Garnetta Looks Backward and Forward

DSCF5174 When Garnetta finally left her high school counselor position it was an unceremonious affair, handshakes at a small but respectable luncheon, a voluptuous, rainbow bouquet of roses (her least favorite flower after lilies) and an oversized card with blue birds and butterflies on it. A touch of glitter, she noted with a raised eyebrow. She was grateful there wasn’t a drawing of a sign on a shack saying “Gone Fishin’.” But it managed to move her.

Everyone signed it: “Best wishes” and “Miss you already”.  Her favorite was from Rafe Kellogg, the science teacher: “I wish I had known you better, but look forward to your life!” As if he was looking forward to her life being carried out elsewhere.  The blue greeting card script trumpeted joy and delight: “May Your Retirement Bring Renewed Rewards!” The phrase stumped her: did that mean she should look backwards to old rewards so they might be revamped? Reclaimed?

How was it that after nineteen years at the same place no one knew her? Yet they were oddly intimates, by virtue of years they had rallied for their students’ well being. Resources. Political skirmishes. She patted their backs when they offered sudden hugs. Being in such close proximity was a surprise to them all.

It ended on her thirty-fifth year of soothing, encouraging, advising and intervening. So many teenagers! It had been a trying last year, the sort that one does not prefer to add to a trove of good memories. There are events everyone fears and loses sleep over, and the loss of one young man hit her hard. Not that Reese died–that had also happened, other students and years– but that he had chosen to drop out. To follow the footprints of his father. Which meant sawdust filling up his lungs at their (admittedly good) wood shop, maybe developing a penchant for petty criminality as father had and, God forbid, countless drunken debacles. It was known the boy tied one on more often than he ought.

He could have become a designer, an architect, a preserver of old historic houses. He might finally flip houses rather than make benches and tables. Time would tell. But the last time they had met Reese was on his way out.

“I wanted to tell you how much you helped me,” he said, smiling crookedly as always. “I mean, I wouldn’t have made it even this far without your talks. Just being here. I feel better about things. But I have to move on.”

He leaned forward. For a moment his hand hovered over the stapler as if he was going to emphasize his point with a sharp stapling of air. He picked up one of the pens and twiddled it between his fingers like it was a twig. Reese was big and always moving.

“You’ve still chosen to quit despite all my talk and all your listening. I feel somehow less than satisfied, Reese.”

“I did hear your advice!” He squinted at her. “Miss Harlinger, that time you told me to do what I knew was best, not what was easiest, hit me hard. It’s best I work with my dad, then take over one day. And we both know that ain’t gonna be easy to do.” His gaze swept over her cubicle divider. “Hey, you got a new poster? It’s nice.”

“Not ‘ain’t’, Reese, isn’t, it isn’t going to be easy but that is beside the essential point. I hoped you’d stretch yourself into something bigger than this town can contain. You once kept up your grades because all other indicators said you are more than a good athlete and great woodworker. And then it was to be scholarship applications with my help, and then I might have put a one way ticket to somewhere fantastic right in your palm. To your destiny as a more successful creative person. An innovator.” She sighed. “The poster was a gift from a student who is going to college. It stays for the next one of my ilk.”

Reese stuck the pen behind his ear and laughed. “See? That’s what I mean. You cheer me up just by saying that stuff! Okay, seriously, I know what you meant. Being creative and all that. I agree. I have to make all kinds of things. But my mom, you know this, she counts on me now. Dad has to get help with the booze and maybe a new liver and how will the shop run then? And if he doesn’t, who then?” He put the pen into its plastic holder, opened his hands and studied the broad, dry palms. “Not by itself, it won’t run. I can do it. I will.”

“I’ve asked more of you because you have it in you to make great things happen.” Garnetta picked up another pen, underscored the school’s logo on her desk calendar as if it was an important reminder of something, then laid it gently back down. She had to let go.

“College, I don’t know, but I’d love making cool houses, skyscrapers, even.” He stretched out his considerable length, arms held high, then pulled it all back in. “I disappointed you.”

