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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

(”Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They pave paradise, put up a parking lot…")…Joni Mitchell 1970

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration
San Pedro, California, November 25, 2002
“Come on light, change already!” muttered Elizabeth Emily Andrews, already stressing out and here it was only eight o’clock in the morning. She gripped the steering wheel tightly, sideways glancing at her wristwatch. Yeppers, it was official, she was going to be late to work for the third time this week. “CRAP!” she exclaimed, pushing herself back into the seat, and gruffly folding her arms in front of her, pouting. She glared through the windshield at the lazy red traffic signal and tried willing it into changing. "Fat chance," she muttered, giving the object of her frustration a nice loud raspberry, “PHFFFFT!"
            That seemed to delight a toddler sitting in the back of a large SUV along side of her. The little girl or boy, it was hard to tell which from her vantage point, was pointing at her accusingly, and laughing hysterically at the funny face Elizabeth was making. She noticed that the happy little monster was strapped securely in one of those car seats equipped with a pretend steering wheel in front of the kid. The child punched at a big red button in the center of the little wheel, which Elizabeth quickly deduced to be a squeaky horn. That had to be annoying for whoever was driving if not a down right dangerous distraction.
“That’s it baby!” hollered Lizzie. “Give em what for!” she added enthusiastically, laying on her own horn in solidarity with the happy child, just what the doctor ordered to keep her day from turning into one of those days.
Ahhhhhh,” she sighed, grinning and feeling a little bit better.
            It really wasn’t all her fault you know, interns get all the crappy shifts she reasoned. She kept telling herself, "Couple more years Lizzie, just a couple more years." Then she’d be a resident, and move up the hospital pecking order, far enough at least to earn a semi normal work day and a decent nights sleep! She lingered on that thought, enjoying the moment, when the light changed from red to green. A polite little toot from the VW behind her jolted her back to reality, and she made her way quickly across the intersection, heading toward the on ramp for the 110 freeway. Thus began the twenty-five minute drive from foggy San Pedro to smoggy Los Angeles where she worked.
            Fresh out of med school, Elizabeth was a first year intern at the infamous LA County Trauma Center, deep in the heart of the city, where she dealt daily with all the ER action that the ‘City of Angels’ had to offer. As difficult and scary as that could be at times, she really did love her work. It made her feel as though she were making a difference, where it counted, in people’s lives. She especially enjoyed the people she worked with every day, they had become a second family to her. Oh sure, some might mistake the whining, bellyaching, and sarcasm as disharmony, but they would be way wrong! All that griping was just how they got through the day, how they supported each other. Sarcasm was a handy tool when dealing with the day-to-day bullshit she and her coworkers stepped over, around, and sometimes through. Little distractions went a long way to keep from falling into the ‘misery pit’ that surrounded the place. Elizabeth pondered that term 'misery pit,' it seemed about right; it was a trauma center after all.
            Wriggling into a more comfortable position in the driver’s seat, she shifted her left leg, and set her stocking foot down on the armrest beside her. It’s a maneuver ONLY a woman can pull off. You see them all the time sitting in or driving through traffic as comfortably as if they were lounging in the Lazy Boy at home. It's a feat that every man is jealous of by the way. On the really bad days she'd wonder how she ended up in this life. But she never had to think about it long, she knew exactly what led down this path. Her mother had served in the Marine Corps as a surgical nurse during the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s. Elizabeth loved listening to her mom reminisce about those times, even though they usually brought tears.
“Were you scared mommy?” she would ask. And her mom would always answer the same way.
“No baby, I wasn’t scared too much, I had a guardian angel. As long as your Uncle Ethan was nearby I knew that nothing bad would happen to me,” she would say.
            Then she would tell her all about how she'd met her Dad, and how Uncle Ethan was even a part of that too. “You see baby, God puts certain people into your life for a reason, a good reason, always a good reason, whether you understand it or not,” she would say cryptically. Apparently that was her mom's take on Uncle Ethan coming into her life. He wasn’t really Lizzie's Uncle, at least not by blood, only by love. Ethan Kelly was her dad’s best friend at University, and, as fate would have it, wound up serving in the same outfit as her mom. Elizabeth's favorite part of that story was when Mom told how she and Dad brought Uncle Ethan and Aunt Brenda together. It was the kind of romance every young girl dreams of. As she grew older, Elizabeth came to understand that her Mom’s frequent reminiscing was her way of avoiding the misery pit in her past, those dark places filled with terrible nightmares and bittersweet memories.
