O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Razor

A clean-cut remembrance of a gentle soul

By Tim Swink

It was on the front steps of the YMCA in a steel mill town, where I’d rented a room, that I first met him. I had followed a pretty girl who’d come south for a two-week stay at the coast back to Northeast Ohio. I was smitten. I ended up staying until the end of August, when I returned home to begin my fall semester at Guilford College.

Picking up work on a construction site as a carpenter’s helper or a laborer, the summer job for many college guys down South? No problem. But the problem here was being able to walk through the barbed-wire fences that surrounded worksites without a union membership card. After being unceremoniously asked to leave, I realized that this was a steel town where the world was hard, as were its men. Manpower Temporary Services became my employer, assigning me jobs nobody wanted to do.

After a day’s work for Manpower, I’d sit on the front steps of the YMCA, waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up so we could spend the evening together. It was on those granite steps that I first saw him. Back then, he was labeled “gimp-legged” since he walked with a very bad limp. I later learned that his leg had been crushed in an incident while working in one of those steel mills, leaving him disabled, with a meager monthly check and a room at the Y. Later on those evenings, when my girlfriend would drop me back off, a dread would fill me. As I entered the lobby and could hear shouting and curses echoing up and down the halls, I’d run up the stairs, two at a time, to my third floor room and immediately lock the door. When the noise would die down late in the night, making way for me to tiptoe down the hall to the communal bathroom, where I’d finally wash up.

The Y was a daunting place, where rough men with rough lives resided. But there was one exception: “the man on the steps.” He had a kind, gentle nature. A contradiction in the given environment. A wounded man, physically, against a backdrop of hard men and their hard living. Through evening conversations at the Y, I came to know him. I don’t recall what we talked about. And I don’t recall his name. I wish I did. He deserved that. But I felt a connection with him and I can still see him to this day, just as he looked when he’d gaze up into the soft twilight glow. He’d fixate on jets that periodically streamed across the sky. One day I heard him say to himself, “Man, I’d give anything to be on that jet, going wherever it’s going. It wouldn’t matter. Just outta here.”

During one of our evening talks, I rubbed my hand across my stubbled face and mentioned that I’d either lost or forgotten my razor. The next evening, there on the steps, he reached into his pocket and extracted a worn razor and held it out to me saying, “Here. Take this.” I resisted, but he insisted. “You need it more than I do, to stay handsome for that pretty lady.” Looking down at the razor, I noticed he’d colored the base of the handle red — to identify it, I assumed. You had to protect what was yours in the YMCA.

As I type this piece, a used razor with a red handle sits on my writing desk. A simple gesture that said so much. A remembrance of a kind, gentle man from so long ago, who wanted me to stay handsome for the pretty lady who later became my wife. The kind, gentle man who just wanted to fly away. To anywhere. I hope he did.  OH

Tim Swink resides in Greensboro and is the author of three novels: Curing Time, Madd Inlet and a sequel to Curing Time, Where the Flowers Bloomed, released in February 2024.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Backseat Smooching

The joyride home from elementary school

By David Claude Bailey

This is a story about pre-adolescent smooching, but the pre-teen boy in me wants to start with the car, a huge 1947 Pontiac Streamliner with those sweeping, flared fenders favored in gangster movies. (My father had a 1954 V-8 Pontiac Star Chief, a sleek and powerful car with an illuminated face of an Indian as a hood ornament. But Dad’s car didn’t hold a candle to the Streamliner, with its sleek, Jaguar-inspired lines and capacious interior.) This automobile was obviously the choice for those who dreamed of a luxurious and fabled life on the big screen.

Our chauffeur, Marian Orren, always perfectly coiffed, would pick up her son, Frank, plus me and our classmate, Evelyn, from elementary school every afternoon.

The Art Deco radio with golden illuminated buttons and dials would be aglow in the middle of the dashboard. From its mouth-like speaker, which looked like a howling mask from a Greek tragedy, the latest Hit Parade tunes would pour, setting the scene. “Volare.” “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” And, oh my God, the “Witch Doctor.” The back seat was big enough to host a party, but Evelyn and I would settle into the plush, cushy, tufted seats, and slide into the corner. Before we’d reached the stop sign, we were locking lips.

