“Susan”

susan-curios-on-window-sillKids these days. They have it pretty easy, don’t they? The Internet is everywhere, there’s no shortage of cable channels to choose from, and videogames are so embedded into daily life we barely even notice them. A trip to Grandma’s involves an hour or two of backseat gaming, a few more hours of television, a hasty meal and a bored visit to the garden, followed by tantrums over the WiFi password and an angry drive home because the iPad is dead.

In my day… oh, here we go, “In my day!” Really. I hate to say it, but it’s true. There were no microwaves, no cable channels, no smartphones, and no wireless Internet. A visit to Grandma’s usually meant watching trees zip by, a black-and-white television that was never turned on, a ponderously slow dinner, and a tour of the garden that was actually a highlight.

Then, for real entertainment, there were the trinkets on the windowsill. I think every grandmother had them. These little glass baubles were found in every window in the house, and they came in every shape and color. Little red cups, blue vases, pink ballerinas, butterscotch birds, and they weren’t just on the sills. Grandma had placed them on top of every sash, and there were extras on shelves throughout the house. The sun beamed through them, throwing beads of color across the floor and walls. When the colors rose just so far up the back wall of the dining room, we knew it was time to hit the road.

Those days eventually end, as they must for everyone, and the houses are sold, boxes are packed, and the trinkets are forever lost, to remain only in memory. Once in a while a cellar is cleared, and boxes of these glass curios are discovered, wrapped in old newsprint: a local sports team wins a trophy in 1954; Jackie Kennedy’s recipe for a noodle casserole; Comics lampooning Nixon. And inside, glass junk, fads from a bygone era, suitable only for a dumpster.

And that brings me to the Wakefield house.

———-
The house was a flip. I’d say it was a failed one, though most of the work was top notch. The failure was in the previous owner’s timing. Bought at the peak of the market, and unsuccessfuly sold at the bottom. They’d had the place for a year or so, and the bank had it for three. My wife Lisa and I bought it in a dusty, neglected condition, but with good ‘bones’, new walls and ceilings and updated heating and electrical. A steal, with only some cleaning to do.

‘Only’ can be a loaded word. The basement of this house was still packed with boxes and old furniture. We found stuff in the attic, too. The houseflippers gave all this stuff up, or maybe it was there before. Of course we determined that this was the end of the line for most of it.

While clearing out the junk, it was apparent that this house had been lived in for a long time by someone. What we could glean from the collection was that an older couple had accumulated clothes, books, old board games, tools, toys from every era. We figured out how to give a lot of it away.

For the old furniture and anything we couldn’t donate, dumpsters were hauled in, and out. Two twenty-yarders. I tried to keep anything worthwhile. Tools! A model railroad set (that has yet to be built). And there was one box of these glass trinkets that so closely matched the ones I remember, I couldn’t quite toss it. It stayed.

The house was interesting. It had a quirky sideways floor plan with a huge living room, an open kitchen with a dining area, a weird little den in between, and a short corridor that formed a loop. The main bedroom was double the size of a normal one, with its own full bathroom. Most, if not all, of the walls were new.

———–
Before long, Lisa started complaining about a feeling she was getting about the place. She was always into this kind of hocus-pocus, paranormal bullcrap, so when she said she felt a presence in the house, I treated it like so much nonsense. Her sister would visit, and, completely independently, mentioned a weirdness about the place. I was sure they were collaborating on some kind of practical joke.

The gist of it was that there was something going on at the bottom of the stairs. A chill, or a tingling, which they felt every time they walked past the spot. We rearranged the living room furniture so we were never sitting back-to the stairway. Before long, even I became a little anxious looking down the stairs after dark.

My dubiousness about the situation began to unravel after a number of strange incidents. One involved a friend who was having trouble with his family, and needed a place to stay. We were quick to offer up the couch, since we had two extra bedrooms but no beds. We left him stretched out on the couch with a sleeping bag, but the next morning, he emerged from an empty bedroom. As he told it, something down there spooked him. He wound up running right through it to get upstairs, and felt a cold spot.

Any concerns we had about taking in a new resident went out the window, but we gained a name for the phenomenon: the cold spot.

