Quantum Leap

The bulk of my novel Pushing the River takes place within the confines of a house, over the course of four months.  As promised, I will be posting a chapter each Friday (oops) from the “September” section of the book.  Here is the first chapter:

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Quantum Leap

It was certainly not her first foray into the parallel universe of online dating. Sadly, it was quite far from it. Madeline had been divorced for more than ten years by this time, and had watched a string of relationships move from interest, to the first tingle of excitement, to the exhilaration of genuine possibility, to the frightening, heady, joyful moment when the roller coaster passes the peak of its climb and in that split second, there is no going back: momentum takes over; it is utterly and completely out of anyone’s control, because at this moment, there is love. There is real love.

And then there isn’t.

After a time, she would be back online, pouring over profiles, scrutinizing descriptions, gathering courage.

There were less than a handful of people in the “neighborhood bar,” each one sitting at a measured distance from the others, making the throbbing lights and disco music seem thoroughly pathetic. Even the bartender looked as if she would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A first glance around the room didn’t turn up anybody she thought resembled his online picture. Certainly nobody came close to what her daughter-in-law Marie had called The Underwear Model upon seeing his photo. “Oh! My! God! He’s an underwear model!”

“Do you know if there’s anybody here waiting for somebody? A guy?” she screamed at the bartender, leaning as far as she possibly could over the bar in order to be heard.

“Are you kidding?” The bartender retorted, “Everybody here is waiting for somebody.”

She gestured with her arm, waving her hand around the room in a need-I-say-more sort of way.

“I mean, not that I know of. You’re just gonna have to look.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

And then she saw him. QuantamLeap. Standing in a dark shadow, pressed against the back wall as if pinned there, minutely nodding his head in time to the music in a good-soldier effort to not look as thoroughly uncomfortable as he clearly was. Off-white, baggy, mid-calf length shorts that could have passed for gangsta, could have passed for j. crew. Collared shirt.

(“Collared shirt?” she thought. “I did not see that coming.”) She had pictured: T-shirt. Definitely. Very faded. Possibly with the name of an early punk band, but more likely touting some esoteric, highly left-leaning thing. Noam Chomsky, maybe. But nope, collared shirt it was. And striped. (Striped?)

“Dan?” she yelled.

He was tall. 6’3”, maybe even 6’4”, so had to lean way, way over to get his ear in the general vicinity of her mouth. He nodded, minimally, in time to the music, as if he were not sure he wanted to acknowledge his identity to the person who had chosen this particular bar.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. Knowing full well that he couldn’t hear a word, she made exaggerated pointing gestures toward the door.

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With the last beam of blue light evaporating across his arm, Dan emphatically pushed the bar door closed behind them. The instant the door was closed, they stood unmoving, still on the stoop, as an exhilaration of relief – to be outside, out of the blue light, out of the inescapable throb of long-forgotten music, out of the scene of utter desolate encroaching loneliness — washed over them.

Madeline said, “Oh my God, I am so sorry,” and laughed out loud. “Oh! My! God!”

There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco. A mortal after all. Thank God, she thought, or he would be too impossibly good looking.

She suggested they walk to a nearby place that she ardently wished she had remembered in the first place — a low-key homage to the 60’s that still sold tie-dyed shirts, incense and bumper stickers in a little shop adjoining the restaurant. It also boasted a lovely outdoor area, a giant screened-in porch strewn with twinkly lights that was heavenly on a summer night.

Though she was less than two miles from the house she had lived in for nearly 30 years, she got lost. Damp with fretful sweat that grabbed at her mauve silk blouse, she surreptitiously scrutinized him for any sign of frustration aimed at her. They had met in person less than fifteen minutes before, so she had no cache of information that could tell her whether his good-natured reserve was just that, or if, perhaps, he had already decided that these two particular people, him and her, would not be seeing one another for much longer on the evening of September 1, 2013. Or ever again.

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A version of this chapter was originally posted on 7/23/13 with these same pictures.

