The Payment Plan

 

Roni made one more call just before the end of his shift at 10 pm. The west coast number was in the queue. Someone picked up. A young girl answered.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is Roni. Is your mom or dad home?”

“Mom, someone’s on the phone!” When the girl yelled into his headphones Roni yanked them off of his ears and held them away from his head.

“Who is it?” It was the voice of the mother in the background.

“Who are you?” The girl queried.

“I’m Roni with American Resources.”

“Roni ’merica rescores.”

“What? Let me have it. Hello?”

“HI I’m Roni of American Resources. I called to tell you of a special offer…”

“No thanks.” The phone clicked off.

10 pm. Roni removed his headphones and signed out. His shift at the call center was done for the night.

He had one taker that evening. A woman in Hawaii. When she picked up Roni heard a piano playing in the background. He started with his usual opening and then asked, “Is that a piano playing that lovely music?”

The woman said yes. She was giving someone piano lessons.

Hearing that Roni said, “I’ll be brief. You have been chosen to receive a special offer.” Roni sped up.

“The card is only made available to qualified folks. I won’t be long. The card is a valuable resource as it is accepted in almost everywhere. Parity Platinum doesn’t charge penalty interest. That’s a potential lifesaver for cardholders who occasionally miss payments due to liquidity issues. And when you use it you earn points, when you shop, when you eat at restaurants, when you travel… That sounds like Debussy. Is that clair de lune.”

“It is. Are you a musician?’

“I played the trumpet for many years. I bet it is a beautiful day there.”

“It is. There’s a breeze coming off the ocean.”

“I’ve neve been there, I… well, you’re in the middle of something. I better be quick about this. Are you interested in the Parity Platinum Card?

“OK.”

“I will need to verify some information and then read you the terms and conditions and then we will be done. OK?”

“OK.”

Roni spent the next minute verifying her name, date of birth, address, and her occupation – Piano Teacher. He then read the terms and conditions on the computer screen, a full page of fine print. He only stopped to catch his breath in the middle. The 29% finance charge was read off in the same rapid-fire monotone as the rest of the legal boilerplate. When he had finished, Roni asked her if she accepted the terms and conditions. She said yes.

“Thank you, Ms. Hampton, for accepting this offer. You will be very pleased with this valuable resource in your wallet. Parity Platinum Card welcomes you. And, thank you for the beautiful music. Your card will be mailed to shortly. You should receive it in the next 10 to 18 days.”

The call ended. Roni caught his breath as he removed his head phones and then signed off. The telemarking manager, Tyronne, who listens in on the telemarketer’s phone conversations, gave a shout out to Roni. Roni learned from Tyronne that he would receive, at the beginning of his next shift, a certificate: Quality Award for Presentation Performance. He understood this to mean that he basically said every word of the legal contract and left nothing out. He also learned that this meant a small bump up in his next paycheck.

Roni grabbed his jacket and headed to the door and out to his car. Outside, he lit up a cigarette. He smoked it facing the call center and away from the glare of the white LED parking lot lighting, which bothered his eyes. After six hours staring at a computer screen his eyes were burning. He took several long draws from the cigarette and then flicked the remains to the curb. He wanted to get home and get to bed by 11. He had to get up at 6:00 am for his full-time job. The half-hour drive home would be under the same discomforting lighting. He knew that the glare and the high blue content of the lights would affect his sleep, making for another restless night.

The next morning Roni began his daily routine. He put on coffee and went out to the patio for a smoke. He scrambled some eggs and then got dressed. He needed to be at RRR at 7:30 am.

Roni and his two brothers had taken over the family business – Resolution, Reset & Recovery Corp. – when their father retired. The debt recovery service had its own automated call center. Roni supervised the ten employees who dealt with those who picked up. He listened in on the phone conversations just as Tyronne did on the calls of the employees at FirstOne Telemarketers.

Roni’s younger brother Ruben purchased bad debt at a discount from other collection companies who had no luck making a recovery. The third brother, Rohn, managed the business, making sure that payables and receivables were taken care of. The fourth brother, twelve years younger than Rohn, was told to stay away from the business. The three brothers were the owners and they didn’t want a young upstart around telling them what to do.

Though the three brothers had been handed a going concern, the brothers were jealous of Raphael. Their father had given him money for his education. He wanted Raphael to become an investment banker. The three older brothers were given no money by their father for an education. The early days of the business were a financial struggle. There was no extra money for education. Beyond this, Raphael seemed to cocky, too sure of himself, too privileged. So, they kept their distance, despite their mother and father’s desire for family unity. They voiced their concerns when the family gathered for the holidays.

