Since the heart attack, Big Al hasn’t been the same. He’s had two other heart attacks, just minor ones, a couple of years back. They took him off the road. No more hitting one club after another for months at a time. But he could still play and he was able to work local a couple of nights a week. There were more than a few folks who thought he was the best clarinet player around. And he could always sub in on saxophone if he was needed. But the last heart attack was no fun at all. He couldn’t walk without a cane and had trouble catching his breath. And finally, after a life in the back seat of cars, on buses, and on trains, he was home for good. His wife was not too happy at first. Al had no idea what was going on when he was away. But Sandra wasn’t sitting around the house being lonely, not since the kids were out on their own. And what was going on while Al was on the road was plenty. But by the time he had his heart attack, she had enough of what she thought of as “wild nights.” At first, it wasn’t too bad. He was a week in the hospital. And when he came home, she had to be a fulltime caregiver for him. Al couldn’t do much himself except stagger to the bathroom. And he wasn’t used to being at home anyway. He just assumed meals got cooked by someone, like when he was on the road. And laundry somehow got done. And never mind cleaning up. All he knew how to do was make music, get paid, and send money home. His band got booked by some creep in New York. The travel arrangements got taken care of. He made music. That was it. No one expected more of him than that. And he was happy. He’d get home every couple of months, spend time with Sandy and the kids. Visit with a few old friends. And then, he’d be off again, sort of like a stray cat that stops by every now and then for a bowl of milk. When he was on the road, he’d do as he pleased. A woman here. A woman there. Sleep half the day, until it was time to play. Drink too much. Smoke weed. Have a few laughs. If he sat down and thought about it, he’d agree in two seconds, this was not a good way to live. But when he was on stage in a noisy room, playing like there was nothing else in the whole world – that made it all worth it. But after he got out of the hospital, sitting at home in a chair, unable to do much, he thought about killing himself. They told him he’d get better. “You just have to take it a bit easier. You’ll be out and about before you know it.” That’s what the rehab guy said. Al wasn’t buying it. He sat around feeling sorry for himself until Sandy told him to get off his ass and start living again. This was a couple of months after he landed in the hospital. She sent the caregiver away and told Al he was well enough and had to start taking care of himself. She had a life to live and he did too. Al learned how to do things around the house. And he started taking walks. Not far at first. Shambling along with a cane. He probably didn’t need the cane but he liked the idea of walking with it and using it as a prop. Not as good as a clarinet. But good for laughs he figured. He’d step out in the street and drivers seeing this old fool with a cane would jam on the brakes. He’d wave it around if he had a conversation with someone. Or use it to point out things. Then, he picked up a few gigs and the cane became part of the act. He had this funny, old hat he wore too. And after a while, he was back to his old life, if a less strenuous version of it. Which is how he started fooling around with this little gal who took a shine to him. And that is how Sandy, when she found out, said she had enough and told him to get out. She was bluffing but it scared the hell out of him. He begged her to take him back. She did. But with certain stipulations. So, in his old age, Big Al stopped the crap and became what he called “a gooder person.” In saying that, he usually added, “It’s them damn stipulations what’s done it.”
“I’ve taught every damn grade from kindergarten – even pre-K – through twelve. And most of the kids I’ve taught end up being my friend. For the last ten years, I’ve taught senior year English. It’s more a writing course than anything else. I have a reading list but that’s just to make sure they’ve got their noses into something decent to read. They watch a lot of junk on the internet. And they get ideas from video games. That won’t do for me. And I make them write a story every week. Not more than say 500 words. I’ve had parents tell me that’s too hard for their kid. I tell them, ’Crap. It doesn’t have to be great literature or something. Just a story. About anything.’ I’ve had a kid write a story about a bug. A bug! Can you believe it. It gets swatted at the end. I loved it. If course there are some kids who just ain’t going to anything no matter what. That’s when I tell them about my life and all the crap I went through to survive. And what I know about jail. And about getting shot. And what happens when the cops get pissed off for some dumb thing you did. And they get the feeling I know what I’m talking about. And maybe I know a thing or two. But no matter what I say, some kids just don’t give a crap and ain’t going to listen. Funny, these are the ones who come back to visit year after year. They talk about being in Mrs. Wickham’s class. I always tell my students they should never come back after they finish my course. Most – especially to ones who put out the work and wanted to learn – I don’t ever see again. They know better. I want them to move on. But some of them still stay in touch, one way or another. They send me things or send me notes. Sometimes I get amazing things, like news about a prize or a scholarship they’ve won. A couple have sent me books they’ve written. You have no idea what that does to me.”
