Wrestling the Octopus


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     Mr. Hubbard sat at his desk, keeping a strict eye on his wayward fourth grade classroom. Billy Cuff had just thrown up popcorn after I’d spun him seventy too many times on the tire swing. Fourth grade was for breaking rules, which Mr. Hubbard didn’t seem to know.

     By lunchtime I was passing a note to my friend Bridgette, mocking the teacher’s lesson. I was too busy chuckling to notice his thick spectacled approach. My epitaph flashed across my head while he read it. “Come into the hall, Leila,” he waved with his head. Outside, he bent down to my level. “That wasn’t nice. You’ll stay after school and write ‘I won’t write unkind things’ one hundred times.”

     I was alone after school, drawing ugly faces of Mr. Hubbard on the chalkboard before resuming punishment. When finished, I noticed a pen on the desk. It was fancy, with a carved metallic tip. What was it? I vowed someday I’d have one like it.

     The years went by while I trudged through a bland world of ballpoint pens. One day I remembered Mr. Hubbard. I stopped at Staples and asked an employee, “Can you tell me about fountain pens?” She didn’t know what one was. I asked another. He got someone else to help me. Finally, that employee said, “Don’t you need an ink bottle?”

     After assuring her we were no longer in the age of the feather pen, I looked through the selection myself. Many were in the fifty dollar range, more than I was willing to spend. Then I noticed an introductory sale of Cross pens for fifteen dollars and grabbed one.

     At home, I ripped the package open. It was royal blue and as classy as an Aston Martin. I pressed the tip. Nothing happened. There was an ink cartridge inside, closed at both ends. How was the ink to come out? I turned the cartridge around and tried again. Nothing. After thirty years, I was maddened to use the stupid pen. I shook it. Tried puncturing a hole with a pin. Figured it was dried up, and squeezed it. I had ink all over my finger. I stumbled to the bathroom to wash it off, but was stained for life. I got paper towels and a cup for the ink to run into, and soon there was mess everywhere.

     Dad was outside on a ladder, cleaning the gutters.

     “I need your help,” I announced, lifting ten ink-stained fingers.

     He laughed. “What did you do?”

     “What do you mean? I wrestled an octopus.”

     He came inside and looked at the pen. Pressed the cartridge into a sharp point at the bottom, which delivered ink cleanly to the point.

     “That’s what I was going to try next,” I nodded. I wrote, enjoying the smooth delivery, and offered the pen to Mom. She started with the letter L and I thought, how dear, she’s writing my name. She smiled lovingly, all curlicues, and my heart warmed as she finished.  She passed the paper to me. She’d spelled my name wrong.

     You can’t expect a lifelong dream to come sugar coated in perfection, but if you’ve got Mom’s love and a working pen, you can’t complain.


Road Trip, Part V: Mount Vernon


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     The sad thing about vacation is not taking all your friends with you. The one I brought was happily tucked into a Jacuzzi tub at the Peralynna Manor in Maryland, so I quietly looked over the fruit and cheese plate in the dining room.

     “Excuse me,” a man’s voice said. I turned to find a black man smiling. “Are you having a blessed day?” he asked.

     A Christian, I liked the greeting. “I am,” I beamed. “I always have a blessed day. Are you?”

     He nodded. “Today’s my wedding day.”

     “Oh!” I shook his hand. “Congratulations!”

     His face cast sunbeams. “My wife ain’t like any woman I’ve met. I asked God for her, and I’m sure blessed.”

     A woman in a polka dot dress and big sunhat walked in. “You’ve made this man happy,” I commented. “He can’t help telling the whole world.”

     “We ain’t for fancy weddings,” she smiled. “We’re on a road trip for our honeymoon.”

     I nodded. “A road trip is always a good idea.” I returned to my room to find my friend trudging out of the bathroom.

     “I fell asleep in the Jacuzzi,” she yawned. “It was relaxing. The bubbles got five feet high.”

     She and I drove to Mount Vernon in the morning, and it took our breaths. White, with a red roof and cupola, it stretched before 400 emerald acres that had been in the Washington family since 1674. The house displayed historic paintings, and a framed key to the Bastille, sent in celebration of our country’s freedom. There was a back porch lined with rockers and a grassy hill that dipped to the water. We stepped through the cellar doors underground.

     Nicholas Cage kidnaps the president at Mount Vernon in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, secreting him through a basement tunnel. The crumbling brick and spider webs sent a thrill through me. We climbed back into the sunlight and walked to the docks where cruises crossed the Potomac River. We perused the gardens and slave cabins, watching a blacksmith work. Impersonators told of slave life. Demonstrations of wheat treading, plowing, cooking, and textile processing filled the day while animals frolicked in their stalls. In the gift shop, we admired stationary, cookbooks, tea sets, and jewelry, and a restaurant hosted fried green tomatoes, peanut soup, and shrimp and grits.

     “Bonjour!” a man said, passing by.

     “Bonjour!” another greeted me, and I remembered I was wearing a sweater with the French word across it.

