Mary Beth Writes

This was written in that bend of the year between Thanksgiving and full winter, when so often there is a feeling of anxiety. We are marooned again in too-short days. We are prone to becoming stranded in long nights among our old and unsettling memories.

This story started on a November evening. And although this is fiction, in my opinion it wouldn't have to be.

It was about 7:00 in the evening when Mike and Cathy, who live in a rural area west of the interstate, were out for their regular after-supper walk. Their shepherd mutt Cheesy was sniffing and bounding and sniffing again, the way well-loved dogs do even when it's dark.

Suddenly Cheesy's head came up. Just up the road a car was pulled over too far into the dead and brittle weeds. As Mike and Cathy walked closer they noticed a person sitting in the beat-up car.  That person opened the door and began to climb out, revealing she was a very tall young woman who was also very pregnant.

Cathy spoke first. "Can we help you?"

The teenager smiled nervously. "Yeah, my car crapped out."

Cathy winced slightly at the vulgarity, then smiled some more. As a high school English teacher, she knew something about how young people talk, and about how to address them anyway. "Have you been here long?"

The girl shivered. "More than an hour. My phone’s battery’s kaput and I don't really know anyone around here even if I could call. I didn't see lights so I wasn't sure what I should do."

Cathy smiled as warmly as she could, which Mike always thought was considerable.

"I'm Cathy Schwartz and this is my husband Mike. We've lived around here all our Lives. I'm a high school teacher; Mike's an administrator for social services. We can probably help you."

The girl's face smoothed out. "Oh man, thanks."

Mike sucked in a breath the way he did when a particularly difficult case came across his desk. Fifteen years as a social worker had not yet erased his incredulity at the ways people failed each other. Why would anyone allow a vulnerable teenager to drive around alone on a dark winter night in a rusty, falling-apart, 15-year old car?

He turned towards her. "Can you walk with us back to our house? If not, I could go back and get our car."

She smiled. "l can walk."

Cheesy was in heaven with a whole new person to bounce along beside. Cathy chatted disarmingly with the girl and in the process learned a lot.

Her name was Michelle Granger and she grew up with her mom in northern California. About eight years ago her mom married a man who had adopted her at the time although he never really seemed to like her full-out. When her mom had new kids he had acted even more distant. A year and a half ago her mother had been killed in a car accident. Michelle tried to get along with her dad and siblings but things went pretty much went from bad to worse. When she got pregnant he'd kicked her out of the house.

Mike knew raising kids was a lot harder than it looked. His own two youngsters were back at his house right now, probably not clearing the supper dishes or doing their homework. But he couldn't imagine kicking a child out of your home, no matter what.

They were almost back to the house. The yard light lit the driveway as they walked towards the back door which allowed Mike to see the lovely shape of the girl's face and the sprinkle of freckles across her nose.

His heart skidded like an 18-wheeler trying to miss a cocker spaniel.

He knew her face. Only he'd known it on her mother, whom he'd helped escape from this community on a winter’s night nearly twenty years ago.

Mike looked at Michelle more directly. "Was your mother Julie Magnusson?"

Her eyes flew wide open. "Yeah."

"I knew her in high school."

Cathy turned to him, her eyebrows arching the way a wife's eyebrows do when she hears of a woman her husband knew before her.

He smiled quickly into her eyes and muttered. "It wasn't like that."

He'd been back then, he was pretty sure, the most pathetic 16-year old on earth. At 6'4" and 150 pounds, his brother thought it funny to yell across a room, "Hey, Mike, come here, I need a bookmark.” He was a ridiculously tall rack of bones with constellations of pimples across his face plus the unmistakable cologne of farm life floating about him at almost any moment.

He'd been driving tractor on his parent’s farm since he was 12. When his brother Keith went off to college; that made him the only kid left to help with chores. To boot, his sole mode of transportation was a 1964 mint green land cruiser that Keith also left behind. His confidence was so low that year he couldn't even talk to a pretty dog without blushing.

