of spice and woods. And such a strong and handsome man he was. Whoa! I told myself. You're on a field trip with your fourth-grade students, now is not the time..."
"You don't remember me, do you, Ms. Lee?" He flicked the reins. "Get along, Betsy." The horse lifted its head and snorted; the wagon rumbled forward in the warm October afternoon sunshine.
As I looked at Mr. Johnson, his brown eyes locked on mine. "Umm...I'm not sure..." I said.
"My son Rob was in your fourth grade class. You and I met at open house. Later in the year, we met again. In the principal's office."
"Yes, yes...I do remember."
"Been awhile." Calvin flicked the reins again; Betsy picked up her pace. "Rob's mom died that year. The boy was acting out pretty bad. But he's doing fine now."
"I'm so glad."
"In college, a sophomore. Always thought you were the prettiest of Rob's lady teaches."
I flushed again. I didn't know how to respond to this outspoken man. "Thank you," I said, wishing I'd had the courage to say, And you're quite handsome, Mr. Johnson.
"How've you been?" he asked.
"Um...fine. Just fine."
No husband, no children, no ties—except to school. Never married. Sometimes lonely.  But I couldn’t tell him that. In fact, I felt no need to tell anyone. Really, I was doing fine. School and all its related activities—like rounding up parent chaperons and drivers and taking my fourth grade class to the Pumpkin Patch on a Saturday afternoon—kept me plenty busy.
Once the wagons halted, Calvin hopped down, grabbed my hand—this touch was electric—and helped me off. My face flushed again. Get a grip, Rosie!
Calvin said, "Got to cut the pumpkins off the vine for the kids." Then he smiled the warmest, brown-eyed smile I'd ever seen. "See you back at the wagon in awhile."
My best friend Kathy Berg, whose son was in my class, sidled up to me, grinning. "He likes you, Rosie. He threw you onto the hay wagon to make sure you didn't get away.  He's smitten. Go for it, girlfriend."
"Don't be silly. I'm not interested."
"You going to bury yourself with school work the rest of your life?"
When we were all loaded on the wagons and headed back to the farmhouse, kids lovingly cradled their pumpkins in their laps and laughed with delight. I sat next to Mr. Johnson—he'd hoisted me onto the wagon again—but this time I think he'd edged closer to me: His warmth seeped through my jeans and hoodie, and my heart rate spiked.
I said, "It's so nice of you, Mr. Johnson, to give away pumpkins."
"Cal," he said. "Call me Cal. Halloween's been my favorite holiday since I was a kid. Just like to do it—give pumpkins away and hear the kids laugh. It's why I plant them. Is it okay to call you Rose?"
There was that point-blank bluntness again and that same warm, brown-eyed smile. I smiled back. "Rosie. My friends call me Rosie."
"How'd you hear about the Pumpkin Patch, Rosie?"
"Saw your poster on the bulletin board at school."
"First time I've done that, made a poster and put it in school. Having a good time?"
"Marvelous. I like to hear kids laugh, too. Most of them have never been on a farm."
"Five hundred acres of the best land in the county. Got a boyfriend?"
I blinked. More bluntness. Before I could decide if I wanted to answer or not, someone from the back of the wagon screamed, "OH NO!" Cal called, "Whoa, Betsy!" and the wagon crunched to a stop. Cal and I leaped to the ground and found that a little girl had dropped her pumpkin. It lay splattered in the dirt. Cal promised to take the tearful girl to fetch another one as soon as he dropped everyone else off at the farmhouse.
Back on the wagon again—another hoist from Cal into my seat—we looked at each other and our eyes locked for a second time. I gulped and decided to offer my own bit of bluntness: "No boyfriend, Cal."
He grinned.  "What I wanted to hear. Neighbor's got a haunted house down the road a piece. Pick you up at eight tonight?"
While my heart hammered and while I decided Halloween was fast becoming my favorite holiday, too, I said, "Eight would be just fine."

