Assuming you didn’t catch it, it was nice in a way: staying at home, skipping doctors’ appointments, church. Even blowing off Christmas. “At your age, you and Mother are the most vulnerable,” Gregory had said. Most peaceful Christmas in years. People looked better in masks anyway.

Mired in traffic, deep in thought, Clarence Coleman is on his way home from Home Despot. That’s what his lefty neighbor calls it. The thanks you get for making things great again—or trying to, thinks Clarence.

The leaf blower had been Lucy’s idea. “You can’t even see our driveway for the helicopters,” she’d said. A hundred eighty bucks for a leaf blower, thinks Clarence. Plus, the gas I’m wasting now. If I’d ordered it on online, I would have had it tomorrow. No twelve-year-old clerk to deal with. No ear discs to stare at.

Twenty minutes later, Clarence has half-a-mind to return the damn thing. With his other half-a-mind driving, he hits a pothole with his Blazer’s left front wheel. With a whole mind, he brakes. Cars honk.

“Rat shit!” shouts Clarence.


He hasn’t always been this way. “Irascible,” Lucy calls him. Growing up, he prayed for starving children in Africa, sang for old folks in nursing homes, helped turtles cross roads. Clarence met Lucy at the University of Toledo, home of the Fighting Rockets, where Lucy insisted they wait until marriage to have sex. “Whatever you say, dear,” Clarence had obliged. On their wedding night, Clarence blasted off before countdown. But two years later, he and Lucy made Gregory. Three years after that, Melinda.

Parenting proved difficult. More than once, he and Lucy had been called into Gregory’s pre-school. Greggy had a thing for feet. His classmates’ feet. Counseling had set Clarence back two grand. When Melinda was sixteen, she was caught stealing condoms at Target. Lucy suggested the family join a church, Holy Toledo Evangelical. “A little religion never hurt anyone,” she said.

“Tell that to the history of civilization,” said Clarence, well on his way to irascibility.

As a mortgage broker at Ready Money, Clarence could only put a positive spin on bankruptcies and criminal convictions for so long. He had just taken early retirement when his parents lost control of their golf cart and drove off a cliff in New Zealand (Cape Kidnappers, Hole 14), and Clarence was left to pick up the pieces. Then two years ago, while lifting his cat off a high closet shelf, Clarence fell from a stepstool. Much as a Blazer emerges from a pothole, he emerged from the closet with a misaligned SI joint.

Prostate enlarging. Cataracts ripening. To make matters worse, Gregory’s son, Mitchell, joined Young Democrats. Mitchell, like the Blazer, pulls left.

When I get home, I’m staying put, thinks Clarence.

Cars honk.



Margaret and Ludwig Tillman had driven four hundred miles when they enter Lucas County, Ohio. Toledo, Margaret’s hometown, is minutes away.

They’re on their way from Baraboo, Wisconsin, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There, Margaret plans to consult with an expert on Frank Zappa. In lieu of teaching summer school at UW Baraboo, Margaret is working on an article for Rolling Stone called “Surprise Reprise,” surprise being the influence of classical repetition on Zappa’s album, Hot Rats. At a dollar a word, Margaret hopes to write two thousand of them—as much as she could earn teaching Gregorian Chant this summer. “Chant gets old after a few recitatives,” she’d often quipped. Ludwig, a one-hundred-sixty-pound brindle mastiff, fills the backseat of Margaret’s Escort. His snores remind her of a Renaissance kettledrum.

Margaret’s mother had earned a doctorate in harpsichord. Her father, before he lost his hearing, played clarinet in the Toledo Symphony. (He blamed his hearing loss on French horns.) Margaret started taking piano lessons when she was three. Expectations had been high. Pianowise and otherwise.

She played “Clair de Lune” when she was five. By high school, she was pounding out Rachmaninov and debating The United States federal government should substantially increase Medicaid funding—in the negative. If not for her do-good, bleeding-heart debate partner’s closing argument, she might have won the Northwest Ohio Debate Regionals.

Margaret had been an exceptional pianist. As opposed to brilliant. Her mother described Margaret’s high school commencement performance of Rhapsody in Blue as “turquoise.” Her GPA did not stand out. Nor did leading cheers for the Toledo Mud Hens one summer. But Margaret has always thought a first-place finish in the debate regionals might have won the Oberlin Admissions staff over. She would have become an Oberlin Yeowoman! After that, who knows? Performing at The Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Symphony Center in Chicago. Margaret had often thought that, if life were a symphony, she was but an opening measure.

With an eye on the Toledo Exit, Margaret wonders if her debate partner’s closing four words, more a concession than an argument, had affected him as much as it had her. Because of those four words, Margaret had nominated him for the Class of ’76’s Most Likely to Concede, a dis-honorific Margaret had created, one that appeared beneath his smiling picture in the yearbook. What a dork he had been. Still, what kind of springboard into life could Most Likely to Concede—and the derision it inspired among classmates—have been for him? What pool had he fallen into?

As fifty years go by like pavement in a rearview, she pulls off I-90 onto I-75 North, toward Toledo. I wonder if he still lives here, thinks Margaret. With no intentions other than searching Clarence Coleman on Anyhoo, she exits.

Ludwig snores on.



After driving over the helicopters and stashing the blower in his tool shed, Clarence is sitting at his kitchen table when Lucy returns from wherever. The grocery? Pilates? He can never keep up.

“What do you mean, you’re staying put?” says Lucy. “The potluck starts in an hour.”

Clarence is working on a crossword with his cat, Duffy. Clarence, filling out the crossword. Duffy, walking on the crossword. Clarence had forgotten all about the potluck at Holy Toledo, if he’d ever known about it in the first place. “Potluck, schmotluck,” he says.

“What’s eating you?” asks Lucy.

“What’s eating me is, I spent the last hour stuck in traffic. Then I hit a pothole the size of a leaf blower. Now the Blazer pulls left.”

“Spare me. Did you stir the goulash?”

“What goulash?”

“The chicken goulash for the potluck. The goulash I asked you to stir.”

“We wondered what that smell was, didn’t we, girl?” Clarence asks Duffy.

“I’m leaving in thirty minutes, with or without you,” says Lucy.

“We can tell she’s super disappointed if I don’t go to the potluck, can’t we girl?”



Lucy is not super disappointed that Clarence won’t be going. Not super disappointed at all. Her acquiescent young Clarence—the love of her life, then— had turned into an irascible old man. All he wants to do is complain about his aches, rant about the news, and stroke Duffy. There was a time he enjoyed stroking her, his “Lucy Goosey.” Oh, how she misses young Clarence. She’d be happy for young Clarence to go to the potluck with her. As for old Clarence, he’s lucky she doesn’t leave for more than just one evening. And one evening, she just might.

Thirty minutes later, Lucy puts a lid on the congealed chicken goulash and says, “Someone will have to stir it at church. I’ll be busy with other things you could be helping me with.”

“Tell Brother Norm hi for me,” says Clarence.

Goulash in hand, Lucy thinks, What does he know about Brother Norm and me? I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone. “Hmmf,” says Lucy as she walks out the door.



By today’s standards, it’s a modest stone ranch. But judging by the size of the withered blue spruce Ludwig is watering, Margaret guesses the house was built a half-century ago, a time when 4 Songbird Lane would have sung success. By today’s standards, not so much.

Ludwig is tearing out the grass with his massive back paws, covering his wee as dogs do, when the front door opens and an old man limps out. “What the hell?” he shouts. “Get that thing out of my yard!


“Who’s asking!”

“Margaret Tillman.”

“Margaret . . .? Margie Tillman!”

“Ludwig hasn’t pottied since South Bend. I hope you don’t mind.”

“No probs, Margie. Come on in. But I have a cat. I’m afraid your dog might—”

No probs? thinks Margaret. When was the last time she heard that. “Ludwig loves kitties, don’t you boy? Da-da-da-daaa,” she sings. Ludwig trots to her side.

Entering the living room, Margaret thinks, Shag carpet? Meanwhile, Ludwig lumbers through the shag into the kitchen, where a calico cat—back arched, hissing—stands atop the table. Taking a cautious-few steps forward, the cat swipes Ludwig’s nose.

“Duffy!” shouts Clarence. “Chill!”

Chill? “They’ll work it out,” says Margaret. “Can we talk?”

“Sure, Margie. Can I get you something? Coffee? Tea? Some merlot my daughter brought us?”

“A daughter, you say.”

Taking seats in the living room—Clarence in a well-worn chair, Margaret on a sagging sofa—they catch up. As a single, childless woman, it’s not the first time Margaret has suffered the tedium of people building up their kids. She doubts Melinda is a “top” insurance agent, that her kids are “cute as pie.” What does that mean, anyway? Rhubarb can be stringy. As for Clarence’s son, the way Clarence goes on, you’d think the world would quit spinning without podiatry. And if Clarence’s wife is so great, wouldn’t he be at the potluck with her now?

Her turn.

“After college, I thought, Margaret, do you want to spend your life touring the country as a concert pianist when you could teach young people the importance of medieval and Renaissance music? But Clarence—and this wine is good, by the way; yes, I’ll have another—I have something to ask.”

“Right on.”

Steeling herself with a wine-sip, and then another, Margaret asks, “Do you remember your closing argument in the debate regionals—when we were opposed to Medicaid funding, or supposed to be? Do you remember what I did afterwards?”

Clarence touches his purple lips with a fingertip and says, “No clue.”

Really? Margaret would be less surprised if Clarence had removed his shirt and read his closing argument from a tattooed bicep: Everyone deserves a chance.

After iterating Clarence’s closing, Margaret says, “You might as well have conceded. Speaking of which—”

“Most Likely to Concede. I’d forgotten about that,” says Clarence. “That was your idea? No biggie. More wine?”

As Clarence refills her wineglass, Margaret thinks, No biggie? And to think I thought I ruined his life. As he ruined mine.

“To tell the truth, Clarence, teaching was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. In case you don’t remember, I played piano. If not for you, I might have played professionally.”

“If not for me? What did I do?”

Two-empty-merlot-bottles later, after explaining the whole Oberlin-turndown, life-letdown thing, Margaret realizes her blouse is wet from her crying.

“Gee, I’m sorry, Margie. I must have got confused and forgot which side we were on. I never knew I ruined anything for you. But what is that they say, Music smoothes a savage beast? I bet you’ve smoothed a few in Baraboo. I bet you’re an outta sight teacher.”

Aside from his paunch, two chins, and fringe of white hair, he hasn’t changed a bit, thinks Margaret. His do-good self has stood him well: his daughter, a top insurance agent; his son, a champion podiatrist, his wife a potluck church-goer. Outta sight? He even sounds like he did in high school.

“Soothed, you mean. But I would have soothed more on a concert stage,” says Margaret. “What about you, Clarence? How has your life been?”

In a tone she hadn’t heard until now, Clarence says, “It could be better, Margie. But whatever happened to me has nothing to do with you.”

“Aren’t we a pair?” says Margaret, just as Clarence’s phone rings to the tune of “God Bless the U.S.A.”

“When?… Where!… It’s not your fault. I’m the one who should have stirred the goulash in the first place. I’m on my way!” says Clarence. Glancing first at the wine bottles, Clarence asks Margaret for her car keys and says, “You shouldn’t be driving, Margie. Help yourself to anything. I have to split.”

Now, alone with Ludwig and Duffy, Margaret says, “Da-da.” But Ludwig, oblivious to her dispirited call, is asleep in the shag, the cat at rest on his catcher’s mitt paws.

Lowering her head to the couch cushion, Margaret thinks, Maybe Clarence is right. Maybe I have smoothed some beasts. A former student or two could be somewhere in central Wisconsin listening to Palestrina or Hildegard of Bingen right now. Their kids could be in their bedrooms just soaking it in. What did Frank Zappa say? Most people wouldn’t know music if it came up and bit them in the ass. Someone has to teach them. It might as well be me. It is me! So what if I’m only a measure in life’s symphony? What would a symphony be without measures? Silent, that’s what. Who’d want to sit through that? No one, that’s who. Thank you, Clarence. I’m sleepy.


Brother Norm

Until tonight, Brother Norm was unaware that chickens have wishbones. He should have realized they do. Parakeets, even. Though he thinks it would be unlikely to find a parakeet wishbone in chicken goulash.

Brother Norm, a thin, pale man pushing thirty, is in the emergency waiting room at Lord Have Mercy Health. He called Brother Clarence twenty minutes ago to inform him of Sister Lucy’s mishap. As he talked to Brother Clarence, he heard a woman crying. A woman in the sense of another woman? Poor Sister Lucy, thinks Brother Norm.

Brother Norm has never cared for Brother Clarence. Here in the emergency room, at the thought of Brother Clarence’s impending arrival, Brother Norm lets loose an ironic, “Hot damn,” loud enough to turn a few heads (some injured).

Seated directly across from him, a woman is holding her hand high above her head, as if waving off his blasphemy. Only then does Brother Norm notice that the woman’s forearm is the size of her thigh. “Cat bite,” she says. “It hurts less if I hold my arm up.”

Until recently, Brother Norm would have never blasphemed. But one night he was surfing through channels when he saw a priest on PBS. Normally, Brother Norm would have no use for either a Papist or PBS. But as he was about to continue surfing, a woman he thought most men might find attractive asked, “But Father, how can an all-loving God condemn anyone to hell?”

“Who are we to know the mind of God?” said the Papist.

Cop out, Brother Norm had thought. But could the possibly-attractive anchorwoman have a point: that we can sin and not suffer hellfire? Hot damn.

Early on, he knew he was different. When his Youth Group teacher at Holy Toledo, Brother Harold, asserted that if a man were to lie with another man, his chances of entering the Kingdom of God were “zilch,” young Brother Norm knew he was in trouble.

For more than half his life, he had grappled. On one hand, he’d yearned to hold a penis (other than his own), but with his other hand, he yearned to open the door to the Kingdom of God and turn his back on eternal damnation. Then one Wednesday night after prayer meeting, thinking he was alone in the sanctuary, seated in his pew, Brother Norm grappled aloud. “But how can an all-loving God send anyone to hell?”

“Why would you ask that, Brother Norm?” said a voice across the aisle.

Brother Norm would soon find out that a roll of Life Savers had fallen from Sister Lucy’s purse during the benediction prayer. She was on her hands and knees in pursuit when she responded to his query. After retrieving her roll, she joined him in his pew and asked, “Is there something you’d like to share, Brother Norm?”

Until then, he had never confessed his desires to anyone. But there was something about Sister Lucy: the way she smiled, the way she offered him a Life Saver (cherry). He confessed.

For weeks they grappled, he with his grappling, she with his grappling. For weeks they searched his soul—in the choir loft, the library, the vestry—wherever and whenever they might grapple in privacy.


The Choir Loft

Brother Norm: Why would an all-knowing God have made me this way if it’s so wrong?

Sister Lucy: He doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.

Brother Norm: Easy for you to say.


The Library

Brother Norm: When I was in high school, a girl put her hand down my pants and my you-know-what didn’t do anything.

Sister Lucy: That used to happen to Clarence sometimes, when we used to . . . touch.


The Vestry

Brother Norm: What would happen if I just asked His forgiveness every time I sin? If it’s a sin.

Sister Lucy: You mean if you ask His forgiveness for a sin while planning to sin again—if it’s a sin? That’s a toughie.


Sister Lucy told him she’d even dreamt of their grappling. In her dream she’d felt his pain something awful. Then earlier tonight at Holy Toledo, as he was stirring the chicken goulash with a large serving spoon, Sister Lucy had said, “You know, Brother Norm, I don’t see how God could send anyone to hell if He loves us all-lovingly. Which He does. Plus, I read where lots of birds do it, you know, both ways. Woodpeckers. Penguins. Who’s to say what’s normal? Who’s to say you’re not normal, Brother Norm?”

To say he was relieved! To think his past thoughts and future penis-holding wouldn’t condemn him to eternal damnation! He sensed he might be smiling! But no sooner had Sister Lucy spoken than she dipped a spoon in the goulash. No sooner had she dipped than she sampled. No sooner had she sampled than she choked. “Et wehnt geh dehn!”

“It won’t go down?” said Brother Norm.


Attempting the Heimlich maneuver on Sister Lucy was the first time Brother Norm had held anyone in his arms (the girl in high school had held him). Driving to Lord Have Mercy Health Emergency with Sister Lucy was the first time anyone had accompanied him in his car, a Smart Fortwo Passion.

“Hang in there, Sister Lucy.”




In a Merlot fog, Clarence makes his way across town, his Blazer pulling left all the while.

What a night it had been. Before Brother Norm’s phone call, Clarence had realized a change in himself. Because of the wine? No. Because of Margie Tillman? Yes.

Just seeing her, it was like he was young again, when he used to say outta sight and no biggie, when he thought everyone did deserve a chance. Medicaid recipients, for sure. Back then, he would have stirred goulash and gone to a potluck. He would have asked Lucy why she was crying in her sleep and saying, “I feel your pain, Brother Norm” (if Lucy would have let Clarence sleep with her in college and they had known Brother Norm at the time). Just seeing Margie Tillman had taken him back to a time when he’d been pretty much happy. Way happy compared to now. A light turns red. Clarence stops. From a Kia Soul, idling to Clarence’s right, a radio plays, Ch-ch-ch-ch…”

On the phone, Brother Norm had assured Clarence that the doctor removed the wishbone. “But they want to observe Sister Lucy for a while. If only I’d stirred the goulash better, I would have found it and she wouldn’t be here. I’m sorry, Brother Clarence.”

Clarence had never had much respect for Brother Norm. It was clear he was batting for the other team. Or his own team. Whatever team. There had been no reason for Clarence to worry about Lucy and Brother Norm. Whatever they were up to, it wasn’t that. And up until now he could have cared less about the pain Brother Norm had been feeling—or even the pain Lucy had felt for him. They were sharing Bible verses, prayer tips, or goulash recipes for all he knew or cared.

Clarence had always thought it was Brother Norm who had a problem, but Clarence’s life hadn’t been going all that well either. Or Lucy’s, thanks to him. And don’t get him started on Margie Tillman. Her blouse was wet enough to fill Duffy’s water bowl. Possibly Ludwig’s. Maybe everyone was in pain. Maybe anyone’s pain is everyone’s pain. Clarence had heard this somewhere. Holy Toledo?


The light turns green.



Wishbone free, Lucy is in the waiting room with Brother Norm. As Clarence walks toward her, she detects a change in him. A light step? An eye twinkle? Gently squeezing her shoulder and kissing her forehead, Clarence asks, “How are you feeling, Lucy Goosey?”

Rising from his chair, Brother Norm says, “She’s not supposed to talk until tomorrow. Goodbye, Sister Lucy. Thank you for helping me with my . . . situation. Goodbye, Brother Clarence.”

“Wait a sec,” says Clarence, taking Brother Norm in his arms. “You’re a good man, Brother Norm. Thank you.”

What’s gotten into Clarence? thinks Lucy. He’s never given Brother Norm the time of day or night, let alone hug him. Let alone hug anyone. Me, since who knows when.

“God Bless,” says Brother Norm with a smile that could swallow a serving spoon. Had she ever seen Brother Norm smile before tonight? No.

“Amen,” says Clarence.

Thank you, Brother Norm, mouths Lucy.

On their way home, Clarence mentions something about a high school classmate, but Lucy finds it hard to pay attention. There’s a car in their driveway, but so what? As for the large dog who greets her at the door, that’s a different story. But he seems friendly enough. All she can think about is the change in Clarence. He called me Lucy Goosey!

With a nod to the sleeping woman on the sofa, Lucy thinks, This must be the classmate. Two empty bottles of wine? No matter. For hadn’t Clarence squeezed my shoulder and kissed my head for all the room to see? The woman sitting across from us had raised her hand and blessed us!

“Lucy, dear, this is Margie Tillman,” says Clarence. “It’s late, and she’s not going anywhere. Right, Margie? I’ll go change the sheets in the guestroom.”

It’s been a rough few years for Lucy, given the state of Clarence, given the state of everything: the world. Even her Sisters at Holy Toledo are at odds. Some insist on buying all of their crafts at Hobby Lobby. Some don’t. But maybe things can change. Look at Clarence, for one. Brother Norm, for two. Look at me. One minute I swallow a wishbone. A wishbone later, my young Clarence returns! Life’s a mystery.

Still seated on the couch, the classmate looks up and says, “Nice to meet you, Lucy. We’re glad we came. Aren’t we, Ludwig?”


“Your Clarence has been a big help.” Then, giving her blouse a squeeze and the bottles a look, “I can explain everything.”

Please, do, Lucy mouths.



About the Author

Mark Williams's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The BafflerCleaverEclecticaThe Main Street RagRunning Wild Novella Anthology, The First Line, and other journals and collections. His poems have appeared in The Southern ReviewRattleNimrod, and elsewhere. He lives in Evansville, Indiana.


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