Tuesday, March 31, 2015


The use of manipulation, coercion, intimidation, and/or physical force, defines the tactics of a bully’s game, whether it is in the home, schoolyard, workplace, sports arena, corporations, countries, or in our relationships. It is a mean game wherever it is played; the same sport, different arenas. And who has not at one time or another been a player? There are winners and losers in any game, but today I salute some of the winners.    

My friend's granddaughter, an introspective, pretty girl of thirteen, is in junior high school. She started the year without a best friend, without a clique to hang with. Five mean girls reminded her daily that she was a loser: nasty remarks about her appearance, sniping with cruel taunts, making a game of “Who has to sit next to (holding one’s nose) Emma?” Or making sure she heard, and understood, that she was not invited to the birthday party of a classmate.    

Emma sat herself down and asked herself some hard questions: what is wrong with me? what can I do to change my life so that I want get up in the morning and go to school? She analyzed her personality and determined she was too quiet; she was pretty enough but invisible. So, with resolution and lots of courage, she jumped out of the mindset of a victim: she auditioned for a school play(good golly, Miss Emma, that took a lot of moxie!), but did not get the part; she joined the ASB, (and Grandma, this will look good on my resume when I am old enough to apply for a job), making school posters and meeting lots of new people, who liked Emma for her wit, for her team spirit and for herself. Now she has friends vying to come to her birthday party. Score one for Emma, zero for the mean girls.    

I am not fan of sports in general, but whenever Frank Deford is on NPR, I listen. I happened to catch his commentary comparing the behavior of the NFL pro players to those at the the Australian Open. I quote from NPR’s “sweetness and light: The Score On Sports With Frank Deford”: 
“…an American named Tim Smyczek somehow took the magnificent Rafael Nadal right to the fifth-set limit at a grand slam, the Australian Open. This was Smyczek's moment of a lifetime, but when Nadal served at a crucial point, someone in the crowd screamed, and the serve went awry. What did the 112th player in the world do? He signaled to the umpire that his opponent, the great Nadal, should get help, another chance, another first serve. Nadal promptly won the do-over with a terrific serve, and soon enough, the match, and Smyczek's one hope for glory was gone. But, you see, he simply thought he had to be fair, or victory wouldn't be worth the candle.” Frank Deford (Read more: The Tennis Court Offers A Good Lesson For The NFL

I may not be a 12th fan, but I am a 112th fan. His candle burns brightly in the day and night.    

Two of the most powerful and rich men, giants in the computing world, Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, had a sensational fall out when Paul Allen revealed in his book that Bill Gates was a bully, among other things. But according to Geekwire, Paul Allen added an epilogue in newest version of Idea Man: "I believe we will be friends again," he writes. "The history we share is more powerful than whatever comes between us.”   

Bill Gates made a published statement in the Wall Street Journal that he valued Paul Allen’s friendship and contribution to the world of computers; Paul Allen writes that after his mother’s death, Bill Gates got in touch with him, offered condolences and wished to restore their friendship.    
Whatever happened between these two Titans, always in the public eye and media, will be open to speculation. But for their public personae, they are more than the sum of money; they exhibit a wealth of probity, unlike Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church.    

Pastor Mark Driscoll built a network of over five-hundred churches, founded in 1966, utilizing the Internet and his dynamic personality. But he ruled through intimidation, fear and bullying. He used shunning to control others; he was criticized for plagiarism and unscrupulous publishing tactics, and the misuse of global funds. In January, 2015, Mars Hill Church disbanded. Mark Driscoll was dismissed from Mars Hill Church by the board for “ungodly and disqualifying behavior.” Timothy Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, told the New York Times, “…the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships — which he himself has confessed repeatedly — was obvious to many from the earliest days, and he has definitely now disillusioned quite a lot of people.” Even after repeated misgivings stated by those close to him, Pastor Driscoll would not alter his behavior. He lost it all and his ministry is in shambles. The consequences of being a bully.    

There are no gold medals, trophies, laurels, bonuses, to be given out to Emma, Tim Smyczek, Paul Allen, Bill Gates or the multitude of quiet heroes who go unrecognized, for exemplifying the best qualities within us. Just a shout-out to the winners.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Reviews: Gilead and Lila

I am foremost a lover of short stories and Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize, is one of my favorite authors. I buy hard copies of her works, just to hold the words in my hands; as I read, the characters materialize. A line from her short story, “Differently” says it all: accidental clarity.

Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson is the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is a diary of an elderly father and Congregationalist minister, John Ames, written to his son. John Ames supposes he will not live long enough to share many years with his son, and wishes to leave him something of substance, his father’s thoughts on many subjects, mundane and profound. It is a gentle read, with underlying currents of conflicts between people and philosophy, that flows along lyrically, drawing the reader into the heart and soul of a thoughtful man.

Lila, also by Marilynne Robinson, is about a young woman who comes to Gilead, takes shelter in a church during a downpour and meets, then marries, the minister, John Ames. Not an easy read, the reader struggles with Lila to make sense of her worlds—her past, her present, her childhood, her marriage. It is a story of despair, hope, joy, love, judgement and all the elements of human existence. A few times I lost the thread of the story, but found myself compelled to finish this unforgettable novel.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 7

Rodger burst through the door of the hut, bellowing, “Hey! Bright Eyes!” She was nowhere to be seen. He flung open her bedroom door, but the room, shadowed with eerie, quiet movements from men and machinery outside her window, was empty.

Rodger stamped into the kitchen. Dust and debris drifted through the opened window. As he went to close it, he spied Mary Elizabeth huddled underneath the sink, her face collapsed into the doll, her slender hands trembling.

“Hey, Bright Eyes, it’s over. Come on out,” he coaxed, reaching for her.

Her stringy hair trailed across her tear‑streaked face. Rodger pulled her close, felt the sharpness of her bones through soiled clothing. She burrowed into his shoulder and sobbed.

