Mike called me Saturday night. “Hi! I was just calling to see how you were doing.”
“I’m doing great. How was movie night?” I asked.
“It was fun. It’s always fun to hang out with the kids eating popcorn. We watched a Star Wars movie and then we battled with light sabers.”
“Sounds like it was a good male bonding experience,” I laughed.
“Yes, it was. It would have been nice if you had been able to join us, though. Maybe you can come another time,” he said.
“Yes, I think I would like that.”
“There was another reason why I called,” he sounded serious.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“You don’t have to, of course, but I was wondering if you would like to come to Church with Sara and the boys and I tomorrow.”
“Uh . . . I don’t know. It’s been a while. . . ”
“I know, and I know you are mad at God, but you can’t run away forever. I thought it might do you some good – help the healing process along. The priest won’t know you and we have a real friendly congregation. We go to the children’s mass. There are lots of kids and lively music. I think you’d enjoy it. I could pick you up or you could meet us there – whatever you want. We usually go out to eat after. You are welcome to join us for that as well.”
“It’s very thoughtful, really . . . I’m just not sure. . .”
“Please come.” There was something in the way that he said it that made me agree.
“Alright, you’ve convinced me. Here, I’ll give you directions to my house.”
Sunday morning, I was so nervous. I hadn’t set foot in a church in nearly a year and a half. I had always enjoyed going to mass before Alan died. I found the prayers and the music so soothing. I had always liked churches when they were empty – to just sit in the silence and be in the presence of God. Yes, I knew God was everywhere and I could be in his presence no matter where I was, but there was something special about being in a church. I had blamed God for everything, but deep-down I knew that it wasn’t really His fault. Alan had chosen to cheat on me. If there was any blame – it lay with him, or perhaps, with me. Maybe I had taken my marriage for granted. Maybe we weren’t meant to be together in the first place. And his death? Well, God may have been responsible for that, or it may have been that it was just Alan’s time. He was meant to save those children. It was time for me to find someway to forgive – God, Alan, and me.
I was thankful when Mike finally pulled into the driveway. I rushed out to meet him.
“Good morning! How are you?” he asked as I stepped into the car, which, I noticed, had actually been cleaned.
“Terrified,” I answered honestly.
“Don’t be. You’ll be fine.”
“I hope so,” I whispered. The butterflies flying in formation in my stomach were not so sure.
We met Sara and the boys in the parking lot. They seemed to know everyone as we went in. They greeted so many people by name. It seemed strange to me to find such a sense of community in a city. It was a modern church, with pews on three sides of the altar, very different from the traditional church I had grown up going to. There were beautiful stained glass windows all around the church, each highlighting a different name of Jesus. We sat in the front row. “Do we have to sit up front?” I anxiously asked Mike.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “We always sit up front. The kids like it up here. They can see everything that is going on.” Sara sat between the boys. I sat next to Tommy and Mike sat on the outside. He said he had to sit there because he helped out passing the basket when it was time for the collection. Tommy was busy doing the puzzles on the kid’s bulletin while I knelt down to pray before mass. I said a quick “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” and then sat down. The prayers helped calm my nerves. Mike smiled reassuringly at me. That helped, too. One nice thing about being Catholic is that no matter where you go, the mass is basically the same. Once mass began, the rhythm and beauty of the prayers and ritual quickly came back to me. Mike was right – the music was very uplifting and it was great to see the children going up to the altar for the homily. Tommy and Johnny scampered over me in their enthusiasm to get a good seat. I wished my parish up in Vermont had something similar. The homily was geared for children but it spoke to me as well. Sometimes things are better in simple terms. I found a true sense of calm being there. It was something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
“So, did you survive?” Mike asked me as we left the church.
“Yes, I did. I’m actually glad I came. You were right; it felt good to come back.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad. With the look you had on your face when we walked in, I was worried.”
“Just a few initial butterflies,” I admitted. “Once mass started, I was fine.”
“We usually go to Friendly’s for a late breakfast after mass. Would you like to join us?”