            Elizabeth was all grown up now, earning her stripes as an ER nurse, working five long years while simultaneously attending UCLA and earning her degree in biology. Like mother like daughter, a fiercely driven and extremely intelligent young lady, she aced the MCATS and continued on to Medical School at UCLA where she graduated with honors, walking with the class of 2001 decked out in her powder blue cap and gown. She accepted her neatly rolled degree signifying her as a doctor of medicine from the Chancellor himself. Elizabeth recalled scanning the crowd at that moment, squinting in the bright sunlight as she looked for her parents and family. She didn't see them at first, but she didn't need to, she knew that Mom would find her. An instant later she heard the shrill whistle from her crazy mother, Carla, who had caught the attention of one and all with her war cry. As Elizabeth left the stage clutching her diploma, she heard her Mom's cheer, in typical Andrews fashion;
            Elizabeth sighed as she merged onto the freeway, sort of checking over her shoulder as she sped across four lanes of traffic into the number one. She always had been a lead foot, a trait she attributed to her father, Sean Michael Andrews, the devil-may-care, thrill-seeking work-a-holic / play-a-holic that he was. She guessed that to a certain extent the old adage was true; ‘the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ She was only 28, born on the fourth of July in 1975, but she was an 'old soul' her Uncle Ethan would say. To which her dad would answer back 'too much grindstone and not enough blarney'.
            The only child of an Irish father and Italian mother, a volatile gene pool to say the least, it was a miracle she had made it past her teens. Life was never dull around the Andrew’s house, that she could tell you. What with Dad’s need to conquer the world by day, and reap the spoils by night, one pub at a time, and Mom’s compulsion to fix everything and everyone, offering up her opinions two cents at a time, solicited or not, the Andrews household was to put it mildly, lively! Some of her parent’s ‘discussions’ were legendary in the neighborhood, but you know what, it didn't seem like fighting or bickering, it was more like enthusiastically agreeing to disagree!
            One thing that she always amazed her was that no matter how hot the discussion may have been the two of them never went to bed angry, and they ALWAYS started the next day anew. They fought fair, with love, does that make sense? She was proud to a fault of her family, together they were really something. Lizzie (a nickname courtesy Uncle Ethan) was taller than most of the kids she had grown up with, standing in at five feet nine inches by the time she was thirteen years old. She had a head full of curly auburn hair, and her complexion was fair and freckled. Her eyes were speckled green and brown, some people refer to that mixture as hazel. And she was skinny like her Dad, although she had just enough of her Mother’s Italian curves to round out her figure rather nicely. The breast fairy had been kind as well, so all together; she was quite a dish as Uncle Ethan would say. He liked to tease her by saying things to her Dad whenever she was within earshot. Things like, “Ach Sean, this one is gonna break some hearts, I can tell you that!”  And whenever he teased her, her Auntie Brenda would come to her defense and sock him playfully, telling him to behave.
            The green freeway sign indicated that the 6th street exit was just ahead. Lizzie clicked on her signal and then bullied her way back across traffic into the number 4 lane to catch the exit a quarter mile ahead. She reckoned she'd be to work in 10 minutes barring any traffic issues in the city. The exit came up quickly and she followed the winding ramp up to the stop light and waited to turn left.  The old Pantry restaurant was right next to her and she was enveloped in the wonderful aroma of breakfast, it was Heavenly and it was cruel. She was starving, but there was no time for a decent meal, not even a cup of coffee, she was SO LATE! Sometimes she wondered what it was that had ever possessed her to choose such a demanding life over the life of privilege that her family’s wealth offered. From what mental deficiency did she suffer to arrive at such a decision? Willingly leaving behind an exciting, posh, and cushy life in beautiful San Francisco provided by the fruits of her Father’s success? But then there it was, wasn’t it, the fruits of his successes.
            The common thread within her Celtic and Roman heritage was pride, and it was that pride that propelled her to seek her own way, the hard way of course. The only help she accepted from her parents was for tuition and books. Everything else that she needed, like shelter, and food, etcetera, she provided all by herself, working long hours at the very hospital to which she was driving this morning. This was her life in a nutshell, the last ten years of it a blur of red blood, red lights and shrill sirens, and red entries in the ledger of her chronically overdrawn checkbook. Two more years, just two more years and she would be a resident, the 8-hour dream would be a reality, and she would prove to her folks, and all of those socialite brats she grew up with, that she could make it all on her own. It really wasn’t something that Sean and Carla Andrews needed to see because they never doubted her resolve or her ability. After all, she was their child, right! No, it was something that Lizzie needed to do for them, a respectful acknowledgement for believing in her, for letting her find her own way.
