The Detour


The problem is, he is insistent on using a map. They have a GPS but no, it’s his new map that’s consulted. The Macklebees have been cruising along the interstate when Gerry spots a thready side road in the crease of the brightly colored tri-fold map.

“No, not that way. Not this time! We have three hours to get to the birthday party and that’s that.”

Lucille is very certain of herself and her driving. Gerry finds her behind-the-wheel style plodding. Unimaginative. She has been a principal driver for the bakery delivery van for years and before that she picked up and dropped off clothing for her alterations business. Door to door; it is almost a talent. She is an exacting driver who knows just how to get places. Gerry wonders why she takes such pride in this, but it is true Lucille possesses a mind that becomes etched with relevant details and thus, she gets product or person to places on time because she doesn’t deviate.

Gerry, on the other hand, prefers otherwise and protests, even argues his point.

“We’re on the road. We haven’t had a trip since last fall. It’s all work, work, work–all well and good, but now it’s time to play. Let’s take a new road at exit 41.”

She makes her little humming noise, a cross between a grunt and a dismissive sigh. It is mid-morning. They are to arrive at their daughter’s and son-in-law’s by mid-afternoon. They always stop (the three other times they have visited the new place) for lunch at a cheery, cheap cafe situated just between breakfast and Anne’s place. Lucille looks forward to the route, an easy drive to the townhouse where Anne and Toby and their son, Edsel–the first grandchild, two today!–now reside at the edge of the capital city.

“I just want to get there. After a good lunch at Clare’s Classic Cafe. We can meander our way back on Sunday. There will be time then.”

“There’s time now, and the sun’s shining away and the corn will be growing vigorously in the country. Turn at the next exit, please, honey.” He reaches across the back of the seat and twice squeezes her plump shoulder, as if a loving signal she ought to obey.

She squints at the sign: six miles to the exit where there is also a rest stop. She might reconsider for the rest stop but then he will argue that they should continue down his vitally important side road. If he had flown planes or run trains for a living, the passengers would have ended up in unwanted, surprising, perhaps shocking, destinations. Luckily, he’s a reluctant businessman who discovered he had a knack for baking. And married her to keep all the slippery organizational data straight. The complementary set they make works well, like salt and pepper.

She presses the gas pedal and switches lanes in one swift move, as if their compact Ford is a dominant force on the road, then looks at her husband. “I think Toby is doing very well now. Anne didn’t say, but she did mention they bought a new–oh, what do they call it? A dial-your-own-firmness sort of mattress. And a new leather couch. So he must have.”

“Or she got a raise. She’s a good French teacher.” He smiles at the thought of her early French as a teen. “Toby’s just a hard guy to know. Sells car parts, likes rugby. And reads John LeCarre–in agreement with that interest.”

Gerry is holding the map closer to his nose. He recently got bifocals and it’s still a guessing game more often than not. He recalls seeing another side road, a county road that seemed to curl around hills, right into wine country. Maybe that would be more fun.

“Foreign car parts, not domestic. Makes a big difference.”

“I suppose so. You know, we might skip Clare’s Cafe and take our chances on roadside stands. If we follow this way.” His finger creeps along the tiny black line from exit 41 to nowhere in particular. He knows they might end up being late but it’s not as if they’re taking a meeting with the Pope. Anne will hardly notice.

“I think she is happier since the baby, don’t you?” She is certainly happier with a grandbaby.

“Hmmm, yes, and he seems happier. He wants a bushel of babies. I’m not sure Anne was consulted on that. She wants to live in France for a couple of years.”

“Oh, time for that.”

Gerry takes his eye off the map a moment to register the last few out-stations of suburban sprawl flashing by. Ping pong pow, he thinks irrelevantly as sunshine flashes off windows. He wishes they had a week off, not just two days. He feels an urge to get out and walk across the entire country. He often has this unruly impulse. It’s a childhood dream of his, given fresh impetus whenever they leave the city. It feels so close inside their house and bakery and also this dull grey car interior, even with windows cracked. He’d rather be in full control of his feet, pointing them elsewhere. Seeing more color. Anne understands, or did.

“If he wants her happy, Paris should figure into his big picture,” he mumbles.

When she was still a teen he’d told her he’d take her when she grew up. Then she grew up and went, anyway, and then got married. Gerry thinks Lucille is rather too optimistic about their son-in-law, though. He isn’t exotic, that’s for sure. Gerry also thinks they just need to focus on the pretty drive, not the family they will visit with for two days. Riding in the car always seeems to bring up subjects better left behind.