“Sure,” I nodded enthusiastically. “That would be great! I’m starving.”
Breakfast was good. As I savored my French toast, Tommy and Johnny maintained a running commentary. They told me all about school and Star Wars and Pokémon. It really was quite an informative conversation. When we left the restaurant, they ran ahead with Sara. “I should have warned you – they can talk up a storm,” Mike apologized.
“Don’t worry about it! It was fun to listen to them. They certainly have a lot of energy!”
“Yes,” he agreed. “They are definitely little boys. So, what are your plans for today?”
“I honestly didn’t have any. I figured I’d probably work some more on my story. It seems like a good day for writing,” I said as we walked back to his car.
“Could I possibly interest you in doing something else?” he asked. “There is someplace I’d love to show you.”
“For the head of this writing group, you certainly have been keeping me from writing!” I teased.
“Yes, I know. It’s really all part of a sinister plan on my part to keep you from getting to 50,000 words. I can’t have you reach your goal and me not. It would make me look bad!”
“No,” he assured me. “But there is someplace I would like to take you. Are you up for it?”
I took a deep breath and looked around. “Why not?”
“OK. Just let me tell Sara we’re taking off.” We walked over to Sara’s car and said goodbye to her and the boys.
“No getting into trouble, you two,” she admonished as we walked away. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“Does she think something’s going on between us?” I asked once we were out of her earshot.
“Yeah – I keep telling her we are just friends, but she doesn’t believe me. She’s another one always trying to fix me up. Even with her failed marriage, she is still trying to marry me off! I’m convinced it is a conspiracy on the part of all the women in my life.”
“Well, I promise I won’t try to fix you up with anyone,” I told him. After all, even if he had no interest in me and I wasn’t really ready for a relationship with him, I still wasn’t going to push him in some other woman’s direction.
“So, where are we off to,” I asked as I buckled my seat belt.
“I thought I’d surprise you.”
“OK,” I said uncertainly. “You’re not going to take me anywhere frightening, are you?”
“No. I promise. You’ll like it. I know that you haven’t seen much of Springfield. I’m just expanding your knowledge – showing you all the city has to offer.”
Within a few minutes of driving through downtown streets, we arrived at a parking lot surrounded by a wrought-iron gate. “What is this place?” I asked as he pulled into a parking spot.
“This is the Quadrangle – it’s four museums – two art, one science, one history, and the library. It’s the place where I told you I went to art classes when I was young and one of the places I teach now. I wanted to show it to you. We can stop by the library, too. It’s beautiful – you’ll love it. There are lots of old books to sniff,” he said as he smiled at me. “Besides, all the museums are free when you live in Springfield. How can you beat that?”
We got out of the car and began walking toward the museums. “Look, it’s the Cat in the Hat!” I pointed to a metal sculpture in the middle of a manicured green.
“Yes, it is. That’s the Dr. Suess memorial. Did you know he was from Springfield? He grew up just a few streets from where I live.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I think that I did read that somewhere. I love his books. They are great for story times with the kids!”
“A lot of his stories were set right here in Springfield,” he added. “Mulberry Street is only a couple of streets from here. Of course, it doesn’t look anything like it did back when he was describing it. No horses and carts have gone down it in quite a while! His father worked at Forest Park.”
“You are just a font of information. I’m amazed by how much you know!” I complimented him. “Oh, look – it’s Horton!” I pulled a camera out of my purse. “Will you take a picture of me with him?”
“Sure. Smile!” He took the photo, then handed me back the camera. “Over there is the full text of Oh the Places You’ll Go.” He pointed to a large metal book. “Have you ever read the book?”
“Yes, I have. It’s very encouraging, isn’t it?”
“My mom gave it to me as a graduation present when I graduated from high school,” he said. “I think she expected great things from me.”
“And you have delivered, haven’t you?”
“Well, she was always supportive of my art, but I don’t think she would’ve objected if I had become a doctor or lawyer or something. I don’t think my being an artist was her first choice.”