            Lizzie stood on the brakes just before the entrance of the parking structure across from the hospital, and gently rolled up the drive to take the ticket from the machine. She waited patiently as the mechanical arm rose, allowing her access to the employee spaces on the right near the elevator. She glanced down at her watch and smirked, happy to see that she had managed to make up about 30 seconds of the time she lost sitting at that lazy stop light. She eased her little Honda Civic into an open space and killed the engine. The day had started on a sour note. She had overslept after pulling a double shift the day before, and had been rudely awakened around 6am by the pounding fist of neighbor Bill, the tall semi-handsome law student/plumbers apprentice next door. It was bad enough that he was always hitting on her, but now he was hitting on the common wall that separated their apartments.
            Apparently Billy-boy had left his sense of humor at whatever bar he had closed the night before, and didn’t appreciate the gusto with which her cute but powerful Bose radio alarm clock boomed out an AC/DC classic. She could understand that, but did he really have to bang on the wall like Fred Flintstone, and shout at her through the thin layer of sheet rock, “HEY LIZZIE, TRYING TO SLEEP OVER HERE!”
NO he did not! And on that note, she decided that she'd blame every thing that went wrong on this shift on her sleepy and thoughtless neighbor, William Armstrong Monroe, a.k.a. TURDMAN!
            Lizzie turned the key in the ignition and killed the engine. Sighing she said a quick prayer that she'd make rounds on time, and got out of the car. Aiming her keychain at the car door she pressed the button two or three times before she remembered the darn thing had stopped working a week ago. Must be the battery or something she thought using the key to lock her door the old fashioned way. Then turning on her heel quickly she sprinted off toward the elevator, her lunch in one hand (a tuna sandwich and a baggie full of veggies) and a stack of manila case folders in the other. Huffing and puffing she zipped into the elevator and leaned up against the back panel as the doors closed. She took a deep cleansing breath and blew it out with puffy cheeks. Showtime! Dr. Elizabeth Andrews was going to have good day, one way or another, no matter whose pecker she had to step on in the process!
“One day closer to the 8 hour dream,” she muttered.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

(“Photographs and memories, all the love you gave to me, somehow it just can't be true, that's all I have left of you”) …Jim Croce

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration
Chapter Two
San Pedro, California, November 25, 2002

The two large brass bells perched atop an old round faced alarm clock waited patiently for their cue. As the hands aligned north and south to read 6am the dutiful timepiece clanged to life with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. It vibrated wildly on the nightstand, the hammer striking the large brass bells relentlessly, vibrating so ferociously that it actually began to ‘walk’ toward the edge of its perch. Slowly, very slowly, a large hand, calloused from a lifetime of hard labor, rose from underneath a rumpled mound of blankets on the bed beside the nightstand. Thick fingers wrapped carefully around the blaring instrument, and ever so gently depressed the small lever in back, silencing the old clock a split second before it fell from the stand to the hardwood floor below.
François Bouchard, my old man, turned lazily onto his back and stretched, rubbing the crust from his ice blue eyes. Out of habit he reached over beside him, feeling around for where my mother's sleeping form should have been. He stroked the cold empty space beside him, sighing deeply, and caressed the sheet as if she were still there. Turning his head on an old weathered feather pillow he stared at the undisturbed linen beside him. This was Papa's routine, every morning he reminded himself that she was gone, each and every morning for a couple of years now. Giselle Bouchard died the summer of 1999 from complications with an acute case of emphysema. Her death wasn't pretty and it wasn't quick, it was a bitter, bitter memory, one he wished he could just forget. Whoever coined the phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder" clearly had never had their heart broken. Sometimes absence just makes the heart grow harder.
It takes a special kind of courage to forgive without being vindictive. To be able to see past the bitterness that blinds you to the purity of the love you push deep into a vault where it can no longer be shared. My mom never meant to hurt my father, in fact I doubt she realized that she did. But I tell you this much, were the roles reversed she would never abandon her love for him, no matter what passed between them. My mother believed in love and she lived like she did, every day that I can remember.    
“Goddamn cigarettes!” François muttered.
            Papa had pleaded with her to stop smoking their entire life together; it was really the only thing they ever bickered about. And when she was officially diagnosed with her dire condition in January of 1995 his pleas turned to demands, which naturally disintegrated into bitter arguments, followed by days of silence and weeks of frustration. François prayed daily for Divine intervention, he was convinced that if Giselle humbled herself and stop poisoning her body, that God would show mercy. She didn’t, and neither did God, and so François was forced to suffer the agony of witnessing her slow, horrible death. At the very end my mother suffocated while she was attached to a full tank of oxygen. Her lung capacity had deteriorated so much, that she could no longer draw breath enough to sustain her life.
            It had been like watching a candle flame die out, the red glow fading to orange, then yellow, then blue, and then eventually to black, cold and final. He was bitter and felt he had the right to be. Only his faith kept him from mourning himself into rash decisions after her passing. He was grateful that her suffering was over, but secretly cursed her stubborn pride. Were it not for that she might still be with him.
