Second Act

by Rhonda Strehlow

When CASSIE BURNS' husband dies her children think she should move into a condo and act like a grandmother. Instead she plans her first solo trip to a resort in Eagle River, Wisconsin.

In a chance encounter she meets mysterious Kurt Troy whose touch makes her "buzz" with excitement and Will Harley who introduces her to the beauty and wonders of farming.

Cassie begins a dual existence of soul-affirming work with Will's caring family interspersed with spontaneous, intense romantic encounters with Kurt.

When Will's ex-wife returns, Cassie reluctantly decides to head back to her safe and predictable future. On the way home, she unexpectedly encounters Kurt who invites her to move in with him and she impulsively agrees.

Their time alone is intensely sexual but the reality of living in booze, sex and drug culture intrudes on their haven. Before a big awards presentation, in an effort to erase the affects of time, Cassie becomes fanatical about vanity surgeries, exercise, pills, and bulimia until she overdoses two days before the big night and ends up in the hospital.

As she recovers, how does Cassie choose to play out her Second Act?


Chapter One

What day is it? It is spring? Possibly early spring I think. Or is it late winter? It has been a long time since I knew or cared what month it is let alone what day it is. I didn’t know I could feel this tired. It has been a long time coming. How long? I have to think, almost nine years. I looked in the mirror and do not recognize the person I see there: lank gray hair, when did I color it last? My skin is sallow; I look ill. I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night. Always listening. And waiting. When was the last time I exercised? Or saw the sun. Even my brain feels fuzzy.

I squint as I step onto the deck. Lassie walks out behind me; poor, neglected dog. She needs a walk and a good brushing. She looks hopeful so I pick up the leash and clip it to her collar. She starts tugging and I let her; all of the obedience school tricks escape me now. It is just the two of us walking down the street. Tentatively old Mr. Kamps waves. I know he wants to talk but I just nod, point to Lassie and walk on. My friend, Juliet, is weeding her flowers but doesn’t look up so I dodge that bullet, too. I don’t want to talk. No more words of sympathy, thank you. We walk faster. Lassie’s excited. I’m numb.

The neighborhood is quiet, well it is Tuesday at—I check my watch, and it isn’t on my wrist. I don’t know where I put it; where I have been time didn’t matter.

It is two hours before we get back to the house. Lassie is spent; she walks in a neat little circle then lies on the carpet in front of the sofa. That used to be her watch station since Gordie spent so much of the last few years in that same spot.

I’m still numb. When we enter I experience incredible quiet—the quiet of emptiness. Except for Lassie, I’m alone. I take in the fact that I’m alone for possibly the first time in all of my adult life.

I feed Lassie, look into the refrigerator and take of note of the casseroles and jellos; people are still, generously, bringing food. My stomach churns at the sight so I grab a can of Monster and quickly shut the door. When did I become addicted to this drink that makes me hyper-vigilant? But I sigh as the first sip gives me a pleasant buzz. This must be how alcoholics feel. I can picture myself at a Monsters Anonymous meeting. “Hi, I’m Cassie Burns and I am a Monster addict.” I take two long swigs and put the rest in the refrigerator. I’m pacing myself.

It is time I do some work; clean the living room; strip the bed, the kitchen floor needs scrubbing, the refrigerator needs cleaning. And when was the last time I did the laundry? Do I have any clean underwear left? I sit down. Where should I start? There is so much to do. I walk into the bedroom and shut the door. I can’t sleep but I’m beginning to unwind. I hear the phone ring but don’t move. I don’t care who is calling. They can leave a message.

“Mom, answer!” It is my oldest daughter. She sounds impatient. She’s often impatient. A rising young healthcare executive she plans to be CEO of her hospital by the time she is 30. She is calling to give me more well-thought out advice. I’ll listen to it later. Courtney’s advice always goes down better with a long cold drink. Courtney often acts like she is the mother; some days it is easier to just let her believe that.

I drift off. I awake with a start. I didn’t know where I am and it is dark. Lassie’s wet nose touches my hand. O.K. I’ll feed you, but the bed won’t let me go. She whines a little and then the lights go on in the kitchen. I’m not expecting visitors. Lassie doesn’t seem concerned so I tousle my hair with my fingers as Lucas, the baby at 22, knocks on the door and gives me one of his enveloping hugs.

“Were you sleeping, Mom? Are you O.K.?” He looks tenderly into my face.

I give my stock answer, “Always.”

“M-o-o—o-m,” He drags out the single syllable word.

I smile at my soft-hearted son and run my fingers through his crazy hair. “The question is how are you doing?”

“I miss him.” His expressive face droops.

I don’t say anything. Instead, I rummage in the refrigerator, “Chicken pot pie, tuna casserole, orange jello with oranges, orange jello with pineapple, orange jello with fruit cocktail. Choose your orange jello,” I challenge him.

He takes my hands and leads me to the couch. “Later, Mom what’s next?”

I shake my head. Suddenly I don’t know if I can talk. I check out the peeling wallpaper and squash a particularly large dust ball with my sock-covered toes.

“What do you want?” he persists.

“Rest, quiet, peace on earth, the end to all wars and pestilence. By the way, what do you think pestilence is?” I say trying for a joke.

