Excerpt for Before the Mellowing Year, Book One, Part II by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Before the Mellowing Year

Book One, Part II


Jeffrey Anderson

Copyright 2018 by Jeffrey Anderson

Smashwords Edition

This story is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

Though this e-book is being distributed for free, it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reprinted or reproduced without the permission of the author. If you like this book, please encourage your friends to download a copy at Smashwords.

Book One, Part II

March 31st finally saw temperatures reach sixty degrees downtown, first time since early November of last year—nearly five months of temperatures below the normal human comfort level, many of those days punctuated by snow and sleet or cold rain, all of them (even the clear ones) tinged with the gray of winter. Zach’s body and spirit felt the weight of every one of those long light-deprived, warmth-deprived days.

So when the thermometer finally crept toward sixty late in the morning of this Friday, Zach was more than ready to break out of his winter doldrums and embrace the promise of spring. This auspicious day came on the heels of a week of days and nights above freezing, a period during which the last of the snow mountains finally dissolved and the ground actually began to dry out and firm up after its extended captivity as either frost or muck, often both in diurnal cycles. Zach loaded three books and a light lunch of a fluffernutter sandwich (thick layers of marshmallow creme and peanut butter between two slices of white bread) and a bottle of birch beer (another local specialty) into his green canvas rucksack and headed for the Esplanade. He knew it was open again, had scouted it out earlier in the week with a celebratory run along the Charles. But he’d not yet actually sat on his bench. The days had been too cool, the wind off the Charles too brisk to be comfortable sitting for long. He wanted his first repose on his favorite bench for this calendar year to be warm and relaxed.

So as he descended the stairs from the footbridge over Storrow Drive, he looked out across the brown grass of the Esplanade and the blue water of the Charles with both hope and expectation. The hope he felt was innate, the bred into his blood hope of a farmer at the first breath of spring, the irrepressible and reckless assumption that thawed earth and warming temperatures guaranteed germination, growth, and new life. The expectation he harbored was both new to him and more complicated, reliant as it was on the resilience of his spirit and the resourcefulness of his imagination. Where he’d found nothing but dead ends and disillusion in his searches of last fall and winter, he was bold enough to believe that he could find his way out of this maze where his choices and his circumstances had dropped him, this set of seemingly insoluble dilemmas the world had placed before him. He could not go back, would not for a moment entertain that option. But he firmly believed, on this day of warmth and promise anyway, that he could will his way forward.

He sat on the bench and set the rucksack beside him. He looked around quickly to confirm that there was no one nearby (the closest pedestrian a jogger far down the path and headed away) then closed his eyes and soaked in the moment through his other senses. He felt the sun warm on the left side of his face and neck, the cool breeze off the water straight in his face, the smell of long-frozen marsh mud finally come back to life, the taste of the brown lawn trapped between dormancy and rebirth. He heard the low rumble of traffic behind him on Storrow Drive, the honk of a car horn in front and to the left on the Mass. Ave. Bridge, the rhythmic chant of a coxswain for the BU crew somewhere off to his right, the screech of gulls high above, the roar of an ascending jet still higher. He absorbed these sensations one by one, fed his starved soul.

Then he opened his eyes on the MIT dome. In all these months away from here, he’d forgotten about that sight, forgotten how critical it was to his survival in this city. But there it was now—soft limestone beige in soft perfect arc above the chaos of low and slovenly Cambridge (seeming all the lower in his mind now with the memories of his two stints in the trucking terminal—they’d called him back once more, giving him the opportunity to quit in person—hidden somewhere beyond and beneath that dome). Arrayed around that centerpiece, everything else he saw—from the blue sky to the gray-green water to the muted colors of the Cambridge and Boston skylines to the traffic on the bridge and across the way on Memorial Drive—seemed stuck between the brutal winter just past and the fresh spring bearing down, seemed stunned by the day and the opportunities it offered. It had been an awful winter. It would take a while to recover.

Zach pulled out his wax-paper wrapped sandwich and opened his bottle of birch beer and ate that lunch in apparent silence and stillness that wasn’t silent or still at all, was crammed with stimuli from all directions and into all senses. And thus he began his healing.

After lunch he took out the books he’d brought along from the ample supply he had checked out from the Library. He was in a short-story phase and had brought along bookmarked volumes of Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter, but the one he chose was a “best of” collection of stories from two years ago. He occasionally read such anthologies and thereby got a quick survey of the range of short fiction currently being published. He rarely read a story that rose to the level of some of the masters of the genre (two of whom were represented in the other volumes in his rucksack), but he enjoyed their range of styles and subjects and at least sometimes encountered a voice that was compelling if not captivating.

And so it was with this volume as he read through the first three-quarters of the twenty or so stories, in the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze off the water, soaking in all the sensations of the real world around him as he happily engaged the characters and events recorded in the fictional worlds of these diverse stories.

Then he read a story by a writer he’d never heard of named Barton Cosgrove. From the first sentence he was hooked. The original but lucid style combined with the frank and clear-eyed exploration of fundamental human dilemmas to cut through all that Zach thought he knew about literature and life, and form a sort of new frontier of seeing within the prose and, ultimately and instinctively, within Zach. While Zach couldn’t have put words to this visceral response to this first sampling of Cosgrove’s fiction (how could he? he was too caught up in that story), he knew in his heart—that fast, that immediate—that something had just changed in his life. A huge new door had just swung open—not just open a crack revealing a glimpse, not just a plain old door into a plain old house or even a mansion, not even a big roll-up door into a warehouse or a hanger, but a doorway ripped open in the heretofore sacrosanct sky, a doorway exposing new worlds, new ways of thinking and seeing, and most importantly new chances for a life.

