A to Z Challenge: Mandy

Character sketches that are fictional, but based on real people, like us.

Mandy covered her auburn hair with a scarf and stepped out into the sunny spring day. She had just gotten a color that really suited her and she wasn’t about to let it fade with sun exposure. Looking good was worth what it cost in routine hair appointments. It was a way of letting the world know she cared.

The cancer diagnosis a year ago had sideswiped her. She had almost gotten back on her feet after the death of her husband, all the trauma, the loneliness, getting used to a different life without him in it. Facing off with cancer was like being asked to do it all over again, only it was her own life she had to worry about this time.

As if chemo hadn’t been bad enough, the toxic treatment gave her kidney failure so now she was going to dialysis three times a week. And because she had a cancer that was treatable but not curable, she was not a candidate for a kidney transplant. At times it seemed as if the world was against her, but she presented a whole different image to that world. It wasn’t going to see her go down. She was waging war against every negative aspect of her life. Her attitude was her number one weapon.

Her first step was to more closely match her energy level with her living environment. She sold her two story home and moved into a condo on the edge of town. No one there did their own yard work. There were no steps to climb. Her condo had windows with gorgeous views and the light streamed in and lifted her soul every morning.

She accepted her thrice weekly trips to dialysis as part of her life, like showering and eating. She decided they would be rest days, for reading, napping and whatever else she could manage. She was tired on those days but recovered by the following morning. Her in between days were full of times with friends, her grandsons, and getting to know her new neighbors.

The project of “feathering her new nest” had been so fun. She and a friend had searched the furniture stores until they found exactly the pieces that fit her rooms, matched the vibe she wanted and were comfortable and practical. Their efforts had created spaces that were inviting and filled with warmth, and pleased her. She chased happiness and peace, and all who walked into her living room felt she had caught a great deal of both.

In the name of hanging on to things loved, she had stayed with the church of her childhood. It was 30 miles away but it was worth it to her because she had purpose there. She was a musician and loved playing for the weekly services. It was there she felt comfortably challenged and appreciated.

At this stage of her game, she was making good choices, and she knew it. There were no guarantees for her longevity but her strategy was to hope for medical advances. Just last week she had heard of a medical trial for her diagnosis that made her pulse quicken. If she could get accepted for that she would really be in the fight with a new weapon, and that sounded good, really good…

A to Z Challenge: Leonard the Doctor

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real characters, like us.

Finally free of military obligations, Leonard was more than excited to set up his own private ENT practice. He was now quite experienced at peering down people’s ears, noses and throats and could hardly wait to start making some real money. There had always been something about being a short person in the military that had left him feeling a little insecure. He was ready to be a boss.

His new clinic on the edge of the small, but growing, city was his own design and was going to serve him well for many years. A full hall of exam rooms, for when he took on associates, a med room with an autoclave, the small surgery suite, and the offices – it was all but finished with the carpet going in the waiting room this week.

He’d put an ad in the paper for a receptionist/nurse/bookkeeper and figured he would end up training someone to do it all, for the time being. Things would be slow at first.

His biggest irritation was his wife, who kept popping in unannounced to give him decorating advice, or request help with the kids. She was ditsy, that was the best word he could think of to describe her. He would much prefer that she stay home and mind her own business.

By the next week he had interviewed several people for his front office, and one was a nurse, just out of school. She wouldn’t know much, but that way he could “fashion” her to suit his practice and not have to re-program a bunch of bad habits. He probably wouldn’t need to pay her a lot either. He liked the idea of starting out with everything new.

The first week the doors opened there were two patients. One was a bad nosebleed and he was so glad he had properly prepared his nurse. “When you see a nosebleed getting out of the car, meet them at the door and get them off the carpet as quickly as you can. No sitting in the waiting room.” Not that they would have had to wait…

During the slow days between the two patients there was a lot of time to train his nurse on the patient filing system he had decided to use. She was going to have to learn his dictation machine as well, and type out patient reports. She was fairly quick at the office tasks which pleased him. He kind of liked standing behind her when she worked at the desk, watching to make sure she was getting the billing system right. He found himself wondering what it would be like to touch her hair.

