City Mouse Country Mouse


by on August 22, 2014

photo by Lucia Shorr


My son Jack woke me at 3 am whispering to me about his nightmare. “There was an elevator … lots of dead people…”

I walked him back to his room – my childhood room, and crawled into the empty twin bed next to his. I kissed the top of his sandy, sweaty head and eventually dozed off while he fell back to a fitful sleep. He woke again a couple of hours later and plodded down the hall to the bathroom.

Jack often has nightmares before he travels by plane. In a couple of days we’d be heading back to high desert New Mexico after spending most of the summer at my parents’ house on Long Island. I could feel the unsettling shift in our family weather as our subconscious minds begun transitioning between our two wildly different seasonal atmospheres. Just the day before, for the first time all summer, I’d found myself mistaking the faces of random passer-byers for those of Taos acquaintances. As I lay awake in bed, my conscious mind tried to catch up. I made mental lists of tasks to be done and good-byes to be said, and couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I had gone to bed well after midnight, and I got up bleary eyed and mentally frayed in that sleep deprived way that makes even the most manageable tasks (like speaking coherently) seem challenging and that coffee only seems to make edgier. Later, when the boys piled into the back of the car with their tennis rackets for a morning session of camp, I ran back into the house to retrieve a forgotten water bottle. We weren’t even out the driveway before I realized I didn’t have my phone, which I could have sworn I had in my hand when I got in the car the first time.

I dropped the boys off and returned to look for the phone. I asked my husband to call it, assuming I’d left it somewhere in the kitchen when I went to grab the water bottle. He was surprised when a woman who was not me answered. She told him she had found my phone on Route 25-A and would wait for me at the 7-11 across from the train station.

“I told her you’d be there in 10 minutes. Go!” he said.

“What does she look like? What if she can’t wait that long? Is she catching a train? ” I called to him as I ran back to the car, frustrated with my Swiss cheese brain for apparently leaving my i-Phone on top of the car, flustered for causing such inconvenience to a stranger, and certain that my phone would be shattered beyond repair.

As I neared the 7-11, I saw a tan, blonde woman in her early sixties wearing a tank top and shorts, perched on the curb, holding a phone and waiting expectantly. I raced into the parking lot, got out of the car and as I approached her, she smiled as if I were her own daughter. Something about her familiar Long Island appearance combined with the warmth she exuded made something inside me silently crack. I hugged her and thanked her and she hugged me back, clearly relieved and happy. I rambled on about the morning and about how my phone must have flown off the top of my car.

“I’m telling you I saw this thing get run over by two trucks with my very own eyes,” she said, as she presented me with my phone, still safely encased in its pink camo otter box.

I sputtered something about how that was amazing and how I should really write Otter a letter and then I asked her for her address so I could send her something to thank her. She said, “No, no, no, absolutely not,” that she was paying it forward, that her mother had recently passed away and she had been cleaning out her mother’s house and she needed something like this to happen today… and whatever had earlier cracked inside of me erupted. I dropped my chin to my chest and choked up and mumbled, “You are so kind.”

I asked her what her name was and she said,”Susie,” and she asked me for mine and I said, “Jennifer.” And she said, “Jennifer, we were meant to meet today,” and said that I was so sweet and asked if everything was OK and then I felt embarrassed that I was now sniffling in front of her in the 7-11 parking lot when people leave their I-phones on the tops of cars every day and sometimes people pick them up and return them. And here I was getting emotional when she was the one who had just lost her mother and had practically risked her life to get my i-Phone off of 25-A after watching it get run over by two trucks with her very own eyes.

And then I got back in my car, all teary and ashamed and exhausted and touched and grateful, took a deep breath and tried to pull myself together and cried all the way back home.

I went upstairs to pack and before I knew it, the boys were back from their tennis camp and asking me why it looked like I’d been crying, while my mother shouted up the stairs, “Dr, Lindsley’s coming over with a piece of Mars!”

