Time for a walk

Every day, unless it’s raining or snowing, I take a walk around the neighborhood. It’s the same neighborhood, the same sidewalks, past the same houses, crossing the same streets, as when Stephanie and I walked together.

In early years she walked beside me, in later years I pushed her wheelchair, and in the years since she’s left I’ve always felt that she was walking beside me, or rolling in front of me, on all our daily walks.

Hey, love! It’s sunny and 70° outside. Would you like to go for a walk with me?

"Happy girl!"

Stephanie and I spoke our own silly language, like annoying couples sometimes do. There were a dozen phrases we'd say to each other that might have mystified anyone else, and one was simply, “Happy girl!” or “Happy boy!” Either of us might shout it out whenever we were having a good time, and the other would reply in kind.

We said it almost anywhere, perhaps several times during the same day if we were having a fun field trip somewhere. Sure, it was a recurring moment of nuttiness, but announcing “Happy girl!” and “Happy boy!” made us an even happier girl and boy.

I vividly remember some places and moments when Steph was an especially "Happy girl!" — 

• after driving across the country, finally paying the toll and crossing the Bay Bridge to San Francisco, where we'd begin our marriage...

• the night we moved into the apartment she'd found for us there...

• and when we left San Francisco, chased away by rents that never stopped rising, and it felt like we were escaping to affordable freedom...

• when she checked out of a hospital in Kansas City after gall bladder surgery, tuckered out but knowing she'd be better...

• as we drove back to Kansas City, after a marvelous day in Lawrence, Kansas, of all places...

• when we left Kansas City, where we'd never quite felt at home...

• "Welcome to Madison," said the sign, and we were in a moving van, entering Steph's former home town that would be our home together, for the rest of her life...

• after any afternoon spent with her parents, the Mom and Dad she loved so dearly...  

• during any of our picnics at Golden Gate Park or Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or Loose Park in Kansas City, or Tenney Park here in Madison...

• perhaps surprisingly, the first time she rode in a wheelchair — she felt liberated, because she could finally get herself from one side of a room to the other without wincing in pain, as she had more and more when she'd walked...

• and myriad moments when we were happy for no particular reason except that we were together...

Stephanie has been gone for three years and a month and a few days now, and for me there are smiles occasionally, sure. Life isn't hellish, but I am no longer a happy boy like I was with Stephanie, and I never will be.

On my drive home from breakfast at the diner on Friday, though, I was in good spirits, waiting at a stop light, and I heard myself say it. "Happy boy!" I had to pull the car to the shoulder for several minutes, to cry.

For the first time in years, just for a moment, I was a happy boy. It was a very, very strange experience, and I was kinda angry at myself — what the hell am I doing, being happy? But I had to laugh, too. Stephanie would want me to be happy now and again, and she'd be so damned proud of me. I could almost hear her shouting back, "Happy girl!"

Union Corners

It’s been three years, today, since Steph died. Sometimes, a few hours pass without me remembering her, but never much longer than that.

I still stand at the shrine in the living room several times every week, looking at one of my few pictures of her (she hated being photographed) and going through her things on the shelves, and all the memories that accompany the things.

The living room is a mess, though. I’m a slob, and without Steph needing a clear path for her wheelchair, the apartment has gotten cluttered and sloppy. I don’t think she’d disapprove, though. “You kept it neat for me, and I appreciate it, but now you don’t have to vacuum or clean up so often.” Thank you, love.

It’s becoming a tradition, I guess, that on Stephanie’s birthday, and today, Stephanie’s deathday, I go to Olbrich Gardens, the local botanical park. I’ve always liked Olbrich, and she loved it. It might have been her favorite few acres on earth. It’s free admission, which we appreciated so much when we were poor, that we became donors when we weren’t so poor. And it was the first place we ever went, or heard of, that let us borrow a wheelchair. Steph was still walking but it was getting difficult for her, and that afternoon was a joyous treat.

At Olbrich, we always walked the grounds in the same order, along the same paths among so many paths. I still walk that path, every time. When the weather is right and the flowers are in bloom, being on that path, in that park, is almost like being with her.

