Naming the Beauties and Beasts

Sitting on the rickety bench made of well-seasoned wood, I chewed on the pencil eraser. It tasted rubbery but also like words, the little and big ones I had gotten rid of while list-making. I studied my list now: Anisa, Melody, Rena, Roan, Genevieve, Carter, Tupper, Link. There were more. I updated my notebook of names sometimes daily. They were people I had not yet fully met but wondered over, with their singular lives and vast stores of knowledge, their foolishness and kindnesses. Their violent hearts. Little lies. Arms full of flowers for anyone who was lucky enough to cross their paths. Hands of love like birds nesting.

They lived and breathed just as surely as I felt the dampness of leftover morning dew on my bare feet. Robins sang out a morning newscast. The pine trees leaned in to me with their dark greenness; I felt the spongy carpet of old pines needles with my toes. If I was lucky, no one would find me for awhile.

What next?

I wrote in a bigger notebook with smooth, grown up college-lined pages: “Rena and Roan knew their way up the path. They had been out to the mountain many times. Roan whinnied a little as his mistress settled on his back and then he picked up speed. Behind them, Tupper sat on the porch, worrying his pipe, the smoke disappearing into the cloudy sky. Somewhere out there Link was fixing fence and not thinking about anything else. Rena would change that.”

“Cindy! Time for breakfast and then chores!”

I scratched an old mosquito bite on my leg. Why did they sometimes call me that awful name? It was Cynthia. Names were pretty important. I knew that even at only ten years old and kept my Book of Names handy.

I propped my head on my hands and turned a little so that I could see a bright sliver of Stark’s Nursery through the branches. A dirt road cut through the swath of tiny new trees and bushes. It beckoned me. I could wander through the nursery for hours, thinking of girls who ran with Bengal tigers, or a ship of spies sailing to Shanghai. I acted out many parts in the stories in the nursery, away from prying eyes.

Something fell thorugh the branches, then stopped its descent. I suddenly thought of outlaws and shining knives that were hidden in leather sheaths on belts and shivered. That was not the story I was working on although it often came back to me. I hadn’t found a place for it in my notebook yet. No, it was Rena today. So, why was she going to that mountain? To take something to Link? Yes, a letter from far away, the one he had dreaded and wanted all at once…

The bushes parted and the hidden doorway cracked open.  My sister stuck her head in.

“Mom says come in now. What are you up to?”

“Writing a story.”

“Oh. Well, write later. We have to practice our music lesson and you have to straighten up the living room and then dust and I have my stuff to do. Their bridge party tonight, remember? The Halls and Grays are coming and I forget who else. I’ll be gone by then!”

Gloria squinched her eyes and wrinkled her nose, then stepped back, the bushes closing over her. I could see her shoes, mostly white tennis shoes. I reached down and grabbed a shoelace and as she walked off she tripped, then laughed as she righted herself. I waited for her to charge back into the hideaway; instead, she ran across the back yard. The screen door bounced once, twice, and then was quiet.

I sighed. Streaks of sunlight were sneaking in and warming me up. The pine needles gave off a toasted pine scent that made me drowsy. I closed my eyes and soon was half-dreaming, wandering into a woods somewhere far off, maybe the Black Forest in Germany. Where beautiful dragons lurked who could be friend or enemy in a flash, and powerful men kept watch over all trees and food. Where women and girls often fended for themselves. Only the smartest and fastest survived and when they did, they were made Victorious and Wise Queens of Hyacinth Castle.  The one they had rebuilt after the terrible winter storm…or maybe it was the smaller one they had taken from the weeping dragon…was she still around? Yes, Fraxonia.

A fly buzzed my nose. I shook it off and peered between the branches at the nursery. I thought about walking in the forests up north, near Interlochen Music Camp where we were all headed in a few weeks. That was it: the one real place I often longed to be. Interlochen. Where there was nothing but music and art and dance and plays and writing stories. Starlight on water. Sailboats breezey in the sun. Nothing else mattered there. Just letting wonder happen. Making something small become bigger and better, with work. What stories would come to me there?

The notebooks fell off my lap and I opened my eyes. The Book of Names had opened to the center page. And on it was one word: Charlisa. I whispered her name and picked up my pencil, drew the edge of a lake and placed Charlisa there. She held her hand to her eyes and surveyed the towering trees.

“This time,” Charlisa thought, “this time there will be an end to the dark mystery that imprisons our land and we will all walk free again.”

