Ella Marie will Ride Fast Horses

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“This is Ella Marie, your subject,” Cecile Harnett announces as she enters. The child half-curtsies and mumbles what I take to be a greeting.

Ella Marie has been ushered into my studio with a push at her back, and I see a cloth bag of what her mother calls accouterments held snug against an expensive navy purse. A vase of brilliant flowers leans in the crook of one arm. The vase shimmies perilously in the pull of gravity so I offer to take the vase and look for a spot to set it. A teetering pile on my desk is shoved aside to free up a couple bare inches. her young daughter peeks around her elbow, then steps apart from her.

She looks around, her freed hand smoothing feathery champagne bangs from her forehead, lips in a straight line as if trying to not leak a sigh of distaste. I admit my studio does not reflect a rising artist. More a cultural dilettante who likes making messes in an overcrowded attic space. I know at first glance my planned Bluestone Studio didn’t inspire confidence in others as much as it did myself. But I liked the sad little bungalow with large garage–a garage that became a two story art space. Of course, it’s been shined up since then. A lot has happened for me in four years in this  touristy lakeside village. Thus, this trying customer with her lovely but bored and bland (might be overreacting to such even features, the blank stare) daughter.

“Gretchen says you’re as good as it gets here, Tessa, and we sure need a good portraitist since Harold Zimpter left. Though how anyone could aspire to take his place is stretching credulity. He was the creme de la creme and so enchanting one wanted to sit for him just to listen to him rattle on about his worls travels and arcane interests.”

She lifts her right eyebrow at me, a delicate feather glued upon her vast forehead. We have already discussed what is desired, agreed on the price, the rapid timeline. I think she is waiting for a response, like noting how I studied in Paris (did not) or that I am an avid admirer of Zimpter’s work (though old school conventional, he has his strengths). I had expected a few pretenses but not this much. Her daughter looks at the floor, as if drawn to the cracks n the old pine floorboards, then nudges the toe of one of her black Mary Jane shoes into a wiser crack.

I take a diversionary route.”Yes, he is well known though paints far less now he’s ninety. Gretchen has commissioned three paintings of various sorts. But today I’m looking forward to painting Ella Marie.”

I get down on a bended knee and murmur, “Hello, Ella Marie, new to this painting business, I guess?”

Not how I usually greet children. Even if disgruntled by the whole business, they are often eager to chat and poke about. Some even pose from the start, as if coached by parents or believe they’re dazzling and desire my certain appreciation, as well. Ella Marie just glances at me so quickly that I suspect she is just be blinking in the bright, paint-imbued atmosphere.

“I’m not too certain she returns that feeling. But it must be done. She’s seven and her grandparents have wanted a portrait at least a couple of years– for their gallery, as they call it, a long, broad hallway where they hang family portraiture.”

“So you said, and I’m glad to oblige.” I stand up and let Ella Marie’s shoe explore more cracks. Her eyes follow me ever so little. “You brought some items, I see?”

“Ah, yes, to help make things right and rosy.”

She isn’t kidding. She opens the bag and pulls out a circlet of realistic white roses; a necklace in a pretty blue box that when opened reveals a simple silver star on a fine chain (“Tiffany’s, of course”); a headband made of ivory lace and one tiny pink rosebud; and a dress that looks more like a miniature plum colored evening gown than a child’s tog. There is also a pair of white gloves. I am borderline appalled but smile and wait to hear what she says. Ella Marie is perusing the pile son my desk but shoots her mother a look that indicates she may not be so thrilled, either.

“Just ideas. Mama loves roses and they’re more formal so those are a must whichever we use. The dress was handmade for this. But I don’t want her too overly adorned. Shall we get started, then?”

I’m thinking that the child looks fine as she is, in dark green paisley slacks and a white blouse. I direct them to a corner and a quadruple-fold screen that I made, more comfortable a change area than my cramped bathroom.

When Ella Marie emerges, she says nothing, still studies the floor. There is no doubt this is an elegant, expensive dress. She steps cautiously into a swath of early morning rays thrown across the floor. My eyes catch hers, which sparkle in the light, and I see her running across an open field, barefooted, golden curls flying, her face wreathed in smiles and honeyed sunshine, arms swinging for joy.

Her mother beams with inordinate pride but the girl I envision is not at all this fake princess before me.