That was the year his father decreed that Mike should be on the school basketball team, just as Keith had done. With Mike's stern dad, what he pronounced, happened. That Mike didn't enjoy basketball was not relevant. A kid is tall; a kid plays B-ball. That's how it goes. Keith had excelled at it so Mike could also if he tried hard enough.

The coach was one of those beefy guys who think the point of high school athletics is winning no matter what. His coaching style was if a kid messed up, yell hard. If that didn't work, yell harder. Mike messed up a lot.

It was late into the evening that long ago night, Mike was driving home from one more miserable practice. Their team was going to finals that year. Coach said so. To make sure it happened, he had the boys practice later and later every night of the week.

Mike had been surprised when he walked out of the gym to see snow barreling down. It stuck to his hot head, then melted down his neck as he made his way to his huge car. The car skidded across the street when he turned out of the parking lot so he drove more slowly, plowing his way through city streets, plowing down the maze of rural roads that led to his house.

It was out in the country that he saw her. A female in a dark jacket, hood up, scarf tied around her neck and face, was trudging along the side of the road. He may have been the most ridiculous kid he knew, but the weather was so awful it didn't occur to him to not stop. He stepped on the brake, bringing the enormous boat of a car to a shivering stop. He leaned over to roll down the passenger window. A gale of wind rattled the door.

"Can I give you a lift somewhere, Ma'am?"

The person turned towards him. His heart flipped in his chest.

Julie Magnusson was prettiest girl in the entire high school. Her pale blonde hair fell like a waterfall to her waist. She had wide-set blue eyes, soft-looking pale skin, and freckles across her nose. Even more than her perfect looks was her utterly cool personality. Maybe it was a reaction to being a daughter of one of the most narrow-minded and judgmental ministers in their part of the country, but she'd somehow become a person who was warm and friendly towards everyone. She earned good grades, was on every committee, and had hordes of friends. She'd been was elected homecoming queen earlier in the fall; she went out with the coolest guys, though she never seemed to settle on just one. Julie Magnusson was an icon at teenage girlhood.

The icon leaned down to into peer the car window.

"Hi. Could you give me a ride to Prairie du Chien?"

It was one of those moments that can throw a life or bring it home. And one never knows, when they are going through it that this is the moment that will set their character, get their path going a certain direction, be the choice that will affect all the rest of the choices of their life.

Prairie du Chien was along the Mississippi River on the other side of Wisconsin. It was at least 200 miles away, maybe more. The night was pitch black except for the whirling blizzard. And Mike was an earnest boy who had never done anything more outrageous than switch duck for chicken eggs in his grandmother's poultry barn, just once.

Julie was watching him decide. Her beautiful blue eyes were patient, waiting, and sad. Mike somehow understood in that moment that as crazy as the thought was, she was no happier in her life than he was in his. He had no idea how he knew this but he believed that she absolutely needed to get out of town. And if he was her ride, well, then that was what he could do.

"Okay."

She opened the door and climbed in. He looked at her, she met his eyes.

"Thanks, Mike."

"You know my name?"

"Sure. You're tall and pretty gawky except for when you run, when all your muscles seem to get together and make you almost as graceful as some huge deer running across a field. I like to watch you run.”

He stared at her, his mouth open.

She laughed a little. "Though I only get to see that when the team leaves the court. You don't get a lot of game time, huh?"

He shook his head in amazement

She pulled off her mittens. "Why don't you go out for track instead of basketball?"

He didn't know. He'd certainly consider it.

He found the Interstate. Twenty miles from town he pulled off the road into a gas station. He called his mom to tell her it was snowing so hard he was going to stay overnight at a friend's house in town. He'd come home early in the morning to do chores and get his books.

His mother believed his lie which stunned him. He'd never before considered the black magic an honest person possesses; when he needed it he could conjure up time and space with a lie.

