December 2008


Most of my adult life I’ve experienced that down, mildly depressed feeling after Christmas–and I’ve never really known why.  Actually, I’ve always been a little embarrassed about it, so I’ve never talked about it much.  Was I just hoping for more or better presents?  Am I that selfish?  Was I not recognizing the true meaning of Christmas?  I always THOUGHT I did.  So why was this happening to me?

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to meet the question head on, with the full force of my intellectual powers ( no snickering).  And it hit me in one of those “Duh!” moments.  The reason I feel blue after Christmas is because I like Christmas and now it’s over!  I love almost everything about the season–the decorations, the music, the general mood or spirit, the special church services, the feeling of anticipation.  And once all of that ends, well, of COURSE I feel sad.  I feel sad when a vacation ends, I feel sad when summer is over, I feel sad when I slide the last bite of French silk pie into my mouth.  It’s normal! 

Maybe that sounds pretty obvious to you, but it was a revelation to me.  And once I acknowledged it, it freed me up to really enjoy Christmas this year like I never have before.  2008 will go down in my history as perhaps the best Christmas ever, and I can’t wait for next year to enjoy it all again. 

And a little frosting on the cake…  Acknowledging the normal reality of post-Christmas blues has actually served to lessen them this year.  I didn’t expect that, but I sure do welcome it.

So, for probably the last time in ’08, Merry Christmas!  And as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one!”

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One more Christmas story. This one’s just under two pages. 

 

 

                 The Second Epistle of James, the Brother of Jesus

     I wasn’t there when Jesus was born; he was my older brother—I came along almost two years later.  Growing up, I heard the story of his birth over and over again—and then was told not to tell anyone.  When I was very little it was awe-inspiring, when I became older… it grew tiresome.  The tense part about all the inns being over-crowded, the odd part about shepherds guided there by angels, the surprising part about wise men from the east bearing gifts; it became oft recited family lore—surely embellished over the years, surely changed and adjusted for maximum dramatic effect.  But true?  Parts of it, undoubtedly, but other parts fairy tale and legend. 

     Part of the reason the story became tiresome was because Jesus himself became tiresome.  It was obvious that Father and Mother thought him special—not that they actually loved him more, but they definitely looked at him differently from the rest of us.  And Jesus seemed to grow into that role.  At times he was a wonderful playmate: laughing, running, sling shooting contests, sword-fighting with sticks.  He cried when his thumb was inevitably struck—just like the rest of us.  But there were other times—when our play crossed a line that Father and Mother possibly might not have approved—when he would suddenly look at me with the most irritating adult expression on his face.

     “James,” he would say, “that would not please Father and Mother.”

     “They don’t have to know,” I would respond.

     “If you continue in this direction, I would have to tell them.  I’m sorry, but we must honor their desires.”

     Very tiresome. 

     Then as time went by, he became more serious, and in many ways it appeared he and I had less and less in common.  I would sometimes catch him alone, staring off into the hills, totally transported to another place or time, often with a very sad look on his face.  One time I remember quite clearly.  It was right after his 15th birthday.  It was a very starry night—like a million candles on a black cloth, and he was standing outside alone, crying.  I asked him what was wrong, and at first he was quiet.  Then he rubbed the tears off his cheeks and said,

     “Remember that time we came across some Romans crucifying a robber?”

     I nodded.  “How could I ever forget that?!” I said, disgusted all over again at the memory.

     He sighed, then continued, “I was just thinking what a horrible way that would be to die.”

     At the time it struck me as a very strange thing for a 15 year old to be thinking about. 

     After our Father died, Jesus took over his carpentry work to provide for our family.  My brothers and I helped some, but he was the one with the most talent and the strongest work ethic.  I thought it was just because he was the oldest. 

     As he grew older, I knew he would soon be taking a wife.  I assumed we would help him build a home next to ours so he could continue working in our Father’s carpenter shop.  But there was always a reason why the time wasn’t right, or why this girl wasn’t the one.  One by one, we his siblings married, but he stayed home with our mother.

     Not long after this time began what we then called “the madness.”  He left suddenly, and traveled south to a place along the Jordan River where a man called John had been preaching and baptizing.  We heard that Jesus himself had been baptized, and then he just disappeared.  He vanished like Enoch, and no one knew what had happened to him.  He was gone for over a month.  Then just as suddenly he reappeared—staggering out of the wilderness, thin as an olive branch.  He began preaching repentance and collected a group of followers—simple uneducated men and many women.  After years of devotion to our mother and to the carpentry work, it suddenly became unimportant to him.  He never put his hands upon wood again, until… until that day.  We tried to talk to him, reason with him; he wouldn’t listen.  We brought our Mother, to show him how worried she was.  It had no affect on him.  It angered me that he could be so callous and uncaring.