******

I can hear Cecile sigh as she taps on her phone. I start a quick sketch on the canvass, looking at her daughter off and on. Ella Marie is sitting dutifully before me in a wicker chair, feet set upon a matching footstool, her face half-sunlit and turned toward me. If there was more time, I would have just sketched over a couple sittings, then begun the painting but no, the Harness family wants this before Christmas rush begins. I happen to have a loose hour here and there twice a week if I cram more into the rest of the time. It may have been a mistake. A painting can take months, of course, but at times a small portrait comes to me fast and furious and can turn out as well or better as the more painstaking ones. With acrylics, I work fast, anyway; they dry quickly.

“So what motivated you to move to Greenpointe, Tessa?”

I do not like to talk on and on so offer a usual line. “Got tired of the city like most who move here.”

“I’m told your father grew up here, that grey rambling house on the western shore? I suppose you visited here years later. Was he also an artist?”

“Advertising,”I mumble, then clamped lips shut. Enough; I have work to do. “I’m sorry, I need calm my mind, concentrate.”

Another long sigh, nearly a whistle of restless annoyance. “I think I’ll get a coffee and scone down the block. Okay, Ella Marie? Back in an hour, is that okay?”

We both nod, the child giving a prim wave, and Cecile leaves with designer bag in tow, her Sperry Topsiders thumping on each step as she navigates the steep stairs.

Ella Marie, taking after her mother, lets go a rush of air that is surprising considering her stature.

“I don’t want to do this, you know.” She doesn’t change her posture, just speaks quietly but with certainty.

“I can see that nor am I surprised, most kids do not.”

“You can tell? Mom says smile, make things work.”

“I can see you are bored and annoyed and uncomfortable in that fancy dress.”

Ella Marie grimly stretches her lips into a disgruntled curve that states agreement. Looks straight at me until I look back “Did you ever have to do this?”

“No. I always had to draw for adults.”

She thinks about that as I sketch quickly now, pencil seeking her personality, lightly trying it on canvas. She bristles with energy, but softly, perhaps told a million times to take it down a notch and trained in absolute manners. She is a child doomed to perfection-seeking unless she can find a way to wiggle past all that until she finds herself.

Wait, I think, she is only seven.

“I said I’d only do it if she let me ride the horse next door, Ms. Gretchen’s horse.”

I draw the light fluff of curls that spiral around her chin as she speaks, catch the loose-limbed ease she displays as she relaxes, small shoulders squared with a quiet confidence.

“She agreed, I guess.”

Ella Marie bounces twice, arms up as she raises her fists into a victory punch. “Yes! I take a first lesson tomorrow with Hanna, her teenager.”

There it is, there’s the kid who will try her hardest to find the paths into woods and hills with their wild beauties, the stream full of frogs and salamanders and squishy mud where bloodsuckers may lie in wait but she’ll take that chance. At least I imagine.

The sketch feels more right than wrong and I announce to her that after a few tweaks, we will start painting next session. I am finding her easy to create on paper.

“But what about this dress? Any chance your mom could pick something else?”

She shakes her head sadly. “No, this is what Grandmother and Grandfather would like the best.”

“Okay, then, we’ll do the best we can with what we have, right?”

She giggles, a silvery chime floating in my studio. “Alright, Miss Tessa.”

******

The next weeks Cecile is either on the phone and pacing as she discusses apparent re-decorating plans with controlled irritation, or she is anxious to be released from quiet waiting and so exits to the coffee shop as I work. She has asked twice to see the painting, but I never show a painting in progress, despite it being commissioned. Not until I decide it is developing well, at the least. No sense distressing those who know nothing of portraiture.

Ella Marie seems assured that whatever I do is fine.

“I like how you dance a little with your paintbrushes. I like the smell of things up here. Can I see it this time?”

“No, not til it’s done. It won’t be a good surprise until it is finished.”

“What if Mom doesn’t like it?”

“Then I won’t get paid–or paid well.”

“That’s not good.” She frowns and a subtle fierceness leaks out, despite the plum dress and the lacy headband her mother chose. “You’re a nice lady. You’re a special painter, no one can decide any different.” She clasps her hands, shakes them once for emphasis.