“Je vous aime mon Cher,” (I love you my dear) he whispered.
            Tenderly he caressed the space beside him where she lay for forty-seven years. He imagined it was still warm to the touch, his memories defying the laws of physics. His glanced over to the nightstand on her side of the bed and noticed a gaudy, gold framed photograph of the two of them in happier times. It was a picture taken on their last real holiday together, before they were aware of the hell yet to come. François vividly remembered that day. They had been walking all morning, window shopping and visiting some old friends of Giselle’s, when they decided to stop for a quick lunch at one of her favorite cafés on the Boulevard Malesherbes. It was a quaint little place in the financial district, not far from the Madeleine Church and the Metro station. He had uncharacteristically asked the waiter to take their photo. The two of them posed like a pair of silly teenagers, all kissy faced and grinning from ear to ear.
            Papa took in a deep breath and sighed, imagining he could still catch the faint scent of her skin in the cooling blankets. Paris was her city; she had been born and raised there. And Giselle had remained every bit a Parisian, even after moving to the United States with him at the tender age of nineteen. Ten years her senior, François had met Giselle shortly after mustering out of the French Navy in the winter of 1948. He had gone to Paris to reunite with his own family, only to discover that they had not survived the German occupation. And after a night of feeling sorry for himself and drinking beyond his limitations, he awoke early the next morning, face down in the tall grass of a local schoolyard. A pretty young girl kicked at his feet, and tried to rouse him.
“Excuser moi Monsieur?”(Excuse me sir) a sweet voice had asked him gently.
“Excuser moi! Vous sont bien monsieur?” (Excuse me, are you alright sir) the voice asked again more insistently, inquiring if he was OK.
            François recalled squinting in glare of the morning sun, his head aching from the wine the night before, and seeing the face of an angel. He fell in love the instant he saw her. Or perhaps he fell in love with the notion of being in love, who could say for sure. All he knew for certain was that his heart had been touched, and the light in this girl’s eyes had somehow dulled the pain of his family's fate. He recalled her puzzled and amused expression. She was totally unaware of the wheels she had set in motion by her random act of kindness. In that moment, without really understanding why, he unconsciously began his campaign to win her heart. As it turned out, Giselle needed little coaxing, as she had been equally smitten, as hungry as he was for life to return to normal.
             Four years after that chance meeting they were wed, it was the winter of 1952. Shortly afterward, François and his child bride immigrated to the United States of America, to begin their new life together. Like so many immigrants before them, they settled at first in New York City. Their first home together was a tiny apartment at the top of a six-floor walkup located on the Lower East Side of the city. There was barely enough room for the two of them, but Giselle was young and anxious to start a family. She begged and pleaded with him to promise that they would try as soon as they were settled. He had tried to reason with her, attempting to explain that they needed to prepare a little nest egg before incurring such responsibility. But Giselle was still a girl in many respects, and had an enormous faith in the unwritten proverb that ‘good things happened to good people’ so as far as she was concerned, there was no reason for worry, they would be blessed, she was certain of it.
            François remembered thinking many times after these discussions, how could one argue with such optimism? After countless such talks she wore him down and they reached an amicable compromise. Mother agreed to wait until Papa found a decent paying job, and they set aside at least enough to cover the expense of bringing a new life into their new world. With that as inspiration, François ventured out amongst the throng of post war job hunters and searched for a place to hang his tool belt, and seek his fortune. And wouldn’t you know it, just as Giselle had predicted, good fortune smiled upon them and within a week he had found the perfect job. A diesel mechanic by trade, François had managed to find work in the vast expanse of the New York shipyards, at a thriving marine dry dock located right on the East River. It was a natural fit for him, given his years of service in the French Navy where he tended to the maintenance and repair of the huge diesel engines propelling the destroyer he had served aboard during the war, Defiant.
            Papa had spent five years aboard that vessel, patrolling the icy cold Atlantic Ocean hunting devil fish, a term commonly used to describe the deadly German U-boats that lurked along the coast of his homeland. The experience had molded him into a fine craftsman in his own right, and thus into a valuable commodity in this post war industry. Outwardly he credited his steadfast perseverance for their good fortune, but inwardly and secretly he acknowledged Giselle's mantra that 'good things come to good people'. He started that new job on the first Monday in May, just before the real heat of summer arrived in the Big Apple. And in no time he and Giselle had squirreled away a tidy little sum. Not a fortune mind you, but enough for him to keep his promise, and they began trying in earnest to start their family.
