Mar 23

You Are the Shadow

For his ongoing project "I’m Not There," Barcelona-based photographer Pol Úbeda Hervàs creates composite photographs from multiple exposures.The invitation arrived only a week ago: ‘The Presence of your company is graciously requested,’ it began. Arriving by registered mail, it included three, one-hundred-dollar bills for ancillary expenses and one round trip airfare. Now, with the Sun about to rise, you are walking through a metal detector, about to board a bus with dozens of other people from your flight, complete strangers who, like you, are dressed for this special occasion. The bus is almost full. A woman wearing a too-large, fluffy blue gown has her dress spread across the two seats on either side of her. She looks at you with a discouraging frown as you approach. Her high heels are blue, too, and so tight they look like they are frowning as well. A man in a turban looks at you stone-faced as you walk to the back. You take a seat next to a pregnant woman. She wishes you good morning as the bus starts to leave. You reply the same, but, like everyone else, you and she ride in otherwise silence through the dim, quiet streets of Washington D.C. The bus is joined by other buses as you pass through the gates to the White House. Cellphones come out, and a few hasty pictures of the Sun rising over this iconic building are taken, by others. The buses drive around to the back of the White House.

Clutching a claim ticket for your cellphone, you and the others are escorted past sniffing dogs and through still more metal detectors, then into a theater. There must be two thousand people or more. Different ages, different skins, and very different ideas on how to dress for a meeting with the President. Two rows in front of you sit a young man in a hoodie next to a woman in a hijab. Off to the left is a lady with a flowery derby hat, and not far away is a short man in a ten-gallon hat. There are women wearing scarves and men wearing skullcaps. Hair styles are a mishmash of everything from ponytails to buzzcuts, and just as colorful as the hats. In the din, you hear Yiddish, Spanish, Southern drawls, New England twangs and other tongues you do not recognize. All, with light laughter and calm expressions. A virtual vegetable soup of people sits anxiously in this theater with you, awaiting the President. Your invitation did not say what the occasion was, did not say you would be meeting with so many others. You ask around you, but no one knows why they are here.

‘Thank you,’ President Trump says as he walks on stage. There is no applause. He is dressed in dark pants, white polo shirt, and his traditional red golf cap. He looks older and heavier in person. There is no podium. He stands on stage with the microphone in his hand and begins, ‘I want to thank all of you for being here today on such short, and vague, notice. For those of you who called, I’m sorry we could not give you any more information until now. It’s important, as you’ll see. But first, I want you to look around and see who else is here today. And as you do, let me explain why you are here.

‘Look around, and you’ll see some others who look like you, but you’ll see a lot more people you don’t have much in common with. In fact, as far as I know, you all have only three things in common, and it’s got nothing to do with politics or religion or what neighborhood you live in. First, you are all American citizens who have not had their voting privileges revoked. Second, you have all been living in your community for at least one year, and third, you all own smartphones.’

As the President speaks, ushers walk the aisles and distribute small, white boxes about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Embossed on the cover is an outline of the White House, the only color is the tiny American flag on top of it. ‘I’ve asked you here at this ungodly hour of seven a.m. because it’s the only way to avoid the press these days. They think I’m playing an early round of golf. I’ll tell them after I’ve told you.’

‘Here it is.

‘I am asking each of you to volunteer for one year of public service to your country, to your President. I’m calling it, “Volunteers of America.” Great name. Perfect name for this program.

‘Specifically, I am asking you to use the app that is being distributed now to shadow your congressmen and senators. On this app, you will be able to see what bills are coming up, and with it, you will be able to vote on those bills just like your representatives do. They won’t be able to escape their shadow now!

‘There are thirty-three people here from each state and territory of the United States. Each one of you represents three percent of your state’s population. At the end of each vote, the way you cast your vote will be compared to how your congressmen voted, and those results we will give to the media and everyone on Capitol Hill. Now, I know you have a hundred questions, but I already know what they are. Believe me, I thought this through. I thought it through more than any other program I thought through so far. Volunteers of America. Great name, isn’t it?’

The person next to you raises her hand and asks, ‘Isn’t that name already taken? The VoA has…’

‘We’re talking to them,’ Trump interrupts. ‘We’re talking to them. They may change their name to the Original Volunteers, or the Old Volunteers. You know, they’ve been around for over a hundred years. Great organization, does great things.’