     “Bonjour!” I returned.

     “Hello,” a lady smiled, standing beside me on a tour. “Is this your first time to Mount Vernon?”

     I warmed to her friendliness. “Yes. We just came from Colonial Williamsburg.”

     “So did I! I spent a week there. There was so much to do. Where are you from?”

     “New York.”

     “I’m from Massachusetts. We’re neighbors!”

     “I was in Stockbridge last year.”

     “That’s where I live, in the Berkshires. Isn’t it a wonderful place? What did you see?”

     “I visited Herman Melville’s home and Edith Wharton’s estate.”

     She looked intrigued. “So you like books?”

     “Love them. I’m a writer.”

     She slapped her chest. “I’m a college librarian, and my daughter’s a writer. She’s working on a novel.”

     I laughed, “So am I.” We chatted about her daughter’s novel and mine, and she reached for a pen.

     “Here’s my email address. Maybe you and my daughter could chat. Next time you’re in the Berkshires, let me know.”

     “We could do lunch,” I nodded.

     “Lunch?” She looked up. “You’ll stay with me.”

     Road trips have taught me that, on the road, there’s no need to leave friends behind.

In the Kitchen With Mao


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     When I was a child, Mom would march to my room, hands on her hips, and blare in her Asian staccato, “Come. I will show you how to cook.” It was the voice one would use to announce, “You’ve been conspiring against the Communist government. Now you will die.” I’d retreat deep into my blanket and Mom would swivel around with a huff. “You’ll be sorry when you can’t cook.” Mom’s a regular commandant in the kitchen. It puts fear in the bravest soldier.

     I grew up and couldn’t cook. If I ever had a chance to snag a husband via culinary skills, I blew it. For the last two years, I’ve determined to learn from a gentler friend, Joy of Cooking. Now there’s a silent truce between Mom and I. We don’t interfere with one other’s cooking.

     Thursday, the dam burst. “Why don’t we cook together Sunday for Memorial Day?” she asked. I almost swallowed my tongue. I could picture me cringing under the clack of orders, unable to procure a solid thought while the recipes burn. I like to be queen of the kitchen, captain of my destiny while uninhibitedly trying to fashion a masterpiece. I wouldn’t want clowns somersaulting across the stage while I perform piano or a kid playing kazoo while I’m talking, either. Simplicity is my M.O., but no one else in my family has gotten those genes.

     “How about I do all the cooking,” I offered kindly, touching her arm.

     She yanked away. “No.”

     I issued complaints, but Mom turned on her senior deafness act. “I’ll make a few dishes, and you’ll make a few. That’s how it’s going to be.”

     My conscience chided. The poor thing was willing to expend the little sexagenarian energy she had to cook for friends. How could I balk? It wouldn’t be so bad, my inner voice lied. It might possibly, conceivably, in some universe other than the Milky Way work. I envisioned a stellar menu and opened my mouth.  

     “We will have hamburgers, barbequed ribs, Italian sausage, cole slaw, grilled vegetables, and dessert,” she announced, then added, “Oh, and drive me to the city Saturday. I need some fun.”

     “How will we get everything ready?” I asked, confused. New York was 60 miles away, an exhausting trip. “And we have to clean the house.”

     “Easy,” she snapped. “I’ll make the burgers and grilled vegetables. You make the rest.” I closed my eyes, trying to forget I was working the next day.

     “We’ll have to clean the porch, too,” she added. “I want the dinner outside.” Her house has a wraparound porch the length of the Jets’ football field. Last summer it took two hours to clean a third, and, tired, we’d vowed to finish another day. The facade of the Victorian has remained one third clean ever since.

     “Cleaning the porch will take hours. Do you realize that?”

     “No it won’t. We’ll start tomorrow night after you’re done with work.”

     In the morning, I made a list. She’d do the grocery shopping. My fingers trembled with fear of the approaching storm. She squinted at the list. “What do you need yellow mustard for? I have Dijon.”

     “I can’t make Uncle Ray’s Famous Mustard Barbeque Sauce without it.” She ranted about the effects of the recession on her personal bank account. “I have to have yellow mustard,” I insisted. My ribs were one of my best recipes, and no one would fool with my masterpiece.

     She glared at the list. “Why do you need tart apples? We have apples.”

     “They’re not tart,” I stated the obvious.

     “Why can’t you make pear cake with canned pears?”

     Because I wouldn’t make chocolate cake with motor oil, either. “I need the pears.”

     More explaining and digging in of heels. By now I could’ve food shopped and stopped at Starbuck’s, Wendy’s, and Friendly’s on the way. She searched the pantry for items I might substitute, but I held my ground. Soon she was out the door, guns withdrawn, and the house fell into a tomblike silence which was quite miraculous.

     Friday, I showed up after work, ready to clean the porch.

     “I’m tired,” she whined, curled in front of the T.V. “I hired a housecleaner. The landscaper’s wife.”