By the time I got down the stairs, an elderly, renowned geophysicist from the university who lives down the street from my parents was standing in the kitchen, smiling gently with a pocket protector and a pen in his plaid cotton shirt and a piece of Mars in his hands. My dad had brought my sons down the block to visit him a couple of days before, at my mother’s urging, with some rocks they had polished and wanted help in identifying. I couldn’t recall ever having met Dr. Lindsley before, although my father reminded me that his daughter babysat me when I was a little girl. We all took turns peering through a magnifying glass at the thin slice of Mars on a glass side above a red and white checked lobster tablecloth on the kitchen table.

“It’s from a meteorite that landed in France,” he explained. “We acquired it from the Vatican’s geological division. My colleague identified it and dated it and determined that it had come from deep inside of Mars. It exploded out of a volcano on Mars, got hit by an asteroid and then orbited our solar system for about a billion years before falling to earth. She proved it all and presented her findings at a NASA conference…”

And while I was still trying to wrap my mind around the vast sequence of events that took place over the span of an unnimaginable amount of time that led to the six of us all hovering together over a tiny piece of Mars in my parents’ kitchen on a that particular mid-summer afternoon, my sister Elena sent a text message to my unbroken i-Phone. It was the first sonogram image of her baby.

And there all of the sudden on the screen was Lila, with all of her fingers and all of her toes, lounging with her hands behind her head and her elbows jutted out to the sides. She looked as if she had enjoyed her parents’ honeymoon in the south of France even more than they had, as if she were teasing us for having been so worried about her well-being throughout Elena’s first trimester, as if she were reminding us she wouldn’t have missed her mother’s hen party or her parents’ wedding for anything. There on my phone was heart pumping, tenacious little Lila reclining in the snug curve of her mother’s uterus.

That night, Jack would have no nightmares. I would lay in bed in my parents’ house listening to the chatter of late July cicadas, as a firefly sporadically lit up the dark of the room. I would fall asleep taking comfort in the knowledge of three people I’d never known before, and in the fact that as Susie emptied her dead mother’s house, Lila Jean stretched and grew in my sister’s womb, and down the street, Dr. Lindsley carried in his shirt pocket a piece of Mars that had exploded from a volcano a billion years before.


by on May 8, 2014


photo by Dorie Hagler


Oliver is moving and I am sad. Not a wistful, sentimental, sweet kind of sad. This is a flattened, weepy, unable to go food shopping, exhausted, grief ridden, my- husband’s-getting-uncomfortable-with-it kind of sad. Oliver, our nine-year-old neighbor, hasn’t (God forbid) died. He hasn’t even moved back to Wisconsin. He’s moving ten miles away and I am wrecked.

At first I thought I was losing my mind and then (after a neurotic googling of my symptoms) no, I realized, I am losing Oliver.

Oliver is in many ways critical to my everyday sanity. His nine a.m. knock on our door every Saturday is practically Pavlovian in the response it elicits from our family. He comes in and out of our house after school all week long, but at his parents’ insistence he waits until 9:00 come over on the weekends, often restlessly pacing in front of our house or riding his bike up and down the road, waiting. His loud rapid-fire rap at the door has conditioned us to expect the sound of his laugh – a hearty, head tilted towards the sky, eyes closed guffaw, and when it didn’t come this past Saturday, a hollow sense of emptiness descended upon our house.

He didn’t always knock. He used to crawl through the dog door in our kitchen when he first moved into our neighborhood (which was not exactly a neighborhood until his family’s arrival.)  He was three years old and pulled like a magnet to our five-year-old twin boys. We live on a dirt road in Taos, New Mexico and in typical Taos style it was a mix of rural, wabi-sabi enchantment and disconcerting Breaking Badness. We were sure that the tenants who Oliver’s family had replaced had been dealing drugs from the house, with cars floating ghostlike down the road at all times of night. And our old neighbor Eddie, who had barely survived being run over by his own tractor, had been harboring a mountain lion cub in his garage while I unknowingly pushed the stroller of my preemie twins past it every day. This was not the kind of suburban block I had grown up on, on Long Island. Oli made it all better.

