He had seen her the first time when he was working on his Nova in the driveway. His little sister’s little friend. Tiny. Pretty. Funny.


The girls would play music in the rec room and dance and sing. She had a pretty voice. She lived right around the corner. Single mom. Poor.


She came around a lot. She and his sister became best friends right away. She spent the night over almost every weekend.


He was a senior in high school. He was popular - golf team, top 10 student, worked at the local Italian restaurant - the golden child of a major family. He and his just older brother threw the best parties. Lots of parties. His parents didn’t care.


The little friend, she was a freshman. Still, she and his sister were always making an appearance at the parties. They’d have some drinks. Get giggly. Then they’d go in the other room and watch tv and eat snacks.


He had a serious girlfriend. Made a dollhouse for her. She cheated on him. She maintained her position of power. Plus, she was damaged. Tall, smart, top of her class, but damaged. Basically a slut. But they were in love. They thought they were. They had been together two years - a long time in high school.


In the winter, he’d light a fire in the huge, stone fireplace, or his dad would. Sometimes mice made their homes in the spaces of the stones.


The little friend was almost like a family member - always around, eating box macaroni and cheese. Unselfconscious. Loved to sing, played Monopoly. Bright kid. Pretty.


She and his sister skipped school sometimes, told him not to tell. Once or twice, he drove his parents station wagon to take the little friend and his sister for Dairy Queen.


There was something about her eyes. Green and enormous. They would look into each other’s eyes when they were talking and even after they stopped.


That night was cold. All the older kids were back from college. It was a great party. His brother was playing the best music. Kegs, a bar in the Rec Room. Kids and cocktails spilled into the West yard.


His sister and her little friend were right there - drinking, playing along. They were the youngest ones, but they acted older, especially the friend. She was so natural with everyone. Sweet.


The party wound down late. A few stragglers. They needed rides home. He said he’d drive them. Asked his sister and her little friend to take a ride. On the way back home, snow tingling the air, he stopped in an empty parking lot. He pushed the station wagon gas pedal to the floor, hit the brakes and turned the wheel. The car slid and spun around in a semi-circle. Cookies, he called them. Like an amusement ride. Cookies, cookies, cookies.


They got back to the house and he took some logs from the big stack on the front porch and built a fire. Discarded newspapers and breath got it roaring. The three of them sat down together on the couch in front of the flames. A mouse ran across.


He sat between his sister and her little friend. As he talked, he put an arm around each of them. He rubbed the little friend’s shoulder. In a minute, his sister was asleep. He led the little friend downstairs, into the cramped room in the basement with one single bed.


He laid her down and kissed her. He took off her shirt. He rubbed her breasts. He told her to go back upstairs and not say anything to his sister.


She told his sister, the little friend. A few months later. He denied it. He was back with his girlfriend and was about to turn 18. It wouldn’t look right.


Their friendship almost broke apart. The sister had to take her brother’s side. The little friend was a liar.


But four years later, when he came back from college for the summer, right before the little friend left for France, he told his sister the truth. He had to, he had no choice. It was the only way he could ever get the little friend back into his bed.


Live & in Living Color

“C’mon Charlie, let’s get there.”

Mitchell pulled out the keys to the company mini-van. Finally things were picking up. All Gary’s schmoozing was paying off. Plus, it was a novelty - singing telegrams. Turns out they loved them in Alabama. Gary said they would.

Mitchell had been skeptical. Gary was full of schemes, some more successful than others. But Mitchell had to get out of California, and ‘Sing-Sing’ was the way.

Charlie surely needed the gig too. And what a perfect job. He’d always loved to sing and dance and clown around. Really - a dream job.He gave it all he had at the audition and was hired on the spot. Gary snapped his fingers as soon as the number (My Way) was over. “Man, man, man! That was great. You’re some kind of talent.”

Mitchell could clearly see that Charlie was a natural. He was just worried because Charlie was black, is all. Not everybody in Alabama was ready for a bright black man to come bounding into their living room, or boardroom or whatever. Lots of restaurants.

They got into the mini-van. Charlie had on a tuxedo and tails. His put his satin top-hat on the back seat. He knew Mitchell was there to soften the blow of his blackness. The white guy gave him credibility. That’s the way it goes. He was born and raised in Alabama. He was happy to have a job not flipping burgers or hauling a heavy load.

The gig was about two hours north of Birmingham. 50th birthday party. Private home. Gary had negotiated top pricing.

It began to rain. As it got louder and less clear outside, the inside of the mini-van grew still and immediate. The two men sat in an easy silence. Strange, for two gregarious men. Both had a way of telling a long story when it could be told short.