     I recalled she likes the porch done a specific way. “The one who only speaks Mexican?”

     “That’s the one.”

     Saturday rolled around. We went to the city. It was a good idea; we had some fun. We came home and the porch was more beautiful than we’d imagined. Everything was going well, except that the trip had us plum tired.

     “Take a nap,” Mom suggested, lying on the couch. But naps were for sissies. Naps were for old people. I was young, vigorous, and indomitable. She slept for an hour while I typed at my laptop. By 5 p.m., it was time to start cooking, and there’d still be enough time for a book in the bathtub.

     Mom took over the kitchen. “I’ll be done in a minute,” she said. It was an hour before she was done. One stall in the process was needing a friend’s recipe, sent to my email address, because Mom isn’t technological. The printer wasn’t working for the first time ever and everything had to be written by hand.

     Now I felt the exhaustion. My muscles flabbed, my shoulders sagged, and my brain flickered like electricity on a windy night. I tried to remember what I was cooking. Two desserts. I’d planned to bake them at the same time.

     Two cakes at two different temperatures. I should’ve thought to check. By eleven o’clock, the second cake came out of the oven and I fell into bed.

     On Sunday, we attended church, then started the finishing touches before the guests would come. Dad invited a family to come early, so they got to watch me sweep and mop the kitchen floor. When the guests arrived, there was more food than a king could wish.

     I’m thankful our guests like to stay a long time. It was 11:30 p.m. when the last filed out the door after sharing the movie, “The Book Thief.” A day to remember, lots of good conversation, shared YouTube videos, overindulgence, and one great memory.

     “Want to go out?” Mom asked Monday morning. It was Memorial Day, no responsibilities. I had an answer prepared. I’m tired. I’m writing all day ‘til my fingers fall off. But I have to admit, the weekend with my mother in the whirlwind was fun. And, despite everything, memorable.

     “I’ll get dressed,” I smiled. “Where are we going?”

Road Trip, Part IV: The Witch Trial


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     My friend and I woke from a peaceful nap to find the world upside down. Wind lashed the hotel as rain pummeled the roof.

     “We have two events tonight at Colonial Williamsburg which we paid for,” I reminded my friend. We grabbed umbrellas, fully equipped for whatever might come.

     We made a dash for the car and drove. The wipers lashed at high speed until we arrived. “Run for it!” I commanded, and we charged across the empty parking lot.

     We waited inside the visitor center for the next shuttle. The wind was blowing everything out of place, including the shuttle-stop sign.

     It arrived, and we joined the family of drenched people within. Wearing thin spring jackets, we shivered as the temperature dropped to fifty degrees lower than the day before. There was just enough time for dinner before the concert. At the merchant’s area, we sprinted across the street to our favorite restaurant.

     The lights were out. A single candle glowed at the greeter’s stand, and I knew it wasn’t for effect. “We’re closing,” she sighed, reaching for her purse. “The power’s out.”

     It wasn’t the end of the world, I told myself. There was another restaurant a few doors down. At that one, a single floodlight shined.

     “That’ll last a half hour.” The greeter squinted up at it. “There’s no light in the kitchen, so we can’t cook. Try the café around the corner.”

     Around the corner sounded more accessible than it was. With the wind picking up and the sky threatening, it seemed a mile away. Our shoes submerged in ocean depth puddles, my umbrella inverting over and over. The café had closed its doors. There was no light anywhere. The entire restaurant district was out, along with our chance to eat.

     The Governor’s Palace was a couple of blocks away, a veritable crossing of a continent. In the rain, I nearly bumped into a man in a short sleeved shirt. I looked him up and down. “You’re wearing short sleeves,” I stated the obvious.

     “I’m from Texas, so this weather isn’t normal. We only have four seasons. Almost summer, summer, it’s still summer, and Christmas.”

     We made it to the Governor’s Palace without drowning, and as we shut our umbrellas and looked back at the rain, the lights in the restaurant district blinked on. We blew through our lips and rolled our eyes as we entered a ballroom basking in candlelight beneath paintings of King George. Wigged musicians performed Mozart and Haydn on antique instruments. Afterwards, we caught the shuttle to the courthouse for the witch trial. I was thankful to arrive, because the storm had increased to epic proportions.

     “Can I help you?” a woman said at the door.

     “We’re here for the witch trial,” I explained, wondering why she didn’t let us in.

     “Oh, that’s at the court room, not the courthouse. It’s at the Capitol Building.”

     “The Capitol Building a quarter mile down the street?” I sobbed.

     She nodded and closed the door. I nearly chewed up the doorknob. But I was no quitter. “Run!” I screamed.

     It was a scene and a half for any comedy. “I can’t believe it,” my friend chanted over and over, her jaw shaking with cold. We ran like fiends down the empty street until my umbrella inverted for the eighth time and wouldn’t be fixed anymore. I hurled it to the ground and screamed, “I hate you!” Then my friend and I stopped, laughing, holding our bellies and getting more drenched. We caught our breath and we were running again, like a British ambush on the Capitol through a minefield of horse droppings.