The End
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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Soccer Mom, Soccer Dad


When Sara's ten-year-old son, at the last second, kicked the soccer ball past the diving goalie into the net, she screamed, "Tom! We won! I can't believe it! Mike scored!"
I threw my fists above my head in triumph, my face glowing.
The Tornadoes had won 1-0 in the semi-finals of the city's spring tournament. Sara's ten-year-old son, Mike, scored on a perfect pass from my ten-year-old son, Rob.
That was excitement enough, but what happened next nearly sidelined me. Instead of a the usual exchange of a high-five, Sara hugged me and...well, I hugged her back. Nothing inappropriate. Just a brief but firm hug, arms wrapped around each other, squeezing, a hug that left me with the definite impression of feminine curves and a sweet floral scent in my nostrils that I had forgotten existed.
"What a beautiful pass from Rob," Sara declared, as we released each other, her face flushed from the excitement of victory.
I felt flushed, too. From the game. And the hug.
Our team ran off the field toward us, a herd of sweaty boys giggly over their victory and at the prospect of playing for the championship on this sunny October afternoon.
Parents, siblings, team members—we slapped high-fives all around.  Then Rob said, "Dad, weren't we supposed to bring pop for this game."
Man, in all the excitement, I'd forgotten. "It's iced in a cooler in the Suburban. I'll get it."
"I'll help," Sara said.
We tramped along to my SUV in the parking lot.
I'd met Sara this spring when I took Rob to his first soccer practice. I'd played football in high school. Sara had played soccer all through school, including college. Last spring, as we sat on the sidelines, watching weekly practices and games, she explained the sport's finer points to me. "You should be a coach," I told her.
"No ten-year-old boy wants his mom for a coach."
With that I agreed.
Sara sold real estate, and I was a self-employed electrician. Eventually I learned she was a widow. Her husband had died at age thirty-five of a heart attack, two years ago. I told Sara that was somewhat of a coincidence because my wife two years ago, at age thirty-five, decided she could no longer keep the commitment it took to be a wife and mother. She deserted Rob and me. I nearly died of a heart attack myself.
In the parking lot now, I opened the cargo doors to my Suburban, reached in and grabbed a handle on the sixty-quart Coleman cooler.
"Let me get the other handle," Sara said.
"You sure? It's heavy."
She smiled. "Tom, that's why I'm helping."
I really liked Sara. Dark-haired, blue-eyed, she possessed an engaging liveliness and spontaneity that intrigued me. I'd always been a deliberate kind of guy, trying to look at a situation from all angles, before acting.
I realized I should have asked Sara for a date last fall, but the fear of rejection and the memory of my ex-wife, Gloria, walking out on Rob and me, still nagged me. I suppose you could say I was a bit fearful of women. So the fall soccer season ended without my making a move. I didn't see Sara again until this spring when we resumed our friendship. A soccer mom. A soccer dad.
"I can't believe how fast these kids have progressed," Sara said now, as we lugged the cooler across the soccer complex to where our team sat in a big circle in the grass, their coach standing in the center—waving his arms frantically, congratulating them.
"I know," I said. "Cellar-dwellers in the spring. Third place in the league this fall, and now they have a shot at the city-tournament title. Unbelievable. They're so pumped, I know they'll win."
"I hope."
Sara and I plunked the cooler down in the grass. I flipped the lid open. Coach gave a nod and the kids rushed toward their reward. Ice-cold pop. Later, the coach wanted the team to rest under shade trees until the title game.
Sara and I drifted off toward the concession stand.
Near the stand, I said, "Hot dog, fries, and a drink before the next game?"
"Sounds good. My treat."
"Mine," I said.
She draped an arm around shoulder and pointed me toward the picnic tables in the shade under the pavilion. "Mine. Please? You can buy next time."
I shrugged. "All right." So I sat at a table and watched her as she waited in line. She was dressed in a Dad's Club yellow soccer T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, just like me. Except she was shapely, and her long black hair fell far down her back. I couldn't take my eyes off her.
When she arrived with our food and sat across from me at the picnic table, I asked, "How long have we known each other?"
"Twelve weeks exactly. Six weeks this spring. Six weeks last fall. Two soccer seasons. I'm glad you returned this spring—I know soccer's not your game."
"Never understood a game where you chase a ball around but you can't pick it up and run with it—you only kick it or bounce it off your head." Then my heart started to hammer because my next thought slipped out off my mouth without my thinking about it first—not my usual style: "How's your life going?"
Sara took a bite of hot dog. Chewed slowly. Looked at me curiously. "Fine," she said. "Mike's adjusted to life without a dad. The real estate market is picking up a bit. How's your life?"
"So-so. Rob's adjusted to life without a mom. I have lots of work..."
"Just so-so?"
I nodded.
"Are you asking me for a date?"
I blinked. I knew my face was turning red. I rocked back a little. Then smiled. That was Sara—straight to the point. I cleared my throat. "I am."
"I wondered if you'd let another season go by."
I felt sheepish. "I've been chasing away a few demons."
"I understand."
Exhaling, I said, "Um...look...the team's going to Chucky Cheese's after the game for pizza—how's that for a first date? I promise I'll do better next time."
Sara's smile was warm. Soft. She reached across the picnic table and gripped my hands. "Perfect."
While eating we laughed and joked. We dumped our trash. As we ambled toward the soccer field, our shoulders bumping, I decided soccer wasn't such a bad game after all. I knew that whether the boys won or lost their championship game, the next hug was mine to give Sara. A very, very big hug, indeed.
The End
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Friday, September 30, 2011