The weeks wore on, and the practice was growing, but slowly. He was starting to do surgery at the local hospital and had trained “his girl” to make up the surgery packs and autoclave them. At some point he was going to start taking her to surgery to assist but he’d have to pay her more then, so not yet. There were still some slow times at the office too, and he was having fun making her nervous.

Their teaching sessions were getting kind of exciting to him. She reminded him of some of the new army recruits he’d been acquainted with. He liked standing close while explaining how to position the microscope, or use an ear speculum. She would find a reason to move away, but he could follow. It was almost ridiculous how he’d slowly chase her around the exam table. Didn’t she get it?

He wasn’t expecting it at all the day she gave notice that she was leaving. It was after the last patient had gone and the locking of the doors. She was finishing up the roster at the desk when he finally got the nerve to stroke her hair. She calmly turned around and said “I’m giving you one month to find my replacement. During that time, if you ever touch me again or make me feel uncomfortable, I’m walking out the door at that moment. And, by the way, your wife will hear about it too.”

He blushed, and wished he could have thought of something to say. How dare she embarrass him like that! Now, she was making him feel uncomfortable. And so awkward.

The next month went way too slowly for both of them. She was glad to be done and made sure he gave her a glowing recommendation. He ended up hiring three people to replace her. None of them were young, cute, or chaseable.

A to Z Challenge: Karmen

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real characters, like us.

Karmen didn’t know what had gotten into her. It wasn’t that they’d never fought before, they had. It wasn’t that the finances were stretched tight, they always were. And it wasn’t that the kids weren’t always testing their patience, because that was a given. It was all of that and more, all at once. If he had listened to her and helped her quiet down, it might have gone differently. But no, he didn’t understand and that mad her even more angry. They should have let it go until morning when they were rested and in their right minds…

She was sitting at a friend’s house thinking things over. She hadn’t expected him to call the cops on her and the night she had spent cooling off in jail for her “domestic disturbance” was a first. It hadn’t been fun and she was determined not to let that happen again.

Now she had gotten past the angry period and moved into scared. She was going to have to appear before a judge, and at the very least it would mean community service, and likely more. The worst part was not being able to go home because of the restraining order. What was her husband thinking? Was he really that afraid of her? Did he think she would hurt the children? It was confusing because she couldn’t remember some of the details.

It was going to be the news of the day in their small Hispanic community. A third of the people living there were his relatives, a third were related to her and another third were people they didn’t want to associate with. She could not get Felipe to understand how badly she wanted to get into a better, safer neighborhood. Why couldn’t they live someplace where everything they owned didn’t have to be under lock and key. Someplace where the drug dealers weren’t always looking at her kids as potential customers. It was simple, he always said. They would move when they had the money to move.

Karmen just wanted to talk to Felipe, on the phone. She wanted to see the kids, tell them she was sorry. She wanted some clean clothes.

She sat in silence, wishing she could turn back the clock.

A to Z Challenge: Juan

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real characters, like us.

“I was never so happy to see someone in my whole life.” He couldn’t stop saying that.

Ike and Juan left the chained enclosure and came to the car where I’d been waiting. It had taken quite a while to get Juan’s belongings returned to him and the paperwork done to bail him out. He’d only been locked up for three days but it had seemed like a lot longer to him. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but from the time he’d been stopped on the highway until now the sense of being helpless, confused and frustrated had been nearly overpowering.

He’d been a fireman in Mexico and was used to dealing with the authorities, the Mexican police and officials. This had been different from the start. Evidently someone reported a break in and described a van the same color and make as Juan’s. A patrol car had pulled him over and he was cuffed and taken in for questioning in spite of his protests that he knew nothing about it and had been in Publix getting groceries. He didn’t know what had become of his van.

The next thing he knew they were taking him for a ride to the port jail where his cell phone and contents of his pockets were bagged and taken away. He was suited up and told he could make a phone call. The numbers he might have called were stored away in his cell phone, and before he could think of what to do next, the opportunity melted away. He wondered if anyone would ever miss him.