But in your mind, you’re hearing Jefferson Airplane’s song Volunteers. The lyrics, their meaning, Woodstock, the trembling times of fifty years ago. You look around and see much apprehension on others, too. You open your box. In it is a flash drive and you are almost afraid to touch it. There is also a business card-size note signed by the President that reads, Thanks for volunteering to make America great again! Grace Slick wails in your mind, Look what’s happening out in the street.

The P.O.T.U.S. continues, ‘Your votes will not count towards the passing of any bills. That’s not legal. Your votes are not binding, but your lawmakers are going to see where they are out of sync with your votes, and you, and the world, are going to see where they are not in step with how they should be behaving on your behalf. You, the Volunteers, will have the results of both Volunteers’ vote and your representatives’ – in-real-time! As it happens, folks, so the media cannot fake the results. Not to you, anyway. If they report something different, you’re gonna report that. This is so beautiful, because not only are we going to hold Congress accountable, but the press, too!

‘You know, I once had an accountant tell me he could add up a column of numbers to say whatever I wanted it to say. I fired him, folks. I told him I don’t need a cook in the accounting office and fired him on the spot. That’s what they do! They add the column of numbers to say what they want! We gotta stop that. You, the Volunteers of America, are gonna stop that.’

Trump continues, but your mind drifted back to those bold headlines fifty years ago; Johnson, Nixon, party didn’t matter. You think, Slick had it right; This generation got no destination to hold.

Trump says, ‘This is so beautiful. Isn’t this beautiful? Actually, I didn’t think it up on my own, I had a little help from Ivanka and Jared. Isn’t she great? What a great daughter. Have you seen her Summer Collection? Great son-in-law, too. But back on script. Actually, as you can see, I’m not using a script. No teleprompter needed for this one. I’ve been ready for this one for a long, long time.

‘Remember, I promised to drain the swamp? Well, you are going to help me. With your help, we can force Congress to listen to your voices over the lobbyists. And then they are going to have to decide if they want to keep their jobs or continue to fill their pockets with…. Do you know; every single senator and congressman is a millionaire? Every single one! That’s why they want to keep their jobs – they want to be the Sous Chef of the accounting office!’

He shifts the mic to his other hand and continues in a calmer voice, ‘Now, this is strictly voluntary. You can leave here today and never download the app. That’s fine, too. You know why? Because there are millions of Americans just like you who don’t vote. And just as their silence goes without representation, so will three percent of your neighbors’ if you don’t. And that’s fine. That’s the American way, too.

‘Here’s what you won’t get, that your representatives do get. You will not get paid-in-full health insurance for you and your family for life. You will not get a $175,000 salary. In fact, you are not getting paid a dime. You don’t get an office with a dozen staff members, or a car or any travel reimbursement. You are not going to be invited to lavish dinner parties, or receive box seat tickets anonymously in the mail. But, like your senators and congressmen, you will only have to work 22 weeks a year. I guess that’s a perk. I’ve never taken that much time off from work. Ever. Hard to imagine any company staying in business if every employee took off six and half months a year. At $175,000 each. Just imagine. But that’s another story. Another problem I gotta fix. But not now.’

A man on the other side of the room asks, ‘Is this legal?’

Trump assures him it is. ‘Absolutely legal. One hundred percent legal. One hundred and ten percent!’

The man wearing the ten-gallon hat raises his hand and asks if their names and addresses will be published.

‘That’s nevva-gonna-happen, amigo,’ Trump shakes his head. ‘The only way anyone is going to know that you are a Volunteer of America is if you tell them. Which you are entitled to do. But WE are not going to reveal to the press or anyone else who you are. Even if you were to swear on a stack of bibles that you are part of this program, we will never admit it, or deny it. And one year from now, when your service is up, the app will be removed and someone else will have taken your place. The one thing you absolutely cannot do, the one thing that will get you booted out of the Volunteers in a heartbeat, is if you have any contact with any lobbyists while serving your country.’

The pregnant woman who sat next to you on the bus asks, ‘Are we going to be able to vote on what you do, too?’

The President hesitates. ‘That’s a good question.’ He covers the mic and consults with someone offstage. ‘No,’ the President says. ‘But that’s a good idea.’ He turns back to stage-left and says into the microphone, ‘Jared, make a note to include that in version-two.’

Someone in the audience shouts, ‘Supreme Court, too.’ A few applaud.