MItchell spoke first. He asked Charlie about his mother. She had been ill and in the hospital. She was doing fine. More tests. Can’t find anything, they think maybe too much salt caused the swelling. They gave her fluids and let her go.

Charlie asked Mitchell about his kids, back in California. He knew Mitchell missed them. If Mitchell wasn’t broke, working to exhaustion, living one breath to the next, he never would’ve left his kids. He was a hands-on kind of dad.

Charlie was just about to compliment Mitchell on this exact quality when Mitchell said, “Here it is!” and turned right, into an oyster-shell strewn, winding driveway. They pulled up to the Greek Revival home - a mansion really. Mitchell shut off the engine, straightened his tie, grabbed his jacket from the backseat and said to Charlie, “Wait here.”

Mitchell had a whole speech at the ready. He put on his big, booming, Southern-tinged voice. A manicured blonde answered the bell, cocktail wrapped in a napkin in her left hand.

“Hello! I’m Mitchell Lundquist from Sing-Sing. You must be Mrs. Hutchinson.”

She was. He asked when they might be ready for the talent. She said any time now. And then, because he really had to, Mitchell asked to use the bathroom.

Mrs. Hutchinson guided him through the grand entry and into a great room holding about 20 or more conservatively well-dressed, middle-aged guests. A vintage Rebel flag was framed over the grand fireplace. In the bathroom, behind the toilet Mitchell faced, was a photo of Robert E. Lee and a black attendant.

Mitchell went back out to get Charlie. He didn’t sugarcoat. “We don’t have to go in if you don’t want. It’s really okay. We can turn right back around.”

“No, I want to do it.”


“And now, ladies and gents,” Mitchell boomed, “For your very own entertainment, the one and only Charlie Bates!”

Charlie stepped into the great room, his satin top-hat nearly matching the hue of his skin. He made a bow with his customary flourish. He flipped his hat with one hand and gestured to his face with the other. “Live, and in living color,” he said, in grand fashion, and launched into My Way.

They loved it. They absolutely loved it. Hands down, it was one of the best performances of any song they had ever heard.



If I had known then how to read a premonition, I guess I wouldn’t have gone, but you can’t really stop fate.


I would’ve recognized the signs, the bad feelings, indecision, hurry. The loudness. For Chrissake, Isabella even used her voice trying to tell us - tell Marvin. But we couldn’t understand because we couldn’t read the signs then. Plus, she was a dog.


The hurricane was either coming or it wasn’t, just like every other damn hurricane. Which path would it choose? Never decides until the last possible minute, after you’ve already made your plans and you’re stuck with your decisions.


We boarded all the windows (total, eternal, pain in the ass) and we decided to leave. It wasn’t that the storm was so big like Katrina - we knew we wouldn’t be wiped away - but we were sure we’d lose power and no one wants to be in New Orleans in the first week of September without a/c.


It was when we were leaving in our peaceless haste that Isabella cried out to us.


She never did that - speak like some dogs do - so it was alarming. Really, of course, it was an over-the-top WARNING, but i didn’t speak that language of vibration then.


She, in the middle of everything, used her voice, nearly screaming at Marvin - her message was to him. It freaked him out then, a bit, but much more in retrospect.


We decided to go to fucking Arkansas. We could’ve gone to Baton Rouge and stayed with family, but we had the dogs and I didn’t want to deal with the drama of keeping them caged. Baton Rouge ended up getting the worst of it anyway, as it turns out.


Could’ve stayed with family in Dallas, too, but didn’t want to go there either, for the same reason. No one understood how much I love the dogs, especially Isabella, and can’t just lock them up and put them in the garage for four days.


So we went to Arkansas. It was north - away from the storm, though it did end up coming our way, but weakened significantly - only heavy rain by the time it got to us. I had been to this motel before, on a trip back from California. I stopped there with Isabella. Just the two of us. It was a good place for dogs - a big, big yard bordering the woods.


The drive took forever. We might as well have gone to Dallas. I was in the car with the dogs and Marvin followed in his truck. A caravan.


It’s surprising to me now, reflecting back, that we even found the hotel. But we drove right to it. Marvin was pissed it took so long and so was I, but I couldn’t show it because it was my idea. It seemed closer before.


The people in the town were so friendly - I remembered that from the first time I was there. They were friendly to us on that trip too. Hope, Arkansas. The Mexican restaurant across the street from the hotel had framed photographs of Bill Clinton with the proprietor.


When parting, everyone in Hope said, “Be Careful.” It could’ve been just a charming thing to say, kinda hokey, but now I see it was another warning.


It got real boring real fast. The rain arrived, eventually, preceded by drear and grey. We went to the Mexican restaurant (“Be careful!” the waiters cheerfully said as we left.) We watched tv. We went to Walmart and bought some stuff we probably didn’t need.


