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I put my nearly empty glass on the bar, a little light headed as I returned my view to the television. A guy you’d never want to sit next to on a bus wailed, “Get up, c’mon get down with the sickness!” My head bobbed involuntarily to the heavy beat of the music. Before me, Lenny the bartender appeared, nodding in a way that said- you look like you’re ready for another. Perhaps it’s a sign you are spending a little too much time at a pub when the bartender can communicate with you telepathically. Lenny scooped up my glass and my shrinking pile of money. When he returned a minute later, he put down a fresh pint of amber relief and slapped my change down on the bar. Four bucks left. I glanced at my wrist and focused for a second before I could make out the time. Let’s see, I’d put a twenty on the bar a little more than an hour ago, now I was down to four. If I left that for Lenny, I should get one more on the house and I’d be on my way. On the TV some blonde with a knockout figure painted in spandex gyrated to music created in a laboratory in California somewhere. I took a long, refreshing pull on my beer. If I thought way back, I could almost remember a time when I didn’t like the taste of beer. Something brushed against my back. I turned, pleasantly surprised to find a pretty lady had snuck up and taken the seat next to me. I stared a little longer than I should have as she removed her black leather jacket and took her seat. After arranging her purse on the back of her stool, she looked up and smiled at me. In that very instant, I felt the piercing of the arrow in my chest and knew I was in love. “Hi,” she said. Her smile exuded more happiness than I had felt in the past five years. I went to return the greeting, but the charming hello I had in mind was caught up in my throat, so what came out was sort of a,”Hcccckk…” What a dope. I took a sip of beer, forced my brain into second, then third gear. I wiped my lips on my sleeve, put my hand over my mouth and cleared my throat. “Excuse me,” I said. “You caught me with a frog in my throat. Let me try again. Hi.” A wicked smile grew across her face. “Well, I can think of worse things.” “Amen to that,” I said, and took another sip of beer. “You almost ready for another?” she asked. We both looked at my half empty pint. Then I looked back at her. She was absolutely breathtaking. At least to a guy with three and a half pints and no food in him. Her hair was a medium length, sandy-blonde and just a little bit tussled. Soft hazel eyes complimented a smile capable of melting concrete. The perfect ivory in her gums must be worth a million bucks. True confession time, I have a real thing for teeth. What can I say? I am awed by a nice set of chompers. My shrink, if I had one, would say this dates back to my childhood and my crooked teeth that were desperately in need of braces. For strictly financial reasons, this thought had never occurred to my parents. Fortunately, Frank Thomas knocked my front six teeth out in a fight back in high school. The reconstruction wasn’t too painful, in retrospect, and now the fakes look pretty good. The gorgeousness next to me looked like an executive of some sort, probably just left work after a long day. She wore a bright red dress with a lacy, cream colored blouse. Very bold and confident. A sparkling pearl necklace brought my attention downwards. She crossed her legs to reveal exactly what I knew would be there. Slinky red pumps and a slit up her dress revealing just enough thigh to make my spine turn to jello. What incredible legs. A musically oriented guy could write a song about legs like that. Da Vinci would beg to sculpt them. She interrupted my stupor by asking, “What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink in this place?” I turned, and magically Lenny was there. How does he do that? “What’ll you have?” Lenny queried the newcomer. She looked toward me, eyes bright, not saying a word. “How about a pint of Bass,” I said to Lenny. “And another for me.” “And a couple of shots of Cuervo Gold,” she added. Ordering up tequila on my tab, are ya? Well, she’s got brass, and good taste, at least. “What’s your name?” I asked as I removed another twenty, emptying my wallet. Guess I’d be hoofing it home tonight. “Melissa,” she said, and I shook her hand. A nice firm grip. Excellent, I like that, shows good character. “I’m Joe, nice to meet you.” Lenny returned with our drinks. Melissa picked up her shot glass in one hand, a salt shaker in her other. She looked to me. “Bottoms up,” she said. I grabbed my shot of the