It was our first Thanksgiving in the house, when my mom, sitting at the table, looked toward the living room and asked us what was up in there. She’d felt something. A presence. I gave my wife and her sister a glance and dug back into my turkey and stuffing.

———-
Finally, on a severely cold evening less than a week before Christmas, there was a knock on the door. A woman about our age stood on the steps. Her name was Ashley, and she was visiting from Pennsylvania. Apparently she’d grown up in the area, and visited her grandmother in this house. She just wondered if she could see what’s become of the old place.

I don’t know if it was wise. I wouldn’t advise anyone do this, but we let her in. We believed her, and I think we were thinking the same thing: that maybe, just maybe, she held an answer to our shared question.

Lisa started a pot of coffee. While it brewed, Ashley gave us a tour of the house. My hunch about the upstairs was true; the master suite used to be two bedrooms. Downstairs, the renovators had made a ton of changes. The fireplace wasn’t always surrounded by ornate woodwork, the kitchen was originally closed off from the dining area, and the living room was now larger.

As we sat in the living room with our coffee, Ashley told us how there used to be a corridor leading to the stairs, where a rank of shelves opened to the living room. On these shelves, her grandmother kept a bunch of colorful little glass trinkets, and she’d often stand at the bottom of the stairs, contentedly arranging them.

Lisa and I shared a look. “Guess what?” I said. “We have something for you.”

I bounded down the cellar stairs and returned with the box. I placed it on the coffee table and opened it. Ashley saw exactly what was in there, and if it can be said that I’ve ever seen someone positively beam, it was then.

She pulled out several of the curios. She had a little story about them, and where they came from. Most of them, as far as she knew, her grandmother had always had on the shelves, but there were some that were bought at a county fair, a few at local yard sales. A blue seahorse that was given as a gift. A green teacup that she bought in Maine.

“You should have these,” I told her. “They belong to you. They’re your family’s.”

Ashley looked at me like I’d just told a hideous joke.

“Oh, no. No,” she said. “These could never leave here. They belong in this house.”

I will swear that I felt the presence then, standing just over Ashley’s shoulder. I’m sure my wife felt it. If Ashley did, too, she never let on. After a few more minutes talking about the house and her grandmother, we bid Ashley goodbye, and she left to brave the freezing night.

———-
I closed the door, and instantly knew what she meant about where the trinkets belonged. They couldn’t just be in a box. They stayed on the table another day or two, until I dug out a spice rack we kept in the basement (having never found a place for it). I installed the spice rack on the wall near the bottom of the stairs, and we arranged the colorful little glass things on it.

It was a nice addition to the Christmas junk we’d hung all over the house. Maybe it was a little tacky, but if it served a purpose, then so be it. For the rest of the holidays, we didn’t feel a presence, but it was likely because the house was in a state of constant noise as parties were held and family and friends were entertained. People asked about the trinkets on the shelves, and we said we’d found them in a box and put them up. Nobody ever mentioned feeling anything near the stairway.

Sometime in January, I noticed something about the glassware; they had been rearranged. Lisa swore she never touched them, and I believed her.

You see, we didn’t know how to arrange them. Should it be by color, by size, by type? This arrangement was seemingly random, but also had a kind of feel to it that was incomprehensible. An artistic intuition had been applied that neither of us had. We’d never heard any of them move, and certainly hadn’t seen it happen, but it was undeniable; they had been.

As time went on, we didn’t feel the presence any more, or at least I didn’t. Maybe I was imagining it, but occasionally, I could swear one of the trinkets would move.

We only lived there another year. When it came time to sell the place, I made sure to tell the new owners they’d be better off leaving the shelves of curios exactly as is. I’m pretty sure they weren’t about to do so.

I do know this: on the last night we spent in the house, we’d sat on the couch with a pizza, and Lisa went upstairs to pack the last few boxes of clothes. I poked at the embers in the fireplace, and suddenly felt the glare of eyes behind me. I turned to the stairs. No, I did not see anything, but I felt the old woman standing at the shelves looking at me. She wasn’t angry, wasn’t sad. It wasn’t happiness either, but I felt, almost imperceptibly, that she gave me a little nod.

I nodded back, and the presence was gone.

