C is for Corinthians

Christ, it was cold. It had been cold before, but this seemed different. Winter had settled in, and there had really been no holiday. Only Alaska, to see a bus, and to see the grizzly man. That had proved about as expected.

To stay warm, John had joined an online dating website. Under “looking for” he chose “other,” and then wrote in “temporary wife.” He had tried to add “so as to not get rusty” but it was too many characters to fit in the box.

He didn’t know if Gladys was coming back, but before he met her it had been thirteen months since he’d had sex with anyone, and it had felt like a new virginity. So much so that on the day before their second date – the first being at the site of the accident – he was walking and passing a gas station with bright yellow and orange colors, and he thought maybe he didn’t remember how to do it correctly. And he laughed out loud, right there on the street as the people filled up their cars and the smell of gasoline.

Anyway, that rustiness was eventually sweetly and passionately dispelled after grapes and wine and hummus. But he knew this rustiness could lead him to be the kind of person whose death is only discovered after a neighbor notices the smell a week later.


The first person who messaged him had the screenname UYourBestThing. “It’s from Beloved by Toni Morrison,” she explained in her e-epistle. “My book club read that last year and agreed that that line in general summed up the philosophy of a novel that espouses, really, a quite sophisticated and unique moral system.”

John was ready to delete the message. But she indented her paragraphs, and that was appealing.

“I actually came on here to see if I could find out if my daughters are on here but it said I couldn’t search for women unless I was a lesbian, so I became a lesbian. But then I could only search for other lesbians, and so far I have not found that any of my daughters is a lesbian. At least not one on here. But I message young women who look like them and send them little encouraging notes about how they are perfectly good enough and smart enough and useful enough on their own and do not need a man, or in their case a woman, or a man, perhaps, if they change their minds again after college.”

Apparently John’s profile was viewable to everyone, even lesbians, as the powers that were didn’t give him much of a shot. So UYourBest (which is what she called herself for short) came over to John’s on a Thursday afternoon to try out their temporary marriage.

“I see you still have your Christmas decorations up,” she said when she walked into the room.

What John had up was a picture of two penguins, which he had drawn with crayons and taped to the inside of his door, and an empty carton of eggnog that he’d put a Santa cap on and sometimes called “Elfie,” and sometimes conversed with.

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“Me I had trouble figuring out when to put them up this year,” she said, “because Thanksgiving was so late. Did you know it was mathematically as late as it could be this year? Or maybe a day not as late as that, I don’t remember. But it was late. And you know I like to wait until after Thanksgiving, but I felt like everyone else had theirs up by the 15th and I didn’t want to be left out. So I figured I’d put up at least the lights. But as I was getting out the stepladder I felt like a fool, and I would have asked Denise if she thought it was too early, but I didn’t want her to laugh at me. Like, ‘There she goes, MFA in Poetry and can’t even decide to put up the decorations without consulting the neighbors, or her husband, quiet desperation, that.’ I don’t think so. And I could have asked Steve, but Steve doesn’t give a shit.”

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“Steve never really celebrates holidays until they’re right on top of him, so I don’t count his vote. I could wait until the 24th and just put on a little Mannheim Steamroller and Steve would settle in with some egg nog and say, ‘Alright, it’s Christmas now!'”

She shook her head.

“He doesn’t know; he doesn’t notice. But it isn’t the noticing. It’s that even without noticing what people like me do to make the season special, even if you don’t care or hate it, you need us to do it so that it can seep into your brain day by day. Like little reminders, so that when the 24th rolls around it hasn’t snuck up on you: you didn’t miss it, you don’t feel like you missed it, like there was some great happy fun wonderful experience waiting for you only you missed it and now you have to wait until next year. Nobody wants that, I’m saying, but they don’t realize that you can’t not miss it if I don’t put these stupid ugly decorations out, even if you think they’re stupid and ugly. It’s a lot of work goes into other people not giving a shit, is what I’m saying. I don’t mind doing that work. Someone has to.”

She had run her fingers along the venetian blinds.

“These are just filthy.”

John and UYourBest looked at each other.

“Elfie says this will never work.”

UYourBest left.

“She was too much like us.”

