All posts by robertaburton

Book Club Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions for The Burgundy Briefcase:

  1. Which character do you like the most and why? The least and why?
  2. What passage from the book stood out to you?
  3. Are there situations and/or characters you can identify with, if so how?
  4. Did you learn something you didn’t know before?
  5. Do you feel as if your views on a subject have changed by reading this text?
  6. Have you had a life changing revelation from reading this text?
  7. What major emotion did the story evoke in you as a reader?
  8. At what point in the book did you decide if you liked it or not? What helped make this decision?
  9. Name your favorite thing overall about the book. Your least favorite?
  10. If you could change something about the book what would it be and why?
  11. Describe what you liked or disliked about the writer’s style?

Taken from:


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About Author Roberta Burton

Meet Roberta Burton:

Because The Burgundy Briefcase is a work of fiction written like a memoir, it is character driven. For that reason, a little of my personal background is in order. I had to give the main character Lee Lindsey reasons for her actions. I came from West Virginia. The Appalachian writers who remind me of my cultural roots continue to influence me. An avid reader, I have been writing since high school.

My arrival in the Tampa-Bay area of Florida provided me with a different culture and sometimes-dangerous environmental encounters like Palmetto bugs, coral snakes, and alligators, not to mention violent thunderstorms and hurricanes.

I have a master’s in clinical psychology and a doctorate in marriage and family therapy. I am also a private pilot. My other interests include Tai Chi, alternative healing modalities, spirituality, quantum physics, and philosophy. I continue to take classes in these subjects.

Like Lee, my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness. Tenacity kept me writing for six years on one book and keeps me holding on to ideas, relationships, and anything else long after I need to let go. My biggest aha moment was the discovery that all my writing has been about my search for meaning.

The Burgundy Briefcase is a novel, not an autobiography. The caveat is a lesson I learned in graduate school: sentence completions give away who I am at the time. So, yes, I am in all the characters. One thing I noticed was how I kept a file in my head of those things I would think about later. Then when at a writing conference, the presenter gave the prompt, “Write about an inanimate object that could be a metaphor for something in your life” I saw what I had done. I happened to have a burgundy briefcase that I used all through undergraduate through my doctorate degrees.

I wrote The Burgundy Briefcase to share my experience, strength, and hope with those searching for that something to make their lives better. I started out to tell the story of getting a doctorate degree and to understand how I could have stayed connected with someone like Frank. By getting some distance, I began to see connections with both the cultural and family systems that drive us as humans. Then, I began to see connections with the hoarding of things with the need to hoard relationships. The more I fictionalized it, the more I learned, and the more fun I had.

Enough about the author. This is about the person. The one who can’t find her way across town without her GPS. When hungry or tired, people run. Hide. Her usual flexibility and acceptance hops a ride on the nearest bug and is long gone. Hot coffee is a year-round drink taken in large quantities until sleep. I am a slut for good chocolate, and exotic food. I have a daughter who thinks I’m weird and the queen of freaking everything. Shh. Don’t tell her the truth…


Book trailer for The Burgundy Briefcase up on Facebook at Ask Dr Lee

I can’t begin to express my gratitude for the help of Gina Edwards of Around the Writer’s Table in getting my files ready for publishing on Amazon, and to Elizabeth Babski of Babski Creative Studios for the fantastic cover design.

The pre-order digital version is up on Amazon and the print version should be up by September 28th for the October 1st launch date.

The Burgundy Briefcase Trailer HD1

Prologue and Chapter 1


Sylva, North Carolina

You ducked into the coma just in time, didn’t you, Alex? I crawl in with you. Then, the Lindseys descend. Your mother parks on the chair beside the bed, your father at the foot. I clutch your arm like Teddy, my favorite childhood-bear while your mother brags on your brother’s exploits, and your father grunts agreement.

My heart cries as I remember your whisper at the door of your brother’s home. “You are about to meet my parent’s only child.” In your coma, you hear your mother and my heart cracks. I feel your chest muscles tighten, as she bows her head and lets it rest near your groin. I cringe. The odor of rubbing alcohol seeps under the door. “He doesn’t want your head there.”

She sits up. Your body relaxes. The mind-body-spirit workshop I took two weeks ago awakens my awareness of minute changes in your muscles. You already know that, don’t you?

The hospice nurse enters and takes your vital signs. Your dad reads a newspaper he found discarded in the waiting room. Your mother clicks on the bedside lamp, and afternoon settles into evening. She sits in silence, hands folded in her lap. Are you as grateful for her silence as I am?

Almost midnight. Suddenly, you sit straight up and look at your father. I recognize the pain on your face from the times we’ve talked about the way your parents see you. “He wants to hear,” I look at your mother, “that you love him.”

Your arm muscles relax.

“We love you,” her voice tight. She rushes from the room.

Your father stares over the top of the newspaper. “Of course we love you.” The paper falls to the floor and with a grunt he follows your mother. You drop down like you sat up.

I ache at your pain of their disconnect. I grasp your hand and squeeze. I love you. I will always love you. I run my fingers down the side of your face.

Your mother returns with a nurse, her arms fling about as fast and wildly as her speech, “Then he sat up and looked from me to his father have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“I’ve heard of it, but never seen it,” she looks you over like some specimen.

Your mother, as if realizing why she summoned the nurse, says, “He needs pain medication. Now.” Can you hear the nag in her voice?

“He’s in a coma,” the nurse says. “He’s in no pain.” Your stomach tightens.

How does she know what you can feel? Your muscles tremble. Beginning of the shakes? “He’s a recovering alcoholic.” I clutch your hand. “He’s been on oxycontin for over a month. Could he be going through withdrawal?” I struggle to remember how the various bodily systems work. “Couldn’t this be an autonomic response?”

The nurse pauses and checks your chart, “I’ll call the doctor and see what he thinks.” A few moments later, she returns and gives you an injection.

She pats your hand. “This should help.” Your muscles relax.
I jolt awake to the busy morning shift in the hall. My in-laws stand at the door staring at me.

“We’re going down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. Want anything?”

The idea of food, except sugar, nauseates me. “Large coffee. Black. And anything sugary. The sweeter the better.”