Life without her has gotten … less painful, or it’s a pain I’m accustomed to. It’s an ache that never heals. Day-to-day crap keeps my mind occupied, but always Stephanie comes around a corner at any moment, surprising me with a happy memory, or sometimes a sad one — or just some strange ones, like today at the doctor’s office.

Steph, being in not so good health, always had doctor’s appointments on her calendar, and I was always with her for them. It can’t be true, but it feels like we saw every doctor in the county.

Since she’s been gone, I haven't seen a doctor at all. It's not fair, how damned healthy I am. Yesterday, though, the doctor’s office called and asked me to get some routine lab tests, so I went to the Union Corners Clinic this morning.

Of course, I’d been to that clinic many times with Stephanie.

Today I walked past the patient drop-off at the front door, where I’d helped her into her wheelchair so many times, and then she’d rolled into the building while I parked the car.

Stepped inside and passed the pharmacy, where I’d picked up her prescriptions.

Passed the check-in desk, where she’d once gotten understandably angry after waiting an hour, only to discover they’d somehow ‘forgotten’ her appointment. 

Passed the ladies’ room, where I’d once helped her force a malfunctioning door open.

And then I stepped into the same waiting room where we’d first discovered The New Yorker, which we later subscribed to, and still do. There were no magazines today, though — I guess the clinic has canceled all their subscriptions, because of COVID.

A large sign on the wall said, “Seating closed to maintain social distancing,” but 11 people were sitting in 15 chairs. Stephanie would've laughed at that. Go through years of dealing with doctors, and you learn to laugh at the stupidity of some of the “medical rules,” like that sign on the wall, universally ignored. Instead of sitting, though, I leaned on the wall.

Another sign, this one electronic, said, “Urgent Care wait times,” and estimated that the wait for ‘urgent care’ would be three hours. And I laughed, because we’d waited in that room for urgent care, for Stephanie, some years back. We'd waited longer than three hours, and eventually Steph sighed and said, “’Urgent.’ You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (It’s a line from The Princess Bride, a movie Steph used to like a lot.)

I wasn’t there for anything urgent today, so I only had to wait about twenty minutes. When they called my name, I followed the phlebotomist toward the room for drawing blood. After some chit-chat, while she was prepping the vials, I said, “I’ve been in this room before, with my wife. She’s gone now.”

The lady said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Just a nice platitude, and she went on with her work, tying a knot around my arm and stabbing me with a needle. After she’d drained half a gallon, though, she looked at me and said, “Was she in a wheelchair, your wife?”

“Yeah,” I said, a bit startled. “How can you possibly know that?”

“I’m good with faces,” she said. “I remember you, and you were with a nice lady in a wheelchair. And she was a difficult stick.”

I laughed. Hadn’t heard that complaint in years, but yeah, Stephanie had tiny veins, and many of her blood-draws were frustrating pokes and re-pokes and re-re-pokes.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she added. Again with the platitude, but it’s appreciated.

“Thanks,” I said, and she changed the subject and I’m glad she did, because my eyes were watery.

Steph told me a few times, “We must be quite the sight — a big bearded guy pushing a one-legged woman in a wheelchair.” She was right again, as usual. Quite the sight, and they remember us at the clinic, even when it’s just me.

On my way out of that place, I thought of when we’d first moved to Madison, and settled in this neighborhood, called Union Corners. There'd been a diner here, where the clinic is now. Steph and I had eaten there, when we were new in town and still looking for a favorite restaurant, but it wasn’t very good. Then the diner was torn down, making way for a big development project, which never happened. Ten years later, they built a clinic here, and we became regular customers.

Behind the clinic are railroad tracks. Before all the troubles, when Steph was healthy, we’d walked those tracks, after eating at that diner. A long walk, past some weary houses, through what used to be a clearing, and then beside homes along quiet streets, to Olbrich Gardens. It was a couple of miles, each way, and Steph and I were lazy, so usually we drove. But we could and did walk to Olbrich from here, a few times.

I sat in the car, looking at the railroad tracks, remembering those walks, and the lady I’d been walking with. “Love you, sweetie,” I said. Then I took a picture, started the car, and drove home not quite without her.