“Yeah, my parents used to lecture me about my ‘lack of direction’ as well, but they figured I would get married and have kids and take care of them, so if I didn’t have a great career, it wasn’t that big a deal. They thought I could always help out with the farm if nothing better came along.”
“Wasn’t there anything you ever wanted to be?” he asked. “I mean, I know that you like working at the library and all, but was there anything else? – something you loved when you were a kid?”
“When I was kid, I wanted to be a ballerina.”
“Do you dance?” he asked.
“Not a bit! In fact, I have been told I have no natural grace at all.”
“I don’t believe that!” he said.
“Spend more time with me. I’m sure you’ll discover it for yourself!”
“OK, so dancing was out of the question. Was there anything else you liked to do?”
“I loved writing. I would make up all sorts of stories.”
“So, this novel project must be right up your alley.”
“Not really.” I shook my head. “It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything. My novel isn’t very good, but I’m trying to take your advice and ignore that. It does feel good to be writing again, though.”
“I’m glad to hear it. It always feels good to do something that you love, and I’m sure it isn’t as bad as you think. In fact, I’d be willing to bet mine is worse!”
“Well, maybe we could have a contest – writer of the worst novel wins?” I suggested. “Of course, that would mean you would have to let me read yours!”
“Are you going to let me read yours?” he countered.
“Not in a million years!”
“I guess we have a problem, then. We’ll have to just call it a draw,” he laughed. “Shall we go to the library first?” he asked.
“Sounds good.” We started walking in the direction of a large Renaissance-style building. “How did you get into writing, anyway?” I asked.
“One of my friends was doing NaNoWriMo several years back and he challenged me to do it with him – for moral support. I think I had a couple of drinks in me at the time because it sounded like it might be fun, despite the fact that I had never written anything but school papers in my life, and even those I kept to a bare minimum.”
“So, what happened? Didn’t you think better of it in the morning?”
“I had given him my word that I would do it – I couldn’t go back on it,” he said as we climbed the library stairs. “Anyway, I soon discovered that, talent not withstanding, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.” He held the door open for me. “It was like a painting, except with words. I had to tell readers everything that I would normally show them in a painting. It was a creative challenge. I liked that. I still do.”
“Oh my goodness! This is amazing!” I exclaimed as we walked into the rotunda.
“Told you! I knew you’d love it. Take a deep breath. You can actually smell the books from here.” He was right. You could just breathe in the accumulated wisdom of the years simply standing there. The rotunda had these incredible marble columns that led upward to an impressive amber glass dome.
“Wow! They just don’t make buildings like this anymore, do they?” I said as I admired the surroundings.
“Shall I show you around?” he offered.
“Yes, please do.”
We headed to the left into a separate room which was filled with reference materials and computers. “When I was younger, this used to be the art and music library. I would spend hours in here just poring over the books. There was so much to discover. I interned here at the art museum when I was in college and my boss used to send me over with a box full of unidentified slides and I would have to do my best to identify them. It was like being on a treasure hunt. A few years back, they changed it into the technology center. Art had to make way for progress.”
“They didn’t get rid of the books, did they?”
“Oh no!” he assured me. “Thank goodness, they didn’t do that. They just moved them into the regular book section. The music got moved downstairs with the videos and DVDs. Somehow it’s not the same, though. There was something about being able to say that I was going to the ‘art library.'” he said wistfully.
We continued on to the other sections of the library. It really was an incredible place. “So many books, so little time,” I sighed as we walked out. I was carrying the few books I hadn’t been able to resist.
“Are you actually going to have time to read all those?” he asked.
“Don’t worry. I’ll make time. There is always time for a good book! Besides, I’m a fast reader.”
“I’m not,” he admitted. “One book can last me a whole month.”
“No kidding?” I asked, surprised. “One book can last me a day – maybe two.”
“I prefer to savor mine,” he said. “I treat them like a fine wine.”
The doors to the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum (that is quite a name, isn’t it?) were mammoth wooden structures with impressive lion head knockers. “Those knockers remind me of the ones in A Christmas Carol,” I said as we entered. “I half expected the ghost of Jacob Marley to appear as we entered.”