‘That’s good. That’s great, but no applause, please. There are no news cameras rolling. But this is great, folks. This is just what we want. Anybody else got any other good ideas?’

The woman whose gown took up two additional seats on the bus gets up and says very loudly, ‘I’m not gonna sit here and listen to any more of this man’s bull crap!’ She looks from the President to the others in the room. ‘Who’s with me?’ She takes a step to leave as others rise and choirs their agreement. The President says, ‘That’s fine. Walk out. But you’ll take millions of voters out with you.’

‘I never voted for you! I was one of the millions who protested against you!’ she shouts. ‘Get someone else to be your crony.’

‘No one in here asked to be here. No one! No one asks to be on jury duty, either, but if you’re called you must appear. It’s your constitutional duty. Think of this as jury duty. Now, all of you, sit down and hear me out. If not for yourself, then for the millions of protestors you will be abandoning! Or, don’t they deserve your vote?’

She stares long and hard at Trump, then sits back down and crosses her arms. Mumbled conversations creep throughout the theater until someone asks, ‘Why can’t we talk to lobbyists? Congressmen and Senators do all the time.’

‘Because that’s the swamp, my friend. Because that’s the swamp. If the Volunteers of America are going to have any value in the end, then you need to abide by that one rule. Just one rule. That’s all. If you choose to bring in other people, other voices, to help you decide, that’s up to you. Or not. It’s your call all the way.’ Trump asks stage-left for a chair so he can sit down.

After Jared brings it and he sits down, Trump continues in what sounds strangely like your father’s voice.

‘You see, you and me, we’re cut from the same cloth. We’re both above reproach because I love this country as much as you do. No lobbyist is going to bribe me! With what? A million dollars? Free golf for life? I’m untouchable. And so are you, as long as they don’t know who you are. What you are going to do – and what this program is going to do for years after you’ve helped pioneer it, with me –  what this is going to do is make congress great again. If only because they are under a glaring spotlight.’

Someone calls out, ‘Are you going to listen, too, Mr. President? Are you going to let that glaring spotlight shine on you?’

He doesn’t say anything at first, but his face turns as red as his hat. He says flatly, ‘I already answered that. Like I said; version two. But I’m not the problem. I’m above reproach, and everybody knows that. This program is run by you and run by you only. Vote, don’t vote; it all counts. And you want to know why this is so good? Why this is so great, actually? It’s great because everyone thinks the Electoral College is a bad idea. Maybe someday this will replace it. Think about this…. Just take a minute and think about this.’ He draws imaginary quotes over his head and says, ‘Volunteers of America Replaces Electoral College -Whadda headline that would make! Wouldn’t that make a great headline?’

Mumbled conversations fill the theater again. The person sitting next to you leans over and says, ‘Wow. This is a lot of responsibility. A lot of responsibility to walk away from, too. What are you going to do?’

You look at the embossed house on the box, the flag on top. Jefferson Airplane plays in your head, and you say…

 

What would you do?

  1. Would you believe the President? Or, would you be afraid of what’s really on the app?
  2. Would you walk away, knowing no one will ever know it was you who took away their voice?
  3. Would you volunteer? And if so, would you consult with your neighbors before voting, or would you just vote your conscience? Again, knowing no one will know who you are. It’s only for one year.

LMK, pls

-P

 

Mar 21

Our Lucky Day!!!

I don’t often think about luck, good or bad. I feel life mostly turns out for the best. And, if I have a few lucky breaks along the way, so much the better. You are probably wondering, why am I writing about luck? This is my story.

 

Last year I booked an ocean cruise for myself and my husband with Viking, two weeks sailing around the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Venice. It sounded wonderful!

 

When I make reservations, I usually go with a room somewhere in the middle price range. In this case I picked one with a balcony, so we could go outside, and on the port side, so we’d see the coastline along the way on most of the voyage.

 

Over the intervening months, various papers arrived from Viking telling me to do this or that. They all began with our names and our room number. Last week the final packet arrived and the first thing I did was check that everything was correct: our names, room number, flights, hotels, etc.

 

I was shocked! The room number was different! What had happened?

