"You're becoming a scratchy old record, Vera. An old, old scratchy record."
She stared at him silently.
"You know, like in the old days when they had those gramophones, or whatever they were called," Dr. Renn continued. "You'd crank it up and put the needle on the record and stick your ear next to the speaker and—scratchety, scratchety—you'd hear Beethoven. At least that's what my grandfather said."
She nodded. Her grandfather used to say the same thing.
His feet were plopped on his desk and he shifted them slightly as he leaned back further in his chair. He was the least formal psychologist she had ever known.
"Yeah, those were the days, weren't they?" he mumbled almost to himself. "I think...a quieter and more serene time." He nodded.
She thought about it but couldn't decide.
"But now here you are in this glorious year of 1968, the year of Our Father, etc., etc., fifty-two years old, menopausal, children educated and gone, husband busy, sipping the sauce more and more, depressed, losing interest in life, seeing a shrink..." He shook his head. "A scratchety old record."
She wanted to protest but could not gather her thoughts enough to do so.
"How many shrinks have you seen before me?" he asked suddenly.
She considered a moment. "Three."
"And how long have you been seeing me?"
She paused a little longer. "Four months."
"Are you any better?"
She shook her head. "No." She might as well be honest.
He nodded, apparently satisfied. "Yup. No better." He uncrossed his legs and let his feet plop loudly on the floor. "It's time you got better, then."
She regarded him as though he had lost his mind. What had she been trying to do all these years?
"I've been seeing you for four months and you're not any better. This is simply not acceptable. Everybody I see gets better. The problem here is you're too passive."
She was noticing how several strands of hair from his eyebrows actually curled down over his eyes. She wondered why his wife didn't groom him a little better.
"You expect me to perform a miracle, don't you?" he continued. "You don't want to do anything. You just want to be a passive recipient."
She had never looked at it from that angle.
"Well, I'm telling you," he declared, tapping the top of his desk for emphasis, "it's not going to happen. You'll have to take your life into your own hands and start making some changes. It's time to rally."
She almost rolled her eyes. He tended to couch everything in baseball terms. A frustrated jock.
"Rally," he repeated. "Start getting involved. Get active. Start with little things. Take your dog for a long walk, not some silly stroll around the block. Visit a friend. Visit two friends. Go shopping. Then do something harder. Drive to the mountains and spend the night there. Then do something really hard, something that scares you to death. When you do that, you'll gain confidence. Then you'll be able to do anything, Vera."
She sighed imperceptibly. This wasn't the way it was supposed to work.
He pointed at her sternly. "It's time to get moving. You're running out of time and I'm running out of patience. At the rate you're going, you'll be too afraid to leave your house in another year. And I don't make house calls."
A sudden wave of fear passed through her. Was he trying to dump her?
As though reading her mind, he said, "No, I'm not going anywhere. I'm just expecting you to take your life into your own hands and start making changes. Sitting around whining is getting you nowhere. So, get out of the house and start doing things. Next time I see you I want a list of activities you've been involved in. No list and you're in big trouble. I can't magically cure you. I can give you guidance, but ultimately your health is your own responsibility."
She stood on a high slope and quietly surveyed the rolling hills of Dorthea Dix Hospital. It was the perfect place to begin Dr. Renn's "rally," she decided. She had been born and raised here—two blocks away. The place brought back pleasant memories. She always loved the grounds of this mental hospital, which had ancient oak and elm trees and manicured lawns. In her youth, the mental patients had always remained around the buildings on the upper slope, leaving the flat, lower terrain to the townspeople and children for recreational purposes. Families had picnics, children played softball, and golfers practiced their iron shots. In the winter there was sledding.
Ranger bumped against her, interrupting her reverie. She ruffled his fur. He was half collie, half German shepherd, and getting old just like herself. But he had never visited this place and was ready to get on with the walk.
"Okay," she said. "Let's go." He shot up the path to the left and they were on their way.
A half hour later they were returning from the opposite direction and Vera was huffing and puffing from the exertion. The weatherman had predicted snowfall for the afternoon and evening and some tiny flakes were already drifting down. She thought it would be a good idea to get home before things became difficult.