———-
Some time later that year I looked into the history of the house. The people who owned it, before the people who tried to flip it, had lived there sixty years. Adam and Susan Drexler. They were married for fifty-two of those years. Susan had outlived her husband by eight more.

We never heard from Ashley again, but I was able to find her grandmother’s obituary. She was found by her middle-aged son sitting peacefully, eyes closed, at the bottom of the stairs. She hadn’t fallen there, but it seemed she had been standing in the hallway, felt something, and simply sat down to rest.

May she rest well.

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The 1980s: A Nice Place to Visit, But…

This morning at the campground laundry, I was asked if we were planning to keep coming back next season and beyond.

“Are you kidding? I’m pretty sure we’ve sworn off the entire summer home thing as a concept.”

I thought it was universal. A thing everyone loves, but it’s basically “Doing chores closer to the beach/woods/mountains.” And if you think it’s just me being the usual boor, I promise you I’m not alone in this.

campground-bikes-summer-1980s-myleftone-blog

The kids, though. They’ve had six weeks of living in the 1980s. They wake up, hop on a bike and go look for their various frenemies, for another day of pushing each other into ponds, scraping themselves up on the pavement, being stung by hornets, having wiffle balls line-drived at them from taped bats, getting locked in the campground bathrooms, taunting, yelling, and generally laughing their asses off.

In other words, they’re summering. Like a boss. With their pals, they kinda have taken over the place, riding like a gang of hardbitten eight-year-olds and terrorizing the population of mostly retirees. I’m sure we’re woefully underappreciated here.

I’d say we’re sticking out like the Massholes we are, but everyone’s a Masshole. Every cabin has signage on it declaring that its inhabitants hail from North Reading, Somerville, Wilmington. The TV screens in every trailer glow with the blue glare of the Pats game (or Sox, natch).

And the word “Masshole” is purely on-point. These are the same people who clog the aisles at Market Basket and get into fistfights over parking spaces back home. Only here there’s more public consumption of alcohol.

Toss in hordes of screaming kids, and there it is, the 1980s.

I’m sure there are a lot of people here who are only going through the motions. They don’t love it, but hey, it’s for the kids. To me, sitting around by a fire and shuffling back and forth to the pool is not an adventure.

The kids have had fun, but they’ll have plenty more back home. It’s far easier to plan and prepare for our numerous adventures back there. The house is a much better base camp. That’s why it was named Camp Lucky.

So in a nutshell, we can’t wait to get back to civilization, where it will be easier to leave it.

From time to time, that is.

The Pirate Wolf – Chapter 1: Beulah’s Report

It’s a few hours before sunrise, and if you stand in the forest with your eyes open, adjusting to the darkness of this moonless night, you might notice something. There! Movement behind the thick stand of evergreen trees off to your left. Is it a hundred yards away? Ten?

You hear a rustle from the right. There is a bush moving, just a little, then it stops. It sounds close. No more noise comes from the snow-covered ground. But now you don’t need to hear it. You can feel yourself surrounded by something. A presence that gives substance to the gloom. Your spine tingles and your stomach shrinks.

In truth, it’s a good thing you’re not really standing there in the black. You would be surrounded by hungry wolves.

On they come, flowing past the trees, like water coursing a stony rapid. They meet in glens and again separate around the pines, never pausing, focused on a single point not far off. As they close on their target, they spread apart, encircling around and beyond it. They begin to tighten their group, barring escape.

Four deer in a small clearing look up. A mother and three yearlings. They feel the presence too late. Yellow eyes stare at them from every angle. They shudder in panic.

Finally, a wolf, the alpha, steps forward to speak.

“Hello there!” he says. It is Lark, the pack leader. “Have you seen our latest trick?”

At this the wolves jump toward the deer and form a line in the open clearing. Some of them jump on top of each other, scrambling raggedly on each other’s backs. They form a standing triangle four wolves high, with Lark on top. He somersaults to the ground in front of the bemused deer and presents his paws in a kneel. “Ta da!”

One of the yearlings claps his front hooves, the other two look at him and shake their heads. Beulah, the mother deer, rolls her eyes. “Oh, please, Lark. You stole that from the raccoons.”