The next woman didn’t like cleaning but she chewed too loud. Then some sister wives brought over a fourteen-year-old they wanted broken in. Her name was Siddalee, and she and John played some Scrabble but ultimately it was too much like babysitting, Siddalee said, and she didn’t feel she was expanding her skill set.

Then came Mr. Hetherington. Mr. Hetherington was Gladys’s kindergarten teacher. Well, not anymore.

“Brace yourself, John,” Mr. Hetherington said. “I’m gay now.”

John, who had not braced, nonetheless endured this news pretty well.

“That’s great, Mr. H.”

“Yes and I met a man through the internet. He’s a little younger than you. I don’t even need you to start: I’ve heard it all. I go through it myself every night, this May-December thing, oh God, do I have the stamina, do I have the calf support.”

“The calf support?”

“Young people walk everywhere. You don’t know how much young people walk until you aren’t one.”

Mr. Hetherington sat down next to Elfie. Elfie immediately warmed to the man.

“So this man, his name is Clint – oh my God, he has a cleft in his chin, I could bury a cashew there and die happy.”

This must be gay talk, John thought.

“But the point is I worry that he worries that I daddy him. And I want to prove to him that I can be with a young man and not daddy him. So I’d like to set up these nannycams around the house, if I could, so that I can later show him the evidence of my being a hot sexy non-paternal walking maniac.”


That night Mr. Hetherington made them omelets for dinner. He wore Gladys’s apron, and tousled John’s hair as John ate his omelet. “Don’t worry John I’m doing this in a sexual manner not a fatherly manner.”

“That’s a relief.”

Mr. Hetherington sipped some white wine.

John said, “Won’t you eat yours?” Not because he cared, but because that was the polite thing to say.

“Oh no I hardly eat anymore. That’s another thing about old age: surprise! You turn into a bird. Peck at your food, hollow your bones, and in the morning you’re wide awake singing. Or coughing, at least.”

John tried to wash the dishes but Mr. Hetherington wouldn’t let him. “But I’m washing them in a sexual way,” he told Elfie.

Elfie had a camera in him now.

Outside the window the Vortex was raging. They called it the Vortex on TV at least. John, who had taken to reading the book of Job at least once a day, usually with his mini-wheats. He knew that was a little on the nose, so he balanced it out by reading Sherlock Holmes at lunch and Florence Henderson’s biography, which Mr. H. had brought, at dinner.

But tonight he was reminded of the whirlwind that finally arose to answer Job’s accusations.

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John looked into the Vortex, to see if there might be a face there. In fact the snow blew in all directions, it did not fall, so that at any given moment, from a certain point of view, it might seem that it was snowing up and not down, that the Earth was giving back to the heavens some of their own shit. John opened the window again –

“Oh honey you’re a maniac keep that closed!”

– just to see if he could hear anything. Not that you can see sounds, he thought.

For Christmas, before she left, Gladys had gotten John some new earbuds. He knew because he found the gifts where she always hid them, which was in a garbage bag with a piece of paper taped on it that said NOT GIFTS FOR JOHN.

The new earbuds were much better than his last ones. His last ones were pink. He couldn’t remember why. He might have stolen them from a little girl, he said, and Gladys laughed. But the new ones looked like little hairdryers and they went into your ear smooth like butter, and after a long time of having shitty earbuds, now it sounded like the sound was actually in your head, coming from your head, starting in your head. Sometimes John thought if he considered this idea too much his head would explode.

The weathermen had said the Vortex was coming, and then it came. And now it was back. Job only had to put up with the motherfucking thing once. But that was unrealistic writing. Because the answerless answer never left, really.

That night, lying in bed next to Mr. Denny, John wondered about the voice in his head, and how he could hear that voice – the voice of his thoughts, that is. What does it mean to hear that voice, or to hear music in your head when you aren’t listening to it. In what sense is that a sound? Is that voice not born somehow of the wilderness, of the Vortex? So perhaps it would be that voice to really answer his accusations one day. Although he was no Job. As far as John was concerned, the question had nothing to do with why children died. That part was simple enough. The question was why they were born at all.

Mr. Denny instinctively and unconsciously snuggled against John. So John lay awake. Mr. H. snored, but even that was swallowed up by the great blanket of winter.

B is for Bouncing

Gladys picked up the phone and dialed the extension for room service.