That day at the office, a Friday, the hours dragged on for Roni. The lack of good sleep didn’t help. And out of the five hundred automated calls placed, only two debtors picked up the phone. These were offered payment plans and a chance to pay off their credit card debt over time. At three in the afternoon Roni received a text message: “Hey, want to come by for a beer after work?” Roni texted a reply to Marty, “Sure”.

Marty was Roni’s apartment neighbor. Marty liked to talk politics and Roni didn’t. Roni thought politics was boring. All that who’s the bigger hypocrite back and forth was irksome. Most of the politicians wanted to pick your pocket anyway. So ‘n So will save the planet if you vote for him or her and turn over your income to them. Who needed that? With having to pay alimony and child support and growing credit card debt, Roni wanted no more hands in his pocket. Making ends meet was the only politics he cared about. He would have a beer with Marty and turn in for the night.

At five pm Roni’s day was almost done. The automated calls would continue till 9 pm on the west coast. Those who picked up could leave a message where to contact them. Each response would be noted to show a debtor’s willingness to pay. Before the employees left for the evening, Roni checked with each one to fill out the schedule for the next week. The employees were part-timers. Some had classes to attend. He also praised Charisse for the way she handled her call and secured a payment plan for their client Parity Platinum Card.

Roni then checked in with his brothers. Rohn, looking depressed, said that they were about to lose their biggest client Parity Platinum. Roni told him that RRR had just secured a payment plan for Parity. “No matter,” Rohn responded. “They have contacted a bigger firm.” Ruben also looked depressed. “With the cash flow the way it is, it has been hard to buy bad debt. This will make things worse.” The three of them looked at each other and shook their heads. Roni finally spoke. “If dad finds out he will blow a gasket.” The two brothers nodded. “And, if that pip squeak brother of ours finds out he will have a good laugh at our expense.” After several silent minutes Rohn threw up his hands and said he would make calls on Monday. “There has to be more business out there …or, we will have to lay off some of these kids. We can’t keep taking out loans with no receivables.”

Roni left the office crestfallen. He didn’t want to lay off anyone but business is business – making ends meet. Now between the ends, things were becoming dire for Roni. He had used his credit cards to get by thinking that at the end of the year there would be some payout from the profits that he could use to pay them off. Now the chances of that looked slim to none. “Debt has no pity”, he thought. “I don’t think dad will either with the choices I have made.”

 

After changing clothes, Roni walked out his patio door and headed over to see Marty. Marty was on his patio drinking a beer.

“Well, look what the cat dragged over.” Marty chided Roni when he saw him. Roni gave a half-smile in return. Marty offered, “You look like you could use a beer.”

“I could use a beer and a chaser.” Roni plopped down on a patio chair and lit up a cigarette.

“Wow, a bad day?”

“You could say that “, Roni replied looking at his phone. Another call he didn’t want to take.

“Well, if we had the right people in power, then us working stiffs wouldn’t be so stressed out.”

Here we go again, Roni thought. The garbage man dishing out political garbage.

Marty handed Roni a beer and then went into his apartment for something stronger. He came out with a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. Marty poured whiskey into the glasses. He handed one to Roni and said “Cheers.” Roni clicked his glass with Marty’s, leaned his head back and downed the shot. Wiping his mouth and knowing that his reply would only prod Marty to continue the political mumbo-jumbo, but feeling irate about the day’s bad news he spoke anyway. “Even with the ‘right people’ in power there isn’t enough money in the world to pay to fix the bad choices people make. Besides, there is always cost incurred when you use other people’s money.”

“With money in the right hands we could put a dent in it. That’s why I am voting socialist this time.”

Roni cringed. He knew he shouldn’t have replied. He had other things on his mind. His phone buzzed again. The same caller he didn’t want to answer.

“Hey, how’s your business doing?” Roni was glad Marty changed the conversation but it led down an even less desirous path.

“We’ve hit some bumps in the road. Our biggest client is leaving us for a bigger collection agency, one with (quoting with his hands) a “better reputation”.

“I thought you guys had it made in the shade.”

Roni was quick to respond. “Someone moved the shade.” He gulped down some more beer and lit up another cigarette. Looking at it he thought, “If I kicked this habit, I could repay my body for the six years I’ve been smoking”. He took a long drag and thought ’but not today’.

