A novel

Seven years ago, I wrote a novel. It sounds so easy said that way. In fact, the plot and characters had been growing in my head for several years when I finally started writing. And it took a few returns over the past seven years to tweak the words and sentences so they seemed right to me.

This is the description on the back of the book:

“On Christmas Eve, Mark Pendleton’s wife and daughters were killed in a traffic accident. Now he was left with only his job, his house, and his books.

On Easter, Amy O’Reilly’s boyfriend emptied his apartment of her possessions and locked her out. Now she was left with only her fast food job, her clothes, and her dance classes.

Soon they would each have more. They would have each other.

Their story is told in their own words. But it is more than a he said-she said confrontation. For he was born at the beginning of the Baby Boom, and she was born at the end of the Baby Boom. Now, in the mid-1980s, they are a generation apart from one another. Living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas, they have far less in common than anyone might have guessed. They must learn to share their lives in the face of their many differences.

More than a love story, I Remember Amy is an account of two individuals, both growing, both learning, and both coming to terms with relationships, with forgiveness, and with acceptance.”

Four dollars for the electronic version on Kindle, or thirteen dollars for a traditional book from amazon.com

When I first imagined the story, Mark was to have been injured in the wreck that killed the rest of his family, unable to stand or walk for the rest of his life. Amy was a gymnast before she became a dancer. She would have been on the brink of greatness, expecting Olympic medals and fame and fortune, but untimely injuries kept her from competing at key events. So she returned to her small town, unsung and uncelebrated, with no future ahead of her. Her only employment was cleaning houses. She would have ended up being a caretaker for Mark, and the story would have developed from there.

By the time I was writing, Mark was no longer confined to a wheelchair, and Amy was a college student, fast food worker, and dancer. One key plot twist—which I am not revealing on WordPress—gave me the incentive finally to create the entire story.

It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1985. Mark has a job in the state government. While I was writing, I did a lot of factchecking to be authentic about the weather, about events happening in town, and even about which restaurants and motels existed then.

For the last two or three weeks, I have been carefully reading through the work one final time. Last night I finished the reading and sent the work to Kindle for publication. It’s already available; I’m excited to see how it will do. J.iremember

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Guest post–Carl’s reply

Once again, I have taken the liberty of correcting some grammar, punctuation, and spelling. J.

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to last Friday’s brotherly admonition, although I must say that I hoped for something more from Salvageable. He is the author who invented me, and I expected some sort of defense on his part, rather than leaving it to me to explain myself. Whether he means me to be an object lesson of some kind or he has a different purpose in mind, I’d like him to take the trouble to take my side, at least, if people are going to be expressing their opinions about me as a person.

Be that as it may, I cannot deny that time spent with Number Seven is my most treasured part of every day. Do you know that she has dimples when she smiles? and her eyes twinkle with joy, and she has warmth in her voice that soothes my troubled heart. But if she were to express any concern to me that I am giving her too much attention, I would do three things. I would apologize at the start. Then I would assure her that I am too fond of her to want to harm or threaten her marriage. After that, I would ask her to tell me my limits and to feel free to send me on my way when she feels uncomfortable with my presence. I don’t see how anyone could ask any more of me.

With that said, I want to correct a misunderstanding I noticed in last Friday’s stern warning. The writer compared Rosa, my old flame, to women named Michelle, Jessica, and Crystal. Those names have no special meaning to me. I gather they are characters in some of Salvageable’s other stories. To think that Salvageable would be such a clumsy writer as to keep on telling the same story over and over again with only the names changed is offensive even to me as one of his characters. Treating fiction as thinly-disguised autobiography is a poor sort of literary criticism.

Salvageable likes to say that the first two words of every story are, “What if?” At the beginning, when the story is still developing in the author’s mind, the author might think, “This is what I would do next.” Sooner or later, though, the characters take over the story and do what is most natural for them. By the time the author is writing, the characters are no longer pictures of the author or of other people the author knows. “What if?” has taken a direction which may be very different from the way the author acts in the real world.

At any rate, an attempt to step into a world of fiction to correct a character’s mistakes seems fruitless to me. You might as well suggest to Alice that she not follow rabbits or play with mirrors. While you are at it, you might suggest to Santiago that, the next time he catches a large fish far from shore, he should carve the meat off the carcass and store it in his fishing boat. From outside the story, a reader can see how to fix all the problems facing the characters. From inside the story, life is not so easy.

I will continue visiting with Number Seven as long as she doesn’t object to my presence, no matter what real people have to say about it. While I’m at it, I’m going to become closer to the intern with the blonde hair and the bright blue eyes. She’s a friendly sort, and a man can never have too many friends. Carl.

My name is Salvageable, and I approved most of this message. J.

Seeking advice

I need advice from those of you who are writers (maybe from those of you who are readers too). I’m five thousand words into a story that’s been dwelling in my mind for months if not years. I very carefully chose names for the main characters: Frank, Laura, and Charlie. Yet as I’m pausing to think of the next line before I type it, I frequently think of Frank as Larry, and I frequently think of Laura as Carol. Should I stay with the names I chose, or should I change Frank to Larry, change Laura to Carol, and maybe change Charlie to Wally or something like that?

Your opinion matters. J.

About last weekend–reading and writing

Reading and writing were two goals I had for this long weekend. On Tuesday morning, I look back at the past three days, and I see a glass half-full and half-empty. I did some good reading and some acceptable writing, but a lot of other tasks went undone.

Over the weekend I composed a two-part essay on post-modernism and Christian faith. The second part is not finished, and the whole essay needs more polishing. I might not ever post or publish what I wrote this weekend, but at least it has helped me to focus a bit more on these issues.

