Ironwood

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					Ironwood
Love has its own agenda
       James J Valko
    jjv@jamesjvalko.com
        727 460 3482
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


The beginning of the end . . .



       She was scared. She jumped from her car and ran across the dark parking lot

toward the entrance to the lodge. Autumn leaves kicked up at her ankles, like sleeping

butterflies stirred into frenzy. She darted through the empty lobby. Inside the elevator she

struggled to catch her breath. This can’t be happening, she thought.

       These last six months, this last year, she‘d worked so hard to achieve her dreams,

but now her entire life was crumbling in the wake of an unrelenting obsession for him.

She had scripted a future of imminent prosperity that promised to fulfill her long-

cherished vision of a loving family and celebrated career. Then, on the threshold of

realizing her dream, he’d walked into her life, a character not written into the script who

now threatened her carefully laid plans.

       She‘d run from him to be alone and put her emotions back in order.

       She pressed ―4‖ on the elevator panel. Before the door closed, however, a hand

slid in. Then a foot. Then a body. As she‘d feared, he‘d followed her. She retreated from

him until her back met the wall.

       If they‘d been characters in a play, he might have said something profound. He

might have delivered, with cutting lucidity, words designed to catapult her into the

heavens. Instead he said nothing, and this was worse, for he possessed the most beautiful

silence she‘d ever experienced. If she hadn‘t seen him for years and were in another city,

or on another planet, and he‘d moved up behind her, she would have recognized his

silence.

       Suddenly he was in her corner, his arms out, hands against the wall, holding her in


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


a triangle. He brushed back her hair with a gentle sweep of his fingers and regarded her

with his deep blue eyes. She could drown in those eyes—eyes that were two steps ahead

of her, seeming to know what she wanted even before she did. What gave him the right to

possess such certainty concerning her? What gave him the right to own her in this way?

       A phrase began to take shape in her mind, but when she opened her mouth to

speak he kissed her, trapping a wisp of burning air in her throat. Clasping his biceps, she

tried pushing him back, but it was too late. She was drowning, and she was scared—

scared of what she‘d become with this man, even more scared of what she might do. But

most of all she was scared that if she walked away from him at this moment she would

never feel this way again.




Five days earlier

       While the makeup artist, Julia, ran a brush through her hair, Toli Steven‘s olive

eyes stared intently in the mirror, not at her own reflection but at her fiancé talking on his

cell phone behind her.

       Midsentence, Julia was saying to Toli, ―. . . so I ask him, ‗Do you really know me

at all?‘ And you know what he says, after three years living together?‖

       ―No,‖ Toli said, continuing to watch Daniel.

       ―He says, ‗What‘s there to know?‘ So I get in his face and say, ‗Jimmy, why do

you love me, exactly?‘ And do you know what he said?‖

       ―No.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Julia stopped brushing. Toli looked at her. ―He said nothing. I never saw a man so

blank in my life.‖ Julia threw up her arms. ―Finally, after I grill him he says that a person

doesn‘t need a reason to love. He just does. So now I‘m really confused.‖

       ―You want my opinion?‖ Toli asked.

       ―I do.‖

       ―If Jimmy really loved you he couldn‘t stop giving you reasons as to why.‖

       ―Ouch.‖

       ―I‘m sorry but—‖

       ―No. Don‘t be. You are so right.‖ Julia ran a hand over Toli‘s hair to flatten any

loose strands. ―Three years wasted,‖ Julia lamented. ―But you . . .You got the real deal,

Toli. Daniel‘s so lucky to have you.‖

                 Toli directed her gaze back to Daniel. He paced in tiny circles, stopping at

every completed rotation to glance at her before looking away. A flicker of panic rose in

her chest.

       Backstage they were ready to go live. Outside the NBC studios on a cool October

morning, the cameras waited. The AM America morning-show audience was ready to bid

Toli and Daniel farewell on their journey from New York to her father‘s hometown of

Ironwood, Michigan, where they would be married just ten days from now. They would

be wed on national television on top of Copper Peak, one of the highest ski jumps in the

world. It was part of the series Toli had been hosting for AM America called

―Extraordinary Weddings in Extraordinary Places.” The last segment of the eight-week

run would feature her marriage to Daniel.

       ―Two minutes!‖ Toli‘s production manager, Sid, announced. He stood next to the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


backstage exit, with two fingers jutted into the air. A ring of perspiration soaked his shirt.

       After months of preparation, the show was about to begin—her show. Toli had

fantasized about her marriage ceremony since she was thirteen years old—her head filled

with images of adoring friends, loving family, gifts, food, joy and a new life with the man

of her dreams. She had it all planned out. Her and Daniel would produce three adorable

children, sing carols together on Christmas Eve, and enjoy spicy chicken and pineapple

dinners on balmy summer nights, giving their live-in chef a night off. But even in her

most idyllic, storybook dreams Toli couldn‘t have imagined being wed in front of

millions of TV viewers. It simply didn‘t get any better than this.

       But why won’t he look at me? she wondered.

       Toli needed to take control. She stepped away from Julia. ―Daniel,‖ she called.

―It‘s time!‖

       Daniel uttered some final words into his phone, shut it down, and walked toward

her.

       ―Honey, I have good news.‖

       ―One minute!‖ Sid announced.

       ―And some bad news.‖

       ―Bad news?‖

       ―The good news is that I scored Cirque du Soleil tickets for our honeymoon.‖

       ―You‘re on,‖ Sid arrived at their side. ―Go!‖

       ―I have to tell her this now,‖ Daniel told Sid, ―before we‘re in front of the

cameras.‖

       ―Tell me what?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Daniel took Toli‘s hand. She watched the pupils swell in his big brown eyes and

felt her heart sink. She feared that she knew what he was about to say.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                            TWO



Friday

         After getting the ―bad news‖ from Daniel, Toli had kissed her fiancé a tearful

goodbye in front of the cheering crowd at NBC studios and then gotten into her BMW

with her two best friends, Melinda and Debbie Walker. They‘d driven the bumper-to-

bumper streets of Manhattan to Interstate 80, where they hit the open road and traveled

through the lush mountains of Pennsylvania. A day later they had arrived at the chilly

shore of Lake Erie and headed north through the autumn-painted hills of central

Michigan, over the Mackinac Bridge where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet, and

arrived in the Upper Peninsula, referred to as the UP by locals.

         As much as Toli loved the fevered pace of New York, she also loved the calm of

the open road. She loved to cruise the long, sun-drenched highways, venture into tiny

towns, and meet new people. Yet she would love this trip much more if Daniel were with

her, as originally planned.

         ―I have to stay here for a few more days and finish the case,‖ Daniel had informed

her backstage.

         ―But the trial was only supposed to last three days!‖ Toli had protested.

         The trial was now in its third week. Closing arguments were about to begin, and,

though Daniel‘s associate was originally slated to present the wrap-up, the senior partners

insisted that Daniel give the closing argument instead because he had done a stellar job

questioning witnesses. It’s not fair to penalize Daniel because he’s so good, Toli had

thought. Yet this was the life they had chosen. Both she and Daniel had committed


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


themselves to their professions, knowing that their dedicated work would ultimately be

rewarded.

       ―It‘s not absolutely essential that we be together for the few days leading up to the

wedding,‖ Daniel had told her. ―I‘ll arrive the day before the ceremony. After that we‘ll

have two weeks alone in Vegas and then our entire lives together!‖

       He was right, she‘d told herself with forced resignation. Career sometimes takes

precedence. Rarely do dreams come true without at least a few bumps in the road. This

was a minor one.

       Directly following Daniel‘s announcement of his delayed arrival in Ironwood,

they had revealed this fact to the host of AM America, Sarah Downs, outside the studios

in front of the cameras and cheering crowd. Upon hearing the news, Toli‘s bridesmaids,

Debbie and Melinda, had stepped up to the plate and offered to take the trip with her.

       ―You‘d better show up for the wedding on time,‖ Toli had joked with Daniel on

camera, ―or I might end up marrying someone else instead!‖ Everyone had laughed, and

the laughter quickly turned to murmurs of delight when Daniel gave Toli a long goodbye

kiss. An hour later she and the sisters were on the road.

       Now reaching the top of a steep hill, Toli slowed the car to marvel at the miles of

shimmering autumn trees stretched before them in the setting sun‘s amber light. Since

leaving New York, they‘d taken countless photographs of trees along the roadside, but

this was another kind of universe. Like a flame-thrower, the sun cast light into the valley,

illuminating the colorful leaves for as far as she could see. The scene‘s beauty reminded

her of why she‘d decided to get married in Michigan in the fall, her favorite time of year.

       ―Picture please,‖ Toli said to Melinda, pointing at the landscape.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Besides being her best friend and bridesmaid, Melinda was the designated

photographer for the trip. Over the next seven days they‘d take plenty of shots of people

and the environment, many of which would end up on television as part of Toli‘s

wedding experience. Others would fill the pages of her and Daniel‘s wedding album.

       ―Where‘s the camera?‖ Melinda asked, inspecting the floor.

       ―Here it is,‖ Debbie said from the back seat, and handed it to her sister.

       Toli slowed the car noticing Debbie‘s look of concern in the rear-view mirror.

―Something wrong?‖

       ―I was thinking about what you said earlier: that you knew you were going to

marry Daniel even before your first date.‖

       ―That‘s right. He was on my list.‖

       ―Toli makes to-do lists for everything,‖ Melinda said with her eye to the camera.

Although the three women were good friends, Debbie didn‘t know Toli as well as

Melinda did.

       ―Just the day before I met Daniel I‘d made my ideal-mate list,‖ said Toli.

       ―Ideal-mate list?‖

       ―Twenty-three items of what I wanted in a man in order of priority starting with

financially stable and professionally ambitious and ending with dark brown eyes.‖

       ―The next thing you know,‖ Melinda said, ―we‘re at the Guggenheim Art

Museum looking at this weird painting of a nude hermaphrodite half covered with blue-

cheese salad dressing, and this guy comes up, takes in the painting, and says to Toli, ‗I

bet she never has any trouble entertaining herself. Or is it a he?‘‖

       ―So I look at him and find myself staring into the deepest, darkest brown eyes I


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


ever saw,‖ Toli continued. ―An hour later over lattes he‘s telling me about becoming an

associate at one of Manhattan‘s most prestigious law firms, Polk and Wickersham.‖

       ―When we leave him,‖ Melinda added, ―Toli turns to me and says, ‗I‘m going to

marry that man.‘‖

       ―It was like a genie had read my ideal-mate list and made a Fed-X delivery,‖ Toli

concluded.

       ―Blue-cheese salad dressing?‖

       ―I think she missed the point,‖ Toli remarked to Melinda.

       ―No, I get it,‖ said Debbie, ―actually I don‘t get it. You‘ve got your whole life

blueprinted. A while ago you said that you and Daniel were going to live in a five-

bedroom house and have three kids, a golden retriever, Tommy Bahama fans in every

room, and your own sushi chef. Remember?‖

       Of course Toli remembered. She‘d said it after they‘d passed Warsaw only two

hours ago. ―Daniel and I are going to have all those things,‖ she reiterated. ―They‘re on

my ideal-family list.‖

       Debbie groaned. ―What if something really freaky happens and you can‘t get all

the things on your, whatever you call it, your ideal-family list. What then?‖

       Toli plucked a corn chip from the bag on the center console. ―Really freaky?‖

        ―Susie Dyer‘s husband just found out he has testicular cancer, and they‘ve been

married for only two and a half years. What happens to your dreams then?‖

       ―I like, work it, regroup, rework the plan, but nothing like that would happen to

Daniel. We‘re destined to be together and live the life of our dreams. As Daniel puts it,

our life together is a slam dunk.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Debbie‘s brow furrowed even more.

       ―What?‖ Toli asked.

       Debbie shrugged. ―I wish I could be as sure of myself as you are. I make lists too,

but sometimes I think the devil reads them. I know that no genie does.‖

       ―What about that guy you were dating, the dentist?‖ Toli asked.

       ―Bradley Kuglar,‖ said Debbie, her tone darkening.

       ―I heard he was a hottie. What happened to him?‖

       ―Debbie made the first move,‖ Melinda offered.

       ―What was I supposed to do?‖ Debbie protested. ―He complimented me. He gave

me a toothbrush on the first date. He didn‘t kiss me, so I just figured he was shy.‖

       Toli and Melinda both mournfully shook their heads.

       ―I know. I know,‖ Debbie said. ―Rule number six: Never make the first move.‖

       ―Not if you want to be respected in the morning,‖ Toli said.

       Debbie reached over the seat and touched Toli‘s shoulder. ―Screw Bradley. He

was too short anyway. I want it all. Like you, Toli. You have this dream job with AM

America; you have the man of your dreams. You make magic happen. And I have to

know how you do it!‖

       Toli contemplated the question as she crunched down on another chip.

       ―And to top it off you eat like a pig and never gain a pound!‖ Debbi protested.

       Toli smiled at her friend. Neither Melinda nor Debbie knew her before the

―magic‖ had started, back in her early teens when she wore a body brace 18 hours a day.

Born premature with congenital scoliosis, the brace was needed to straighten her spinal

column. After five long years and too many tears her physical condition improved, but


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


the scars from ridicule never completely went away. Being shackled both physically and

socially does something to a young woman. Those were the dark ages, but since they

didn‘t kill her they ultimately strengthened her. To endure life at all, Toli had had to

develop a strategic mind-set beyond her years.

       ―It‘s not magic, Debbie,‖ Toli said. ―I decide what I want. I make my lists, and I

go for it. It‘s all about taking progressive steps toward your goal. Organize, execute,

organize, execute, and don‘t allow yourself to get side tracked.‖

       ―Look!‖ Melinda pointed to a sign coming up.

       Toli wheeled her car to a stop on the road‘s shoulder. The sign read:

                                   Welcome to Ironwood.

                               Michigan’s Western Getaway

                                     Population: 6,293

       They all piled out of the car to get a picture.

       Every step of Toli‘s journey was to be documented with photographs and video.

In addition to having the footage for her show, she was all about preserving memories. At

twenty-nine years old she already understood all too well the fleeting nature of life.

Precious moments often pass as quickly and unexpectedly as shooting stars in the night

sky. She was under no illusion concerning her present situation. Debbie was right: she

was living a dream life. These prized moments surrounding her marriage would come

only once, but captured on film the memories would last forever—not only for her and

Daniel but also for her family, AM America, and most importantly her future children and

grandchildren. Even ordinary things like Ironwood‘s welcome sign had importance.

       As Melinda took a picture of the sign, a large black bird swooped down and


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


landed on top of it.

       ―Check out that bird‘s eyes,‖ Debbie whispered. ―They‘re bright blue.‖

       ―He‘s staring at Toli,‖ Melinda noted.

       ―I think it‘s a raven,‖ Debbie said.

       The bird focused on Toli as if she were his next meal. It gave her the creeps.

When it squawked, she nearly jumped out of her skin. ―Let‘s get out of here.‖

       Minutes later they arrived in downtown Ironwood.

       Toli had been to the small town only twice before, when she was nine years old

and five months ago while doing research for her upcoming on-air wedding ceremony. It

was her job to know about Ironwood, as it had been with the seven other locations she‘d

visited while covering other people‘s weddings for her show.

       ―There‘s the old Ironwood Theater,‖ Toli indicated while slowing the car down.

―It was built as a vaudeville palace in 1928.‖ A long marquee extended from the red brick

building displaying the word ―Ironwood‖ in magenta letters. Below it, perched at the

front corners of the entrance overhang, were two iron gryphons with the head and wings

of an eagle and the body of a lion.

       ―And there‘s the Ben Franklin Store across the street,‖ Melinda proclaimed. ―It

looks older than the theater.‖

       ―Hey, don‘t make fun,‖ Toli said. ―This is small-town America. You‘re going to

see how the other half lives.‖

       ―Speaking of which, where the hell is the other half?‖ Melinda replied, looking

around at the empty streets.

       Toli stopped the car to take in a quaint-looking restaurant on the corner. It had a


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


white stucco facade and cute red-shuttered windows, just large enough to reveal a few

people seated inside. A sign above the door read Maggie‘s. It struck Toli as a place where

locals probably exchanged plenty of town gossip and stories. She made a mental note to

return there later in the week when her video crew arrived.

        A horn sounded. Toli looked in the rear-view mirror to see an old blue van on her

tail. She accelerated forward.

        A minute later Melinda and Debbie joked about how they would have missed

downtown all together if they‘d sneezed, but Toli was distracted by something else. She

kept thinking about that raven—the way it had stared at her with those penetrating blue

eyes, as if looking right into her soul.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                          THREE



       There‘s no place in the world like the Upper Peninsula during autumn, with its

leaves the color of fire, its air the scent of smoky wood, and its people as honest and

warm as the afternoon sun. But mostly, for Jack, the UP was a place where he could hide

from the rest of the world. Not that anyone was looking for him. He was hiding from his

past. But just like your name, your past goes where you go. Despite his refuge, he still

cried for her on many nights.

       He‘d known it had been dangerous to love someone as much as he‘d loved her.

When disaster strikes, it hits the bulls‘ eye on your soul, the one place where all your love

is gathered. Her name was Emily.

       Her hair had been the color of honey, and her eyes as blue as the ocean. Her

voice, rousing him to consciousness each morning, had put a joy in his heart that carried

him throughout the day.

       The call had come on a Sunday afternoon. She was three hours from home when

it had happened. By the time he had arrived at the hospital she was dead. A part of him

had also died that day.

       Yet, as the song says: ―Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.‖

       He still had to get up each morning. He still had to survive. And yes, somewhere

buried deep inside there was a spark that still longed for love, as dangerous as it was.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Jack parked his van in front of Spinner‘s Bait and Tackle shop across from

Maggie‘s restaurant. A phone message an hour earlier from a tearful Jessie Wells

requested that he meet her at Maggie‘s at 5:00 p.m.

       Recalling how Jessie and he had first met, Jack shook his head at the absurdity of

it. Some months back he‘d been summoned to her place of employment, the Silver Dollar

Saloon, to do some emergency carpentry. During rehearsal a stud supporting Jessie‘s

dance pole had snapped, sending her tumbling to the floor and bursting the saline pouch

in her left breast. Other than her pride, she hadn‘t been seriously hurt but did have to get

her breast surgically repaired. Jack had fixed the pole and promised Jessie he‘d keep her

little mishap a secret. In a small town like Ironwood the last thing she needed was people

making jokes about the tools of her trade. Hell, he had to bite his own tongue. He liked

Jessie as a person, but to him plastic surgery was sort of like putting astro-turf on a front

lawn. Everyone knows it‘s fake, and it certainly doesn‘t change what‘s underneath, so

why do it? Then again Jessie was a stripper.

       He couldn‘t imagine why she wanted to meet with him today. They had become

casual friends after her mishap, stopping to chat briefly if they happened to run into each

other. Her message had sounded as though she were in some kind of trouble. Whatever

her problem, he suspected she didn‘t need carpentry done.

       From the driver‘s seat he could see the roses drooping in the little garden next to

Maggie‘s entrance. He hoisted a bottle of water from his bowling bag on the passenger

seat, slipped it into his leather jacket, and stepped outside. The wind bit his face, a cold

wind from across Lake Superior. There would be snow again this year before

Thanksgiving, he thought. No global warming on this peninsula, but that didn‘t excuse


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Maggie from ignoring her flowers.

       Clasping his collar, he crossed to the garden where he took a drooping rose in his

hand. A blood-red petal broke away and fluttered down to the dirt. ―Such beauty being

neglected.‖ He poured some water over the flowers.

       Inside Maggie‘s a rush of warm air greeted him with the scent of fresh-brewed

coffee, brown nut bread and rump roast. At this early-evening hour only three regulars

occupied the downtown Ironwood restaurant. Seated at the counter with their backs to

him were Ralph and Red Skogen and Father McCoy, the priest of Our Lady of Peace

Parish. And then there was Maggie herself, hunched over a statue of a copper bear near

the entrance and attacking it with a duster. Seeing him, she straightened her six-foot

Nordic frame and gave him a typical Maggie welcome: ―Well, would you look at what

the wind blew in?‖

       ―Your flowers need some attention, Maggie.‖

       ―Geezopete, Jack, it‘s October. Them roses will be dead in a month anyway, eh?‖

       He scanned the empty tables. ―Jessie Wells here?‖

       Maggie playfully pursed her lips as if throwing him a kiss. ―She‘s in the little

girl‘s room prettying herself up for you.‖

       Jack looked toward the counter where the three men had swiveled on their stools

to face him. They all waved. ―Gentlemen,‖ Jack greeted them. They swiveled back

around and continued with their meals.

       Movement caught his eye from the back of the restaurant as Jessie exited the

restroom. She had blond hair, big brown eyes, and a slim enough figure with generous

breasts and chronically swollen lips that he suspected weren‘t real either.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                    jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Thanks for coming, Jack. Please siddown.‖ They slipped into a booth. ―How‘zit

going?‖ she asked.

       ―I‘m fine, Jessie, but what about you? You didn‘t sound too good over the

phone.‖

       ―Yah, I just had a fight with someone.‖

       ―Sorry to hear that.‖

       ―The fight was why I wanted to hook up with you, ya know? This isn‘t easy for

me, Jack.‖

       Her tone broadcast something ominous. His heart quickened. ―What isn‘t easy for

you, Jessie?‖

       ―We‘ve known each other for a while, hey? This is a little embarrassing,‖ she

said, ―so I‘m just going to let it fly. Okay?‖

       ―Okay.‖

       ―I want you to get me pregnant.‖

       Jack laughed. Funny. Good joke. Why isn’t she laughing? Jessie just sat there

with her fist over her mouth, her big eyes gawking at him. ―You‘re serious?‖

       ―You bet I am. I‘m almost thirty-five. I want a child in the worst way and—‖

       ―Whoa. You want me to father your child?‖

       ―No, not father. Just knock me up.‖

       ―What does that mean?‖

       ―I‘ve been saving my tips. I got bank, Jack. You wouldn‘t have to pay a cent or

even see the baby. I got all the details worked out.‖

       Jack stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. She had no idea of the old wound


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


she‘d just reopened. She‘d never know. No one would. He kept his composure.

        ―I know it‘s not a request you get every day,‖ Jessie said, nervously rubbing her

hands together.

        ―Actually it‘s the third one this week,‖ he replied, in an attempt to lighten things

up, not for her sake but his.

        Now she smiled, apparently pleased that he could joke about it.

        He sighed. ―Okay, Jessie. What am I missing here? You‘re a good-looking

woman. And given your profession you should have no problem finding a man.‖

        ―I don‘t want a man. And I don‘t want to go to one of those places to get plugged

with some stranger‘s goods either.‖

        ―You mean artificially inseminated?‖

        ―Yah. You never know what you‘re going to get in those places.‖

        He said nothing.

        ―You‘re good stock, Jack.‖

        He frowned. He‘d never thought of himself as ―good stock.‖

        Jessie leaned in closer, her breasts resting on the table. ―Look. I know we don‘t

know each other that well, and I don‘t know anything about where you‘ve been. Seems

no one around here does. I ain‘t asking questions either. That‘s your business, but it‘s

obvious that you got worldly ways about you that other men don‘t. I look around and

think, okay, I want to have a smart, good-looking baby, and your face pops into my head.

It‘s that simple.‖

        Jack didn‘t know what to say.

        Jessie leaned back, her eyes softening. ―Besides, you got that dark and mysterious


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


thing going on there.‖

        ―You want your kid to be dark and mysterious?‖

        She smiled. ―Okay. It‘s cuz your hair is black like the night, and your eyes are

soooo blue.‖ She blinked. ―Like Cory‘s hair and eyes.‖

        ―Who‘s Cory?‖

        Jessie suddenly looked past him toward the front entrance. ―Here she comes

now!‖

        A young woman arrived at their table, scooted onto the bench next to Jessie, and

kissed her on the lips.

        ―Jack,‖ Jessie said proudly, ―this is my partner, Cory.‖

        Jessie wasn‘t lying about Cory‘s eyes and hair.

        ―I‘m so happy to meet you,‖ Cory said.

        ―Hi.‖

        Cory turned to Jessie. ―Did you ask him?‖

        ―Just now.‖

        Cory looked at Jack. ―Jessie and I fought about it before she called you. I was so

jealous at the idea of her making love—I mean, having sex—with someone else. That‘s

how much I love her. Isn‘t that silly?‖

        This entire conversation is silly, thought Jack.

        They both reached across the table, each taking hold of one of his hands. ―So,

Jack,‖ Jessie crooned, ―what‘ya say? Are you up for it?‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                           FOUR



       Black River Lodge was just outside Ironwood, about five miles from Copper Peak

the location of Toli‘s upcoming wedding. Designed like a Swiss chalet, Toli had chosen it

because of the fabulously homey pictures and its online description: ―Come to the Black

River Lodge where the Northern Lights dance, the coyote howl, the deer roam, and

unique northwoods-themed-rooms and condos await your arrival.‖

       She settled into her room and Melinda and Debbie into theirs. They agreed to

meet in an hour for dinner. Toli flipped open her time-management book and put a check

mark next to the ―Drive from Manhattan to Ironwood‖ entry on her to-do list. Done.

       She referred to the book as her brain, the left side of which dealt with organization

and management, her dominant side. Even in those rare moments when the right side

fired, the most philosophic her thoughts got was something on the order of, ―God is in the

details. Take care of the details and you get what you want.‖

       She unpacked her suitcases. Placing her toiletries very neatly and precisely in the

bathroom, she made sure that everything was situated for easy access. She lined up her

jasmine scented shampoo, body wash, and hair conditioner on the bathtub ledge from left

to right. In a tidy row on the sink counter she set her toothpaste, toothbrush, big-tooth

comb, brush, thin-tooth comb, makeup, lavender soap, avocado/mineral/vitamin E face

cream, and blow dryer. There was no iron in the room‘s closet. Not a problem. She

always carried one in her suitcase. She set it on the table adjacent to the king-sized bed.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Then she arranged her clothes in the closet and opened her shoe suitcase, making

the eleven pairs inside easily accessible. She adored shoes, nothing better to reflect her

mood than shoes.

        After showering she wriggled into a pair of low-waist jeans, slipped on a taut knit

top, laced up her lime-green Reeboks, and stepped out to meet Melinda and Debbie in the

lodge restaurant.

        A black Magic-Marker-scribbled sign in the lobby announced ―Friday Night Fish

Fry.‖

        The planks of the lodge‘s old wood floor creaked underfoot as Toli crossed the

room to join her friends.

        Over a dinner of batter-coated fish, coleslaw, and fries, the trio discussed how to

spend their evening.

        ―Tomorrow the work starts,‖ said Toli. ―We‘ll need to take plenty of pictures and

find lots of people and places to film once the video crew arrives on Tuesday.‖

        ―But tonight is all ours,‖ Melinda added.

        ―I‘m soooo looking forward to this week,‖ Debbie said, swirling a French fry in

her tartar sauce.

        Melinda raised her wine glass in a toast. ―Let‘s make this the best week of Toli‘s

life. Ever!‖ They clinked their glasses together.

        ―So what are we going to do tonight?‖ Melinda asked.

        ―We have two choices,‖ Toli said. ―We can either sit in a bar all night, or‖––she

did a drum roll on the table— ―we can go bowling!‖

        Melinda frowned. ―Bowling? Get out. I haven‘t been bowling since . . . since Jim


21
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Fitch‘s third-grade birthday party!‖

        Toli grinned. As usual, she‘d done her homework. Ironwood‘s nightlife pretty

much offered just bowling or bars. ―It‘ll be fun.‖ She gently poked Melinda in the ribs.

―Besides, I need the exercise.‖ Busy with preparing for her wedding, she had fallen out of

her daily regimen and hadn‘t worked out in two weeks. Bowling wasn‘t exactly the same

as doing crunches in a gym, but it was certainly better than vodka and tonic reps while

sitting on a bar stool.

        Debbie hefted her wine glass again. ―Then bowling it is.‖

        ―Bowling,‖ Melinda quipped. ―That should be right up our alley.‖



        An hour later they arrived at Larry‘s Lucky Strike. The bowling alleys echoed

with the sounds of music, clattering pins, and urethane balls rumbling down the

hardwood lanes. From all corners men and women laughed and shouted. There were

more people here than they‘d seen in the entire town so far.

        ―So this is the hang out,‖ Toli commented to the old man tying shoes together at

the check-in counter.

        ―It‘s Yooper heaven on Friday nights round here,‖ he said, a cigarette dangling

from his lips.

        ―Yooper?‖ Debbie asked.

        ―It‘s a slang word for upper, as in Upper Peninsula, only you pronounce it you-

per,‖ Toli half whispered to Debbie, as if passing on a trade secret. ―People who live up

here are called Yoopers.‖ Toli addressed the old man. ―Right?‖

        The man gave her a half-cocked glance. ―It‘s league night,‖ he mumbled. ―Only


22
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


two lanes available.‖ He pointed. ―Got your choice between 30 and 31 against the south

wall there.‖

         The girls decided on lane 30, rented shoes, and picked out balls.

         They plopped down on the plastic bench at the lane. ―I can hardly breathe,‖

Melinda protested. ―Don‘t ‗people here know that indoor smoking is prohibited in most

cities of the civilized world?‖ She shoved her foot into a red-striped shoe.

         ―And what‘s with all the poofy hair?‖ Debbie chimed in. ―It‘s like we hit a time

warp.‖

         Perfect, Toli thought. She was constantly on the lookout for unique people and

places to report, as she had done with all the other locations for her show. Although

Ironwood wasn‘t exactly in a time warp, its best days were far behind it. Research had

revealed to her that during the early 1900s the mining industry had flourished here. The

population had soared. People from Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Sweden had

flooded into the area to work the mines and woodlands. The consensus was that

Ironwood would one day rival Chicago in size. But then the mines began to dry up, and

families left in droves. Today it was winter tourists who visited nearby ski resorts that

kept the town alive. But it wasn‘t tourists crowding the bowling alley tonight. The locals,

many of the men wearing plaid and orange, including even their pants, and the women

sporting poofy coifs, packed the place. Toli loved it. She‘d return later in the week with

the camera crew to interview and film them.

         ―Can I get a cole one for ya there?‖ A barmaid wearing a Green Bay Packers

jersey had approached Melinda.

         ―A ‗cole‘ one?‖ Melinda questioned.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―I think she means a beer,‖ Toli said.

        ―Oh, a cold one,‖ Melinda clarified.

       ―We got Moosehead or tap,‖ the barmaid informed her.

        Toli ordered three Mooseheads, and hoisted her ball. ―Watch this,‖ she said. She

scooted up to the line, aimed at the pins, and let it fly. The ball slowly veered to the right

into the gutter.

        ―You gotta throw it harder,‖ advised Melinda.

        Toli flung the second ball with all her might. It again ran straight to the gutter, this

time on the left side.

        ―Check it out,‖ Melinda said. She swooped up her ball, danced to the line, jiggled

her bottom, and tossed it halfway down the alley in the air. The ball banged on the

hardwood lane and nailed four pins. She scored a gutter ball on her next throw.

        Debbie did slightly better. Using both hands, she pushed her ball toward the pins.

Six fell.

       A man arrived, at lane 31 next to them.

        Unlike the other men in Larry‘s Lucky Strike, he wore neither a bowling shirt nor

a mustache and had not the trace of a beer belly. Clad in black, he wore jeans, a

sleeveless t-shirt, and a leather jacket, which he slipped from his broad shoulders and

tossed on the bench.

        His hair was black too, like a raven‘s feathers. He seemed to not notice them

staring at him.

        ―Check out Johnny Cash,‖ Melinda whispered.

        Toli watched his biceps swell as ―Johnny Cash‖ unzipped his bowling bag and


24
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


hoisted out, predictably, a black glossy ball. He carefully worked his long fingers into the

holes, as if the ball could somehow feel their entrance, and then glided across the floor to

the starting line. Cradling the ball in both hands, he advanced, swung his arm back, and

flung the ball in a perfectly symmetrical arc. It seemed to Toli that the event happened in

slow motion, and the entire alley fell silent. After touching down on the hardwood and

humming its way to the pins, the ball cleared the lane with a thunderous clatter.

         ―Oh my!‖ Debbie gasped, holding her heart.

         The man glanced in their direction.

         ―H-e-l-l-o,‖ Melinda crooned, her voice an octave lower than usual.

         He gave them a slight nod and went back to his business, preparing to toss another

ball.

         While Toli now tried not to stare, Melinda and Debbie gawked at him like a pair

of smitten teenagers. Indifferent to their gaze, the stranger rolled yet another strike.

         Toli cleared her throat. ―Can we get back to our game?‖

         ―Did you see how he moved?‖ Debbie whispered.

         ―Like a panther in bowling shoes,‖ Melinda panted. ―Bowling never looked so

good.‖

         ―Oh, stop it you two,‖ Toli groaned. ―We got our own thing going here.‖

         Melinda grabbed her ball and scooted up to the lane. Obviously trying to get the

stranger‘s attention, she did an enhanced version of her booty shake and let it fly. Gutter

ball. Served her right. It wasn‘t even her turn.

         As time passed, the stranger eventually faded into the background. A few too

many beers later, Toli dug into her purse, fished out a card, and held it up for the sisters


25
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


to see.

          ―What is it?‖ Melinda asked.

          ―A wedding gift from Daniel.‖

          The sisters huddled close to read the card indicating an appointment with Dr. Paul

Kolker, M.D., F.A.C.S., P.C.

          Toli read Daniel‘s handwritten note at the bottom: ―The gift that will keep on

giving, for both of us!‖

          ―Who‘s Dr. Kolker?‖ Debbie asked.

          ―A plastic surgeon.‖

          Melinda gasped. ―Daniel bought you a boob job?‖

          ―Breast augmentation,‖ Toli corrected her. ―Actually Daniel gave me the money

so I could pay myself. I can write it off.‖

          Melinda frowned. ―A tax write-off?‖

          ―Sid, my producer, suggested it in the first place. The procedure would enhance

my on-air value, which would make it a legit tax write-off.‖

          ―Your producer suggested you get a boob job?‖

          Toli sighed. ―Happens every day in the industry. Look. On TV my body is my

product. My looks are a necessary component of what I‘m selling. Besides, even if I

wasn‘t in this line of work, I‘d do it anyway. Daniel likes large breasts.‖

          ―Did he tell you that?‖

          ―One day, while we were walking in Central Park, I noticed him eyeing a woman

and asked, ‗Do you like big boobs?‘‖




26
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―And?‖

        ―He admitted that he did. Told me that any guy who says he doesn‘t is a liar, or

gay.‖

        ―You weren‘t jealous?‖

        ―Not at all. It‘s one of the reasons I love Daniel so much. Besides being my soul

mate, he‘s my best friend. We tell each other everything.‖ Toli took a swallow of beer.

        ―Years ago petite breasts were considered elegant and large breasts vulgar.‖

        The women looked toward the sound of the voice. The man in black next door

looked back, rubbing his hands on a towel.

        ―Excuse me?‖ Toli said with a gasp.

        ―Years ago women like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were all the rage. Then

came Marilyn Monroe. The world hasn‘t been the same since. Pity.‖ He stuffed the towel

into his bowling bag. ―Big breasts are overrated, especially fake ones. Could even deflate

if you‘re not careful. A real mess.‖

        The man‘s comments were so bizarre and unexpected that at first Toli was at a

loss for words. So was Melinda, Miss Banter herself.

        ―If you ask me, natural is better at any size,‖ he said, then flung his jacket over his

shoulder and began to walk away.

        No one asked you, Toli thought. ―Crooked teeth are also natural,‖ she shouted.

―Should a woman just accept those?‖

        He stopped mid-step, paused, then turned to Toli. His luminous blue eyes slid

down to the topic of discussion, her petite breasts, braless under her tight blouse. He

gazed with ease, as if he had some ownership of them. ―With braces you aren‘t cutting


27
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


open perfectly healthy flesh,‖ he said. A hint of a smile crossed his lips. ―And crooked

teeth aren‘t beautiful,‖ he added.

       As Toli watched the stranger saunter out of the bowling alley, part of her thought

“Good riddance” while another part wanted to lasso him. Exactly why she wasn‘t sure.

       ―Now there's a Yooper I‘d like to get to know,‖ Melinda said, fanning herself.

       ―He‘s no Yooper,‖ said Toli.

       Just then a cell phone chimed, and all three women lunged for their purses. ―It‘s

me,‖ said Melinda, excavating her phone and scanning the display. ―It‘s mom,‖ she told

Debbie, and hit the send button.

       ―I‘ll be right back,‖ Toli said.

       She jogged to the exit and caught up with the stranger in the parking lot. ―My

name is Toli Stevens,‖ she said, struggling to keep up with his long strides. ―Yours?‖

       ―Jack.‖

       ―Well Jack, you‘re just the kind of person I‘m looking for.‖

       ―I‘m not your type. I like natural, remember?‖

       She laughed uneasily. ―I don‘t mean it like that. I work for NBC, and I‘m here in

Ironwood doing a story, a documentary on small towns in America, sort of. Anyway, you

would be perfect to interview. You seem to have a unique take on things. I‘d like to find

out more about what you do, how you think. That sort of stuff.‖

       He reached an old van, faced her, and plucked a ring of keys out of his jacket

pocket. He stood like a soldier, she noted, straight and tall but relaxed. His eyes found

hers. They were direct and searching eyes, just as blue under the parking-lot lights as




28
Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


inside. She suddenly felt awkward. Following him might not have been a good idea.

        ―You‘re doing a documentary on small towns and want to interview me?‖

        ―Um, yes.‖

        ―You think your viewers would find me interesting?‖

        ―Different. They‘d find you diff—‖

        ―I don't think so,‖ he interrupted.

        ―Why?‖

        ―I don‘t watch television.‖

        ―Watching television is not a prerequisite for doing the interview.‖

        He said nothing, and Toli found herself staring at his mouth. ―That stuff you said

about breasts. That was ridiculous really, but unique. I mean, coming from you, an

Ironwood man. Well, what I‘m trying to say is, it would make a great interview.‖ Why am

I stammering? she wondered. Toli Stevens doesn’t do nervous. Not about something like

this.

        He unlocked the van door, slipped inside, and closed it.

        ―You really have nothing to lose,‖ she shouted.

        The van‘s engine roared to life. The window descended, and his arm flopped over

its sill. ―Just for the record, I will say this. When you throw a flat ball, it‘s out of your

control and drifts where it wants to. You want to put spin on the ball. Spin allows you to

control where it goes.‖

        ―Spin?‖ she asked.

        ―Try it.‖ And with that he drove off.

        The wind suddenly kicked up as if the retreating van had roused it to life. A chill


29
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


came over Toli, and she ran back into the smoky warmth of Larry‘s Lucky Strike.

       Melinda and Debbie were seated on the bench and crying. Toli rushed up to them.

―What‘s wrong?‖

       ―We just got a call from mom,‖ Melinda sputtered, clasping her cell phone. ―Our

dad had a heart attack.‖

       ―What?‖

       ―It happened after his workout at the club. They found him lying on the locker-

room floor clutching his chest.‖

       ―He‘s in critical condition,‖ Debbie sobbed. ―We have to fly back home first thing

in the morning.‖

       Toli reeled both sisters into her arms and hugged them.

       The lights in Larry‘s Lucky Strike blinked on and off, indicating that it was

closing time. With an arm around each sister‘s shoulder, Toli led them out into the night.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                          FIVE



Saturday

       Under a drizzling rain, Toli drove Melinda and Debbie to Gogebic County

Airport. Whether the sisters would return to Ironwood in time for the wedding would

depend on how their father fared. The next few days would tell the story.

       ―Sorry we have to desert you,‖ Melinda said.

       ―Are you kidding? Don‘t worry. I‘ll be alone only a couple of days before Sid and

the video crew arrives.‖

       They were subdued during the remaining short ride. Upon reaching the departure

area, Toli helped Debbie pull the suitcases from the trunk and then embraced the sisters.

―Keep me posted,‖ she said. ―I love you both.‖ There was nothing more to say that hadn‘t

already been said. They‘d been up half the night discussing what had happened, a vigil

that had turned into a conversation about how strange the human condition could be.

       Back in her car Toli didn‘t feel well. Along with sharing Melinda and Debbie‘s

pain, their father‘s heart attack had other potentially damaging ramifications—namely,

that she could be without bridesmaids on her wedding day.

       On Route 2, headed back toward Black River Lodge, Toli fished her cell phone

out of her purse. She hadn‘t yet told Daniel the news about Mr. Walker because she was

up late consoling the sisters. She punched in his number. His voice message picked up.

―Hi. You know the drill. Bye.‖

       She left him a detailed message about what had happened to Mr. Walker, and told

him she loved him, said it twice. ―I love you. Call me ASAP.‖ Next she brought up Sid‘s


31
Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


number. Not having bridesmaids at her wedding could tilt the entire direction of her

career.

          The present co-host of AM America, Sarah Downs, would be leaving the show

early next year to anchor the 6:00 nightly news. Toli had auditioned and made the short

list of women the producers were considering to replace Sarah. Traditional wisdom

suggested that at twenty-nine she was too young to get the gig. Nevertheless, she had a

shot, and the wedding would be her last chance to make a memorable impression on the

powers that be.

          As with everything Toli did in life, she‘d worked out every last detail of the

ceremony so it would come off perfectly. But who could have predicted this? Sid was one

of the most creative and neurotic people she‘d ever encountered. Maybe he would have

an idea.

          He answered on the first ring. ―Good morning, Toli. Did you finally decide to

dump that loser Daniel and marry me instead?‖

          ―Listen, Sid, we‘ve got a problem. Debbie and Melinda‘s father had a heart attack

last night.‖

          ―Fuck-o-la!‖

          ―He‘s alive but in intensive care. I just dropped them off at the airport to fly back

to New York.‖

          ―What about your wedding?‖

          ―I could be without bridesmaids.‖

          Sid didn‘t respond for several moments. Toli pictured him nervously chewing his

lower lip, a habit he had.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Six million people will be watching, Toli. We need bridesmaids. Who can fill

in?‖

       Last night while lying in bed unable to sleep, she had made a list of potential

substitutes, every one of whom would be insulted to play replacement bridesmaid. There

was another problem too. ―The dresses were custom-fitted for Melinda and Debbie,‖ she

told Sid. ―Even if I got substitutes, there‘s no time to fit new dresses.‖

       Another lip-chewing silence. Then Sid started talking at light speed. ―I know.

We‘ll get Melinda and Debbie in their dresses and shoot them at their father‘s bedside

nursing him back to health and wishing you and Daniel the best in your new lives

together. It‘s an even better story. America will love it!‖

       ―But what about my wedding?‖

       ―The wedding will come off fine on camera,‖ he assured her. ―You and Daniel are

the stars of the show.‖

       True.

       ―And if their father dies, it will make an even better story. We‘ll get shots of them

at the funeral. Air promo beforehand. Might even increase the ratings!‖

       ―That‘s sick.‖

       ―However you skew it, Toli, you‘ll come out ahead. No worries. Anything else?‖

       She had to admit she saw his point. What else could be done? ―There‘s still a

chance they‘ll make it back in time,‖ she said hopefully.

       ―That‘ll work too. Keep me posted.‖

       ―I‘ll see you in a few days, Sid.‖

       ―And Toli, if you change your mind and decide to marry me instead, that‘ll make


33
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


the best story of all.‖

          ―Bye Sid.‖

          Fifteen minutes later she arrived back at her room and got into the shower. The

water smelled like rotten eggs. Well water. It matched her mood. Welcome to rural

living.

          How dreadful to be stranded. First Daniel, now Melinda and Debbie. She‘d never

done ―alone‖ well. She hated being by herself, especially so far from home. It was at

times like these that she wished she had a dog, a cuddly creature to keep her company.

But with her busy schedule it wouldn‘t be fair to the animal. Something else bothered her

too. It was the conversation she and the sisters had late into the night about the temporary

nature of life.

          She‘d always thought of Debbie and Melinda‘s father as a sort of poster boy for

middle-age health. Only in his late fifties, he exercised daily, ate health food, and didn‘t

drink or smoke. It wasn‘t a stretch to picture him on the front of a cereal box. That was

last week. This week he was in the hospital and might not make it.

          The incident triggered an even deeper sentiment that she hadn‘t mentioned to the

sisters concerning her own father. Last December she‘d learned that Joseph had prostate

cancer. Radiation treatment was controlling the disease, but the news had turned her

world on its side. Although he was almost eighty years old, she‘d never once thought

about him dying until the cancer struck. Now she thought about it daily. Joseph Stevens

was her rock, someone she‘d always striven to emulate. She‘d dated a psychologist once

who said that ―worshiping‖ her father was some kind of ―disorder.‖ Memo to self: Don’t

ever date a psychologist again. Joseph was a throwback to an earlier time when honesty


34
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


and integrity actually meant something. She didn‘t worship him. She loved and admired

him. And she would miss him terribly when he was gone.

       Feeling her eyes begin to burn, she rinsed them under the pummeling water and

stepped out of the shower.

       After getting dressed she then hit the road to tackle the first item on her list, visit

Copper Peak ski jump, her wedding site, just a couple of miles from the lodge. The rain

had let up and patches of blue peeked through the clouds. At first, the towering trees that

edged Black River Road blocked her from seeing anything beyond them, but only

minutes into her trip Copper Peak appeared, its lofty ski ramp jutting above the treetops.

