The Young Couple: A Vignette

One day last week, Curtis (he’s very wonderful) brought me lunch, which we ate under a pavilion at a nearby park in the pouring rain. When we were about half way through our sandwiches, a police car drove by. Window down, driving slowly, the officer stared at us as he passed.

So I waved at him. He waved back.

It seemed like a perfectly normal interaction, but then, don’t they all? If it were in one of my stories . . .

I hate rainy days. They’re too cheerful.

Chuck Friedman took everything seriously. He never told dad jokes, or any sort of joke. It was a running competition among his fellow police officers to get Chuck to laugh at something one of them said—there was even a prize, a free steak dinner for two. The prize coupon hung tacked on the wall where it had been on display for 17 years, still unclaimed.

On the rare occasions when he did laugh, it was like a rusty gate in a silent room. Sitting quietly, he’d suddenly chuckle, then frown and glance around furtively, as if hoping no one heard him. The last time it happened, two years earlier, he was in the office with his partner, McGee.

“What’s so funny?” McGee had asked, trying to mask his look of astonishment with cool curiosity. After several moments, Chuck answered,

“Sure you wanna know?” Responding to the nod, Chuck continued seriously, “I’m laughing in the face of danger.”

McGee raised an eyebrow and let it drop.

This particular rainy day, Chuck swung through the park on his way to lunch. Keenly attuned to his surroundings, he noted the two women walking, the group of businessmen staring at their phones, the person smoking from their car in the parking lot.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

Rolling out of the park, he suddenly noticed something unusual. At one of the picnic tables, a young couple was eating lunch. The man was smiling at the woman, who looked at him with attentive interest. Chuck slowed the car to a crawl. They triggered a memory in his mind, but they also triggered suspicion. His instincts warned him not to trust happy people, as often they were doing something of questionable legality.

“Hey, McGee, don’t those people look suspicious to you?” McGee was busy reciting the license plate of the car in the parking lot. He’d picked up the habit a few years back, and was trying to memorize the plate numbers of every car in town. It’ll come in handy someday, he’d always say. He replied,

“What people? That couple? Nah, I don’t think so. Looks like they’re just having lunch.” Chuck frowned and coasted past, still staring. Suddenly, the woman waved at him cheerily as if she knew his suspicions. He hesitated then waved back, tilting his head.

The incident stayed in his mind the rest of the afternoon, and later, as he walked out of the office with McGee on his way home, he chuckled. McGee, astonished and instantly alert, asked,

“What is it? The face of danger again?" Chuck nodded slowly, and McGee continued, “What does it look like?” Chuck asked,

“Sure you wanna know?” Responding to the nod, he continued, “That couple we saw at the park over lunch.”

*Inspired by one of you most faithful readers, who wonders what the people in my vignettes are thinking about us.

Hannah: A Vignette

This week Curtis (he’s very wonderful) turned 24. To celebrate we ate barbecue and ice cream cake (not together). We ate at a small restaurant in Big Rapids (not to be confused with Grand Rapids, Eaton Rapids, Elk Rapids, Long Rapids, or Maple Rapids. Michigan loves her rapids).

Moving casually, our waitress told us she’d be right back. She returned to take our order and stood leaning on an empty chair behind her, only pulling out her pad of paper as an afterthought. Tan and mellow, her grin showed bright white teeth and her long dark hair hung in a loose braid. Wearing a black shirt and cotton denim shorts, she was decidedly informal. Adorning her wrist was a tattoo in a script font that read, “Hannah.”

She was a great server, and she’s probably a normal person with a normal life (although, are any of us, really?). But if she were in one of my stories . . .

Read More

Friday Night: A Vignette

A few interesting people I’ve seen in Chicago this week.

  • Tuesday after work, a lady talking on the phone walked past me. I heard her say, “I’ll do anything to keep my mind off of what’s going to happen on Friday.”