            Their luck continued when in March of 1954 Giselle beamingly announced that she was with child. She was of course, ecstatic, but for some unknown reason François felt uneasy, perhaps it was just the pre-papa jitters or maybe it was the significance of the news; that their lives would change forever. He did his best to hide that from Giselle, the terror and pressure he felt, but she was far too sensitive to miss such obvious clues, his quietness, his pensiveness, his far away stares. She suspected that he was just doing what all men did, make mountains out of  molehills; creating all sorts of havoc within their minds about futures that were yet to be realized. Why couldn't he just trust in God as she did? After all, hadn't he provided this moment exactly as he had promised?
            François frowned as he recalled that time of his life. Given the way he had wallowed around in a blue funk that he created with his brooding, it didn't take long for his bad attitude to start chipping away Giselle’s initial enthusiasm. But, to her credit, she never threw that back at him. Mother never let Papa's lack of faith reduce her own. Her mother had raised her well, and taught her that in marriage nothing was unforgivable, that when one of you is weak the other must be strong, that is your bond, and that is your duty unto God.  Papa had pouted and moped right up to the day mother went into labor, two weeks early mind you! And with little fanfare, she gave birth to a daughter, stillborn, the day after Christmas, December 26, 1954. They named the baby Marie, and buried her quietly in a brief ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was just the two of them in attendance. They would never speak of her again.
            Papa blamed himself for the tragedy, and tried his best to keep from sinking into a deeper depression with his guilt. He didn't have to try too hard as mother would have none of that! Her faith was tremendous and she knew that God worked in his own time. When the time was right, if she was faithful, he would grant her heart's desire, just as he promised in the Psalms. Her husband was easy to forgive; he was merely acting like a child. But forgiving herself would be harder, in her mind she had somehow failed her child. That never made sense to Papa, but he knew that she believed it, and she prayed to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers, for strength the next go around. As fate would have it though, the path to the next conception would prove to be a difficult one. They tried earnestly but fruitlessly, year after year, for the family that she so passionately yearned for, there seemed to be no hope. But isn't that when God's gifts are the most glorious?
            Giselle stubbornly refused to surrender her spirit to self pity or misery, never losing faith or her joyful spirit. And in the last days of the infamous summer of love, in early September, 1969, they were once again with child. Mother was convinced that it was a reward for her unwavering faith. And so, nine uneventful months later I arrived, a son, Patrick Henry Bouchard. I came screaming into the world without incident in the wee hours of June 7th, 1970. I would be their only child in this life. Mother had actually gone into labor as she and Papa stood in a hot crowded room downtown waiting to take their oath of citizenship.
            As the large group new citizens finished their pledge with, so help me God, mother frantically announced that her water had broken.  François sat up in bed and chuckled as he recalled the mayhem and confusion that had ensued. Dozens of fawning would be midwives from the old country scrambled in mass, coming to the aid of his blushing wife. After a few moments of general confusion, mother and an older Russian woman named Tanya, who actually was a registered nurse, were whisked away by INS authorities to an empty office where five and one half-hours later I was born, delivered expertly by their wonderful new friend Tanya.
            François remembered someone asking if they had a name for the child. He remembered looking to Giselle for help, but she was in another world. He recalled asking Tanya what her favorite boys names were, since they couldn't name their son after her. She looked at him proudly and in her thick Russian accent answered, “give boy American name, call him Patrick Henrygive me liberty, or give me death!” she said adamantly. François had loved the sound of it the minute he heard it, the name had a ring to it. And after mother nodded her approval, he introduced to the room their son, Patrick Henry Bouchard.
            François yawned and stretched once more then kicked off the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed, feeling for his slippers with his feet. He recoiled slightly when his they touched the cold wooden floor. Finding his slippers he eased his feet into his soft and warm flannel lining, got up and walked out into the hall toward the bathroom, scratching his head and backside along the way. He had lollygagged longer than usual this morning, getting out of bed twenty minutes later than he actually should have. There wasn't time to shave, only enough to shower and brush his teeth before I arrived to pick him up for work. Luckily his lunch was in the fridge, prepared and packed the night before, as was his normal routine. This was the part of the day he looked forward to most of all, getting out of the empty house and away from his memories.
            After mother’s passing he'd been restless, and prone to bouts of depression. Were it not for my insistence that he either go back to work, or find a hobby to keep himself busy, he probably would have followed mother to Heaven and missed out on the birth of his grandson Gabriel. Papa wished that mother could have seen Gabriel once before she died. My boy had her eyes, and her smile, and her impish grin which he displayed coyly whenever he was up to something, just like Grandma. So, taking his my advice, Papa offered to help out around the house, doing chores and babysitting Gabriel whenever Michelle needed a break or had to run errands.