Halfway through my gooey pastry, the hospice social worker arrives. She walks straight to you without even a glance at me as I stand on the other side of the tray table with my coffee and food. She leans over and says something to you. I can’t hear. You breathe in. Out. In. Out. In. You pause.

Just like you to increase the drama. An unexpected chuckle threatens to strangle me. I cough. At least you didn’t die last week, on Good Friday. Knowing you, you’d expect me to wait until Sunday to see if you’d rise from the dead. I cover my mouth and bite my lower lip as if stifling a yawn. Is that a hint of a smile on your face? Are you laughing with me?

You breathe in.

I didn’t give you cancer. Partly, you did this to yourself. I can forgive you your years of smoking and drinking. I’m not so forgiving that you’re ready to go. Blood rushes to my face and my heart beats faster.

How can I forgive the spread of Agent Orange in a war that took away my idealism? Body bags on the news brought to the dinner table every night will do that.

Whatever the cause of your cancer, our years together won’t be a lifetime for me, just you.

I take five, slow, deep breaths. My jaw relaxes.

I eat the overly sweet crème-filled doughnut. Knowing how you hate crumbs in the bed, I’ll finish before I sit with you. Ah, you’re taking another breath. I’ll wait until the social worker leaves before I go to you.

I stare at the sugary remnants on the cafeteria plate. During these final weeks, we bared our souls and said everything we needed to say. I’ve never felt so exposed, as if my skin peeled away and exposed my heart. Yet, you never turned away from me.

I watch and wait. You breathe in just the way you always do. You’re in control and have everyone’s attention while I subsist on sugar. I won’t feel. Not in front of these people.

What is the social worker saying to you? Her with her accusing looks in my direction.

You breathe out.

You don’t breathe in. Another pause?

No breath in.

You look so peaceful. No more pain. No more agony. I know you’re still here with me.
It’s as if everyone in the waiting room simultaneously understands that you are dead. Friends and family come in and make stiff or tearful good-byes, then retreat.

Time to call your brother? No, your best friend will do it; he’s in the hallway. He promised to call friends and co-workers. Will your brother inform your daughters? Said he would. My love, you continue to make life easier for me, even in death. Have to call my family.

The nurse’s aide arrives to prepare your body. “I will do it,” as I place a protective hand on the sheet.

She snatches the sheet from my hand and off your body, leaving you naked. I grab the sheet. How disrespectful. You would hate this. I cover you. I begin to wash you. I wash your face and neck, moving from your arms to your torso. I stand so she can’t watch. I cover your top half. I uncover and wash your legs and feet. Together, we turn you over.

As we roll you onto your stomach, I see it. A decubitus ulcer. One I’ve not seen, didn’t know about. Bright red. The color of raw hamburger. A cavern of bone and meat. Oozing yellow pus. You never mentioned it.

Had I walled myself off so effectively that my whole being said, I don’t know and I don’t want to know? Was this detachment? Survival? No trips into the danger zone of the psyche for me! I simply hadn’t paid attention.

Guilt arrives, carrying its own bag.


I leave the closing on the beach house and drive to Alligator Point to meet Frank Islip, the man I’ve been seeing for fourteen months. The sun is high and shines warm in a cerulean sky sprinkled with powder puff clouds. One of those January days that entice you into believing spring is here.

I offer up gratitude to Alex who, seven years ago, left me enough insurance money to pay for my doctorate, and my dream house. To Frank for saying, “Cosmetically, it’s a mess. Structurally it’s sound. We can fix it. If you don’t buy it I will.” And, to the friend who offered me my dream.

When I pull in front, Frank hops out of his old truck. “Welcome home,” accompanied by a tight hug and a wide grin.

“I’ve been imagining the stairs moved to the side rather than straight on,” as I return both. “What do you think?” More subtle. More beautiful. More welcoming.

“Easy enough to do.” He looks at the yard. “But, harder to imagine with all the yard junk.”

To my house-gratitude list, I add Joy the woman responsible for the helter-skelter cabinets and carpeting that clutter the front lawn. I turn to view the quiet part of the gulf across the street from my home. “Yeah, but thanks to the girlfriend, we’re standing here.”

Frank rests his hand on my shoulder, and I breathe in the pleasure of this moment before we go in the house. Once inside, we open all the doors and windows to air out the house. We move to the side deck with both the front view of the gulf and the view from the rear of the house. We lean over the back rail, watching gulf waves lazily break on shore. I close my eyes to take in the salt air. Frank slides a finger along my cheek. When I gaze into his eyes, they soften. I am home.

With a sigh, Frank lets go. “Better get to work.”

Months before when Joy had shown me the house, I’d seen evidence of destruction, and now have visions of her yanking up the carpet and heaving it out the door in an explosive rage. “All men are evil! See these light fixtures? Breasts!” The woman seems to traipse along the line of psychosis. Looks like she’s crossed it. The breast-pink paint color is another indication of her disturbed thinking.

I help Frank load the tossed carpet and pad into the back of the pickup. We store the cabinets in the living room. Thank god for the several weeks of no rain.

With the front yard cleared, we move inside with notebooks and pencils. Frank measures the kitchen and appliances. I write the dimensions on my paper. He measures again. “Measure twice, cut once.” With his tape, he gathers the dimensions of every room and draws a floor plan. As he goes from room-to-room, he calls out what needs attention: Kilz to cover the girlfriend-slopped paint, two coats flat, two coats trim, material to repair and repaint ceiling, carpet and pads—I have a second page where he gives me a list with the amount of paint, numbers of screws and other needed supplies.

By mid-afternoon we have enough information to begin the repairs. Frank puts away his notebook and pencil. “What you say we quit before we get into work traffic?”

“Sounds good.” I need to practice for my defense. “I have an early day tomorrow.”

As we stand by my white Camaro, Frank hugs me and kisses my nose. “I’ll make a list for what we need first.” He puts out his hand, “Your list.”

I hand it to him.

He mentions he’s to see the doctor tomorrow. In all the house excitement, I’d forgotten that he should soon have a doctor’s appointment because he’d missed the one in November. It had taken two months to get a new one.

“How about dinner tomorrow night?” Hopefully we can celebrate my defense and his good health. We firm up our plans and then leave for Tallahassee.