When he’d read the last sentence, he closed the book slowly and set it carefully on the bench beside him. The volume seemed now a living thing—demanding of care, capable of harm. He splayed his broad hand completely over the cover, either trying to safeguard its contents or absorb them—he couldn’t say which. He lifted his eyes on the day—same afternoon, maybe a touch warmer, the breeze a little gentler, the traffic noises fading to a hum around the edges of his consciousness. There on the Charles, almost invisible near the Cambridge shore, a one-man rowing scull cut a thin silver line west into the sun, into this broad new day.


Matt took one corner then another of the dark wool blanket he’d scavenged from the supply room and helped Allison spread it out on a sunny patch of brown but dry lawn off to one side of the Public Gardens. He stood beside the blanket and stared at Allison with that boyish grin and those cute dimples. She blushed under his gaze, reached down and picked up the bag lunch she’d set off to the side while spreading the blanket, and sat quickly on that blanket, at first facing directly into the enticing sunshine, then quickly turning so that the sun was striking the back and right side of her head, warming her but not blinding her. She may or may not have been aware that this turn also meant she’d be back-lit by that sun if Matt turned that gaze on her while seated beside her. Matt smiled and nodded to nothing in particular, picked up the bag holding the two hot dogs and a canned soft drink he’d bought on the way over here, and sat on the blanket, not beside her but almost directly in front of her. This brought another momentary blush to her cheeks, a blush she quickly willed away with the inner choice that she’d not let herself be held hostage to his ploys for the whole hour, not submit completely to his instinctive or intentional charms, however enticing they were (rivaling that warm spring sun). She crossed her legs Indian style (glad for the brown corduroy pants that at least spared her having to worry about how she sat) and opened her lunch of a peanut butter sandwich with the crust cut off the bread and apple. She nibbled on the sandwich and gazed past his face, full lit by the sun and making him squint a little, and looked at the end of the kidney-shaped pond, the sun casting chains of diamonds on its bright blue surface.

After their meeting on the roof (which had not included a single touch, not even the incidental brush of fingers when he passed her the beer), Allison played it cool with Matt for a long time; and he’d seemed happy to oblige her. They ran into each other occasionally in the break room or on the stairs, and always exchanged nods or simple greetings. But after rebuffing his knowing smile two days following their rooftop venture, Matt had limited all his greetings—both spoken and unspoken—to the category of friendly and professional. Then the Blizzard took him and virtually all of the maintenance crew outside for several weeks of doing pitched battle with the snow and ice, and later with the flooding caused by the melting of all that snow and ice. Allison rarely saw him during this period; and when she did, he seemed distracted and distant.

Mary had moved on from her crush on Matt, was now dating a shelver from the Public Library. But Ian had remained ever vigilant over all her workplace interactions and seemed pleased at the coolness between her and Matt though he never spoke of it, never even said Matt’s name in her presence. So she was glad Ian was out of work today, having taken a vacation day to help Sean open up a friend’s cottage on the South Shore. Mary’d given her a perplexed look from across the lobby as she and Matt headed out the door, and all she could do was offer a shrug in return. She could handle Mary. She was, after all, just having an impromptu outdoor lunch with a co-worker.

As beautiful as the pond was in the bright sunshine of this glorious afternoon, it somehow seemed to Allison empty and forlorn without the swanboats floating by on it (it’d be several weeks—probably early May—before those boats were trucked in and put into service). It was O.K. not to have the boats when the pond was drained for cleaning (as if had been late last fall) or ice-coated with people gliding by on skates, as if those lumbering swans had turned into graceful humans, or snow-covered with prone snowmen presiding over what seemed simply a continuation of the adjacent paths and sloping fields. But with the water so blue and inviting and the sun so warm and casting those chains of diadems across its surface, there was something missing in this scene, some part of the painting yet unfinished.

“So how was your winter?” Matt asked.

She looked from the pond to him. He’d moved just far enough on the blanket that the sun wasn’t directly in his eyes and he could look at her without wincing or squirming. At that moment he seemed both beautiful and vulnerable, no longer the in-control relaxed charmer he’d been just a moment before and for all the time she’d known him. What had happened while she was looking away? “Cold. Snowy,” she said with a wry smile. “Yours?”

He laughed a bit nervously. “Pretty much the same.” He looked away, down the hill toward the pond, his face growing grave as if missing those boats as much as she, maybe more than she. “My mom died just after Christmas.”

Allison froze, staring at the side of his face. Then she felt as if she were falling, far down into a dark well despite the ongoing warmth and light of the sun on her shoulders, across the whole scene. She finally managed to push out one word from her suddenly dry mouth and throat. “How?” She didn’t add the second word that was crying out inside her—why?

“Cancer,” he said to the pond. “It didn’t take long, which was good. Changed Christmas for me, probably forever.”

He turned to face her again, tried out that old smile on that new face. He was who he’d been a minute ago, but then he wasn’t. She was who she’d been a minute ago, but then she wasn’t. “I’m so sorry, Matt. Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“I thought I would, when I got back after the funeral. But everyone was talking about the fun times they’d had over the holidays and I didn’t want to spoil the mood. Then after a few days, I was glad I’d kept silent. Work was one place I could come and not have to talk or think about it.”

Allison didn’t know what to think or say. Part of her wanted to hold him; part of her wanted to run. “I don’t know what to say. I’ve never lost someone close, or known someone who has.”

“There’s nothing you can say.”

“Then why did you tell me?”

He looked again down to the empty pond. His gaze, which formerly seemed alive and intimate, now seemed distant and sad. “I don’t know. You’re the first person I told from work, and I didn’t plan on telling you.” He looked at her with quiet gravity then offered a helpless shrug. “I don’t know why I did.”