  • Thursday night, a man carrying a to-go container dropped it on the ground. His chicken wings and parmesan brussels sprouts spilled all over the sidewalk.

  • Friday afternoon, a well-dressed man sprinted into a busy street, chasing a balloon. His seven-year-old daughter, wearing a flower crown, waited patiently on the sidewalk for him to retrieve the balloon.

  • Friday evening, a biker cut through a line of parked cars to the sidewalk. Miscalculating the three-inch curb, he flew over his handlebars and barely caught himself on his palms.

Four seemingly unconnected events—but if they were in one of my stories . . .

Read More

Fuschia and the Turkey Mark: a Vignette

You probably know this, but there’s a lot to see on Chicago streets during lunch hour.

Across the street from me, a mail-woman deftly pushing a mail cart stepped rapidly up the street. A lady in front of her jumped out of a taxi and crossed the sidewalk quickly, to a shop door. She wore a bubblegum pink coat, rattlesnake patterned pants, and a light brown purse slung over her shoulder. Her curly red hair reached her elbows and flew behind her as she pushed on the door. When it didn’t open, she bounced back onto the sidewalk. The mail-lady pointed to the intercom.

I don’t know what she was so eager to enter the store for, but if she were in one of my stories . . .

Fuchsia Jones always wore turtlenecks, and no one knew why. Well, no one besides her immediate family, who’d grown up used to the sight of the large brown birthmark on Fuchsia’s chest, shaped remarkably like a turkey. She hadn’t been ashamed of it until high school, when she left her small private school and began attending a large public school—and there, she was made fun of right and left, called names like fowl-face and tubby-turkey. In the middle her freshman year of high school, she begged her mother to take her to the store and buy her turtlenecks. After that day, she never wore anything besides turtlenecks.

College came and went, and Fuchsia remained unmarried, a victim of her own behavior. When any young man tried to get to know her, she laughed giddily and avoided eye contact.

After graduation she served at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Chicago, always wearing her shirt buttoned all the way up to her neck. Her coworkers laughed at her for being up tight, and Fuchsia became more withdrawn. Hidden on Clybourn, nestled in between a tanning salon and a custom frame store, stood a skincare specialty store.

One Friday before her shift, Fuchsia went to the shop and confidentially showed the salesperson her birthmark.

The woman assured her she’d seen worse, and recommended a bottle of salve that she promised would remove the brown in less than 60 days, if she faithfully applied it every night before bed.

Fuchsia paid the huge sum, took the bottle, and for the next 6 weeks rubbed her chest with the pale blue lotion every night. On Sunday morning of the seventh week, Fuchsia woke up, looked at herself in the mirror, and screamed.

The woman had been right, it did remove the brown. The turkey was periwinkle blue.

Bad Jonny: A Vignette

On the train last week I saw a young man sitting at the end of the aisle.

He looked to be in his mid-twenties, and his blue jeans, black jacket, and navy Nikes were nondescript. His red-blonde hair was long and slicked back, curling around his neck and the collar of his coat. He had five or six day old scruff, mostly covered by the bandaids and gauze on his nose and cheekbones.

In one of my stories . . .

“Jonny, someday you’re going to be someone great.” His mother turned from the sink full of dishes to look at her eight-year-old. What she saw was normal—he was laying on the kitchen table with his arms hanging off the edge and his head dangling over. He was swinging his arms and humming, only she knew he was listening because he sang when he wasn’t.

Ten years later, after his last high school orchestra concert—as first violin—he was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by the graduating class of East Rivermouth High School.

Four years after that, he graduated from an esteemed university with his BFA in Violin Performance, and took an internship with the Seattle Symphony.

Three years later, he was living in a studio apartment above a Vietnamese restaurant on the north side of Chicago, working mornings at a diner and evenings as a security guard at Chicago museum.

Things had been promising at the Seattle Symphony, until the conductor’s granddaughter took an interest in Jonny. The conductor, zealously passionate for his granddaughter’s career (not her love interests), released Jonny with little explanation and less goodwill.