 

At first I felt upset. What had Viking done? Then I decided to see where this room was and what it looked like. I clicked on the ship’s deck plan and then on the room and the screen opened up with this picture:

 

Wow! The Explorer Suite which has 757 or more square feet, depending on where it’s located. It includes a private wrap around deck as well as a living room, bedroom and bathroom the size of the one we have at home. It also comes with a number of perks such as three complimentary guaranteed priority reservations in the specialty restaurants and a welcome bottle of champagne as well as a number of other complimentary items! Frankly, I was gone when I saw 757 square feet! Our original room, which I’d been very happy with, came with 270 square feet, one priority reservation and no champagne.

 

Now I was both excited and worried! How did this happen? Would we be charged the difference in fare? This room was two-thirds to twice as expensive as what I’d originally booked.

 

I decided to phone Viking. I told the man who answered that I had noticed a room number change on our final papers. What had happened? Would we be billed the price difference? I held my breath. There was a long pause. He said he had to check our account. He was gone for what seemed like FOREVER. Finally he came back. Viking found some maintenance issues in our original room so they decided to move us. There would be no charge.

 

Wow! I let my breath out slowly. This was certainly very, very good luck!!! The Explorer’s Suite! Our trip of a lifetime! What a lucky break!

Mar 18

Coffee Shop Chronicles: Making friends in coffee shops, Part 1

The Fine Grind, a coffee bar

Little Falls, NJ

March 2017

It’s my second week in New Jersey, and I see a woman in a yellow University of Michigan sweatshirt.

Really?

I live in some vortex that I can’t escape my former home state.  Are there more of them?  I scan the room.  The big windows behind me let in light, but at this hour, there’s more shadow than light.  It’s one of those wood-floor hipster coffee places with tables scattered around the room to add a cohesive look with a funky vibe.  The tables match way too much.  It’s not like Plymouth Bean back home–I mean, back in Michigan.  Speaking of, I don’t see any more Michigan folks, but I also don’t see a free table near an outlet.

Just as well.  I can’t resist.  I shuffle left and say, “I notice your sweatshirt.  I just moved here from Michigan.  Did you go there?”

“Oh, my daughter goes there,” she says with that proud momma smile.  “She’s a freshman and loves it there.  When we went to visit, it’s beautiful there.”

I have my own opinions of campus.  There’s too much cement with wide walkways and sidewalks, making the campus look grey.  I’m used to my campus with its lawn stretches of grass and tall, green trees lining thin sidewalks.  There’s too little greenery for me to call Michigan’s main campus pretty, let alone, beautiful.  I smile politely.  I hope my eyes don’t betray me.

“What about you and Penn State?” she asks, nodding at me and my sweatshirt.

I heft my writing bag on my shoulder, adjusting it.  The bag’s getting heavy and awkward.  I spy a free table on my right.  I want to snag it, but I can’t resist a Penn State question.

“My husband and I are alumni.”  I pause.  I never know people’s reaction to that:  Love?  Hate?  Ambivalence?  I have no idea what the atmosphere is in New Jersey these days, especially now that Rutgers, The State University joined the B1G Ten.

“My other daughter goes to Penn State,” she says her eyes bright.  We’ve made two connections in about 30 seconds.  I’m almost spin-dizzy.   Really?  What are the odds?  Is there some practical joke camera hidden behind the dark paintings on the wall?  I feel foolish flicking my eyes around, but still, I do.

“She loves it there,” Proud Momma continues.  “She got so involved with THON last month.”

I swallow my tears.    I danced in THON   [https://www.thon.org/  –open link in new window]   twice: as an undergrad and years later as an alum.  THON is 100% student-run event that raises money for children with cancer.  This year, they raised $10.1 million dollars.  That’s the money raised this year.  I am so intensely proud of that organization and my stamina to stay awake and stand on my feet for 46 hours.  Simply saying the word THON makes me weepy.

Please don’t let me cry.  What will this woman think of me?

“They raised a lot of money this year,” she continues.  “She was so involved with it.  She stayed awake the entire time.”

Thank you, dear woman, for giving me time to compose myself.   Now I have the voice to ask, “As a freshman?”  This event is intensely popular, and participation as a dancer or committee member is competitive and priority is earned by upperclassmen.  I can’t think of a single freshman dancer.  Ever.

“She didn’t dance.  She didn’t have to be awake all 46 hours,” momma says, “but she was up for at least 24 hours or more.  Still, I donated.”

Still?  I would hope she didn’t need her daughter’s involvement to donate to this charity.  Given her daughter’s status, she was probably part of some general stay-awake cheering section for an organization or special interest group.  I wonder if she’s a pledge in my sorority.