“I’d like a salad with walnuts in it, and cranberries. Or, it might be almonds and cranberries. I saw them making it on Good Morning America this morning. Or. Maybe yesterday. What day is it?”

“…Tuesday, ma’am.”

“Tuesday. Well, I don’t know which day it was on. I’ve been keeping the curtains closed.”

“Very well.”

“Every time I look at the curtains I think about how I don’t know if drawing the curtains means you open them or close them, or both, and if it’s both how do we ever know what we really mean, so I leave them alone. Do you watch Good Morning America?”


“Are you married?”


“Does your wife watch Good Morning America?”


“You’re so certain. You might not know. Wives.” She twisted the phone cord. “Someday will there be cell phones that you call the front desk with? No, because people would take them I guess.”

“They might.”

“I guess you’re more worried that soon they’ll just have iPads or something that you can order room service directly from and then they won’t need people in your position.”

“The thought had occurred to me.”

“You’re very proper. You could also watch a movie or something while you ordered room service if they had iPads. Well, you can do that now, technically, with the TV. I don’t know, I think people will always want the luxury of having actual people wait on them. What do you think?”

“So it’s a salad with walnuts and almonds and cranberries.”

“What is that called? Is that a Waldorf salad? Oh: stop on a dime! Is the Waldorf salad named after THIS HOTEL?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Is what I just described a Waldorf salad? Did I order a Waldorf at the Waldorf without knowing it?”

“Waldorf salads have apples in them.”

“Really? Huh. …I think I want cranberries, though.”

“We can do that, ma’am.”

“Okay, thank you.”

“Will that be all?”

“So do I come down there or do you – ”

“We’ll bring it to you.”

“But, will it be you, or, someone new.”

“Someone new.”

“Cool, cool. Good. Well. Alright then. You hang up first because I’m no good at it.”

He hung up first.

In truth, Gladys Lake, nee Hulce, was very good at the phone. Sometimes too good. Her first real job had been at the Call Center for Bad Shit. Sometimes the Call Center for Bad Shit was listed as the Call Center for BS, which meant that every now and then an elderly Southern gentleman would dial in and waste everyone’s time with a story about raising a tiger, or some nonsense, but that’s not what it was for.

It was through BS that Gladys met John, whose car dialed the number after a particularly bad accident. They fell in love over the phone as John died; luckily he was revived by paramedics.

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John’s nuts made enough money for two so she quit her job in order to focus on being a person, which she considered a full-time gig.

But cranberry salads at the Waldorf don’t grow on trees, so she put on sunglasses and went back to Bad Shit. Bill met with her in his office.

“If you want to come back, you have to sign this agreement.”

Gladys studied the document. “This says I won’t fall in love with any of my callers.”

“Yes. We call it ‘The Gladys.'”

“I’ve always wanted something named after me, but I thought it would be a football play, to be honest. No offense.”


“But I can’t have been the first person to have fallen in love with one of the callers.”

“You can be. You were. You were the first, and the second, and the third…”

She showed no sign of understanding him. Then she said, “I don’t understand you.”

“Gladys, you fell in love with all of your callers. John was just the first one to survive.”

Gladys thought about this. She counted on her fingers.

“Three hundred and eleven,” he said. Jane had transcribed the tapes and prepared a report for him. That bitch Jane.

Gladys stopped counting. She looked Bill in the eye. “You can’t force people to not fall in love. That’s worse than anything I can think of. Even apartheid didn’t do that.”


“It’s like that Tom Cruise movie where they arrest people because they might commit a crime in the future.”

“It’s not like that Tom Cruise movie.”

“Did you ever see All the Right Moves? It came on HBO last night, which I get at the Waldorf-Astoria, where I’m staying.”

“Gladys, I don’t want to get sidetracked on a stroll down marginal pop culture lane.”

“1980s Tom Cruise is never marginal.”

JG2 3

“And as for latter-day Tom Cruise, frankly I like a man who lets his screws go a little loose, so you are just barking up the wrong tree.”

Bill was reading Yahoo answers on his phone. “Apartheid made interracial marriage illegal, actually, so, on all counts it was worse than this.”

“Wow, Bill. Wow. I have to say it’s a little bit of a relief to know I won’t be working for a man who considers marriage and falling in love to be the same thing. And anyway I couldn’t continue living at the Waldorf Astoria on this salary so you take your BS and just keep it in a place that I’m not going to visit.”