Something about Frank’s doctor’s appointment gnaws at me.

I open the windows to the sound of birds chirping and inhale the combined scents of pine trees, fresh air, and death from an animal along the side of the road. My arms and shoulders relax as the energy of the trees surrounds me. Everything in this world is exactly as it should be. Traffic slows and becomes heavier as I pass the two universities. I grip the wheel. The clear blue sky turns dark and ominous as I pass the Tallahassee Mall. Crepe myrtles sway. Large drops of rain splat against the windshield.

Before I turn into my parking space, the sun bursts through the clouds.

I barely make it inside my apartment when two pairs of eyes peep around the corner, Yin and Yang, my Japanese bobtail cats. “We have a beach house, little ones.” Yang tugs at my leg and rolls over. I reach down to rub his tummy. Yin, the aloof one, turns her back.

I glide through the living room towards the office, one of two extra bedrooms. I shut the studio door and the distraction of an unfinished painting, a Vietnam War bamboo cage.

Can’t imagine why I chose to dwell on this subject. I suspect it’s my way of working through a war that took so much from me.

As I enter my office, I touch the feathers on the medicine stick, a twisted branch with a large crystal encircled in a rawhide string. An eagle’s feather attached by a leather thong tops the stick. Narrower leather strings hold beads and other feathers in place. The shaman who created this symbol must have infused it with healing powers. I am drawn to its energy.

I toss the closing papers on the desk, and then realize they’ll likely get lost in the mess. I stuff them into an empty cubbyhole above the desk. My cat shadows follow until I pick them up and hold them to my chest.

I put down the cats and pick up a now worn copy of my Theory of Therapy paper. Yin watches, with the disdain only a cat can express, as she lazes on the desk chair. Yang reclines on the floor underneath her, in exactly the same position. How do they do that?

I stand in front of Yin. I begin reading aloud: “As a phenomenologist, I believe people create their own meanings for their lives. Our beliefs influence the meanings we make, which have …”

Yin jumps up and walks across the keyboard leaving a trail of letters on the screen. I turn to face her. Should have shut down the computer. I pick her up and place her on the floor. “Okay, Yin, tell me what you think.” She stares at me.

“What do you mean I’m using highfalutin words to sound smart? This is my field. I’m supposed to sound smart. I do know what I’m talking about.” She cocks her head and crosses her front paws as if to say pride goeth before a fall. “Okay. Okay. I’ll try to give you my theory of therapy for regal cats.” I look at my paper and then at Yin. “So, as a therapist, I want to know what you think when I tell you I love you.” She looks at me as if I’ve misplaced my sanity—which I probably have, considering I’m lecturing a cat.

“To put this in cat terms, if your mama told you she loved you while she was feeding you or licking you clean, you’d have a different idea of love than if she told you she loved you and then bit your ear or scratched your nose. Or, even walked away.” Yin looks around the room.

“Pay attention, Yin.” She turns her head towards me. “If, for example, when as a small child, I was so completely controlled by my family that I had no freedom, I would value my independence above everything.”

I lean towards her before I continue. “Better yet, remember how your temperature rose every time you went to the vet after your experience in the loud family with the barking dogs, hissing cats, yelling humans, and then in the animal shelter? I know it scared you because you run and hide if I raise my voice. So, we’ll pretend that you believe if you’re yelled at, you will die.”

As she twitches her nub of a tail, Frank’s face pops up, but I can’t think about him now.

“When William James wrote, ‘I don’t smile because I’m happy; I’m happy because I smile,’ he is telling us that we can change our attitude by changing our behavior. In other words, acting as if . . . will make it so.’”

I turn to Yin. “This is important.” Her eyes open wide. I bend down, pick her up and cradle her in my arms.

“You can change being afraid, Sweet Girl, by acting as if you are not afraid.” Yang saunters over and nudges my foot. Yin wiggles out of my arms and jumps on the desk. I bend forward and gentle Yang’s head.

A thud. CRASH. I jump. Both cats disappear. I rush to the den and dial the upstairs neighbors. Laughter greets me. “Knew it was you,” says Mrs. McPherson. “Trying to break apart three frozen chickens by smashing them on the kitchen floor. Yeah, we’re all alive up here. The noise was that loud in your office?”

My adrenalin continues to pulse when I return to the office and sit in my chair, both legs shaking. It takes a few minutes before the cats return.

Yin jumps up on the desk, paws my face, and looks at me as if suggesting, go on. Yang jumps in my lap. Yin creeps to the monitor and stares at the screen.

I want coffee, but refuse to reward myself until I’ve completely explained my theory to Yin.

I put Yang on the floor and stand. “Since what you think and what you do are connected,” I start to pace, “if you don’t feel good and hear a crash upstairs, you’re more likely to think you’re going to die. If you spend a lot of time thinking you’re about to die from fright, you’ll get sick. If you are afraid long enough, you’ll hack up a hairball. So let’s not go there. Okay?” I reach down to pull Yin to me, but she’s gone before my hand is halfway there.

I pour a mug of coffee, move into the den, and pick up the Margaret Atwood novel I’ve been reading before bed each night. I curl up in my favorite chair. The large square one, probably a hundred years old. The wide arms enfold me when I tuck my legs up under. Yin and Yang settle in, one on each side of me facing the same direction.

An hour later, hunger overtakes, and I wander into the kitchen for a fast peanut butter sandwich. Gone are the days when I had time to cook after work on the psych unit in North Carolina. Peanut butter is the one staple in the pantry these days.

The next morning, I dress in a professional uniform for my defense, navy suit with white silk blouse, and navy pumps. Wish I could ditch the pantyhose, but I know the more I look the part, the better I’ll perform.

With morning coffee in hand, I watch Yang chasing Yin, circle round and round the living room, through the dining room, into the kitchen and through the den. They reverse to flash into the office. I follow behind to check email. Maybe someone has answered my late night questions about prostate cancer. Don’t really expect anything this soon. Nothing important.

I gather my notes and stuff them into my burgundy monogramed leather briefcase.

I arrive at the clinic with ten minutes to spare. I pour a mug of coffee and find a seat at the conference table. My practicum supervisor Joe Promough, my major professor Simon Dimsley, and another professor, who is officially on sabbatical, but in town, arrive at eight-thirty with their copies of the theory paper and accompanying transcript of a session.