“Don’t start.”

Lucille waves away his words, then grips the steering wheel with renewed surety. Soon she will hug Edsel long and hard. She will just continue on. Exit 41 will come and go; he may not even notice with his nose in the crisp map. Gerry and his maps of everywhere, something she’s never understood. If not going there, why trace the routes?

The map is opened up. He loves to look at the entirety of Oregon, its topography highlighted in a select spectrum of soft colors, lighter to darker. The greens draw him in, just as actual forests do. On the map they’re series of irregular puzzle pieces. Inviting yet mysterious. They make populated areas notable for their comparative scarcity. This is a land shaped and regulated by trees. Owned by nature.

“It’s like a portrait, really, a rendering of places and experiences. History made. A record of dreams and daring. The earth.”

“What?” It’s map talk but it is habit to ask. Her dreamy husband.

“This updated map. I’d like to dive right in and find out more of what’s going on.”

“Gerry, here we are on the road, which is a squiggle on the paper map. You are actually having your experience right now.”

He almost disagrees but says nothing. She is thinking of one thing; he, another. He typically wants more.

“The exit, there, coming up!” He points.

“I’d rather keep going, stick to schedule.”

“I need the rest stop, anyway, don’t you?”

She taps the steering wheel with her short index fingernail.  “Yes.”

Once she parks and they get out they both stretch. Travelling makes her cramp up. She lumbers to the ladies’, he strides with looser limbs to the men’s. Afterwards, he enjoys a small cup of coffee after donating a dollar to the jar, tipping his baseball cap at volunteers from a service club. He likes the fact that they take time to serve mediocre coffee and cookies, welcoming everyone; it seems the best of being on the road in America. Gerry imagines they sit at rest stops all over the country, chatting and sharing treats. He’d like to find out if coffee is better in Georgia or Maine.

“You’ll just have to go again after drinking more,” she notes sharply as they start back to the Ford.

But she is not looking where she’s walking, and before Gerry can warn her, a small runaway dog dragging its leash crosses her path. It yelps as her foot entangles with the leash, giving the dog and her a yank.

Lucille knees start to buckle as her foot turns over but she grabs a trash receptacle.

And she half-straightens up. “Gerry?” Her round face is stormy with distress as she reaches to him, standing on the good foot. “My ankle!”

There is a flurry of activity as a couple of strangers check to see if she is okay and Gerry helps her to a bench, the anxious dog owner following. They examine it but find nothing remarkable; she can turn it without significant pain. There are effusive apologies amid Lucille’s stern advice, the dog given a very bad look. It backs away, panting. After a few minutes all seems better and they start back arm-in-arm.

“I’d better drive.”

“I think I’ll be fine, just a bit sore.” She turns back to glare at the offenders, now vanished. “Of all things!”

“It’s your brake and gas pedal foot.” Gerry takes the keys and helps her into the passenger seat.

Lucille grabs map and tosses it into the back seat. Dogs! Irresponsible pet owners! She is annoyed with the whole situation although she consoles herself with the fact of a sprained ankle being far better than a broken one. And it may not be sprained, only stressed. She hopes she can play with Edsel without impediment. That she can still help Anne while Gerry and Toby get to know one another better as they admire the updated patio and grill.

But there is nothing she can do about Gerry driving. No telling where they will end up. She thinks he looks a tad smug behind the wheel. If only he have any urges to stop, doesn’t take unnecessary chances on the unknown road.

She tells him so: “Just get us there soon, in one piece.”

“What sort of chances can you take with a six-year-old car on a lonely back road?” A smile skips across his narrow face.

Gerry’s chest prickles with excitement as he backs out, then soon enters the country. The road is eighteen miles long. A detour, sure, but it will reconnect to the highway. If that is what he decides to do.

His wife rubs her forehead with both sets of fingers. He lapses into happy silence though Lucille comments on the rough ride, barns in need of repair, farmers toiling in the summer heat. There are few other vehicles after a battered truck trundles down a private road with its load of crates and huge bags of , perhaps, fertilizer. He wonders what are in those crates.

“Don’t take the curves so fast. There might be pheasants or snakes or a stray cow, one never knows.”

Her hand often checks the tender ankle as she sips from a water bottle. Removes her slip-on sneakers and repositions her bulk. Her eyelids falter, then fall.