     My glasses fogged as we snuck quietly into the trial. Our sneakers sloshed, giving away our presence, and we sat on benches, creating puddles. I lifted my chin in pride. We had battled diphtheria and pneumonia, and conquered. “I hope I don’t get re-sick,” my recovering friend sniffed, frowning at me.

     A stocky woman stood before the bar. A wigged judge was circled by a solemn jury of tee shirted tourists. A lawyer brought charges against the woman while wind battered the building around our ears and the doors clattered. She was accused of witchcraft. She had had an altercation with a gentleman, and the next day, his child had died. She had two unusual birthmarks on her body. At the accusations, the woman nearly leapt over the bannister at her accusers, and a man got her under control while the audience removed its hearts from its throats.

     The woman defended herself. “I am innocent.” Her booming voices rang. “I’m no witch.” She laughed and pointed at the plaintiffs. “This is all ridiculous, to accuse me of casting a spell on that man’s child. The child died of illness. My birthmarks have been there from childhood. Hardly proof of witchcraft.”

     The judge could not decide. A man came forward with a suggestion. “It is said witches cannot recite the Ten Commandments because they hate the Bible.”

     “And excellent idea,” the judge said, and ordered the woman to recite.

     She came forward and faced the audience. Lifted her head, and we hoped a fleet of bats wouldn’t roost on our heads. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” she began. One by one, she listed the commands, until she reached the fourth.

     Suddenly, she dropped to the floor. A man helped her up as she apologized. “I’m sorry, I’m exhausted from being in prison. Forgive me.”

     It was time for the verdict. The audience was given the chance to decide. My friend and I voted not guilty, because the evidence was insufficient. They released the defendant from the courtroom, then the lawyer informed us that this had been an historical case in which the woman had truly been set free.

     It was a mad dash to the bus in the tsunami. Then the mad search around town for dinner, with no restaurants open. My friend and I spotted a Spanish bodega. “Hurray!” we cried, and rushed in to the surprise of a sedate staff, and grabbed anything that looked good. White cheddar popcorn. Cup Noodles. In our room, we had college dorm style banquet, leaving our hauntings behind.

Road Trip, Part III: Colonial Williamsburg


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     My friend and I strode a winding path through Colonial Williamsburg, past a plantation and down a main thoroughfare lined with trees before the Governor’s Palace. At Merchant’s Square, a candy shop had an unlimited selection of vintage and modern candy. I peered at “Grandmother’s no bake cookies,” three-inch-high mounds of corn flakes covered in chocolate, and asked for one, with a slice of dark sea salt caramel fudge. Perusing the shelves of chocolate bars, I passed odd flavors such as Texas chili, bacon, beef jerky, and barbeque potato chip, and reached instead for hibiscus peach, edamame crunch, and peanut butter and banana. I brought my basket to the counter, gnarling my nose at the display of buffalo wing soda.

     Little children on school trips were roped together like galley slaves, staring up at men in ruffled collars and white stockings. I smiled, crunching a bag of deep fried peanuts that could be eaten shell and all. In the sun, the thermometer reached ninety degrees.

     In the garden of the King’s Arms, I ordered prime rib with grated horseradish, an herbed popover, and parmesan creamed spinach. There was no room to try the peanut soup or venison, rabbit, and duck pie. Nor bread pudding with vanilla bean sauce. We basked in the shade of an ivy covered trellis while a harpist strummed classical music.

     At the Randolph House, the costumed tour guide explained how the family and servants went about their business. In the middle of her discourse, she added, “Pardon, but I must act the part of a ladies’ maid,” and tuck in my shirt tag. The back houses interested me most on this slave-based trip, smokehouses and sheds where the blacks lived and worked.

     A crowd assembled outside the courthouse as a gentleman announced the Declaration of Independence. His passion thrilled us, reminding us that centuries ago, the document had been read not to tourists, but citizens who understood the risk of defying King George.

     By afternoon I was sunburnt. We made the long trek back to the parking lot, trying to forget the mass of food in our stomachs. My friend was better stocked with steak, two eggs, a pancake, hash browns, chocolate covered gummy bears, and ice cream. I don’t know what we ate that made us giddy, but we started sharing nasty things our moms did to us. I mentioned how my Asian mother bopped me with a fork when she didn’t like my behavior at the table, and the same with chopsticks, when I practiced the piano wrong. Each amped her story to best the other’s, and then we went into a reverie of complaining. We wondered why golf carts hadn’t been supplied to take visitors to their cars. We must have walked five miles.

     A man strolled along the path toward us. I whispered, “I’m going to ask this man if he’ll carry me to my car.”

     “No,” she whispered.

     “I will.”

     He came directly in front of us. “Excuse me,” I said, planning instead to turn to my friend at the last moment and ask if her backpack was heavy.

     “She said nothing!” my friend cried, jumping the gun. I buried a laugh in my sleeve while he frowned at her and kept walking.