Who knows why and how we got started with this passionate car-noodling. I, with one eye, was bullied all day long, and the idea of someone caring about me, much less showering me with kisses, was the high point of each day. I’ll never forget Evelyn, my first sweetheart.

We were in fourth or fifth grade and our dalliance was limited, neither of us even close to the fervor of adolescence. And maybe that was a good thing.

Frank would sit in the front seat, begging his mother to make us stop. She, in fact, encouraged us, and we’d carry on until the Streamliner pulled up to the curb of 602 Boyd Street, where I reluctantly hauled the coat I’d shed and my army pack out the side door.

Evelyn came to a recent high school reunion all the way from New York City and we had an absorbing and long chat, catching up on our various trajectories.

And then I said, “What was all that smooching about?”

If Evelyn had a good answer, I didn’t hear it. Maybe I’d had one too many gin and tonics.

But magic comes to mind.  OH

David Claude Bailey still enjoys kissing in cars and can sometimes be found fogging up the windows of his 1981 Jeep CJ-7 with his wife of 56 years, Anne.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Queen of Bath

It’s a bit of a stretch, sure. But this dream tub sorta works

By Ashley Walshe

If you’re a bath person like me — that is to say, someone who soaks ritualistically — then perhaps you’ve spent time imagining what life could be like if your tub was just a little wider; a little deeper; a little more picturesque.

An elegant garden tub aglow with flickering candles. A cast iron clawfoot laced with salt and rose petals. An hourglass drop-in complete with whirlpool jets.

Such visions used to rule my mind.    

Now, having spent the last two years living in a 32-foot travel trailer with my husband and my canine shadow, my dream tub has but one requirement: I can bathe in it.

Which brings me to my current situation.

A standard bathtub holds about 70 gallons of water. Suffice it to say that our RV tub does not. Think farmhouse sink with bobsleigh undertones. Bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a storage tote.

I’ll be honest. It took a while to see potential here. The tub’s fun-size dimensions combined with our 6-gallon hot water heater don’t exactly add up to a space for quiet contemplation and long, soulful soaks. Quick showers are fine. But when baths are your primary indulgence, you consider all your options.

My first bath attempt was, frankly, valiant. I’m no bobsled pilot, but given my daily yoga practice, I was deftly able to navigate the tub’s shallow waters. A knees-to-chest pose, for instance, followed by seated pigeon, a gentle variation of boat pose and — after a bit of ocean breathing — a legs-up-the-wall inversion. 

Despite this series of postures, most of my body was not, in fact, wet. Still, half baths are better than no bath in my book. I lit a candle and resumed my lazy pigeon.

All of this was fine. Really. But when the ankle-deep water began cooling with unholy swiftness, my efforts seemed altogether fruitless.

“I wish we had more hot water,” I mumbled as the basin drained.

“We can try using the electric kettle next time,” my husband offered from the living space. “I’ll even be your bath butler.”

I felt my lips explore the foreign words.   

“Bath butler.” I liked the sound of it.

My bath butler has changed my life. Weekly, per my request or his proposal, I luxuriate in what I’ve taken to calling my Queen’s Bath — a modified version of a full bath, sure, but a yogi can dream.

Pre-kettle, I add a swirl of Epsom salt into the finger-pour of steaming water, get the candle going, flip off the lights and climb in.

If I fits, they say, I sits. 

By now, my bath butler has mastered water control. He knows that, after adding a kettle to my bath, it’s time to heat up the next one. Sensitive and compassionate, he keeps things strictly professional, a trait any honorable bath butler should possess.

“How’s the temperature?” he might ask. Or, “May I bring you a beverage?” Most often, he simply pours and gives a courtly head bow. Role playing at its finest.

Four kettles in, the water nearly hugs my waist. By kettle five, I’m beginning to feel like a Greek goddess. Kettle six? I could not ask for more.

You don’t opt for camper life without sacrificing some modern comforts. Still, we have everything we need: clean, running water; electricity; full bellies and warm hearts.

My butler is the bath bomb on top. 

If it’s true that gratitude is the quickest path to happiness, I think I’m already there. As for my husband?

“I’m happy to bring you water,” he assures me. Although he insists on maintaining his professional butler pose, I pry.

“What’s in it for you?” I ask.

