Shadowbox: Bolt from the Blue

A foil lightning bolt tears a heart-shaped candy box in two.
One side is bright yellow. A baby doll pillow is surrounded by Hershey kisses. The other side is black. It is littered with a pile of crumpled candy wrappers.

Some late October days have that good-to-be-alive feeling. The air is crisp but not cold, the colors are vibrant and the slightest breeze sends the burnished leaves tumbling to the ground. Indian summer, nature’s cruel trick, makes the biting winter wind off the Charles River seem impossible. The golden sun low in the sky was the last reminder that gray, endless winter was close at hand. But Lisa could not have cared less. Today was perfect.

She loved her walk home from work, from Kenmore Square to Brookline which took her past the Charles River University campus, then across the bridge to Babcock Street to Coolidge Corners. Crunchy brown leaves and showy reds and oranges reminded her of home. The big oaks and maples lining the street, as well as the two-family houses with big open porches, were just like the street she grew up on. Her walk took her to Harvard Street in Brookline. The fish market, deli, bagel place, and temple gave the area character. There was a movie theatre, bookstore and a Pewter Pot Muffin House. Over gallons of coffee, Lisa and her friends voiced their hopes for the future.

Lisa was bursting to tell Mac that two of her shadowboxes had been accepted by the Boston Arts Co-op. He’d been right to encourage her to submit her work. But he had appointments out in the country so her good news would have to wait. Mac had driven to Concord hot on the trail of a Fitzgerald first edition for his collection. Later in the day, he was meeting an antiquarian bookseller somewhere near Northampton.

As she trudged through thick piles of leaves on this warm October afternoon, she thought about the past summer. Everything seemed more vivid; the grass seemed greener, the flowers more fragrant. Had she seen this as her future on days she felt listless or despondent, perhaps she would have had a happier childhood.

The life she lived with Mac was beyond the expectations she’d had for herself. Charismatic, smart, dreamy Mac, who loved her completely, supported all her cockeyed ideas, her social issue of the week, her shadowboxes and her work. Their life together as partners, lovers, best friends, and soul mates was perfect. Together they formed the nucleus in an orbit of moving and shifting light.

As she strolled home, snippets of memory passed randomly through her mind. She thought about the first time she woke up next to him — the pleasure of their lazy lovemaking in the early morning, their sleep, how they read newspapers to one another over coffee with croissants in bed. The first morning he said, “You complete me.” She smiled thinking of Mac’s arms around her waist, his kisses on the back of her neck while she’d washed the dishes just last night.

Days seemed particularly bright after nights spent wrapped in each other’s arms, safe and warm. Happiness puts luminous color into your life. Losing her grandmother last year was hard but being with Mac was beyond anything she’d ever hoped for. As Grandma said, there’s always bad with the good.

When she rounded the corner and saw two policemen standing in front of their apartment, she didn’t think anything of it, even when they asked her if this was the residence of MacKenzie Taylor. “He should be back in a couple of hours,” she said. “Do you want to come in and wait for him? Can he call you when he gets here?”

“Yes, Miss. We’ll come in. What’s your relationship to him?”

“Relationship?” she repeated. One of the officers took her arm, while the other held her trembling hand.

They sat down in the living room. Lisa stared at the painting over the sofa. They’d bought it from an artist their friend Phil had dated. It was abstract and they were in deep disagreement about its subject. Mac, I see it your way now. Wait until I tell you.

The two policemen were trying their best to soften what they came to tell her. She was afraid of what they might say. She had to keep them from saying it. Once they did, they wouldn’t be able take it back.

“Would you like some coffee or soda or something?”

“No, thank you. What’s your name?”

“Lisa,” she whispered.

“Lisa, who can we call for you?’

Her legs buckled. She couldn’t catch her breath. She felt like she’d swallowed broken glass. Her heart lay so heavy in her chest she thought it would crush her diaphragm.

The other policeman repeated, “Lisa, who can we call for you?”

They called Phil and he called her old roommate, Amy. They came within minutes of one another. The detectives explained to them what had happened. Lisa couldn’t think about the facts. They didn’t make sense. How could Mac be taken without any warning, so quickly and alone? Bleeding out in a crash of steel and glass? Wrapped around a tree while she was enjoying the afternoon? What was their last conversation about? A movie he wanted to see? Getting dinner with Phil and his latest girlfriend? Reminding him to take out the garbage? She didn’t know.

The police speculated he might have swerved to miss a deer. They found one dead up the road. Treacherous, those narrow country roads.

In the days that followed, Lisa was in shock. The only thing she was aware of was that she called the police station every morning, her heart beating, praying for a different answer. That maybe they made a mistake. That Mac would come home.

She was put through to a man with a patient, composed voice. “I’m sorry, Miss Stern. We’ll never know exactly how it happened. There is nothing to investigate. There were skid marks on the road. The car smashed into a tree. No one else was involved. We’re sorry, miss. It was an accident, an unfortunate accident.” Sorry, sorry, sorry.

The funeral was a blur. His mother wouldn’t let her see him. She said it was better that way. No one would see him, not even her. They had to remember him as he was.

He grew up in Reading, a picturesque New England town outside of Boston. His town reminded her of a Currier and Ives image of a town square with a white church and slender steeple around which there was a cemetery with the grave markers of the early settlers. A minister, who might have known Mrs. Taylor but certainly not Mac, spoke in generalities; he could have been eulogizing anyone.

