Category Archives: memories

My Dad

Family of Floyd Pitts at the family home, Cane Hill, Arkansas: Standing back row, left to right: Older brother Harvey, his wife Ina, youngest sister Verna, younger sister Opal, Floyd, oldest brother Noah with wife Nellie holding Betty with Laverne standing. Front row, children of Harvey and Ina, Bobby Ray and Joy Lee. Seated: William “Bill” Pitts and his wife Nora West Pitts.

My dad, Floyd D. Pitts, didn’t fit a traditional male identification, not that he wasn’t fully male. His talent for music set him up for ridicule and bullying by his two older brothers. He hated the fields of cotton where, as a child, he was once flogged with a cotton stalk by his mom for sleeping at the end of a long row with his bag only partly filled. He was eight years old. It was a lesson in working to survive, and he never forgot it.

His high school diploma from Morrow, Arkansas, hardly counted when he entered college on a music scholarship. He’d already been part of a popular men’s quartet with classmates from high school performing regularly on Fayetteville’s KUOA, Voice of the Ozarks radio station. He played piano and fiddle, and also taught singing school. A makeshift piano tuning hammer had been fashioned from a tie-rod end by his blacksmith father because invariably when Floyd showed up at some rural church house to teach shape-note singing, the piano needed tuning.

Band Director, Rogers Arkansas circa 1940

Time in the U. S. Navy during World War II gave him the opportunity to later obtain a master’s degree as well as hours toward a doctorate. After the war, he returned to Rogers (Arkansas) to again teach choir and band. Another forty years would pass in this career, at Fort Smith in the 1950s, then Miami, Oklahoma until 1967, then part time at Westville, Oklahoma and Lincoln, Arkansas, until he retired from teaching.

From the early 1960s on, however, he advanced his moonlighting career of piano tuning and repair, which he took up full time once he left Lincoln schools. And while I had been his student in the Miami schools band, my first opportunity to work at his side came with the piano business. And it was here that we stepped outside the normal father-daughter roles.

He didn’t treat me like a girl. I remember that even as a youngster, when he was trying to remodel an old house we lived in at Fort Smith, he’d show me how to drive a nail or spread mud on a sheetrock seam. When I began ‘helping’ him in the piano business, he didn’t pay attention to whether my nails would get broken or if my feet were cold. He’d say “Come hold this clamp, sis,” or “Get that Phillips and come over here.”

I learned so much this way, not only how to repair and rebuild these complex instruments called pianos, but how to refinish wood whether solid or veneered, how to mix stains to get rid of red tones, how to smooth off delicate veneer edges with 220 grit sandpaper. If I had a shop today, there’s no end to the kinds and numbers of projects I could pursue and conclude with pleasing results.

Most women don’t get that kind of education.

Carmyn Gem Morrow and Floyd Denver Pitts, Benton County Fair circa 1945

Maybe he realized he wasn’t a “traditional” male in the sense of muscles and macho. Maybe he realized I wasn’t a traditional female in the sense of lace and flirting and whatever else defines that sort. Maybe he didn’t realize any of that but rather just moved forward through time with the work his hands could do well and the concept of work as an honorable and necessary pursuit.

I learned more from my dad’s view of the world than from my mom’s. Oh, I washed dishes and hung clothes on the line and changed my little brothers’ diapers. I sewed most of my own clothes through high school. Gardening, milking goats, keeping chickens—those were also part of my education through mom. But none of that really meant much in the greater world of the late 20th century when a woman might need her own income.

Whereas my mom’s social circles didn’t reach much past her extended family, my dad had to learn how to interact with the greater community despite his rural background. He’d have a social drink, laugh at jokes, and recruit band parents and faculty to help sell snow cones to raise money for new band uniforms. It was his charmingly open approach to people that showed me how to build a social network that became an essential part of a thriving thirty-year career as a piano tuner/technician.

If he thought I could lift one end of a 1910 upright piano, who was to say I couldn’t? If he could dig mouse nests out from under piano keys or drill through the cast iron plate to insert lag bolts in restoring a pin block to its correct position, then so could I. I was stronger than I knew, more mechanically minded, my hands—like his—able to tug strings made of cold drawn steel into the right position on a tuning pin.