He pours the kettle, shrugs, then clears his throat. “I guess I like the view.”  OH

Ashley Walshe is a former editor and regular contributor of
O.Henry magazine.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

I Watched Aliens from Another Planet Clean My Kitchen

A grandmother comes to her sensory senses

By Marianne Gingher

When Greensboro’s Friendly Center opened in 1957, I was 10 years old and my favorite store there was Woolworth’s. The heart of the store was the candy counter — a child’s dream — where you could buy orange jelly slices, little boxes of Goobers, Nik-L-Nips, candy corn, licorice whips, Sugar Daddies and chocolate-covered peanuts by the scoop. Brimming with the aromas of sizzling hotdogs twirling on skewers, popcorn, fountains of orange and lemon-flavored drinks bubbling down the sides of their glass containers, the store smelled nearly as delicious as the Greensboro Fairgrounds. There were other enticements: single-play records for 99 cents, gag gifts like Whoopie cushions and, in the back of the store fluttered blue and green parakeets in cages. Near the candy counter, I hovered over copies of The Weekly World News and National Enquirer with such memorable headlines as “Baby Born With Tattoo of Elvis” and “I Watched Aliens from Another Planet Clean My Kitchen.” After a trip to Woolworth’s, my imagination was stoked, my senses on overload.

Fast forward six decades. In the interval I became a writer, and I think now, in a weird way, Woolworth’s played a role in that. Remembering that famous five-and-dime’s delights got me thinking a lot about where kids today derive that sort of simple sensory pleasure and inspiration. My grandchildren, two wild boys ages 2 and 5, spent the summer with me while their family transitioned from Arizona back to North Carolina. My ransacked house bore no resemblance to its former self. I stepped on a piece of broccoli in my bathroom one night during their stay. I found the sprayer that attaches to the garden hose in the hall upstairs. They broke one of my kitchen chairs, flooded the upstairs bathroom and turned the AC thermostat to 50 degrees. It felt like I was living on a different planet. But I rose to physical challenges I never thought possible, danced to poopie songs, took them to every park and museum in Guilford County and witnessed delight on their little sunbeam faces as the carousel at Country Park revved up. I was exhausted but determined to hang on to the tilt-a-whirl of them until they headed off to the mothership.

Midway through their stay, when the 5 -year-old said he was bored, weary of the usual entertainments, I wished Woolworth’s still existed. But then a brainstorm hit.

“How would you like to help me wash the kitchen floor?” I asked. Nobody had ever given him such a fantastic opportunity.

His eyes widened. “Oh, yes!”

“Me, too!” hollered little brother.

Nothing glamorous or high-tech about that job, but both boys were thrilled with the adventure of it (and the spray bottle that came with the assignment). They’d discovered joy in a simple, sensory (and productive!) activity, far from the razzle-dazzle of commercial amusements. I stood on the threshold of the kitchen, watching them beaver away in their goofy way. It was happening before my very eyes: Two aliens from another planet were cleaning my kitchen!   OH

Marianne Gingher is an Earthbound writer living in Greensboro.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Read and Dead

A librarian’s cozy mystery series

By Anne Blythe

Librarians are good at deciphering mysteries. Just ask any card-carrying library fan. They can be sherpas, of a sort, guiding readers from behind the confines of their reference desks to a world of information often only a bookshelf or computer click away.

Some are good at creating them, too, as Victoria Gilbert, a former librarian-turned-mystery writer, shows in A Cryptic Clue, the first book in her new Hunter and Clewe cozy mystery series.

Raised in the “shadows of the Blue Ridge mountains,” Gilbert has been a reference librarian, a research librarian and a library director so, in the vein of “write what you know,” it’s easy to see why the protagonist in her new series is Jane Hunter, a 60-year-old university librarian forced into early retirement and a new chapter in life.

Gilbert’s Jane has tinges of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple in her, although she is a divorcee, not a spinster, who still wants to work for a living to pad her paltry pension. That desire to find a new vocation leads Gilbert’s chief sleuth to her new boss, Cameron Clewe — Cam, to those who know the 33-year-old unconventional multi-millionaire well — who was looking for an archivist and hired Jane sight unseen. Cam not only inherited tremendous wealth at a young age, but also an estate so large that it houses a private library, guest quarters and grand rooms where the well-to-do and those aspiring to affluence gather for glamorous galas, glitzy fundraisers and seasonal soirees.

