Home Sweet Missouri, Journey

To Fear, Standing Up, and the Indomitable Ms. A

The thing I remember most about my 11th grade English class was Joseph McCarthy.

My high school English teacher died last week. It wasn’t a quiet death, no it was sudden and violent. She was ripped out of the world and those that remain still haven’t come to grips with her departure.

Ms. A was a domestic violence survivor, but I didn’t know that when I sat in her English class my junior year of high school. I learned that recently, nearly fifteen years after she had me in class. She’d begun to write her own story, to give voice to her own experience. Her words, like her voice in the classroom, were a force to behold, simultaneously piercing and cataclysmic. And yet, it seemed that they gave her a sense of peace. Her death, then, was tragically perverse.

I, like many of my classmates and community members, am having a difficult time grappling with the reality of her passing. I keep thinking back to the lessons Ms. A taught me. They’ve echoed and reverberated through my lifetime; I learn and relearn them the older I get. This makes me smile, because isn’t that what every great teacher wants? Their lessons to just keep on educating, year after year?

Way to go, Ms. A.

I don’t really remember anything that I read in high school. I vividly remember all my favorite books from ages 4-14. And I have strong ties to many stories and poems and essays from my years in college and graduate school and beyond. But the four years of high school are a literary black hole in my life. I could psychoanalyze that but I think the easiest explanation is that I was preoccupied with a million other things. Read: I was an adolescent.

So, when I think of Ms. A, I struggle to remember what we read. What I remember was Joseph McCarthy. We studied the literature of the 1950’s and what I remember from that unit was an in-depth examination of McCarthyism and its implications. We read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. I remember the comparison of the Salem witch trials to McCarthy’s quest to rid the U.S. of communists (and homosexuals and artists and civil rights activists), and evaluating how Miller’s play served as a vehicle to express his views on the subject; to take a stand.

Ms. A also gave us the Harlem Renaissance. She gave me Langston Hughes’ poetry, James Baldwin’s stories, and Lorraine Hansberry’s The Raisin in the Sun, which was undoubtedly another of Ms. A’s lessons at work—here, a story providing a platform to highlight inequity and racism. Again, I don’t remember the story very well, but I remember the history and the implications of the writing on the world clearly.

These are some of the best examples of the power of words to shift perception, to stand up for something, to advocate through literature. In that regard, they rocked my world.

I was scared of Ms. A. She was sharp, took no shit and wasn’t afraid to stand up to the snarkiest of bullies. She was, in a word, fierce. I was scared of her, but oh, I admired her, I wanted to be just like her. Her actions and her demeanor showed me how to take a stand.

I kept in touch with Ms. A. She followed my writing, as well as my personal journey of travel and exploration. We had conversations about writing and social justice. The more I found courage to publicly take a stand in my own work, the more she encouraged me. Even in my mid (okay, late?) thirties, I can tell you, that still matters.

When I was a teenager I thought she was a fearless woman. Now, I know better. She wasn’t unafraid. She let her fear stand beside her as she stood strong, told her story, let her words empower her. She was an example of a woman who had plenty to be afraid of and was, but she stood up anyway. This lesson is her legacy and I will hold it close.

Happy Little Writer Sarah, Words for Food

Shake it Off: Finding Whimsy Again

I’ve been writing for decades. I’ve been writing in some professional capacity for ten years. I have never faced what I would term “writer’s block” until this spring.

Let me be clear: I procrastinate. Sometimes it is hard to sit in the chair. There are times when I  would rather be taking a run or joining my friends at the brewery or binge-watching Netflix.

That is NOT what happened this spring.

I sat in the chair faithfully, every day. I had a looming deadline, and so I sat at my desk and stared at a blank piece of paper. Sometimes I’d get so far as a paragraph written, but upon re-reading, it was nonsensical. What was in my head wasn’t translating through my hand correctly; it was a garbled mess. The more I tried, the harder it got.

This, my friends, is writer’s block.

18 months ago I left my full-time job to pursue writing full time. It took a great deal of convincing and planning and then just straight-up moxie to do it. It took a great deal of vulnerability and trust to let my husband financially support my art. But the more I produced, the more writing gigs I got, the more pieces were published, the more I was affirmed–you made the right choice.

When the words dried up, I began to spiral into an ugly web of self-doubt and low self-worth. The voices in my head told me I’d made a mistake, that it had been irresponsible to leave a steady income for this writing nonsense, who was I kidding anyway?  

