Stephanie Passero

In the early morning, as the Earth transitions from night to day . . . the temperature dips . . . the wind shifts . . . and the oppressive stillness of a winter night dissipates.

Grace stepped onto the back deck overlooking the frozen trout pond, hot tea in hand. It was early. Her lungs welcomed the sharp clean February air. Her cheeks stung from its slap and she wiped her runny nose on the sleeve of her down parka. Shivering, she sipped her tea. The warm mug eased the morning stiffness in her arthritic fingers. This morning, it felt good to be alive. They’d had a good night, she and Carl. A good night together as husband and wife beneath the quilt she made years ago for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The flannel sheets soft and warm cuddled their skin. A good night. A tender night. A night shared rather than taken.

Their familiar morning routine was simple and comfortable. Grace was an early riser, Carl was not. She would sip a quiet cup of tea before putting on Carl’s coffee and starting breakfast. Carl would smell the coffee, make a trip to the bathroom and head downstairs. His feet heavy on the pine stairs announced his arrival all grumpy and scruffy. He’d fix his coffee; give Grace a peck on the cheek and grunt, “Morning Hon”, before seating himself for breakfast. Oatmeal. Every weekday morning the same. Eggs and bacon only on the weekends. But last night made this morning exceptional, not routine. Something deep within Grace had shifted. Everything was the same but different. Her view had expanded. Everything had heightened dimension and depth. This morning, she was happy and serene. Grace fixed Carl’s coffee just the way he liked it and quietly headed upstairs. He was still in bed, feigning sleep, but she knew better. When she placed the steaming mug on the nightstand, he took her wrist and pulled her to him. His eyes were barely open, foggy from sleep and intimacy. He forced them to widen, focused on her, and grinned.

“Good morning, Wife.”

“Good morning, Husband “

“You’re beautiful you know.”

“Carl, you are so full of it!”

“I’m full of love for you.”

“Come here” . . . . He pulled her closer and kissed her so deeply her eyes squeezed shut and tears escaped from the outer corners. After all these years, he still took her breath away.

“I love you too.”

They held each other, resting in the satisfying stillness of a long time married couple. Grace pressed her ear to Carl’s chest listening to its reassuring rhythm. Every beat a gift. She kissed her fingertip and traced the bumpy surgical scar running down the center of his chest. A permanent reminder of how blessed they were to have been granted more time together.

“Thanks for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Thanks for last night.”

“And this morning.” She purred.

“Are you complaining?”

“Are you?”

Carl stroked her arm and then her breast.

“How about some breakfast . . . I’ll cook.”

“You’ll cook?”

“Yup . . . a real he-man breakfast!”

“Fine by me.” She said, “But who’s the he-man?”

They gorged on scratch buttermilk pancakes smothered in butter and local maple syrup with real pork sausage. After his second helping, Carl reached across the table and took Grace’s hand. He rubbed her palm with his thumb and looked directly at her. He kissed her palm and then her wrist

“How would you like to play hooky today?”


“Hooky. Let’s go into town. You can stop by the little shops you like, and I can pick up some things at Jake’s Hardware. We can meet for lunch.”

“Lunch! Look at the time, it’s almost noon and I have a ton of laundry to do.”

“How’s this? We split up to run errands, meet at the bookstore for some browsing, and have an early supper at Joyce’s Diner?” Grace raised an eyebrow. He was asking her to go against her practical responsible side. He was offering to spend the day together, but is that what she wanted? It was a foolishly wonderful offer.

He looked up at her with those wicked little boy eyes and grinned.

“Can’t the laundry wait until tomorrow?”

How could she resist? She couldn’t and nodded yes. Then added a caveat, “Fine. But don’t complain to me if you run out of underwear.”

He was beaming. She was grateful for his invitation, but refused to give him the satisfaction of showing it.

“I’ll just have to go commando . . . like a true he-man!”

“In this weather . . . good luck!’”

“Let’s get the kitchen straightened up and get this show on the road before you change your mind and find something else to feel guilty about.”

She whacked him on the arm and their laughter came easily . . . naturally. Like icicles melting and dropping from the eaves during a winter thaw.

Their afternoon was easy. Relaxed. Grace bought yarn to knit a baby blanket for the Wilson’s down the road. Carl picked up screws, bolts, and a drill bit for his project in the basement. They met at the bookstore as planned and after purchasing several hardcovers from the remainder bin headed to Joyce’s Diner holding hands like teenagers.

Carl ordered a steak rare with steak fries and onion rings. The ever-sensible Grace ordered broiled salmon and a house salad with dressing on the side. They shared a carafe of wine and the time melted away.

The waitress cleared her throat and began to clear away the dishes.

“Well, I hope you folks enjoyed your dinner.”

“Yes, yes. Everything was just fine.”

“Great. Can I offer you some dessert? Joyce has some fresh apple crisp in the back. Goes great with ice cream."

Grace shook her head no.

Carl looked at her, “Are you sure Grace? Apple crisp with ice cream. Doesn’t that sound great?”

“I’m sure your cardiologist would be delighted.”

The impatient waitress began tapping the eraser end of her pencil against her order pad. Tap. Tap. Tap.

“Well, that settles it. We will have two apple crisps with vanilla ice cream and a pepperoni and sausage pizza to go.”