She stood up, and took one of Bill’s candies.

“I hope Carla and the kids are doing well though.”

Gladys dialed the extension for guest services.

“How can I help you?”

“I want to speak to the head servicer.”

“This is she.”

“It’s nice to hear you’re a woman.”


“Do you ever get weird requests?”


“Do you always make it work?”


“What if I said I needed an elephant tomorrow?”

“I’d call the circus.”

“What if I said I needed a wild elephant?”

“I’d call Danny Glover and Ray Liotta.”

Gladys started slowly nodding. “Stars of Disney’s 1995 Vietnam comedy classic Operation Dumbo Drop.”

“That’s right.”

“Well played.”


“Are you married? Just curious.”

“What service do you need?”

“I need to be able to stay at the Waldorf for a long time because I like it here including the wide array of non-Waldorf salads but I need to have money to be able to stay here. I can work.”

“What are your skills?”

“My primary one seems to be falling in love.”

There was a silence at the other end of the line. Gladys counted the stripes of the wallpaper, again.

“Have you seen ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’?” the phone asked.

“Oh YEAH of course.”

“What does Richard Gere say when Lou Gossett, Jr. asks him for his D.O.R. and tells him he’s out?”

“That’s too easy.”

“What does he say?”

“Give me a hard one.”

“What does he say?”

“I have to be doing sit-ups and sweating like he is to really get the impression right.”

“What does he SAY goddammit!”


“He then tries to repeat it but the emotion is too much. And Lou Gossett Jr. gets this look on his face like he’s feeling something. You know. That feeling face.”

Silence again.

“Why don’t you come to my office? Ground floor.”

“Should I dress like Debra Winger in her factory girl outfit? Bandana and coveralls?”


A is for Atreus

In the olden times, when wishing still did some good, John Lake had put the toilet seat up to pee, and remembered to put it back down almost all the time. But now, with his wife out of the house, he just let it alone.

Down, that is.


He still stood up to pee; this way he felt like a marksman. Lifting the lid simply required more belief in the purpose of life than he could presently muster. Sometimes, usually in the middle of the night, when he woke and left his empty bed to piss beer every two hours or so, he sat on the john like a lady, and he shivered and tried not to let his eyes adjust to the orange streetlamp spill through the blinds, or let his mind wander too far from the kingdom of untrammeled id.

In this latter-day singledom, he had also taken to growling “Haa! Haaaaa!” quite loudly at times when the noise, the clatter, the self-loathing in his head called for it; but it wasn’t so dramatic as it sounds, and it always caught him by surprise when it happened. As did talking to himself.


On the bus back from the airport, the day after New Year’s, John sat behind a young woman with fragile features who at first glance appeared to be the most beautiful person he had ever seen. Occasionally she would turn so that the bus lighting hit her in a way to highlight a bump or two on her skin, and this alone, he felt, made the last few days easier to bear.

Before this, leaving the plane, John had run into someone he hadn’t seen since high school, and that someone’s husband. Before that, he had gone to Alaska, by himself. Before those, he had woken up one morning to find he was forty-seven years old, which is funny because John was twenty-six at the time.

On the bus hormones ran high. The run-in with the high school somebody had triggered in him the instinct that makes us believe everyone who hasn’t seen us misses us, everyone who let us get away stews over it, and everyone who comes within six feet of us finds us sexy and fascinating. This instinct somehow manages to coexist with the one that makes us believe we are disgusting, snot-ridden self-obsessed hobgoblins who should be placed in a burlap sack and forgotten forever.

“Honey, where did you put that burlap sack?”

“The one with John in it?”

“That one.”

“I can’t possibly remember.”

“It’s just as well.”

And then they make love on the floor while reciting Rimbaud and expanding the parameters of algebra, these two more-interesting phantoms who reside in our minds.

But the young woman sitting in front of him was texting someone. John didn’t have his glasses on so he squinted to see if it was “Mom” she was texting or a man’s name.


Damn, he thought. In his mind he was always briefly married to every sexual object he saw.

But maybe Alex had let her down. Maybe he had failed to pick her up at the airport and is explaining that he did it because he no longer loves her.

