Adventures in China's New Territories 3: The 100-Pound Fish, Deep Fried and Served with Sweet & Sour Sauce

IMG_7009IMG_7006My father was a fisherman. If you grow up in the house of someone who takes his fishing seriously, you learn to love fish.

Or not.

Although I can’t imagine that scenario.

My childhood was filled with family camping trips where brook trout, large and small mouth bass, sunfish, perch and blue gills filled the menu. This is one of the only times I was glad I don’t have brothers, because my sisters and I got to fish with Bobbo. Now I’m not saying a son would have been his sole fishing companion, but in all likelihood that would’ve been one of their bonds. As it was, one girl rowed the boat while Bobbo and the others cast lines off the back. If we all hiked in to a back pond in the Adirondacks, one of us floated on the second, mini inflatable raft and did her own fishing.

When everyone moved away and established adult lives, visits to see Mom and Bobbo always included a meal of fish. I remain unspeakably moved that my father began to freeze the fish he caught, making sure there’d be enough when everyone  came home for the holidays. Every family has its own food traditions. For the Campbells, one of the best is fish for breakfast. The simplest and best of recipes, whether prepared over a campfire or on the stove in your fancy kitchen is: Fry some bacon until crisp. Dredge trout in seasoned corn meal. Fry the fish in the bacon drippings. Serve with the bacon, scrambled eggs, Sandy’s coffee cake or toast with jam (preferably homemade by somebody you know and love), mugs of hot coffee and glasses of juice.

Trust me. I expect to eat this meal in Heaven.

Flash forward to my recent trip to visit my sister Pam in China’s New Territories.IMG_6610IMG_7211IMG_7187The town of Sai Kung receives lots of weekend day trippers from Hong Kong who come for the green scenery and the quieter pace. And to eat, because Sai Kung’s waterfront is lined with restaurants.

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IMG_7192Almost all of them keep live fish and crustaceans in tanks out in front.

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IMG_7012Customers bring their own catch and pay a fee to have it prepared based on weight, or you can select the seafood of your choice. The restaurant will prepare it steamed with ginger, cooked with soy sauce and scallions, or deep fried and served with a sweet and sour sauce.

Pam and I sat down at an outdoor table to order. The waitress had us follow her over to the live tanks and we chose snapper.

IMG_7005IMG_6612Choosing our meal was more intimidating than it sounds. Some of the fish were ridiculously huge. How much would our fish cost? She eyeballed it and announced, 450$HK, plus the fee to prepare it. Not cheap.

IMG_6614What if a group of customers came in and ordered a one hundred pound fish? What would that cost? Could the cooks prepare it whole? Just how big a fish can a deep fat fryer hold, anyway?

IMG_7013A short time later a man brought out our fried snapper. He gave us a few seconds to appreciate its sizzling and then upended a plate of sweet and sour sauce. The sauce contained bright, chewy, sweet strips that we finally identified as preserved citrus peel. True daughters of a fisherman, we stripped that fish carcass clean.

It was good…. but.

Pam and I agreed. Our father’s fish were better.

NOTES: Photos Copyright © 2015 Jadi Campbell. All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the images. Uwe’s photos of our earlier trips to Hong Kong and mainland China and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

My Mother-In-Law's Cookies

I seldom bake. Germany has the greatest bread on the planet[1]. France may have baguettes and croissants, but for sheer choice and variety nothing beats German baked goods.Why make something mediocre when there’s a bakery on every street corner?

As long as Uwe can recall, every week his mother made two cakes. It’s a German tradition, and women of a certain time period created great desserts that were works of art.

Before we visited, Mama always called to ask what kind of cake Uwe wanted. Sometimes I got to choose and I’d request Black Forest chocolate cake or a Bienenstich, a honey and slivered almonds cake that’s one of my favorites.

When it got to be late November, after each visit Mama Hartmann sent us home with tins full of Christmas cookies. She baked at least ten different kinds. Those cookies became cult. Friends would casually ask, “Have you gotten Christmas cookies from Uwe’s mom yet?” The idea was that I’d bring out a plate filled with said cookies for visitors to sample. “You tell your mother-in-law that these are damned fine cookies!” someone ordered happily.

Whether they had a thumb print of jam in the middle, or were layered with chocolate and ground nuts, or were perfect little crescents tasting of vanilla with a dusting of sugar, each cookie was delicious.

Gerlingen03100_oOMG-Cookies
We came home with three tins of cookies that year.