oily gold liquid, but paused as I watched Melissa toss a sprinkle of salt over her shoulder onto the floor, then threw back her tequila. She closed her eyes and raised her chin skyward. She seemed to have a religious experience as the liquor slid down her throat. I stared in fascination and it was all I could do not to lean and nibble that incredible ivory neck. She came out of her momentary trance and passed me the salt shaker. I mimicked her gesture, tossing the salt over my shoulder and downing the shot. When I closed my eyes though, the only image that came to mind was my lawn mower. More specifically, pouring gasoline into the open hole of the gas tank of my mower. So I returned immediately to the present and washed the nastiness away with another swallow of beer. We passed the next few minutes with typical bar small talk. She was in charge of mortgages at Wesson Loans, liked to mountain bike and was thirty-one. She looked up at the television where another anorexic bombshell out of that California mold was screeching and moaning about some boy and how she missed him. Melissa scowled as if there was something nasty in her drink. “Excuse me,” she said to Lenny. “Would you mind putting on the football game?” Wordlessly, Lenny complied, and for a few minutes Melissa was transfixed to the screen while she waited for the score. Meanwhile, I was falling deeper and deeper into the well. A beautiful woman who likes tequila, beer and football? God, are you playing with me? If she’s single and likes Monty Python, I might propose on the spot. I’m just a hopeless romantic though. Sometimes I think I should just tattoo sap on my forehead. A pretty smile, some friendly conversation and the slightest hint of interest and I’m a goner. I just can’t resist the feminine compliment to the beasts of this planet. Maybe I have overactive pheromone receptors, I don’t know. Of course, I had noticed the lack of a ring on the appropriate finger. “You’re not married?” She put down her beer, and a delicious little foam mustache clung to her upper lip. Like a kid with an ice cream cone, her tongue streaked across in a flash and wiped things clean. She gave me a mischievous grin, weighing her answer. “”Separated,” she said, still smiling. “Sorry,” I said reflexively. “No biggie, “she answered with a shrug of her shoulders. “My fault. He caught me sneaking out, so I really can’t blame him.” My eyes must have been as big as yo-yos at this point, and it took a second to retrieve my jaw from the floor. Nothing secretive about this one. “Really? Wow.” I know, I’m no Shakespeare in the dialogue department, but I was pretty stunned by this announcement. After a meditative glance at the bottles behind the bar, she asked,” And you?” “Me? Ahh, umm, no, I’m not married.” She raised her eyebrows. “Girlfriend?” Warm blood crept up my neck. “Well, sort of…” She just nodded, glanced at the game and finished off her beer. Lenny appeared with two fresh pints, placed them on the bar and said, “These are on the house.” “Much obliged,” I said. Through the corner of my eye, I caught Melissa staring at me. She turned in her stool to her purse. After taking a twenty from her wallet, she removed a sketch pad and two pencils. Adding the twenty to my dwindling pile of funds, she asked, “Do you mind if I sketch you?” Melissa crossed her incredible legs again, resting her pad on her thigh. For an instant I nearly saw all the way to Christmas. She asked why I was grinning. I had to think fast to tell her I just remembered a joke. “If everything is coming your way—you’re probably in the wrong lane.” She giggled at this. Her laugh was infectious, and made me want to hold her, tickle her until she begged me to stop. “Are you an artist? I thought you said you worked at the loan place.” “No, I’m no artist. I just like to draw, been doing it all my life. Mostly I’m just a doodler, but sometimes when I find a really interesting face, I like to draw that.” She turned a little more toward me, her pencil scratching across the paper. “So talk,” she said. “Tell me what you believe in, your take on the meaning of life.” And so, we talked. I told her of my belief in God, but uncertainty about the true nature of Jesus. She told me how much she loathed Trump, called him the commander in cheat. I laughed, insisting the Democrats were no better. We tapped our glasses together and made a pact that in the future we would both vote Green. Lenny brought us fresh beers and she told me of her life growing up in Southern Missouri. Wednesday evening bible study, clumsy boys in baseball caps, and the best peach cobbler in the