Me and my dad, mid-1990s at the piano shop, Pitts Piano Service, Fayetteville

I admit to occasional worries that I had lost all chance of being a ‘real’ woman. What woman crawled under a grand piano to refasten the pedal lyre? In 1982 when I passed my Piano Technician Guild exams for registered tuner/technician status, there were less than two dozen women in the field. Plenty of customers would open their door at the appointed time and express shock at seeing a female tech. My hands weren’t delicate with slim fingers and manicured nails, but rather slightly rough tools used to create a well-tuned musical instrument.

But then, even as a child, I never felt feminine. The mysterious talent by which a female might lure a male into courtship totally escaped me. My body didn’t cooperate with the idea of feminine wiles, but rather expressed itself in somewhat androgynous terms—tallish, fairly flat-chested, angular. Interestingly, my dad too seemed somewhat of an anomaly in his family, handsome, lithe rather than muscled. Did he recognize, at least subconsciously, that we both didn’t quite fit the mold?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed my share of love and marriage, cherish my three children, and never turn down a romance novel–unless it’s poorly written.

As his oldest, I gained my dad’s attention first and perhaps it was only the bond of fatherhood that propelled his urge to teach me what he knew. In his heart, he was a teacher more than anything else. He was also an artist—a bass vocalist who could track any part in a four-part harmony, a clarinetist,  and a pianist who loved to pound out the keyboard version of jump music like “Bugle Call Rag” or marches like “Under the Double Eagle.” He cherished his role as both a composer and a conductor who pushed his students to produce excellent music whether Sousa marches or Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was natural for him to insist I learn piano, clarinet and oboe and how to sing alto, and to teach me how to shim a cracked soundboard and identify the difference between real ivory and early celluloid keytops.

All five of us kids learned music. Both my brothers earned master’s degrees in that field. Sadly, I was the only one privileged to work with him in the piano trade and see the broader side of him than as just a parent.

Whether by conscious intent or as the consequence of his personality, my father allowed me to be me. He encouraged me in skills that were beyond anything considered traditional for a female. His open-mindedness about the life choices of his oldest daughter freed me from any sense of duty to the stereotypes that so often limit women.

Today, fifteen years after his death, I appreciate him more than I was ever able to express while he lived. Thanks, Dad.

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Ma Drake

Excerpt from Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past, “History of Fayette Junction.”

By 1936, the canning business was the dominant regional industry. At Fayette Junction in south Fayetteville, a new facility sprang up right across the tracks from Sligo Wagon Wood Company and began its own railcar shipments of canned goods. The 1936 Sanborn maps document this enterprise as “Thomas and Drake Canning Company Warehouse,” remarking that stated building dimensions had been taken “from plans.” It was a state of the art facility: plans specified iron posts, concrete block pilaster, and gypsum board roof on steel joists. The Rev. Jake Drake and his son Ezra Drake joined with Rylan C. Thomas in this enterprise.

According to the 1939 city directory, “Drake and Hargis Cannery” was located at 605 W. Dickson. Crates of canned tomatoes, greens, and other produce from this cannery would have been warehoused at Fayette Junction. In 1947, the business was called “Thomas and Drake Canning” and had offices at 19 East Center. Several Drakes may have been involved as a venture of the extended Drake family of Drake’s Creek area, Madison County. It is not clear whether the Fayette Junction property built by Drake ever served as more than a storage facility.

Drake’s brother Bill and sister-in-law Vida (Ma Drake) operated a favored local café known first as “Bill Drake’s Place,” no doubt taking advantage of his brother’s access to inexpensive local canned goods.  At some point before 1951, Drake and Thomas was taken over by Hargis. Among the litter later found on the old Sligo mill’s vast dark floor were cancelled checks of Drake Canning Company and Thomas and Drake Canning Company with dates in the 1950s.