       She followed the sign and found the gravel lot at the foot of Chippewa Hill on

which the ski jump sat. Gazing up, she was struck with the same feeling as when she‘d

first seen it at nine years old. The 26-story ramp perched atop the 400-foot hill had

brought to mind some ancient artifact that alien visitors might someday behold from

space. They would probably assume that Earthlings had built the ramp as a means for the

gods to descend from the heavens, to save mankind or punish them or do whatever gods

do.

       The ski ramp, built in 1969, had seen its last jumper in 1994. Since that time it

had been relegated to a year-round tourist attraction run by her Aunt Rainie. This week it

was closed to visitors in preparation for her wedding, which would take place on the

observation deck on top. Rainie had arranged for an altar to be built up there, which Toli

was now anxious to see along with her aunt.

       Toli parked her car and approached the only structure at the base of Chippewa

Hill, a large log cabin. The door flew open, and Aunt Rainie stepped out, wearing a grin


35
Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


from ear to ear.

        ―Dear Mother Mary. I‘ve been waiting all morning!‖ Rainie gushed. She

descended the porch steps, pulled Toli into her arms, and locked her in a hug. In her late

seventies, Rainie had a grip like a northwoods logger in his twenties. She positioned Toli

at arm‘s length. ―Kripes almighty, Toli Stevens, you get more beautiful every time I see

you!‖

        ―Ditto,‖ Toli said, and she meant it. Rainie had silky, snow-white hair and bright

green eyes that gleamed like emeralds. She stood tall and proud in her red-checkered

lumberman‘s jacket.

        ―Ready to check out yer church then?‖ Rainie asked.

        ―That‘s why I‘m here,‖ said Toli, ―and to visit with you, of course. Maybe you‘ll

make me a cup of that Rhinelander coffee after we‘re done?‖

        ―Got a pot on, plus a batch of fresh-baked fudgies. Last time you devoured half a

plateful.‖

        During her recent visit Toli couldn‘t stop eating them. Her mouth started watering

just at the thought.

        Rainie took Toli‘s hand and led her to the base of Chippewa Hill, where she

flipped a switch that started the ski lift. They set their feet on the faded white line of the

wooden platform. A chair swooped them up and rose skyward, leaving Toli‘s stomach at

the bottom of the copper-bearing hill.

        ―Why are you alone?‖ Rainie asked.

        Catching her breath, Toli told her first about Daniel‘s having to stay in New York,




36
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


then about Melinda and Debbie‘s father, which led to Rainie‘s talking about her late

husband, Uncle Ernie, who had passed away from heart failure six years ago.

        ―Ernie and I had an extraordinary wedding too, you know. We got married at the

Palladium Ice Rink.‖

        ―Really? Dad never told me.‖

        ―That‘s cuz the creep wasn‘t there,‖ Rainie said with a playful grin. ―He was too

busy getting rich in New York.‖

        ―Oh.‖

        ―Ernie and I were on skates. The guests stood outside the ice behind the boards.

Imagine that, married on ice skates! Father Sobczak couldn‘t skate, so he officiated while

wearing rubber boots.‖

        Toli laughed. Rainie was so cute.

        She suddenly faced Toli. ―You do love him?‖

        The question caught her off guard. ―Who, Daniel? Of course I do. Why do you

ask?‖

        ―So many people get divorced nowadays. I believe it‘s because they marry the

wrong person to begin with.‖

        ―Not the case with Daniel and I, trust me.‖

        Rainie patted her hand. ―Good for you. You found your only one. It‘s rare.‖

        ―You think?‖

        ―I know. I was lucky, but so many people never find their only one, or if they do

they let him get away and end up marrying someone else.‖ The chair rose higher and

higher, swinging gently.


37
Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Rainie gave Toli‘s hand a squeeze. ―We‘re here.‖

       They got off the ski lift at the top of the hill and proceeded over a foot-worn path

to the elevator that would take them to the observation deck.

        As the steel box creaked upward, Toli‘s heart warmed while thinking about how,

in just a few days, she‘d be taking this same ride in her wedding dress, with Daniel

waiting for her at the top.

       ―Rainie,‖ she asked, ―how did you know Ernie was your only one?‖

       ―Just knew.‖

       ―Would you call it chemistry?‖

       Rainie shook her head and chuckled. ―The kind of love I‘m talking about has

nothing to do with chemicals. It‘s a gift from above, I believe.‖

       Toli expected Rainie to say more though she didn‘t. She smiled at her aunt, but

when the elevator door opened the smile quickly faded. Sitting on the fifty-foot square,

metal-floored observation deck was her custom-made wedding altar. And it was wrong.

Constructed of wood, which symbolized her and Daniel‘s getting married in Ironwood,

the top of the altar, instead of being an archway, was freaking. . . .

       ―Flat!‖

       ―What‘s that, dear?‖

       ―The top is supposed to arch.‖

       ―Oh, I didn‘t know. I passed on that hyper fellow‘s telephone instructions to the

carpenter. What‘s his—?‖

       ―Sid.‖

       ―Right, Sid.‖


38
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―We need to get the carpenter back here to fix this,‖ said Toli. She yanked her

phone from her purse. ―What‘s his number?‖

       ―You can call, but he doesn‘t have a cell. It will go to his answering machine.‖

       ―Answering machine? People still use those things?‖

       ―Jack does. He usually takes a couple of days to get—‖

       ―We don‘t have a couple of days. I have to handle this now.‖

       ―You could stop by his workshop. He might be there.‖

       ―Got his address?‖

       ―On an invoice in the cabin,‖ said Rainie.

       Toli couldn‘t believe it. So far everything on this trip was going wrong. If she

didn‘t know better, she‘d think someone was trying to tell her something. Taking a deep

breath, she paused to gaze beyond the chain-link fence that walled the observation deck.

The sun shone brightly on the trees below. Miles and miles of nothing but absolutely

beautiful autumn trees. Her and Daniel‘s wedding was truly going to be an extraordinary

wedding in an extraordinary place. She turned back to Rainie.

       ―Can I get a fudgie to go?‖

       ―You know it,‖ Rainie grinned. Toli started to feel better, but not by much.




39
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                            SIX



       Toli logged the carpenter‘s address into her GPS, which led her to Oak

Street, a bumpy cobblestone road on the edge of town. Like much of Ironwood,

the neighborhood suffered from age. Many of the houses had peeling paint, and

torn shingled roofs; and parked on a few lawns were wrecked cars. Despite its

downtrodden appearance, however, the neighborhood possessed a Norman

Rockwell sort of charm, a vision sparked by the bright-eyed expressions of a few

porch-sitters who watched Toli‘s out-of-place BMW roll down their lane. Her

GPS lead her to a three-story house. She parked behind a van in the driveway.

       With the delicious fudgie‘s taste still lingering in her mouth, Toli wiped

the remaining chocolate from her lips and got out. But as she stepped over the

crackling dead leaves that blanketed the sidewalk and approached the house a

curious sensation made her pause—have I been here before? Déjà vu had always

fascinated her. What was it? A past-life subconscious remembrance? A confusion

of memories from her childhood?

       She mounted the porch steps and banged the iron knocker. While she waited, her

eyes wandered to the van in the driveway. It looked familiar also. Then she realized she‘d

seen it before, last night at the bowling alley in fact. Jack. He was the carpenter?

       The door opened. An tall, older man wearing a white apron emerged from the

shadows. A cast covered his right arm from bicep to wrist.

       ―Hello. Is, ah, Jack here?‖

       Rust-colored eyes below bushy gray brows gave her the once-over. ―You from the


40
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


IRS?‖ he asked.

        ―IRS? No. My name is Toli Stevens. Jack is doing carpentry work for me. I met

him last night.‖ She extended her arm.

        The old man shook with his left hand. His skin felt like old, dry leather. ―Name‘s

Gene. You were with Jack last night, eh?‖

        Toli released his hand and put on her best smile. ―No, I wasn‘t with him, Gene. I

just met him last night. He made my wedding altar.‖

        ―You‘re the one getting married on the hill there?‖

        ―Copper Peak. Yes.‖

        Gene nodded. ―Well, as long as you‘re not from the IRS. Jack‘s out back. Come

in.‖

        Toli followed Gene over a traffic-worn wood floor into the kitchen, which

smelled like cooked hamburger and black pepper. They passed a chrome-legged table

with red vinyl chairs that looked as though they‘d been rescued from someone‘s storage

shed.

        ―Smells good,‖ Toli commented.

        ―Been cooking all day. It‘s pasty night,‖ Gene told her.

        She wondered what a ―pasty‖ was but didn‘t ask.

        Out the back door they crossed a yard where lumber was organized in small piles.

They entered a garage-like workshop.

        Unaware of their presence, Jack was hunched over a jigsaw table cutting some

wood.

        ―Yo, Jack,‖ Gene shouted over the machine‘s noise. ―Ya got a visitor.‖


41
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Jack looked up to see Toli. Because he was wearing safety goggles, she couldn‘t

make out an expression. He shot his forefinger into the air and turned back to the job at

hand.

        ―Artist at work,‖ Gene remarked, and rolled his eyes sardonically.

        She watched Jack‘s fingers guide a square of wood along a curved pencil mark.

The motion was smooth and controlled, reminiscent of how he‘d bowled last night. Also

like last night he was clad in black jeans and a sleeveless shirt. She loved watching

people work with controlled motions.

        He flipped a switch on the machine to shut it down.

        ―This beautiful young woman said she was with you last night,‖ Gene announced.

        ―Not with him,‖ Toli clarified again. ―I said I had met him last night.‖

        With that, Gene patted Toli on the shoulder as if they were old friends. ―Yah, I‘ll

leave you two alone to your business.‖ He turned and left the workshop.

        When Jack removed his goggles, his eyes met hers. Funny, it didn‘t feel as though

he were ten feet away. He leaned on the work bench and looked expectantly at her.

        She felt the same nervousness that she had last night. What is that? she wondered.




42
Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                               SEVEN



           ―You‘ve come for more bowling tips?‖ Jack asked.

           ―You made my wedding altar.‖

           ―I know that.‖

           ―Why didn‘t you say anything last night?‖

           ―What was there to say?‖

           ―How about ‗My name is Jack. I recognize you from TV. I made your wedding

altar.‘‖

           ―I didn‘t recognize you from TV. As I told you, I don‘t watch TV. I recognized

you from the pictures your Aunt Rainie showed me.‖

           Toli envisioned Rainie proudly presenting Jack photographs of her to Jack.

Childhood pictures too? The vision suggested a coziness to their relationship that had no

place. This man was a mere hired hand.

           ―Whatever.‖ She rolled her eyes. ―The top of the altar is flat. I need it to arch.‖

           ―That‘s not what I was told.‖

           ―A mistake.‖

           ―I‘ve got a full schedule. I‘ll get to it in a few days.‖

           This guy was really starting to aggravate her. She perched her hands on her hips.

―Do you really know who I am?‖

           ―A woman in need of an arch on her altar . . . and breast implants.‖

           ―Very funny. Look, millions of people will see me standing below that altar. The

top has to be arched for flowers and a sign to hang on it. I need it fixed not in a few days


43
Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


but tomorrow.‖

          Jack said nothing but just stared at her.

          ―Well?‖ she asked.

          ―You‘ll have to pay double.‖

          ―Oh. Ouch.‖

          The corners of his lips rose to a smile, and the late afternoon sun filtering through

the window seemed to brighten. ―I‘ll see what I can do,‖ he offered.

          Now she smiled, not because he‘d agreed to do it but because she, like him, was

tickled by their banter. Recognizing this, she bit her lip. Their conversation was over. It

was time to leave, yet she couldn‘t deny how relaxed she was starting to feel in this place.

Recent events had taxed her nerves, and she didn‘t mind the reprieve. She loved the smell

of freshly cut wood. ―Is that cedar I smell?‖ she asked.

          ―White pine. Cedar is more pungent.‖ He plucked a few wood chips off his black

cotton shirt and let them flutter to the floor. ―And cedar‘s red. White pine is, well, it‘s

white.‖

          He ran his hand along a plank leaning against a machine. ―Wood gets into your

bones,‖ he muttered and then looked at her. ―I‘ll have your altar done in two days.‖

          ―You can give Rainie the invoice,‖ Toli said and started to turn to leave.

          ―Would you like a cup of tea?‖ he asked abruptly.

          His expression had softened, and a sort of boyish shyness seemed to come over

him. She was again struck with the feeling of déjà vu. Those eyes, that sable hair, the rich

tone of his voice—these features seemed to conspire to make her wonder whether she

somehow, from somewhere, knew this man.


44
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―It will only take a minute to make,‖ he added.

         No, I really have to be going, she thought, but words came out to the contrary.

―Well, you at least owe me something for having to make the trip.‖

         He swept off a wooden chair for her to sit on and told her he‘d be right back. Out

of the workshop he walked through the back yard and into the house. His gait had a

rhythm to it, an undercurrent that broadcast confidence yet something dangerous in his

steps.

         She sat on the chair and took in the tiny shop, which had a purposefulness in how

it was laid out. She sensed that everything was strategically positioned, not unlike how an

artist might set up his studio. Planks of wood stood vertically against one wall, divided by

slots according to their sizes. Against another wall was an assortment of old bureaus and

antique chests, all in various states of disrepair but neatly arranged. The machines were

clean, and she recognized some of them—a table saw, lathe, and jigsaw.

         This place is alive, she thought. Alive in the way it was organized. Alive in that

each item, even the crookedly cut planks, seemed uniquely cared for. She found this level

of organization rare in a man. It was one of the few points of discontent she had with

Daniel. He was dynamic, powerful, and charming, but he wasn‘t well organized.

         A wooden clown sat on the floor, its paint faded and its right arm missing. It had a

typically sad smile and red bulb nose. She hated clowns. They were creepy, ugly things,

eternally depressed and always struggling to be funny. She didn‘t like ugly things.

         Beyond the woodshop‘s door she could see Jack in the kitchen preparing their tea.

He was just over six feet tall, she guessed, and his body was firm but not rigid. His

movements were fluid and economical. Quiet. His fingers pried open a box, pinched a tea


45
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


bag, and lowered it into a cup. He repeated the motion with a second cup.

        Then Toli noticed the sound of a solo piano playing softly. Had the music been

there all along? She spotted an old, dusty CD player on the floor next to the chair.

Listening to it, she felt as though she‘d entered someone‘s dream.

        She closed her eyes and drew a long breath. She could almost taste the scent in

the air. In some indefinable way the wood and the music seemed to be constructed of the

same magical fabric.

        ―Careful, it‘s hot.‖

        She blinked open her eyes to see Jack holding out a cup and saucer. She took it

from him.

        He leaned on the workbench, holding the saucer in one hand while taking a slow

sip from his cup in the other.

        ―Who is this?‖ she asked, referring to the music.

        ―Keith Jarrett.‖

        She‘d heard the name before but wasn‘t familiar with him. ―It‘s beautiful,‖ she

said.

        His eyes narrowed. ―Why do you think that?‖

        This caught her off guard. How does one describe beauty in music, especially

something as simple as a solo piano? She considered his question and offered the most

truthful answer she could. ―The music sounds like . . . well, like love.‖

        He said nothing.

        ―You asked.‖

        ―Often people don‘t hear the inner beauty in his music,‖ he said. ―They hear the


46
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


sounds but not the music.‖

       For several seconds their eyes remained connected with no words spoken. The

space between them had started to disappear. She averted her gaze and said, ―Surprised

that I‘m a sentient human being, are you?‖

       ―A little.‖

       ―Thanks. What‘s with the clown?‖ she asked.

       ―I‘m repairing it for a miniature golf course in town.‖

       ―I see.‖

       ―I normally don‘t do clowns.‖ He sounded defensive.

       The words hung in the air like a cluster of balloons. Then, as if possessed of the

same mind, they broke out in laughter. They laughed far more enthusiastically than the

statement itself warranted.

       ―Dinnertime!‖ a voice rang out behind Toli. She turned to see Gene in the

doorway, wooden spoon in hand.

       She stood up. ―Well, thanks for the tea.‖

       ―Where you goin‘?‖ Gene asked, looking offended.

       ―I‘m out of here so you can have your dinner.‖

       ―And leave me alone with him?‖ Gene gestured at Jack, who was still laughing.

―It‘s not often we‘re graced with the presence of a beautiful woman around here.‖

       ―That‘s sweet. Thank you but—‖

       ―We‘re having an Upper Peninsula special tonight,‖ Gene interrupted. ―Pasties.‖

       There was that word again. It now triggered a vague recollection of her father‘s

having talked about pasties in her youth. Toli had experienced other unique cuisines


47
Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


while covering weddings around the country: the Cajun food of New Orleans, Johnny

cakes in Rhode Island . . . . Since the majority of those who viewed AM America were

women, food and its preparation was a popular topic on the show.

       ―Share the recipe?‖ she asked.

       The question gave Gene pause. ―You‘re a tough negotiator, eh?‖ He looked back

at Jack. ―What‘s he bubbling over for?‖

       ―That he doesn‘t normally do clowns,‖ Toli informed Gene.

       ―Well, it‘s good to see him laughing again. Haven‘t seen that in a while. Come

on. I‘ll give you the recipe—the secret recipe.‖

       As they left the workshop, Toli wondered whether Jack would also like her to

stay. She quickly pushed the matter from her mind. Gene had invited her. That was good

enough.




48
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                          EIGHT



        In the dining room Gene directed Toli to the unadorned Amish table where she sat

down. The beige walls were equally plain, with just a department-store picture of mallard

ducks flying over a river hanging on one. On the plate before her was a large lump of

something that looked like a potpie that hadn‘t been baked in a pot: a bulging pocket of

baked pastry with crimped edges. ―So this is a pasty?‖

        ―Made from a recipe passed down from my great grandmother,‖ said Gene. He

lowered himself onto the chair across from her, making its wooden legs moan.

        Jack joined them and eased into the chair next to her. ―Cornish miners brought the

pasty tradition here from England in the 1930s,‖ he said.

        Toli tapped the lump of pastry with her fork. The crust sounded like wood.

        Gene chuckled. ―It‘s hard so that the pasty can be tossed down a mine shaft and

caught at the bottom without falling apart, and they stay warm all day. You bite into it

like a taco.‖

        Toli was famished. Except for the fudgie that Rainie had given her, she hadn‘t

eaten all day. She hoisted the pasty to take a bite when suddenly a hand intervened

between her mouth and its target—Jack‘s hand. Her lips grazed the tiny hairs on his skin.

He pushed the pasty back down to her plate.

        ―I wouldn‘t do that,‖ he warned. ―The inside‘s scorching hot after being in the

oven all day.‖

        Toli instantly blushed. She removed her hand from under Jack‘s and thoroughly

wiped her mouth with her napkin. ―You‘re lucky I didn‘t take a bite of you,‖ she


49
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


admonished him, avoiding eye contact.

        ―Least you wouldn‘t have burned your lips,‖ he returned, deadpan.

        Her urge to offer a witty retort was unnerving. It reminded her of how she was

before she‘d met Daniel: single and quick to flirt. Thank God those days are over. She

gave Jack a stilted smile that somehow, despite her earnest attempt otherwise, seemed

flirtatious. Gene‘s eyebrow raised slightly, something she pretended not to notice.

        ―Ya gotta let the steam out first,‖ Gene said. He then stabbed at her pasty several

times with his fork. She pulled back in her chair, avoiding his pumping arm. Too much

testosterone in this house, she thought. The place, and these men, was in desperate need

of a woman‘s touch.

        Misty waves of vapor drifted upward. Toli inhaled the savory scent with one eye

closed, the other half open, pinned to Jack. What is it about him? Why am I short-

circuiting?

        Thankfully Jack didn‘t notice her gaze. He was busy poking holes in his own

pasty, a motion that hid no detail of the muscles in his arm—long, lean muscles under

taut skin that highlighted the veins along his biceps. So he’s not hard to look at, thought

Toli. Get over it.

        ―You‘re from New York, and you‘re getting hitched in Ironwood?‖ Gene asked.

―Why in the name of Mary would anyone do that?‖

        Toli cleared her throat. ―My father was born and raised in Ironwood.‖

        ―What‘s his name?‖

        ―Joseph Stevens.‖

        ―Stevens, Stevens,‖ Gene echoed. ―Don‘t think I know the name. Why Copper


50
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Peak?‖

         ―When dad was a kid, he wanted to be a ski jumper. There was no place to train

around here, and his parents couldn‘t afford to send him out West. So, when he got older

and built his . . .‖ financial empire, she almost said, but stopped short. ―After he grew up

and moved to New York, he gathered some investors to build Copper Peak so young

people could have the opportunity he never had. I‘m getting married there—we’re getting

married there—as a tribute to him. How about you two. Are you father and son?‖

         Gene frowned. ―Son? Give me more credit than that.‖

         ―I rent a room,‖ Jack said.

         ―I see.‖ She pointed at the pasty. ―Is it safe now?‖

         ―Should be,‖ Gene said.

         She lifted it once more and took a bite.

         ―Where‘s your fiancé?‖ Gene asked.

         The pasty was delicious. Toli chewed and swallowed. ―Daniel‘s at home in New

York working the most important case he‘s ever handled for his law firm. It ran longer

than anyone expected. He works for the biggest firm in Manhattan. He‘s going to become

an associate.‖ She sounded like an idiot. Why am I trying to impress them? She lifted her

chin a notch and softened her tone. ―Daniel will join me later in the week. I came here

early to take pictures and get to know the people around Ironwood—like you two.‖

         She took another bite and could sense Jack watching her. She glanced at him for

no more than a second or two, yet it could have been minutes, for when she looked away

she couldn‘t shake the vision of his light blue eyes.

         The smart thing to do, she thought, is to quickly finish my dinner and leave. But


51
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


that wasn‘t her style. Toli Stevens handled situations. Being left-brain dominant, she

managed things, including her own emotions. She would make whatever undercurrent

there was between her and Jack disappear. Had he even noticed the connection?

       Oh, stop!

       She retrieved her time-management book from her purse and wrote down

―Pasties. Cornish miners.‖

        ―Recipe please,‖ she said to Gene.

       He slipped his arm out of the sling and counted the ingredients on his fingers.

―There‘s ground round, pork loin, carrots, onions, potatoes, rutabaga, salt—make that sea

salt—and ground pepper. Wrap it all in dough and bake it for about four hours at 250.‖

       Toli wrote it all down.

       Jack leaned closer to inspect her time-management book. ―You‘re very

organized,‖ he commented.

       ―Oh, yes—yes, I am. I‘m left-brain dominant.‖

       Jack grimaced, as if she‘d just announced that she had some kind of

communicable disease. Maybe he didn‘t understand.

       ―The right side of the brain has to do with art and philosophy,‖ she explained,

―whereas the left side deals in practical things like organization.‖

       She read the list back to Gene, making sure she got each item correct. He nodded

his approval.

       ―So what are you going to shoot around Ironwood?‖ Jack asked, lifting his pasty

for another bite.

       She turned a page in her book and read off the items she‘d listed before leaving


52
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


New York. Jack started shaking his head.

         ―What?‖

         ―There are better places to shoot if you really want to capture the beauty of the

area.‖

         ―Like what?‖

         ―Trap Hills. If I told you where they were, you‘d still have a hard time finding the

good spots. But they‘re the most beautiful places in the whole northern United States.‖

         Toli needed pictures of the area for her show. Although she was confident in the

list she‘d made, she was certainly interested in discovering better vistas. Yet she didn‘t

ask Jack where Trap Hills was, nor did she suggest that he take her to see them. Instead

she quickly finished her pasty while keeping the conversation to a strictly social level.

Jack and Gene were only halfway through their meal by the time she was done.

         ―Geez-o-pete, she‘s ready for seconds!‖ Gene declared.

         ―Oh, no. I‘m good,‖ said Toli. ―I really have to be going.‖

         ―What‘s the rush?‖ Gene asked.

         The question gave her pause. What indeed was the rush? It would be dark soon,

and there wasn‘t much else she could do today. Yet she knew she couldn‘t stay here. ―I

have to make a few calls,‖ she said. ―Thank you for dinner.‖

         Gene said goodbye in the dining room while Jack walked her out to the front

porch.

         Toli thrust out her arm business-like. ―And thank you in advance for getting the

altar right.‖

         He nodded and clasped her hand. Trying to ignore the warmth of his fingers, she


53
Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


gave it a quick pump before withdrawing her hand. She then descended the porch steps

and crossed to her car in the driveway.

       ―Are you going to see the Paulding Light?‖ he asked.

       She stopped short. ―The what?‖

       ―The Paulding Light,‖ he repeated. ―It‘s a mysterious light that appears in the sky.

It‘s due in a couple of hours when darkness arrives.‖

       She‘d never heard of such a thing. ―What kind of mysterious light?‖

       ―Some say it‘s from an alien spacecraft. Others believe it‘s the beginnings of a

wormhole in space. Many say it‘s a ghost.‖

       Toli frowned. Was he making this up?

       ―Years ago Ripley’s Believe It or Not did a television show about it. Rumor is that

they offered anyone $100,000 if they could prove where the light came from. It caused

quite a stir around here. No one could prove it.‖

       His last words conjured up quite the images: ―mysterious light,‖ ―alien

spacecraft,‖ ―ghost.‖ She knew that people loved ghost stories. The Paulding Light might

be a great addition to her show.

       ―I‘d be glad to take you.‖

       ―Thank you, Jack, but I don‘t think so.‖ She decided she‘d research the Paulding

Light online and see it later in the week when her video crew arrived.

       He nodded and glanced away. ―Well, you have a good night.‖

       ―You too, Jack.‖ She got in her car and backed out of the driveway. Her phone

chimed. She fished it out of her purse and looked at the name on the display: Daniel.




54
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                            NINE



         Daniel! Toli pulled her car to the curb and picked up the call. ―Hi honey.‖

         ―Hi. I just got your message about Melinda and Debbie‘s father. That‘s terrible

news.‖

         ―The worst. Terrible on many fronts. I miss you so much,‖ she said with a quiver

in her voice.

         ―You too. Are you okay? You sound a little strange.‖

         Toli told him she was fine, just fine. She added that as far as she knew Mr.

Walker was doing okay too. At least she hadn‘t heard otherwise. She then gave Daniel

details about her conversation with Sid earlier before asking, ―How is your case going?‖

         ―It couldn‘t be better. Closing arguments start tomorrow, and soon I‘ll be on my

way to. . . .‖ He paused.

         ―Ironwood, honey. We‘re getting married in Ironwood.‖

         ―Oh, right.‖

         Daniel loved to tease her, always trying to make her laugh, always telling jokes.

         Toli caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Jack had exited his house

carrying a cooler. Without even glancing at her car parked on the street, he crossed to his

van in the driveway.

         ―You‘re all by yourself now,‖ Daniel said. ―What did you do all day?‖

         Toli's muscles tightened.

         Jack opened the van‘s back door and slid the cooler in. She wondered if he was

going to see the Paulding Light.


55
Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Toli?‖

        ―Yes, I‘m here.‖ She told Daniel about visiting Copper Peak earlier in the day.

Then, eyeing Jack as he headed back into the house, she decided to do the right thing. ―I

just had dinner with two men I met. One of them built our wedding altar. We had a dish

called pasties.‖

        ―Oh?‖

        She told him about Gene and Jack, explained what a pasty was, and informed him

that she‘d just left their house.

        ―And what are your plans for the rest of the night?‖

        Her hands started to sweat. What is wrong with me?

        She gulped and then told him about the Paulding Light that Jack had offered to

take her to see. ―But I turned down his invitation.‖ She said these last words with a hint

of pride.

        ―It‘s strange that he would invite you to go alone with him.‖

        Toli hadn‘t thought of it that way but agreed anyway. ―I suppose it is.‖

        ―He‘s not dangerous is he, this guy Jack?‖

        ―No. I‘m sure he‘s not.‖

        ―I don‘t like you being by yourself up there.‖

        ―I didn‘t exactly plan it this way, Daniel.‖ She didn‘t hide the sarcasm in her tone.

―It‘s my job to get out and meet people,‖ she reminded him.

        ―I know, I know. You‘re right. Do you have mace with you?‖

        Toli always carried a can of mace in her purse when she traveled. ―Of course.‖

        ―I‘d stay away from any single men.‖


56
Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          ―You don‘t trust me?‖ She was just half joking.

          ―You know it‘s not that. It‘s just that you‘re a gorgeous woman alone in a strange

place.‖

          The statement irritated her. She wasn‘t sure why.

          ―I‘m running late,‖ Daniel said. ―Dirk invited me for dinner. I don‘t want to keep

him waiting.‖ Dirk Wickersham was the senior partner of Daniel‘s law firm. ―Love you,‖

said Daniel. ―You should just stay in the hotel tonight, watch a movie or something.

Gotta go. Bye.‖ He hung up.

          Toli sat there for several minutes trying to figure out exactly why she was upset.

Daniel‘s advice wasn‘t ill-conceived. True, she was alone in a strange town, and Daniel

simply wanted her safe. She would have liked to talk to him longer. It seems like we’re

always in a rush, she thought. Normally she didn‘t mind their hectic pace, but tonight. . . .

          Jack again exited the house, this time carrying a video camera and tripod. He put

them in his van and headed back inside. She wondered how old he was—thirty-nine,

forty? He drove an old van and rented a room in the old house. She remembered reading

online that the average yearly income of Ironwood residents was $25,000. She wondered

whether Jack even made that much. She also wondered what the Paulding Light would

look like.

          She got out of her car and headed back up the creaky porch steps. It wasn‘t to

spite Daniel, she told herself. It really wasn‘t. He‘d known from their first date that she

was an independent, forward-thinking woman—a professional who was used to taking

care of herself. Anyway, she didn‘t feel like watching a movie tonight.

          She banged the knocker against the door. Moments later it opened. ―I changed my


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


mind. I would like to see the Paulding Light.‖

       Jack stared at her a moment and said nothing.

       A soft breeze tickled her bare legs beneath her skirt. She found herself thinking

about how feminine she felt. She was wearing a silk floral wrap and open-back shoes.

Nothing special, but immediately she had second thoughts.

       ―Aren‘t you going to say something, Jack?‖

       ―I‘m not sure that I deserve this honor.‖

       ―Well, you probably don‘t, but all that talk about ghosts and whatever sparked my

curiosity.‖

       ―We‘ll have to leave right away, so we don‘t miss it.‖

       ―Good. I just told Daniel about you.‖

       He scratched his head. ―Who‘s Daniel?‖

       ―The man I‘m marrying. I told you his name over dinner.‖

       ―Oh, right.‖

       The wind kicked up and gave Toli a chill. She rubbed her arms. ―I wasn‘t

planning on being out tonight and didn‘t dress very warmly.‖

       He nodded. ―Wait here.‖ He retreated into the house and moments later returned

with a plain blue hooded sweatshirt. ―It‘s not fancy, but it should keep you warm.‖

       Toli slipped it on. Way too big, the cotton sweatshirt drooped lazily over her

shoulders. It smelled clean, though, and as promised it was warm. She followed Jack to

his van. He opened the passenger door for her and walked around the front to the other

side. He fell into the driver‘s seat and started the engine.

       She noticed how beautifully organized the interior was. Every tool, every piece of


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


wood, and every can of varnish was tucked neatly into a corner or slot. The dashboard

was free of clutter and even had a shine to it. The console between the seats had an open

cubbyhole that held a tape measure, Swiss army knife, calculator, and clean coffee mug.

Oh, did she ever love cleanliness and organization.

         ―I think that someone else is left-brain dominant,‖ she remarked.

         ―Don‘t count on it.‖

         ―You‘re very organized.‖

         ―You haven‘t seen my underwear drawer,‖ he said and threw the van into gear.

Soon they were traveling the open road.

         ―You don‘t have a UP accent. Where are you from?‖ she asked.

         He said nothing at first, as if the question made him uncomfortable. ―I‘m from

Illinois originally.‖

         ―What did you do before you came here? Have you always been a carpenter?‖

         ―I‘ve done a lot of things in my life, though nothing much worth talking about.‖

         Well, okay. He obviously didn‘t like probing questions, a response that triggered

an urge in her to probe even further. ―What about this van? Did you steal it from a

museum?‖

         ―My first and only vehicle. Bought it used in 1986. The van‘s a ‗79.‖ He squinted

at the odometer. ―It‘s got 448,000 miles on it. This week it should pass the half million

mark.‖

         Toli had no idea an engine could last that long. ―That‘s a lot of miles. Think we‘ll

make it to where we‘re going?‖

         He smiled, flung his arm over the steering wheel, and told her he wanted to see


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


how long he could keep his van running. He said that he liked taking care of it. When it

needed maintenance, he did it himself. ―In fact, I just replaced the solenoid on the starter

last week.‖ He patted the dashboard with his hand, as if patting an old dog. ―Since I‘ve

owned it, it‘s never once been to a mechanic.‖

          Toli imagined that if the van had a tail it would have wagged. ―That‘s

impressive,‖ she remarked, ―and unusual.‖

          He shrugged his shoulders. ―Nowadays everyone is obsessed with having new

things, with having the latest this or that. I prefer to take care of what I already have and

make it last.‖

          True, she thought. People liked having new things. She was no different. She

loved her new 700 series BMW that her father had bought for her after she‘d gotten the

job at NBC. She loved her new flat screen 40 inch TV at home; she loved to buy new

clothes . . .

          ―New is nice too,‖ she remarked.

          He nodded. ―I suppose. But when you take care of old things, they become new

again.‖

          Toli said nothing. The smell of the fresh wood and the soft creaking of Jack‘s

leather jacket against the seat every time he shifted had a tranquilizing effect on her. And

the further they drove down the tree-lined highway, the more tranquil things got. With

dusk arriving, Jack flicked on the headlights.

          ―Do you like jazz?‖ he asked.

          ―I like Tony Bennett,‖ she said.

          ―I‘m talking about instrumental jazz.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         He reached under his seat and came up with a black case. He opened it, picked out

a CD, and slipped it into the slot. As they listened to different tracks, he told her whose

session each was and even the dates many of them were recorded.

         ―Open yourself up and let the sounds flow into you,‖ Jack said while sweeping his

hands toward his face, as if the music was the air he breathed.

         Somewhere along the line the music‘s pulsating rhythm melded with the steady

beat of the road, and Toli found herself hearing the soulful sounds through Jack‘s ears.

Wailing saxes, dancing pianos, popping and crashing drums . . . She joined Jack in this

muscial underworld where the players used an unspoken, emotional language that

transcended everyday life. For miles they drove, and just listened.

         As they went ever deeper into the woodlands, Toli found herself wondering why

she and Daniel had never just sat and enjoyed music together, or even taken a ride

through a countryside for the sole purpose of sharing the experience. She decided that

they‘d do just that after their wedding, maybe even traveling down this same road.

         Then something strange happened. While listening to a track called ―Emily,‖ Toli

thought she saw a tear in Jack‘s eye. She wasn‘t sure but was pretty sure. She tried not to

stare.



         The night was dark when they reached their destination to view the Paulding

Light. Jack inched the van up to a large sign next to the road. Gold letters reflected in the

headlights read:

                                    PAULDING LIGHT




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


 THIS IS THE LOCATION FROM WHICH THE FAMOUS PAULDING LIGHT CAN

       BE OBSERVED. LEGEND EXPLAINS ITS PRESENCE AS A RAILROAD

 BRAKEMAN‘S GHOST, DESTINED TO REMAIN FOREVER AT THE SIGHT OF

     HIS UNTIMELY DEATH. HE CONTINUALLY WAVES HIS LANTERN TO ALL

                                 WHO COME TO VISIT.



        ―That‘s kind of creepy,‖ she said.

        ―Let‘s hope Mr. Paulding comes out tonight.‖

        Jack wheeled the van parallel to the sign and parked on the dark forest

road. Pointing out the windshield he said, ―The light should appear between those

two mountaintops barely above the horizon.‖ There wasn‘t a road lamp or another

car in sight.

        When he killed the headlights, everything turned black, as though a tarp had been

thrown over them. That‘s when Toli felt something touch her leg and realized it was

Jack‘s hand.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                           TEN




      The words Daniel had said earlier suddenly roared in Toli‘s ears: ―Is this man

dangerous?‖ In truth she really didn‘t know ―this man‖ at all. What if he brought her to

this remote corner of nowhere to. . . ?

       She quickly plunged her hand into her purse, found the cylinder of mace, and

yanked it out.

       ―Just getting the flashlight,‖ Jack said, gently pushing her leg out of the path to

the glove box.

       Before Toli could react, he excavated the flashlight and snapped it on. There she

sat with the mace pointed at him.

       ―Whoa!‖ He jumped back in his seat.

       She was immediately overcome with both embarrassment and anger. She shoved

the mace back in her purse. ―I shouldn‘t have come here with you,‖ she crackled.

       After the briefest moment of recovery he began laughing.

       ―Glad to entertain you,‖ Toli quipped, yet she couldn‘t help seeing herself from

Jack‘s perspective. She looked damn silly poised to mace-attack him. ―Live in New York

for a while, you‘ll understand.‖

       ―Toli, if I were going to do something to you, I would have done it already. I

brought you here because I like you.‖

       He leaped out and shut the door, leaving her alone in the dark. She wondered how

such a common utterance as ―I like you‖ could instigate the fluttering sensation going on

in her heart. It wasn‘t even as though he‘d said it with any romantic intent. He‘d thrown it


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


out as if he had been commenting on the weather.

       She caught her breath and continued to contemplate Jack. He said he was from

Illinois. When had he moved to Ironwood? Had he always been a carpenter? Had he

attended college? He seemed fairly intelligent. Why wasn‘t he married? Did he not have

a girlfriend? Why not?

       She stepped out and went to the back where he yanked two lawn chairs from

inside the van, a six-pack of beer, the video camera, and a tripod. ―Here, hold this,‖ he

said, handing her the flashlight.

       She took the light, and he banged the doors shut. Holding the beer and tripod, he

climbed the ladder affixed to the van. He then reached down to her. ―Hand me the chairs,

please.‖

       ―We‘re going to sit on the roof?‖

       ―Don‘t worry. It‘s reinforced with steel.‖

       Somehow the roof‘s strength was the last of Toli‘s worries. From this angle,

directing the flashlight up at him, she thought that he looked like Errol Flynn without the

mustache. Flynn was her father‘s favorite actor. Recently he‘d made her watch The Sun

Also Rises on VHS. Dad was the only one she knew who still watched VHS movies. But

Jack wasn‘t as handsome as Errol Flynn. He wasn‘t as handsome as Daniel either.

       She handed him the lawn chairs and then climbed the ladder onto the roof.

       Jack placed the chairs side by side and set the tripod in front of them, pointing the

camera to where he said the Paulding Light would appear in the sky. Toli sat down while

he eased into the chair next to her, quietly like a black shadow of the night. He twisted off

the caps of two beer bottles and handed her one.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―You can relax now,‖ he said.

       ―I am relaxed.‖

       ―Is that why your leg‘s bouncing like a jack rabbit?‖

       She slapped her hand on her own thigh to stop the bouncing leg.

       He smiled at her and tipped his beer. ―To starry nights in far-off places.‖

       He could stop a herd of stampeding buffalo with that smile, she thought. She

returned the gesture, titled her bottle toward him and took a pull on the cold beer.

       A gentle wind rustled the trees, and an earthy scent filled the air, alive and

invigorating. She inhaled deeply and gazed up at the night sky. A web of stars hung

overhead like shimmering snow crystals, frozen high above in the endless black void.

The monochrome moon shinned down on them so bright that Toli could almost feel its

warmth.

       ―Wonder what the moon would say if it could talk,‖ Jack said, gazing upward.

       ―Talk?‖

        ―Imagine what it‘s seen. Thousands of years ago an ancient Roman or Egyptian

sat under this very same moon. Through the ages billions of people have lived under it.

I‘d bet it has some stories.‖

       ―What kind of stories?‖

       ―Moon stories,‖ he said.

       He leaned back. She leaned forward. ―Such as?‖

       He gazed at her while looking inward for several moments. She wanted to turn

away but found herself unable to. ―Well,‖ he said, ―there‘s one about Indus the Roman

slave and Venus the wine dealer‘s daughter. Each morning Indus would secretly watch


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Venus pick grapes from the vines in the Tuscan fields. And every afternoon he‘d watch

the grape juice flow between her toes as she tread them to make wine—golden red juice,

the same color as her lips. Then one night Indus summoned the courage to approach

Venus and tell her how, though he was but a slave, he had fallen in love with her. But

when he entered her room uninvited, his presence startled her, and she screamed. Her

father heard the scream and thought that Venus had been attacked. He stabbed Indus with

a knife.‖

       ―Stabbed him? Did Indus die?‖

       ―He did.‖

       Toli pursed her lips. ―That‘s a sad story, Jack.‖

       He shrugged. ―Not all moon stories have happy endings.‖ He took a hit of beer,

looked skyward again, and said, ―But this one does because Indus died a happy man.

Before taking his last breath he apologized to Venus for frightening her and told her that

dying was not a bad price to pay for getting close to her, if only for a few precious

moments.‖

       She contemplated his words.

       ―Maybe the moon has better stories,‖ Jack said.

       Suddenly Toli noticed a glow appear on the horizon between the mountains, an

undulating sphere that cast slivers of light out from its center into the darkness. ―Look!‖

She pointed.

       Jack jumped up, put his eye to the video camera, and made some adjustments.

The red RECORD light flashed on. ―See through here,‖ he said.

       He backed away, allowing her to step up to the camera. The Paulding Light


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


looked much larger on the viewer. Then it started to expand even more. It grew so

immense that Toli had to squint because of its brightness. It became a giant white crystal,

dancing and twisting, tossing out shafts of pink-edged light into the night sky. It

disappeared momentarily and then reappeared, illuminating the entire screen.

        She cupped her hands over her mouth. The Paulding Light was utterly amazing.

She had no idea it would be like this. Where did it come from?

        Jack moved closer to share the screen. His body leaned against hers. She flinched,

knocking the camera slightly off kilter with her hand. His arm came over her shoulder to

set it straight. When his chest fell against her back, she could feel his warmth in the cool

night air. She became still, as if a paralyzing spell had been cast over her. It felt so right:

his body touching hers under the Ironwood moon. The feeling seemed to combine with

the mysterious light winking on the screen to suggest she do something she shouldn‘t.

        She ducked under his arm to get away but almost stepped off the van‘s roof. Jack

reeled her in. Toli pushed herself back from him, but not as quickly as she should have.

The feeling of being in his arms—for those precious few seconds—and the vision of his

face just inches from hers—she knew even then—would stay with her for a long, long

time. ―I think I‘ve seen enough,‖ she said.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                         ELEVEN



Sunday

       That night Toli had some bizarre dreams. While they were watching the Paulding

Light, Jack had kissed her slowly and softly in the darkness. He was Indus and she

Venus. Then a deer appeared out of nowhere and started talking to them. Suddenly Jack

turned into Daniel, and she felt better. When she awoke, she thought that maybe all the

fresh air had brought it on. She‘d heard that lots of fresh air could cause strange dreams.

Her New York brain wasn‘t used to this Upper Peninsula air.

       Getting in the shower, her thoughts drifted back to her conversation with Melinda

late at night after Jack had dropped her off at her car. Melinda had said that the doctors

had found a major blood clot in one of her father‘s arteries. An angioplasty was

performed, and then a stent was placed in the artery to keep it open. Melinda had said that

her father would need bypass surgery when he stabilized.

       Toli hadn‘t asked whether the sisters might make it back to Ironwood for the

wedding. There‘d be time to discuss that later. She was just grateful that their father was

going to be okay. She‘d told Melinda she loved her and said goodnight.

       Stepping out of the shower, Toli toweled off in front of the mirror. Seeing her

reflection, she remembered how Jack had looked at her in the bowling alley. She‘d felt

naked then too but in a different way. She‘d felt stripped of any social veneer. With just a

casual glance he had seemed to connect with her on a deeper level. Not with her body,

nor her clothes, but her. She didn‘t feel like a sexual object, as she often did when men

stared at her. Rather, she‘d felt like a work of art to be admired on its own terms without


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


his having to own her. She knew that this was why, at least in part, she had said ―yes‖ to

him last night while driving back from seeing the Paulding Light, after he had again told

her about the Trap Hills, the best place in the Upper Peninsula to get pictures of the

landscape, pictures that could be used to help tell the story of Ironwood for her wedding

show. ―I wouldn‘t mind seeing the Trap Hills,‖ she had told him.

       She needed pictures, but she also needed to understand why she was so drawn to

him. What bothered her wasn‘t her feelings for Jack so much as her being incapable of

controlling them.

       She ran the blow dryer down her body and watched beads of water evaporate on

her breasts. She thought about their being cut open and implants stuffed under her skin.

She‘d never imagined this before. Then she saw herself through Jack‘s eyes and

wondered why on earth she would want to have breast implants at all.

       The phone rang, startling her. She wrapped the towel around her waist and went

into the other room. ―H-e-l-l-o,‖ she answered.