I sat up and studied the drawing. Not the best but no matter, Charlisa was about to…. what? Make a tree house? Find her friend the messenger? I could hear my mother walking across the yard. I reluctantly closed my notebooks and stuck my pencil behind my ear. Then I went through the hidden doorway and into the other world where my mother had paused at the cherry tree.

“I know, I know,” I said grumpily.

But she smiled the way she did when she was teasing, her grey-blue eyes bright in the spring morning, and asked,  “What did you write about today?”

I put my arm around her waist. “I was naming more characters. But then Rena and Roan came up again–out there on the ranch. But the best thing was Charlisa. The one I couldn’t figure out at all. It turns out she has found her lost country. Now she has to get to work and make things happen.”

“Good, more to come. But right now, food, and then other work,” my mother said and we entered the house where blueberries and french toast waited.

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A postscript: After my mother died in May 2001, I became disheartened when I was  diagnosed with heart disease and was unemployed; I have written of these events in other posts. One night I was watering flowers on the balcony, wondering what to do next– not with my life, exactly, but just how to best live it, especially as I was not sure (and still am not; is anyone?) how long there was left. Sadness seemed to follow me day and night. But that early evening I felt her presence strong and clear as though she stood by me, and she said one thing only: “You must write.”  I suppose she thought I needed a reminder that I have always had to “name the beauties and beasts” and let them speak in Story. So that is what I still try to do, even on those days when all appears to be a shadowy mystery, or when there seems nothing left to say, as it has seemed the past few days. There is always a story waiting to come forward, so I sit down and write once more.

Girls Who Wear Roses

Night was falling over the rooftops and a chill brushed her neck and spread a web of cold under her thin cotton shirt. It had been a long walk to the park but it was a longer way back. She had to skirt the edge of the neighborhood either way but now she had to keep any eye out for Dell, her boyfriend. Or that’s what he called himself. He’d be looking for her; he wanted money. He was like a bloodhound; he always found her. But she needed to give the money to Granny Ella for the telephone. Grandpa Les needed orthotics. She could only work so many hours at the nail salon. It had been tough for a year since her grandfather had lost his job. But Jenna’s other work–the men, the dark, the sudden fear–that wasn’t so new. It had been like that one way or another a long time, and she had just turned twenty-three at 8:07 this morning.

Granny reminded her with a steaming mug of coffee and a giant cinnamon roll brought right to her bedroom on a wooden inlaid tray. Jenna was getting dressed for work, but she stopped to take a few bites,  some sips.

“What do you think, Jenna? Getting your mother up in the middle of the night?And you coming so fast we barely had time to get dressed and say a prayer for smooth passage.” Granny laughed deep and long; it sounded like it came from all the way back to Jenna’s first day. “And then we waited and waited. You looked a little like a mewing kitten, all squinty eyes and little paws, so much hair on your pretty–well, we knew it would be!–head. Yes, and the rainstorm made everything look so good as we drove you home a couple days later, and the flowers started blossoming just for you. Decorated the whole neighborhood!”

Granny put her arms around Jenna. The soft bulk of her grandmother made her think of warm pillows. Jenna wanted to stay there and breathe her dusky rose scent. She didn’t know where it came from. Granny rarely wore perfume. But she smelled sweet, as though she wore a cape of warm red roses. Grandpa Les said it was because she had diabetes, that the sugar in her blood made her exhale sweetness. Jenna thought it was her heart breathing out into the world. She was that kind of person: sturdy and sweet.

Jenna would do anything for them. They had kept her with them since she was twelve.  So she worked thirty-two hours at the salon and added to her income any way she could. She had worked two, three jobs at a time since sixteen until work got scarce.

Another way to make cash was to sell a few drugs, something she knew how to do by the time her mother disappeared. That ended when a detective came to her grandparents’ door. He took Jenna to the jail downtown where she was kept for seven hours despite the fact that she had nothing on her and he had not really seen anything. But they both knew what was going on and the whole ordeal cured her–she’d wondered if that had been the point. He had known her mother once, before she had taken a wrong turn, he’d said with a sneer.

But a third way was just selling herself, which was something one of the girls at the salon told her about, eyes averted. Then Dell showed up and Jenna thought, well, he had money and he had a good car and he knew what he wanted. What did she have? Would she ever have? A lousy story and barely enough to get by. But then it was too late to think about again. Every time Dell shoved her out the car door she turned her mind into a blank, a wall, a place where nothing happened and no one lived. Just like when she was a kid and the parties shook the house and her mother’s boyfriends smelled like whiskey and danger. It had all disappeared if she closed her eyes and thought about the starry sky outside her window. When she got a little older,  she learned about the planets and thought of them, how beautiful they were and how far away. How she might live on one someday.