Hargis and Drake canneries rode a wave of profitable commerce as Arkansas fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes, captured a significant market share nationally. But by 1950, production and sales of tomato and strawberry crops comprised a mere one-fourth the volume it had in 1930. Disease, economic forces, and stringent new sanitation regulations began to crush the local canning market.

Vida Drake continued the business after Bill’s death. Frequent winner of awards for Best Plate Lunch, “Ma Drake’s” continued her café even after suffering a heart attack in the early 1990s. Her lunches included a meat, mashed potatoes with gravy, three vegetables, salad, and a roll for $3.75. Homemade pies rounded off the menu, usually available in apple, cherry, lemon, chocolate, coconut, and pecan. The café was first located at the northeast corner of Sixth and S. College, but later moved to 504 E. 15th Street. Drake’s closed after her death in 1997.

Fayetteville Legends

Ronnie Hawkins, 1959. From his official website, http://www.ronniehawkins.com Toronto, Ontario Ron Scribner Agency, courtesy of Toronto Hawk Records

“I remember running the red light there,” Hawkins said, referring to Leverett at the top of Garland hill. “I had the daughter of one of the biggest lawyers in Arkansas with me, underage of course. We ran that red light. She did.”

Robert Cochran, interviewing Ronnie Hawkins: “I think I’ve heard that story. That’s where you switch places with her, so you’d take the hit.”

“Yes, I’d take the hit,” Hawkins said. “Pearl Watts was the sheriff. He smoked those old rolled Bull Durham tobaccos. He always had one a fraction of an inch long in the corner of his mouth, [smoke] going right up into his eye while he was interrogating you. Judge Packet said I was a menace to the highway, and I’d better straighten up… They were sitting right behind Leverett school. When we were going over that hill, we were in a hurry to get out to the university farm. That’s where everybody parked.”[1]

Hawkins was indeed in the company of an underage girl, none other than Marcia Perkins, daughter of Rex Perkins. Even though technically too young to hold a driver’s license, she drove a brand new 1956 red-and -white Chevy Bel-Air, courtesy of Rex’s close professional relationships with Fayetteville car dealers.

From Rex Perkins – A Biography:

“By the time Marcia was fourteen in 1955, she had developed a secretive months-long relationship with twenty-one-year-old Ronnie Hawkins, a fledgling star in the music world. Older sister Carole had started college, but Marcia had her own ideas about her future. One night, Marcia attended a slumber party and ended up on the phone with Hawkins. Whether the slumber party had been a strategic maneuver to give her a means to meet him is unknown. But the upshot was that she slipped out of the slumber party to join Hawkins at the golf course where he and other members of his popular group “Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks” were hanging out and jamming in what turned out to be an all-nighter.

“One version of this story claims that Roy Orbison was in town for this jam session, which wasn’t completely unusual. The early form of rock and roll (later named ‘rockabilly’) blossomed around Huntsville-native Hawkins and his friend Levon Helm, along with other members of this group. Other music notables who came to Fayetteville to jam with Hawkins and/or to play at a favorite nightspot, the Rockwood Club, included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Conway Twitty.

“An acquaintance of Hawkins remembered those early years. ‘Ronnie was a natural athlete and a ‘Greek god’ of a life guard at the Wilson Park swimming pool. He understandably received lots of attention from a wide range of women.’[1]

“It was assumed that Marcia and Hawkins were sleeping together, although whether they were intimate during the night in question is not known. One of her slumber party friends confessed the story of Marcia slipping out to her mother, Jane McDonald. Jane told Georgia, Georgia told Rex, and the proverbial mess hit the fan. Marcia was Rex’s baby, Daddy’s little girl, and like most fathers in similar circumstances, Rex wasn’t prepared for another man in Marcia’s young life.

