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Heart With Joy

In Heart With Joy, fifteen year old Julian Hale’s life is turned upside down when his mother suddenly moves from North Carolina to Florida under the pretense of running her parents’ motel and finishing the novel she has been working on for years. While Julian has always been closer to his mother and wants to go with her, she tells him he has to stay with his father until the end of the school year.

Six weeks after his mother leaves, Julian’s father decides to run a marathon. This surprises Julian because he has never seen his father exercise, but once he agrees to help him train the two develop the sort of close relationship they’ve never had before. Also, with the help of an elderly neighbor, Julian learns that the most important thing in life is to follow your heart. And Julian’s heart leads him to a passion for cooking and a young cashier at the local grocery store even as his parents drift apart. By the end of the novel, Julian is forced to choose between staying with his father and going to live with his mother.

Heart With Joy is an uplifting coming of age novel about cooking and bird watching, about writing and pottery, and about falling in love and the sacrifices we all make. But ultimately, it’s about following your heart and trusting that it will take you where you need to go.

Heart With Joy (an excerpt)

The year I turned fifteen two things happened that took me by complete surprise: my mother moved out and my father decided to run a marathon. My mother left first. In the middle of February, I came home from school and found her packing two suitcases: one with clothes, the other with her old typewriter and drafts of the novel she’d been working on for the last four years. She told me she was moving to Venice, Florida to help run her parents’ 9-room motel and finally finish her novel.

Of course, I wanted to go with her, but she said she wouldn’t be gone too long, that she was only staying down there until her father was able to hire a new manager, and I should finish the school year here in North Carolina. Maybe if she was still living in Florida when school got out I could spend the summer with her.

Part of me wanted to believe she moved down there because of the reasons she had said. But the other part of me, the part I tried not to listen to, knew this was a separation of sorts between my parents. While I had never seen them fighting or yelling at each other, which is how I thought married people with problems acted, I rarely saw them do much together in the months and years before she left.

Six weeks after she left, my father came home from work one Monday night, and without a word to me, changed out of his light blue nurse’s scrubs into sweat pants and a long sleeve T-shirt, stretched for five minutes on the front porch steps, then ran out of our yard.

It occurred to me as he rounded the corner, and I lost sight of him, that he might not come back at all. And I thought if he didn’t come back Mom would be forced to either return home or let me live with her in Florida.

But that first night, he did make it home in about thirty minutes. He stood out on the porch, hands on hips, covered in sweat, breathing like a man taking his last few breaths. When he came inside, he poured himself a tall glass of tap water and drank it all down in one mouthful. “I needed that,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he meant the exercise or the water.

For dinner I had made meatloaf and corn. I didn’t think my cooking was anything special, but it was food, sustenance, and he never complained about it. The first few weeks after she left, my father would bring home pizza or maybe a box of chicken from KFC. He’d even forgotten about dinner a couple times.

When this happened, I would knock on his bedroom door and ask, “Dad, what’s for dinner?” There would be a long silence, then he’d say, “I could go get something.” I would tell him not to bother and head to the kitchen and make grilled cheese sandwiches or hot dogs or hamburgers again.

That may sound like some teenagers idea of a perfect meal, but I missed my mother’s nightly servings of vegetables and chicken or fish. Mom had always been the one who cooked in our house, and I usually helped her. She loved to drink wine and listen to music, especially Van Morrison, and dance around the kitchen when she cooked. She’d showed me everything I knew about cooking, the important parts of any recipe and how certain things you could leave out. She told me to never cook chicken on high, but to always cook steak on high. That it was okay to cover chicken with tin foil, but if you covered steak it would turn grey and rubbery.

So once it became clear that my father would not be taking over the nightly cooking chores, I went in the cabinet, pulled down Mom’s old cookbooks, her little box of recipes, and started cooking for my father and me, more out of necessity than anything else.

As my father and I sat at the table, after his first night of running, he picked at the meatloaf I’d made and said, “Julian, I’d like to run a marathon.” His face was still pink and his dark hair was wet in spots. My first thought was that he might hurt himself.

“A marathon?”

“Twenty six miles.”