Among the things I read this weekend were portions of a writer’s notebook I created when I was younger (so much younger than today…). Back then I kept track of my short story ideas by swirling them together in a longer work in which they occasionally became entangled with each other. Part of the inspiration for this style came from Arthur Hailey (Airport and Hotel) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent and its sequels), but a stronger influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), with his minimalist approach to description. Friends who read portions of this notebook compared it favorably to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whose work I had not read when I started that notebook. This weekend I’m reading through this older writing to see if anything can be culled from the various plots and characters to stand alone as a short story. If I find anything I like, I will share it.

Last month I created a new WordPress blog containing a book I wrote a few years ago for a class I was teaching. The blog is not quite complete—I’ve not had time to read every post to make sure that I didn’t drop or repeat sections when uploading it, and I’ve not selected tags and categories for it yet. If you’re interested, though, you can find it here. The class was for church workers and was called Principles of Bible Interpretation. Technically, the subject was hermeneutics, but I tried to avoid technical terms in the book. (Exegesis is reading the Bible to learn its message—the “what” of Bible reading—and hermeneutics is the rules by which we read—the “how” of Bible reading.) Of the books selected by the program directors for teaching this course, one book was meant for graduate students, and the others (though more readable) disagreed with key teachings of my denomination of Christianity. Hence I wrote and used this book, trying to make it both approachable and doctrinally correct. It has since been used by another teacher of the same course. I thought I would make it available as a free online book. At first I called it “How to Read the Bible,” but the proper title of this book is “It’s All About Jesus: A Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Bible.” I hope you will take a look. J.

First Friday Fiction–A Story without an End

Actually, this story has four endings. Comment and tell me which one you like the best. J.

More than a year of counseling had failed to prepare Stan for the encounter in his therapist’s waiting room that happened one morning last week.

Stan’s doctor had recommended counseling to help Stan deal with nearly constant anxiety accompanied by occasional bouts of depression. The counselor asked Stan questions about his anxiety and what triggered its symptoms. They spoke about his childhood, his parents and siblings, his experiences at school, and his career. They spoke about obsessions and compulsions, about the feeling of responsibility, and about the feeling of guilt. “What’s one thing that makes you feel guilty?” the counselor asked.

“When my wife is in a bad mood or is quiet, I start asking myself what I did wrong. Whenever she’s having a bad day, I assume that it’s my fault and that she’s angry at me. I’m the same at work—if a co-worker is unhappy, my mind leaps to the conclusion that I’ve done something wrong.”

“You feel that way even if you know that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

“All the time. In my head, I know that people have bad days and it’s usually not my fault, but in my heart I always feel as though I’m to blame for their troubles.”

“I see. What’s another thing that makes you feel guilty?”

“At work, I never feel like I’m working hard enough or getting enough things done. If I take a few minutes to check something on the internet, I feel guilty. Or if I’m behind schedule on a project I feel guilty. I feel like my work is too messy, or too disorganized. What I do never feels good enough.”

“Do your supervisors complain about any of your work?”

“No, they always seem happy with my work. They’ve never complained about what I do. Sometimes they make suggestions to improve what I’ve done, but they do that for everyone. And I know that everyone in the office checks home email and sports scores and things like that on their work computers. No one ever gets in trouble for that, but when I do it, I still feel guilty—like I’m stealing from the company when I’m not working every minute I’m on the clock.”

The counselor nodded and wrote a few notes. “Anything else that makes you feel guilty?”

Stan sighed. “We’ve talked about this before. I still feel guilty about… liking… Mary Sue Hutchinson so much. It seems as though every time she comes to mind, something bad happens to me or my family. My car has a flat tire, or my daughter runs out of gas, or the microwave stops working. It’s as though I’m being punished for thinking about her.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Three years now. Ever since she left the office to take another job.”

“And you still like her?”

“As much as ever. I know that I shouldn’t, and I try not to think about her any more, but somehow I just can’t stop.”

Again, the counselor nodded. “And all this time you’ve been beating yourself up over the fact that you like this woman. Does your wife know? Has this caused problems at home?”

“No, I don’t think my wife knows. And it hasn’t caused any problems between us—just the cars, the microwave, the computer….”

“But you know that those things have nothing to do with…” The counselor checked his notes. “With Mary Sue. You don’t believe God is punishing you for thinking of her.”

Stan shook his head. “I know God doesn’t work that way. I believe in forgiveness; I really do. But it feels as though I’m causing my family and me problems by letting my mind wander back to her so often.”

The counselor closed his notebook. “Stan, I’m afraid that we’re about out of time this morning. I’ll see you again in two weeks. During that time, I want you to think about this: is thinking about Mary Sue any worse than thinking about some singer or actress you find attractive? I mean, you haven’t even seen her for three years…”

“No, I haven’t.”

“And before that, the two of you never did anything wrong—you’ve told me that before.”

“It’s true; we never did anything wrong.”

“Then something else is behind this feeling of guilt. We’ll have to talk about it more next time. Another thing I want you to do—think about what you would say to Mary Sue if you suddenly ran into her again.”

Stan smiled. “I’ve thought about it for months now. If I ran into her again, I’d say something like this: ‘Mary Sue, I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?’”

“Alright. Think about that and work on it—and next time we talk, tell me what you think she would answer if you said those things to her.”

ENDING 1

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She hesitated for a moment, obviously struggling to find the right words to say. Then she smiled weakly at Stan and said, “It’s good to see you too. Sit down and we can talk.” He found a seat. She continued, “You might not believe me after all this time, but I was horribly busy those first few months at my new job. I tried to answer your notes when I could, but I just didn’t have the time. I always appreciated your offer to get together for a cup of coffee, but that was never possible. I’m sorry I treated you as if I didn’t care, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was sad when you stopped writing, but I never knew what to say to you.” Again she smiled a small smile. “I feel guilty for letting you down. You must really hate me.”

“There’s no way I ever could hate you,” Stan exclaimed. “Even after three years, I still miss you so much that it hurts. Please tell me we can be friends again.”

“Well,” she teased, pretending to have to stop and think. Then she laughed. “Of course we can still be friends. That would make me very happy.” Her words made Stan very happy too.

