Puppy Love

The top of the cardboard box flapped incessantly as if it were trying to fly away. A furtive scratching sound emanated from within the box, which stood about a foot high without its top open. Finally, the scratching ceased and a tiny puppy put his paws on one side of the box and listened for any approaching sounds. He sniffed the air and turned his head wagging his tail as he did so. A tinny whine escaped him. He couldn’t see above the top of the box, but he knew someone was there.

Across the room, a young boy peered around the corner. He scanned the living room, brightly lit in the morning sun, and spotted the box instantly. He heard the whining and he knew what was inside the box. A smile broadened across his face, and he ran the short distance to the box sliding on his knees as he embraced it. The puppy shifted and fell onto its haunches as the boy hugged the box and looked inside.

The puppy stared up at the young boy and yapped his approval as the boy gathered him in his arms and hugged him close. The puppy sniffed and then eagerly licked the young boy’s face resulting in a contagious giggling that continued for minutes. With each giggle the puppy licked more aggressively until the boy was on his back rolling around with the puppy on top of him.

At once the boy sat up with the puppy engulfed in his arms. He took a long look at the little creature, which was all white save for some brown and black splotches around his eyes. He had a fat little belly covered in short hair that still had the pink softness of a newborn pup. The boy kissed the puppy’s head and squealed in excitement. He had the first dog that was just his, not one that he shared with his dad. He couldn’t have been more excited, and the fact that the little dog was just his size made it even more special.

The boy jumped up with the little puppy still in his arms. His blazing copper hair sparkled in the sunlight as he darted out of the room to find his mother. She busied herself in the kitchen making breakfast, and she smiled as her son held the puppy in front of her exclaiming his delight.

Yes, the puppy is yours. No, the puppy cannot sleep in your bed. You have to take care of it. No, the puppy cannot have your breakfast. Please don’t put the puppy on the table.

The puppy wagged its tiny tail as it watched mother and son. Discouraged that the boy had been distracted by his mother, the puppy yapped garnering the boy’s attention once again. The boy nuzzled the dog and hugged it closer. He ran back into the living room with the puppy in his arms and put it on the floor. They played together while his mother finished cooking breakfast. The laughs and barks made the woman smile as she set the table.

Breakfast was ready, so his mother called him away. The boy reluctantly put the puppy in the box, and it immediately raised up on the edge of the box searching for the boy with the flaming red hair. It whined when he walked out of its sight drawing the boy’s attention to the box in the living room as he hurriedly ate his eggs and toast.

Toast crumbs covered his shirt when he stood up from the table and scattered on the floor as he ran back to his puppy. He tilted the box over, and the puppy bounced out of the box onto him licking his shirt clean. The boy giggled, and the course of the day was set. They were inseparable – a boy and his dog.

A Moment in Time

A slight, spring breeze ruffled the thin curtains that covered the high, rectangular window in the bedroom. The faint light of the early morning squinted in the darkness revealing a sleeping, young boy who lay half-covered in his small bed. The chill nudged him awake and he reached for the edge of his blanket, pulling it up to his neck without opening his eyes. He rolled over onto his left side and then onto his stomach. He tasted the stale fabric of his pillow, smacked his dry mouth, and slowly opened his heavy eyelids.

Half awake, he peered at the dark, paneled wall next to his bed as his eyes adjusted to the faint light. He kicked his feet beneath the blanket and took a deep breath. From the down the hallway outside his bedroom, he heard music playing, faint and indecipherable. The succulent smell of bacon cooking wafted into his room along with the other smells of morning. His mother must be up, he thought, as he swung his tiny legs over the side of the bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

For a brief moment, he sat on the edge of his bed donned in his summer pajamas – a thin shirt and a pair of loose-fitting shorts. He rubbed his face and ran his tiny, pale fingers through the twisted, curly mass of copper hair that shot like flames from his head. He slid off the bed and dug his toes into the golden shag carpet that covered his bedroom floor and most of the tiny trailer in which he lived. The carpet tickled his feet, but he liked the way it felt when he rubbed his feet on it. Sometimes, he’d scrape his feet along the carpet and shock himself when he touched the door knob on his bedroom door.