The professional violin industry is highly competitive, and when Jonny fell down the steps and broke his hand moving out of his Seattle apartment, it sealed his fate. Unwilling to tell his parents, he moved in with a cousin in Chicago, where he scraped together a living and developed a nasty temper. He didn't sing anymore. And his attempts to play the violin always ended with him slamming the case shut angrily.

His coworker at the museum, an elderly man who mumbled a lot and chewed tobacco when he thought no one was watching, took a vague interest in Jonny. Whenever he saw him coming, he muttered,

“Bad Jonny. You bad.” Jonny’d lost his temper once at work and slammed a glass on the floor—the old man helped him clean it up before anyone saw.

This morning, Jonny was at the diner when the Seattle Symphony conductor came in. Without thinking, Jonny swung a fist at the old man. Shocked but savvy, the old man swung right back, hitting Jonny’s nose which gave a loud crack.

Several punches and two minutes later, Jonny was on the street, out of a job and dejected.

That night, when he arrived at the museum with a bandaid covered face, the old man took one look at him and said,

“You bad, Jonny. You bad.”

Lolita and The Fur: A Vignette

This week as I was walking to the store to buy groceries, a tall woman ambled along in front of me. Her deep brown fur coat reached from shoulder to calf. Six inches of her purple pants showed, and the shade of her brown fur cap matched the coat perfectly. When she turned to cut across the street, I was surprised to see that she was wearing enormous sunglasses. It wasn’t sunny.

On her, the fur coat was serving pure functionality, blocking the cutting wind on a 20 degree day.

But in one of my stories . . .

Lolita Franks, 55 and unhappily wed to Ted, had wanted just one thing her adult whole life: a fox fur coat. Unfortunately, year after year Ted paid no attention to her longing sighs and the magazine articles strategically left by the TV remote, in the cabinet near the chips, and on the back of the toilet.

Christmas Eve repeatedly found Lolita casting curious glances at the often large parcels under the tree—and the early morning light of December 25 caught her wearily trying to smile as she pulled yet another set of pillows or a potted plant from a poorly wrapped box.

Ted tried to be a good husband, really, he did. He didn’t cause any trouble—where other men came home late and fought with their wives, Ted came home early and spent the rest of the daylight in the garage with his tools. He loved tools. Often he just sat with them. After dinner, he watched TV quietly without making any commotion, except when his favorite team lost a game. Then he moped and grumbled for two days.

Lolita had long since given up on trying to make her marriage successful. Ted provided for her, she cooked for him, and they coexisted peacefully—not happily.

Her friends always asked Lolita why she didn’t just buy herself a fur coat. She’d sigh wistfully and say,

“It just doesn’t seem right.”

But she never cited the guilt and the real reason. It came up in the only fight they had, just once every few years. Things would go from tense to terrible, each would become furious, and finally Ted would shout,

“You NEVER gave me children, so I’ll NEVER give you that DUMB coat you always hint about.”

And so Lolita became more wistful, and Ted more withdrawn, and their unhappy peacekeeping routine continued.

I wish Ted repented of his vindictiveness and forgave his wife’s inability to conceive. I wish Lolita grew the backbone to stick up for herself.

But neither did. And the cycle followed them into their late 70s. Finally, one November, the main window at Macy’s featured a beautiful fox fur floor length coat. And after Thanksgiving and a particularly nasty brawl, Lolita stormed out of the house and squealed the tires out of the driveway—which calmed her down a little because she was so surprised—and marched into Macy’s.

White wispy hair sticking straight out from her head, wrinkled cheeks burning red, untrimmed bushy eyebrows set stiffly pointing down—Lolita stalked to the front counter. The cashier took one look at her and edged his hand toward the panic button, but before he could press it she demanded the coat in the window. She plunked $7,000 cash firmly on the counter.

Ten minutes later the security officers followed at a distance as Lolita flounced proudly out of the store in her new purchase. Then she tripped over the curb and fell to the ground.