“No, no ghosts here,” he said. “That would make a good story, though, wouldn’t it? – a ghost in an art museum.”
“You are always on the lookout for a good story, aren’t you?”
“Well, November comes around every year. It’s helpful to have ideas to work with. I jot them down in a notebook as a ‘just in case’ file.”
“Sounds like a good idea. Maybe I’ll have to start doing that, too.”
“You should. You never know when inspiration might strike.”
We were still standing in the entry to the museum and the guard was starting to look at us rather suspiciously. “Which way would you like to go?” I asked Mike as I looked around. There was a massive staircase to my right, a gallery in front of me, and a hallway to the left. “It looks like we have a few options. What’s your favorite part of the museum?”
“There are some great exhibits here. My personal favorites are the plaster casts I had told you about, but that’s not where I wanted to take you.”
“Nope. Come with me.” He led the way to the right, underneath the stairs, through a door, and down a narrow staircase.”Watch out for your head,” he cautioned as we descended.
“Where are we going?”
“To the classrooms.”
“Are we supposed to be down here?” I asked hesitantly. “It’s awfully dark.”
“Here. I’ll get the light switch. . . Let there be light.”
“Seriously, are we supposed to be down here? That security guard was pretty intimidating. I don’t want to get sent to jail for trespassing or anything.”
“Stop worrying. It’s fine. I teach classes here. The guard must be new, but I’ve got my ID if he questions us. I’m allowed to be here. Anyway, I wanted to show you where I fell in love with art, and, if you are up for it, give you a lesson.”
“Me, do art? . . I don’t think so.”
“Why not? You said you wanted to learn how to see and think like an artist. Right?”
“Well, yeah . . .”
“Well, nothing, here’s your chance. I’m a firm believer that anyone can create art. They just need to be given the opportunity.”
“I’m not totally devoid of creativity. I’m just not good at painting or drawing or stuff like that.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“Ugh! . . . how do I get myself into these things?”
“By hanging around with me,” he answered jovially. “Life with me is never dull.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’m beginning to find that out for myself.”
“Here’s an apron so you won’t get your clothes dirty.” He put one on as well.
“Don’t look so down. You’re going to have fun. I promise. Now, what do you want to try working with? We have pastels, watercolors, acrylics, or we can try doing some pottery if you would like.”
“You’re asking me? I honestly have no idea.” I paused to think. “Alright, how about pottery? I mean, that’s probably the easiest, right?”
“I don’t know if I’d say that. It was the class that I had the hardest time with at school. It took me quite a while to even be able to make a serviceable bowl, but it is a good stress reliever.”
“Great. Now I’m even more nervous.”
“Don’t be. The beautiful thing about pottery is that if something isn’t coming out well, you can just smush it back into a big ball of clay and start over.”
“Why do I get the feeling I’m going to be doing a whole lot of smushing?”
“First, you are going to be doing a whole lot of kneading. Come over here.” He opened up a big container and scooped out a clump of clay and smacked it on a table. “Have you ever kneaded dough?” he asked.
“Oh sure. My mom and I used to enjoy making bread for the holidays.”
“See, you’re ahead of the game already! This is the same thing, except the dough is thicker and it takes more muscles. This is the stress-relieving part. You have to work the clay until it is nice and warm and all the air bubbles are out of it.”
We stood side by side working the dark earthy clay. It started out sticky and hard to work with, but I soon got a good rhythm going. I liked the feeling of the clay in my hands. Mike was right, though. It was certainly a workout for the muscles. I could feel my shoulders starting to get sore. It was a good sore – the kind that lets you know your body is working hard doing something physical. It was also a reminder that I hadn’t been exercising as much as I should be. Mike looked over every now and then to check on my progress, offering encouragement. I wondered if his muscles hurt, too. I looked over at him. He did have a very nice physique. I wouldn’t mind running my hands over those muscles. Get a grip, Lucy. He’s not interested.
“This is quite a workout,” I commented in an effort to break the silence and get my mind back on task.