Suddenly out of nowhere three black teenagers burst across her pathway chasing an orange Frisbee. They were tall, gangly youths, with long arms and legs, reminding her of ostriches as they loped with giant strides across the brown grass. Vera eyed them suspiciously, feeling a familiar pang of anxiety pass through her. She was alone for all practical purposes; no one could render her aid if she were attacked. Her mind flashed back to an ominous stranger accosting her thirty years ago, and she contemplated taking a wide detour to the Toyota.
As she struggled to make a decision, one youth overshot another and the Frisbee sailed between two trees and dropped directly in front of Ranger. Without hesitation the dog scooped the saucer up, clamped it firmly between his jaws, and sauntered off in the opposite direction, refusing to surrender his prize until caught and forced to do so. A wild chase ensued. The boys were agile and game but the big dog had had plenty of practice in the past. It required ten full minutes of dedicated effort and a flying tackle by the shortest of the three before they finally managed to bring him down. By that time Ranger was so exhausted he was ready to give up anyway.
Everyone returned panting, the youths smiling brightly.
"Nice dog," the tallest one said. Despite the cold weather he was wearing only a gray tee shirt with a portrait of Jimi Hendrex on it. "Wished I had one like him."
"You could probably find one at the dog pound," Vera suggested. "They have all kinds of dogs there."
"Naw," he shook his head. "Ain't no room at the house. Too many kids."
"You could keep him outside."
"Naw. My mamma ain't havin' no dogs." He stooped over and patted Ranger's head. "Smart dog, too. What kind he be?"
"Part German shepherd and part collie. We like to say his mother was a collie and his father was from a nice neighborhood."
All three nodded soberly.
"Yeah, smart dog, too," the spokesman repeated.
"He likes to play Frisbee," Vera said. "My son used to play with him, but he's grown now and lives in another city. So, Ranger doesn't get much exercise anymore."
"Bring him here," the boy suggested. "We'll play with him. Won't we?" he asked the other two.
They nodded wordlessly. One spun the Frisbee on his finger.
"Yeah, we'll play with him," the spokesman repeated.
"I'm sure Ranger would love that. We both need to get out more."
"Yeah," he said. "Bring him on over and we'll play with him."
She said her goodbyes and trudged up the hill to the Toyota, congratulating herself on having made conversation with a stranger. When was the last time she did that? She reminded herself to tell Dr. Renn about it. She would put that on the list. Perhaps it would put her back in his good graces again.
When she reached the car she found a thin layer of snow had already accumulated on the windshield. She paused to brush it off before rummaging through her pockets for the keys.
They weren't there.
A familiar panic rose in her body. She began to hyperventilate.
With maximum effort she forced herself to calm down. Snowflakes continued to drift down around her, producing an almost eerie silence. Finally, she leaned over and peered into the car. Ah! The keys! Right there in the ignition where they should be. Trouble is, I'm out here and they're in there. Phillip is going to kill me. How many times have I done this before? Five? Six?
With a long sigh she turned and trudged back down the slope in the direction of her newly found friends, who, despite the rising intensity of the snowfall, were continuing to play Frisbee.
"Do you boys have any idea how I can get into my car?" she asked, without much hope. "I locked my keys in it."
"Locked your keys in the car?" the leader said.
"Where it be?"
"Up there." She pointed.
"Leroy!" he hollered with a big grin. "Lady done locked her keys in the car!"
The boy who had been twirling the Frisbee on his finger a short while ago acknowledged the message with a grunt. He flipped the Frisbee behind his back to his companion.
"What you goin' to do, man?" the leader persisted. "Lady done locked her keys in the car."
The boy shrugged and said nothing.
The leader grinned. "Come on, man, let's go up and see the lady's car."
They trudged up the hill to the Toyota together and the leader made a great show of pacing around the car, grinning. Finally, he peered inside and declared, "Hey! Look here, man. The keys!" He chuckled. "Just like she said, man. There's the keys!" He cackled aloud as though the whole thing were some huge comedy.