“They never come back…the ones who leave...without me touching them...never come back.”

Rodger held her tighter, cradling her in his arms as he stood for a moment before carrying towards her bedroom. With his foot, he eased the door open wide enough to allow them entry.

“No, Mary Elizabeth, no,” he repeated in her ear, setting her down upon her bedroll, then sat beside her.

Mary Elizabeth shook her head, negating his absolution. “I was mad at Buck; I did not hug him,” she whispered furiously, jabbing at herself with an index finger. “I...I...didn’t say good‑bye.”

“That doesn’t make the slightest difference!” He grabbed her shoulders, shaking her a little. “Listen,” Rodger tilted her chin so that she had to look up at him. His eyes bored into her glazed‑over pupils. “It’s God’s will that man lives or dies. Not yours. You just forget all that nonsense about your magical powers.”

Mary Elizabeth hugged her knees and began to rock back and forth on the dirty and ripped linen mat.

Rodger focused on a small, wooden chair. It was the only piece of real furniture in the room, nicked horribly at the legs and blackened scratches marring the seat. Idly, Rodger recognized it as the kind of chair he used to have in grade school.

“I know it isn’t easy to understand, but us guys over here take dying as part of the job. It comes with the wings. Can’t you understand that?”

Frantic, he searched for something to say to ease her anguished guilt. What was wrong with that goddamned LinChing anyway? Didn’t he say that her mother had been a missionary? Didn’t they tell her about God and all that? Goddamn her father, goddamn him anyway.

Mary Elizabeth sat quiet for a moment. Then a shudder racked her frail body and the great sobs began again.

Rodger gathered her in his arms, picking up the doll that had dropped from her hand to the floor. “Here, Mary Elizabeth,” he said, proffering the doll, but she pushed it away.

He sat with her as the light of day sloughed to night, sat holding the keening child as the room filled with specters and disembodied noises of whirring mosquitoes and snores from the other rooms.

Mary Elizabeth whimpered, coughing in tiny snorts. Rodger began to hum, “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies…” until he was sure she had fallen deeper into sleep. Then, as the dark lightened to dawn, he leaned back against the cold slats and dozed off.

He woke stiff from holding Mary Elizabeth all night. Sometime during the dark hours, someone, most likely LinChing, had crept into the room and covered them with Rodger’s army blanket. A cooling breeze shuffled through the room, and sunshine flowed through the window. He stood, still cradling Mary Elizabeth as the blanket dropped free. Looking down, he was reminded of his sisters’ faces and how peaceful they, too, appeared in sleep. He gently laid Mary Elizabeth down upon her pallet and spread the scratchy blanket over her. An unearthly silence permeated the hut.

Weary, Rodger went to his own bed and slept until the heat and achingly bright sunlight woke him. Mary Elizabeth rustled about in the kitchen.

“Hey, Bright Eyes! Where’s my breakfast?”

She turned in his direction, her puffy eyes making her look aged and weary. Yet she had a sassy tilt of her head and a smile in her voice. “After you wash up, GI.”

Rodger snorted. The men around him whooped and clapped. By the time they had all dressed and shaved, Mary Elizabeth and her father had plates of rice, eggs, and scorched toast along with coffee waiting for them.

Rodger ate in silence. He had made up his mind to go into Tiandong and see the priest there.

As he prepared to leave, Mary Elizabeth came to the door, watching his every move with a downcast face. “What’s the matter Bright Eyes?”

“My father and I will make special meal tonight. I want you to stay.”

Dammit, he thought, she always does this. “What have you cooked up?”

“Rice. Special Chinese dish. You’ll like, you see. I know you like.” She looked down at the ground, grinding her big toe into the dirt. “Today is my birthday.” She peeked up through her long lashes, smiling coyly. “Twelve years old today.”

Twelve. A small lightning bolt of dread shot through him. She’d never understand why he’d send her away from here. “Oh, all right! I’ll be back before six, then,” he promised with a shrug.

Like a dancer gliding across the boards, Mary Elizabeth came to him. She threw her arms around his waist and pressed her head into his stomach, whispering, “Thank you, Rodg.”

He patted the top of her head, embarrassed before the men who stood inside the door. “I have to go, or I won’t get back in time.” He frowned at her, stabbing the air between them with his finger. “Only, you’ve got to take a bath.”

Her face clouded and he knew he had wounded her womanly pride. But satisfied she had him, she shrugged and walked away from him, nonchalantly hefting two buckets as she went to fetch water from the stream.

Rodger jumped into the jeep and headed for the village of Tiandong. He hailed passersby, but the villagers shied away from his approach. He looked around, finally spying the crumbling tower with a cracked bell in the distant countryside.

The sunlight reflected cruelly from the bleached hovel that acted as both convent and church. He drove right up to the door. Two nuns scurried out, then backed into the entrance. They watched him, huddled together and chattering to one another. Rodger had about given up making himself understood to them when a stately man in Chinese pants and shirt came to the door, extending his right hand.

“Hello, I’m Father McBride.”

Rodger shook the older man’s hand, the knots in his stomach relaxing. “Glad to meet you. I’ve heard you’ve done remarkable things for this place.” He considered the man, immediately liking him. “I want to make a deal.”

The priest motioned Rodger to follow him, leading him through the gate to a garden. “This is not a spiritual matter, then?”

Rodger felt as though he had squared off with a friendly opponent. “Oh, in way. It’s about a lost soul.” He never looked away from the other man’s eyes, nor did Father McBride blink. “I have a mechanic living on our base with his young daughter. We’re under a lot of heat, and I don’t want to be responsible for her.”

Father McBride gestured broadly around him at the war-scarred countryside. “Nowhere is safe.”