The voices, incidentally, are a mixture of the teacher that mocked my work when I was young, a super judgmental colleague that once brought me to tears and the ex that referred to me as unbelievably stupid. The louder the voices grew, the harder it was to find words.

I’d always viewed writers block as laziness. Procrastination. I’m from good German stock and was brought up with a work ethic that insisted that one work until the job is completed (and in satisfactory fashion, we don’t half-ass anything). Then you can play. I’d always applied this same work ethic to my writing.

Unfortunately, writing, while three-quarters hard work and tenacity, is also a quarter childlike whimsy. Writers are first and foremost storytellers, and when you step away from the joy that is telling the story, then you’ve lost what makes good writing, well, good.

I began, with the help of some pretty great book-teachers, to reconnect with my what was purely fun about writing. I listened to my body. As anyone who has trained for anything knows, there is a fine line between pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and into a place of new achievement and over-training. Over-training can do  way more harm than good. I believe my writing self needs to be given the same treatment my running self got when I was training for marathons. I wrote until it was no longer fun–some days that meant just ten minutes. I wrote what sounded like fun to write, even though it had nothing to do with my looming deadline. I took long walks, I read, I watched great movies and went to see local art.

Eventually, it began to work. My whimsical writer-self came began to emerge. I do my best to listen to her voice even when the other voices speak louder. It continues to take practice.

I have found–and am continuing, every day, to find new ways to loosen myself up. And, I’m hoping to share what I’ve learned. I’m hosting several workshops this fall about how to shake off the writer’s block.

Please join me Wednesday evenings from 6-8, September 14 and 21st at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts. Class is $45 or $40 for members. Register here!

St. Anthony's Stories


“You’ll need to call the office of—“

Mark let his arm drop to his side. He could hear the squawk “Sir? Sir!” Her tone suggested a reprimand for his requests for assistance. He pressed the red circle on the screen and she fell silent. Just then his bus drove down the street without stopping, splashing dirty brown slush across Mark’s trousers and coat.

He began to walk without a destination in mind, dragging his feet as though he were dragging concrete blocks behind him. He gasped for breath and wished for a moment that he had been standing in front of the bus. It would be easier, maybe, than getting back on the phone with the Veterans Administration or any of the other offices they kept suggesting he call to remedy the error in the system. It would be easier than all these calls for one pill, just one to help ease his pain.

He began moving faster and then, without warning, his feet were suddenly lighter than air, flying in front of him as he hit an icy patch beneath the fresh fallen snow. The sound was sucked right out of his chest, prohibiting him from bellowing an expletive at the top of his lungs.

Mark lay on the sidewalk, his hat rolling into the street and quivered. He stared up at the lacy branches interlocking across the steely sky above him. A large, swiftly falling flake landed directly on his eye and he closed them, fast. There was a warm wetness at the corner of his eye that traced a meandering path down his face and into his left ear. Then, what was this? Another. And another.

Mark let his shoulders sink away from his ears and his feet droop to the sides as he let his body conform to the soft snow beneath him. His chest began to lighten and the sound returned.

Happy Little Writer Sarah, St. Anthony's Stories


They sat on the driveway in their lawn chairs chasing the shade. By late afternoon, the entire concrete pad would be bathed in white hot July sunlight and they’d be forced to retreat to the shade of the garage or inside entirely, but for now, the moved their chairs every twenty minutes or so as the shadow of the oak tree crept across the lawn. Laura was cradling a mystery novel from the library in her lap and the edges made a sweaty crease across her thighs. Adam absently poked at his phone from time to time and the dog, Fred, lay on her side and panted miserably.

Laura knew she would lose this battle. The couple of hundred bucks they’d make on their junk would not convince Adam that the whole ordeal was worth it. After weeks of stockpiling old clothes and unused kitchen appliances and hand-me-down tools in the garage, hours of pricing and tagging, and now this, the hottest day of the year. If the woman hadn’t knocked on their door an hour before they were ready to open for business, perhaps she could have managed a truce. That violation of Adam’s privacy, however, had pushed the whole charade from “tolerable” to “absolutely not fucking worth it.”