     “What’s happened to you!?” I exploded at him one day.  “How can you just abandon your Mother, and your Father’s work!?”

     “I love Mother, James,” he said.  “And I am doing my Father’s work.” 

     “But you’re not!  That makes no sense!”

     “James, come with me and my disciples.  Spend some time with us, listen to my teaching.  Please.”

     I shook my head.  “No.  You speak like a mad man.  As far as I’m concerned you have committed a grave sin by rejecting your family.”

    While he lived I never spoke to him again.

     A few days after his death I began hearing bizarre rumors that he had come back to life.  At first these stories came from a few of his closest disciples, but then the numbers began to increase.  Soon dozens of his followers were telling our family that they had seen him, talked to him, and even touched him.  That he was alive. 

     My head was spinning that night as I sat outside my home and tried to understand what was happening.  And then I turned and he was sitting next to me.  And he smiled, and he spoke my name: “James.”

     It still takes my breath away to think of it.  How does one go from Jesus the mad man to Jesus the Christ in one day?  He was asking a lot, but then he always did.  And he still does. 

     I’ve often asked myself, what if I had somehow been there that night in the stable—witnessed his birth, the star, the shepherds, the wise men?  Would I have believed then?  And I have to answer, probably not.  My stubborn, proud flesh would’ve looked for reasons not to, for things to doubt.  Because to believe means to humble myself, to surrender, to call my brother Lord.  It took the events following his death to convince me of the truth of the events surrounding his birth.  But I was, and I am, convinced. 

     And so all my letters to other believers now carry this opening: From James, a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.   

    

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright December, 2008

    

Last week my wife and I went to hear a Christmas concert by The Empire Brass–5 very talented gentleman playing two trumpets, a French horn, a trombone, and a tuba.  We had to drive through fresh, slippery snow–and very heavy traffic–to get there.  Because of that, we missed the first 3 or 4 pieces.  

The Empire Brass made it a lot of fun–very energetic, large doses of humor, Christmas Carol sing-alongs,  etc.  And to top it off, the drive home was quicker and safer!

The very next night I took my youngest daughter to see “White Christmas” on stage.  It was a wonderful, old-fashioned, musical extravaganza–complete with big dance numbers (even tap)!  At the end, after they sang “White Christmas,” they made it snow in the theater–on the audience too, not just on the stage.  It even melted (which I’m sure made the janitorial staff happy; no muss, no fuss). 

From my youth:     The whole family decorating the tree together while listening to our Mitch Miller Christmas Carol sing-along (and singing along!)…  Watching Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol on TV…   On Christmas morning my brother Ron was the “passer-outer” of the gifts…  The cardboard Santa face that Mom always hung on the dining room mirror…  Calling my best friend Jeff in the afternoon and asking, “What did ya get?”…   Mom’s voice on Christmas Eve, “Everybody stay in the TV room, I’m wrapping presents.”…   The pine smell from the wreath and tree…   Ignoring the TV and sitting in the living room staring at the lit-up tree…  Taking the bus downtown with my mom and walking from decorated store to decorated store…   Apple juice and fresh blueberry muffins on the good china for Christmas breakfast…   Singing carols around the piano…   Lots of good food and lots of cookies!  (I still love the cookies).

     (Since Joseph is never mentioned again in the Bible after Jesus turns 12, scholars believe he probably died sometime in Jesus’ teens or twenties)                   

                       JOSEPH’S LAST CHRISTMAS

 

     Joseph was dying.  He lay on a thin mat on the dirt floor, without moving.  His body felt weak, and each breath was difficult.  There was a soft stirring, and his 17 year old son slowly put his head into the room.

     “Father?” he said quietly.

     Joseph slowly turned toward him and tried to smile.  “Jesus,” he said. “Come in.”

     Jesus entered and sat on the floor next to him.  “How are you feeling?” he asked.

     Joseph gave a slight, negative shake of his head, but smiled thinly.  “I won’t lie to you—you’d know it if I did.  Besides, you’re a young man now.”  Still he hesitated before continuing.  “I don’t have much time left, Jesus.  I’m sure of that.”

     “Don’t say such things, Father,” Jesus said, his eyes filling with tears.  “There is always hope—with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

     Joseph’s eyes locked onto Jesus’.  “And yet this last week you haven’t put your hands upon me and prayed for my healing.  You know too, don’t you, my son.”