He shuffle-stepped to his door and peered down the long, dark hallway momentarily frightened by the darkness. The door to his parents’ bedroom stood ajar, but darkness swallowed that room, too, He instinctively knew his parents were up. He could smell his mom’s cooking and hear the faint sounds of parents carefully enjoying the solitude of a sleeping child – hushed words, soft steps across the floor, and restrained laughter.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the dark hallway and hurried toward the light at the end. Visions of monsters and other creatures of the darkness quickened his step, but he stopped short just inside the kitchen to take in the happenings on this morning. His mom stood at the stove, her back turned to him, stirring a pan of succulent gravy and scrambling a batch of eggs. Bacon sizzled on the griddle, and biscuits rose in the stove. The boy inhaled the smells of homemade breakfast and his mouth watered. He sighed contentedly and his mother turned toward the noise.

Seeing her only child standing there, she smiled broadly and closed the gap between them enveloping him in a hug. Her soft robe bunched and encased the young boy’s head as she pulled him into her. His vision went white for a moment and all he could breathe was the floral detergent scent from her robe. She gave him one last squeeze and kissed the top of his head. The boy caught his breath and then smiled basking in the warmth of her love before he wandered into the living room to find his dad.

His dad hunched over a console record player that stood along one wall of the living room. He didn’t notice his son at first as he fussed with the turntable in the belly of the console. He adjusted the record and carefully placed the needle on it before he stepped back to see if the song he wanted would play. He stared wistfully at the record as it turned, so focused that he didn’t see the little boy watching him.

Gauzy, sheer curtains hung over the window above the console filtering the early morning sunlight as it struck the man, brightening his young face. The little boy thought his dad glowed, but he failed to notice the slight stoop of a long night’s work. His dad simply wanted to relax a little after the night shift before he wandered down the hall for some sleep only to repeat the routine yet again the next night.

The music started to play and its sweet melody filled the living room. The dad stepped back a little and rubbed his hand through his thick, wavy hair. He wore a white t-shirt that bustled at the chest and arms, a powerful countenance that spoke of the work he did with his hands every night. His dark, blue jeans hung from his thin waist and splayed out above bare feet that dug into the golden shag carpet. Like his son, he enjoyed the feel of the carpet on his toes.

The man turned and saw his young son now, staring at him adoringly. He smiled and waved for him to join him. The little boy ran to his father and hugged his leg, and the man patted his head before he picked him up into his arms. He kissed the boy’s cheek, and the boy giggled at the tickle of the man’s mustache. They sat on the couch together to listen to the song that played.

The song started out slow and gradually rose until it reached the chorus. As the chorus played, the man sang along with his son leaning into him. The little boy felt the warmth of his dad next to him and inhaled the smells of a good night’s work – sweat, aftershave, and cigarette smoke – a sweet mix that he would forever associate with his father. He loved it when his dad sang along to the songs he played. Even at such a young age, he knew people sang when they were happy, and he loved it when his dad was happy.

His dad put his arm around him and hugged him a little closer, and the little boy lay his head on his dad’s broad chest. He could hear him breathing, and when the chorus came around again and his dad sang, the little boy listened to the echo of his dad’s voice in his chest. He loved the way it sounded. It made him feel close to his dad. At that very moment, he understood how much he loved him, and it made him happy. He didn’t want that moment to end. He wanted to sit there with his dad all day while he played his beloved records repeatedly, but such moments weren’t meant to last.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 10

I woke up in the bed that I had shared with Barbara for so many years. My head felt heavy, cloudy, and a wave of disappointment fluttered over me when I looked at the empty space beside me. The pillow sat unmolested, still round and puffy as if it had never once been used. I sat up and looked around the room rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

The blinds bowed under the intensity of the sun outside. The muted light seemed filtered and eerily fragile. Spots danced in my field of vision blocking a clear view of the room. Darkness hunched in the corners and I could barely discern if they were empty or if something lurked there. A chill ran down my spine as if I just realized someone or something watched me as I sat there on the side of my bed.,

“Hello,” I called out, my voice raspy and barely audible. My throat hurt and my mind spun in circles. I wanted to lay back down. No answer came to me. I sat there for moments longer, waiting.