“Hey, you know what I found on my route today? In the dumpster was a plaque with a gold crowbar stuck on it. The plaque said LEVERAGE EVERYTHING. Do you know what that means?”

“Yeah, it means you put yourself out on limb where someone can come along and cut off the limb.”

“That’s weird. Hey, how’s your other job going there, Shylock?” Marty goaded Roni. Roni smirked.

“Just swell, I make $12 per hour and talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise talk to. It’s a job, a part-time job that’s all.”

“You are offering credit cards at 23 to 36%? Yikes. How can anyone catch up?”

“I offer people a choice. They can choose to use it or not. They know the terms. I’m not a loan shark, if that’s what you are implying.”

“No. I’m just giving you a hard time. The rich will have a hard time, too. The rich will know ‘the terms’ when my candidate is elected.”

Roni’s phone buzzed again. He didn’t pick up. The caller left a message.

Roni lifted his glass. “I could use another shot.” Marty poured another for both of them. Roni knocked it back and thought of a reply for Marty.

“With socialism, the usury is your freedom. The percentage of the freedom taken from you keeps going up. And when your freedom is gone, they come for a pound of your flesh. That’s been recorded in history.”

“Yeah, but this time…”

Roni shifted in his chair and turned toward Marty. “I better be off. I’m seeing my kids tomorrow and I have to get the place cleaned up a bit.”

“You’ve been divorced for six years now. You need a woman. They say ‘Love conquers all.”

Looking at his hands, Roni scoffed, “Love conquered my checkbook.”

Marty looked over at Roni. “For the love of Pete, man, you look awful.”

“I have a lot on my mind right now. Thanks for the beer and the shots.”

With that Roni walked back to his apartment where he listened to the phone message. It was from Endal Debt Recovery. They were calling to set up a payment plan. Roni had missed several payments. He was out on a limb and the limb was being shaken. Now he faced a tough choice: he could go with Endal and their payment plan or he could call his younger brother Raphael, ask for loan and come up with a repayment plan. Either way, the minimum payment would be at the expense of his pride.

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Assignment

 

Minutes before the final bell, Miss Hailee handed out a sheet to her third-grade students. The wide-ruled copies held only the heading I am looking forward to summer vacation… She walked down the rows of desks and passed one to each student.

“Class, this year we have been learning to journal. On this sheet I want you to describe how you are feeling about your summer vacation and why you feel that way. Use the adjectives from the word search I am handing out to describe your thoughts. Use your best handwriting. Write complete sentences. Turn these papers in tomorrow, first thing. There will be no letter grade. I will be reading them to see how well you express your thoughts.”

The students stopped fidgeting and grabbed their backpacks. They stuffed the sheet into it along with their pencils and corrected papers. The dismissal bell rang. The third-graders scrambled for the door, talking to each other about their summer plans.

Miss Hailee watched them leave. She clearly enjoyed her assignment. She could tell that the eight and nine-year old children enjoyed being in school and that they loved their teacher. And she loved the untainted boyishness of the boys and the unsullied girlishness of the girls. These children expressed emotions openly and without guile. Their personalities hadn’t yet become compartmentalized. Their imaginations, like potter’s clay, could be easily shaped by careful hands. They are animated, responsive and for the most part, well-behaved. Apart from having to correct them for talking in class, passing notes, not raising their hand to answer and having to lecture the boys teasing the girl who said she was a horse and whinnied and ate the white pasty glue and having to lecture Laura about the glue, discipline was minimal. Teaching them was a joy, for they were teachable.

When the last student was out the door, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk. She gathered up her teaching plan and the student assessment sheets for the Check System. She placed them in a pouch and slung the pouch over her shoulder. She walked out of the classroom and headed to the parking lot and home.

At First Bell the next morning not one student was tardy. Their papers were in their hands being waved like flags. The chance to talk about their upcoming summer vacation had them wriggling in their chairs, one leg on and one leg off their chairs.

Miss Hailee brought the class to order. “Please sit straight ahead with both legs on your chairs. We only have a short day today so I need your full attention. I will now collect your papers.”

She walked down each row and each student handed her their paper. She looked at each to make sure it had the student’s name on it. The papers, backpack-crumpled and smeared with erasures, were filled out.

“Class, today we will talk about the math you will be doing in fourth grade. But first we will do language and reading. After lunch you will present your science project to the class. We will now have our morning meeting.”