Ted and Bea rounded the corner and inched up the street in Ted’s little Ford Ranger. Laura pressed her lips together. She was pretty sure Bea had a car, she glimpsed an older model Buick in the garage, behind the door that was always shut. But Ted insisted on driving her everywhere, escorting her to and from the market and the bank like an antiquated chauffer. Bea bounded out of the passenger seat dressed in white and pink, her tan legs still shapely. She carried a tennis racket and wiggled her fingers in their general direction by way of greeting. Ted was still swinging his legs out the door and, with great effort, was pulling himself out of the truck with one arm gripping the door handle and the other precariously placed atop his cane. Bea steadied him by the elbow and helped him to his place on the glider in their side yard. When he was appropriately settled she bounded up the stairs and into the kitchen door. Laura could see her cracking ice into glasses.

“She takes awfully good care of him, the old grump,” Laura said.

“He’s not so bad.” She got the distinct impression that any idea she had at this juncture would provoke disagreement in her husband and so she shrugged, leaned back and closed her eyes, pointed refusing to engage.

He wasn’t so bad, though, that was true. When they’d first moved into the house a year ago, Ted—slightly more nimble then—had hobbled up the driveway and offered Adam the use of any of his tools. “Anything atall,” he’d said, making the last two words into one, like her grandfather. Laura suspected he had more interest in seeing what Adam was working on in the garage—he’d been building her a bench. Ted made a few pointed suggestions, Adam graciously thanked him and then he’d returned to his glider.

Nosy old man, Laura thought.

She must have drifted off there on the driveway, because what seemed like moments later she was blinking her eyes open, aware of the tell tale tingle on her nose and shoulders. The shade had moved and she had not moved with it. She looked around for Adam, how could he let her fall asleep in the midday sun like that? A shadow fell across her lap.

“I’d like this here garden hose. How much?”

“Hi, there, Ted.” Laura squinted up at him, his face dark and backlit by the sun directly behind him. “Adam priced it at $3.”

“I’ll give you two.” He held out his hand and impatiently shook a pile of quarters at her as if the decision had been made. Laura gritted her teeth and took them.

“She had Alzheimer’s, you know.” Ted stood awkwardly. Laura still couldn’t make out his face and tried to shift to see him better. “We’re going to have to leave this house. I’ve done my best for so long, but I—“

“Oh, Ted, I’m sorry.”

“I just can’t bear putting her in a home, but I.” To her horror, his voice caught. “I can’t do it anymore. I want to. But I can’t.”

He let out a noise that Laura was sure was more animal than human, a sort of wail and groan and snort. He put his free hand over his eyes, the green garden hose dangling from his wrist. Laura tried to stand, but before she could, Adam was there at Ted’s side. He put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed for a moment. Laura marveled at how tall he was there, next to this old man who seemed to shrink by the minute. Her young, lithe husband, so boy-like, seemed to know just what to do.

“Thank you for telling us, Ted. We’ll do whatever we can to help.” Adam said.

“I just didn’t want you to think she was crazy if she started talking about her babies. Her babies are older than you all. You might find it peculiar—“

“Well, we’ll be happy to listen either way.” Adam said, taking the hose from Ted’s arm. Ted fixed his eyes on him over the tops of his glasses.

“Yes, well, that’s kind of you. Would you mind helping me home, now?”

Laura, unable to breathe or swallow, watched the two of them amble tentatively across the yard to where Bea stood, holding two glasses of lemonade, beaming.

St. Anthony's Stories


“Toronto is the best city I’ve ever been too.” Sherri pushed her hair back from her face and continued to buff her long, curved fingernails, neglecting to mention how many cities she’d actually visited. Molly knew she’d only been to St. Louis and Chicago. “Blake goes there for his work meetings, conferences, whatever, every year. He always takes me with him and I go shopping while he works. It’s the best place to shop. Better than Chicago.”

“Where’s Toronto?” Brandi asked, twirling a lock of permed hair around her finger.

“Don’t do that, you’ll make the curl fall out.” Sherri said, lifting her eyes from her fingernails. Brandi put her hands in her lap. “It’s in Canada.” She said the word as though she were saying Borneo. Molly had been to Canada, once, to Niagara Falls with her family. She never talked about the vacations she and her family took every summer, even though everyone in the room knew, they all lived on the same block after all. She knew if she spoke of her trips it would be gloating, and she didn’t want to gloat. Besides, Sherri’s trips to Toronto and all the things she and Blake did together were far more interesting than some national park.

