Mrs. Shakespeare

SH-masksYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Please share these with your friends, co-workers, and all the family members you like best. I understand they go great with morning coffee.

This week, we find Faye Bennett back in school taking an unexpected class in improvisation. The problem is, Faye likes her life a little more ordered.



Faye Bennett did not like masks. It unnerved her when she couldn’t see the ripple of emotions across a face.

Suffice it to say, Halloween was not her favorite holiday, and as for acting and drama classes, well they came in dead last in any competition with any other subject.

So why was she sitting cross-legged on a mat in the high school gym on the first day of school facing a teacher whose last name, don’t laugh, was Shakespeare?

As in Beverly Shakespeare.

Because if there’s anything guaranteed to make Faye Bennett do something she does not want to do, it’s a dare. And this dare had come from her older brother, Wil, which made it especially potent.

“Look Faye, Intro to Improv fulfills one of your humanities requirements, you’ll learn more than you think possible, and Mrs. Shakespeare is really fun,” Wil had said as he watched his sister puzzling over her schedule for the coming fall.

“Nope, no thanks.” Faye picked up the list of optional choices, and scanned it once more, hoping to find some acceptable humanity for her third period slot. But as a budding historian and a (secretly) wannabe writer, she couldn’t find anything she hadn’t already taken.

Except Intro to Improv.

“Why don’t you want to take that class?” Wil asked as he sprawled across their kitchen table in order to watch his sister’s face with greater ease. Wil thought it an important brotherly duty to make her squirm from time to time.

Faye rolled her eyes at him. “It’s hardly useful, is it, learning to be silly in front of a bunch of other people. I’ll just end up feeling stupid.”

“Look, Mrs. Shakespeare…”

“Did she make up that name?” Faye interrupted him. “Or did she decide to go into theater to take advantage of it.”

Wil shrugged. “Does it matter? She’s really cool. Are you afraid you won’t get an A?” Wil asked.

“Hmph, as if.” Faye scooped up her scheduling paperwork. “I just don’t want to waste my time on frivolous stuff like ‘Intro to Improv.’ I’m surprised the school even puts it on the schedule.”

Wil leaned back in his chair. “So you are afraid of not getting an A. Man, wouldn’t that just ruin your report card?”

Faye stormed off toward her bedroom, unwilling to let Wil see the tears in her eyes that his truth-telling had prompted. She slammed the door behind her, and wedged a chair under the knob to keep him out.

Wil tilted his head so he could watch the minute hand spin around the kitchen clock, counting one, two, three. Then he stood up, and quietly padded down the hall until he stood outside Faye’s door. He’d expected to get a rise out her. Otherwise his teasing would have been a waste of time. But her vehement reaction troubled him a little.

He remembered how anxious he’d been in his first Improv class, how he avoided looking at anyone else as they settled on their circled mats in the gym. But his nerves disappeared as soon as Mrs. Shakespeare asked her first question: “Okay, how many of you are cringing inside because you don’t want to make fools of yourselves in front of one another?”

Heads snapped up, and then a few hesitant hands rose in the air.

“Okay. How many of you have known one another for more than a year?”

Lots more hands went up. In fact, Brian Lambert’s hand was the only not raised because he was the newest kid in school at that moment in time.

“So of all you sitting in this circle, the only one who should be nervous is Brian because he hasn’t known any of you for very long.” Beverly then pointed at Wil and Brian. “I see you two walking together in the hallways quite a bit. Would it be correct to say you’re friends?”

The two boys nodded. “Yeah. Totally.”

Beverly looked around, and then said: “Here’s the thing that’s really bothering you—the word no. You all walked in here just like every other class that’s ever walked in here carrying the word no in your heads. No I can’t do this. No I don’t want to look like a fool. No, no, no, no.”

She indicated that she wanted Brian and Wil to stand. “The key to improv is in these simple words—yes and then what. Let me demonstrate.”

She held her hands up, palms facing each other about nine inches apart, and cupped them. “I am holding a basketball.”

Then she moved her hands in and out a couple of times. “Hmm, seems to be soft. What do you think Brian?”

She handed him her “basketball” and Brian took it, moving his hands in and out. “Yeah, I think it could use some air.” He stopped moving, and looked at Mrs. Shakespeare. “Now what?”

She grinned. “You’ve got a basketball that needs air. I know you’re on the school’s team so what do you do with a deflated ball?”

Brian shrugged a little but then turned to Wil. “Hey man, can you hold this while I go get the air pump?”

Wil took the ball, saying “okay” in two long, doubt-filled syllables as he looked at the teacher for clues about what to do next.

She grinned, and said: “Yes and then what?”

With a twist of his face, Wil pushed his hands together as he held the “ball” up to his ear. “I think it’s got a leak.”

Brian leaned in close to listen, and Mrs. Shakespeare let her eyes slide quickly around the room to note that all of her students were now attentive, waiting to see what would happen next.

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Brian said. “Who’s got the keys to the supply locker so we can get another one?”

A girl named Patty stood up at the back of the class. “I do but let’s see if we can fix this one first. Anyone got a patch kit?”