I finally willed myself to stand up on my shaky legs. I wobbled like a strong wind had taken hold in my room, but I managed to stumble to the window. I braced myself on the window frame, stuck my thick fingers in between the blinds, and peered through the gap to the outside. A beautiful morning warmed my spirits, but the scene felt like one of those faded, old photographs that Barbara and I had in our photo albums we kept on the shelf in the living room. Something odd lurked beyond my window, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I shook my head and looked outside again hoping that my imagination had gotten the best of me. Nothing changed. The sunlight sparkled in an unnatural way. It reminded me of when I used to run among the bed sheets hanging on the clothesline as a kid – I could only see the world through the thin, white sheets.

Agitated, I turned away from the window and left the room. All of the blinds in the house were closed tightly keeping the light at bay. I could smell the hot vinyl of the blinds even though it didn’t feel that warm outside. My sense of smell surged like I had suddenly become more aware of the odors around me. The air I breathed felt cool and soft. I reached for my nose to touch the cannulas, but they were gone. I didn’t remember having them removed.

My gait felt unfettered, light, but I paid no heed to the strangeness of it all. I had some subconscious goal in mind; I just didn’t know what. When I walked into my living room, the door to the patio stood ajar. At first, concern flooded my mind. I swiveled around to see if someone else had come into the house.

“Carla? Rudy?” I said to the room.

I repeated myself, but no one answered. My heart raced in my chest. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could feel a presence. The sensation startled me. My breathing increased. An old man like myself couldn’t defend himself much against an intruder.

I stepped toward the door and peered out onto my patio. The old bench that Barbara and I often sat on in the mornings and evenings when she was around stood empty at the back of the patio. The sight of the bench calmed me down, and I decided to take a seat there. I needed to be some place close to Barbara. Nothing would make me feel better.

Once I sat down, I did feel better. Birds chirped in the bushes. A bee whizzed by making the rounds among the roses in my backyard. The grass seemed greener than I remembered, but maybe the odd, sparkling light made it appear that way.

I glanced up at the power line that swung between the poles at the back of my house. The clean black line sat empty barely swaying in the breeze. I exhaled and relaxed. I only momentarily looked at the patio door, still ajar, to see if anyone had decided to join me. I no longer felt fearful. I felt happy, content.

I heard an excited chirping and turned to find the bird that sang so forcefully. A lone cardinal sat on the wire now, looking and chirping at me. I smiled. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. The bird continued to sing, and I closed my eyes concentrating on his melodic song. The sun bathed my face in warmth, and the sweet smell of the roses swirled around me like the intoxicating perfume that Barbara often wore.

I opened my eyes ever so slightly and peered at the cardinal. It had been joined by another cardinal and they sang together side-by-side. I laughed to myself. My laughter belied pangs of loneliness. I missed Barbara.

“Jim, I knew I’d find you out here,” a voice interrupted me.

Startled, I turned quickly toward the patio door and saw Barbara standing there smiling at me and looking many years younger than she did the last time I had seen her. “Barbara…,” I said. I sat there with my mouth agape unable to form more words or get up from the bench.

She walked over to me and sat down beside me. She took my hand in hers. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”

I stammered as if I had seen a ghost, “I…missed…you, too.”

Her gaze moved to the cardinals sitting above us. She smiled and looked back at me. “I see the birds are back.”

I shook my head and gripped her hand harder. Her hand felt solid, real. I put my other hand to her face and rubbed her soft cheek. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been here the whole time. I’ve always been with you.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t really leave you.”

