Close My Eyes

I wrote yesterday that I’ve only addressed one Cathy by name in a song. I chose my words carefully. A person bearing one of the names in the first sentence of yesterday’s post has been the subject of a song I wrote, but the song does not include her name.

We were co-workers for a while—more than four years—but more days have passed since I last saw her than took place while we worked together. Both of us moved from desk to desk in the company for various reasons, but there was a long stretch of time when our desks were close enough for us to talk with each other (and for me to overhear her conversations with other people). Suffice it to say that she was (probably still is) a nice person, a thoroughly competent and efficient worker, a ray of sunlight in the workday. I was stunned when she announced to the company that she had taken a job with another employer. After she left, I missed her even more than I had expected. From that experience, though, I did come to write a song. It has a bouncy tune, reminiscent of Boyce and Hart. Without any further ado, here it is:

 

Late at night I’m lyin’ in bed/                                      And I close my eyes

Pictures of you crash through my head/                 And my heart cries; my heart cries

I can’t believe you left me here/                                Each day or night I dream of you, dear

And since you’ve gone, I only bring you near/      When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m sitting outside on the ground/                            And I close my eyes

And thoughts of you crash all around/                     And my heart cries; my heart cries

The birds can flutter, chirp, and sing/                      And joyfully announce the spring

But thoughts of you block everything/                    When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

You didn’t have to leave, you know/                        My love for you would only grow

And ever since you went away/                                 I fight to make it through the day

And night or day I always seem/                                 To picture you as in a dream

I reach for you and my soul tries/                              To draw you near when I close my                                                                                                       eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m driving down the road, you see/                        And I close my eyes

I crash my car into a tree/                                          And sirens cry; I hear sirens cry

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Please close my eyes

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Close my eyes

 

J.

 

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Twelve underappreciated Beatles songs

Between 1963 and 1970 the Beatles recorded and released more than two hundred songs, most of which they also wrote. Songs were released as singles (A and B sides), extended play (EP) albums of four songs, and long play (LP) albums of ten to fourteen songs. Around twenty-seven songs reached the number one position in the official charts of the United Kingdom (UK) and/or the United States. (Variations on how rankings were determined make this number vague.) Fifty-four songs were re-released in 1973 on the Red and Blue albums. Yet the Beatles created much more high-quality music than either of these summaries would suggest. What follows is a list of twelve songs that—with one exception—never cracked the top forty hits and that—again, with one exception—are not represented on the Red and Blue albums. Yet these songs are every bit as good as those Beatle songs that claimed those distinctions.

“Do You Want to Know a Secret” was one of fourteen songs on Please Please Me, the Beatles’ first album in the UK. It was later included on the American album The Early Beatles. When the Beatles shot to success in the United States at the beginning of 1964, record companies scrambled to release as many Beatles songs as they could, and “Do You Want to Know a Secret” peaked at the number two spot in the United States in May of that year. Afterward, it faded into obscurity. Like most of their early songs, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” is a cheerful love song, every bit as good as their earliest hits, “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.”

“If I Fell” was written by John Lennon for the movie A Hard Day’s Night to accompany Paul McCartney’s “And I Love Her.” Both songs are heard on the UK and American albums A Hard Day’s Night, as well as the American album Something New. When they were released together as a single, “And I Love Her” was designated the A-side and “If I Fell” the B-side. As a result, Paul’s song receives much more attention and was put on the Red Album. John’s song is as beautiful and as earnest as Paul’s, even though it qualifies the singer’s love with repeated “if”s. In the movie, John begins the song to raise Ringo out of a funk and succeeds.

“I’m a Loser” was one of John’s contributions to Beatles for Sale, a UK album whose songs were divided among several American albums—this song shows up on Beatles ’65, an album released for the Christmas market of 1964 in the United States. “I’m a Loser” laments a lost love, one that the singer confesses he should have worked to preserve. Like “If I Fell” and “Help,” “I’m a Loser” is personal and heartfelt, in contrast to many of Paul’s love ballads.

“I’ve Just Seen a Face” is an upbeat love song by Paul about love at first sight. Although it was not used in the movie Help!, it was released on the UK album of that name, later appearing on the American version of Rubber Soul. Paul thought enough of it to include it in his Wings over America tour of 1976 and in this live album made during that tour.

“What Goes On?” is credited to Lennon-McCartney-Starkey and thus is one of Ringo’s first compositions, even though he was helped by his bandmates. The song reflects the skiffle origins of the group (skiffle being a folk music style of the United Kingdom analogous to American country & western). In the UK it was released on Rubber Soul; in America, it was reserved for Yesterday… and Today.

“Here, There, and Everywhere” is one of Paul’s love ballads in the tradition of “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” It was released on both the UK and American versions of Revolver. With its soaring melodies, “Here, There and Everywhere” can stand with “Yesterday” and George Harrison’s “Something” as one of the Beatles’ most memorable songs.

“Good Day Sunshine” is also on both versions of Revolver. A cheerful love song, it is said to be inspired by American groups of the mid-1960s such as Lovin’ Spoonful. The Beatles were known for their experimentation with harmony, and “Good Day Sunshine” includes some interesting modulations that drive the energy of the song.

“Got to Get You into My Life” is possibly the best song on Revolver, high praise for a song that must compete not only with “Here, There, and Everywhere” and “Good Day Sunshine” but also with “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine.” A jazzy tune, it is accompanied by a brass section, a sound for which the later group Chicago would be known.

“I Will” continues Paul’s string of soulful love ballads. It is hidden on the White Album, filled with experimental songs written while the Beatles were in India. Oddly, Paul sings of his undying affection for a person he may never have met. Donavon is said to have contributed some of the lyrics to the song.

“Sexy Sadie” is also on the White Album. John began the song to express his disillusionment with the Maharishi, but the final version of the song sounds more like the agony of a relationship in which the boy is seeking the attention of the girl only to be snubbed.

“Across the Universe” has two versions. The version that is heard on Let It Be and on the Blue Album contains lush orchestrations created by Phil Spector, who produced the Let It Be album. The original version was chosen for the Past Masters compilation. The song features John’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics also featured in “Strawberry Fields,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and “I am the Walrus.” Sounds of birds and the backing vocals of two randomly-chosen Beatles fans make this rarer version of “Across the Universe” worth finding.

“Oh! Darling” is one of Paul’s contributions to Abbey Road. Paul strains his voice to its limits in this performance, capturing the tone of a live performer on a tavern stage (which is how the Beatles developed their act before achieving fame and fortune). Like “Yesterday” and “I’m a Loser,” “Oh! Darling” captures the sorrow of an ending relationship, perhaps reflecting the closing weeks of the Beatles’ partnership as they set out on their solo careers.

None of these songs receive much attention on oldies stations. Yet, before the popularity of downloaded music, this collection of twelve tunes could easily have been assembled, given a snappy title like “Beatles Secrets,” and sold profitably as yet another collection of Beatles songs. J.

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.