After that realization he checked his wallet and spent his last five dollars on gas. Maybe it would be enough, though he doubted it. Well, one dark power at a time.

Mike and Julie huddled by the station's rack of maps, studying highways to Prairie du Chien. They couldn't afford to buy one, but as Julie commented, figuring the route across the state couldn't be as hard as algebra.

Snow fell hard that night. Mike gripped the steering wheel as he leaned forward, squinting through the windshield to keep the edge of the highway in his vision. He drove under the speed limit, concentrating as hard as he could while the faint sweet scent of a real girl teased his nose.

Sometimes they talked a little which was certainly more than he'd ever talked to any other female who wasn't his mother. It eased the situation that there was no way she'd ever date him. He was a 16-year old kid driving the homecoming queen to where she needed to go. It wasn't his job to woo the princess he consoled himself. All he had to do was get her safely across the state on a dark and stormy night.

Once he did try to ask her why she was leaving. She replied cryptically, "Well, it's like my Dad always quotes from the Bible whenever we kids want anything he thinks we shouldn't have, which is pretty much always. ’To everything, there is a season.’"

Mike replied, "But you're so close to graduation; you have less than a half year left. Don't you want to wait for that?"

She shrugged. "There's a time for graduating and a time for leaving. Now's the time to leave. I'll finish school later."

The windshield wipers flapped rhythmically, the radio blared, and the sound of tires cutting through slush accompanied them through long hours.

After a while he spoke again. "I don't need to know why you're leaving; I figure you've got your reasons. But if there was anything I could do to make this easier for you, I would if I could."

She was quiet for so long he wondered if she'd heard him. And then it took nearly an hour to negotiate around Madison. Finally the snow began to fall less intensely and the car started to handle better. He drove faster.

She surprised him by responding to his question. "I don't think you have this but in case you did, well, I could use a little money. Even ten dollars would help, if you have some."

He'd been pondering for awhile how he was going to get enough money to buy gas for the drive back home. An all-night gas station glowed in the distance, an island of neon light in the black night. Mike pulled into its parking area, turned the car off, and then leaned over to scrounge in the back seat. Julie looked at him with curiosity in her eyes.

He owned nearly thirty cassette tapes. By the dim illumination of the gas station lights, he stuffed the tapes into the pockets of his jacket and walked into the store. Ten minutes later he emerged with thirty dollars.

Julie looked at him curiously. It was the first time Mike had ever chuckled in front of a girl. “Man, when the clerk realized I wasn't going to rob him, he was so happy it was funny. And he liked my music choices, so he bought them all.”

At one dollar each.

Mike gave $22 to Julie. She murmured thank you, then gave him a dazzling smile. He felt like a dragon slayer.

It was long past midnight when they pulled into the sleeping town of Prairie du Chien. Mike made a joke about letting sleeping dogs lie and she rolled her eyes at him. He'd figured by then that probably what she planned was to get to a Greyhound bus depot. So he simply followed the signs to the lonely little station attached to an all-night shipping company. Through the plate glass windows they could see an employee in the office.

Julie smiled as she gently confided in him. "Prairie du Chien is French for something like 'field of dogs'. I've always sort of visualized a big meadow filled with grass and wildflowers, with lots of goofy, happy dogs running around in it. I love dogs. They aren't ever mean if you treat them right. They don't even think twice about it, they just give all their love all the time. I wanted to leave from a place named for that, because I hope it's where I end up, too."

Mike figured she'd just told him why she was leaving.

Julie climbed out then, hooking her backpack over her shoulder as she walked around to his side of the car. He rolled his window down for her again.

"Have a good life, Mike. I would never have expected you'd be the person to get me out of town but it just goes to show that when you need to go, there will probably be a way. Heck, it might even be a surprisingly good way. Thank you."

She leaned in and gave him a soft, warm kiss on his lips. As first kisses go, it was memorable.

