A Dan Fogelberg New Year’s Eve

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That actually happened. . .

At my neighborhood grocery store.

Looking up at two skyscraper mountains of sweet potatoes when the woman walks up, stands right next to me and asks the exact same question rippling silently through my mind.

“What’s the difference between a garnet and a jewel sweet potato?”

“That,” I answer back as if answering this stranger’s questions came as natural as breathing, “is a really good question. Let me find out.”

So I ask the produce guy walking by. I’m not even looking at the woman. And in the time it takes the produce guy to answer, “no real difference at all,” I notice the guy standing behind the woman.

And the fact that the woman is now staring wide eyed at me.

A second passes and she says, “Roger?”

It takes me at least 5 seconds. She’s got to be at least 10 years younger than I (boy, was that wrong…we’re the same age).

That same sparkle in her eyes as if she knows the joke and also thinks it’s hilarious. A musical laugh that resonates every rainbow color. She looks at me. Laughing. Knowing something I don’t know.

I do not know who she . . . . .

“No,” I finally blurt out.

Nodding her head smiling she says “Yes!”

All I can manage, because any attempt to say something clever or even intelligible would end up a verbal puddle on the floor in front of the sweet potato mountains, is a hoarse “No!”

Then she turns to the grim-faced guy behind her and says, “This is my husband Jack. . . Jack, meet my ex-husband Roger.”

I shake hands with Grim-Faced. I smile and say something stupid to him like, “Well, you sure have good taste!” So much for the whole “I’m a writer” thing; I can’t even speak.

She asks, a catch in her voice that probably no one else can hear, (except for maybe Mr. Grim-Faced) “Well, how is Rachel?” And my stock line of “that ended before I even sobered up from the wedding” is nowhere in sight. All I can mumble is a “that didn’t last very long.”

I grab for a fact, any fact, as if it were a sweet potato from the pile behind us. Something solid to hold onto. I say, “But I’ve been with the same person for 14 years now.” The “fact” label shattering like a cracked mirror beneath the weight of the true message of “Hey, I don’t mess things up anymore. Not like I used to. Not like I did with you.”

“How are your parents?” she asks.

“Oh. they’re great. Just great. They live in a senior community outside of Princeton and. . . . how long has it been? It must be almost 20 years now? Do you even live in Chicago? I lost you so long ago.”

“Well,” she points a shoulder back at her husband, “He found me! We’re on the east coast. We’re just here to see my Mom. Haven’t been in Chicago in years and years.”

“Is your Mom OK? Is she still in . . .”

“Yep. She’s doing great. Same place! We just stopped in here by chance to pick up some stuff to take out to the suburbs. What are the odds?”

“What are the odds!” I repeat.

“This would be too unbelievable for a movie,” she laughs. “Unless it was a Woody Allen movie! How are Ben and Sarah?” Ben and Sarah are my niece and nephew.

“Oh, Ben just got married!”

She puts her hand over her mouth. Then down to her knee. “He was this tall the last time I saw him! And Sarah?”

“She lives in London. Managing a bake shop last I heard.”

The capacity for asking questions was starting to return along with the feeling of blood in my extremities. The Husband was clearly not enjoying this little scene. It could not have been easy.

We chatted for maybe a minute or two. Mostly about the coincidence. “It was really good to see you again,” I said to her.

That’s when it happened.

She opened her arms to give me a hug. And here’s what rushed back.

Just for a moment we had parked the car barely within the sounds of the rock and roll band streaming out from the stage of a big outdoor arena called Poplar Creek that used to be on the outskirts of Chicago. Traffic was bad. We were late. But in the distance we could hear the band Dire Straits skating over their song “Romeo and Juliet.” And we started running. Zigging and zagging around the cars as if they were stones in the rushing river of our life.

We had to step on one slippery clean river rock before stepping on to the other. Get to that next rock or fall in to the river. We had to get to our seats before the song ended. Before we heard that one line.

Then the river rushed in fast forward motion. Another scene. This one very different.

Me and 2 pals moving my stuff out of that deathly sad house she and I had bought on Carmen Street while she sat quiet on the basement stairs.

That house like a gothic dungeon. After I was gone, she told me about the time the squirrel chewed its way inside.

Looking in her eyes in the grocery store I thought:

You were alone. I was gone. And I start repeating to myself. “I am sorry, I am sorry, I am so, so sorry. I tried so hard to never let you down.”

From the sorrow of that dark and empty house where none of the walls ever got painted. That house where no one breathed. Back to that parking lot at Poplar Creek.

We are still holding hands running though that parking lot. The river’s wild. We don’t have much time.

Then another time shift.

This one to the future. The day after I saw her at the base of Sweet Potato Mountain.

Talking with my wife about the shock of this encounter. How it turned into an answer to a prayer I never knew I made.

And my wife says, “You couldn’t really see the full picture back then. All you could see was all the ways you disappointed her. All you couldn’t do for her. That’s all that you could see. You couldn’t see the rest of it. You couldn’t see she loved you. You couldn’t see she really loved you.”

Then it is back to that river of that parking lot running towards that music. We toss our tickets to the gatekeepers. We keep running. And scrambling down the aisle. The song is still playing. Mark Knopfler is still singing. We get a firm footing on one more slippery rock together, jump as hard and as far as we can and land in our seats, just as Knopfler sings her name and says, “I’d do the stars with you, any old time. . . . . .”

How true that was.

And we are back at the foot of the Sweet Potato Mountains.

A long hug goodbye. A short wave. A nod to the husband.

And the circle is closed.

6 Responses to “A Dan Fogelberg New Year’s Eve”

  1. Naomi de Plume Says:

    ChiGuy – your life always has resembled a song. I am always so grateful when you sing it aloud to us. Best wishes to you and all the wives for the New Year.

  2. boomerbob Says:

    Good read as always. Sweet potatoes will never look, or taste, the same again

    • chicagoguy12 Says:

      Boomerbob–Hah! I wrote this 5 years ago and still can’t look at a sweet potato without remembering the story. Thanks!

  3. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger, powerful words to describe how life can be a big circle and how emotions, sights and sounds of your past are reignited by seeing someone. Hope 2015 is good to you personally and professionally.

  4. chicagoguy12 Says:

    Ted–Yep, lots of circles. Here’s to 2015 being good for all!

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