Although Jane describes her new boss as “leading man material,” he’s a nervous type whose lack of a filter makes him a blunt, often humorless, speaker.

“I didn’t realize you were so old,” Cam says upon meeting Jane in his library. “And rather heavier than I expected, given that photo on the university website.”

Jane, on the other hand, is a woman used to working with college students and the mother of a grown daughter, an actress with a middle name that might as well be “drama.” She checks herself instead of blurting out the first thing that pops into her mind.

“That photo is a bit dated,” Jane responds, keeping her eyes on the prize she did not want to lose. Her Social Security payments wouldn’t kick in for at least two more years. She needs the work. Furthermore, she’s interested in sifting through and cataloging “the books and papers connected to classic mystery and detective authors” that have been amassed in Aircroft, Cam’s mansion. “As for my current appearance — years working in academia has taken its toll, it seems. But I am certain you hired me for my expertise, not my looks.”

Such is the beginning of the relationship that brings two Sherlocks from very different circumstances together to solve a mystery that holds a reader’s interest through the very last page.

The whodunit kicks off on a Monday at Aircroft after a charity fete over the weekend. Jane walks into the library on her first day of work, travel mug filled with coffee in hand, to find the body of Ashley Allen crumpled on the floor, “unquestionably, irrevocably dead.”

After “fighting the urge to retch” and scanning the crime scene with a surprisingly calm detachment, Jane staggers into the hallway, slumps against the wall and slides to the floor. “There’s a dead body in the library,” Jane thought. “That room meant to be my workplace is now a murder scene.”

It’s not just any body, either. Ashley was Cam’s ex-girlfriend, someone Jane had seen her new boss arguing with days earlier while touring the garden grounds. More than 100 people had been at Aircroft for the party the night before. Ashley had been there too, and was still clad in her silver sequined dress.

“You do realize who will be their number one suspect, of course,” Cam says after seeing the crime scene.

Quickly Cam decides to be proactive and use his resources to investigate Ashley’s death on his own. He turns to Jane for help. “I refuse to lounge around while the authorities build a case against me,” Cam declares. But, as his assistant Lauren points out, Cam is agoraphobic, rarely venturing out past the gates surrounding his home. That’s where Jane comes in.

“I’ll need help collecting information from the wider community. Which is what I’d like you two to do,” Cam tells Jane and Lauren. “Bring me back any clues you uncover, and I can piece it together, and perhaps solve this case before the authorities start casting about for a scapegoat. Namely me.”

The hunt for clues is added to Jane’s assigned duties. As Cam sets out to collect information from the kitchen staff and guests who had been staying in his house, Jane pursues the story outside Aircroft, casting about town for hints why the beautiful and wealthy Ashley has been killed, presumably by a fatal head wound delivered with a blunt object.

There is no shortage of suspects, either. Ashley left a trail of aggrieved casualties from former romances, business ventures and injurious family dynamics. As Jane and Cam glean the many storylines from Gilbert’s cast of characters, suspects are added to and subtracted from the list. Jane’s landlord, Vince, a retired reporter from the local newspaper, and his girlfriend, Donna, a former secretary at the local high school, provide background depth to clues that Jane turns up from her sleuthing.

In addition to the love interests and resentful entrepreneurs wooed and abandoned by the victim, readers meet the quirky Aircroft house guests, the detached Allen family — all of whom were to be left out of the deep-pocketed grandmother’s will — their housekeeper and others.

Gilbert keeps her readers guessing while entertaining them with snippets about mystery writers and their well-known characters, such as Archie, the droll narrator and sidekick to Nero Wolfe, the armchair detective brought to life by Rex Stout.

As Jane and Cam cross suspect after suspect off their lists while unraveling the mystery of Ashley’s killer, they uncover new secrets and riddles that are tidily wrapped up at the end of the novel. As the two share a pizza with the riddle solved, it’s clear more sleuthing is ahead.

“We could investigate those cold cases you mentioned, and maybe take on a few cases for other people,” Cam tells Jane.

“Maybe focus on cases where justice didn’t seem likely to be served?” Jane adds.

“Exactly,” Cam responds.

Exactly, indeed. Gilbert’s fans will be looking forward to whatever comes their way.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Grammar? The Horror!