“But,” Rodger interjected, “here would be safer than if she were found on base...alive.” And here, he thought, scanning the fertile garden and the huge litchi tree in the courtyard, she would have a little bit of something beautiful in her life.

“Are you be referring to Mary Elizabeth and her father LinChing?”

“You know them?”

“Yes, quite well.”

“I could pay some for her room and board.” Rodger scratched his chin. “But I don’t want LinChing to know I am paying you. I have to be sure Mary Elizabeth will be taken good care of here.”

“I would have to discuss this with my staff.”

Rodger met the hard, assessing gaze of Father McBride. “I have medical supplies I could exchange, also.” He grudgingly had to admire the priest who struck a hard bargain.

With a bemused smile, the priest gestured to the nuns. “Please stay and have supper with us. We can discuss the terms.”

“Can’t.” He glanced at his watch. “Haven’t much time.”

Father McBride adjusted his steel‑rimmed glasses. “Perhaps an exchange of goods as payment would be sufficient.”

“Make me a list, and I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you.”

They shook hands again. Rodger left feeling certain that the priest with steely-gray eyes could handle any objections from those two nuns.

When he returned to base, all of the men were seated at the table and waiting for him. Jimmy moved over and Rodger sat heavily in the seat. Mary Elizabeth carried in a huge platter, heaped with steaming rice and vegetables, and duck, placing it between Rodger and LinChing. She had made a sauce, pungent and thick dark‑brown, which she ladled slowly over the portion on the dish she placed before each one of them. The men ate heartily, loud and animated, except for LinChing, who never changed his imperturbable expression. Mary Elizabeth stood beside the table, effervescent, as if she gathered her happiness from the men in the room.

Rodger paused in the midst of a bite to gaze at her. She looked so vital, so beautiful standing there. He smiled at her, and she blushed and bowed her head in acknowledgment.

LinChing spoke quietly, almost too softly to be heard. “Mary Elizabeth is a young woman today. At home, she would be betrothed. But I have no wealth, no family. She can only choose and forget.”

Rodger felt for this old man, a man fettered to his past but bereft of his homeland and traditions, a good man with a young daughter to worry about.

“My father means that when I am to marry, I must choose a man.” She blushed crimson, but challenged the eyes of the men at the table.

Stevens, usually aloof, sang out unexpectedly, “Well, by God, we’ll be in suspense as to which one of us it is for our barefoot pixie!”

Everyone but LinChing, applauded. Summers and McGree slapped each other on the back. Between mouthfuls of food, the men bantered.

Rodger yelped and extracted a round, tiny, hard, object from his back tooth. Frowning, he held up a carved, ivory marble.

Mary Elizabeth spontaneously clapped her hands, then in a familiar gesture hid her face behind her cupped hands.

“What the hell is this? A Chinese tooth‑cracker?”

Mary Elizabeth wagged her head, wrapping her long, black hair softly around her waist. Wordlessly, she retreated to the kitchen.

LinChing bent over his plate and continued eating. There was a moment of restrained quiet.

“I think, sir, that you’ve been chosen honorary husband,” McGree said, before bursting out in laughter.

Rodger pocketed the marble, mashing his rice around the plate with his fork before taking another mouthful. LinChing disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a blue‑leafed, porcelain tea set. The aromatic brew filled the room with the strong odor of warm rice wine. LinChing poured the first cup for Rodger. With mock severity, each man raised his cup in salute. Rodger tipped his cup back and drank.

Pushing away his plate, Rodger turned to LinChing and gestured at the door. “We need to talk. Let’s go outside.”

They walked toward the hangar. Rodger placed a hand on LinChing’s bony back, stopping him.

“Listen, friend, I’ve talked with Father McBride at Tiandong.” Rodger felt LinChing stiffen. “He says he will care for Mary Elizabeth there at the mission.”

“No, she cannot go. Must stay here with me.”

Damn, this wasn’t going to be easy. He hardened himself and allowed no sympathy in his voice. “Yesterday was too close for comfort. She can’t stay.”

“I promise to take care of her!” LinChing had the determination of a warrior, but Rodger would not back down.

“No, LinChing, she cannot stay. She is going tomorrow. You can visit. By yourself or one of us will take you.”

Desperately, he stammered, “I cannot pay. I have nothing to exchange.”

“Don’t worry about it. Father McBride is all right with the arrangement.” LinChing stared at him, his face suddenly impassive. “Dammit, LinChing! This is an Army base. Do you understand?”

Rodger lit a cigarette, offering the other man one, which LinChing refused. “I cannot be responsible for her death…or worse.”

LinChing winced at his words. He shook his head furiously, turned and walked to the hangar. Rodger followed him. Parts lay strewn about like discarded clothes, yet Rodger knew LinChing could put his hands on any given one in an instant.

LinChing snatched up a piston and wiped it down. “I cannot tell her.”

Rodger flicked the butt of his Camel and watched it skip through the dirt. The hard part was almost over.

LinChing put a restraining hand on Rodger’s forearm. “You.”

Rodger shook his head. “No, that’s hardly my...,” but stopped at seeing the stark anguish in the old man’s eyes. He couldn’t say more, could not even conjure up the anger he was entitled to.

He ran his hand through his hair, searching for a better way, knowing there wasn’t any. Yes, this was the right decision, but he didn’t feel right about it, either.

He swore. He cursed himself, palming the marble in his pocket, rolling it around and around.

“All right, LinChing. I’ll tell her in the morning.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 6: Advice

Thursday morning on my way to school, I went through list after list of words that I had memorized. That’s why I didn’t see the bully dogs as they came around the corner on Main Avenue. I heard first a low rumble; then they were so close so fast I thought the black Lab would nab me before I got to the gate. I picked up a long, thick stick, and threw it as hard and far away as I could. Wonder of wonders! All of them all chased after it and left me alone. Seething mad, I watched them and wished a car would come along and at least scare some sense into them, but not one came down the street.