“Oh, sorry, Grace. I forgot the vegetables. Throw some mushrooms and green peppers on that pizza.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carl! What are you thinking?”

“I’m not thinking. I’m feeling and I feel great!”

“But Carl . . . ” “No buts about it . . . this day will be a fabulous memory when we are in our 90’s and can’t remember how to put in our teeth.”

Grace had to laugh. He was right. These rare moments are the tethers to grasp when the sinkholes of life threaten to swallow you whole.

It was dusk when they headed home, the mountain road a slick washboard. Carl’s night vision was limited. He gripped the steering wheel and leaned forward trying to get a better view. Grace checked her seatbelt buckle, pumped an imaginary brake and white-knuckled the “oh shit bar” until they parked.

Carl turned off the ignition with a sigh of relief.

“Well, that was an adventure. I need a nap.”

Carl pulled the recliner lever to sit up. He yawned, stretched, and turned on the lamp

He shook Grace who was snoring away on the couch.

“What. What is it?’

“Come on Grace. Wake up.”

“I don’t want to wake up. Go away.”

Carl shook her again.

“Come on. Get up.”

“What in the blue blazes is wrong with you?”

“Nothing's wrong. I have an idea!”

Grace groaned and rolled over.

He jostled her again, persistent.

“Get up and get dressed. Dress warm.”

“Dress warm?”

“Get that cute little butt moving. We are going out.”

“Out? Outside?”

Grace squinted at the grandfather clock. “It’s almost midnight. Are you crazy?”

He pulled her to her feet and squeezed her so hard she feared he’d pop a rib.

“Yup. Crazy for you!” and he planted a big sloppy kiss hard on her lips.

Grace heard him put on his heavy winter gear and slam the door. She loved that man, but this was insane. She had no choice but to follow him. If she went back to sleep and he fell, he’d freeze to death in a few hours. She wasn’t carrying that guilt to her grave.

“Carl! Carl, where the hell are you?”

“In the shed. Come give me a hand.”

When she got close, he tossed something in her direction.

“Catch. Wax her up good. It’s been awhile.”

“Wax. The toboggan?”’

“I’ll tie on a new tow rope while you wax.”

Grace knew that tone. There would be no argument or discussion. His mind was set. He hummed while they worked and she fumed.

Carl handed her a portion of the tow rope.

“Okay, let’s go!”

“It’s not okay . . . it’s nuts. You’re nuts!”

“No, I’m in love.”

Together, they dragged the toboggan to the top of the sledding hill. Their boots crunched through the thin ice glaze coating the snow. Carl rocked the wooden sled back and forth and back again.

“Yup . . . feels like there’s enough wax.”

Carl boarded first, settling himself in the sled’s curved front.

“Come on, Honey . . . get on board.”

Grace stood there with her arms crossed and shook her head in reply, no, no, no.

“Please,” he pleaded.

“If we go too far we’ll end up in the trout pond and drown. Or maybe we’ll freeze to death first.”

Carl shook his head and muttered, “My wife, always the optimist. “Trust me.”

In response, Grace sat on the flatbed behind Carl, wrapped her legs around his waist, her arms around his chest and whispered, “I love you.”

“This is going to be great!”

And it was . . . all the way to the bottom of the slope where a four-foot snow embankment prevented them from continuing into the trout pond.

The anticipation of another run made the slow trek up the steep hill bearable. Their laughter rang sharply in the frozen stillness. Grace’s face tingled beneath a dusting of wet blown snow. She settled herself behind Carl ready to go again. Maybe, Carl’s idea wasn’t so crazy after all.

"I love you, Gracie."

“Thank you.”

And they pushed off . . . the toboggan’s wooden slats groaned in protest. It turned sideways and flipped.

“Woohoo!” shouted Carl as they were tossed into a snow bank.

Laughing, they rolled out of the snow bank and onto their backs. Carl scooted closer to Grace, his hand searching for hers. Hand in hand they lay quietly viewing the waning gibbous moon and stars. Each feeling the reassuring warmth of the other through snow-caked woolen mittens.

“Does this remind you of anything, Grace?”

"Don't go there, Carl."

He rolled on top of her . . .

“That night was our first time together.”

Grace grabbed Carl behind the head and drew him close. She opened her mouth wide and tongued him. She ran her tongue along the top of his teeth and sucked his tongue hard before pulling hers out.

Carl rolled off and on to his back.

“Guess you remember.”

“What gave you a clue?”

He stood to assess the situation.

“We only made it halfway down,” he said, offering her a hand up. “How about one more run?”

They retrieved the toboggan and Carl looked it over.

“Looks okay . . . let’s go.”

Grace was exhausted and glad this climb up would be short. She could hear Carl breathing heavy with a bit of a wheeze. This would definitely be the last run.

At the top, they boarded without comment. The snow was hard packed by the previous runs making it slicker. This run would be faster.

“One . . . two . . . three,” they counted.

They flew past the point where they had flipped. The toboggan gained headway as it roared toward the pond. It fiercely collided with the snow embankment forcing its curved nose to rise vertically like a whale breaching the ocean’s surface. CRACK! Rusted screws tore through old wooden slats and aged leather lashing snapped as it twisted in mid-air. Splintered wood shards soared before plummeting and piercing anything in their path.

In the early morning, as the Earth transitions from night to day . . . the temperature dips . . . the wind shifts . . . and the oppressive stillness of a winter night dissipates.