“Alright, it doesn’t look like we’re going to have a normal conversation so I guess I will have to challenge you to a game of Scrabble.”

“Fine with me but, no looking up words. Smart as you are you know I can whoop you with one eye closed.”

“Well I can whoop you with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.”

Lucas is my sweet blond-haired, blue-eyed youngest child. So tiny at birth we didn’t know if he would survive. As clear as  yesterday I remember Dr. Korth taking Gordie and me aside. “This young man is a fighter. He doesn’t know that he is the littlest guy in the nursery, so don’t tell him. We’re going to pull him through.” Eighteen days later he hit the five pound mark and we brought him home. And he hasn’t stopped eating. By the sheer volume of food he puts away every day he should weigh 300 pounds. Instead, he tops the scale at 165 pounds of muscle on a six foot one inch frame.

I bring myself back to the present. I look at the score and he is ahead twenty points. He has a doughnut in one hand, is watching Wheel of Fortune, and scanning the newspaper.

The phone rings, I check caller I.D. It is my mother-in-law, Delia. She’s called three times today already. I understand she needs someone to talk to but I can’t talk to her again today. I let it go to voice mail. I’ll deal with her later.

Lucas raises one eyebrow; I point to the board, and say, “It’s your turn.”

I beat him by three points. I have to pull out the big guns, quire, ibex. I’m pretty sure he let me win.

Lucas routinely drifts in and out of the house. He has a steady girlfriend, Cora. Cora is a very beautiful woman with perfect skin, honey-colored hair, a size two maybe. I think she is a bit of a lightweight but they seem to get along.

Lucas has a BA in chemistry, is studying to be an EMT and he’s applied to medical school. He is a dichotomy; a handsome, loveable, driven man who hasn’t quite figured out where he fits.

“Mom, I have something to tell you.” He wiggles exuberantly in his chair, like he did when he was a toddler with something important to impart.

He sounds serious. “O.K.”, I say.

“I was accepted to medical school at Creighton.”

I smile. “Oh, Lucas that’s wonderful!” I hug him hard.

“I’m packing. I want to get settled. I can finish my EMT certification there and be ready for school by fall. Cora is going with me.”

I’m silent. My baby had decided to leave the nest. I take a deep breath. “You will be a wonderful physician, Lucas.” Then I add,” I’ll miss you.”

“And, I will miss you,” he says but his eyes are shining with anticipation of his anything-is-possible future. “I feel bad leaving you now.”

“We can play Words with Friends over the internet. And, I’ll Skype you.” He squeezes me hard like he did when he was a little boy.

“Go, be free,” I say as I shoo him out the door. “I’m sure Cora is waiting for you. You’ve got lots of plans to make and packing to do. Just call me before you leave.”

Lucas leaves a void. He is Lassie’s favorite—always willing to toss the ball or run around the yard. Lassie lies down facing the door eyes expressing hope that Lucas will return momentarily. I give her a treat which she eats gratefully but she doesn’t move away.

I straighten the pictures and knickknacks, fluffing up the pillows on the sofa. It has been so long since I’ve had time to be domestic: dust, rearrange furniture, put up new curtains. The house feels neglected, and it has been. But I’m determined to change that; just not today; as soon as I’ve had my fill of sleep. I figure twenty-four undisturbed hours will do it.

There is a knock and Lila shuffles in with all three kids. Sandy shrieks, “Grandma,” and attacks my legs. Then she climbs up my body like a jungle gym. We’ve done this rough housing since she was little, but now, at forty-two pounds, I’m having a hard time holding her.

“You’re getting too big to climb on Grandma like that,” Lila admonished Sandy.

Sandy snuggles up to me and says, “I’m not too big, am I, Grandma?”

I hold her close. “You will never be too big to snuggle,” I offer. She smells like baby shampoo and sunshine as she crushes her sinewy little body to mine.

“Let’s play cribbage, Gram, I’ve been practicing.”

“Lila, do you want to play?”

“No, thanks, I’ll feed Jesse and get out some games for Ashley.” She looks through the refrigerator. “It’s nice of people to keep bring you food, Mom. It doesn’t look like you have eaten much since the last time I was here.”

I shrug. “I think they are just glad that it didn’t happen to them.”

Lila gives me a hard look.

“Sorry, sweetie, this is just not my best day.”

Sandy and I play a rousing game of Cribbage which takes forever because she is still learning the game and how to count. I admire her as we play—her crazy blond hair pulled back in pony tail with a purple scrunchie, her enormous blue eyes and her concentration. “I have the picture you drew for me and the letter you wrote is on the refrigerator,” I tell her. She is carefully counting her cards so she doesn’t answer.

“Where’s Grandpa?” she asks unexpectedly.

“Honey, you remember...” I start but she interrupts, “I remember he is gone. And not coming back,” she continues to count her cards. She only has six points; I can see that from here.

“Sandy,” Lila calls a warning from the living room. “We talked about this on the way over here. Have you forgotten?”

“No Momma, I was just making conver... convers... What was I doing, Grandma?”

“Making conversation.”

“I’m making conversation with Grandma, Momma.”

“We’re O.K., Lila,” I call out.



Second Act by Rhonda Strehlow


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