My own tired hand pauses mid-air. The small brush I hold is loaded with delicate, tender pinkness of rose that blooms from the ornate headband set on the canvas. I want to sit across from the girl, tell her how wonderful she is and to not mind the terribly plum dress and all smiling falseness and even impatient, demanding parents.

But she is a client, not my daughter, not even a niece or good friend’s child. She has been here twice a week for nearly four weeks. I have heard her horse stories, her childish gossip, her night dreams of winged horses and pixies that kindly rule the forest, and have seen her wilt as her mother corrects her syntax at such a young age and tidily pulls up each sock before they leave.

I have to wonder if this kid ever gets to scrape her knees or wear battered tennis shoes or use bad grammar. But maybe that will come, it is none of my business, after all.

“Why don’t we take that little rose off your headband? I have a bobby pin to set the flower into your hair. Let me get the mirror.”

We affix the rose into a wave at her temple but it still looks too….theatrical, contrived. I don’t want her to look too “cute,” it doesn’t suit her.  She shrugs.

“Next time, I’ll have a wildflower crown for you.”

She shrugs. “I’d like that better but Grandmother…”

I’ve already started two portraits, the other on my own time. I can’t only paint one of Ella Marie in that chair, her Tiffany necklace positioned in the center of her chest, hands folded in her lap. She is a patient model now that we’ve established more of whom she is or may be, a truly free child at heart, an ordinary young wild thing, but  she knows she has to get at it in a careful manner. Like horseback riding, which is reportedly going well. The youngster has a knack for it.

“At first I thought I might break my neck, was bouncing way too much. But now I just feel what the horse does and follow along, sort of. It’s not too hard. It’s–“she snaps her fingers and the sharp sound almost rings in my studio–“like, presto changeo! when I get with itI’m really happy there.”

I laugh for the pleasure of her enthusiasm and she tosses shoulder length curls like a horse tosses its mane, and paws at the ground with one of her Mary Janes.

“Whoa, horsey!”

“School is boring, though. You like school?”

“Art school. Now hold still, chatterbox.”

“Yes, all those paints and things! Okay, we must get it done, huh?”

I wonder how Cecile got so lucky to have this kid and find I am almost bracing for her departure. I’m just the village artist-in-residence, the new portraitist.

When her mother returns, she sneaks a glimpse from the side before I carefully turn the easel aside. Out escapes a sibilant response that, from Cecile, denotes a kind of pleasure.

“Such sweetness and delight, fine work, my dear!”

“Can I see?” Ella Marie asks her blue-grey eyes pleading.

I shake my head. I don’t want her to see, not yet. She puts hands on skinny hips, stands with feet apart in the long velvety dress as if to do battle, but briefly. She returns to a more approved standing position, waiting, as her mother is watching out for bad manners,  her glinty eyes narrowed above shining teeth.

******

After four weeks, the commissioned piece is finished and when Ella Marie arrives we are both quiet. I have set aside two other projects to rush this order and Cecile Harness will pay extra for that. One will look radiant, I hope, wedged between the other good looking, well-behaved, precious grandchildren, like trophies gleaming along a special byway of fame but trophies all family loves the best. Ella Marie’s determination, her intelligence and burbling delight, her inclination to push a bit beyond boundaries may not be blazing to the common eye. But I see it, care enough to strongly hint at it.

The other painting needs more finesse, time to rest. No one will see that one; it stays with me, unknown to even Ella Marie.

“Is the painting going to make them so happy for Christmas?”

“It will, indeed, their lovely wonder girl.”

Ella Marie laughs as if I’m teasing yet maybe she likes the idea.

“Come and see.”

She gets up and very carefully tiptoes over to where I sit on my stool, then covers her eyes. She one by one spreads her fingers and peeks through to view the 15 by 15 inch portrait, now about dry after late night last touches.

“Ohhh.” Her hands drop to her sides. “That’s what it is….yeah, Miss Tessa, that’s sure what they like.”

Her mouth hangs open a little as she breathes and she reaches to touch the colors representing her face, the flowing velvet, the rose on the headband but stops just short of marring the paint.

“So many colors to make up skin…” she whispers. “Look at the little rose, it might open up right there.”

I step away, let her gaze upon her rendered likeness.

