Misunderstanding the Rhythm of the Rain

I can’t believe that I’ve been misunderstanding that song all these years!

In 1963, the aptly-named Cascades released their only hit single, “Rhythm of the Rain.” It rose to number three on the Billboard charts and has been a staple of Sixties stations and compilation recordings ever since. As a writer, I respect copyright laws, so I will not quote extensively from the song.

The premise, though, is that a man is mourning the loss of a friend. The rain is both expressing and interrupting his grief. He calls himself a fool, which—until today—led me to believe that he had caused the end of a relationship. I thought that he blamed himself for her departure.

Over the past weekend and during the middle of this week, that song has been running through my head. After multiple repetitions in my mind, the song’s true message suddenly burst upon me. I googled the lyrics to make sure that I was right, and I am indeed right.

“The only girl I care about has gone away, looking for a brand new start.” It’s happened to me; it happens to a lot of people. But nowhere in the song does he claim that she left because of something he said or did. She just left. Now he’s sad. He misses her badly. He wishes that she would return.

“But little does she know that when she went away, along with her she took my heart.” If she doesn’t know how he feels about her, they must not have had much of a relationship. Perhaps he was too shy to try to get closer to her. Perhaps other circumstances kept them from being boyfriend and girlfriend. For whatever reason, she left for her new start—maybe a new job, maybe life in a new city. Possibly she got married. Now he sits alone and mourns her departure, wishes she was back, and knows that he cannot build a relationship with someone else because he’s still stuck on her.

This is why he calls himself a fool: not because he caused a relationship to end, but because he’s heartbroken over someone he never dated, someone who doesn’t even know how much he cares about her. He calls himself a fool because he allowed his heart to stay with this woman who has left. The rain is not going to tell her how he feels, no matter how he pleads with it. If he never had the nerve to say how much he cared, it’s too late to say it now. And he is miserable without her, even though he was never really with her.

“Oh, listen to the falling rain—pitter-patter, pitter-patter.” One hopes that he soon gets out from under this cloud and learns that life goes on. It would be sad if he spent years missing the one who got away when they were never even together. J.

Eros and Psyche and Ted and Alice

Beauty and the Beast. The Phantom of the Opera. My Fair Lady.  The story is told repeatedly: a mature man becomes some sort of mentor to a young woman; over time an awkward romance blossoms out of the relationship. Sometimes the awkward romance involves a love triangle (Phantom-Christine-Raoul, or Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle-Freddie). This seems to be the more modern approach. For Beauty and the Beast, her love and loyalty to her father forms the triangle rather than any romance with a peer. The central figure, though, is always the mature male who is molding some portion of the young woman’s life to meet his standards and who then comes to view her entirely as his.

Henry Higgins wants Eliza to talk and act as a woman of high society. The Phantom wants Christine to sing as a well-trained soprano. The Beast wants Beauty to look beyond appearances and to have compassion, even affection, toward the misshapen.

The oldest version of this story, so far as I know, is the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is a beautiful young woman—so beautiful that men admire her from afar but are too frightened of her beauty to woo her. Eros sets out to fix her problem, but he falls in love with her himself. Even though he marries her, she is never allowed to see him; he comes to her only in the darkness of night. When her sisters (There’s the completion of the triangle.) tell her that her situation is too weird, she lights a candle to view him while he sleeps. She feared that he would be a monster, but he turns out to be achingly handsome. After all, he is a god. A drop from the candle falls and awakens him, and he flees from her; she must accomplish various impossible tasks before the couple can be reunited.

From a god to a hideous beast—or a deformed man living in the cellar and pretending to be a ghost—or a misanthropic linguist. Somehow this man is transformed by the presence of a vulnerable and shapeable young woman, and he learns that he needs her to make his life complete. Is this not a common male fantasy? And what does the young woman receive in exchange? She seeks a mentor, a teacher, or merely a host to take care of her. The last thing she wants is a lover, at least not one who is far older than she is and rather unattractive in other ways to boot.