Joe taps the paper, and then glances up. “The female client, an emergency medical technician, is having a problem with her deputy sheriff boyfriend who is consuming all her free time to the point she can’t visit her mother.”

He tilts back in his chair. “Why did you choose this particular session with this particular client?”

“I’ve watched the client give up one more piece of her independence each time they’ve come in for a session. After her five previous ones, you can see on the tape that there’s a hesitancy in her walk, and she hunches over in the chair.”

“Do you see any correlation to your own life?” Simon combs his fingers through his beard.

I take a deep breath, “I see me when I was married to an active alcoholic. I made myself sick trying to get him to stop drinking. I had the if onlys:

If only I was more attractive; if only I was more submissive; if only I would lose weight—I was at my perfect weight—he would quit. She’s doing her own version of this process.”

Joe leans forward, “You say that because they are both in crises-type careers, you suspect they are addicted to the adrenalin rushes their jobs provide.

He leans back with his arms crossed. “Any similarities in your family history?”

I have the feeling he thinks he’s tripping me up. “On the surface, you might not think so. Her father abandoned her and her mother to marry a younger woman. She and her mother are very close.” I twirl my ring.

“My father was my ally until I was sixteen. I knew he pleaded my case with my mother even though I never heard it. Mother was more like the deputy sheriff boyfriend.”

The third professor glances up from his non-stop writing. “What about your father? Did he abandon you?”

“No . . . wait.” My heart flutters. “I take that back. I felt abandoned when he attempted suicide. I never trusted that he would be there for me after that. I never trusted my mother to protect me after she had me hide behind the sofa from the Fuller Brush man. I was three.”

I lean my forearms on the table and clasp my hands, “so yes, I guess he did abandon me. At least in my mind.”

I catch a look where Simon gives Joe a just-noticeable nod.

“What happened with the Fuller Brush man that caused you to lose trust in your mother?”
I go back to that day in my first house. “Mother opened all the windows,” allowing the stench of old arguments, fears, and bitter thoughts to escape, from winter’s enclosure, into the fresh spring air. She hummed Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’ while she washed the windows. I chattered to my doll. The Oriental rug hung on the clothesline to be beaten and brought in later when the floors carried the scent of Johnson’s paste wax.”

I flinch. “All of a sudden, she grabbed me, her hand over my mouth, and pulled me behind the sofa, sitting in the middle of the living room. When I turned to look at her, her index finger covered her lips. Shhh, she’d whispered.”

Joe shuffles his papers. He nods.

“Knock. Knock. Knock.” The Spic and Span Momma used on the walls left its perfume in the room. “We held our breaths. The deep brown horsehair covering the sofa tickled my nose.” Off to the side, in Daddy’s chair, lay the soft, beige linen-like fabric slipcovers. They’d cover the sofa and the chair before the sun hid behind the mountain.

“The doorbell rang. We waited, as silent and still as the air before a summer storm. I looked at Momma. She frowned as she put her finger to her mouth once more. The storm door opened and closed.” Fear sucked energy from the room. Silence. “Footsteps left the porch. We waited.” I take a breath.

“Momma peered around and over the back of the sofa. She whispered that we could get up and that I’d have to talk quietly.”

Simon tugs on his beard and shoots a look at Joe.

“When I asked why we hid, she told me the knocker was the Fuller Brush man and she didn’t want to buy anything from him that day.”

Joe’s smile is quizzical. “Why did that experience cause you to lose trust in your mother?”

“I thought she was afraid and that’s why she hid. If she had to hide from someone who had been in our house before, then how could she protect me from someone who might really harm me? Remember, this is the logic of a three year old.” I take a deep breath.

“And you still remember it?”

I let out my breath. “Like yesterday.”

Simon turns a page and points to the paper. He clears his throat, “Do you really believe you can change by acting as if?”

“Nineteen years in twelve-step meetings have taught me the truth of the slogan. Not only in my own life, but in watching a number of alcoholics get sober.” I sit back in my chair.

The next thirty-five minutes are spent debating my theories of adrenalin addiction, whether a smile can change a mood from sad to happy, and the merits of a positive attitude and its effect on real-life outcomes.

At last, Joe points to the door. “Go get some coffee, and we’ll call you back when we make our decision.”

Storm of the Century


By:  Roberta Burton

DAY 1: March 13, 1993

Damn. No power. No fire in the wood stove. Must have gone out. Cliff’s breathes ice crystals as he hops out of bed and rushes to put on his heaviest clothes. No firewood downstairs. He puts Snooky, his aunt Ev’s obnoxious schnauzer, outside on the covered stoop, without looking beyond. The thermometer reads minus six degrees. He hurries back upstairs to get what warmth is left.

He looks through the picture window at a world covered in white. Trees, like dark toothpicks, stick out of the snow. What looks like a midget to him, dressed as spring, galumphs up the hill.

As he retrieves Snooky, he realizes the dog hasn’t left the stoop with its inch or two of snow. Should’ve looked beyond the covered stoop he thinks as he notices the figure he saw earlier turned toward the cabin. Hmm? Only a woman would be wearing art for a jacket, one that looks like a spring bouquet with its bright colors. Oh, she’s not a midget; the snow is up to her knees. No wonder she’s struggling.

She arrives out of breath, her face wind-beaten. Wind-chill factor must be in the negative double digits.

“Hi, I’m Evelyn’s neighbor. Green house down the hill. Who’re you?”

“Cliff Stephens. Her nephew.”

“I wondered whose car was parked at the bottom of the hill when I came in last night. I’m parked right behind you.”

“Aunt Ev had knee surgery yesterday. I came to take care of her while she recuperates. When I left the hospital last night, snow had begun to fall. Aunt Ev warned me not to drive up the hill. That’s a steep half a mile.” Jackie nods. “It seems I won’t be doing much caregiving today. Can I help you?’

She furrows her brow. “I’m Jackie Johnson. I have no heat in my house. I’ve not had my chimney checked out since I moved in, so I ‘m afraid to light a fire. I do have plenty of firewood though. I thought maybe Evelyn would let me stay with her in exchange for wood.”