I don’t the chance to ask because the man next to her shuffles his for-here plate and to-go cup.  He slides down the cushioned bench and stands up.  I feel his eyes rolling, so I look down at the wood floor.  The man must be her husband because he gathers her coffee cup.

“Take care,” I say to her and nod to her man.  They crumple napkins and brush crumbs on the floor.  I adjust my bag on my right shoulder and shuffle towards the pastry case.  I always check out the food in a new coffee shop.  I want to see a shop’s dedication to local or defrost.

I glance back to see if the woman waves at me.  She doesn’t, but she and her man step far enough away from the table that it won’t be rude for me to dash over and claim their seat.  I plop my workbag on her seat and toss my coat on the bench seat behind the table.  I look down and see outlet under the bench.  Thank you for giving me this space.

Mar 16

Real Writers Live to be Inspired

Writers’ lives are full of pressure. We set goals for ourselves and inch our way toward deadlines. We study our craft, attend conferences, pitch ideas to agents, and network with all sorts of people on social media. We constantly long to write but never have as much time as we would like. Raising the stakes unnecessarily higher, we bravely tell non-writers that we’re writing a book . . . and later realize the magnitude of having released our secret. We’re now accountable when our friends innocently ask, “How’s the book coming?”

Remember this famous line: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”? Repeated over and over, for pages and pages, that single sentence fills the white spaces of a fictitious, yet infamous, character’s work in progress. After days of producing nothing of substance for the book he’s supposed to be writing, Jack appears demented—or worse, possessed by a sinister ghost.

The iconic imagery above is, of course, from The ShiningSteven King’s 1977 bestselling novel later transformed into blockbuster horror film. It’s a dream for many writers to be as prolific and successful as Mr. King. But try as I may, I relate more to poor, ol’ menacing Jack: I could easily isolate myself from society, shore up in a room for days, and drown myself in my writing. I’m equally obsessed as he . . .  luckily not possessed, at least not usually. Still, I know Jack’s frustration all too well. Like him, I’m not making significant progress on the two writing projects I’m most passionate about.

One of my unfinished books is the biography of a female pastor, Janet Noble-Richardson. My inspiration to write about Janet stems from her influence on my spiritual life. I never met anyone who expressed such abundant Christ-like love in their own behavior. Janet taught love by modeling it, and I admired her faith-filled approach. I want people to see the way Janet lived her life and to understand what it looks like to be in close relationship with Christ. I hope her story will inspire people to develop their own connections to Christ and make Him the priority in their lives.

My job to tell Janet’s story is complicated for a variety of reasons. I need to verify facts, but I can’t ask Janet for clarification of personal details. She died in a car accident in 2006. So, I’m piecing the story together through written documents she left and through interviews with people who knew her.

Janet’s father told me stories of raising his family in Pakistan, where he and his wife served as missionaries. The family met people from many different nations. American diplomats and foreign ambassadors regularly attended church services at the Noble’s home in Islamabad.

Pastor Noble recounted one story with great fondness, and I could appreciate how significant the moment was for him and his family. On a vacation into northern India, they met a boy who said he was studying under the Dalai Lama. Ever since encountering the boy, the family has wondered whether he grew up to become the current Dalai Lama.

I started researching Janet’s story over two years ago and quickly realized that in representing facts accurately I would have to expose hard truths like this: It’s improbable that the boy the family met in India in 1961 could be the same man who is the current Dalai Lama. My investigation indicates that His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, had been living in Dharamsala at the time the Nobles were visiting the area. As I write this article in 2017, however, the 14th Dalai Lama is still alive. Before the next can be chosen, His Holiness must die and reincarnate. Therefore, the 15th Dalai Lama has yet to be born, if at all. That means that the boy the Nobles met may have been a student of some sort, but he couldn’t have been training to be the Tibetan religious leader.

You can see why Janet’s biography is complicated. I hate thinking that I could ruin another really good family story. Regardless, I’m committed to doing my best, even if it takes me a decade to get the book done.

The other book I’m writing is for children. The story is flowery and fanciful—a work of fiction in which flora and fauna talk to one another. It has villains and heroes, conflict, resolution, symbolism, and a heart-warming ending. It is the kind of book that binds grandparents to their grandkids. The elders will want to read it aloud and the youth will cherish the book as their favorite.