And John Makes Seven

The following is a NEW chapter from the novel PUSHING THE RIVER.  This chapter will be the LAST new one that I post while I write the remainder of the book.  BUT, for those of you who have been confounded and frustrated by my writing –and therefore posting — the chapters out of order: surprise!  For the next ten Fridays, I will post an entire section of the book, one chapter each week, IN ORDER!  I sincerely hope the section will pique your interest and whet your appetite for the completed version!

 

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John and Marie went back and forth – over the phone, via text, and in emails of varying lengths – about how to get John back from Boston. The good news was: John had wrangled a way to do an internship in Chicago in lieu of his final semester of music school, and he would be able to live with his wife once again. The bad news was: this meant he, as well as all of their mutual possessions still residing in Boston (including three feline companions) needed to find their way back to Chicago somehow, just two short months after Marie had made her solo move there. And, all of this had to be figured out around John’s last days to do everything that needed to be done to finish his degree while still in Boston, as well as Marie’s schedule with two jobs plus the full-time job of her family.

For about a week, Marie would dash into whatever room Madeline and Dan inhabited, and plop down beside them. Among a general flurry of accompanying movements and gestures, Marie would say something such as, “What do you think about me renting a U-Haul here in Chicago, driving to Boston to help John pack up and move, then driving back here together? I think the mileage charge might actually be less than the one-way drop-off charge.” But before either Dan or Madeline could form a thought, Marie would jump up, again with a flurry of waving arms, and say, “Never mind! It’ll never work! I can’t take that much time off work. Let alone being gone from…you know…here.” By the time Marie reached the final word of the sentence, she would be at least two rooms away from wherever Madeline and Dan remained, still having uttered not one word.

This happened at least once each day.

Finally, the day came when Marie said, “There’s no other option at all whatsoever except for me to fly out there, one way, rent a truck in Boston, and drive back here together with John.” Madeline and Dan had become so accustomed to Marie’s abrupt departures that they stared at her, blankly and without speaking. “Well?! Come on, you guys. What the hell is wrong with you; what do you think?”

All went according to plan, and the reunited couple arrived one week before Christmas with three cats, four bikes, two banjos, two guitars, two bass guitars. John had a suitcase full of clothes, and his backpack. The remaining space in the truck was filled with an impressive array – and poundage – of amplifiers and sound equipment.

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The closets filled up. The storage rooms filled up. All of the spaces under the eaves in John and Marie’s living space filled up. And with John home for Christmas and for good, seven people went to sleep under Madeline’s roof each night.

When Madeline descended the stairs the morning after his return, John had set up one of his bikes on a stand in the living room, right between the piano and the Christmas tree. “Still on Boston time,” he said. “Couldn’t sleep. Hey, I couldn’t really figure out any other place to set up a bike ‘shop.’ Is this OK with you?”

Madeline did a quick survey of the open tool boxes – two of them – and the assortment of wrenches, bolts, screws and general what-nots that lay strewn across much of the floor. “Of course,” she said.

“No, I mean, I knew you were going to say ‘yes,’ but it is really OK?”

“Yes,” Madeline said. “Really really.”

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My beautiful baby boy, Madeline thought. “You are all growed up,” she said.

“Well. Sort of,” John said, gesturing to the surrounding detritus with his wrench.

What a crazy thing, Madeline thought. You bring these little tiny people into the world, you care for them day and night, day after day, you love them with a power and a ferocity you never could have imagined, you would move worlds to protect them from pain. You do this for years and years. And then you let them go.

You watch them live their own lives with limitless, awed joy. But from a greater and greater distance, because this is the way it is supposed to be.

Madeline is transported years into the past. John has just come home from a day at high school. He takes the gallon of milk from the refrigerator, hoists himself to sit on the kitchen counter, and removes the cap to drink it straight from the jug. “Mom,” he says to Madeline, “will you make me a PB & J?”

She regards the 6′ manchild in front of her, torn between her feeling that perhaps a good parent would chastise John for drinking straight from the milk jug, or would a good parent let it go knowing that John was the only one who drank whole milk in the first place.