     At the hotel, we found our previously noisy neighbors silent. The hotel staff had done their job. We played hangman, then my friend did an acrostic of her sister’s name, using rather unflattering adjectives. The Weather Channel predicted storms for the following day, but we’d already paid for another day at Williamsburg, as well as two evening events, a concert and a witch trial. We couldn’t find any details about the storm, so I spoke with the front desk. “I hear there’s a storm coming tomorrow.”

     “Rain,” the Indian woman answered.

     “How bad will it be?”

     “Raining all day.”

     Well, there was a difference between droplets and a tornado. “Will it be violent?” I pressed.

     “No, just a dripping.”

     That was new meteorological terminology for me. But it didn’t sound dangerous, and we had an umbrella.

     The morning rain poured in sheets. In soggy sneakers, we squeaked our way to the colonial playhouse, only to discover that the event was outdoors and had been cancelled. Luckily, Patrick Henry was passing and clued us in on what to see.

     The courthouse hosted three historic cases. The first was of a man who’d failed to attend church. He explained that he’d changed religion and joined the Presbyterian Church outside town. The judge ruled that he was innocent, and then added, “You probably expected this verdict, sir, since you now believe everything is foreordained.”

     The next case was of a girl who wished to be apprenticed to a seamstress. She would be under contract until eighteen, so she couldn’t seek other employment or leave. “Someday,” the judge warned, “A handsome young man will come along and ask you to run away with him and forget your contract. He’ll promise to give you a better life. But don’t listen. He’ll be lying.”

     The last defendant had failed to pay his taxes. Interestingly, this was April 15th. They chose a man from the audience who played the part, arguing against taxes. When the judge declared him guilty, he asked if the defendant had any questions. “Yes,” the man pleaded, “I’d like to know more about the eighteenth century appeals process, please.”

     At Wren Chapel, James Madison spoke of the importance of freedom of religion; the need for a moral society, without infringing on individual rights.

     The Trellis restaurant offered a lunch of Carolina stew: roasted turkey, mussels, and clams in a broth of cannellini and lima beans, tomatoes, and corn. There were grits at the center topped with spicy shrimp, and cornbread on the side.

     We returned to the hotel for an afternoon nap before the evening’s events. I, for one, had waited years to see an historical witch trial.

     While we napped, the storm picked up magnitude.

Road Trip, Part II: Monticello


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When my fifteen year old companion and I went to the hotel office for an iron, the employee gave me a miniature ironing board with legs just tall enough to stand on top of the bed. “What’s that, a baby surfboard?” my friend asked. I toted it back to our room and struggled to iron a long skirt which couldn’t get around the board. So much for saving money.
The room came with a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, but after seeing the ironing board, I distrusted the hotel’s culinary skills.
The mountains surrounded us as we arrived at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, and began our slave-themed trip. The house reflected the intelligence and brilliance of a man who regularly studied science, politics, architecture, botany, and religion. In the front, Jefferson had mixed plaster and sand to get the look of stone columns, and experimented with paint to make pine doors look like mahogany. He had a weakness for wine and a habit of loaning money to friends who didn’t repay, which always kept him in debt. Jefferson was a great man, and yet a slave owner. It was interesting to contemplate the irony.
Bees were in abundance, everything in bloom, while we waited in line outside the Ordinary, a country buffet near Monticello, housed in a log cabin.
A customer nodded while exiting. “It’s worth the wait.” The fried chicken crunched like rock candy and was juicy inside. There were mashed potatoes, pickled vegetables, and all the trimmings. My friend finished her meal with homemade vanilla ice cream drizzled with fudge.
We drove to Williamsburg, taking the back roads along the James River to view the old plantations, one of which was built in 1614. Then Route 5 wound through town, left, then right, then left, zigzagging, and somehow we made it to our next hotel.
Red Roof Inn was beautiful, clean, and smelled wonderful. My companion hadn’t seen a heat lamp before, and it became her favorite companion to her bubble baths.
We were in the middle of watching “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” when havoc began. It was like a bulldozer plowed through the hotel, making our floor shake. We heard children in a nearby room run to and fro, jump on beds, slam doors, bump walls, and scream, amid barking. The noise kept up from dinnertime until 11:30 at night, when our phone rang one and a half times. I would have to speak with the staff.
We woke in the morning to a coating of green pollen over the world. Sneezing, we went to the office and mentioned our neighbors.
“The people below you are good guests,” the employee contended. “Teachers. They wouldn’t make noise.”
I gaped. “You should have heard it.”
“Oh,” she said, touching her chin. “It must be the family next to you. They have two children and a dog.”
Are you sure it wasn’t a herd of buffalo?
“The teachers complained too. They thought it was you.”
That would explain the phone call. “Is the family leaving today?” I hoped, remembering we would stay for three days.
She shook her head. “They’re here for the week. I’ll speak to them.”
At the Colonial Pancake House, the menu had bacon strip pancakes, cornbread and buckwheat pancakes, Virginia ham, grits, biscuits and gravy, and malt waffles. “Hey y’all,” the waitress greeted. “What would you like?” I ordered the banana chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream and a lake of maple syrup, and we ate like hogs fattening for slaughter.
Colonial Williamsburg was around the corner. There were special events planned for the next evening: a concert at the Governor’s Palace and a witch trial. We paid extra for the events and then wandered the historical town.
If we’d known what the next evening would entail, we’d have run for the hills.