Though much of the story remains the same, the ending varies. Beauty and the Beast find true love. Eliza spurns Freddie and returns to Henry Higgins (but only after he confesses to himself that he has “grown accustomed to her face”). Christine escapes the Phantom, who either disappears or dies, depending upon which version of the story you are following. At least Christine has Raoul, and Beauty still has her father. One wonders what will happen to Eliza; after a long diatribe on equal rights for women, the story ends with Henry Higgins demanding that she find his slippers in a tone reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

This male fantasy, this cautionary tale for young women, has its roots in a culture in which women became wives while still in their teens, but men had to show that they could earn a living and support a family before they married, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Marriages were arranged, and romance generally was not a factor in the arrangement. The blossoming of romantic tales took place in medieval France, tales in which a woman typically garners romantic love from a man who is not her husband. (Think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.) Beauty and the Beast is not as old a story; it was written in the 1700s, and its usual form is known from the Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Perhaps that explains why that version of Eros and Psyche could include a marriage based on love, in which husband and wife live happily ever after. J.

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.

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.

Dream a little dream…

I

Tom’s arm stretched across Jessica’s back, her shoulder cradled in his right hand. Her head nestled into his chest. They had been watching a movie together, but now that the movie was over, neither of them wanted to move. It was late, and the two of them should have been heading toward their respective beds, but inertia, stronger than their will-power, had claimed them both.

“I thought about you last weekend,” Tom murmured into her ear, “though that’s not at all unusual.” Tom had been visiting his hometown, Victoria, over the weekend. “I went for a walk, and I remembered a dream that I had years ago—long before, well, you know, before we were together like this. In the dream, you and I and some other people from the office were taking that same walk. Guy was out in front, as usual, and you and I were behind him, and then some others followed us. We were walking past the school….”

“Wait,” Jessica interrupted. “This is a dream you had?”

“A dream, yes, a long time ago,” Tom said.

“I had the same dream. It’s been three or four years, I think. But I was walking with you in a town I didn’t know, and Guy was in front of us. This school—is it a one-story brick building, with several wings in different directions?”

“Yes, and there’s a playground between the school and the street.”

“I remember this dream. We were talking to each other—I’m not sure what we were talking about—and then we went around the corner.”

“To the right or to the left?”

“To the left, and we went up a little hill.”

“”That’s my dream exactly! And that’s Victoria. What was at the top of the hill?”

“There was a train going past—I think it was a circus train.”

“Exactly! We had the same dream, but it was my hometown. I wonder what that means, that we dreamed the same dream.”

She cuddled closer to him. “It means that we were always meant to be together,” she told him.

Tom smiled in his sleep and rolled onto his right side. Jessica was not with him, and they were not “together” yet. He had dreamed, years ago, of walking with her in Victoria, but she had never dreamed the same dream. In the morning, Tom would have a vague recollection of dreaming about Jessica, but the conversation about dreams would be forgotten with the chiming of his alarm.

II

Before he fell asleep, Kirby told himself about twenty times, “I’m going to dream about Michelle tonight. I’m going to dream about Michelle tonight.” He had read that a person could control one’s dreams, and he wanted to make it happen. He had not seen Michelle for weeks, not since she went off to college. From time to time he dreamed about her, but it had not happened recently. He missed her, and if she would not answer his emails, the best he could do was visit her in his dreams.

The dream began with a tiger that had escaped from the zoo. Someone had left a door open, and the tiger had gotten loose. The tiger was still in the building, but if it got past Kirby, it would get outside, and many people would be in danger. Kirby saw the tiger walking toward him, and he shouted at it, telling it to go back. Snarling, the tiger turned away; but then it changed its mind and began stalking toward him again. Looking over his shoulder, Kirby saw that two other people had joined him to block the hallway. The three of them shouted at the tiger, and this time it stopped, turned around, and headed in the other direction.