“Your timing is excellent. I couldn’t find any wood around here.”

“I suspected as much. That’s Evelyn. Doesn’t usually plan ahead.”

“So I’ve noticed. She called me at the last minute to come stay with her. Fortunately, I’ve six months leave. Aunt Ev needed me and I needed to get away.” Had he left himself open to a lot of questions?

Jackie shakes out her shoulder-length chestnut curls and asks, “Why didn’t she call her daughter?” Cliff suspects that she’s uncomfortable about staying with a strange man. Not that he could blame her reticence.

“Have you met Nicki?”

Jackie nods. Cliff watches her swallow her smile and then, as if unable to contain herself any longer, Jackie bursts out laughing. Her laughter tinkles through the silent air.

Cliff”s heart lightened. “You know why she didn’t call her.” He chuckles as he says,  “Back to your offer. I’d be grateful for the wood if you’re willing to share my warmth.”

“Thank you,” she says. The tension leaves her face. Her shoulders drop. “You may have saved my life.”

“And you, mine. Don’t think either of us would make the night alone, without heat.” Cliff grabs his jacket and gloves. “Two of us should be able to get enough wood to last through the night in one trip.”

Cliff can’t tell if they’re on the road or land until he sees the woodpile. They’re staying off the road. It’s colder, even more miserable than he’d expected. Icy needles prick his face. The wind gusts so tenaciously, it’s hard to remain vertical. To Cliff, Jackie looks tiny as she battles the knee-deep snow. They head to the woodpile, the air pungent with burning wood. All homes on the nearby mountains are using wood stoves.

A crack, like a gunshot, then a thud. Jackie stops, startled. “I think a tree just fell,” she says.”

They strain to get to the woodpile, even though it’s downhill. They arrive out of breath, and begin picking up wood, some pine for starter, but mostly oak. Want a slow burning fire with plenty of heating power.

Jackie’s forehead crinkles. She asks, “Are you the nephew who lives in California?”

Cliff inclines his head. “So she talked about me?” What it is about this woman that makes me want to open up to her. That is, besides her magnificent ass, fetchingly rounded inside those ski pants.

“Not much. I just remember she mentioned you live in California. What part?”

“A little town in Marin called Novato.”

Jackie asks, “Do you know Pierce Drive?”

“You know Novato?”

“Lived there from ‘69 to ‘71,” she says. Cliff wonders what other connections they have. When they return to the house with the wood, Cliff relights the fire.

“Cliff, does Evelyn have instant coffee around?”

“She doesn’t. Has an old-fashioned drip coffee maker though. I can boil some water once the stove gets hot.” Thank God this stove has a nice large surface. Perfect for cooking.

“Great idea. While you’re restarting the fire, I’m going to check on my dog and cat. I’ll bring back a couple of bags of coffee. Do you know of anything we might need?”

I’m glad that we’ve made a narrow path between the two houses. Jackie will have an easier time both going and coming back.

“A battery radio would be nice.”

Jackie shrugs. “No can do. Don’t have one.”

“I’m sorry you can’t bring your animals here, but Snooky will cause all sorts of trouble.”

“I know. I’ve dealt with Snooky before. My animals’ll be fine. I made them a tent with a blanket and two dining room chairs. They’ll keep each other warm. I cracked the door so they can come and go as they please. My cat’ll go to her cave.”

Cliff watches Jackie walk down the hill. She has a dancer’s walk. Meanwhile, he gets the fire going again. He looks around the kitchen to see what he can find to make them more comfortable. He lets his mind wander. I just might enjoy sharing this house with Jackie. So much for my plan to hibernate while working through my recent news. There’s something about her that feels familiar. Had they crossed paths before? Is she the one?

While waiting for Jackie to return, he checks out the bedroom where she’ll stay. It’s cold, but the wood stove’ll warm the entire upstairs. If not, we’ll figure something out. Freezer is full of all sorts of good food. We’ll eat well. Boxes of steaks. That’s good.

By the time Jackie returns, the house is warm, or at least warmer than it was. He watches her as she begins to remove her jacket of many flowers and colors. Its basic color is blue-violet. Large stems of a medium green run from top to bottom in places. A bright, lighter green fabric is sewn on for leaves. Embroidery in different shades of green adds veins to the leaves. Shades of red, fuchsia, lavender, pink, a medium blue-green, and red-violet in varying sizes make up the flowers, some of which have yellow centers

“Beautiful jacket.”

“Thanks. Got it in Alaska, from an artist who sewed every flower and stem on by hand. It’s one of a kind. Warm, too,” she says as she shows him the hot pink fuzzy lining. She removes her boots. “Forgot to bring dry shoes. At least I have on two pairs of socks.”

“You might step in a puddle. Snooky doesn’t seem to know what “house broken” means. Come. Sit. Enjoy the heat. As soon as the stove gets hot enough, I’ll fix us something to eat, if you’ll make us some coffee.

Jackie laughs. “We may be grateful that Snooky pees in the house. At least we’ll have clean snow to heat for water.”

Great sense of humor. I like this woman. “I noticed that you get up and down the hill fairly easily now that we’ve carved a path.”

“Yeah. I do a lot of walking on hilly streets when I take patients into town.”

“Patients? What do you do?”

Jackie says, “I’m the staff psychologist at the hospital. Take the patients on walks when I need a break from the psychiatric unit where I work. What do you do?”

“Work at a state psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. Specialize in addiction. Get all the alcoholics and addicts admitted to the hospital.”

“My specialty, too. How did you end up with that population?” Jackie asks.

Cliff takes a breath. Damn. He’d waltzed right into that one. Can he trust her? “Seemed to have been at the right place at the right time. You?”

Jackie curled her legs under her. “I entered through the back door of Al-anon. I was married to an alcoholic. I did all those crazy things like hid his booze, poured it out, screamed, yelled, and generally tried to control his drinking until I attended Al-anon. He got sober, went to AA, and because of my Al-anon program, I went back to school. Got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Carolina University.”

“That’s in Cullowhee, isn’t it?” Jackie nods. “You said ‘was married.’ Did going back to school break up your marriage?”