That started my day, and it got worse. I almost missed the school bus that took Steve and me over to the high school where we were competing in the inner-schools spelling contest. I didn’t last the second round. I misspelled “comprehensive” with an “i” after the “h,” which I knew the minute I said it was wrong. But too late; I was out of the running. Steve stayed in and won, placing in the city finals, eligible for the regionals. He met me coming out of the auditorium on the way to the bus pick-up.

“Good going, Steve.” I left enough room on the bench if he wanted to sit down, too. “You really got some hard words. Like ‘maneuver.’ I never would have gotten that one.”

I had my hand marking my place in The Sword and the Stone, ready to resume reading if Steve didn’t feel like talking. But he did. “You got some hard ones, too, Fran. You did all right, until ‘comprehensive.’ That’s a tough one for everyone. Except me.”

“Yeah,” I agreed half-heartedly. “I hope you do as well in the regionals.” I meant that, hoping he would win, but I wished he could take a little less interest
in himself.

“Oh, I will. I’ve studied pretty hard this year.” The school bus lumbered up the drive, making so much racket that talking anymore was impossible. Steve got a window seat on the right side, third aisle, and I took a window seat on the left side behind the bus driver.

At the classroom door, Mrs. Hammershaw greeted us, clapping as we walked into class. I almost felt better, until I saw Marcy glaring at me as if I had done something. What now? I thought, sitting down and pulling out my math book. I saw the notice on the board from Miss Ford that practice was canceled for tonight, but there would be a make-up on Friday night, all girls to attend. Maybe Marcy was mad about that since she either went to a movie or rented a video on Friday nights. Who knew? I wondered if Annie was going to tell me anything at recess.

I had a chance to talk with Annie in the bathroom after computer class. She spoke fast, in a raspy sort of whisper.

“Oh, Fran, I’m glad you weren’t here at lunch! Mrs. Perkins was on playground duty, and she grabbed Marcy by the arm and was shaking her and telling her she had no right to be mean to you Saturday at the volleyball game.”

I didn’t laugh, but just imagining it made me want to. “What did Marcy do all the time Mrs. Perkins had a hold of her arm?” I didn’t think Marcy would have just stood there.

“Oh, she jerked her arm back and told old Mrs. Perkins that she’d be mean and say whatever she wanted to, to anyone she wanted to! She gave it right back to the old bag!”

I didn’t ask Annie what she thought about the way Marcy had come down on me because I got the feeling she thought Marcy was pretty cool for having stood up to Mrs. Perkins. “I guess you could say Marcy knows how to defend herself against criticism.” I flipped water from my hands, spraying Annie like I always did.

“Fran, don’t do that, okay?” She scowled at me while wiping her eye carefully.

I suddenly noticed that she was wearing mascara. I opened my mouth to ask when she had started using make-up, which was against the school rules, when she patted my arm and looked at me sympathetically.

“The only thing,” she said, tugging my arm to hurry me along to class, “is that Marcy’s mad at you.”

So that was it! “Why me?” I protested, skidding us to a stop. “I didn’t ask Mrs. Perkins to defend me, did I? I wasn’t even there!”

“I know,” whispered Annie before she darted through the door, leaving me with a one-sided discussion going around and around in my head.

That might have been the end of it, but of course, it wasn’t. That night, when I was taking my bath, Mom got a telephone call from Mrs. Perkins. I think if Merlin had appeared in my life just then, I would’ve had a hard time figuring out what magical spell for him to use. Turn Mrs. Perkins into a donkey or Marcy into a toad? No, I think I would have asked him to make me disappear, for good, into another time and space, another dimension.

King Arthur I’m not, and I’m not real sure what Arthur would have done, anyway, if he’d been in my spot. What could I say to my mom that hadn’t already been said and done?

“Frances, I’d like to discuss something with you. Please wash up quickly, and after you’ve brushed and flossed your teeth, come to the dining table.”

I sometimes wonder, if the house were burning down, if my mom would insist I brush and floss my teeth before I escaped.

“Isn’t it kind of late for me to be up?” I asked as I sat down across the table from her.

“We’ll only be a minute. Well, Frances, when it rains, it pours, huh?” She rubbed the spot over the bridge of her nose, as if she could have smoothed out everything. “Before I get into what Mrs. Perkins had to say, I want to commend you, again, for doing your best in the spelling contest. I don’t think I had your poise when I was twelve, let alone the nerve to get up like that in front of all those people and rattle off those fifty-cent words. You did a good job, kiddo.”

What could she say? She’s my mother, right? A good job, but not good enough. “Yeah, I tried.”

“You gave it your best, and that’s worth more in the long run. But onto our other topic of discussion.”

She paused and sighed, I suppose, trying to put her thoughts in ‘good order’ as she always says. “Mrs. Perkins said she had a little run-in on the playground with Marcy. You know about that?” I responded with a nod. “She said she was taken by surprise at the way Marcy sassed her.

Apparently, Marcy told her mother that Mrs. Perkins hurt her when she grabbed her arm. Mrs. Perkins maintains that she didn’t grab Marcy at all.” Mom sighed and looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “I’m sure Marcy’s story is somewhat exaggerated.”

I was sure it was, too, but I was just as sure she’d tell her mother only what she wanted her to know about what had happened. I didn’t say anything, so Mom went on.

“This is a most unfortunate incident, for a couple of reasons. I agree that you shouldn’t be bullied by Marcy. I saw what happened, how she stepped in front of you, and when she missed the ball, blamed you. That is inexcusable. But,” Mom looked me right in the eye, and I felt guilty that I hadn’t done anything to defend myself, “it happened on the volleyball court.”

Significant pause, like I was supposed to know the meaning. But I didn’t raise my hand and offer any answer.