Confused, I stopped talking. My hand dropped to her shoulder, and I leaned in to kiss her. Her warm lips felt familiar and inviting. This couldn’t be a dream. Maybe I had dreamed that she was gone.

“We should call the kids. They’re worried. They think you’re gone. I need to tell them it was all a misunderstanding.”

She shook her head and pulled my hand to her heart. “Jim, the kids will be okay. They know we’re together now.”

“How?”

“They know. Just sit back and enjoy the moment.” She dropped my hand to her side but still held it firmly in her grasp.

“Carla will be upset.”

“She’ll be fine eventually.”

“How do you know?”

She laughed and smiled at me. “Mothers always know.”

I didn’t understand it at all, but I didn’t want to question it. Barbara was back. I squeezed her hand and sat back against the bench. She scooted close to me and I felt the warmth of her thigh against mine. So many beautiful memories with Barbara flooded my mind rollicking in succession like a movie reel. We sat in silence watching and listening to the cardinals sing. Somehow I knew she would never leave me again.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 7

“Promise me you’ll take care of the kids,” Barbara pleaded. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. Her grip surprised me. Barbara had always been a small woman with tiny hands, but she had this fierce demeanor about her that made people notice her. Rudy had found out the hard way when he was in high school and had been caught drinking at school. He says he’ll never forget the look in his mom’s eyes nor the way she screamed at him when she brought him home after he was suspended. I’ll never forget that incident either. Barbara wouldn’t let me.

“Of course,” I said. I felt confused as if I didn’t understand what I had passed between us. Barbara sat in her chair next to mine in the living room. Both chairs faced the TV, but the TV was turned off and I could see our reflections in the darkened screen. Barbara’s seemed to fade in and out in a haunting way, which startled me. I turned to look at her.

“Let’s talk about something else,” I suggested.

Barbara looked at me in the way she’d look at a lost puppy. She sighed slightly under her breath just as she did when the kids tested her patience. “We have to be realistic, Jim.”

I shook my head as if I could make it all go away. Barbara disappeared for a moment. I rubbed my eyes and she reappeared. I took a deep breath in relief. “I’m never going to give up. You know that. I can’t.”

“I know that, dear, but some things are inevitable.”

“Not now. It’s too early.”

“We don’t get to choose, dear.”

“I choose to believe.”

She smiled and looked at me with her glistening eyes, and for a moment, I was transported to a time long ago when I sat in the diner eating my eggs and she smiled at me in much the same way. In that instant, she glowed in the beauty of youth. It took my breath away.

I reached out to grab her hand. I wanted to pull her in to me and kiss her in the way I had back then. The passion surged within my chest and throbbed like the most wonderful pain I had ever experienced. I floated on the clouds with the wind in my face. I felt the warmth of the sun. I was as light as a beautiful spring day.

I heard a bump and it startled me awake. Barbara was gone, as ephemeral as a shooting star. I struggled to determine if my moment with her was real or a dream.

“Did I wake you?” the nurse asked.

I looked up from my bed and saw her sitting in the chair near the foot board. Her piercings glistened in the sunlight that seeped into the room. Her dark tattoos seemed ominous like a visible cancer that encroached on her arm. Seeing her disappointed me. I had gone nowhere. Barbara hadn’t returned. Nothing had changed.

“Yes, you did,” I said spitefully. I wanted her to feel my disdain for her. She wasn’t Barbara and she’d never take her place. I’d rather be alone than have her in my house, but my kids insisted that she stay with me. I hadn’t taken care of them like I had promised, and now, they were punishing me for not honoring their mother’s wishes.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dunn. Maybe you can go back to sleep.”

“I don’t want to go back to sleep.”

“Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”

I thought for a moment. I wanted her out of my room. “Yes.”

She smiled and stood up. “The usual?”

“Yes.”