Everyone who knew him knew Mac scorned religion. He would have wanted Phil to tell some of his best stories, to have him go out as he truly was. But he wasn’t there to plan it as he would have been in life, meticulously attending to every detail.

She sat propped up by Phil, stiff with grief. She didn’t want to look at the coffin, yet she couldn’t take her eyes off it. She whispered to Phil, “No cemetery.” He nodded and squeezed her hand.

She didn’t know how she would get over this. The only thing clear to her was that the course of her life was forever changed. There would never be another Mac.


Chapter One

                                   Race Point or the End of the World

Lisa pulled her shawl and blanket tightly around her. The bottom of her skirt was damp. She stood on the beach at the very tip of Cape Cod, where the ocean and bay dissolve into one another. At the horizon, there was an emptiness suggesting she was at the edge of the world.

She was unaware that another sleepless woman inched toward her, in case the girl walked into the water. The woman had seen that happen before and knew it would happen again. But not on her watch.

The blackness of night faded to gray. Crashing waves sizzled and swallowed the beach. Grasses and scrub pine rooted in sand resisted the northwest winds that sculpted them. The dunes shook themselves free in the wind, shaped but not beaten by the assault. Lisa knew she was not a dune.

She looked down at the dark silkiness between her toes at the water’s edge. The water slapped her shins and then pooled around her feet. Mac’s sudden death was incomprehensible. What should she do with herself now that he had been ripped away from her? Lisa sat on the wet sand, amidst kelp and shells washed ashore. Close to the surf, she grabbed her knees tight to her chest, rocking slightly and crying first in waves of hysteria, then weary sobbing.

Her dead grandmother’s voice broke through Lisa’s haze. What are you doing, kinde? Get away from that water! Mach schnell. Right now. Don’t be such a big baby. You should have known this was coming. What did you expect? I told you over and over. The goniff is always waiting. He takes. I’m sorry for you, Liselah, but that’s life. You think you’ve had a loss. Let me tell you about loss.

Lisa grew up with hearing that no matter how good things seemed to be, there would always be the inevitable appearance of the goniff, the lurking thief ready to strangle peace of mind and replace it with trouble —
tsouris. Lisa had always imagined her personal goniff as a wrinkled troll who would silently creep up from behind and snatch her happiness. But when the thief had finally arrived, he’d caught her entirely by surprise. She had forgotten all about him when she was with Mac. But he came anyway. Lisa never imagined grief to be physical. It was hard to breathe and her broken heart had jagged edges. Body and soul were marooned in the replay of memory.

“Good night, Grandma, go away.” Lisa mumbled, covering her ears.

Moving toward the water, the woman approached Lisa. Hands on wide hips, she wore a man’s coat with a scarf wound around her neck. “It’s a bone-chilling night,” she said. “You must be freezing.” She spread a  blanket away from the surf and pulled a thermos and a mug from her straw bag. “Come, have some coffee to warm you up.”

Lisa looked up at her, sniffling. “No thanks. I’d like to be alone, if you don’t mind.”

“The coffee is free. No strings.” She sat down on her blanket, poured coffee into the top of the thermos and handed it to Lisa. The only sound was the water lapping the beach and the wind. “I thought maybe you were thinking about taking a walk into the water. So no,” the woman’s thin lips half-smiled, “I don’t expect conversation.”

“Why are you here?” Lisa took a soggy tissue from her pocket to dry her face.

“Probably the same reason as you. Can’t sleep.”

Lisa looked into the woman’s lined, ruddy face. “The nights can be endless.”

“For an old woman.” She sipped from her mug. “Have some. It’ll warm you.” She looked out at the water and then back at the disheveled girl. “I’m Isabela.”


Isabela pulled a wad of Kleenex from her bag. “Need these?” She tossed them to her.

“Thanks. The coffee is good.” Lisa blew her nose hard.

They sat quietly side by side, watching the rush of the waves. The sun was rising; vague puffs of pink and gold signaled the start of another day. What should she do now? Go back home to their empty apartment, the place where Mac still filled up every space? Call one of her friends who didn’t know what to say anymore? She didn’t even have a job to go back to. Ruby told her not to come back to the day care center until she pulled herself together, and her other job had not yet received funding.

“It’s too cold for you to stay out here. You really should go home.” Isabela pointed to quick-moving swollen clouds. “The sky is clear straight ahead but look over there. A storm is moving in and the air smells like snow.”

Lisa shrugged, her eyes filling again. “I can’t go home.”

Isabela hesitated, and then said, “Come with me then, come to my place above the bakery. You can sleep for a while until you decide what to do or where to go.”

“Brinca’s Bakery?” Lisa’s eyes widened.

“Yes. I like to come down while the bread is rising. Not much of a sleeper myself. I usually stay closer to home but tonight I felt a pull to come here to Race Point.”

“I can’t go there. No. Not there.” Lisa shook her head, tears rolled down her cheeks.

Isabela let a few moments pass. “You liked my cinnamon raisin bread and your boyfriend always wanted lemon cakes. Don’t look surprised. You two never seemed to notice there were other people in the world. I don’t know what happened but you have a choice to make. You can freeze out here or you can choose a warm bed. Just come take a nap. The salty air, the aroma of bread baking and rest might do you some good. ”

Lisa knew she probably shouldn’t go home with this stranger, but
Isabela smelled like raw dough and sugar. That was good enough for her.


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