I kept wondering why the police wouldn’t at least listen to a clean cut, nicely dressed kid, who was obviously not on drugs or intoxicated. Was being Mexican that much of a strike against him? Of course, there was no one who could answer questions like that.

The next day a search of the impound lots was successful in finding his van. Juan didn’t have the impound fee with him but was allowed to look the vehicle over. He immediately turned his attention to the glove compartment. His wallet was there, along with his credit card and driver’s license, but the $400 in cash that he had just been paid for a week’s work was missing.

Ike took over. He was enraged. He knew a few people in the sheriff’s office and was not going to let this matter die without a fight. The three page letter he drafted and had me type was a chronicle of every detail of the arrest and detainment, including the money missing from the van. He suggested that both of us should sign it – being upstanding citizens we could be references for the truthfulness of Juan’s account. I was not counting on the effectiveness of this move. It was no small thing to cast doubt on the integrity of the sheriff’s deputies. We would see what kind of pull Ike had with his buddies in the department.

The next day Ike took Juan to the impound lot to pick up the van. Mysteriously, an envelope with $375 was now in the glove compartment. All charges against Juan were dropped. It wasn’t exactly the confession and apology we would have liked but Juan was content to keep a low profile. We think we know what happened but will never be able to prove it.

What do you think happened that resulted in charges being dropped and money reappearing in the van?

A to Z Challenge: Ike

What do you do when a trusted friend suddenly disappears? That’s what Ike and I were wondering as we sat in the feed room looking at each other. That was also the day I decided that if I were to go missing, I would want Ike looking for me.

I was a relative newcomer to Ike’s territory, a Yankee, he called me. He had taken my daughter on as a project when she decided to bring a horse into her life and had nowhere to keep it. He graciously provided the trailer to get it to Florida and a pasture when it got there. We had become good friends since then and I liked hanging around the stable. It seemed like Ike knew most everyone in town, and particularly, everyone connected with horses.

Although he had a “house”, loosely defined, he preferred to hatch his best morning plans in the feed room next to his coffee pot and a collection of mugs. I was always wary of using those mugs, but I’d never heard of anyone dying out there. Likely no germs could survive the strong coffee he put in them.

He had been thinking over the absence of his best hired hand, Juan, since earlier when he had come out to help feed the horses and found Juan wasn’t there. He had already done some calling around to friends. No one had seen the man.

“Let’s get in the truck and check the highway. Maybe he’s broke down and had to leave his van on the side of the road somewhere. He was going to the store last night.”

The old, red diesel truck, a dually, wasn’t my favorite ride but it was his favorite, so we went. It was alarming that he kept checking the ditches, not just for a vehicle, but for a person.

“You don’t think he could have been mugged and left for dead, do you?””

“Doesn’t hurt to check. He did carry a bit of money with him sometimes.”

We traveled the highway to the store and a few other likely places but didn’t find the van, or any bodies, thankfully.

Back in the feed room, Ike got on the phone calling the local hospitals to see if the missing hired hand might have been admitted, but that didn’t turn up anything either. We couldn’t decide what to do next. Juan wasn’t a drinker, a drug user or a rowdy so it didn’t occur to us that he would have gotten in trouble with the law. From what we knew, Juan was in Florida on a student visa and had no family or friends close by. If we couldn’t find him, who could? We were stumped.

Ike wasn’t going to give up though. That’s always been one of the things I like about him. There’s just not much he won’t do for you if you’re his friend.

Several days went by, and then, “I found him. He’s in jail up at Port Manatee! Let’s go see what we can find out.”

Although he was an old timer himself, Ike was well aware that the “good ol’ boys” weren’t necessarily all good. What we were about to find out was surprising to say the least.

(Continued tomorrow with the letter J, for Juan)

A to Z Challenge: Helen

This character sketch is not fictional. Helen was her name and this is a part of her story that is real, as closely as I can remember it.

Her funeral was in Gladewater, Texas, the place where I had known her years before. There was a lot of time on the flight from Florida for me to think about who she was, what she had done, and what she had meant to me. Even though we think of the West having been won and settled a long time ago, she was a true pioneer woman with a spirit that would have survived even back then.