Mike turned into the farm driveway just as the sun was dawning rosy pink over the snowy horizon. Mike hoped Julie was already across Iowa, maybe sitting in the back seat of that bus, watching night peel away as the bus plowed on into Kansas or Nebraska or wherever she was going.

Mike's parents never realized what he'd done and he never told his friends. People at her church and at school were scandalized that Julie Magnusson had run away. But within days she called her parents from a phone booth out west to tell them she was okay and had found a job.

So that was that. High school life flowed back over the place she'd left Iike waves washing away a sand castle.

The next night Mike skipped basketball practice because he was exhausted. The night after that he simply refused to go because he hated it. His dad was furious and grounded Mike for two months. He stayed home from everything but church and school, calmly doing hours of chores around the farm every day.

When spring arrived, he went out for track. When he did well, his father didn't say anything, though he came to every meet to watch Mike run.

Mike shook the memories in his head as he watched Cathy stirring hot chocolate for the kids and for Michelle. On winter nights the warm yellow kitchen felt like a golden oasis in the middle of the darkness of the countryside that surrounded them. He smiled at the supper dishes haphazardly stacked by the sink. He'd been right about Sam and Abby; they hadn't exactly slung themselves into chores and orderliness. For as much as he wished they would be more helpful around the house, he was also glad they weren’t afraid to make mistakes in their own home. He'd not known that growing up.

What they were good at, he was proud to watch, was welcoming a stranger among them. Sam was star-struck by Michelle. Her swollen belly did not phase the eighth-grader; all he saw was a goddess in his house.  When Cathy asked him to sleep on the sofa in the family room that night so that they could give his bed to Michelle, he scurried off to his room to pick the socks, homework, and other detritus off his floor. Mike and Cathy caught each other's eyes and chuckled.

Shy, 11-year old Abby managed to strike up a conversation with Michelle. She cocked her head to the side with curiosity. The bangs of her tawny brown hair fell into her hazel eyes. "Why did you come here? I mean, when you could have moved anywhere, why did you move here?"

Mike couldn't have phrased the question better himself. Michelle shrugged her shoulders. "My mom sometimes told me about growing up here. She said you could toboggan in winter and swim in the lake in summer and it sounded nice. I miss her a lot, so it seemed like maybe it would feel good to be in this place where she grew up."

Abby persisted. "Where's your dad?"

Michelle's eyes blinked shut a moment and then she opened them to Cathy and Mike. Her voice was too quiet.” My mom never told me who my birth father was, she didn't even put his name on my birth certificate. She told me once that she loved him and thought he loved her, but when she told him she was going to have me, he didn’t want to take care of us. That's when she decided to run away. I guess I was hoping that if I could get myself this far then the people who might be my family might find me.”

Mike could see tears welling in the young woman's eyes. He sighed in relief when Cathy leaned over to wrap an arm around the girl's shoulder. "It's going to be alright, Michelle. We might not be your family, but I promise you, you are less alone now than you were an hour ago. I bet it only gets better from here on out.”

Sam broke the poignancy of the moment by popping back into the room. "I put new sheets on my bed for you." He looked worried. "The only clean ones I had left were from back when I was a kid.”

Mike chuckled. Since when did his l3-year old think he'd stopped being a kid?

"Do you mind Star Wars sheets?"

Michelle smiled a wide smile that reminded Mike so clearly of her mother's face. "I love Star Wars. I'll sleep protected by Jedi Knights tonight, which I could use. Thank you, Sam, for letting me sleep in your bed."

And that is how easy it was for Michelle to slide into their family. She was careful, polite, and very grateful, which made her a wonderful guest who quickly became a wonderful extra adult to help with the ongoing routines of family.

When Sam and Abby would come home from school in the afternoon, Michelle went out of her way to do enjoyable things with them. It was easy to see her parents had heavily leaned on her for sibling care; she was skilled at it.