The Vientiane Palace

Stephanie and I didn’t have many ‘bad dates’. Even when the food was lousy or the movie sucked or the bus was late, we almost always had a good time just being with each other.

One of our worst dates, though, was perhaps twenty years ago. We were visiting Madison (we hadn't yet moved here), and walking up and down State Street. We were having a marvelous time, until we decided to lunch at the Vientiane Palace.

Maybe it’s pertinent, so I’ll mention that despite the ‘Palace’ in its name, this was not a highbrow place. From the outside, it was nondescript, and inside it was nothing fancy. It smelled good, though.

When we walked in, the restaurant was empty — no employees, no customers, and nobody greeted us. We looked around, and after a bit, Stephanie said, just loud enough that her voice would reach the back room, "Is anyone here?" There was no answer.

We waited, then doublechecked the hours on the door, which said they'd opened hours earlier. Steph and I had been walking all afternoon, so after waiting a few minutes, we seated ourselves at a table.

We weren’t in any particular hurry, and we weren't grumpy or huffy. We had a long, quiet, un-interrupted conversation, before Steph politely called out again, "Hello? Is anyone here?"

It was at least ten minutes before a waitress appeared. She may or may not have sighed and said, “Oh, jeez,” when she saw us, but if she didn’t say it, it was implied. She did not smile, did not say hello, and complained that we’d sat at a table instead of waiting to be seated.

We didn’t say anything, but — was sitting down unreasonable? How long would you stand and wait in an empty restaurant?

She didn't bring menus, but the waitress asked if we wanted anything to drink. We said, “Water, please,” and she disappeared behind a door. We never saw her again. Twenty minutes later we left.

My charitable assessment is that the waitress saw us, and forgot us. Steph suspected it was more intentional: the waitress didn’t want us there, because we were fat and poor (asking for water = poor).

Well, we were fat and poor but also hungry. When we found someplace else to eat, Stephanie told me about other times she felt she’d been treated rudely for her appearance. I thought she was an attractive woman (I was always attracted to her) but Steph thought — and she’d been told, by rude bastards — that she was too short, too plump, too plain-looking. It hurt her.

Perhaps she was over-sensitive to such slights, I thought, because I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me, and if you think I’m a piece of crap I might not even notice. Several times through our years together, though, Stephanie pointed it out to me, when people who came in after us were served before us, or when other customers got big smiles, and we were seated in the back, by the kitchen.

Eventually, I decided that she was right. It didn't happen often, but it happened. We weren’t the kind of people certain businesses want as customers.

The Vientiane Palace was on a busy street, and we often drove past it. Sometimes, Steph would say, “Remember when they wouldn’t serve us lunch?”, and she'd flip off the place as we went by.

There were usually cars in the parking lot, people going in and coming out, so presumably some customers were served, enjoyed their meals, and maybe even came back. We never did.

It's silly and stupid for me to hold a grudge all these years later, but I do. We were having a nice afternoon, we wanted a nice lunch, and instead, that restaurant made my wife cry a little.

I drove past the 'Palace' again a week ago, and it’s out of business. It’s silly for me to have smiled when I saw that, but smile I did, as I tapped Steph’s empty seat in the car. “Hey, honey,” I said, “Remember when they wouldn’t serve us lunch?”

Her smiles, her laughter, even her tears

I’m now vaccinated against the Coronavirus, and both jabs were at a facility I’d visited a few times, with Stephanie. She was sick a lot, and there aren’t many medical facilities around town that we didn’t visit at least once or twice.

I didn't know the building from the address, but I knew it when I was a few blocks away. I remember which specialist she saw in that building, and what the problem was that brought her. It’s not particularly sad walking in  without her — she never wanted to be in that building, or in any of the medical buildings she spend so much time in.

After we'd walked into that building together, a few years later we returned. I took her wheelchair out of the trunk, and she slid onto it, and that time I walked and she rolled into the building — the same building where I got my two jabs. I drove the same car, and her wheelchair is still in the trunk.

♦ ♦ ♦

Now that I’m protected against COVID, I’ve resumed shopping in person, instead of having groceries delivered. It’s the first time in more than a year that I’ve been inside Woodman's. Again, walking every aisle, I know exactly which products, which brands Stephanie would want. I know which chips she’d like as a treat, what soda she’d want, which cheese she’d need for which recipes, which noodles, and what soup.