Rex Perkins

“As the story goes, even though fourteen was the legal age of consent at that time in Arkansas, a fired-up Rex gave the young man a choice: leave town or suffer my wrath. The result was that Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks made a hasty departure from the region. The official version of Hawkins’ life story states he began touring Canada (date unspecified) and later made it his home (1958), and that he ventured there on advice from Conway Twitty.[2]

“Contacted regarding this biography, Hawkins confirmed that Rex made certain threats. ‘Rex was the biggest lawyer ever in Fayetteville at that time,’ Hawkins stated. ‘I would have married her but I was afraid somebody was gonna kill me.’”[3]

If Marcia’s girlfriend hadn’t spilled the beans, Rex would have found out anyway. Pearl Watts knew Marcia’s car and would have made sure Rex knew that his daughter had been found in the company of that rock-and-roller Hawkins, flying through that stoplight.

~~~

[1] “Long on Nerve: An Interview with Ronnie Hawkins,” Robert Cochran and Ronnie Hawkins. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly Vol 65, No. 2 (Summer 2006) pp. 99-115.

[1] Scott Lunsford interview, by email June 26, 2014. Author’s notes.

[2] From there, the story of Hawkins’ group is well known to music buffs. After 1964, fellow-Arkansan Helm and other band members regrouped to form ‘The Band,” toured with Bob Dylan in 1965-66, and went on to fame and fortune. Hawkins continued his musical career to become a mentor to other musicians as well as an award-winning performer.

[3] Scott Lunsford interview, his email relating phone conversation with Ronnie Hawkins August 15, 2014. Author’s notes.

~~~

Rex Perkins: A Biography, by Denele Campbell. Available in ebook or paperback,

Thoughts on Graduation

As I sat in the massive sports arena, outfitted in its overhead screens meant for close-ups to penalty shots, I thought of the other times I’ve joined such crowds for ceremonies deemed important in our society. People of all kinds rubbed shoulders in the steep rows of seats, all of us suffering the interminable wait for things to happen. A brass quintet played, their image projected onscreen so that we could see the puffing of the tuba player’s cheeks, the hand stuffed in the bell of the French horn. August cadences of heraldic composition by Bach and other Baroque composers echoed off the high dome of steel and glass. Attendants rushed from place to place.

Finally the processional began, resonate strains of that long familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1 in D by Sir Edward Elgar (1901). Led by deans and faculty and pages carrying medieval banners announcing the insignia and names of colleges that would be conferring degrees, leadership of the university headed the long lines of graduating students, their robes descended from Middle Age dress just as many buildings on campus continue an ancient architectural tradition.

The caps or tams and variously colored hoods or stoles designated the degree and college—doctoral robes with three velvet sleeve bars, master’s robes with the pointed sleeve extension, or bachelor’s degree regalia with their open sleeves.

Once seated, the 1,700 graduates and attending university trustees, chancellor, and deans joined the audience in standing for the performance of the national anthem and a musical invocation by the university’s Schola Cantorum, yet another name and tradition of the Middle Ages originally organized to perform plainchant in the early church. The music brought a catch to my throat. How many times had I experienced the rush of emotion at this music, each occasion a milestone in my life or the life of someone dear?

Then the speeches, a reminder that from education comes what we value most as a society—the rule of law, the exploration of science, the marvelous inventions of mathematics and engineering, the preservation and creation of language through literature, history, philosophy, the magic of the arts.

Then the graduates, no longer embroiled in intense study and eager to harvest the product of their long labor and expense—a diploma. One by one their eager faces appeared on the big overhead screen, each called by name, each striding toward the dean of their college to accept the red leather folder with its heavy parchment page bearing their name and the title of their accomplishment.

My mother, at 95 hardly able to stay current with the rapid changes of our times, expressed muted shock at all the “foreign” names. “They live here, too,” I whispered.

Later, as I drove her home, I thanked her for coming to this ceremony honoring her granddaughter. “So many people,” she mused. “Nothing like when I went there.”

“No,” I said laughing. “A lot has changed in seventy-five years.”

Old Main, University of Arkansas Fayetteville

Later as I reflected on the emotion still swelling in my chest, the realization came again as it has in the past. Especially in times changing as rapidly as ours, we need our traditions, our ceremonies, to remind us of why we are what we are. Education forms the heart of our civilization. No wonder we house our institutions of learning in buildings modeled on the earliest designs of Western culture. No wonder the prestige of educational leadership appears in the same garment style as medieval Oxford dons wore a thousand years ago.

