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Triumph over Tragedy


“Mommy, why is the trophy all burned?” Mary Ann’s nose was pressed against the glass display case at East High School. “The other ones are so shiny and this one is so yucky.” Liz took a deep breath and sighed, staring at the neatly folded gold t-shirt laying beside it, reading the words in her head.

“It was in a fire.” She turned towards her son and ruffled his hair. “Matt, can you read what it says on the trophy?” In a childish voice he spoke the words.

“1978 Iowa High School Cross Country.” Liz cued him. “Champions.” He looked at his mother and smiled proudly.

“Very good! Now, can you read what it says on the picture?” Matt stared at the photo, focusing on the words.

“East High State…” Liz whispered when he looked at her. “Champ…ion…ship.”

“Champ…ion...ship Team Mem…bers – Coach Raff-ens-per-ger” Liz helped him through the name and then he continued. “Chris Steven-son, Brian Wil-kin-son…” Matt turned to his mother. “Is that Mr. Wilkinson?”

“No, that’s his son. Just like you are my son.” He nodded, thinking before he resumed.

“Danny Skogstad, Scott Skogstad” He paused, looking at his mom. “Skogstad, that’s Grandma’s name!” He smiled.

“Yes, Danny and Scott are my brothers. Grandma is their mother.” He had a big grin on his face and then continued. “Bryce…” She cued him again. “For-dyce, Jeff Jones, and Coach Wilson.” He pointed at the man with a grin just like his. “That’s daddy.”

“Your right! That’s daddy.” She looked longingly at the picture and turned to her children with hands extended.

“Okay kiddos, time to go home.”

Chapter 1

I slipped in through the back door and hung up my coat, jamming the medallion into my pants pocket as I opened the refrigerator, uncertain what might be inside. Saturday was always an iffy day when it came to food. There were two or three inches of Velveeta cheese wrapped in aluminum foil, some slices of baloney in a half-opened package, maybe an inch of catsup in the bottle, and some Kool-Aid in a plastic pitcher. Way in the back was a jar of pickles but it wasn’t very appealing. Not much for a late lunch. Maybe there were more options in the cupboards.

These selections weren’t much better. Two cans of tomato soup, a box of spaghetti with barely a serving, some Shredded Wheat, and two old heels of bread, one bluish in the middle, the other curled like a catcher’s mitt. I sighed. Looks like a grilled baloney sandwich with cheese. I ran my fingers across the stick of margarine on the counter and into the frypan, reaching over to turn on the flame, laying the slices of baloney side-by-side as I licked my fingers.

“What ya making?”

Alice appeared alongside me at the stove, her hair pulled into pigtails.

“Baloney sandwich. Did you eat yet?” She shook her head.

“I’ll make one for you.” I sighed and sliced a piece of cheese for each one, tipping up the edge of hers with the spatula to see if it was ready to turn. Alice grabbed two plates and put them on the table. I gave her the good heel, folding it in half and setting the sandwich on her plate.

“Where’s mom?”

Alice took a bite while I poured the Kool-Aid.

“She’s asleep.” I sat down beside her at the kitchen table while I pulled a pickle from the jar, munching as I talked.

“Where’s Ashley?” Alice just hunched her shoulders. I hadn’t seen Ashley for three or four days. “Look what I won.” I took a huge bite of the meager sandwich and leaned sideways, pulling the medallion from my jeans pocket as I swallowed. Her eyes glowed, a smile spreading across her face.

“Read it out loud.” She turned it over and eagerly read the etched words.

“1st Place Freshman race – 1973 Columbus Cross Country Invitational.” Alice looked at me and grinned. I shoved the rest of the sandwich in my mouth and chewed. “Get your coat. We gotta get some more food. I’m still hungry.” Alice put the plates in the sink as I swallowed the remainder of my Kool-Aid. “Make sure you wear the raincoat.”