His boyish good looks suddenly had depth and substance, and the former implied intimacy his eyes had carried was no longer implied but very real, and very potent. She again felt the impulse to run but resisted and held her ground against those disarming eyes and all they spoke. “Thanks for telling me.”

He nodded slowly.

She reached out and brushed his near hand lying like a lost soul on the blanket.

He held steady under her light touch for a few seconds, then slid his hand away and used it to take out one of the hotdogs and his can of soda from the brown paper bag at his feet. After taking a huge bite of the hotdog and a long swig of the soda, he asked, “So what are you going to do this weekend?”

There was a weekend forthcoming? This was Friday? Allison had no idea, had completely forgot. She wished again for a swanboat—just one to float across her vision, rivet her gaze, call forth her future.


On his walk home from the Esplanade in golden late sun and cooling air, Zach came to understand his discovery of the Barton Cosgrove story as a powerful and far-reaching omen. If the world and fate held hid in its store of possibility propitious guides such as Cosgrove’s mesmerizing prose alongside the threats and disappointments he’d come to accept as inevitable, then at least he had a chance at a better future. And he also had a choice to trust and seek and nurture those positive twists of fate that might not be mere fate but could be divine intention—a munificent God’s nudging of his life. How else might one explain his spying of that anthology on the long shelf of new releases in the Library, his grabbing it from the dozen or so books on his desk to place in the rucksack, his selecting it over Hemingway and Porter (safe and trusted guides) while sitting in spiritual suspension in spring warmth on the bench, his persisting through all those mediocre short stories to unearth this gem? How could all those improbable choices be simply an accident? They couldn’t, or so he chose to believe. He had a chance in this struggle, which is all he could ask for. And he might—could he be so bold to hope?—have a powerful ally in the battle.

After showering and changing, he headed out into the early evening and tracked Allison down at Jimmy’s in the Pru, where she was seated along with Mary at their usual table in the corner. He’d anticipated the typical crowd of Hancock employees blowing off steam at the end of the work week, and was surprised to see only the two of them at the table. He was even more surprised at the sudden disappointment he felt at the lack of a crowd, had actually been looking forward to dissipating some of his new-found energy and enthusiasm into that impromptu aggregation. He was still more disappointed that Ian wasn’t there—not that he would confide anything directly to Ian, but that the lanky Irishman would surely sense some of what he was feeling without a word said.

He weaved his way through the crowded bar to the table in the corner. Caught up in his own upbeat mood, he failed to notice that the two girls were tight-lipped silent and frowning down at their drinks. “What did you two do—scare everybody off?” It was the sort of comment Ian would make, and he thought they would be amused.

They weren’t. Mary didn’t look up. Allison glanced up and forced out an unconvincing grin. “Everybody had better things to do.”

“Even Ian?”

“Off today—helping Sean down in Quincy or Hingham or some such place.”

“So this is it?”

“Just us,” she said in a far-off voice that was neither apologetic nor offended.

Zach nodded and smiled. It would take more than Allison’s detachment and Mary’s petulance to derail his optimism. “O.K.” he said and sat down.

The waitress, a spunky middle-aged woman named Renee, appeared out of the crowd. “Pitcher?” she asked Zach.

He nodded without thinking then had a sudden change of heart. “Renee,” he called just before she disappeared into the crowd.

She turned with an indulgent smile edging toward impatience.

“Make that a pitcher of root beer.” The bar sold soft drinks as well as beer by the pitcher.

“Root beer?”

Zach nodded.

“No joke?”

Zach shook his head.

She shrugged. “Root beer it is,” and was gone.

Zach turned to the women beside him who had put aside their frowns to stare at him in disbelief. “What?”

“Root beer?” Allison asked.

“Root beer?” Mary repeated.

Zach squirmed just a tad under their incredulous stares. “I get drunk and I get hassled. I decide not to get drunk and I get hassled.”

“No hassle—just shock,” Allison said.

“Yeah, total shock,” Mary concurred.

Zach shrugged. “First day that felt like spring after that awful winter—too full of promise to get drunk.”

“That’s a new tune,” Allison said, her eyes betraying just a touch of doubt.

“And what if it is?”

“Then good,” she said. “Great!” She lifted her glass of rum and coke with mostly just ice and a little pale brown liquid in the bottom. “To Zach’s new beginning.”

Mary lifted her similarly empty glass half-heartedly.

Zach smiled and raised his empty hand to touch the paired glasses. “I accept your blessing, sans glass.”

“That’s appropriate,” Allison said, and drained her glass, chewing lightly on the leftover ice.

Zach had no idea what she meant by that but chose not to ask.

Mary flopped back in her chair. “As for me, I’m getting drunk.”

Just then, Renee showed up with Zach’s pitcher and a mug.

Mary pointed to her empty glass and said, “Double me up, please, Renee.”

Renee nodded and looked to Allison.

“Me too, I guess.”

Zach looked at the two of them without a hint of judgment or expression, then poured himself a mug of root beer, spilling some when ice hung up on the lip of the pitcher. “Beer would be simpler,” he whispered to himself as he mopped the spill with a wadded napkin.

“Maybe so,” Allison agreed as she stared coolly at him and awaited her refill.

The next couple hours contained more silence than conversation as the three of them waded through their drinks—Allison and Mary getting several more refills and Zach discovering that it’s a lot harder to drink quantities of sweetened soft drink, even when watered down by melted ice, than beer—and later ordered plates of food—a turkey club sandwich for Zach, nachos for Allison, pizza for Mary. Fortunately, the busy bar provided lots of distractions to fill the frequent silences; and the three could almost pretend there wasn’t anything amiss. During the first hour, Allison seemed to be waiting for Mary to leave, and Mary seemed just as intent on not fulfilling that wish, leaving them in a stand-off with Zach as a neutral, sober, ignorant-of-the-feud observer. Anytime he tried to get them to explain what was going on, they both clammed up. Later, with both girls drunk, the tension ebbed but not the secrecy. Neither would divulge their disagreement.