“According to my mother, it had everything to do with it. Going back to school may have had something to do with the divorce, but the alcoholism was the primary reason. He stopped drinking. The accompanying behavior didn’t change.”

Okay. We now have two connections. Aunt Ev may be right about her. Here I thought she was just using Jackie as a ruse to get me here.

We spend the day checking out Aunt Ev’s house for emergency items, talking about our habitual routines – whether or not they mesh—to make ourselves comfortable here, and drinking coffee. Toward the end of the afternoon we settle into a routine where Jackie reads. I write. We each now have our own battery-powered lantern, found in Aunt Ev’s garage. Good thing the batteries work.

DAY 2:

“Good morning. You sleep well?” I ask Jackie as she stumbles out of the bedroom.

“I did. Oh, you made coffee. What a dear man you are. How’d you sleep?”

“I managed to keep Snooky off the bed, so I slept well. No urine smell.”

Jackie smiles, “Good. How are we doing for wood? The house is so toasty.”

“We’ll need to make a wood run sometime after we have our coffee and some breakfast. We might need to make two trips as we’re burning the last of what we got yesterday.”

“I’ll also need to feed my animals. Didn’t think to tell you yesterday; I have a regular phone, not a portable one. It works. You’re welcome to use it.”

“I should probably check on Aunt Ev.”

“You can do that while I take care of the animals. Oh, my dog may growl at you. She was abused in a frat house on campus. The experience left her with a mouth that looks like she’s snarling, when she’s actually smiling. Anyway, she’ll be fine as long as you show no fear. Somehow, I don’t think I need to worry about that.”

We finish our coffee, then set out to accomplish the tasks at hand. As soon as I enter Jackie’s home, I see her floral watercolors, flowers that draw me into another dimension. The longer I look at them, the calmer I feel. I know this is the artist I’ve been seeking. I recognize her signature even though her style and medium are very different from her earlier ones. I wonder how to bring up the subject.

DAY 3:

We discover Aunt Ev’s stash of rum and a mix that, according to Jackie, makes the rum taste like hot buttered rum. I opt for coffee. We’re sitting around the stove. I’m cooking steaks and experimenting with baking potatoes in a covered pan, when Jackie asks about my work.

Jackie takes a sip of her drink. “You said you had annual leave, you must have been at your job for awhile.”

This is not what I want to discuss. “Been working at the facility for fifteen years.”

“I’m unfamiliar with state-run programs. Do you use the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous as part of your treatment?”

“Yeah, AA is the foundation. I run daily groups, do treatment plans with the patients, plus I often have to find places for them to stay. Halfway houses, mostly.”

Jackie sips her drink. “My job is similar, except for the social work part. My degree is in clinical psychology. Fortunately, I get to do more treatment than testing.”

“I gathered that from what you said about going back to school, you prefer working with alcoholics and addicts.”

“I have more knowledge about addiction, but mostly I like working with anyone who has a chronic mental illness. Seeing minute changes in the patients juices me up. My interest in alcoholics stems from my marriage.”

“What was your marriage like?”

“We were married thirteen long years. When I married him. I didn’t know anything about addiction. He was a binge drinker, so when he promised to quit, I believed him. He was a violent drunk. Picked fights. Many nights, I’d wake up being beaten about the head, kicking to protect myself. I usually ended up being thrown on the floor.” Jackie flinches. She moves to the stove to refill her cup with coffee. One drink was enough.

When she returns to her chair, “It took me six years into the marriage to figure out that if I didn’t get into the bed with him, I wouldn’t get hurt. As time moved on, the alcoholism progressed.” Snooky growls and his little paws run. A dream.

Of course, I got crazier and crazier thinking I could control his drinking. If only I was a better wife, a more beautiful wife, a better lover. You name it. I thought it. Finally, I took the advice of a friend and tried Al-anon. What freedom! I learned that ‘I didn’t cause it. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t cure it.’”

I notice a look of relief in her eyes as they soften. The dull brown chair sets off the brightness of Jackie’s pale yellow sweater.

“When I finally made the decision that I was willing to stay and watch him die, he got sober. Well, dry. That first year, he went to meetings and worked the twelve steps of AA. It was the best year of our marriage. Both of us dealt with our own issues from the common denominator, the Twelve Steps.”

Jackie gets up and paces. The pot of water, with an added cinnamon-stick used as a humidifier, fragrances the room.

“At the end of the first year, almost to the day, he had a heart attack and open-heart surgery. Then he became impotent from the clogged arteries and veins. He made his impotency my fault.

“Things just went downhill from there. I kept doing my part by working on me, which was the impetus for going back to school to get my degrees. By the time I left, he was accusing me of having affairs with other students and the professors. I recognized the paranoia of a late-stage alcoholic. I moved out. Divorce was nasty, but I did get enough money to finish my degrees.”

“You continued school while you were getting a divorce?”

“Yeah. Funny thing, I picked up a book on divorce right after I moved. It listed the order in which feelings and behaviors generally occur in the divorce process. I had completed every one of them except the first one: breaking the denial. When that happened, I moved within two weeks. I’ve never had one regret about leaving. What about you? Are you, or have you been married?”

Oh, shit. Here it comes. Cliff’s muscles tighten. Damn it, he thinks as is eye begins to twitch. He begins to raise his hand to scratch his nose, but drops it back to the chair arm. “I was married once. I’d graduated from Berkeley. Moved across the bay so I could take a job in public relations. We’d had our daughter. That was in sixty-five. He picks up his glass of water.

“The dreaded letter came. Fortunately, the birth of our daughter kept me out of  Vietnam, but the stress of having a child the first year of our marriage exacerbated my tendency toward addiction. Became involved in the Haight-Ashbury drug culture—mostly weed. Later, I began snorting heroin. Hate needles.”

Jackie shifts in her chair, tucking her feet up under her. A sunbeam hits the top of her head, causing a halo around her dark curls.

“Too deep to get out, I soon lost my job. As you can imagine, my family came next. What use was a down and out drug addict as a husband and father?

“Remained in my drug addiction until the winter of seventy-two. Don’t know what happened to me. One night, I stood on a street corner and looked at the smiling and laughing couples in a restaurant and bar’s plate glass window. I was so depressed that I was trying to figure out how best to kill myself. At that moment, something came over me. It was as if someone saw my pain and felt it with me.” Jackie rivets her eyes on Cliff drilling a wormhole into his heart.