Then Kirby was standing with a group of people at the entry gate to a pavilion. A live program was going to be performed, and the entry fee was only thirty-five cents, but they demanded that they be paid in exact change. Kirby had a quarter and some one-dollar bills. As other people were paying and entering the pavilion, Kirby searched the ground, hoping that someone had dropped a dime. Luck was not with him, though. Looking into the pavilion, Kirby saw that Michelle was in the audience. She was taking care of a little girl, a blonde-haired girl, who appeared to be two or three years old. Kirby desperately wanted to enter the pavilion, but he didn’t have what was required.

When the others had paid and entered, the young woman selling tickets took pity on Kirby. She accepted a dollar bill from him, handing him his ticket and his change—a fifty-cent piece, a nickel, and some pennies. Kirby held the change in his hand, not stopping to count the pennies, as he walked to the pavilion. Michelle was not seated where he had seen her a moment earlier. Scanning the audience, he saw her walking to the other side of the group. She did not appear to have seen him yet. Kirby walked up to her and said her name. She glanced his direction, frowned, and began walking away. “No. Wait. Stop. Please,” Kirby blurted. Then, as she hesitated, he stammered, “I just want to tell you something.” What he was going to say was unclear in his mind. Still grasping his change, he tried to form an interesting anecdote about his struggle to enter the pavilion. Michelle turned and looked at him. A smile appeared on her face, an ambiguous smile that reminded Kirby of da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa.

At that instant, Kirby awoke. He lay in bed for a few minutes, wondering what he would say to Michelle if he had the chance. Even in his dream, she didn’t seem to be interested in being his friend. Yet she had been willing to give him a chance, if only he knew what to say to her. Kirby had no illusions that, in real life, he would be able to capture Michelle’s interest. He wished that he had stayed asleep just a little longer. He was curious what he would have said to Michelle, and whether her smile meant that she was willing to listen to him. Kirby figured that, since it was just a dream, he would never know the answer to his question.

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: The Faintest Chance of a Ghost

Michelle must have fallen asleep while studying, because the sound of her heavy history book hitting the floor woke her. As she bent down to pick it up, she had an uneasy feeling, as if someone was in the room, watching her. Michelle opened her book to the last page that looked familiar and tried to read, but the feeling would not go away. Glancing up, Michelle saw Mike Kirby sitting on her roommate’s bed. When their eyes met, he smiled at her, the same shy smile she had seen in the halls of high school again and again over the past three years. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle blinked her eyes twice, and he was gone. The sheets and blanket were spread tight, unwrinkled, the way Nancy left her bed every morning before breakfast. No one had been sitting there.

Michelle shook her head and tried to return to her reading. Somehow, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s empire could not keep her attention. Why, she asked herself, why should Kirby come to mind just now? She had not so much forgotten him as simply chosen not to think about him. He belonged to her old life, her high school life, and the two or three emails he had sent her every week since she started college had gone mostly unanswered.

Everyone at school had called him Kirby, since so many of the boys were named Michael or Mike. She had been an arrogant sophomore when he was a lost and lonely freshman. For the entire year she had refused all his offers of a date. More than once she told him to “stop following me around like a little puppy.” By the start of her junior year, Michelle had a steady boyfriend, and Frank made sure that Kirby knew he had no chance of separating them. Still, Kirby was always there, and she and Frank and the others calmly counted him as part of the group. All the members of the group were frequently in the same classes, and they always ate at the same table at lunch.

Michelle’s senior year, both she and Kirby were in student council, and they frequently chatted about the business of the council. They always voted the same way. Kirby also wrote for the weekly school newspaper. When Michelle played Emily in Our Town, Kirby wrote a glowing review that praised her performance to the skies. Always he seemed to know the limits of their friendship and sensed just how far he could stretch them. On Valentines’ Day, Frank gave her flowers, but Kirby gave her a box of candy hearts. On her birthday Frank took her out for dinner. The next day, Kirby asked her if she had seen the hidden tribute in the newspaper. She looked at the front page article he had written, but nothing about it seemed different from his usual writing. “Look again,” he urged. “Look at the first letter of each paragraph.” Michelle looked and saw that the first paragraph began with an M, the second with an I, and on through the entire story, spelling out her name. Kirby’s “hidden tribute” remained a secret, something neither of them mentioned to anyone else.