“Your coach,” my mom supplied her own answer, “has the responsibility of her players—not the parents in the bleachers, or the umpire.” She rolled the edge of the placemat while her voice got sharper. “I refuse to fight your battles on court or off, Frances. One day you might decide that you’ve had enough of Marcy pushing you around. But only you can decide for yourself when and how much you’ll take.” She was winding her lecture up, thank goodness. “I told Mrs. Perkins I appreciated her intervening on your behalf, but it is your coach’s problem, and you might want to discuss this with Miss Ford. But you might take some advice: don’t talk about this at school or at volleyball. There’s been too much made about this already. Okay?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled and took myself off to bed. Like I said, my mom sits on the sidelines and watches, not getting involved in the games.

But she had a point. Maybe Miss Ford would take care of it and I wouldn’t have to say anything, let along do anything, to draw attention to a problem I’d rather did not exist.

Which happened, in a way. Miss Ford lectured all of us on sportsmanship and team effort, not naming names. We drilled extra long on staying in our positions and using strategy for the upcoming game. One thing she warned us about that I thought we needed to hear: we couldn’t get overly confident of our abilities. We were going to be up against the best teams in the league, and just because it had seemed easy up until now, it could be lost as easily as it had been won. I knew that from the spelling contests.

Marcy and Sue acted as if I was invisible the whole time of the game and afterwards. I played hard, too hard at first, and botched every serve until I stopped caring what they thought of me. Then, backwards as it seemed, my serves and returns went fine. We won the first two games, and I think all of us felt pretty tough, like we could take on the next division if we had to.

The thing I didn’t like was that Annie was acting too much like Marcy, wiggling around and tossing her newly permed, long hair like a spastic horse. Ursala didn’t ever seem to change, win, lose, or draw. She was kind of quiet most of the time, anyway, except at the rally part of the game, and then you could hear her voice for a mile. But it was a sweet sounding voice, and she always had a nice thing to say about the other team.

On my way out to the car, I asked Annie to call me when she got home. “It’ll be later this afternoon,” she promised. “I’m going to the mall with Sue, Ursala, and Marcy right now.”

I guess you could say I was a bit surprised, but I merely shrugged and went on home. When she did call, all she talked about was the latest look in leather. Like we were going to wear leather pants and skirts. I didn’t have much to say to her, so our conversation was short.

But I got to spend the night with Pattie, and we called Carol a couple of times with new jokes we made up. Pattie was good at thinking up the storyline, and I was good at the punch line. We had Carol laughing so hard she had the hiccups. Even her eight-year-old brother she was babysitting thought our jokes were funny.

I told Pattie about some of my problems at school. “Gee,” she said as she brushed my hair into a ponytail, “I don’t know why they treat you so mean. Are you mean to them?”

“No.” I threw away my Juicy Fruit gum and folded two fresh sticks into my mouth. “That’s just the way it’s been since kindergarten.”

“Well, Fran,” Pattie had this big-sister voice that she used all the time on her younger brother and sister, “you’re pretty and smart and good in sports, too. Don’t let them make you feel you aren’t. Maybe they’re jealous of you.”

“Right, like I have something they don’t. My grandmother says I should smack Marcy right in the kisser.”

“One time ought to do it.” Pattie looked so serious I cracked up. “It’d sure shut her up.”

“I can’t hit her. I don’t want to hit anyone.” I was glad to have friends like Pattie and Carol, even if I didn’t take their advice. I’d have to be real mad to hit Marcy, and I didn’t think I could get that mad.

That’s how little I knew about myself. Monday when I discovered my lunch missing from my blue backpack, I was just mad enough to hit the person who took it. Of course, no one knew who had taken it; no one saw who returned it after lunch was over. Like no one knew who had clapped an eraser all over my chair, which I didn’t realize until I stood up and looked at my pants. I had to explain to my mom why my uniform was all messed up the first day of the week.

She shook her head. “Maybe someone accidentally took your lunch and was too embarrassed to return it. The chalk on your desk might have been someone’s idea of a joke.”

I pulled my lunch sack out of my backpack. “I don’t think it was an accident, at all. And I’m not laughing, Mom.”

She shook her head and sighed real hard. “You’re right, honey. Who do you think did it?”

Did she really have to ask? I did a fake surprise, “Oh! Maybe it was Marcy!”

“What are you going to do about it, Frances?” Leave it to my mom to get right into the icky part of the problem.

“I don’t know,” I admited after a long pause. “I guess I’ll do nothing. Ignore her.”

“May I offer a suggestion, Frances?”

Usually I didn’t take my mom’s suggestions because it meant that I’d have to do something I didn’t like. But I listened patiently. “Sure, offer me a suggestion.”

“I think we both agree that there is a problem with Marcy. Right?”

“Right.” I chewed on a pencil, waiting for the big line.

“So, tell Marcy you thought better of her, thought she was more mature. Then offer to let bygones be bygones.”

I had to laugh out loud! “Just go up to her and say, ‘You’ve been a brat, and I don’t like it! Now let’s be friends.’ Hah! It won’t work!”

But I saw Mom was convinced her view was the right one as she pressed home her point. “I think one day you two might end up being friends, especially on the sports field. You’ve got everything she’s got, if not more. Confidence, Frances, is what you don’t have. It’s the only thing you don’t have that the others do.”

All well and good for my mother to say, but little did she know. I certainly found out the next day from the others what else I didn’t have.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 6

John looked off in the distance, over Ada’s head, at the front door. He appeared disinterested in their conversation.

Ada shifted uneasily on the sofa. Adele sat silently opposite in the blue‑floral brocaded chair, picking lint from the sleeve of her blouse.

“John only encouraged Rodger to do the things he wanted to do.” Madeline’s face clouded. “Not what he should have done, like getting an education.”

“Oh, but he’ll have a chance to go to college on the GI bill,” Adele interjected.