They met at a party about a dozen years ago. Ricky brought a date, Ginny. She was the one that started the conversation. They were talking with a group of people, including a short guy, Norman, maybe ten years older than Ricky. When Norman mentioned he worked in a health food store and was a committed vegetarian. Ginny wanted to know all about it. She thought being a vegetarian was cool and said she was thinking about becoming one herself. Back then, Ricky thought too much concern about food was a bunch of crap. And anyway, he was a steak man. But because Ginny was interested, he went along with it and listened to what Norman had to say. Ginny wanted to hear more but, after ten or fifteen minutes or so, Norman had to excuse himself, saying, “There’s a couple of friends I have to leave with, but here’s my store’s card. Stop by. The salads are great.” And that was that. Ricky forgot all about Norman and his health food, especially since, about a month later, Ginny got transferred across the country. They exchanged emails for a while. That petered out with one last email when Ginny announced she was getting married. Ricky didn’t date much after that. It wasn’t that he was madly in love with her. But she was good company and seemed to enjoy making love with him. But that last email was the beginning of a long rough patch for him. His job was tenuous. He had to admit that he hated the company he was working for. “A bunch of low-lifes.” And he seemed to be low on energy for some reason. He wasn’t sleeping well either. His mother suggested he see the family doctor. “And, heaven sakes, get a girlfriend. It’s time you got married.” He went to the doctor. He had a physical. The doctor pronounced Ricky to be in great shape, at least physically. But admitted that his mental state needed some perking up. “You’re in excellent health, Ricky. I should be so healthy. Just get out more. Go for walks. Meet new people. That usually helps with some of the young people I see.” So, every weekend, Ricky would go on a long hike, sometimes on a trail up in the hills, sometime just around the city. He felt better. Met a few new people. Went on a few dates. Nothing serious. He switched jobs too. And that helped a lot. His mother decided to fix him up with a couple of gals his age that she knew. Mostly, that did not go well. Somewhere along the way, he ran into Norman. Norman was sitting on a bench in a park, having an intense discussion with some guy. Ricky didn’t recognize Norman and almost passed on by. Norman had shaved his head and had a ring in his ear. But Norman recognized Ricky. And seemed thrilled to see him again. “Ricky, how are you? Where’s that gorgeous gal you were with? What have you been doing?” One question after another. Ricky was a bit freaked out. Embarrassed that he hadn’t recognized Norman. Even more embarrassed that Norman seemed to remember so much about him. And more than confused about why Norman was treating him like an old friend. After all they may spent maybe ten minutes with one another. And that was in a group of people at yet another boring party. And three years ago. “Come sit down and tell me how you’ve been.” Ricky was not used to this kind of attention. It made him nervous and on guard. Anyway, they exchanged emails, and Ricky agreed to visit Norman at his health food store. “Come on Saturday, before noon. It’s not so busy then.” But work got in the way and Ricky had to postpone. But when he did make it, it was late in the afternoon. And the store turned out to be a lot different than he had imagined. He expected one of these old-time stores full of unpleasant looking grains and seeds owned by a couple of old hippies. He had a vivid image of unpasteurized peanut butter in huge jars with weird, homemade labels. Instead, he found a clean, modern, even elegant, store and restaurant, serving great sandwiches on homemade bread, some amazing pasta dishes, and wild salads. And there was wine and beer. There weren’t any hippies. Most of the customers seemed to be trim and well-dressed in what you might call “fashion forward” clothes. Some of the women were knock-outs but seemed somehow a bit odd. But the biggest surprise: Norman owned the place. It turned out that this bald, little guy was something of a big deal in his world. A trend-setter. All of which made Ricky in his old jeans, hiking boots, and faded t-shirt feel very out-of-place. He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Seeing him getting ready to turn around and leave, Norman got upset. “Where you going? You just got here. I was hoping I could offer you a sandwich or a drink.” “Not my scene,” Ricky said on his way out. “I’ll send you a note.” Ricky did not send a note. Norman held off getting in touch. Whatever had bothered Ricky about his store, Norman wanted to give Ricky a little time to get over it. So, after a couple week, he sent an email, “Come to dinner. I won’t bite.” Ricky thought it would be rude to say “no” so he would and they set a date. A Saturday night a couple of weeks down the road. When Ricky showed up Norman took him to a little vegetable garden he had behind the store. They both remember the weather was gorgeous. High summer. There was a nice glass and wrought iron table set for dinner in the middle of the garden. And at the far end of the garden, a rough stone bench. Ricky had put on some nicer clothes. He hadn’t been sure who would be there and didn’t want to look a slob. He brought a decent bottle of