       ―Good morning. It‘s 7:30 sharp.‖

       Jack playfully emphasized the word ―sharp.‖ Last night he had said he‘d pick her

up sometime between 7:00 and 8:00, but she had made him nail down a specific time.

She didn‘t tolerate ambiguity when it came to appointments.

       ―Would you like a cup of coffee?‖ he asked.

       Did he always sound so calm? ―Cream, no sugar. I‘ll be there in a minute.‖

       She hung up.

       Putting on her bra and panties, she reminded herself that she was striving to

achieve career fame and fortune. She was an ambitious television personality, even


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


somewhat renowned outside the little town of Ironwood. Jack, on the other hand, was a

carpenter who lived in the back room of a house, drove a 1979 van, and repaired clowns

for a living. My God, if her father knew she had any feelings for this man at all he‘d fetch

a shotgun! Actually he‘d hire someone else to do the dirty work. At least she hadn‘t lost

her sense of humor.

       She wriggled into her jeans and yanked her gray wool sweater over her head. She

then pulled on her cowboy boots. Jack had told her to wear boots if she had them because

there might be snakes where they were going.

       When she arrived in the lobby, he was waiting for her with two Styrofoam cups.

―Hi,‖ he said, and handed her one.

       ―Good morning.‖

       ―You‘ll have to tear a hole in the plastic lid with your teeth to drink it on the road.

Do you want me to do it for you?‖

       ―No, Jack. I think I can manage. Thank you.‖

       They headed outside, where the morning mist wound around the willow trees in

front of the lodge. Her cheeks tingled against the cold. She was glad she dressed warmly.

       Jack opened the passenger door for her, then walked around to the driver‘s side

and fell in behind the wheel. He set his cup gingerly into the center console.

       ―Hungry?‖ he asked.

       ―I am.‖

       ―We‘ll grab something along the way.‖

       While tearing into the plastic lid with her teeth, Toli secretly shifted her gaze to

him. What exactly was it about him?


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       As usual he wore all black, right down to his leather boots, which creaked softly

as he worked the pedals. He was a throwback to an earlier time, she thought, a time when

men were lone voyagers, not programmed to follow someone else‘s course. His boyishly

disheveled hair and tanned skin offered some allure, but his real appeal, she was starting

to see more clearly, was his lack of interest in himself. He didn‘t seem to give a hoot

about what anyone thought of him. He projected a separateness from others that

announced he would never be trapped by anyone else‘s idea of how he should be. She

could picture him climbing Mount Everest, or achieving some equally dramatic feat, and

feeling no need tell a soul about it. At the same time something contrasted sharply with

this independence, something she got a glimpse of yesterday—a tinge of sadness not in

his eyes but in the folds beneath them. It wasn‘t unbecoming. In truth, it made him even

more appealing. It hinted that a void existed amid all that independence, a need for

something more meaningful than his own autonomy.

       He caught her staring at him. She flinched, but he grinned as if to say, ―I know

what you‘re thinking.‖ Damn him. She faced frontward to see a bear in the road.

       When Jack slammed on the brakes to avoid it, Toli lurched forward. His arm shot

across her body, preventing her from crashing into the dashboard but knocking the lid off

her cup. A wave of hot coffee sloshed onto her lap.

       Alerted by the screeching tires, the bear spun on its paws and reared up on its hind

feet before dropping to all fours again. It growled so loud the van's closed windows

rattled. It gave them a sinister look then bounded off into the bush at the side of the road,

but the bear was the least of Toli‘s worries.

       Steam billowed up from her jeans like smoke. Her skin was on fire! Instinctively


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


she flung open the van door, jumped outside, and slammed it shut. Making certain that

her lower half wasn‘t visible to Jack, she turned her back, kicked off her boots, and

yanked down her jeans. Christ, her panties were soaked too! She slid them down her bare

legs and over her stocking feet. The brisk air instantly offered relief to her scorched skin,

but she needed to cover up quickly.

       Turning on her heel, she peeked into the van. Jack wasn‘t there.

       ―Jack, where are you?‖

       ―Are you okay?‖ His voice came from behind her. She spun around, making very

certain she held her wet pants in front of her as a shield.

       He thrust a blanket at her, or at least she assumed it was a blanket. She barely saw

it because her eyes were locked with his.

       ―Are you okay?‖ he asked again.

       ―I‘ll live. I think.‖

       ―Better cover yourself with this before you lure that bear back in.‖ He held out the

blanket.

       Now came the embarrassment. Feeling a blush rise to her cheeks, she tore her

gaze from him, snatched the blanket, and wrapped it around her waist. He then wiped the

coffee off the seat with a varnish-stained towel and walked around to the driver‘s side.

When Toli slipped back into the van, Jack was smiling.

       ―That wasn‘t funny,‖ she said.

       ―Certainly not.‖

       ―I have to get some dry pants in my room.‖

       He nodded.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                  jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Before they made it back to Black River Lodge, they both were laughing so hard

that Toli‘s stomach hurt.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                         TWELVE




       In her room Toli wondered about the spontaneous laughing jags. Yesterday in his

workshop she and Jack had burst into a roaring fit about that stupid clown. Today it was

the bear incident. What was so funny?

       In the van Jack had given her an ―old mountain herb‖ called Mehandhi to rub on

her scalded skin. Relieved that it took the sting out, she yanked on a pair of loose-fitting

jeans and returned to the van.

       ―Better?‖ he asked.

       ―Much.‖

       The next planned stop was a restaurant Jack had in mind, but as they approached

downtown Toli spotted something on her to-do list: Hiawatha, the world‘s tallest Indian.

She‘d read online that the city had built Hiawatha to attract tourists from the highway in

hopes that they‘d venture into nearby Ironwood after visiting it.

       She pointed. ―I need to get shots of this. Can we stop for a moment?‖

       Jack pulled to the curb at the edge of Hiawatha Park, and they got out. He stood

nearby and watched as she made her way around the fifty-foot statue. Capturing

Hiawatha from different angles, Toli wondered why the simple act of his watching her

could make her feel so special.

       After she was done, they drove through downtown. At a stoplight she spotted

Maggie‘s restaurant, the same cute place she‘d noticed two days earlier when she and the

sisters had first entered Ironwood. Condensation had gathered over a large picture

window, making the inside look warm and inviting. ―Are we stopping here to eat?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Jack waved it off. ―I‘ve got another place in mind.‖

       ―Oh, come on. It looks so charming. I‘m famished.‖

       ―Fine, but don‘t say I didn‘t warn you.‖ He pulled to the curb and parked.

       Toli had no idea what his problem was with Maggie‘s. As soon as she stepped

through the rustic door, she was in love. With its wooden chairs and tables and brick

interior, it felt as though she were in a cozy northwoods restaurant somewhere in old

Germany, perhaps not far from Hansel and Gretel‘s home. She liked Maggie too, a

lumbering, tall woman with bright blue eyes who, upon greeting her, said: ―Geez-o-pete.

You‘re the woman from AM America!‖

       ―It‘s about time someone recognized me around here,‖ Toli said. She extended

her hand toward Maggie but got a bear hug instead.

       ―Welcome to Ironwood.‖ Maggie then held Toli at arm‘s length. ―You‘re even

more beautiful in person than on the tube!‖

       ―Why, thanks.‖

       ―What‘s she doing with you, Jack?‖

       ―I‘m taking her up to the Trap Hills.‖

       ―I‘m going to take photographs for the show,‖ Toli quickly clarified.

       ―I see then. Well, you‘ll get some dern good shots on the hills.‖ Maggie

intertwined her arm with Toli‘s. ―Come on. I got some fresh blueberry and banana

griddle cakes on the roaster that you‘re gonna love!‖

       Maggie escorted Toli away from the entrance toward three men seated at the

counter. A television was attached to the wall behind them. Toli glanced at it to see Elton

Peters and Sarah Downs, the hosts of AM America, seated in the studio talking to a guest.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Gentlemen,‖ said Maggie, ―this is the woman we saw on the AM America show

last week. Remember?‖

       One of the men was dressed in black with a cleric‘s collar. His eyes were a soft

brown, and he had a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. ―Welcome to Ironwood,

Toli,‖ he said. ―That‘s a lovely name.‖

       ―Thank y—,‖ Toli started to reply.

       ―What‘s she doing with you, Jack?‖ a younger man interrupted.

       Jack sighed. ―I‘m taking her to the Trap Hills to get pictures, Ralph.‖

       Ralph wore a blue work shirt with a name patch. The man next to him was

dressed similarly. His patch identified him as Red.

       ―Nice to meet you, Ralph and Red,‖ said Toli.

       ―Sit anywhere you like,‖ boomed Maggie. ―I‘ll get ya some coffee.‖

       Jack pulled out a chair for Toli at the nearest table. Maggie arrived soon enough

with a pot and filled their cups.

       ―Don‘t spill any on her lap,‖ Jack remarked.

       ―Wouldn‘t dream of it,‖ Maggie said. ―Okay. The boys want to know how you

two met.‖

       ―The boys want to know, huh?‖ asked Jack.

       ―Yooper.‖

       ―Met in the bowling alley,‖ he said nonchalantly.

       ―Figures.‖ Maggie turned to Toli. ―He spends so much time there rumor is the

alley‘s gonna start charging him rent.‖

       ―They should charge him for harassing the customers.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Harassing?‖

       ―Giving unwanted advice about the female anatomy.‖

       Maggie frowned.

       ―That didn‘t come out sounding right,‖ Toli added.

       Then Maggie‘s eyes suddenly lit up as if she understood. ―Well, anatomy is a

subject Jack certainly knows something abo—.‖

       ―I‘m starving,‖ Jack interrupted. ―Give me a fruit plate. How about you, Toli?‖

       ―I‘ll have some of those blueberry and banana griddle cakes. And two eggs,

sunny-side up. Slice of ham. And an English muffin. With real butter, please.‖

       Maggie wrote it down and walked away.

       ―Jack?‖

       ―Yes.‖

       ―I‘m confused about ‗Yooper.‘ I know it means a person who lives on the Upper

Peninsula, but I hear people using it in other ways.‖

       He nodded. ―It could mean a lot of different things. If someone calls you a

‗Yooper‘ in a derogatory tone, he might mean you‘re an idiot, as in ‗You Yooper.‘ Or it

could mean, like, ‗That‘s cool,‘ as in ‗That‘s yooper, man.‘ Or it can be used the way

Maggie just used it, as a substitute for ‗Yes‘ or ‗Yep.‘ Instead of saying ‗Yepper,‘ you

say ‗Yooper.‘ Depends on the context and inflection.‖

       Toli yanked out her time-management book from her purse and wrote it down.

       ―And then there‘s ‗You might be a Yooper if‘ jokes,‖ he added with a grin.

       She looked at him inquisitively.

       ―‗You might be a Yooper if your snowmobile cost more than your house.‘‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        She laughed and wrote it down. ―More.‖

        He gazed at the ceiling. ―Let‘s see. ‗You might be a Yooper if you think the

expression ―to open a can of worms‖ actually means to go fishing.‘ Or ‗You might be a

Yooper if you look up to people from Wisconsin.‘‖

        Laughing, she transcribed every word.

        His eyes returned to her. ―‗How many Yoopers does it take to screw in a light

bulb?‘‖

        ―How many?‖

        ―‗None. Yoopers don‘t have electricity.‘‖

        ―That‘s sad.‖

        ―‗You might be a Yooper if a new car means a 1972 Gremlin.‘‖ He sipped his

coffee. ―In my case it would be a 79 Ford van.‖

        Toli suddenly felt something touch the inside of her thigh. She peered under the

table to see a dog sniffing her.

        Jack poked his head under as well. ―Hello, Benny.‖

        The scraggly mutt pranced into the open with its tail wagging so hard Toli thought

it might fly off.

        Jack pet him. ―Don‘t worry. He won‘t bite.‖

        Benny licked Toli‘s hand. Weren’t there laws against animals in food

establishments?

        Maggie returned. ―Where are your manners, Benny?‖ She poked the dog‘s ribs

with her foot and set the plates on the table. ―He has to make sure everyone notices him.‖

        ―I see,‖ Toli said, wiping her hand with a napkin.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Maggie took Benny by the collar and led him away.

        ―‗You might be a Yooper if the greeter in your favorite restaurant is a dog,‘‖ Jack

deadpanned.‖ I‘ll stop now,‖ he said and took a slice of pineapple in his mouth.

        Toli thought about washing her hands but was too hungry. Besides, Benny only

licked the back of one hand. She cut her eggs into four perfect triangles and ate one

before slicing her pancakes into six triangles, three levels high, and ingesting one

segment. Her mouth still full, she slipped in a corner of ham. She became aware of Jack

staring at her.

        ―What?‖ she grunted, the word muffled in her ballooned cheeks.

        He popped a cantaloupe cube into his mouth. ―It‘s amazing that you can eat so

much and be so thin.‖

        ―It‘s genetics, My father is six-foot-two and weighs 175 pounds. I‘m told that my

mother weighed 115 pounds soaking wet. I couldn‘t gain weight if I tried.‖

        ―You were told?‖

        ―My mother died when I was a baby. I don‘t remember her.‖

        ―Wait till you drop a couple of rug rats and put on eighty pounds.‖

        The voice had come from the booth behind them. Toli craned her neck to see a

rather plump woman sitting there with two other women, all three gawking at her.

        ―Genetics don‘t mean nothing when the kiddies arrive. The weight don‘t come off

so easily after that.‖

        ―Thank you for that piece of wisdom,‖ Toli told the woman. ―Thank you.‖ She

turned back to Jack and leaned toward him. ―Do you believe that?‖ she asked.

        ―How‘zi goin‘, Jack?‖ Toli heard the woman behind her say. ―Who‘s your


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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


friend?‖

         ―Hi, Claire,‖ Jack replied. ―She‘s visiting from out of town.‖ Turning back to

Toli, he said, ―We‘re all one big happy family up here in the UP. Do you plan on having

kids?‖

         ―Eventually.‖

         ―I‘m sure you‘ll go back to your normal weight. Most women would die for that

ability.‖

         ―I hope so because if I have to diet I‘ll be in big trouble.‖

         ―No. Really?‖

         They laughed and kept laughing. In fact, it wasn‘t even 9:00 yet, and they‘d

laughed so much already today that Toli‘s face hurt. What she was howling about now

she wasn‘t even sure. The laughter was more than just laughter. It was an interchange of

something intimate, reminiscent of two people‘s tickling each other under the covers.

Suddenly they both stopped, as if they had stepped outside of themselves and seen how

silly they looked. What is that?

         ―Excuse me.‖

         An old man and his wife had walked up to them. The man set his bony hands on

their table and leaned toward them. ―The wife and I were watching you two, and we

wanted to let you know that it‘s such a pleasure seeing two people in love. You look so

happy together. We just wanted to tell you that.‖

         ―You remind us of us when we were younger,‖ his wife chimed in with a wide

grin. ―We‘ve been married for fifty-two years.‖

         Toli was incapable of responding. Apparently Jack was too. The couple thanked


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


them again, and then, hand in hand and hunched over, they shuffled away.

        Without another word Toli and Jack finished their breakfast, paid their bill at the

counter, and bid farewell to Maggie and the others. With another gooey tongue-lapping

of her fingers, Benny said goodbye too. At the exit they ran into a rather attractive blond

woman who was entering. ―Hi Jack,‖ she said in what sounded to Toli like a seductive

tone.

        ―Jessie,‖ he replied softly.

        Toli felt something gnaw at her insides as she followed Jack through the vapor

trail of Jessie‘s cheap perfume. The woman had obviously had a relationship with him at

some time. An ex-girlfriend? Weekend lover?

        Toli made very sure her emotions didn‘t show. She had no right to feel what she

was feeling.

        They got into Jack‘s van. He started it up and grinned at her. ―I warned you about

eating here,‖ he said.

        Maybe next time she would listen.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        THIRTEEN



       At the Trap Hills Jack parked his van just off Norwich Road. They hiked a mile

and a half on a trail up a slight incline to the ridge overlooking the valley he wanted Toli

to view. For miles below the autumn-hued trees undulated like waves on a wind-blown

sea.

        ―Oh,‖ she gasped, patting her heart. ―It‘s gorgeous.‖

       Her forest-green eyes widened, and her face glowed, just as it had last

night when she‘d first bit into the pasty. It was an expression of enchantment that

Jack wished he saw more of in this world.

       Toli retrieved her camera from her purse and started taking pictures of the

rolling hills. With the wind sweeping back her hair, he enjoyed watching her

immerse herself in the act.

       He secretly liked to observe people become so absorbed in the moment

that they utterly lost themselves, loved to see their social masks evaporate and

their inner selves emerge in an expression of joy, awe, or even fear—anything but

the banality of their everyday personas. That was why he loved jazz music. Not

watered down smooth jazz, but the jazz of Coltrane, Bird, Monk, Jamal, and

others musicians who would become so engrossed in their performances the

world outside their music would melt away. This inspired him, witnessing the act

of musicians, of anyone, being that at one with their actions.

       Down on one knee, Toli perched an elbow on her leg to steady her hands.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       As with every young boy, there were times in his youth where Jack would watch

porn with his friends. While the other boy‘s attention would be riveted on the obvious

body parts, Jack would be mesmerized by the expression on the woman‘s face, and the

honesty of her voice lost in the act. To him, the uncensored outpouring of raw emotion

was pleasurable, like jazz music. He knew his enjoyment of such things made him

different. He‘d known he was different for some time now. He didn‘t expect others to

understand him anymore. Didn‘t care.

       After several shots she inspected her work. ―They‘re blurry,‖ she announced.

―With all this wind I need a tripod.‖

       If there was one thing Jack had, it was steady hands, but rather than offering to

take pictures for her he had another idea. He fell to all fours on the ground.

       ―How about a quadpod?‖

       She looked down at him, frowning.

       ―You want good shots, don‘t you?‖

       ―Yes, but. . . .‖

       ―Then rest your camera on my back and shoot.‖

       Toli bit her lip, hesitated for a moment, but then kneeled next to him.

       At first he could feel only the camera and a forearm on his back. She was

obviously being cautious about making too much contact. But as she started taking shots

and shifted positions, her upper body leaned on him, and he could feel her lungs work

against his muscles.

       The scent of her hair was like jasmine in bloom. A gust of wind rustled some

strands, and they played softly against his neck, tickling him; yet he didn‘t give up his


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


position, a ridiculous position, really.

          Movement got his attention in the distance. A whitetail deer stood among the

trees, head down while grazing.

          ―Keep still,‖ he whispered. ―Directly in front of us.‖

          He felt her body shift against his back. Spotting the animal, she gasped.

          Alerted by the sound, the buck lifted his princely rack of antlers and scanned his

surroundings. A doe and fawn pranced out of the woods and joined him. The doe suckled

the fawn as she fed on the grass.

          Toli took pictures. ―They‘re magnificent,‖ she said. The buck‘s black eyes spotted

them, and the family bounded off into the woods.

          She stood up, her eyes aglow. She scrolled through the pictures. Jack rose to his

feet and inched up next to her. Toli had gotten one good shot of the buck and two of the

family, which she gazed at affectionately.

          ―Nice,‖ he said. ―Can I see the other pictures?‖

          She showed him the shots of the trees she‘d taken: black cherry, hemlock, red

maple, and his favorite, birch. She was good with a camera.

          She flipped through the other images, tapping the scroll button with a perfectly

manicured nail. Her fingers were pink from the cold. She wasn‘t used to the Ironwood

climate. He thought about warming her fingers by holding them in his hand, but he

didn‘t.

          She commented on this picture or that, pointing with her finger and joking with

him. She said he had a future as a human quadpod, but the jokes were laced with tension.

He could tell she didn‘t like him standing so close. She stepped away from him. ―Can you


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


show me other places?‖ she asked.

       Of course he could, but what he really should do was to get her away from him.

       ―I‘d like to get some close shots of other trees,‖ she said.

       The wind started to kick up, and darker clouds were rolling in.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       FOURTEEN



        Toli walked by Jack‘s side down a powdery orange, iron-ore path into the valley.

The sky cast an eerie pall over the woodland. He pointed out different trees, and she took

pictures, her camera‘s flash illuminating each target bright white.

        ―Musclewood, white ash, choked cherry.‖ Jack reeled them off. ―And look at that

flaming orange sugar maple.‖ Each tree's name vibrated reverently in his throat, making

the woody inhabitants sound more like movie stars than trees. And with every utterance

they began to take on a personality of their own.

        ―There‘s an ironwood,‖ he said, and began marching toward it.

        It hadn‘t even occurred to Toli that there was such a tree. Like a cheerleader she

danced up behind Jack on the path toward the ironwood. He suddenly stopped mid-step,

resulting in a collision.

        With her body against his, Jack snaked his arm around her waist and held her in

position. ―Careful.‖ He pointed with his free arm at the green and red-leafed plants

lapping on the path. ―Poison ivy.‖

        Toli had had a run-in with poison ivy only once in her life. Her thigh had swollen

to the size of a ham hock, and she‘d been up all night itching. Just the thought made her

shudder. Being pressed up against Jack made her shudder even more. Fortunately he

released her soon enough. Putting space between them, she gingerly followed him around

the poisonous plant.

        With its branches bare the ironwood tree was a scraggly-looking thing.

        ―Probably been here for a hundred years,‖ Jack said, and began to stroke its


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


smooth gray trunk with his hand. The sound of his fleshy palm rubbing the bark seemed

so comforting that Toli half expected the tree to groan with delight. Jack had artist‘s

hands with long, expressive fingers that, no doubt, had sparked the imagination of a few

women over the years, certainly the woman they‘d run into back at the restaurant.

       ―Strongest wood in the forest.‖ He patted the tree.

       ―That‘s obviously why they call it ironwood,‖ Toli said.

       Her tone had a sarcastic edge that she didn‘t intend. She sounded like a smitten,

jealous teenager who had not yet mastered the art of flirting. Stupid things could come

from such a mouth––a mouth not yet in sync with her brain, especially the left side.

       Stepping back from the tree, he said, ―Why don‘t you hug it?‖

       ―What?‖

       ―The tree.‖

       ―Oh please, Jack. You‘re asking me to hug the tree?‖

       He pushed a dangling lock back into his hairline. ―It will help you relax.‖

       ―Would you stop telling me that I need to relax?‖

       ―Like this,‖ he said and hugged the ironwood tree.

       Well, this should kill any fantasy I have about him, she thought, yet it didn‘t.

What should have seemed a rather silly act struck her as being not only masculine but

also sensual. Seeing Jack‘s arms wrapped around the tree triggered some backwoods,

primordial instinct in her that she‘d never felt before in her life. An earthy, tingling

sensation started somewhere near her heart and traveled south of her belly, making her

instantly wet.

       He released the tree, turned to her, and said in a deep, relaxed voice, ―I‘ll hold


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


your camera.‖

        ―I‘m not going to hug that tree.‖

        ―It‘ll hug you back.‖

        ―Trees don‘t hug.‖

        ―Earlier you said that you wanted—and I believe this is a quote—‗the Ironwood

experience.‘ Am I right?‖

        He had a point. ―Okay, but I‘m sure it won‘t hug me back.‖

        ―A million dollars says it will.‖ He held out his arm.

        Toli gripped his hand, pumped it once, and quickly let go. ―I will collect,‖ she

assured him. She handed him her camera and wrapped her arms around the tree for a

second. ―You owe me a million dollars.‖

        His hand rubbed the tree again. ―You have to give it a minute to warm up to you,

to allow the tree‘s energy to flow into you.‖

        He stepped aside. ―And don‘t scratch your cheek on the bark,‖ he warned.

        Toli stretched her arms clear around the tree‘s trunk. Of course it didn‘t hug back,

at least not at first. Nevertheless, she held on for a while. She felt its bulging roots

beneath her feet and smelled its woody scent. Seconds clicked slowly by. Ho hum.

        She perceived a trickle of warmth radiating into her body, which she figured was

just her imagination, yet it didn‘t stop. She stood as still as she could. It felt as if she were

hugging a person who liked being held. It was insanely, sublimely, wonderfully intimate,

and she couldn‘t believe she was experiencing it.

        She opened her eyes to see Jack smiling behind the camera. She let go and said,

―The tree didn‘t hug me back. You owe me a million bucks.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         Jack was examining the camera‘s display. ―I don‘t think so. The proof‘s right

here.‖

         Toli took the camera from him. Not only did she look happy to be hugging the

ironwood tree, but she also looked turned on.

         ―I think it was good for the tree too,‖ he remarked. ―I‘ll take cash.‖

         Just then Toli heard the crack of a gunshot. Jack swung around toward the

sound‘s direction. Another blast followed.

         ―Get down,‖ he barked, pulling her to the ground. Flat on their bellies, his arm

looped around her waist, he hauled his body half on top to protect her. ―Damn hunters,‖

he hissed.

         ―They sounded so close,‖ Toli whispered.

         Without a word, Jack rose to his knees and started crawling in the direction of the

gunshots. She followed him until they reached a cluster of foliage at the edge of a

clearing.

         Toli gasped. About thirty feet away two men wearing army-green camouflage

knelt over a fallen deer. Their rifles lay on the ground behind them.

         She could hear Jack‘s breathing accelerate. ―They come up here from the South.

Break the law.‖

         Jack grabbed a branch lying on the ground. ―Wait here,‖ he said, and before Toli

could respond he jumped to his feet and stormed toward the men. ―Hey!‖ he shouted.

―Hunting is off limits in these woods.‖

         On their knees the men turned from the deer and looked at him.

         ―You could have killed someone,‖ Jack said in a cold, metallic tone.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        The men showed no reaction.

        ―We were just over there.‖ Jack said. ―You could have shot this woman.‖

        As Toli watched Jack point at her the silliest image flashed in her mind. The way

he stood with his feet planted on the ground, towering above the men with that big stick,

conjured up a picture of a knight protecting his princess. The hunters obviously didn‘t see

it that way.

        ―Alright, alright,‖ the bearded one grumbled. ―Cool your jets, man. No one was

hurt.‖ He turned to the other hunter. ―And we got us a fine fucking buck!‖ They slapped

their hands together again.

        ―You‘re not getting it,‖ Jack said, his tone darkening.

        ―I‘m getting it,‖ the bearded one shot back. ―I‘m getting that you need to relax,

man. No one was hurt. Take a pill.‖

        With one blindingly swift swing Jack batted both men in the face with the tree

limb. Then he dropped it, scooped up one of the rifles from the ground, and trained the

weapon on him.

        ―What the fuck are you doing, man?‖ The bearded one clutched his forehead.

Blood oozed between his fingers.

        Toli couldn‘t believe her eyes. She ran into the clearing. ―Yes, Jack, what are you

doing?‖

        Jack‘s gaze remained riveted on the men. ―Deer hunting is illegal in these

woods,‖ he repeated. He didn‘t raise his voice, yet its intimidating tone sent an icy shiver

even through Toli.

        ―Fucking asshole,‖ the bloodied one barked.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         Jack‘s eyes shot from the hunters to the deer. Blood poured from the hole in its

neck where the bullet had entered. Its spastic breaths made the grass in front of its nose

flicker back and forth. Then Jack‘s eyes slowly swiveled back to the hunters.

         ―You could have hurt this woman,‖ he announced for a second time.

         ―Bastard,‖ said one under his breath.

         In a movement so fast that Toli could barely register it, the heel of Jack‘s boot

met the hunter‘s face, launching him backwards. Blood gushed, instantly soaking his

beard.

         ―Please! Just settle down,‖ the other man pleaded, shielding his face with his

hands.

         ―Up!‖ Jack ordered the men. They staggered to their feet. His jaw hugging the

rifle‘s butt, Jack told Toli to pick up the other weapon.

         She hated guns. Hated them.

         ―Pick it up.‖

         ―But. . . .‖

         ―Pick. Up. The. Rifle.‖

         She lifted the weapon off the ground and held it as if it were a poisonous snake.

         ―Now take off your pants,‖ Jack ordered.

         ―What?‖ said Toli.

         ―Not you. Them.‖

         ―I know not me. Why are you telling them to take their pants off?‖

         ―Don't worry––‖

         ―That's a strange request,‖ Jack‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―It's not a request.‖

       The clean-shaven hunter started to cry.

       ―Pants off!‖ Jack barked.

       The men complied.

       ―Underwear too.‖

       Toli covered her eyes.

       ―Get outta here,‖ he ordered. ―If I see you again, you don‘t want to know what I‘ll

do to you.‖

       ―That Browning cost $1,400,‖ Toli heard one hunter say. Then came the ominous

cocking of the rifle.

       ―We‘re going. We‘re going!‖

       Toli peeked through her fingers to see two albino behinds jouncing toward the

clearing‘s edge.

       ―Stop!‖ Jack shouted in a commanding typhoon voice. He jerked the rifle to his

right. ―That way.‖

       The hunters scuttled out of the clearing in the direction he‘d indicated.

       Jack then went down on his knees next to the buck and started stroking its head.

―Everything‘s going to be alright, old boy. You sleep now.‖ The buck‘s sputtering

breaths grew even faster.

       ―That a boy. Sleep.‖ Jack‘s voice was soothing and reassuring. So fast had he

changed from tree-hugger to bad-ass enforcer to sympathetic animal-lover that Toli‘s

head spun from witnessing the transformation.

       She knelt next to him. Their hands moved as if they were one, trying to comfort


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


the suffering animal. But it continued to labor with each strained expansion of its lungs,

and its leg to quiver. Toli could almost feel the deer‘s pain. It was a moment for her, a

moment in which mortality became brutally evident. Less than an hour ago they‘d seen

the buck with its family. Now no family. Again she was reminded of the temporary

nature of life. Moments are precious things. No time to go down too many wrong paths.

Of course she'd always known this. Sometimes we need reminding, she thought, but not

this way.

        ―Sleep now,‖ Jack said. He rose to his feet.

        ―Stand back.‖

        Toli did as she was told.

        Jack lifted the rifle and aimed it at the deer. It was the humane thing to do. Toli

couldn‘t watch. She buried her eyes in a palm.

        The sound of the gunshot was horrifying. She uncovered her eyes to see a new red

blotch in the deer‘s head where the bullet had entered. The wheezing had stopped and the

leg was still.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                         FIFTEEN



       Jack buried the hunters‘ rifles and clothes under a mound of foliage. The deer was

another matter. ―I don‘t want to leave the body in the open for the buzzards to feed on,‖

he said. ―He deserves a more dignified burial.‖ Since they had nothing to dig with, they

decided to haul the carcass to a nearby river. Clasping the animal‘s thick antlers, they

dragged it from the clearing over bulging tree roots and through the bush a short distance

to the river, where they wrestled the animal into the water and watched its body drift

downstream. It was the best they could do.

       Staring at the running river, Toli thought about how she‘d always prided herself

on having tolerance of others. When people did strange things, and everyone else could

only chastise them, she was often capable of genuinely understanding, at least

marginally, their actions. But the killing of harmless animals she couldn't understand.

What pleasure could be derived from destroying an innocent and utterly helpless deer?

       Jack kicked a stone on the river‘s edge and began moving upstream. Toli scooted

up beside him. Walking side-by-side, she caught herself looking up at him repeatedly,

expecting him to say something, or even stop mid-step to pull her into an embrace.

They‘d shared a horribly sad moment back there. Grief churned within her and tears

threatened. Intimacy, it seemed, was the only antidote. Jack looked taller than he had

before. He looked stronger too. But he also looked so distraught that every cell in her

body yearned to hold and comfort him, and make love to him. Stop looking at the man,

she ordered herself. For God’s sake, stop looking at him.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       After walking in silence for some time, she finally asked why he‘d made the

hunters take their pants off.

       ―So they‘d think twice about following us. And I was hoping they‘d get

acquainted with that poison-ivy patch we passed earlier.‖

       Toli mustered a smile, but Jack wasn‘t smiling.

       Minutes later they came upon water cascading over a staircase of large flat rocks.

They weren‘t the most spectacular waterfalls Toli had ever seen, yet, like just about

everything she‘d experienced with Jack, they seemed unique—not unlike the trees or

Keith Jarrett‘s music or Jack‘s 1979 van.

       ―You‘ll get some good pictures down there,‖ he said, pointing to a gully.

       Toli followed him down a minor escarpment to the bottom of the falls. He was

right. From this perspective she had a good angle, capturing in one frame the water and

the soupy clouds overhead. She took pictures as Jack stood silently nearby, the man she

scarcely knew. So why exactly am I here with him? Really?

       Was it because she was soon to be tied down for the rest of her life? Was she

seeking her last breath of freedom before marrying Daniel? She gazed at the camera‘s

screen, but instead of seeing the falls she saw Jack bloodying that hunter‘s face. She

knocked away the mental image only to have it boomerang back. Despite loathing

violence, she couldn‘t ignore that watching Jack attack the guy with such precision and

power excited in her ways that she didn‘t want to think about. How he took control—

       She felt raindrops on her face.

       ―Damn,‖ Jack said, looking skyward. ―Let‘s get out of here.‖

       Toli followed him back to the path they‘d descended just minutes earlier. The rain


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


came hard and pummeled the earth, turning the dirt underfoot into slick mud. Soon they

found themselves sliding backwards. They were trapped in the gully.

        Shielding his eyes, Jack looked north and south, searching for shelter. ―This way.‖

He grabbed her hand.

        They sloshed along the stream‘s shore toward the falls. The footing was

precarious over the algae-covered rocks. They progressed only about twenty yards before

she stepped on a slippery rock and lost her footing, wrenching her ankle. Jack tightened

his grip and yanked upward on her arm to stop her fall, but it was too late. She yelped in

pain. Jack spun and slipped his hands under her armpits, hoisting her back up to a vertical

position. Not only was her ankle on fire, but her back! This can’t be happening, she

thought. She‘d worked so hard all her life to keep her back from acting up, and it hadn‘t

for the longest time. Now, unable to stand straight, she desperately clutched his shoulders

for support.

        ―Lean on me,‖ he said, but Toli didn‘t like being this close to him, didn‘t like his

hands under her arms brushing against her breasts. She tried to push him away and almost

fell again.

        ―Stop it!‖ he commanded. ―I‘m just trying to help.‖

        Barely able to stand, she had no choice. She leaned against him, relieving the

pressure on both her ankle and her back.

        ―Hold on,‖ he said, and before she could resist he swept her into his arms. She

gripped her hands around his neck and found herself gazing up at the rain water

streaming down from his clenched jaw. Pain shot up her leg while it dangled in front of

her.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          As Jack carried her along the river‘s edge, her ear fell against his leather jacket.

The drumming rain sounded like a death march. She envisioned herself getting married in

front of the world wearing a brace—the dreaded back and neck brace that had defined her

existence for all those years. To add insult, she pictured herself standing on crutches.

How was she going to explain this one?

          She knew how all this had happened. Playing hide-and-seek with yourself, her

father called it: the game of hiding what you know from yourself to later become the

―victim‖ of your own act. She could hear Joseph‘s words now, “There are no victims.

There are only people who put themselves in bad situations.” She‘d been attracted to

Jack from the moment they‘d met. She should have avoided him but instead allowed

herself to be drawn in, as if she were a mindless zealot being pulled toward some

otherworldly light. But that too wasn‘t true. She hadn‘t been drawn in at all; she‘d

deliberately thrust herself into this situation. And now she was the ―victim‖ of her own

action.

          Jack lowered her under one of the outcroppings over which the waterfall

cascaded. Fighting the pain, Toli used her hands to scoot inward on the flat rock,

allowing room for him to crawl in behind her. It was dry inside the small hollow.

          She lied flat on her back in her wet clothes. What a fool I am. How easy it is to be

infatuated with someone who‘s detached from your actual life. You never share in the

mundane parts of existence. You never see him in a non-romantic light—the light of

reality. It was time to grow up. She had a job to do in Ironwood with real responsibilities.

The pictures she‘d taken at the Trap Hills weren‘t that important. She didn‘t need to have

come here with Jack.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Meanwhile he sat cross-legged next to her, ferociously rubbing his hands

together. ―Where does it hurt exactly?‖ he asked.

       When Toli tried rotating her ankle, pain shot into her leg. She pointed to the area

where it hurt the most. ―Also my lower back,‖ she said.

       Jack took hold of the toe and heel of her boot. ―May I have a look?‖

       ―I‘d rather just leave it alone.‖ She couldn‘t believe what she was thinking—

namely, that she didn‘t want him to see her big feet.

       ―I might be able to help. We should get the boot off now in case your ankle swells

so much we can‘t remove it later.‖

       She couldn‘t argue with that logic.

       He lightly tugged on the heel.

       ―Ouch!‖

       He gently pulled the boot again. Bit by bit it eased off. All the while he monitored

her expression so as not to hurt her. Then he lifted her leg onto his lap and slowly inched

her wool sock down her ankle and over her toes. Softly he caressed the arch of her foot

with a warm hand.

       ―Doing okay?‖ he asked.

       ―Don‘t laugh at my big feet. In high school I prayed so hard that I would develop.

This is what God did to me.‖

       ―He certainly did a good job.‖

       ―Thank you. Thanks for that.‖

       Jack blew on his hands, rubbed them together some more and softly cupped them

around her swollen ankle. His fingers were warm as they roamed gingerly over her skin.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                            jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


―Tell me exactly where it hurts.‖

        ―There!‖ Toli yelped when he found a spot. ―And there!‖

        ―Anterior talofibular,‖ he said. ―Let‘s hope it‘s just a first-degree sprain.‖

        He said nothing more. With his fingers tenderly wrapped around her ankle, he

closed his eyes.

        His hands grew even warmer. ―You‘re a human heating pad,‖ she joked, but now

wondered if he‘d even heard her. He seemed off somewhere, yet at the same time he felt

intimately close.

        Moments passed . . . or were they minutes? The heat from his hands felt like

warm oil seeping into her skin, penetrating the muscle and bone. The warmth began to

radiate up her leg into her knee, then into her thigh, her torso. . . .

        ―Oh my. I think it‘s helping,‖ she said, hardly able to believe it.

        With all his attention focused on her ankle, he was in some kind of a trance now.

So warm was his touch, so soothing . . . .

        The pain grew less and less until it vanished completely. He seemed to perceive

this change without asking her about it, and removed his hands from her ankle.

        ―Can you sit up?‖ he asked.

        ―What did you do?‖

        Without answering he took her hands and pulled her to a sitting position. She

clenched her teeth as now her back seized up with pain.

        Without asking her permission he gently tugged up her blouse from behind,

slipped his hands under the wet fabric and laid them on her lower back.

        ―Breathe deep,‖ he said softly.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        As she tried to expand her lungs the same crippling pain she‘d suffered much of

her adolescent life ripped through her muscles. It’s me, your old friend, Misery. Thought

you had rid yourself of me, did you? We’re lifetime partners, you and I? I’ll never leave

you, Toli, ever.

        She had worked so hard to keep that pain at bay: daily sit-ups, yoga classes,

walking for miles on sandy beaches . . . There weren‘t too many things she feared in life,

but she did fear the pain, and the possibility of surgery.

        His naked palms against her skin were so warm and comforting. The heat seeped

into her like infrared waves, penetrating and massaging her tortured muscles. Her body

jolted, as if a bolt of electricity left her.

        ―That‘s normal,‖ he said. ―Try to relax.‖

        She suddenly became very tired. Did he say ―That‘s normal?‖

        She felt herself beginning to fade and could do nothing to stop it.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                         SIXTEEN



       When Toli awoke lying face up she found herself staring at veins of green moss

on a stone ceiling. The constant patter of rain drops falling outside reminded her that she

was in a tiny grotto beneath the waterfalls. Jack was sitting next to her with his back

against the wall and his eyes closed. His breathing was heavy, and he appeared to be

sleeping.

       The last thing she remembered before dozing off was him caressing her aching

ankle and then her lower back. Her boot still sat on the floor between them. She now

rotated her foot. Her ankle was tender, but the excruciating pain was gone.

       She pulled herself up to a sitting position and, without the slightest twinge in her

back, leaned against the wall. Even on her best days her back ached for some minutes

after she awoke from a nap. Not now. She wondered how long she was out.

       She noticed her sock covered her foot, but didn‘t recall having put it back on. Jack

must have done so while she‘d slept. It was a small gesture, but it didn‘t feel that way to

her at the moment. It felt like a loving thing to do, as did the way he‘d touched her.

       Jack stirred. His eyes blinked open and focused on her.

       ―What did you do to me?‖ she said.

       He yawned and stretched his arms. ―Can‘t say the thought didn‘t cross my mind.‖

       ―Seriously, Jack. The pain, how did you make it go away?‖

       ―You feel better then?‖

       ―At least sitting here I do. My ankle is a little tender, but my back . . . What did




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


you do?‖

        ―It‘s a knack I have that‘s all.

        ―Knack?‖

        He pulled off his jacket, lay down on his stomach, and started doing pushups.

        Watching the muscles of his arms swell almost felt like an immoral act. Toli

quickly averted her gaze and peeked outside between the edge of the grotto and the

waterfall to see it still raining.

        After twenty or so pushups Jack leaned against the wall and said nothing. With

someone else she might have been compelled to fill the void, but with this man she felt

completely at ease. He could do silence like no one she‘d ever met.

        She thought about Bogey and Ingrid, her childhood birds. For hours the doves

would nestle together in silence. She couldn‘t imagine one existing without the other.

That‘s how she was beginning to feel with Jack, like Ingrid on the perch with Bogey.

        ―It can‘t last too much longer,‖ he finally said, gazing past the waterfall.

        ―You didn‘t answer my question.‖

        ―I don‘t know how I do it, Toli. It‘s like asking me how I breathe. I just do it.‖

        Right, Bogey. I mean, Johnny Cash. I mean, Carpenter Jack. I mean . . .

        ―Who are you anyway?‖ she asked.

        An eyebrow rose. ―I‘m the guy sitting here with you.‖

        ―Right.‖

        ―And who are you?‖ he volleyed back.

        ―I‘m a woman who‘s falling in love.‖ She gasped inwardly. What did I just say?

She clumsily covered herself. ―I mean I‘m falling in love with Daniel.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Silence again as he appeared to consider her words. Finally he said, ―You‘re just

starting to fall in love with him now, a few days before your wedding?‖

       She gulped. ―Well, I‘m becoming even more aware of it. Does that seem

strange?‖

       He considered this. ―Actually no. At least you‘re in love with him.‖

       ―Of course I‘m in love with him.‖

       Jack nodded. ―As it should be.‖

       ―What other way could it be?‖

       ―I think people often get married who aren‘t really in love.‖

       She frowned. ―You know, Rainie said the same thing, but I disagree. I cover

weddings for a living. Most couples are deeply in love when they get married.‖

       ―They may act as though they‘re in love. They may think they are in love. But

when the music stops. . . .‖ His voice trailed off.

       ―Then why do they get married, Jack?‖

       He ran his fingers through his hair. ―Status is a big one. Security. The desire for

kids. Fear of being alone. Money. Sex. Lots of reasons, I suppose. Marriage can be more

of a social event than the joining of two people in love.‖

       ―You have a dark side.‖

       ―I just think the word ‗love‘ is sometimes overused. It‘s a fairytale.‖

       ―You don‘t think real love exists?‖ she challenged.

       ―Sure it exists, but there are shades of gray. You take steps toward it. You know?

But people don‘t want to believe that. They want to believe that you just ‗fall in love.‘

Like suddenly falling down a rabbit hole.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―I never thought of falling in love as falling down a rabbit hole.‖

        ―Why don‘t people say we rise to love? That would be more truthful. Instead we

fall in love. Falling is easy. You just let gravity do the work. Rising to love—well, you‘re

going to have to fight for that.‖

        She was starting to not enjoy this conversation. ―Then I guess you don‘t believe in

love at first sight?‖

        He didn‘t answer immediately. Then, staring off into space with a somewhat

glazed look in his eyes, he said, ―What the ancient Greeks called theia mania, madness

from the gods.‖

        ―Madness from the gods? That‘s what you think love at first sight is?‖

        ―Especially love at first sight.‖

        Toli felt her skin grow hot with anger. ―I disagree,‖ she shot back. ―Love at first

sight is real. Like the song says, it happens all the time.‖

        ―Infatuation happens all the time.‖

        ―No, Jack.‖ Her voice rose. ―It‘s not infatuation!‖

        ―How do you know?‖

        ―I know what I feel!‖ Toli‘s voice was too loud. Her tone too sharp. What am I

saying? Am I talking about Daniel or . . . .

        His blue eyes sharpened like a cat. ―Look. If you fall instantly in love with

someone you hardly know, then what are you really falling in love with—that person, or

your idea of what you think that person is?‖

        It took a moment for Toli to realize her mouth was half open to challenge him but




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Ironwood/Valko                                                  jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


nothing was coming out. She clamped it shut. Several more moments passed before either

of them noticed it had stopped raining outside.

       ―We should go,‖ said Jack.

       ―Yes, we‘d better.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       SEVENTEEN



       Toli thanked her lucky stars that she was able to hike out of the valley and return

to Jack‘s van with little protest from either her ankle or back. Although it was Jack she

probably should have thanked. She decided the ankle pain might have subsided on its

own, but her back . . .The muscles not only didn‘t ache, they radiated a sort of euphoric

energy that she‘d never felt before. The urge to question him further as to how he‘d

helped her was maddening, yet a part of her didn‘t want to know. In a sense his ―knack‖

frightened her. She was afraid to think that this man had the ability to do something for

her that years of physical therapy and medical treatment couldn‘t do.