I watched her leave the room to make my scrambled eggs and toast. She didn’t make it like Barbara did, but Barbara wasn’t here to show her how I liked it.

I wanted to get up out of bed, but the weight on my chest pushed down upon me. I tried to sit up but could only flail a moment before I gave up. A ray of sunlight crept across my room toward me. I thought of calling the nurse back into my room to adjust the blinds, but my hunger exceeded my discomfort from the bright light that shined in my face.

I dozed, and only the clanking of the plate and glass of juice forced me awake. The nurse bent over before me with my breakfast on a tray. She moved so slowly that I feared I was dreaming again. Only when she started adjusting my pillows and helping me sit up did I realize she was truly there and it was time to eat.

She pushed the tray toward me. “Do you want me to help you?”

I shook my head side to side. Her question annoyed me. I put the over-dry scrambled eggs to my mouth and chewed them. I clutched the damp toast in one hand and nibbled it as I ate the eggs. Barbara’s were way better.

I heard a door bang shut in the living room and briefly looked toward my bedroom door. The nurse stood up and left the room without a word, and I finished my breakfast. I drank my juice and dribbled a little on the bed sheets, but I stamped out the stain with my hand. I pushed the tray down to my knees. I felt too weak to put it to the side. I started to call the nurse when Carla entered the room with the nurse trailing behind her.

“Good morning, daddy,” she sounded grim despite the greeting.

“Good morning.”

“How are you feeling?”

I hated the question. It had been asked of me so much lately that I had begun to feel it was a trick question. I gave my stock, defensive response, “Okay.”

She sat beside me on the bed, while the nurse grabbed the tray and left the room. She put her tiny hand on mine and squeezed it, which reminded me of the dream I had just had. She kept talking to me despite my slow and muddled responses. I loved hearing her voice. It reminded me so much of Barbara’s that it almost lulled me to sleep.

Out of nowhere she said, “I’d like you to move in with us.”

My eyes opened wide and I looked at her in shock or something resembling fear. I said nothing at first.

“What do you think?” she asked after a few more moments of silence.

“Your mother will be worried if she comes home and I’m gone.”

Carla caught her breath and squeezed my hand again. “Daddy…”

She turned away, and somehow I knew I had no choice in the matter, and in that moment, I think I realized that Barbara was never coming home again.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 6

I sat in my chair staring out the window in my living room. The day had turned cloudy and dreary threatening rain at the slightest provocation. Only a few hours earlier, it had been clear and sunny as I watched the sun rise from my kitchen table. I felt like a prisoner in my own home only able to see the world outside but not experience it as all people were meant to do.

The woman my kids hired to look after me sat across from me reading her damn book and ignoring me. I turned my attention to her and cleared my throat. It had been weeks since my brief stay in the hospital, but I remained confined to the walker that stood beside my chair openly mocking my condition. The nurse, if that’s what she really was, forced me to use the damn thing day after day. I couldn’t sit in peace at all without her trying to encourage me to get up and walk around. When she wasn’t torturing me, she sat quietly reading her book like I wasn’t there.

I didn’t like her. I knew she was in cahoots with Carla and Rudy because she refused to tell me where Barbara was. She pretended that she didn’t know who Barbara was and seemed agitated every time I asked her about my wife. I also didn’t like the way she looked. She had a studded nose ring and multiple earrings on each ear. She also had a tattoo that covered most of her left arm. Barbara would have never let such a woman in our house.

“I’m thirsty,” I said. My voice was still hoarse and feeble. Most people had to lean toward me to understand what I said, but this woman had sharp ears and apparently could hear me curse her name one room away.

She looked over the top of her book at me and smiled. “Sure thing, Mr. Dunn. What would you like?”

She put her book on the coffee table as she waited for my answer. She leaned toward me as if I held the secret meaning of life and was about to spill my guts. For a brief moment, I thought about asking for a shot of whiskey. It had been so long since I had tasted good whiskey, and I suddenly had a hankering for it. A cigarette, too. Instead, I thought of Barbara and how my drinking had affected her years ago and how she had spent more than half of our marriage trying to get me to quit smoking, and I decided that lemonade would be just fine.

