Category Archives: Short Stories

Teaching Jan How to Drive

Just when it seems like the Wolves have turned a corner, they suffer a heartbreaking loss. It reminds me of teaching Jan how to drive.

When Ying asked me to teach her sister how to drive, I countered that her husband should do the honor. But putting a man in the uneasy position of critiquing his wife’s driving was ill-advised, as opposed to the much easier task of overcoming a language barrier while explaining the importance of checking your blind spot. I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and Jan was still learning body parts. “I have two feet. I have two hands. I have a head.”

We started in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn on the north end of Mt. Rushmore Road or Eighth Street depending on whether you are a tourist or a cruiser, generally high school kids mixed with the occasional GI who is too young for nightclubs. With the side mirror angled toward the road so she could see the stripes in relationship to the car (a trick borrowed from my dad who taught me how to drive and the extent of my bag of tricks as a driving instructor), for more than two hours Jan drove a rusty Volare Station Wagon from one end of the lot to the other. No one got hurt. It was a good day.

Jan steadily improved as we ditched her regular English workbooks for the South Dakota driver’s manual. Eventually we progressed to traffic while I gradually made my way out of Jan’s lap and firmly into the passenger’s seat where I could not reach the brakes. When it came time, Jan handled the freeway just fine and the practice runs to the DMV were becoming tedious; she had turned a corner and was ready for the road test. Great. Ying’s husband could stop with his daily harangues and I could stop imagining my bloody demise; it would have been an ironic fate after having survived my senior year of high school screwing off in that beloved heap.

The night before Jan was to take her test we took the wagon for a final run. What happened next is difficult to describe. Just as Jan’s driving was becoming effortless, she had suddenly and completely lost her sense of the car. She was clipping curbs and swinging into wild and overly broad turns that scared the hell out of me. In what I recognized to be a game of chicken, we hiccupped down the road in herky-jerky spurts, barely stopping in time to avoid collisions and pissing off everyone in our path, teenagers, GIs, old ladies. Everyone.

Jan would certainly face another berating from her brother-in-law who apparently learned how to drive on his lunch break while blindfolded and handcuffed to a monkey, and I was doomed to a career as a driving instructor, the end of which could only be marked by a license with Jan’s picture on it. Defeated and at a loss for what to do next, we had no words sitting in the parking lot of the Colonial House, the last restaurant heading south out of town before everything becomes a tourist attraction or a billboard for one. From a distance, I might have been ten playing Charlie’s Angels with my sister Amy. There we are in the driveway under the basketball hoop where we live in Shell housing that’s just inside the main gate at Ellsworth Air Force Base. The side-by-side duplexes of Shell have long been dozed. This time, this time a heated chase will not bring to the morning a blaring radio, the swishing of wipers nor blinking lights that will startle our dad as he sets off to work. This time it’s just Jan and me.

I’d look at Jan. She’d look at me. We’d both look straight ahead reaching eons beyond the windshield as if the answer might have wandered off into the ponderosa pines. I couldn’t figure it out. I’d look at Jan and she’d look at me. We’d both looked straight ahead… An eternity ticked by before a hint of inspiration rose up from deep inside her gut, filled her chest, and washed the residue of a bad day from Jan’s face.

“You change the seat?” She said.

The seat?

I don’t know why or how or why I didn’t notice it, but the seat was moved all the way back. Jan could barely reach the pedals! She could barely see over the dashboard!

The next day Jan took my car for her road test while I stayed behind to pray in the waiting room of the DMV. Jan returned a short while later to tell me that my prayers had been answered.

Coach Rambis, you change the seat?

Forget About It

Pulling out the 1970s fireplace insert a few inches would have been an easy way to expose the crumbling tile and mortar from inside the chimney. The requisite inspection before we closed on the house almost six years ago missed it. The repair estimate would have made Mr. Rogers kick himself.

It was Al who would finally dislodge the feelings of regret that could be triggered by something as mundane as a commercial for cat litter.

“Seven thousand dollars! We were screwed!”

“It happens.” Al said.

“Yeah, but…”

“It happens.”

“Our realtor should have…”

“It happens.” He said.

“Shouldn’t the inspector known to have…”

“You buy a house and the boiler goes out. Cha-ching! You discover that every window sash in the place is completely shot. Cha-ching. The carpet is hiding blemished floors. Cha ching. Welcome to home ownership. Did the inspector do his job? It’s hard to say. Do these things get missed? All of the time. Would it have changed your decision? I doubt it. Did you overpay? Maybe, but probably not by much. Do you love your house? Forget about the rest of it.”