Now openly staring, John could see it was in fact a text bus-girl herself had sent. It was about how the bus driver, running late, had let everybody on without paying, which was true.

Bus-girl had felt the urge to move her thumbs back and forth to send that message across the ether, where it would be received, and registered as a thing that had happened, in that vast catalog of textable things that happen like the death of Maggie Thatcher and the weather tomorrow. Maybe it isn’t real, John thought, until she tells someone.

Her coat was, What is that? Wool? Is that wool? John didn’t know fabrics. And the design: little Vs, inverted, but not quite, he realized, looking closer, because the two sides of the V didn’t match up. John didn’t know designs, either. All he knew was that It looked like a rug from his mother’s house but with fewer colors. Why he had just referred to it, in his mind, as his mother’s house, when it was the house of both of his parents, was just one more thing he did not know.

“We’re waiting to catch our connection, having our dinner at the” chain restaurant “over there but when I saw you I put down my water glass like this” demonstration “and my husband said what? And I said, John Lake is what.”

John moved his face into the pleased and interested smile and worked on keeping it away from the overly interested and salacious smiles which just sometimes snuck up on him.

“You look exactly the same,” high school someone said to him.

John looked down. “You don’t think I look forty-seven?”

She laughed. “Oh John! Still the same!”

JG2 1

One morning after Gladys left, it was a Tuesday, John woke up and saw, in the mirror, that overnight his hair had assumed male pattern baldness, and he had a beer belly and love handles and a healthy crop of backhair. His eyes didn’t work as well and it took him longer to pee and although he double-checked his birthday on his driver’s license, even his balls felt middle-aged.

He left his shirt untucked and the top button of his pants undone as he could not fit into them otherwise and he made his way to his job, where he worked in genetical engineering to make the nuts inside shells imperceptibly smaller and smaller, to save the nut companies money. But instead of going to the lab he first went to see Bill.

“Hey, John,” Bill said in his avuncular way. “What’s up?”

John looked down at himself. He looked back at Bill. Bill smiled, waiting. John was known as the funny one so everyone always had this half-smile when he was around, waiting for the next big laugh.

“Do I…look…strange to you?”

“Did you lose weight?” Bill asked. This is something safe to ask whenever anyone brought up their appearance: Bill learned this at HR training.

“I’m FAT. I got fat overnight. And bald. And…” but John stopped short of describing his balls.

“John, are you tired?”

“I don’t look completely different to you than I did yesterday?”

“Your shirt’s untucked.”

John lifted his shirt to show off his belly. “I know!”

“Have a seat, John.”

John had a seat. Bill steepled his fingers. “You know John, there comes a point, there may come several points, when a man wakes up and doesn’t know who he is. It may happen every morning of your life, actually, until you die. And this is why we have clothes. And this is why we have coffee. And this is why we have traffic. Because these things remind us of who we are. Also deadlines. Which you have.”

“But I’m fat.”

“Do you feel bloated? Is that it? Did you tie one on last night?”

John thought back to last night. “I had some beers.”


“Well I, I checked out that thing Mike and Jerry have been talking about, that thing where you can watch movies and stuff on your computer.”

“Netflix, John.”

“Yeah, so I watched that.”

“What did you watch?”


“But what did you watch on Netflix?”

“I watched the whole thing.”

“You watched all of Netflix?”

“I’m pretty sure I did. Yeah.”

“But it isn’t possible to watch all of Netflix in one night. I’m not sure it’s possible to do it in one life.”

John thought about this, and nodded slowly. “Well,” he hoisted his fat self out of the chair, “I better get some coffee.”

Mike and Jerry didn’t notice anything different about John, but they suggested he take some time off.

“Gladys and I have New Year’s plans in Alaska,” John said.

Mike and Jerry looked at each other. They weren’t sure yet how to deal with the Gladys thing.

“Are you going to meet her there? That could be really great, John,” said Mike, who was always the more daring half of Mike and Jerry.

“Like a romantic, rekindle the flames thing,” Jerry said.

“Hot cocoa.”

“Yeah! Hot cocoa!”

“I don’t think she’s going to meet me there,” John said.

“Wow! How was it?” the high school somebody asked, upon learning that John was coming back from Alaska.

“Cold,” John said.

HSS and her husband laughed. They waited for more. More was not coming.