Adding to the weirdness of the evening (as if it weren’t already weird enough—Zach sober, Allison drunk, Mary mad, no other participants to diffuse the tension), Zach twice felt a stocking foot brush his leg; and he knew it wasn’t Allison’s since she had on laced boots. Then, with Allison off at the restroom, Mary slid onto Allison’s empty chair and leaned over very close to Zach’s face and with a school-girl’s demure look (she was, after all, just nine months out of high school) and a rummy’s potent breath asked, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

While she definitely was not his type, and for all sorts of reasons he’d not once let himself cozy up to her no matter how drunk or horny he’d got, she was not unattractive and he could answer simply and honestly (with no consideration of the implications of his answer), “Yes.”

She smiled drunkenly from inches away. “You’re sweet.”

Zach smiled. “Thank you,” he said and thought maybe I should try this sober route more often.

“Allison doesn’t know how good she’s got it.”

Zach grew a little apprehensive at the direction of this one-sided conversation but managed to maintain his smile. “Maybe you should tell her. She’ll be back any minute.”

Mary smiled a knowing smile. “Oh, I’ve told her, lots of times.” She looked over her shoulder toward the restrooms then slid back into her chair. Not seconds later, Allison appeared on the far side of the bar walking toward them. Mary looked back at Zach and said in normal volume, “But she won’t listen.”

Allison said, “Listen to what?” as she sat down between them.

Zach looked to Mary.

Mary said, “We were just talking about someone else.”

Zach said, “I think I’ll go play pinball.”

Not long after, while wrapping up his third game—all terrible scores: inebriation, at least mild to moderate inebriation, definitely facilitated pinball play—Allison tapped him on the shoulder. “I think it’s time to go home.” She was weaving slightly in place but still able to stand and walk.

“O.K. What about Mary?”

“She’ll take the subway.”

Zach looked across the room. Mary looked like she was about to pass out face-first on the table. “Alone? In that condition?”

Allison shrugged. “Then what?”

Zach thought a minute. “She can sleep on our couch.”


“Because she’s in no shape to take the subway home.”

Allison shook her head but was in no shape to argue. “You ask her.”

“I don’t know what’s up between you two; but sure, I’ll ask her—just let me finish this game.” He turned back to play the last ball.

Behind him, Allison said, “She’s not going anywhere.”

Zach’s invitation woke Mary up a little. She sat up straight and gave him a big smile. Then she saw Allison standing behind him.

“Hi, Mary. Remember me? I’m Allison, your best friend. Zach’s wife.”

Mary didn’t even try to hide her disappointment. “No, thank you. I’ll take the subway home.”

“Mary, you’re in no shape to take the subway home. I won’t let you,” Zach said firmly.

“And I won’t stay in town,” she said, just as firmly.

After a tedious and repetitive discussion lasting far longer than it needed to, the sort of debate that is all but inevitable when a sober person is trying to convince a drunk person to do something they don’t want to do, they finally agreed that they’d walk Allison back to the apartment, then Zach would accompany Mary on the subway to her parents’ home in Brookline. It would be a long round-trip for Zach; but, despite what seemed an eternity since arriving at the bar, the night was still quite young—not yet ten o’clock—and there’d be plenty of time to get Mary home and return to Back Bay before the subway shut down.

Zach waved to Renee and gave her money for the tab plus a generous tip. He then offered his hand to Mary to help her up. (Allison had been standing to one side in silence the whole time.)

Mary took his hand and stood up beside him. She held the hand for a few seconds to insure her balance and stability, then let go. “Thank you,” she said. “You’re such a gentleman. But I’ll be fine.”

And, surprisingly, she was. She walked slowly but surefootedly across the room and out into the surprisingly brisk night air of the Pru concourse. The cool temperature and sharp wind woke them all up—even Zach, who didn’t realize how sleepy he’d become from the close air of the bar and all the drama of his day.

They walked three abreast with Zach in the middle trying to keep a simultaneous eye on both his charges. This didn’t work, as he couldn’t make his eyes look out of both corners at once. He wanted to gently hold an arm of each one, strictly for logistical purposes. But he was smart enough, and sober enough, not to try that. So he held back half a stride and looked frequently from side to side to be sure they both were O.K. A couple times Allison outpaced Mary, and Zach would quietly call for her to slow down. She’d always stop in place, look up at the clear night sky impatiently, and wait for them to catch up. And Zach saw this as a victory—at least she paused.

At their apartment Allison climbed the brownstone steps without a word and disappeared inside first one door then the next.

Zach said, “I’ll be home soon as I can,” to her back but doubted she heard and wondered if she cared. He looked down at Mary and shrugged helplessly.

“I think she’s mad at you for being nice to me.”

Zach sighed. “She knows it’s the right thing to do, she just doesn’t know it yet.”

Mary giggled. “I’ll have to remember that line.”

Zach could finally risk a laugh of his own. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”

They walked briskly without touching over to the Dartmouth Street Station. On the way, Zach realized that if Allison had been walking faster than normal, Mary’d been walking deliberately slower. He noted this piece of evidence on the subtleties of female gamesmanship for future reference, and for one of the few times in his life was grateful for the artless transparency of male anger.

On the near-empty subway car—one of the fancy new middle-pivot Greenline cars, with high-backed cushioned seats and no graffiti—Mary initially sat upright and stiff backed, eyes straight ahead. But as the ride wore on and the car swayed gently back and forth on the rails, her eyes gradually grew heavy and her upright position began to slump. Maybe ten minutes into the twenty-minute ride, she lost her battle with the downward tug of fatigue and alcohol and fell sideways against Zach, her blond head coming to rest on his shoulder. He didn’t try to rouse her and freely accepted her weight and touch. He was secretly pleased at the touch, not in any sexual context (he still, even this late on a Friday night, had no physical attraction to her) but in her helpless vulnerability and the trust it implied, never once considering if this too might be one of those feminine ploys.