ENDING 2

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

At first she seemed stunned. Then she smiled a small smile. “Sit down for a minute,” she said. “Let’s talk.”

When Stan had sat, she said, “It was no accident that I stopped answering your emails and refused your invitations to get together over a cup of coffee. I didn’t feel good treating you like that, but it’s something I had to do.”

“But why did you have to do it?” he asked.

“Don’t you see? We were getting too close to each other. It was such a relief when I had the job offer. I’m not saying that I took the other job because of you, but getting away from your staring and from hearing your voice was absolutely necessary for me.”

“I didn’t realize you hated me like that.”

“No, of course I didn’t hate you. I liked you too much, in fact. James was starting to get suspicious that I had a boyfriend. I knew I could trust you never to cross the line, but I wasn’t sure I could trust myself. We are both married, and we need to respect that about ourselves and about each other.”

“I always trusted you, and I always wondered if I could trust myself not to go too far,” Stan admitted. “But it’s been three years. After all this time, is there any way we can both be friends?”

She shook her head. “It means something that we should meet here, of all places. Three years hasn’t been enough time for me to forget about you. Has it been enough time for you to forget about me?” When he shook his head, she continued, “Obviously we both need help, or we wouldn’t be here. Let’s let some more time go by—two or three more years at least. Let’s keep getting stronger on our own, before we worry about having to trust ourselves again. The separation has been good for us; it just hasn’t been long enough yet.”

“I’ve missed you,” Stan told her. “I’m going to hurt twice as much now, missing you, knowing how you feel.”

“It’s all for the better,” she assured him. When he was at the door, and she thought he couldn’t hear her, she whispered, “And I have missed you too.”

ENDING 3

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She looked up at him, startled and a little bit frightened. At first she didn’t seem to know what to say. Finally she invited Stan to take a seat.

“Well, I’m glad to see that you’re getting some help,” she told him. “You’ve needed it for a long time, you know.”

“Yes, I have,” Stan confessed. “I think things are going better now. But it’s such a pleasant surprise to see you again…”

She interrupted him. “Pleasant for you, maybe, but not for me,” she told me. “After three years, I still haven’t stopped feeling angry for the way you treated me. At work I was always professional. Sending me messages on my personal email was way out of line.”

“But you gave that email to all of us on your last day,” he reminded her. “You told us to keep in touch.”

“I didn’t mean it—I was just being nice,” she nearly shouted at him. “You were the only one who didn’t know that. I tried to be nice to you and let the whole thing die a natural death, but you scared me with your persistence. Why didn’t you know when enough was enough?”

Stan swallowed and said glumly, “I thought we were friends.”

“Friends are people I choose to see when I’m not at work. Look, you’re a good accountant, and you’re very helpful to the clients, or at least that was the case three years ago. I never minded complimenting you when you were doing your job, especially those times when you went above and beyond the call of duty. But please don’t think I ever felt anything more for you than respect. I’m a married woman, and my heart belongs to my husband. You had no right to interfere.”

“I never wanted to hurt you,” Stan started again.

“Stop,” she said. “You have hurt me. I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance to tell you this, but you frightened me with your intensity. You don’t hide your feelings very well, you know. You made a fool of yourself time and time again, and you made a fool of me too. People were laughing behind our backs. Please, now, just go.”

“Can’t we ever be friends?” he asked.

“We never were friends,” she said, “and we never will be friends. Let that be my last word to you.”

“I’m sorry,” Stan said as he stood, ready to walk to the door. “I’m so, so sorry.” She looked away, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for him to leave. Stan hunted for some fitting last words to say to her, but nothing came to mind. Wordlessly, he finally turned and walked to the door. Even as his hands touched the handle, he could think of nothing more to say to her. Stan went outside and walked to his car.

ENDING 4

As Stan stepped out of the counselor’s office, he saw a familiar person sitting alone in the waiting room. At first he didn’t believe that it was Mary Sue—he often imagined seeing her in various places, and for three years he had been wrong every time. This time there was no mistake—it was really her. As she looked up at Stan, he started to say her name, but the first two times all he could do was stutter. Finally, after a deep breath, Stan was able to blurt out what he wanted to say: “I’m sorry if anything I said or did pushed you away from me three years ago. Both then and now, your friendship means a lot to me, more than I can say. I still remember how your encouragement at work changed my life for the better. Can we be friends again, even if that means only exchanging emails once in a while and meeting in a very public place once or twice a year?”

She waited a few seconds with no expression on her face. “What was your name again?” she finally asked.

Stan told her his name, but she shook her head. “Where was it that we met, and when?” she asked.

“We worked together for four years at the investment firm,” I exclaimed. “We were part of a team that did great things together. Surely you can’t have forgotten everything about your time at Linton’s!”

“I remember working at Linton’s investment firm,” she allowed, “but you can’t expect me to remember everyone else who worked there.” As he stood there, stunned, she continued, “Look, whoever you are: ever since I was in high school I’ve had boys and men following me around like little puppy dogs. You can’t expect me to keep track of all of you. Obviously you weren’t the worst, or I would have remembered you, but you’re not married to me either. You have no business asking me if we can be friends.”

“I thought you really cared,” Stan said quietly.

“I always tried to be professional,” she told him. “I always did my best to help everyone else to do their job as well as they could. But you can’t make that more than it was. If I was nice to you at work, remember that I was nice to everyone else too. At the end of the day, I forgot all of you on the drive home, and I didn’t remember you again until I got back to work the next day. That’s the only way I can survive, with every man and his brother thinking I owe them something more.”

“I never realized it was like that for you,” Stan admitted.

“Now you know,” she said. “Now, if you will excuse me, I have an appointment here.” With that, they went their separate ways.

First Friday Fiction: An Incomplete Stranger

I don’t know why Annabelle Valentine is taking the class on World Religions. What is more, I’m not even sure why Annabelle is taking any class at Tech.