“Please,” he added, and the sheepish, ironic expression on his face told her he knew this was an unreasonable request for an seventeen-year-old, yet he relished making it. “Yours are always better than when I make them. Yours are the best.”

Sometimes you have no idea, none at all, which of the most simple, everyday, completely non-exceptional moments might be one that gets emblazoned in your mind for the rest of time. A snapshot of an instance, a place in your life that remains in exceptional, vivid detail – no blurring around the edges of a picture that never fades. Other times, you do know. Madeline knew, right then and there, that the peanut butter sandwich request was one of the moments she would remember all of her life.tay

Top and bottom photos of Taylor Hales, the inspiration for the character of John

Amplifiers pictured with their creator, Jim Marshall

No idea who the bike guy is

 

 

I

 

A Thousand Paper Cranes

OH BOY OH BOY OH BOY!!!  I have decided (thanks to the quiet suggestion of a friend) to return to writing my previously-abandoned novel Pushing the River.  I re-read the 150 completed pages.  I liked it.  I want to finish it. Here, then is a fresh, new excerpt!!

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For much of that fall, Madeline’s communications with Kate were limited to between three- and five-minute phone calls while Kate waited for the bus. Madeline would answer the phone with an exaggerated “Kate-eeeeeeeeeeeeee” and wait for Kate’s echoing “Mom-eeeeeeeeeee.” A rat-a-tat of rapid-fire bullet point life factoids would invariably be abruptly halted by a loud WHOOOOSSSHHHH that announced the bus’s arrival. Kate would attempt to shout something along the lines of “I gotta go!! Love you….” which trailed into an abrupt click. Not a lot of free time in the second year of medical school.

Kate was a self-described Christmas Elf. She loved the season – everything about it – and drank it all in with tremendous delight.

On the first morning Kate was home for her Christmas break, Madeline sat bolt upright and fully awake — as she did every morning — just before 7 am and tiptoed down to the kitchen. As she calculated how much coffee to make for Marie (who wouldn’t drink it) and herself and Kate, she was surprised to hear Kate cough from the back sun room.

She poked her head around the corner and said, “What are your doing up?”

“I always get up early. You know that,” Kate responded.

“Yeah, but I mean, what are you doing? You look like you’re doing something back there.”

“I’m making some flash cards.”

“Flash cards? For what? And by the way, how long have you been up? Without coffee, is my point.”

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“Since six. I figured I’d get up every morning at six and chip away at this. Didn’t want to take the time to make coffee. I knew you’d get up and make it right around now. And see? I’ve already gotten an hour of work done.”

“You always were an odd child.”

“I know.”

“Flash cards for what, her mother asked, knowing she may well be sorry,” Madeline said.

“For the medical boards. You know. The Boards.”

“Just how many cards are in that box, anyway?”

“A thousand,” Kate said.

“A thousand. One thousand. Are you actually planning to make a thousand flash cards?”

“I have another box.”

“If you were a different person that would be a really good joke.”

“Don’t you remember when I was an undergrad, and I used to study in the med library? Don’t you remember me describing to you when those med students were studying for their Boards? Jesus, that was terrifying! It scared the shit out me! I was trying to mind my own business and study, when all around me people were completely losing their shit, a little bit more, and a little bit more, every day. I remember this one guy just wandering around, shaking all over, just wandering. This other guy kept muttering to himself and twisting strands of his hair. And then chuckling! It was seriously like being in a zombie apocalypse.”

“So, the flash cards ward off the zombie-ism? Is that a word? Zombie-ism?”

“I’m hoping. I figured I’d get a jump on this over the holiday break.”

“Geez. Fun times. Ho Ho Ho.”

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“Besides, it gives me something to focus on, apart from the shit storm that’s going on right in my own living room,” Kate said as she snapped a blank card out of the box.

“Now now, you just got home last night. Don’t you think you might want to wait a little while, give yourself some time to experience the shit storm for yourself before you start getting all despondent?”