The three of them took Cheesy for walks. They made Christmas cookies. One evening when Mike and Cathy Came home from work, the house was festooned from one end to the other with paper-chain swags of red, green, and mustard yellow.

Mike connected Michelle to a prenatal health care program. He also quietly contacted the sheriff’s department to ask advice about finding Michelle's father. The detective he spoke with said that if the mother hadn't named the dad at the time of birth the chances of him just turning up twenty years later seemed pretty slim.

"What Child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping?" The haunting carol flowed from the congregation in a wide slow river of singing. Candles on the altar wavered, making poinsettia leaf shadows flicker against the vaulted ceiling of the church. The year had turned round to the Christmas Eve service again. As Mike stood with the congregation he realized the scents around him were richer than frankincense and myrrh. He smelled his wife's cologne mixed with the scent of her shampoo. He smelled pine from boughs tied throughout the sanctuary. There was the woolly scent of a hundred people standing together. He heard Sam’s voice crack. Sam was sharing a hymnal with Michelle; Abby leaned against the girl on the other side.

Whose child was Michelle? Twenty years ago her life had begun in the loneliness, fear, and pluck of one teenage girl. Now the daughter carried the same burden.

"It came upon a midnight clear..." Mike could so clearly see in his mind's eye, the night he drove Julie across the state. That night of whirling snow and muddled purposes. That night of lies and courage. He wondered who he would have become if that night had not happened. Would he have quit basketball? If he hadn't learned how to defy his father then, when would he have learned?

Keith had been the one who always pleased Dad. Even now, it was easy to assume Keith had succeeded more spectacularly than Mike. He'd gone to law school, become a successful attorney who lived in the suburbs of Chicago. His house was bigger than Mike's, his wife was more glamorous, and his kids somehow seemed brighter and more obnoxious than Sam and Abby, as if made from flashier materials.

The service ended with the traditional lighting of drippy little candles held by everyone in the church. Mike turned to look at his family in the beautiful light. He realized that this is where both he and Julie had hoped they were heading that night. This was Prairie du Chien, place of dogs, this life of his now filled with grace and love.

As the organ thundered a postlude the congregation bundled out in the crisp and shivery night. As a hundred people shared their greetings and hugs, Mike and the kids made their way to the clump of older ladies who always drove to church together from a nearby retirement community. Mike's mom was there. She smiled to see her son and grandkids.

"Mom, we told you about Michelle. Michelle, this is my mother, Eileen Schwartz."

Michelle stuck out her mittened hand. "I'm honored to meet you, Ma'am."

Mike watched his mother almost stumble. “Mom?"

"Oh, excuse me. I am pleased to meet you, too, dear. Abby and Sam have told me such fine things about you, all things to your credit."

She swiveled her head back to Mike. "Keith and Heather are still coming to your house tomorrow, right?"

“Sure.”

"Have you talked to Keith lately?"

Mike was surprised by the question. "Well, not really. Cathy and Heather made the plans."

She shook her head a little, just the way Mike did when he was surprised by something. "It's going to be a memorable day."

 

It was.

Eileen commanded both her sons to accompany her on a short walk along the country road. She didn't mince words.

"Keith, you need to acknowledge Michelle."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Ma."

Mrs. Schwartz pursed her lips as she narrowed her eyes at her oldest son.

"I clearly remember the year when you were still in college when you dated Pastor Magnusson’s lovely daughter for less than a month."

Mike's head swiveled to watch his mother's suddenly very stern face. He turned to look at his brother whose eyes had become as narrow as their mother's.

Eileen continued. "You never knew that I saw the two of you outside the movie theaters by South Ridge mall. I'd rushed through my shopping that day because there was some movie I wanted to see. As you remember, your father never wanted to go to movies. It was coincidental that I saw you there that day, so far from home. You obviously never saw me. I was appalled that you were so free with your hands, but also pleased because I'd always thought that girl was a remarkably beautiful, inside and out. All she needed, I thought, was the stable love of a good person.