Every Tuesday and Thursday she strolls into the classroom and drops her backpack on the table with a weary sigh. When she speaks about the textbook or about the writing assignments—which isn’t often—she speaks in a tired and bored voice. “Can you believe how long that chapter was?” she asks in general, or, “Is there any chance we’ll get out early today?” She sits in her chair during class, curled with her feet underneath her as if she was in her living room rather than at school. While the instructor talks, she takes no notes. Instead, she twists the ends of her long black hair around her fingers or studies her brightly-painted nails.

Annabelle is not always bored. She talks with animation about recent books and movies. She can discuss Hunger Games at great length and with authority and conviction. She can match music groups to their latest tunes with unerring accuracy, and she can remember who is in tour and when they will be in the area. All these things she can do, but I don’t know why she is in college.

I know why I am in college, and I know why I am studying World Religions. For as long as I can remember, I have needed a good reason for everything I do. Before I signed up for this class, I reminded my parents that all sorts of people shop at the farmers’ market. It helps our sales if one of us knows at least a little about our customers and what they are thinking. If someone shopping at the market should happen to be Hindu or Buddhist, or—God help us!—Muslim, the information I’ve gained about their beliefs and practices can help me to connect with them. There may not be any more Hindus or Buddhists in this city than there are Mennonites, but surely there are some. A little knowledge about their religion, I told my parents, can do me no harm.

My parents and I are Mennonite. We live on a farm about fifteen miles east of the city, where we raise much of our own food and enough extra food to sell to others. Companies like Tyson have taken business away from small farms like ours, but interest in fresh and local food has never entirely disappeared. Lately, such interest has grown.

When I tell people that I am Mennonite, I always must add, “but not Amish.” My parents and I do not go to extremes. We wear clothes with buttons and zippers. We drive cars and trucks. We have electricity and running water. Anything that is useful, we can use. We strive, though, to avoid the empty and useless luxuries of the world. What we do not need, we do not have. We have no television. We have a radio, but we only turn it on when we might be in danger from the weather. The clothes we wear are simple and durable, with no bright or flashy colors. The food we eat is healthy, not laden with sugar or with factory chemicals. We do not dance or play cards or go to movies. My father brews his own beer, mead, and wine.

My parents taught me at home for as long as they felt that they could. Beginning in the seventh grade, I went to public school. I entered school at a difficult time. My fellow students had already made friends with one another. I was an outsider. They quickly noticed that all my clothing is the same. They laughed at me for missing their favorite TV programs and for knowing none of their favorite songs.

After two years, I finally persuaded my father that I need a computer to do my schoolwork. He bought me a desktop computer, but he had a man at the store remove all the games before he brought the computer home. Internet access was only added later after another long discussion and many promises about what I would not do online. Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

In spite of his protests, Father usually allows me to do anything I can defend to him as a useful activity. I am their only child, so Father and Mother plan that I will take over the farm when they no longer can manage it. Meanwhile, they expect me to prepare myself to be diligent and productive. After another long discussion and a year of waiting, I convinced Father and Mother that a high school diploma is no longer enough in today’s world, even for a farmer. College classes are necessary now. Together the three of us look at the class listings and discuss which classes will be most useful for my education. Nothing frivolous is permitted. Whenever I enroll for a class, I already have found a reason for me to take that class. Whenever I walk into a classroom, I know exactly why I am there.

Perhaps Annabelle needs someone like Mother or Father to question her about why she is in college, forcing her to defend every class she chooses to take. On the first day of class, the instructor had each of us say a little bit about our religious background and to say why we are taking the class. Annabelle said, “My parents used to take me to a Baptist Church, so I guess I’m a Baptist. I guess I signed up for this class because I’m curious about what other people believe.” Father would never allow me to guess about anything, least of all about matters of faith. “Know what you believe,” he says, “or you don’t believe anything at all.”

We have read about and discussed Indigenous Religions, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, and Zoroastrians. Annabelle seems bored by all of them. Last Tuesday’s class was livelier than the earlier classes. We began discussing the chapter on Judaism. The instructor spent much of the hour summarizing Old Testament history. At least half the students in the class recognize names such as Abraham and Moses and David. Several of us took part in the discussion. The instructor promised that on Thursday we would cover Jewish history from Roman times until the present, as well as Jewish holidays and observances.

As we were packing our books, Annabelle turned around and said to me, “I guess you know your Bible pretty well.”

I was startled. She had never spoken to me before. “I should. I’ve been taught from the Bible all my life,” I stammered.

“You said on the first day that you’re a Mennonite,” she said. I nodded. “I want to learn more about Mennonites,” she commented. “My boyfriend’s a Mennonite.” Then, without even taking a breath, she corrected herself. “He’s not my boyfriend, though—he’s the one that I love.”

Her words rang in my ears as we walked out the doorway. I am sure that I know all the Mennonites for miles around. Could she mean Caleb? Surely not! Caleb has been married for almost a year. Could she mean Frank? Frank would never be interested in someone as worldly as Annabelle, and I find it hard to imagine that she would see anything attractive about him. Every other Mennonite man I can remember is either too old or too young to be her boyfriend, or the one that she loves. She must know some other Mennonite family that I have never met.

We were walking together down the hall, so I asked her, “What do you mean by that expression, ‘not my boyfriend, but the one that you love’?”

“He doesn’t know that I love him,” she answered, and she smiled at me with glowing eyes.

“I see,” I said, although I didn’t understand her at all. I wasn’t sure what question to ask to find out what I wanted to know. I saw that we were near the restrooms. “Excuse me,” I said, and I darted into the men’s room.

“See you on Thursday,” she called after me.

We did not see each other on Thursday. Wednesday night the instructor sent out an email saying that she had fallen ill and would have to cancel Thursday’s class. She told us to keep up our reading and work on our essays, and she would catch up on the lectures when she had regained her health.