Even the new coat couldn’t save her from a broken hip. Ted came to get her, and his anger melted into compassion when he saw his wife, helpless. She got a hip replacement and never walked much again. But she kept the fur coat hanging in sight, and she wore it whenever she did out in any season and temperature.

She died ten years later, and Ted died three months after she did.

At their estate sale, one Bert Jamison bought the coat as a present for his niece, a spunky girl who had odd style.

She hated it, though, and never wore it. After she left for college, her mother donated it to Salvation Army.

And that’s where Mary Jones, the fur enthusiast shuffling down a Chicago street that cold November day, bought it for $25.99.

The White-Haired Guitarist: A Vignette

Experiencing fall in the midwest isn’t complete until you’ve gone to an apple orchard—so today Curtis (he’s very wonderful) and I trundled out to an orchard in northern Indiana.

Admittedly, the closer you are to Chicago, the more of a racket orchards may be. Visit for apples, and if you’re not careful you’ll end up buying the entire “fall in Indiana” experience: moo-choo train rides (train cars painted like cows), a corn maze, the pumpkin patch, a taco truck, live country music, and even a petting zoo.

Goats aside, the band is something of an experience. They perform on a small stage lined with corn stalks under a massive (think semi-trailer shipping container) banner: Barnyard Jams. At least 50 picnic tables are lined up in front of the platform, with maybe 2 dozen people total scattered around (listening and eating—but mostly eating).

Better than the setup are the band members. All men older than 50 (so, young guys—you’re welcome, dad) and exactly what you’d expect for a country bluegrass playlist. One of the lead singers, also a guitarist, had an especially arresting appearance.

Wearing baggy old-man jeans, a black zip up hoodie, tan work boots, and a black conductor hat isn't anything unusual. His main feature was an untrimmed, untamed white beard reaching almost all the way to his guitar. His white hair stuck out wildly from under his hat.

If he were in one of my stories, playing in the band would be be fulfilling his lifelong dream. But he’d also be keeping a massive secret.

Mylem Drusky had played in small bluegrass bands since he was 15. It started with his cousin Ed and a few of the neighborhood boys, continued through college, and finally became the small back porch group Mylem initiated after he bought a house with his wife Ellie. Being in a band was always interesting, which Mylem loved. His job as an accountant, though comfortable, didn’t leave much room for character or personality—people don’t usually want you to be creative with their money.

So he kept the band going over the years. Eventually they had gained enough repute in the small community that people hired them on for birthday parties and other events. The yearly gig at the community orchard was their biggest crowd of the year, and they rode on the publicity wave for months.

The other members of the band didn’t know Mylem’s secret. Actually, no one in the community did besides his wife. Years ago, when his grandfather was dying, he called Mylem into his room with an important gift.

“I’ll only give it to you if you never let anyone know you own it.” Wheeze, cough, shallow rattling breath. “You can be an anonymous help to the community. When people know you’re rich, they treat you differently.” Mylem sat quiet for a long time, holding hands with the frail old man. Finally, he agreed.

“I promise.”

So, year after year, he ran the business disguised as a middle-aged, well-groomed businessman who lived on the west coast and only flew out once or twice a season to see how things were going. No one ever suspected, even when he did his yearly summer beard shave. After all, mild-mannered accountants don’t have secrets.

Mylem gave thousands of dollars every year to charities, let at least half a dozen non-profit organizations use his facilities for free, and donated each season’s leftover products to homeless shelters in the area.

And today, a cloudy fall day, none of his fellow band members or the 30 dining guests casually ignoring the band guessed his secret. They had no idea that the scraggly looking guy with the full white beard was actually a millionaire, and the owner of the orchard.

The Priest on a Moped: A Vignette

Today I was walking through our apartment’s parking lot towards the street when a moped whizzed past.