"So I stayed out of your way. You were gone every night for several weeks – and then you were around again. I never knew what that was all about though it worried me.”

"Ma, you're treading on thin ice here."

"No, I'm not, Keith. It's clear now what I feared then. You were a college boy who had a brief affair with a high school girl. When she became pregnant, you didn't help her."

"How can you possibly accuse me of this?"

She was angry now. "It's simple, even for an attorney. Look at her. She's half her mother, but the other half is Schwartz. Tall, lanky, brown hair, hazel eyes. She's absolutely ours. Mike knew she was not his daughter so he didn't see his niece right in front of him. Though I wonder why her name is Michelle."

Mike stumbled. Had Julie named her daughter in honor of him?

Keith wavered. "So what if she is my daughter. What do I do?"

"TeIl her that she is ours and we are hers. It's called the Christmas story."

Michelle became who she already was, part of Mike and Cathy's family. Stunningly perfect and completely beautiful Cassandra Eileen was born a month later. Cheesy took to sleeping under her crib. Keith paid for the things a young mother needs. A new room added onto the house, baby furniture, blankets and toys, mountains of diapers, a college education.

Where a child is welcome it's Prairie du Chien and it's Christmas.

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Comments

Wonderful story. As the pieces of the story were coming together for me the tears were welling up for it's been a very emotional day...M.B. it was just what the doctor ordered ;)
Mary Beth's picture

Thanks. It's the stories we hear and tell that make us poor or rich.

you are rich
Mary Beth's picture

Gracias, Amiga.

Oh my —— awesome story. Made me tear up at the end. A perfect Christmas story.
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you, Pal...

A perfect Christmas gift to share with my Prairie du Chien buddies. Thank you MB.
Mary Beth's picture

You are welcome! Have a good holiday week...

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A Small Owl

My first Joyce Andrews story is Outside on a Very Cold Night.

This is my second Joyce Andrews story. Joyce is around seventy years old and lives by herself in an old farmhouse that is twenty minutes from the expressway between Milwaukee and Madison. She divorced her first husband decades ago; then raised good kids who have their own lives now. In her 40’s she married John, a wonderful man who died several years later.

She’s smart and brave and has lived a complicated life.

She isn’t done yet.

Outside on a Very Cold Night

I wrote this in 2016 and shared it with some friends. I know it's not Christmas Eve yet, but it is the beginning of the season where most of us will wonder what lies beneath and behind the things we do.  This is my salute to people who pay attention. 

................................

A Fairy Tale for People who are Generous for No Good Reason that Anyone Can Understand.

Virginia swore under her breath as she kneaded, pounded, and rolled out her third batch of cinnamon rolls. The cat, startled by the racket, ran from the kitchen. Virginia stomped across her tiny kitchen to microwave the butter. She measured the cinnamon and sugar and then sprinkled it over the smeared melted butter with absolutely no patience for what she was doing.

Vivian Woke Up Drowning

Vivian woke up drowning. She came to the surface of dark and murmuring dreams with her arms grabbing through tangled sheets; her lungs straining towards breath.

Then, as every day, she remembered to open her eyes. A slant of light stabbed through the curtains into the dim green of her bedroom. She pulled up to sit on the edge of the bed, gathering the quilt around herself, pressing her hand to her wild heart.

The House in Blue River

 I wrote this years ago.  It is fiction, of course, although there were several big old wood Victorian mansions in my hometown of Ludington, Michigan. My grandfather had been a glazier during part of his life; he installed windows. He talked about a house they \ worked on where they found a secret room- there was some hidden way into it that was not a door. 

...

Two Handsome Farmers

   

     Swollen gray clouds dragged across the sky all day. The world was quiet, stuck in a gloomy swale between dawn and downpour.

          What was the moment that tipped the pewter pitcher of sky, that let the rain begin to flow?

          Whatever that tiny moment was, it had finally come. With a roar.  

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