Sherri sat on the cream colored couch in the Strickland’s small living room, while Brandi and Molly sprawled on the floor. The room felt smaller with the weight of the frames adorning the buff colored walls, pictures of Sherri and Blake in their wedding garb, Sherri and Blake and their families on their wedding day, and Sherri and Blake with eighteen attendants between them. Molly admired how the bridesmaids and groomsmen all lined the concrete steps in front of the church according to height, forming a perfect pyramid. She wondered if that was by design, or if Sherri and Blake were just lucky enough to like their friends in direct proportion to their height. She was pretty sure it was the latter.

“Molly, you’ve been working on the same math problem for fifteen minutes,” Sherri observed. “Do you need help?” Molly didn’t. What she wanted was to put aside her math and give her undivided attention to Sherri’s tales of buying a two piece and shopping for strappy sandals like Brandi who rarely brought her homework to Sherri and Blake’s. Molly wanted to be the first to hold Baby Kirk when he woke up from his nap and she wanted to hear Sherri laugh at one of her jokes. Besides, she didn’t need help with her math, though sometime she let Sherri help because she seemed to enjoy it.

“Did you hear that Melissa got her—“ Brandi stopped and smiled sheepishly, then whispered, “her period?” Molly felt a sinking feeling in her stomach. She loved to hear Sherri talk about growing up as one of ten girls. She loved the stories of her wedding day, the shenanigans the guys caused by being late after a night out drinking, the girls that gave her special trinkets at breakfast and dancing to The Time of My Life for their first dance. She loved that Sherri trusted her to retrieve Baby Kirk from his crib after his nap, change his diaper and warm a bottle and then carry him around the house balanced on her own twelve year old hip as though he were hers. But she did not want to talk about periods. Periods led to talking about boobs and boobs led to talking about boys and, well, Molly didn’t even want to think about boys and boobs and periods in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence.

Everyone else seemed to love to talk them, though. Brandi was dying to know everything there was to know about all of the above. Sherri had plenty of advice to share. You didn’t swim with your period, nor did you wear white pants. You probably shouldn’t do anything in gym class, either. Bras were very important, you should start wearing one as SOON as you had a ghost of a tit, or your nipples would crawl toward your toes before you were thirty. Bras and panties should match, except during your period, at which time you should just wear granny panties no matter what so as not to ruin your nice ones. Once they talked about trimming your hair down there, but Molly said she needed to go to the bathroom and stayed there until she was sure the conversation had shifted.

As far as Molly could tell, when you got your period, your life was over for the next forty years of your life until something called menopause happened, which meant that you were old and even more miserable. And when it was your time of the month, if you could just hibernate in your bedroom that would be best for everyone.

“Tell me more about Toronto,” Molly said quickly.

“We stayed in this hotel and it had this giant chandelier in the lobby. Oh. My. God. It was bangin’.” Sherri stopped and looked over her shoulder out the window at the car that pulled up in the driveway. “Kinda early for Blake to be home.”

Molly ran to the refrigerator and pulled a can of Miller Lite off the bottom shelf. She was ready—this was the running gag she and Blake had. She stood in the doorway between the kitchen and living room and waited for him to notice her.

“You’re home early,” Sherri said.

“Yeah.” He ran his hand through his hair and glanced around the room at Brandi painting her toenails on the living room carpet, Sherri reading a magazine and finally, Molly standing in the door with his can of beer. He sighed and held out his hand. She grinned and pretended to shake the can. She wasn’t really, she was shaking her body more than the can, and besides, Blake was good at drinking the foam. This time he snatched the can from her hands and turned on Sherri.

“Why is it that every goddamn day I come home and there is a gaggle of kids hanging out in my living room?”

“Because I like them,” Sherri said, staring at her fingernails.

“They don’t belong here! They are not my kids, they are not your sisters, they are just neighborhood kids! I just want to come home and sit on my couch with a beer in peace.”

Sherri looked at Brandi, her face apologetic. Brandi shrugged in response and began to collect her cotton balls and nail polish remover. Sherri turned to Molly, but she’d already backed through the kitchen.

“It’s ok, Molly,” Sherri called, but Molly had slipped through the kitchen door and began to weave her way back through the yards, up the block to her own backyard. She’d left her math homework on Sherri and Blake’s living room rug, she’d have to go back to get it and she couldn’t bear the thought of returning.