Graduation isn’t simply the conferring of degrees. It’s a rite of passage into a special tier of human endeavor celebrated by those who have committed to heart and memory the facts, rules, and practices of a particular profession. They have taken the traditions of our ancestors to their own safekeeping in order to serve us all, to preserve and enhance, to invent and expand the talents and knowledge upon which our lives depend.

The fact that a winter commencement at the modest yet ambitious flagship university of a lesser state such as Arkansas has advanced the ambitions of 1,700 individuals gives me good cheer in a time when so much about our world seems dark. From these and thousands of kindred graduates across our land will come the solutions. This is the future. I’m thrilled to see it.

Folk Song “Billy Boy”

From a YouTube recording of the spoken poem. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bKJHwNzXAs

As often happens, at 3 a.m. I was lying awake with a song running through my head. I hadn’t thought about this song since I was child when my mother sang it in the style of the Andrews Sisters’ recording.

Why Billy Boy? I have no idea. But in the need to put this to rest, this morning I looked up the lyrics. And as happened before with other folk songs, I discovered this one has a long and not so nice history.  Wikipedia states: “Its lyrical structure is thematically complex and modeled after the question and answer form of traditional ballads” that served as Bob Dylan’s inspiration for a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

While the tone of the nursery rhyme is ironic and teasing, both the question and answer form and the narrative of the song have been related to “Lord Randall”, a murder ballad from the British Isles, in which the suitor is poisoned by the woman he visits. Wikipedia

Here are the lyrics I always heard:

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?
I have been to seek a wife, she’s the joy of my whole life
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Where does she live, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where does she live, Charming Billy?
She lives on the hill, forty miles from the mill
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she bid you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she bid you to come in, Charming Billy?
Yes, she bade me to come in, there’s a dimple in her chin
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she take your hat, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she take your hat, Charming Billy?
Yes, she took my hat and she threw it at the cat
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Did she set for you a chair, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Did she set for you a chair, Charming Billy?
Yes, she set for me a chair, she has ringlets in her hair
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she cook and can she spin, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she cook and can she spin, Charming Billy?
She can cook and she can spin, she can do most anything
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, Charming Billy?
She can bake a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink her eye
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a feather bed, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a feather bed, Charming Billy?
She can make a feather bed and put pillows at the head
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she make a pudding well, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a pudding well, Charming Billy?
She can make a pudding well, I can tell it by the smell
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she milk a heifer calf, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she milk a heifer calf, Charming Billy?
Yes, she can, and not miss the bucket more than half
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she often seen at church, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she often seen at church, Charming Billy?
Yes, she’s often seen at church, with her bonnet white as birch
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

And is she very tall, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
And is she very tall, Charming Billy?
She’s as tall as any pine, and as straight as a pumpkin vine
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Are her eyes very bright, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Are her eyes very bright, Charming Billy?
Yes, her eyes are very bright, but alas, they’re minus sight
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Can she sing a pretty song, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she sing a pretty song, Charming Billy?
She can sing a pretty song, but she often sings it wrong
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

How old may she be, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old may she be, Charming Billy?
Three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

Is she fit to be a wife, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Is she fit to be a wife, Charming Billy?
She’s as fit to be a wife as a fork fits to a knife
But she’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother

But now with the information about an earlier darker version named Lord Randall, I had to know what it said. Here’s the Wikipedia description:

“Lord Randall”, or “Lord Randal”, is an Anglo-Scottish border ballad consisting of dialogue between a young Lord and his mother. Similar ballads can be found across Europe in many languages, including Danish, German, Magyar, Irish, Swedish, and Wendish. Italian variants are usually titled “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man”) or “Il testamento dell’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man’s Will”), the earliest known version being a 1629 setting by Camillo il Bianchino, in Verona.

Of course the Scots are in it! Here are the lyrics, by one version.

Lord Randal

“Oh where ha’e ye been, Lord Randall, my son!
And where ha’e ye been, my handsome young man!”
“I ha’e been to the wild wood: mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi’ hunting, and fain wald lie down.”