“Took me six months to get clean. Then I went to AA. Thought alcohol was my problem. Little did I understand. Sorry, I’ve told you far more than you wanted to know.” She’s going to run like hell.

“No you didn’t. Thank you for sharing your story with me. I was living in San Francisco at the same time, different area from the Haight, but the hopelessness was the  same.”

DAY 4:

Damn, this woman turns me on. The more I’m around her, the better I like her. She’s comfortable to be with, sexy even with all those layers of clothes. Love to see her naked right now. As we trudge back up the hill with our second daily allotment of wood today, Jackie interrupts my lusty thoughts.

“When were you in San Francisco?”

“Sixty-nine through seventy-four. You?”

“Seventy-one to seventy-three. On Nob Hill from January of seventy-two to August of seventy-three.”

“You lived on Nob Hill?”

“I did. I had this fabulous apartment with a view of the Golden Gate and I looked down on Polk Street from my living room window.

“Polk Street?” So that’s how she got that perspective of me.

Jackie stops. She turns to look Cliff in the eye as she says, “Your tone is confusing.” Perplexed, she asks, ‘Surprise? Something clicked?”

“The latter. I have a confession to make.” Jackie looks at Cliff quizzically. “Two years ago, I found a painting that captured my despair the night I was contemplating suicide. Aunt Ev told me your name and that you’d lived in California. Of course, I only recognized the first name. I found out all I could about you. “ Jackie’s eyes open wide.

“I was standing under a street lamp, in front of a bar on Polk Street. The view was from above. When I bought the painting, I longed to find the artist to let her know what a profound influence she’d on me that night. You’re that artist, aren’t you?”

Jackie barely raises and lowers her head.

The song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” keeps running through his head. He wants to take her in his arms and never let her go. A shadow of sadness crosses her face. Her lips tremble as if she’s holding back tears. Had he said too much?

“Do you think I’m completely nuts, and a stalker to boot?” Had he said too much?

Jackie shakes her head. The tears come into her eyes. “I remember that night well. What you saw in that painting was my feeling of hopelessness. My desperation. I guess that’s why I captured yours. Yes, I was watching you. Yes, I did understand your pain. Do you realize what a gift you’ve given me? The gift of knowing I made a difference in your life just by noticing.” Her voice soft as a cotton ball. “Thank you,”

DAY 5:

The woodpile is dwindling. How much longer can we keep burning so much wood before we run out.

Jackie touches me when she talks to me. Her face brightens when she walks into the room. I wonder how obvious I am, don’t want to frighten her or make her uncomfortable. That could make our remaining time, cooped-up in this small space, disastrous. I become much more aware of what I’m doing. We still have no idea when we’ll get out of here. God, I want her.

DAY 6:

Six straight days of freezing temperatures. Still no sign of warming. At least not today. Something’s gotta give. We need to think about conserving wood. We’ve returned from our trek to Jackie’s for wood and contact with the outside world. I’m surprised at how much more wood we’re able to carry than the first day. We set the wood down inside the door. As we’re removing our boots and jackets, Jackie brushes against me. That’s it. I can stand it no more. I grab her and pull her to me. She leans into me. “This feels so nice,” she says.

“Uh huh.” I hold her tighter. She lifts her face to me. She tries to kiss me as I move my face away. Oh, God. I want this woman. If I kiss her, I won’t stop there.

Jackie moves away. “Breakfast?”

When we get upstairs, she puts on a pot of coffee while I scramble some eggs on the wood stove. We’ve just finished eating when Jackie asks, “What just happened downstairs?”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Try the beginning.”

“I came to help Aunt Ev for two reasons. One was in hope of finding the artist who painted my desperation years ago. The second was to process some news I received three weeks ago. That’s why I’ve spent my days writing.”

“I wondered about that.”

“When I had my annual AIDS test last month, it came back HIV positive. An AIDS patient spit in my eye about nine months ago. The test was negative then.”

“Yeah, it takes six months to show up.”

“Right, but no one thought of that, including me. I know I can live a long time with the virus without it developing into full-blown AIDS.” Jackie gestures her agreement.

“I spent the week before flying here researching everything I could find on the subject. The best information I’ve gotten so far is from an AIDS counselor in New York City. He’s the one who told me that I could be positive without symptoms.”

Jackie’s leans forward.

“I’d planned to be retested while I’m here. I’ve been celibate for over three years. The only exposure that I’m aware of is the addict who spit in my eye. Immediately washed my eye out. Know that sounds farfetched, but it’s the truth.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jackie says. “Anything I can do?”

I wish Aunt Ev had a couch instead of recliners. I want to be close to her. “You’re already doing it. Just talking about it helps. Am I in denial when I want another test? I know I want to go back to a time before I heard the news.”

“I know. Been there.  It took me six weeks to adjust to my crisis. I just wanted everything to return to normal. Somehow I got used to a new normal. Did you read the article that came out last week about testing results in the western world? It seems that what is deemed positive in one country, is deemed negative in another. I suspect that goes for individual labs, too.”

“Now you know why I turned away from kissing you this morning.”

Jackie’s voice softens. “Yeah. Thank you.”

I walk over to Jackie’s chair. I pull her up. I wrap my arms around her. “I want to do more than kiss you, and I want to do nothing to jeopardize your life.”

“You have no idea how much I appreciate that. That’s why you were so careful about our food, isn’t it? I noticed that you always cook. I never thought that your immune system might be compromised. We can still hug or hold hands, can’t we?

I nod, “Do you want to risk getting infected by being this close to me?”

Jackie nestles into my chest. “I’ve learned I can never go wrong following my heart. Right now, my heart says it’s the right thing to do. Besides being close to you won’t infect me.”

DAY 7:

While we’re at Jackie’s, I call Aunt Ev. She’s doing okay. Jackie calls her friend Denise. Denise tells Jackie to be at the bottom of her steep drive at eleven sharp. She and her partner are coming out. Their road just got cleared. Denise’s plan is to drive into town for showers at a friend’s house. They’ll drop Jackie off at the hospital. Then pick her up an hour later, for lunch.