world. All the while she drew, glancing up with a look of concentration that only endeared her more to me. I had finished with a quick review of my hometown blues and we were starting in on possible Super bowl favorites when a large, dark shadow enveloped her. One of the hugest, scariest people I have ever seen came up behind Melissa. This guy must have been six four, maybe three hundred pounds. He wore a black biker’s jacket, black jeans and looked like he could easily bench press a Volkswagen. His long hair was tied back into a braid, and a lit cigarette drooped from the corner of his mouth. He put his giant paws on the back of her stool and leaned over to look at her drawing. I was about ready to scream for Lenny to grab the Louisville Slugger I know he keeps under the bar, when Melissa looked at the massive creature and cheerily said , “Oh, hi babe.” Babe? Is she familiar with this creature? Melissa turned to me. “Vern, this is my new friend Joe. Joe, this is Vern.” Vern had the eyes of a falcon. His stare made me feel like a stranded field mouse. Without saying a word, his paws still on the stool, somehow he twirled the smoldering cigarette upwards and inwards into his mouth. Just like that—it was gone. As he exhaled, streams of smoke billowed out of his nostrils, reminding me of a horrific, bloody-horned bull from a Saturday morning cartoon. Melissa chuckled and poked him in the belly with her pencil. “Vern, stop. Be nice, you’re scaring him.” With another quick motion of his tongue, the cigarette was back in the corner of his lips and he grinned at me. He put out a hand that could have palmed my head. I took it hesitantly, realizing he could crush my bones as easily as if they were potato sticks. Vern spoke for the first time since entering the pub. “Ready to go, babe? Show starts in an hour.” “Just a minute, I wanna finish this first.” Over my initial fear that Vern would rip my head from my torso and paint the bar with my blood, I asked if he would join us in a drink. “I don’t drink,” he replied. “But, thanks.” Melissa added some finishing touches, then put her sketch pad down and polished off her beer. “Vern and I are going to see a new jazz group at the Flynn tonight. It was nice chatting with you Joe, thanks for the company.” Gigantor here is going to listen to jazz? I could picture him as a bouncer at a Rolling Stones concert, maybe. But jazz? I asked if I could see her drawing. She handed me the sketch pad while Vern helped her on with her jacket. On the page was a remarkably good reproduction of myself. Not a cartoon caricature, but near photographic quality. The curly hair, the dimple in my chin, even the edge in my nose that resulted from another unfortunate incident with a fist. The eyes weren’t quite right though, they were half closed and kind of bleary. And I had this silly smirk on my face. Aside from that, it was really good. The drawing was from my chest up, and I hadn’t noticed at first, but Melissa added a flower in my shirt pocket. A rose, drooping limply, like a two-week-old stalk of celery. Somehow she made the petals look as if they were dying, with a single one floating downward on unseen currents. “That’s really good, Melissa. You really have a talent there.” She took the sketch pad back, then surprised me by leaning forward and giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. I could smell the vanilla and peach scent of her perfume, and my insides ached with the longing I had for her sweetness. As I heard the door of the pub close behind them, Lenny came over and picked up Melissa’s glass. “Thought you were gunna win the lottery tonight, Joe my boy.” I was still lost in the warm feeling her kiss had left on my cheek, and the image of that falling petal. I pulled on my coat, retrieved my cane from under my stool and replied, “Guys like me don’t win the lottery, Len. We just pay for them.”
I drove by the place three times before catching a glimpse of the overgrown path, barely visible through the tangles of honeysuckle. Perhaps it was my time in the city, but I was expecting a driveway, even though the parched mud flat I was driving on could hardly qualify as a road. I pulled off into some tall grass and parked, still a little uncertain as to why I was here. I turned and got out only a wee bit slower than normally, my protruding belly no more than a minor hindrance at this point. From the road, the old Washington place resembled the dozen or so other abandoned homes I saw on my drive out this morning. Apparently this faraway corner of the county had missed the economic boom of the nineties. A sagging roof