Letting that sink in, while counter to my appetite for impossible justice that can turn back clocks, was a tremendous relief.

While other priorities would compete with it and while Brian never shared my enthusiasm for fixing it nor my feeling that a fireplace you couldn’t use could fill a room with a certain kind of emptiness, this particular restoration project was never a serious point of contention. And yet I had the feeling that when I did finally turn my attention to it, I would need to convince him that the time had come for this investment. I would bring it up and he would make that face.

Convincing anyone of anything can be tricky. It would be better if the worthiness of a good idea were self-evident. It’s particularly tricky for me because giving up persuasion was a deliberate choice prompted by a letter I received out of the blue a long time ago.

An old friend from the Minnesota for Dennis Kucinich campaign wrote to me – one progressive to another – to ask that I join her in supporting Al Franken for the U.S. Senate. She assumed that I would agree that Franken was the real deal while I couldn’t believe that a real Liberal would ever be taken by him. In response I would make the case for a better candidate, one who was actually worthy of the support of anyone who had ever believed that holding rush hour vigils on a bridge in sub-zero weather could transform the bleary-eyed commuters who chugged along on the freeway below.

Wilson sitting on my desk.

Hearing the clacking of the keyboard (in these moments I miss the zing of the old fashioned typewriter), Brian quickly sized up the situation and accused me of “bickering on the listserv.” Stretched out on top of the desk in front of me, even the cat paused to question whether this was really a good use of my time, but then quickly dropped it and went back to angling for tummy rubs. So while Brian fried eggs and Lester Young set a mood suitable for dozing tabbies and giant snowflakes drifting to the ground outside the window behind me, I continued to fake my way through a second and third draft of my counter.

My arguments fell flat. Trying to convince someone to see things as I saw them, especially where it came to politicians and the abstractions they espouse, made me feel tired. So I quit. I had a nice breakfast and never thought about it again.

It never came to arm-twisting. One Saturday morning I asked Brian to help me measure the fireplace, which he happily did. I suspect he knew what I had in mind, but I could not detect the dread I had anticipated. Instead of hashing it out, he set to carefully noting the measurements in his famously perfect printing and within an hour we were on Franklin and 29th looking at wood burning stoves.

Recognizing my debilitating hatred for shopping and making purchasing decisions, Brian quietly filled in the gaps so that we might enjoy a fire before the summer rolled around again.

I’m still letting that sink in.

So, we’ve narrowed down our search for a fireplace to two options. Choosing one has been difficult because I like each for different reasons. Feel free to weigh in.



Amy worked out of Pistachio Pie. Refreshingly, she never mentioned perms and she didn’t smoke between cuts or during the precious minutes a client might flip through a Cosmo under the dryer. In her element, she had a remarkable ability be present to the person in the chair. She was attentive and connected without relying on standard pleasantries:

“Are you a student?”

“So, what do you do?”

“You married?”

If there is any doubt that Amy was first and foremost a minister to her people, consider the day I was tricked by a brisk morning and found myself embarrassingly overdressed by lunchtime. With the instincts of a nurse she plucked a clean sleeveless blouse from the laundry basket in her car and told me to return it whenever I had the chance. Her kindness might have been awkward had she been anyone else.

Amy cut my hair until I couldn’t afford her anymore.

Enter Jan, Ying’s sister.

Jan was visiting from Hong Kong and travelled with a convincing assortment of tools: combs, shears, clips, razors, and a cape that she snapped open like a real professional and wrapped around my neck in a single and confident sweeping motion. To get around a language barrier, we drew pictures and Ying translated. I said “trim” and this triggered a spirited 20-minute conversation in Mandarin. I didn’t understand a word.

Jan snipped away first on one side and then on the other and back and forth, apparently overcorrecting each time. She consulted with her sister. She consulted with her twin nephews. She consulted with her husband, Gordon. He briefly commandeered the scissors and gave it a go until he gave up and abruptly left with one of the boys.

Then it started to rain. With a half a cut and a mishmash of clips affixed to my head, I darted out to roll up the windows of my car. Like an escaped prisoner returning because she remembered to make the bed, I went back to the house instead of putting the keys into the ignition.