As the train slowed in its approach to her stop, Zach tilted his body away from her lean. She continued her slide sideways until she finally opened her eyes with her head half on the armrest and half in his lap. At first she seemed confused till she met his eyes and a sleepy smile transformed her whole face into something close to pure bliss.

Zach returned her smile to the best of his ability. “We’re coming to your stop.”

“Darn!” she said and slowly lifted herself upright in her seat.

“You were asleep.”

“I was dreaming.”

“About what?”

She laughed. “Now Mr. Sandstrom, we’d have to get to know each other a little better before I could divulge that information.”

Zach couldn’t help but laugh.

The train came to a lurching stop and they each bounced against their seatback. They stood and walked out onto the subway platform, Zach holding her arm the whole way without thinking about it.

She stopped as the train pulled away. “I can make it from here.”

Zach shook his head. “Contract says ‘Safe to your door’.”

“Where’s it say that?”

He wrote the word safe lightly across her forehead.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Now I see.” She tilted her head toward the north exit. “I’m this way. It’s only a few blocks.”

Outside, Zach inhaled the cool, clear air. He suddenly felt so alive. Then he looked up and was startled to see stars twinkling. He’d not seen those for months. Though he no longer held her arm, he was acutely aware of Mary’s close proximity—heard her breathing, smelled her herbal shampoo. All his senses were so acute, his body in tune with the moment and the night. He’d not felt himself this engaged and as one with his surroundings since leaving the farm and the natural order that had been an integral part of his life since infancy. What had prompted this new vitality? How could it be extended?

Mary turned right off the main thoroughfare with its dark storefronts and onto a residential sidestreet with cars parked on both sides in front of three-story rowhouses. Halfway down the block, a house with all its windows dark had its porchlight on. She stopped in front of that house. “This is me.” She stepped up onto the first of four steps leading to the entry stoop and the aluminum storm door in front of the main door.

Zach faced her from the sidewalk, still a few inches taller despite her standing on the first step. “Contract fulfilled?”

She nodded slowly, her blond hair backlit by the porchlight, bouncing up and down.

“Well, see you around.” He turned to leave.


He turned. “Yes?”

She waited a minute until he retraced the two steps to stand in front of her.


“When you and Allison get divorced, look me up please.”

Zach burst out laughing. “Mary, you’re drunk!”

Mary laughed also. “Yeah, I know.” She leaned over quickly and kissed his cheek, her lips barely brushing his cold skin. “A drunk Italian—can’t get much more honest or pathetic than that.” She turned and trudged up the last few steps, seeming suddenly weighed down. She disappeared inside the dark doorway.

On the return ride to Back Bay, Zach saw everything in an unprecedented glow of hyper-sight, hyper-life—the lettering of the curved banner ads on the wall above the windows, the zigzag black stitching on the ragged purple coat of the homeless man curled across two seats three rows ahead, the dazzling sparkle of headlights blurring into taillights’ red burn where the train rose above ground and ran parallel Comm. Ave. at Kenmore Square. It was all so vivid, so felt through the eyes. These late-night visions of sobriety were worth the price of—well, sobriety, complete with its risks of pain, constraint, abject frustration.


Starting on Monday and over the next two weeks, with the help of the vast resources of the Boston Public Library, Zach read every word of every page of the published volumes of Barton Cosgrove—four novels, two collections of short stories, and a book of essays on literature and writing. The literary voice that had been so potent in the small dose he’d sampled there by the Charles remained clear and compelling through this sizable corpus. In fact, that voice and the life questions it probed only deepened and broadened in the fuller excavations of the novels, Cosgrove’s most natural genre, with one novel in particular, Still Life, laying claim to Zach’s soul like an explorer’s flag thrust into his heart. This Barton Cosgrove seemed to be speaking directly to Zach, to his doubts and needs and entanglements, across whatever distance lay between Boston and unfamiliar and exotic North Carolina (the setting for all his fiction), the impediments of time and space brushed aside by the power of words in this man’s heart, his capable hands.

Zach also discovered, off the cover flap of one of those novels, that Cosgrove was forty-five years old and taught in the English Department of Avery University in North Carolina. From these scraps of information, powered by a newfound passion for life, seemingly called by the voice of this far-off but intimately near writer, Zach’s mind, his whole being, posed a question that dominated his thoughts and actions over the next couple months: Would Barton Cosgrove receive him as a student? The first step toward securing an answer to this question, laying claim to a potential future and the prospect of a fulfilling life, was to put together a collection of his fiction to send to Cosgrove for consideration. Zach undertook this task with the single-minded focus of a zealot, spending all his free time polishing his existing vignettes, completing some longer pieces already started, and finally writing a story—his longest yet—that had been roaming around in his subconscious like a lost spirit throughout his tumultuous fall and winter.

The Dark Area beneath the Trees

Tell me my life.”

He spoke into the darkness. Quiet back.

Please.” Asking. Again.

More quiet. Then, “Why?” A response.

I have to know.”

Are you dying?”

He didn’t answer that. Thinking.

Are you dying? Slowly?”

A pause. “No. Just tired.”

Then I can’t help you.”


It is for you to find out.”


Your life. It is for you to find out.”

He sighed but was silent, gazing into the dark, awake now.

It had been a woman, but faceless as the night. He thought about that. Her voice had been clear, ringing out in the vacuum of sleep. He wondered if he knew her, the woman behind the voice. And if so, how? No answer. Confused, he resigned to the night, its power, falling through consciousness to sleep, black sleep.