Miss Hailee reminded the students of the class rules using a poster board created by the students. She then asked them “What did you do well as a researcher for your science project?” After hearing several responses, she asked, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” Everyone answered that question at once. As things quieted down, she asked the students if they had good news or bad news to share with the class. Several said the good news was summer vacation. Another said they have a new dog. Another said his birthday was in July. A girl shared that she wrote the bad news in her paper. Miss Hailee told her she would read her paper in private and would talk to her about it with her in private tomorrow. Then came the Word of the Day: question.

After lunch the students shared their science projects with the class. Miss Hailee asked each presenter “What questions did you have during your preparation? When all was said and done Miss Hailee praised the class for their work.

At 12:50 the dismissal bell rang. “I will be reading your papers tonight. Tomorrow, your parents will be bringing in treats for our last day of school. I’m sure you will be on your best behavior.” The students filed out.

Again, Miss Hailee watched them leave. Again, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk and gathered up her teaching plan. On her way out the door she stopped at the school’s office and handed in the student assessment sheets she had completed. Putting her feet up and reading the student’s papers was on her agenda that night.

 

That evening Miss Hailee ate the chicken pot pie she had prepared the last weekend. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat down on the couch with her feet up and the student’s papers on her lap. She began, recalling the face of each student as she read. She expected positive happy thoughts in these papers. The first paper did not disappoint:

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I play baseball with my friends. Dad and mom said that me and Bill are going to a Cubs game. Yeah! Salty popcorn is the best. Summer is the best. Dad gives me purple popsicles. They make a big mess on my shirt. I play outside until mom calls me.

The happy life-affirming thoughts continued. The students wrote of Great America, playing soccer, trips to see relatives, trips to national parks, friends, fun in the sun, family plans, family picnics, church picnics, camp, fireworks, nature hikes, riding bikes, swimming… They had used the adjectives from the word search!

But there were several papers whose writers were not looking forward to summer. There was in their forward glance an admixture of disappointment and pain caused by things imposed on them and a faint tinge of hope in … the plans to make do?

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… me mom and my sister are going camping. Mom did not tell my dad. She said dad has to work. Mom says she has to get away. We will have smores and go swiming in the lake and have a fire at night. The fire makes me sleepy. I don’t like moskeetoos. They are nasty. I wish dad could come camping. Mom said it was better this way.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… mom said I will have a new baby sister. I am so excited. I told Elise. She said that her mom had a baby but her mom said no to the baby. I will let Elise play with my new sister this summer. Elise is my best friend. She is sad. I will make her happy.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… not much. me and Todd will be moving to a small house with mom. Dad has a boyfriend. His name is Phil. Mom and me and Todd is surprised. I will ride my red bike a lot with Todd.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… it is hot. The hot makes me sweaty. Dad said people make it so hot. This makes me angry. I play outside to it gets dark. When I come in I have chocolate ice cream. Mom says I am stinky. She gives me a cold shower before bed. I sleep with the windows open. My room is cool. Dad snores loud.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation…no I am not. Mom and dad said divorce. I know what that means. Mom and dad live in two places like Anns mom and dad. I have to visit dad now. My summer is ruined.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I am going to visit grandpa and grandma for summer. They have a farm in Iowa. Mom said that when we come back she will be a man. Me and dad question mom. Dad said mom is confused. Summer with grandpa and grandma will be fun. Grandpa will take me on his big green tractor. Grandma said she will make me a fruit pie. They have noisy dogs. I want to stay with them forever.

 

“Oh, lord,” Miss Hailee thought as she put her face in her hands. “How will these children cope? The assignment imposed on these kids by their broken families will break these kids. What can I say to the kids tomorrow?” She wept. “I have tried so hard to give these kids the best of me. To give them the means to take on life. After this summer some of them will return inhibited, anxious, hard, resistant, overwhelmed and, …unteachable.”

These were adjectives she never wanted to apply to her students. Outside the classroom all of the inherited forms and distinctions were being taken away from children. The child’s reference point – their family, the symbol of stability and sense – was being torn up and reassembled into nonsense. The traditional words and signs used to make up a child’s conceptual framework were being converted into gibberish. And teachers were forced to be enablers and accomplices and wardens of the claptrap.