For the next six years, the three boys played effortlessly, for hours to days at a stretch. They roamed between our houses and sometimes into the adjacent fields, destroyed countless colonies of red ants, bounced on Oliver’s trampoline, built forts, wrestled and pillow fought, played all manner of war and battle with swords, light sabers and sticks, and introduced me, one of three sisters, to the imaginary world of boys. “We need reinforcements!” Oli would shout. As neighbors, the boys managed to escape the structure and parent involvement of “play dates” – a term to which I’ve never warmed. They came and left as they pleased, rarely pausing even to say hello to each other, entering and exiting each others’ worlds with a tender confidence.

Oli has a round-faced, Midwestern wholesomeness, a sturdy build, and the nature and syntax of an old man. It seemed fitting that his favorite costume in Jack and Liam’s costume box was a foam penguin, and we referred to him as “the sweaty penguin” in conversation for months after a particularly hot and rowdy dinner party. Liam preferred shy, burrowing animals, like chipmunks and skunks. Jack always identified with blue birds and other lithe, flying creatures like Peter Pan. When Oliver first told me a few months ago about the new house his parents were considering buying, after the offer they had made on the house they rent on our street was turned down, he said, “It’s essentially in the middle of nowhere.”   I tucked his “essentially” into my memory like a gift.

From the beginning Oliver was able to interject himself into the secret life of twins. He and I watched and observed, equally mystified by the intimacy and intensity of the twin dynamic. With surprising competency, he waded into the deep twin waters, or danced around its edges, never playing sides, and befriended them as individuals, while also respecting their oneness. Somehow he gave them a break from each other, even when they were all together. Mostly, they laughed.

When Oliver’s baby sister Mae was born, the three boys were shocked.   It seemed incomprehensible to them that this newcomer had dared to arrive as both a baby and, even worse, a girl. It turns out they had expected a bow-and-arrow wielding boy to join them on what Liam by then referred to as “the magical road.”   When we first went to meet Mae on the day she was born, Oliver told us he wanted to hit her on the head with a rock. Mae is now as beautiful as her mother, and for all of her thirty pounds, commands a great deal of authority on our street. She climbs up on Jack’s lap, drapes her arms over his shoulders, and calls him her boyfriend. Oliver has grown into a protective, patient brother. Intrepidly, she follows them wherever they wander.

Over the years, we’ve thought about moving but could never get past the hurdle of leaving them. When we returned from annual summer trips to family, the boys regaled each other with bragging, exaggerated tales of their adventures in Wisconsin and New York. “The water slides were sick!” Oli would say.

At first I mourned for Liam and Jack, who grew sadder and more anxious as Oli’s impending move grew nearer. I watched a wounded Liam retreat, slowly, from their shared existence, closing the door to his room more often and sometimes crying before bed. Still they came together to ride their electric motorcycles in another neighbor’s green pasture, to find a beaver dam in a nearby stream (returning wet and cold) or to dance in our living room. While sitting in my pajamas on our couch one night watching Oli stand before me, in aviator sunglasses and a too small blazer, shaking his hips to Pharrell’s Get Lucky, I knew that my sorrow was not just for Jack and Liam. It was me who Oli had been saving every day.

His family’s move has been a month long event, a band-aid being pulled off slowly. They stopped sleeping at the house a few days ago. That evening, I stood bereft in our driveway staring at their vacant driveway. Since Oliver has left, I’ve been losing things; my favorite sunglasses, gift certificates, keys, the thermometer, shopping lists, my cell phone. My mind feels sluggish – like is too busy processing Oliver’s absence to manage such minutia. Of course it was in the midst of such minutia, during the mundane routine – the messy, bloody, dirty, funny, holy business of everyday life, during the rests between the notes, that he was with us, that he was with me. And I can’t yet seem to locate the rest without him here.