       Regardless of her pains, on the drive back to the lodge she had to confess that

she‘d never met anyone like Jack. She‘d never experienced such conflicting emotions in

her life either. Having time to think about the conversation they‘d had in the grotto, she

was relieved that he didn‘t believe in love at first sight. That meant he couldn‘t possibly

be in love with her. On the other hand . . .Doesn’t he feel a connection between us? she

wondered. Better that he doesn’t. Why do I care? Because I’m attracted to him. Admit it.

But why? Because he is mysteriously independent. Okay, so he’s mysteriously

independent. Get over it.

      The little voice in her head only got louder, however. Daniel’s mysteriously

independent too. Right? Hardly. Daniel is neither mysterious nor independent, but that's

what I like about him. Daniel is very predictable. And he is predictably needy when it

comes to me. He makes me feel secure. And I like that!

      She decided she needed to get her emotions back in order. Her time-management


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


book would help. She had a section in it where she wrote affirmations to help her reach

her goals, as she‘d done just before landing her job on AM America. While watching the

show one morning, she‘d gotten the idea for the ―Extraordinary Weddings in

Extraordinary Places‖ series. The next day she‘d headed straight to the studio and pitched

it to the security guard, who told the elevator operator, who‘d told one of the higher-ups

of the show, who said ―No thank you.‖ But she hadn‘t stopped. She‘d kept showing up at

NBC and telling her idea to anyone who would listen. Eventually she got a call from

Bernard Nicholas, the executive producer, who later granted her an audition. The

affirmation she‘d written in her time-management book during this period was quite

simple: ―Eighty percent of success is just showing up.‖

      What would she write in her book now? I am 100% committed to Daniel. I’m

showing up because I love Daniel. A beautiful home and three kids await us. I am in

control of my thoughts, and my thoughts make my world. Daniel is in my thoughts.

      Her back was better, but her head wasn‘t right.



       When they reached Black River Lodge, Toli thanked Jack for taking her to the

Trap Hills. Then she looked straight into his eyes and said, ―I won‘t be seeing you again.‖

      He showed no reaction.

      ―Aren‘t you going to ask why?‖

      ―I assume you‘re going to be busy preparing for your wedding.‖

      ―That‘s right.‖

      ―Okay. I need to get to work on your altar anyway. Good luck to you.‖

      The man was freaking clueless about her emotions, clueless about the fact that she


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


had to say goodbye because she was falling for him—falling into the rabbit hole, as he

put it. If she didn‘t sever the relationship now, her life would become a disaster. A

disaster!

       She got out of his old, creaky, smelly van and slammed the door. Upon reaching

the entrance of the lodge, she heard him drive off and made sure not to turn around.

       She headed straight to her room to find a tall cardboard box leaning against the

wall just inside the door. The front desk must have delivered it there. It was the package

she‘d been waiting for but hadn‘t even thought about for two days.

       Three weeks ago on AM America a dozen dresses had been modeled for her in

front of millions of viewers. She had chosen a full-length gown created by Amsale

Aberra in Manhattan. Last-minute alterations had to be done before she left New York.

Now here it was.

       She nervously retrieved a nail file from her purse and attacked the seams of the

box. Her hands shook so badly that she dropped the file twice. By the time she had

slashed through the endless layers of tape, she‘d worked up a sweat and was swearing

aloud—not about the packing job but because no one was there to help her. She shouldn‘t

be alone. Not for this moment.

       Finally she conquered the beast and the cardboard front fell open.

       The dress hung in the box as it would in a closet, its full length exposed to the

eye. Her mood instantly softened. She lifted the satin garment and held it before her.

With the straps pinched between her fingers, she felt its heaviness tugging down on her

arms, smelled the springtime scent of its newness, and relished the sexy, crinkly chiffon

sash draped around its waist. It radiated life, every stitch gleaming with promise and


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


hope. She imagined what the dress might say to her.

       The dress would tell her that it was brought into this world for one purpose and

one purpose only: to symbolize the love between her and Daniel. It would tell her that it

represented everything desirable that men and women had to offer each other. As if

making an official proclamation, the dress would say that it was a symbol of union,

fidelity, commitment, passion, and love. It would represent these ideals on the most

important day of her life, the day she‘d waited for since she was twelve years old. She

gathered the garment in her arms and hugged it. This is the best time of my life.

       Right?

       She carefully draped the dress on a hanger in the closet and then checked her

phone messages. There was only one from Daniel. He said that he had terrific news and

that she should call him ASAP. Her heart warmed. Daniel, sweet Daniel. He was always

giving her good news about something. It delighted him to make her happy. She was so

lucky to have him.

       Right?

       She called him.

       ―Toli, how are you, sweetheart?‖

       It was a relief to hear his voice. How utterly bizarre that he was still in New York

while she was here, on another planet it seemed.

       ―Daniel. I‘m good, really good. It‘s so wonderful to hear your voice. I can‘t wait

until you get here. What‘s the news?‖

       ―J. C. Overmeyer was so impressed with how I handled their case that they asked

me to represent them in several major cases. If things keep going this way, soon––sooner


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


than we ever expected––I‘ll become an associate partner.‖

       ―Oh honey!‖

       ―There‘s only one glitch, but I swear I‘ll make it up to you.‖

       ―Glitch?‖

       ―We‘re going to have to cut our honeymoon short by a couple of days. Overmeyer

needs me to start right away on their next case.‖ He paused. ―We‘ll have to give up the

Cirque du Soleil tickets.‖

       Just a few days ago in New York Daniel delivered the ―good news‖ that he‘d

scored the Cirque du Soleil tickets. Now they couldn‘t go. She should have been

disappointed, or at least pretended she was, but she didn‘t feel much of anything. Nor did

she feel like pretending. ―It‘s okay honey,‖ she muttered. ―We‘ll take another trip to Las

Vegas later.‖

       ―I love you,‖ Daniel said.

       ―I love you too.‖

       They both said goodbye.

       Toli suddenly felt famished. After cleaning up, she called the front desk.

       ―May I help you?‖

       ―Are there any places in town that serve pasties?‖

       ―Yah, there sure is. Joe‘s Pasty Shop on West Aurora there.‖



       After leaving Black River Lodge, Jack stopped at home and cleaned up; then he

went downtown to Pepi‘s Hardware to pick up some eight-penny nails and a few metal

fasteners he needed to construct an arch for Toli‘s altar. Just as he left the store, he


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


noticed Toli getting out of a silver BMW across the street. Carrying a pink book under

her arm, she went into Joe‘s Pasty Shop.

       From a distance, gazing through the large picture window, he watched her sit

down at a table. She slipped a white denim jacket off her shoulders, revealing a tan

turtleneck sweater that accented her long, slender neck. He could almost smell her

jasmine hair and feel the warmth of her body, as he had earlier that day when she‘d

leaned on him while taking pictures.

       Ellyn, Joe‘s daughter who ran the shop, handed her a menu. While looking it over,

Toli swept a loose strand of her gold-tinged hair from in front of her eyes and pinned it

behind an ear.

       Toli gave Ellyn her order, opened the pink book, and started writing.

       Jack could no longer deny the allure, just as he couldn‘t deny it the first time he‘d

seen Toli two weeks earlier when Rainie had proudly shown him pictures of her niece.

Normally he would rather have been subjected to a volume of Shakespeare‘s sonnets than

sit through a slow tour of somebody else‘s family photo album, but on that day in

Rainie‘s cabin he didn‘t complain.

       Not one bit.

       It wasn‘t just that Toli was attractive. Hell, by today‘s standards ―attractive‖

women were as common as single-stem roses sold at gas stations. Many, it seemed to

Jack, were clones molded by cosmetic companies and fashion magazines: women

oblivious to the underpinnings of their own souls. Or was it he who was oblivious to the

underpinnings of his soul?




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Either way Toli seemed different. Something deeper spoke to him from behind

those green eyes. Of course he wasn‘t so dense as not to wonder whether these feelings

he had for her weren‘t just his hormones kicking up. After all, he hadn‘t been with a

woman in a long time.

       No, he thought. Seeing Toli had sparked something more real in him. Two nights

ago he reacted by barging into her conversation about breast implants. It was a knee-jerk

reaction. He supposed an admirer of fine art might have a similar reaction if someone

talked about altering a Renoir painting and then bragged about a tax write-off.

       Even now her earlier words bothered him, but he had no right. He was just the

hired hand who built her wedding altar. Besides, the wounds of his past still bled, making

his insides hurt at even the thought of being with a woman, or at least being with this

woman who possessed something exceptional, something he seriously doubted she

recognized in herself. He thought about her fiancé and couldn‘t imagine how the man

could let Toli out of his sight for an hour, let alone the entire week leading up to their

wedding.

      While continuing to write, Toli ate her pasty and ordered another. Jack just sat in

his van watching. There's no such thing as love at first sight, he reminded himself. At

least Toli had bought into his little sermon. She reacted just as he hoped she would by

telling him she wanted nothing more to do with him. Now she could get on with her

marriage and her life.



       After leaving Toli, he took West Aurora past Second Street into the neighboring

town of Hurley, Wisconsin, just a couple of miles away. He turned left at Sixth Avenue


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


and then right onto Iron Street. After going a hundred feet, he parked his van at the curb.

He got out and knocked on the door of a little bungalow.

       The door swung open, and Jessie Wells appeared. She wore low-riding denim

shorts and a button-down shirt that was tied in a knot just below her breasts, revealing her

flat stomach and the bare span of her upper hips.

       ―Hi,‖ Jack said.

       Jessie leaned against the door frame and smiled warmly. ―Well, hello, my friend.‖

She reached out her hand and pulled him into the house, where she announced, ―Cory,

Jack is here!‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        EIGHTEEN



Monday

       Today Toli would meet with Sid and the production crew, who had arrived in

Ironwood late last night. It would be a busy day yet she woke up thinking about Jack. She

had decided not to get upset about it. Last night over a chicken pasty she had accepted her

feelings concerning him. She‘d acknowledged that he was a source of wonder and

mystery to her, and she‘d decided no longer to resist or feel guilty about this attraction.

Her relationship with him was over. If he came to mind, she‘d just turn her attention to

other things. She‘d even written down on her to-do -list, ―Don‘t dwell on Jack!‖ While

strengthening her resolve, she‘d remembered how upset she‘d gotten years ago when

she‘d seen the movie The Bridges of Madison County. She had been disgusted that

Francesca had offered not the slightest resistance to having an affair with Robert Kincaid,

a complete stranger, even though she was married. Well, Francesca what‘s-her-face

certainly didn‘t have the moral fiber, or the will power, that Toli Stevens had!

       Time for business. She slipped out of bed, got dressed, and headed downstairs to

meet Sid and the production team in the hotel lobby.

       Over the last seven weeks, while filming the ―Extraordinary Weddings in

Extraordinary Places‖ series, Toli and the crew had become like family. She‘d grown

fond of the bunch, especially Sid. He was like Big Bird with a sarcastic edge. He even

looked like Big Bird—tall and skinny with a beak nose and a long tubular neck. He was a

flirt too, but always in good fun.

       So it was no surprise that a lump formed in her throat when she entered the lobby


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


and saw Sid and the others gathered around the fireplace. It almost felt as if she were

back at home in New York. Not one of them would be saying ―How‘zi goin‖ or ―Geez-o-

pete.‖

         She greeted the bunch warmly: Julia, the makeup artist; David, the audio tech;

Montana, Hanna, and Trip, the cameramen; and of course Sid. ―I wish I was an octopus

so I could hug all of you at once,‖ she blurted.

         She hugged them all at once anyway. When she let go Sid asked, ―What have you

been doing up here all by yourself?‖

         Toli‘s brain sputtered. ―What? I‘ve been, you know, I‘ve been busy taking

pictures and, like, you know, getting to know the locals. What do you think I‘ve been

doing?‖

         They all stared at her.

         ―Let‘s eat,‖ she suggested pointing at the spread of food nearby.

         Fortunately, Sid and the others were more hungry than inquisitive. After a

breakfast of raisin bagels, Rice Krispies, and coffee, they all jumped into the NBC

production van and headed out to her wedding site.

         When they arrived at Copper Peak, the crew ―oohed‖ and ―ahhed‖ at the towering

ski jump just as Toli anticipated they would. None of them had ever seen it in person

before, and the pictures they‘d viewed earlier had not done it justice. Montana and Trip

grabbed video cameras from the van and started filming.

         Toli led the group into the log cabin at the foot of the hill. The main room was

empty, but when they entered a bell attached to the door alerted Rainie that they‘d

arrived. ―Be right there,‖ her voice carried from the back room.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Montana and Trip roamed the cabin with their cameras filming the interior: the

ten-foot wood skis resting against a wall, the medals and memorabilia in the glass cases,

the mammoth stone fireplace, and of course Rainie‘s orange tabby, Cleo, curled in a ball

asleep on the glass counter top. It wasn‘t difficult to imagine what this place might have

been like in its heyday. While a crowd outside would have been cheering the ski jumpers,

here inside people would‘ve huddled around a roaring fire drinking hot apple cider and

telling stories. Toli wished she could have been here then.

       Rainie emerged from the back room carrying a plate of fudgies. It didn‘t matter

that it wasn‘t even 8:00 in the morning. Everyone took one and the oohs‖ and ―ahhs‖

started again.

       Devouring the chocolate morsels, the group filed outside and hoofed up the short

path to the chairlift. When they reached the top of Copper Peak, they followed Rainie up

a set of stairs to the in-run, where they got a view of what a ski jumper would see just

before he took flight.

       ―Get fucking back!‖ Sid barked while gawking down the ramp. ―The ground

looks like it‘s a mile away. No way people jumped off this thing!‖

       Toli couldn‘t agree with Sid more. To sail hundreds of feet above the earth with a

pair of skis strapped to your feet was insane. The first time she‘d peered down this in-run

at nine years old, she‘d felt awed in the same way. Even back then she wanted to share

the breathtaking view with the world. Now it would happen.

       They followed Rainie back down the stairs to the observation deck.

       ―I‘m shaking!‖ said Sid, showing Rainie his trembling hand. ―I usually don‘t have

a problem with heights, but looking down that ramp—‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Technically speaking,‖ Rainie interrupted, ―Copper Peak isn‘t a ski-jumping hill;

it‘s a ski-flying hill.‖

        ―What‘s the difference?‖ asked David.

        ―In the Olympics people ski-jump about 350 feet. With ski flying they travel

upwards of 600 feet. Longer than Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds ever hit a home run, eh?‖

She winked at Hanna who was wearing a Yankee‘s cap.

        With the cameras on her, Rainie went on to tell them how Copper Peak reached

an elevation of 17,082 feet above sea level and how skiers used to hit nearly 70 miles per

hour on the in-run before taking off in flight.

        Toli took the opportunity to walk to the edge of the observation deck, where she

clinched the chain-linked fence, and gazed down at the Michigan landscape. When she

was here the other day, it had been somewhat overcast, and she‘d hardly bothered to take

in the surroundings. Today the sky was as clear as glass, and she wanted to savor the

moment. Far below red and gold the trees blanketed the earth. Wind swept over them and

the glossy bottoms of the leaves flipped upward making them sparkle in the sunlight, then

they returned to their normal positions.

        ―On a day like today,‖ Rainie‘s voice carried in the wind, ―you can see up to 40

miles in every direction. That‘s Lake Superior over there.‖

        To the north the great lake was painted blue against the shore. Toli again thought

about how, on her wedding day, millions of people would see all this scenery. That day

would also mark the end of her contract with NBC as a special correspondent and at the

same time, with some luck, possibly launch her into a new career as the co-host of AM

America. They didn‘t pick just anyone for such a position. They chose someone they


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


believed America would love and someone who could hold the job for many years.

Stability was of utmost importance. I'm stable, she thought. And Daniel, he's really

stable.

          Julia came up beside her. ―Close your eyes,‖ she said.

          Toli obeyed and Julia rubbed a pencil over her eyebrows. ―What ever happened

with your boyfriend?‖ Toli asked.

          ―Jimmy? I dumped him.‖

          ―Why?‖

          ―Took your advice. He couldn‘t give me any reasons as to why he loved me so I

figured he didn‘t.‖

          Toli opened her eyes, alarmed. ―You dumped him because of what I said?‖

          ―Actually there was another reason too. I found someone else.‖

          Sid and Montana sidled up to them.

          Sid grinned at Julia and turned to Toli. ―It‘s just two days before your wedding,

Toli, are you nervous?‖

          She turned to the camera perched on Montana‘s shoulder. But just as she opened

her mouth to speak, she saw the elevator door open behind him and froze. Carrying a

stepladder in one hand and pulling a red wagon filled with lumber, Jack stepped from the

elevator onto the platform. When he spotted her, their eyes held each other‘s gaze.

          ―We‘re rolling,‖ Sid said.

          Jack half smiled at Toli, and it took a moment for her to realize that she‘d taken a

step toward him before stopping herself.

          ―H-e-l-l-o,‖ intoned Sid. ―We‘re r-o-l-l-i-n-g.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Rainie approached Jack and started talking to him. Toli tore her gaze away and

looked back at the camera. She said the first thing that came to mind: ―Am I nervous? A

little, but I‘m more excited. A wise person once told me that you only find true love but

once in your life. I feel so fortunate to have found that person.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        NINETEEN



       The wind had carried Toli‘s words across the platform to Jack‘s ears, but he

pretended not to hear them. He had come to Copper Peak only to do a job. When he was

done fixing her altar, he left the observation deck without even once glancing back at

Toli. He went home, changed, and then headed out to Larry‘s Lucky Strike.

       For most people bowling is a pastime, for others a sport. It was neither for Jack.

He‘d first taken up bowling years ago as a means of getting his mind off things, just as

Forrest Gump took to jogging, but today bowling for him involved more than just stress

reduction.

       By zeroing in on the intricate points of the game, he had discovered that a certain

mindset could considerably improve both his score and his disposition. He‘d found that

when he threw the ball, if he concentrated on ―being the ball,‖ he could better control it.

The more he practiced this the more it also became a freeing experience, but it had taken

time to develop. He had practiced his approach endlessly, practiced releasing the ball

with just enough spin on it, and worked tirelessly on the follow-through––on producing

the right amount of hand-lift. He‘d practiced these and other minuscule body motions

before he‘d acquired the skill of ―being the ball,‖ but master them he did. For Jack it had

become a spiritual exercise.

       In time he applied what he‘d learned on the lanes to his daily activities. He‘d

worked at becoming one with the things in which he was involved. While doing intricate

cuts on the jigsaw, for example, he‘d concentrate on being the wood and the blade. When

he‘d play his guitar, he‘d strive to be the music. He even did it sometimes when he talked


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


to people: he‘d think of himself as being them and imagine his voice coming out of their

mouths. This he never told anyone.

        Extending himself to be other things was the secret to life, Jack had decided.

Doing so broke down barriers and gave him a certain peace of mind. It‘s what Bird and

Miles and Monk and other jazz greats did when they played music. They became the

music. It was a philosophy worth living by.

        He was practicing Zen, someone had once suggested to him, but Jack didn‘t think

of it that way. He knew little about Zen Buddhism, or any other ism for that matter. He

had just stumbled upon his own philosophy and practiced it in a way that worked for him.

Nevertheless, there was a time he‘d entertained the idea of teaching it to others. As far as

he could see, the world was in some kind of trouble, and people were looking for answers

in the wrong places. Of course, when he thought of the world, he really thought of

individual persons. There was no ―world.‖ There were only people–– people who thought

they‘d find the answer in a pill, or a political party, or their pastor, or a million other

places outside of themselves. Such people often talked about world peace, but Jack knew

there‘d never be world peace without individual inner peace.

        At the end of the day, however, he never taught anyone anything. He‘d already

learned from experience, in what he referred to as his ―previous life,‖ that trying to

improve people was a dangerous undertaking. So he kept his philosophy to himself.

Besides, he had a long way to go with his own inner peace, which had been painfully

evident when he‘d seen Toli at Copper Peak earlier that day.

        They had said nothing to each other. What was there to say? She was the star of

the show. He was just the carpenter. Tonight he would go bowling.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        TWENTY



       After leaving Copper Peak, Toli had been in a foul mood, which she‘d managed

to hide from the others.

       They had driven to the next three places on her things-to-film list: Porcupine

Mountain, A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum, and Abinodija Falls. They had done their

standard routine of gathering footage and interviewing people. In the evening they had

dined at a place called the Elk and Hound Restaurant. Toli wasn‘t sure why it was so

named because they served neither elk nor hound, only shrimp and haddock, which was

soggy and saturated with margarine. She would have preferred elk and hound.

       When they returned to Black River Lodge, the others retreated to their rooms, but

Toli decided to go for a walk. The sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving a pale

crimson glow against the darkening sky. She thought about how it and the rest of nature

existed for a reason. Everything on this earth had a purpose, but what was hers? Was it to

be a TV host and contribute to people‘s wasting away their lives vegging on the couch

watching her? What kind of job was that? Really?

       She‘d never thought about her career this way before. Did her job contribute

anything to this world? Rarely was she besieged with such negative emotions. What’s

going on with me? She knew. She hadn‘t wanted to admit it to herself, but she knew.

       After their rocky start two days ago Jack had been a perfect gentleman. He had

taken her places and entertained her, and maybe even saved her from near disaster by

soothing her ankle and back. To show her gratitude, this morning she had completely

ignored him. Afterwards Rainie had commented, ―Jack sure got back here quick to fix the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


altar. He‘s a good man, don‘t you think?‖ Toli had given a perfunctory nod before

turning to Sid to determine how the Goodyear blimp could get good aerial shots of her

wedding.

       She cringed just thinking about her dismissive air. This wasn‘t how Toli Stevens

handled things. She controlled situations with diplomacy, not with childish emotions. The

truth was that she hadn‘t engaged with Jack because she knew how transparent she might

be around him, how easily her emotions would show on camera. She might have stuttered

while talking to him, or blushed, or looked flustered in some other way. She had to

ignore him, but now she felt rotten for doing so. None of this would be an issue if Daniel

were with her.

       Slowing her steps, she called him on her cell. He answered on the first ring. She

told him about how beautiful Copper Peak was and about the other locations they‘d

visited. He then told her about his day, saying he‘d picked up new shoes for the wedding

because the ones that had come with his tux were too small.

       She thought about how the act of reporting events took up much of their

relationship. Everything seemed to happen three times over: first the actual event, then

the reporting of it, and lastly the analysis of each occurrence. Did couples really need to

validate their existence in this way?

       It felt as if her insides were breaking apart. She wanted to feel closer to Daniel.

       ―I miss you so much, Daniel. And I lo—‖

       He interrupted her. ―I‘m headed out to Flanagan‘s Pub with a few buddies from

the firm to celebrate our victory.‖

       Toli had forgotten all about the case. ―You won?‖ she asked.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Big time,‖ he said. ―Took the jury less than an hour. All charges against

Overmeyer and Dr. Iberg were dismissed.‖ He told her about how the victory had already

boosted the value of Overmeyer‘s stock and how the company had awarded him 200

shares for the win.

       ―Wonderful!‖ she said.

       ―I gotta run,‖ he abruptly announced.

       She reminded him that early tomorrow morning they‘d be interviewed together on

television, he in New York and she in Ironwood. They said they loved each other and

hung up.

       Before Toli slipped her cell phone into her pocket, she was already thinking about

Jack once more. She‘d hoped that talking to Daniel would make her feel better. It hadn‘t.

She had told Jack yesterday that she wouldn‘t be seeing him again, but now she decided

to pay him a visit. She at least owed him an apology.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      TWENTY-ONE



       After putting on her makeup, Toli drove to Jack‘s house but found no one home.

She then went to the only place she thought he might be, Larry‘s Lucky Strike. In the

dark it took a minute to spot his van in the rear corner of the lot. She parked on the

opposite end near the entrance but hesitated before going inside. She came to apologize,

but she was having second thoughts.

       She lowered the driver‘s window to get some fresh air and clear her head. It was a

gorgeous night with a bone-white moon hanging low in the sky. She reflected on the

―moon story‖ Jack had told her the other night about Indus the slave and Venus the wine

dealer‘s daughter. His telling of it had affected her in ways that she‘d made very sure not

to reveal. It wasn‘t the story so much as the way he‘d told it. The soft, rhythmic cadence

of his voice had put her in a mood that she had no right being in. That was then.

       Now, while gazing at the night sky, another ―moon story‖ flashed into her mind,

an old incident she hadn‘t thought of in years: the time at summer camp when she and

Cass Hadley had snuck out of the girls‘ cabin at midnight and run around the

campground naked. Why had they done such a silly thing? Probably because they were

young and rebellious, and because they could.

       She remembered how they had pranced around the campground under the white

light of the moon, how her young teenage body had been sexually aroused by the sleepy

night air moving against her hips and legs, and by her naked toes padding the moist grass.

The ever-looming danger that they might get caught made it that much more arousing. In

a similar state of mind, Cass had stopped running and embraced Toli. Young men had not


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


given Toli a second look back then. Her brace had not only kept them away, it kept them

snickering behind her back. As with any adolescence woman, Toli had yearned to be

touched, and to touch. So when Cass held her she didn‘t resist. ―It‘s cold,‖ Cass had said,

and started jumping up and down, her tiny breasts moving against Toli‘s skin and her soft

bush repeatedly touching Toli‘s thigh. Wetness formed on Toli‘s leg, and she wondered

about this. Cass was a year older than she and that much closer to being a woman. Cass

swayed with Toli in her arms as if they were dancing. Then Cass kissed her, or tried to

kiss her. Toli saw it coming, covered her mouth, and quickly ran back to the warmth and

safety of the cabin.

        The girls had remained friends to this day. Toli hadn‘t thought less of Cass

because of the incident. It was just an adolescent moment, one of many that pass through

a young life, like the wind through the petal of a spring flower. Yet what struck her now

was its true tenderness, a tenderness that she had never quite experienced since then. It

wasn‘t a girl-to-girl thing. It was a human-to-human thing, an unpretentious act of

innocent youth lodged in her memory, kind of like her prom dress in her closet back

home—something she‘d never wear again but wouldn‘t throw away either.

        Toli gathered herself. She knew that her reminiscing was a way of avoiding the

present. This isn’t summer camp, she told herself. You need to go back to the lodge and

get a good night’s sleep so you will look fresh for the camera tomorrow. Forget about

Jack.

        She started her car, threw it in reverse, and backed out of the parking space. Then

a nearby voice said, ―Toli, is that you?‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        TWENTY-TWO



       She glanced out the window to see Jack standing not ten feet from her car. The

silvery light of the moon shown down on him, creating a halo effect around his head and

shoulders. His eyes pierced the chilled air like some mythical figure. He must have been

in his van all along and was now making his way to the Lucky Strike‘s entrance.

       ―Are you here to bowl?‖ he asked, his gaze unwavering.

       ―I . . . ah, just happened to . . . you know . . . drive by and thought maybe I‘d go

inside. I could use the exercise.‖

       ―Well, then, I‘ll see you in there.‖ With a nod he stepped toward the entrance.

       Her palms started to sweat. She couldn‘t do it. ―Jack.‖

       He stopped and turned back to her. ―Yes?‖

       Her inner voice said, I’m not going inside. I just came by to apologize for being so

rude today and to say goodbye. Thank you for fixing the altar. But her words betrayed

her. ―As you know,‖ she said, ―I‘m not a good bowler. Could you give me some tips?‖

       ―I‘ll certainly try,‖ he said and his gaze lingered on her. ―It‘s really nice to see

you.‖ He turned on his heel and walked away.

       Her sweating hands clutched the steering wheel as she watched him saunter under

the neon sign‘s flickering pool of light and into Larry‘s Lucky Strike.

       I really do need the exercise.

       When she arrived inside, he was waiting for her at the counter.

       ―I got a lane,‖ he said. ―What size?‖

       ―What size?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―Shoe. You‘ll need bowling shoes.‖

         She didn‘t answer.

         ―You don‘t know your shoe size?‖

         ―Of course I do. Eight and a half,‖ she lied.

         The old man behind the counter retrieved a pair of gaudy purple and brown shoes

and plopped them down on the glass. ―There ya be,‖ he said to Toli. ―Two years he‘s

been coming in here, and I‘ve never seen him bowl with no one beside himself. I told him

he should join the league. With his game he‘d smoke them all, but he—‖

         ―Thanks, Smitty.‖ Jack swooped up the shoes.

         They stopped at a rack of bowling balls where Jack graciously picked up different

ones and held them while she inserted her fingers and felt their weight. None seemed

right.

         ―Jack, I have to apologize for the way I ignored you this morning.‖

         ―No need. I understand.‖

         She wanted to say more, but what was there to say? He really did understand.

With him it sometimes seemed as though words weren‘t even necessary.

         ―Try this one,‖ he said, grabbing another ball.

         ―Is there a secret to picking the right one?‖

         ―Just go with what feels natural.‖

         There was absolutely nothing about a bowling ball that felt natural to Toli.

Nevertheless, she ignored the blue ball he was holding and pointed to a neon pink ball

with white swirls. ―This one looks right.‖

         He grinned. ―And it probably even glows in the dark.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       He hoisted the ball, and she followed him to the lane.

       Tonight was not league night, and there was only a smattering of people there. As

they passed a barmaid, Toli noticed her staring at Jack. It wasn‘t the first time she‘d

noticed a woman gawking at him.

       When they reached their lane, Jack started polishing his shimmering black ball

with a towel, while she tried to squeeze her size nine-and-a-half feet into size eight-and-

a-half shoes. It didn‘t help that she was wearing a thick pair of white socks that her

mother had given her.

       With Jack sitting next to her on the bench, she found herself thinking about what

life might be like with him. As the years rolled by, would they spend much time reporting

daily events to each other? Would he continually inquire as to what she‘d done during the

hours they‘d been apart? There‘d be times, she imagined, but nothing like the obsessive

ritual most couples including her and Daniel engaged in. When she and Jack were

together, they seemed to exist in a capsule of the here and now. The past and the future

just weren‘t important.

       She wasn‘t aware of her grunting, while struggling to yank on the shoes, until

Jack knelt on the floor in front of her. ―You sound like you need some help with that.‖ He

gently tugged the laces of her left shoe and spread it open. Like Cinderella, she squeezed

her foot into the shoe while she tried this time not to grunt.

       ―It seems a little tight,‖ he remarked.

       ―I‘m good,‖ Toli assured him, forcing a smile.

       He tied the laces and then opened the other shoe. In went her foot, and as his

fingers gently tugged on those laces it felt as if every cell in her body began to melt. It


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


didn‘t help that he wore a black silk shirt with the top two buttons undone. In the way he

was angled, she could see the crown of his chest muscles flex with his tying motion. A

bead of sweat rolled down his neck as his eyes met hers.

          ―How‘s that?‖

          She nodded but dared not speak for fear her voice might squeak.

          He sat back down and kicked off his own street shoes.

          ―Jack?‖

          ―Yes.‖

          ―What are your future goals?‖ She had to ask. Had to.

          He shrugged. ―Just to be happy, that‘s all.‖

          ―That‘s not what I meant.‖

          ―You mean future accomplishments? Like making millions?‖

          ―Exactly.‖

          ―I have no such ambitions. I‘m not into goals.‖

          They were so different. ―Not into goals? Then how do you know where you‘re

going? I don‘t understand how anyone can live that way.‖

          He set his elbows on his knees and tilted his head up. ―It‘s the only way I can live.

If I miss the present because I‘m obsessed with a future that‘s supposed to make me

happy, a future that will instantly turn into the past when I reach it, then I‘m missing my

entire life. I just bypass the whole goal thing and choose to be happy now. Or at I least try

to be.‖

          ―I see. You‘re that person. Take it one a day at a time,‖ she said.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―I simply try to live my life, rather than measure it.‖

       ―And what‘s with the black thing?‖

       ―It‘s easy to do laundry.‖

       ―I probably shouldn‘t say this, but you stand out, Jack. You don‘t seem to notice

yourself, but everyone else notices you. You‘re unique.‖

       He finished putting on his shoes and stood up. ―Everyone‘s unique, Toli.‖ With

that he picked up his ball and rolled a strike.

       ―I want to know how you do that,‖ she insisted.

       ―Just think of the ball as an extension of your body.‖

       ―What are you talking about?‖

       He pressed a forefinger and thumb together forming a circle. ―Direct your

forefinger into the circle,‖ he said. ―Come on. Pretend my fingers are the gutters.‖

       She pushed her finger into his circle.

       ―What directed your finger,‖ he asked.

       ―I did,‖ she said.

       ―Not who directed it but what?‖

       ―My intention, I guess.‖

       ―Just do the same with the ball. Direct it with your intention, as if it were an

extension of your body. Be the ball.‖

       ―Yes, Master Yoda,‖ she teased.

       Yet Toli took Jack‘s advice to heart. She repeatedly tossed her ball down the lane,

each time concentrating on ―being the ball.‖ At first it seemed as silly as hugging a tree.

Then it seemed pointless. It didn‘t matter how much she ―intended‖ the ball to move


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


toward the head pin; it still careened to one side or the other. With Jack‘s gentle

guidance, however, she kept at it and eventually began to zero in on the ball. She noticed

as she did this that her body automatically adjusted to make the ball go where she

wanted, until she finally nailed a strike.

       Jack clapped his hands. ―Yeah! That‘s what I‘m talking about. Do it again!‖

       She scooped up her ball and rolled yet another strike.

       ―Woo hoo!‖ Toli flung her arms skyward and jumped up and down. She‘d

accomplished a few things in her life. In high school she had been voted most likely to

succeed; she had graduated in the top 10% of her class at Columbia; she was a special

correspondent for the country‘s number-one morning show. At this moment, however,

the exhilaration of having thrown two strikes in a row beat them all. And having Jack

standing on the sideline pumping his fist made the accomplishment that much more

special.

       ―Now let me show you how to put spin on it.‖ He went behind her, wrapped his

arms around her body, and laid his hands on her hands as she held the ball. ―It‘s all about

control and letting go. For control you need to put spin on the ball to steer it to the

pocket.‖

       As he rotated the ball in her hands, she because aware of his breaths and the

warmth of his body. Every brick she‘d so thoughtfully laid over the last two years to

build her life with Daniel started to disintegrate. Their dream life was crumbling.

       Toli had already decided that she wasn‘t going to play this game: play the role of

the woman who falls helplessly in love with another man, as if it were written in the stars

somewhere and she was utterly incapable of stopping it. Not her way. Not going to


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


happen. She had more self-control than that, more pride, more discipline. She would not

allow Jack‘s dark power to overcome her.

        She squirmed away from him. “I can‘t do this.‖

        He backed up, seemed to contemplate her words, and said, ―Why didn‘t you tell

me you were getting married?‖

        ―I did. What are you talking about?‖

        ―The first night we met here you told me you were in Ironwood to do a

documentary of small towns in America.‖

        ―That is part of what I‘m doing here.‖

        ―Why didn‘t you mention your marriage?‖

        She said nothing.

        He dropped the ugly neon pink ball onto the rack. ―What‘s he like?‖

        Her eyes started to sting. ―Don‘t, Jack.‖

        ―Daniel,‖ he said, as though he were trying to know him. ―I hope he deserves

you.‖

        The statement angered her: I hope he deserves you? What was that supposed to

mean? Of course Daniel deserved her, and she deserved him. And everyone deserves

what they get. And. . . . Forget it. She turned on her heel and ran out of the bowling alley,

trying to ignore the pain in her feet.

        When she reached her car, she turned and saw that Jack had followed her. She

faced him, intending to say goodbye, but instead threw her arms around his neck and

kissed him.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     TWENTY-THREE



       Jack kissed Toli back.

       She felt so familiar, so right, in his arms. He hadn‘t intended for this to

happen. But he hadn‘t intended for it not to happen either. He had given into that

voice that told him that Toli had arrived in Ironwood, in the bowling alley at 9:20

p.m. Friday night, for a reason. Perhaps she had arisen from within himself as an

embodiment of his own psyche, as a dichotomy to the hell he‘d lived. Or maybe

she was an answer to a prayer that he‘d never uttered that nevertheless somehow

spilled into the fabric of the universe. Whatever the reason, he could fight the

feeling no more.

       Their kiss allowed no space for a second thought, no time for an objection.

Intending to or not, he had no more power to resist than he had the power to reverse the

effects of gravity. He drank her in: the salt on her yielding lips, her forest eyes, and the

sound of her airy voice muttering delight.

       Shadows of lost dreams moved in him.

       They fell back against Toli‘s car. He felt the span of her hips flush and warm

against his. He held her cheeks in his hands and wallowed in the scent of her hair, as it

whirled in dizzying waves around him. She tasted like buttery wine and felt like Egyptian

silk. The sound of her gasping breaths was a song in his ears, but in his heart, alongside

the dreams, the old wound had reopened. His normally confident exterior, his suit of

armor, had been penetrated. Then a voice jarred him.

       ―The shoes.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          Startled, they drew slightly back from each other but didn‘t let go completely.

Smitty stood there scratching his head, somewhat embarrassed. ―Just don‘t leave with the

bowling shoes on, eh? It‘ll cost me for a new pair.‖ He turned and went back inside.

          The air suddenly chilled. Still loosely in each other‘s arms, they were

momentarily frozen. The kiss was over. Reality imposed, bursting their bubble of

intimacy. Time slowed, and Jack could sense Toli‘s conscience beginning to reassert

itself.

          His forefinger gently wiped her cheek. ―Why the tears?‖ he asked in a whisper.

          ―Why? Because I‘ve never felt this way about anyone before. It hurts. And it

scares the hell out of me.‖

          Her hands found his shoulders. She tried pushing him away, but he didn‘t allow it.

          ―It‘s not a feeling to be ignored, Toli.‖

          ―It‘s my feeling. Don‘t tell me what I can or can‘t do with it.‖

          ―You don‘t think I feel the same way?‖

          Her eyes searched his. She said nothing.

          ―You can‘t deny what is, Toli.‖

          ―Deny what is? I‘m not denying it, Jack. I just don‘t understand it. I don‘t

understand what‘s happening to me. One silly glance from you at me and I transform into

something else.‖

          He didn‘t know what to say. In just two days she was to be married, and he‘d put

her in this situation. In many ways they were like oil and water, yet what he‘d said was

right: how could they deny this feeling? Love and truth, it seemed to him at this moment,

were one and the same. He was in love with this woman.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       She blinked away a tear. ―I‘m confused, Jack. I need to put things in order.‖

       The pressure of her hands increased on his shoulders, and he released her. She

kicked off her bowling shoes and handed them to him. ―Please return these,‖ she said.

       After watching her get in her car and drive away, he returned to the alley where

he plopped the bowling shoes on the counter. Smitty had Toli‘s shoes that she had worn

there. He handed them to Jack.

       ―Ain‘t none of my business, Jack, and you can tell me to go you know where if

you want to, but you and that woman—‖

       ―It can never be, Smitty,‖ Jack interrupted.

       ―Never be, eh? That‘s a bugger. Some things you let get away, but not that, Jack.

I‘ll keep my big mouth shut now.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     TWENTY-FOUR



         ―Toli must be so lonely by herself.‖ Joseph Stevens glanced at his wife in the

passenger seat. He wished she‘d stop saying that. How many times had she uttered it

since leaving New York? A half dozen? Isn‘t that why they had decided to come to

Ironwood a day early? Joseph was too tired to point this out to Edna. It had been a long

drive.

         ―Yes,‖ he muttered,‖ and then finished the statement for her. ―And Toli‘s going to

be so surprised to see us.‖

         Back in the day, Joseph had driven from New York to Ironwood many times.

Today he had trouble driving a lousy couple hundred miles from Madison, Wisconsin,

where they had flown in from JFK Airport. Having to stop every fifty miles to relieve

himself didn‘t help. With his tailbone aching, he was glad they were finally closing in on

their destination.

         ―We‘ll have a direct flight back from Ironwood to New York,‖ Edna said in a

sympathetic tone.

         ―Yeah, yeah,‖ he grumbled. They‘d originally booked a direct flight into

Ironwood but changed it at the last minute in order to arrive there a day early. Madison

was the closest they could get.

         God, he despised getting old. The way he‘d lived his entire life was a no-holds-

barred attack. He‘d molded his dreams into reality as a blacksmith would hammer iron

into a usable tool. He‘d done it with hard work, patience, and systematic action. ―Military

precision‖ was how Edna described his approach to getting things done. He liked those


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


words and the image they conjured up—and the way the syllables popped and rolled in

the mouth when you said them: crisp, precise, definite sounds. Mil-i-tar-y pre-ci-sion.

But now in his early eighties this mindset had become increasingly difficult to sustain.

His dreams had quietly slipped from ahead of him to behind him, from his future to his

past. What‘s left to dream of when your limbs ache and your days are numbered? A new

ailment? A new drug? Surgery?

       You transfer your energy. You dream through your children, in Joseph‘s case his

only child Toli. Joseph supposed that none of the dreams he had for Toli were uncommon

for a parent. He wished that she would achieve financial success, have a devoted

husband, and produce a healthy and happy family. These were not unusual wishes, but in

Toli‘s case they amounted to more than idle hopes on Joseph‘s part. His daughter‘s

success was a resolute objective based on a sacred promise he‘d made to her mother.

       ―Ten more miles,‖ said Edna. ―Are you going to make it the rest of the way? You

want me to drive?‖

       ―Fine. I‘m fine,‖ he responded tersely. Edna was a good woman, a good wife, and

a good mother to Toli, though she was not her birth mother.

       Toli had never met her actual mother. Georgia Stevens had died of leukemia not

long after Toli‘s birth, or that was the story Toli had always believed. It was a lie.

Georgia Stevens had died while giving birth to Toli. The labor was difficult, and things

had gone wrong from the outset. Even now, almost thirty years later, the memory was

vivid, and just as painful, in Joseph‘s mind. Georgia had vomited, passed out, come to,

and passed out again. X-rays were taken; blood was drawn. Then came the news: the

doctor had informed Joseph and Georgia of the massive hemorrhage in her womb. A


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


choice had to be made. They could work to save Georgia‘s life at the risk of losing the

baby, or save the baby and lose Georgia.

       It was a choice no man or woman should ever have to make. There was no right

decision. Either way Georgia would never feel Toli‘s soft skin against her neck, or

experience the joy of watching her daughter sleep peacefully in the night, or hear the

sound of Toli tripping over toys in the hall.

       Almost forty years old, Georgia had blamed the delivery complication on her age.

If they lost their baby, she would never have a second chance. Toli‘s death would be a

painful memory that Georgia could not live with. Joseph, however, blamed himself. He

had convinced Georgia to wait until well after he‘d established his business. He wanted

to be financially secure in his fatherhood so that he could enjoy his family. He hadn‘t

wanted to be an absentee father. But they had waited too long.

       Teary-eyed in her weakened state Georgia had whispered to Joseph, ―Toli will be

all that we dreamed of. Let her live, please.‖

       ―We must act,‖ the doctor informed Joseph.

       ―If she dies,‖ said Georgia, ―I won‘t be able to live with myself.‖

       ―Now!‖ exclaimed the doctor.

       ―I will provide the best for our baby,‖ Joseph had promised Georgia. ―She will

have a life that neither of us ever had.‖

       Georgia‘s hand went limp in Joseph‘s as she slipped into unconsciousness.

Seconds later he was pushed aside as his wife was wheeled into another room. Joseph

followed and stood outside gazing through a small window in the door. He watched the

doctor‘s scalpel remove Toli from her mother‘s womb. ―Georgia,‖ Joseph sobbed.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


―Georgia.‖

         Drenched in blood, the nurse washed Toli off and wrapped her in a towel.

Minutes later Georgia was wheeled from the room, and Joseph was let in. The nurse

handed him his daughter. Toli‘s little eyes opened under the harsh fluorescent hospital

lights and connected with Joseph‘s. In a single instant heaven had come into his life. God

had claimed the woman he loved yet blessed him with this precious child cradled in his

arms. Joseph vowed to himself that Toli would never learn the secret of her mother‘s

death.

         As if sensing Joseph‘s painful memories, his wife reached across the seat and took

his hand. He managed to smile. Thank God for Edna. They had wed only months after

Toli‘s birth. His daughter deserved a mother, and Joseph had wasted no time finding one.

They were at once a family. The promise to Georgia was, and continued to be, fulfilled:

―I will provide the best for our baby.‖ The road had been rough, however. The delivery

complication and premature birth had contributed to Toli‘s curved spine, a defect that

plagued her through her teens, and that she had to manage to this day.

         Toli wasn‘t born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but Joseph made damn sure his

little girl would learn how to acquire all the silver spoons she ever wanted. She had the

finest medical treatment, attended private schools, had tutors, studied music and art in her

youth, and was taught by Joseph himself how to develop a mindset to succeed in this

often brutal world. In her youth Toli had spent many hours on his knee as he recited

passages from How to Think and Grow Rich, by Neapolitan Hill.

         And now he was going to pass the baton. His little girl was to be married to a




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Ironwood/Valko                                                   jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


decent man with a bright future. No, my dreams aren’t dead yet, Joseph thought. They’re

alive in Toli.