Should I show her the other portrait, the one in close-up where she is the girl riding the wind on a galloping horse, face half-turned to the viewer, her curls like streaming ribbons of light, a restless aura of energy on the verge of something even more: the brave future mirrored in her lively eyes and proud stance?

Someday. Not now.

Cecile comes up all out of breath, full of anticipation, and when she takes a long, intense look at her daughter’s portrait, she pulls out her money, counts upon my drawing table more than agreed upon.

“You captured her essence, our Ella Marie, they’ll adore it! I’ll spread the word, Tessa–fantastic work. Now to find just the right frame!”

As they perch on the top of the stairway, Ella Marie looks back, eyes soft but clear. I can see her mind is busy and all that energy is only pausing between one thing and the next. But she runs back and throws her arms around me, grinning up at me.

“Ella Marie, do a proper thank you and let’s move on now!”

I speak up, releasing her. “Ella Marie, you’ve been a wonderful painting subject, thank you for sitting for me. ”

“Tessa, you’ve been a wonderful painter, thank you for being you, too.”

And she “high fives” me, then leaves with her mother, just like that.

******

The holidays are upon us in full force and I have a new show at Gina’s Galeria de Arte in the Gaslight District. The other Ella Marie painting is hung with ten others and it is the one attracting most attention. It’s the opening reception and people are drinking and networking and gossiping and I am exhausted as ever by the small talk I must engage in.

Many come up and ask: is that the young Harnett child we all know and how did I capture her that way, did I take photos of her on a horse? It’s so real and yet ethereal… how much do I want for it? Do her parents know yet?

“It is not for sale,” I tell them over and over. The other paintings are good, they are selling well enough but this is exempted. I’m keeping it for one person in case she ever forgets who she is some day.

Then comes little Miss Ella Marie, and she’s pulling at her mother’s purse so in they come. Cecile and husband Thom Harnett hurry forward as they realize now the exhibit is mine. They look for me. I shrink back against a far wall, consider an escape route. I knew they’d see it at some point, I just didn’t think it would be tonight, maybe they’d wander in while holiday shopping one Saturday while I was at Blue Studio, just working.

The three of them meander, the child almost giddy as she points to the art, her parents perusing each one. And then they’re in front of it.

“It’s me!” Ella Marie claps her hands and people gather around. “Where’s Tessa? Where is she?”

I slink forward, grasp her proffered hand, then look around at the crowd. can we not do this another time? It is too much to ask; money is necessary so I must do shows.

“This is new, you kept it secret!” she says.

“A secret,” her mother repeats.

She looks at the painting, then at me and back to the painting. Thom appraises it, zooming in close, pulling back.

“Remarkable. A bit fantastical perhaps, but so remarkably my daughter,” he pronounces.

“What do you think?” I ask Ella Marie.

“I love it, me riding a big horse–how did you do that? It’s really me, Tessa!” she squeals then acts embarrassed and calms herself a bit.

But Cecile slides over with eyes brimming and presses her shoulder against mine a moment before standing apart. She dabs wetness away with a leather gloved finger, quick to avert mascara smears, but still, I feel moved by her open response.

“How much shall I give you for this?”

“Yes,” Thom concurs, stroking his trim salt and pepper beard. “It’s better than the other one, you must know that. It deserves a fine price.”

I let go of her hand, drop to a crouch so I can better speak to her among the holiday gallery trollers. “It was painted for just me at first. Now it is just for you, Ella Marie. No one gets to buy it. Only you can let it go if someday that is what you want to do.”

“Oh…” She places her palm alongside my cheek a  moment, then pats my shoulder. “I want it. I will always want it, no one else can have it.” She bends over to whisper, “I want you to see me ride! I’ll ask Mom to call you.”

“I’d like that. And the picture goes home with you after this show ends. I’ll be in touch.”

“Okay, Miss Tessa.” She neatly curtsies, then giggles.

I notice she has on bright red tennis shoes beneath jeans and a blue puffy jacket and am oddly heartened.

We three grownups chat more. They’re so pleased with the new painting, thrilled their daughter may own art by someone who might be famous one day (maybe, not at all likely). And they are congenial because it’s that time of year and they’re suddenly a topic at the event as people come by to congratulate them–and me.