I knew how many miles a marathon was, but in my opinion, he had no right to think he could do such a thing. It wasn’t that he was incredibly out of shape, or fat, but he was soft and looked nothing like the men I’d seen out jogging through our neighborhood. The closest thing I’d seen him do to exercise in the last few years was mow the yard.

“There’s one in six months, over in Charlotte. I think I can do it. It’ll be a lot of work.” He rolled a forkful of meatloaf around in his ketchup. “I’ve got to do this.” His eyes were bright, brighter than I had seen them in a long time.

He ate the rest of the meal quick, like a man starved, then walked back to his room. His nightly routine, since Mom left, was to take a shower as soon as he got home from work, then eat a silent dinner with me before disappearing behind his bedroom door, listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” CD until he fell asleep.

Alone in the kitchen, I realized that was the longest conversations we’d had since our big fight two weeks earlier. I can’t say why I picked that particular morning to confront him about her leaving since she’d already been gone a month. But as I listened to the shower running, for some reason I grew angrier and knew I had to find out what was going on. When I’d asked before, all he’d said was to ask her, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with that this time.

I had always been much closer to Mom. I spent most of my time with her, cooking or walking or talking. She liked to talk about her novel and I liked to listen to her, particularly after she’d been drinking and the words seemed to slide out of her mouth, her soft southern accent rising to the surface. Dad worked fifty to sixty hours a week so Mom could stay home and work on her writing and be there for me when I got home from school.

As far as I was considered, if there was someone to blame for her leaving it had to be my father. By the time he made it home from work he’d be so exhausted that he never did anything with us. And it always seemed to me that he was somewhere on the periphery of our family life instead of in the middle of it.

The morning of our fight he walked out of the bathroom with the towel wrapped around his waist and seemed shocked to see me standing there in the hall. “Morning,” he said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“With you and Mom. And I don’t want to hear anything about a stupid motel.”

“Julian, I don’t want to talk about this now. I’ve got to get to work.”

“You always have to go to work. That’s the problem. That’s why she left.”

His eyes narrowed on me and for a moment I thought he might hit me, though I couldn’t remember him ever hitting me before. “Did she tell you that?”

“No. She didn’t have to. I’m not stupid. We never did anything together as a family,” I said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Be honest with me. Admit it’s your fault.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You don’t know the half of it. If you want to believe it’s my fault she left, then fine believe that.” He shook his head and walked in his room to get dressed for work.

I went outside, shaking with anger. I paced back and forth in the backyard, barefoot in the cold, trying to calm down. When I finally heard his truck pull out of the driveway, I went back inside and grabbed the first thing of his I saw. On the mantel, in our living room, was an empty ceramic pot, about a foot tall. It was white, wide at the bottom, but it tapered toward the top where there were painted purple and yellow flowers. And about half-way up there were a pair of blue lines, like racing stripes, circling the pot.

This piece of pottery had been in the center of our living room for as long as I could remember and I’d been told more than once by my mother not to touch it, that it was my father’s. But at that moment, what I wanted was to destroy something of his, to make him feel as bad as I did, so I lifted the pot high above my head and threw it at the wall. It shattered. I didn’t bother cleaning it up before I went to school.

When I returned home that afternoon, I swept all the pieces into a dustpan and threw them in the garbage. My father didn’t seem to notice the pot was missing because he didn’t mention it, or the fight and my accusations of blame, and neither did I.

The morning after my father announced his plans to run a marathon, I was sitting out on my back porch, eating a bowl of Corn Flakes. I liked to sit out there all alone, in the mornings, particularly as it was the beginning of April and in the fifties, cool enough but not freezing.

“Hey, young man.”

The voice, a woman’s, came from my right. My first thought was that it might be something on TV, but neither my father nor I watched TV in the mornings and he’d been gone for almost an hour already. He usually left for work by six. Then I heard the voice again. It was definitely coming from my neighbor’s backyard.

Old Lady Peters lived in the two-story white house and the fence between our yards was so overgrown with tall shrubs that I couldn’t see anything over there except for the tops of trees and her porch’s roof. I rarely saw her outside and the only time I had ever stood face to face with the woman was the day she ran over my right leg, back when I was ten years old.

Again, “Young man, I could use a little help here.”