The supply ran low really fast because our friends consumed all of them, rather than politely taking one or two. Uwe finally told me it had to stop. No more offering cookies to guests!

Mama’s days of baking are behind her. We’ve brought her to a nursing home in our village so we can see her more often. But in the last winter before she had to move, I wrote down the recipes and helped her make cookies. I imitated her steps for each one.

Well, what I baked bore little resemblance to the miniature works of confectionary art that my mother-in-law took out of the oven.

I discovered something. To bake like a professional takes years of making cakes. Preferably two a week, plus cookies every Christmastime. This last Christmas I knew Uwe would be missing his mother’s cookie tins. I was way too intimidated to try to bake Mama’s cookie recipes, so I came up with an acceptable alternative.

I baked one of the few cookies she didn’t: peanut butter with chocolate chips. They’re quintessentially American in their peanut butteriness and chocolate chips, and one cookie I can make and actually have turn out right. While it’s not a Mama Hartmann traditional recipe, it tastes like the holidays.

I like to think that maybe someday I’ll set out Christmas cookies for friends. But really you should try making Mama Hartmann’s Walnut Squares. With practice they’ll be perfect when the holidays roll around.

The Cookie Dough:

250 grams Butter

200 grams Sugar

1 teaspoon Vanilla

4 Eggs

300 grams broken Walnut Meats

250 grams Flour

3 teaspoons Baking Powder

The Frosting:

250 grams Powdered Sugar

2 teaspoons Instant Coffee

3 tablespoons Brandy

2-3 tablespoons hot Water

The Decoration:

100 grams Walnuts

Pour batter into a flat pan and bake at 200° (Celsius) or 390° (Fahrenheit) for 15-20 minutes. Frost the cake, cut into small cookies, and place a walnut meat atop each one.

NOTES: [1] For variety and yumminess, bread from India is a very close second.

Photo Copyright © 2015 Pamela J. Campbell.

New England's Old Sturbridge Village, Part 2

Town common
Town Common

We visited Massachusett’s Old Sturbridge Village in the fall, the perfect time to enjoy this open air museum.DSC_6370

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Freeman Farm Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 18081725
Freeman Farm
Originally from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 1808

The costumed employees and volunteers at Old Sturbridge harvest the land as the earlier settlers would have. DSC_6372

DSC_6371Apples, pumpkins and squash had been carefully collected, sometimes in unexpected free spaces. The settlers needed a dry area away from weather and animals, and floor space was a great (and, one hopes, temporary) storage spot. DSC_6377

Crops needed to be gathered while other jobs still had to be performed.

Printing Office Worcester, Massachusetts, c. 1780
Printing Office
Originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, c. 1780

Men and boys set type and did the printing, while women stiched and bound books. Country printers also brought out pamphlets, broadsides, sermons, legal forms, advertisements, and public notices.

Vermont Covered Bridge Dummerston, Vermont, c. 1870
Vermont Covered Bridge
Originally from Dummerston, Vermont, c. 1870

This bridge, one of the 12 remaining in Massachusetts, was saved from demolition to make way for a new highway in 1951. Fewer than 200 covered bridges still stand in New England.

Blacksmith Shop Bolton, Massachusetts, c. 1810
Blacksmith Shop
Originally from Bolton, Massachusetts, c. 1810

Along with shoeing horses and making nails, the village blacksmith (often a town had more than one) produced items of metal needed for everyday life. DSC_6400The Fenno House is Sturbridge’s oldest building.

Fenno House  Canton, Massachusettts, c. 1725
Fenno House
Originally from Canton, Massachusettts, c. 1725

Artisans on the Old Sturbridge Village grounds make traditional products in the old way. Many are available for sale in the gift shop. [2]DSC_6485DSC_6440DSC_6430

DSC_6351Old Sturbridge Village was born from the collective vision of a family. The three Wells brothers of the American Optical Company in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Albert B., Joel Cheney, and Channing M. founded the massive collection that makes up Old Sturbridge. It is the world’s finest collection of rural New England artifacts. [3]

They purchased David Wight’s farm with the vision of showing their collection in the context of a working village. The living museum received its first visitors on June 8, 1946. To date more than 21 million adults and children have visited the Village, and 250,000 people visit every year.

Churning butter
And his beard’s real, too!
Anyone care for a johnnycake?
Johnnycake, anyone?

NOTES: [2] The ruby red glass flask I purchased there winks at me from the window as I write this.