It was the early 1970’s and I was a transplant from the north, attending a small private school in Big Sandy, Texas. Helen lived on a small farmstead about three miles off campus. She had already earned the title of “grandma” to lots of students that she had met attending the college church. Anyone who needed to have a break from the busy educational scene was, sooner or later, invited to come out and experience a completely different environment with Helen.

Her story had a tragic start. She and her husband had moved from California to some undeveloped acreage that was going to be their homestead. They had plans for a self-sufficient lifestyle and were willing to work hard to see it take place. The land, hilly in places and covered with pine and oak forest, had to be cleared first. Her husband was cutting trees one day when one fell the wrong way and pinned him. Helen got to him, only in time to be there when he died.

They had sold everything to buy that land, and she had nowhere else to go, so she stayed. She had a small mobile home, a pole barn, a few small storage buildings and a chicken house. She was in her 50’s, alone, trying to figure out how to make ends meet. College students and church friends rallied to help her. My husband and I were newly married and looking for a place to garden and maybe build a house. Helen had property, we had manpower and some resources. It was a mutually beneficial endeavor – we adopted her and she adopted us.

Hot, east Texas summers were spent planting, weeding and helping Helen. In the fall, we would drive around town looking for bagged leaves sitting out for trash pickup, and we’d take them to her for the garden. Helen and her chickens made sure we never ran out of eggs, and after a hard day’s work she always supplied ice tea, and the best ever cornbread.

Helen, leading her flock to the coop for the night.

One summer she went back to California to visit her grown children. I was most familiar with her animals and the chores so I stayed and “trailer sat”. I remember trying to fall asleep at night with all the sounds of the country, under and around me. It took some getting used to. In the morning the roosters woke up so early! I fed the cats, milked the cow, and collected eggs. I had always loved farm life, but living in a trailer was new to me. I loved being able to hear the animals close by, chickens scratching in the dirt under the trailer, guinea hens perching in the trees overhead, cows drinking from their water tank.

Helen’s mobile home. Come sit a spell on the front porch

Sadly, my husband’s work plans changed and we left Texas for the west coast in 1976, but we stayed in touch with Helen. Letters passed back and forth between us and we often took care of financial needs for her. She was like our “other mother”. We visited her several times over the following years, and Helen made a surprise trip up north to visit us after the birth of our first child. Others took our place helping her over time.

I was so impressed that she traveled, alone, to visit our firstborn.

We were informed of Helen’s death in 1998. At 81 she was relaxing in her living room chair, still independent, still sharing what she had with others, still living the lifestyle she had chosen for herself, still strong in her faith, when she died. An amazing woman, a worthy role model, not soon forgotten.

Grandma Helen, a pioneer spirit.

A to Z Challenge: Gayle (and Allie)

Most of Allie’s friends were special in one way or another, but not often did one come along with the cultural charm that Gayle had. Here was a person who had grown up in a foreign country, even spoke a foreign language fluently – this was rare for Allie’s small town lifestyle. Always the opportunist, Allie signed Gayle up for giving French lessons to her homeschooled daughters. That was the beginning of years of shared adventures, shared ups and downs, shared faith.

Gayle was a superior hostess with French flair. Instead of “get to the table before it all gets cold”, which Allie was used to, there was a before dinner conversation time, with appetizers and wine. Art on the walls, flowers in the vases, music in the air, and a leisurely but simple meal could always be counted on with Gayle’s invitations. Without Gayle, Allie would have never tasted kir or known what a porte couteaux was. Probably wouldn’t have known that a madeleine was a cookie or have adopted that wonderful slow roasted brisket recipe.

Porte couteaux. Why? Because you don’t want a greasy knife on your tablecloth.

Gayle was the kind of friend she went to for advice on furniture purchases and making home a lovely place. Gayle worked in a design shop and with that as a credential, she talked Allie into painting her bathroom dark green – whoa, shocking! She helped Allie find a great upholstery shop to revive a favorite recliner. In turn, Allie helped Gayle network, even if it was just helping her find horse manure for her rose garden. They both loved taking long walks, cooking out at the beach, and breakfasts in small morning restaurants. They both loved their cats, and their husbands.