“Nope. Don’t you think I’ve been listening to you all fall? I think I’ve heard enough.”

“Well, you gotta admit: there was quite a kerfuffle of bus noise and generally high level of haste,” Madeline said.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Didn’t some old guy from your generation say that?”

“Yeah. Some old guy did.” Madeline continued. “A thousand note cards. You know what that reminds me of?”

“Hmmm,” Said Kate, absent-mindedly.

“The thousand paper cranes,” Madeline said. When Kate was in her second year of college, she had gotten very ill. She left a quickly-scribbled post-it note on her dorm room door, announcing that she had left school, and went home. It was serious, and Kate believed – with good reason – that she may die.

When she and Madeline made a trip to Kate’s dorm room to gather some things, they walked in to the dazzling sight of one thousand origami paper cranes. Some had been hung together in long vertical strings suspended from the ceiling, while others were strung in banners, wing-to-wing, and hung from wall to wall. The sight was breathtaking, and magical.

The students on Kate’s floor of the dorm had gotten together, night after night, to fold cranes.  When the number reached one thousand, they filled Kate’s room with their gift that, according to Japanese legend, would bestow great health and long life to the recipient.

“They’re still in the basement, aren’t they?” Madeline asked. “Do you think they can work a second time?”

“Mom,” Kate said, with great gentleness, “this is way beyond paper cranes.”

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Tuesday Triptych

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For Life

I stepped in for a quick rinse, afterward. I told him this: just a quick rinse. When he stepped into the shower a few minutes later, I said: “Oh. I didn’t think you were coming in.” I said, “Hahaha, I’m actually done. But I’ll stay in with you for a while, if you want.”

“Well, yeah, I had to pee. I went into the other bathroom. After debating about whether we were at the point in our relationship where I could just pee in the same bathroom.”

“Oh, HELL no, I said.” And then, “I mean, for that matter, why wouldn’t you just pee in the shower? Or are you going to claim to be one of those people who has never, ever peed in the shower? Funny enough, a friend of mine was telling me just this week that she found out her fiance has never once peed in the shower. She completely freaked out. She’s going around saying to everyone: ‘What kind of person has never once peed in the shower? What does that SAY!? Am I making a gigantic mistake here?’ So, like I said, are you going to claim to be one of those people?”

“If I answer that,” he said, “then we are mated for life. For. Life.”

 

DANGER

A while back my friend Judy said to me – about the restaurant in my cool new neighborhood where we had just been seated: “You realize every place we’ve gone to looks exactly the same, right?” To which I replied, of course: “shut up.”

In fact, I hadn’t realized.

Photo by Clayton Hauck for Longman & Eagle

Photo by Clayton Hauck for Longman & Eagle

“Yeah,” Judy went on. “Every one of them is medium-size-cozy, has a tin ceiling, at least one brick wall, a beautifully-staged and lit bar, dim-ish lighting, and ample wood somewhere in the decor.

“Shut up,” I said. But then: “You’re totally right.”

These are, in fact, my happy places. Throw in a little bit of industrial chic, or maybe some artfully mismatched furniture (my favorite being what I call Vintage Funeral Parlor), and I walk through those front doors believing with all my heart that a wonderful wonderful experience will be…experienced.

My eyes will drink in the sumptuous visual scene, the place will buzz and hum with all the cacophony of life being enjoyed, and a thoroughly unsullen youngster will ebb and flow from my table with all variety of things to be sipped, nibbled, slurped, tasted, and S A V O R E D.

I will feel warmly enveloped by my fellow humans – a soul among souls – while they maintain a comfortable distance. I will feel the tension slip from my muscles. And I will be filled with an odd sense of hopefulness – as if the fact of people gathering, enjoying cocktails invented and mixed by devoted artisans, breaking break together, laughing heartily, bending their heads closer to share an intimate thought – means that it can all be OK.