The next morning he heard Blake’s voice talking to her father. She hid at the top of the stairs, breathlessly waiting for Blake to leave. She was sure he was telling her father she was never allowed to return, that she took up too much of his wife’s time and energy

“Molly.” Her father stood on the landing and held out her math book, papers sticking out of the binding. “Keep better track of your things. You’re almost a teenager. Act your age.”


St. Anthony's Stories


I always walk to my yoga class so Ben won’t wonder why I’m so rosy and cold when I get home. It’s a half-mile walk, straight shot, really, just ten minutes or so. Every Thursday I think about it all day long, I watch the minutes tick by, closer and closer to six o’clock and I begin to feel my heart race. Every week I think maybe I’ll be sick or tired and I won’t go. And every week I go anyway.

As I get closer to the big glass doors on the first floor of the fancy new condo building that just went up 18 month ago, I feel my pace slow. And as I’m approaching I can see the teacher through the windows, welcoming two rows of students in brightly colored tanks and pants. I think, I can’t walk in now, late. I’ll disrupt the whole class and what’s worse than disrupting a yoga class?

A couple of times someone ballsier than me has ducked breathlessly into class, trying to inauspiciously unroll her mat in a cramped back corner of the room while breathing deeply and trying to find her center.

Sometimes I watch the class for a while. I remember the poses for later. But mostly I just watch the students and how they react to the movements. Some are proud and limber, others clearly more in tune with their breath, some fold forward and their arms dangle many inches above the tops of their feet. Once I saw a man cry as he brought his hands to his heart.

More often, though, I walk through the neighborhood, carrying my yoga mat with me. I walk the dark streets with no destination or intention. I watch people coming home from work, struggling with groceries up the icy front steps, ungloved hands blistering red in the cold. I watch the dog walkers, talking on the phone or listening to music, cocking a hip to the side while their companions do their business. There is an old man that walks deliberately from his apartment in a residential living facility to the corner bar at six-thirty on the dot. Sometimes I follow him, afraid he’ll slip on the ice or trip over a crack in the sidewalk. He never has.

When I walk up the steps to our house, it is always at the same time, 7:25. Ben looks up from his computer and tells me that the baby is sleeping.

“How was class?”

“Great. So great.”

He looks at me with eyes full of tenderness and resentment.

Happy Little Writer Sarah, St. Anthony's Stories


I’ve been behind on the St. Anthony’s stories–forgive me. I’m working on a monster one to make up for it. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote as part of my novel…it likely won’t make the cut, but I kinda like it anyway. ~ Sarah

Look. There isn’t much to say about me. I can’t think of one single thing that makes me stand out. I prefer the Republican to the Democrat, the Cardinals to the Royals and meat to vegetables. I go hunting but don’t particularly enjoy it, I tell people I can bench press 250 but that’s a lie, but everybody lies about that, so. I don’t have a girlfriend, but I have had my fair share. My parents are still married and they seem to like each other well enough. I grew up pretty ordinary.

We went to church every Sunday, more out of habit than anything. Like a lot of folks around, it was more a place to say hello to all your neighbors than to get real intimate with the Lord. Most of the time when I sat in those pews and put my forehead to my folded hands I was trying to stay awake. I’d look over and see my dad doing the same thing. I can’t think of many times I had a real conversation with God sitting in St. James or any other place for that matter. We went to nine o’clock service and then to the coffee and doughnut reception afterward in the basement. Then we’d go home and my mother would make a big Sunday supper. Sunday afternoon is when people went for drives and if you lived in the country like we did, you’d expect visitors. It’s one of the only times people from town came out to the country roads. I don’t know why, I expect it has something to do with having more time and everything else being closed. If you drove through downtown Burton on a Sunday afternoon, you wouldn’t see many cars and the supermarkets were near empty. I remember Sundays being the sacred day not because we were supposed to be thinking of God all day, like some folks suggested, but because it was the day you spent with your family. I spent a lot of time gallivanting all over the county, but on Sunday I didn’t even pick up the phone.

Everybody knows the Schusters, we’ve been around for quite some time and there are a lot of us. My dad was one of fourteen, and his dad was one of eleven. We often joke that we could swing an election in Walnut County if every last one of us voted. Being named Schuster in Walnut County didn’t necessarily get you anything special, but everyone sure knew who you were.