        ―Look, we‘re here,‖ said Edna, pointing to the ―Welcome to Ironwood‖ sign at the

side of the road. ―Toli will be so surprised to see us.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      TWENTY-FIVE



        When Jack arrived at Black River Lodge, he spotted Toli‘s BMW, parked his van,

and ran across the dark lot. He entered just in time to see her step into the elevator. He

darted through the lobby and slid his hand into the elevator door just before it closed.

Then his foot. Then his body.

        She backed into a corner. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing.

        He could feel it already. Just being close to her stilled the cauldron of disquiet in

his soul, that ever-churning emptiness that had haunted him and for which he‘d dared not

seek a solution. Before he‘d met Toli his loneliness had been almost a noble thing. He‘d

learned his lesson well: to love is to lose. But now, in the presence of Toli the emptiness

was supplanted by an inner fire that caused a man to know.

        He stepped forward, placed his hands against the wall on either side of her, and

held her in a triangle.

        She parted her lips to speak, but he didn‘t allow it. His lips met hers, permitting

only a shuddering sigh to escape her mouth. She tried pushing him back, but he didn‘t

allow that either.

        When their lips engaged, it felt as though he were being lifted right out of his

body, as though the sheer energy produced by their coming together rocketed him into a

state of heightened awareness.

        There was a soft ping as the elevator door opened. Jack stepped back to give Toli

space. She took his hand and led him down the corridor to her room. Quivering fingers

fished her hotel card from her purse and slid it into the slot. He kissed her again. Leaning


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


against the door, they stumbled into the room, lips engaged, bodies intertwined.

         ―Surprise!‖

         They instantly froze. Jack jerked his head around toward the source of the sound.

The girls who had been in the bowling alley with Toli two nights ago stood in the room,

their eyes wide and hands covering their mouths.



         It was almost 11:00 when Joseph and Edna reached Black River Lodge. After

they stepped from the car, it took a moment for Joseph to straighten his aching back.

Edna came around to his side and folded her arm over his. As they headed for the

entrance, a man dressed in black stormed from the hotel and brushed rudely past them.

Joseph stopped and watched him cross the parking lot. There was something about him

that seemed threatening to Joseph. The man‘s vehicle rattled to life and drove off into the

night.

         ―Come.‖ Edna tugged on Joseph‘s arm. ―I can‘t wait to see Toli.‖

         When Edna and Joseph got to Toli‘s room, however, Toli sat on the bed between

Debbie and Melinda crying. Joseph‘s daughter looked up at them in shock.

         ―What‘s wrong, sweetheart?‖ Edna asked.

         Toli heaved a sob.

         ―She‘s happy!‖ Melinda offered. ―We hadn‘t told her we would be back. We

wanted to surprise her, and boy did we ever. And now she‘s happy that you‘ve also

arrived unexpectedly. Isn‘t that right, Toli?‖

         Toli nodded and wiped her tears away with her fingers. She rose off the bed and

hugged first Edna and then Joseph. She hugged her father hard.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―I‘m glad to see you too, precious,‖ said Joseph, but as he held his daughter in his

arms he couldn‘t help thinking about the man he‘d seen in the parking lot.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       TWENTY-SIX



        Everyone has his or her way of dealing with depression. Some people head

straight for the liquor cabinet; others go to the nearest store that sells Häagen-Dazs ice

cream. Some people go for quiet walks in remote places; others take long naps. When

Jack was melancholy, he went to the movies but usually to only one particular type. And

when he got there, he didn‘t pay much attention to the silver screen. Instead, he mostly

listened to the children‘s laughter in the theater.

        To Jack nothing teemed with life more than the sound of children laughing. It was

the antithesis of depression. If life became unbearable, he‘d head to a family movie where

plenty of kids would be present. Then he‘d sit and listen.

        After leaving Black River Lodge, he headed straight to Cloverland Cinemas. It

being late October and a Monday night, however, there were no family movies playing,

and not a child was in sight. He thus went home.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                    TWENTY-SEVEN



Tuesday

       The phone rang. Jolted awake, Toli groped for the handset on the nightstand.

       ―This is your wake-up call,‖ the receptionist announced.

       ―Thanks.‖ She hung up the receiver and blinked at the ceiling, fighting to keep her

eyes open. She‘d hardly slept a wink.

       She stretched her body under the covers but lay there for several minutes in a

daze. Allowing her mind to drift, she soon found herself recalling images of couples

kissing in movies. She remembered how Harrison Ford had kissed Kelly McGillis in

Witness, the most passionate kiss she‘d ever seen on the screen. Another was Kristen

Dunst‘s kissing Tobey Maguire upside down in the rain in Spider-Man. Then her favorite

of all time, George Bailey‘s kissing Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. She recalled how they

were on the phone together talking to Mary‘s fiancé on the other end.

       All of those film kisses paled in comparison to Jack‘s kiss last night. She‘d been

awake half the night replaying it in her head, re-experiencing every precious moment,

wondering why it had consumed her so. She‘d finally decided that it was the stillness

within the kiss. Prior to Jack she‘d never experienced anything like it. And it frightened

her to think that the feeling might linger in her forever as a memory.

       She had initiated the kiss. She‘d never done that before with a man. Ingrid kissed

Bogey under the moon in the parking lot. Ingrid had no power to stop herself.

       Toli rubbed her eyes and glanced at the clock—5:43 a.m. The camera crew would

be arriving at 6:30 sharp to set up their equipment for the day‘s shoot: a live interview


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


with the co-host of AM America, Elton Peters. Back in New York, Daniel would be in the

studio with Elton.

       She rose from the bed and padded barefoot over the cold floor to the bathroom.

Dabbing paste on her toothbrush, she pictured Melinda and Debbie‘s stunned faces as

they witnessed her kissing Jack last night. When they‘d checked into the lodge earlier in

the week, she had given Melinda the extra key card to her room in case she misplaced

hers. Their father‘s recuperation had progressed so well that he‘d insisted they fly back to

Ironwood for the wedding.

       “Surprise!”

       No explanation on Toli‘s part to the sisters could justify what she‘d done with

Jack. Even now she didn‘t fully understand it herself. The act was the antithesis of

everything she stood for. Everything!

       It was as if, over the last few days, she‘d evolved into another person. To the old

Toli love represented a diamond ring to pant over, her father‘s approval, a long-term

union, fidelity, in-laws, rosy cheeked children, and a shared—fat—checkbook. The new

Toli, however, defined love as simply, and only, a soul-fulfilling desire for someone.

       After the shock had worn off, Melinda had proposed a reasonable explanation.

She had watched enough movies and read enough trashy romantic novels to inform Toli

that she‘d been subject to an unwritten universal law: new environment + being alone +

handsome stranger = a fling.

       ―You don‘t have to explain now,‖ Melinda had kept saying to her. ―You‘ll have

plenty of time to tell your story later to the judge!‖

       Melinda had an inexhaustible sense of humor, but Toli hadn‘t laughed, especially


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


when her parents stepped into the room. Fortunately Melinda had quickly covered for her

tears with an acceptable explanation. And Toli was happy, not only because she loved her

parents and her friends but also because she was relieved to have another element of

familiar normalcy back in her life. It reminded her of the old Toli.

       After everyone had left, she vowed to herself that she would get back on track.

She had a responsibility to Daniel, to her family, and to the millions of viewers who

would be watching her wedding on TV. It was time to get ready for the camera.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                    TWENTY-EIGHT



       Unable to sleep, Jack had been up much of the night working in his shop while

listening to one of his favorite albums, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Having

finished Toli‘s altar the day before, he‘d worked to complete the clown for the miniature-

golf course. Previously he‘d made a new arm with three sections: the upper arm, forearm,

and wrist and hand as one. During the night he did the final chisel work, sanded each

section glass smooth, and glued them together. He‘d then slept for a couple of hours

while the glue dried before painting the arm and heading out for some breakfast.

       When he arrived at Maggie‘s restaurant, Jack found the usual morning regulars:

Ralph and Red, Father McCoy, and of course Maggie herself. They were roaring at the

TV playing behind the counter. Jack recognized the hunters he and Toli had encountered

at the Trap Hills two days ago. They were wrapped in blankets, with a crazed look in

their eyes. One was frantically scratching his rear.

       ―Yesterday a Forest Ranger caught these dudes prancing around the Trap Hills

butt-naked,‖ Red informed Jack, laughing so hard that he barely got the words out.

       On screen the bearded hunter said, ―We were minding our own business when out

of nowhere this madman—giant of a man—attacked us with a stick, took our rifles, and

made us strip at gunpoint! I was so scared I had to go. Now I got the itch!‖ He scratched.

       ―Did he say why the ‗giant of a man‘ took their clothes?‖ Jack asked.

       ―Didn‘t mention it,‖ Maggie replied.

       ―Deh are so nutso,‖ Red put in. ―No one took their clothes. Dudes were having a

Brokeback Mountain moment.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       The TV news left the hunters and switched to a story about the upcoming Lake

Superior Renaissance fair. Ralph flipped the channel with the remote.

       Jack was reminded why he never watched television. The news never got it right,

never told the whole story. He‘d personally experienced that piece of truth long ago.

       Father McCoy turned to Jack. ―You were at the Trap Hills the other day taking

pictures with that woman, weren‘t you?‖

           ―Yah,‖ Maggie chimed in, pouring Jack a cup of coffee. ―Did ya see them boys

tiptoeing around in their birthday suits?‖

       Jack didn‘t respond, prompting Maggie‘s eyebrows to arch. ―Where‘s yer friend

this morning, Jack?‖

       ―Probably sleeping, Maggie.‖ Jack sipped his coffee.

       ―She‘s not sleeping.‖ Ralph pointed at the TV, which showed a split screen

montage of Toli and AM America‘s Elton Peters.

       Toli looked stunning under the camera lights. Her skin was radiant and her eyes

as green as a mountain river. ―Toli, your wedding is two days away,‖ Elton said. ―The

country is so excited. I can only imagine how you feel. What have you been doing to

occupy yourself?‖

       ―I‘ve had a wonderful time up here in Ironwood,‖ Toli replied. Jack felt as if she

was looking through the camera directly at him. A throbbing ache started in his heart.

       ―How‘s Jessie, Jack?‖

       Jack tore his gaze from the screen and looked at Maggie. ―You‘d have to ask her,‖

he said.

       ―She was in here yesterday. Had a glow about her.‖ Maggie winked at Jack.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―That‘s nice,‖ said Jack. He took a sip of his coffee.

       ―She‘d make a fine mother,‖ Father McCoy added.

       It suddenly dawned on Jack that Maggie, Father McCoy, Ralph, and Red had all

overheard the conversation that he, Jessie, and Cory had the other day. They all knew that

Jessie wanted him to get her pregnant. The entire damn town probably knew by now.

       ―She'd make a fine mother,‖ Father McCoy repeated.

       The statement irritated Jack. ―Isn‘t the Church against gay marriages?‖

       Father McCoy snapped open the silver zippo lighter in his hand and flamed the

cigarette in his mouth. Blew a puff skyward. ―Yes Jack. Yes it is. But we aren‘t talking

about marriage, we were talking about kids.‖

       Jack didn‘t want any part of this conversation. Needing air, he stood up to leave.

       ―There‘s the man,‖ said Red, gesturing toward the screen.

       Jack looked back at the TV to see Toli‘s fiancé join the host in the New York

studio, while Toli was still on the other half of the split screen. He wore a dark blue suit,

pristine white shirt, and red paisley tie. His bleached teeth shone under the camera‘s

lights. He struck Jack as someone you might see on the cover of GQ.

       ―Good morning darling. You look beautiful,‖ he said to Toli.

       ―Thank you, dear,‖ Toli replied.

       ―They look like they were cast from the same mold,‖ Red noted. ―Soul mates.‖

       ―I had a soul mate once,‖ Ralph said.

       ―Oh, gag me. Soul mate, schmul mate,‖ Maggie growled. ―Ain't no such animal.‖

       ―That's a calloused viewpoint you got there Maggie,‖ Red said.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Maggie waved him off. ―I can't tell you how many couples I‘ve known over the

years that thought they were 'soul mates,' that is until the man started getting himself

some on the side.‖

       ―Just how well did you know these men, Maggie?‖ Red asked.

       ―Smart ass.‖

       Jack was glad their voices drowned out the television. He could neither listen nor

watch any more. He fished a bill out of his pocket, plopped it on the counter, and headed

to the door. Outside he crossed the street, got into his van, and sat there for some minutes

trying to dislodge the image of Toli and her fiancé from his mind.

       A man and woman moved slowly down the street, arm and arm––the elderly

couple that had approached Toli and him the other day in Maggie‘s. ―It‘s so nice to see

two people in love,‖ the old man had said.

       The couple entered the restaurant. Jack started his van and headed back to the

sanctuary of his workshop.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                    TWENTY-NINE



       ―Is it possible to think you‘re happy but not be?‖ Toli directed the question at

Melinda and Debbie, who sat on the bed in her room. For the last hour they‘d been

making funny faces at her while she was being interviewed on camera. With Sid and the

video crew now gone, they were still making faces, trying to get her to laugh. And their

ploy still wasn‘t working. She wanted an answer to her question.

       Melinda‘s expression went from something resembling an orangutan‘s to a

concerned frown. ―You‘ve got it worse than I thought.‖

       Toli removed her blouse and slipped into a wool sweater. Melinda was right, she

had it bad. Before arriving in Ironwood she could have been nominated for the happiest

person alive award. Now she wasn‘t even sure what happiness was, or at least not sure if

she‗d really been happy at all.

       ―Hey, if you think you‘re happy, then you‘re happy,‖ said Melinda.‖

       ―But look at Uncle Jerome,‖ Debbie piped up. ―You know how mom says he‘s

only happy when he‘s bitching and moaning, and he‘s always bitching and moaning, but

everyone knows he‘s not really happy.‖

       ―Yeah, well, Toli‘s not Uncle Jerome.‖

       ―That‘s true,‖ Debbie agreed. ―Toli never bitches and moans.‖

       ―I do too bitch,‖ Toli growled. ―I can be the bitching bitch from hell!‖ She hated

being depicted as someone disgustingly sweet. She bitched plenty. And she hated that

they weren‘t taking her question seriously. She plopped down on the bed between them.

―I don‘t feel well.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―I really was happy, wasn‘t I?‖

       ―You were, and you still are,‖ Melinda proclaimed, kneading her neck.

       Toli didn‘t feel happy, and talking to Daniel on national TV had made it worse.

She‘d felt emotionally distant from him, and, despite her effort to hide it, she feared that

Daniel, and all of her viewing public, perceived it. At one point, before Daniel had come

on the air, she thought she felt Jack‘s eyes on her, as if he were right in the room.

Obviously just her imagination since Jack didn‘t watch television.

       Melinda wrapped her arms around Toli from behind. ―You know what I think you

need? I think you need to get hammered. Tonight we‘ll go out and have fun.‖



       Toli and the sisters drove to the Country Kitchen, where Toli had previously

arranged to meet her parents and Aunt Rainie, the three of whom were huddled together

in a back booth. Hugs were exchanged all around.

       The waitress arrived and handed out menus. Gazing absently at hers, Toli thought

again about Jack. She wondered if his van had hit the half-million mile mark yet, and

couldn‘t believe she felt anxiety that she may have missed this occasion. Then she

remembered the day they‘d encountered the bear on the road, recalling how Jack had

handed her a blanket as she stood there naked. She could still hear his words, ―Better

wrap yourself in this before you lure that bear back.‖

       ―Toli?‖

       ―Huh?‖

       Joseph, Edna, Melinda, Debbie, and Rainie were gawking at her.

       ―What are you laughing at?‖ her father asked.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       She bit her lip. ―Oh, nothing really.‖

       ―Would you like to share?‖ asked Edna.

       ―No. Let‘s just order breakfast.‖

       ―We already did. We‘re waiting for you.‖

       ―Oh.‖ She wasn‘t very hungry for some reason. ―I‘ll have a fruit plate.‖

       ―Got it,‖ said the waitress and left.

       ―Is everything alright, Toli?‖ Joseph asked.

       ―I didn‘t sleep well, that‘s all.‖

       ―She‘s got that same smitten look in her eyes that she had the other day at Copper

Peak,‖ said Rainie. ―You were thinking about Daniel. Isn‘t that right, dear?‖

       ―I can‘t wait until he‘s here,‖ said Toli, avoiding eye contact.

       But her father knew her too well. ―You sure everything‘s alright, Toli?‖

       ―Fine, daddy.‖

       ―Last night I saw a man at the lodge.‖

       Toli gulped. ―A man?‖

       ―He wore black. Do you know who I‘m talking about?‖

       Toli didn‘t say anything. With the slightest lift of his left eyebrow, Joseph let her

know he knew something that she hoped he didn‘t know.

       Toli smiled. ―I don‘t know who you‘re talking about, daddy.‖ This comment

prompted Joseph‘s other eyebrow to lift.

       ―He didn‘t look like he was from around here,‖ said Joseph.

       Toli‘s throat constricted, making it difficult to talk.

       ―Handsome dude with black hair and a leather jacket?‖ Melinda piped up.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―He was driving a van,‖ Joseph said, turning to Melinda.

       ―I saw him at the lodge too,‖ Melinda replied. Looking at Toli, she added,

―Remember the guy we saw at the bowling alley that night? The guy who kept throwing

those strikes?‖

       Still unable to speak, Toli gave a quick shake of her head.

       ―You remember,‖ Debbie insisted. ―He was a great bowler.‖

       Was this a conspiracy? wondered Toli.

       ―That sounds like Jack,‖ Rainie said.

       ―Who‘s Jack?‖ Edna asked.

       ―The carpenter who—‖

       ―Oh, yes, him,‖ Toli quickly interjected. ―What about him?‖

       ―I guess your father noticed him at the lodge last night. Right, Joseph?‖ said

Melinda.

       ―Sounds like the guy.‖

       ―So?‖ Toli said.

       ―When we arrived, we saw him too,‖ Debbie remarked. ―Hard to miss that guy!‖

She laughed.

       ―Who‘s Jack?‖ Edna asked again.

       Toli was starting to get a headache.

       ―He‘s a carpenter, ―said Rainie. ―He built the altar on Copper Peak for the

wedding.‖

       All eyes were on Toli. ―I have no idea what he was doing at the lodge,‖ she said,

trying to sound detached from the entire subject but failing miserably.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


           ―I wonder whether he‘s single,‖ Debbie added.

           ―Yes, he‘s single,‖ Rainie said. ―He‘s been that way for some time. He used to be

married, but the rumor is that something horrible happened and ended his marriage.‖

           ―What happened?‖ Edna inquired.

           Rainie shrugged. ―Don‘t know. Everyone in town seems to know it was pretty

bad, but no one ever talks about it.‖

           Joseph took a bite of toast, chewed, and gave Toli a sidelong glance. He didn‘t

say a word.



           After breakfast Toli‘s parents drove Rainie back to Copper Peak, while Toli,

Melinda, and Debbie headed back to Black River Lodge.

           ―Why didn‘t you just tell my father that Jack was kissing me?‖ Toli grumbled in

the car.

           ―Toli, you‘re such a bad liar,‖ Melinda said. ―Your father knew that something

was up with the guy. Lying 101: You don‘t try to deny it outright. You go with the flow

and make the person who‘s interrogating you feel that his perceptions were correct. I was

just acknowledging your father‘s intuition.‖

           ―I almost died.‖

           ―He stopped asking you questions, didn‘t he?‖ Melinda patted Toli on the

shoulder. ―Okay, so you screwed up. Just forget about it. A week from now you and

Daniel will be in Las Vegas having the time of your life. All this will be over. Johnny

Cash will be a distant memory. Then I can move in on him.‖

           Toli tried to laugh but couldn‘t.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Seriously,‖ Debbie added. ―You have to forgive yourself, Toli. I was reading that

the word forgive comes from the same root word as forget. If you forgive yourself, you‘ll

be able to forget about him.‖

        ―I‘m trying,‖ said Toli.

        ―But before you forget about him, I have one question,‖ Melinda said.

        ―What?‖ Toli asked.

        ―Does he kiss anything like how he bowls?‖

        Toli started crying. By the time they got back to her room, she had used up half a

box of tissues.

        ―Change of plan,‖ Melinda announced. ―You have to tell him.‖

        ―Jack?‖

        ―No, Brad Pitt. You have to give him the official send-off and get closure to this

thing. And you have to end it with enough finality that there‘s absolutely no room for

rebuttal.‖

        Toli knew that Melinda was right, while at the same time she was shaking her

head no.

        ―Trust me on this, Toli. You know that ending relationships for good is my

forte—my gift. Am I right?‖

        Toli gave a glum nod.

        ―You have to give him the final send-off,‖ Melinda repeated. ―Only then will you

get closure.‖

        In truth Toli was afraid to see Jack again, but Melinda was right. Daniel would




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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


arrive tomorrow, and they‘d be married the next day. She just had to get her mind off

Jack. She would do it.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                          THIRTY



       Toli and the video crew had spent the afternoon gathering footage for the show,

which involved interviewing local people on camera including Maggie, who had told Toli

that morning she‘d seen her on TV.

       ―Jack wasn‘t here watching, was he?‖ Toli had asked.

       ―In fact he was,‖ said Maggie, ―but just for a short time. Then he rushed off.‖

       Now Toli knew, as sure as she knew her own name, that it had been Jack‘s gaze

she‘d felt earlier in the day while being filmed. The laws of space and distance simply

didn‘t apply to them.

       After the filming Toli had dinner with Debbie and Melinda, who again insisted

that she bid Jack a final farewell. Toli didn‘t argue.

       That evening she drove to Jack‘s house. Spotting his van in the driveway, she

parked and followed the sidewalk around to the back, where a light shone in his

workshop. The night wind howled as she pushed open the wooden gate into the yard.

Was she doing the right thing by coming here? She could no longer deny that she was in

love with him. But feelings were one thing; a relationship was something else. A

relationship didn‘t exist in a bubble. It encompassed interactions with others. A

relationship was a group thing; love involved only the emotions of two people. She‘d

analyzed it all very thoroughly. Though she was in love with Jack, she had a relationship

with Daniel that served the rest of her life well.

       She peered through the workshop window and saw him running a plane down a

length of wood. Eyeing its edge, his hand glided tenderly over it, as if the wood was alive


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


and aware of his touch. She was reminded of how those same hands had made the pain go

away, his ―knack.‖ On the drive here she‘d rehearsed exactly what she‘d say, but now the

words fluttered about in her mind, not unlike the leaves whirling through the night air.

       Suddenly Jack turned toward the door, as if she had knocked, which she hadn‘t.

       Toli opened the door and entered. From a dozen feet away their eyes locked, as

they had so many times in their short relationship. Music played, a solo piano as usual.

Toli recognized the song, ―Autumn Leaves.‖ How apropos.

       ―Are you doing alright?‖ he asked.

       ―Melinda and Debbie can keep a secret.‖

       He nodded.

       Wasting not a second, she gathered the words she‘d rehearsed and delivered them

to Jack. They came slowly and awkwardly. ―I am sorry for having involved myself with

you. I acted irresponsibly.‖ She sounded as though she were reading a bad movie script,

yet she pressed onward. ―I love Daniel. He‘ll be arriving tomorrow, and we‘re getting

married the next day. I can‘t see you anymore, Jack. It‘s over.‖

       His gaze didn‘t waver. He didn‘t flinch.

       ―Well, then,‖ she said. ―I guess that‘s it.‖ She turned to leave.

       ―I have leftover pasties in the fridge.‖

       She glanced at him. ―I already had dinner.‖

       ―When has that ever stopped you?‖ He gave her that smile, that horrible smile,

and stepped toward her.

       ―Please, Jack.‖

       ―I have something to give you,‖ he said. He reached down behind the jigsaw


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


machine and came up with her shoes, the ones she‘d left at the bowling alley. He handed

them to her and said, ―I saw you on TV today.‖

       ―I know.‖

       ―You have a lot riding on your wedding,‖ he said.

       ―Just my entire career and life.‖

       ―I understand,‖ he said softly. ―I understand your situation.‖

       ―Goodbye, Jack.‖

       ―Wait. Before you go, I have something to tell you.‖

       She paused, but Jack just stood there in silence. That boyish look that she‘d seen

before came over him. He regarded the wood he‘d been working, then looked back at her

with a purposeful gleam in his eyes. ―I realized something when I saw you on TV today,‖

he said.

       She watched his Adam ‘s apple rise and fall as he swallowed.

           ―I realized that I have fallen in love with you, Toli.‖

       She said nothing.

       ―I love your hair, your hands, your feet. I love your eyes and the way you smile.

And, truth be known, the way you carry that little pink time-management book around

and scribble in it. I even love the way you can eat ten times your weight. Not too many

things in nature can do that, you know.‖

       ―Please—‖

       ―No, let me finish. Henry David Thoreau once said that ‗Most men lead lives of

quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.‘ I know this to be true,

and I had accepted it as my lot before I met you. But now I don‘t want to go to the grave


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


with the song still in me.‖

        Run away, Toli. Run for your life. The life you so carefully built. The life you

deserve. Run from him and have your life! She spun on her heel and rushed toward the

door, but before she could reach it he caught her, the motion of her flight whirling her

round against him so hard she staggered. Then with him touching her none of it mattered.

Her marriage to Daniel, their ceremony on television, her career with NBC, all of it

suddenly seemed meaningless. His arms went up under hers and across her back. But her

life wasn‘t meaningless. She wanted her life. She needed it. She buried her face in the

crook of his neck. It felt as though if he let go of her she‘d not be able to walk or even

stand on her own.

        He held her tightly, and the world stopped spinning. Incredible stillness came over

her.

        He started swaying to the music. She moved clumsily with him, not under her

own power, but under his. Her foot stepped on his foot. She stumbled. ―I‘m not good at

this, Jack.‖

        He held her tighter.

        Slowly they swayed, like branches of the same tree in a gentle wind. With each

step her motion became smoother, and her confidence grew. She closed her eyes while

echoes of longing, rooted in some unknown past, stirred within her. Flames danced

somewhere on a mountaintop, under a dark moon, and the music played Autumn Leaves.

        Images from the time they‘d spent together filled her mind: the Paulding Light,

bowling, hugging a tree, his carrying her in the rain. She wondered whether she‘d be




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


haunted by these images for the rest of her life.

        ―We have to put order into this somehow,‖ she heard herself say.

        ―Love isn‘t orderly, Toli. It‘s the antithesis of love.‖

        A week ago she would have argued with him, but now. . . .

        He ran his hands over the soft curves of her body, positioned himself behind her

while continuing to sway.

        Her relationship with this man was like a dream, a dream she‘d been denying, but

she was now realizing that dreams can play out even without your permission.

        With her back to him, she craned her neck until her lips found his. They kissed,

and she felt him starting to swell. He rotated her body so that she again faced him. More

kissing. Desperate kissing. She heard herself whimper repeatedly. The sounds slipped

from her burning mouth and fell upon the air like musical notes. She was a crying violin;

her yearning utterances expressing the ache within her. She had come to say goodbye.

        ―Please, Jack. I can‘t,‖ she heard herself say. Her plea was pitifully weak.

        ―Have you ever felt this way before?‖

        ―No,‖ she responded. ―Never.‖

        ―Nor I.‖

        ―But this isn‘t reality, Jack. We exist in some other place closer to an illusion than

reality, I‘m afraid. I‘ve only known you a few days.‖ Oh God, how she hated to say that,

but it was true.

        ―The only difference between an illusion and reality is belief,‖ he replied.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        She felt her heart melting. ―Damn you. God damn you! You say things like that

and I. . . .‖ She stopped. And I want to crawl inside you and make the rest of the world go

away.

        He held her tight and whispered, ―I believe that this sliver of time, right now, may

be the most real moment we will ever experience in our lives. If we leave each other, our

memories may eventually fade, but our time together will live. I know this, and I believe

you do too. We will be left forever wondering what might have been.‖

        There was so much truth in his words. Of this she was certain because, just like

that, she saw herself as an old woman looking back on her life, gazing longingly at this

time with him and wishing she had done what her heart demanded. It seemed likely that

her last thought this side of the grave would be of him. How could this much truth be

denied?

        He slowly began to unbutton her blouse. She thought of their very first

conversation in the bowling alley. It was now obvious that even back then she‘d known

in her heart that she‘d end up with this man. I knew, she thought. We always know.

        He slipped her blouse over her shoulders and draped it across the back of a nearby

chair. And when his hands fell to her waist, she didn‘t stop him from removing her jeans.

Nor did she stop him from slowly gliding her panties down her legs and over her feet.

        Her heart pounded so heavily in her chest that it hurt. She‘d never felt

nervousness like this in her entire life. She wasn‘t nervous because she was engaged to

Daniel and about to make love to Jack. God knows that should have been the cause, it

wasn‘t. She was nervous because their act of making love would lay her bare —not only

physically, but emotionally. She‘d have no to-do lists, no father, no title, no job, no


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


agenda to hide behind. She‘d spent a lifetime ―dressing‖ herself. She possessed all the

social masks to wear in all the right situations. She had bundled herself up securely in

accomplishments and goals and organized dreams, but this was raw. This was real. Even

scarier, this was right.

        After setting her clothes on the chair, Jack took a step back and gazed at her for

several moments. Self-consciousness compounded her nervousness. She crossed her arms

over her breasts, her tiny, inadequate breasts, but Jack wouldn‘t have it. He pulled her

hands down to her side. ―I just want to look at you for a moment,‖ he said. ―You are so

beautiful.‖

        His eyes felt like a heat lamp penetrating down to her very bones. So sincere was

his gaze that, if she were to stop him right now and allow him to go no further, she knew

he‘d be happy for just having had the opportunity to look at her this brief span of time.

But she didn‘t stop him.

        Slipping his hands under her arms, he hoisted her onto the wood bench. Her bare

bottom rested on the soft wood chips there—the freshly cut wood, so natural, so honest a

scent. His fingers gently touched her breasts, and his lips kissed her pink, erect nipples.

        Then he kissed her mouth again. His hands trailed down her bare hips and thighs,

bringing goosebumps to her skin. A fire burned on a mountaintop in the distance.

        Without a word he flung her clothes over his shoulder, swooped her into his arms,

and carried her out of the workshop through the crisp autumn air. She felt her naked body

enveloped by the night as Jack, some mystical animal, took her to his lair.

        In his room he laid her down on the bed. Only the creamy white light of the




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


October moon blanketed her body, filtering through the skylight. Jack slowly, and very

gently, entered her.

        Soon a different light appeared to Toli—a soft amber light in the distance inside

of a snow covered home that beckoned her toward it. She recognized this as her home,

yet she had never been inside before. The door opened. The golden light enveloped her

and its warm radiance spread through her like sunlight through glass, cleansing away

doubt and fear and all the other human attributes that made her life—any life—

intolerable. It was a healing light, a knowing light, a light that she instantly recognized as

the light.

        Her body began to writhe beneath Jack. She was like a dove with fluttering wings,

wanting to take fly. Filled with the light, she arched her back, swiveled her hips, and felt

the freedom of his weight upon her.

        And as the light intensified and her every cell danced in its warmth, Toli Stevens

knew that she would not be able to leave this place, ever.

        Jack told her that their coming together would create another force apart from

time, outside the separate worlds of Toli and Jack. ―If we go our ways after tonight,‖ he

whispered in her ear, ―this Jack and Toli will still live as one in each of us.‖

        She had an orgasm. And then another.

        Later, their bodies intertwined, Jack stroked the length of her arm and ran his

fingers through her hair again and again. She felt like a princess whose soul had been

eternally enraptured.

        She then happened to notice the magazines on the nightstand next to the bed:

Down Beat and Jazz Times.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―You play jazz?‖ she asked, referring to the guitar leaning against the wall.

         ―I mess around. Took it up a couple of years ago.‖

         ―That‘s why you read the jazz magazines? To learn about the music?‖

         ―I read them to know more about the men and women who make the music.

They‘re my heroes in a sense. They speak a type of higher language that inspires me.‖

         He ran his fingers through her hair, took her chin in her hand, turned her so she

faced him, and kissed her.

         ―Tell me about more your heroes,‖ she said after he lay back again.

         ―I admire how they follow their heart,‖ he said. ―I don‘t suppose too many high

school counselors advised them to enter a career in jazz music. Not a lot of promise of

money or stability at the end of that road, yet they‘re out there each night weaving their

dreams into reality with music and without compromise. That‘s worth admiring in my

book.‖

         Toli knew there were a lot of jazz clubs in New York. She suspected there wasn‘t

any such place within a few hundred miles of Ironwood. ―Why are you here, Jack?‖

         ―Here?‖

         ―In Ironwood? You don‘t fit.‖

         ―I don‘t know whether I fit anywhere. I didn‘t want to be out there anymore, so

I‘m here.‖

         ―Out there?‖

         ―As a cog in the machine.‖

         Why did this not surprise her? ―You dropped out of society,‖ she said. It wasn‘t a

question but a statement.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        He rotated his body so that he faced upward. ―I tried, Toli. I played the game for

many years and did a pretty good job of it, according to other people‘s standards, but I

never felt comfortable being a cog in the machine. It‘s a soulless machine that works to

serve only itself. Rarely are people original creators anymore. They‘re instead a part of

the machine and a product of it. There used to be artisans who took pride in their work,

who used their hands and creative intelligence to make something worth putting their

name on. When a wood worker crafted a chair, no matter who purchased it, it was still his

chair. Today people don‘t make chairs. Machines make chairs. People push the buttons

but have little pride in their work because they didn‘t invest their own creative force to

bring the chair into being. They serve the machine that makes the chair, along with three

million other chairs just like it.‖

        For some reason Toli recalled how Daniel always fell asleep after they‘d made

love, the life drained out of him. Not Jack. How she loved listening to him talk! Even if

he were to start babbling unintelligible sounds, she‘d still be mesmerized by his resonant

and soothing voice. Laying her head on his chest, she said, ―More.‖

        He stroked her hair. ―It‘s not often I have a captive audience. Talk about music.

Not long ago they used to sell albums. Today they sell units. The machine doesn‘t want

individuals creating art because the suits can‘t predict the sale of highly individual art.

Instead they get behind, and even create, trends like rap music, heavy metal, or whatever

because trends make selling music predictable. It‘s not about music. It‘s about fads. And

it‘s about sales. The same is true of medicine,‖ he went on. ―There‘s a rumor that doctors

used to put their hands on patients. Today if you touch a patient you‘re a quack. Doctors

order nurses to draw blood, and then they prescribe a drug. Doctors essentially work


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


nowadays for the pharmaceutical industry.‖

       Toli again thought about how different they were. New York was another sort of

machine, as was her job at NBC that she loved.

       He lifted her head and kissed her. She didn‘t close her eyes, nor did he. Toli

imagined that if they kissed a thousand times it would always feel this way––each kiss

new and endlessly beautiful.

       ―Perhaps there is another reason I‘m in Ironwood,‖ Jack whispered.

       ―Yes?‖

       ―For the same reason that you‘re here: so we would come together beyond the

machine. In a hundred centuries we wouldn‘t have met out there. Even if we had, we

wouldn‘t have recognized each other. It appears that our meeting was accidental, but I

don‘t believe that. I believe the universe conspired to make this moment happen.‖

       They lay together quietly for several minutes before she broke the silence.

       ―Jack?‖

       ―Yes.‖

―Do you really love me because of how much I can eat?‖

       ―In truth, Toli, I love you for purely selfish reasons. I love you because when I‘m

with you I am me completely.‖

       There it was. In a few simple words he had described precisely what she‘d been

feeling since they‘d met.

       He made love to her again.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Afterward she didn‘t remember falling asleep, yet she awoke later to the faint

tapping sound of dead leaves being blown against the windowpane. A storm was

gathering.

       She gazed upon Jack‘s sleeping face and saw something that frightened her: a

man who could go to the grave with the song still in him.

       Without waking Jack, she slipped out of bed and got dressed. She left his house,

forcing herself not to look back. In just a few hours Daniel would be arriving in

Ironwood. On her return to Black River Lodge she struggled to see the road in front of

her.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      THIRTY-ONE



        Wednesday

        When Toli awoke the next morning she was stuck between what was, and what

could never be. She didn‘t regret having made love to Jack. She was responsible enough

to own what she had done. The problem was what to do with the feelings that consumed

her. How do you erase passion? How do you not drink from the same well? She had to

find a way to make everything right again.

        It had been a week since she last saw Daniel in person, the day he‘d kissed her

goodbye in front of NBC studios. That seemed like ages ago, yet it was only seven days,

a mere 168 hours or 10,080 minutes.

        Some people claim that time is an illusion. Toli had never understood that view.

To her time had always been a rock-solid, unalterable thing—a blueprint for everything

she‘d done. Her to-do lists, her time-management book, her obsession with punctuality—

all these things provided the structure she needed to succeed. But now, standing near the

runway at Gogebic Iron County Airport waiting for Daniel‘s plane to arrive, she

recognized that her perception of time had changed. With Jack time did seem like an

illusion. The few days she‘d known him seemed like a lifetime.

        ―Here it comes!‖ someone shouted.

        Toli and the others were huddled against the early morning cold just outside the

terminal. Sid, the camera crew, her parents, Melinda and Debbie, an Ironwood Daily

Globe reporter, and the WWMT local news crew had all been waiting for Daniel‘s fight

to arrive.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        A puff of smoke plumed as the plane‘s wheels touched down on the runway. It

seemed to take forever for the plane to taxi to the terminal, and then for the passengers to

get off. Daniel was the last to exit.

        It was as if Air Force One had landed and Toli, the First Lady, was to welcome

the President. The cameras were rolling.

        Daniel was all smiles as he stepped onto the stairs platform. He waved to her and

hopped down the steps, his sandy hair blowing in the wind. As he approached Toli with

his arms extended, two words rang out in her mind: ―Rescue me.‖

        She had changed in the last week, but the change scared her. She wanted her life

back. She wanted New York, wanted her career, wanted herself and Daniel to be the

perfect pair for the world to adore. How many times had people told them that they were

the ―ideal couple‖ or that ―You two were made for each other‖? Toli had thrived on all of

this adulation, and why not? What‘s wrong with being the ideal American couple? She

wanted it all back. Rescue me Daniel, she thought. Rescue us!

        But as Daniel reeled her into his arms and kissed her, the only thing she was

capable of doing was thinking about how hard his lips were, compared to Jack‘s, and how

soft his body felt against her, compared to Jack‘s.

        Daniel held her at arm‘s length. ―I love you, Toli Stevens.‖

        Smiling, she fought to keep her eyes engaged with his. ―You too.‖

        The cameras followed her fiancé as he made his way around the group hugging

everyone. Joseph beamed the most as Daniel pulled him into an embrace. ―Good to see

you,‖ Daniel said, patting Toli‘s father on the back. ―Call me dad,‖ Joseph said with a

grin. ―Next time we play golf I‘m gonna own you.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Golf was Daniel and Joseph‘s bonding agent. They‘d spend hours talking about

Tiger, Phil, Augusta, and the PGA this or that . . .Toli could care less about the game but

was happy the two men shared their enjoyment of it. Yet they never played a round of

real golf together. The arthritis in Joseph‘s knee had prevented it. Instead, they played

miniature golf. They‘d make their bets, tell their jokes, rib each other, and do all the

things men usually do in friendly competition.

       A finger tapped Toli‘s shoulder. ―May I interview you two?‖ A local reporter

shoved a microphone in front of her. ―Fire away,‖ Daniel said, sidling up to Toli.

       Toli knew that AM America wasn‘t airing the event live, though a few seconds of

it might be shown on TV tomorrow before their wedding. The local news station was

another matter. Looking into the camera, she secretly wondered whether Jack was

watching.

       The reporter asked whether she was enjoying her visit to Ironwood. ―Very much

so,‖ Toli said, and suddenly it seemed to her that the reporter, Daniel, her parents, and

everyone else watching knew that she had made love to Jack last night. Guilt was clawing

its way to the surface.



       After the interview the group left the airport and made its way to Black River

Lodge. Toli and Daniel went into their room to drop off Daniel‘s luggage while the others

waited for them outside.

       ―Sit down, Toli, please,‖ said her fiancé.

       ―They‘re waiting for us,‖ she replied. They had planned a list of activities to do

with her parents and Debbie and Melinda.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―I need to tell you something first. It‘s important,‖ announced Daniel.

        She didn‘t like the tone of his voice but sat down on the bed. ―What‘s going on?‖

        He started pacing. ―We‘ve talked a lot about our marriage this past year, haven‘t

we?‖

        ―Yes, we have.‖

        ―I‘ll tell you straight up. I‘ve been getting nervous.‖ Daniel‘s eyes focused on the

floor. ―Nervous about the commitment,‖ he continued. ―Am I really ready for this? Are

you really ready? Do you understand what I‘m saying?‖

        ―No, I don‘t,‖ Toli answered.

        ―Okay, I‘m going to be honest with you. That‘s been our promise from the

beginning—that we‘d always be honest with each other. Right?‖

        ―You haven‘t been honest?‖

        He suddenly stopped pacing. His brown eyes focused on her. ―Hear me out. Now

that I‘m in Ironwood, the reality of us spending the rest of our lives together is sinking in

and. . . .‖ He paused, seeming to search for the right words.

        Toli stared at him. Being a trial attorney, Daniel was hard to read. He always

prided himself on having the ability to look anyone in the eye and, without the slightest

flinch, delivering the most unexpected, threatening news.

        ―The truth is, Toli, I‘ve never been happier in my entire life. I never dreamed that

I could be this happy. The two most important things in my life are hitting a crescendo at

once, my career and our relationship. It‘s like I‘m being born again, born again with

you.‖

        ―‘Hitting a crescendo?‘ ‗Born again?‘‖ Daniel never talked this way.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       He took her hand. ―I don‘t know how else to put it. I love you so much. And this

entire week, while you were gone, it really . . . I mean really sunk in.‖

       He pulled her to her feet and pressed his lips to hers. She pushed him away.

       ―What‘s wrong?‖ he asked.

       Toli could hardly breathe. ―I‘ll be right back.‖ She ran into the bathroom, locked

the door, and took a long breath. Then she stared at herself in the mirror. ―Tell him what

you did. He deserves to know.‖

       ―Toli, are you alright?‖ His voice drifted in from outside.

       ―I‘ll be right there, honey.‖ Tell him the truth, she admonished herself, but what

was the truth? That she only thought she loved him before she knew what love really

was? Had she really been more in love with the idea of being in love, than actually in

love with Daniel? Telling him might bring closure to this insanity.

       She lifted her chin and went back into the bedroom.

       Daniel‘s arms were folded over his chest. ―Tell me what‘s going on.‖

       Anger suddenly flared in her. ―What‘s going on? I had a rough week, Daniel.

That‘s what‘s going on. Melinda and Debbie weren‘t here. You weren‘t here. I

understand why you had to stay in New York and finish the case, but all week I was by

myself up here in the sticks!‖

       ―My career—‖

       ―Right,‖ she interrupted, ―your career. Your future, my future. Ya da ya da. Still,

a woman shouldn‘t be alone leading up to the most important day of her life. It wasn‘t

right for me to be alone! Put yourself in my shoes for God‘s sake.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Daniel didn‘t argue or defend himself. He seemed to digest her every word. His

eyes grew soft.

       Say it, Toli. Tell him!

       A sudden knock at the door startled her. ―Hurry up in there,‖ her father‘s voice

said. ―We‘re all waiting.‖

       ―I‘m sorry,‖ Daniel said, and hugged her. ―I‘m sorry I wasn‘t here. I‘ll make it up

by ten times. You‘ll see.‖



       After breakfast and a visit to Copper Peak, Joseph drove everyone around

Ironwood pointing out places from his childhood, including the house where he‘d grown

up. Toli took plenty of pictures and was able to enjoy the nostalgic high Joseph got from

the journey. He looked ten years younger by the time they arrived at Pines Miniature Golf

Course.

       The teams were comprised of Joseph and Edna, Debbie and Melinda, and Daniel

and Toli. Daniel was by far the best player, and by the time they hit the eleventh hole Toli

and he led on the scorecard, which Daniel made certain didn‘t go unnoticed by the others,

especially Joseph.

       ―Hey, dad. If you keep hitting the ball that well you might break a hundred.‖

       ―If you keep talking to me like that,‖ Joseph shot back, ―your handicap might

become a lot more severe than your score.‖

       ―Maybe next time you can rent a golf cart. You‘ll do better.‖

       ―I don‘t want a cart. I prefer to walk and smell the fresh grass.‖

       Of course there wasn‘t a patch of fresh grass anywhere in sight. The place had the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


usual plastic grass, with plenty of miniature windmills and houses and clowns,

specifically the one Toli spotted Jack wrestling from his van in the parking lot. She

couldn‘t believe her eyes.

       Cradling the clown in his arms like a baby, Jack crossed the asphalt toward the

last hole. Why was she not surprised when, fifty feet away, he looked in her direction, as

if she had called his name?




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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       THIRTY-TWO



       Jack watched Toli‘s fiancé fling his arm around her shoulders. Next to them were

their bridesmaids and an older couple.