He’s not silently correcting what you’ve just said in his head

By David Claude Bailey

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I fix other people’s grammar — then explain I’m an editor. Do people tend to get just a bit self conscious about their speech patterns afterwards? Probably, and although I sense them choosing their words just a bit more carefully as they speak, they needn’t. I’m not silently correcting their grammar. I’m what’s referred to among English majors as a descriptive grammar guy. In my rarely humble opinion, prescriptive grammar, which is all about prescribing what’s correct while proscribing errors, is a lost cause. According to a 2016 Huffington Post poll, only 12 percent of respondents complained that improper grammar in a text message would bother them “a lot,” with 53 percent of respondents being bothered “somewhat” or “not very much.” Thirty percent responded that bad grammar bothered them “not at all.”

I saw that coming decades ago when I taught English and Latin at Salem Academy, where I’d scribble on students’ papers in red ink, “Not spelled that way — yet — but keep on trying.”

Language evolves, changing hourly. (By the minute on the internet.) In certain historical eras, scholars tell us, it’s far more plastic. Methinks ours is one of them.

According to the History Channel, Shakespeare’s name was spelled more than 80 different ways during his lifetime — including Shaxberd — my favorite. The HC goes on to point out that the Bard himself “never spelled his name ‘William Shakespeare.’” Instead his John Henry spilled onto paper as “Willm Shakp,” “Willm Shakspere” and “William Shakspeare.” So, according to the man who didn’t worry about spelling bee or not to be, we’ve been misspelling his name for centuries. That was, of course, before Samuel Johnson attempted to impose standard spelling and grammar on his fellow Brits with the 1775 publication of his Dictionary of the English Language.

But back to our time. Let’s just tackle “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” my Klingon friends. OMG! Captain Kirk split an infinitive — a faux pas worse than splitting some of those tetchy molecules on the atomic chart. He put the adverb “boldly” between the “to” and the “go” of the infinitive form. I myself was attacked fiercely by a religion prof at Wake Forest during my master’s oral exam for that very crime. That, however, is based on the Victorian world’s worship of the Romans and Latin grammar, where splitting verbs was anathema. But let’s not split hairs about it.

And how about who/whom? For years, I’ve avoided “whom” in most sentences in O.Henry magazine. Why? Because I firmly believe something like half of our readers stop and wonder whether “whom” is right in any usage, while the other half come to a dead stop parsing the sentence and losing sight of the story.

Yes, I hear you, grammar grannies and grandpas. Sometimes I’m one of you. My pet peeve, which sometimes has me shouting at my radio during All Things Considered, is the use of “and” for “to” with infinitives, as in “I’ll try and use correct grammar.” In a grammatically perfect world, one would say, “I’ll try to use correct grammar.”

But does anyone really have trouble understanding the former? Does looking down at others’ speech elevate my social station or makes me feel superior and more educated than others? “Guilty,” I say. If you’ve read this far, you probably have your own peeve. “Would of,” “could of,” “should of”? The Oxford comma, which the Associated Press and this magazine abjure? If you were an English major, it might be the waning of the subjunctive mood. How about the conflating of its, it’s/ your, you’re/ they’re, there and their? The apostrophe is dying, folks, but the language isn’t.

I like to compare what’s going on with grammar to what’s happened to Auguste Escoffier’s haute cuisine, once rigidly taught and slavishly followed in the finest restaurants. Now, fusion, the mixing of dishes from different cultures, is all the rage. In our melting pot of polyglot with English being universally accepted as the internet’s lingua franca, “standard” American English is getting fused, bruised and misused. And we might as well embrace it.

So, fellow grammar geeks, I say that it’s over, and it’s high time to boldly go where no language has gone before.  OH

David Claude Bailey is a contributing editor to O.Henry. If you want to question or amend his grammar, mail him your corrections on the back of a $1,000 bill.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

La Mona Lisa Gioconda

Value is in the eye of the beholder

By:  Cynthia Adams

I have a not-so-secret fascination with Mona. Mona and I go way back.

The Italians call the Florentine beauty La Mona Lisa Gioconda — Madam Lisa Giocondo. She is La Joconde to the French.

As Nat King Cole crooned, she is Mona Lisa to the rest of us. 

My first reproduction of Mona was set in a chippy frame beneath wavy glass. This prized possession cost $1 at the former Sedgefield Flea Market. 