“Well we’re coming back from Indianapolis. You know I have family there.”


“And one year, was it sophomore year?”

“I was a sophomore, you were a junior,” husband said.

“Color me cougar!” Everyone laughed like little flipbook characters.

“We went on a date right before winter break that year, right at the end of the semester. And it was So Good! But then we were going to be away for a month, except This One over here” she fake choked him “couldn’t keep away so he booked a last minute flight and surprised me in Indy for New Year’s. We had our first kiss at midnight and haven’t stopped since.”

“We’re kissing at this very moment,” husband said. “Only internally.”

“That’s right; we figured out a way to do it constantly, like praying.”

They closed their eyes for just a moment. Then came back.

“Anyway this year we decided to recreate the trip.”

“Only now we took it together of course!”

“And are you pregnant?” John asked.

A bit of a stun. Then a laugh.

“No, no! I’m a working girl!”


“But you know when you’re going to get pregnant.”

HHS’s lips curled in a tight smile. “No…?” she said, waiting for the joke.

“But that’s what people do. They get together and they make a plan as to when they will get married and then they make a plan as to when they will have a child based on savings and job security.”

“I guess some people do that,” she nodded, after a moment. She and her husband sent little married code to each other, trying to figure out how to neutralize and/or terminate the situation.

HSS nodded in the direction of John’s wedding ring. “Is this your way of telling me you’re pregnant, John?”

“My wife is pregnant.”

“That’s wonderful!”


“Thank you. I don’t know where she is, but wherever she is, she’s pregnant. I wanted her to get rid of it, but she wouldn’t. And now she’s somewhere that isn’t this airport and isn’t our house and isn’t Alaska.”

More code.

“Oh, John, I’m, so, sorry to hear all of that.”

“What do you do?” John said.

“I know, right? What do you do?”

“I mean what do you do, as a job.”

“Oh!” Laugh. “I’m, well, I’m actually an editor for Wife magazine.”


“I wouldn’t think you’ve heard of it. You’re not really our target demographic!”

This hung in the air unpleasantly for a second. HSS swallowed.



“Do you have benefits? And a retirement plan?”

“I do.”

John nodded. “Me too,” he said. “Me too.”

When he got home he heard Paloma Palumbo clomping around upstairs. Her name wasn’t really Paloma Palumbo. Really her last name was Palomba; John knew this because of the mail. But one day the landlady, a colorful character who liked John and hated Palomba for mysterious, internecine reasons, had been talking to John, mostly about her addiction to Game of Thrones, when upstairs they head the clomping. “Paloma, Palumbo, whatever her name is,” the landlady said, “it sounds like Hitler’s invading Poland up there.”

Indeed she had a heavy footfall. It bothered Gladys less than it bothered John. John tried to accept it by believing this was the only way Paloma Palumbo, who was quite old, judging by her mail, could really believe she was still here, by pressing herself into the floor and feeling it, sturdy, sending a message right back up her spine into her brain: alive, alive, alive.

The Lakes had never actually seen her, as she never went out, but they believed she might look like this:

JG2 2

So that night she clomped around and there was no one to kiss John’s ear and tell him not to worry about it and the dry hot air from the heat was stifling but the landlord controlled the thermostat so John opened one of his windows and let in the January wind.

He thought of how he had once sat naked on a bed and played his ukulele, shyly singing Cat Stevens to a girl with long long hair.

But it was not that kind of wind he felt now. Now it was the kind of wind, he knew, that a man can be easily left with, his sole inheritance.

Strange, then, that in the midst of this howl he could hear, unseasonably, a frog. Strange too that he stepped out of his house to investigate, for it was well known that John did not care for animals. Maybe it was kinship he felt with the half-frozen amphib he found under his window. The frog looked not at him but to the past and the future, croaking and croaking.

John picked the thing up; it couldn’t have hopped away if it had wanted to. He was no slouch for fairytales, John Lake, though he preferred the unexpurgated kind and knew, therefore, that originally it was not kissing the frog that caused it to transform into a prince, but throwing it against a wall. So he obliged.

The frog exploded on the mint green siding.

John stood there a moment, then went back inside. He hadn’t shivered once, but they came when he felt the heat.

The trouble, he reflected, is I’m just not sure what I’m wishing yet.