     A tear spilled out of Jesus’ eye and trickled down his cheek to his young, thin beard.  “Father…” he began.

     Joseph slowly raised his hand and Jesus held it.  “It’s alright, Jesus.  I understand; you can’t say everything you know.  But in this case, I know it too.  And I know that you know.  What you don’t say, says much.”

     Jesus put his head down and wept.  “I’m sorry, Father,” he said.

     “There’s no need to be sorry.  Everyone dies.  I was just hoping I’d be able to see you come of age, see what God does with your life.  That disappoints me.  But it may be that I will still get to see you, from the grave.  Who knows?”

     They sat in silence for a time, gripping each other’s hand.  Joseph closed his eyes and breathed deeply.   Jesus might have thought he’d fallen asleep, but for the continued squeezing of his hand. 

     At last, with his eyes still closed, Joseph said, “It’s always felt strange hearing you call me your Father, when we both know I’m not.”

     Jesus thought for a moment, then said, “We both have a Father in heaven, of course, but you HAVE been a father to me.  It’s right for me to call you that.  You’ve loved me and taught me and provided for me.  When I was small you protected me.”

     Joseph opened his eyes, but appeared to be looking at something Jesus did not see.  “It’s never surprised me that Mary was chosen,” he said, “she’s so good and pure, the ‘handmaid of the Lord,’ just as she has said.  But me—why me?  Why was I chosen?  I’m just an ordinary carpenter, from a poor, ordinary family.  When God told me in a dream, just before you were born, that I was to raise you…, I was terrified!  How!?  I’ve asked Him many times—how can I raise Your son?”  Joseph shook his head, still in wonder after more than 17 years.

     “Did you ever get an answer?” Jesus asked.

     “When you were very little, it seemed the Lord told me, ‘Trust Me, and be you.’  Then Your son will be raised a carpenter, I said.  Is that what You want?  ‘That will be good,’ He told me.  ‘A man who creates with his hands, and then looks with satisfaction upon his work.’  I realized later, that is exactly what He did.” 

     Jesus smiled.  “It seems I take after both my Fathers,” he said.  Then, after a pause, he added, “I think I know why you were chosen.  You’re honest; you always do your best—even on small, simple jobs; you’re patient; you taught me I must always have a plan before I start working, that using the right tools makes the job easier and makes what I’m building turn out better.  You always said a man works best when he works for God—not money.  And you taught me that a son’s place is with his father.  These are things that are true in all of life–not just carpentry.  I think you were a good choice…, my father.”

     Joseph’s eyes glistened as he turned and looked at Jesus.  “My son,” he whispered.

     When he was able to speak again, Joseph continued, “I haven’t forgotten what today is, Jesus.  The day of your birth.  Seventeen years ago the three of us huddled in a stable.  A stable!  I remember it like yesterday.  You cried and ate and slept, cried and ate and slept, for 3 days straight!”

     Jesus laughed.

     “Then when enough people left town,” Joseph said, “we could move into one of the inns.  I had to earn our keep by fixing plows, and building doors and tables.”  He shook his head, but smiled at the memory.  Then his smile faded.  “I’m sorry we’re not having a proper celebration today, Jesus.  You deserve better.”

     “It’s just a day, Father, like any other day.”

     “No.  No, it’s a special day.  All of your birth days have been special.  For your brothers and sisters, their birth days were full of happiness and celebration, but your birth day has always been different.  Happiness and celebration, yes, of course; but something more than that too.  Something… important.  Something mysterious, and holy.  I don’t know the words.”

     Jesus grew somber and looked at the wall, but his eyes were not seeing it.  “Each year, on the day of my birth,” he said, “I think of all the young boys in Bethlehem who died because of me—because Herod was looking for me.  It seems sometimes like I was born for death.”  He turned back to Joseph.  “I can’t explain it to you, Father, but I know that some day I will be like them–I will die in place of others.”

     Joseph looked troubled, but said, “God has His plan, Jesus, and I do not possess the wisdom to see it.  But I do know that you are His tool.  He’s a good carpenter too, and He will do a good work.” 

     He paused, then sighed.  “I’m sorry this isn’t a happier day, my son, but I want you to know that I have been celebrating your birth, even as I lie here.  We have always celebrated it, your mother and me—even when there was no work, and very little food on the table.  Even when your brother was very sick.  It seemed to us that your birth mattered more than whatever was happening around us.  Nothing was too bad to blot it out, nothing was so good that it overshadowed it.  My sickness doesn’t take away from it, Jesus.  Even my death cannot take away your birth.”