More recently, I’ve acquired others: two oversized giclées by Randy Slack titled Mona Ghost and Mona Citrus. I own books on the infamous Louvre thefts and tussles over the world’s most famous portrait, replete with accounts of when she went missing or was subjected to unwarranted attack. Five times and counting, Mona has been either outright stolen (the first time in 1911) or vandalized. Rocks, tea cups and paint have been hurled at the impassive face

Why all this drama? Salvador Dali said Mona with the mystic smile had “a power, unique in all art history, to provoke the most violent and different kinds of aggressions.”

Recently, a film critic reviewing Glass Onion suggested that Mona symbolizes legacy. The villain in the film “wants to be remembered in the same breath as the Mona Lisa . . . standing the test of time.”

Her legacy was burnished with every assault, Mona’s fame escalating after the 1911 heist.

She epitomized Da Vinci’s greatness. No visible brush strokes. The lifelike countenance. Mona’s ambiguous physicality. And . . . that smile. We experience Mona as faintly masculine, lacking eyebrows or lashes (overzealous restoration removed them).

Da Vinci began the commission of Mona, the wife of a wealthy Italian merchant Francesco del Giocondo, in 1503. He worked on it until 1507.

When he left Italy on horseback for France in 1516 at the invitation of an admiring King Francis I, he took Mona’s portrait with him.

Installed by Francis at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise, he hung Mona on his bedroom wall. 

He himself regarded her as his opus. (Or not; an art dealer earlier this year argued this: what if the artist wanted to hide her?) Mona held his attention because he never considered her quite finished.

Working in splendid style befitting a genius, he died at age 67 in 1519 in the arms of the weeping King, who called Da Vinci “Father.”

It is entirely possible that Mona’s was the last face he saw at his death.

Afterward, Da Vinci’s painting was claimed by the French King much to the consternation of the Italians. The Chateau was preserved by the French as a Da Vinci Museum.

The embittered Italians want her returned. When first stolen from the Louvre by an ordinary workman in 1911, she was whisked off to Italy.

Mona became an international celebrity. You get the picture: Cabbages and kings alike obsessed over Mona.

I placed Dollar Mona, the chippy, cheap one, over the kitchen stove. There was and is something inspiring about Mona’s presence.

House-poor as we were, Mona somehow sustained our determination to revive and make worthy the tatty kitchen. 

We scraped, painted, plastered and sweated over the monstrous job we faced. We fashioned new cabinet doors and tiled the counters. Too poor to replace the ancient stove, we polished till it gleamed. 

My brother showed up one weekend to reinforce the sagging dining room floor. Slowly, the careworn, early-1900s house responded.

Feeling celebratory, we opened it up for a party. A niece’s ex, famously befuddled, disappeared into the kitchen for an inordinate amount of time. 

What the heck was he doing?

Walking through the butler’s pantry to the kitchen, I overheard as he ground out the words, “That’s the Mona Lisa,” stopping me in my tracks.

“Yeah, I know,” replied my niece.

“Well, they’ve got to have money if they own that,” he said sourly.

Wearing an enigmatic smile of my own, I reversed course and rejoined the party. True enough, even Dollar Mona had grown beyond price.  OH

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Swing to Life

A tired play set oscillates a passerby’s perspective

By Mallory Miranda

I can’t stand the sight of it: The metal and plastic swing set in its sun-faded primary colors. It stands conspicuously in a neighbor’s yard.

I can almost hear its creaking joints.

One word flashes across my mind’s eye as I approach: eyesore.

I bind my dog’s nylon leash around my knuckles, determined to pass it quickly.

It’s the sort of swing set friends had in their yards in the early ’90s. Thirty years ago, these swing sets were more brightly colored, but, displeasingly, they creaked then, too.

I recall two swing sets in particular. One was in the yard of our neighborhood Girl Scout troop leader. Let me just say, I don’t have fond memories of my time in this troop. The other swing set was in a much happier backyard.

Any fond memory of my time as a Girl Scout is tarnished by the unpleasant troop leader. I’ll confess I often misplace her actual face in my memory with that of Miss Agatha Hannigan, the boozy, little-girl-loathing head of the orphanage in Annie. You get the picture.