The instructor addressed her one email to all the students in the class. I don’t know why, but I skimmed through the addresses to see if I could guess which is Annabelle’s. Undoubtedly hers was the last on the list: ABHeart, then a number, and then @aol.com . My address is even more prosaic: the letter d, then my last name, followed by my zip code, and then @gmail.com .

The week passed slowly. Annabelle’s name came into my head again and again, even though I tried to drive it away. I kept on seeing her face, her eyes, her smile. I did not dream about her, but I woke in the morning thinking about her, just as if she had been in my dreams.

Thursday night I did something I had never done before. I typed the name Annabelle Valentine into Google. Thousands of listings appeared in fifteen hundredths of a second. I added the name of our city to the search. The Annabelle who sits in front of me in World Religions rose to the top of the search. She won awards in high school as a cheerleader. Her grandfather died a year and a half ago. She has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

I could feel my heart pounding. If Mother or Father should see what I was doing, trouble would follow, as surely as an east wind brings rain. They would not punish me, of course, but they would disapprove, and their disapproval would be worse than any punishment.

Annabelle’s Facebook page does not allow me to see anything about her unless I create an account on Facebook first, which of course is something I must not do. Her Twitter account is just the opposite. I skimmed through the last six weeks of her tweets, merely curious to see what she was saying about her life. Scattered among comments about a wide range of subjects were three tweets that made my heart race. The first read, “A cute boy in religion class. Need 2 find a way 2 talk 2 him.” Two weeks later, she wrote, “Does he know how he stares? A little creepy but strangely instead I’m flattered.” Then, on Tuesday night, “All but told him today I love him. His turn now.”

My head swam. Of course I had thought that she might mean me when she spoke of someone she loves who doesn’t know it. How many Mennonites can she have met? I persuaded myself that I was being vain and worldly to think such a thought. Now that I knew what she meant, I had no idea what to do about that knowledge. If it was my turn now, I had better find out first what sort of game she is playing.

Friday night I was online again, researching for my paper. An incoming email box appeared in the corner of the screen. “Danny, R U there?” I read. The message was from ABHeart.

My mouth was so dry I could not swallow. I thought about ignoring the message, but my parents had taught me never to be rude. “I’m here,” I wrote.

“What R U doing?”

“I’m doing research for school.” I wrote. “And you?”

“Just sitting in my little apartment thinking about U.”

I wasn’t sure what to write next. What are the rules to this game? “I’m not sure Mother and Father would approve,” I typed. As soon as I pressed “send” I grimaced. I could tell that I should have written something else instead.

“Approve of what?”

“A young lady starting a conversation with a complete stranger. That was never done in their day.”

“So do U need Ur parents approval? Haven’t U grown up yet?”

I had made a mistake mentioning Mother and Father. I did not know if I could recover. “I figured you wouldn’t understand. Approval means a lot in my family. ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ doesn’t come with an expiration date. Not in our way of seeing things.”

“Whatever. I just wanted to schedule an interview with U 4 my paper. I want 2 write about Mennonites.”

“Maybe before or after class on Tuesday.”

“R U busy all weekend?”

“This is short notice for tomorrow. Sunday’s out of the question.”

“OK. Fine. Tues then. BTW, nobody’s perfect.”

“I never said that I was perfect.”

“U did 2. U called Urself a perfect stranger. lol.”

I scrolled through our conversation to check my memory. I remembered correctly.

“Wrong. I said a complete stranger, not a perfect stranger.”

There was a delay, probably while she scrolled too.”

“U win. But make sure U R complete. No pieces missing.”

“Whatever you say.”

“Never forget U told me that. Good night. C U Tues”

“Good night.”

I closed the email before Mother or Father might walk in and see it. I wondered what they would think of Annabelle. I know they would be aghast that she contacted me via the computer. As I told her, in their time young women were not so forward. Perhaps Mother and Father would see Annabelle as another Eve, already tainted by the serpent of the world, now tempting me with its forbidden fruit of idle pursuits and empty pleasures. But I am no Adam. I do not live in a perfect Garden, and there is no one woman created only for me. I am more of an Isaac, surrounded by worldly unbelievers. My Rebekah will have to be found among our own people, no matter how far away she lives. My parents and I have never discussed my future marriage openly. Still, I know their thinking. First I must prove myself on the farm, showing that I am ready to support a family. Then a Rebekah will be found for me.

All weekend I pondered Annabelle and her messages. I thought of her as I fed the chickens, as I gathered the eggs, as I helped Father check the newly-planted crops, as I pulled weeds from Mother’s herb garden, and as I milked our one dairy cow. I confessed to myself that I could not picture Annabelle at my side helping with any of these chores. Nor could I imagine her taking Mother’s place baking bread in the kitchen, sewing and mending our clothes, or leading a group of eight Mennonite women in Bible study and prayer.

As I thought of Annabelle, though, I realized that I could not see myself as an Isaac, waiting for Rebekah to be brought to me. I would rather be like Moses, a “stranger in a strange land,” who found his own bride and married her.

This morning I opened my email and saw that Annabelle had left me a message on Sunday. “Tues after class works for me if it works for U,” she wrote. Then she added, “U do realize that I was messing with you about being in love with a Mennonite, don’t U?”

My answer was deliberately short. “After class is fine. See you tomorrow.” I wanted to write more, but I didn’t dare. I wanted to ask if she was messing with me on Twitter too, or if her tweets were sincere. I wanted to ask if she had changed her mind about me—and if so I wanted to know why. I wanted to tell her that I had been thinking of nothing but her for days. All these things I left unasked and unsaid.

Instead, I am preparing myself mentally for tomorrow’s interview. I want to show Annabelle that I am not incomplete without all her worldly distractions and vanities. I want her to see the strength and dignity of our ways. I have no wish to convert her, for I am convinced she is happier as she is. But I want to open her eyes to another way of living so she can know who I really am.