He and I had tried to come to this restaurant the previous week, when we left in the disgrace of not knowing that by 6:30 pm, the wait time would be well over two hours. We tried again, slightly smug in our arranging the entire day to get there fifteen minutes after they opened – at 5:15 – to discover the wait time was a manageable 20 minutes.

“Why don’t you wait at the back bar,” they suggested. “We’ll come and find you when your table is ready.” I ordered our drinks from a guy who had two well-inked sleeves and a beard that looked exactly like my son’s did after his 5-month hike of the Appalachian Trail. A woman complimented his hat, which I knew would fill him with pride and delight. In other words, the beginning could not have gone any better.

Sheesh, when did it even start?

Dunno, exactly. Somewhere in my woozy dreamy perusal of the brick wall and candlelit bar, somewhere in the middle of one of his mesmerizingly elongated stories, I slipped into that old Gary Larson cartoon about the dog:

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The room slipped sideways. All I heard was: blah blah blah DANGER, blah blah DANGER blah blah blah blah DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER DANGER DANGER.

Something about him bringing a knife to a gun fight. And ending up getting shot. Of course. Trying to be all heroic. But all I could think was: “What kind of a guy carries a KNIFE? What kind of a guy gets involved with people who carry GUNS? [Metaphor alert]

Run, I told myself. Run fast, run far, run now.

With the room all sideways, I could no longer see him as the same man who was in the bathroom, in the shower.

I’m sixty-one years old. My vision has all the wear and tear of those long years.

 

Mighty Fine

When did every. Single. Thing. Become . So. Hard.

When did it all start coming so fast that that there’s no chance, no chance at all, to catch up.

How did I get to be this person whose idea of the perfect future is to find a fine front porch with two old rocking chairs, and set about the business of sitting, gazing contentedly into the landscape. Maybe after an hour or so, I would say:

“Mighty fine day.”

And you would say:

“Sure is.”

Another hour or two later, I might say:

“Don’t get many days this nice.”

And you would say:

“Sure don’t.”

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Touche

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In its first incarnation, my novel which ended up as You, in your Green Shirt, began as a memoir, entirely non-fiction. Over a process of years, two agents, many publishers, a lot of thought and two complete rewrites, I determined that the material – the sum total of story, voice, and intent –could be better served if I abandoned the “facts*” and allowed the characters free reign to tell their tale.

Still very much in a new and experimental place, my current thinking is that A January Diary might benefit from a similar break from reality. Thus (I’m always looking for an opportunity to use the word thus!!), following is the first foray into the realm of the constructed reality known as fiction for A January Diary.

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It was after the first time we – hmmm, should I say made love? Had sex? Fucked? It’s best when it’s all three, all at once.

Should I fault myself for not remembering the details? Of the actual sex, I mean. Other things, I recall with the clarity of a photograph that sits right in front of me. One that I can stare at, examine over and over, discover new and more new. There was the Very Serious expression on his face. His extreme thinness, combined with his heights – he’s a blue person! I thought. One of the blue people from the movie Avatar!! The shocking cold of his foot afterward, as he traced it along my calf.

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There was the languid and lovely movement from the breathless, voiceless sinking into one another’s bodies that immediately followed, to the murmured first words, to the return of full sentences, to the eventual time when we woozily sat on the edges of the bed and regarded our widely-strewn clothing.

By the time all of our clothing had found its way back onto our bodies, we stood fully upright and regular conversation had resumed. He was saying that he really needed to get started on his Medicare stuff, grumbling about the whole pain-in-the-ass of it. I said that I was counting the days until I qualified. Why, I said, do you have any idea what I’m paying for my health insurance right now? Being a Company Man, the kind with paid-for health insurance, of course he had no idea.

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I threw out the monetary figure, which elicited a visible level of shock and horror. He actually paced around his hallway a little, trying to wrap his head around the sum. Ha! Saw my opening. So with a totally straight face I said: well, this is as good a time as any to segue into something I really need to talk with you about. You can probably understand now why I have an ad up on Craigslist – I’m advertising for an arranged marriage for health insurance.”