was fighting gravity, windows were broken, and the rickety porch didn’t look like it could hold the weight of a healthy tick hound. Closer, though, I could see that someone, probably teenagers, had painted nigger on the twisted, one-hinged door. At the base of the house, chunks of glass from broken beer bottles glimmered in the midafternoon sun. The left side of the top part of the house was missing, and black crust indicated where a fire long ago left its mark. I wondered who put it out. The newspaper clipping I read at the library said Mrs. Lenore Washington disappeared without a trace on the night of May 27, 1954. It was believed she took her two children with her, although the Gazette didn’t mention their names or ages, and I couldn’t find any follow-up articles in the collection of microfilm. Then I saw the tree and froze. A towering Dutch elm bowed westward, as if leaning away from the heat and the hate of that night. A tree that was perhaps 150 years old, a survivor of a plague and a fire not twenty feet away. Across a strong, lower branch were the remnants of a rope. Tired, frayed edges barely managed to hold onto the limb it had encircled for so many years. I stared at that vestige that remained on long after the residents had been removed. I closed my eyes, but still saw the dark figure swinging in the night. “There’s strange fruit,” I muttered, the voice of a ubiquitous blues singer playing in my thoughts, “hanging from the trees…” In the thick weeds behind me a cricket chirped, slow and deliberate and unexpectedly near. The sound jerked me back to reality, and I made my way around to the other side of the house with one hand protectively on my belly. I didn’t walk by the elm. I couldn’t walk by the elm. Towards the back of the house I was surprised to find a cherry tomato vine creeping out of the brush, a handful of ripe tomatoes waiting patiently to be harvested. This must have been the Washington’s garden at one time. Somehow the tomatoes had reseeded and were still here many generations after human hands had planted them. I plucked one of the bright red treats, popped it in my mouth, and was taken aback at the tartness. I kicked my foot into the thick overgrowth and found several small gourds and what looked to be a wild celery plant. I picked one of the gnarly gourds, a yellowish thing about the size of a baseball, and took it with me. I ran my fingers over the bumps like they were Braille and saw the headline again that brought me to this place. Murderous Mob Lynches Local Man. I continued my loop around the house. The sweet smell of honeysuckle filled the air, and I breathed it in deep. I was close to the burned section now, and I wondered again how the fire was put out. Why didn’t the Washington place burn to the ground after the hoods and torches set it ablaze? This far in the country there were no fire hydrants. In the fifties, fire departments weren’t likely to put out a fire at a Negro residence anyway. Did the neighbors lend a hand? Did they help Lenore Washington escape with her kids? Did they see the Washingtons as people like themselves, regular folks doing the best they could, or were they a part of the mob that was so full of hate it could kill? The old news clip stated Trevor Washington was believed to have been involved with an unnamed white woman. The article gave no proof or substantiation, but that was America in the fifties. How about today?, I wondered as I came upon the tree again. I looked down, half expecting to see blood stains or perhaps a worn out pair of work boots, but there was only thick, untamed grass. I rubbed my belly, that two-pound ball of life inside me, gently squeezed the gourd and remembered the razor wire words of my mother before I left. “No white man will ever touch you again.” I spit the residual bitterness of the wild tomato into the dirt. At my car, I looked a last time at the old elm tree and watched as a huge black crow lit on one of the upper branches. It cawed out a warning in a single manic note and stared at me. A cold chill ran down my back and into my baby. I put the gourd in the empty cupholder and rubbed my belly again for comfort. I’m not sure which of us needed it more.
Burden of Gratitude