It was true, but Garnetta wasn’t saying it. Worse, the boy felt let down by life, itself. “You gave it deep thought or you wouldn’t be here telling me your junior year is your last. For now…”

For a long moment Reese was still, staring at her desk. Then he picked up her mascot, a stuffed spotted owl. “I always liked birds. I hate thinking about trees being cut down so we can make big houses for humans. Desks for paper calendars to doodle on. Magazines and junk mail that Dad burns. I watch the ashes float away above our pine trees and feel sad.” He patted the owl on its soft head and set it upright before her again. “I keep an eye open for owls. They’re good omens.”

Garnetta caught her breath. This was the Reese that often hid and who she was able to find. He felt things between the known world and other worlds. She had seen his sketches, how they captured the rich tension between the functional and imaginative, each frail pencil mark defining space with his vision. The houses he drew caught one’s eye and mind, such was his grasp of spare, soaring beauty.

He stood up and she looked all the way up to unkempt brown hair, at hazel eyes that shimmered with energy even though subdued.

“Yeah, well, I have to go now…” He held out his hand. “Thanks for everything. I hope you have a real good retirement.”

He held out his hand and she took it into her smallish hand and gave it a firm shake. “I think we’ll hear more from you, still.” She hoped it was true. She willed it to be true. “Yes, a good retirement is the least I can ask for! A nice long life on a park bench. You can feed the pigeons with me when I don’t know you anymore.”

He laughed again, shoulders bunched up, and then he did a small thing with all that teen-age muscle and bone and restlessness, with that crowning brain. He bowed. Then turned and left.

Garnetta put her head down and wept.

It was the last Sunday of June when Garnetta ended up at a favorite park with a duck pond. It was near an Italian restaurant where she planned on having a late lunch or early dinner. She had her book, one that she had put off reading so she could savor it, a biography of a woman explorer in the nineteenth century. She was hoping it spurred a sudden hunger for adventure, made her intrepid enough to vacate the country for a couple of weeks. 

Garnetta had lately felt going to the store and back was enough of an outing. It scared her. She was just sixty-eight, in good health, so why the sluggishness? Her friend Jane told her it took far more than two weeks to adjust to the thought of summer stretching into fall and so on–all without a desk calendar to direct her and a yellow Big Ben alarm clock to wrench her from sleep.

The second chapter had failed to snag her attention. Not a good sign. She watched the ducks swim in seemingly aimless circles, ducklings blithely following moms. The air smelled blue and green, all bright water and shadow-laden trees. It was sweet to sit and enjoy the moment for no good reason.

“Is this seat taken?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, it is!” She put her book beside her and turned to look at the man who spoke. He was taking the spot, anyway.

“Nonsense,” Rafe Kellogg said, and sat down. “I need a rest.”

“How did you happen along?”

“I came by the same path as you. I, in fact, often do. I live down the street. And yourself? Enjoying your altered life? Smart hat you have there.”

He let out a thin stream of cigar smoke in the direction of the pond. Garnetta imagined the ducks holding their breath, then decided it wasn’t all that terrible a smell. Just foreign. It was curious, his desire to stop by.

“I tend to go with the wind these days.” She flapped her hand over and up in the breeze. “But I haven’t found a fine unfettered life yet.”

Rafe puffed on his stogie. “No, I imagine none of us quite do though we delude ourselves pretty well. We just have to sort it all out, I guess.”

Garnetta stole a glance.  He looked different out here, away from the brick walls. Cigar smoker! More substantial but less stuffy in dark blue jeans and smart tennis shoes. He didn’t have his glasses on; they poked up from his jacket pocket.

“I plan on following the clues,” she said, closing her book. She ought not to bother him–but why not? He had insisted on sitting. “Any thought of a late lunch?”

Rafe looked away as if seeking the answer in watery reflections or the little island of stubby earth at pond’s center. “I’d like to go over there at night, that bit of land, flashlight in hand. Just a notion I have but I wonder how it might be managed? Without being caught or drowned? And, yes, lunch is something I’d like soon.”

She smirked at the thought of him wading through murk in the dead of night. It had an appeal. He grinned at her, large yellowed teeth resultant of cigars from years passed. But when he held out a piece of dark chocolate, Garnetta took it, then pointed out a flicker that landed nearby. Black bib and red dots under its eyes, a dash of yellow. She dearly hoped Reese would see one, too, wherever he was, whatever he was creating.