            That suited him, it was better than taking a real nine to five job. He didn’t need one anyway; he had retired fairly well off long ago thanks to the Pipefitters Union and some sound investment tips from a former shipmate from the Defiant days, Jean Michel Tondreau. Besides, here he was his own boss and could come and go as he pleased. François smiled as he thought about his family and reached in beyond the drawn shower curtain to spin the faucet handles and start the flow of hot water. He stood in front of the large mirror above porcelain basin while he waited for the water to heat up and wiggled out of his pajamas. He puffed out his chest, sucked in his small gut, and raised his arms, flexing his taut biceps. Twisting his closed fists back and forth, he watched with pride as the rounded muscles rose and fell impressively. 
“Fine figure of a man,” he said proudly to the guy in the mirror, admiring himself, thankful that the years had been kind to him. To be honest, at his age, most people were extremely limited physically. But at the tender age of 81, he was in remarkable shape, easily passing for a man 20 to 25 years his junior. He attributed that in part to a lifetime of hard work, but mostly to the wonderful care that mother had taken in making sure that he lived healthily. He put his arms down and waved dismissively at his image in the mirror, “bahhhh,” he muttered, as he stepped into the shower.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

(”Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”…Matthew 5: 3-12)

For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
my inspiration
Chapter One
Long Beach, California, November 24, 2002

Old man Schuler tugged firmly on the leash, letting Winston, his twelve year-old English bulldog know that he was through being dragged around the neighborhood on their evening constitutional. Winston gagged slightly, stopping obediently but reluctantly. The squat, muscular little beastie turned his fat head and gave his master the stink eye. Carl Schuler ignored the dog's little rebellion and came to a stop himself, grateful that the mutt had decided to take pity on him and cooperate.
“Good boy Winston!” he exclaimed, overtly praising his pet in hopes the animal would stay still long enough for him to catch his breath. Carl wiped at the sweat beaded on his brow with the sleeve of his windbreaker. He exhaled long and deep, and drew back in an equally deep lung full of cool, crisp oxygen.
“Doggie detail is a helluva way to treat a veteran!” he muttered to the empty sidewalk.
            On the plus side, these little walks did get him out of the house daily. Which, short of the sweet release of death, was pretty much his only chance of escaping the shrill sound of Edith’s constant chattering. Only in death, his or hers, at this point in his life he no longer cared which, would he again know peace and quiet he sarcastically imagined. Lord above, how that woman loved the sound of her own voice! Of course he had stopped paying attention years ago, but goddamn this healthy body, he was still cursed with having to listen!
            The day had been warm, typical for Southern California. Nobody knew what a real winter felt like around here. Hell, the people around here bundled up like Eskimos as soon as the mercury leveled off below sixty degrees. Secretly Carl missed the east coast lifestyle. The older he got the more he longed for the snow and cold of his youth. But it was nearing 5PM and the cool ocean breeze brought a familiar chill. Edith would never leave this place; he'd surrendered to that fact many, many, many years ago. California born and raised, she and Carl had made a life together in the Golden State raising five sons and four daughters.
            They had met during WWII while he recovered at the VA Hospital in Long Beach from wounds he received at Guadalcanal. Edith Laurel Harper was the cutest nurse on the whole second floor, and after a solid year of corny jokes and even cornier love notes he won her heart. It would bemoan that accomplishment daily later in life. But hey, life’s ‘a crap shoot at best’ he always said. People either grow together or grow apart, it was that simple as far as his secular self was concerned. His spiritual self, the one he hid from everyone but his Edith believed that love never fails, just like the scriptures promise. It's people who fail to love. Goddamn free will poppycock! He imagined life would be pretty sweet if the Almighty would take that little gift back.   
            Carl zipped up his lightweight jacket with one hand and stuck the other into the fleece-lined pocket. He started to tug at Winston when a sudden movement from the house they were standing outside of distracted him. He looked over quickly at the row of houses on his left and fixed his eyes on the large bay window of his neighbor’s home. The long drapes fell closed, but not before Carl spotted a small boy duck down beneath the windowsill. Not much of a hider though, the kid’s little fingers were still visible holding onto the drapes. Carl could clearly see his pointed little head covered with thick brown hair through the freakishly clean glass. The child’s mother, Michelle Bouchard was a pleasant young woman and real neat freak. An endearing trait that Carl wished would rub off on Edith. She and Patrick, her husband were a very nice Amerasian couple, and their son Gabriel was a wonderfully precocious five-year old. He had the happiest eyes and a smile to go with it. The boy was a beautiful hybrid, a warm blend of cultures physically and socially. Gabriel never failed to make Carl smile, even when he didn't feel much like doing so, like when his sciatica acted up or when Edith put him in the doghouse.