Vera did not understand.
"Leroy, man," the leader instructed. "Get the lady's keys, man!"
The other youth shrugged and walked up to the opposite side of the car while fingering a tiny growth on his chin. He extracted an object from his pocket, leaned briefly out of sight, and then pulled open the door.
Vera was flabbergasted.
"My goodness!" she exclaimed. "How did you do that?"
He shook his head, saying nothing.
She turned to the leader who was still grinning. "How did he do that?"
"He be a magician," the boy said. Then he laughed aloud. "He be a magician, ain't that right, B.J.?"
The third boy smiled and nodded.
"That's amazing," Vera said. "I was afraid I was going to have to break the window to get home. Where did you learn to do that, if I may ask?" she inquired of the magician.
"My brother," he replied tersely, studying his sneakers.
"Does he work on cars?"
"He in prison."
"Oh." She was taken aback for a moment.
The young male shifted uncomfortably on his feet, eyeing his two companions.
"Well, I certainly appreciate it," she said. "I don't know what I would have done without you."
"I'd like to pay you something." she offered.
"Uh-uh." He put his hands up and stepped back. "No, ma'am."
"Are you sure? I'd like to give you something."
"Uh-uh." He shook his head emphatically.
"If you could teach me to open my car," she blurted out, "I could tell my psychologist because he says I'm too helpless."
The word psychologist seemed to alarm the boy a bit and he glanced furtively over to the buildings housing the patients nearby. He just shook his head.
"Well, okay. Maybe I'll see you boys again next week."
The other two grinned, already moving back down the slope. "Yeah," the spokesman said. "Bring your dog back. What his name?"
She opened the door and let Ranger clamber into the back seat, then turned to say goodbye, but the youths had already drifted too far away, caught up again in their game of Frisbee.
She stood staring after them for a long time, additional snow accumulating on her windshield, before she finally climbed into the car herself and drove away.
The next morning Vera arose to find a dazzling white blanket of snow covering the ground. The trees shimmered with a frozen glaze and the world seemed overnight to have become monochromatic. Breakfast completed, she put on her galoshes and a heavy coat and went outside to help Philip put chains on the Mercedes. Her husband seemed a little surprised to see her there. Ranger snorted around in the drifts for a short time but eventually sat down and looked bored. He had seen many snowfalls before.
With the chains in place, Vera trailed Philip down the road to make certain he did not get stuck, then waved him off. The children in the neighborhood were already out on their sleds—school was closed today. She recognized Billy Carden from down in the valley struggling up the hill. His long ears stuck out from beneath his woolen cap and his usual shuffling gait was accentuated by the load he was pulling. She waited until he reached the top before greeting him.
"Hi, Mrs. Gerard. Wow! Didja see me just go down the hill? Bet I was goin' fifty miles an hour. I never gone that fast before. Bet I was goin' fifty miles an hour! Didja see me?"
"No, Afraid not, Billy."
"Yeah, I never gone that fast before. This is a real good sled, you know. Mommy said it was the best one in the whole store. Goes real fast."
"I'll bet it does."
"See that ditch down there?" he pointed. "I almost hit it, I was goin' so fast. You gotta be real careful, though. Gotta pay 'tention to what you're doin'."
"You're right about that," she agreed.
"Hey! Do you wanna ride my sled, Mrs. Gerard? I'll stay here with Ranger and you can ride my sled down the hill."
"No, I'll pass on that. I think I'll just watch you."
He took a deep breath and shook his head gravely. "Never gone that fast before," he said, staring down the hill. Then he brightened. "You wanna watch me go down the hill again? I'm gonna go faster than ever!"
"Okay, if you like."
He grinned with joy. "Yeah, I'm gonna go faster than ever."
"Now, be careful. I don't want you to hurt yourself."
"Oh, I won't Mrs. Gerard. I can sled real good."
"Well, be careful anyway. I'll watch from here."