“Told you! Pottery isn’t my favorite thing to do, but whenever I am stressed or upset about anything, I come and pound clay. It always helps clear my head. I’m glad that you chose to do this. I figure beating the clay might do you some good as well.”
“About the other night . . .,” I began, not sure at all what I was going to say. “I wanted to apologize.”
“For what? You have nothing to apologize for,” he replied, still working on kneading his clay. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have burdened you with my problems.”
“You needed to tell someone. I’m a good listener. People tell me their problems all the time.”
Great. I had to tell my problems to the Dear Abby of men. He probably has a file somewhere in order to keep track of them all.
“I bet it was a big relief for you to finally tell someone,” he continued. “Besides, your secret is safe with me.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that.” I may have been one of many who confided in Mike, but as he hadn’t told me anyone else’s secrets, I took him at his word that he wouldn’t share mine. That was a comfort.
“How’s the clay feeling?” Mike asked, changing the subject.
“Um . . .I’m not sure. It feels warm and soft.”
“That’s a good sign,” he said. “Can I check it for you?”
“Sure. Be my guest.” I moved away from the work table so Mike would have room to maneuver. He kneaded the clay a few times and pronounced it ready to use.
“So what do we do with it now?” I asked.
“The easiest thing to start with is simply to make rolls of it and start using it that way. He took some of the clay and began rolling it to demonstrate. I did the same. Soon, I had a long snake of clay about two feet long. “This is fun,” I said. “I haven’t done this since I was a little girl”
“I’m glad that you are enjoying it! That should be good,” Mike said, looking over at my efforts. “Do you want to try making a bowl with it?”
“Sure, why not?” He showed me how to begin coiling the bottom and then slowly build up the sides.
“Wow! Look at that!” I exclaimed as I admired my handiwork. “It actually looks like a bowl!”
“You’re a natural. I knew you could do it!”
“Now what happens to it. I mean, it’s not done yet, right?”
“You can leave it that way if you want it to be terra cotta colored or you can put some slip on it if you want it to have some color.”
“I like color. Can I try that?”
“Sure thing. Color it is.” He walked over to a few jars on a shelf. “Do you want red or blue?”
“Blue’s good,” I replied. He brought over one of the jars and poured something that looked like very watery clay into a bowl for me to use.
“Here you are,” he said as he handed me a brush. “Just brush this on all over the bowl. You don’t need to do the bottom. That will stay as it is. Actually, before you start applying the slip, why don’t you put your initials on the bottom?” He took a wire and slid it under the bowl to release it from the table and then gently turned it over. He handed me a tool to write with. “Don’t press too hard – you don’t want to cut through the clay. Just do it deep enough to leave a slight indentation.” I took the tool and gently scraped in “L. L.” and the date.
“See. Now it’s official. You’ve made your first bowl!” he said as he flipped it back over. “Now you can apply the slip.” I took the brush and began applying the greyish liquid.
“Are you sure this is blue?” I asked. “It doesn’t look blue.”
“Don’t worry. It will once it is fired. It will be beautiful,” he assured me. “Working with clay is a lot like going through life. You have to go through a bit of fire before true beauty comes out.” Something in the way he looked at me when he said that made the butterflies come back.
“I think I’m all done,” I stammered as I applied slip to the last recesses of the inside.
“Great! You can leave it there to dry. There aren’t any classes going on today or tomorrow in this room. I’ll come back tomorrow and put it in the kiln.”
“What are you going to do with your lump of clay?” I asked, trying desperately to regain my composure.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really have any plans for it. I could just throw it back in the clay bin. The clay can be reused.”
“Oh, OK. It looks sad just sitting there, though. It looks like it wants to be used.”
“The clay looks sad? Are you sure that you’re feeling OK? Maybe the fumes down here are starting to get to you.” he laughed. “I guess I could do something with it. I could try making a pot on the wheel. Like I said, though, I’m not great at it.”
“That’s OK. I would like to see how a pottery wheel actually works. When I was a little girl, there was a pottery wheel in a toy catalog. I wanted it so much. I asked Santa for it in a letter.”