Road Trip, Part I: Donuts and Fried Chicken


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   “I need to go down south,” I informed Mom.

     She swung her head. “Why?”

     “My next book has a runaway slave character. I need to do research.”

     “Are you kidding?” she frowned, the ever frugal one. “First Vermont, then Massachusetts, then Ireland. Why not read a book?”

     “Because I have to see, smell, and touch slave cabins and feel the life there.”

     My Asian friend heard I was going and immediately put in first dibs as companion. A travel consultant, she’d been everywhere but the plantations of South Carolina, where I planned to go.

     My editor heard my plans and balked. “No, no, no. Go Deep South. Where prejudice is as thick as the bacon.” Okay, Google informed me that would be an 18-hour drive.

     Hours researching South Carolina lost, I looked to Mississippi. On the Internet, I spotted a map of the Underground Railroad, a network that helped runaway slaves. Escapees from Mississippi didn’t usually make it north, and those who ended up in New York, as my character would, must come from Maryland or Virginia. I passed it by my editor and that became the new plan.

     My Asian friend backed out once the Carolinas were out of the picture, and then friend after friend informed they had to work. I started to fear roaming dusty country roads alone, until my friend’s daughter came to mind.

     “This is a great opportunity,” my friend said. “I’d like my daughter to learn history, particularly our history.” Slavery was an abundant business in Trinidad, her original home.

     “I don’t like history,” her fifteen year old daughter said, which to me paralleled someone hating chocolate cake.

     “I promise it won’t be all history,” I begged. “We’ll make the trip fun, I promise.” They talked it over for a few days while I chewed my nails. She agreed to go.

     Two days before departure, I got word the girl had left school sick.

     I hopped on the phone. “Are you okay?”

     “It’s the tail end of a cold,” she explained. “I’ll be fine by Saturday.”

     There’s nothing I fear like a cold. All winter long, someone you know has it. It’s transferred deceptively through loving hugs, kisses, and heartfelt conversation. It grabs you. It holds you down. It doesn’t pay you for sick days. As a germaphobe, my mind went code red.

     The next night, I called again. “Are you okay?”

     “Yup, I’m all better.”

     I sighed relief. All better was what I needed to hear. No sniffles. No Robitussen. All better.

     At ten in the morning I showed up at the door. The girl gripped her suitcase and coughed into her elbow. “Okay, I’m ready to go.”

     You’re what? She looked like she belonged in a hospital ward. “Are you sure you feel up to it?” I asked politely, taking four steps back. Still, I packed her with her stuff in the car, figuring it rude to spray her down with Lysol.

     Her father laughed as we got in. “You two will be blowing your noses the whole trip.” I swallowed down a retort. This was no laughing matter. Twelve hundred miles was a long distance to drive with a runny nose.

     By the time I dropped off my canary and fish at a friend’s house and stopped at the store, it was after eleven, but there was no reason why we shouldn’t make it to Virginia by dinnertime.

     We drove from Long Island through Manhattan and into New Jersey. I enjoyed the scenery, leaning my head out the window to avoid contamination. By afternoon we crunched on buttermilk fried chicken, and then returned to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. My companion fell asleep and the next thing I knew, the car pulled a hard right and I smelled burning rubber.

     I pulled off at an exit as my hubcap grinded the concrete. The tire was flat. It was one of three I’d just bought from a recommended used tire place that sells “like new.”

     Two guys in a pickup truck pulled up. They looked at the tire, waggled their heads, got the donut on, and directed me to a repair shop that was miraculously open after 5 p.m. If I’d called roadside assistance, it would’ve taken longer, so I breathed a prayer of thanks.

     Before taking off, one of the guys leaned in my window. “Do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.

     I smiled. “I certainly do.”

     He gave me a thumbs-up and patted the car goodbye.

     A serviceman put on three new tires while my companion and I waited. I refused to utilize the used ones after hearing there was a hole in the side of the flat that proved the tire faulty. It took more than $300 out of my travel fund, along with $600 for repair work from the week before, so the prime rib dinners I’d dreamt of were quickly fading into Chicken McNuggets.

     With the used tires stashed in the trunk for future complaint, we reached Virginia at eleven o’clock at night and ordered take-out from Logan’s Roadhouse to bring back to the hotel.

     “I can’t believe we got a flat,” my companion said, enjoying her steak, garlic mashed potatoes, fried apples, and rolls in bed, while I forked a modest salad.