When the final exam has been given and the World Religions class is over, Annabelle Valentine and I will go our separate ways. She will have learned, I hope, a few things about people whose lives are different from her life. In the future, for her, perhaps strangers like me will not seem so strange. Meanwhile, I have learned something too. Even though it was not in the instructor’s plan and schedule for the class, and it was not among the reasons I gave Mother and Father for me to take the class, I have discovered what I need to make my life complete. The time has come for me to begin talking to strangers.

First Friday fiction: Alibi or Lie?

For the next few months, I’ll be posting original, unpublished short stories on the first Friday of the month. Reproduction of any of these stories, or any part thereof, without permission of the author is prohibited.

Officer Kowalski sighed. With the back of his left hand, he rubbed his forehead, just above his eyebrows, “Bring him back to the desk,” he said. Kowalski would have preferred to have said, “Show him to my office,” but he had no office. All he had was a desk, surrounded by other desks, in the middle of a busy police station.

Kowalski would get an office with his next promotion. It would have glass walls rising from the floor to stop four feet below the ceiling, but at least it would be an office. Kowalski deserved that promotion. Everyone in the force knew it. His superiors had told him so several times. Barring a tragedy that he wouldn’t wish upon anyone in the force, Kowalski would have to wait at least three years for a position above him to become available. The City of Memphis had its share of turnover in the police ranks, but mostly turnover happened at the lower levels. Officers with Kowalski’s amount of skill and experience tend to stay at their jobs for as long as they can. No private job will offer them the same benefits, both material and emotional, that they find in big-city police work.

Casey led the witness to Kowalski’s desk. Pretending to study paperwork, Kowalski had a few seconds to measure the man. He was of average height, very well dressed, with pitch-black stylish hair. For a second Kowalski thought that the man was wearing make-up. Then he realized that the witness merely had sharply-defined features, including dark deep-set eyes and lips that, at first glance, seemed to have been painted. Kowalski caught the scent of cologne. He noticed the expensive watch on the left wrist, and he also observed that neither hand sported any rings.

Kowalski stood and shook the man’s hand. “Mr. Haven?” he asked. The man nodded. “May I call you Tom?” Another nod. “Please have a seat, Tom,” Kowalski said. Haven’s hands shook slightly. Kowalski knew that Haven was nervous, but that fact did not mean anything. Most citizens are unnerved by their first visit to a police station. He had come in on his own, though, not as a suspect. He said he had important evidence about a murder that had happened just a few hours earlier.

Kowalski was the investigator covering the case. He hoped that Haven’s statement was going to make the case easier to solve, but he doubted that would happen. In all his years of investigating crimes, Kowalski had secretly formed a rule based on Murphy’s Law—that bit of folklore which says that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Kowalski’s Corollary says that every new piece of evidence makes an investigation harder to solve.

Still, Haven was a witness and not a suspect—not yet, anyhow. Kowalski smiled, hoping to put Haven at ease, and then he gently said, “What did you want to tell me, Tom?”

“I’m here about the murder of Brad Greene,” Haven said. “You’re the one who’s looking into that, aren’t you?” This time Kowalski nodded. “Well, Jess phoned me at work and said that you’re keeping her at the station as a suspect in the murder. I’m here to tell you that she couldn’t have done it. She was with me all of last night.”

Involuntarily, Kowalski raised his eyebrows in surprise. Brad Greene had died some time between midnight and six a.m. The coroner was likely to give a more precise time of death after further study. Greene had been murdered in his own home, on Poplar Street—not in the rough part of town, but further south, where things generally were quiet. Naturally, Brad’s wife was the first person the police had wanted to question. Two officers had gone to her office downtown and had driven her to the station. Kowalski had already questioned her that morning. She acted stunned by the news of her husband’s death. She had insisted that she had not been home at all last night, but then she had held back from saying where she had spent the night.

Her reluctance to answer that one important question was the principal reason Kowalski had decided to keep her detained for further questioning. He had not yet charged her with the murder of her husband, but the paperwork was already started on his desktop computer. Narrowing his eyes, Kowalski peered across the desk at Haven and asked, “What time did Ms. Greene phoned you at work?”

Haven looked at his watch. “I guess it was about twenty minutes ago,” he said. Kowalski grunted. Jessica Greene had indeed used the phone twenty minutes earlier, as was her right. He had assumed that she was calling an attorney, or perhaps letting her parents know where she was and asking them to find an attorney for her. Tom Haven was dressed like a lawyer, but Kowalski knew that no lawyer would walk into a police station and announce, “The suspect was with me at the time of the crime.” At least not when the suspect was a pretty young woman, the victim was her husband, and the crime had happened at night.

As Haven fidgeted nervously, Kowalski decided to press his advantage. “What were the two of you doing all night long?” he asked, a blank look held on his face. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he added, insinuating that Haven might have secrets he would rather keep hidden.

“We were talking,” he replied. “Actually, she did most of the talking. And a lot of crying too. I sat there and listened. She was telling me how Brad had locked her out of the house. And she was talking about the years they were married and the kind of life they had together. Eventually she wound down and started to fall asleep. I got her a pillow and a blanket and let her sleep on the couch. And I fell asleep in a chair, so I would be there if she needed anything during the night.”

“So you two…slept together,” Kowalski said, his fingers poised over the computer keyboard.”

“No, not at all,” Haven vehemently objected. “We were asleep in the same room, but there was nothing sexual about it. Don’t put down that we slept together, because that isn’t true.” Kowalski typed nothing, and Haven continued, “In the morning we woke up, Jess got a change of clothes from her car and took a shower, and we ate breakfast together. We drove our separate cars to work but arrived at the same time. She could not have been at her home any time since eight o’clock last night.”

Kowalski had never planned, of course, to record that Haven and Ms. Greene slept together. He just wanted to gauge Haven’s reaction to the expression. Already he could see that Haven was deeply fond of Ms. Greene. He wondered if Haven was fond enough to lie on her behalf. “Can you think of any witnesses who can back up what you say, that she spent the entire night at your house last night?” he asked.