In her imagination Miss Hailee prescribed an Emotional Bank Account poster for the parents. She would show them the deposits and withdrawals they make into their kid’s lives. She would make them read it out loud on the last day. And although she knew about the swift and exacting judgment of political correctness, she did not fear political correctness. But she did begin to imagine repercussions on her students if she held their parents publicly accountable. The reality was that she could do nothing outside the classroom door to affect change to the parent’s withdrawals and deposits into their child’s emotional bank account. Inside her classroom she could be to her students a symbol of continuity and of all that is good in the world.

With a yawn and a soul cried out, she retired. Day was gone. Night was upon her. In a matter of hours, she would be standing before them with words. But not with reassuring words that things will be all right this summer. She could only offer disconnected affirming teacher words.

The First Bell of the last day of school rang. The students found their seats but not their composure. They were ready-set-go for summer. Anticipation had their hands and feet constantly moving. Miss Hailee let them have space for the bubbling over excitement as long as they respected her and each other.

That final morning Miss Hailee talked about what they had learned during the school year. She went on to praise the students for their eagerness to learn and their hard work. She did this while walking along the counter where each student’s remaining graded papers and the posters and plaster of Paris bowls the kids had made during art time were neatly stacked. She reminded them to take these things when they leave.

The first mother arrived outside the door and peeked in. The girl in the third row squealed when she saw her mom. Soon there were three more moms at the door. Then ten, then twelve, then twenty moms and some dads waiting to come in. Miss Hailee opened the door and said “Welcome, come in. We are a full house today.”

Desk were arranged for the treats the moms had brought. The kids tried to show their moms their pile of school work as the mom tried to set out the treats they had brought. The hubbub was expected and relished by Miss Hailee. The school year was ending with merriment. The sugar in the treats made sure of that.

With the mom’s and dad’s and kid’s mouths full of cupcake, candy corn and cookies, Miss Hailee spoke.

“I am very proud of these students. They worked hard. They behaved well. They achieved much. I have high hopes for them going into fourth grade. Behind you are your child’s schoolwork and art projects for you to take home. I have included a list of books for summer reading.” Looking at each of the students Miss Hailee said, “Your parents can read these books to you and there are some you can read yourself with some help. Looking at the reading list she continued.

“On the list I have included an illustrated retelling of Treasure Island for children, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden. Each one is adapted for young readers. And I’ve included a story I have authored and had illustrated: Summer at Sad Shores, a Livingston Family Vacation Adventure.”

Miss Hailee looked around at the anchor charts the class had used during the year. With last words to present, she again looked at the faces of her third-graders. “The word for the summer is hope. I want you to look up the meaning of the word hope. I am hoping that you will find hope in your summer reading.”

With that she said, “Have a great summer everyone.” The parents and children were free to go.

Before Marta and her mother left, Miss Hailee pulled them aside and asked them if she could talk to them in private. Marta’s mother, a woman with dark bags under teary eyes, looked deeply troubled, as if more bad news would devastate her. She did break down in tears out in the school yard where the three of them talked.

Miss Hailee had learned from Marta’s paper that her father had been arrested and was in jail. Miss Hailee understood why Marta had become detached and listless the last two weeks of school. But what could she offer them? She wanted to deal with each student familiarly but the established protocol was to shunt any “issues” over to the school’s counselor.

“I can’t imagine the weight that has been placed on both of you.”

Seeing the crucifix Marta’s mother was wearing around her neck and looking around to make sure no one was around, Miss Hailee spoke. “Listen, what I am about to say has nothing to do with school or with me as Marta’s teacher. I say this as a friend. Sometimes …. (Miss Hailee took a deep breath) …Sometimes God allows a heavy burden to be placed on us so that we can feel his hand underneath.”

Marta’s mother, now barely able to speak, replied, “This burden is too much. Marta and me are alone.”

Miss Hailee hugged both of them. “You are not alone. I will be your friend. I will give you my phone number and my email address. Here … “

She wrote them on the back of one of Marta’s papers and handed them to Marta’s mother. “This is not a teacher-parent conference. This is me as your friend and I will help you two through this.” Marta gave Miss Hailee a long hug.

“Thank you, Miss Hailee,” Marta’s mother hugged the teacher.

“Call me Sandra, please.” Miss Hailee hugged her once more.

“Will Marta be able to see her dad often?”

Marta mother wiped her tears from her face. “Yes. “

“That is something you can look forward to this summer, Marta.”

Marta looked up at her teacher, her dark eyes glistening with tears for her mother.

“Has Marta ever ridden a horse?”

Marta looked at her mom who couldn’t speak. “No,” Marta replied.