Without a second’s hesitation he said: Hell, I’ll marry you. Let me call the benefits office right now and get the info. Lemme just go grab my phone.” And with that, he walked away, pretending to search for the phone.

Touche, I thought.

Touche, indeed.

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The First Time I Died

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The air was hot, and dry, with a burning white sky ablaze from the sun. There was no wind. It was so utterly unmoving that the scene was completely silent, like being in the movie theater when the sound suddenly snaps off and the picture continues in the dark, silent cave. “Have I suddenly gone deaf?” I thought, and I looked around to see if anything was moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I might be able to hear.

The young woman wore full native dress. A skirt that went all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the sleeve bottoms rolled to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. Her waist-length braid had been bound with a thin leather strap. She turned to glance at me when I approached the edge, briefly, then looked back down. She did not say a word. She did not say hello, which I thought was odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sat very near the edge. But she wasn’t sitting, actually, she crouched, as if it wer the most relaxed position in the world, and she wove her basket. I watched the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I thought she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I was proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who was bound up in a beautifully adorned little cocoon. The baby was wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes focused far away.

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I thought they must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I couldn’t imagine how they seemed so——————

My foot slipped. At first there was just the scrape of my saddle shoe’s heel against the dry dirt. Then the grate of my calf. I felt the skin rub away and felt the first tiny droplets of blood rise to the surface. But after that I was in free fall. My feet flew out from under me and I was face to face with the hot white sky, falling, and falling.

My back hit first. I felt the sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, for less than a second. It was like the wind being knocked out of you, except I knew that it was not the wind. I was instantly surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts flew from my body in all directions at once. I died.

I lay in bed for a long time before I believed that I could breathe.

I have died many times in my dreams. This was the first.

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*The term “Native American” was not in widespread use at this time.

 Graphic by Scott Snibbe

Lucky Sweater

“Lucky Sweater” is the third entry from A January Diary, which is very much an experiment in writing.  Each of the entries from Diary is meant to stand alone, to evoke impressions much the same way as a poem does.  When the entries are taken together, as a whole, they tell a story — of sorts — in the way a gallery show of visual art tells a story, without the connections being explicitly drawn. Well, we’ll see how it goes…

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It’s not like I chose. More like it chose me. I didn’t even have the idea, wasn’t walking around on the constant outlook, scanning the landscape of my life in a perpetual hunt.

But when it caught my eye, something made me look again. And with that simple second glance, I knew. This was it. Truly it. The critical armament. The charm that could tip the balance of the scales.

I ordered it. It wasn’t something that I would wear, ordinarily. Though I do tend to be a fan of Anthropologie’s boho uber chic extravagant exorbitant tatters, the fashion sense can tend towards the jejuene and seem to be designed for those size 0 and under. Still, the deep emerald green. The sparkling brooch that held the two sides together; it perfectly teetered the line between vintage treasure and cheap trash. The refined softness of the lambs wool. The three cotton flowers, in muted earth tones, appliqued across the cardigan’s front, sequins randomly strewn onto them.

“I am exactly what you need,” this sweater shouted at me. And I believed it. “I will carry your water, give your weary head a strong shoulder to lean on, rock your weary body and sing you a lullabye. ” Yes, it said all that and more. ” I will wrap you in soft warmth. I will be with you every moment. I will hear the beat of your heart, and I will know all that it feels. I will keep your child safe. All that time that you wait, I will keep her safe.”

I wore the sweater only one other time after that. A group of friends from the neighborhood wanted me to join them at a local Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. And since that marked a far cry from my usual, I figured it made sense to wear a sweater that fit the same description. Besides, it was the only item in my wardrobe that was sort-of green. And even though a dramatically over-served bar patron spilled an entire pint of beer on it while becoming increasingly overly friendly, compelling the bartender to leap over the bar, hoist said patron over his shoulder and deposit him on the curb; well, I didn’t really think the sweater was a factor. That’s not luck, good or bad, that’s just St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

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