She wasn’t surprised when the only other patron in the hotel bar took the empty stool next to her. “Mind?” He asked. She turned and performed a quick assessment. White shirt and loosened tie meant he was traveling on business. Sandy blonde hair, slight wrinkles at the corners of playful hazel eyes, somewhere in his mid-forties. A little short, but broad shouldered, thick arms and just a hint of a middle-aged paunch. She nodded. He sat and ordered a Dewar’s over ice. “Patrick Conrad.” He extended a hand. She put down her wine and accepted the hand. “Emily McPherson.” “What brings you to Indianapolis, Emily?” His voice was relatively uncharacteristic, perhaps Pennsylvania or Michigan or one of those other accentless states. “Just passing through.” She considered telling him that she’d started off in Biddeford, Maine, the day before, made it to a town just outside of Rochester yesterday, and after nine long hours in the car, pulled into the Ramada about an hour ago. But after two days of minimal conversation, she’d grown to appreciate the unspoken, and opted for a sip of Merlot instead. “Business or pleasure?” he asked, taking a healthy pull from his scotch. Despite the lack of a wedding ring, she noticed the untanned band around the second finger on his left hand. A hand that probably spent a lot of time outside a car window while he drove from town to town selling computers or pharmaceuticals or whatever kind of widgets filled the trunk of his company car. “A little of both,” she said. “And, neither.” His caterpillar eyebrows raised in a ‘do tell’ fashion. Again she opted to leave her thought hanging. Don, the bald bartender with a graying, Stalin-like mustache, wiped the clean granite bar top in front of them and placed a bowl of mixed nuts and goldfish between their drinks. “Since we appear to be playing twenty questions, I’ll go with—and what is your final destination?” She smiled. He gave off a genuine vibe, not sleazy or full of himself, just a guy killing time before he has to get into his car again by chatting with the only other person in the bar. “Not sure. Southern California somewhere. I hear San Diego is beautiful, but very expensive.” “Right on both counts,” Patrick said.”I attended a conference there four years ago. I work for Amesbury, the third largest synthetic flooring manufacturer in the country. In the week I was there, it was sunny and in the low eighties every day. And the boys in accounting nearly shit their pants, pardon my French, when I turned in my expense report. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people, fabulous restaurants and a great zoo, but it ain’t cheap.” He threw a handful of the bar mix into his mouth and signaled to Don to bring another drink for both of them. “Why California?” She figured if she was going to have another glass of wine, she better eat something and also took a handful of nuts. “It’s as far away from Maine as I can get in my car.” He waited as Don brought the drinks, handed him a twenty and sniffed his scotch before drinking. “You running away, or just taking a little personal vacation?” She twirled the wine in her glass thoughtfully. Three days ago her husband had left a post-it note on the refrigerator which read: Pick up my shirts at the cleaners. Get more dog food for Max. I’ll be home around 7 tonight so wait on dinner. No please, no thank you. “A little of both, I suppose.” “Things a little rocky with the hubby?” he asked. She saw Bobby in her mind. His scowl, the passive aggressive hurt in his eyes, like a puppy that has just been smacked with a rolled up magazine. The contempt at her drinking with another man. “I’m pretty sure things are over with the hubby.” “You’re still wearing the ring, I notice.” “Habit,” she answered. “And a vague hope it may keep away lecherous men.” He laughed and a playful smirk grew at the corners of his mouth. “Is that a hint?” Now it was her turn to smile. “The jury is still out.” “Look,” he said, biting on an ice cube from his glass. “I have a long evening ahead of me and I’d rather spend the time with a pretty lady than by myself.” He glanced at his watch, a sleek silver model that looked expensive. “It’s going on 7:30, and I’m famished. I know a great Indian restaurant about three blocks from here. Can I buy you dinner?” She did a quick mental calculation. There was a money order for thirteen thousand dollars in her suitcase, half of the savings account she’d built with Bobby. Hopefully, it would be enough for a fresh start. There was about four hundred bucks in cash in her purse, and she had a new credit card, with the bills going to a post office box so she could charge without Bobby tracing her. Part of her would like the free meal, but she didn’t want to give the wrong impression. “I’ll pay for myself. Give me ten minutes to freshen up, and I’ll meet you in the lobby.” In her room she brushed her teeth and hair, and dabbed on a touch of lip gloss. She looked hard at the woman in the mirror, checking the eyes for the