After graduation, as the group of friends handed around their yearbooks for signatures and brief friendly notes, Kirby had taken her book into another room and spent twenty minutes writing. What he had written filled most of a page. Since her mind was more on Kirby than on European history, Michelle set the textbook aside and reached for the yearbook. She had brought it to college with her on a whim, and she kept it with all her schoolbooks. She found the page Kirby where Kirby had written, “Michelle, this school will not be the same without you. I know that you will be great at college, and I wouldn’t stop you from going there for all the world. But school days without you around will be like dark cloudy days with no hope of ever seeing the sun. Best wishes on your college studies and on all the great things you are going to do in the future. I know that whatever you do, it will be spectacular. Please don’t ever forget our friendship. Remember that I told you that I would do anything you ask of me. That hasn’t changed just because you have graduated and are going away to college. If you ever need anything, anything at all, just ask and I will do all that I can to help you. You’re the greatest—always have been, always will be. Your friend forever, Mike Kirby.”

Michelle closed the yearbook and tried to clear her mind. She looked at the clock. It was almost midnight. Nancy would be coming back from the library in a few minutes. Michelle decided that she would just have to take her chances with the professor’s quiz in the morning, because she would not be getting any more history reading done that night. Putting the history textbook on her desk so she would have it ready to take to class, Michelle got herself ready for bed.

When she woke Wednesday morning, Mike Kirby was not in her thoughts. Michelle was far more interested in getting dressed, getting a bite to eat, and getting to her classes. History was first, and she did not do any worse on the quiz than she usually did.  Then came algebra, which demanded all her attention for fifty minutes. On her way to the cafeteria for an early lunch before the afternoon’s acting class, Michelle decided to check her phone for messages. She had more than usual for a Wednesday morning. She decided to open the one from her mother first, since it was labeled “Sad News.” Michelle stopped walking and stared at the phone. She read it a second time, but the words had not changed. “Sorry to tell you, Honey, but your friend Mike Kirby died last night in a car wreck. I don’t know yet when the service is going to be, but I thought you might want to try to come home for it.”

Her other messages were also telling her about Kirby. Two of her friends had even sent the link to a short news story about Kirby’s death. “Michael Kirby, 18, was killed last night at 11:45 p.m. in a one-car wreck on Highway 67. He apparently lost control of the vehicle he was driving and left the road, colliding with a fence and landing upside down in a ditch. No one else was injured. Police state that no alcohol was involved. Services are pending.”

Other students calmly walked around Michelle as she stood on the sidewalk, staring at her phone. When she finally started walking again, her feet took her back to her dorm room and not to the cafeteria. Michelle dropped her backpack on the desk, sat down on her chair, and stared at Nancy’s empty bed. “Kirby,” she whispered. “Kirby, why did you do it? Why couldn’t you be more careful?”

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Michelle answered her messages, and she and her friends began sharing memories of Kirby. She told no one about her dream or vision of the night before. Whether it was just a dream, or a premonition, or something more, Michelle was not sure. She did know that, whatever it was, it was something very private, something she could not share with her mother or even with her closest friends.

Between sending and receiving messages, Michelle skimmed through her saved messages to see if she still had any from Kirby. Most of them she had deleted, usually the day she received them. She found three that she had failed to delete. In one of them he had said, “I heard a song on the radio today that made me think of you. No, it wasn’t by the Beatles” (That part made her smile the first time she read it. Michelle liked most of the Beatles’ songs, but she had heard “Michelle” too often in her life, often sung badly by others, and Kirby—like all her friends—knew that she hated that song.) “but the next time we see each other, I’ll tell you what it was.” Kirby was often hinting that they would see each other sometime soon. He wrote how he was looking forward to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, when she would be home from school. He also said that he might come visit her at her college. Michelle had told him a couple of times that college kept her very busy, she was swamped, and even if he drove to visit her she would have no time to spend with him. He kept on hinting about the next time they would be together, and Michelle finally chose to ignore those hints.