Near the front of the store is the flower section, where I’d surprise Stephanie with whatever purple flowers didn’t have much odor, since a stronger scent messed with her allergies. I wish I could bring home some purple flowers again, and see her smile when she saw them.

♦ ♦ ♦

Something as simple as doing the laundry is a Steph memory, too. She did the wash, everywhere we lived, because she knew how to sort clothes by color, and knew what shouldn’t go into the dryer, and all that. I never much knew or cared about such things.

When she could no longer get to the building’s basement, laundry became one of my chores. Steph taught me about sorting by colors, and that delicate things — sweaters and such — don’t go into the dryer, and especially how to hang up her nice clothes, so they don’t get all wrinkled.

Now she’s gone, so I no longer sort by colors. I don’t own any delicate clothes, so everything goes into the dryer. I don’t hang anything up, because I’m wrinkled so my clothes should be wrinkled. But I wish I could hang Steph's sweaters on the clothesline, and bring her fresh clean pajamas …

♦ ♦ ♦

When she was here, we had adventures every weekend — we went places, did things, and my life was filled with her. I miss her smiles, her laughter, even her tears, and her energy, her voice, her karma, and her adventures.

If anyone at work asks on Monday, I'll say that I had a quiet weekend at home with the Mrs, and it'll be true. She’s closest when I’m remembering, writing dull entries like this, a bunch of words that couldn’t possibly interest anyone but me. Oh, but I gotta write the words.

To me every memory is beautiful, even the most banal bits. It’s a tear down my cheek. Remembering her is the best thing in what’s left of my life. Stephanie has been gone for so long, and still, always, she’s a smile on my face.

Without her

I’m quitting my job, almost certainly — but I’m not quite certain. I need to talk it over with Stephanie first, which is not an option, damn it.

If she was here, she’d cut through my blather and confusion, she’d see the pros and cons more clearly than me, she’d bring up consequences I haven’t considered, whittle away all my piffle and nonsense, leave only the essential facts, and then she’d back off and let me come to a sensible determination. And whatever I decided, she’d be on my side, and she’d show me how to do it more eloquently.

Without her, I’m the king of bad decisions. Every major choice in my life has been either arguably foolish or utterly dumbshit. The only exception was marrying Steph. She was exceptional.

Without Stephanie to talk with, I try to hear what she’s not here to say. In any little conversation, her voice comes through clearly. In the mid-sized conversations, I can guess the gist. But in all our years together, whenever we talked about serious things I never knew what she was going to say. All I knew was, it was gonna be smart so I always listened.

Without her, I can’t write her half of the dialogue. So … all I can do is what I’ve done with every sticky situation since she’s been gone. Pinch my nose, shut my eyes, and jump into the water. Here goes.

♦ ♦ ♦

Addendum, a few days later:  Steph was always full of common sense, so it's no surprise that she talked me out of it. Thanks, love.

Ballet in the park

After we moved to Kansas City, money was tight, and entertainment mostly meant walking in the neighborhood.

It wasn’t a bad neighborhood, though. There was a small but free art museum a few blocks away, and a huge museum a few blocks further, that had free-days once a month, when poor folks like Steph and me were allowed to look upon the art.

We occasionally went to discount matinee movies, sneaking snacks in our pockets to save money. Mostly, though, we stayed at home. Home was within our budget.

So it was a definite yes, when we learned that the Kansas City Ballet was giving a free performance at Loose Park. And is that a great name for a park, or what? Stephanie called it Loose Meat Park. It was named after Jacob Loose, co-founder of Sunshine Biscuit Company. (Cheez-Its, anyone?)

I'm not sure but I think free ballet in the park was an annual thing in Kansas City, every summer. From googling around, I guess they don’t do that any more, maybe because of what happened that night.

Stephanie dressed up fancy, and I dressed semi-fancy, and we packed a picnic dinner and came early enough to stroll the grounds and still get a good seat. We ate under a great big cannon, left over from a Civil War battle that took place in that park.