Ada felt weighted, as if Madeline’s troubles were her own. In a sad way they were, for in good time Rodger would betray her, too. It was the natural way of men, being in love with worldly things and not the whole of someone.

“Well, yes, if that can hold his interest anywhere near as long as boxing, horses, and planes. He’s so much like John—always the excitement—throwing caution to the wind—living for the moment!” Madeline flung up her hands and laughed sourly.

“Just how exciting do you imagine the Longhorn Bank is, Maddie?” John turned to her, his voice drawling low and soft.

Madeline, her mouth pursed to answer, was about to speak when Adele gasped, then laughed out loud. “This kid! He kicks like a mule. Probably stubborn, too.”

“Rodger’s headstrong, so you’d better expect that from your child,” Ada teased.

“ ‘Headstrong’ is an excuse, Ada,” Madeline sniffed.

John stood up abruptly, leaving the room. Madeline watched him in silence. Adele sought Ada’s eyes and locked onto her gaze until the tension in the room broke.

Madeline sighed. Adele groaned, pushing herself from the chair to stand, as Ada straightened herself.

“I’m glad we got most of your things moved into your new house, Adele. It’s awfully small, but you’ll be so comfortable in it; wait and see.”

“Oh, I just wish I could do more than I did today. Once my folks ship over some of my things, I’ll be able to do a little of my own sewing and cooking.”

“Now, don’t fret Adele!” Madeline hurried over to pat her arm. “We’re happy to help you!”

“I’ll bring your curtains sometime tomorrow, Adele,” Ada called as she let herself out the door. She gathered the night to her, hugging the solace of the vast starry sky.
She was tired, yet the night did not offer her any comfort. Restless, she moved aimlessly through her house, moving through the shadows of early morning hours. It came as no surprise when John called her later that morning from his office.

“Maddie has taken the girls to the lake for a couple of days. I have to go to Charlottesville. Will you allow me to buy you lunch for the use of your car?”

“Oh, dear, I’m not even dressed.”

John laughed into the phone. “Well, can’t you get some clothes on and go with me?”

“Oh, yes. And I have extra gas coupons.”

“An hour, then?”


Ada stood still, listening to the pounding of her heart. She and John had never had recourse to speak of the night they had been thrown together, furious in their intent to spirit Big Red away from the town’s hatred. So much lay unspoken between them, so much understood. Yet never could they speak freely to one another! They were shadow lovers. She made herself a cup of tea and took it to her bedroom. Without hesitation, she pulled out a smart, hound’s-tooth check woolen skirt and jacket. The shriek of the wind sent chills through her. She pulled on beige, hand‑knitted cashmere sweater.

When John knocked at her door, she greeted him with, “Well, it’s a little less than an hour, isn’t it?” Amused by his perplexed frown, she hastened to add, “I bet you didn’t think I’d be ready, did you?”

He entered warily, tentatively smiling at her and cast a furtive glance around the room before clearing his throat. “I guess I was a bit anxious to see you. I really wasn’t watching the time. Say, have you heard from Rodger? I got the most astounding letter from him. I’d like to share it with you.”

Ada sighed, afraid for a moment that John might have caught her distress. But he didn’t.

“The last letter I had was the one I brought over the night Heather had such a fever. Aren’t kids something the way they recover over night?”

John chuckled. Ada snatched her raincoat, swooping up her car keys and purse. “Let’s be off! On silvered wings...”

“A good night’s rest does a woman good!”

She didn’t reply, but waited for him to pass her by the opened door. John was the same height as she, and if she turned ever so slightly, they would bump noses. They stood close enough to hear the other’s heartbeat, yet neither one dared touch the other.

As John stopped by the stair landing, facing the street, he appraised her. “You look elegant. Your outfit is very flattering.”

“Thank you. I get compliments and lunch, too?”

“I should think you deserve a lot more.”

Ada trembled inside yet forced herself to remain calm as she followed him down the stairs. She was surprised that she felt no compunction about going off with Madeline’s husband. There was no danger in it—yet.

John waited for her to be seated first before he closed the car door. Ada adjusted her skirt.

It’s odd, she thought, that we can travel beside one another in silence when there is so much to talk about. The outside whizzed past as they sped along the stretches of flat highway.

“You seem self‑absorbed today, Ada.”

“Oh, it’s the rain,” she hedged, knowing it had to do with the images left behind from Rodger’s letters. The more she tried to erase them, the bolder and clearer they became. It was an attack of loneliness that rarely hit her. Not even with John sitting beside her did the blunt ache go away.

“Ada,” John asked softly, “what is the matter?”

“I...I was lost in my thoughts,” she stammered, then recovered and looked at John. “Actually I was thinking of Rodger.”

John reached over and squeezed her arm reassuringly. “You’ve noticed a change in him, too? The words in his letter say he’s all right, but he’s different. I was hoping you knew something.” John smiled sheepishly at her. “You seem to have an inside track on Rodger.”

Ada looked sharply at John. “I’m only his friend. You’re his father.” She relented, brushing wrinkles from her lap. “Maybe between the two of us, we can figure him out. What does Maddie say about it?”

“Are you joking? She only reads his words.” With a boyish gesture of his hand, he combed his fingers through his wavy, brown hair. “He said he might be stateside in a month or less.”

“I doubt if he’ll come home soon. He has a funny sense
of obligation.”

“You’re right, you know. You were always closer than I was or Big Red. What’s your secret tack, Ada?”

Ada laughed softly. She wasn’t going to answer to him, not today or not tomorrow. Never.

John drove to an office building behind the main street of Charlottesville. She stayed in the car while he went in the concrete and brick structure emblazoned with a large sign, “Hewling and Morgan, Brokers.”