Another message that she found went back to the first week of school for them both. “I’ve taken to parking in your old spot,” Kirby had written. “It’s not so much that I want my car to be in that spot, but I just wanted to keep anyone else from taking your favorite spot. It’s one way I have of remembering you every day when I get to school.”

The last message was more recent. “I know that you’re busy and don’t even have time to answer my messages, but I don’t mind. Just writing them and sending them makes me think of you, and that alone makes me happy.  Go ahead and answer me when you can, and please don’t be mad at me for writing you more than you can write me.”

Michelle had never been mad at Kirby. Mostly she had been concerned for Kirby. She never wrote him the words that she wanted to say—she had wanted to say, “Forget about me. Get a life.” But she didn’t write him that message because she did like him enough not to want to hurt his feelings.

She had talked with Nancy about Kirby. “We were friends in high school—just friends. We traveled in the same group. He was always a bit intense around me, but I guess that’s just the way he is. All these messages from him are getting on my nerves, but I don’t really want to tell him to stop. It’s weird. I don’t know what to do about him.”

“Is he one of those nasty boys with thick glasses and bad skin and bad breath? The kind that can’t ever get a date?” Nancy asked.

“No, not really. His clothes are kind of geeky, but he’s not dirty or disgusting. Actually, he’s kind of sweet—very polite, and really smart. I don’t know why he latched on to me. Of all the girls in school, there was nothing special about me. But he treated me like I was special. And he’s still writing me messages all the time.”

“Sounds like a dream. If I had been you, I would’ve dropped Frank and let Kirby take care of me instead.”

Michelle and Frank were going to different schools, and Frank had ended the summer by telling Michelle that he didn’t think they should be steady. He thought they both should date people at their own schools. As a result, Michelle had not said very kind or complimentary things to Nancy about her ex-boyfriend. He had not written, not even once, and Michelle had stopped sending him messages after the first week at school. She still missed him, and she hadn’t dated anyone yet at college, but the emptiness was going away.

That day Michelle had dropped the subject, but it came back again one day when Nancy was in the room. Michelle had been having a hard time with algebra; she had been trying to complete an assignment on line and had needed to restart the same problem again and again because she kept making mistakes. Just when her anger was ready to burst at the next interruption, the blue rectangle of Outlook Express ® appeared in the corner of the screen. “It’s raining today and that made me think of you. Yesterday the sun was shining, and that made me think of you.” Michelle screamed and threw her algebra book across the room. Nancy looked up and said, “Is it really that bad?”

“It’s him, again, telling me that he’s thinking of me. Why doesn’t he just leave me alone?”

“Do you really want him to leave you alone?”

“Yes! I need to do my homework; I can’t stop to deal with his loneliness and heartsickness all the time.”

“Just tell him how you feel, then.”

“I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Why not?” Michelle paused. She didn’t have an answer for that question. Why didn’t she want to hurt Kirby’s feelings?

She thought about this for a couple more days. Finally, it occurred to her that ignoring his messages probably hurt his feelings more than it would to tell him how she felt.  So one evening she replied to another of Kirby’s many notes. “Kirby, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m not sure that I’m going to say it right, but I wish you would stop writing to me. I’m busy here and you have a lot to do there, and I just don’t have the time or the energy to give to you right now. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

His answer was rapid and short. “As you wish,” he wrote. Then the days started to pass, and he sent her no more messages.

The next weekend, Nancy asked about Kirby out of the blue. “Are you still hearing from that boy back home?” she asked.

“No,” Michelle said. “I told him how I felt and he seems to understand. He just sent one brief message, ‘As you wish,’ and that’s the last I heard from him.”

Nancy gave a theatrical sigh. “As you wish,” she repeated. “How romantic!”