I know the premise and I’m developing the cast of characters. One is named Grace—not for a didactic religious purpose, but because I promised my best friend during middle school that one day, I would name one of my children after her, Marjorie Grace.

You may all be thinking: finish one book before you start another. But writers don’t think like that. We can’t stop the ideas that come flooding our way. We do our best to harness them. Sometimes we’re desperate and reach for scraps of paper and napkins to scribble upon. Other times, we trap our story arcs in fancy journals until it’s time to unravel our thoughts and spin them into order with the help of software like Microsoft Word and Scrivener.

When friends like you ask how my books are coming, I know I overuse the words, “I wish I had more time to write,” and it feels like a horribly weak excuse. But I don’t worry about the time it takes. I know that I’m a work in progress too. While I’m forever thinking, composing, revising, and promoting, God is taking His time refining me—shaping my life through the people and experiences that are unique to me. I’m growing in knowledge and developing new skills. I’m learning to be a better person by juggling the demands of everyday life, experiencing burdens and joys, dealing with complex issues and personalities.

When oppressive thoughts lure me into thinking that it would be quicker and easier to check out from society—like Jack did—to mine my treasures, I know better. Fairy tale endings aren’t discovered in privacy and seclusion. Life among the living is rich with inspiration. I’m savoring my time in the real world with family and friends. I’m at peace knowing that I’ll finish what I need to when the time is perfectly right.

Mar 11

Dancin’ at Shades

Conrad Bastian pulled up and parked at Shade’s, the local gathering place and all he could think about was poppin’ a cap on a cold one. The engine clicked and pinged when he shut it off. He sat takin’ just a second to breathe and relax. Getting out his truck, a layer of dust clung to his skin. Worn and dirtied boots hit the gravel, and he pulled off his straw Stetson wiping his brow, the heat bordering on the doorstep of the devil’s den. Smacking the hat on his knee, he watched the dust of the day scatter on the wind taking with it some of the stress that lingered. A cold one sounded damn good to Conrad.

Blinking neon of Shades Bar greeted him, the closest thing the town of Mariette had for country dancing. If a ten-foot by ten-foot space could be considered a dance floor. Most everyone came for a beer and food, except for days like today, when folks came to mingle, catch-up or hook-up. To let off a little steam.

The menu was decent. Listed were great burgers made from homegrown cattle. Crowded as usual on a Friday night. The taps flowed with the best brews his small town had to offer and all the regular domestic beers that were American staples. He was partial to his friend’s stout. Con sat on a wooden stool, that was just vacated, at the bar and took his first breath of peace.

“Johnny,” he called over the din of Keith Urban and stomping feet. He lifted his hand to get the owner’s attention. Con smiled when Johnny, the owner and his best friend, bumbled a glass almost droppin’ it. “Can I get the Cast Iron Burger and a pint of the stout?”

The chin lift then a nod he got allowed Con to lean on the bar with his elbows and settle in for a while. With his hands on the back of his head and the much-needed time apart from his father, he was finally able to relax since the rooster sounded off that morning. Even with all the noise, the music blaring and the voices laughing or singing to the song on the jukebox he zoned out.

“How’s it going, man?”

Con sat up with a start. He took the beer from his friend taking his first swallow. “It’s going.”

“Bad day?”

“You could say that if every machine thinking it was time to take a break did so by breaking down. Yeah.” He took another swallow. “Of course, Dad thinking each was my fault added to a spectacular time.”

Johnny wiped the bar and then pulled a couple beers.

“Hey, Lydia,” Con said to the waitress when she brushed her hip against him.

“Hey, Con.” She smiled and her gaze ran over him.

He’d taken her to bed a few times. It was good. It scratched an itch as the saying went, but didn’t do much more.

“You dancing later, honey?” she asked.

“I might be.” He didn’t think he’d stay long enough for her to get off her shift. He was tired as hell, but he might consider it.

She smiled, and took the beers from Johnny and quickly delivered the drinks as Con looked on over his shoulder.

Johnny shook his head and smiled at the backside of his waitress with a more familiar glint in his eyes.

“You know that can’t end well. You haven’t seen her crazy like I have,” Johnny said.

Johnny had dated her for a while, but it hadn’t worked out. He didn’t talk about it much and never said what happened, but she was still at Shade’s waiting tables so it couldn’t have ended all that bad for him. He’d never been proprietary over a woman before and that included Lydia. It was the only reason Con had been with her. Otherwise, loyalty trumped having sex with your best friend’s girl.