Fred Hewling had been a senior at her high school when she was a junior. She remembered him well: dark hair, blue eyes, broad shoulders that fitted a football captain’s uniform perfectly, a physique that made him look like he had been chisled by an artist. But Fred had never noticed her.

She chuckled at herself. She had gotten along all right these years. She had had Sam, a good man. Rodger and John. Even Adele, although she felt slightly resentful at this addition, and then ashamed of herself.

Adele was alone over here, with her parents stationed at the English embassy. Ada felt she had a responsibility to care for Adele, to make room inside her heart and head. She didn’t feel selfish or jealous, she just needed time with Rodger to herself.

But, she suddenly wondered, when he came home, then, what would become of her and John?

“Aren’t I the one who preaches crossing the bridges when I get there?” she whispered savagely to herself, clasping her trembling hands together on her lap. Her eyes stung. She focused on an elm tree bent against the wind, the only tree around for the whole length of the block.

With an ache, Ada thought of John. He lingered in the recesses of her every thought. Could they have been different as man and wife? He looked as Rodger might look at fifty; yet Ada could sense he had been defeated, but not by Madeline. A woman could never love a man enough to bring him down to earth and make him want to stay with her. He’d always have objects and means to travel onwards: battles to engage his strength and prowess, frontiers to conquer. Blood was such a small price to pay for it all. And woman, like a spider, weaver of internal threads, build a support system to capture the man‑sense for a while. What could she do with her mate? Eat him. And she, giver of life, center of his universe, somehow would always end up alone.

The car door opened and John slid in behind the wheel, starling her with the warmth of his body. She inhaled his pungent man‑smells.

“Well, we’re all set to go. I hope you aren’t annoyed with me for making such a beautiful woman wait for so long?”
“I guess I didn’t think of the time passing at all. Where
to now?”

“A quiet restaurant by the mill. A mile or so.”

“How often do you come to Charlottesville?”

“Oh, used to be quite frequently. Fred and I were neighbors growing up. Maddie and Trixy are best friends, since grade school. We used to drive over there and have dinner once in a while when all our kids were small.”

“Why didn’t you invite Fred to join us for lunch?”

“I did, but he’s booked with another client. He took a rain check.”

Ada was disappointed, not because Fred wasn’t coming to lunch but that John had actually asked him. She silently chided herself for playing games; she wanted John to herself, but she didn’t want anything improper to happen. They were, and would be, friends. The whole lot of them.

Seated, John leaned over, his eyes bright with reflected light. “It will be so good to have Rodger back home.” He sighed and smiled, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I haven’t looked forward to anything quite so much in years.”

John nodded to the owner as they came through the door of Gaspar’s Italian restaurant. The tables were so low and small that Ada’s knees touched John’s. He seemed pleased with himself. She wondered about John’s feelings for her.

“It is cozy in here, isn’t it John? I feel as if I should whisper across the table.”

“Yes, it’s amazing that this little place has been so successful. It’s never without customers for lunch, even in wartime. I suppose everyone needs to get away from reality.”

“Is that what we’re doing? Getting away from reality?”

“I guess so, Ada.”

The waiter came and took their orders, returning at once with the bottle of white wine. The crisp coolness of the wine sliding down Ada’s throat made her indulge the sheer luxury of it. She closed her eyes for a second, blanking everything out, just to enjoy the next sip thoroughly. John was staring intently at her, a smile playing about his lips.

“Just to watch you taste your wine like that brings me the utmost pleasure. I’m glad, at last, to do something for you.”

Ada lowered her eyes to the table top, searching around inside her head for a comment to turn the conversation away from herself. But she found herself liking the compliments, and acknowledging the reward, she picked her glass up for a toast.

“To us. To those of us who deserve the best.”

John hesitated, his smile stiff as he raised his glass, clinked it against hers, but did not bring it back to his lips. He blushed, and Ada relished her small victory. They were going to be open and honest, whatever the sacrifice. It was the least she could tolerate in any affair.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bully Dogs Chapter 5: Team Spirit

"Possibilities” was a good start for me. Steve and I hung in there for the entire seventh-grade-level words. It surprised me half of the students couldn’t make it beyond the first round.

Actually, we’d had most the words—overrated, wheelchair, windshield, hitchhike, and ninety-nine—in our advanced reading groups. Steve and I were in the blue group, the eighth-grade Readers, and so far none of the words had tripped up either one of us. By the third round, the eighth graders had dropped like flies sprayed with Raid.

There were four us left, and I felt pretty confident I would make it to the inner-schools contest. I almost stumbled on “succession” but added the second “s” instead of a “t” at the last minute. I noticed Steve looking intently at me, as if he thought for sure I would miss it.

He got “zucchini” and almost ate it but stalled only long enough to spell it right. “Astrology” was too much for the last eighth-grade girl, and I felt lonely with two guys and the big words about to be pulled out for the final round.

Well, it went pretty quickly, after all. “Entrance” and “naturally” got the other two eighth graders, Steve spelled “mythology” without a hitch, and I got through “performance” without a slip. I heaved a sigh of relief and smiled back at Steve as we walked to class.

“Next week’ll be us against the two best from Holy Cross and St. Michael’s.” Steve slowed down before we got to the door. “If you get past them, it’s you against seven in the all-city. It’s a written test for the regional.”

“Well,” I shrugged, running my finger along the wall, “I think we might, at least, get an easy A in spelling for this quarter.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.” Steve swung the door wide, and I had to sidestep out of the way real fast or I’d have gotten clobbered.

We were just in time for P.E. and filed right back out with our class. The boys got the soccer field, and the girls got the volleyball court. Miss Ford ran down a few tips, gave the serve to the eighth-grade girls, and then left us to a practice game while she drilled the boys in mid-field defensive maneuvers.

We took the game away from the eighth graders and were all feeling pretty good about it. Marcy, Sue, Ursala, and Annie were talking to the team captain of the eighth graders.