“An wha met ye there, Lord Randall, my son?
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?”
“I dined wi my true-love; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And what did she give you, Lord Randall, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young man?”
“Eels fried in broo; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randall, my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsome young man?”
“My hawks and my hounds; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doon.”

“What become a yer bloodhounds, Lord Randall, my son?
What become a yer bloodhounds, my handsome young man?”
“They swelled and they died; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary wi huntin, and fain wad lie doon.”

“O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall, my son!
I fear ye are poisoned, my handsome young man!”
“O yes, I am poisoned; mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m sick at m’ heart, and I fain wad lie doon.”

Several performed versions may be found on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed this one by Giordano Dall’Armellina .  Some versions include a couple of final stanzas where he curses his treacherous lover to hell fire.

 

I Killed a Dog

When I was twelve, I killed a dog.

We lived in a rent house next door to Frank and Ethyl McMillen, a nice older couple who allowed our entire family (dad, mom, me, sister, two little brothers) to tromp into their living room every Monday at 8 p.m. to watch Gunsmoke on their nice big console television. The adults sat in chairs, Frank and Ethyl in their recliners, we kids on the floor–they had carpet– and sometimes Ethyl would serve us homemade cookies but only when my mom said okay.

McMillens had a dog named Penny. Her muzzle had started to turn gray and her black-and-white body had taken on some extra weight. Little terriers like that don’t handle extra weight very well. She walked like a sausage with legs. We weren’t encouraged to pet Penny. She moved stiffly and had her own ideas about company. But she never growled or scared us.

Each day I walked to school down a long gravel alleyway that ran from beside our house (and McMillen’s house) due west to the end of the block. The route then took me across railroad tracks, then alongside the athletic field and into the north wing of Will Rogers Elementary where I attended sixth grade. When school was over, I walked home.

One day as I returned home, I heard kids shouting and screaming. I spotted a group of kids jumping around on the far side of McMillen’s house, so I ran over there. At least six kids of various ages had gathered around the flower bed where Penny and another dog were in a fight. Only Penny wasn’t fighting. The other dog, a brown boxer more than twice her size, had her by the throat and pinned down.

One little girl screamed, “He’s going to kill her.”

I saw that was true. I ran around and knocked on the McMillen’s door, but I already knew they weren’t home. I looked around for a weapon—a shovel, a stick—something I could use to pry the dogs apart. I considered reaching down to pull the boxer off Penny, but then I worried the boxer would attack me. I thought of calling for help, but everyone there had been yelling and no one had come.

I was the oldest kid there, a head taller than anyone else. Someone had to do something, and the task fell to me. I couldn’t stand there and watch Penny be killed.

So I kicked the boxer. In the head. With my saddle oxfords, big heavy shoes I had to wear with specially-made arch supports inside so I wouldn’t get fallen arches. My feet in those shoes dangled from the end of my legs like concrete blocks. It wasn’t without some serious clout that I aimed and fired with the toe of those shoes.

The boxer didn’t budge. In retrospect, I suspect my assault may have only intensified his determination. I kicked his head, careful not to also hit Penny. She had collapsed by now, resting against the red brick wall of the house and the well-tilled soil of Ethyl McMillen’s rose garden.

I kicked again and again, each time terrified I’d miss and hit Penny or that the boxer would turn and sink his teeth into my leg.

Why didn’t he let go? Why didn’t somebody come, a grown-up, someone who would know what to do? My heart pounded. Sweat poured off me. I was shaking all over.

Finally the boxer let go. Penny didn’t move. The boxer trotted away. The kids dispersed. I went home.

Two or three hours later, my dad stood outside talking to a man. My dad came back inside and asked me if I knew what I’d done. I told him what happened. He shook his head.

“That man,” he said, gesturing. “He came down here to tell me that his kids’ dog just died. In their bathtub, bleeding from his nose and ears. He said you kicked him to death.”

I stood there as all the feeling drained out of my head and chest. I couldn’t breathe. I had killed a dog. It wasn’t that my dad lectured me or seemed angry with me. He seemed bemused, unsure what to think that his oldest child had done such a thing.