     “You honor me, Father,” Jesus said, bowing his head.

     “No, not just me.”  Joseph spoke as strongly as his weakened body would let him.  “Don’t you see?  There will always be people who will celebrate this day.  The day you were born is a special day, and before too long many people will realize that.  Many people…”  His voice trailed off and he closed his eyes.  

     “I must go now, Father,” Jesus whispered.  “Mother told me not to stay long.”                                                                                        

     He quietly stood up and walked to the door.  Just before he left the room, Joseph said weakly, “My son.”

     Jesus turned.  “Yes, Father?” he said.

     Joseph was looking at him through tired eyes, but he smiled as he spoke.  “Happy birthday, Jesus.”

 

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright 2007  All rights reserved

My favorite recent CNN.com headline:   Bill Clinton Not Interested in His Wife’s Seat. 

Hmmm…

A few weeks ago the building I work in had a problem with the heating on my floor (6th) and the temperature shot up to 87 degrees.  It stayed there for over a week.  Late November, in the northern quadrant of the central United States, and we’re all wearing short sleeves, turning on fans, and mopping our perspiring foreheads.  If you stayed away from the windows it was easy to imagine it was late July.

Well, they “fixed” it.  Now the temperature starts at 57 and occasionally tops out at 67–on a really good day.  This has been going on for two weeks.  People sit at their computers wearing jackets and shivering.  If you stay away from the windows it’s easy to imagine you’re in the Arctic Circle.  The smokers look forward to going outside so they can warm up.

If you read an earlier post of mine, you know this building has been sold and we are moving out Christmas Eve.  I think we hurt its feelings, because it’s starting to act like a jilted spouse: Hell hath no fury like a building scorned.  The drastic temperature swings were just the beginning; recently lots of the sinks have started plugging up, and some of the automatic faucets have stopped automatically working.  And–my personal favorite–the malfunctioning bathroom doors. 

I THOUGHT I was leaving the men’s room and going to lunch last week, but the building decided I should stay there a little bit longer.  The men’s room door would not open and let me out.  I tried it repeatedly, rattling it, pounding it, glaring at it angrily–nothing worked. 

Do you know how embarrassing it is to be trapped in a bathroom?  Get trapped in an elevator, an office, even a maintenance closet, and people feel sorry for you.  Get trapped in a bathroom and they laugh.  Try it sometime–you’ll see I’m right.  Yes, there are some definite advantages to it–especially if you’re in there for a longer period of time.  But still…

Someone eventually heard me and promised to get help.  Right after they left the door suddenly worked and I escaped.  It was as though the building was saying, “I didn’t really mean anything by it, I just want to be respected.” 

I haven’t gone to the bathroom since; it’s just too traumatic.

Here’s a short story I wrote a couple of years ago (unpublished

of course!).  It’s the equivalent of 15 printed pages, so set aside

30 minutes or so if you’re going to read it.

                                        All the Lonely People

 

     Ron sat at the red light, trying to make it turn green by muttering, “Come on, come on.”  His fingers tapped the steering wheel with no apparent rhythm.  He checked his watch again; ten minutes to eight, and he still had at least a fifteen minute drive.  This would make the fourth time in less than two weeks that he’d be late for work.

     He tried again.  “Come on.  Come ON!”

     The red light stared at him, unblinking and unsympathetic.  His enemy.  Ron saw the lights for the cross street turn yellow, and he readied himself.

     Green!  His foot crushed the pedal to the floor without mercy and his Toyota leaped forward.  Thank God he was the first one in line.  He sped two blocks to the 4-way stop on Delaware, slowed, then made a sharp right turn and reattached his foot to the accelerator.  Again his car obeyed him like a young filly on the home stretch.  The speed limit here was 45, which meant he could get away with 50.  It was rush hour, and traffic laws were for cowards and old men. 

     Ron hugged Delaware’s curve to the left and then came very suddenly to the rear bumper of one of those old men.

     “No!”  he shouted as he hit the brakes.  The green Saturn in front of him wasn’t even doing 40, and Ron could see the wrinkled neck, white hair, and funny hat of an elderly man. 

     “Come on, buddy!”  Ron said to his windshield.  “This is rush hour!  You’re supposed to be rushing!”

     But the old man, alone in his car, continued along at 37 miles per hour, and Ron was unable to pass due to the curves and the oncoming traffic.

     “What’re you doing on the road this time of day?”  Ron asked the windshield.  “You can’t be going to work.”

     He decided to try his favorite ploy—tailgating.  But the old man didn’t seem to notice; he definitely didn’t speed up.  He just stared straight ahead, both hands on the wheel, sitting erect.  Ron sighed.