wine too. After half a bottle of wine or maybe more and some hors d’oeuvres, they started to talk. Norman said, “You know, I have a pretty nice life but I think yours is not so nice. You dating anyone?” Ricky explained that he really hadn’t wanted to date after he and Ginny split. Hadn’t met the right girl. Or maybe he just didn’t feel up to it. “Hard to explain. I’ve sort of become a loner.” Ricky didn’t usual talk about this sort of stuff. But the second glass or so of wine seemed to have gotten to him. They walked around the garden for a bit and ended up sitting next to one another on that stone bench at the back of the garden. “Ginny and I weren’t really all that serious but she was good company. I don’t think I’ve met anyone like her since she moved away. It’s weird, I guess. Who knows? Maybe I’m asexual. Or don’t have the usual amount of hormones. My mother fixed me up with two or three gals. It was a disaster. They were nice enough kids but I just couldn’t get turned on. They bored me and I clearly bored them. One more of them and I’d be headed for a monastery.” Which is when Norman leaned over and kissed Ricky. Right on the lips. A real kiss. Ricky felt something like an electric shock go through him. He was stunned. Never dawned on him that Norman might be gay. And when Norman did it again, Ricky almost fainted. He wanted to get up and run. “Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing? Stop that.” That’s what he was thinking. But he someone wasn’t able to say anything. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t believe what was going on. But when Norman kissed him again, a third time, Ricky kissed back. And since that moment, he and Norman have never stopped kissing one another. And so, started a life that Ricky could never have imagined. And sometimes still can’t.
“This is all my doing.” True or not, it is something Nikko firmly believes. People who spend any time with him hear that refrain over and over. Another thing Nikko says a lot: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I living like this? What did I do wrong? Am I being punished for something?” Nikko seems to think so. On the surface, Nikko had an uneventful, even privileged childhood. His father was a respected bank manager; his mother, a housewife who volunteered at the local hospital thrift shop. But the truth is Nikko’s childhood was one terrible event after another. The most memorable for Nikko was his sister Faith’s attempted suicide. Faith survived but insisted on leaving home after they discharged her from psychiatric evaluation, returning only when she had no other choice. Another memorable event for Nikko was his brother Rodney’s car crash. Roddy still limps badly from his injuries. And, then, there was his mother’s sudden death from falling down a set of stairs. And through it all, there were his father’s unpredictable episodes of extreme rage. One happened when Nikko was sitting out in the backyard with a couple of friends and his father came out with a belt and began whipping Nikko for leaving his room a mess. Another involved Nikko playing music his father thought too loud. And there was the time Nikko was doing homework with one of the girls in his class in the family dining room. Without warning, Nikko’s father came in screaming, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head on the table, called the young lady he was studying with a whore, and ripped up their homework. When talking about these things, Nikko will – by way of explaining his current situation – go on and on about people who did him in and destroyed his life. “They had it in for me. That’s for sure. What choice did I have?” By the time he was 13, Nikko was showing signs of trouble ahead. He became very quiet, avoided friendships, and went from being a good student to one that had to be held back. His guidance counselor recommended psychotherapy. The first referral did not work well. A middle-aged, former physical education teacher whose chief therapy was push-ups and admonitions to “straighten up and be a man” did not sit well with Nikko. In the middle of the first therapy session, Nikko got up, mumbled something about a bus being late, and left. The guidance counselor was very upset with Nikko about this “resistance” and against her better judgement referred Nikko to Mrs. Marsh, a new therapist who seemed too attractive to assign to adolescent boys. And that’s when Nikko seemed to have a bit of lucky. She was patient, cheery, and always had a piece of candy. Nikko loved her, not just because she was young and female and he was an adolescent boy, but because she listened, took him seriously, and seemed to understand him. His grades picked up. He seemed to have a penchant for math and was soon in an advanced placement class, learning calculus and differential equations. But he was still skittish about friendships. And was miserable at home, never knowing when his father might fly into a rage. After he graduated high school, he went to a local commuter college on a partial scholarship. After graduation, he got a job as a junior actuary which gave him the chance to move away from home. And for a while, things were more peaceful in his life than they had ever been. He was back seeing his favorite therapist, began having a bit of a social life, and was thinking about taking a vacation. But one night, his sister, Faith, called and asked to visit. She was still living at home and had just dropped out of junior college. She