     “It could’ve been worse,” I said, initiating what would be a motto for this trip. “If it’d happened earlier in Manhattan, that would’ve been a nightmare. No one would help us, we’d block traffic, and I’d never find the repair shop. If later, we’d be on the side of a country highway at night with no street lights.”

     “You’re right,” she beamed, breaking her plastic fork on the steak and skewering it instead with a knife.

The Eye


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     It’s interesting to have an ex-detective as a neighbor.

     When I first moved into my house, I was too busy moving stuff to greet my neighbors. Then I zipped in and out to work unmindful of what went on.

     Little did I know that he was watching.

     One day, another neighbor and I chatted, and he mentioned the detective. “He says you haven’t so much as a looked in his direction, and it’s made him suspicious.” I recalled the frowning man who always seemed to be standing around and wondered what could mark me for a felon. “He wonders if you avoid him on purpose.”

     This didn’t sound like the best route toward citizen of the block. The next time I pulled up the street, I waved at the man on his front porch. He stared back with narrowed eyes.

     One day, he stood on his lawn, and I stopped the car and rolled down the window. “How are you?” I asked. “I’m Leila. I’m sorry we haven’t met.”

     He scrutinized me before speaking. “I thought there was something up with you, you know. Somebody who doesn’t acknowledge people is often up to no good.”

     Not the textbook greeting. I laughed good-naturedly. “I’m a nice person, really.” He assessed my face as if deciding whether to eat it. “I hear you were a detective,” I got right out there. “Got any cool stories?”

     He pursed his lips and squinted at the sun. “Nope.” Gripping his rake, he walked away.

     From then on, whenever he was around, I made sure to acknowledge him, figuring one must be on congenial terms with the law.

     Over time, he opened up. He told me about his world travels, his family, and which were the best restaurants on Long Island. A likeable guy, despite his reputation as neighborhood Big Brother.

     I went the extra mile. On Christmas I left him and his wife a loaf of homemade bread. In response, he brought a wow of a cheesecake for New Year’s. When he handed me the box in twine, I smiled, “One of these days I’d love to hear a detective story.”

     He chuckled nicely and shook his head no.

     A couple of months went by. I invited him and his wife for dinner. As the meal wound down, my writer’s instincts beat at my head with a stick. “Tell me just one story?” I urged.

     “Never,” his wife commented. “He doesn’t talk about his job. Ever.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     He half smiled. “I don’t know. I’ve seen everything you could think of, but it’s like my mind’s clear of it. I don’t think about it. I don’t even dream about it.” I realized that having seen traumatizing New York events must have been difficult, so I decided not to press him. “Oh,” he said, suddenly remembering, “I just thought of one now.” He told me in detail the case of a robber he’d chased down, over and around property fencing. I thought of how he usually hunched when he mowed the lawn, the back problems he suffered, and wondered if it was a result of past work.

     When he’d finished, I said, “Thank you the story. It was fascinating.”

     Now that we’re friends, the detective has made it his business to watch over his house and mine.

     “Leila,” he whispered over the phone early one morning. “There’s a red Toyota Camry driving up and down the street. I don’t know if he’s looking for an address, but I have to go out, so keep an eye on him. Male. Caucasian. Blond hair. Around forty-five.”

     I laughed. “Will you stop sounding like a detective?” The air went dead with no return of humor. “Okay,” I whispered back. “You can count on me.”

     Another time, he was traveling to Florida to visit his daughter. “Can you watch over my wife and the house?” he asked.

     “Sure,” I announced. “I won’t let anything happen.” I’m as useless as soggy spaghetti against a band of invaders, but a promise was all he wanted.

     This morning a huge truck rolled up the street. In two minutes, my phone rang. “I don’t know if you know,” he warned, “But there’s a truck parked in front of your house. White. There are guys getting out. Mexican.”

     I grinned. “They’re taking down trees on my property.”

     “Oh,” he sung. “Well, you know me. I have to watch out for people.”

     “I know. You’re what every neighborhood needs. Thanks, friend.”

Hide and Go Teach


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     I stood inside the front door, staring back at my student’s grandmother. “What did you just say? You can’t find Brooke?”

     The woman shrugged. “She was here a minute ago.”

     It took a moment to register. One of my best students was missing in action.

     The woman wrung her hands. “She cried when I told her you were coming. Said she didn’t want a lesson. Then she disappeared. She must be hiding.”

     She searched the house while I stood mystified. Brooke was seven years old, cute as a pink plastic button. She practiced faithfully without coaxing. Her eyes and ears were always attentive to the lessons and she loved music. But seven year olds could be unpredictable, I knew, and I’d only known her a few months. Maybe she had a side I didn’t know.

   “Brooke,” her grandmother called, “Please come out. The teacher came a long way to see you.”

     There was no sign of Brooke.

     Doubts crowded my mind. Would she refuse to come out every time she didn’t feel like it? Was she a “princess”? Maybe this was my fault. Awed by her talent, I’d worked her pretty hard. Maybe I’d pushed her past the limit.