By now she had learned to make time stop. Nothing that mattered dared come near the corners of her mind. She had no name. She had no past or future until she took the money. And gave it to her grandparents when they needed it. They knew only that she worked too much, too many hours and Jenna agreed, but didn’t complain. They needed to know nothing. They had lived through enough.

The moon was shining. It’s light sliced across her path as she darted between cars, disappeared behind Carmen’s  Coffee and the A and P, ran across the darker side streets. Jenna checked her watch: eight fifty-nine. Her grandparents would be looking out the window, worrying a little. They liked to know how she was at the end of a day when they didn’t see her, a quick check in. Tonight there would be no presents to open but they’d be waiting to share German chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. And rainbow- colored candles. It was odd, how they still thought of her as a kid when she hadn’t felt one for longer than she could remember.

Jenna turned down the alley where all the garages were lined up behind the small, shabby houses. She could see Grandpa Les’ Chevy half-in, the red paint looking purple in the night. Her feet slowed down; she was almost there.

“Hey!”

Dell’s hand grabbed her shoulder and it shook a scream out of her. The weight of his body  dragged her down. She kicked until all the kick was gone and her back hit gravel. She saw the sky turn itself inside out and fall down around her. There was Dell’s grinning face right above her as he lifted his hand again. He smelled like good wine gone rotten. Jenna tried to push herself up from the ground but fell back. There were people barely visible behind Dell and he turned away from Jenna and stood up. They all got loud and the words split her head open, made her think of echoing canyons and each syllable felt like rocks falling on her head with alarming speed.

“Jenna, lay still!” Grandpa Les ordered. “I’m talking to Dell!”

Grandma Ella shuffled over and reached down to smooth her forehead. “There’s a girl, lie still, the police are coming, be good for grandma now, that’s my girl,” and her voice was water over wounds, strong but soft, clean and clear yet blurring the edges of everything. Jenna started to speak but the taste of roses stopped her. She put her hand to her mouth and pulled away a satiny petal.

“I’m so sorry, girl, the roses were for you, I had them in my hand when we heard  you cry out. I hit him with the roses…stupid…they’re not much good now.”

Grandpa Les’ voice was the loudest Jenna had ever heard it. “If you put one foot on this property again you’re gonna make me use this rifle, boy!”

Dell let out a low cackle. “We’re in a public alley. You don’t know who you’re trying to save, anyway. You don’t know her at all! Have you ever wondered where she gets her extra money, old man? Do you think she can pay for your bills with nothing? She’s lucky to have me!”

Grandpa Les took a step forward and slowly raised his ancient hunting rifle level with Dell’s eyes. He spoke so quietly Jenna had to listen hard and it hurt.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll save your breath for the cops and judge. The whole neighborhood knows what you are and you took her where she never should’ve gone. You’re the sort that people cross the street to avoid, you know that? You think being poor is the worst thing? You need some powerful help. But your time with Jenna is done, you hear me? Finished.”

The neighbors had gathered one by one to see what Ella, Les and Jenna had going on and saw that they had their hands full, so they circled around Dell, arms looped and locked. Ella wiped a smear of blood off Jenna’s face and put the girl’s head on her wide lap. The police arrived, then the ambulance, flashing lights slipping over rapt faces. They put her on a gurney and Ella and Les gazed down at her. A dozen red, white, and yellow roses were laid on her chest and one unopened bud was placed in a pale curl at her ear. The EMT frowned.

“It’s her birthday,” Grandma Ella grumbled, and he shrugged.

Grandpa Les put his arm around his wife and pulled her close. “Girls who wear roses are the best ones, you know. We thought you were something wonderful long before you liked them.” He half-smiled sadly. “We’ll make up for things somehow. I was waiting to tell you I got a part-time job at the A and P. Yeah, your ole granddad’s not out of commission yet. That was the birthday present.” He pulled out his handkerchief and turned away.

Jenna tried to say that they’d had bad times before and gotten by. That she had made mistakes that would take a long time to get over. But before she could get it all out, Grandma Ella kissed her cheek. Jenna felt the roses warm up. Their scent filled the ambulance and made her dizzy but calm. She knew tomorrow would be terrible, a day of reckoning, with likely many more tough ones to come, but for now all the fear and regret flew away to the perfect beauty of the moon.

Copyright 2012 Cynthia Guenther Richardson