But as they leave, Ella Marie walking with head high between them and each holding a hand, I see more than I did before. I see a family with a certainty of love and I’m gratified I get to be this close to it even in passing.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: His and Hers

img_0128
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He zeroes in, past feet beating pavement
where discarded minutiae gather and disperse
and it all counts to him, marred or unscathed,
this matter he dissembles, puzzles into patterns
to designate order in the world’s gaping chaos.

She scans breadth of east, west, south, north,
and whole or broken it is received as cosmology,
a kaleidoscope of the universe turning before her
as lassos of time capture, scatter light so she
gleans evidence of Grace, its mercurial designs.

Our Trip Ends: North Country Roads to Fishtown

Day 6 Interlochen, Leelenau 279
All photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It turns out my head is still trying to be on vacation this shivery, rainy day in Oregon–one that will be repeated almost daily until spring’s reprise. I was perusing photos from the last leg of our northern Michigan jaunt and lo, there are more moments of rich color and curiosity to share with you.

Jutting north along the western side of Grand Traverse Bay (part of Lake Michigan), Leelanau Peninsula may seem a repeat of beauty that has been encountered before.  It gave me pause to consider that about 10,000 years ago, three different lakes were tiered here and there, at different levels. Now they are an invisible part of this far reaching Great Lake, one among the five whose basins were carved out by glacial ice sheets 14.000 years ago. Leelanau Peninsula, then, was geologically layered by that powerful glacial activity.

These forested lands are part of widespread color tours in the U.S. each October–some say Michigan has the best, who knows for certain?– but this terrain is easy on the eyes with vibrant yet soothing vistas (did you know oaks turn color later than maples?). It had not quite peaked when we were there. This is a prime area for artists to congregate and thrive, as well as excellent earth in which orchards thrive and many vegetables flourish. Lots of migrating birds arrive or pass this way. Once again bodies of water beckon me beyond low-rolling hills to that vast undulating cobalt blue. The five interconnected Great Lakes comprise the largest body of freshwater on earth, six quadrillion gallons, and is the longest freshwater coastline, as well. Lake Michigan alone is 22,300 square miles of water. However, there are also over 11,000 inland lakes, as well.

This peninsula, a popular scenic area, gives rise to much tourism which calms down a bit as temperatures and leaves drop—but then ski season opens and hearty wintering folks head up north. It may not be the Cascade Range (so near where I live) or other majestic peaks, but downhill skiing in northern Michigan is nonetheless a big draw, as are snowmobiling and sledding, cross-country skiing, ice skating and more. For there is nothing quite like the northern Michigan winter that will soon arrive–ferocious, pristine and also playful.

We stopped by Lake Leelanau to look for more good stones and admire the clarity of water. We cruised by tiny Suttons Bay and surrounding lands. Our intended destination was Leland, on the western shore. Northport is near the tip of the peninsula; the slideshow below offers a glimpse at that lovely village and farm land. We also paused to enjoy Lake Leelanau’s musical sloshing waves, water so clear you could see the bottom.

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Relaxed and full  of visual treasures, we drove contentedly along in the breezy, sunshiny day.

After perhaps 45 dreamy minutes, we entered Leland late afternoon. I has been long known for art galleries, higher end shops and the historic Fishtown. Leland has been an operating fishing community since the 1850s (far longer when considering the fact that Ottawa Indians resided there until Europeans arrived). It still has a distinctive culture and is considered one of the last working fishing districts on the peninsula. One can visit old fishing shanties, smokehouses, canneries and walk the weathered docks, note the fish tugs. I thoroughly enjoyed poking about. The shops were soon to close so I saved a good deal of money, I’m sure.

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And so rounds out and ends the seven day tour of “up north” Michigan, a first trip after decades having been gone.

The mystique of many waters, and the pleasure boats and boats with fishing aficionados as well as working fisher persons…the delicate meat of tasty fish (planked whitefish, the best)…the great swaths of deciduous forest mixed with towering pines and the slim, short-lived birches and rustling poplars…the flattening land and open skies…the sweet tangy wind of the great and small lakes. It is an alchemy that makes me dream of cabins and night music and finding love and gliding in a canoe under a silvery, beneficent moon and tender-hot sun. It is all still there.

 

 

 

Castoffs

Every morning they are already on the train and if I haven’t had my two cups of black coffee to wake me up, I find myself sitting across the aisle from them by default. I try to avoid them because I don’t think much of the dog.