Wil grinned as he stood outside his sister’s door as he remembered that first class, and how much they had laughed as they tried to fix the deflated “basketball,” creating more and more ludicrous scenarios. He didn’t want Faye to miss it. She could be so rigid sometimes, and he didn’t want her to pass up the chance to learn “the power of yes,” as Mrs. Shakespeare called it.

He knocked softly. “Hey Faye, why don’t you give it a try even if it’s to prove me wrong. If it doesn’t work out, you can drop it and take some other class. They’re always looking for people to fill the seats in physics.”

Wood Warms You…Once?

SH-autumnal windYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories will speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Please share these with your friends, co-workers, and all the family members you like best. I understand they go great with morning coffee.

This week, there’s no escaping the change from summer to fall. Folks are getting ready.



Edie Wolfe’s cocker spaniel, Nearly, was the first to sense the change. He was particularly well-placed to do so from his perch at the top of the steps on his human’s back porch.

As he stretched out on his favored side, he began his morning survey in his characteristically casual fashion, moving his gaze slowly from right to left. The chipmunks, wise to the spaniel’s ways, made sure to keep their seed gathering out of his sight behind the wood pile. Otherwise, they’d have to play tag with the dog all morning, and never get anything done.

Now dogs, being built much closer to the ground than their humans and having nothing like books or meetings or exercise classes to distract them, are particularly in tune with the details of life, stuff that the rest of us never notice. Nearly was an especially attentive canine so he noticed the sun and its location vis a vis his preferred spot on the back porch.

For weeks, the sun had been his constant companion during this ritual, warming the mat where he liked to lay, and seeping down through his fur to the skin beneath. At this time of the morning, even when the weather promised to be too hot by noon, the sun was welcomed as an old friend.

But today, instead of lighting up Nearly’s space, the sun angled up the steps at a sharper degree, and the dog had to readjust his position to accommodate it. He sighed with resignation mixed with hopefulness because winter meant evenings by the wood stove sharing popcorn with his human.

Nearly loved popcorn.

Across town, Charlie Cooper was out in the garden with his partner, Agnes Findley, excavating the waist-high (and now bitter) last of the Romaine lettuces and exhausted beans from the soil. He could still smell the basil on his hands from yesterday’s marathon pesto-making session, and the thought of the pizzas to come made him smile as he wheeled over to the compost pile to make a deposit.

Agnes was grumbling, as she always did in the garden (she considered weeds one of nature’s offensive weapons like mosquitos and stinging nettle) as she tugged stray stalks of goldenrod out of her beds.

“I wish this stuff wasn’t quite so successful,” she told Charlie as she did every year. “I love its color and it doesn’t fall over like so many other tall plants. But if it goes to seed, it will take over, and I’ll never get it out of the garden.”

In the center of town at Cooper’s General Store and Emporium, Andy Cooper was checking in the morning’s produce deliveries when Lee Tennyson’s largest dump truck arrived, its tires a lot less than round because of the load of firewood he was hauling. Andy sighed, and shook his head.

“It can’t be that time again already,” he called.

“I know, I know,” Lee said as he pulled on his work gloves. “Is the bulkhead locked from the inside?”

“Nope, I felt the wind change yesterday afternoon, and figured you’d show up today so I unlocked it earlier. Just give me a minute to finish up here, and I’ll give you a hand with the slide,” he said.

The conventional philosophy about heating with wood—that it warms you twice—is not commonly accepted among folks who actually heat with wood, especially not by Andy Cooper. By his calculations, wood has at least six opportunities to warm you on its way from tree to furnace.

1. Cutting the felled trees into log lengths.

2. Splitting the lengths into firewood.

3. Stacking the logs to dry for at least a year.

4. Moving the dried logs inside so they’re accessible during the winter.

5. Stacking those same logs so they don’t take up so much space.

6. Stoking the wood stove.

When he was a younger man, Andy was involved with all six steps, helping his father and brother fell trees then cut, split, and stack the beech, oak, ash, and maple they needed to get through a Vermont winter. Even now, when asked, he refused to calculate how many cords of wood he’d handled in his lifetime because the total was staggering.

And because of that early experience, Andy has spent some time figuring out how to pare his wood-warming list down from six to one.

He took care of the first three by paying Lee Tennyson for the cords of dry, cut and split wood needed to heat the Coop for the cold months of the year.

In the spirit of eliminating number four, Andy enlisted Lee’s help in constructing an oversized slide out of three-quarter inch plywood and 2 x 6 lumber. The result is so rugged, it easily bears the weight of Lee’s wood deliveries as they hurtle from his truck into the Coop’s basement.

Eliminating number five took a while to perfect but in the end, it was a remarkably easy change that has the extra-added bonus of serving two purposes simultaneously.

After Lee brings his wood delivery to the Coop, Andy hires a team of high schoolers expressly for the purpose of neatly stacking the logs in the store’s basement. Not only is this a boon to Andy’s back, it gives him the chance to audition potential new hires because, in his words, “some kids work and some kids don’t.”

Which now leaves Andy with only number six on the list of ways wood warms you—stoking the enormous wood furnace that heats the Coop and its customers.

“Sorry that I had to raise my price per cord this year,” Lee said as Andy handed him a check.

But the older man just grinned. When wood warms you only once, it’s well worth the price.

Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.