On it perched a priest, grinning even in today’s toasty 88 degrees. His mostly bald head shone in the sun. He squinted through his glasses and clutched the handlebars tightly. The black shirt and white collar he wore were nothing out of the ordinary, but shiny plastic flapped wildly on both sides of him because he held a dry cleaning bag on his lap.

He was there. He was gone.

But if he were one of my characters he’d have a gentle, steady, enduring name, like Graham or Elliot. And he’d be going to a luncheon on Marybelle Winslow’s estate. Marybelle’s late husband Charles was a wealthy parishioner who’d left his 82-year-old widow wealthy. Rumors spread that she’d be announcing something important about his money today.

Father had been preparing a small speech for days. This morning the speech papers fell into his kitchen sink full of water and the ink ran, leaving him with three pages of indiscernible words. Trying to recreate it for two hours cost him breakfast. Hungry, he sighed at the knock on the door. A parishioner wanted his advice about her son.

He knocked a glass to the floor in his hurry to usher her out when she finally stood to leave, and broke a window pane with the broom handle while sweeping the glass. Spending half an hour trying to remove a stain from his formal collar was unsuccessful and he relented to his dingy everyday off-white. Last and worst, his 1988 station wagon spluttered and wouldn’t start.

The phone rang as he was pulling the door closed, stressed and already twenty minutes late. He paused, frowned, and reluctantly answered.

“Hello, Graham? Yes, this is Marybelle. Would you be a dear and pick up my dry-cleaning? Nancy’s taking the day off and I’m just desolate without her and I need it for a special event this evening and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it before then. You will? Thank you. So sweet of you.”

Dry cleaning in tow, he appeared at Marybelle’s flustered, sweaty, and trying not to wrinkle any clothes—only to find himself at to her grandson’s surprise birthday party, arriving with the clown.

* * *

The Old Man: A Vignette

Walking in Chicago means looking in windows—I do this all the time, which stresses Curtis (he's very wonderful) out because sometimes I don't look where I'm going and occasionally I walk in front of people and very rarely I bump into them and then they're upset and I'm flustered and Curtis is shaking his head. Today, following my usual pattern, I was looking in the window of a jewelry store and just sometimes looking at the sidewalk in front of me. The building had indents about every eight feet, forming natural benches.

In one of the benches a little ahead of me still, I saw a man sitting.

He wore dark dress shoes, navy slacks, a tan shirt, and a dark brown felt fedora. Thoroughly unremarkable attire. But his bulbous nose held up actual bottle-rimmed glasses with small, almost opaque lenses—the biggest nose and the thickest glasses I've ever seen. I couldn't even see his eyes through them. He sat there hugging his deep brown leather briefcase in his lap and rocking back and forth slowly. On the sidewalk in front of him was a bus stop with several young regular type people waiting for the bus. Presumably he sat there waiting for it too.

That's all. I walked twenty feet past him, and turned to look again just to cement his picture in my mind, but all I could see were his shoes and the pant legs.

If he was one of my characters, I would give him a mildly eccentric but very solid name—like Abner or Eldridge or Quint Schable. He'd be waiting for the bus to take him back to his one-bedroom apartment in Roger's Park, where he'd eat the same thing for dinner that he's eaten for the last 19 years: a slice of bread, a chunk of cheese, and a can of tuna fish. While eating, he'd pull the newspaper inches from his nose to read. But it would still be hard for him to see under the feeble light of the kitchen tiffany lamp.

After eating dinner, he'd retire to a deep burgundy wingback chair in front of the window of his second floor apartment, to watch the young couples walk dogs and the children jump rope and the old couples hobble slowly, hand in hand. Once or three times during the evening, a single tear would slip down his wrinkled face and leave a dark splotch on his tan shirt. And after a very long time he'd pour himself the smallest glass of port, and drink it very, very slowly.

Then, when his miniature grandfather clock struck eleven, he would take his glasses off and lean his head back in his chair and go to sleep—because he hasn't slept in his bed since his wife drifted off in it and never woke up, 19 years ago.

* * *