“I don’t know. The neighbors might have seen her car in the driveway. We have a good crime watch in our neighborhood, so that’s something that might have been noticed.”

Kowalski mused about a good crime watch. The Greenes’ house was in a part of the city protected by a good crime watch. Their neighbors called the police that morning. They reported that the back door of the house was wide open and that the place was unusually quiet. The first officers to respond walked carefully into the house through the open door, their guns drawn. Brad Greene’s body lay in the kitchen, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. He had been attacked by someone wielding a large knife from his own kitchen. Clearly there had been a protracted struggle. Apparently no neighbors had heard the sounds of the overnight attack. After calling for back-up, including someone from the coroner’s office to take charge of the body after the search was completed, the officers searched the rest of the house. No other person was present. So far as they could tell, nothing had been stolen: expensive electronics, jewelry, even money were sitting out in plain sight.

While other officers continued to examine the evidence in the kitchen, Kowalski spoke with the neighbors that were still at home. He had always considered it a quiet neighborhood, older houses on small lots, not far from the University of Memphis. He learned that the Greenes had moved into the house about six months ago and had been busy nights and weekends fixing up the place. They both dressed nicely, and they seemed to have plenty of money to spend, but they had made no effort to get to know anyone from the neighborhood. Kowalski could find no one who had heard any strange sounds during the night. He could find no one who knew whether or not Brad Greene had any enemies or was involved in any kind of activity that might lead to a sudden violent attack.

“You say that she talked with you about her marriage. Was this the first time she ever confided such details to you?”

“Well, I guess it was the second time, but the first time was earlier yesterday. When I got to work yesterday morning, she was on the phone and she was crying. I tried not to pay attention, since her personal life is none of my business. No one else was at the office yet, but it wouldn’t be long before the place filled up, and then our clients would start arriving. When she hung up the phone and she was still crying, I walked over to her desk and asked if I could do anything to help. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I guess I do need to talk to somebody.’

“Two of our coworkers got off the elevator just then, so Jess and I went into one of the meeting rooms and shut the door. That’s when she told me that she had gone home for lunch on Friday and caught Brad in their house with another woman. The three of them had a long argument—she called it a shouting match—until Jess left. She got in her car and drove to her parents’ house in Brownsville. She spent the weekend there. When she got home Sunday night, her clothes were on the porch. Loud music was playing inside the house. When she tried to get in, she found that the locks had been changed. She tried banging on the door. She tried calling him on her cell phone. She got no answer. Eventually, she went to a motel and spent the night there. Then she came to work in the morning, but she was still trying to get hold of Brad from work.”

Haven’s account matched in every detail what Ms. Greene had already said to Kowalski. She might have been telling the truth. She might have said all those things to Haven the day before. On the other hand, the two of them might have invented that story together any time in the past. If they were really clever, they could have arranged for every detail to check out as true—new locks in the doors of the house, and her car left in his driveway all night. Kowalski needed more information, and he needed to measure what kind of ties Haven might have to the accused.

“Before last night, had she ever visited your house before?”

“Once or twice before. I hosted a Christmas party for the whole office last year, and the summer before that, I had a cook-out. No, wait… She and Brad couldn’t make it to the cook-out. But she was there for the Christmas party.”

“Tell me, Tom: how long have you known Mrs. Greene?” Kowalski put a slight emphasis on the “Mrs.” just to see if Haven reacted, but he did not seem to have noticed the title.

“She joined the firm about two years ago, and we met on her first day on the job. So, about two years.”

“And what kind of work do the two of you do?”

“We’re investment counselors. We help people take care of their money.”

“And you must charge them a good amount for your advice,” Kowalski added, eying Haven’s nice clothing and remembering the outfit Ms. Greene was wearing. Kowalski wondered briefly what all the rich investment counselors had thought about one of their peers leaving the office escorted by two uniformed cops. Of course the officers had not told her that her husband was dead, not in front of her co-workers. That news had been given at the station. Glancing again at Haven’s nice suit, Kowalski pictured the downtown office, high in a glass and steel building, filled with counselors and clients all nicely dressed like Haven and like Ms. Greene.

“They seem to think that we’re worth it. No one takes advice about money from people who dress as if they don’t have much money.”

“Probably true. And once she started at the firm, and you got to know her, you got to like her pretty well?”

“We all got to like her. She’s a very likeable person. And she’s very professional. She does her job well, and she gets along well with people. Every one of the guys in the office likes visiting with her. If we can get her to smile, or to laugh—which isn’t hard to do, most days—it’s like a ray of sunshine in the office.”

“And she’s quite beautiful.” Kowalski was not being sarcastic; though she was a bit short and slender to suit his tastes, he had to admit that Jessica Greene was lovely. He had hesitated in his report, unsure which drop-box to select for her hair color: blonde or red. The computer didn’t allow him to choose a color in-between the two choices. Her eyes he had recorded as gray. He could well believe that on a better day they might sparkle charmingly.

“She is beautiful,” Haven agreed, “but what makes her even more attractive is that she doesn’t act like she knows that she’s beautiful. She’s a real person. There’s nothing phony about her. She’s genuinely kind to people. She doesn’t have to fake interest in anyone, because she really is interested.”

“How long have you been in love with her?”

Haven didn’t flinch at the challenge. “I don’t know. Maybe six months. Maybe a year. It all happened kind of gradually. I wasn’t really thinking about it when it happened.”

“Are you married, Tom?”

“No.”

“Divorced?”

“No, never married.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Are you even interested in ladies—apart from Mrs. Greene, of course? Or do your tastes run to men instead?” Haven shook his head, so Kowalski continued, “Little boys? Little girls? Farmyard animals?”

“No, none of that.” Kowalski had not managed to make Haven lose his temper, a fact which told Kowalski a great deal of what he wanted to know.