I watched the nurse pad off toward my kitchen in her glaring white sneakers and scrubs. I couldn’t shake the contrast of her nurse’s garb and the tattoos and piercings. I cursed her under my breath.

“Did you say something, Mr. Dunn?” she asked as she came back into the room with a glass of lemonade in one hand and a towel in another.

Startled by her question, I said the first thing that came to mind. “When will Carla be here?”

“Probably about the same time she usually gets here.”

I disliked her inexact response. I shook my head before she put the glass to my lips. “And what time is that?”

“6 o’clock,” she said titling the glass up so that I could drink more. Some lemonade dribbled down my chin, and she wiped it with the towel in her other hand. She pulled the glass back so I could take a breath.

“What time is it now?” I asked.

“2 o’clock.”

I sighed and shook my head. The nurse seemed amused.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Dunn, I’m here to take care of you.”

“Where’s Barbara?” I blurted between sips. “My wife.”

“Mr. Dunn…”

“I know you know where she is.”

“I’m sorry…”

“No, tell me. Please.”

She put the glass on the coffee table without the coaster, something Barbara would never have allowed in our house, but I ignored it because I could sense that I had an opportunity.

“When is the last time you saw your wife, Mr. Dunn?” she asked as if she were a police investigator on one of those crime shows she watched when she wasn’t reading her book.

I thought for a moment and tried to determine when she had walked out of our bedroom on that morning she left, but time had become distorted in my mind. A day alone at home felt like a week. A week in the hospital felt like an eternity.

“Last week,” I said giving up on any concept of time.

“Really?” she said ticking her head to one side like a dog when it hears an unusual sound. “When I was here last week?”

“Were you here last week?” I asked, confused. She liked to play mind games with me. “No, before you ever came here.”

“I’ve been with you for four months, Mr. Dunn.”

“Four months?”

“Yes, and I haven’t met your wife.”

Her response dumbfounded me. I asked for more lemonade because I didn’t know what else to say. She retreated to the kitchen again, and I turned to watch the rain drops pelt the window in my living room. The drops began as a sparse series of bulbous drops on my window and quickly coalesced together as the rain storm entombed my house. All was silent save for the rain on my window. I leaned back and closed my eyes and wondered what had kept Barbara away for so long.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 5

I awakened to an awful, pungent smell that lingered around me as if it were being blown on me by some unseen fan. I twitched my nose and tried to breathe through my mouth to avoid the horrible odor, but I failed to ward it off. My eyes drooped and felt weak. Everything seemed fuzzy like those Monet paintings that Barbara loved so much. I could barely discern the outline of Rudy and Carla standing before me. Both looked at me with an expression of concern.

“How do you feel, Dad?” Rudy asked. His voice sounded strained, unsteady. His lips moved out of sync with his words as if he were in a badly-dubbed movie. The disconnect startled me and I wondered if I were dreaming or if he really was talking to me. I froze and said nothing. I just stared at him dumbfounded poking that uncomfortable cannula that crimped my nose.

“Dad?”

Carla grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Dad?”

Each of them tensed almost in unison and leaned into me. They had always had that symbiotic relationship – feeling and sensing together like twins even though they were born almost two years apart. Barbara and I had struggled so long to have them that we treated them like the miracles they were. I’m sure they often had to retreat to each other to resist the fussy overprotective tendencies of their parents.

“Where is your mother?” I asked finally after a few rushed breaths. I felt winded after holding my breath to avoid the odor.

Carla’s eyes pooled with tears and one escaped down her cheek. Rudy’s eyes glistened in the harsh light of the room, and at that moment, I realized I wasn’t in my room. It startled me, this realization, and I spun my head side to side to trying to determine where I was. Nothing seemed familiar. I wondered how I had gotten into the strange room and unfamiliar bed. I tried to sit up, but some invisible force craned its knee into my chest. My entire body ached.