[3] Old Sturbridge Village began with a 1926 golf date cancelled due to Vermont rain: A.B. Wells went on an antiquing quest instead and became obsessed with collecting New England antiques and artifacts. Click here for more on the history of Old Sturbridge Village or for their website: www.osv.org/visit.

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. More of Uwe’s pictures from New England and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

New England’s Old Sturbridge Village, Part 1

I love open air museums. Reading about history is nice, but when it’s three dimensional it comes to life for me. As a child, one of my family’s favorite destinations was Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. The village depicts life in historic New England from 1790-1840. Visitors stroll across 200 acres that contain 40 mostly original buildings and over 50,000 artifacts. It’s the northeast’s largest open air museum.

One year Uwe and I went to New England. I insisted that our trip include a visit to Old Sturbridge Village. In retrospect, it wasn’t just because the spot is so much fun, and it would be interesting (I hoped) for my European husband to learn about early New England history. A big part of the draw was my desire to revisit a favorite piece of my own childhood.

Revisiting places can be a letdown, but the autumn weather couldn’t have been more beautiful. The seasons were about to change and the leaves were coming into their glory. It was perfect.

Old Sturbridge Village autumn
Old Sturbridge Village autumn

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The entry price is steep, $24 a person. But parking is free, and a second day’s visit is included. I was delighted that Uwe was willing to return the next day! [1]

Old Sturbridge has a large staff and lots of volunteer docents, folks who dress up in period costumes and chat with visitors. These volunteers go through a training period first and either demonstrate crafts (the blacksmith) or share knowledge (the bank clerk). All of them are enthusiastic and fun to talk with.

Asa Knight Store Originally from Dummerston, Vermont, c. 1826 and 1838-39
Asa Knight Store
Originally from Dummerston, Vermont, c. 1826 and 1838-39

Only 25% of those first store patrons could afford to pay cash. Most customers bartered for store goods. The store owner kept a careful ledger of customers’ names, purchases, and what they owed. The young woman behind the counter explained that while ‘her’ father would have run the store, it was likely that a daughter would drop her other duties to help out if she was needed.

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Goods from around the world as well as local products were for sale even two hundred years ago.

Tin Shop Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 1800-1850 Reconstructed by OSV, 1985
Tin Shop Reconstruction
Originally from Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 1800-1850

Tinplated sheet iron was imported from Great Britain and formed in New England tin shops.The Old Sturbridge Village gift store has handmade items such as dippers, lanterns, etc. for sale.

Thompson Bank Thompson, Connecticut, c. 1835
Thompson Bank
Originally from Thompson, Connecticut, c. 1835

The bank’s single employee was the cashier, open for business in the morning. Afternoons were spent doing paperwork and bookkeeping. This terrific volunteer regaled us with his knowledge and said that yes indeed, the bank clerk would have sat at the window waiting for business and chatting with people passing by…

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Cider Mill Brookfield, New Hampshire, c. 1840
Cider Mill
Originally from Brookfield, New Hampshire, c. 1840

A farm family drank about 300 gallons of hard cider each year. Hic!

Carding Mill South Waterford, Maine c. 1840
Carding Mill
Originally from South Waterford, Maine c. 1840

DSC_6406This is the only New England water-powered carding mill still in existence. It did a day’s work of hand-carding wool in a mere 20 minutes.

Part 2 will be posted shortly.

NOTES: [1] Of course, for Uwe a big draw was the unique photo ops…

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. More of Uwe’s pictures from New England and his photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Book Excerpt: The End of the World 2

Emory Steen walked home with Coreen after Math Club. Autumn leaves covered the sidewalks and Emory crunched through them making as much noise as possible. “See you tomorrow,” he said.

Coreen waved a goodbye as her friend slouched down the street.

Goldy waited inside the front door. Her parents had let her get the puppy as a reward for good grades. He trailed at her heels as Coreen followed the sound of voices; the Bible study group had started. Mr. and Mrs. Tennant were decent people, trying to raise their children as Christians. Both of Coreen’s brothers went to meetings. David was almost eighteen, and the eleven-year-old Junior worshipped him. Little Sweetie was only five, and she was bundled off to bed halfway through the evening.

The Siemens family, the Whites, the Bartlets and their two cousins visiting from Holland were in the dining room. The group met Tuesday and Friday evenings at the Tennant home. The adults passed earnest hours in spirited debates, trying to understand what Bible passages signified.