“Then that is something we can look forward to this summer. My father has a farm with several horses.”

With that the three of them walked around the school building to the parking lot.

At the car Miss Hailee said, “How about a picnic this Saturday and we can talk more. Please call me anytime. You are not alone. Your assignment this summer Marta is to see your dad when you can, ride horses and have picnics.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

What Mattered to Hannah

 

Hannah wanted to get away so she booked a week at a cottage on a lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin. Hannah boarded her parrolet Henry and headed north. The drive up from Chicago was just a few hours. Off the main highways she followed a lattice of county roads with names like “A” and “T” past fields of corn and cows. God, country, family and, lost love was on the AM radio. Hannah lived alone and drove to the cottage alone.

Hannah’s vacation hours had so accumulated at work that if she didn’t take them before the end of the year, she would lose them. But leaving work to vacation was hard for Hannah. The only relationship she had was with her work. It was a relationship which made increasing demands on her while offering yearly increases in pay. As the years passed and promotions were awarded her work responsibilities ratcheted up. To keep the relationship going and to do what she wanted to do – producing and giving – Hannah did what she had to do.

Using up the accumulated vacation hours was not Hannah’s only reason for getting away from work and home and going to the cottage. Getting away from being lonely in one spot was what mattered. Getting away from work to matter somewhere else mattered. Especially as she turned sixty-seven and the downtime they called “retirement” loomed in front of her. Could she matter without work? Hannah loved to work, to make things happen, to produce what mattered to others. Being an engineer was a career that produced things that worked and things that mattered. Could she live just as an observer?

When Hannah told her two younger sisters about her trip to the cottage, the youngest sister, Anna, gave Hannah a book. Anna described it as a book about hunter-gather societies, the noble savage, Gaia, “rootedness” and a dark green religion of “compassion”. The middle sister, Savannah, gave Hannah a novel about the Rapture. Hannah, put both books in the trunk of her car where they banged around as she drove. Hannah brought Chekov along for the week.

When Hannah called her ninety-year old mom and told her about the trip, her mother said “Good for you” and “Make sure to behave yourself.” When Hannah told her mom about her concerns about the food available at the cottage, for she had drastically changed her way of eating, her mom said “Take what you can get.”

The first day at the cottage was a day of unloading the car, putting things away and finding out that “We have WiFi” meant we can provide no internet signal you can use. The cable TV offered local news and weather forecasts and “This channel should be with you shortly”. The program never arrived. So, the cottage meant the basics like the flip phone Hannah carried.

That evening Hannah drove into town and went into the first restaurant she came to. There were cars on the street in front of the place so she felt it might be worth a try. It wasn’t a supper club. It was a bar and restaurant with the look and smell of the fifties and something past its prime. The redolence of time past and the objects on the wall made Hannah feel like she had gotten away from the present. On the walls surrounding the well-used wooden tables and chairs were fishing maps of the lake, a framed type-written menu from 1955, and black and white photos of townsfolk in parades and holding large fish. The bar area had the same but was updated with a “It’s a Great Day to Be a Packers Fan” plaque hung over the bar. Hannah was in north heartland.

There were three tables near where they sat Hannah. Two grey-haired women of large size sat at each of two tables. It was Saturday night and the special, rib-eye steak, was set before each of them. One of the women at the far table started up and then asked the passing waitress to move the butter closer. “I don’t want to have to walk.” She buttered her roll with the now available butter and then sat eating it looking blankly out at the street. The woman next to her ate looking at the wall behind Hannah.

At the third table, the one closest to Hannah, an old man and his wife sat with a younger fiftyish man. The younger was doing all the talking. The older couple was doing all the eating. Hannah noted that the older two pushed the pinkish red color meat to the side of their plates. She continued to note that the younger man finished his dinner and took his credit card out to pay the bill. The older man took some cash out of his pocket beneath the table and said nothing. The dinner bill was paid with the card.

Hannah ordered some perch. The waitress supplied the fish and the sides and promptly brought the bill when Hannah had finished. The bill lifted her loneliness. “I matter” she thought.

Back at the cottage Hannah observed the couple in the next cottage return from town. The man got out of his 4X4 pickup truck and walked through the screened porch door. His dejected look seemed to Hannah to be saying “The fish weren’t biting that night”. The short bean pole of a woman had followed him to the door but the screen door had already closed behind the man. The man was already at the cottage door. The woman reopened the porch door and went in.