       Great timing Jack, he thought, and considered putting the clown back into his van

and driving away. Why expose Toli to an uncomfortable situation? Yet he didn‘t turn

back. He kept walking toward hole eighteen. The only thing that went back were his

shoulders, as he held his head higher than usual. He was in love with Toli Stevens. That

was worth standing up for.

       He stepped over the brick wall edging the course, slipped through the gated

entrance, and onto hole eighteen. Glancing again in Toli‘s direction, he saw one of her

friends whispering in her ear. He knelt down on the green and began to fasten the clown

into position. He inserted the three bolts that held it in place, snatched the socket wrench

from his back pocket, and started tightening them.

       Within moments he heard laughter drift his way from the group but made sure not

to look at them. I’ll just do the job and get out of here, he thought.

       Moments later a golf ball bounced onto the green and rolled up near him.

       ―Hey, you there. Would you throw us the ball,‖ a voice shouted. Jack looked up to

see Toli‘s fiancé pointing at the ball near his feet. Toli had her head down, nervously

rubbing her hands together. Jack continued to work on the clown.

       ―Excuse me.‖ The voice was louder. ―Can you throw it back?‖

       Jack glanced at the ball but kept tightening the bolts in place.

       ―What‘s wrong with that guy?‖ he heard the fiancé say. ―Is he deaf? They must


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


have a ‗hire-the-handicapped‘ policy around here.‖



       ―Oh oh,‖ Melinda gasped. ―Here he comes.‖

       Toli looked up to see Jack striding across a tiny creek toward them with his fists

clenched. As he drew closer, she recognized the same storm in his eyes that she‘d seen

the day he‘d rearranged the hunter‘s face at the Trap Hills. Her legs grew rubbery while

she watched him march directly up to Daniel. He gave Toli a sight nod. ―It‘s good to see

you again.‖

       ―You know each other?‖ Daniel asked.

       With Daniel staring at her, Toli‘s tried to sort out the details of who knew what

concerning her and Jack.

       She cleared her throat. ―Daniel, this is Jack. Jack, this is my fiancé, Daniel. Jack is

the one who built our wedding altar.‖

       Testosterone levels were rapidly escalating. ―The top of the altar wasn‘t right,‖

Toli blurted, her voice louder than she‘d intended. ―But Jack fixed it,‖ she added. ―Now it

arches so that the wreath of flowers can hang on the front.‖

       The tension in the air was so intense that Toli could hardly breathe. In an attempt

to diffuse it, she turned to Joseph and Edna. ―And these are my parents.‖

       ―This is the man we saw in the parking lot when we arrived,‖ Joseph said.

       Jack‘s gaze stayed locked on Toli. She should have been upset. She had a right to

hate him for causing a scene, yet she couldn‘t believe what she was feeling. She only

wanted to stare back and lose herself in him, as she had done so many times in the last

few days.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―So you‘re the clown-repair man around here?‖ Daniel said, chuckling at his own

feeble joke.

       Jack‘s eyes darkened and then seemed to turn to cobalt ice. They slowly swiveled

from Toli to Daniel. Suddenly his fist shot forward. Daniel flinched. Jack uncurled his

fingers, revealing the golf ball, which he handed to Daniel.

       ―Yeah, I‘m the guy who fixes clowns,‖ Jack said, then turned on his heel and

walked back to his van.

       ―Dude must think he‘s Johnny Cash, wearing all black,‖ Daniel remarked,

pretending to be unfazed.

       ―Give me a mulligan for that shot?‖ Joseph asked.

       ―I‘ll give you one,‖ said Daniel.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     THIRTY-THREE



       When the golf outing was over, they all headed back to Black River Lodge. It was

time for Toli to show off her wedding dress to Edna, Melinda, and Debbie. Edna went to

her room to freshen up first, leaving Toli alone with the sisters. Toli noticed that Melinda

was eyeing her suspiciously.

       ―What?‖

       ―That was so weird seeing Johnny Cash on the golf course. How did it go with

him last night?‖

       Toli hated that Melinda called Jack ―Johnny Cash.‖ It was almost cute a week

ago, nothing funny about it today.

       ―You didn‘t give him the final send-off, did you?‖ Melinda persisted.

       Toli suspected that her silence spoke volumes, yet she was unable to respond as

memories from the previous night consumed her: Jack‘s gentle touch, the low throaty

timber of his voice after they had made love. . . .

       ―I knew it!‖ Debbie exclaimed. ―The way he looked at her on the golf course.‖

       ―Tell me you didn‘t do the slip-and-slide with Johnny Cash,‖ Melinda said.

       ―Please stop calling him that,‖ Toli snapped. ―His name is Jack.‖

       ―Jack what?‖ asked Debbie.

       Toli said nothing.

       ―The day before your wedding you made love to a man whose last name you

don‘t even know?‖ Debbie‘s eyes were so big that Toli thought they might pop out of

their sockets.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―Two days before my wedding,‖ Toli corrected her. She never even thought to ask

Jack his last name. What‘s a name any away?

         ―Did you even try to tell him it was over?‖ Debbie asked.

         Toli couldn‘t take it anymore, burying her hands in her face. As if on cue, Edna

entered the room. ―Okay. Let‘s see you in your wedding dress.‖

         Toli looked up at her.

         ―What‘s going on?‖ Edna asked.

         Silence.

         ―Toli?‖ Edna said her name as if Toli were a teenager again; drawing out the ―e‖

sound.

         ―She‘s excited to show you her wedding dress,‖ Melinda told Edna, and headed

for the closet to retrieve the dress.

         ―T-o-l-eeee?‖

         Sometimes Toli wondered whether Edna was just her stepmother. She always

seemed to know when something was wrong, no matter how Toli tried to hide it.

         ―Please sit down, mom.‖ Toli gestured to a spot next to her on the bed. ―There‘s

something I need to tell you.‖



         What was she thinking? That she could tell her mother that she‘d made love to

another man just before her wedding and that Edna would simply and calmly take her

hand, and say, ―I understand, dear‖? Though she could never tell her father about Jack,

Edna was a different story. Edna was someone in whom she‘d confided throughout her

entire life. By now their relationship was more a friendship than a mother-daughter thing.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Of course Edna would understand. Toli couldn‘t have been more wrong.

       Toli knew she‘d done something stupid the moment the words came out. When

she was done explaining, Edna looked ten years older. Her hair seemed to turn a shade

greyer, and the wrinkles at her mouth deeper. A lifetime spent raising a child as best she

could, instilling quality values in her, giving her everything that she and Joseph had given

to Toli, and this was their payoff: a daughter who betrayed her fiancé—a daughter who,

from Edna‘s perspective, betrayed them?

       Toli reached out, but her stepmother retreated. Watching Edna‘s labored

breathing, Toli wanted to comfort her by apologizing profusely, saying that it was all a

horrible mistake and that she‘d make amends. Her relationship with Daniel, she alleged,

would remain intact. Instead, Toli found herself incapable of expressing anything but the

bare-bone truth of how she felt.

       ―Mom, I‘m so confused. From the moment Jack and I first met I was overcome

with this feeling.‖

       ―Feeling?‖

       ―That the search was over,‖ Toli said clumsily.

       ―You were searching for love just before your wedding?‖

       ―That‘s not what I meant.‖

       ―Well, then?‖

       Toli found herself groping for words to express her feelings. How to explain?

       ―Do you know how much your father has put into your wedding?‖ Edna‘s voice

rose. ―Do you have any idea how much he‘s put into your life?‖

       Toli‘s gaze fell to the floor. Of course she knew.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―This is so much not like you, Toli. I‘m very disappointed.‖

        ―I under—‖

        ―If your father ever found out,‖ Edna interrupted. ―He can’t find out!‖

        Edna turned her back and stood silent for the longest time. In her entire life rarely

had she reprimanded Toli, but now . . . Toli‘s attempt to be forthright had obviously

succeeded only in disgracing her mother. When will I learn to keep my big mouth shut?

        ―What you did was unforgivable,‖ Edna said.

        Toli nodded.

        ―Just because you have feelings for someone doesn‘t mean you go to bed with

him.‖

        Toli wiped away a tear. She couldn‘t argue because she agreed with Edna.

        ―And right before you wedding!‖ Edna stared at her.

        ―What‘s this man, Jack, do for a living besides fix clowns?‖

        ―He‘s a carpenter.‖

        ―Own a nice home?‖

        ―He rents a room.‖

        Edna‘s hand rose to her forehead. She pinched the bridge of her nose with her

fingers. ―So what is it about this man?‖

        Toli searched for reasons that Edna might understand.

        ―What attracted you to him?‖

        Toli was completely and utterly wordless.

        ―Lord help me,‖ Edna spoke to the ceiling.

        Toli finally said, ―I knew him from the moment I first saw him.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        The words seem to physically strike Edna. He mouth fell slightly open. She

turned to the sisters. ―Would you girls please give us a moment?‖

        Melinda and Debbie left the room.

        ―I saw him and I knew, mom. I just knew—‖

        Edna held up her hand. ―You don‘t need to explain any further.‖

        Toli gave her a questioning look.

        ―I get it. Love is a funny thing, Toli. It‘s as elusive as a butterfly. Chase it and you

end up empty. Then one day it just lands on your shoulder.‖

        ―Are you talking about dad?‖

        ―I love your father.‖

        ―I never doubted that. Who are you talking about, mom?‖

        ―There some things you don‘t know about me, Toli. Edward was his name,‖ Edna

said softly. ―I was married to Martian, my first husband at the time. I‘d turned the corner

in a grocery store one day and literally ran into Edward, a complete stranger back then.

One look. Just one heart-stopping look was all. Neither of us said a word. It‘s as if words

would have brought us back to earth. I went to that same store three times a week for the

next month hoping to run into him again. I finally did. We had an affair, Toli. I‘m not

proud of it. He was married. I was married. I yearned for that man every waking hour. It

was like a drug . . . .‖ Her words trailed off.

        ―What happened?‖

        ―I eventually left him.‖

        ―But if you loved him . . .‖

        ―I had made a promise to Martin.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Did you love Edward more than Martin?‖

       ―There were so different.‖

       ―I know,‖ said Toli. ―I know.‖

       ―A love affair is not the same as a life‘s journey, Toli.‖

       She watched Edna walk over to her rack of shoes hanging in the closet. ―Think of

it this way,‖ Edna said. ―Men are like shoes. You have to wear them every day of your

life.‖ Edna pointed to Toli‘s red Italian pumps. ―Some men are very striking, but you

can‘t wear them for long without your feet hurting.‖ Edna then touched her Nikes. ―Other

men might be good for a run, but they‘d never do at an elegant dinner.‖ She tapped her

finger on a pair of sandals. ―Others are great for a walk on the beach but not practical

when it gets cold. And trust me, it always gets cold.

       Edna grabbed one of Toli‘s Beautifeel Pivots, slip-ons that Toli wore often. ―And

then there are those shoes that fit good enough, are comfortable, and protect your feet.‖

       Edna handed the shoes to Toli. ―If you had to choose one pair, which would you

want to wear for the rest of your life?‖

       Toli tried to smile.

       ―I think we‘ll all feel better when you put your wedding dress on,‖ Edna said. ―I

can‘t wait to see how you look in it.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      THIRTY-FOUR



       Toli had modeled the wedding dress for her mother, Melinda, and Debbie, but

their heartfelt utterances of delight only made her feel worse. She looked beautiful

alright, from the neck down. Otherwise her expression was that of someone who was

going to a funeral. On a mission to lift her spirits, they took Toli to Dairy Queen and got

her a Choco Cherry Love Blizzard. She could barely eat it, which triggered alarm bells.

When Debbie suggested they go bowling, the tears started again.

       Finally Toli requested that she be left alone for a couple of hours to rest before the

rehearsal dinner. Edna and the sisters left and joined Daniel and Joseph in the room next

door. Lying on the bed, Toli tried to relax, but her heart felt as though it were being

squeezed by a fist. It ached at the thought of never seeing Jack again but seemed to stop

beating entirely when she considered canceling the wedding.

       She could hardly believe that she was thinking this way, but she was. She needed

resolution. Her usual method of making any major decision was to pretend it was

someone else‘s problem (it‘s always easier to solve other people‘s problems) and then

write down all the pros and cons relating to each potential solution. That clearly wouldn‘t

work now. To be capable of rational thought at all, she needed to put a clamp on her

emotions.

       Laughter filtered through the wall from the adjacent room. No doubt everyone

was laughing at Daniel‘s jokes. He was always telling jokes.

       Toli wanted separation. She needed a quiet, secluded place away from all of them

where she could think. A couple of days earlier she‘d noticed a church near downtown


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Ironwood, an old-fashioned, quaint sanctuary. She hadn‘t been inside a church in years,

but at the moment the idea of sitting quietly in one appealed to her. She quietly snuck out

of her room so the others wouldn‘t hear her.



       Twenty minutes later Toli sat in her car staring at the old brownstone structure.

The thought of venturing into the church and praying almost made her laugh. She never

prayed. On occasion she meditated, envisioning what she wanted, but praying to God?

Never. This might be a good time to start, she reflected. At the very least she wanted

peace, and, as the name on the weather-beaten sign suggested, Our Lady of Peace Parish

looked peaceful.

       She made her way over the lawn to the towering wood door. Inside the early

evening sun streamed through stained-glass windows, casting a rainbow of light upon the

rows of pews. At the front, nestled in shadow, was a gilded altar and behind it a crucifix.

No one else being there, Toli walked forward and sat down.

       She bowed her head to gather her thoughts. What exactly was she going to say?

       She then heard rustling and opened her eyes to see two people emerging from a

doorway behind the altar, a priest and a blond woman. Toli knew these people. She‘d

seen them at Maggie‘s.

       The woman was walking in front of the priest. ―Thanks for all your help, Father,‖

Toli heard her say. ―I‘m so grateful?‖

       ―Let‘s see if it works out as we planned,‖ the priest said.

       ―I‘m going to pray for it every day.‖

       ―And you‘re quitting that job at the Silver Dollar?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          ―Deal done,‖ she said. ―Told ‗em yesterday.‖

          Obviously unaware of Toli‘s presence, the woman turned to the priest and

embraced him in a hug. Then she whispered something in his ear that Toli couldn‘t make

out. Releasing him, she strode the length of the church and exited. The priest must have

felt Toli watching because he turned and looked right at her. She averted her gaze as if

she‘d just witnessed something she had no business witnessing, but she wasn‘t sure what

it was.

          ―Hello,‖ he said. He started moving toward her. ―Toli. Toli Stevens, right?‖

          ―You have a good memory.‖

          ―It‘s nice to see you here, Toli.‖

          She nodded, embarrassed that she didn‘t remember his name.

          ―Father McCoy,‖ he offered.

          ―Yes. Father McCoy. Good to see you too. I came here to, you know, feel the

good vibes.‖ She bit her lip. ―My wedding is tomorrow.‖

          ―Oh, yes. They‘ve been saying that on TV.‖

          ―I thought asking the Big Guy upstairs for help might not be a bad idea,‖ said

Toli.

          He nodded. ―Well, I‘m sure the Big Guy can help. He never lets me down. But is

there something that perhaps I can help you with?‖

          Toli started to relax. Father McCoy had a velvety voice and comforting demeanor

that made her feel at ease. ―I just want to make sure I‘m doing the right thing, Father. Do

you know what I mean?‖

          ―May I sit down?‖ he asked.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―Please.‖

         ―You have doubts about your marriage?‖

         ―Yes . . . and no.‖

         ―I see. Well, I must ask. Did you do something you don‘t feel good about, Toli?‖

         The question threw her. Did he suspect this because he‘d seen her with Jack at the

restaurant? The elderly couple that day had thought she and Jack were in love. Was it that

obvious to everyone?

         ―I‘ll put it this way, Father. I may have blown my chances of getting into heaven.‖

         He placed a warm hand on her shoulder. ―It‘s not good people who get into

heaven, Toli. It‘s forgiven people. Do you want forgiveness for this act?‖

         ―Actually, the truth is I‘m not entirely sure if what I did was wrong. I don‘t know

what‘s right or wrong here.‖

         He nodded. ―Perhaps it‘s not a matter of right or wrong. Maybe it‘s just a question

of choice?‖

         ―I guess it comes down to that.‖

         ―I find that it is rarely a choice between two people, but a choice within one‘s

self.‖

         ―What do you mean?‖ Toli asked.

         Father McCoy folded his hands in his lap and directed his soft gaze at her. ―I

believe in each of us there is an internal roadmap with a path for the soul. We search for

the path our entire life, taking many wrong turns. When we finally find it, we know. Yet,

for many of us, the path goes untraveled. Why?‖

         ―Why?‖ she echoed.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―When you learn the answer for yourself, you will know what to do.‖



       When Toli left the safe confines of the church, the sun was setting, thrusting its

fiery fingers through the tree branches. Kids frolicked in a pile of leaves at the curb, and

the smell of burning wood permeated the air. It was a gorgeous autumn day that reminded

her of why she had chosen late October for her wedding.

      She had stayed in the church longer than she should have and was now running

late for the rehearsal dinner. She hadn‘t brought her cell phone and envisioned everyone

back at the lodge freaking out, wondering where she‘d gone. After Father McCoy had left

her, she‘d spent some time contemplating his question: why does the path go untraveled?

She‘d decided there could be only one answer, an answer she couldn‘t face.

       Movement caught her eye from across the street.

       The driver‘s door of Jack‘s van swung open, and he stepped out. Toli stopped in

her tracks and became aware of her hands rising to cover her mouth. Then, she saw

herself from outside, and, as in a scene from an old movie, she watched her body run

toward him.

      Jack‘s arms spread wide to embrace her. Their lips met, and their bodies

intertwined. Her fingers groped at him, as if searching for an opening in which to crawl

in. It just didn‘t matter what internal conflict she was going through.

       She felt her strength slip away as she sank to her knees. Jack held her, never

relinquishing the kiss.

      The others are waiting for me.

      She rose back to her feet. Their mouths disengaged.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―Oh, Jack.‖

         ―I will talk to him, Toli. I will tell him.‖

         ―It‘s not that simple.‖

         ―I believe it is. What could be simpler?‖

         She couldn‘t respond. Her mind reeled—a mind so rational that it fought even at

this moment to put her emotions back in order, to keep her life intact and not let this

wave overwhelm her.

         ―Hold me for a minute, Jack.‖

         He did, and she allowed herself to rest in his arms.

         ―What time is your wedding scheduled?‖ he asked.

         At first the catch in her throat prevented her from answering. She cleared it and

said, ―It‘s live on AM America. The ceremony starts at 9:00 eastern time, 8:00 a.m.

Ironwood time.‖

         Jack‘s muscles stiffened against her body. ―This feeling does not have to end,

Toli.‖

         She pressed her face against his chest. ―Oh, Jack. I‘m not who you think I am. I‘m

a career woman. I‘m aggressive and persistent. I‘m New York. My idea of a vacation is

to travel around the world at light speed, not to sit on the end of a pier fishing.‖

         He ran his fingers through her hair. ―I don‘t like to fish either.‖

         ―You know what I mean. You‘re not even into goals.‖

         ―That‘s changing. You‘re rewriting the rules.‖

          She could hardly take it.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Hey, my van‘s should hit the half million mark tomorrow. That‘s worth sticking

around for, isn‘t it?‖

        She offered a bittersweet smile. On another day she might have made fun of his

remark, but today she only wished she could be with him when it happened. Perhaps

they‘d be driving on a lonely north woods road somewhere and they‘d pull over and

make love to celebrate.

        He suddenly released her and fetched something out of his van—her shoes. She‘d

left them at the bowling alley and then again at his workshop. Had she done so on

purpose so she‘d have a reason to keep connecting with him?

        ―They‘re nice,‖ he said, handing them to her.

        Toli took the strapless blue pumps and inspected them. ―Yes,‖ she remarked.

―Perfect for a special night out.‖ She wrapped her arms around him again.

        ―Tomorrow,‖ he said softly, ―I will be waiting at Hiawatha Park at 8:00.‖

        ―If I were to meet you, what would we do? Where would we even go?‖

        ―As long as you are there, I don‘t care where we go.‖

        She heaved a long, shuddering sigh. Why couldn‘t he just leave her alone? If he

loved her, why didn‘t he insist that she go through with the life she had worked out so

precisely and strategically? ―I never planned this,‖ she mumbled, almost to herself.

        ―Nor did I, Toli. Love has its own agenda.‖

        He gently cradled her face and said, ―You should know that, whatever you decide

tomorrow, these few days we spent together will remain with me forever. I‘m a better

man for having met you.‖

        He gazed down at her with so much love in his eyes that she covered his hands


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


with hers to soak it into every pore.



       A sacred, bond existed between a father and daughter. Joseph knew that

something had gone awry. When Edna had told him that Toli was going to take a nap, he

suspected she wasn‘t. He‘d also sensed that the man wearing the leather jacket in the

parking lot of Black River Lodge two nights ago, the carpenter who had built the altar,

had some deeper connection with his daughter. This was evident today at the golf course.

It was why he‘d followed Toli when she‘d left the lodge, and it was why he waited in his

car while she went into the church. Now, parked down the street and gazing through

binoculars, he saw his daughter wrapped in this stranger‘s arms—this worthless,

calculating stranger who had somehow worked his way into his daughter‘s life.

       In a million years he would never guess that Toli was capable of infidelity. This

was not the girl he‘d raised. What would come of it? Would she call off the wedding and

embarrass herself and the Stevens name in front of the country? Or would she go through

with it, keeping this transgression a secret from Daniel. He deserves this?

       Joseph put down the binoculars, and his arthritic hands gripped the steering

wheel. They hurt terribly when he squeezed it.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     THIRTY-FIVE



Wedding Day

       Next to that of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, Toli and Daniel‘s wedding was

predicted be the most watched of all time.

       From the moment she‘d awoken this morning, the bride-to-be wasn‘t alone. In her

room with her were Edna, Melinda, Debbie, Sid, and the entire camera crew capturing

her every move. But now, just an hour before the ceremony, Toli was hiding from them

all. Wearing her wedding dress, she sat in the bathroom desperately scribbling down pros

and cons in her time-management book. She recorded fourteen pros as to why she should

marry Daniel, one con as to why she should not. In another column she listed eighteen

cons as to why she should see Jack again, one pro as to why she should meet him at

Hiawatha Park in one hour.

       During the rehearsal dinner last night she had kept her composure and put up a

good front. She had to. Everyone present knew about her relationship with Jack except

for Rainie and her father. Toli wondered, though, whether they also knew, especially

Joseph who had been giving her ―fatherly‖ looks repeatedly.

       After the rehearsal she bid everyone an early goodnight, including Daniel. Despite

his protests she had refused to sleep with him, telling him she wanted to follow the

traditional custom of the groom‘s not seeing the bride on their wedding day before the

ceremony.

       ―But I‘ll leave your room before morning!‖ Daniel practically begged.

       ―We‘ll save it for our wedding night,‖ she‘d told him.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        She heard her cell phone ringing outside the bathroom.

        ―I‘ll pick it up,‖ Melinda shouted through the door.

        Toli‘s heart leaped. Could it be Jack? No, what was she thinking? He didn‘t even

know her cell number. She shut her time-management book, stowed it in the bathroom

drawer, and entered the main room.

        ―It‘s a guy named Bernard Nicholas,‖ Melinda said.

        Bernard Nicholas, the Executive Producer of AM America! The phone almost

slipped out of Toli‘s sweating palm as she took it from Melinda. ―Mr. Nicholas, how are

you?‖

        ―I couldn‘t be better, Toli. I‘m calling to tell you that I and some key execs at

NBC made a very important decision. We decided that you are going to be the next co-

host of AM America.‖

        Toli‘s mouth fell open.

        ―You impressed quite a few people doing your ―Extraordinary Weddings in

Extraordinary Places‖ series. And the consensus was that you and Elton make a great

team. This was confirmed last night when the ratings came in from your pre-wedding

interview with him. They were 28% higher than any of the other pre-wedding interviews.

People love to watch you, Toli. And that‘s what we want in a host, a person whom people

love to watch. You‘re being awfully quiet. Are you still there?‖

        Toli could scarcely breathe, let alone talk.

        ―Toli?‖

        ―Yes, Mr. Nicholas. I‘m here.‖

        ―Are you interested?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       She never thought that she‘d be chosen as the next host, let alone informed via a

phone call just before her wedding. Prowling the room with a camera on his shoulder, Sid

moved around her, and Toli realized that they had set up this moment in advance. The

entire country is watching my reaction to this call!

       ―Am I interested? This is what I‘ve been dreaming of! When do I start?‖

       He chuckled. ―January second, the day after New Year‘s. We‘ll work out the

details later. You and Daniel enjoy your honeymoon. Heck, my mother in-law is 92 years

old and counting down the minutes until the ceremony begins. You‘ve made quite a

splash, Toli Stevens. Goodbye.‖

       ―Goodbye, Mr. Nicholas.‖

       Toli hit END on her cell phone. She hugged her mother, while the others cheered.

Then her father entered the room, and Edna told him the good news. Joseph smiled

graciously at Toli and congratulated her.



       Driving his van toward Hiawatha Park, Jack gazed out the window at the

Goodyear blimp floating in the blue Ironwood sky. He‘d never seen a blimp around here

before. He‘d hardly seen a helicopter either, especially an NBC helicopter. Undoubtedly

they had arrived to film Toli‘s wedding.

       After they‘d made love the night before last, Toli had asked him why he was in

Ironwood. He hadn‘t given her the total answer, but now he wished he‘d told her. She

deserved to know that piece of truth about him. If she arrives at Hiawatha Park, I’ll tell

her, Jack vowed to himself.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Even now, thirty years after his wife‘s death, when Joseph looked into Toli‘s eyes

he saw Georgia. On their wedding day Georgia was the most beautiful woman Joseph

had ever seen, but today, draped in her white satin wedding dress, Toli was even more

beautiful.

        For her entire life Joseph had thought of Toli as being a rose among garden-

variety flowers. He supposed most parents felt this way about their children, but in Toli‘s

case even a stranger could see it was true. In a world of mediocrity she towered above the

rest—despite her back problem. But now his vision of her was tainted by knowing she‘d

given herself to another man. He didn‘t say a word about it last night at the rehearsal

dinner, but he could hold it in no longer.

        Toli sat in the passenger seat next to him as they drove to Copper Peak. The

others had previously left the lodge and were waiting on the observation deck, where

Joseph would give her to Daniel. The local Justice of the Peace would pronounce them

husband and wife in front of the entire country. The vision in Joseph‘s mind was

juxtaposed with the memory of his daughter kissing that man yesterday. It had haunted

him all night.

        ―Toli?‖

        ―Yes, daddy.‖

        ―I want you to know how pleased I am that you‘re marrying Daniel. He‘s a good

man.‖

        ―I know.‖

        ―You‘ll never have to doubt his intentions, of that I‘m sure.‖

        ―Of course not.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Trust is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Without it you have nothing.‖

       She gazed out the passenger window, not looking at him. ―Why are you telling me

these things now?‖

       ―Why? Because I think there‘s something you need to tell me.‖



       It was a beautiful day, thought Jack, a perfect day for an outdoor wedding. Also a

perfect day to be on the road. He‘d emptied out his van last night, putting the slats of

wood, cans of varnish and stain, and bottles of glue in the shop for Gene. Then he‘d

loaded all his belongings: clothes, books, magazines, guitar, and CDs. This morning he‘d

left Gene a note on the kitchen table along with a check for another month‘s rent. Jack

had told him he wouldn‘t be back anytime soon and didn‘t say where he was going

because he didn‘t know. He and Toli would decide on their destination.

       Jack parked his van along the street near Hiawatha Park and got out. As he

walked over the grass toward the statue, he kicked a few acorns under an oak tree. As a

kid he had once cracked open an acorn with a chisel, excited to examine the seed inside.

What would it look like, the kernel that would became a oak tree? After crushing a seed,

he was astonished to find that it was nothing but woody powder. How could this possibly

become a tree? It made no sense.

       He reached the statue of Hiawatha and sat down on one of the wood benches. Was

it realistic to think that Toli would change her life midstream to be with him? Probably

not, but was it realistic for a nondescript oak seed to grow into a towering tree with

massive branches and abundant leaves that exude life-giving oxygen? Is it realistic that

the material of which our houses and furniture is made came from that same seed?


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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


His mind started to race. Was it realistic for a bunch of renegade, untrained, and

underfunded Americans to beat the greatest military strength in the world and gain our

nation‘s independence from Great Britain? Was it realistic for the Egyptians to build the

Great Pyramid of Giza before the wheel was invented? Everything worth having in this

world is unrealistic, he thought. The only thing that’s “realistic” is mediocrity.

          He wished that Toli were here now so he could say these things to her, but hadn‘t

he already said enough? All that talk the other night about the machine and his

philosophy of life. He really did espouse those convictions, but mostly he‘d said it in

hopes that she would agree with him. She was of another mind, but he already knew they

had their differences. Everything about their relationship was different.

          He gazed up at the statue towering a good fifty feet into the lucid sky. One of

Hiawatha‘s arm was directed downward, with an outstretched forefinger pointing right at

him. In the other palm was a long-stemmed peace pipe. Jack considered the man-power it

must have taken to create the Indian and place it in this desolate park, so far off the

beaten path of the world. It didn‘t fit. How realistic is it for this statue to even exist in this

place?

          He looked at his watch. He‘d dug it out of his things last night, the first jewelry

he‘d worn in a long time. It read 7:43 a.m.



          Joseph parked in the gravel lot of Copper Peak and turned to Toli. His jaw was

clenched, his eyes rigid. ―I saw you with that man,‖ he said. ―I saw you in his arms last

night.‖

          Toli lost her breath.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―That‘s right. I followed you. I knew something was wrong. And I was right!‖

        ―You were spying on me?‖

        ―I didn‘t raise you that way, Toli. I didn‘t raise you to be disloyal. I didn‘t raise

you to be a whore!‖

        Toli‘s mouth fell open. Her father had never spoken to her this way before. ―How

could you?‖ she gasped.

        ―How could I? I left this economic wasteland of Ironwood forty years ago so that

I could build a life and raise a family the right way with money and security. Now I find

that my daughter‘s been in the sack with some poor son-of-a-bitch who probably can‘t

afford the shirt on his back—and on the day before your wedding!‖ He pointed a shaky

finger at her. ―Daniel doesn‘t deserve this, Toli. You won‘t find a better provider than

him.‖

        Provider? A week ago the word would have resonated, but now she wondered

what exactly it had to do with love.

        Joseph clutched the steering wheel to subdue his shaking hands. ―And your

mother, your birth mother, deserved better,‖ he stammered. ―Promise me you‘ll never see

that man again.‖

        Toli was also trembling under her wedding dress.

        ―Toli?‖ Deep lines were etched into Joseph‘s angry brow. His eyes were hard and

unyielding. She feared he could have a stroke or heart attack at any minute.

        ―I want you to promise me that you‘ll never see that man again.‖

        The ceremony was about to begin. ―I promise, daddy.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Her father drew a long breath. ―I‘ll not mention it again.‖ He then swabbed his

brow with a handkerchief. ―We‘d better get up there. Everyone‘s waiting.‖

       ―Just give me a moment.‖

       Joseph nodded. He opened the car door and stepped out.

       Toli was paralyzed by her emotions. Now everyone knew about Jack except for

Daniel. Why should this surprise her? Was it not typical of her life? She never could keep

a secret. But now she yearned for secrets—yearned to be a private person with a secret

life. Now she had something worth hiding.

        She looked at the keys in the ignition through tear-blurred eyes. It wasn‘t too late.

She envisioned Jack waiting for her in Hiawatha Park. She was free to meet him, and it

was her life after all. My life! She could leave her parents, bridesmaids, Sid, camera crew,

and Daniel to start a new life with Jack. It’s my right! She could pick up the pieces later,

but what about her new job as co-host of AM America? Would they still want her if she

didn‘t marry Daniel?

       Her gaze wandered to the ski ramp in the clear October sky and the Goodyear

blimp hovering overhead. As her father had said, they were all up there waiting. She

pictured Elton and Sarah in the NBC studios standing by for the live feed of the wedding,

while viewers around the country were perched in front of their TVs awaiting coverage of

Toli Stevens, the new co-host of AM America. An entirely new life coincided with her

arrival on top of Copper Peak. And just twenty minutes away an alternative life awaited

her at Hiawatha Park.

       She recalled how the act of kissing Jack had transported her to another place, and

she heard again the words he‘d said: ―I don‘t want to die with the song still in me.‖ I


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


don’t either, thought Toli.

       She slid over to the driver‘s seat, started the car, and backed up. The last thing she

saw, before putting it into drive, was Joseph‘s turning on his heel and looking at her. She

mashed the accelerator.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       THIRTY-SIX



        Jack watched as a silver car turned the corner and headed down the street toward

Hiawatha Park. He rose from the bench, but as the car drew nearer he realized it wasn‘t

her BMW and watched it drive past the park.



        Toli had driven a hundred yards before the full ramifications of her actions hit

her. Am I out of my mind? I’m going to sacrifice my family, my friends, my future . . . I’m

going to betray everything I’ve worked so hard for? This is insane! She stopped in the

middle of the road. Don’t think, Toli. Just do what’s right! She made a U-turn and raced

back to Copper Peak.

        She hadn‘t realized how fast her car was moving when she hit the gravel parking

lot in front of the ski jump. She stomped the brake pedal, skidding to a halt, her head

nearly hitting the steering wheel.

        Calm down. Breathe . . . breathe . . .

        Checking her driver‘s side mirror through the dust cloud, she saw Joseph standing

rigidly on the cabin‘s steps staring at her. She flung open the car door, yanked her

wedding dress knee-high, and, taking baby steps toward the cabin, arrived at her father‘s

side.

        She was relieved that Joseph said nothing. He seemed to intuitively understand

what she‘d just gone through—that she‘d experienced a momentary lapse of rationality,

but had come to her senses.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        She‘d done what he had taught her to do since birth: take logical action toward the

attainment of long-term goals and not allow irrational spontaneity to direct her life.

        He hugged her. ―I apologize for calling you that name, Toli. My only concern is

your well-being.‖

        ―I know that. I‘m sorry for what I did too,‖ she said.

        ―That‘s my girl.‖

Rainie joined them, and they all took the ski lift to the elevator on the hill, where Julia,

the makeup artist, was waiting. Julia wore a headset with a mini-microphone.

        ―Toli, we‘re running ten minutes late! Sid is having a cow up there.‖

        Toli could hear Sid loudly grumbling through Julia‘s tiny earpiece. Julia pulled

her into the elevator. ―We‘re on our way up now,‖ she announced, before attacking Toli

with a blush brush.

―Toli found it difficult to breathe. ―Do I look nervous?‖

        ―Absolutely,‖ said Julia with a grin, ―but you‘re supposed to. It‘s your wedding.‖

        ―You look beautiful,‖ commented Joseph.

        Julia handed Toli an earpiece ―so you can talk with the studio after the

ceremony.‖ Toli took the piece, nervously tried to fix it in her ear, but it fell out of her

hand. Julia picked it up and put it in her ear for her. ―Stand by,‖ said Julia into the

microphone, as the elevator reached the top. ―Three, two, one.‖

        The elevator groaned to a stop. Joseph encircled his arm with Toli‘s. The door slid

open, and they stepped onto the observation deck. With the cameras on them, they moved

toward Daniel, Melinda, Debbie, Edna, and the Justice of the Peace. Toli became aware




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


of every click of her high-heeled shoes on the metal platform, which seemed in sync with

the beating of her heart. Joseph handed her over to Daniel.



       Jack felt a stab in his heart as each second ticked by. At 8:15 his mind began to

wander. He thought about heading up to Canada. Montreal, with its snow-covered hills,

would be beautiful in the winter. While others would complain, he‘d cherish every

crystalline snowflake that would fall from the frigid skies. He loved the raw bite of

December on his skin. He imagined walking over a freshly fallen blanket and could

practically hear the snow crunch underfoot.

       He imagined ice-skating, felt his body gliding, and heard the steel blades cutting

into the ice. At his side, Toli was bundled in wool. He held her slim, gloved fingers in his

hand and watched snow gather on her stocking cap. Flakes got caught in her eyelashes,

and she tried to blink them away. Her nose was pink; and when he kissed her he felt its

coldness against his cheek, and the warmth of her mouth against his.



       Holding hands, Toli and Daniel stood before Thomas Kleven, Justice of the

Peace, an elderly man with a pleasant demeanor and a ruddy, bulbous nose. Since neither

Daniel nor she were of any particular religious persuasion, they had decided to use a local

functionary. A friend of Rainie‘s, Toli had met Thomas for the first time at the rehearsal

dinner last night and found him pleasing enough, but now, as he read the wedding vows,

his voice sounded cold and distant: ―Marriage is therefore not to be entered upon

thoughtlessly or irresponsibly, but with a due and serious understanding and appreciation

of the ends for which it is undertaken, and of the material, intellectual, and emotional


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


factors that will govern its fulfillment.‖



          Toli became aware of three cameramen vying to get the best shots of her and

Daniel. Filming a live event was never easy. A lens peered over the Justice of the Peace‘s

shoulder, its mechanical eye gawking at her like some ravenous animal. She forced a

smile.

          Joseph stood on Toli‘s left. Given cancer, his days were numbered. She knew her

marriage to Daniel would make him happy. This was important to her.

          Thomas Kleven droned on: ―It is, by its nature, a state of giving rather than

taking, of offering rather than receiving. Marriage requires the giving of one‘s self to

support the marriage and the home in which it may flourish. It is into this high and

serious state that these two persons desire to unite.”

          “High and serious state?” thought Toli. Why does marriage have to be so

serious? Shouldn‘t it be the opposite? Shouldn‘t love be the most unserious thing that

exists?

          ―Therefore, if any person can show just and sufficient reason why these two

persons may not be joined together in matrimony let them now declare their reasons.‖

          During this part in movies the audience is always left to wonder if the lover is

going to jump out of the audience and object. Would Jack?

          Movement caught her eye behind the Justice of Peace. A black bird had landed on

the wire-link fence. It flapped its wings and let out an earsplitting squawk, as if protesting

their presence. Could it be the same raven she‘d seen sitting atop the ―Welcome to

Ironwood‖ sign a week ago. She suddenly felt faint and started to teeter.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Daniel squeezed her hand. She took a breath and reflected on their future life

together: three kids, designer ceiling fans, a golden retriever . . . But the images quickly

faded, replaced by one dire thought: how Daniel‘s hand felt almost foreign. She banished

the notion, but it boomeranged back, and Toli started coughing.

       ―Are you okay?‖ Daniel asked. Toli nodded, yet for the life of her she couldn‘t

stop coughing. Not only did Daniel‘s hand feel foreign, but she was also repelled by it.

She yearned for Jack‘s hand. She pictured him in Hiawatha Park waiting for her.



       Jack could take it no longer. He‘d left Hiawatha Park at 8:25. Toli had said her

ceremony was at eight sharp, recorded live on TV. Television stations, he knew, had to

abide by strict time guidelines. He also knew from Toli‘s craving for punctuality that she

wouldn‘t be late for her wedding. As he passed Maggie‘s on his way out of town and saw

a crowd of people inside, curiosity got the best of him. He did a U-turn and entered the

restaurant.

       About thirty locals were watching the television on the wall. To Jack‘s

amazement the ceremony was still in progress. Toli stood in her white dress facing her

fiancé. Jack winced at the sight. He stayed at the back of the restaurant, not wanting to

move closer to the screen.

       Something was wrong, however. Everyone in the wedding party was gawking at

Toli, who was looking at her fiancé but saying nothing. The Justice of the Peace finally

broke the silence. ―Is there something you wanted to say, Toli?‖ he asked. The camera

zoomed in close on her, but she seemed unable to speak. Then she did something strange.

She turned, faced the camera, and stared into it, as though she were searching for him.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―May I continue?‖ the Justice of the Peace asked.

        Toli tore her gaze from the camera. She nodded.

        ―Please face each other,‖ said the Justice of the Peace.

        Toli turned toward her fiancé again. He took her hand.

        ―Daniel Peters, will you have this woman to be your wife, to live together

according to God‘s decree in the holy state of marriage?‖

        ―I will.‖

        ―Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and

forsaking all others faithfully keep to her alone, so long as you both shall live?‖

        ―I will.‖

        ―Toli Stevens, will you have this man to be your husband, to live together

according to God‘s decree in the holy estate of marriage?‖

        ―I will.‖

        ―Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him in sickness and in health,

and forsaking all others faithfully keep to him alone, so long as you both shall live?‖

        Toli quickly glanced at the camera, her eyes dark. She turned back to her fiancé.

―I will.‖

        ―Please exchange rings.‖

        Jack looked away. Seated at the counter was Father McCoy. He was staring at

him as if he wanted to say something. Jack wasn‘t interested in talking to anyone.

        ―I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.‖

        The small crowd in Maggie‘s oohed and aahed as Jack left the restaurant, not

allowing himself to look back at the screen.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482




       Daniel took Toli in his arms and kissed her. She was aware of those on the

platform clapping, and in her mind‘s eye she imagined Elton and Sarah in the NBC

studios with several hundred people watching there, also clapping and cheering. She then

pictured Jack sitting on the bench in Hiawatha Park waiting for her. After the kiss a

camera would zoom in on her for an extremely tight close-up. Sid called it the ―Wedding

Glow Shot,‖ so named because the bride, after each ceremony they had filmed, would

glow like an angel after the kiss that signified their marriage. It was the payoff for

viewers at home. After Sid got the shot, he would shove a microphone in front of the

couple, and Elton and Sarah in New York would start talking to them in their earpieces,

asking them questions.

       What would she say? Her television series was supposed to represent the very

embodiment of love in America. It showed the humor, adventure, and romantic spirit of

couples who got married in extraordinary places while being extraordinarily in love.

However, she was not in love with Daniel, and now, she knew without a shadow of

doubt, she never could be. To say, suggest, or act differently was not something she could

live with.

       She had thought that, if she went through with the vows, somehow the world

would magically tilt, and she would become her old self again—the person who had

relished a life with Daniel. But her time with Jack had changed her forever. A door had

been opened to a secret vault.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Father McCoy‘s words from the day before rang in her ears, ―We search for the

path of our soul our entire life, taking many wrong turns. When we finally find it, we

know. Yet, for many of us the path goes untraveled. Why?‖

       Because we don’t courage to take it.

       ―Stand by for live audio,‖ a voice said in her earpiece.

       The kiss ended. Toli stepped back from Daniel. A camera crept closer to her, but

she didn‘t even attempt to smile. Sid approached them with a microphone.

       Toli steadied her nerves and fixed her gaze on Daniel. ―I can‘t do it,‖ she said.

       ―Do what, honey?‖

       ―Marry you.‖

       Daniel‘s eyes darkened. ―What?‖

       ―What?‖ Toli heard Elton repeat back in New York. ―She said she can‘t marry

him!‖ Toli heard Sarah say to Elton in the earpiece.

       ―I can‘t marry you,‖ Toli repeated to Daniel.

       ―Oh my God,‖ Sarah gasped.

       Momentarily Daniel smiled at the cameras as if this were some kind of gag, but

the smile disappeared when he turned back to Toli.

       ―I‘m in love with someone else,‖ she said point-blank, trying to keep her voice

from shaking.

       ―This is a joke?‖

       ―It‘s no joke, Daniel.‖

       ―Someone else?‖ Elton asked.

       ―Who?‖ Sarah asked.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Another man?‖ Sid asked.

       Toli ignored their questions and held her head high. Daniel, Elton, Sarah, Sid,

Melinda, Debbie, her parents, and everyone around the country had to know that this was

no joke. She fought the urge to look away and kept her eyes locked with Daniel‘s. She

couldn‘t let the shocked faces of those present weaken her resolve.

       ―Toli, have you lost it?‖ Elton asked in the earpiece. ―We‘re live!‖ exclaimed

Sarah. ―She knows that,‖ Elton told Sara.

       Daniel‘s jaw went slack; his eyes seemed unable to focus. Then he quickly

regained his composure. ―What the hell are you talking about?‖ he snarled. ―We just got

married!‖

       ―You just said ‗I do,‘‖ remarked Sid to Toli.

       ―Then I want a divorce,‖ she shot back. ―I am so sorry, Daniel.‖

       Daniel clasped her in his arms. ―This isn‘t you. What‘s going on here?‖ He looked

at Sid and yelled, ―Cut!‖

       Toli knew there‘d be no interrupting the live video feed. The cameras would

capture every drop of blood that fell here. ―I made a mistake,‖ she said calmly to Daniel.

―There‘s nothing more I can say other than the fact that I‘m in love with another man.‖

       ―Who?‖ Daniel barked. ―Tell me who he is!‖

       ―Who?‖ asked Elton, Sarah and Sid simultaneously.

       Toli was getting dizzy. She yanked out the earpiece and tried to back away from

Daniel, but his grip only tightened. ―Ouch. You‘re hurting me,‖ she said.

       ―Tell me his name and I‘ll—‖

       ―Enough!‖ a voice boomed.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       She turned toward the source of the sound.

       ―Let her go,‖ Joseph warned.

       ―But—―

       ―Now!‖ Joseph roared.

       Daniel slowly released Toli‘s arms. She stepped toward her father, but Joseph

pursed his lips and held out his bony hand as a gesture for her to come no closer.

