Stone Walls

The people who settled this small New England town pulled stones from the fields and placed them at the edge of their property creating walls that marked the limits of their existence.  Hundreds of years later lichen covered Yankee stone walls crisscross the fields and disappear into the woods marking long forgotten boundaries. We drive our mini-van in silence past the pumpkin colored village colonial, past Oak Hill cemetery bordered by a crumbling stone wall and turn into the Wal-Mart parking lot.  When I turn off the ignition, my wife’s question pierces the heavy silence “I just have to ask you something.  Are you gay?”

There should only be one response to that question, but I cannot seem to give it. The air in the van is too heavy.  I look out of the car window and see a family of four open their car doors, take each other’s hands and quickly walk across the pavement towards the store.  They disappear into the dark and then re-appear briefly under a circle illuminated by a parking lot light. Their questions are no doubt easier to ask and to answer.  Do we need more paper towels? How much milk is left?
She waits for the answer. Doesn’t she already know it? 

After all these years the answer has always been there but I kept it cordoned off.  I built my life on No.  That life was crumbling now and I couldn’t support it anymore.  I search for an answer that is truthful, but one that won’t risk bringing all of the walls down. “I don’t want to be,” I reply quietly, hesitatingly, trying to measure the damage the answer will bring.
For a moment, the world stops turning and we stop breathing; silence. I exhale as she inhales.  “Oh God” she whispers and looks out of the car window.

In the background I hear the distant hum of cars on the interstate travelling through the darkness. And then a lightness pulls me up and pushes me onto the highway. I’m following the cars at a speed faster than light and suddenly I’m shooting up into space.  The town recedes into the distance and the sun crests on the horizon.
If we joined the other families in the store that night I can’t remember it.  What I do remember is both of us lying in bed in the still darkness. We were no longer living in the thin margin of what was before, but clinging to each other at the threshold of what lay beyond our existence.   Uncertain of what life looked like outside of the walls we had built and unable to return to the space they once contained.


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Coffee Name

The first time I heard of a “Coffee name” was when my Irish friend Diarmuid used one while picking up a take-out pizza. When I asked him why he told the cashier his name was David he said no one in America could understand the way he pronounced his real name, so he used a name that people could grasp, a coffee name. “Feckin’ eejits,” he punctuated it.  The idea intrigued me.  Here was the chance to change my name; to change who I was, if only for a complete stranger.
Bill, that’s my name.  It’s simple, compact and entirely common, none of the traits I want to project.  People with more exotic names use Bill for their coffee name. It’s been in my family for generations, although technically it’s William.  But, my mother shortened it to the more common nick-name.  She may have lopped off some of the letters but the number of syllables remained the same; “Bee-uhl” that’s how it’s pronounced in the south.  Like something you might hear at a pig-calling contest.
To be completely honest, this was not the first time I thought of changing my name.  Many men who come out of the closet jettison their nick-names and trot out their fancy, stylish full names to go with their new fancy, stylish selves. Jeff will become Geoffrey, Stu becomes Stewart and Bob becomes Robert or the spicy, salsa version: R-r-r-r-oberto!
But I wanted something more than William. I wanted a name that projected the real me, you know?  When I told my friend Diarmuid this, his suggestion was “How about Precious?”
The Irish have a dark sense of humor.      
I was pondering this while standing in line at a popular lunch spot one day.  The “sandwich engineer” was asking for a name to go with the order. Here was my chance to come up with a new name and try it out. I mentally flipped through a rolodex of names when the young attractive man behind the counter asked me “Can I have your number?”  Flustered, I looked at Diarmuid and then turned back to the young man.  “I mean name, can I have your name?,” he corrected himself, equally flustered. “It’s David,” I stammered. “Feckin’ eejit,” my friend muttered.
I began to think that maybe people became their names and not the other way around. Maybe Jeff was always Geoffrey and Stu was always Stewart, just waiting for the right time in their life to percolate into their real names.  But William seemed too formal and aloof and if I was going to choose a completely foreign name I might as well change my sex, which was my mother’s initial fear when I first told her I was gay.
And then I met Paul; dependable, handsome Paul.  Two months into our relationship he left for a business trip that interrupted our affair.  “I miss my Willy,” he said to me on the phone. Willy. I knew then that this was the name I’d hear for the rest of my life. That’s when it hit me, the key to finding my name was not changing it for a stranger, but for someone I loved.   

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Summer Fields


My father had a farm in North Carolina that was reachable only by an unpaved road in a town aptly named Summerfield.  It was the type of sleepy town that Hollywood would make all of North Carolina; long green fields edged by leafy oak trees and tall pines, tobacco barns made of log and chinking, sagging under the weight of a century and the slow moving sun lording over all. I was twelve then and time was a vast amorphous thing like the pillar of clouds on the horizon. There was plenty of time to figure out who I would become and where I would go.

The farmhouse was a 1920’s era cottage at the end of a long gravel driveway.  Out back was a large barn, a chicken coop and the remnants of a vegetable garden where enormous sun flowers appeared magically that summer.  The previous owners left pieces of themselves behind; a tobacco barn filled with tools, chickens in the coop, preserves in the root cellar and perhaps most strangely, eight bison in the fields. 
My father bought the farm when he was dating a woman who owned a farm herself and knew a thing or two about horses.  While my father may have been the first to fall in love with her, I and my three brothers were not far behind. When you love someone, you want to become them in a way.  So, we added horses to our farm, bought cowboy boots and when one of her Siberian Huskies sired puppies, we brought home a soft bundle of fur so black that the only name he could wear was Midnight.