crow’s feet women in her family were famous for. She took her earrings out, considered changing to a gold, dangly pair, then decided to stick with the plain white hoops. In the suitcase on the bed she found her medicine bag, removed several bottles of pills and began counting. Two cyclosporine, two rapamycin, one prednisone, one Lipitor and three 50 mg toporols. For the third day in a row, she left the Prozac unopened. The handful of pills didn’t mix well with the wine in her stomach, and she belched like a bullfrog in a moonlit bog. The cyclosporine gave her breath a slight sulfury odor, and caused fine blonde hairs to grow on her back and shoulders. Yes, it could be removed with wax, but it still hurt like hell. The rapamycin caused undesirable scar tissue growth, and the prednisone lowered her bone density. At thirty-six, she’d already developed osteoporosis, an old woman’s disease. Next, she dug into her purse, pulled her cell phone out, and reluctantly turned it on. As soon as a signal was found it chirped a dozen or so times. A quick scan showed seventeen voice mails, and twenty-three texts. Most were from Bobby, although three were from her mother and two from her older brother. Bobby had undoubtedly coaxed them into helping bring her back. Since cell signals were traceable, she would email them later. But, what would she say? He hadn’t hit her or cheated on her or gambled away their money or taken up drinking. No, Bobby McPherson, who made fifty-four thousand dollars a year as a state department of labor statistician, and chaired the welcoming committee at the First Congregational Church of Biddeford, was by all accounts a stand-up guy. Despite telling herself not to, Emily checked the latest text. After all I’ve sacrificed for you, how could you do this to me? Patrick was waiting for her in the lobby. He’d changed into a navy blue polo shirt and she detected a musky cologne she hadn’t noticed in the bar. “Shall we drive, or would you prefer to stretch your legs?” he asked. “I spent all day in the car,” she said. “I could really use the walk.” Although Indianapolis wasn’t New York or Boston, to Emily the number of shops and offices and lights were quite a change. As they strolled, Patrick told her about how, after bouncing around a handful of jobs, he’d ended up selling flooring for Amesbury and found his niche. He was based in Pittsburgh, but covered all of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Western New York state. When she asked about his family, he didn’t flinch or lie, telling her he’d been married for twenty years to his college sweetheart. They had two kids, Laura, who was sixteen and ready to change the world, and Timmy, a sedentary twelve-year-old who sat on the couch and played video games for hours on end. The Bombay Palace was about half full when they arrived. It was an immense white building which really did look palatial. Inside were fine rugs, elephant and various goddess statuettes, and pungent odors of cardamom, curry and other exotic spices. After being seated, Emily ordered another glass of red wine while Patrick switched to a beer called Taj Mahal, which came in a large, twenty-two ounce brown bottle. “To fresh starts.” Patrick raised his glass. Emily clinked her glass to his and sipped, savoring the dry taste of the wine. She admitted to Patrick that she’d never had Indian food, as Bobby’s idea of dining out meant going to the Longhorn Steakhouse for a rib-eye with mashed potatoes. Patrick helped her order a fry bread appetizer and a lamb curry dish that was spicy and delicious. He shared his chicken korma, which was so hot it made her forehead sweat. While the dutiful, dark-skinned waiter refilled her water and brought them both another drink, she told Patrick about her job selling housewares at Macy’s in the Portland Mall, and how she’d been taking pottery classes for the past two years. “Ever sell anything?” he asked. “Oh, no.” she felt suddenly shy. “I’ve made some funky candle holders, some bowls, a few mugs. Not much more. I just like the feel of the fresh clay in my hands, and the sensation as it spins on the wheel, slowly taking shape. The raw clay, it’s full of possibilities.” He held her hand as they walked back to the Ramada, and she didn’t object. He was nice, made her laugh when he joked about how bad a cook his mother was. Her single cooking method was to boil everything for a half hour, no matter what the recipe called for. “Instead of the typical freshman fifteen,” he said, “In my first year of college I gained fifty pounds!” They walked by a shoe store, a hair salon, a bridal boutique