They both loved their God. After Allie had pestered her numerous times to go to Bible study with her, Gayle gave up and went. Mutual faith deepened the friendship and became an anchor as they shared their saddest times and prayed for each other. They both knew God to be adventurous, and frankly, kind of wild, in a good way.

Allie got the kayaks out one day and made Gayle go with her on the inland waterway. It was a bit out of Gayle’s comfort zone but it ended well. They survived a beautiful afternoon with nothing but a little sunburn.

Gayle asked Allie to watch her house and feed her cat one year when she and her husband visited France. She suggested a midnight skinny dip in the pool which was surprising to Allie and a bit out of her comfort zone, but why not? Who’s to know?

Most often though, it was that they talked and knew how to tell each other important things. Sometimes they were on the phone, sometimes in person, but over time it all started having a preparatory nature to it. Because of that, they were not all that surprised when the big “thing” finally came around… Not really.

A to Z Challenge: Fade

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real characters, like us.

We were standing around the operating table, gowned and masked, working on a late evening emergency case – a young guy who flipped his motorcycle. The doctors were calmly discussing vacation plans. I was stabilizing a leg while they did major reconstruction on it.

“I’m going to Wisconsin. We have a fishing cabin up north. It’s one of those out of the way places on this great lake. Going catch a musky.”

“Oh yeah?” the other doc said. “Where exactly?”

“Probably Hayward.” I said, deciding to join the conversation.

“You know the place?”

“It’s my hometown. I grew up there. I’m due for a vacation there too.”

“Well, what are the chances of that?” He said.

And so began my acquaintance with Fade. He wasn’t the doctor. He was the guy whose leg I was holding.

After surgery he was one angry young man. His leg was in traction with pins at the knee and the ankle. He was on his back in bed and would stay that way for quite a while. He was lucky that walking again was even a possibility, but the sudden change in his plans didn’t make him feel lucky. Formerly cute, popular, and definitely on the cocky side, he was now in pain and trying to learn how to manage a bedpan. He was my patient, on my primary care unit, which meant that we were going to be spending a lot of time with each other.

At first he was in no mood to have visitors but it didn’t take long for his room to be named “the party room”. His group of close friends started showing up often, regularly breaking visitor rules. Fade would charm his way out of trouble with whoever was in charge. He was so sweet when he wanted to be, and almost abusive when he stopped caring. I never knew which guy I’d be dealing with when I went in the room. But, things were working in my favor – I was young and fairly good looking.

One day I arrived on the unit and noticed an unusual smell. I imagined it was coming from Fade’s room, and even thought I saw a bit of smoke seeping out from under his door. Laughter sounded from inside, and when I opened the door I saw it was indeed a party taking place. His friends were sitting around the bed and Fade was there in the middle, smoking weed. Pain medicine, he called it. I had to agree he looked pretty comfortable, but it was still illegal in California, our state at the time. I wasn’t sure what the Catholic nuns who ran the hospital would think of it either. Turned out they were way ahead of their time, agreed with him, and allowed it. I became familiar with that smell.

Over time, the adaptability of youth worked it’s magic. Fade got used to us as we cared for him. We were his encouragers and were able to develop solid friendships with him. He healed and walked out of the hospital eventually, a more thoughtful, careful and experienced young man. It was a long time before I heard from him again, but that’s another story.

A to Z Challenge: Evelin

Character sketches that are fictional but based on real characters, like us.

She seemed perfectly content to sleep in friend’s living rooms, on their couches – a few nights in one place, then switch. She was content to walk everywhere, or hitch a ride when it was offered. She was actually proud of her ability to wander about at night and not get mugged or in trouble. She felt zero obligation to be in school. It was a distraction to the rest of her life. In fact, she so enjoyed being known as “tough” and independent that, to this day, I don’t know why she decided to come home with my daughters. Maybe it was the colder weather and the thought of a bed that could be hers if she wanted it.

Seeing my daughter’s friends at school or youth gatherings I always assumed that they had home lives that were some variation of our own. Not so. I wasn’t aware of how abnormal we were, until meeting people like Evelin and hearing their stories. I seldom heard the parental version. I tried to imagine what I would have done with a girl who went into the garage with a lit candle and ended up setting her motorcycle on fire. Kicking her out probably wouldn’t have been my first remedy, but then again, maybe it wasn’t the first time.