He walked into the kitchen, to his family scattered about the table, eggs and bacon steaming, sunlight. He sat and filled his plate.

Rough night last night?”

He looked to his younger brother. “Huh?”

Rough night—you shouting in the dark. What in hell you dreaming about?”

He had forgotten his searching, the woman. Couldn’t remember now even with this reminder. “Really?”

Hell, yes.” His brother Don looked to the others for corroboration. Julie, Sarah, Jack—all younger—were silent, eating. So he looked to their mother cracking eggs at the stove. (Only their father was missing, eaten and gone, milking the cows.)

I heard him, yes.” She smiled. “But he does it so often I hardly notice anymore.”

See.” Don flourished his fork in the air. Proof. Victory. At age sixteen and two years younger than Jase, he needed (thought he needed) to win all the minor skirmishes, having lost the big one—date of birth, seniority in the family.

Jase let this one go and grinned. “Must have been good. Wish I’d been there.”

His mother didn’t look up from her cooking but said, “Oh, you were. Always will be.”

A large field, hay mown flat (his work of two days ago), drying in summer sun. Jase climbed back onto the tractor after hooking up the rake. Together (the tractor, he, the rake) they began circling the field, large circles growing smaller, neat windrows of piled hay in their wake.

Raking hay used to amaze him—the idea of a long, long spiral of hay unbroken from beginning to end, constant shrinking to a point: the cut grass, flat and formless, picked up and rolled into an ordered spiral, ready for the baler. Steady spiral inward. But he wasn’t much amazed now. What had once captured his imagination was the idea of movement, of spiraling toward some destination. Travel. Progress. But he had reached the end too many times and found nothing there but an end—stop, unhook the rake, drive away out of the spiral. Just an end. No secrets. No revelations. Not even rest. Only pause—end of one job, start of another.

He drove along, the click-clacking of the rake lulling him into a mindless state just short of sleep. Raking was still good in one way—no demands beyond steering. So he rested, driving in large circles, spiraling to a point, waiting.

He knew her face but not her name.

It was late and he was alone, slouched on the car seat, one hand limp on the wheel, the other cradling an empty beer can. The others had gone, leaving him alone (he had thought) beside the burnt-out factory, their favorite high-school hangout.

She walked, her silhouette dull against the moonless dark, to the passenger door and looked in the window. He smiled and winked (he thought) but made no motion to open the door, no invitation beyond his tired but curious gaze.

She opened the door and sat on the seat, staring ahead a moment then turning, meeting his gaze (which had never left her). “Where you headed?” she asked.

To home, then to Hell. Maybe not in that order.”

Then drive on.”

Jase grinned but didn’t move. He stared at her, his head clearer now than in hours, studying this stranger beside him. She was about his age, best he could tell—dark hair to her shoulders, large eyes, attractive features. She was more than pretty enough to arouse him sexually, but she called him away from that and he stared in wonder, not lust.

She spoke again, quiet yet forceful. “Why are you alone here?”

His first thought was to turn the question back on her. She was the visitor out of the night, not he. But her tone demanded more than idle jesting. He considered her question. “I’m searching.”

Searching what?”

My life.”

And you expect to find it in an empty car dark beside a gutted building?”

You came.”

This was automatic and he asked himself why. He was quickly rising from the fatigue and beer, growing awake with each minute.

She laughed. “But I found you.”

I was here for you to find.”

Mutual, then.”

He nodded. Mutual.

They were quiet, each studying the other, looking out into the dark then back again. His feeling of recognition was gone and he was sure he’d never met this girl. So why had she come, entered his life instantly without invitation, sitting now with him, waiting? He looked to her face, pale gray in the dark. No answers.

He finally spoke. “What is your name?”


Lois, why are you here?”

She smiled. “To deliver your life.”


Her smile dissolved. “I am here because this is where my life brought me. Any purpose beyond that is for us to discover.”

The response only deepened her mystery. He sat silent, puzzled.

She sensed his confusion and added, “Take this as truth: We were alone, now we are not. This is our gift, today’s gift.” She paused. “And tomorrow? Alone again each? Or not? It is not for us to know or decide. Only waiting will tell, bring us our lives. That is your answer. Time.” She looked at him then opened the door.

Wait. What about tomorrow? You don’t even know my name. How will we meet?”

She was out of the car but leaned back through the open door. He swore to himself that he’d never replaced the burnt-out dome light. Perhaps light on her face would answer his questions, resolve his needs. But there was only night.

I told you—time. We must wait. As to your other question, I know your name. And I love you, Jase.”

The door closed.

She was gone and he didn’t try to stop her. He had more questions, seemingly endless questions, but the force of her last words left him frozen. After a few minutes he started the car and drove home.

As he drove through empty streets, he subconsciously recalled his dream of the previous night. But he was suddenly tired, too tired to bring the dream to consciousness, connect it to the events of his day. He drove toward rest and asked no more questions.

On his right, invisible in the dark, the long spiral of hay he’d trailed earlier in the day lay silent, gathering summer’s dew as he raced past.


Allison stopped by Ian’s office on Monday afternoon. “We missed you at Jimmy’s Friday night.”

“Good. I didn’t miss you.”

“Zach really missed you.”

“I’m sure you kept him entertained.”

“Not really. It was just me and Mary, and we were fighting.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know—something foolish.”

“Not confession, was it?”

“No. Well, maybe a little. I don’t know.”

“Sounds like a great argument.”

“Did you know Matt’s mother died over the holidays?”

“Yes. How’d you find out?”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He wasn’t telling anyone so I didn’t either. How’d you find out?”

“He told me.”


“While we were having lunch in The Gardens on Friday. It was such a beautiful day.”

“He told Mary too?”

“No, it was just me and Matt.”