Lark lowers his head to one side. “It’s a coincidence, I swear it,” he says. “Oh, by the vie, you kids hungry? We got some prime cutlets here. Parmesan.” One of the other wolves steps forward and shrugs off an ill-fitting backpack. Lark pulls open the zipper and noses out a box of frozen dinners.

“You stole that, too,” says Beulah accusingly.

“Yeah, from people,” Lark agrees. Everyone in the forest knows the code. You take only what you plan to use, and not something already claimed. But with humans it’s different. You can rob them of all sorts of things.

“There’s this small group of them camping near the Greeley Ponds. Not using their bear box.” He chuckles at this. Humans can be such morons.

The young deer sniff the boxes curiously. “Kids! Get away. It’s probably chicken,” Beulah says. “We have other sources of protein.”

“Yeah,” Lark says. “You just have to eat a whole meadow of it. And you guys are pretty fast twitch, too.”

“It isn’t proper!” Beulah protests.

“You could get totally jacked, is all I’m saying.” He tears open the box and tosses a few cutlets to his pack. They dive in.

“Ugh, you guys,” Beulah says with a shake of her head. Her three boys bend their heads and go back to munching the new ferns starting to pop up through the receding snow. Spring is coming earlier than usual. “Hey, they didn’t happen to have any coffee with them.”

“You know, I didn’t happen to smell that,” Lark says, his jaws dripping with half-frozen spaghetti sauce. “We’ll send a Scout there to see if they crack any open at dawn.”

“Which one?” asks one of the wolves. Four of them are named Scout, and aptly so. They’re the ones who keep getting the assignments to watch for people. By now it’s a running joke whether the name defines the job, or vice versa.

“Oh, how about Little Scout this time?”

There is murmuring among the crew, but they agree. Little Scout is now catching some sleep back at the den. All the wolves know his reports are unreliable, if somewhat fanciful. They suspect he’s discovered the magic effects of mountain teaberries.

“Remember what he told us about the road the other day?” one of the wolves says.

“Yeah,” Lark says with amusement. “A whole line of trucks painted like the forest.”

“Like we couldn’t smell these things three valleys away,” laughs another.

“Ridiculous,” says Marcella, the wolf pack’s matriarch.

Beulah looks up. “No, we saw that,” she states.

The wolves look up, slowly chewing the last of their cutlets. “Have you been getting into the teaberries, too?” asks Wheat, one of the larger wolf lads. He is ironically named, with the darkest fur, almost black. The rest laugh.

“We did see it. Three nights ago,” Beulah says. “They had one of those spinning birds on a truck. Painted the same.”

The wolves knew the spinning birds well. Their loud rumbling shook the mountains, and their sound could be heard long before they were seen circling like giant hawks overhead. It couldn’t be chance that several of their pack had been struck with metal rain whenever these thunderous contraptions hove into the sky above them.

Little Scout hadn’t mentioned it, but they had laughed him out of the cave as soon as he started to give his report of these green vehicles rolling into the valley like a train.

“Are you certain?” Lark asks. The pack gathers around him. Their trust for Beulah’s nose, eyes and ears far outweighs that of Little Scout, and many of their other Scouts, for that matter.

“Tis true,” she says. Her spring meanders tend to stick close to her den, on a hillside just above the Mad River. She saw the trucks, maybe seven or eight of them, with their spinning bird on the largest one. “I couldn’t range far enough to tell you.”

“No matter,” Lark says to this. “But have you seen them leave?”

“Not that I’ve witnessed, no,” she says.

The wolves look at each other with fresh concern. It is strange to see such a concerted human activity going on this early in the season. The moon has completed more than three full cycles since the longest night, and the road is still traveled mainly by people in cars. These rolling boxes bear cut planks of trees on each roof, that the humans use to slide in ridiculous fashion down the snow-covered hillsides. Until the snows recede completely and the trees begin to gather water from the ground, the road is the only way in and out of the valley, at least for the people.

If the trucks and their flying machine haven’t been seen heading back down it, they’re still here.

“Thanks, B,” says Lark. Wheat and the rest of the wolves nod. “We need to talk with Little Scout. Quick Scout, we’ll need you to go find out about that coffee instead.” Quick Scout, an almost white wolf with black paws, barks and darts out of the clearing. Wheat picks up the bag. They nod to Beulah and run in the other direction, toward their den.