We cleared out an enclosed breezeway and put bunk beds and a dresser next to the sauna. The room had windows and it’s own door to the outside. What more could a tough girl want?

She was quiet, polite and really quite good looking, although I don’t think she knew it. She didn’t try to look beautiful, feeling more comfortable with a style somewhere between grunge and Goth, covering it all with a long man’s raincoat. The coat probably came in handy in her late night wandering. She did have six toes on her feet but you wouldn’t have noticed unless you stopped and counted. Who does that?

Evelin wanted a job for spending money and decided to work the late shift at a fast food joint a good two miles from our house. She was the closer and in charge of spraying the grease off the floors – at 2 am when they shut the drive thru window. It wasn’t a particularly safe area of town and the thought of her walking home at that hour gave me shivers up the spine. I decided to set the alarm and drive down to get her. She hated it. She hated me for “pampering” her and making her soft. How did I know that? She left me a note saying so.

Part of the terms of her residence with us was that she go to school again. She was enrolled at a different school than my daughters were, so afternoons were spent in the car waiting at one school and then the other. We often would wait at Eve’s school until it emptied out and discover that she hadn’t been there.

She was a mystery to me. I think she would have liked knowing that, because maybe being a mystery is as good as being tough. I wouldn’t have guessed she would turn things around and become an architect with two beautiful children, one of whom has six toes on his feet. And that’s another story…

A to Z Challenge: Della

There was no denying that Della was strange, in fact, that was why I was attracted to her in the first place. She was pretty, she was rich, and she presented herself as a prisoner. There had to be adventure somewhere in this mix, I thought, and there was.

I met her in church, of all places. She was “allowed” to come, as she put it, but she didn’t usually stay around to chat or go out for lunch. She had to get back before he noticed her absence and got irritated. She had a very nice car, and classy clothes. Her hair always looked perfect, her glasses were clean and sparkly and her teeth were beautiful. Her husband was a dentist.

She had been a dental hygienist and had worked for him several years before they became “a thing” and got married. I was never quite certain if she had loved him or just been overwhelmingly impressed with his story. He had escaped Egypt when the country turned on its royalty and had come to the United States for a new life. He went back to school to update his dental credentials and set up his own business. For a while, they worked well as a team. She had a son from a previous marriage and it was a relief when she no longer had to be a single mom. And even more of a relief when she quit working and started keeping house.

I should say “keeping mansion”. That would be a much better description of her new job of helping design and build one of the most ostentatious houses, in the most ostentatious part of town. I was only in it once, but what I saw was right out of a fairy tale. I think her husband must have had the royal palace in mind, complete with double, sweeping staircases leading up to his Egyptian room with tapestries, reclining cushions, and one of those crazy middle east tea pots. I think it was staged by National Geographic.

I saw it all on the night she left him.

There were three of us that night. I had a friend who was even more involved in Della’s story than I was. I was the one who had not yet met her abusive husband, so it was my name that went on the storage unit she had me rent. My name went on the U-Haul rental. In her customary dramatic way, she was hiding her tracks, certain that he would come looking for her.

“He’s going out of town, but I’m never sure he won’t surprise me and show up or change plans. If all is well, I’ll open the gate at 11:30 and you can drive in real slow and quiet. Wear dark clothes.” Everything but the ski masks and lock picks. I was worried we’d get taken for burglars and the neighbors would call the cops.

It took us an hour and a half to get her selected items out and packed in the truck. She didn’t take much. She didn’t take anything she thought would make him angrier than he would already be when he found her gone. She took the dog – a hefty Rottweiler, and her car. It was a bit of a challenge getting everything to fit in the storage unit but we were done before dawn.

She was sure he would look for her in every conceivable place, and possibly be violent if he found her. She had to have a place to hide that he wouldn’t think of, someplace humble, ordinary, and unconnected with anyone he would ever suspect. A place where the car could be kept out of sight. A place where she and the dog could hang out indefinitely.

Yep, my house. What was I thinking?