       This is what she had dreaded the most—more than Daniel's shock and confusion,

more than the millions of people who would talk about her bizarre behavior around the

water cooler at work, more even than losing her job. To witness her father‘s pain and be

the target of his anger was the worst. How she wanted to seek his forgiveness, wrap her

arms around him, and hug him as she had done while a child. He‘d given her so much for

her over the years. This ceremony was supposed to be as much for Joseph as for her and

Daniel. It was Toli‘s way of honoring him for always being there for her, but now the

most she could hope for was that someday he‘d understand. He had always taught her to

follow her heart and, above all else, to be true to herself.

       ―Daddy, if there‘s one thing you‘ve taught me,‖ she started to say, but fell silent

when he turned his back. It was no use. Precious seconds were ticking away, seconds

separating her from Jack.

       With all eyes on her, she hiked up her wedding dress and ran into the open

elevator. ―Why?‖ she heard Daniel‘s voice plead. ―Why are you doing this?‖ She turned

to him. ―I‘m sorry, Daniel.‖

       The elevator door closed.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                    THIRTY-SEVEN



       Racing toward Hiawatha Park, Toli was so light-headed that she feared she might

pass out. Her breaths were short and shallow, the road before her a formless blur. She‘d

just trashed her entire life—her career, her relationship with Joseph and Edna, and her

bond with millions of viewers. She‘d just gone from the darling of AM America to a

freakish spectacle, as was manifest by the NBC helicopter following her overhead. The

cameramen inside obviously hoped to get a shot of the ―other man.‖

       In opposition to her anxiety was the joyful anticipation of starting her new life

with Jack. For the first time ever she knew what love was. She loved Jack with her entire

being. It didn‘t matter that she‘d only known him a short time. It seemed as though he

had always been part of her. Nothing else mattered now except that they connected and

lived their dreams together. The turbulent aftermath of her decision to be with him would

be overshadowed by their love.

       A thought just then struck her. With one hand on the wheel she dug into her purse

with the other and found the appointment card for Dr. Kolker, the plastic surgeon. She

yanked it out and with an enthusiastic swing of her arm tossed it out the window.



       Fifteen minutes later she reached Hiawatha Park and saw a group of people at the

foot of the statue taking pictures. They blocked her view of the park bench where Jack

was probably waiting. She quickly scanned the street for his van but didn‘t spot it.

Perhaps he‘d parked on a side street. She pulled to the curb, kicked off her shoes, and

jumped out of her car. With the wedding dress hindering her strides, she took baby steps


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


toward the crowd.

       ―Excuse me. Excuse me,‖ she said, inserting herself into the throng. Bodies parted

to reveal the empty bench. Everyone was gawking at her. ―Was there a man here? A man

with dark hair and wearing a black leather jacket? Did you see him?‖

       Heads shook. ―No. We just got here a few minutes ago,‖ a woman volunteered.

       ―What time is it?‖ Toli asked.

       A man looked at his watch. ―8:55.‖

       Toli hadn‘t realized she was so late. She must have just missed him. He’s

probably in his workshop.

       As she turned to leave, something caught her eye on the ground in front of the

bench. She stepped closer. A word was scratched into the dirt: ―Unrealistic.‖

       People started taking pictures of her. What a sight I must be, she thought, standing

there barefooted in her wedding dress. She became aware of a growling engine. She

gazed skyward to see the NBC helicopter hovering directly overhead. She turned on her

heel and ran back over the grass to her car.



       Her heart hammered in her chest as she turned onto Oak Street and didn‘t see

Jack‘s van in his driveway. When you nuke your life to start a new one, you want it to

begin immediately!

       Perhaps Gene was at home. She parked, hoisted her dress off her ankles, and

bounded up the porch steps. She pounded the door.

       Gene answered. ―Toli, what are you doing here?‖

       ―May I come in?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       He looked curiously at her wedding dress, then up at the helicopter overhead, then

back at her. He pulled her inside.

       ―What‘s going on, are you okay?‖ he asked.

       She flung her arms around Gene. Just seeing him and being in this house; her new

life was underway!

       ―Oh, Gene. Everything‘s more than okay. I‘m so happy,‖ she gushed, ―and scared,

and drunk with love, and nervous, but happy! Where‘s Jack?‖ She released him.

       Gene‘s face corkscrewed into a quizzical frown. ―Jack‘s not here. Why do you

want him?‖

       ―I realized that I‘ve never really loved any man in my entire life before. It‘s

always been about me, about my success, my goals. I never really loved before. I thought

I did. But I didn‘t.‖ She wiped her watering eyes on her arm. ―Now I get it.‖

       He scratched his head. ―Does your husband know this?‖

       ―It‘s Jack I love, Gene.‖

       He stepped back and stroked his chin, as if stroking a beard that wasn‘t there.

Then he started nodding his head. ―I knew something was up with him, whistling silly

songs lately, smiling at nothing.‖ He looked back at Toli. ―What about your wedding?‖

       ―I didn‘t go through with it. I mean, I did, but I didn‘t. It‘s a long story. Jack said

he‘d be waiting for me at Hiawatha Park. I was supposed to be there at 8:00 but didn‘t get

there until almost 9:00. Do you know where he is?‖

       Gene considered her question. ―Well, there‘s no telling with Jack. He‘s a loner.

He‘s on the road headed somewhere. What road, which direction, I don‘t know.‖

       ―Road? What do you mean?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―I mean he‘s not coming back here.‖

       ―But he lives here.‖

       Gene‘s expression darkened. ―He didn‘t tell you?‖

       Toli‘s lungs suddenly seemed to freeze up. She could barely breathe. ―What?‖

       Gene‘s face morphed into one of fatherly concern. ―Please, Toli, have a seat.‖ He

pointed to a chair.

       Though her legs were wobbly, she couldn‘t sit. ―Tell me what, Gene?‖

       ―Wait here.‖ He went into the kitchen, returned a moment later, and handed her a

note that read:

       Dear Gene,

       Thanks for everything. I’m headed out. Not sure where I’m going. I won’t be

back. The original agreement was that I’d help you until your arm healed. Now that

that’s done, I’ll be moving on. You’re friend, Jack.

       Toli‘s gaze moved from the trembling note in her hand to see that Gene‘s cast was

gone. ―Had it removed yesterday,‖ he said.

       ―How long has Jack lived in your house?‖ she asked.

       ―A few months.‖

       ―That‘s all? Where was he living before that?‖

       ―Rented a room over at Murphy‘s Starlite Inn in Hurley. He‘d use my workshop

to work in when he needed the machinery. When I had my accident and broke my arm, I

asked him whether he could take over the jobs I had lined up. He said he could, and I

offered him the room in the back. It was easier that way.‖

       ―Where did he come from before he lived at Murphy‘s?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Chicago.‖

       ―He‘s from Chicago?‖

       ―Kripes Almighty, Toli. How can you give up your marriage and love someone

without knowing anything about him?‖

       Toli couldn‘t respond. There wasn‘t time for this. The clock on the mantel

indicated 10:30. Jack probably had about an hour‘s head start. ―Do you think he might be

staying at a local motel?‖

       ―Probably not. My guess is that he left town altogether.‖

       ―Did he speak of friends? Relatives he might visit? Places he‘d like to go?‖

       Gene glumly shook his head. ―Jack never talked about things like that.‖

       ―My cell‘s in the car. Do you have a phone?‖ Gene yanked his cell from his

pocket and handed it to her. She punched in Sid‘s number. He picked up after two rings.

       ―Sid, it‘s me, Toli.‖

       First silence, then a whisper. ―I can‘t believe what you did!‖

       ―I need your—‖

       ―Everyone is freaking out about this. Who is this guy?‖

       She could barely hear him. ―Why are you whispering?‖ she asked.

       ―Why? Because I‘m standing not ten feet from the man you dumped.‖

       Toli cringed but was undeterred. She quickly explained the situation. ―I need your

help. I need the NBC helicopter to search the streets and highways for him—for Jack.‖

       ―His name is Jack?‖

       ―Yes.‖

       ―Jack what?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Never mind that! Please, Sid. We need to find him.‖

       ―Search the highways for him? Are you saying he‘s lost?‖

       ―He might have left town. We have to find him.‖

       ―Holy crap. This is hot. The ‗other man‘ has gone away. Makes for an even better

story than your wedding! We help to locate this guy Jack, you reunite with him, and it‘s

all caught on camera. Nobody could write a story this good!‖

       ―Sid.‖

       ―Okay. What are we looking for?‖

       ―He‘s got an old van.‖ She tried to remember the year. ―1986,‖ she said. ―No. He

bought it in ‗86. The van itself is—‖

       ―1979,‖ Gene informed her. Toli repeated it to Sid.

       ―Color?‖

       ―Light blue.‖

       ―I‘ll get the chopper right on it.‖

       ―One more thing. It‘s got chrome reinforcement slats on the roof.‖

       ―How do you know that?‖

       ―Just hurry, Sid. Please hurry!‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     THIRTY-EIGHT



       Toli sped through the streets of Ironwood, Hurley, Jessieville, Siemens, and

Bessemer searching for Jack‘s van. She stopped in every restaurant and gas station along

the way and described Jack to every person she met, but no one had seen him.

       Gene headed south on Route 51 to Manitowish.

       The helicopter went even further south, all the way to Wausau, searching the

highways for a 1979 light blue Ford van with chrome reinforcement slats on the roof. By

1:00 o‘clock Sid told Toli that they had not spotted such a vehicle. AM America had long

since ended its live telecast, but Sid told her that news stations around the country were

running the story of how she had ―left her husband at the altar.‖ Toli was glad for this.

The more talk about her and Jack, the greater chance he‘d hear it and return to Ironwood.

       It was almost surreal that Jack couldn‘t be found, but she didn‘t allow herself to

wallow in the situation‘s absurdity. He was out there somewhere, and she would find

him, but she had to stay focused in order to do so.

       By the early afternoon she and Gene met again at his house. Guests were waiting.

About a dozen local reporters emerged from their vehicles as Toli pulled into the

driveway. She had already anticipated this and knew exactly how she was going to

handle it. They wanted a story, and they would get one, but not today.

       Still in her wedding dress, she got out of her car and was hit with a barrage of

questions. She answered none but made an announcement instead: ―Tomorrow morning

at 9:00 a.m. sharp I will give a press conference at Hiawatha Park. I will answer all your

questions then.‖ She knew that such a ploy would never work in New York, but she


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


figured it had a chance here. She needed time to chill, gather some information, and

formulate a more systematic plan.

       If any of the media corps were thinking of asking a question, Gene made sure they

didn‘t. ―You heard what she said. Now get the hell off my lawn before I call the police.‖

He shooed them away as though they were animals that had strayed into his front yard.

―Git. Now git!‖

       Inside the house Gene led her to the dining-room table where she plopped down

into a chair. Her nerves were frayed; her eyes felt swollen and her throat raw.

       Gene went into the kitchen and minutes later returned with two bowls of

something he called Bajajou soup. He set a bowl in front of her and sat down himself.

She glumly spooned in mouthfuls while thinking that, with all the TV coverage, her

father and mother knew she had come here to Gene‘s house, yet they hadn‘t come by or

called. Neither had Melinda and Debbie. Were they simply allowing her space, or had

they all disowned her?

       She didn‘t want to go there now. There‘d be plenty of time for damage control

later. She turned her thoughts back to Jack and remembered how he sometimes seemed

able to read them. She closed her eyes and concentrated on sending him a message:

―Jack, I held out for you. Wherever you are at this very moment, you must return to

Ironwood. I‘ll be here. Please come back.‖

       ―You‘re welcome to stay here as long as you like,‖ Gene said.

       ―Thank you,‖ Toli said, thinking she needed more information about Jack.

Information was the key.

       ―How did you meet first Jack?‖ she asked. ―When did he come to Ironwood?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―I met him a few years back when I did some remodeling for him in a condo he

owned at Powder Horn Mountain.‖

       ―The ski resort?‖

       ―Jack used to stay there each winter and ski. He was a closet carpenter, so we‘d

talk shop while I worked on his place. I think he‘d rather have done the work himself, but

his wife insisted he spend time with her and the kid.‖ Toli recalled the other day when

Rainie had mentioned that Jack had been married. Toli hadn‘t inquired further.

       ―Jack always told me how much he loved Ironwood,‖ Gene was saying, ―but his

obligations never allowed him to stay for long. He eventually sold the place. A couple of

years later he wrote to me, said he was divorced, and asked whether he could work with

me doing carpentry. I invited him to come up and threw him some jobs. Like I said, when

a header fell on my arm and broke it he came here to live with me.‖

       ―One child?‖

       Gene eyes fell away. ―A girl,‖ he said softly.

       Toli wondered whether Jack might be on his way to visit her. ―Do know where

she lives?‖

       The question seemed to startle Gene. He stared blankly at her for a moment. ―He

didn‘t tell you anything about his past?‖

       ―Very little,‖ said Toli.

       ―That‘s probably because he‘s been running from it.‖

       ―What do you mean?‖

       Gene slowly stirred his soup and muttered, ―I really don‘t like talking about other

people‘s affairs, but you have a right to know.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―I have to know.‖

        Gene nodded. ―Did he mention he was a doctor?‖

        ―What?‖

        ―No surprise there. He kept that a secret from everyone around here too.‖

        ―Jack is a doctor?‖

        ―Dr. Jack Morgan, M.D.‖

        Toli was too shocked to respond.

        ―I guess I can‘t blame him for keeping a lid on that,‖ said Gene, ―since he‘d lost

his license to practice.‖

        ―How?‖

        Gene shrugged. ―From what I understand, he was pretty outspoken and critical

about Big Pharma‘s massive marketing campaigns designed to get people to take their

drugs. He was even on Sixty Minutes once. Apparently he said a few things that upset the

American Medical Association, which had been at odds with him for some time. He had

a knack for healing people with his hands, you know. Anyway, the AMA eventually got

him on some technicality and revoked his license. Jack didn‘t tell me that. I read it in

People.‖

        ―I‘d heard that something horrible had happened in his marriage,‖ Toli said

        Gene averted his gaze momentarily; then his gray eyes returned her, looking

concerned and sad.

        ―Please tell me, Gene. Jack might have gone to visit his daughter.‖

        Gene set down his spoon and stood up. ―Finish your soup,‖ he said in a gravelly

voice. ―We‘re going for a ride.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482




       Back outside there wasn‘t a reporter in sight, yet Toli suspected she was the target

of telephoto lenses hidden in the distance. She couldn‘t prevent that. Minutes later she

and Gene arrived at Ironwood Cemetery in his pickup truck. Her chest tightened as Gene

drove down the winding main road to the rear of the grounds and parked. She, of course,

wondered why they were there but dared not ask. They got out and traversed about thirty

yards, side-stepping graves, to a relatively large headstone with a vase of fresh red roses

set before it. The words etched into the marble read:

                            To Emily. The owner of my heart.

                                Emily Morgan, 2002-2010

       Toli stared at the tombstone for the longest time, unable to speak.

       ―Jack brings fresh flowers every week,‖ Gene said. ―I don‘t think she‘s actually

buried here, it‘s more symbolic.‖ He reached into the rose stems, pulled out a plastic

envelope, and handed it to Toli. She took out a photograph of Jack and, presumably,

Emily sitting on a large, flat rock near a lake. Emily‘s head rested on Jack with his arm

looped around her. With silky blond hair and bright blue eyes, she wore a red dress with

white bunnies on it. Her legs dangled down the face of the rock, bare toes resting on

nothing. Emily‘s lips were arched into a glowing smile. Toli knew exactly how she must

have felt, protected and loved in Jack‘s arms.

       ―She was his only child,‖ said Gene.

       When driving to see the Paulding Light just days ago, Jack had been playing his

CDs when suddenly a deep sadness came over him. Toli remembered the name of the

song, ―Emily.‖ She‘d seen the gloom in his eyes after that too, times when he didn‘t


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


know she was looking at him.

        How did Emily die? Toli wondered, yet the knot in her throat prevented her from

forming the sounds. Gene apparently sensed it anyway.

        ―She was away on a weekend group-camping trip and ate some berries off a bush.

That night she got sick but didn‘t tell anyone. The next day she died from bacterial

meningitis. Jack wasn‘t there to help her. I think he blamed himself.‖

        Toli could hardly take it. Her cheeks were a river of tears. She handed the picture

back to Gene, who returned it to the bed of roses, and they walked slowly back toward

his pickup.

        ―Jack hadn‘t come to Ironwood until almost two years after Emily died,‖ said

Gene. ―He wasn‘t the same man I‘d known before. It‘s one of those things where you

can‘t do anything to cheer ‗em up either. Seemed like he was almost just doing time until.

. . .‖ His words trailed off.

        ―Until what, Gene?‖

        ―Until he met you.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      THIRTY-NINE



       Toli had to use the media to help her find Jack. It was the only way. Currently she

was a hot topic in the news, at least the entertainment news. Half the country had watched

her reject Daniel for another man mere seconds after saying her wedding vows. Now the

―mystery man‖ was out there somewhere, unaware of what had transpired. You can‘t

plan, manufacture, or buy sensationalism like that, thought Toli. Only local media

reporters were now pursuing her, but not for long. The national press would soon be on

her trail, or rather Jack‘s. She‘d make sure of it. One thing she‘d learned during her stint

with AM America was that the press was a cinch to manipulate. Just whisper a gripping

story in their ear and they‘d follow you anywhere. Scandal sells. She‘d leverage the

press‘s obsession to her advantage, and it would start with her press conference tomorrow

morning.

       When they arrived back at Gene‘s house, Melinda and Debbie were waiting on his

front porch, along with Toli‘s two suitcases of clothes and shoes that they‘d gathered up

from Black River Lodge.

       Toli hugged the sisters and briefly explained the entire scenario, including the fact

that Jack apparently didn‘t know she had left Daniel after their vows. ―Jack left town, but

we‘re going to find him,‖ she said. To Toli‘s relief the sisters didn‘t rebuke her or even

question what she‘d done.

       ―We‘ll help you,‖ said Debbie.

       ―Thank you. Have you talked to my parents? They haven‘t called.‖

       ―Edna sends her love,‖ said Debbie. ―Said she‘ll be in touch.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―And my father?‖ asked Toli.

        ―He was carrying a rifle last we saw him.‖ Melinda grinned.

        Toli was slow to return the smile but nevertheless did. She didn‘t mind the comic

relief. It was time to get to work.

        Gene set up his desk computer on the dining-room table, and Toli requested that

Debbie Google every major news program and newspaper in Michigan and Wisconsin as

well as call them. ―Tell them that I will be giving a press conference at 9:00 tomorrow

morning at Hiawatha Park. Make sure to get their email address so we can send them

pictures of Jack.‖

        Toli next asked Melinda to help her out of her wedding dress. Grabbing her

suitcase, they retreated to Jack‘s vacant bedroom at the rear of the house. The only things

in it were a dresser, nightstand, and the bed Jack and she had made love on the night

before last. While Melinda unfastened the buttons, memories came rushing back—the

sweet taste of Jack‘s mouth, the sensual movement of his hips, the oneness . . .

        ―What are you going to do with it?‖ Melinda asked.

        Toli stepped out of the dress, and Melinda laid it neatly on the bed. Despite

having been worn all day, it looked as fresh and snowy white as when she‘d put it on that

morning.

        ―I‘m not sure,‖ said Toli. ―I‘ll hang onto it for now.‖ It was too beautiful not to

keep.

        While taking a shower Toli decided not to spend one more second lamenting

Jack‘s absence. He was out there somewhere, and it was only a matter of being

resourceful enough to find him. She got dressed and joined the sisters back at the dining-


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


room table.

        ―We called all the stations and newspapers on the list and told them about your

press conference,‖ Debbie informed her. ―Now what?‖

        ―Now it‘s my turn,‖ said Toli.

        Over the next hour Toli called all the national television venues they had listed.

Most tried to engage her on the spot so that they‘d be the first to break the story straight

from the source. Toli stayed closed-lipped, however. She told them they‘d have to be at

the press conference to learn—and she chose her words very carefully—about her ―secret

love affair.‖

        She cringed at the idea of divulging anything about her and Jack‘s relationship to

anyone, especially the media. On the other hand, she knew that pride and discretion were

no longer luxuries she could afford. The more intimate ―secrets‖ she revealed, the more

likely the media would broadcast what she said, increasing the chances of Jack‘s catching

the news. She would bare her soul if need be. Jack would hate it, but she could think of

no other way of tracking him down.

        Next they went after the national tabloids and gossip magazines. By nightfall

every significant news source in the country knew about the press conference. Toli

downloaded the few photos she‘d taken of Jack onto the computer and emailed them to

everyone they‘d called. Jack might not see her on television when her press conference

aired, but even he‘d have a hard time missing his own picture on the cover of People in a

grocery store. If he didn‘t see it, someone else surely would and report where he was. The

plan just had to work.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        At Toli‘s earlier request Gene had made pasties for dinner. Since the dining-room

table had become their workstation, they crowded together at the kitchen table. Melinda

and Debbie were instantly smitten with their meal, just as Toli had been the first time she

bit into a pasty.

        Tonight, however, even the delicious meal didn‘t lessen Toli‘s building anxiety.

Out of necessity, all afternoon she had remained upbeat and productive, but now, during

this break in the action, negative emotions were scratching at her insides like talons of

some black creature.

        The creature not only made her bleed for Jack‘s absence, but it also reminded her

what she‘d sacrificed to be with him. Would Mr. Nicholas and AM America still want her

as the permanent morning host? Doubtful. They wanted stability, not a flake. In their

eyes, that‘s probably exactly what she‘d become.

        ―Well, this turned out to be a hell of a week, didn‘t it?‖ Melinda patted Toli‘s

hand.

        There was a knock at the front door. Toli‘s heart jumped. Would Jack knock?

Wouldn’t he just walk in? ―Who is it?‖ she asked Gene.

        ―I‘ll see.‖ Gene rose from the table and left the kitchen.

        A male voice drifted in from the foyer. Toli‘s stomach seized up. A moment later

Gene returned to the kitchen.

        ―Someone to see you,‖ he said. ―What do you want me to tell him?‖

        Toli had given little thought to Daniel since running out on him. She didn‘t want

to talk to him now, but she had to confront him sooner or later. She stood up.

        He waited just inside the front door.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Hello, Daniel.‖

        ―I‘ve come to tell you something.‖ He held his head high and his chin up. ―I

won‘t divorce you without a fight.‖

        She said nothing.

        ―By the end of the week I will file a suit against your lover.‖

        Toli stood silent and reminded herself that Daniel was a lawyer with a lawyer‘s

instinct to kill. She‘d once seen him verbally bring a man to tears in a video he‘d shown

her of a business mediation. How impressed with him she had been at the time. The man

had deserved it, but now she sensed that she was to be the target of Daniel‘s scathing

enmity.

        ―A Michigan law allows betrayed spouses to sue the ‗other fuck‘ for damages,‖ he

said. ―Yeah, that‘s right. You look surprised. It‘s a 200-year-old law on the books. You

should know by now that I‘m all about research, but apparently you don‘t know me at all.

In addition to your crapping on our marriage, do you know what damage this has done to

me personally? I have to go back to my life, Toli. What do you think my chances now are

of becoming a partner in the firm? I‘m the laughing stock of the country—the chump left

standing at the altar—left for some mangy dog that drives an old van and lives in this old

house and has no fucking scruples. I don‘t do ‗victim,‘ Toli. I‘m the fucking prosecutor!

Our relationship is far from over, sister. I‘m going to haunt you and the ‗other fuck‘ for

the rest of your lives.‖

        He stepped closer. Toli didn‘t retreat.

        ―All our plans, all those times you said you loved me, what was that? What were

you really after?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         ―I meant those things at the time.‖

         His eyes flared. ―Bullshit! If you loved me, you wouldn‘t have betrayed and

embarrassed me in front of the country. You never loved me. You were using me.‖

         That hurt, yet Toli bit her tongue. She refused to engage Daniel. Despite her

social transgression she still had feelings for him, more those of a brother now, than a

lover. She could too easily put herself in his shoes and sympathize with how he‘d been

screwed over. If only he could put himself in her shoes!

         He stood rigid, staring at her with fists clenched. His face flushed crimson.

―That‘s why you wouldn‘t sleep with me last night,‖ he hissed.

         ―Daniel—‖

         ―You were sleeping with him!‖

         Poisonous darts seemed to cut a path from his eyes to hers. It was ugly. She had

created this hate in him.

         ―And look at you now,‖ he mocked. ―You‘re all alone. What you sow is what you

reap.‖

         Daniel struck the door with his fist. The thundering bang brought her friends

rushing into the room. Daniel gave her one last toxic look before storming out of the

house. A strong gust of wind swooped in, carrying dead leaves.

         Toli slumped down on the sofa. Melinda and Debbie joined her, while Gene shut

the door.

         ―You never should have made that ideal-mate list,‖ said Melinda.

         The comment was meant as a joke, but Toli didn‘t laugh. Although she had

survived Daniel‘s verbal onslaught, his cutting words were quickly burrowing themselves


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


under her skin.

       ―What if he‘s right?‖ Toli mumbled. ―What if I‘ll never see Jack again because of

what I did?‖

       ―‗Doubt the sun doth move, but never doubt my love.‘‖

       The girls looked at Gene.

       ―Shakespeare,‖ he said. ―You‘ll find Jack, and Daniel will get over it.‖

       Toli wasn‘t sure whether it was two minutes or twenty minutes later when her cell

phone jangled. She looked at the display window. She didn‘t recognize the number, but

something told her she should answer it anyway.

       ―Hello.‖

       ―Is Toli Stevens there?‖

       ―This is Toli.‖

       ―This is Olivia Adams from WWUP television in Sault Ste. Marie. Earlier today I

received a call from Melinda Walker about your wedding. She emailed me pictures of

Jack Morgan.‖

       ―Yes. I am giving a press conference tomorrow when I‘ll explain everything. I‘m

not answering any questions until then.‖

       ―I understand, but I‘m not calling to ask you questions. I want to tell you about a

call I just received concerning Jack Morgan.‖

       Toli rose from the sofa. ―What about Jack?‖

       ―A woman called the station a few minutes ago from Canada. Thunder Bay,

Ontario. She saw the picture of Jack that you had emailed us. We broadcast the story on

our 6:00 news.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Toli‘s heart pounded. ―Is he in Thunder Bay? Where exactly was he seen?‖

       A shaky voice replied, ―There‘s a problem, Toli. Jack was involved in some kind

of accident. He‘s in the hospital.‖

       Toli‘s hands started shaking uncontrollably.

       ―A nurse called the station from the emergency room,‖ Oliva said.

       ―What kind of accident?‖

       ―I don‘t know.‖

       ―His condition?‖

       ―I‘m sorry, Toli. I‘ve told you everything I know. Do you have a pen?‖

       ―Somebody get a pen!‖ she shouted. A moment later Melinda handed her a pen

and paper. Toli nervously wrote down the names of the hospital and the woman who had

called the station. After hanging up, she called the hospital and gave the operator the

nurse‘s name. After a nerve-wracking minute a voice said, ―This is Nurse Litchfield.‖

       ―Hello, this is Toli Stevens. I‘m calling about Jack Morgan.‖

       ―Yes, Toli. I saw your story on television. About an hour ago Mr. Morgan was

admitted to our hospital.‖

       Toli‘s free hand covered her heart. ―Is he alright?‖

       ―I can only tell you that he was in a car accident. I can‘t talk about his medical

condition because of—‖

       ―You must tell me!‖ Toli interjected.

       After a moment of maddening silence, the voice continued. ―Because of

doctor/patient confidentiality, I cannot disclose Mr. Morgan‘s medical condition. Do you

know where we can locate any relatives of Mr. Morgan?‖


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       ―Please tell me what happened. You must tell me if Jack is alright.‖

       ―He is alive and breathing on his own. That‘s all I can say over the phone. If you

don‘t know of any relatives of Mr. Morgan, and you come here and sign the appropriate

legal documents, you can see Mr. Morgan yourself.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                          FORTY



        Toli learned that Thunder Bay was straight north on the other side of Lake

Superior. She wanted to fly there, but Gene assured her that there was no direct flight.

She‘d have to fly to Minneapolis and transfer to a flight to Thunder Bay. The eight-hour

drive from Gene‘s house to Thunder Bay would be faster.

        Worried sick, Toli thought about contacting a few of the bigger TV stations and

telling them where Jack was. They‘d find a way to get the scoop fast, regardless of

confidentiality laws, but she hated to pull the media into it. They‘d find out fast enough

on their own. She decided to drive there herself.

        Melinda and Debbie insisted they go with her, but there was a hitch: they needed

passports to cross the border. Melinda found a US Passport service online that could get

them the necessary documents within twenty-four hours. It was longest twenty-four hours

of Toli‘s life.

        During the night she tried desperately not to speculate on Jack‘s medical

condition. She already knew that he was in bad shape. If not, he would have talked to her

in person. There was no sense making herself crazy wondering about the specifics, yet,

when she closed her eyes to sleep, fear and guilt haunted her. ―You sew what you reap.”

        The next morning Toli arrived at Hiawatha Park at 9:00 as promised,

accompanied by Melinda and Debbie. They had driven Gene‘s truck, while Gene stayed

behind, after parking her BMW several streets back of his house in preparation for their

getaway that evening. About a hundred media representatives were waiting in the park

with their video equipment and mics. They had arrived in Ironwood to learn who the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


mystery man was, but Toli didn‘t tell them Jack‘s name or location. Standing in front of

Hiawatha‘s statue, she announced simply that the man she loved had been in a car

accident. Ignoring their shouted follow-up questions, she and the sisters returned to

Gene‘s house, where they were promptly pursued by reporters who camped out on

Gene‘s front lawn.

        The express-mail package containing passports arrived that afternoon at 5:30.

While the reporters waited for Toli to make a move, Gene snuck her and the sisters out

his back door to their car.

        ―Call me as soon as you find out about Jack,‖ Gene said. Toli promised she

would, kissed him on the cheek, and said goodbye.

        Melinda and Debbie took turns driving up US 2 around Lake Superior, while Toli

gazed out the window into the black night, occasionally becoming aware of a passing

road lamp or the sputtering neon sign of a roadside inn. Mostly she saw nothing and only

heard the sisters‘ many questions about Jack, questions to which she gave few answers,

not only because she wasn‘t in the mood but because she didn‘t know the answers. Jack

had awakened something inside her that didn‘t need answers.

        They arrived at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre at 3:00 in the

morning. In the ER the receptionist told them they‘d have to return when visiting hours

started at 9:00. They waited in the car until the sun came up and then another two hours

after that.

        As they walked down the tile-floored corridor, Toli was reminded of how much

she hated hospitals. With their insipid designs and harsh fluorescent lights they were cold

and soulless places that looked more like industrial plants than refuges of healing and


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


rest. Jack deserved better.

          ―Here it is,‖ said Melinda as they approached Jack‘s room. Toli went in first,

nervously clutching her hands together. The bed closest to the door was empty. Jack lay

face-up in the other bed with a white bandage wrapped around his head. Both his eyes

were blackened, and his right cheekbone was badly bruised. An IV bag hung ominously

on a stand above him, and a heart monitor next to the bed showed a green line, rising and

falling at even intervals. Toli covered her mouth with her hand as she inched up to him.

―Jack,‖ she whispered. He didn‘t respond. She took his limp hand in hers. ―Jack, it‘s me,

Toli.‖

          ―Maybe they gave him sleeping pills,‖ Debbie offered.

          ―He doesn‘t look that bad,‖ added Melinda.

          They were right. There didn‘t seem to be any broken bones, yet he looked . . .

vacant.

          Two women then entered the room, a nurse and a woman wearing a business suit.

―Are you relatives of Mr. Morgan?‖ one asked.

          Toli shook her head. ―I‘m a friend.‖

          ―Toli Stevens?‖

          ―Yes.‖

          ―I‘m Nurse Litchfield, and this is Nora from administration.‖

          ―What‘s wrong with him?‖

          ―As we discussed on the phone, we are normally allowed only to inform a relative

of the patient‘s condition, if the patient is unable to talk, but—‖

          ―He can‘t talk at all?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          ―But since we can‘t locate any living relatives,‖ said Nora, ―I have the proper

paperwork. Are you willing to sign a Power of Attorney to become Mr. Morgan‘s legal

guardian?‖

          ―Yes. I‘ll sign it.‖

          Nora handed Toli a clipboard that she held under her arm. ―This doesn‘t allow

you to make decisions about Mr. Morgan‘s treatment, or whether he should be put on or

taken off life support. You will have to go to court to gain that right. We can discuss that

later.‖

          Toli‘s hand shook so badly that she was barely able to sign the form.

          ―The doctor will explain the details,‖ said the nurse. ―I can only tell you that Mr.

Morgan suffered a severe concussion and is in a coma.‖

          ―How did it happen?‖

          ―A logging truck drifted into his lane. His van went through a rail and crashed

into a cluster of trees. I‘m told he‘s lucky to have survived at all. Dr. Goudreault will be

in soon. You can ask him more questions.‖

          Toli watched Nurse Litchfield change Jack‘s IV bag. ―And his van?‖ she asked.

          ―It was totaled. Mr. Morgan was trapped inside. A helicopter team had to cut him

out of the interior. Normally the police would be telling you this. He was flown here to

the hospital.‖

          After the two medical personnel left the room, Toli sat down and again took

Jack‘s hand in hers. His skin was dry, not warm. She felt tears start to sting her eyes but

worked to hold them back. It didn‘t matter that he couldn‘t see her. She somehow felt that

he still sensed her presence. She had to be strong.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                          jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


          ―He‘ll pull out of this soon,‖ said Debbie. She didn‘t sound convinced. How could

she be?

          ―We should go find a place to stay,‖ Melinda said. ―We‘ll grab some food too.‖

          The sisters stepped out of the room.

          Toli meanwhile rubbed the back of Jack‘s hand. ―I am so sorry. I left Daniel and

came back to you. I went to Hiawatha Park, but I was too late. Imagine that, Miss

Punctuality, late for the most important thing in her life. We‘ll make some good moon

stories together, Jack. On the drive here I was thinking of things we might do. I pictured

us on two horses riding on a green pasture at sunset. I don‘t know why. Can you picture

it? There are trees, Jack. Big oak trees and little ironwood trees and elms and willows.

You tell me all their names as we ride by. Then we get off our horses and stroll into the

forest and make love on a bed of leaves. Do you see it, Jack? We talk afterward. You ask

me to tell you something I never told anyone before, and I tell you that I love you more

than life itself. And you know it‘s true, Jack, because I left my former life to be with you.

You gave me something I didn‘t have before. You gave me myself. But it would be nice

if you talked to me. I‘ll stay with you and wait. I‘ll be here, Jack, for as long as it takes.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        FORTY-ONE

Melinda and Debbie returned to the hospital room with a sack of sandwiches and the

announcement that they‘d found a motel room just a couple of miles away. While they

ate, a short man with curly gray hair and a pair of glasses that looked permanently fixed

to his lower nose entered the room. He introduced himself as Dr. Goudreault.

         Toli took Dr. Goudreault by the arm and led him into the hallway. ―Please tell me

what will happen to Jack.‖

         ―It‘s very difficult to make an accurate prognosis,‖ Dr. Goudreault said softly.

―The trauma from the car accident caused swelling of the brain. He‘s receiving

medication to relieve it, but we aren‘t certain about when he will recover. The good news

is that, at this time, we see no evidence of irreversible brain damage.‖

         ―Then you have no idea how long he will be like this?‖

         ―It‘s really impossible to say. A person can remain in a coma for hours or months

or longer, or. . . . We can only wait. He‘s a healthy man, and he‘s breathing on his own

without life support. This improves his chances of recovery, but only time will tell.‖

         ―Is he aware of us at all?‖

         Dr. Goudreault removed his glasses, closed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his

nose. ―You‘ll have to excuse me. It‘s been a long night.‖ His tired eyes found hers. ―To

answer your question, I‘m afraid only God knows whether Mr. Morgan has any

awareness of his environment or not. All I can say is that I‘ve seen people come out of

comas with no explanation other than that they had a loving family there to support

them.‖

         By late afternoon the media had descended on Thunder Bay Regional Health


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Sciences Centre. No surprise. They weren‘t allowed in the hospital, but, as Toli could see

through Jack‘s window, a growing crowd was setting up camp on the lawn. Sooner or

later she‘d have to confront them.

        She and the sisters stayed with Jack for the remainder of the day and into the

night. They talked about everything from the weather to the wedding, and Toli always

included Jack in the conversation, saying things such as, ―You got the wedding altar

right, Jack, but I married the wrong man.‖

        They eventually dozed off in their chairs and awoke in the early evening. The

sisters then went back to the motel while Toli, not wanting to leave Jack alone, fell asleep

in the chair at his side.

        Sometime later she was jolted awake by a whispering voice: ―Goodbye, Toli.

Goodbye.‖ Her eyes sprang open and slowly—too slowly—adjusted to the dim, green

glow of light from the heart monitor that spilled onto the bed. She made out Jack‘s body

lying there, perfectly still as it had all day. She quickly reached out and touched him.

―Jack.‖ He didn‘t move. She laid her hand on his chest. Was he breathing? The line on

the heart monitor rose and fell with regular intervals. She could feel his chest expanding.

―Jack,‖ she said again. Of course he didn‘t respond. She must have been dreaming. Had

he tried to tell her something? She didn‘t close her eyes after that for fear Jack would

leave her completely.



        The next morning Toli awoke contemplating the irony of life and death. With her

eyelids still shut, she thought about how life offered so many unpredictable twists and

turns, but the one thing we could count on was death. It was the one door we all had to go


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


through, and it was the door we feared the most.

       She remembered one night lying in bed as a child and trying to fathom the idea of

her life some day ending. What would it be like when her breathing stopped? Would her

consciousness just end completely? Would she never again have a thought? She couldn‘t

grasp the idea of nothingness. She also couldn‘t grasp the idea of not having existed

before being born.

       She heard the swishing sound of fabric. She opened her eyes to see Nurse

Litchfield changing the upper bed sheet.

       ―Good morning,‖ the nurse said.

       ―Thank you for all your help,‖ said Toli, rubbing her eyes.

       ―It‘s what I do.‖

       The curtains were drawn closely together. Toli rose and opened them to allow

morning sunlight in. This room will have life, she thought. It was a brilliant day, and on

the front lawn she saw that the reporters were back.

       ―Are you going to talk to them?‖ Nurse Litchfield asked.

       Toli dreaded the task. The media‘s quest for shock infused sound bites would

come in the form of probing questions framed to make her snap emotionally. She wasn‘t

a journalist, but her eight-week stint with AM America had taught her that the media were

all about shock value. ―I‘ll have to talk to them,‖ she said, staring down at the group.

       She then spotted her BMW moving through the parking lot toward the hospital

entrance. The night before she and the sisters had agreed that they would take turns

watching Jack. They would stay with him now, while she went to the motel and cleaned

up.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Minutes later Melinda and Debbie arrived in the room, bringing Toli a cup of hot

coffee and a Styrofoam plate of hash browns and scrambled eggs. After finishing her

breakfast and putting on some makeup, Toli said goodbye to Jack and the sisters.

        No sooner had she exited from the hospital than she heard someone shout, ―There

she is!‖ Within moments cameras and microphones were in her face. The day before

yesterday the media didn‘t even know who her ―secret‖ lover was. The questions came

rapid fire at once.

        ―What is Dr. Morgan‘s condition?‖

        ―Were you actively looking for a fling just before your marriage?‖

        ―How did you justify your relationship with Dr. Morgan in your own mind?‖

        ―Was your affair just a publicity stunt?‖

        ―Publicity stunt?‖ Toli said.

        ―Some think your bizarre behavior was meant to increase AM America‘s ratings.‖

        ―That‘s absurd.‖

        ―You did dump Daniel on national TV.‖

        ―I . . . I didn‘t ‗dump‘ him as much as—‖

        ―Then you really do love Dr. Morgan?‖ a female voice rang out. Toli spotted the

redhead in the audience who asked it, Carla Dunst, from Day’s Start on ABC, AM

America‘s competitor.

        ―Is the idea really that foreign to any of you?‖ Toli asked the group.

        ―But certainly you must have considered the consequences of a relationship with

him just before your wedding. How could you have acted so irrationally?‖

        Toli was paralyzed. She had no answer that would adequately explain her actions.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


The only words that sprang to mind were Theia mania, the Greek words that Jack had

once used to describe love at first sight—madness of the gods. How absolutely right the

ancient Greeks were with their gods shooting ―love arrows‖ at unsuspecting couples.

       ―Toli?‖ the reporter said.

       Then she remembered the last words Jack had uttered to her. ―Love has its own

agenda,‖ she remarked.

       There was momentary silence, but then the questions started again. Toli knew

they‘d never stop as long as she was willing to answer them, which she no longer was.

She simply turned away from the reporters and found her car in the lot. When she arrived

at the motel, a caravan was following her. She ignored them, went to her room, and let

the tears flow.

       After showering and changing clothes, she again ignored the reporters and

cameras outside the motel, got into her car, and headed out in search of a shopping mall

with them trailing. There were a few things she wanted to get for Jack.



       Later that night Toli and the sisters ate pizza in Jack‘s room. Toli sat next to the

bed as usual, holding his hand between bites. They watched TV, which was airing a

―Special Report‖ on Entertainment Nightly titled ―Betrayal at the Altar.‖ The blond host

spoke to the camera: ―Television personality Toli Stevens talked to reporters today for

the first time since confessing to her husband at the altar that she was in love with another

man. Here‘s what Toli said when asked what prompted her to betray her fiancé just days

before the wedding.‖ The screen switched to a shot of Toli in front of the hospital earlier

that day. ―Love has its own agenda,‖ she said.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Toli thought she looked horrid on camera, exhausted and beat up. Her eyes were

bloodshot and her hair disheveled. Then again, the man she loved had just been in a car

accident and was in a coma. How was she supposed to look?

       Back to the blond reporter: ―Now for the other man. In an exclusive ET interview

this is what the man left at the altar had to say about Toli‘s comment.‖ The screen

showed Daniel back in his New York apartment. Contrary to Toli‘s frazzled look, Daniel,

as usual, was well groomed and composed. ―‗Love has its own agenda?‘‖ he said. ―That‘s

what she said? Well, I have my own agenda too, which Toli and her lover will soon find

out about.‖

       ―Do you feel any pity at all for Dr. Morgan, who is in a coma?‖ asked the

interviewer.

       The camera zoomed in on Daniel‘s face as he contemplated the question. His eyes

turned an eerie shade of charcoal while his tightly compressed lips appeared white. Toli

could almost read his thoughts: The bastard’s condition is karma at work for both him

and Toli.

       She grabbed the remote and clicked off the television before Daniel could answer

the question.

       Melinda and Debbie, who were on the edges of their chairs waiting for Daniel‘s

response, both leaned back with a sigh.

       ―I don‘t think I spent more than an hour in a hospital before these last two

weeks,‖ said Melinda. ―Between my father and Jack I feel I‘ve been living in one lately.‖

       ―You two need to get back to New York,‖ Toli said.

       Melinda nodded. ―I went online and got tickets for the day after tomorrow,‖ said


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Melinda.

       ―How long are you going to stay, Toli?‖ Debbie asked. ―What if Jack doesn‘t pull

out of it for a—‖

       ―He will pull out of it,‖ Toli interrupted.

       ―What if it takes months?‖ inquired Debbie.

       ―Or longer?‖ Melinda added. ―I‘m sorry, Toli, but it‘s something you have to

consider.‖

       Toli didn‘t want to think about the possibility. Her life was in complete disarray.

She didn‘t have a job or any hope of getting one, and her relationship with her parents

was estranged. It was just too much to face right now. ―I have to take it one day at a

time,‖ she said. ―Five minutes at a time.‖

       There was nothing more to say. Melinda and Debbie bid her goodnight and

headed back to their motel room.

       Toli sat in the chair rubbing Jack‘s hand and talking to him as if he could hear

every word. She congratulated him on reaching the half-million-mile mark in his van.

―Before it was totaled,‖ she teased him. ―We‘ll get you a new old one,‖ she added

quickly, ―something really old that needs plenty of caring for, something you can put a

million miles on!‖ Her hand glided over the soft hair of his arm.

       ―I got you a present,‖ she said, reaching into the bag she‘d set next to the bed

earlier that afternoon. She pulled out a box and opened it to reveal a portable CD player.

Then she retrieved a CD from the bag and began peeling off the cellophane wrapper. ―It

wasn‘t easy finding this in Thunder Bay. They‘re not too big on jazz around here,

apparently.‖ She held up the CD to him. ―It‘s the best of Miles Davis. I found it in a little


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


pawn shop. It‘s used. Hopefully it won‘t skip.‖ She turned the jewel case over and read

the names from the back. ―It‘s got Bud Powell and Jimmy Health and Cannonball

Adderly on it. Sounds like it‘s going to be a good session. Let‘s check it out.‖

       Toli slipped the CD into the player and set the volume on low. Then she crawled

onto the bed next to Jack. She lay on her side facing him, her arm resting on his chest.

She could feel his heart beating softly against her palm. The sound of a muted trumpet

began. After listening to the entire CD, she and Jack listened to it again.