Bibles covered the dining room table. Red silk ribbons marked open pages, but they’d set them aside. Everyone stared at a laptop screen, filled with yellow letters in a blue background. An image of the Earth floated, circled by what looked like the rings of Saturn. The largest ring ended in the letters VOG.

Goldy’s wagging tail thumped against a chair and the group finally noticed Coreen had entered the room.

Her godfather Richard turned from the computer and placed an arm over her shoulder. Richard White was old enough to be her grandparent, and he enjoyed the authority that came with age. “We’ve been waiting for you. Good thing you’re in that Math Club!”

“I told you, Richard. She’ll follow the proof just fine.” Coreen’s father gave her a hug.

Richard pushed a sheet of paper across the table. “Take a look,” he said eagerly.

“What is it?” Coreen picked it up.

“Just, see for yourself.” The gathered members held their breaths as they waited.

Coreen bent her head over a page of proofs, then back up to meet a roomful of expectant eyes. No one spoke, waiting for her to add two and two together.

She looked back at the sheet. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.”

Richard patted her arm. “It’s okay. It took us a week of prayer before it became clear, and then suddenly it was all wonderfully clear. Look.” Richard took a second piece of paper from Mrs. Siemen. He tapped the page. “A day for God is a thousand years. Christ was crucified on April 1st, 33AD. Five equals ‘atonement’, ten equals ‘completeness’, and seventeen equals ‘heaven’, so the time between Christ’s crucifixion and next year is 1,978 years. Follow so far?”

Coreen’s brow furrowed as she listened.

“It’s right here.” Richard patted the sheets of paper and leaned over the table to point at the computer screen. “It’s clearer than clear, Coreen: the Rapture’s on the way!”

Mommy spoke up. “Honey, God’s lifting two hundred million people directly to Heaven, and then He’ll cover the earth in tsunamis and quakes. It’s very near. In fact, it’s less than a year away. The end’s coming in a series of earthquakes on May 1st. Six p.m. for each time zone.”

“What about everyone else?” Coreen asked in a small voice.

“God’s judgment.” Mommy was a middle-aged woman with an affect as comforting and warm as a meal of pot roast. Tonight, incandescent, her face glowed. “Six months later, November 1st, the final destruction arrives.”

Dad broke in. “Someone’s found the Biblical passages proving the Rapture begins in May. All believers ascend to Heaven. Those left behind will experience the end of the world. Six months of it, before fire consumes whatever’s left. We can be ready for it!”

He leaned across the table and turned up the sound. The voice speaking from the computer terminal was both tinny and gravelly, like metal clanking over heavy rocks. VOG sounded otherworldly. “My friends, now is the time to prepare! The end is on the way. But don’t wait for the Lord to send the first sign. You will feel it in your own lives down here on Earth. Pay attention my friends, little by little He will peel away all that no longer matters. Welcome the changes! Welcome the signals of His arrival! Trust in the Lord!”

Dad turned the sound back down and turned expectant back to his daughter. “Well? What do you think?”

“There’s a paradox,” Coreen began. The End of Days sounded as if the final agonies stretched out, God Himself unsure when to end them. “Does the world end in May, or in November?”

“Which part of Armageddon don’t you understand?” David sneered. Coreen hadn’t noticed her older brother in the corner. He sat, so no one could see how short he was compared to her.

“Yeah, VOG said so!” Junior parroted.

Coreen ignored them, knowing skinny little Junior would go along with anything his brother said.

David recited, “The Bible tells us that exactly one hundred and eighty-four days later God destroys the whole world. The name says it all. The Voice Of God. VOG.” David had learned about the Rapture end date before Coreen. He understood it better, too. For once, he was doing something first.

***

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This second chapter is titled, The End Of The World.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Book Excerpt: The End of the World 1

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! —Psalm 8:8

Revelations

Lynn turned off the classical music on the CD player and yawned, pleased. She’d gotten a lot done. Summer session hadn’t begun yet and the campus was quiet. Cars loaded with new graduates and their belongings had left days earlier.

She’d propped her office door and windows open. When she leaned back an afternoon breeze fluttered across her skin. Outside, three crows argued from the top of a Douglas fir as a radio blared. And someone cried. Sobs swelled in waves as the crier gained and lost, regained and relost control.

The crying came from inside the building. Lynn got up and went to the door to listen; it was a woman’s voice. She walked down the hall and came to a stop outside the bathroom. As she hesitated, wondering if she should go in or not, the door opened with a yank.