It had to be her. I wanted to open the sliding glass door and step inside and pretend I hadn’t heard her but knew I couldn’t. Maybe she’d fallen and was injured. Mr. Taylor, my social studies teacher, was always talking about the importance of making the right choice in moral decisions, and here I was faced with one. I wished my father was still home, so he could go and check on her, but of course he wasn’t.

I cleared my throat and started down the steps. Her yard was surrounded by a six-foot, wooden fence and her shrubs extended a couple feet higher. My heart beat fast as I walked to her gate between our two houses. What did she want with me? I lifted the handle and took a deep breath.

It was amazing how easy it was to gain access to this backyard. I’d walked by it thousands of times and had never seriously considered entering. After she ran over my leg, my parents told me not to ever step in her yard again. Not that I had had any desire to go in some old lady’s backyard. What could she possibly have that would interest me? Last year, I accidentally threw a Frisbee over the fence but didn’t bother going after it. The next day, I found the Frisbee in the middle of my backyard.

Once inside, the shrubs that covered her fence were to my left. A mulch trail bordered the shrubs, surrounding the entire yard. To my right, I could see a bricked patio with a wooden table in the middle of it, a flowering dogwood towering above the patio and the screened-in back porch. I took a couple tentative steps forward, then heard a loud meow and looked down.

Old Lady Peters’ cat was black except for one patch of white fur on his underbelly. I was about to reach down and pet the cat when it stepped up and tried to bite my shoes. I jumped back and the cat started walking toward the patio.

When I turned to the patio, I saw a butt in overalls pointing straight up in the air, the pink soles from a pair of old tennis shoes facing me. There was a lot of dirt on the bottom of the shoes. It had to be Old Lady Peters with her head and arms reaching into the house’s crawl space. Maybe she was stuck and needed me to pull her out. It still seemed possible she might not know I was standing ten yards behind her, and I could make a run for it. She said, “You going to stand there or help?”

I walked over to her and fell to my knees. She crawled out of the space, leaving me a hole. “Just reach in there,” she said. “See if you can grab it.”

It? What exactly was it? I slid down into the cool dirt that surrounded the house. Was it another cat? A snake? Spider? With no clue what I was looking for, I reached in deep, felt my hand brush something furry, but it moved. It wasn’t big enough to be a cat, more the size of a hamster. Pulling my hand back slightly, I felt the motion of fur again, and then it bit down on the tip of my index finger. “Ouch,” I said, pulling my hand out, expecting to see blood, but instead there was only a tiny indention at the tip of my finger.

Old Lady Peters was sitting, less than a foot away, on her knees. Under the overalls, she had a long sleeve white shirt and a bandana around her neck. She also had on a light blue windbreaker. Lying on the ground, beside her, was a big round brown hat. Her white hair was a mess, standing up in a bun that had gone awry. Her face was so pale that the blue veins under the surface were traceable against her flesh.

There had been much speculation about her age by neighborhood kids, speculation I had participated in. My closest friend at the time, Dennis Kindl, said he thought she was well over one hundred, but this close to her I would say her face’s frail features and clear eyes made me guess she hadn’t quite reached ninety. Not that I was any sort of expert at guessing the age of old people.

“Well?” she asked, setting the hat on her head. “What are you waiting for?”

As I reached in again, the furry thing bit me. This time I held on and pulled it out. It was a small brown bird, a sparrow, and no heavier than a store-bought egg. There were thin black lines along its head. It wasn’t really biting me but just opening and closing its mouth on my finger as if it was food and the bird was hungry.

“A house sparrow,” she said. “I put a bell on that cat’s collar and he still gets a couple birds a week.” She took the bird from me and curled it in her hands. A few feathers stuck to my palm.

Without saying anything else, she turned and headed up the steps that led to her screened-in back porch and disappeared inside. I stood up, not quite sure what to do. The cat walked between my ankles, purring loudly, the silver bell around his neck.

Turning away from the house, I saw what those shrubs had always hidden from me: her backyard. The yard itself wasn’t fancy, just a square of grass split in half by a brick path. On each side of the path was a birdfeeder and birdbath. Toward the back of the yard was a couple of tall leaf-less bushes with a bench between them. And there were those tall shrubs surrounding the whole yard, as if some sort of natural fencing from the outside world.