The next morning Hannah was sitting on the dock when she heard some clomping behind her. The man from the cottage was heading to his boat with some fishing gear. He saw Hannah and said “Good morning. How are you?” Fine, thanks” Hannah responded. “Another day of fishing?” Yes ma’am.” “Good Luck!” “Thanks.”

That night in order to dispel the indoors with the outdoors Hannah slept with the bedroom windows open to let the lake breeze in. The cottage, with pine wood paneling throughout and fusty furniture and bedding, had a dank feel and a musty smell. It was as if the inside of the cottage had been inverted to the outside and then inverted in again for Hannah’s arrival.

Dealing with the windows was no easy task for Hannah. The wooden windows in her bedroom resisted change. One window would not go up and the other would not stay up. Hannah would have the same bout trying to sleep in a new bed: one position on the mattress did not give and another gave too much.

The next morning technology greeted her: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” The Keurig Hannah brought with her offered the comforts of home. “Home is where the good coffee is” would be a good country lyric, Hannah thought. After a cup of coffee and some reading Hannah went to the local diner for breakfast.

There, old men sat around a table talking about their trucks and politics and baseball. A beaming grandma led her grandchild to a table. A weary baby-carrying mom followed. Does one miss the weariness born of attachment? At that moment Hannah did.

It seemed that most of the patrons of the diner were older early risers like Hannah. The crossword puzzle in the daily Sentinel was already filled out by the time she arrived at 7 am, Hannah observed.

The atmosphere of the diner and its food were comforting to Hannah. Unlike the Keurig, the waitresses brought her breakfast, more coffee, and the check with “Here you go my dear” and “More coffee sweetie?” and “Have a great day hun.”

The atmosphere of the diner lifted her loneliness but the diner’s food began laying her low. The third cup of coffee, the well-buttered toast and the oil-coagulated hash browns – the settling food made her uneasy. The heaviness in her stomach and her sinking mood reminded her of the deep well of grief and sorrow she carried inside. The sediment of losses, screwups and broken relationships had settled deep inside her after sixty-seven years of life. But if she sat at a breakfast table with friends she’d wouldn’t be talking about her subterranean sorrows. She’d be talking about the weather, her kids, her job, and asking “what’s new with you?”

The shop owners along the small town’s main street were very happy to see Hannah come in. “Take what you can get” Hannah remembered. She bought a top and a flouncy blue and white summer dress that she knew she would never wear. Owning the feminine charm of the dress gave her the feeling that she mattered as a woman.

In the evenings, after dinner in town, Hannah sat on the cottage’s screened-in porch. There, she smoked little Brazilian cigars, read Chekov and when it was too dark to read, she listened to the night. It seemed to Hannah that the incessant chirring of grasshoppers and ratcheting of crickets was like millions of prayers being offered for those who would soon fall asleep to the murmur of their unspoken supplications.

It was on one of these nights that Hannah had a dream. Or, was it a vision? A Winnebago Indian princess named Lily Thunder Boss stood on the porch. She spoke to Hannah: “Trace the fingers of God and you will see the hand of God. You have come this far, keep tracing.” Hannah immediately woke up. It was 2 AM and the grasshoppers, crickets …

On the third morning Hannah walked down to the docks at the end of the row of cottages. The sun had just come up over the silhouetted shoreline behind her. It began to flash gold in the eyes of the houses along the far shoreline. The lake, not flush yet with direct sunlight and now beneath Hannah’s bare feet, was like a dappled green and grey quilt that stirred as if the lake was about to wake beneath it. In the company of moored pontoons and motor boats and of ducks bobbing for food and loons beginning their conversations Hannah sensed something familiar.

That afternoon she went to the Crossroads Grocery. She bought the fixings for a salad and some Chardonnay. The automated voice of the grocery’s self-serve checkout scanner said “Thank you for shopping with us”. Hannah remembered “Take what you can get.”

On Thursday morning Hannah took a canoe out onto the lake, the deepest lake in Wisconsin. She paddled to the center of the lake where she could see the full extent of its water. The day before she had driven to the south end of the lake but couldn’t come near it. There were private roads with houses nestled along the shoreline. These were now at a great distance from the canoe. The houses and boats appeared as white flecks against a jagged dark green background. The lake, reflecting the cirrus clouds and the baby blue sky as with an ancient uneven mirror, gently swayed her canoe. Hannah sat thinking about her future over the deepest part of the lake. Above her, the wide-open sky. Below her, the bounded water. She sat at the boundary of rapture and watery earth surrounded by voices nowhere near.