The young woman in a rumpled blouse over new jeans jumped when she saw Lynn. ‘Ask me about my frontal lobotomy’ suggested a pin on her chest. Her face was blotchy and dripped with tears.

“Aren’t you the Girl Friday who started working here the end of the semester? Coreen, right?” Lynn held out a tissue.

The girl tried to answer, but could only hiccup. Her face grew redder.

When Lynn touched her shoulder she trembled. “I’m Professor McCready. Coreen, are you okay?”

Coreen fell forward into the older woman’s arms.

Lynn propelled her down the hall to the corner armchair in her office. Coreen kept shivering. Lynn returned to the bathroom for a stack of paper towels. When she brought them back, she touched Coreen’s shoulder to get her attention. “Somehow I don’t think regular tissues can handle all the tears you’ve got in you.” She handed them to Coreen and placed a tall glass at the girl’s elbow. She touched the shoulder again, and returned to her desk.

The simple props of a water glass, a comfortable armchair and a large supply of utility paper towels were exactly what Coreen needed. She cried for another fifteen minutes. The hic! hic! staccato slowed as her crying jag spent itself. When it finished she sat damp and exhausted, her body folded tight.

Lynn set down the article proof she was editing. “Come on,” she said, and got to her feet. “I could use something to eat. I bet you could, too. Do you like Vietnamese?”

Over dinner the girl stayed silent, picking at her food and chewing her fingernails. Finally she blurted, “Did you ever think the world was ending?”

“Literally?”

Coreen hesitated and then nodded her head. Yes.

“That it would end, no. That it might break me, once.”

“What happened?”

“I discovered the heart of darkness when I was your age.” She knew Coreen was bracing herself to open up. Quietly Lynn revealed, “I went through an experience I thought would scar me and follow me around forever. Like, it would identify me for life. And then it didn’t. But I know what it feels like when a wave of panic hits. Or a crying jag. If you can, tell me what’s got you so terrified that you hide in the bathroom.”

Coreen put down her fork, took a deep breath, and told her.

***

Prepare to meet a hero with dangerous fantasies. A young woman trapped in a cult. A person who dreams other people’s futures. A man drinking glühwein at a Christmas Market as he waits for disaster. And Lynn, the connecting thread, taking a train trip with a seductive stranger. I’ll be posting the first pages to each chapter.

Committing my characters to an appearance on this blog makes them real. As of tonight, they exist beyond my imagination.

Here are the opening pages to my novel (Name being withheld until publication date). This second chapter is titled, The End Of The World.

Copyright © 2014 Jadi Campbell. Look for this novel in book and eBook form on Amazon.com in December.

Speed Dating – Part 1

Slowly Rick garnered the pertinent facts about Maricela. She came from a large family where education was a priority. All five of the Howard siblings had at least some graduate school time or professional training under their belts. Maricela was an intellectual prodigy and had gone to college entirely on grants and scholarships. She’d been a natural scholar, the acknowledged golden child of any seminar class. Ironically, his parents moved briefly to Brookville when Maricela had finished up her undergraduate work there; they’d just missed one another.

She worked as a financial advisor with an ethical investments firm, a job she loved since she began there eight years ago. She had been promoted twice and refused the next offer for further advancement, preferring to keep close to her individual clients. Her field of expertise was alternative energies and fair trade. Maricela firmly believed the phrase sustainable and responsible investing was not an oxymoron.

She’d had one, failed, live-in relationship. When she discovered his coke habit she ended the relationship. “It wasn’t just that he lied to me about how much he used,” Maricela explained. “And it wasn’t the way I found out: catching him in the kitchen over the butcher block, for God’s sake. He promised he’d ease up on what he was using, but I know too much about how much fun partying is.

“Speedy drugs weren’t ever my thing. They just made me nauseous and I preferred alcohol anyway, so it wasn’t like I felt holier than thou. It was the way he wasn’t willing to stay clean, and how cagey he was being about the realities of that fact. He kept pretending he was in control of his habit and lied about how much he did. Typical user behavior. It was the set up for more hiding and bullshit stories that eventually made me end it.”

The tone might have made Rick suspicious, because in the voice of the wrong woman it sounded phony. Worse, it sounded like what someone with a martyr complex might say. But Maricela was simply stating the facts. Her ex hadn’t wanted to be honest about needing to snort coke; and Maricela was unwilling to settle for a relationship based on prevarications.

Maricela’s friends held her in affection and quite often in awe. Despite her formidable brainpower her personality was easy and accessible; there was nothing of the intellectual snob about her. She’d cohabitated for the last 3 years with a long time friend named Sarah. Together the two of them had rented the converted loft space.

When Sarah was diagnosed with cancer the prior spring, Maricela put her own social life on hold in order to be there for her friend. That was the reason why she’d been out of the dating pool. It had nothing to do with an unwillingness to engage with other people. On the contrary: a deep commitment to the people she cared about led Maricela to prioritize how she used her time.

Almost every bit of information Chris and Sybil had offered to describe Maricela turned out to be accurate. The only piece of information they’d gotten wrong was her choice of alcohol. Instead of wine, most of the time Maricela drank near beer.

Rick noted all of these things and thought, This woman is someone worth getting to know, no matter where it leads. Surprised, Rick actually asked himself if he’d be willing to just be friends with her if the physical chemistry didn’t pan out. He was even more surprised when the answer to that question was, yes.

“I’m not being coy about bringing you home with me, you know,” she informed him one day; the two were having lunch. “Trust me on this one. In my earlier days we’d already be there! But Sarah’s really sick. She’s going through chemo, and the procedure is quite simply hell. It’s really important right now that we keep the apartment as germ-free and sterile as possible. You understand, right?”

“Sure,” Rick said, and hesitated. “No, actually, I don’t. I doubt if I can even begin to understand. I don’t think I’d know how to handle it if someone I was close to got cancer,” he admitted. “Or if I could be as supportive.”

Maricela turned what he’d said over in her mind and shrugged. “She’s my best friend. I sit with her when she’s awake half the night throwing up because the poisons in the chemotherapy mean she won’t keep anything down for long. The other half the night she can’t stop crying because she knows she’s getting weaker and weaker, and feels sicker and sicker. She’s really terrified that this is it, she’s going to die, and in the end all the chemo and medical attention in the world aren’t going to make a bit of difference. She’s scared maybe she’s putting herself through hell for nothing. And me along with her.

“Next,” continued Maricela relentlessly, “Sarah lost her hair. It was coming out in patches so Sarah had it all shaved off. Then she went through this awful period where her face puffed up. Her skin was reacting to a combination of the drugs, and she couldn’t go out in bright sunlight because of allergic reactions to some of the other meds. And when you’re a friend, all you can really do is just, be there. It’s not your sickness or your pain.

“Trust me. When you see it, you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.

“The only thing you can do is fetch the bucket, get a cup of herb tea, and offer to do the shopping. Just being there for your friend and not being afraid to do that little extra helps more than anyone imagines. A person with cancer needs you to be normal, because nothing else in their life is any more. Nothing else around them will ever be the same again. I won’t go into the gruesome details about the bouts of depression Sarah endures, but picture your blackest, darkest thoughts. Magnify those by about a thousand and maybe you have some idea of how deep the depression of a person with cancer and on meds is. A cancer patient doesn’t know if it’s her or the heavy-duty medications doing the talking, or thinking, or feeling all those awful things.

“Every day becomes a big surprise, and not one you want to wake up to. Are you going to manifest new symptoms? How’s the old mood going to be, will you feel incapacitated or can you function again? What fun tests, and diagnostics, and medical procedures do you have scheduled this time? What will the news be, and how are you going to be able to bear to hear it? There was a phase where all the test results were bad; every one of them was really horribly grim. Sarah started going in and out of depressions where she couldn’t stand to be around anybody at all. What she was feeling, the agony, the fear, and exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.

“It’s not a question of staying supportive,” Maricela repeated. “Cancer survivors travel to hell and back. All I do is let her know I’ll be waiting there each time she returns.”

Rick listened to Maricela with both admiration and dismay. “I’m not so sure. I’d be scared I’d react the wrong way and make things worse,” he persisted. “Or that I wouldn’t be able to face someone else’s illness. I don’t know if I’d be up to being supportive.”

He looked at Maricela’s face as he admitted that, afraid to see her light brown eyes darken. But he didn’t want to present himself in a false light, especially when compared with the relentless clean light of her frankness. Only honesty was admissible.

He was silent, thinking about all of the relationship games he’d so willingly played over the years. One set of games to get close enough to climb into bed; another set to extricate himself from the mussed up sheets afterwards. When he realized she was waiting patiently for him to talk, or to remain silent, just as he wished, Rick surprised himself for the third time in an hour. He opened his mouth and as if in the third person, Rick heard himself really talk.