I stood there, not sure what to do, half-expecting her to come out and say something to me. After a couple minutes, when she didn’t re-appear, I headed back out her gate, escorted by the cat, to finish getting ready for school.

I wasn’t good at sports, didn’t belong to any clubs or participate in any extracurricular activities, so school was just something I did for eight hours like a job I didn’t get paid for. I didn’t get picked on because I looked average enough: 5’9 about 150 with brown hair and brown eyes. I didn’t have acne, wear glasses, or walk with a limp, so I had none of the usual disadvantages that a high school bully might hone in on.

Since Mom left, I usually spent half the school day, while my teachers rambled on at the front of the class, thinking about whether or not she was coming home, and how if she didn’t, I was looking forward to spending the summer with her in Florida. And although it was something I never mentioned to either of my parents, how I planned to move to Florida and live with her for good if it turned out she wasn’t coming back.

Most of this day had been spent thinking about what happened
earlier with Old Lady Peters. What I knew about her was that she lived alone. Her son came by every Sunday morning and they climbed in her old black car and left for a couple hours. He always drove. When they returned, he carried her groceries inside and set her garbage cans by the road. On Monday nights, he would stop by and put the garbage cans away. In the summer months, he mowed her yard on Sunday afternoons after their outings.

Her son was tall and thin. I never saw him in a pair of shorts, even in the middle of the summer, pushing the mower around. I can’t say I ever saw him smile either. He drove a grey Lexus and whenever I spotted him on Monday evenings he always wore a suit.

On the day Old Lady Peters ran over my leg, Dennis and I were playing catch. I stood on the edge of her yard while he stood under the Oak tree in my front yard, throwing an old baseball back and forth. After a few minutes, Dennis threw the ball over my head and it rolled into Old Lady Peters’ driveway, under her car. Her driveway was not paved like all the others in the neighborhood but lined with multi-colored stones. The stones were about the size of a quarter, beautiful and dusty—there were yellows, oranges, blues, pinks, greens, reds—and every other color you could imagine.

As I headed toward her driveway, I cursed Dennis and wanted him to come and get the ball himself. I wondered what I always did about the stones: where did they come from? Neither Dennis nor I knew the answer, but believed they must come from somewhere far away, maybe Florida or Hawaii, some place where they had palm trees. It didn’t seem possible they could be from North Carolina and especially not from Greensboro, which was one of those quiet towns people said was good for starting a family. But when you were a teenager, a quiet town basically meant there wasn’t much for you to do.

Back then, sometimes on Sunday mornings when Old Lady Peters was at the grocery store, we would take some of the stones and throw them into Dennis’ pool and then dive under water, collecting as many as possible before coming up for air. That summer, Dennis had the record—sixteen.

The stones dug into the back of my legs as I crawled under her car. The undercarriage was covered in grease and dirt and what looked like clay from a baseball field. I wondered how Old Lady Peters got baseball clay all over the bottom of her car and tried to picture her spinning donuts in our little league field. When I turned back to Dennis again, wanting to call out and have him come over and see the clay, he was staring up at something in the Oak tree.

I couldn’t reach the ball, so I kicked it out the other side. Then I heard a loud strange sound, sort of like a train. It was the car starting above me. I crawled out as fast as I could and had almost made it when the front wheel on the passenger side rolled over my right leg, just above the ankle. After I screamed, the car stopped and everything grew quiet. Dennis threw his glove down and started running toward me. But here’s the strange thing: my leg didn’t hurt at all. It had been buried into the stones, into a crevice that had somehow opened up in the ground.

When I looked up, Old Lady Peters stood above me. She wore a red dress with white spots and was pointing her finger at me. She shook her head and said, “Young man, what are you doing under my car?”

I stood up, pushed past Dennis and Old Lady Peters, and ran home to my mother who was sitting out on the back porch, typing away on her old typewriter, a cigarette between her lips, an ashtray full of butts next to the typewriter. She drove me to the Emergency Room for X-rays. There was nothing broken, only a slight bruise on my calf that lasted a couple days.