“Allison, what the hell are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Having a romantic little picnic in The Gardens. Letting him tell you about his mom.”

“It wasn’t a romantic little picnic. It was just a spur of the moment decision to have lunch outdoors on a pretty day. And I didn’t ‘let him’ tell me about his mom. He didn’t ask my permission. He just told me—his choice, not mine.”

“And you think it’s just coincidence that you were the first one from work he told, and he just happened to tell you while you were alone together on a picnic?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at. I have no idea why he decided to tell me first. I’m honored and I’m touched and I feel real sorry for him. I don’t see any harm in that. I don’t think it’s bad for a friend to share something that’s bothering him. I think it’s a good thing. That’s what friends are for.”

“Allison, knock it off. You might snow everybody else with this ‘it’s all innocent’ crap. You might even snow yourself. But you won’t snow me. You’re playing games with something that shouldn’t be played with. The only guy whose burdens you should be sharing is Zach. He’s your husband. Let Matt get all sappy and emotional with some girl that isn’t already spoken for.”

Allison bore the full brunt of this without flinching. When he’d finished, she actually smiled, though thinly. “Next time, don’t sugarcoat it. Just tell me straight.”

Ian would have none of it. “You don’t want me to tell you straight.”

“Who appointed you judge over my life?”

“That’s what real friends are for—to tell you when you’re screwing up. And you’re screwing up big time. Now I know why Mary was mad at you.”

She had to marvel at Ian’s uncanny insight. How could one so cool and removed be so observant? “She got trashed. We both did. Zach had to ride with her to make sure she got home safe.”

“That’s a laugh—the blind leading the blind.”

“No, you’re wrong. Zach quit drinking, at least for one weekend. He was sober as a judge and took good care of us both.”

“What brought that on?”

She shrugged. “You’ll have to ask him. He doesn’t tell me anything.”

“Maybe he will, if you quit too.”



She stared at him for the longest time, then turned and left the office.

Long nights later Jase was again alone in his car by the gutted factory. He had waited many nights after the others had left, needing to wait but ashamed of his need, and disappointed by its futility.

He was sober (only a few beers downed early) and wide awake, but it was late and he’d already waited over an hour. He reached for the key, resigned to another night of fitful sleep and vivid dreams of confinement (different scenes but always the same ending—locked doors, bare and unyielding walls).

But he stopped, his hand on the unturned key. There was a full moon, bright glow through summer’s humid haze. He knew he wouldn’t sleep for a while, so he got out of the car and walked. No reason or destination, just movement beneath the moon, temporary release from the burden of sleep.

There were woods behind the building. He knew them well, the trees having harbored his earliest drinking sprees—undiluted whiskey from his parents’ cabinet. He found the path which wound for miles through the woods. He had never followed it to its end (maybe never ended, for all he knew). It was a clear path and he would follow it until he got tired.

It was dark beneath the trees, brush thick on both sides, summer’s full leaves overhead. The moon threw a rare shaft of silver light on the path and guided him with a diffuse glow, but he could see only a few feet ahead and hardly at all to either side. He heard water flowing to his right and an overgrown path branching off in that direction. He remembered the narrow stream, had fished it for brook trout years ago. He knew this path led to a cluster of rocks beside the stream. He turned and followed the new path, soon coming upon the rocks and the water. There was a break in the canopy and moonlight shined brightly, glowing on the fast-moving water, bathing the rocks in a silver haze. He watched the water flow past into the dark of the trees and the brush. His mind was empty and tired now. He thought of returning to the car.

God’s chosen path.”

The words were a whisper but struck with quiet force against his back. At first he thought they were imagined, born of the night and the gurgling stream. Then he knew they were real, realized he’d expected them, had waited long years for their arrival.

He turned, surprised by his calm, and looked across the rocks to the woods beyond. At the edge of the clearing, sitting on a fallen trunk, was the girl who had sat in his car weeks past. She sat with her face to the moon. And him. He smiled but didn’t move. He finally spoke. “Woods nymph.”

Pretty but false. Just another human waiting.”

He thought, You and me both, but saved that for later. “Where have you been?”

Most everywhere.”

I mean these past weeks, when I’ve waited in the car most every night.” He flushed, embarrassed.

You have no faith. You can’t force fate’s hand. If we were meant to meet a second time, it would happen of its own accord, decreed by God.” She paused. “People are always running after things that aren’t meant to be, forcing combinations that are unnatural but permanent, regrettable traps. One must wait, let life come to you.” She seemed to want to say more but stopped. The brook’s flowing was loud in the silence.

And now?”

Fate doesn’t allow more than one accidental meeting.”


She remained silent.

He walked to her, stood and looked down at her sitting. He blocked the moon, his shadow falling about her figure.

She looked up at him. “Our lives have been delivered to us tonight.”

He sat beside her. Her face, again lit by the moon, was lovely, reflecting a silver tranquility, calm in a tense world.

Do you believe me?” she asked.

That we are meant to be together?”

She nodded.

Yes. Believed it long nights waiting in a lonely car.”

Isn’t this better?”

For you, maybe. I never cared much for waiting. Seems like there’s too much to do and too little time to do it to sit waiting for what you know you need.”

You don’t really believe that. Like me, you’ve been waiting all your life. Not knowing but waiting just the same. Impatient, your soul crying for release, but always waiting, faith in the future. I know this is true because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t have met—not tonight, not ever. You would’ve driven off with the others that night and never seen me.”

I was alone that night because I was tired and half-drunk and didn’t feel like going home just then.”

Call it what you like, but you were waiting.”

He didn’t respond.

Whatever the reasons, we’ve been brought together.” She spoke to his profile. “What do we do with it?” It was her first genuine question.