with headless mannequins wearing thousand dollar dresses. “One time,” she said, feeling a little tipsy from the wine, “My friend Stacey and me went to a complete stranger’s wedding.” “Is life in Maine so boring you have to resort to crashing weddings?” “It was, I dunno, sort of a dare. Stacey said she’d never been to a wedding. We were seventeen and stupid, so I suggested we dress up on Saturday and visit all the local churches until we found a wedding. We hit on our second church, Saint Gregory’s. We sat on the bride’s side, then followed a couple of cute guys to the reception. They bought us drinks and we danced and had a helluva time.” “Did anyone discover you weren’t invited?” Emily laughed, caught up in the memory. “Nope. You know those match books they always have at weddings? Seth and Maggie, October 10, 1999? We just told people we were friends of Maggie’s, and avoided her and her family during the reception.” She looked toward the sky, but didn’t see any stars because of the city lights. “It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to.” Emily allowed Patrick to convince her to have one more drink at the hotel bar, and then accompanied him to his room. The four, or was it five, glasses of wine had relaxed her, loosened up her usual inhibitions. When they kissed, she could taste the scotch on his breath, smell the Indian restaurant mixed with cologne on his skin. He helped her with her sweater and jeans, and she pulled the polo shirt over his broad chest, marveling at how hairy he was. In bed, she in her bra and panties, him in his boxers, he ran a finger languidly over her smooth skin, then along the rough scar that curved on her left side from an inch or so below her rib cage to just above her pubic bone. “What’s this from?” he asked softly, kissing the coarse skin. In her mind, she saw Bobby doing the same thing a few months after the bandages and stitches had been removed. ”How’s little Bobby doing in there?” he had said, pressing his lips to the still-tender scar. “Now I’ll always be a part of you.” He grinned up at her. “You’ll never be able to leave me.” “I had a kidney transplant seven years ago,” she told Patrick. “What happened?” “I was born with a form of lupus, although it wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my twenties. By then, I had lost thirty- pounds, had no energy, and felt like dog shit in a paper bag. Basically, my kidneys were shutting down. I had three choices—dialysis, transplant, or taking an eternal dirt nap.” “Yikes,” he said, moving up to kiss and hold her. “Where did the new kidney come from?” She lay flat on her back, Patrick’s strong arm supporting her head, and stared blankly at the ceiling. Where had the kidney come from? Wasn’t that the sixty-four thousand dollar question? “My husband.” The sex was quick and perfunctory, no shades of Gray or steamy Danielle Steele novel stuff. He was heaving like a bull on top of her, and she thought her hands looked like starfish against his broad, hairy chest. Twenty minutes later, Patrick lay on his side snoring, and she swam in the waves of emotion crashing all around her. For the first three years of their marriage, she and Bobby had been so happy. Thursday night was movie night, and Saturdays they food shopped together, always keeping an eye out for bargains. Laughing at all the freakish chickens at the state fair, watching the sun rise on top of Cadillac Mountain. They scrimped and saved to buy the house on Cottage Street, and she’d spent hours on end planting flowers and even putting in a raised bed vegetable garden. They met the other families in the neighborhood, went to church on Sunday, and could have been on the cover of Yankee Magazine. Then, after a year of trying to get pregnant without success, she’d gone to the gynecologist for help. Dr. Ashby discovered the kidney trouble, just as the disease was affecting her other organs. She lost weight, had less than no energy, and her skin turned corpse gray. She started taking iron supplements and painful injections to keep her red blood cell count up. She went on the transplant list, with about fifty-thousand other people, and waited. The average wait time is two-and-a-half years for a kidney. In the meantime, ninety-thousand Americans die every year from end stage renal disease. Her brother wasn’t a match, nor were any of her cousins. Finally, Bobby asked to be tested, and he had four out of six of the critical genetic factors. He was healthy, passed the psychological testing. On a hot July morning, both of them dressed in paper johnnies, she kissed him, told him she loved him, cried, and