Everyone Loves a Cat

"Thank you, thank you so much," my best friend Sara said, giving me a relieved grin.
"No problem," I answered. We worked together in the same insurance office. She and her husband Ned were taking off for a week's Caribbean cruise, and I had agreed to stop by her house daily to water her plants and tend her cat, Alice—a beautiful, lovable calico, she said.
                                                              
But there was a problem: as cute and cuddly as cats can be, I was afraid of them. Not that I'd had any bad experiences with cats—I'd never been close to one. It was my mom who had transferred her anxieties about cats to me. A neighbor's cat had bitten her when she was seven, and she'd had to go through a series of painful rabies shots.
But I couldn't tell Sara I had some stupid phobia about cats simply because my mom had been bitten by one. I couldn't let Sara and her husband down; they'd been planning this trip forever. "Glad to help," I said. Besides, if Alice and I could cozy-up, maybe I could shake this unreasonable fear.
Monday after work, biting my bottom lip hard, I stopped at Sara's house. When I unlocked the door and stepped inside, Alice sat on the carpet six feet away from me. I froze. A beautiful, cuddly calico cat, indeed. White. Orange. Black. Her head tilted, Alice probably wondered, Who's this stranger? The cat swished her tail. I backed up. She stood and arched her back—and then bolted through the open door into the late afternoon sunshine.
By the time I kicked off my heels and cleared the front porch, a dog's barking sounded from the backyard. Oh no! As I rounded the back of the house, the next sight nearly grounded me: A black Labrador retriever stood quivering at the base of a willow tree. It's square head raised, the dog barked frantically at Alice, who crouched in the tree crotch eight feet up.
I stood with my hands jammed into my hips, wanting to die. What have you done now, Jesse?
"My fault," a male voice said behind me.
I whipped around and stared at a totally handsome man who appeared to be about my age—late twenties—with very sheepish blue eyes. My heart quivered. "Your dog?" I asked.
Nodding, he snapped a leash onto the barking dog's collar. "I'll be right back," he said. "Without Blackie."
The man and the dog disappeared into the house next to Sara's. Then the man reappeared lugging a ladder. While he positioned the ladder under the tree to climb up and rescue Alice, I explained who I was and what had happened. He said he was Jimmy Stevens, Sara's new neighbor. He'd just moved in. He hadn't seen much of Ned or Sara; they appeared to be a very busy couple. Jimmy was a lineman for the city; he'd climbed lots of trees and telephone poles to rescue cats. When he got to the top of the ladder, he sweet-talked Alice in tones so soft and low that I imagined they'd melt any female's heart, feline or otherwise. As he started coming down the ladder, Alice cradled in one arm, he called to me, "Here, take her."
That's when I broke into a sweat and started trembling. Really, in my entire life I'd ever touched a cat. I remembered my mom cringing and turning white if a cat even strayed close to her.
I swallowed and backed away from the ladder.
It's time to shake this unreasonable fear, Jessie.
By this time, Jimmy had reached the ground. "Take her," he said again. "I'll grab the ladder." When he saw me hesitating, he smiled. "She won't bite. She's happy to be rescued. Listen, she's purring."
I gulped. I was shaking. My arms inched out. Jimmy eased Alice into them, and immediately the cat snuggled close to me. I was amazed and almost tearful. I was holding—and now petting—a cat, who was, indeed, purring. Wait till I tell my mom!  But I was still shaking.
"You all right?" Jimmy asked.
"Fine. Just happy. And amazed."
"You seem a little shaky."
"I'll be okay."
Jimmy folded the ladder. "Look," he said, "after you finish next door, why don't you stop by my place? I'll show you around. Bring Alice. She can properly meet my dog Blackie—they'll be neighbors. They'll get along, I'm sure."
Something warm stirred inside me. I glanced at Jimmy's ringless left had at the same time he glanced at mine. "All right," I said. "I'd like that."
That night Sara called to see how I was getting along. Breathlessly, I told her the entire story—phobia, cat, dog, tree. And Jimmy. Sara apologized over and over saying Alice must've recognized me as a stranger, and that's why she bolted outdoors as soon as the door in the house opened.
"I'm glad she ran," I said happily. "Really glad. Jimmy and I have an awesome date planned for tomorrow night. And this weekend we're stopping—would you believe it?—at the Animal Shelter. So I can adopt a kitten."