He looked at her. At first he knew no response, had never in all his nights of waiting considered what he would do if they did meet again. His mind searched an answer and didn’t have to look far. The answer arose from her face—glowing, asking. He ran his hand along her cheek, its softness cool. She knew his meaning and nodded.

They rose from the log and moved to a carpet of moss at the edge of the rocks. They lay down without speaking, knees sinking in the spongy damp. Their bodies did the talking, spoke in soft caresses, gentle searching, then passionate abandon. Years of hunger fed.

He awoke. She lay against him, her back to his side, their naked bodies touching full-length. It was dark, the moon having set; but he knew where he was, no moment of fear or confusion. He lay still, felt her body rise and fall against his, watched the dark limbs and the stars beyond. “Lois?”

She moved slightly, awake but silent.

Lois, who are you?”
She turned and smiled, facing him from inches away. “Woods nymph.”

He laughed but said “I’m serious.”

She was quiet a moment then sighed and began, delivering the words directly to his eyes, a sacred offering. “I was born in the South eighteen years ago last month, or so my mother told me—no reason to believe her but I did anyway: July 16, good a day as any. Never knew a father. My mother said he’d been killed in the war before I was born. I believed her and told my grade-school playmates what had happened to my dad. They would say ‘too bad’ then go on playing. Then one day a boy, some wisecrack newcomer, said ‘But Lois, there weren’t no war when you was born, not for years before or after.’ He laughed and ran away but I realized he’d spoken the truth. But I didn’t bring it up to my mother, figured she’d explain it in good time.

Well, when I was fifteen, she did. She worked as a waitress to support us, had been doing it all my life. I could tell she never liked it much, always coming home tired and quiet; but I figured that was a common disease among adults and didn’t give it much thought. Then one night I came home after a dance. She’d been drinking, something I’d never seen her do. And when I stepped through the door, she said, ‘Damn you.’ I froze and took the full force of her years of bitterness. She said, ‘You took my life and now you’re trying to worry me to death.’ Well, I wasn’t that late and knew there was something more going on. I was right. You took away my only chance at love, left me alone to slave at some slophouse, too old and ugly now to ever find a man.’ I didn’t understand, so she made it clearer. ‘You fool. Don’t you see—your father, the only man I ever loved, left me because I was carrying you, filled me with his seed then ran. He didn’t die in no war. Just disappeared. Gone. And me too far along for an abortion and too proud-motherly to give you up. And shamed. I ran with you bouncing inside me, left all I ever had and hid out in this hellhole to waste my life to try to put food in front of you.’ She cried then, first time I’d ever seen it. I waited, both shocked and saddened. She looked up with her face all a mess and said ‘Go away.’ I did.

I heard her mumbling and crying all night. And I knew I couldn’t stay. So I gathered a few clothes and left while she was asleep. And been wandering ever since.”

Her eyes had not left his since she began; but now she paused and looked away, not sad but tired.

And you ended up here?” He meant the small farming town.

I only walk these woods at night.” She smiled. “I don’t live here.”

No, I mean this town.”

I came north. Some guy at the bus terminal paid my fare to new York, the only true gift I’ve ever received. But I saw what the city did to kids my age and left quick as I could and headed for quieter rural areas. And yes, I ended up here. There’s an inn on the far side of these woods where I live, paying my way waiting tables—a hereditary disease, I guess. I’ve been living there since spring and walk these woods nearly every night. The path you came in on leads to the inn. First day I got here I saw it winding off into the woods outside my window. It called and I followed.”

To here.” He meant the stream, the rocks.

Yes.” She meant him.

What could you hope to find in dark woods?”

Same thing you hoped to find that night in your car—answers to waiting.”


I found him.”

She said this without hesitation. He nodded thanks and kissed her. She reached out to him, pulled him on top of her, her hunger great after this hard unmasking of her life. He joined her in her need, made it his own.

With summer dawn fat approaching, they stood together, fully clothed, and looked into the dancing flow of the stream. Different lives brought together, the cold water flowing at their feet, past, gone, lost beneath the trees.

When will we leave?” he asked, the first mention of their future.

It didn’t surprise her. “Today.”

But how?”

Do you own the car?”

Yes, but it’s old and tired. Who knows how long it will last or how far it will take us.”

It will last.”


It will.”

He shrugged. “O.K. My car it is. When?”

Tonight. A little after dark.”

And your things?”

I travel light, just a duffel bag. Park by the factory and come get me. I’ll wait here.”

But there will be people by the factory—beer drinkers, every night in the summer.”

Will they notice, or care?”

They’ll notice, alright. Small town eyes see all.” He laughed. “But you’re right. They won’t care. They’ll just watch.” He paused. “Do you have any money?”

About a hundred dollars stashed in a drawer.”

I’ve got a few hundred. We’ll be O.K. for a while.”

They knew it was right and smiled. Agreed. Then they returned to watching the water.

Without turning, she asked, “Jase, where will we go?”

Does it matter?”

There are some places I can’t go.”

He understood and considered her question but found no answer. He looked up and saw the sun had risen, fresh and warm, to their right, upstream, above the trees. He turned to the left, his back to the dawn, and watched the water, now sparkling in the new daylight, disappear into the woods. “West,” he said. “We’ll head west.”

She nodded. Agreed.

Unseen at their feet, a twig, tugged at for years by the flowing water, broke away from the bank and was caught up by the stream. It disappeared beneath the trees and brush, all bright now with day’s fresh gift.

You didn’t get home till after dawn and now you walk about trying to hide something. Why?” His mother asked this suddenly from the sink while he was eating lunch. They were alone, the others having eaten and gone. It was hot in the kitchen.

So you heard me.”

I generally do. That wasn’t my question.”

He knew she was watching him but didn’t raise his eyes to hers, stared instead at the sandwich in his hands.

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