The man had told him they paid fifty dollars for that dog. Did my dad have to pay him for the dog? I don’t know.

I don’t remember if my dad said I’d done something wrong. But I felt terrible anyway. No one hugged me and said they understood, that everything would be okay. No one seemed to recognize the trauma of my experience.

I think I cried later, after my sister in the twin bed next to me had gone to sleep, when no one would see or hear me.

I didn’t mean to kill a dog. I was trying to save a dog. Surely everyone understood that. Who else had any idea of what else I could have done? What anyone could have done? But it was my fault their dog died and they were mad.

Penny died, too. She would have died even if I hadn’t killed the boxer with my big heavy oxfords. My right foot.

It was their fault the boxer died, not mine. I understand this now. They had a dog who for no apparent reason invaded Penny’s home turf and attacked her. A dog like that shouldn’t have been allowed to roam loose, but in those days, leash laws didn’t exist. For all I know, the boxer may have killed other dogs in that neighborhood.

At the time, I knew none of that. I only knew that I had kicked a dog to death and its owners were mad at me and my dad was uneasy with the whole thing. I think the McMillens thanked me, but I don’t remember that part.

I remember the deep red of the brick, the soft sun-warmed dirt, the rose bushes and the big evergreen at the corner of the house. I remember the agitated neighborhood kids jumping around, yelling. I remember that boxer straddled over Penny as her big dark eyes bulged, her mouth gaping while the boxer kept his jaws firmly fastened over her throat. I remember the impact in my body of each kick, of holding myself steady for yet another carefully aimed blow to the boxer’s head.

I remember the impact of my foot against that dog’s skull. It traveled up my leg, through my hip, up my spine, and lodged in my head where memories stay forever.

The Kiss

I mostly don’t remember my dreams anymore. When I was younger, dreams wound out in vivid detail, some of them becoming stories with strange twists and turns. I regret the loss of that talent or torment or interface with other worlds.

Last night I dreamed a dream I remember intensely. Sadly much of the detail melted away as fast as I dreamed it. But what I remember echoes through me, a repeated experience of great emotion and yes, questionable meaning. I had arrived in a place not familiar, a small wooden frame house with a high porch that I entered as if someone welcomed me there. I stood in the narrow living room, well lighted in the afternoon sunshine, facing a man I once loved.

I still love him, love him in that way we can with those we never completely knew, never joined in the flesh or struggled through the ups and downs of an intimate relationship. I can’t actually discuss all the ways I did know him because how we met and what discourse we participated in over a period of years actually would identify him and would undoubtedly create problems.

Not for me. The situation for me was entirely different than his and even more so now. He’s still married, still in a position of importance in his profession, and esteemed by a great many people. And justly so. He is a truly Good Man.

But then, of course he is. He’s made it the objective of his life to be a good man, and has done admirably well in such a difficult pursuit. In my most fevered moments in our acquaintance, I highly resented his determination to be good. I was not then and am still not, a ‘good’ woman. I’m also not a ‘bad’ woman, but that’s beside the point. And another story entirely.

In the dream, he stood before me in this small well-lighted room, a place with pale blonde  furniture, what there was of it scattered around the place. Behind him, a small table built of a light colored wood sat surrounded by its four chairs. A patterned cloth draped over the table at an angle so that the cloth corners dropped onto the chair seats on each side leaving the table corners bare. The cloth pattern featured faded yellows and greens on a cream background, and these were the same colors as the upholstery on a small couch near us in the living room and perhaps an overstuffed chair, although these were items that I didn’t examine closely.

And why would I? The object of my attention, my full and astonished attention, was him, this amazing good man who for reasons never made clear in the dream, welcomed me into his arms. Whatever I had been carrying, if indeed I carried anything, dropped from my hands as I accepted his invitation.

His chest felt warm and strong as he pulled me into his embrace although now, in trying to remember, I can’t envision how his chest looked or what he wore. Perhaps a dark suit over a white shirt with an open collar. The image seems to have evaporated into a misty phantasm so that nothing below his neck remains concrete in my memory. I regret that this is so, because in real life his chest like the rest of him satisfied, even more than satisfied, the requirements of robust manhood. Not overly muscled. But lithe. Strong. Pleasing.