This is the first time I’ve seen Jackie move around her house, getting clean underwear, clothes, toiletries and make-up. She looks ecstatic, like a woman on a mission. She stops. A shadow falls across her face. I ask, “What’s wrong?” She’s having second thoughts about me.

“There’s only room for me in the truck. I feel terrible about leaving you stuck here. You must feel grungy. I’m headed to the psych unit for a shower, and to check out how they’re doing. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go in tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry about me. Go take care of yourself and your business. I’ll be fine.”  I remember why I’m here. “If you get a chance, stop by Aunt Ev’s, will you?”

“Sure. Anything else you’d like while I’m out?”

“A hot hamburger and fries.” I reach for my wallet and hand her a twenty.

Jackie waves away my hand. “Nah. I’ve got some. I’ll see you in a few hours looking much better. Smelling better, too.”

I touch her hair. “You’re beautiful right now, and I love the way you smell.”  Jackie puts on her colorful jacket as she wrinkles her nose.


Jackie comes back looking like she’s had a life changing experience. “Evelyn is up and about. She can care for herself now.” I take a bite of my hamburger. It’s still hot.

“Nothing but emergency vehicles can get up here. Walking is even treacherous. Looks like Evelyn will stay put awhile.

“Once we have power, I’ll help clean up our mess. You’re welcome to stay at my house until Evelyn comes home. No urine. You can leave Snooky home by himself. Just let him out during the day.”

“You’ve thought this through, haven’t you?”

“Yeah I want you to stay because I want you there. I also think you deserve living free of dog pee for whatever time we have before life goes back to normal”

“Thanks. I appreciate that but . . .”

“Don’t worry, Have two bedrooms. You’ll even have your own bath.”

“You’re not afraid?”

“Nah. We’ve done well so far. As for going beyond that, I’ll make my decision when the time comes.”

Jackie looks at me quizzically. “You’re frowning. Afraid of infecting me?”

“Yeah, guess I am.

“Let me worry about that. I’m a grown woman. Can make my own decisions. AIDS or not, it won’t be made lightly.”

Jackie grimaces as she says, “it could just as easily have been me. One of the addicts on my unit had AIDS-caused dementia. He spit at me. If he’d connected, I could be facing the same thing.

“In that case, I accept your offer. How nice it’ll be to walk around in socks without stepping in a puddle.”  I grab her and pull her into me.

She grins, “I know. Me too.”

Night arrives. Power returns.

Newscasters called it the storm of the century.

Not So Merry and Gay

Hi, Dr. Lee– Around this time of year being merry and gay seems to be a social requirement. What advice do you have for those whose moods plummet during the holidays?

Not So Merry and Gay in FL


Dear Not So Merry and Gay:

 I’ve found that I have to pay special attention to my mood during the holidays. If I focus on what is missing, I’m in trouble. During this time of year, I try to pay special attention to eating healthily and allow for indulgences. When it’s icy cold, I confine my exercise to something I can do inside. I have a Modern Qi Gong video that I use. The video has ten, twenty, and forty minute routines to do morning and evening, plus a number of helpful hints on de-stressing. Try to get close to eight hours of sleep at night.

When I have expectations of family and friends, I set myself up for disappointment. Taking time for myself to read or write is important for me. During this time of year, I plan on one day every two weeks to do nothing but eat, sleep, and read. I believe it helps me ward off whatever illness floats in the air during the darker days of the year. When I plan for it, I lose the guilt.

As I write, I am remembering childhood Christmases that left me feeling like I didn’t belong in the family. One in particular, my cousin who was eight months older, received a fur coat, muff, and hat from her other grandmother and I felt slighted. I was only four, but I carried that around until only a few years ago when I remembered it. Looking back as an adult changed my perception. It is the unremembered things that can affect our holidays now.

 Indulge yourself. Know that you are loved even if you aren’t the do all, be all to your friends and family.

 I hope this helps.

Dr. Lee

A Concerned Sister

Hi Dr. Lee,

I know this is not an easy question! My brother has schizophrenia. He’s 33, and has been diagnosed since his early twenties. He has been in and out of hospitals and on various medications over the years. At this point in his life, he’s not living with family and is making some life choices that we don’t approve of (alcohol, etc.) Despite his illness, he is smart, and has a history of shutting his family out when we try to “meddle” or insist that he stay on medication or keep visiting doctors  In fact, when we push too hard, he tends to sever communications with everyone for months at a time  It is only recently that he’s opened up to me again.

So, my question to you is, should I continue to “be on his side” and not question his choices, in order to keep him in my life? Or should I risk pushing him away by insisting he stay on his medications? I guess the dilemma for me is really that I see he needs the help, but I worry I’ll alienate myself again if I insist he seeks the treatment I would choose for him.

Thank you for your thoughts,
A Concerned Sister, Tallahassee

Dear Concerned,

My first question to you is: Would you rather have a relationship with your brother or be right? Second one: Has what you and your family been doing worked?

Imagine your family telling you what is good for you and insisting that you follow their rules. Here is what I know about people with schizophrenia. They are some of the most creative people I’ve met. I would rather work with them than almost any other group of people. Most use alcohol or other drugs in place of their medication. It may not be the best choice but it’s their choice.

In my clinical work, I found I had to use different criteria than their thought processes for release from the psych unit. If they used good hygiene, at least three-fourth of the food on their trays, and slept at least six hours, they were ready for release. The kicker is they have to understand the criteria before being able to carry it out. I don’t know anyone who wants to be treated like a child and obey someone else’s rules.

People in twelve-step programs use the Serenity Prayer, among other tools, for managing their lives: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. The only thing I can change is my attitude and my thoughts. One of the most frightening decisions I ever made was to allow my alcoholic husband to make his own choices even if it led to his death. (Allow? As if I had that much power over him.) Surprisingly, he asked to go to treatment within twenty-four hours of my decision. No, I did not announce my decision, but somehow he knew without my telling him. He later told me he knew I was no longer going to keep him alive and that he would have to do it on his own.

We all have our own paths to follow in this world and it is not my place to judge someone else’s journey through this lifetime.

I hope this helps.

—Dr. Lee