The following weekend, my father and Old Lady Peters’ son stood out in her front yard and had a brief conversation, which ended with the two of them shaking hands. It was after this conversation that my parents told me not to ever go in her yard or talk to her again.

I walked up my driveway, after school, cool and comfortable, and passed by Old Lady Peters’ gate. For some reason I couldn’t yet explain, I wanted to reach for it, to go inside again. As if she’d been waiting for me, she said, “The bird didn’t make it.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t see her. It was as if the fence and shrubs were talking to me. I wondered if she was still wearing her hat and overalls.

“That’s the fifth one he’s killed this year.”

“Why?” I asked.

“He’s a cat. It’s what he does. Instinct. I wish he wouldn’t kill them, but we all have to die when it’s our time. Nobody can stop that, not you or me.”

I leaned toward the shrubs, waiting for her to say something else. But after five minutes of standing there, and it pretty clear she wasn’t going to, I shook my head and went inside to watch a little Food Network before getting started on dinner.

I was cutting carrots into finger-sized sticks when my father walked in the front door from his second night of running. “What’s on the menu?”

“Orange-glazed chicken and carrots,” I said.

“Sounds good, orange poop in the morning,” he said, laughing and heading for the shower. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard him laugh.

I flipped the chicken. The first side had seared up nice. I stirred the orange glaze sauce in another pan. I planned to drizzle the sauce over the chicken. The broccoli was ready to go in a pot for a quick boil.

For me the greatest challenge of cooking was when you had three or four different things going at once and you had to work it so they were all ready at the same time. My mother always made it look easy, the way she sort of fluttered around the room, moving a pan this way or that, sipping on her wine glass, Van Morrison singing about some poor lost soul in a faraway land. And working with my mother, I discovered that I actually liked to cook, the challenge of reading over a recipe, placing all the ingredients on the counter and turning it into a complete meal. Not that I would confess this to anyone but her. If Dennis, or any of my classmates knew, I was pretty sure they’d give me a hard time about it.

As the sauce simmered, I placed the broccoli on the stove and walked out onto the back porch. I looked over at Old Lady Peters’ yard as sparrows flew in and out of her shrubs. Why was she so concerned about birds? They were everywhere.

When I heard the shower stop, I headed back inside and poured the sauce over the chicken, let it sizzle and pop for a few seconds and then set the chicken breasts on our plates and sprinkled some parsley over them.

“Damn,” Dad said, as he sat down at the table. “I’m going to have to start paying you for meals like this.”

For some reason, he was trying to be Mr. Funny tonight. “Have a good run?”

He shook his head. “Got a long way to go. How was school?”

“Fine. Work?”

Dad shrugged. He didn’t normally talk about work. Mom had told me not to ask him about it. She said it took a lot out of him, all those sick people.

“It was okay except for this one patient of mine, Mr. Parker. He kept peeing in his garbage can today.”


“When people get old, their mind starts to go. Some people get senile. At least he didn’t pee on the floor.”

“Do you think that’s what’s wrong with the lady next door?”

“Mrs. Peters?”

I nodded.

“Why do you ask?”

“I was just wondering.” I could tell from the look on my father’s face that I shouldn’t have brought her up.

“Remember we told you to leave her alone.”

“I know, Dad.” I picked up my father’s empty plate and set it in the sink.

“Damn that was good.”


“You have homework?”

“Not too much.”

“Don’t stay up too late,” he said, walking off to his room, limping a little.

After cleaning up, I decided to go for a walk. My mother and I used to go for walks two or three nights a week, strolling through the neighborhood. Sometimes we would wait until Dad went to sleep and then just as I was tired and ready to go to bed myself, she would say, “Let’s go see what we can see.”

On those nights, sometimes as late as midnight, we would circle our block. The majority of the houses would be dark, lit by only a porch light. Mom always wanted to hold my hand. And while it embarrassed me as I got older, I never pulled away.

I was a mamma’s boy. There, I said it. She made me feel special because of the way she talked to me as if I were an adult like her, as if the things I said were important. She never talked down to me. I was comfortable with her in ways I never was with kids my own age or even with my father. When my father and I were together it usually felt like one of us needed to say something and then when we did speak it came out feeling forced.