Michelle shook her head. “It’s just the way he writes,” she said. “He can be a little formal, even stilted at times, but you always know what he means.”

“Don’t you get it, you ninny? Haven’t you ever seen The Princess Bride? Remember how the farmboy, Wesley, says those words to Buttercup? And when he says, ‘As you wish,’ what it really means is, ‘I love you.’”

Michelle was stunned. She hadn’t thought of The Princess Bride when she read his message. The association was just the sort of thing Kirby was likely to make. She thought about writing back to him to ask him about it, but she knew that would break the whole point of asking him not to write to her. Knowing Kirby, that was exactly what he had planned with his message.

Nancy shook her head. “No boy has ever said, ‘As you wish,’ to me. You are so lucky. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Now, two weeks later, Kirby was dead. Michelle still didn’t know what to think about the dream or vision of him she had received the night he died. She sat and thought about that eerie sense that someone had been in the room watching her. She sat and thought about how natural Kirby had looked sitting on Nancy’s bad. She vividly remembered Kirby’s voice saying, “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle did not get any homework done that night. She slept poorly, waking up at every sound in the room, but none of the sounds were caused by a ghost. If she had any dreams that night, she did not remember them, but when she got out of bed in the morning, she was exhausted.

Walking across campus to class, Michelle thought she saw Kirby walking toward her on the sidewalk. When the man got closer, though, it turned out that he was one of the other students at the college. In fact, up close he didn’t look much like Kirby at all. Then, at lunch, Michelle saw another student who, from behind, looked just like Kirby. Feeling a bit foolish, Michelle took a detour around the table, only to see that, from in front, he didn’t resemble Kirby in the slightest way. Three more times that afternoon, Michelle thought briefly that she caught a glimpse of Kirby. Each time, the man she saw was someone else.

Michelle caught herself wondering if Kirby might have faked his death just to get her attention focused on him. But Michelle knew that Kirby could not have faked the news article that was online, nor could he have persuaded Dilinger Funeral Home to post the obituary that was now also online. His funeral was scheduled for Saturday, and Michelle argued with herself about whether or not she should attend. On the one hand, she really wanted to be there, to pay her respects, to share her condolences with his mother and his younger brother, and to hug her friends from high school and cry with them over Kirby’s death. On the other hand, Michelle had a vivid picture of herself walking into the church, only to have someone stand up and accuse her of causing Kirby’s death. She tried to remind herself that she had done nothing at all to lead to his death. Then another part of her mind said that by doing nothing at all she had made herself guilty. Kirby would be alive today if she had just been a better friend to him.

Thursday night Michelle dreamed about Kirby. The two of them, with a group of friends from high school, were walking together down the streets of their home town.  They walked past the Baptist Church and past the bank, and they were approaching the fire station. Kirby was talking passionately about something, but after she awoke Michelle could not remember what he had been saying. For the first time that week, her grief burst through her sense of shock, and she cried for several minutes, alone in her room. Fortunately, Nancy was taking a shower at the time.

Friday was much like Thursday for Michelle, with a student here or there looking like Kirby from a distance, bringing him to mind again and again. Somehow she got through classes and meals and managed to make it back to her room. Nancy had already left for the weekend. Michelle planned to get up early Saturday morning and drive back home for the funeral. The dorm was quiet, with most of the students heading home or partying somewhere in town.

Michelle picked up her history book and opened it. Then she closed it again. She looked across the room at Nancy’s bed, but no one was sitting there. “Kirby,” Michelle whispered. “Why aren’t you here? Why did you visit me only once?” No one answered.

“Haunt me, Kirby,” Michelle implored. “Haunt me like Catherine haunted Heathcliff. I know I deserve it. Kirby, I’d like to see you again, at least one more time.” But still she received no answer. The one chance that Kirby had wanted for years, the one chance for which he had earnestly yearned, was a chance he did not take. For his one and only chance to win Michelle’s heart came too late for Kirby.

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.”