It’s a couple in their sixties or more plus their dog. The woman wears those glasses that change with light conditions, big black frames. I like her purple bag. The man wears glasses, too, and somehow he looks like he has had good jobs. He always has that brown hat and leather jacket on. Their yipping, scrappy mongrel dog acts energized and whiney if I look at it very long. I want to say it’s a boy, I don’t know why, females can be scrappy, too–I’m one of them. The four-legged is maybe a terrier mix. My Great-uncle Ken had one once. I never liked it; it’s fur got knotted and it smelled bad like he did. It was too friendly, if you know what I mean, I had to give him a push, kick him away. Uncle Ken would laugh then pick him up then like he was the most adorable kid who did a cute trick.

So maybe that’s why I took an instant if minor dislike at the start. The couple is okay, chats to themselves very little; the woman hugs the little beast. I wonder when it will get kicked off the train. When has it been okay to bring animals onto public transit? No one looks blind, no one seems out of it. But she dotes on it more than necessary so I guess it’s her dog, a creature who helps people who’ve got trouble out in the world. A mental health dog. She mumbles to it at times, poor old gal.

I suppose you can say I was one of those people, though. That is, I got into trouble for years, used to make wrong decisions, not the reasonable ones. Like stealing stuff I could sell and hanging out with older criminal types and driving without a license and getting into a fight here and there.  But after a long vacation in “juvie”, that was enough. Now I’m twenty-two, go to work every day cleaning an old, once-fancy apartment building with thirty large units, thanks to my cousin’s friend who manages it. I don’t mind being paid to clean as I’m an orderly and clean-cut person now, you couldn’t spot me as anything else unless you were savvy. Anyway, I like to leave things better than when I arrive. One week-ends there are a few offices to clean. I make ends meet, barely, and live in a studio apartment twenty blocks from work.

One morning this dog lady and her husband or boyfriend, they’re directly across from me. I have a headache and don’t want that dog near me. But there’s nowhere else to sit so I plop down with a canvas bag full of my own special cleaning aids. The lady looks up, big eyes startled, as if I look weird or she recalled something serious or had sudden pain. And she hangs on tight to the dog who has gotten an interest in the bag I just dropped. I have a bologna sandwich in a paper bag in there, too, so pull it onto my lap.

The hungry pooch settles down a bit. The man glances my way, stares through me as if he is thinking hard and the woman follows his gaze. I look away, turn my body a bit, but when I look back she is still gazing at me. I tend to get a little paranoid. Do I know them from the past? Did I steal something of theirs? I doubt that’s the reason she’s looking at me, that was five years ago, but ignore her as usual without much luck.

“You a cleaner?” she asks, eying the bag which has a spray bottle or two sticking out.

Her voice sounds rusty and quiet; her eyes stay with my bag, her dog squirmy. I nod, look out a window.

“We got a place you could clean. We pay decent. See you here all the time, you seem okay.”

Her husband looks at me then, checking me out. I stare back, give a hint of smile, an acknowledgment.

“I’m pretty busy, thanks, though.”

The lady shakes her head, that bleached blond hair bouncing a bit. “Shame. We need somebody.” She hugs the dog.

But the man sits forward, leans forearms on his bony thighs. “I have a store. Pawn shop. Too dusty these days but the old help I had to fire, stole things.” His language sounds distinctive, like he was raised elsewhere and can’t shake the accent.

My head involuntarily turns to him and I try to be nicer “I’m sorry.”

He nods, slumps back, puts an arm around his lady. I’m surprised to see him act fond of her as she gives more attention to that half-cute, half-annoying dog than to him. It yaps at me but not meanly. I get off the next stop.

******

I think about the pawn shop all week. I like to collect things. Legitimately now. A powerful draw to a store full of odds and ends, of old stuff and junk. It must be good if they are still running it at their ages. But I’m busy already, tired of cleaning by Saturday.

One night I wake up and lie there in pitch black. I have been dreaming of a dog trotting and prancing about, and then I’m trying to catch him, rushing past aisles of towering shelves that teeter and fall about us as we start to run toward the exit, his tail disappearing out the bright door. He barks with joy; he does not attack my legs.

It is a sign of something.