Plus, I thought my mother was special. I didn’t know anyone else whose mother had written five novels, even if none of them had been published, or who would stand in her living room reading poetry out loud, or who belonged to a writer’s group that met once a month, on Saturday nights, at the local bookstore to discuss their writing.

Walking alone, I passed Dennis’ house. Dennis and I had been friends, and gone to school together, since my family moved here when I was in the third grade. But the year before my mother left, at the beginning of 10th grade, Dennis’ parents took him out of the local public school and sent him to Greensboro Day, a private prep school. Dennis played tennis, was actually really good, and his parents thought that with Greensboro Day on his college applications he’d have a better chance of getting into a good school, maybe even a scholarship playing tennis.

Dennis was a nice enough guy even if his major interests in life were getting laid and playing tennis—in that order. Sometimes I’d see Dennis every day for a week and then not for a solid two weeks. Whenever you were with Dennis, everything was about him, but I didn’t mind. He was the sort of friend I needed, as I was a loner and shy, preferring to let other people talk.

I considered going up and knocking on his door but knew he probably wasn’t home. He practiced tennis with his private coach at least two hours a day. I wondered what he would think of me going into Old Lady Peters’ back yard. He was the one who started calling her that in the first place. Whenever he told the story of how she ran over my leg, he would call her Old Lady Peters and the name stuck.

When I turned the corner, a black dog charged at me. I flinched. At the edge of the yard the dog stopped, let out a little squeal. It was Sam, a shiny black lab. The Sanborn’s, who live two doors down from Dennis, had one of those invisible fences and even though Sam had charged me and stopped a hundred times before it still seemed possible for a moment that this would be the time he would break through and attack me.

“Sam, knock that off.”

I looked up and Lucy Sanborn was standing at her front door. She had on grey sweat pants and a blue T-shirt, tied into a knot, so that a couple inches of her stomach were exposed. She was holding a book, a paperback of some kind. She was only one year ahead of me at school, but she seemed to be part of another world, out of my league. She drove a car and the year before, when she was still a freshman, had dated a senior named Zeke Cole who ended up going to UNC on a basketball scholarship.

The first time I ever saw Lucy was two days after we moved in the neighborhood. My mother and I were out on one our walks. The city had replaced a section of the sidewalk. The cement was still wet, so we walked on the grass. Up ahead, we spotted a girl with long hair squatting down, writing in the cement with a stick. When she saw us coming, she threw the stick down and ran away, as if we were the sidewalk police or something.

She had drawn a little flower with her name, Lucy, beside it. My mother laughed, asked if I wanted to write something. I said no, I didn’t think I should. I’d never been the sort of person who wanted to draw attention to myself and with a name like Julian it would be clear who’d written in the sidewalk.

“Oh, Julian, live a little.”

But you weren’t supposed to write in cement. My mother bent over and added, with her index finger, a heart and the date below Lucy’s name and flower.

“Lucy,” she said. “That’s a good name for a girl. We need to find you a girlfriend.”

“You’re crazy, Mom.” I was only eight.

“Maybe,” she said.

I never felt comfortable around girls and doubted most guys my age did. For most of us it’s probably a matter of not caring if you’re going to look like a fool. And I wasn’t at that point yet.

I’d only had one real girlfriend, Heather Swinterbach. She had red hair, a forehead full of freckles. We’d dated the previous summer mostly because Dennis was dating Joannie, her best friend. Think of it as dating for convenience. It was fun for a while and we kissed and explored each other’s bodies but never did end up doing it. The closest we ever came was one hot afternoon in August when we’d lay in her bed naked, running our hands across each others bodies, feeling for wetness and excitement. She even had freckles on the inside of her thighs and I’d taken great pleasure exploring them with my fingers like some scientist charting a constellation I was discovering for the first time.

But after the summer, Dennis and Joannie broke up and soon after Heather and I split up too. And then my mother left, and the thought of dating a girl was the furthest thing from my mind.

“Sorry about that,” Lucy said, referring to Sam, who was still pacing back and forth along the perimeter of his yard.

“It’s okay,” I said.

She waved to me, said, “Goodnight.”

I headed home, propelled by the cool spring air and the thrill of a black dog and an inch or two of Lucy Sanborn’s exposed stomach.