Beulah looks at her three growing boys browsing the young fir saplings. The wolves are known to be fierce protectors of the valley, and what bothers them should bother all. It hadn’t occurred to her to be concerned until seeing Lark’s furrowed brow. She feels a new pressure, like the barely detectable breeze before a gathering storm.

“Boys,” she says. “Let’s head back.”

Why Not Be Awesome?

This morning an interesting question was put to me at the gym: “You think that jacket makes you awesome?” The jacket in question; my 2015 Boston Marathon jacket. I considered a bunch of different answers, but in the interest of immediacy, I just went with, “Yeah,” as I headed for the door.

Now, maybe the person asking has several reasons to be awesome himself, but just chose not to wear it this morning. Maybe his car is emblazoned with bumper stickers declaring his membership in country clubs, his awesome grandkids, his service to his country, or his political persuasion, etc. Or maybe his Facebook profile is thick with “Likes” of all sorts of favorite movies, albums, stores, cars, and whatnot. In all likelihood, we can bet he’s got something, somewhere that he shows off on a regular basis.Tom in a whitewater kayak

And why not?

There’s something wrong with a culture that suppresses declarations of awesomeness. If I choose to be awesome, and you choose to be awesome in a different way, why the heck would we begrudge each other the chance to show it off?

Is it our American-ness that causes this? Or is it a global human trait? In this country at least, we’ve been on a depressing lowest-common-denominator cultural spiral for a long time. I mean, let’s face it; our culture has become like a Ford Taurus. Nothing special, does the job, doesn’t cost too much, doesn’t attract attention, or rock the boat.

(I mean, seriously, who thinks America produces a true luxury car?)

We don’t celebrate anything unless we can profit from it. We don’t create anything without a profit motive. We watch television shows about people jumping off rooftops (again, with a profit motive), or cunning political machinations, celebrities getting ‘fired’, entrepreneurs sniveling before loudmouthed capitalists, and even a long-running cable series about guys who write television ads. We don’t sneeze unless we can show a positive P&L.

Here in Boston, you see that with the negative reaction to the proposal for the 2024 Olympics. Remember when we used to celebrate the fact that athletes from every country competed on the field in a metaphorical pursuit of global peace? Remember when we launched fireworks and light shows just because? Now if it doesn’t sell enough Coke, iPhones and Adidas gear, the pencil pusher in all of us runs a spreadsheet to see if the margins are worth it.

We’ve become a nation of boring, no-fun, uninteresting, joyless people with no time to celebrate and no tolerance for those who do. We’re only focused on the financial payoff. “Money makes the world go ‘round.” “Greed… is good.” “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” It’s like the 1980s never ended. There’s plenty of wealth, but we’re impoverished in every other aspect of life.

Balance sheets and negativity should be left at the workplace. Wherever your awesomeness comes from, I say wear it, declare it, & share it. I guarantee it won’t be from something where you ran a financial projection before you started.

Historic Boston Traffic Jam Caused By Ducks… Yes, Ducks.

Historic Boston Traffic Jam Caused By Ducks... Yes, Ducks.By TOM BISHOP
Instigative Reporter | 04.01.15 | 6:52 AM

BOSTON – If you were caught up in yesterday’s little traffic tie-up, you were probably wondering if there was a water main break, a Bruins parade, a record snowfall, bridge painting, a train accident, and conventions for both political parties all at the same time. Or maybe it was the Friday of July 4th and you didn’t know it.

But in truth, it came down to none of that. The whole thing was caused by a few ducks.

Ducks.

Around 7:20 in the morning, Storrow Drive’s six lanes were blocked in both directions by a family of ducks making a crossing. This came after the ducks stood on the curb loudly quacking, startling drivers from their iPhones long enough to lay on the horn. Bystanders first reported the commotion near the Hatch Shell, and finally lone beat cop Michael McMinehan took it upon himself to hold traffic for around three minutes while the ducks waddled toward Mt. Vernon Street.