She was in great spirits, and before the dancing started we had a pleasant conversation with a married couple, senior citizens, both wearing very fancy duds for the ballet. “I hope we’ll be that cute after we've grown old together,” Stephanie said when they'd walked away. She never got old, but she never stopped being cute.

Stephanie also enjoyed the Rose Gardens in Loose Park, which was in full bloom and very impressive. There were lots of roses and they were pretty, and I said I'd steal one for Steph, and she said “Don’t you dare,” with a smile. It was a pretnear perfect evening.

No reservations, sit anywhere for the ballet, and since we were early arrivals we picked great seats. I don’t know diddly about ballet, so all I can say is that the dancers danced real nice. They flew up, and came down, and our seats so close to the stage that even over the loudly-amped classical music we could hear the tender clomps and scuffling as dancers feet landed on the stage. Steph and I both heard the pop, too, and then a shout of pain as a dancer went down with a broken leg.

The crowd was hushed and everything stopped, and we all waited while the injured dancer was carried off in a stretcher and then an ambulance. It put a damper on the evening’s mood, of course, but as they say, “The show must go on,” and the dancing resumed shortly thereafter.

More vividly than the pop of the broken leg, I remember waiting for the bus home. We were the only people at the bus stop, and when the bus came we were its best-dressed passengers. Steph noticed that the cars parked at Loose Park had mostly been new and expensive, Lincolns and Cadillacs and BMWs. “The ballet is basically a rich people’s thing,” she said. “We’re the only people going home on the bus, but I’m glad they let us come.”

“That’s better than leaving in an ambulance,” I said, and she gently punched me in the arm. It’s weird, the little moments I remember all these years later. She smiled as she play-punched me.

On the ride home and in our apartment, Steph said what a wonderful evening we’d had, but what a disaster the night had been for that dancer. “A broken leg means he’ll be unable to dance for six or eight weeks. He’ll miss most of the ballet’s season, and I’m not sure there’s sick leave in the Kansas City Ballet. Maybe the Bolshoi, but maybe not here.”

She gave it some serious thought, too. It was a temporary stage, set up on grass in the park, and the stage surface seemed flat to the audience, but perhaps there were slight ups and downs on its floor. She wondered whether the dancers were even being paid for a free performance, and whether the dancer had adequate health insurance.

She mentioned it again at bedtime. Steph was worried about the dancer, and I guess that’s all there is to my story. Maybe it came to mind because it's a warm, late-spring evening here, like that night there. It’s another random happy memory of Steph, and those are my most prized possessions.

I've googled, trying to find out who that dancer was, 19 or 20 years ago, and whether his career rebounded from the accident, but I came up blank. Now I’m sitting here staring at Stephanie's picture, the lady who worried about a dancer whose name we didn't even know.

I wish Steph & I could’ve grown old together, like she said that day. Kinda sucks growing old without her.

Dancing at the buffet

No disrespect to Kansas City, but we moved there from San Francisco. The comparisons were brutal.

SF is the land of 10,000 restaurants, some of which we could afford. Many of those were Chinese, Japanese, and Korean restaurants, and they were excellent. I don’t think we ever had an Asian meal in SF that wasn’t at least pretty good.

Then we moved to Kansas City, where there may have been great restaurants, but we couldn’t afford them. When we ate at any restaurant we could afford, we were often disappointed. I’ll eat almost anything, but Stephanie thought a meal should taste good if you're paying for it.

We found just one reasonably good Chinese restaurant in Kansas City, and it wasn’t in Kansas City proper. It was in Mall Land. That's what we called the indistinguishable suburbs on the Kansas side of the border, where there were chain stores at every intersection, strip malls between the intersections, and major shopping centers every mile or so.

In the parking lot of one of those malls, but in its own building, was a Chinese buffet that was affordable, casual, and generally tasty. We ate there several times, which made it our favorite KC restaurant, by default.

The food was good, but maybe we liked that restaurant more for the music. They played Asian pop over the muzak speakers in the dining area, and it was always catchy. Dick Clark on American Bandstand would say, “It's got a good beat and you can dance to it,” and we did, just once, when we were there for lunch and the place wasn’t too crowded. We didn’t dance for long, and afterward Steph told me, “You’re a terrible dancer,” and we laughed, and went back for another plateful of food.