     The street straightened out.  The “No Passing” zone ended.  Ron edged over to his left and looked at the oncoming lane; there were no cars.  He hit his blinker, swerved over, and urged the Toyota forward.  It roared past the Saturn.

     Inside it, the old man was startled.  He hadn’t even noticed there was someone behind him.  He slowed and moved over to the right, giving Ron the road.  Then he glanced in his rearview mirror to see if there were any other surprises lurking behind him.  There were none.

     The old man had a name—it was Warren, although he seldom heard it spoken out loud anymore.  All the people who knew it where gone.  His brothers and sister had all been dead for more than five years.  John, his best friend for over six decades, died a little over 14 months ago. 

     And Louise, his wife of over 60 years, breathed her last exactly 5 weeks ago that day.  He had been sitting beside her bed, holding her hand, and he watched that last breath leave her frail body.  He had been sitting there looking at her for some time, seeing so much more than everyone else.

     He could still see a pretty 18 year old, who wanted to dance with every guy wearing a uniform. 

     He could see a 20 year old bride smiling nervously at him, floating down the aisle in an angelic white gown that almost glowed.

     He could see a young mother of 3, worn to a frazzle and falling asleep late at night in mid-sentence.

     He could see a middle-aged woman who was putting on weight, arguing with teenagers.

     He could see an empty-nester, hair cropped short and graying, entering the workforce for the first time in her life—part time. 

     To the nurses and the doctors she was an old woman with terminal cancer; to Warren she was a life story—someone who made fantastic Thanksgiving dinners, who—in her fifties—failed her drivers test three times before finally passing, who once saved an 8 year old boy’s life with the Heimlich Maneuver.  The hospital staff couldn’t see what he could see.

     When she died, they passed her body onto a mortician, stripped the linen, and got the room ready for someone else.  They told Warren they were so sorry, and urged him to take care of himself. 

     But Warren was like a bee caught outside the hive on a cold night, stunned and sluggish, helpless and lost.  He knew with a horrible reality that the cliché was true—part of him had died with her.

     And now here he was on a Thursday morning, going to have breakfast at Margaret’s Kitchen, just like he and Louise always did.  He was alone in the world, like the survivor of a shipwreck—sitting by himself in a bobbing lifeboat.  He kept to their traditions.  He didn’t know what else to do. 

     Yes, he drove slow—his eyesight wasn’t as good as it used to be—but he was a safe driver.  He stayed within the white lines, he read all the traffic signs, and he never sped.  He knew he didn’t have the reflexes for it.

     Warren had one daughter—Susan—who lived a half hour away from him.  His two sons both lived out of state.  Susie had two teenage boys who kept her busy, plus a part time job, plus she and her husband were seeing a marriage counselor every week.  But she still found time to call him almost daily, and help him with groceries, food preparation, and some housekeeping about once a week or so.

     His sons—Keith and Steve—each called him a couple of times a month, asked him how he was doing and talked about sports.  Warren didn’t know it, but they each sent Susie some money now and then, so they could help out in some way. 

     But for the most part, Warren was alone.  And “alone” was no longer just a word to him.  It lived, it breathed, it pulsated like a thumb struck by a hammer.  It followed him wherever he went and perched on the back of his couch, waiting silently, like a vulture.

     He sighed.

     A glance in the rearview mirror told him someone else was in a hurry to get somewhere.  The woman’s face he saw was angry and irritated, resentful at being stuck behind an on old man.  Warren pulled onto the shoulder and let her pass.

     He knew he was an old man.  When he was younger and he saw the elderly, he wondered if they realized they were becoming elderly, or if it just snuck up on them one day and scared the daylights out of them.  But he knew it.  The mirror told him every day; his body told him multiple times every day.  And people younger than him told him constantly.  Usually not with words, but with facial expressions, body language, and attitudes.

     Sometimes he would try and diffuse a situation.  He’d smile and say to a store clerk, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to say that again.  I’m pretty old and I don’t hear so good.”  Sometimes they cut him some slack, sometimes they seemed to blame him for being that age—as though he had done something wrong.

     Some days when he woke up, Warren felt like the last prisoner on death row—waiting for his execution date.  He would lie in bed for awhile, trying to think of a reason to get up.  Then he would hear Louise’s voice chiding him, “Don’t sleep your life away.”

     I’m in my eighties, Louise, he thought.  You can’t accuse me of that.