            The Bouchard’s had moved in next door to the Schuler family only a couple years ago, when Michelle was pregnant with their second child. Carl remembered fondly how she and Edith had bonded, which wasn’t hard to understand given Edith’s vast experience at childbirth. This pregnancy had been more difficult than Gabriel's, and Michelle was constantly running to and from the OBGYN. He and Edith had stepped up and helped the young couple, providing meals, babysitting, and taxi services, right up to the night that Patrick dropped off a soundly sleeping Gabriel in the wee hours while he rushed Michelle off to deliver his little sister. Carl sighed, recalling the next day when Patrick phoned to tell them that there had been complications. The baby girl had been stillborn, and Michelle ended up having an emergency hysterectomy as well.
            Carl wasn't fond of remembering that night; it had been tough on everyone, especially Edith. You would have thought that Michelle was her own with by river of tears that flowed. He shuddered, thinking of it and shook off the memory by clearing his throat loudly. Carl waived to the boy in the window and instantly five little fingers appeared, wiggling like tiny snakes in response to his gesture. The old neighbor smiled and tugged at Winston’s leash. “Let’s go old boy,” he said sternly. “Let’s see what mother has for supper tonight!”
            Gabriel Bouchard jumped up from his crouch beneath the windowsill and rapped at the glass with his tiny knuckles. “Goodbye!” he shouted in his little voice, waiving at Carl and Winston as they walked up their drive next door, but they didn’t hear him. The boy took one more look up and down the street to see if he could spot his Daddy’s car coming, and then scurried off to the kitchen where his mommy was busy preparing supper. He could hear her voice, she was humming a familiar tune; she was always humming or singing a tune. Hitting the ceramic tiled floor at full speed he skated over to her, sliding effortlessly across the floor in his stocking feet.
“GABRIEL LUC BOUCHARD,” his startled mother shouted!
            Michelle turned quickly to face him, her hand over her heart as if to keep it from flying out of her chest. She picked up the ever-handy wooden spoon, the pow-pow spoon she called it, and unconvincingly threatened him gloom and doom. Gabriel froze like a statue, as if he were playing freeze tag out in the yard. Michelle tried her best to remain stern, but the goofy look on her son's face and his ridiculous pose, forced her to look away before he saw her smile. It was her intention to scold him but first she had to swallow her giggles.
“Listen here young man! You know better than to scare me like that, don’t you?"
"What if I had something hot in my hand, I might have burned you honey! Please be more careful, OK?” she said to him as she turned to look at him, her stern warning erasing the smile on her face.
            Gabriel didn’t answer her because he was still playing freeze tag. Michelle shook her head slowly and walked over to where he stood frozen and touched him on the shoulder, instantly unfreezing him as per the rules, and ending the game.  The little boy hugged her hard, wrapping his short little arms around her leg and burying his head between her knees like children do. From this vantage point he could see the see the stove and the kitchen counter behind her, as well as Newton. Sir Isaac Newton was the family’s crazy, terrorist cat who was currently curled up near the sink waiting for mommy to hand him a piece of cheese or whatever she might be cutting up for supper. Michelle wriggled her way out of Gabriel’s embrace and turned him back toward the hall.
“You go and wash up for supper; daddy will be home any minute. Go on now, scoot!" she said, giving him a little push on his tushie with her foot.
“OK Mommy,” replied Gabriel, as he sprinted off to the bathroom down the hall.
“NO RUNNING IN THE HOUSE,” she hollered belatedly, squinting at the sound of the slamming bathroom door.
“I swear, I don’t know who listens least, Gabriel or Patrick,” she muttered as she resumed preparing the evening meal.
            Michelle picked up a large knife and started cutting a pile of red rose potatoes that had been soaking in a mixing bowl in the sink. She thought about Gabriel versus Patrick for a moment and then grinned, muttering to Newton, “well, at least Gabriel remembers to leave the seat down." She softly hummed a tune as she ran a stream of tap water over the freshly cut spuds. Rubbing her nose with the back of her wet hand she looked up at the clock above the stove. It was just after five, and I would be home any minute. Michelle frowned; she hadn’t even started boiling the potatoes. Oh well it had been a trying day, what with Gabriel being home sick and all. He had complained about being tired and achy this morning. Actually, he had been complaining about being tired a lot, and he'd had several bloody noses lately as well. Doctor Phillips said that he was probably just going through a growth spurt, and suggested that she watch him closely for a few days to make sure he wasn’t just picking at his nose like kids do.
            She wasn’t exactly crazy about his diagnosis, but he was the doctor after all, and Gabriel did seem to be feeling better today. So she decided to accept his explanation and recommendation not to worry. She was relieved when he prescribed some Children’s Tylenol and a day of rest, assuring her that her son would be up to his old tricks in no time. He was probably right, but still, Michelle was always nervous whenever Gabriel seemed out of sorts. It was probably just a mild case of a mother’s paranoia, she knew that, but ever since the miscarriage she had become a tad over protective of the only child she would ever give birth to. That was an occasional issue between her and I, mostly because I just didn’t get it she would say. I probably didn't, after all, I wasn’t a mother and a man can never really understand what it means to be one, to be so thoroughly connected with another human being.