“I don’t know what I’d do if someone I loved was ill, much less going to die. I’ve never been in that situation! My mom was always great. She’d make home made chicken soup with egg noodles, nothing fancy, but it was like the great home remedy for anything that ever made a little kid feel bad. I would pretend to have a really, really bad cough, just to get her to make it.

“It’s the only dish I ever make for someone on a regular basis.” Rick was thinking out loud; silent, Maricela listened without judgment as he began to peel away protective layers.

“My mother made soup, but it was about emotional support. When I make it for anyone it’s, soup. The emotional support’s what I get, by recreating the atmosphere of my mom. It’s never about doing something for another person at all.

“Jesus! Why didn’t I ever notice this before? For me,” his voice was almost at a crawl. Maricela actually leaned across the table so she could hear him without having to interrupt to ask him to speak more loudly. “For me, relationships were, are, something to have fun with. It’s all speed dating. I never put much energy into the mutual support aspect of it, beyond being honest and not cheating on a girlfriend as long as we’re together.

“Jesus, cancer!” Rick shuddered in his chair at the mental image of watching a loved one waste away, or bearing witness to a beloved person’s features distort with pain. “Maybe my life style as a Good time Charlie was actually good protection. It always worked pretty well, as long as I wanted it to. Well.” He looked away to the back wall of the bar, refocused on the present and the woman listening carefully at the other side of the small table. “And you? How did you survive those years in the jungle?”

– from my short story “Speed Dating” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available in paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Hit & Run 4

Inevitably Joe’s determined curiosity widened to include the rest of the world. As his medical condition worsened, his parents curtailed family outings without saying a word or ever referring to the involuntary confined nature of the shorter vacations. “Any chance of a trip somewhere exotic, Dad?” he asked, once. He saw the anguished looks and exchanged, entrapped glance they shared over his head. Joey never asked again.

Joey’s queries toned down and became more secretive. On his way to the public library, he discovered a table covered with stacks of old postcards in a junk shop. Joey fanned out sanitized images of capitol cities and stared transfixed. He fingered the old thick cardboard and posited himself there, an alternate Joe someplace seen by him only in his imagination. He knew kismet had randomly assigned him the death card.

Perhaps a few freebies were in the mix as well.

Some magazines had coupons for glossy brochures of vacation getaways. He filled out coupons in his careful script and sent them off. He started writing away to travel agencies and to the embassies of foreign countries.

Descriptions began pouring in from around the globe and woke a deep hunger in him for all the things and places he’d never get to see. His reading matter shifted to books about exotic locales. Joey did weeks of research on the wide, wide world in the library’s travel and geography stacks. He read about Europe first, and next he planned to move on to Africa, and South America, and Asia, last stop the Antarctic!

Lou found an application sheet his brother had hidden. “A new opportunity for a new life …Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”

Lou went on reading, incredulous. Joey had filled out the forms right up to the paragraph indicating that selection for the Legion was carried out in person near Marseille, and that the applicant had to be physically fit to serve at all times in all places. Lou put the form back in the desk and never told his brother he’d seen it.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available as paperback or eBook at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1, 2 & 3 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Hit & Run 3

He entered magazine contests and it didn’t matter what the prizes were. Mrs. Bocci was the first housewife in their neighborhood to own a brand new Maytag dishwasher. He won an extra dryer, which his parents passed on to their aunt and uncle for Christmas that year when his newest cousin was born.

He loved the surprise of each free gift. Sur-prizes, he called them. Joey sent away for samples of things just for the hell of it. He had the time; what else was he going to do with all those hours stuck sitting in his wheel chair? His family received the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A through Androphagi. He kept Mom in perfume and the rest of the family in soap and shampoo. Any time a new product came out, such as the first mint toothpaste, Joey ordered it. The Boccis were always the first ones on the block to try any of them.

His past time took on epic proportions. They didn’t just have free food samples to try. Joey ordered free animal feed samples too: packets of birdseed. Hamster food. Gold fish pellet food. Pouches of cat food and dog food, even horse feed. His parents finally told Joey to stop with the animal feed already; they couldn’t even have any pets because of the danger of allergies or infection from scratches. Joey’s dad donated it all to the local animal shelter.

Once or twice a week the mailman delivered a package containing free items with company logos. Joey would read about a new product being promoted and bing, the coupons were clipped and filled out and in the mail before anyone could stop him. The Bocci household received free tote bags, baseball caps, tee shirts and socks and other products. Actually his parents didn’t try to stop him from sending away for those items once they realized how much money his obsession was saving them on clothes.