“Listen, I know nothing of this has anything to do with the murder last night, and you don’t have to answer any more of my questions. But if I’m going to take your word that Ms. Greene was with you all night long, and if that information is going to be given to a judge and a jury, the prosecutor is going to ask these kinds of questions too. In all your life, before you met Ms. Greene, haven’t you ever been in love?”

“I was in love. Once. It didn’t turn out well, and I’ve tried to stay away from it ever since.”

“I’d like you to tell me about it.”

Haven looked down at the floor for a few seconds. “Well, OK,” he said. His voice was even, almost monotone, as he shared his intimate account with Office Kowalski. “Jane and I knew each other as kids. We lived in a small town—Victoria, Mississippi. We went to the same schools for twelve years. Our mothers were friends, so we played together outside of school. We even went to the same church, so we saw each other pretty much every day. In eighth grade we started going steady, and in high school we were voted the ‘cutest couple.’

“Then she got a scholarship to Agnes Scott College, and I went to Mississippi State. We promised to be faithful, and we wrote a few letters back and forth, but mostly we waited for Christmas and for summers. The first couple of years were OK, but whenever I hinted that I intended to ask her to be my wife, she said she didn’t want to hear anything about it. The first big fight we had was the night before Christmas, our junior year. She told me that she was going to spend the summer in Georgia and not come home to Victoria. I begged her not to stay away, and I shouted at her and threatened her, and we ended up breaking up that Christmas.

“After that, I dated a couple other girls I knew at Mississippi State, but it wasn’t the same. It was almost like I was being with them only to get revenge on Jane. Mostly I hung out with the guys and concentrated on my studies.

“Jane was home again for Christmas, and we spent time together. It was almost like the last year hadn’t happened. The night before she went back to Georgia, I told her again that I wanted to marry her. She thought a little bit, and smiled, and said I would have to wait just a little longer. ‘Melanie is getting married next year,’ she said. Melanie is Jane’s younger sister. ‘Let’s wait until we’ve both graduated and wait until the wedding in June, and after that we can talk about us.’

“Well, I lived the winter and spring full of hope. Graduation happened—Jane and I graduated the same day, so we couldn’t be together—and then I made plans to drive to Alabama for Melanie’s wedding. Jane’s family lived in Alabama for a long time, for generations, so all the family weddings had to be at the same country church.

“I got up on a Saturday morning and drove for three hours into Alabama, and I found the church. It was a few minutes before noon. A lot of people were standing outside in the shade, including an elderly couple. I had only met them once before, but I had seen their pictures in Jane’s house plenty of times. I got out of the car and, more to make conversation than anything else, I walked over and asked them, “Is this where the Butler wedding is happening?”

“The old lady smiled and said, ‘Oh, yes, our oldest granddaughter, Jane Butler, is getting married this noon.’

“’You mean Melanie Butler, don’t you?’ I asked her, still smiling, sure that she was mistaken.

“She looked at her husband, a little bit confused, and I was still convinced that she had just mixed up the names of her granddaughters. But he didn’t look at all confused. ‘No, it’s Jane who’s getting married today,’ he said. ‘Melanie’s wedding isn’t until the fall.’

“Well, I didn’t know what to do. I realized that Jane hadn’t promised me anything. She only said that we’d talk after the wedding. I got back in my car and drove back to Victoria, Mississippi, and in the fall I went back to school and started working on my MBA. When I had that, I looked for a job, and I found one in Memphis. I’ve been working there five years, and for all that time, I didn’t worry myself about Jane or about any other woman.

Haven was still looking down at the floor. He didn’t see that Casey had come up behind him and was respectfully waiting to speak to Kowalski. “Then, two years ago, Jess joined the firm,” Haven continued. “Every day I noticed her—her walk, her smile, her laugh. I dreamed about her at night. But I couldn’t do anything, because she was already married.” Both his hands balled into fists as he repeated the last four words, pausing between them. “She was… already… married.”

Casey didn’t look as if he could wait much longer. Kowalski knew that Casey wouldn’t interrupt if he didn’t have something terribly important to say. “Excuse me a minute, Tom,” he said. He and Casey walked a few steps away from the desk. Haven did not look up at them. “What is it?” Kowalski asked.

“You can stop questioning him,” Casey said, gesturing at Haven. “We have got a confession.”

“Jessica Greene confessed to the murder?” Kowalski asked.

“No,” Casey answered. “It was a different woman. She just came in a few minutes ago, with her mother. She says that she was Greene’s girlfriend, that they had a big fight about midnight, and that it got out of hand. She says that he attacked her first. She has cuts and bruises that back up what she’s saying. Both women are pretty emotional.”

“I’ll talk with them in a minute,” Kowalski said. “Before I do, I need to finish up here.” He returned to his desk and sat down. “Well, Tom,” he said, “it looks as though I made you tell me more than I have any right to know. It appears that Ms. Greene is not an active suspect, and we’ll be able to let her go. She will have to stay in touch with us, of course, and probably testify at the trial. But in just a few minutes, we’ll be releasing her.

“Now, Tom, I usually don’t give advice,” he continued. “I’m not any good at it, and it’s not my job. For you, though, I’m going to make an exception. That young woman has been through hell several times over the last five days. She needs someone to look after her, someone who cares deeply about her, someone who is going to support her emotionally.” Haven looked at Officer Kowalski. His face was still expressionless, his eyes almost glazed. “Listen,” Kowalski said. “Don’t try to take things too fast. It’ll be a long time before she thinks of you as anything more than a friend. But don’t be too distant either. Be the friend that she needs. Be there for her now, and I wager that the two of you will be together for a good long time. Probably the rest of your lives.”

Tom Haven stood. He reached out to shake Officer Kowalski’s hand. Kowalski stood and accepted the gesture. They looked into each other’s eyes, their hands firmly gripped. Though he didn’t like to do it, Kowalski let go first. “You wait outside,” he said gruffly. “I’ll have the papers signed and send her out the door just as quick as I can.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Tom whispered.

“You take care of that girl,” Kowalski replied. “That’s all the thanks I need.”