Did anyone actually play on that swing set? Or was it just for show, a way of proclaiming, halfheartedly, “Our child is beloved. See — we buy her things!”

Shortly after her stint as a Girl Scout troop leader, the woman and her husband dropped their daughters off at a relative’s house for an indefinite visit. Then, they bought a Harley and rode off into the dust together.

Is their old swing set still rusting in their backyard now, wheezing in the wind?

My dog yanks her shortened leash. She hasn’t gone “number one” yet. Judging from the tension on the leash, she’s ready.

I release some slack. As she sniffs for her perfect spot, I wait at the curb of the swing set house, grateful to my oversized sunglasses for concealing my condescension.

I see a motley mix of terra cotta pots and old plastic margarine containers that form a boundary around the yard. All of the pots and containers are overgrown with a vibrant variety of plants. The grass is freshly mowed.

Another yard comes to mind: my grandmother’s.

Particularly, it’s the repurposed plastic containers that remind me of her abrasive voice, scolding me across time, “Aye, Mija! Don’t throw away that perfectly good Tupperware!”

My grandmother was the neighborhood babysitter, her yard always littered with a mix of toys she collected over the years. Many were leftover from former clients whose kids had outgrown them. And, yes, she had a swing set just like the one I’m trying not to stare at. It and all the other toys were faded and dated, but everything sparkled anew when it hit her lawn.

“Waste not, want not.”

My grandmother’s yard of hand-me-down toys, creaking swing sets and messy children is all cleaned up now. She’s too frail to lift a small child, let alone have one or more running wild in her yard.

My dog kicks up grass with her hind legs, signaling she’s done.

A screen door opens and a pair of chubby legs bursts through it. A stout little toddler flings herself onto a hard plastic seat, joyfully propelling it into centripetal motion, while a woman looks on.

With the spark of child’s play, the swing set is magically restored to its vibrant glory.

I smile and wave to my neighbor. She nods in return.

And as my dog and I amble down the street, the swing set creaks loudly, as if it’s laughing.  OH

Mallory Miranda is a resident of Greensboro. She is currently writing a play.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Chipmunk

An uninvited houseguest makes an imprint

By Marianne  Gingher

At the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, a chipmunk enters my house and will not be caught — not by my cat or the Havahart trap I bait with peanut butter. Day after day, she won’t take the bait.

Next, my 3-year-old dishwasher breaks. First world problem, a broken dishwasher, right? It seems a certain order is breaking down between appliances going haywire and wild animals invading my house. I call a repair service and am told that parts for this dishwasher are on backorder from Mars. No matter. I happen to be a dish washer — in the way I am not a stove or a refrigerator.

A month passes, pandemic time, so that weeks go by like years and years like weeks, and nobody can remember with any authority what happened when. The dishwasher is still broken, I know that much, and Chippy’s still on the loose. I hear her scuttling under the stove, shifting herself around to get ever more comfortable. Mornings, when I make coffee, I find tufts of insulation in front of the oven door, as if she’s been rearranging her furniture. She’s had a chance now to study my habits and my cat’s habits and hedge her bets as to when it’s safest to venture out. I find less-than-savory evidence of her adventures whenever I sweep. Once in a while, when I’ve been especially quiet, she’s skittered out and encountered me. She screams! I scream! Clearly, we are not meant to be roommates.

Daily, I bait the trap with fresh peanut butter, but catch nary a whisker. On warm days, I leave the backdoor open, hoping a sniff of fresh air will entice her to brave a jailbreak. Has her long captivity made her forget how to be a chipmunk? Has mine made me forget how to be human? My cat’s catness seems in jeopardy (since he can’t catch a chipmunk) and he looks depressed.

When the appliance man delivers the new dishwasher motherboard, he wears pristine coveralls, clean cloth booties over his shoes and a super-duper N-95 mask. He carries a large briefcase with all sorts of digital testers and gleaming repair instruments inside. He arranges all his tools on drop cloths and removes the dishwasher’s worn out organs with the care and precision of a surgeon. “A bit of bad news,” he says as he finishes tidying up. “I found small animal droppings under there. Possibly you have a rodent problem?”