He won a ride in the local weather helicopter – and because he couldn’t fly because of air pressure and collapsing sinus issues, Lou and Mr. Bocci went in his place. Now that was cool!

Here the tale ended abruptly, the silence Margaret’s cue to ask questions. It didn’t matter what she asked, really, as long as it gave Lou an idea of what she wanted to hear about next. “Was he persistent or just incredibly lucky?”

“Margaret,” Lou explained patiently, “no one was ever stupid enough to call Joey lucky. But yes, he had a run of luck where it seemed like the Universe was giving him a break to make up for the crap cards he’d been dealt just by being born. He really did have fun entering contests and winning stuff.”

“What’s the coolest thing he ever won?”

Lou frowned. “I just told you: the helicopter ride. At least to me and my Dad it was the coolest,” he amended, yielding to the apologetic look on his girlfriend’s face. “And he won fourth prize in a contest for a new Pontiac. My parents took the cash from that one and put into savings bonds. That money helped put me through college.”

“It was okay with Joe? He didn’t want the money for himself?”

“Well,” Lou said slowly, “by then his lucky streak was running out. Joey hid it from the rest of us. He’d started getting weaker again instead of stronger… He didn’t have a whole lot of time left. And I think he was trying to win money and prizes for us to make up for the gap that would be there after he was gone.”

Margaret sighed and hugged her boyfriend. “Jesus, Lou. How could your family stand it?”

Lou shrugged. “We didn’t get calloused or anything, but it wasn’t like any of us didn’t know the end was coming. We just kind of… went on as we had been. What else is there to say? Joey was the glue for a broken situation; it was broke from the minute he was born. He was the glue holding the entire family together in spite of everything.”

“I just think, I mean, I can’t imagine how you all dealt with it.”

“Margaret, I never cease to be amazed at what people just deal with when they have to. How did my family deal with stuff? We just, did. Until we couldn’t any longer. When Joey went in the hospital the last time we thought it was temporary, just more of the usual batteries of tests. When his doctors found the tumor I think everyone knew that this was going to be it.”

“At least you all had each other. Your family was so strong!”

He looked at her with a strange expression. “Babe, that’s the whole point of what I’ve been telling you. We weren’t strong. Joey was! We were people he was supporting through his illness. The only thing we had in common was the DNA connection. Joey was never related to anybody I could figure out, not really, unless it was some kind of genetically defective super hero who hasn’t been invented or born yet.”

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my posts Hit & Run 1 & 2 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.

Hit & Run 2

Joey sat in the school library for hours. He hid there during recess and lunch periods, but the sounds of everyone out on the playground came through the open windows. Hearing the sound of other children shrieking was bad, and as Joey listened he tried to imagine it came from children somewhere far away. When he did see them the distance apparent between what they could do and what he could not was too terrible. He would perch at the dark wood of the windowsill, holding himself upright and steady with one hand as he watched. Children in groups skipped ropes, chased balls, played tag. The teacher with recess duty wore a light jacket and an expression of endless weary patience. He or she sometimes called out across the tarmac, “Hey! That’s enough of that, Loreen!”

Unseen and unimportant, from the high window Joey observed when the teacher rushed to the aid of a fallen child or broke up a playground fight. He hated it. Watching reminded him that no one would ever need to run to prevent him from doing something he shouldn’t; watching only reminded him that he couldn’t run.

Joey moved to a table where he could sit with his back to the windows. Determinedly Joey closed his ears to the cries of his peers playing outside the walls and forever beyond his ken.

Eventually Joey made his way through all of the school magazines. He began to take the bus to the public library. After school Joey sat among the adult publications where he felt less excluded. Around him sat members of his home city’s increasing homeless population, noisily turning pages and keeping a careful eye on their oversized bags of belongings. There were a few students, or grown ups coming in to claim the copies of recent novels they had put on hold, and every so often a class of younger children arrived for reading hour. Otherwise though, Joey could feel like he was simply another library user, ageless and without handicaps.

This was when he discovered adult magazines with their endless advertisements for write-in contests, coupons to win prizes, and teasers to learn more about great deals. Joey flipped pages hunting for things to win, things to present to his parents. Joey wanted, Lou said thoughtfully, to present them with distractions from the nonrefundable item they’d brought home from the hospital: their youngest son and his damaged body.

– from my short story “Hit and Run” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere. Go to my post Hit & Run 1 for more on Joey, Lou and Margaret.