"Okay. Here goes. Watch me!" And with a short run he flopped down on the sled and went hurtling over the summit hollering "Geronimo!" at the top of his lungs.
She watched contentedly. Twenty years ago she had done this very same thing with her children—Billy's antics brought back the memory. It was North Carolina's first big snowfall in over a decade and they had the hill all to themselves. No neighborhood existed then, only forest and pastureland. Everyone had taken turns: Alex, her son, first, then Vera and Joy together. Vera held her little daughter between her legs and guided the sled with her feet. They had hit the ditch too, but fortunately nobody was hurt. Afterward, they sloshed to the house, dried out, and had heaping cups of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows. Joy had had more marshmallows than hot chocolate. Then they played Old Maids. Vera and Alex let Joy win three games in a row...
A thought came to her: why not ride down the hill on Billy's sled? Why not? Wasn't this the kind of thing Dr. Renn was encouraging her to do? Be young. Take chances. Rally...
She wrestled with the idea while Billy trudged slowly back up the hill. Now is your chance, Vera, she thought. Now. The opportunity is here. When will another beautiful snowfall come? When will another opportunity like this present itself?
"Billy, I've decided to ride down the hill on your sled after all," she informed him as he reached the top.
He grinned. "Okay, Mrs. Gerard. I can give you a push if you want me to. I always give mommy a push."
"Does she ride down this hill, too?"
"Oh, no. Just down the driveway. She's sorta lazy."
She sat on the rear portion of the sled and placed her feet on the steering handles, then gripped the guide rope tightly to her abdomen. Ranger peered curiously at her as she made the necessary preparations. Then she felt Billy's hands pressing on her back and slowly the sled began to move. It picked up speed rapidly. Ranger trotted along with a lumbering gait, maintaining a position slightly ahead and to the right of her shoulder. Already she was experiencing trouble keeping to the center; the sled seemed to weave back and forth on its own accord. "Keep it straight, Mrs. Gerard," Billy yelled in her ear, and with a final shove let her go. She settled into a tire groove on the left side of the road and skimmed over the packed snow with a swiftness that surprised her. Sled tracks and footprints crisscrossed her path as she bounced her way across them with accelerating momentum. Ranger's strides lengthened, his feet beating a rapid rhythm on the frozen floor. Ahead of her loomed a flat icy spot which preceded an abrupt downward plunge. She wondered for the first time if she had perhaps been overly ambitious. Could she maintain control? She lowered her head and glided across the short plateau, whipped over the rise, and plummeted down the slope with breathtaking speed. The wind whistled in her ears and the cold air washed across her face. A thrill of exultation shot through her body. Ranger was sprinting flat out beside her now, his neck stretched forward and his body close to the ground. Vegetation on either side became a blur. She felt intimate with her surroundings, at one with the apparatus which propelled her forward with such fluid ease. The ditch materialized suddenly on her right—the abruptness of its appearance startled her. She wondered how fast she was going. Mesmerized, she allowed herself to drift in that direction until she was almost upon it. At the last moment she wrenched the sled to the left, spun around the projecting edge, righted herself, and careened back toward the center of the road. Her heart pounded wildly and her breath came in gasps. The final stretch was in sight now, only a long straightaway to go. She hugged the rope tighter to her bosom and peered around for Ranger. He was twenty paces behind her, gamely loping along. "Come on, Ranger," she called out cheerily. "Keep going." She skimmed down the long straightaway, crossed the bridge and began to decelerate. The rush in her ears died down and the glazed foliage on either side began to emerge with more clarity. Gradually, she cruised to a stop, dropped the rope, and leaped nimbly to her feet. Ranger lumbered up and leaned heavily against her legs, his tongue lolling out and his breath emitting vaporous streams into the crisp air.
She tilted her head back and stared blissfully at the blue sky, savoring the moment. She felt she had achieved a great victory.
BIO: Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose fiction and non-fiction has previously appeared in such publications as the Gettysburg Review, Foliate Oak, Quay, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. He lives along the coast in North Carolina with his faithful dog, Fred, and is working on a memoir of his forty-three years in the mental health field.