The twin that stayed behind was content to watch TV until a commercial break. He used the interruptions to practice diving off the stairs into the sunken dining room where he would land in a pile at my feet, pop up with the quickness of a push puppet, and pronounce me an ugly witch. Then the stocking-footed child razored past me from several different directions, pleased whenever an especially imaginative approach was also startling.

“Ugly witch! Ugly witch! Ugly witch!”

Cheapness had a price and I was about to pay it.

Ying planted herself in a chair in front of me. Let the slumber party begin!  She leaned forward and said, “Doesn’t your father worry that you’re not married yet?” Until Jan either fixed my hair or shaved me completely bald, I would have to find a way to politely deflect her questions:

“Why don’t you drive a better car?” “Why don’t you wear better clothes?” “Don’t you want a family?” “Aren’t you getting old?” “You need the SUV.” “Can’t you get a better job?” “Being single is no good for the life!” “Nobody want to be alone.”

Two angry lobsters saved me from a poor choice of words.


By Martinvoll (Own work) [GFDL (

Gordon returned with the boy who was clutching a lobster in each hand. They were alive and their claws were taped up, a strange sight. The twins joined together and took turns between tormenting me and tormenting their dinner:

“You are an ugly witch! You are an ugly witch!”

“We’re going to eat you tonight! Yum! Yum!”

They danced and sang and laughed and waved angry lobsters in my face.

Mercifully, Jan announced that she was done. We all – Jan, Ying, Gordon, the boys and the angry lobsters – crammed into the bathroom where I examined myself in the mirror and the sisters marveled at their work. Ying directed me to go home and wash my hair. “If you see anything sticking out, just cut it off,” she said. “I got to go to work.”

Later my friend Barb told me that I looked like a china doll “as cute as a bug,” she said. Her husband joked, “They figured that if they have to learn your damn language, you can wear their bob. Hey, what bowl did they use?” Then he reached over with a pair of kitchen shears and snipped off a piece of hair that was sticking out.

Breakfast with Santa

It could be Valentine’s Day before tinsel (and somehow even a sprig of mistletoe) will be glaringly out of place, when I might consider taking down the tree that had kindly softened the hard edges of winter with a timely dash of cheer. To get through a nipping January, Santa and I started having breakfast by the tree. We’d sit at the brass coffee table, I in my robe and slippers and he already dressed for the day in a delicate square of tinfoil that played off the brass and shimmered in the dancing light of two glitter-dusted candles, a pillar of red and a pillar of gold, gifts included in my sister’s Christmas package with the cranberry-colored afghan she had crocheted in the weeks following her appendectomy.

SantaSanta fortified me. He encouraged me to bundle up, to venture out into the darkness down six icy blocks to the bus stop, to board the #21, and to go to work. A man of few words, Santa’s rosy little face was so reassuring that I briefly considered stuffing him in my coat pocket and taking him wherever I went. Having a Santa in your pocket can evoke sympathy in our worst moments. That’s not a jackass jamming up traffic! Maybe there’s a casserole in the trunk! A bee in the car! Maybe there’s a jilted man at the wheel! It doesn’t really matter. He obviously needs a break!

One day for no reason at all, I bit off Santa’s head. A jolt of regret delivered me from a mindless state the very second I could feel his tiny hollow neck give way. But it was too late. Once a bright-eyed visage that beamed with kindness that could fill the cracks of a broken soul, Santa’s face was now a distorted crumple of red, gold and green staring back at me from a crooked eyeball that had somehow survived the unprovoked attack. To make things worse, I couldn’t bring myself to eat the rest of him. So he sat there, a mangled freak of nature that would not let me forget what I had done. I had ruined Santa and now he was ruining breakfast. Looking quite normal from behind, I turned the decapitated Santa away from me. But this only punctuated the deed. Desperate for some relief, I made a confession to my sweetheart who understood where anyone else might have taken my sobbing to mean that I had accidentally backed over the cat… or something worse.

The next morning I found that Santa had been restored. While his battle scars might have been apparent, his little face had been carefully folded back into shape such that he seemed like his old self again. Santa could have justified a punishment. He could have whipped up a guilt trip, or held me at a safe distance. He could have stewed while pretending to be fine. He might have abandoned me in an unforgiving state of limbo where there is no love and not enough anger to find it. But Santa isn’t like that. Instead, after a full recovery he resumed with our morning ritual with a deep and fearless vulnerability that humbled me in my good moments and frightened me in my weaker ones. And while at first I couldn’t be sure, I eventually came to trust that Santa was for real