At holidays we used have to rent out the Elk’s Lodge because nobody’s house was big enough for all of us. After my Uncle Ray built that big fancy heated barn, we started having holiday suppers in there. You think that’s funny, probably, but you have no idea how nice this barn was. Up above there was an office and a kitchen, a pool table and a bar with a sixty-inch television on the wall and a couple of leather couches. The cattle were down below. Every now and again you’d hear them bellow, but mostly you’d just think you were in someone’s house. My dad frowned at that barn and one time when my sister pressed him he said it was ostentatious, but Uncle Ray had enough money so it was none of our business.

When I graduated from high school I did two years of community college and then went to the police academy.  I wasn’t the smartest of the bunch, but I had a good head on my shoulders. I couldn’t stomach the idea of looking at a computer all day. I didn’t think I was going to be a big detective or anything like that, I don’t even think Walnut County has one of them. But I did think that when there was some kind of domestic disturbance, I could probably de-escalate it pretty well. Or if there was a robbery, I could get as much information as quickly and calmly as possible and, you know, get it taken care of. Some people raise the temperature in the room. That’s not me.

Carrie called 911 on November 7th. It was a Wednesday, I believe. Far enough after Halloween that there wasn’t much going on. Everybody had gotten the mischief out of their systems. It had been drizzly and chilly all week, that lazy sort of weather that makes you think the sky just couldn’t get up the gumption to commit to something. It’s the kind of weather that drives people in doors. The call came in at 8:47 PM, Nancy the dispatcher told me later. She was rattled. Her hand shook like a drunk’s while she held on to that Styrofoam cup of decaf coffee. She said that Carrie sounded like she were calling in a broken streetlight or a kid playing his music too loud, her voice was so matter of fact. She just said that her father had been shot.

I was the first to respond. I think now that I probably did have some kind of conversation with the Lord, though I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I do know that I was damn grateful that it was me that pulled into that long driveway first. I was grateful that Flip’s truck was nowhere to be seen.

Flip was my first friend. He’s not always the greatest friend, nor is he the greatest husband. He’s the kind of guy that raises the temperature in a room just by walking into it. Sometimes that’s pretty great, and you just want to be around him because you figure some of the fun will rub off. Other times it turns sour. A lot of people don’t like that sour aftertaste and they fade away. I figure that if I’m going to leech off the good times, the least I can do is be around for the ugly.

Tuesday was poker night at the Palace Pub, so I knew just where he’d be: leaning back in his chair with his back against the wall so he could see everything in the room, smoking a cigarette and gloating. Everybody suspected he cheated and it was almost as competitive to keep him from doing so as it was to just win the damn game. One thing about Flip, he’d liven up the party. I worked Tuesday nights and usually picked him up and drove him home just to keep him from getting behind the wheel. Sometimes we’d go to the truck stop and drink coffee and eat breakfast. I tried to keep him occupied, get him sobered up. He and Carrie fight on nights like that. She asked me once why I stuck by him knowing he’d never change. I didn’t have an answer for her, but I suspect now that it’s because I think he tries to be a good man, just like he tried to be a good boy. He just has trouble committing to it.

When we were little bity kids, maybe ten or so, I was at Flip’s house in town. His parents ran the grocery store in Burton, the one Flip runs now, and they weren’t ever home. Flip was left with his big sister Tasha, which meant we could do whatever we pleased. That day we took off on our bicycles to the store, shoved Hershey bars and orange sodas down our pants and then made our way to the city park. It was early summer so the air hadn’t gotten that wet-blanket feel just yet, and the park was all but deserted. Later in the day when the baseball games started and the concession stand opened the whole place would be a zoo but in those morning hours we had it to ourselves.

The swings and slides weren’t as interesting to us as rest of the deserted park. We’d go to the pay phone, dial zero and make prank calls to the operator. We tried to find a way into the groundskeeper’s cottage, reasoning that there’d be all sorts of good tools in there. There was a fence around the wading pool, which didn’t open until early afternoon and we did our best to scale it without getting caught.

That day we wheeled our bikes across the baseball diamond and through a gap in the fence to where the concession stand straddled the two fields. It was a big stand with food on the first level and the announcers stand up above. We love our baseball in Burton and boys like us dreamt about the day we’d be big enough to play on that field with the Mr. Andrews calling the game over the loudspeaker. On either side of the concession stand were rows of bleachers and we often scavenged for all the things people dropped the night before and plumb forgot about. That day, at the back of the bleachers stuck between two support beams, we found a roll of cash. It was a big roll, big enough that my fist couldn’t close around it and we stood there staring at it for a long time.

“Holeeeeey shit.” Flip said. We weren’t acquainted with cursing yet and it startled me, but I reasoned the occasion warranted the language. He unwound the rubber band and began to count. There was nearly five hundred dollars there, which to us might as well have been a million.

“Let’s buy a car,” I said.

“You can’t buy a car for five hundred bucks, you dummy.”

“My daddy got his Chevy for $500 and a steer.”

“There ain’t no car worth buying for $500. It probably wouldn’t even run.”

“What would you do with it, smarty?” He shrugged and looked at me sideways as if to say “wouldn’t you like to know.”

The thing was, we knew we weren’t going to be buying cars or truckloads of candy or bus tickets to Chicago. We were still young enough to be afraid of getting caught stealing this wad of bills from its rightful owner.

“What do we do?” I asked. Flip usually had an answer for everything, and at the moment he was suspiciously silent. “We can’t keep it.”

“I know that.” He glared at me. “Who do we give it to? How do we know whose it is?”

We spent the better part of an hour under the bleacher rows, guzzling orange soda and eating melted chocolate bars trying to puzzle out this problem. We could take it to the police and have them finger print it, I suggested. Flip rejected that outright. “Do you know how many finger prints are on money you moron?” I didn’t, but I took that to mean there were a lot. Flip thought that maybe we should put up a sign that said, “If you lost something here, call this number.” I thought that sounded pretty good in theory, but then what happened when somebody started calling the number? What then? The idea of returning grocery money to a little old lady sounded heroic. The idea of meeting a burly, tattooed, grizzled drug dealer on a Harley was terrifying.

“Can’t we just take it to your parents and ask them what to do?” I was tired; this game had lost its appeal. I didn’t know what the right answer was and I was bored of trying to figure it out. That’s what adults were for—to tell you what you should do. Flip shrugged. He, too, seemed to have lost interest. Now I wonder why we didn’t just leave it there for it’s careless owner to come reclaim, or let it be someone else’s problem, but at the time turning it over to adults seemed like the safest course of action.

When we walked into Flip’s parent’s store, the assistant manager straightened his red IGA smock and scowled at us. “You better go see your mother,” he said, staring down his hawk nose at us.

“What did you think we were doing, you dummy? Coming to talk to you?” Flip sneered and stalked right past him.

The office was in the front of the store, just behind the courtesy counter. Flip’s mother sat behind the large wooden desk. The room was oppressive. The walls were paneled with warped wood paneling and the sheer amount of paper stacked on file cabinets, credenzas, and even the windowsill had to be a fire hazard. Donna pulled her glasses down her nose and stared at us.

“Did you take sodas and candy without paying for them again?” She asked without even saying hello.

“Yeah, mom, but listen—“

“I told you what would happen the next time you did that.” She hadn’t moved she just kept staring over those half-glasses. Donna was pretty in an older lady kind of way. She had very tight, uniformly curled blonde hair that I think was the result of something my sister called a permanent wave and she wore very pink lipstick. She always dressed in blazers and skirts, though she rarely left the little office.

“Mom, we’re sorry but you’ve got to listen to me, Jimmy and I found something and we need your help.” Flip spoke very fast. He looked panicked. I wasn’t sure what the punishment was for stealing merchandise from your parents’ store, but clearly he did and it had caused the blood to rise in his cheeks.

“I don’t care what you found.” She stood, went to the back of the door where there was a paddle on a hook. She kept one at home, too, I’d seen it there. My parents weren’t above whacking me every now and then but I could tell that this was not going to be the same sort of whack. Flip’s voice had reached a pitch that I’d never heard and he was talking very fast, trying to explain what had happened at the park and his concerns about the wad of money before his mother could bend him over the desk and wind up with the paddle.

She completely ignored him. She just turned Flip around, gripped him at the nape of the neck and pushed his face toward her desk. His forehead lay flat on the wood and every time she wound up and landed that paddle, the top of his head shoved the folders on her desk a few millimeters forward. He kept talking as she hit him, but it was muffled both from the desk and his own tears and that just seemed to make her angrier. I’d never seen anger like that before. Her face didn’t change; her voice was as calm as it would be if she were telling you the total for your groceries. And yet you could almost see her shaking with fury. For the most part I couldn’t see her eyes, but when she glanced up to see the folders on her desk teetering near the edge, they were flat.