    But then he’d sit up anyway, thinking that if there was an afterlife, and if he ran into her, he didn’t want her scolding him.  He’d slide his feet out onto the carpeting, one at a time, and then perch there on the edge of his bed, taking inventory.

     Usually his back ached, and his legs felt stiff.  Sometimes he’d get a sharp pain in a hip or a knee or a shoulder, sometimes in all of them at once.  He’d grunt or groan.

     “I got more crummy joints then New York city,” he’d say.  And Louise used to reply, “Don’t go looking for sympathy.  You’re not the only old person in this house, you know.”

     Now there was only silence, and her side of the bed was empty.  He would slowly push himself up to a standing position, pause again for a moment, then shuffle off to the bathroom, his legs and arms cracking and popping like the Fourth of July.  It was another day, and it probably wouldn’t be any different from the one before it, or the one before that.

     Warren’s awareness slowly came back, and he realized he was still idling on the shoulder of the road.  The woman who had passed him was long gone, and his stomach—which didn’t care how old he was—voiced its empty displeasure at breakfast being delayed.  In the silence of his car he could hear it grumbling.

     When you’re alone, you hear more; not that you really want to.  You hear clocks ticking, your own breath whistling through your nose, laughter in the distance, the coffee maker gurgling, a car driving by, the refrigerator coming on. 

     But oh how he wished he could once again hear a familiar voice call him, “Warren.”

 

    

     If she had just said milk and bread it would’ve been easy.  But she very specifically said, “Two half gallons of 2% and one loaf of wheat bread.”  It was the specificity that scared him—get it wrong and you’re the butt of jokes for days.  “Honestly Marc, you’re worse than a kid.  Why didn’t you just write it down?”  The last three words emphasized as though he were simple-minded. 

     But Marc was pretty sure he had it right.  Two 2%’s—that was easy to remember.  And half gallons.

     “That’s the size we usually get, right?” he had asked.

     “That’s the size that says ‘One half gallon’ on it,” she had helpfully replied.

     Wheat bread he knew was a light tan, not white or dark brown, so he’d just look for the color.  He couldn’t go wrong.

     With his prizes in hand, Marc got in the checkout line.  His watch told him he had just enough time to get home, change, and hustle over to Dillon’s soccer game.  There was only one woman in front of him and she only had a few things.

     Tawnesha put her bag of apples, jug of milk, and box of cereal on the conveyor, and glanced absentmindedly at Marc.  She sighed.  The plastic gallon container seemed heavier than usual.  Look at the bright side, Tawny, she said to herself.  Maybe you’re getting more milk for your money.

     But she knew the reason.  Four weeks of chemo and radiation can take a lot out of you.  Her arms had no strength, and she was always tired.  Getting out to buy some food had been a major undertaking; she argued with herself that she wasn’t hungry anyway, so why get up off the couch?

     But here she was.  She had first made herself sit up.  One step at a time, she thought.  I can quit anytime I want.  Then she got to her feet and walked into the kitchen, stopping to lean on the table for a few minutes.  Fortunately her purse was on the counter and not in the bedroom.  She snared the handle with her thumb, went to the door, and slid her feet into her sandals.

     She was out of her apartment and going down the stairs before she wondered how she looked.  That made her pause for a moment, but the idea of going back upstairs, changing, and returning to this same spot, was too much for her. 

     “Forget it,” she said out loud, and continued walking down the steps.  Nobody gonna look at me anyway, she added silently.

     Tawny got in her car, sat down, and closed the door.  She could’ve remained there—staring at the dirty windshield—for a long time, but it was so hot inside.  She sighed, started the engine, and drove off. 

     She almost wished Rupert was still with her; at least she might have been able to talk him into running an errand now and then, or putting some frozen food in the micro.  But Rupert had left as soon as he found out about her and David.  And David had left after he met Sheila.  Now she was alone.

     Alone.  Tawny had never realized before what a terrifying word that was.  Nor what real loneliness was like.  After Rupert left he hooked up with her best friend Shana and filed for divorce.  After David left she was diagnosed with cancer, and wasn’t too interested in starting another relationship.  Mom was a thousand miles away in a tiny apartment, drinking herself insane.  She had no idea where her dad was.  Her brother Michael was in prison, and her sister Chanelle somewhere in L.A. doing something that wasn’t totally legal. 

     She had no children.  She and Rupert were pregnant once, but he made her get an abortion.  He thought a baby would slow them down too much.  After that she wasn’t able to get pregnant again. 

     Sometimes, in the middle of the night or late in the afternoon, when she was in bed or on the couch—feeling so sick and so tired, she wondered how—in a world with billions of people—she could be so completely alone.