“Did you get it?” he asked.
“No, but I did get a dollhouse my father had been working on for months. That was good, too. I spent a lot of time playing with it, making up stories with my dolls.”
“You must have been so cute!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I smiled, “but I still would like to see how the wheel works.”
“Alright, I’ll give it a shot – just for you.” He moved over to the pottery wheel. “Come on over.” I obliged, pulling up a chair next to him. “You know I’m not making any promises on how this is going to turn out.”
“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You seem to be able to work magic with everything you touch.” Did I actually just say that? “Artistically. I meant artistically.” He laughed.
He plopped the clay on the wheel. “OK, clay, be kind to me. We have an audience.”
“Do you always talk to your clay?”
“Some people talk to their plants. I talk to clay. I figure it can’t hurt.”
“I’ll remember that next time I try working with clay.”
“Well, I guess I should try to do something with this. Let’s see. The first step is to get the wheel moving. There is a pedal underneath that makes it go.” The wheel started turning. “That should be good. Next step – try to make a bowl. This is the fun part. I need to stick my thumbs in the middle and try to make an opening.” I watched him working the clay. Sure enough, it was starting to look like a bowl. “Now, I need to try to thin out the sides. This is the hard part.” He pulled gently on the clay and the walls of the bowl began to move outward. Then, they collapsed!
“See, I told you this was hard!” He smushed the clay back together. “But, you can always try again. Do you want to try?”
“Oh, I don’t know. If you can’t do it, I doubt I can.”
“Think of it this way. You can’t do any worse.”
“I guess that’s true. OK. I’ll give it a shot. Will you help me?”
“Of course.” I sat down in front of the wheel. He sat behind me. “OK, start the wheel turning.”
It took me a few seconds to get a feel for working the wheel. “There you go,” he encouraged. “You want it to go at a nice steady pace. Not too fast or your clay will go flying.”
“Do you know that from personal experience?”
“More times than I care to admit. But, it looks like you’ve got it at just the right speed. Now start forming the clay. Try to get it into the shape that you want.”
“What shape do I want it?”
“That’s up to you. This is your world. You are the potter. It is the clay. Do with it whatever your heart desires.”
“Well, maybe I’ll just try to make a bowl – see how that works out.”
“Alright, then, once you feel like the clay is ready, stick your thumbs in the middle and gently start pushing against the outsides to make the walls thinner.” I tried to oblige. It really was much harder than it looked.
“Here, let me help you.” Mike wrapped his arms around me and guided my hands over the clay. I could feel his warm breath on my neck. I could feel my heartbeat quicken. My mind was on everything but the clay. I tried to concentrate on the sensation of the warm clay sliding through my fingers as I attempted to shape it into something resembling a bowl.
“I feel like Demi Moore in ‘Ghost.’ Except, she knew what she was doing of course!”
“You’re doing fine! As I said, you can’t possibly be worse than me at this, and I spent a full semester of college working at it.”
“Oh no! It’s falling apart!” Sure enough, as I tried to thin out the walls more, they started getting wobbly and then crashed in on themselves.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mike said. “Just smush it back together into a big lump.” I happily did so.
“See, now you are talking to it!”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Do you want to try again?”
“No, I think I’ve had enough for today.”
“Well, let’s clean this place up, then, so that I don’t get in trouble with my boss.”
I helped him put the clay away and clean off the tables. He placed the one bowl I had completed up on a shelf. “See, at least you have one thing to show for today’s adventure,” he said.
“Absolutely. Thanks for bringing me here. I had fun!”
“I’m glad. I had fun, too. I always enjoy hanging out here.”
We climbed back up the stairs and headed out into the quadrangle. “We never did get to see the exhibits,” I remarked.
“That’s OK. It gives me a good excuse to bring you back here again sometime.”
“I appreciate that, but you don’t need to feel like you always need to be taking me someplace, like I need to be taken out or anything. I know you have other friends. . . ”
“Don’t worry about it. I like hanging out with you, and I do still get to see my other friends.”