said she was depressed. Faith showed up looking a wreck. Underweight, unkempt, and strangely jumpy. She had a bruise on her left cheek. She went right to Nikko’s new couch sat down with her arms wrapped tightly around her, shivering and saying nothing. Nikko gave her one of his favorite donuts. After a while, she began to talk. And the more she talked, the angrier Nikko got. He began to understand what had gone on in his family home since Faith was five years old. She stayed for a month, maybe two before she went to live with a boyfriend. At least, that’s what Nikko thinks she did. Nikko says most of his memories from that time are hazy. Nonetheless, he claims to recall three things vividly. During the first week his sister stayed with him, his father showed up, demanding to take her home. There was a fight. Nikko says he remembers grabbing the old man, calling him a child molesting pervert, and pushing him out of the apartment. He also recalls how his father lost his balance, fell over a garbage can, and ended up sprawled on the sidewalk before getting up and storming off. A second thing Nikko remembers from that time is his father’s death – a heart attack they said. Nikko says he went to the memorial service but when people stood up and began describing his father as deeply religious, caring, and generous, Nikko couldn’t take it and left. And the last thing Nikko remembers about that time is cocaine. Back then, Faith was a serious user. Nikko tried it and liked it. And, Nikko says, everything came apart after that. He’s been on the streets now for maybe fifteen years.
Twenty-five years after graduating business school, Sheila was between jobs. She had left one job to take another. But there was some sort of delay in when her new job would start. So, she did something she hadn’t done since graduation. She took a vacation. Not that Sheila could not have taken a vacation before. She just couldn’t get herself to do it. As she would readily admit, during much of her business career, she had been a bit of a workaholic and very much a control freak. And an anxiety junkie. “No one can figure out how to do my job. So, if I take time off, there’s just going to be double work and a big hassle when I get back. It’s just not worth it. And, anyway, I’d just worry all the time.” But somehow, being between jobs, things seemed different. So, after sitting around her apartment for two days, she packed a bag, got a cab, headed for the airport, and grabbed the first plane she could to San Francisco. Why San Francisco? Sheila had no idea. Her friend, Christine, had been there and had what she called an “interesting time.” Sheila wasn’t sure what Christine’s “interesting time” might have been. Christine had always struck her as a bit odd and. anyway, didn’t seem too keen to explain. It turned out that Sheila had a terrific time in San Francisco. Not that she did anything much except wander and just look around. Sheila was like an invisible, visiting Martian, looking but not really touching. And after three weeks, she headed home, called her new job and told them that she needed to start as soon as possible. She had had about all the vacation she could stand. Or so she thought. Six months in to her new job, she quit. And, when they asked whether she was going to another company, she said, “No. Not going anywhere else. Nope. Nowhere else.” Everyone told her she was nuts. She had a great job. They loved her at her new company. And quitting seemed so self-destructive and out-of-character for her. Her friends and her human resource director pointed out, if you leave a job after six months, there’s no severance or anything. And it’s something hard to explain to anyone who might think about hiring you in the future. Her boss suggested that she take a couple of weeks off, get a physical, maybe see a therapist, and come back to start again. And like everyone else, her boss, who was genuinely concerned, asked, “What are you going to do?” But Sheila knew exactly what she was going to do. She was going on vacation. This time for good. Over the years, she had built up a decent pile of money. She had no obligations. No family. She did some figuring and budgeting and realized that she really didn’t need to work anymore, if she didn’t want to work anymore. And she didn’t. First off, she went to France. Paris. She liked it. She did pretty much what she’d done in San Francisco. She wandered around. Talked to hardly anyone. Came back three weeks later. Headed to Houston. Left after two weeks. Then, she went to Montreal. She met a man there. Stayed for two months. That, Sheila would agree, was “interesting.” But unusual for her. And never repeated. For the most part, wherever she went, she remained an invisible, visiting Martian, just wandering and looking. One vacation after another. But on one trip – her last trip, it turned out – something happened. She wouldn’t say what. But when she got back, she bought a house in a small town in Vermont. It was a sight-unseen, all cash sale. Locals thought her, “Friendly enough but not very talky.” After a while, she got to be known as the “flower lady,” because every spring and all through the summer and early fall she would wander around collecting wildflowers in an old basket. And then, one day, they didn’t see her for a while. Eventually, they found her and her basket where she had sat down to rest during one of her flower-gathering walks. Her eyes were closed. Done with wandering and looking.