     It was cancer of the pancreas.  Inoperable.  With aggressive treatment she might be able to live two years or so.  The oncologist urged her to do it, since she was only 31.

     Her hair was starting to fall out, and pounds of flesh were melting off her body—leaving her skin hanging loosely from her frame.  She knew she looked terrible, but half the time she felt so lousy that she didn’t care.  The other half she did care but didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

     “Thank you, have a good night,” the cashier said automatically, without eye contact.

     Tawny smiled wearily.  “Thanks.  You too,” she said, but the cashier was already greeting Marc.

     Tawny put the food in the bag, then put the bag in the cart.  Carrying the bag out to the car herself seemed like an impossible task.  It was easier to just push the cart.

     With the groceries on the seat beside her and the cart dutifully returned to the “cart corral,” Tawny sat behind the wheel and looked back at the store.  She realized that the brief, somewhat impersonal exchange she just had with the cashier was the first conversation she’d had with anyone in more than two days.  It made her hungry for a little more. 

     She drove back to her apartment and climbed the steps—one arm wrapped around her brown sack, the other gripping the railing.  She could feel the cold gallon of milk against her forearm.  The top of the steps provided a spot to stop and rest.  She needed it.

     Tawny was hoping she’d see a neighbor, someone she could say, “Hi, how you doin’?” to.  But no one was in sight.  Walking down the hallway on her floor, each numbered door had its own private world behind it.

     There was a couple arguing about money, a TV blaring an episode of “Seinfeld,” and the smooth saxophone of Kenny G.  The one right next to hers had a small child whining about something. 

     She put the key in the lock and opened her door.  Stepping inside into an aching silence, she closed the door and leaned against it.

     “Please, God,” she whispered, “just let me talk to someone.  Just for five minutes.”

     She was not an outgoing person, so the thought crept into her head, Okay, but you might have to be the one to start the conversation.

     She nodded, her eyes closed.  “I will,” she whispered.

 

    

     Rachel walked into the lobby of the office building where she worked, fresh off a fun weekend.  Out Friday night with Tina, Liz, and Sara; shopping for a new outfit with Tina on Saturday afternoon; out for dinner and dancing with Ryan Saturday night, and a lazy Sunday that started with an indulgence of fresh doughnuts.

     The elevator doors opened and she crowded in with about six other people.  She pressed her floor and sighed inwardly.  Is there anything more depressing than Monday morning? she wondered. 

     She had no way of knowing that Scott, right behind her, had started his Monday by staring at himself in the mirror and saying, “If no one talks to me today I’m going to kill myself.”

     Rachel didn’t know Scott; they worked on different floors.  She saw him in the halls or elevator a few times a week, but never spoke with him, never even gave him a second look.

     She was 25, slim and pretty, with an active social life.  Scott was ten days away from 31, overweight, receding hairline, and very shy.  He had had one girlfriend, back in high school.  It had lasted four months.  Now the few friends that he had left in the area were married and having kids.  Their lives were changing and his wasn’t changing along with them—which left him alone, and terrified that he always would be.

     The door opened on his floor and he got out.  A few people said good morning to him, but that didn’t rescue him from his suicide pledge.  He had meant more than people just saying hi, he meant a conversation, a real connection with someone else.

     His life consisted of “Morning Scott,” “Where you going for lunch?”  “See you tomorrow.”  On Friday they always added, “Big weekend plans?”  A question he hated, since he never had any.

     Once, to his shock, a co-worker invited Scott to a party at his place on Saturday night.  He said yes, tried to act casual, and got directions.  He went out on Friday night and bought a new shirt.  He had trouble sleeping that night, because he kept imagining conversations and trying to think of clever and cool things to say.

     By Saturday afternoon he was having second thoughts.  What if no one else from work is there?  What if I make a fool of myself?  He tried on his new shirt again and looked in the mirror.  The night before it had looked good, now he wondered if he looked pretentious—the fat loser trying to appear hip and worldly. 

     By 6 PM he was feeling something close to terror.  What if there’s nothing but sexy, experienced girls there?  I don’t know how to talk to them; they’ll see right through me!  If they look at me at all.

     By 7 PM he had decided it was too risky.  Sitting alone in the middle of a party, surrounded by people who couldn’t care less about him, would be worse than his usual Saturday night routine.

     By 8 PM he had rented a DVD, picked up a couple of slices of French silk pie, and was driving back to his apartment.  He was wearing an old Notre Dame sweatshirt.