       Later that night a nurse roused Toli and informed her that she wasn‘t allowed in

the bed with Jack. She returned groggily to her chair. The nurse retrieved a blanket from

the closet, covered her, checked Jack‘s heart monitor, and changed his IV bag. Before

dozing off, Toli thought she heard his voice again in her head, not a voice from the past

but Jack speaking to her at that moment. She wondered whether he was in spirit form,

trying to send her a message. Then she fell asleep.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     FORTY-TWO



       Two days later Melinda and Debbie left Thunder Bay. Toli still hadn‘t heard from

her parents and decided she would call them, first Joseph‘s cell and then Edna‘s. Neither

picked up, and she left the same message for both: ―I know I let you down. I hope

someday you will forgive me.‖

       By early evening they both arrived at the hospital. Toli wasn‘t merely surprised to

see them; she was shocked. ―I missed you so much,‖ she said, hugging them both.

       ―So this is the guy?‖ asked Edna.

       ―Yes, this is Jack.‖

       ―Pleased to meet you, Jack,‖ said Edna, standing over the bed.

       Joseph wasn‘t quite so affable, giving Jack only a disgruntled glance.

       ―If you love this man, Toli, then we support your decision,‖ said Edna. ―Integrity

means having the courage to do what you believe is right. That‘s what you always say,

Joseph. Isn‘t that right?‖

       Joseph seemed not to hear her.

       ―Isn‘t that right Joseph?‖ Edna repeated strongly.

       ―Yeah, yeah. What does the doctor say?‖

       Toli shook her head and placed her forefinger over her lips, indicating that she

didn‘t want to discuss Jack‘s condition in front of him. ―Dr. Goudreault doesn‘t know,‖

she whispered. Joseph showed no reaction.

       ―Are you doing alright, Toli?‖ asked Edna.

       ―Considering the circumstances.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        Just then a voice drifted into the room from outside. ―Excuse me.‖

        Toli looked over Edna‘s shoulder to see a black man standing in the hallway and

peering in. ―Can I help you?‖ asked Toli.

        ―Is this Dr. Morgan‘s room?‖

        ―Yes, it is. Please come in.‖

        The man stepped tentatively into the room, spotted Jack, and moved with purpose

to the bed. A woman trailed him, holding the hands of two small children.

        ―I‘m Toli.‖

        ―I‘m Whitney,‖ said the woman, shaking Toli‘s hand. ―These are Ben and Kat,

and that‘s my husband Tyrell.‖

        Standing by Jack‘s side with his head bowed, Tyrell limply shook Toli‘s extended

hand.

        ―You know Jack?‖ Toli asked.

        ―He helped me,‖ said Tyrell in a barely audible whisper.

        ―On TV we heard what happened, so we drove here to see him,‖ said Whitney,

inching up to the bed with her kids.

        ―Is he alive?‖ the young girl asked, her big brown eyes staring at her mother.

        ―Yes, honey, he‘s alive.‖

        ―Where are you from?‖ asked Toli.

        ―Chicago.‖

        ―You drove all the way from Chicago?‖

        Whitney nodded. ―Tyrell took a week off. He works for Campbell Soup. They

didn‘t want him to go, but Tyrell told them he was going anyway.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         Whitney looked at Tyrell, whose eyes were now closed. His lips moved as if

talking to himself or perhaps saying a prayer. ―Honey,‖ said Whitney. ―They want to

know how you know Jack.‖

         Tyrell‘s eyes opened. ―It isn‘t right,‖ he mumbled. ―Dr. Morgan doesn‘t deserve

this.‖

         ―How did Jack help you, Tyrell?‖ Toli asked.

         ―A few years ago I had a brain tumor,‖ Tyrell said, rubbing his eyes. ―They

couldn‘t operate on it. Even if they could, you know, I didn‘t have insurance. Someone

told Whitney about Dr. Morgan, about how he sometimes helped people when nothing

else worked.‖

         ―We didn‘t have much extra money,‖ Whitney added.

         ―Dr. Morgan treated me for free,‖ said Tyrell. ―He didn‘t even know me. Saw me

a dozen times, maybe.‖

         ―Tyrell wouldn‘t be alive now if it weren‘t for Dr. Morgan,‖ said Whitney.

―Neither would Ben or Kat.‖ The kids were looking up at Toli wide-eyed.

         ―He treated you how?‖ Joseph interjected.

         ―Put his hands on my head, and the tumor went away.‖

         ―I don‘t understand.‖

         ―I don‘t either,‖ Tyrell offered. ―My mother said he was a vehicle for God, but

Dr. Morgan said that wasn‘t true.‖

         ―You‘re telling me that he saved your life with his hands?‖

         ―Yes sir,‖ said Tyrell. ―He sure did.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Over the next few days numerous visitors came to see Jack. They were of

different ages and races, but they all had one thing in common: their individual stories of

how Jack had helped them, often for free, and always by using his hands after medication

had failed. There were elderly women and young couples and the parents of children

whom Jack had treated. Not all of them had been terminal, but all, it seemed, had

nowhere else to turn when they arrived at Dr. Morgan‘s doorstep.

       And the stories weren‘t just about Jack‘s healing abilities. One person after

another told Toli how Dr. Morgan made them feel extraordinarily unique, as if they were

his only patient and that they had to get well because the world needed them.

       Toli‘s mind was reeling. Just three days ago she thought that Jack was a loner

who wasn‘t much interested in venturing outside the tiny town of Ironwood or beyond his

vocation as a carpenter. Gene‘s announcement that Jack was a doctor had shocked her,

but witnessing all this outpouring for Jack, from people who had traveled to see him from

around the country, was nothing short of astonishing. On the other hand, it made

complete sense. She could relate to every one of their stories, for the man they described

was the man that she had fallen in love.

       Edna knew exactly what to do. She purchased a journal from the gift shop and had

each visitor sign it and even write a short message to Jack. By the end of the week 37

people had signed the journal. Even more shocked than Toli by all this was Joseph. She

could see in his eyes that the man who had ―stolen‖ his daughter away from Daniel was

fast becoming, if not yet someone Joseph could forgive, someone Joseph could admire.

       ―Did you know he was a doctor back in Ironwood?‖ Joseph asked Toli.

       ―No, but I knew he had a gift for healing.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


        ―Maybe he can look at my arthritic knee and a couple of other body parts if he

comes out of the coma?‖

        ―When he comes out of it,‖ she corrected him.

        The media swarmed Jack‘s ex-patients, and soon the airwaves were filled with

stories of how Jack had helped all the people who traveled to Thunder Bay to visit him.

Jack was quickly becoming a legend, a label Toli suspected he would want nothing to do

with.

        Gene had arrived at the hospital and offered even more stories. Maggie also came

with a half dozen other people from Ironwood whom Toli had never met. With all the

visitors she was busy enough, but not long after they left the reality of her situation

reasserted itself. By the end of the week Joseph and Edna headed back to New York.

Gene, Maggie, and the others returned to Ironwood. The stream of Jack ex-patients

slowed down, and the media packed up and went home.

        Toli was left alone with Jack and the stark truth of what her life had become. The

shock of the bad news had worn off, and her nerves had returned to their normal course.

In a million years she never would have guessed that she‘d end up in a situation like this.

If her story and Jack‘s appeared in a romantic novel, she as a character would certainly

have the strength and integrity not to second-guess her decision. She would be the

heroine capable of uncompromising and unconditional love. She would faithfully stay by

Jack‘s side until the end, whatever that end may be. Before leaving, Joseph had asked,

―What are you going to do now?‖ She‘d had no answer.

        Dr. Goudreault had nothing new to report about Jack‘s condition. He only

reiterated that Jack could remain in his current state for a long time, and in the end the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


result might not be what they all hoped for. On the other hand, he could regain

consciousness at any moment. Toli asked him about moving Jack to another location. If

she were to get an apartment, could he stay with her? Dr. Goudreault strongly

recommended against it. Maybe, eventually, they could move Jack, if it came to that, but

even then he would need to be tended to almost twenty-four/seven. Now was not the

time. Jack had to stay put at least for the next few weeks.

       She hated herself for occasionally indulging in daydreams about how life might

have been if she‘d never met Jack, She and Daniel would be in Las Vegas right now,

seeing the shows and enjoying elegant dinners. After they returned to New York, she

would begin her new career as the co-host of AM America. They‘d eventually have their

dream house and sushi chef, and they‘d get busy preparing for a family. She despised

herself for thinking about these things, yet how could she not?

       What are you going to do now?

       A week passed without change. She spent her days reading to Jack and listening

to jazz. In the evening she mostly watched television and would doze off in the chair next

to his bed. When her spirits dipped, she‘d take long walks along Lake Superior or go

shopping. The temperatures outside had fallen, which offered her a good excuse to buy a

cashmere sweater and a quilted down jacket along with a new pair of city boots.

       Another week passed without change. The chair in Jack‘s room began to hurt her

back; her old friend, Misery, returned. She began sleeping on the more comfortable bed

in her motel room. Before dozing off, she would often lie there reliving the precious few

times she and Jack had spent together. One night she had a dream that lingered into the

next day, and the day after that.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         The night was black and the moon silver. Jack moved next to her along a sandy

shore. They sloshed through the water casting droplets onto their naked bodies, gleaming

wet under the moonlight. She playfully started to run, but the faster she tried to go the

slower she went, until he finally caught her in his arms. Suddenly autumn trees grew out

of the ocean; a strong wind bent their branches and sent waves lapping against their

bodies, tossing dead leaves onto the undulating ocean surface. When he kissed her, the

night stilled. She felt as if she were the earth and Jack the sky. Each had no reason to

exist without the other. He breathed her name again and again. ―Toli, I love you,‖ he said.

         Warm liquid caressed their bodies and cool sand oozed between her toes. She

could feel the muscles and sinew of his full body against hers. And when she stretched

her arms around his broad back, the night folded its starry wings over them. Lost in each

other, their bodies swayed under the softly rolling waves.

         Then the water became a glassy calm and fog snuck in, wrapping itself about

them. The ghostly smoke blinded Toli and she could no longer see Jack. Her fingers ran

through his matted hair as their mouths drank each other in. She laid her head against his

chest.

         When the fog crept away, her vision returned. She pulled her head back, but when

she gazed into Jack‘s eyes they were Daniel‘s. ―This feeling never has to end,‖ Daniel

whispered. ―Ever.‖

         The next day Toli was haunted by the dream. She awoke thinking that she could

love Daniel just as she loved Jack, if she chose. Love was entirely her creation. She

remembered something Jack had once said: ―The only difference between a dream and

reality is belief.‖ She tried not to think about it.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Over the next two weeks she spent her days with Jack, telling him moon stories,

reading to him, and listening to jazz. She imagined that he was hearing her every word

and that her being there was making a difference. Each day she told him that he was

getting better, that the swelling in his brain was going down, and that soon he would

wake up. At one point she thought that he smiled at her but knew he hadn‘t. She

continued to imagine that he talked to her, yet he uttered not a word.

       What are you going to do now?

       The time came for a decision. Should she rent an apartment in Thunder Bay, get a

job, and visit Jack daily? Or should she return to New York and try to reassemble her

career, if that were even possible, and fly back to Thunder Bay on weekends to visit him?

She needed some space to think. She kissed Jack and left the hospital.

       Toli drove the streets of Thunder Bay in somewhat of a daze, half-heartedly

scouting apartment buildings and houses with ―For Rent‖ signs and wondering what it

would be like to live in such places. This is another country, she thought. Would I have to

become a citizen to live here?

       She drove along the water‘s edge of Lake Superior and counted sixteen bait

shops: Blackfoot Bait & Tackle, Sunshine Baits, Rockwood Bait & Tackle, Chris‘s Baits,

Bob‘s Baits, Wiggly Baits. . . . Maybe I’ll take up fishing. The thought made her chuckle.

She was so New York, so metropolitan. What the hell.

       It’s time to go home, she decided.



       When she returned to the hospital to tell Jack she would be leaving for a short

time, she found an attractive blond woman in his room. At first Toli wasn‘t sure exactly


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


where she‘d seen her before. Then she caught a whiff of her perfume and remembered:

she and Jack had run into her that day at Maggie‘s Restaurant. Later she had seen the

woman in church talking to Father McCoy.

         The woman was standing over Jack. She touched his forehead with her fingers

and began pushing loose locks of hair back. She touched him with such uninhibited ease

that Toli feared this was familiar territory for her.

         ―Hey,‖ she said, noticing Toli.

         ―Hello. You‘re a friend of Jack?‖

         The woman nodded. ―I drove up from Ironwood. I‘ve been praying for him ever

since I heard.‖

         Toli didn‘t like the woman‘s long fingernails touching Jack. ―And your name is?‖

         ―Jessie. I live in Hurley, not far from Jack. You‘re Toli, yah? I saw you on the

tube.‖

         Toli said nothing.

         ―What does the doctor say?‖

         Toli shook her head. ―He has no answers.‖

         Jessie took Jack‘s hand and started rubbing it. ―He‘s a very special man here.

He doesn‘t deserve this.‖

         Toli watched Jessie‘s fingers trace the back of Jack‘s hand. ―No. He doesn‘t.‖

         ―I‘ve been here for almost an hour. I‘ll be headin‘ out,‖ Jessie said. ―Nice meeting

you, Toli.‖ She turned and left the room.

         Toli didn‘t stand there long before catching up with her in the hallway. ―Jessie,

what exactly is your relationship with Jack?‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                         jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Jessie slowed her steps. ―Just friends.‖

       ―Nothing more?‖

       The woman turned to her but didn‘t make eye contact.

       ―Jessie, my intuition never lies.‖

       ―I understand intuition. I won‘t deny the truth.‖ Jessie‘s dark brown eyes met

Toli‘s. ―I had asked Jack to. . . . ‖ She paused, licked her lips, and continued, ―Truth is,

Toli, I asked your man to father my baby.‖

       Toli was aghast. She never expected an answer like that. To make matters worse,

Jessie started patting her stomach.

       ―Oh my God. You‘re pregnant?‖ Toli asked, feeling her heart race in her chest.

       Jessie grinned broadly and nodded. ―I got the news just two days ago.‖

       ―With Jack‘s baby?‖

       ―Oh no!‖

       ―No? I‘m confused.‖

       ―I have a girlfriend, Cory. About a month ago we asked Jack to get me pregnant

so we could have a baby.‖

       ―Girlfriend?‖

       ―I‘m a lesbian. Shit, I hate that word. To be completely honest with ya, I wanted

Jack to knock me up because he‘s such a fine-looking man. I once called him good stock.

He thought that was funny. Maybe he didn‘t think it was so funny, but I did. Anyway one

day we asked him to do the nasty thing with me. A few days later Jack came over to the

house and, in his usual gentlemanly way, told us he couldn‘t do it. Jack and I are only

friends, be sure of that, but I still care deeply about him.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                   jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―You said you‘re pregnant.‖

       ―We‘re so excited, me and Cory. We found someone else to, ah, sit in for Jack.‖

       Relieved, Toli bid Jessie farewell.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                      FORTY-THREE



        Three days before Thanksgiving she told Jack she was leaving. ―I have to go for a

while,‖ Toli said. ―I‘m headed to New York to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and

then I‘ll be back. Maybe I‘ll get a job selling minnows in one of the bait shops around

here,‖ she joked. ―We‘ll spend Christmas together,‖ she told him, ―just you and I.‖ Her

vision blurred, and she hugged him around the neck. His skin was cool. She kissed him

on his dry lips and said goodbye.

        The next morning she boarded a plane to New York. Her parents greeted her at La

Guardia Airport, and on the ride home, to Toli‘s relief, neither Joseph nor Edna asked

about her future plans. They were simply happy that she was there, and they wanted to

make her stay as comfortable as possible. By noon she was settled into the house in

which she had grown up. She decided to stay there for this visit instead of at her condo. It

was good to be with family, and it was great to be back in New York. She loved this

town.

        She had a hankering for Manhattan. That afternoon she told her parents she was

headed into the city.

        ―Do you want company?‖ asked Edna.

        ―I just want to be alone for a while.‖

        ―You‘ve been alone for the last month,‖ said Joseph, pulling his head out of the

newspaper. ―I‘d think you‘d want some company.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Toli could understand his concern. After all, in her entire life she‘d rarely spent

any time by herself. Joseph had often commented that she was the most gregarious

person he‘d ever known. ―Just for today,‖ she told him.

       She spent the afternoon in Central Park. With winter around the corner, the air

was crisp and the trees bare. She walked around the lake, strolled over the beautiful Bow

Bridge, and stopped to behold Bethesda Fountain, the place where Daniel had proposed

to her. She told herself that she hadn‘t come here to relive the memory. It had been

March 20th, the first day of spring, and Daniel had proposed the old-fashioned way.

They‘d sat on the wall surrounding the fountain when Daniel suddenly dropped to his

knees, paying no mind to the dozens of people milling about, and asked her whether she

would marry him. Just to add some drama, she had pretended to contemplate his request,

but of course she didn‘t need to think about it for even a second. From the moment they‘d

met she knew they‘d be wed. Later that night she had showed Daniel her ―Ideal Mate

List‖ where she‘d written down all the traits she wanted in a man. She‘d playfully

checked off each item. That was only eight months ago, but it seemed like another

lifetime. One impulsive decision to kiss Jack that night outside the bowling alley was all

it took to change everything.

       Joseph had always warned Toli about acting impulsively. While growing up, she

remembered watching boxing matches with him on television and asking whether the

boxers ever got angry. Her father had explained that anger was a boxer‘s enemy because

it could lead to losing control and losing the fight. Life was the same way, he‘d told her

many times. You have to stay in control. Never let your emotions dictate.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       Toli drifted over to Kerbs Boathouse Café, sat at a table, and cried not only for

Jack but also for herself. How could she have gone from having practically everything

she ever dreamed of, and worked so hard to get, to having nothing? She thought about her

talk with Father McCoy on the day before her wedding, the talk about following her

heart. She‘d done what he‘d said, not because he‘d said it but because she had no choice

in the matter. Now look at her. Does love not have its own reward? Does this higher state

of bliss not merit at least a few perks in the cosmic tally of things? Father McCoy had

said that love was the expression of the soul, her soul and Jack‘s. Their reward was a

truck drifting into Jack‘s lane at sixty miles per hour. Maybe this was their punishment

for having betrayed Daniel, but when it comes to matters of the heart are there really any

sins? When you‘re in love, everything seems right. A month ago she was so in love with

Jack that she barely thought of Daniel at all, other than to think—to know—that he

wasn‘t right for her. But now. . . ?

       When she arrived back at her parents‘ house at dusk, she recognized the laughter

from the living room and stopped dead in her tracks. Only one person could make her

father laugh like that. Her first impulse was to leave, but instead she composed herself

and entered the living room where the guest sat with her parents.

       Edna spotted her first. ―Here she is now.‖

       Daniel stood up from the sofa. ―Hello, Toli,‖ he said.

       ―Did you come to serve me papers?‖ she asked him sharply.

       He looked at her fondly. ―No papers. I‘m not pursuing the suit.‖

       ―What suit is that?‖ Joseph asked, concerned.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         Daniel turned to him. ―Oh, I had a moment of . . . well, I‘ll admit it, a moment of

rage after what happened. For a while I was going to sue—‖

         He paused as if not wanting to say his name. Toli said it for him. ―Sue Jack.‖

         ―Yes,‖ Daniel agreed, ―but I soon decided to drop it.‖ He turned to face Toli. ―I

hope you understand. I came here to apologize.‖

         ―The f….ing prosecutor, apologize?‖

         ―You can‘t blame me for being just a little upset at the time.‖

         ―No, I guess I can‘t,‖ she admitted. ―Apology accepted. Good night.‖ Toli stepped

past him and began to mount the stairs to her bedroom.

         I also came to invite you to dinner,‖ Daniel called out behind her.

         Toli stopped mid-step and turned toward him. ―That‘s not a good idea.‖

         ―I just thought that we could put an end to our relationship in a more civil manner.

I‘ve had time to digest what happened, and, although admittedly I don‘t agree with it, I

accept and honor your decision. I‘ll be on good behavior, I promise.‖

         ―Have dinner with him for Christ‘s sake,‖ Joseph rumbled. ―You at least owe him

that!‖

         Toli wondered for a moment whether Daniel had intentionally come to the house

when she wasn‘t home to reestablish his alliance with Joseph, to gather the forces?

         ―Yasuda‘s?‖ Daniel said with an innocent grin. He knew it was her favorite sushi

restaurant.

         She nodded. ―I‘ll change into something more suitable.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


         Yasuda‘s was crowed as usual, yet they managed to get a booth at the back where

they‘d sat many times before.

         ―We‘ll each start with warmed Ohana sake and a bowl of Miso soup,‖ Daniel

informed the waiter.

         It was what they ordered every time. Fortunately the sake arrived quickly. Toli

took a sip and welcomed the sharp bite in her throat and the explosion of warmth in her

belly.

         Daniel proceeded to check off the items on the menu that they both always

ordered—smoked salmon, smelt roe, tuna, mackerel, Mexican roll, and a California roll.

He knew her too well. The waiter returned, took their order, and left.

         Daniel leaned forward out of the shadows into the candlelight. She could smell his

wood-smoke cologne, her favorite, and his skin had a shine to it. He was looking his

handsome best for her. ―I want you to know,‖ he said, ―that I forgive you.‖

         ―I don‘t want or need your forgiveness, Daniel. I acted for reasons known only to

myself, and I take full responsibility for my actions. Besides, you announced your

intention to forgive when you showed up at my parents‘ house.‖

         ―I‘m just trying to clear the slate. That‘s all. Hey, do you remember the first time

we ate here?‖

         Toli remembered it well. It was on their second date.

         Daniel flashed her a flirtatious smile. ―You were still checking me out.‖

         ―I was pre-qualifying you,‖ she corrected him.

         ―You really put me through the hoops.‖

         ―Can we talk about something else? Leave the past behind.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―How about the future,‖ he said, leaning back into the shadows. ―Your future.

What are you going to do now?‖

       ―I‘m in the process of figuring that out.‖

       ―Would you consider going back to AM America?‖

       ―They don‘t want to have anything to do with me.‖

       ―That‘s not necessarily true.‖

       ―I‘m afraid it is, Daniel.‖

       He was shaking his head, and it dawned on her what he might have done. ―Who

did you talk to?‖ she asked.

       ―Bernard Nicholas.‖

       ―When?‖

       ―Just last week. I told him that you and I were on good terms and that I would

even like to be a guest on AM America, if he were to hire you as the co-host, as originally

planned. I told him that what you did should be admired, not condemned, and that there

were probably millions of women around the country who would have done the same

thing. I think he started to realize that your situation could be an asset to the show.‖

       ―You don‘t think he had already thought of that himself?‖

       ―Sure he had, but he was too upset with you to consider hiring you back. When he

heard my viewpoint and how I no longer condemned your behavior, I believe it softened

him up a bit. He agreed to meet with you.‖

       Toli knew what Daniel was doing, yet she couldn‘t help being moved. He was

setting her up, impressing her, trying to get close to her. In his eyes Jack was out of the

picture for now. He could claim what was rightfully his.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―I think you‘ve still got a shot.‖ He winked at her and took a swallow of his sake.

       Daniel was doing what he was born to do—namely, to persuade others to his way

of thinking. He was an influential communicator, one of the things that had attracted her

to him in the first place. Joseph often said that Daniel could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, a

trait that Joseph greatly admired. It‘s what made him a good trial attorney.

       ―Nicholas said to give him a call.‖

       When their sushi arrived, Toli allowed herself a moment of indulgence, not just in

the buttery taste of the smoked salmon but in the idea that she still had a chance to

become the co-host of AM America. She pictured herself in the studio with Elton Peters

running through the various guests and features they would present that day. She pictured

herself outside NBC studios interviewing famous musical guests. She pictured herself

signing autographs in airports and restaurants.

       Despite her request that Daniel not discuss their past, by the time they had started

their second bottle of sake they were both laughing about the time he‘d awoken late in

her apartment for a morning appointment and in the darkness, groping for his pants, had

tried to pull on her slacks. He had yanked them up to his thighs before they got stuck and

he‘d toppled to the floor.

       ―We had good times,‖ he said, tipping his glass toward her.

       She nodded in agreement but quickly caught herself.

       ―How could you throw away what we had?‖ asked Daniel abruptly.

       ―Don‘t go there, Daniel. You promised.‖

       ―I did, but you must admit I have a right to know. You trashed our entire future. I

only want to know why.‖


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       She gulped down the remaining sake in her glass, hoping it might dull her senses.

       ―How exactly did it happen? Where did you meet him? How did he coax you into

his—‖ He stopped short, composed himself, and asked the underlying question. ―What

does he have that I don‘t?‖

       ―Please, Daniel. Don‘t.‖

       He leaned into the light, his eyes beginning to become watery. ―I have to know

what happened to you. It‘s as though your heart just turned to ice. All I want is to

understand.‖

       She‘d rather have him shouting at her, as he had back at Gene‘s house, than

speaking like this. Daniel did have a right to know. The problem was that she could never

put her feelings about Jack into words that he would understand.

       ―I would give you the world, Toli. I would do anything for you. What can he

possibly give you that I can‘t?‖

       She simply had not known love before she‘d met Jack. Looking back, she could

see clearly that it was the idea of loving Daniel that had attracted her to him. She‘d been

in love with the potential amenities: the idea of their being the perfect American family,

living in their perfect home, driving their polished cars, and each of them dressed

fashionably, both stars in their respective professions, with beautiful children. It was

these images that she loved, but they paled in comparison with what she had with Jack.

He took her to a place far beyond such superficial ephemera. Nothing she could say to

Daniel could make him understand.

       Feeling the alcohol twisting her emotions, Toli realized it was time to leave and

told Daniel so. He didn‘t press her to say more but only lifted his glass in a toast. ―To


267
Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


good food and good times.‖ She reluctantly complied and simultaneously heard the click

of a picture being taken. Only two tables away a man was pointing his camera at them.

The shutter snapped again. Damned media, Toli thought.

       When Daniel dropped her off at the house, he was the perfect gentleman. He

opened the car door for her, walked her up to the front porch, and reached out to shake

her hand. ―Thanks for spending this time with me,‖ he said.

       She knew what he was doing. He was leaving the door open, making it easy for

her walk through to be back with him at any time.

       ―I‘m not going to try to talk you into anything, Toli. I‘ll only say that I will be

waiting. If anything should happen, or not, I will be waiting.‖



       Toli didn‘t sleep well. All night she tossed and turned, recognizing that New York

might no longer be her home. Nausea also kept her awake. She thought it was brought on

by the sushi, but it was the same sick feeling that she‘d experienced on and off over the

last three weeks.

       The next morning she had breakfast with her parents. Despite their questions she

refused to talk about her evening with Daniel. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving Day, and she

directed the discussion toward their holiday dinner, which Toli would help Edna prepare

later that night. Melinda, Debbie, and their parents would be joining them.

       Toli wanted to spend the afternoon alone again. She informed her parents that

she‘d be going to the Metropolitan Museum and would be back later. When she stepped

outside, the paparazzi were waiting. The pictures taken of her and Daniel last night must

have already hit the wire services.


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       She was instantly bombarded with questions: ―Are you back with Daniel?‖ ―Did

you give up on Jack Morgan?‖ ―What is his condition?‖ ―Whom do you really love?‖

―Have you decided to honor your vows with Daniel?‖

       Lowering her head and avoiding eye contact, Toli scurried to her father‘s car. She

couldn‘t deal with such questions just now.

       She drove into the city and was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of her

favorite artists, Vincent Van Gogh, was on display at the Metropolitan. A few

photographers trailed her discreetly while she reveled in the welcome distraction of the

painter‘s masterful work. What the paparazzis‘pictures wouldn‘t reveal was what was

going on inside of her. She was consumed with thoughts about Daniel.Try as she did to

deny it, the feeling came back: the excitement of being with a man who shared so many

realities with her, the prospect that they could build a family together.

       Eventually Toli left the museum and headed to Barnes and Noble on Broadway,

where she ordered a latte and a slice of cheesecake. She had such a graving for sweets

lately. She‘d also noticed in the morning that she had gained two pounds. She never

gained weight. It must be from all the stress, she mused. She drifted over to a table with a

New York Post on it and instantly spotted the picture of her and Daniel on the front page.

They were toasting and smiling, looking as happy as a couple could be. The headline

read: ―Love Has Its Own Agenda.‖

       It didn‘t take long for a few photographers to situate themselves at a nearby table.

She felt guilty that, instead of being upset with the media for hounding her, she loved the

attention. Secretly the old Toli enjoyed the buzz, but was it any wonder she was this way?

After all, she‘d grown up as an only child with parents who had made her the centerpiece


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Ironwood/Valko                                                        jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


and trophy of their lives. ―Daddy‘s little girl‖ was an accurate description of Joseph‘s

daughter, but, although she admired him, Toli knew that she‘d been suffocated by his

love. She had become addicted to male attention but didn‘t want to be that way anymore.

        She finished her latte and cheesecake and, ignoring the photographers, headed to

the self-help section where she scanned the titles: The Surprising Truth About What

Motivates, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything, The Power of Thinking

Without Thinking, Have a Little Faith, The Secret, and The Seven Habits of Highly

Effective People. She‘d already read the last book three times. Then another title caught

her eye: Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.

        Toli plucked the book off the shelf but stopped before opening it. Daniel was

obviously ―Mr. Good Enough,‖ and now she was going to read a book that would

convince her to marry him? She felt sick to her stomach again. She slipped the book back

onto the shelf and found a chair at the end of the aisle. On a table next to it was a stack of

other texts.

        At the top of the pile was Bartlett’s Book of Quotations. She opened it at random

and locked on the first quote she saw. The words prompted a series of memories: rich,

adoring moments with Jack including the night they‘d made love. She recalled their

conversation afterwards and how right it felt to be cradled in his arms. She had never

been so comfortable with a person in all her life.

        The quote was by George Sand: ―There is only one happiness in life—to love and

to be loved. . . . [O]ne must love with all of one‘s being, or else live, come what may, a

life of complete chastity.‖




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                                      FORTY-FOUR



       The next evening Toli sat at the table enjoying a turkey dinner with Joseph, Edna,

Melinda, Debbie, and their parents. While sipping her apple cider, she took in the

chandelier above the dining room table. The teardrops of cut glass caught the late

afternoon sunlight and cast tiny rainbows onto the wall. She loved this chandelier. As

child she had spent hours staring at its colorful prisms. Her father had told her if she

made wishes and placed them in the crystals her dreams would cast onto the world, just

as they cast onto the walls. She now made a wish.

Mr. Walker, she thought, looked even better than he had before his heart attack. ―You‘re

looking great, Ron,‖ Toli said. It had been almost six weeks since his brush with death.

He was scheduled to have surgery the following month.

       ―I‘m feeling okay,‖ he said with a grin.

       ―You know,‖ said Toli, spooning mashed potatoes onto her plate, ―I realized that

you are to blame for Jack and me getting together.‖ There had been no previous mention

of Jack at the dinner table.

       ―How do you figure that?‖ asked Joseph.

       ―If Mr. Walker hadn‘t had a heart attack, Melinda and Debbie never would have

left Ironwood, and I never would have had a chance to become involved with Jack.‖

       ―It‘s all your fault, dad!‖ Melinda said.

       Everyone laughed. Toli had intended to lighten things up, and it worked. They all

needed a good laugh. But later that night, after the Walkers left, things got serious again.

Toli told her parents that she would be moving to Thunder Bay.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


       ―Are you sure you can‘t have Jack relocated here?‖ asked Joseph. ―I‘ll help you

out financially.‖

       ―The doctor said we shouldn‘t move him, not for a while anyway.‖

       Edna frowned. ―Will we see you?‖ she asked.

       ―Yes. I‘ll come back and visit regularly.‖

       ―But you worked so hard on your career,‖ said Joseph, ―just to throw it all away.‖

       ―Maybe someday I‘ll go back to AM America. Now is not the time.‖

       ―They aren‘t the only show in town,‖ Joseph added. ―There are other stations.‖

       ―I know. I‘m not giving up my life. I just have to spend this time with Jack. I

won‘t be gone forever.‖

       Joseph was shaking his head. ―I understand that you love him, Toli. I‘m not

arguing against that.‖

       ―Daddy, I‘m pregnant.‖

       ―Pregnant?‖ Edna gasped.

       ―With whose child?‖ asked Joseph.

       ―Jack‘s,‖ replied Toli.

       The news gave them both a temporary case of lockjaw. They only stared blankly.

       ―I haven‘t been feeling well the last couple of weeks, so I went to a walk-in clinic

this afternoon.‖

       Edna threw her arms around Toli. ―That‘s wonderful news! Joseph, we‘re going

to be grandparents!‖

       ―Wonderful,‖ said Joseph. He didn‘t look particularly happy. Toli embraced both




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her father and Edna. It took a moment, but Joseph finally smiled. ―How about that,‖ he

said. ―We‘re going to be grandparents.‖




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Ironwood/Valko                                                     jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                     FORTY-FIVE



       Toli returned to Thunder Bay on Sunday, December 9th. Walking down the

hospital hallway toward Jack‘s room, she was aware of her heart‘s pounding in her chest.

Try as she might not to think about the fanciful prospect, she couldn‘t help imagining him

sitting in a chair fully awake and waiting for her. When she entered his room, he would

say ―Hi‖ to her, almost shyly, as if nothing had ever happened. He‘d then stand and

swoop her into his arms, just as he had the night they‘d made love. But when she turned

into his room, he was lying on the bed, with his eyes closed, no different than when she‘d

left him two weeks earlier.

       She lay down on the bed, rested her hand on his heart, and said, ―Jack, I have

something important to tell you. Promise me that you won‘t freak out.‖ He‘d lost one

child in his life. How might he react to the announcement that he was to have another

one? She cleared her throat. ―I‘m pregnant with our baby.‖

       In her imagination he smiled more broadly than she‘d ever seen him smile. Then

the smile faded as he asked, ―How do you know it‘s our baby?‖

       ―Believe me. I know, Jack. It could only be our baby.‖

       In Thunder Bay she found a furnished one-bedroom apartment near the water. She

settled in and over the next three weeks did everything she could to make it homey:

situated scented candles in the bedroom and living room, ordered Van Gogh prints

online, and hung them on the walls. She even took up cooking, an activity she‘d rarely

done in the past, but with a baby on the way, and time to spare, she figured now was the

time to learn. She spent hours talking to Melinda, Debbie, Edna, and Joseph on the


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


phone, but the bulk of her days was spent with Jack eating her cooked meals, reading to

him, and listening to music.

       On Christmas day she lit candles in Jack‘s room and tore into the presents she‘d

bought him while a curtain of snow fell outside his window and Ella Fitzgerald sang

―White Christmas.‖ She held up the shirts, pants, sweater, and shoes she‘d gotten for him.

Maroon and lavender shirts, blue jeans and beige slacks, and brown loafers. From now

on, she decided, his world would be filled with color. The black thing was over.

       For dinner she ate the honey-baked ham and mashed potatoes she‘d bought while

he consumed what she playfully called his ―IV casserole.‖ Her leftovers would probably

last a month, which she didn‘t mind. After all, she was eating for two, and her appetite

was huge. In the early evening Nurse Litchfield along with two other nurses brought her a

piece of homemade apple pie.

       On New Year‘s Eve she and Jack watched bands play and the ball drop at Times

Square. Elton Peters of AM America co-hosted the event with some bimbo whom Toli

had never seen before but decided she hated anyway. She tried not to dwell on the idea

that she might have been the one covering the event with Elton.

       In January and February the days crept by as the temperature outside continued to

fall. There‘d been times in New York when she‘d experienced bitter cold, but nothing

like these arctic, subzero days when, after ten minutes outside, her eyes practically froze

in their sockets. She was forced to go on a shopping spree, and for the first time in her

life she owned not only a down jacket but down gloves and even socks, as well as a down

blanket.

       Daniel had called her repeatedly and left messages, which she never answered.


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


Nor did she answer his emails.

       Jack had visibly lost weight, and his once taunt muscles had lost their tone, yet

not to the point of his looking weak or even sickly. She joked with him that the pounds

he‘d lost she had put on. She was not even four months pregnant, but her old clothes no

longer fit, especially her bras. She reminded him of their first conversation in which he

chastised her for wanting implants. She now accused him of getting her pregnant so that

her breasts would grow naturally.

       Looking back, there was so much she wished she had asked Jack during their

precious time together. What were his opinions about politics, social issues, or world

events? What were his religious beliefs? His favorite movies? Books? And what about

Emily? What was she like? What did they do together? On her good days she spent hours

daydreaming about future conversations they might have. How she yearned to hear his

voice. Whatever he would say, she knew that she would find it fascinating. The wonder

of Jack was not in what he said as much as the meaning between his words.

       Toli also found herself thinking about Georgia. There had been a period in her

youth when she‘d questioned her father endlessly about her birth mother. Although

Joseph had been patient with her, his answers were always brief and never very revealing.

How difficult it must have been for him to lose his wife to leukemia not long after her

birth. And how ironic that Toli would soon bear a child whose father might also not

survive.

       Joseph hadn‘t met Edna until a year after Georgia‘s death. Toli wondered whether

she might do something similar: eventually find a spouse to help raise her child if Jack

didn‘t make it. Would Jack want her to raise his child without a father? Would being


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


fatherless be fair to their child? Would her life have been the same if Joseph had not

married Edna? Although not her biological mother, Edna was still her mother, and Toli

had grown up a happy child as a result. Toli deplored the idea of raising a child without a

father. If there was one thing she hated about America, it was that nowadays so many

children were raised by divorced parents.

       It wasn‘t easy for her to stay positive about Jack‘s condition. She could bolster

herself up for a short period of time, but for these months on end it was nearly

impossible. In her silent time, of which there was far too much, she was forced to

confront the very real possibility that Jack might not make it. He could remain in a coma

for years only to die in the end. Even worse, he might someday awake only to be a

vegetable version of his old self.

       He showed no change whatsoever. One concern expressed by Dr. Goudreault,

since Jack‘s control over the muscles in his face had diminished, was the possibility of

asphyxiation. An endoctracheal tube was put down his throat to order to ensure that the

airway was not cut off. Other than this deterioration Jack‘s vital signs were good, and Dr.

Goudreault said that he was in no worse condition than when he‘d entered the hospital

back in late October. There was, however, one difference: the longer Jack remained in a

coma, the lesser would be his chances of full recovery. After four months, according to

Goudreault, a person‘s chances diminished considerably. The four-month mark was only

a week away.

       At times the horror of the circumstances was almost too much to bear. In her

darkest moments Toli could do little to gain relief from the pain and guilt she suffered.

She would lie awake at night, heart and mind racing, obsessively reflecting on her


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


wedding day and mentally trying to reverse time. If I had gotten to Hiawatha Park only

fifteen minutes earlier Jack would still have been there. He would never have traveled

north by himself and gotten into an accident.

       It was true: In a life where punctuality was so important, the one time when she

most needed to be on time she was late.

       Time was a terrible thing, a dimension of the universe that marched on in a

relentless progression toward nowhere. Our minds are forever recording every detail of

our behavior and actions, not only as proof of what we‘ve done but also as painful

reminders of our wrongdoings, triggering remorse but never allowing us to go back and

change our actions. If there was a devil, Toli imagined, he would have been the one who

constructed the unchanging nature of time.

       Suddenly the last words Jack had ever said to her sprang to mind: ―I‘m a better

man for having met you.‖ The words were similar to the ones Indus had uttered to Venus

just before he died.

       It was February 27th when Nurse Litchfield entered Jack‘s room and went

through her usual ritual of changing his IV bag and checking his vital signs. It would be

the last time she ever did so for Jack.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                       FORTY-SIX



       The first sense to return was hearing. Undefined and amorphous, sound arose

without internal voice to explain or frame it, from no particular direction, manifesting

itself as a distant hum and faint buzzing that grew ever clearer. Beckoning, like a flicker

of light down a slender shaft, shining promise of forsaken dreams, it broke through the

gates of his shadow world.

       Down a long corridor, a woman‘s voice called to someone. The voice was

familiar but still not fully remembered. She was a wraith in the shadows, calling him,

dancing in and out of his consciousness, coaxing a memory and a longing that lingered

just beyond his reach. He‘d had this dream before, always searching, about to find her,

but she remained out of sight. At times he‘d almost catch up with her, glimpse the hem of

a dress, and fling open a door she‘d just passed through, only to find her gone.

       The second sense to return was sight. From out of a flutter of dark wings, a

horizon appeared to usher in the light, stark and bright and cold. Where was he? Who was

he? Why was he here?

       A face appeared, stern and ruddy, with coarse features and hair pulled back in a

severe knot at the nape of her neck. Through eyes still half shut he could see the woman

fussing over him, adjusting sheets, and checking something near his head. When he

finally opened his eyes wide to focus on her, she was briefly startled before her face

softened. ―Well,‖ she said, ―welcome back. We‘ve been waiting for you for some time

now. There‘s someone here who‘ll be very glad to see you.‖

       A moment later another face appeared, this time that of a younger woman with


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


translucent skin and reddish gold tendrils that hung loosely over her shoulders. She

looked at him with large wet eyes the color of moss. He knew those eyes. They were the

color of the Corinth Sea that carried him safely home from Peloponnesia so many

lifetimes ago. They called to him like a winding mountain stream, beryl green and

teaming with life, urging him to explore their mysteries. Slowly he could feel his spirit

returning across the slopes of distant hills.

        The woman covered her mouth to stifle a gasp. Then came a torrent of tears. Why

was she crying?

        ―Jack,‖ the woman sobbed.

        The name felt like a well-worn shirt, comforting and reliable. He struggled for

some moments to place it in the context of a life still not fully recovered from across the

divide. He blinked at her as she reached for his hand. Her hand was warm and soft and

held his with the tenderness of quiet joy, suggesting peace and home.




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Ironwood/Valko                                                           jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


                                        EPILOGUE



       Jack‘s recovery had been ―very fast,‖ according to Dr. Goudreault. After he

returned to consciousness, it had taken only thirty minutes for his eyes to adjust and then

another hour before he could formulate a coherent sentence. And what a sentence it was:

―Toli, I love you.‖

       Within the first week he started to walk without balance problems and converse

fluently. The only thing still a bit fuzzy was his memory, which had blank spots. He

recognized Toli fully and remembered certain parts of their relationship, but he had no

recall of other times, such as when they encountered the deer hunters at the Trap Hills.

       ―You made them strip down to their birthday suits at gun point,‖ Toli reminded

him.

       ―No way.‖

       ―Yup. Then you sent them in the direction of a poison-ivy patch.‖

       ―If they killed that deer, as you said, then they deserved it.‖

       ―Do you remember the night we made love?‖ she asked.

       ―Were you a blond back then?‖

       ―No!‖

       ―Oh. I must be thinking of someone else.‖ He grinned mischievously.

       Toli punched him in the arm.

       The product of that momentous night arrived five months later. Pink and beaming

with life, Lance Morgan weighed a healthy eight pounds, three ounces, and when Toli

looked into his bright blue eyes it felt as if every ounce of love the world had ever known


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Ironwood/Valko                                                       jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


had come to rest in her heart. The attending nurse handed Lance to Jack, and nothing had

ever looked as right to Toli as this man holding his son.

       On Lance‘s first birthday his parents were married in Hiawatha Park.

       Toli had first come to Ironwood in anticipation of the happiest day of her life.

Little did she know at the time that that day wouldn‘t arrive until almost two years later.

For all her joy, however, the wedding was bittersweet because the other significant man

in her life was not there. Joseph Stevens had passed on just 33 days after Lance‘s birth.

Toli had been devastated for weeks but with Jack‘s help didn‘t let the loss overwhelm

her. She had Lance to care for and didn‘t want her prolonged grief to affect him. In her

private moments she wondered whether Joseph had left because he now could. All was

well with his daughter, who had a beautiful child and a wonderful soon-to-be husband.

It‘s what Joseph had cared most about. A goal had been fulfilled.

       Father McCoy officiated at their wedding on a summer day in front of a small

gathering that included Rainie, Maggie, Sid, Melinda, Debbie, Gene, and, of course,

Edna. Jessie was there also, Jessie the ex-stripper, Toli had discovered. She‘d made Jack

tell her about his exact relationship with Jessie. At first he pretended not to remember.

―It‘s a lingering blank spot,‖ he‘d lied, but she would have none of his playful pretending

and coaxed the story out of him.

       Accompanying Jessie was her girlfriend Cory and their one-year-old son

Matthew. During the reception Toli noticed Farther McCoy taking great pleasure in

watching Lance and Matthew play with each other. He especially seemed to enjoy

Matthew, whose features eerily resembled the good Father‘s.

       The only filming of the event was with Sid‘s personal video camera—that is, until


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Ironwood/Valko                                                      jjv@jamesjvalko.com 727 460 3482


a Fox News helicopter arrived overhead. After all this time the media still craved their

story.

         ―Maybe we should give them something to look at,‖ Jack said, taking Toli in his

arms.

         ―I would like that very much,‖ she agreed.

         And with that Jack kissed Toli Stevens Morgan as she‘d never been kissed before.




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