We’d been married for five or seven years by then, but still every day with that lady was something new and something fun. It never stopped being something new and something fun. Well, except for the occasional hospitalizations.

We could’ve gone fifty years, I think, if she hadn’t up and died on me. That’s just a wisecrack, of course — Stephanie would chuckle if I said that, and in my mind’s ear I can hear her laughing. And on my mind’s feet we’re dancing again, by the back booth at that Chinese buffet in Mall Land.

Coming home

Of all the myriad marvelous things I miss about having Stephanie beside me, maybe what I miss most is the simple anticipation of coming home to her at the end of the day. It was wondrous, driving the car or riding the bus with not just a geographic destination, but a destination in my heart and head and gut: I can't want to be home with her.

There's nothing like that now. I come home, but I don't look forward to it. I drive the same streets, park the same car, unlock the same door at the same address, sit on the same chair, and look out the same window, but everything's different and all of it sucks.

It's just me and the memories now. They're damned good memories, but nothing in life is worth a fraction of what it was.

I think I said generally the same thing in an entry here a few years ago, so my apologies, maybe this is a rerun ... like every day of my life, without her.

Blueberries from Bannister Mall

Until Stephanie came into my life, I'd never experienced winter, really. Seattle has snowfall, an inch one week and two inches a few weeks later, but it rarely gets below freezing. And in San Francisco, winter just means you'll want to wear a windbreaker over your t-shirt.

When I visited Wisconsin with Stephanie, I saw some serious winter, but only as a tourist. Later we moved to Kansas City in the summertime, but in early autumn, Steph sat me down and gave me a talking-to about the approaching winter.

"When it's seriously cold out, wear lots of layers," she said. "Wear gloves, because frostbite is a real thing and it can bite your fingers off." And she said, "You do have a winter jacket, right?"

"Nope," I said. All I had was a hoodie and a lightly-lined windbreaker.

"You'll need a coat, Doug. A real coat." She showed me *her* winter jacket, which I hadn't seen since she'd left Wisconsin. She'd never worn it in California, because it would've been ridiculous there — this was a *heavy* coat, five pounds of fabric and stuffing and zipper, plus buttons and a flap that folded *over* the zipper to help keep out the cold. "Below freezing happens," she deadpanned, "so you'll need a winter jacket."

She Googled, and decided that Burlington Coat Factory had the best balance of low prices and good reputation. She found exactly the winter coat I needed, and she took detailed notes on an index card, because back then you couldn't carry the internet with you in your purse or pocket.

Burlington had a store at Kansas City's Bannister Mall, and Stephanie called and verified that they had my coat in stock. We weren't sure how many Xs I needed, though — I was a fat guy so definitely a few Xs, but was I 3Xs or maybe 4? Or maybe, Steph said, thinking out loud, I'd be 5X or 6X, because in winter I'd be wearing a sweatshirt or a sweater *under* the coat, so some extra inches should be allowed. Steph was always good at planning ahead.

She mapped out a Saturday bus trip for us, taking city transit from our apartment to Bannister Mall, far, far away. It looked like it might be a fun field trip, to be honest, because Google kept telling us that Bannister Mall was a behemoth — much larger than your typical shopping mall.

Come Saturday, though, Stephanie had to work, so she sent me off to the mall without anyone's hand to hold. Scary! Like a big boy, though, I found the right bus, got off at the right stop, walked into the big Burlington store, and found exactly the jacket I needed, thanks to Stephanie's index card. I bought the 4X because it was loose, and Steph said loose would be best. Come December and January, with more layers underneath, it would fit just right, she said.

And she was right. That was a great jacket, and it's gotten me through every winter since then. It's still in the closet, here at our apartment in Madison, and I still wear it any time I'm going out into the winter for more than a few minutes.

Stephanie and I still wanted our field trip to Bannister Mall, though, so we went together a few weeks later. I knew she'd love it, and she did. The Burlington store was across the street, so I hadn't set foot in the mall when I'd come alone, but even from across the vast parking lot I could see that the mall was amazing in its awfulness, and we were not disappointed.