“Were you able to fix any of them?”

“Huh?” Con said. “Oh yeah. Some. A couple others, I gotta order parts for. I don’t expect to see anything until next week, which brought on a shit storm once again from my dad.”

Johnny shook his head. Con had shared with Johnny most of what had been going on, so he’d heard just about everything when it came to Conrad’s dad.

“Not much I can do about him being an asshole these days.”

“That is a true statement.” Johnny tapped the bar and moved off to help a customer.

Conrad couldn’t blame his Dad. Ever since Con’s Ma died last year, his Dad had been swallowed up by grief. He blamed everything under the sun for his foul mood except the one thing that he clung to like it was his only source to keep living. He wouldn’t let the grief go. It was chewing him up and taking everyone around him with him.

The other bartender dropped off Con’s burger, and he practically ate it whole. The beer went down good too. He ordered another one and then left enough to cover the bill waving to Johnny. He got another chin lift and went in search of a corner booth where he could watch what progressed to be a very sexually charged night at Shades. Dancing wasn’t on his agenda, just watching. He didn’t have time for a woman. There was enough to do on the farm that kept him busy. His dad needed all the help he could get. As it was now the damn man had alienated almost every one of the hands and half the people in the county. But even though commitment wasn’t on the horizon, he sure as hell could do for a quick how-you-do with a beautiful, willing woman.

Searching Con saw a couple get up that seemed glued to one another, and Con sat down as they exited the bar. They looked like they would have a fine time that night as the man’s hand went to the woman’s ass, his finger’s gliding down close to something indecent as they skimmed just under the edge of her dress. Con smiled and tipped his hat a bit lower so he could watch what was happening on the dance floor without too much attention. Just watching the couple leave had him adjusting himself under the table. Skin to warm skin, making the woman shiver.

Con blew out a slow breath. Maybe he did need to find a willing woman. One for only tonight, though.

Lydia came over and gave him another beer, and he settled in. He saw a couple sweet little innocents go by, but neither captured his attention. He tried not to laugh when they smiled and thrust out their breasts, preening what God gave them for a man to consider.

A slow song came on, and the heat on the dance floor jumped another ten degrees as bodies got closer, hotter, and the liquor started unlocking doors to inhibitions. The scent of sweet feminine musk filled his nostrils as things began to get crazier and more wanton. Writhing hips, swaying arms joined the fray as women and men got closer, their bodies aligning to reach the full potential of what the public dance floor allowed. No line dancin’ at Shades. There wasn’t enough room. They pushed the limits of what was acceptable, and he enjoyed every minute of the show.

Another fast song came on, more women took to struttin’ by his table, but Con kept to himself.

When the front door opened a gust of hot, thick air brushed up against him all the way in back where he sat. When the door slammed shut something shifted inside him. He could feel it, the atmosphere growing more intense like he could feel this invisible wall up against his skin making him come alive, but he was the only one to notice. Searching for the disturbance, he kept his eyes shaded. It wasn’t like he had any super powers, he was an ordinary man. It was something he’d never felt before, and that was why his eyes zeroed in on that direction. He nearly choked on his beer.

Just standing inside the door was what he’d call the closest thing to ethereal. The lights were hitting the small woman in all the right places. And she had a lot of right places. She wasn’t the typical Mariette resident either. The sun had lightened up most people’s hair, the farming community one that was outdoors most days. Not this girl’s hair. It was black as onyx straight as woven silk with what seemed to be a magical sheen that reflected the light that flashed in the room. It was smooth looking and long brushing the cherry brown skin of her breasts, the thin shirt she wore not giving him much use for his imagination. Her bra was a dark silhouette holding her ample breasts in such a way they invited a man to lean in and lick, making her skin tingle until she trembled with need, before going any deeper to pleasin’ her. The skirt that hugged her hips showed off her long legs, or they seemed long since most of them were exposed. And the heels? He wanted to see her in those, and only those. He watched as her head swiveled to take in the room and she found what she was lookin’ for, and then she smiled.

“Sweet Lord,” he whispered. If the package God shaped her into weren’t enough for one man, her smile would kill a man with his eyes closed it was so bright. In awe of this woman the heat crawling up his neck, more to do with wantin’ her than the heat stirring from the dance floor, Con took a deep sip of his beer and shifted in his seat, the pressure behind his zipper gettin’ mighty uncomfortable.