The End
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

No Longer Strangers


I caught myself smiling at him again—a handsome, dark-haired, thirty-something stranger.
For three days we'd been crossing paths at Cedarwild Resort, exchanging shy smiles.
I sensed we were long ago friends who couldn't quite make a connection. 
Now I discovered he was sitting five tables away from me in the resort cafeteria, by himself. Who is he?
Pushing my chair back from the table, I plucked my floppy straw hat from my head, stood up, and strode toward him.
"Hi," he said, and smiled when I stopped at his table.
"Hi." I peeled off my sunglasses and stuck them into my hair.
He looked startled, his eyebrows bunching together.
I said, "I hope you don't think I've been following you..."
"We seem to keep running into each other, don't we?" he said, and stood quickly.
"I get this funny feeling—"
"That we know each other?" he asked, and pointed toward the chair. "Won't you sit down?"
"You were in the Cedarwild lobby," I said, "when I checked in Friday afternoon."
He cleared his throat. "Please sit down."
He pulled out the chair, and I sat. As he eased into a chair across from me, a slow, warm smile crept over his face. "I figured it out just now—this very second—it's the first time I've seen you without your straw hat and sunglasses. You broke my heart summer after summer, and you didn't even know it."
My head tilted. "I haven't a clue—"
"I'm David Prescott—you're Cathy. Cathy Connors."
My memory kicked in. David Prescott from Iowa!
I laughed and shook my head, hardly able to believe it was him. When we were kids, four or five families from different states vacationed every fall at Cedarwild in northern Wisconsin, enjoying two weeks loaded with fun before school started.
"I had a major crush on you every summer," he said. "I should've recognized you right away. All that copper-colored hair."
I felt heat rising in my cheeks.
"I'm telling the truth," he said. "I was in love with you. You stole my heart. But you were in love with Michael Lancaster. An older man."
I laughed. "Two years older. What a hero I thought he was. That was sooo long ago. What are you doing here now?"
"Spending time with Mom and Dad. They don't drive anymore, but they wanted to come back, reminisce a bit, and fish. They met a couple of cronies. They're playing cards tonight. And you? What are you doing here?"
"I'm with three girlfriends. We thought it would be nice to spend a week at Cedarwild. Something different. But my friends have marched off to the Indian casino to gamble. They promised to be back at five for dinner—if they didn't hit the jackpot." I glanced at my watch. "Nearly five now."
"You didn't go?"
"Not at all interested in gambling my money away."
He asked if I'd like to have dinner with him. This little gamble I decided to take—I agreed. We swapped stories while we ate. He was a forest ranger in Iowa. I ran a day-care center in Illinois. Neither one of us was married. We lived across the Mississippi River from each other, only thirty minutes apart. I found him easy-going and attractive. When we finished eating, he said, "Looks like your buddies are no-shows. Can I interest you in joining me down by the water to watch the sunset?"
I hesitated. "My friends—"
"Are probably spending their winnings."
I smiled and decided to gamble again. "You're right. Besides, it's been years since I've watched a sunset."
At the edge of a small quiet cove, I sat next to David on a dock, our feet dangling over the water. The sun slipped behind the pine trees and disappeared. In just minutes the sky turned orange, then crimson.
"Beautiful," David said. "That's one thing I learned coming here all those years as a kid—an appreciation for the beauty in nature."
We talked again. Then sat in silence for a while, except for a chorus of crickets and frogs, and a loon's haunting call. Gradually music from the Cedarwild Lounge drifted on the pine-scented air.
"The moon!" David announced. And there it was—a pale silver balloon, perfectly round, climbing higher in the sky. "Funny us meeting like this," he said, "strangers who knew each other in a different life. I never dreamed I'd see you again."
 The warm glow that swept through me didn't surprise me. "Life often hits us with little surprises," I said. "Some of them very nice."
"Hear the music? Would you like to go up to the lounge and dance?"
"I'd love to."
Rising, he took my elbow to help me up. I raised my head and gazed at his handsome face. His smile was warm and genuine. And then our hands, as if David and I were no longer strangers, grasped each other, and we ambled away in the moonlight.
The End
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