The rage I was used to seeing was my mother’s loud, shrieking anger. When we’d pushed the limit to far, when I’d back-talked her one too many times, her voice would rise to an octave that I could barely tolerate. It usually went away as quickly as it came on. My father’s anger was of a quieter variety, but I’d watched him punch the wall of the barn before. Donna’s anger, though, it was a well and it’s depth frightened me.

“Get out! Jimmy, get out of here! Get out. Get out. Get out!” Flip was no longer trying to explain what happened.  He sounded furious at me, as though I was harming him by being there. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to save me from the same treatment or if he was ashamed. I backed slowly up and just as I turned around I heard his mother.

“You goddamn baby. You’re going to have to clean that up, too.” There at Flip’s feet was a puddle. The sight of that puddle seized my insides. I could barely breathe and the orange soda and chocolate churned in my stomach. All I could think about was getting as far away from Flip, his mother and his humiliation as I could.

I backed out of the office and ran out of the store. I’d left the roll of cash with Flip and as far as I was concerned, I never wanted to see it again. From then on I avoided Flip’s mom as much as possible. It wasn’t hard to do, really. His folks were rarely at school events or church; they were always running that store. I figure, though, that what I saw that day had a lot to do with why Flip always seemed so wildly inconsistent, why the part of him that drew people in like flies to honey was also the thing that drove them away.

That’s why on the night Carrie called 911 and reported that her dad was shot, I was more thankful than I’ve ever been that Flip was unreachable in the back of People’s Pub. He might turn up and be the most caring, sensitive husband anyone could ask for. He might take charge where Carrie couldn’t, stroke her hair when she looked as though she were going to crumble, field questions from the authorities.

But he might not.

I pulled into the driveway and the beams of my headlights caught the silver of Carrie’s step-mom Anne’s hair against the blackness of the old farmhouse’s front lawn. It was so light it looked like frost. She was lying motionless, her thin legs drawn up to her chest and her head bowed forward. I looked around frantically for Carrie.

My first order of business should have to be sure that Anne was okay, alive, but I was suddenly so sure that Nancy had the story wrong and it wasn’t Wayne who had been shot but perhaps Wayne who had done the shooting. I was afraid for Carrie. No, that doesn’t begin to describe it. I was panicked that I’d find her behind the house, her blond hair splayed across the grass like Anne’s, her eyes big and empty and gaping. I’m embarrassed to say it now. I lost my head. I’d been an officer of the law for ten years and I lost my mind that night. I was shouting her name and running around the house when I saw her standing deep in the yard, back where Wayne’s old Chevy sat rusting next to the shed. She didn’t respond; she just kept standing there unmoving.

When I reached her I tried to touch her, to say thank god you’re alive, but she yanked away and pointed into the open driver’s side door. Wayne was huddled against the passenger door, his chin resting on his chest. He was dressed in his work boots, old, dirty steel-toed Red Wing work boots, the kind they carry at the farm supply. He had on an ancient pair of stained painter’s pants and a button down, flannel-lined denim shirt. He had a carpenter’s pencil in his pocket and clipped to the waistband of his pants was a tape measure. It was eerie. Wayne hadn’t been a carpenter in easily ten or fifteen years. He’d been working in the home design showroom since I can remember. I opened my mouth to say just that—it was as though my brain were registering things backwards—and then I saw the rest: the pistol in his right hand and the mostly empty Wild Turkey bottle in his left. The glass behind his head glistened darkly.

I heard the sirens approaching and another car and then another pull into the driveway. In my panicked state the minutes had seemed to slow down and I felt like it’d been hours since I’d arrived but now I could let my pulse return to normal. Someone else was here, and I was relieved because I couldn’t think of anything to do.

“Is he dead, son?” I heard Sherriff Park calling across the yard. He was walking swiftly our way, training his Maglite on the ground.

“I believe so, sir.” I said.

“Is she alright?”

I looked at Carrie. She did not look back but nodded almost imperceptibly and said, “I’m fine.”

“Get her inside a car where it’s warm for God’s sake.”

I took her by the arm and led her across the field and away from the old pick up truck. The front yard was a carnival of blue and red lights, people were everywhere and radios were squawking. She stopped a moment, put her hand out as though to push me to arms length. She took a long shuddering breath, and let it out, a sob, in one stream. She caught it, her eyes closed as if she were talking herself into something. She met my eyes for the first time, nodded and we kept walking.