said she’d see him in a few hours. Six months later, the guilt trip started with a joke. Bobby was watching football with his friends, Gary and Al. He called to her. When she went into the family room he asked, “Hey babe, can you get us some beers, and maybe the bag of pretzels?” The request caught her up short. This wasn’t the fifties, and they had always had a relationship based on equality. “Your legs work, don’t they?” she said. “C’mon, Em. I mean, I gave you a kidney. The least you could do is grab a few beers for me.” She thought maybe he was playing the macho pig for his guy friends, and she didn’t want to make a scene, so she got the beers and the pretzels, then went upstairs to fold laundry. Somewhere in her head she heard the voice of her long dead grandmother Ella, saying, “Many a true word is said in jest.” If he wanted another beer, he could get it himself. A month later, a similar incident occurred over his turn to do the dishes. Then he asked if she would run an errand for him. Then it was mowing the yard. Sometimes his guilt trips were blatant, sometimes subtly hidden, but the basic message was always the same. I saved your life, and you owe me. Patrick rolled over and elbowed her right breast. He had big arms, and it hurt. A lot. She got out of bed, his snoring went on uninterrupted. Gathering her things, she slipped into the bathroom and dressed. She found the hotel stationary and a pen on the desk and tried to think of something clever to write. Nothing came to mind, so she scrawled, Happy Trails, Emily. This struck her as stupid, so she tore off the sheet, balled it up and tossed it in the trash. Back in her own room, Emily took a twenty minute shower, the water so hot it left her skin red and tender. What had she done? Getting drunk and sleeping with a man she didn’t know, just two days after leaving her husband. What would Grandmother Ella have to say about that? She scrubbed her skin until it was raw, and then she scrubbed some more. The summer after the transplant, she and Bobby had taken a canoe trip down the Saco River. They put their packs, cooler, camp stove and sleeping bags into a rented canoe, and left civilization behind for three days. Bobby had scheduled a pick-up forty-two miles downstream. She sat in front, he in the back, and after a bit of struggling they developed a nice rhythm. They talked, watched the birds, sang songs from when they were kids, did a little fishing, and even saw a moose, big as a house, sipping from the edge of the river. Late that first afternoon, the sun was hot and she took off her shirt, paddling in her bikini top. Bobby warned her to use sun screen, but the afternoon didn’t seem that bright to her, and she wanted to catch a few rays. She thought she’d be fine. Big mistake. After setting up camp that first night, she could have fried an egg on her shoulders. She couldn’t get comfortable on the hard ground, and Bobby made her lay his sleeping bag on top of hers to give more padding. He just laid on the vinyl tent flooring, holding her hand. They had no aloe, of course, so Bobby kept rinsing out a wash cloth in the cold river water, using it to sooth her burned skin. In the morning, he took care of cooking breakfast, reloaded everything into the canoe, and did most of the paddling, since with her blistered skin, her paddling was next to useless. He was kind and gentle and giving, never getting angry that he had to do all the work. He hadn’t complained that they couldn’t have sex, which she knew he wanted. Bobby just comforted her and made the best of the situation. Emily stepped from the shower, wrapped her hair in a towel and dried off with another. That’s what a marriage was, she thought. Two people who love and help and support each other. Two people who operate better as a team than they would individually. Emily made a cup of coffee, running it through the machine twice to make it extra strong. She got dressed, dried her hair, and repacked her things. As she drank the strong coffee, she pulled out her cell phone. Finding Bobby’s name, she pressed enter, then text, and wrote: Gratitude is the memory of the heart. Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. She hit send, wiped the tear from her cheek, and left the hotel. As she exited the parking lot and approached the highway, she saw the sign for I-70 West to the right, and I-70 East to the left. A home and a thousand miles of pavement one way; a clean slate and boundless uncertainty two thousand miles the other direction. After a momentary hesitation, she turned left and drove into the first glimmer of the dawning sun.