     Her mother marched in from the garage. “I got the call from my mom. Did Brooke come out yet?”

     “No,” I sighed. “Maybe you could coax her.”

     “Brooke!” she bellowed, cupping her hands to her mouth, “Come out now or you’ll be in big trouble!” Brooke stayed fixed to her clandestine location, and frankly, I would’ve, too.

     Finally, the mother paid me and apologized, putting her hand to her forehead. “I guess lots of kids do this to you.”

     No. This was the first time in my twenty-five-year career. But I didn’t want to sink her boat.

     Week after week, the mother cancelled. She couldn’t convince Brooke to have a lesson. She and I began to worry. The child had amazing potential. The way we saw it, Brooke’s future was on the line. But neither of us wanted to force a child to study music, the expression of the heart, if Brooke’s heart wasn’t in it.

    One day, I got a phone call. The mother had convinced Brooke to have me come. To my relief, Brooke greeted me at the door. After sitting at the piano and chatting about school, I folded my hands. “Tell me, Brooke, why did you hide last time I came? I’m not mad. I’m just wondering.”

     She stared at her hands.

     “Was it because you don’t like lessons?”

     She shook her head.

     “Are you too busy? Does it make you tired?”


     I thought again. “Maybe the lessons are too long?”

     She turned to me, swallowing. “I didn’t practice that week, Leila.”

     I realized just then: that would have been the first time she’d ever missed. “Brooke, you thought I’d be disappointed?”

     Her doe eyes glazed.

     I sighed with relief. “Brooke, you’re a wonderful student, better than most I know. I couldn’t expect you to work hard all the time. You want to know a secret?” I whispered, leaning close. “I didn’t practice this week, so how could I blame you?” I pulled out her favorite stickers. “If you need to take off once in a while, it’s okay.” She nodded understanding, so I picked up my pen to get to work. “Just a few reminders. Whenever you play a song well, you get a sticker. Every week you practice, you get a candy. And if you practice extra, you get a prize at the end of the month. Sound good?”

     She nodded and pulled open her music. “Yes. Can we start now?”

     Brooke has practiced double ever since.


The Grizzly Growler


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    Craig, my ten year old student, thinks he’s a bear.

     He signed up for NYSSMA so an adjudicator could score him on his musical ability. But this requires meticulousness, and Craig thinks he never does anything wrong.

   “You played a wrong note,” I said, once we’d started training. He raised his typical growl, folded his arms, and buried his face on the piano ledge. “Come on, fix it,” I urged. A few moments’ pause to mourn the loss of perfection, and he returned to the piece.

     Another time, I caught him playing too quickly.

     “Slow down, Craig,” I advised.

     A big growl. This time, almost a roar. Then his ferociousness caved and he crumpled on the bench and looked to be dead.

     “Come on, Craig. It isn’t a big deal, just a mistake. We all make mistakes.”

     “Craig!” his mom shrieked from the kitchen. “Stop this nonsense and get back to work!”

     This went on for about three months.

     One day, Craig’s frustration reached its zenith. We were nearing NYSSMA time and the song still required some fixing. “You made a mistake,” I pointed out.

     Tears glazed his eyes and his face went Shanghai red. “No, I didn’t.”

   “You were supposed to play G,” I explained.

     “I did!”

     I sighed, “Just fix it.”

     More growling, groaning, and baring of the claws. A grumpy old man faced the music and pounded the rest of the song.

     I folded my hands, realizing he thought I was the enemy. “Craig,” I soothed, “Do you know why I tell you your mistakes? Not because I think it’s fun. Because I want you to do great at NYSSMA. I want you to get a big, fat score and show the judge you’re the best ever.” His breathing started to calm. “You’re one of the best students I have, so we might as well shoot for perfect. You’re going to blow away the judge.”

     He thought for a moment. Then he set to work with more focus. From then on, there were no growls. Craig figured that if he couldn’t convince me he was perfect, maybe at least he could convince the judge.

     Soon, it was the last lesson before the event. I reiterated all the details and Craig listened intently and bobbed his head. “Is that all?” he asked.

     “The one thing left is the most important.” His eyes perked as I reached for something in my binder. “I’ve never shown you this. It’s only for special occasions. The lucky NYSSMA sticker.” I chose one and affixed it to his book. “If you rub this just before you see the judge, it’ll make you play better. No fooling.” His grin told me he might think this was silly.

     A week later, Craig’s score came in. My gaze shot up from the report. “Craig!” I blared. “You got a perfect score! How did you manage it?”

     “What do you mean?” he frowned. “You told me to rub the lucky sticker. And I did.”

     I laughed. “Craig, now tell me. Did the hard work pay off?”

     He didn’t bat an eyelash. “Yes.”

     With that behind us, we got to work on a new song. And once again the fallible Craig hit a sour note.

     “No,” I shook my head.

     He faced me with a fixed gaze. “Yes.”


     He looked at the music again and slyly switched the note.

     “Yes!” I affirmed.

     He smirked. “Well Leila, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.”