******

This time I look for them. It takes me a couple of minutes to spot them down the way and find a small space to sit. They glance my way, say nothing. I don’t want to jumpstart a conversation when they got the message I wasn’t interested, but I’d like info, anyway.

“Hey, morning.”

The lady looks disinterested but politely. The dog is snoozing or pretending on her big lap.

“Do I have to apply for it? I might get a day free now and again.”

The man turns; the lady smiles down at her dog.

He says, “You could stop by tonight at five and fill out an application if you want. But we need someone soon and more than now and then…There’s a guy, he might take it.”

“Oh.” I think that over. “Okay, give me the address.”

It’s not so far from the apartment building I clean, two stops after mine. I try to recall if I have seen it but don’t think  so.

The lady pipes up. “Nice you’re thinking it over. You never know.”  She let the dog down. It was on a leash but manages to sniff my boots all over then sits up tall, looking me over. “That’s Kristoff.  He’s five.”

“Okay, so I’m Jamie Marsh,” I say.

“Cheslav and Mel Krakov. ”

We relax a little as if relieved for that much to be over.

“Our store is Cheslav’s Castoffs.”

How corny, I think, but my stop is coming up and I stand. “Later, then.”

******

From the outside it looks sort of haunted, mysterious, a set for a Hitchcock movie, all that heavy grey stone so darkly wet now it is raining. A small gargoyle above the door. There are offices in the stories above, and at least their rooms look brighter. The store front windows are a jumble of objects arrayed on too-dark flowing cloth. Dusty looking. Immediately I think how it can be more eye-catching and I am unbalanced by eagerness. I’m just a cleaning woman and a good one.

I pull open the black metal door and a jangling bell rings. Kristoff runs forward, tail wagging, then sits with tongue out and waits. His face looks happy, like he’s had a good day. I feel like talking to him, not his humans, but of course say nothing. The low lighting casts a somber sheen on the tables and shelves full of shadowy items, and a display of shined up musical instruments and a pieces of furniture that look worth something.

“So, you came,” Cheslav strides forward, hand extended.

I shake it. I hadn’t suspected he had such energy, while Mel takes halting steps behind him. She has a paper in her hand that I am to fill out, which I do while sitting on a stool at a black metal cafe table in one corner. Afterwards, they take me on a quick tour. I am shocked that it looks a lot like it did in my dream, but aging pawn or junk shops just look this way, I realize: groaning with tools to watches and clocks to inlaid or otherwise exotic boxes to fancy lamps to roll top desks to a couple old-fashioned phones to brass candlesticks to glass bowls to…. I feel dizzy looking up, it’s not organized in any way that makes sense to me. Lots of hidden corners behind shelving, high ceilings rather cobwebby and making me sneeze several times. Mel hands me a tissue and also blows her own nose.

“What do you think?” she asks, wiping her nose dry. “Do you find it interesting, Jamie? Like odd stuff?”

I feel myself starting to shrug but that’s my old way so I offer, “I think I do.”

“Good, then we’ll check out the application,” Cheslav chimes in.

“Why bother?” Mel picks up Kristoff, who has been following us everywhere. “That other guy never came, after all,” she says glancing at me. “When would you start, say, once or twice a week at first?”

“What do you pay?”

Cheslav walks over to the front counter as I look at the sparkly earrings in the glass case between us. “What do you need?”

“Eighteen an hour, at least six hours a day, Saturday and Sunday. Your place needs a lot of help and I work hard.”

Cheslav rubs his chin thoughtfully. “I’ll get back to you.”

Mel walks me to the door, fuzzy dog in her arms but reaching to lick my hand as I grab a door handle. “It’ll work out. Kristoff likes you.”

When Mel truly smiles her whole face changes, beams. I like how that happens, though clearly she doesn’t feel all that well with bum legs.

******

So, my adult work record and personal recommendations (a cousin and a friend of his) satisfies them and soon I work there every week-end. My friend Louise says I’m nuts, the offices are less taxing and more money if I work overtime. But they’re boring and Cheslav’s Castoffs is not, I tell her. Which is better, a good environment or just money? She doesn’t argue; she cleans bathrooms and more at two big gyms and a massage joint.