I walked into the living room, sighing as I glanced at dad asleep on the couch, turning towards the TV to see who was playing as I grabbed the wallet from a coat on the only chair in the room, pulling out a $5 bill and sticking it in my jeans pocket. Alice and I walked out the back door and down the alley, two neighbors shooting baskets with a tennis ball, talking about her day and what we would buy at the A&P.

When we arrived at the grocery store I looked at the signs in the front window for sales – four cans of corn for a $1, eggs thirty-nine cents/dozen, quarts of A&P ice cream seventy-nine cents, bananas ten cents/pound. It looked like some good deals. Alice knew the routine as we shuffled around the store, tossing items in the cart to fill our shopping list. Six bananas, four cans of corn, one loaf of white bread, a box of Sugar Pops, a dozen eggs, big bag of potato chips, two pounds of hamburger, and a gallon of milk.

As I glanced up and down the aisle Alice turned her back towards me so I could stuff food in the pocket I sewed inside the back of her coat – a package of baloney, some sloppy joe seasoning, a can of tomato paste, and a small bag of Hersey kisses. I had a package of bacon in the back of my jeans and an apple in the left coat pocket of my jacket. We shuffled towards the checkout.

Alice went up on her tiptoes to pull the items from the shopping cart, setting them on the conveyor belt, watching as they moved towards the cashier. The woman smiled at Alice after she rung them up.

$4.02.” I handed her the five dollar bill and she gave me change. “Thanks for shopping at A&P.”

I balanced the paper sack on my forearm, Alice talking a mile a minute about her girlfriend as we headed for home. When we entered the alley behind our house I set the sack on the ground and reached under her coat to pull out the baloney, seasoning, and tomato paste, placing it in the sack, tearing open the bag of Hersey kisses so she could have a treat before supper.

I put the grocery bag on the kitchen table and turned towards Alice. Mom was still asleep.

“I have to rake leaves out front and a little at Mr. Johnson’s. So you put the food away and we’ll eat in about an hour.” I handed her another Hersey’s kiss with a vertical finger over my lips. “Be quiet. Don’t wake dad.”

Mom was sitting at the kitchen table when I came back forty-five minutes later. She was still in her housecoat, staring at a cup of Nescafe that had gone cold, only the wisp of a smile on her face as I said hi. Alice entered the kitchen, wrinkling her nose.

“You smell like smoke.”

“I was burning the leaves in the alley. Are you ready for supper?” She nodded.

I set the foot stool beside the stove so she could see better and showed her how high to turn the flame, and the way to break up hamburger with the wooden spoon. She watched as I carefully scooped the grease into an empty soup can we kept in the refrigerator and then added the tomato paste, seasoning mix, and water, stirring the mixture as it reduced. An inviting aroma filled the kitchen.

“Matt, make sure to save some for your father.” They were the only words out of her mouth in the past ten minutes.

I’d become accustomed to her taciturn behavior. The lack of conversation. Although there were still times when she seemed happy, her days were increasingly filled with depression and moodiness – melancholy a constant companion. It didn’t make any sense. When I was little she always seemed so happy. So carefree. Filled with the wonder and inquisitiveness of a child. But things had changed. The fun-loving mother I remembered as a small kid was no longer around, replaced by a woman almost devoid of emotion. A zombie. What had happened?

Alice and I sat at the kitchen table filling the plates with potato chips and corn, scooping the sloppy joe mix onto white bread. I demonstrated to her how to use the heel, folding it into a U so she could eat without a mess. Three sandwiches, a banana, lots of corn, a second glass of milk, and I was full.

We talked about the art project her fifth grade teacher assigned while we did dishes. Mom sat at the table and listened to our interaction, quietly enjoying the moment. I kept glancing towards the living room, worried dad would wake up before we finished, encouraging Alice to move a little quicker. She looked up when she put the last of the silverware back in the drawer.

“Matt, can we fly my kite?” I smiled and she continued. “I need you to help me make a tail.”

“Sure, I’ll find some old rags in the basement and then we can head over to the park.”

We walked down the alley hand in hand, Alice giggling as I tied the cloth tail around my head like a pirate, talking like they did in cartoons – “Arr matey, shiver me timbers!”

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