“Mom’s not here,” Rudy said after a long pause. Carla shot him a look that almost knocked him down, but she said nothing. More tears rolled down her high cheekbones. I looked from her to Rudy hoping for some answer to the only question I cared about.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“You’re in the hospital,” Carla said.

“Why?” This revelation startled me.

“You fell,” she replied. Her voice seemed distant, vacant. She peered at her brother as if she wanted him to fill in the blanks. I looked from her to him and back, but nothing more came. It all seemed too much and I suddenly felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I closed my eyes relieved to not have to stare at my children. Their refusal to tell me where their mother was exasperated me to no end.

When I opened my eyes again, Rudy and Carla had moved to the corner of the room next to the door and were whispering to each other. Had this been many years ago when I was younger, I would have been able to hear them, but time had played an awful joke on my senses. I struggled to hear even the most normal level of conversation, so whispers, even those only a few feet away, were out of the question. I waved them off in my imagination annoyed that they’d blatantly discuss something in front of me without including me.

Carla noticed me staring at them first, and she abruptly stopped talking. Rudy turned to me and smiled wanly, and both of them walked back to my bedside. Neither said a word at first. Carla touched my hand lightly and then squeezed it in hers. My large hand swallowed her tiny paw. It felt so delicate and soft that I feared I would break it if I squeezed back too hard, but swelling and stiffness stunted my clumsy, blunt grip.

“Dad…,” Rudy started, “you…broke your hip…” His voice hitched but he maintained eye contact with me. For a moment I could not understand what he said. I thought it impossible. I had done no such thing. I searched my memory for something that would confirm what he said, but nothing came.

Carla turned away and even I heard her stifled cry. I watched her back move away from me and turned toward to my son.

“We’re going to get someone to stay with you when you go back home,” my son continued.

“Tell your mother I need her to come home.”

“Dad…”

“Please. She’ll understand. She’ll forgive me if she knows I need her.”

“She’s not coming home.”

“Why not?”

“Dad…”

Rudy shook his head and tightened his lips across his face as if he were angry. At who I did not know. Barbara’s absence confused me. She never told me what I had done, and now, when I needed her most, she refused to help me. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to scream out her name hoping that she stood just outside my room waiting for me to call to her as a indication of how much I loved her.

Barbara had never been so angry with me that she avoided me for so long. One time in April 1975 she left me for a couple of days after I had come home late drunk and unruly several days in a row. The pressure of trying to have kids had driven me to drinking a few years earlier, but I had kept it under control for the most part using it as an escape in the evenings or weekends. By early 1975 I had swerved onto an unsustainable path and fallen into the habit of going out with my coworkers after the work day ended for a few beers – more than a few in reality. Barbara tried to be understanding, but by that spring, it became too much, so she left me.

Only after Barbara had packed her bags and left for her mother’s house, did I realize that I had a problem. I managed to go to her mother’s house and embarrass myself, but I convinced her that I would clean up my act. I kept my promise. Almost losing Barbara had scared me straight. A year later we welcomed Carla into our lives and 19 months later Rudy followed her. I haven’t had a drink in 40 years.

Whatever I had done could not possibly be worse than being a drunkard husband, but Barbara had been gone several days now, which was the longest she’d been out of my sight since that spring in the 1970s. Her absence worried and scared me, yet my children remained mum. I cared less about my hip or any other physical ailment that beset me. I needed Barbara. I wanted to apologize to her for whatever I had done. The urge to yell out her name returned., but I couldn’t muster the breath to do so. Instead, I just stared at my son who clung to the side of my bed as if it would roll away. He stood there unblinking and unsure of what to say. My head listed to the side and I lost myself in the pale wall of the hospital room.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 2

I don’t believe in luck. Maybe it’s because I believe you have to work hard for everything, and only then do you get the things you truly deserve, but if I had to point to one event in my life where luck may have played a significant role, it would be the moment I met Barbara. I can’t explain it any other way. It was 1964. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school, and like a lot of young men at the time, I was looking for a job. Back then, college wasn’t a forgone conclusion like it was for my kids and my grandkids. We went to work – real work.