That day, I go to the grocery store and, on a hunch (I’ve done some research), buy some pricey rabbit/gerbil/hamster food specifically “for rodents.” I have refrained from thinking seriously about the fact that Chippy is a rodent. I bait the Havahart with renewed determination and . . . voila! In the cage, she’s calm, cocking her little chipmunk head to observe me better as I carry her outside. I feel tenderly connected, like Snow White on the brink of a song.

The pandemic asked us all to get better at waiting. I marvel at the patience of the chipmunk who knew only the wild green flickering world before her estrangement from it. Trapped in a house, her immense aliveness had to learn to be still. She spent six weeks dodging a gargantuan human and Isis, the cat, gobbling any dusty crumb she could find, waiting, no exit strategy. During her lockdown, nothing was certain, except that the hawk who frequently glides over the neighborhood would not be picking her off. Wherever she scampered, I know she’s enjoying the pandemic’s easement as much as I am this summer.  OH

Marianne Gingher has published seven books, both fiction and nonfiction. She recently retired from teaching creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill for 100 years.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

Deep Dish

A family vacation to remember

By Cassie Bustamante

Every family has the quintessential summer vacation that stands out in its history. Ours is a 2017 road trip halfway across the country, from Maryland to South Dakota, with stops along each way in Chicago and St. Louis. I’d just sold the vintage store I’d set up with a friend and had decided to spend some of the profits on an epic family vacation, one the kids would remember for a lifetime.

We load up our cherry-red Ford Flex with snacks, pillows, luggage, plus 11-year-old Sawyer and 10-year-old Emmy, and all of their “necessities” (rainbow unicorn hooded blanket — check). My husband, Chris, a Virgo and Type A planner, has plotted out our vacation in great detail. As we begin our first leg, we excitedly chat about the fun things we’ll get to do and see during our two-night stay in our first stop, the Windy City: a Cubs game, the Field Museum, the iconic Bean and, of course — the most highly anticipated and arguably Chicago’s greatest contribution to culinary arts — deep dish pizza. In fact, Chris has planned it so that we’ll arrive in Chicago just in time to check in to our hotel and walk to one of the city’s most famed pizza joints, Lou Malnati’s.

About a half-hour from our destination, traffic slows a bit. “Mommy, I don’t feel so good,” Emmy calls from the back seat. From a young age, our daughter has been subject to bouts of motion sickness on long trips, so we chalk it up to that and assure her that we will be there soon.

“Just close your eyes and try to rest,” I say reassuringly.

A few minutes later, I’m rushing Emmy out of the backseat of the car so she can barf on the side of Interstate 80. It’s a routine we’re both familiar with. We give her a minute to make sure it’s all out, then hit the road again.

When we arrive in Chicago, Emmy’s motion sickness doesn’t seem to be passing, but the rest of us are the worst combination of exhausted and hungry. I tell her I’m sure she just needs some fresh air and time for her stomach to settle; the walk to the restaurant will do her some good.

After a few blocks, we arrive, put in our name, and wait outside Lou Malnati’s front door to be called. Emmy, we notice, still looks pale and miserable. Chris and I exchange “oh crap” glances as she says, “I think I’m gonna be sick again.”

In a moment of panic, I rush her toward the nearest restroom, dragging her by the hand behind me. She doesn’t make it into a stall and unleashes all over the floor, counter and sinks. I clean up as best I can while shouting to women at the door, “Do not come in here right now!!” (In retrospect, we should have stayed outside, as Chris likes to remind me.)

Mortified, I find an employee and explain what’s just happened, apologizing profusely. Emmy and I head back outside where Chris and I decide that the best course of action is ordering pizza-to-go for the rest of us.

Back at our hotel room, we tuck into the pizza with gusto — except Emmy, as you might suspect. And for the next few minutes, the subtle sounds of chewing and involuntary “mmmms” echo throughout. Chris, Sawyer and I are so swept away by deep-dish pizza we savor every warm and gooey bite while Emmy looks on from bed, eyes sunken and sad.

Thankfully, after a night of sleep, she’s fine. We scurry through the Windy City, taking in as much as possible in our 48-hour jaunt.

But six years later, it isn’t a tourist site or baseball game that is top of mind when we think of that trip. It’s that pizza — the one that Emmy never got to taste. And while it might not be what we had in mind when we set out to create the vacation of a lifetime, we’re confident we made memories our kids will not forget, no matter how hard they try.  OH