But that, as they say, was just the beginning. The short backup soon extended beyond Leverett Circle and gridlocked the West End, causing traffic on both decks of I-93 to slow to a crawl. This became a parking lot in the tunnels, the Tobin, the Southeast Expressway and of course, the Mass Pike. The citywide congestion calamity lasted well into the evening.

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said at an afternoon press briefing, “Unfortunately, this was a situation nobody could foresee, unless you’ve been driving in Boston at any time in the last, uh, ever. We discovered that the officer habitually fed these ducks, and he is on indefinite unpaid leave while we investigate.”

So that’s one family going without dinner for awhile. What about the ducks? “It looked like a mother and maybe eight ducklings,” said a boating trainer at the Community Boating boathouse. “We try to educate people to give a wide berth to the wildlife here, especially in the spring. But they normally don’t cross Storrow. We thought that was kind of amusing.”

Not everybody was amused, however. Runner Julie Martino said, “The friggin’ things almost tripped me.” A driver, who refused to give his name, said the traffic made him late for an interview at John Hancock, saying, “I shoulda squashed ‘em.”

If you thought the surface roads were safe, think again. As the critters made their way through the city, they continued to interfere with pedestrians, commercial establishments and delivery and construction crews. Boston Police department dispatcher Margaret Clancy was forced to dispatch officers to Beacon Street to block the intersection with Charles, allowing the animals to enter the Public Garden. This caused gridlock throughout the Back Bay that lasted several hours.

“This did real damage to the local economy,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “We estimate that businesses suffered $10 to 15 Million in lost revenues. And that doesn’t count additional expenses for safety personnel and construction overruns.”

So look for that bill to come later, Bostonians.

The incident even made the national news. On CNN, coverage steered away from a missing radio-controlled plane owned by a ten year old in Minnesota, to the unfolding traffic nightmare in Boston. Wolf Blitzer mused, “Could these ducks be receiving signals, maybe something we can’t hear, from outer space of something, causing them to act this way?” while talking to a dumbfounded representative from the Audubon Society.

Nancy Grace, once of CNN but now on some other cable channel, had a different axe to grind, “I know she’s a duck, but why would a single mom imperil her children like this? Crossing a busy highway? And once again, where was DCF? Where was the father?”

Dr. Phil would also like to know, “If it turns out that for the dad to just run off for a whole week while mom has to herd the kids across a deadly obstacle course is a normal duck thing, I’ll take it back, but this seems like a passive-aggressive form of abuse or worse, maybe even purposeful and murderous.” He is reportedly trying to book the ducks for an upcoming episode.

On Fox News, the situation was cause for national security concerns. “If we find out that ISIS has sent these ducks, and maybe others, to infiltrate our cities, I can’t imagine the fallout for the White House here,” opined Laura Ingraham.

Rush Limbaugh had other culprits in mind, “The tree huggers are just beside themselves with glee, my friends, and I’m telling you, they’re shipping in crates of critters. I call them Animal Qaeda.” PETA was unavailable for comment.

On A&E, producers are already planning a reality series about the ducks to air this fall, to replace the faltering Duck Dynasty.

In a late-evening conference call, President Obama chimed in, “I’ve spoken with Mayor Walsh and city leaders to offer my heartfelt sympathy for the people of Boston. Today is a reminder that we exist in a fragile civilization, which must be protected, supported, and shared with all wildlife.”

Not for nothing, Mr. President, but yesterday was not a day drivers in Boston will remember with sharing in mind. Unless we’re sharing a plate of roast duck.

Tom Bishop can be reached on Twitter at @myleftone

A Letter to my Children

A Letter To My ChildrenDear Riley and Connor,

I may never again get the chance to sit down and do this. You are two active, precocious, lovable, beautiful children who create your own energy together, the way an intense fire creates its own whirlwind. You spin and fly and run and think, and the threshold where I can no longer keep up is rapidly approaching.

Before frustration causes me to forget what I believe when it comes to parenting, I wanted to put my promises to you in writing.

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The Christmas Spider – The story of a new holiday tradition

Parents, now you can get rid of that stupid Elf on the Shelf forever. This season, why not terrorize the kids with a SPIDER THE SIZE OF A DOBERMAN?

Trust me, after you read them this, they’ll stay away from your perfectly-decorated tree.