Steph and I were not mall people. We shared a belief in capitalism as a concept, but not the excessive way it's practiced in America. A shopping mall, with all the glittery baubles you can imagine wrapped in plastic and stacked in one big building, or maybe several big buildings, with all the stores connected by endless walkways with more stores all along the way — it sounded horrific, and we came to gawk 'n mock, not to shop.

There were fountains and food courts, and stores, stores, and more stores, and all of it was run-down and tacky as hell, exactly as we'd hoped. Bannister Mall was huge, decadent, ghastly, and fading toward bankruptcy. It was beautiful.

There were a dozen empty storefronts, and the parking lot had the look of old asphalt, cracked and tired and littered. "I give this place five years," Stephanie said, and she was almost exactly right. The mall closed six years later, after we'd left Kansas City.

There was nothing nearby — no neighborhood, no housing, and no city or town to speak of. It just seemed to be miles of box stores, and in the heart of all the box stores, more box stores that called themselves Bannister Mall. At one corner of the almost-empty parking lot, there was an abandoned multiplex movie theater, and behind it was *another* abandoned multiplex movie theater.

The mall had three, maybe four major department stores, and each of them was huge, but with few customers. Steph was never much into girly things like makeup and perfume, and as we walked through acres of cosmetics in one of the department stores, she shook her head and said, "I'll bet there's a hundred thousand lipsticks for sale in this mall. Something you don't really need, in every color you can imagine."

We enjoyed wandering through that enormous mall, but one visit was enough, until a few years later, when one of the department stores was closing, and having an "everything must go" sale. Steph wanted a new blender at 80% off, and we thought it would be great fun to see the rotting entrails of a defeated corporation.

On our second visit, the decay was everywhere. We walked past empty jewelry display stands, and almost empty clothing racks, and many, many shuttered storefronts. All the customers seemed to be poor folks like Steph and me — not the kind of people who'd ever been welcome at the mall, until the going out of business sale.

The blenders were all gone, but Steph found a set of four dishes with pretty pictures of fruit baked into the melamine. They were marked down from $2 per plate to 20¢, so we bought a set of four dishes for 80¢ plus sales tax. It was the last set of plates they had, the last *anything* in that section of the store. When we took the plates toward a cash register, all the shelves were empty.

We wanted to explore the store's second floor, to see what little might remain, so we stepped onto the escalator and it took us up. As we went higher we saw the store stretch further and further, wider and wider from our perspective — so many disused cash registers, whole areas roped off, carts and boxes and clutter clogging some of the aisles, shoppers climbing over and through all this mess, under flickering fluorescent bulbs rendering the view even bleaker than it was.

And that's the moment I'm remembering this morning — holding Stephanie's hand as we rode the escalator up, over the ruins of a department store sprawled out under us, almost all the merchandise gone, but still crowded with people.

That's what life is like now, for me. Far as the eye can see, there are things that used to be beautiful, but now they're just remnants. Everything must go. Most of it's already gone, and what's left is a mess. This city. This apartment. This room, where I just ate a sandwich off one of the plates we bought that afternoon at Bannister Mall.

Two of the plates had strawberries baked into the melamine, and two had blueberries. Over the years, one of the plates shattered and another melted when I stupidly put it on a hot burner, so now there's only one strawberry plate, and one blueberry plate. My sandwich was on a blueberry plate. We bought it for 20¢, twenty years ago in Kansas City.

I'd forgotten all of this, everything from the first sentence to this one, until I looked at that plate after eating my sandwich. Then it all came flooding back, and now Stephanie and I are riding that escalator again, thirty seconds frozen in time forever. It's a strange moment to be reliving, but it's nice — strangely nice.

Stephanie was with me on that escalator, and in this life, and then she wasn't. But she still is, kind of. Nothing is what it was, and it never will be again — except this plate, I guess. And my winter jacket. And if I go deep enough into the memories, there must be a thousand things in this apartment with Stephanie stories behind them — that chair, her space heater, that shopping bag, the crack in the crisper at the bottom of the refrigerator.

This apartment is jam-packed with Stephanie stories, and so's my head. There are so many stories, I won't have enough years left to tell them all, but I remember, cherish them all and always will, until that escalator reaches the second floor for me, too.