            Michelle looked down at a mewing Newton and took pity on the sad little thing. She wasn't much of a cat person, but the little dickens had grown on her during the year since they rescued him from the pound. She reached over and cut a small wedge of cheese from the block she was preparing to grate. Newton had this drill down pat and was already standing on his hind legs, reaching up with an orange marmalade colored paw to take delivery of his snack.
“There you go you little beggar,” Michelle said sweetly, reaching down and scratching the top of his furry head while he chomped at the cheese with his sharp little teeth.
HEY, how does a workin’ man get some attention around here?” I shouted from the living room.
“IN HERE HONEY!” she replied, drying her hands with the dishtowel on the counter.
            I walked in through the dining room doorway and scooped up my wife in my usual bear hug, twirling her around a full 360 degrees before putting her down gently. I kissed her on the end of her pointed Roman nose and then jumped up onto the counter and sat beside the stove. Leaning over the burner, I lifted the lid of the stewpot and took a deep whiff of the meal she was preparing. She hated when I did that, and always scolded me about teaching Gabriel my bad habits!
“OH MAN, I’m starving babe, this really smells great though! What is it?” I asked enthusiastically.
“GET DOWN FROM THERE PATRICK! How many times do I have to tell you that Gabriel copies everything you do? You don’t want me to have to take him to the Emergency Room again, do you? Once is good enough for today, thank you very much!” Michelle said, scolding me. I hopped down quickly, doing as I was told. “Sorry honey, my bad,” I apologized.
“Yeah, well…”
“So what’s in the pot?”
“It’s Mulligan Stew,” she answered.
“Do I like that?”
“You will. Why don’t you go wash up and I’ll call you and Gabriel when it’s ready, OK?”
”Sure. Hey, why did he have to go to the doctor today?" I asked.
            Michelle tensed up visibly and I could sense that she didn't want to have another ‘discussion’ about the frequent doctor visits. I tried to keep it light but I was worried that she was overreacting every time the little guy had the sniffles. I assumed it was because of our stillborn daughter, Rebecca. I really didn't want to upset her any more, but goddamn it, this had to stop. It wasn't healthy for anyone, for her, for me, for Gabriel, for anyone. I really wanted us to see someone, maybe through the church, and get some help, but she was pretty stubborn, especially when she got her Irish up. 
Oh, he just had trouble getting up this morning, that's all. And he had another bad nose bleed too. I wanted to check that out. Besides, we have good insurance honey, and everyone at the HMO is really nice. I just wanted to make sure, OK?"
            I swallowed the response that had already formed in my brain and was sitting perched on the tip of my tongue. There was no good reason to make a mountain out of a molehill. Mothers will be mothers. And she was right, we did have good insurance. So it wasn't a money issue for me. I was worried we were giving Gabriel the impression he wasn't normal. None of his friends spent so much time in doctor's offices. My face must have given away what I was thinking in the few seconds it was taking me to reply.   
"Please don’t make a big thing about it Patrick, let’s have a pleasant evening and enjoy each other’s company, I really don't want to bicker tonight, OK babe?” she pleaded softly, studying my face for a clue as to where this talk might be heading.
            What could I say? When the one you love is hurting it's easy to capitulate. So, I sighed and looked down at the floor, put my hands on my hips, and assumed my usual surrender posture. I knew that Michelle had prepared herself for a fight, but I didn't let it start. The high road is usually the best path according to Father Michael, so I followed it and placed my hands behind me, jamming them into the back pockets of my jeans.
“It’s alright babe, better safe than sorry, right,” I said, gently biting on the flesh inside my mouth. “It’s alright, really,” I reiterated.
            Michelle exhaled deeply and jogged over to where I stood. She knew I was lying but she was grateful for the loving gesture and hugged the stuffing out of me, kissing me repeatedly all over my face. I pushed away from her to escape the flurry of butterfly kisses.
“OK, OK, enough already! I’m gonna go wash up and see what the little monster is up to,” I said snickering, as I broke free.
            She chased me for a step or two, pinching at my butt as I made my escape. I can't think straight when she does that, no fair! Then, turning on her heels she went back to the stew that was simmering on the stovetop. I paused to watch her a moment as she tossed the red rose potatoes into the stewpot. She looked back suddenly and caught me staring and picked up the pow-pow spoon. I met her mock warning with a grin and left the room. Before I cleared the doorway I heard her whisper, “God I love that man.”

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