When I get done with the cleaning which is never-ending, really, taxing and requires me to wear a respirator, I start to order things a bit. Front windows are first. I find and shake out some bright red and yellow fabrics to replace the dirty velveteen cloths. I clean up and better situate fine tea sets and a violin, trumpets and two kinds of flutes and elegant vases with fake flowers and plants (need to talk to them about trying out real flowers now and then) and so on. I worry that I am too aggressive in my desire to fix up the appearance but after they tentatively agree, Cheslav and Mel take turns strolling by, checking things out yet say little after two weeks. I keep at it.

Kristoff finds me a few times a day though Mel calls after him. I don’t want to get too friendly, he’s her prized possession, I get it so I just acknowledge him with a short pat on his little head, let him look over my work, too. He likes the giant feather duster I use so I have to watch that but avoids the cleaners so it is okay, overall. I like his pep.

I begin to feel at home there, with the customers who notice me as they leave with their money or something they like. All sorts of strange things come in–embellished saddle for a small pony, a drum kit that has been bashed half to bits, a groups of so-called Native American rings that Cheslav insists are fake turquoise and what is the woman trying to pull? I steal looks at them, some from sketchy places and some from uptown, some desperate and others just passing time. But most often I’m cleaning, polishing, rearranging. And I find that although I admire most of the objects, I am not the least bit interested in pilfering them. I oddly like my work more, just being there.

After six weeks, Mel and Cheslav corner me by the five grandfather clocks.

“How is it going for you now? You’re pretty good.” Cheslav says this as if moderately interested and being nice.

“Do you like it enough to work here full-time?” Mel gets straight to the point, one hand holding the small of her sore back, lined face excited. Kindly.

“Going good. And yes.” I’m as surprised as they by my easy response. But I’d far rather be here than cleaning apartments. “Can you afford me, though? I have bills, you know, and my studio isn’t so cheap.”

“We have a house with much room–” She clutches Kristoff tightly and he yelps.

Cheslav takes the dog from her carefully, sets him down so he could explore. “We pay you well enough, Jamie, and if things work out well, we’ll talk more.”

“Give me two weeks to hand in notices.”

At closing time about three weeks later, Cheslav finds me in the kitchenette where we took breaks and ate lunch.

“I want to tell you something. So you understand things.”

I respect him and I like to hear his accent–faintly Russian– but I feel a frisson of fear. He is going to get personal about things. I hate personal in general. Can’t we just be a good employee and two good employers and call it good?

“Mel has slowly changed since you came. She had two hip surgeries and didn’t much want to get back to the store. But I won’t yet retire. And when our son was killed last year…”

“Oh.”

“A war correspondent. Afghanistan.” His right fingers and thumb press closed his eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“He was so good in every way. But he paid the price of such work. Our Kristoff…blasted away at forty-five.”

A chill runs through me; I feel a little sick. I don’t know what to say, how to comfort an old man, a father. The dog creeps up to my ankles, panting as if he’s made a last round of the store and is reporting in.

“Kristoff…” I pick up the dog. He licks me on nose and cheek before I can fend him off.

Cheslav gets a hold of himself. “Glad we found each other, Jamie, hope you can stick around.” He gave her a rare gap-toothed grin, then waved at his wife. “Here she comes. Don’t say anything, eh? Things take their time.”

“There you are, Kristoff! Found a new buddy, have you? Such a fine dog you are.” She takes him gently, pulls him close. “Another day comes, another goes, Jamie. Time to get home and rest.”

I turn away. I’m not ready to feel all this, I’m only a grown up delinquent who became a good cleaning woman to survive, and I’m grateful for this curious job. And they find me more than acceptable. That simple realization settling in my head is priceless.

 

Friday’s Quick Pick/Poem: Masquerade

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Don’t tell me about loneliness, that fiendish friend.
We all well know its ways, how it arrives
and vanishes, and hollows a sinuous
trail inside density of life like
a worm or a beetle into greenness.
And then unbidden, you follow, track
it with eye of hawk, root out damage
of its work, you howling and quaking,
trying to snatch all up, take it away.

The trickery is that loneliness is a masquerade,
and it seeks to beckon you into places
where the wearied self must seek truth
blooming inside each perilous, solitary ache.
But God sits there, the One you forgot,
God Who flings stars that will forever net you,
Who prunes sorrow with a stubborn mercy.
Then brings forth a mirror, reveals how beloved
are we who somehow imagine abandonment.