     The host of the party didn’t even say anything about it back at work on Monday.  It was as though he hadn’t noticed.  Scott’s carefully thought-out excuses were unused and discarded, like unread newspaper articles shredded and sitting on the bottom of a birdcage.

     He slid into his cubicle and logged on to his computer.  The planner on his desk told him there was a team meeting at nine.  He could hear others around him talking and laughing about their weekend.

     “I must’ve had fun,” Gina said, “I can’t remember anything.”

     “A bunch of us went over to Mike’s yesterday to watch the game,” Sean said, “and Tamara brought her old roommate from college.  Wow.”

     “I did it, guys,” Tony announced.  “I signed the papers and closed the deal.  This is what I will be driving to work on Thursday.”  He held up a glossy car brochure and soaked up everyone’s gasps.

     Scott checked his email and printed off the agenda for the nine o’clock meeting.  He walked up to the printer but Gina got there a half a second ahead of him.

     “Whoops, excuse me Dave,” she said with an artificial smile.  He didn’t bother to correct her. 

     She took a few sheets of paper off the printer tray, checked them to make sure they were hers, then walked quickly away.  Scott was left standing in an invisible cloud of her perfume.

     At ten twenty, after his team meeting had ended, Scott went into the break room for a cup of coffee.  Sean and Tony were sitting at the table talking baseball.

     “What I don’t like about Warner,” Tony said, “is after he let’s a couple of guys get on base, he falls apart.  He can’t concentrate on the next batter.  Give me Hernandez any day.  He’s not flashy but he gets the job done.”

     “Yeah, but he loses as many as he wins,” Sean said.  “He’s only got two pitches—a fastball and a curve, and if his team’s not hitting then he’s sunk.  He can never win a pitcher’s dual.”  He turned to look at Scott.  “You like baseball, Scott?”

     Scott smiled indulgently and shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “Too slow.  I like football or hockey better.”

     Sean said, “Hmm,” then he and Tony fell awkwardly silent.  Scott realized he had blown it.  It was baseball season, the local team was doing well, it was the topic of conversation, and he had just shut it down.  He quickly tried to think of something to say.

     “Well anyway,” Tony said to Sean, “they’ve got the hitting this year, and I think it’s making Hernandez look pretty good.”

     Way to go, Scott, he said to himself as he turned and walked out of the room.  Someone finally does try to talk to you and you totally screw it up.  What a dork.    

     He drifted through the rest of the day, working on auto pilot, remembering his promise to himself from that morning.  He already had it all planned out.

     The sleeping pills were easy.  He’d had a bad back for a few years, so all he had to do was tell his doctor he was having trouble sleeping and out came the prescription pad.  He didn’t actually take any of the pills, and after a few months he got the prescription “refilled.”  Now two full bottles sat in his medicine cabinet, just waiting for him.  He would put on some music he liked, take the pills with some wine, and go to sleep.  It was so easy.

     At four thirty Scott printed out some spreadsheets for a project he had been working on.  He placed them on his desk and wrote a note explaining what was left to do.  Next to his keyboard he left another note with all of his passwords, so access to his computer wouldn’t be difficult.  Then he got up, pushed his chair in, and walked away.  No last look around.

     On the way home he glanced at the gas gauge.  It was under a quarter of a tank.  I should fill up, he thought absentmindedly.  Then he remembered, and smiled.

     He parked in his lot and walked through the front door of his apartment building.  He started to bypass the mailboxes, then changed his mind and stopped to pick up whatever he had.  Bills and junk mail.

     While Scott was looking through the envelopes, Tawny came down to get her mail.  She had just finished throwing up, and felt totally wrung out, but here was another human being in front of her—another chance for contact.

     Although he wasn’t even looking at her, Tawny mustered the strength to put a smile on her face.

     “How was your day?”  She asked him.

     It took a moment for Scott to realize she was talking to him.  Then he looked up at her, startled. 

     “Me?”  He asked.

     “Yeah,” she said, forcing a cheerful tone and unlocking her mailbox.  “I just asked how your day was.”

     He stared at her for a moment, a hundred thoughts racing through his mind.  Then he slowly smiled back and shrugged.

     “Not too bad really,” he said.  “How about yours?”

     She pulled her mail out and shut the door.  “Well, I’ve had better,” she said.

     Scott unlocked the security door and held it opened for her.  “It sounds like there’s a story behind that.”

     She waved her hand.  “Yeah, but it’s a long one.  You don’t want to hear about that.”

     “Try me.  I’m a great listener.”

     The door closed and latched as Scott and Tawny walked up the stairs together, talking.

 

The end

 

Michael Anderson

Copyright 2005

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