The only blemish on the farm was a family that lived in a mobile home at its edge.  On the weekends my father, the attorney turned cowboy, would pick us up in his blue Mercedes and drive us from the city to the farm.  Each time we passed the mobile home a fat little boy would run out into his yard and give us the finger.  No doubt he did not cotton to the city-slickers in the blue Mercedes turning up dust as it sped past their metal home.
You learn about life’s rhythms on a farm.   Things grow and things die. Our dog Midnight grew fast and loved having the run of the place. Then we noticed that the chickens began disappearing.  “Must be a fox,” my father told us. But soon the neighbors living in the metal home complained that their chickens were disappearing too and that our dog was the reason.  “The sheriff says I can shoot him and I will if I catch him again,” the neighbor said.

It was about that time that we discovered my father owned a gun too, kept on the shelf in the closet.  We begged him to show us how it worked and one night he stood on the back porch, aimed the pistol at a tree and let it fire.  The sound was terrifying. In that moment I wished that I had never heard it.  More terrifying than the sound was the thought that my father might have enemies that required him to possess a gun.
Shortly after that the neighbors caught Midnight in the chicken coop and let their own gun fire.  I mirrored the fat boy’s middle finger greeting every time we drove past their metal home after that.

Fall became winter and my father’s relationship with the farm woman died with the cold weather.  He met another younger woman who preferred the city and left the farm behind.
Standing on the edge of the farm thirty seven years later I see that it has remained entirely the same.  The mobile home still stands at the edge and my hatred pierces through the fog of time. But other things come through too; the memory of the warm eggs we’d collect from the clucking chickens, eating sunflower seeds on the front porch, catching frogs in the pond and watching the grass in the fields move like water under a warm summer breeze.

I think about the things the owners left behind and wonder what we might have left.  Does the laughter of four boys sit in the dusty corners of the rooms?  Do the current owners wake up at night to the phantom shot of a gun and look through the window at a shadow of Midnight running through the fields under the full Carolina moon?
We get back in the car, drive down the unpaved road and head back to town.  My daughter turns to me and says “Your life was much more interesting than I realized.”  I laugh and say “There are so many other stories that I have to tell you.”    She smiles and says “You should tell them all to me.” And so I have begun to leave those behind as well.

*For the next ten weeks, I will join a group of people who all want to leave their stories behind in a Memoir writing class.  Please be patient with me as I juggle my time spent at work, in class and on this blog.



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Dawnsong



Before I saw him, I heard him. 

He was singing. It wasn’t the kind of singing I heard on the T every morning by the teenage girl with the curly gelled hair and pierced nose who defended her territory by daring strangers with her eyes; the type of singing that was never not annoying.  He was singing, humming really, because through it he experienced worship.  I can’t think of any other way to describe it.  The tune was Gymnopedie and the pitch was perfect. 
When the bell chimed and the fasten seat belt light dimmed I stood up quickly to find the face that belonged to the music.  He was two rows up.  His smile met my eyes and I looked away.  How much can be seen in a split second?  Dark shoulder length hair in need of a haircut, three days stubble, hazel eyes, the thick eyelashes of a girl and a purple string tied around his wrist as he tucked his hair behind his ear, a lifetime.

“Young man!”  The blue-grey haired lady sitting next to me crowed in a way that implied she had said it several times before I heard it.  “Would you help me with my bag?” she asked pointing her gnarled finger above my head. When I reached up to open the bin, I glanced again and saw him walking towards the exit, the music fading.
“This one?”  I asked impatiently.

The old lady replied affirmatively as I quickly pulled it out and placed it on the seat next to her.  She sighed heavily as I stepped out quickly into the aisle attempting to catch up to the music, but it was gone. 
It’s silly to think of it now, but a type of melancholia covered me like the fog that rolled in from the bay.  The interview was a formality.  I knew they wanted me for the job, and it was the chance of a lifetime. But I found myself humming Gymnopedie as I stood up and looked out the twenty fourth floor window at the Bay Bridge shrouded in mist.  The Human Resources manager abruptly opened the door.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you,” she said in a peppy, conciliatory manner.
“You didn’t,” I lied. “It’s a beautiful view.”

“It could be yours and the weather certainly beats Boston.  You’ll hear from us very soon.  I think you’ll be pleased, Erik,” she chirped as she extended her hand.
The flight back to Boston left early the next morning. I boarded the plane, sat in my window seat and reflexively pulled out my phone to check messages.  There it was. The subject was “Congratulations!”  The details of the job-offer surpassed my expectations. “I’m moving to San Francisco,” I whispered, closed my eyes, leaned my head back and went to sleep. “The end,” I said.

“No it’s not!”  The boy shouted.
“It’s not?” I asked and pulled the blanket up to his chin.

“You came back to Boston, because Martin lived here.  Martin saw you on the plane sleeping. He quietly switched seats with the man sitting next to you,” the boy said.
“Go on,” I encouraged him and smiled.

“The world became small as the plane flew into the sky.  The sun danced with the earth and then Martin started singing.”  The boy said.
I looked across our son’s bed at Martin, stretched out my arm and tucked a piece of hair behind his ear.  He needed a haircut. I gave the boy a kiss on his forehead then whispered “And I traded my future for a song.”

 This is a piece of flash fiction.

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