I had grown up in a small town that had few options beyond farming or livestock, but my cousin lived closer to the city near a thriving textile mill, and he encouraged me to move in with him and take one of the jobs at the mill. With few other decent choices, I took a chance and moved into his small apartment in the middle of a row of dilapidated old buildings. Looking back on it now, the living conditions were deplorable. The ramshackle apartment reeked of smoke and mold, but for two young men just starting out, it smelled of opportunity. Despite the backdrop, I still count that year I lived with my cousin to be one of the best of my life. I wish he were still alive today to reminisce about our time together.

For a while after I started working at the mill, my cousin and I worked the same night shift, but the mill was growing and he was soon promoted to a supervisor and moved to the second shift so our schedules no longer aligned. One Friday morning shortly after he changed shifts, I found myself clocking out with nothing to do and no one to do it with since my cousin was working six days, so I walked around the streets near the mill until I decided to have breakfast at a dinky little diner near the factory.

I took a seat at the edge of the restaurant near a big plate glass window that looked out into the sad street that rolled out from the main entrance to the mill. There was no view to speak of, but I still found myself watching the passers-by and gawking at the cars that puttered down the street. Litter danced across the road among the pedestrians who hurried by and the homeless men who huddled in the nooks of the buildings. At any other point in my life, I would have declared the scene depressing, but at that moment, I felt alive and free despite the shackles of a low-paying job in a run-down mill town. Youth breeds an endless optimism that only time can squelch.

I remained mesmerized by the active scene on the other side of the window until a comely feminine voice pulled my attention away.

“Good morning! What can I get you today?” she asked.

My head swiveled in the direction of the inviting voice and my eyes met what I have often described as the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I must have looked like a total dunce sitting there with my eyes wide and my mouth half open at a loss for words. Suddenly, I couldn’t form sentences like a reasonably competent adult could. All I could do was stare at the striking young woman before me.

She was dressed from head to toe in that ridiculous red and white diner uniform with the silly cap. I didn’t think any of it was humorous then because Barbara was a stunning young woman. Her smiled gleamed from behind the small pad she held in her hand with her pen poised above it ready to write down my urgent order. She looked at me expectantly and her smile slowly deflated as the uneasy silence wore on.

“Are you going to order something?” she asked after a few moments too many.

I stuttered and shuffled in my seat until I realized that I held the menu in my hand. I tightened my grip on its sides and focused my eyes on it. In a panic I ordered the first thing I saw – some eggs and toast. I shook my head yes to coffee and juice before I knew what had happened, and as she walked away with my hasty order, I worried that I didn’t have enough money to pay for it.

I didn’t realize what had come over me. For much of my time in the mill town, I had pretty much kept to myself. I knew no one other than my cousin and the few people who actually talked to me at work. My downtime was spent primarily back at our old apartment or at a similarly run-down, illicit bar across the street from the mill. My cousin and I would spend our time listening to Cubs games on the radio or smoking and reading the newspaper on the stoop out back of our apartment. While we were obviously interested in women, we had little money and little time with the mill running at full capacity, so our love lives were nonexistent.

That all changed when I met Barbara. She eventually returned to my table with a cup of coffee, and by then, I had regained my ability to think and speak concurrently. She asked me if I worked in the mill and if I liked it. I appreciated her interest and asked about her job and when she normally worked at the diner. We had a nice conversation, if not entirely predictable. Years later, I realized she was just having a normal chat with a customer, while I had thought we had some sort of connection that ultimately led to our dating and marriage. Funny how that worked. I’m glad I didn’t know she was going to through the motions at the time, but I’m not sure it would have changed the outcome because I fell in love with her that day, and nothing could have changed that.