The hotel was fully booked. People evacuated from everywhere nearer the coast. It was the first storm since Katrina. The atmosphere at the hotel was lively. The rooms faced out onto terraces.


When we got back from Wal-Mart, I decided to walk the dogs. I took them in the misted, grassy field along the line of woods. They loved it, which was the whole point of driving eight hours into a stranger’s land.


On the way back up to our room, I saw some Walmart bags containing shampoo and some things on the terrace just outside a cracked open door. A shampoo bottle had fallen out onto the concrete, so I bent to pick it up with one hand. I held the leashes with the other.


I heard a woman’s voice scream, ”No, no, no!” A pitbull ran through the door and picked up and bit through Isabella.


I let Hugo’s leash go so I could try to pry the pitbull’s teeth off Isabella’s tiny ribcage. I was screaming - frantic screaming from my chest. The pitbull wouldn’t let go.


Hugo ran off into the woods. “Fast as a rabbit,” one of the bystanders said.


The pitbull’s owner finally got her dog off Isabella.


I knew it was too late. Sunday, no vet for miles.


Arkansas, before I could read the signs.


He was a simple man. Family. Good food. Carnival. Music. He worked hard. Everyday. Union man. On Saturday he delivered wedding cakes.


Accept life like it is. Nothing to do but to live it. Live it up.


This isn’t to say that it was easy. There was never enough money for five kids. Shoes. Four girls. Dresses, dances, weddings.


His wife managed the money. He gave her his check every week, she gave him money for his packet. They had lots of friends, lots of family. Good, humble neighborhood, good neighbors, mostly.


Seafood on Fridays. All the kids, their friends, shrimp, crabs, crawfish. Put out the newspapers, pass a good time.


Carnival was the best of everything. He played the clarinet, very well, they said. Played in high school with Pete Fountain. But he was a strutter. Tall, thick head of hair, leading the procession, perfect marching timing. Man was that fun. Mardi Gras day - a culmination.


He grew out his beard every year. Cut it on ash Wednesday. Back to work. Fridays in Lent, seafood. Good life. Good wife. Great dancer. Only money was tight sometimes, so he worked harder - as hard as any man in the union.


Sheet metal was hard work. Man’s work. Ladders, heights. Heavy. Work. Accept life as it is. Pray the rosary every night, coach the girls basketball, volleyball, softball. Take the wife out to dances. Sometimes you pay the light bill and want on shoes.


So his life was good that day. They all met at the Union Hall. Seven o’clock a.m. Each man had his own tools. Later in life, he built desks, clocks, cars of wood. Now he worked on buildings, their sheet metal air conditioning.


He saw a man almost drop to his death once, by stepping too heavily on the tiles that made the ceiling. The man stepped, like a fool, and went through. His arms went out to either side and stopped his fall. The men came over and pulled him out. No one ever talked about it again. It was almost 4:00 anyway, so they clocked out early and went home. Everyone was shaken. He really almost died. He was reckless. Maybe the near-fall helped him grow up.


These were his thoughts that day, about the man who almost died in front of him, when he got to his job site.


It was a fancy, brand-new construction in the CBD - a six story office and condo building. He loved new construction projects - the reverberating newness, the blinding shine of the metal. He was a happy man as he prepared his tools, looked at the engineer’s plans, patted his sack with four ham sandwiches for later.


It wasn’t too hot. April. No windows yet, just big, open spaces so the blue sky was inside with him. He began to whistle, feeling how his morning tea made his notes easy and pure. He could feel the vibrations in his head. The sound echoed around the building.


He busied himself and worked hard as he always did - the work of two or three men. He took pride in this. He was taller, wider, straighter. He whistled and hammered, whistled and climbed the ladder, bright pipe over his shoulder, tools swinging from his belt.


“Hey Brother-man, can you stop that whistling?”


The foreman came up to inspect everyone’s work, make sure it was up to code.


He kept whistling, working.


“Hey Man, either stop whistling or go home. This is work, it ain’t a concert hall.”


He never stopped whistling. He climbed down the ladder, placed the silver pipe on the sun-splashed floor, whistled over to his toolbox, took his tools, one-by-one, whistling, and wiped them with a cloth he kept in the box.


Whistling, he patted his ham sandwiches, and whistling, he walked out into the warmth of the clear blue April day. He whistled all the way back back to the Union Hall, where he ate his ham sandwiches.


All the men got a kick out of his story. Of course, he got another job right away - later that same day. A man had cut his hand at another site and needed to be rushed to the hospital.


Whistling, he brushed the crumbs off his canvas pants, and went back to the work of three happy men.