Later, she ate lunch at one of the nearby golf clubs which had a WiFi connection. She checked her emails; there was nothing pressing, mostly ads. She ate watching the golfers, men in shorts with caps and sweaters, as they gathered their foursomes. She overhears them kid each other as they wait for beer and sandwiches to take with them on the course. And though the well-manicured course was everywhere verdant and serene, the game, played between tees and holes and beers, seemed to Hannah, to be disquieting for some of the red-faced golfers who came in for water after their round. Hannah thought they must have spent most of their time playing outside the lines.

That night, after a day of hiking and eating a late supper at the diner, Hannah went to bed and dreamed: She was the lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin. All around her were bass, trout, perch, walleye, white bass, trout, northern pike, muskies, catfish, crappie, sunfish and, schools of Walleyes and Large and Smallmouth Bass. They passed her with open mouths. She saw her four children swimming by her, each in different directions. They didn’t notice her. She was the lake. Her sisters swam by. They were talking as they passed each other. Air bubbles, not words, were coming out of their mouths. Deeper in her, her ninety-year old mother floated. She kept saying “I’m hanging in there” and asking me “What’s new with you?”. In the deepest part of her, the dark green part of her, was her dead father and a son who died in a car accident. They lay in repose. Hannah couldn’t say anything to any of them. She was the casket that held them.

At her surface were boats. Their arched outline appeared like dark mysterious icons. Above that was the sky. The sun cast shadows across her of transparent clouds and opaque birds coasting on thermals above. And then, at the surface, appeared an eel. It seemed friendly as it swam near the surface but then took on an impish smile and dove deeper. The creature then slithered and circled inside of her. It wanted to press her down to the bottom of herself. It was then that waking dream broke off. It was then Hannah understood its name to be TRAUMA.

The next morning, technology: “Your brew is complete! Enjoy!” As Hannah drank her coffee, she read and planned her last full day at the lake cottage. She would take the canoe out in the morning for her daily matins, then go for a walk and find lunch, then she would take a nap on the porch. In the evening she would go to a “Friday Night Fish Fry” which was the special on every restaurant’s menu that night. But she started off on the wrong foot.

At dawn Hannah pulled the canoe to shoreline and pushed it three-quarters of the way into the lake. She gathered a life-jacket and a paddle from the fish-cleaning shack and placed them into the canoe. With one hand on the aft of the canoe she placed her right foot in. The canoe rocked to the right and began to lurch forward into the water semi-sideways. Hannah quickly put her left foot in and began balancing the canoe with her hands and feet on each side of it. So far so good. She had done this before.

She was now hunched behind the seat so she moved her right foot forward past the seat while holding onto the canoe’s frame. Her legs were spread apart, one on each side of the bench – one leg forward and one leg behind. At this point nothing felt stable. The canoe began to rock back and forth with every shift of Hannah’s weight. With her hands on each side of the canoe frame she slid them forward hoping to steady the canoe and place her left leg over the bench. In that moment Hannah realized that the stiff lurching of a sixty-seven-year-old was exaggerated by the canoe. And then it happened. Hannah toppled over to her left and fell into the green wet murk. The canoe, on its side next to Hannah, lay beside her as if to comfort her after its practical joke.

Standing up in three feet of water and reeds, soaked, dripping and covered with algae and green mud, Hannah thought she looked like The Creature from the Deepest Natural Lake in Wisconsin. The words of an old song came to her as she walked to the shore: “Oh the old grey mare She ain’t what she used to be”. If her mother could have seen see her, she would have said “It happens to the best of us” and “You kids will be the death of me yet.” Like as with her mother, the days of her independence were becoming fewer. She would need a steadying hand going forward. Being mattered would matter more than ever.

Hannah returned to the cottage. Her flip-flops squished loudly as she walked past the other cottages. She hung her soggy underclothes on a clothes line. Her water-logged jeans and black sweater were laid on a picnic bench to dry in the sun. The pockets of her jeans were filled with algae and grit. Algae clung to the sweater as if it was a net. Her morning rituals on the lake now included baptism.

After seven days and nights at the cottage on a lake, the deepest natural lake in Wisconsin, Hannah returned home. At the door to her apartment Hannah found a package from Amazon. It was something she ordered a week ago. It was a book, a friend, and what mattered to Hannah.

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved