Wednesday, November 2, 2005

National Novel Writing Month Part 3

That evening I carried a take out dinner to my room and ate alone. I didn’t feel bad though, or particularly lonely. I think mostly I felt proud of myself that I’d faced my fear of that dark place in my life. I think I came out of it a stronger man. I still had a ways to go in my eyes but it was a good start, the first positive step in a year really.

The weather had been nice and I wanted to take a walk to give me more time to think. I realized that I’d been avoiding that when I could help it. Cramming my days full to keep my mind busy. It was a wonder I could stand the drive there to Gulfport since it gave me almost nine hours with nothing to do but think. I tried not to think even then spending the time singing off key but loudly to my favorite country music. That had been something that Amanda and I had only partially shared, it felt strange to never have to compromise and listen to her New Age stuff if I didn’t want to. I didn’t mind it but it wasn’t driving music in my opinion.

Walking west from the hotel I was going straight into the setting sun. It made me wonder how the drivers could see to drive. I spent most of the time looking either to my left at the Gulf of Mexico as it sparkled red and yellow reflecting the sunset or to the right at the wonderful old houses and even older huge oak trees. I think what I felt that night was a little peace for the first time in a year.

My cell phone chirped and I almost just silenced it but then, afraid it might be one of the children I took it out and looked at it. It was Billie Mayfield. I could get away with not answering it. She would just assume I was busy but I also knew she’d keep trying even if I never called back as her inevitable messages would ask me to. I answered it.

“Hey Cliff,” I heard Billie say sounding a little hesitant.

“Hi Billie what’s up?”

“I just called to see how you were doing. I haven’t talked to you in a while.”

We’d talked the previous Saturday. I smiled knowing why she was calling andwhy she sounded hesitant. She knew darn well that I’d have been thinking that it had been one year today. She was still grieving in her own way too. She and Amanda had been very close.

“I’m doing good Billie. How are you doing?”

“Uh…I’m fine.”

It was not like Billie to have this much trouble with a conversation. She either had something to say and said it or hung up.

“Good Billie. I had a long talk today with a guy I know from the poker room here. The fact that it is…the day it is” I paused unable to bring myself yet to say what that day meant. That would come later. “well it kinda got to me. Talking about it helped though. You know that’s the first time I’ve really talked about it since it happened.”

There was a long silence and I heard her take a deep breath. I could picture her wiping her eyes with a tissue. “Good Cliff. I’m happy to hear that really.”

“Thank you. And are you really ok?”

“I am Cliff. Now that I know you are especially. I guess I let my imagination run away with me and worried that the anniversary might hit you really hard.”

I smiled, reading that to mean she’d been afraid I’d do something stupid.

“It did Billie but a friend I didn’t really know I had was there for me. And now another friend is checking on me. What more can I ask for?”

“Oh Cliff!” She paused, sniffed, and went on, “I’m so relieved.”

“Thank you Billie. Was there anything else?”


Right then I knew I’d stepped in it but I didn’t really care. On Saturday we spoke because she called to ask me if I could come to a dinner party the next Saturday, this coming Saturday. I’d begged off making a decision with the excuse that I might still be here.

“I’d really like to have you come to the house on Saturday. It’s not a big party Cliff but you’ll know a few of the people and it will be fun.”

All along I’d been planning to beg off completely as I managed to do for most of the things she and others invited me to. Suddenly I actually wanted to go. Right then I made a decision that I was done with this trip. I was going to leave in the morning, one day early and head home. I just plain wanted to be home for a while and to see the children and a few friends.

“Sure I’ll be there. What time was it again?”

There was a bit of a stunned silence and I smiled. It was almost worth accepting so readily just to know I’d thrown the unflappable Billie Mayfield for a loop.

“You will?”

“Were you hoping I would say no?” I could not resist teasing.

“Cliff! Of course not! How can you say that?” Billie said and then heard me chuckle. “Oh you! Cliff it’s so good to hear you sound so good today of all days.”

Her words brought back to me what day this was and what she meant but it felt different. It still hurt but it was like maybe it was healing over a little bit.

I took too long thinking though and it worried her. “Oh crap! I’m sorry Cliff I didn’t mean to bring it up again!”

I smiled and shook my head, gestures that were, of course, lost on her on the other end of the phone. “Billie it’s ok. What time should I be there on Saturday and should I bring anything?”

“Around 7:00 will be good and you don’t need to bring anything but knowing you like I do you feel you have to so bring a bottle of that white wine you like. Is that ok?”

“Whatever you want Billie,” I said. “Thank you for calling to check on me.”

“You don’t mind then? I don’t want to be a pest.”

“You’ll never be a pest Billie. I appreciate it.”

We hung up then and I walked on feeling good and enjoying the walk. I remembered back to Amanda and I taking this same walk at nearly this same time of day. It had been hotter then but just as pretty. I missed her terribly and would have done anything to have her by my side again but for the first time in a year when I thought of her I didn’t cry. I was sad I suppose but in a happy almost contented way if that makes any sense. I guessed she would always be with me. Maybe you can’t spend that much of your life with somebody and not have them be part of you. That part of her that was inside me would have to do.

I turned back toward the hotel intending to pack and get to bed early planning to make an early start and be back home in the early afternoon the next day.

I made good time on Thursday and had gotten such an early start that even with losing an hour due to the time zone change I was nearing Orlando in the early afternoon. I knew but both Casey and Justin would be going to work straight from school and would not be home so I decided to drop in on Logan. He worked odd hours and his apartment was on the way so I decided dropping in unannounced would have a good chance of working out.

His car was in the apartment parking lot so I knew he was home. I knocked on the door andhis girlfriend Elaine wearing one of his shirts answered it and I was betting nothing else.

“Oh! Logan didn’t say you were coming! Come in!” She let me in looking embarrassed. She still seemed to somehow think I disapproved of her living with Logan even though they were both twenty-three now and hardly needed my permission for anything. “Let me go change. I’ll be right back.”

She hustled toward the bedroom five feet nothing of very pretty nervous energy. She nearly collided with Logan who erupted out of the bedroom in just boxer shorts. “It’s not those damn magazine people again is it?”

Then he saw me and stopped.

“Not selling magazines,” I said holding my hands up in mock surrender. “So don’t shoot.”

“Jesus Dad! I thought you were in Gulfport!” He said. “It must be sweeps month for magazines or something. I swear they come around here all the time. I’m sick of it.”


He looked at me then. “Are you ok? Why are you home early? You did say you’d be home either late Friday or early Saturday right?”

“Yeah I did but I just felt like coming home.”

“Because of what yesterday was?” He asked. Obviously it was on everybody’s mind.

“Well kind of but maybe not like you’d think.” I said sitting on the couch. Elaine came back with shorts and a tee shirt on and tossed Logan pants and a shirt, which he pulled on.

I told them about my conversation with Stew and later with Billie.

Logan had looked worried when I began the story but looked happier and happier as I went on.

“That’s great dad. It was kind of a rough day for me too but Lainey and I had a long talk about it too and she helped a lot.”

“Looks like I maybe interrupted some more therapy,” I said knowing it was unfair of me to take a jab at them that way since Elaine liked to pretend that nobody knew they were sleeping together even though the apartment had only one bedroom.

Elaine blushed and Logan chuckled. “You’re just jealous.” Then is face clouded and he must have realized I could have taken it wrong when Elaine jabbed him. “Jesus Dad. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

I had to smile. “It’s ok Logan. You two are good together and I’m glad you’ve got each other. If I was 20 years younger I might well try to get Elaine away from you.”

She blushed and Logan cocked his head and looked at me. “Maybe this is none of my business but on any of your trips have you…well…you know…”

“No Logan. I’ve had little desire and as far as I know no opportunity. I was married for 26 years so my dating skills would be a little rusty. They were never very good anyway if you’ll recall some of the stories your mom used to tell about our so called courtship.”

 “But you will someday won’t you? You must think about it.” Logan pressed on ever the one to say what was on his mind.

Elaine was looking horrified. “Logan! Leave him alone! You can be such a pig sometimes!” She smacked his shoulder and came over and gave me a hug. “Don’t mind him Dad you know he talks without thinking sometimes. When the time is right you’ll know it and somebody will come along. You’re still young yet.”

The main thing that struck me first was that she’d called me ‘Dad’. She had vacillated as to what to call me every since sheand Logan began dating over two years before. She alternated between Mr. Rock, Cliff, which, she really seemed to find uncomfortable, and Dad.

I decided to just change the subject. “When Billie called last night I agreed to go to her party Saturday night. I didn’t even tell her not to try to do any matchmaking.”

“Does that mean you hope she does?” Logan asked, earning another smack on the shoulder from a disgusted looking Elaine.

“Actually it slipped my mind to remind her not to try it. Maybe all the other times I’ve told her will have some effect.”

Logan looked at me and laughed. “Oh yeah that is likely to happen.”

I laughed with him. “Well it’s not something I’m thinking about but I’m sure I will survive a little old dinner party even if she has somebody that ‘I just have to meet.’”

I pushed myself off the couch.“I’m going to shove on off home now. I just wanted to stop by and chat a bit. I’m really sorry now that I didn’t call first.”

Logan put his hand on my arm and looked into my eyes, “Dad you know you can stop by any time you want to don’t you? You don’t have to call first. I’m glad you came by and told us about your trip and yesterday and all.”

“Thanks son,” I said giving him a hug. “I know I can but I also know you’ve got your life to lead and I should be polite and call first.”

I slipped out the door then and walking to the car I thought about the last part of the visit and about Billie’s party. I found myself wondering if she would indeed just ‘happen’ to have somebody there that she thought I should meet. For the first time I didn’t want to try to get out of going to avoid that.

That realization made me both happy andguilty. Happy that I maybe was moving on but a twinge of guilt was there like I’d somehow be cheating on Amanda. I knew intellectually that was silly, if not just stupid but emotionally I had to face the fact that I still had that reaction. Maybe I wasn’t ready for that kind of thing yet. On the other hand as Billie kept harping, you can never have too many friends.

I decided to just take things as they came Saturday night. I was still running party scenarios though my head as I drove home to unpack and relax after the drive while I waited for Casey or Justin to get home.

National Novel Writing Month Part 2

This is part two of my story for National Novel Writing Month. You can start at the beginning by clicking here: Story Time

I was feeling better for having talked about Amanda's death but I knew I needed some lunch after the scotch I'd had. I felt that more than I really liked to and was feeling somewhat ashamed for resorting to it. I'd not done that much in the past year, which was one small blessing. One of my favorite restaurants in Gulfport was in this casino and I led the way. As usual during the week it was not at all crowded so Stew and I just took a seat near the windows that afforded a view of the shrimp boat fleet that docked nearby.

"How are you feeling?" Stew asked when we sat down.

I'm not sure if he asked because of the scotch I'd had or because of what I'd told him so far.

"Better. I guess I needed to talk about it. I really have not talked about it since it happened. I suppose I was trying to escape thinking about it by just trying not to even think about it too much."

"That's probably natural," Stew said. "You don't have to go on you know."

"I know but it'll help to talk about how I came to be here now I think." I told him, pausing when the waitress came and took our orders when she left I continued where I'd left off down in the bar.

The night after the funeral everybody had left and I was alone with Logan, Casey and Justin. I was sitting on the couch in the family room and Casey came over, sat on my lap and hugged me. She was twenty at the time and had not done that for a very long time.

She slid off to sit beside me but held my hand and looked at me with the big brown eyes she got from Amanda. "Is there anything we can do for you Daddy?" She wiped the tears out of her eyes.

"All we can do is just be here for each other I guess," I said automatically, but thinking it sounded a little lame.

Justin was biting his lip and I could tell something was bothering him. "You look like you have something on your mind Justin. More than just missing you mom I mean."

He took a deep breath and finally said, "Dad I can get more hours and help out with things if I need to."

I was touched but knew how unnecessary that was going to be. Justin was 17 but had always been a bit of a worrier. He also was not at all financially astute. He'd resisted all of our efforts to teach him to save or budget. He lived in the moment like a lot of teenagers. Logan had spoiled us.

It was Logan who went over to his brother and tousled his hair saying, "More hours wouldn't hurt you but nobody is gonna miss a meal or evict you all from the house even with mom gone squirt."

Amazingly Justin looked relieved at what Logan was saying and didn't object as usual to having his hair ruffled or being called squirt, both of which usually set off an argument if not a fight. He looked at me for confirmation.

"He's right Justin. We've got a lot of savings and your mom had a lot of insurance. Things can go on pretty much just as they are. I'm just not sure what I'm going to do."

"Oh dad!" Casey said thinking I had meant just that I was going to miss Amanda.

Of course I would but I meant something else. Only Logan really had any idea what I meant. We'd talked about it a bit when he'd moved into his own apartment a couple of years before.

For twenty years I'd been a stay at home dad. I'd never really had any other occupation. Over the years we'd acquired a few houses that we fixed up and rented and I took care of that stuff but it was not usually time consuming. As the children got older things had begun to change.

It always seemed to me that most people expected that I'd get a job as the kids got older. After all they didn't need me in constant attendance. Amanda had been ambivalent to that. She had always been supportive of anything I wanted to do for the most part as long as it wasn't too harebrained a scheme. She'd told me many times when I was questioning my future that I could get a job if I really wanted to but had not seemed to understand how I could think about giving up the freedom I had.

What she didn't really say was that I'd most likely not be able to get a job that made a really significant improvement to our income. She was paid very well for what she did and without going to college for a degree I was not going to add all that much to that. I'd thought of all that of course and I'd be a nearly fifty year old rookie in whatever new field I got into. That was not an appealing idea particularly.

Another of her concerns that she never voiced but that I think I knew was that she liked having me home when she was here most of the time. I had started traveling a little without her and she generally took that well. We'd taken a summer vacation to Gulfport, Mississippi after a co-worker had told her about it and all the fun they'd had. We'd all had fun and I'd discovered that I got a kick out of the casinos.

I'd always played poker and the one social event I participated in with any regularity was a more or less weekly poker game that some of the people that worked with her had. It was at that game that I'd first heard about online poker.

I've always been a computer nerd. The things have always fascinated me. That is probably the thing that Justin and I share the most. Online poker was totally addictive to me. I'd been introduced to Texas Hold'em in the weekly home game. I'd resisted it having grown up playing Stud but gave in to the inevitability of it because it was clear I was just about the only hold out.

Until I began to play online though I was never any good at it. Once I began to play online I read some online tutorials and finally went out and bought a book. That led to another book and another. It took on a life of it's own and I was soon playing a lot online, probably thirty to forty hours a week.

Amanda had liked our summer trip to the Gulfport area and had suggested a Christmas trip to Vegas that year. It was in part an effort to avoid the inevitable tension that occurred when we'd have to spend Christmas with her mother and her brother and his family. Her mother always accepted me ok and treated me decently but her brother had never accepted that being a stay at home dad was a useful thing for a guy to do. In all fairness I guess it wasn't just me. He pretty much insisted his wife work and Amanda and I always thought their four kids suffered for it. They certainly had not turned out as well as ours had and that was not just proud parents being biased.

That Christmas trip in Vegas had started me on this path I'm on now. It was out last Christmas together and looking back I'm so glad we spent it as we did. It was, we both agreed, one of the best Christmases we'd ever spent together even though we were not at home.

In Gulfport I'd played some poker but it was before I'd gotten serious about it and had really tried to learn the game so it had not gone well. In Vegas I had a lot of time online under my belt and it had made a big difference.

The MGM ran a daily tournament and Amanda had picked up a flyer for it. It was her idea that I play. To her tournaments made more sense that cash games because you limited your losses. Based on how I'd one in Gulfport and the fact that I was not a net winner in the home games I can't blame her thinking that way. I knew I'd changed my game but had no proof to show her really other than that I was winning online.

It was not an expensive tournament and I did enjoy them so I did it. Amanda shadowed me from the rail, watching me the entire time I was playing. It was like we'd found something new to share and when you've been married as long as we had that was always a precious thing. I'm not sure if I had really improved my game, if I was just having good luck, or if I wanted to play my best to impress Amanda but I went on to place third in that tournament out of a field of over 90 players. Financially it was not a windfall to us but as frugal as we both tended to be winning almost $700 was really cool.

Even more cool was how excited she had been watching me and how appreciative she was afterwards. It felt good having her telling me how great I'd done. We celebrated by taking the whole family to a show and dinner. That pretty much ate up the profits but it was a fantastic night.

I played that tournament the rest of the time we were in town, three more days. I made the final table two more times getting eight and on the last day fourth. I was disappointed I'd not managed to win but knew I'd been lucky to do what I had. Amanda had been totally thrilled and I was on top of the world.

It had been at her urging that I went to Gulfport not long after we got back from Vegas. I gave her regular reports and it was almost like she was there. I did well in the cash games there and in Biloxi but didn't make a final table in a tournament.

She thought it was great I'd made enough to pay for the trip though. The idea of being able to get 'free' vacations thrilled her. She always had a side to her that I called cheap and she smilingly called frugal. It was a running joke with us so being able to take what was essentially a free vacation was a great thing.

I went two more times between then and that day in March. Both times I came back with more than I went with. She had begun to refer to me as 'her poker pro'. I knew that was far from the truth but it felt nice to have her think that way.

Now I was sitting there on the couch with my children after the funeral and I had some tough decisions to make. True I'd made money playing poker but not a whole lot. I'd viewed the trips and what we'd called them 'free vacations', not as work. I didn't know that I could continue to do that now. I felt like I should maybe get a 'real' job even though when I thought about it even now it wouldn't help the finances that much. Another factor was that it had been something Amanda and I had shared even when she didn't actually accompany me.

Logan knew what I was thinking. I think it had been on his mind too. He'd never shown any real interest in poker but had seemed to think my interest was cool somehow. He confirmed what he was thinking when he said, "You're going to keep playing poker aren't you dad? Mom was all for it and you seem to love it. I think it would dumb as hell for you to get some nine to five job just because some stupid relatives who will remain nameless think that is right."

I had to smile at that. Logan was never one to hide what he was feeling. Probably one reason he didn't like poker. "I figured you had a long talk with your uncle Chris Logan."

"He threatened to beat the snot out of him," Justin chimed in ignoring Logan's warning glare. Beside me I saw Casey smile. "Uncle Chris backed right down. Logan told him that if he couldn't be civil to you then he'd better not show up at the funeral. He didn't care if it was his sister, she was our mom and your wife and if he didn't start treating you with respect he was gonna get pounded."

"Shut up Justin," Logan said.

"He was great dad," Casey said smiling.

"I just got tired of his attitude. I don't know why you took it so frigging long dad." Logan said.

"He is your mom's brother Logan and if we argued it upset both your mom and your grandmother. I've never been much on confrontations anyway. Your mom and I agreed years ago to just ignore him and stay away when we could."

"Well it's still not right." Logan said defiantly. "I think if you want to play poker you should. You love it and you know damn well you can afford to. Hell you mighteven get rich doing it."

I stood up then and hugged him. "Thank you Logan."

Then I voiced what was really bothering me. "I don't know that I can take out of town trips now though. Seems to me I should stick around home with mom gone."

Logan looked disgusted. "Dad I'm not even living at home. Casey is twenty years old and even the squirt can take care of him self. Besides Casey said she had no plans to move out soon."

"Dad we would be fine if you still want to take trips like the ones you took this year." Casey said.

Justin was still glaring at Logan for calling him squirt but then turned to me and said pretty much the same thing.

"We'll see," was all I said. "I'm not going to rush into anything. This is going to be a rough period and we're all just going to have to play it by ear for a while."

"Obviously you decided to give it a try," Up to that point Stew had just let me talk as we ate saying only enough to let me know he was paying attention.

"Yeah. I moped around for six months feeling sorry for myself. I played online. I studied. I explored lots of other options. In the end though after a lot of lobbying on the part of all three of the kids I decided to go for it. I've been given a gift in a way, an opportunity not many people get. It seems stupid not to take advantage of it. I still don't know if it's the right thing or not. I don't know if I can do it."

"You know what I think?" Stew asked.

"What?" I was curious. It was the first hint of a suggestion or even comment he'd had to add.

"I think you love the game and have a lot of promise. Yeah there is luck involved but you've been given an opportunity. I think you need to go for it. If it helps don't do it for you, do it for your Amanda. What better thing to do since it's the last thing you two shared together? I'm not saying that you should vow to win the World Series of Poker for her. That probably would be unrealistic, something you only see in a TV movie, but you can carry on and always have a little piece of what you two shared this way."

That brought tears to my eyes at the same time it opened them. That was exactly how I'd been looking at it but had been afraid to admit it even to myself. It was how I could move on and still forever keep a piece of Amanda with me.

I thanked him for the insight and for listening. We switched to other, lighter subjects and after a brief argument over the check, which I won. Stew and I went back up to the poker room for an enjoyable afternoon session of poker.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

National Novel Writing Month Story Part 1

This story is being written for National Novel Writing Month. Seriously, there is such a thing! For more info take a look here My Journey. There is also a link to the main NaNoWriMo site there. This will ultimately be a 50,000 more or word story. The idea in a nutshell is to begin a new novel from scratch on or after November 1 and complete it, or at least write 50,000 words of it, by the end of November.

Here is what I have so far. I may write more today or I may not. It's enough words to be nearly two days worth and still hit 50K words by the end of the month. I like the way it's forming up although I have some worries about being able to maintain tension and excitement throughout.

Even as I made the call I knew it was wrong. It was a weak play in a series of weak plays. It was my last one though because sure enough there was the hand that I knew he was holding, pocket aces. I’d been drawing dead the whole time. My mind was not on the game and I knew I shouldn’t have played but I hoped that maybe, just maybe it would distract me.

I got up from the table without even looking at the other players. I was numb and knew this was going to be a day in Hell spent reliving another a year ago.

I went downstairs through the casino in search of an open bar. A bit too brusquely I ordered a double scotch and tossed it down, shuddering as it burned it’s way down but hoping it would give me some relief. I ordered another, mumbled an apology to the bartender for my attitude and topped that off with a good tip for both drinks.

Sipping the second one I stared at a screen with some sports talk show but I wasn’t really seeing it. I wasn’t really thinking or seeing anything. I guess I was trying not to.

That was when I became aware that somebody had sat down next to me. At only a bit past noon this bar was far from crowded. I came here a lot but really didn’t know anybody other than to say hi to. Curiosity and a little bit of aggravation at having my space invaded made me look over to see who had felt it necessary to sit next to me when any of several dozen empty stools should have done as well.

“Hey man. I’m sorry if you wanted to be alone.”

I guess my aggravation was showing. It was replaced with curiosity anyway when I recognized a local poker player who I knew only as Stew as the one who’d sat next to me.

“Oh Stew. I’m sorry. I’m just not having a good day.” I said even though it sounded self-pitying and lame.

“Yeah I could tell that,” Stew said. “I was watching you play and you were way off today. Is something wrong?”

That simple phrase, so well meaning, so seemingly innocent brought to the forefront all I’d been trying to push out of my mind. I felt tears start to well up and wiped at my eyes. I was unable to speak. I wanted to run away. I tried to take a breath and it came out as more of a sob further compounded my mingled sorrow and embarrassment.

“Hey man, take it easy.” Stew said, visibly uncomfortable. “It was just a tournament. You can make that buy in back in an hour in a cash game.”

If I could have I would have laughed at that. Oddly I was upset at the way I’d played and my memories had just reminded me of how trivial and unimportant that really was. I tossed down the rest of my drink and held the glass up when I saw the bartender looking our way.

I took another deep breath and was relieved when it sounded a little more composed. “It’s not really about the game. You’re right that was not important even if was really a pathetic performance.”

Stew made a slight gesture of acceptance, nobody was going to be able to seriously argue that it had not been pathetic and I was glad to see him not try. “If something is wrong and you’d like to talk about it I’ve got time. For what it’s worth Jaime was worried too. She actually asked me if I knew what was wrong with you.”

That threw me for a loop. Jaime worked in the poker room and functioned as the tournament director for most of their tournaments. “She did? Why would she ask you?”

“I guess she thinks we know each other better than we do,” Stew said. “I’m sorry to say I don’t even know your name. Seems like a strange time to introduce myself but I’m Stew Strathmore.”

He was holding his hand out so I shook it. “Cliff,” I mumbled. “Cliff Rock”

That set him back a bit but I guess I didn’t look like I was in a joking mood. Most people think I’m joking when I introduce myself. I can’t blame ‘em but I’d learned to live with it through the past 45 years.

“So what’s wrong Cliff? Or is it something you don’t want to talk about?” Stew asked quietly.

I looked at him actually feeling a little better. Talking about it would not be easy. I’d really not told anybody about it in the year since it happened. I’d spent the last year telling myself I was moving on. And I suppose that was true but it was something I could not just ignore. My children had told me over and over that I needed to talk about it when I’d see them and we’d talk about how we were all doing. Talking about it was something I’d avoided though. Maybe it was time to end that.

“It’s a long sad story Stew and has nothing to do, really, with poker. You sure you want to be bothered?”

Stew didn’t look pleased. “Cliff I’ve watched you here for a couple of years. We’ve played together a fair amount. You are a good player but you always seemed to not have a very high opinion of yourself and I never understood that. You’ve been here a lot in the past few months and up to this trip I’d seen you steadily improving. Something is bothering you. Obviously it’s not about poker I guess. That is fine and if you don’t want to share it that’s fine too but do you think I’d have followed you down here when I didn’t even know your name if I didn’t want to be bothered?”

I sighed, thinking I’d made him angry and when he put it that way I guess I couldn’t blame him. “I’m sorry. I’d like to say I’m not thinking straight but that’s not it. There’s still a lot about me that I have to work through.”

“Well if whatever is bothering you will be helped by talking about it then I’ll listen. If not I understand that too.” Stew said resting his hand on my shoulder.

I was uncomfortable at the touch but at the same time I guess touched at the gesture. Stew was a bit of a good old boy. Not quite a redneck but close. He was older, probably in his 50’s. The side I was seeing now was not the side he showed in the poker room.

I thought for a moment, deciding how to begin. Letting it all flood back. Opening the doors I’d spent the last year trying to close on that hellacious time in my life. I just began to talk telling him everything I could remember, and some things that I hadn’t realized I did remember.

The date is engraved in my memory. March 2, 2004. It started as an ordinary Tuesday. My son Justin was in his usual panic because he was late to school. He was a senior, 17 years old, and our youngest. I got him off finally warning him to drive carefully because it was raining.

Our daughter Casey was in her second year at the University of Central Florida and still lived at home. She was 20 and had just sat at the kitchen table talking to my wife Amanda as they watched me trying to get Justin out the door.

That role had been given to me when Casey was born. Our oldest son Logan was two when Casey was born and increasingly Amanda had been unhappy having him in daycare. That led to the nearly inevitable decision that I should become a stay at home parent.

Amanda was very good at her job and was already earning a couple of times as much as I was. She was destined for bigger things. I was destined for cost of living increases. I was not at all opposed to the idea of being a stay at home dad.

It worked out well through the years. Sure there were rough spots. But we both felt the kids were better off for it and I had no regrets.

That morning Casey left shortly before Amanda promising while rolling her eyes that she would be careful driving to school even though it was only a couple of miles away.

Amanda had laughed at that and told me that no matter what it seemed like the kids would wonder if aliens had replaced me with a pod if I ever didn’t say it. She’d breezily kissed me and gone out the door laughingly promising that she, too, would drive carefully.

A little over an hour later the phone rang. I remember glancing at the clock, seeing it was 8:37 and thinking that it was Amanda calling to tell me something she’d forgotten. I didn’t even look at caller id I just picked the phone up.

When the person began to speak my blood ran cold and my pulse began to hammer. They said there had been an accident on the 417 Expressway and my wife was involved and I should come. They would not give details just that they thought I should be there.

I wanted to hurry but my hands were shaking so badly that I dropped my keys three times on the way to the car. It is a miracle that I didn’t have an accident myself.

I totally lost it when I hit the traffic jam that was obviously due to the accident. I was honking and yelling and generally making an ass of myself. I finally pulled over and began to drive on the emergency lane and even in the grass. I was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy eventually and was calm enough to explain that I’d had a phone call that my wife was involved in an accident and I should come. He waved me on then without another word.

The massed emergency vehicles finally stopped me, a state trooper came to the car as I got out and I remember blurting out, “I’m Cliff Rock and I got a call that my wife Amanda was in an accident. Can I see her? Is she ok?”

I could read the bad news in his face before he said anything. I could tell in that instant that it was too late. “I’m sorry sir. She didn’t make it. The paramedics did all they could but she was very likely killed instantly.”

I could not quite grasp that. It felt unreal. I was there in the rain on the side of the road looking at flashing lights all over the place and a part of me is trying say it’s a mistake. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there.

A female trooper came over and together they got me to sit in the back of one of their cars. I remember only them asking questions and trying to say what little they could to help me feel better while knowing it couldn’t.

The female trooper finally asked, “Is there somebody you can call to take you home? I don’t think you should drive.”

I was shaking like a leaf. There was no way I could drive. I should not have driven there. What was really sad was I could not think of anybody to call. My parents were both dead and Amanda’s mom lived too far away to come right then. I remember looking at them feeling blank and finally saying, “I don’t know who to call.”

They asked about friends and relatives but I couldn’t think of anybody. I didn’t want to call any of my children and have to tell them over the phone. They finally brought Amanda’s PDA over. I tried to use the contact list but I was shaking too bad. I felt scared and useless as the trooper took it from me and started going through it asking how about this person how about that person. I could not even recognize most of the names.

“How about Billie Mayfield,” The trooper asked getting to the “M” entries.

“Yes,” I said. “She would come. God how am I going to tell her? She works with Amanda.”

“I’ll take care of it sir,” The trooper said and stepped away leaving me alone.

I got out of the car after a couple of minutes, unable to keep sitting. I was pacing around in the rain. The carnage had been largely cleared away. Traffic was moving. If anybody had told me what happened I don’t remember at that point.

I didn’t see Billie get there. I guess I was just standing in the rain staring off into the woods. She had brought Gil Boyd, Amanda’s boss, with her. I guess they’d explained it all to them before leading them to me. The first I knew they were there was feeling Billie hug me and tearfully ask if I was ok.

I remember flinching when she hugged me and then replying, “I don’t know.”

Both she and Gil looked stunned. I remember wondering how bad I must look if the Troopers thought they could drive and I couldn’t. In the end Billie drove me home in my car and Gil followed us to the house in his.

Once inside Billie hugged me again crying and saying, “Oh Cliff, I’m so sorry.”

I began to pull myself together a little then realizing that I was going to have to tell the children and Amanda’s mom and I was going to have to try to be composed for it.

Amanda had always joked that I was at my best in a crisis when everybody else was in a panic. Usually that was true I suppose but this one was very nearly beyond my ability. It was the living embodiment of my worst nightmare.

Gil hugged both Billie and me and tried to be reassuring. “Don’t worry Cliff the company will help you through this. We’ll do anything we can for you.”

I knew from experience with two co-workers of Amanda’s that he meant it and it did help a bit knowing it. I’d already begun to think far enough ahead at that point to have had that thought myself.

“How am I going to tell the kids and Amanda’s mom?” I asked, thinking out loud.

“I called Barb Cliff. She’s on her way with Chris.” Billie said. “I hope you don’t mind but I thought it might help if she and Amanda’s brother were here.”

I just nodded, ashamed at how relieved to be off the hook for that one I was. There were still the children to tell though.

“Do you want me to tell the kids?” Billie asked.

“I can do it,” Gil offered nearly simultaneously.

I shook my head, trying to think. “No. I will. I’ll call Logan and Casey on their cell phones but I think I’ll tell Justin when he gets home from school.”

Nobody argued with me. I had finally quit shaking enough to where I could use the phone. I can’t remember the conversations with either Logan or Casey. I remember their shock and pain. They were home quickly and we hugged and cried.

By that time Gil was looking uncomfortable and I know he felt out of place. Billie picked up on it and told him that he should go back and break it to the office and that she would stay here at least until Amanda’s mom got there.

At some point pizza was ordered in but not eaten. Barb and Chris got there and the crying began again. When Chris asked what had happened I had to admit that I wasn’t sure beyond the fact that Amanda had been killed in an accident.

I remember the pain his somewhat disgusted look and his comment of “figures” caused me. He’d always regarded me as something of a freeloader because I was home with the kids and his little sister was supporting us. It had been a major source of friction over the years.

I saw Billie glare at him, Amanda had told her all about it through the years. “Chris, you stupid son of a bitch, if you’re going to start with that attitude then just get your ass back where you came from.”

Chris is a big guy at a bit over six feet and Billie is at least ten inches shorter than he is. I’ve always suspected that he isn’t opposed to slapping his wife around to keep her in line, which is another reason, that Amanda and I seldom saw him. For a second I thought he was going to take a swing at Billie but she was right in his face all righteous indignation and he backed down.

“For Christ’s sake, Chris” Barb said. “Just sit down and shut up. I knew I should have left you back home.”

That earned me another glare from Chris but at that point I didn’t care. The crap he’d put me through over the years and the pain he’d caused Amanda when she defended me made me wish he’d start something. Dumb idea because he’d no doubt have beat me senseless but I wasn’t thinking straight. I glared right back, meeting his eyes.

He turned and banged through the kitchen with a curse. “Ok you all want me gone I’m gone. You can take mom home.”

He slammed the front door and Barb sighed moving over and hugging me. “I know you loved her Cliff and she loved you too.”

Logan and Casey came in nearly together and that started another round of crying and trying to explain what happened without really knowing. Justin gone home from school and Casey insisted on helping me tell him. He took it worst of all of the kids, maybe because he was the youngest, maybe because he and Amanda were a little closer because he was ‘her baby’. On the face of it he hated her to refer to her that way but I knew he really liked it.

The rest of the day is pretty much a blur. Somebody put a drink into my hand and I didn’t argue. I remember co-workers of Amanda’s and neighbors coming by. I remember Gil coming back and telling us what he’d found out had happened. How an SUV ironically nearly identical to Amanda’s had blown a tire and gone into the median flipping and crossing into her lane. It had been carrying a mother and her two young children in car seats. They’d all been killed as well.

Barb stayed with us and went back home with Chris after the funeral three days later. I remember that whole time as if it was a dream. I mean I remember it but it seems foggy and somehow surreal. Chris even managed to be decent at the funeral. I didn’t find out until much later that he’d made a comment about me in front of Logan and Logan had as he put it “had a talk with him”. He didn’t get that from me since that was something I should have done years before and never had the guts to do.

“Jesus!” Stew said softly. “I’m sorry Cliff. That’s why we didn’t see you here for so long.”

I wiped my eyes with one of the napkins the bartender had wordlessly set on the counter with a bottle of water as I’d been telling Stew the story.

“Partly yeah,” I said. “I did some soul searching.”

“So can I ask what you’re doing here? What are you doing now? Are you on vacation?”

I shook my head. “No Stew. I’m working.”

I thought because of the way he’d asked that he’d be surprised but he just nodded. “I thought so.”

“You did?” I was surprised. I had tried to seem like just another tourist in town. I knew that the last thing I wanted to do was appear to be the focused professional when I sat down at a poker table, most of the time at least.

He nodded. “You’re just a little too good. If you’re not doing it for a living then you probably should be. I do, but I think you know that.”

I nodded in agreement. Then out of guilt I guess, or feeling a need to explain I said, “My kids are all for it. They are not suffering or anything.”

“I never thought for a minute they were. It’s none of my business how you are managing yourself after what you’ve been through.”

“Maybe not but it’s part of the story and I think I’d like to talk about that too. How about if I buy you lunch and talk your ear off some more?” I said starting to feel a whole lot better. I felt as if a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. The ache was still there inside. I missed Amanda so much, more so on that particular day I guess, but I felt like I’d taken another step into actually moving on with my life.

“Fine but I’ll buy,” Stew said standing up.

“No you won’t,” I said with a grin. “My story, my treat. Don’t argue with me.”

He just raised his eyebrows and gestured for me to lead the way.