There was no doubt there was something special about this woman. He wasn’t the only one watching her. With hooded eyes, he observed her move with a fluidity somehow more panther-like than human and continued in the direction of a female friend. Thank the stars it wasn’t a guy, or he’d have to kill him. Just the idea of bein’ with her, Con was close to embarrassing himself.

When she reached her friend, she brightened the room with another smile. Whoever she granted one must be someone special because it was so genuine and pleased, that there was no question that she would pay that person the attention they deserved. He needed something like that in his life.

Con needed to fill the ache that sat deep in his chest, the memory of his mother haunting him everywhere on the farm. He missed her. This woman would be a good distraction. Or was she the type to settle in for the long haul? No one-nighters?

He wanted to be near her, so he abandoned his table and made his way over trying to make it look like he was going to order a drink. Con took in every detail he could of the woman. He’d wait to make his move. Let her settle in before he took a turn at lady luck.

As Conrad watched her with her friends, she touched as often as she could, laughed with an exuberance that made him smile into his beer. She swayed with the music when it was a song she seemed to like.

A few guys approached, but she shook her head and focused back on her girls, while he tried to keep in a snarl.

He picked at his beer label confused by his possessiveness and steered his thoughts toward his mom and dad and what they had with each other. There were always smiles and small touches they shared. The heated looks that his father would give his mother were uncomfortable for him, but something special to both of his parents, he knew, because his mother shared little things with him about her relationship. Con could see it in his parent’s eyes when they didn’t know he was looking. He just wished his dad could get past his grief and hold onto the good memories. They would always be special.

She could be his something special, he thought. Now what made him think that? He looked down at the scarred bar confused by his thoughts. Was he ready to settle down? Make a home? Have children? He shivered. Those kinds of thoughts were a little too deep for a Friday night. Tonight, was supposed to be a good time, maybe a dance, and some kissin’. And if he was lucky a good time, that ended in a quick kiss and a quicker exit the next morning.

His eyes took him back up to her face to get some semblance of control. He sucked in a breath when her eyes glanced over and held locked onto his own. He stopped breathing. Lydia forgotten, this woman was indescribable up close and he wanted her. Con had to have her.

Not taking his eyes off her—which she didn’t do either—the song changed to Heatwave by Florida Georgia Line.

“Perfect.”

“I’m sorry, what?” She said a little louder since someone chose that instant to laugh so loud it covered up his words. Her friends giggled which it made even worse. Conrad chuckled himself. She lowered her eyes to his lips, and he tried not to groan. He didn’t want to scare her away since she turned down all the men that had already approached her.

Con didn’t repeat himself just said, “Dance with me,” without givin’ her time to think about it, he took her hand, from her other hand he took her drink and set it down, and moved onto the crowded dance floor. It forced their bodies together, closer than a first dance would allow. Conrad was good with that. He slid his hand to her lower back, her shirt riding up, so he was lucky enough to touch skin. It was soft against his rough, worn hands. Con took her small hand in his own, hugging her until the absence of space made him lean in more. Her eyes flared with heat, and he took that as a good sign. When his nose brushed her ear, he inhaled the scent of jasmine that lingered in her hair. He couldn’t hold back a groan. God, what was happening to him? Why was his reaction to her so thrilling? He felt desperate to keep her close.

Looking down at the petite woman in his arms, her brown eyes dilated and the flecks of amber caught by the light flared. He blinked and pinched his lips together worrying what she thought of him. Did the dirty layers of farming on his skin bother her? Her fingers went up and gently rubbed the crease between his eyebrows. Then she smiled again, and his heart fell into her eyes. The song ended, and there was a slight lull between songs.

“My name’s Conrad.” His arms tightened around her.

Her lashes flickered down and then back up as Conrad’s heart started racing double time. Would she pull away and leave him? If so, he would have to follow.

When she looked back up at him with another brilliant smile and licked her lips, he almost whimpered, his need for this woman was so great. But then she spoke, and it was like magic had come down to touch his soul.

“I’m, Willow,” She said, and then took his hand and pulled him along toward her friends gripping him so, their fingers entwined, making certain that they wouldn’t be separated.

Conrad wanted to laugh, and was glad he came in for a beer.

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