“You guys won by only two points!” Tracy squared off with Marcy, looking her down as she spoke. “And you’ve been practicing twice a week. Not our team. I’m lucky to call them together once during the week before a game.”

“Boy, I know what you mean. It’s hard to get everyone to show up for practice, let alone the games.” Marcy puffed up with her own importance as if she’d been our captain forever. Actually, Miss Ford rotated team captain every game so each girl had the chance at being a leader, so for Marcy to have put out that she was our team captain wasn’t exactly true, but she sure let on as if she were the one and only all the time.

Marcy had the exact same expression as Tracy, the weary leader look. “I just wish we had a few more good players and fewer bad ones, know what I mean? We have four wins, one loss, though. The last two games, we had only one sub, which meant some players stayed in longer and didn’t do so good, know what I mean?”

Tracy looked a little irritated when she replied. “Yeah, but seems to me you have a pretty good team. If you win this game Saturday, you’re in the play-offs, so I don’t see why you’re making such a big fuss.”

“Oh, we’re pretty good,” Marcy piped up, “but we could be a lot better.”

Steve, Mark, and John came over to talk to us. Steve punched the ball out of Rachel’s hands and bounced it down court to make a basket. I ran down to intercept the ball. It circled the rim and popped out, right into my hands. Steve made a grab for it, but I pulled the ball away, about to put it in the basket when Miss Ford blew the whistle for us to go inside. Steve popped the ball out of my hands.

“You know, Franny,” he dribbled the ball up the stairs, “you’re pretty good at serving the volleyball. We’re playing St. John’s basketball team Saturday morning, so we’ll be there when you guys start your game. Their basketball team is lousy, so it’s going to be a real short game.”

Steve might have been the best all-around athlete, but it got to me the way he always assumed his team would be undefeated, although even I had to admit that he had to be good since his team rarely lost unless he didn’t play. But still, I felt he could be wrong. “I wouldn’t be so sure that you can take the game that easy. Maybe they’ve practiced a lot and are better now.”

He twirled the ball on his finger and then pitched it to me. “I know we can take the game that easy, Fran. Trust me.”

And he was right. Saturday as we lined up for pre-game drill, the boys’ basketball team showed up on our side of the gym. Steve cupped his hands over his mouth and hollered, “Hey, Fran! I told you it would be easy!”

I nodded at him and caught the quizzical looks of Mom and Granny as they tried to figure out what Steve had meant. They motioned for me to come over and talk to them, but I ignored them. This was our most important game, and I wanted to do my best, without any distractions.

Everyone looked pretty good in our blue and yellow uniforms; not one jersey was even wrinkled.

Miss Ford made Stella, the smallest girl on our team, the captain, and she called “heads” but the quarter flipped on its tail side. Although St. John’s got first serve, they lost it after scoring only one point.

We took the first game by three points. During the huddle before the second game, Sue whispered fiercely, “I want us to win this game!”

Well, didn’t we all? I was team captain and mighty relieved to win the serve. Marcy scored five points the first round before losing the serve because Tina in the first row didn’t return the ball over the net. You could see Marcy’s face screwed up in anger, but she didn’t say anything. The other team kept the ball for nine points and then lost it on a net ball. Sue picked up eight points on her serve, losing the last return when I missed the ball. I had it, until Marcy went for it, stepping in front of me, so naturally I thought she was going to get it, but she didn’t.

“Stupid!” she hissed at me. “You should have had it! Get up closer to the net!”

I didn’t have time to tell her that she was the one that had stepped out of her position, in my face, and muffed the play. Suddenly, the score was tied, then game point for the other team.

All along, the boys had made enough noise cheering for us to rattle the bones of a corpse, but you could hear the parents over everyone else. Except for my mom. She comes to every game, but she just sits on the sidelines and watches. Granny whoops and hollers at us, then gives me all sorts of “pointers” after the game. I listen politely but don’t take anything she says too seriously. I don’t think they even had volleyball way back when she went to school.

Marcy, all red in the face, stomped off the court. Miss Ford called me out for the first half of the next game, and then I got back in time to rack up the winning five points of our third game. We made play-offs, but I wasn’t as happy as the rest of the team. You would have thought Marcy, Sue, and even Annie, who had played well all three games, had won without any help from the rest of us the way they carried on about this play and that play they had made. I didn’t stick around to talk with anyone, not even Annie.

Granny pounded me on the back. “Let’s go celebrate with a sundae. What do you say?”

“All right,” I said, sliding into the back seat of my mom’s car.

Mom looked in the rear view mirror at me, speaking so soft I almost missed what she said. “Frances, you’re going to have to stand up to Marcy sometime, or she’ll push you around forever.”

“I know, Mom, I know. Please drop it. I mean, we won the most important game, didn’t we?”

“And you played well!” crowed Granny. She smiled so big her teeth flashed in the bright sunshine streaming through the windshield. She turned around to face me. “You have to get under that ball and keep your eye on where it is. But my, you’ve improved! And I was really proud of how you kept your cool when that little snit, Marcy, yelled at you. I might have popped her one right in the old kisser, but I’m glad you had your wits about you! No, siree, you did just right by keeping calm and collected.”

What she didn’t realize, and I wasn’t about to tell her, was that I had almost started crying on the court, and I was so shaky that, when Miss Ford called me to the benches, I was glad to sit down for five minutes. Then I was mad enough to go back in and prove to Marcy that I wasn’t stupid at all.

“Well,” Mom said as she parked the car at Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Store, “this has been some week! First you go all the way to inner-schools spelling contest, and now your team makes the league play-offs. I’d say this is at least a double-scoop-sundae-with-two-toppings sort of commemoration.”

“All right by me,” I said stepping up to the counter to order. “I’ll have a Jack and Jill, vanilla and chocolate. With extra sprinkles.”

And that was the last good thing that happened to me.