Tight against that chest, I felt his warmth and his affection. That he grasped my face with his hands and lowered his mouth to mine surprised me, pleasantly so. I had longed for him to kiss me almost as long as I knew him, and it was an act that had always been refused on the grounds of his marriage and his fidelity to his role as a Good Man. The kiss rapidly kindled a deep need, apparently, in both of us, and the gentle touching of lips transformed to a passionate embrace of open mouths and tongues.

In the dream, I worried that his wife would see us and be unhappy about our transgression. He looked away without letting go of me, as if peering out the bright window to see what he needed to see, and then returned to me with his hazel eyes crinkling in a smile, that reassuring smile I’ll always remember, to say I shouldn’t worry. Then he kissed me again, this time softer, more reassuring, more comforting than erotic, and for a long time I marveled at the sensory wonder of that touch of lips, how soft his were, how deeply my lips buried against his.

I can see his face, still, and his wavy hair and the crinkle of his eyes when he smiled. He had a terrific smile, which would have been even more wonderful if it had been reserved for me, but of course it was not. It was his professional smile, probably not simply reserved for his many acquaintances and clients in his work, but his smile for everyone. Probably even the smile he gave to his wife and child. But I wanted it for myself. I wanted to be special, not an acquaintance or a client but me, a unique and mysterious element of his life that set me and us apart from the rest of his life.

Maybe I was. He told me, more than once, I was special. To him. That he loved me. But it was agape love, not physical. Transcendent. Nothing infuriated me more, that he insisted on that. Only once did he let that curtain slip, if it was a curtain. Maybe it was only once that he lost control. Or only once that he felt anything more than his perfect good acceptable kind of love.

He did kiss me. We embraced over the console of his sports car, a fevered touch of lips and then more until we were both sinking into the erotic in ways that I had come to expect in my life, ways of freedom and basic human honesty and pleasure. I don’t know what he expected, whether he planned that moment as a brief ration of the forbidden or if it caught him unawares in the midst of trying to help me, pull me back from the brink of despair. I don’t know if those few moments, really only a few, of what some might consider an almost innocent touching of lips, and then slightly more as the kiss deepened and our tongues spoke the silent language of desire, whether those were the only moments in his entire good life that he deviated from his intended path.

In the dream, he wasn’t troubled by the kiss. He was fully in the moment, focused on me, on holding me in his arms and savoring what we exchanged. His objective, it seemed, was to reassure me, convince me of something important, that he cared, that he had always cared, and that what we had would never be diminished or lost.

I don’t remember anything else, and it seems this must have been the main event of this longer scenario that faded into mist like the yellow and green patterns on the tablecloth. I woke up telling myself to remember it, afraid that like most of my other dreams it would slip away into nothing and that when I tried to retrieve it, it would vanish from my fingertips. By some miracle, the memory remained. And even now, as the day drifts again into the early gray evening of a rainy late February day, the image of him, of his hazel eyes and the curl of his hair and the angle of his jaw and the sensual curve of his lips, remains clear in my mind.

What I feared most when I woke up, when I showered and dressed and made my tea and sat at my desk, was that somehow this dream marked his death. That in the night as I slept, he had passed into the ether and from that brilliant space had joined with me for one last moment of expressed affection. I searched the internet for news, hoping that surely if he had died, there would be an announcement, a notice, for he was well known. There was nothing of his death, only other news of his accomplishments, press releases, his position on boards of directors and other such ephemera.

Perhaps he did not die and the dream rose from the depths of my memory, my loneliness, if indeed I am lonely, for I do not consider myself lonely except in the strictest terms of that condition. Yes, I am alone. I am not lonely. Perhaps something of my current endeavors or books I’ve recently read have opened a path to that phase of my life so that all the unresolved angst of my desire and his restraint has found a path to my present. It’s been forty-five years, but then, some things are never forgotten.

Or perhaps he did die and this morning was too soon for there to be obituaries and notices and mourning. I will watch and wait.

And I will savor the dream.