Gerry feels the release that comes with this quasi-solitude. The rows and rows of corn look triumphant. Wide front porches of farmhouses are dressed up with hanging flower baskets, painted chairs. Cats dash into driveways, chasing birds or mice or dust whorls and a few dogs chase him as he slows for a better look at barns and sheds, the yards, the men on the tractors who wave back. He has the windows open and the air is overwhelmingly sweet in that wilder way he misses smelling at home. Everything is brighter, clearer out here. The grasses dance in a rifling of wind. The treetops net light so that an entire line of them–are they only ash or cottonwood?–are pulsating against a sapphire backdrop. And then the rolling vineyards–stately, precisely designed, flourishing as intended, soon to be transformed into drink. What beautiful sorts of grapes ripen, ready themselves for offering delights?

This is what he waits for, a curvy country road on a summer’s afternoon. Oh, he loves his daughter and maybe her husband a bit. Of course, that Edsel boy! And Lucille, his right hand, his trusted partner in good and bad times. But to be free like a leaf tossed into a rippling river, that is what his soul craves, he would welcome the bumps and being submerged, the turning this way and that, the wondrous shock of fresh air above the surface. The heart-shaking thrill of tumbling over an unseen cliff and landing somewhere new again. To feel the stunning energy of life being lived up close, at full speed.

How can he live such a stationary life? Why was he born with such a terrible urge to roam? But he does not go and do. He has a business and a family and he does the right thing. But there are times he studies the collection of old maps in his home office, smooths the frayed world map on his wall, spins the globe the family got him for his fiftieth and stops it with eyes closed. Where will he go now? Mongolia! Patagonia! He wants to pack a light bag and head out.

The car carries them down the road, Lucille dozing, Gerry driving a little faster now, the breeze catching his cap so he takes it off to let the last of greying wisps rise like little flags. He sees horses ambling from one good feed spot to another, heads nodding, their elegant bodies without conceit. Everything here is only as it seems. A purity of animate and inanimate. Gerry drinks deeply of this peace. His sport shirt collar and sleeves flap. He stares at sheep grazing and black and white cows lounging in cool greenness. A bumble bee zooms in, buzzes about and then exits past Lucille’s lovely double chin. She turns her face to him. Gerry chuckles. He has mapped out this time and he is free of cares.

And then the car lurches and sways as a tire hits a pothole. He slows down, rolls to a stop near a fruit stand. Lucille has bolted awake but softness clings to her, the part that often hides when she’s awake. Her blue eyes are tender.

“What’s going on?”

“Fruit stop.” He gestures to the stand which is manned by a boy of perhaps nine along with a big, old dog with a long snout.

“Oh, my, look at that beautiful line up.” Her eyes dance, perhaps now grasping his devious plan.

She eases out the door and finds her ankle fit enough. After he inspects the tire and finds it intact, they take their time looking over a surfeit of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries. They inhale the scent of heavy cantaloupes, burgundy plums and ruby nectarines. He chooses a warm blackberry and pops it into his mouth, savoring its succulence, then places one into Lucille’s. They buy and snack more on the fruits of summer than planned. The boy carefully counts his cash and wishes them a good trip, his dog’s tail wagging in accord.

But they hesitate, lean against the door and listen to crows confer on the fence and follow a red-tailed hawk as it sails high, then low. A heron makes its way from meadow to sky. They try to identify a songbird’s mellifluous call, practicing the notes. They each eat a nectarine, juice dripping down chins. Sweat runs its path between her pendulum breasts, down his broad back.

Lucille takes his face between her hands and plants a kiss on his unsuspecting cheek. Her sticky lips fall just right onto his sun-warmed skin. He returns it, smack dab on her lips. The shimmering, endless road beckons them a little but neither mentions time or destination. No one suggests the highway. They’re right here and they don’t need to say one word.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson


An End to Quixotic Life

Photo-Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

After a brief business trip to the west coast they could have taken an earlier flight back to Virginia; he could have bypassed the visit altogether. It’s a jolt to be back here again. He imagines his grandfather would declare it unfit for eye and soul but he thinks the property retains some of its charm. Or it could with expert care. It was so much more expansive, open to sky and the grand Columbia Gorge when he was growing up. Trees, flowers and other plantings have gone wild, ravaging the grounds’ elegance. It used to offer such coherence of design.

It is Elinor, his wife of three years, who has encouraged them to visit once more. He was informed old family friends had taken ownership from the last buyers. Still, the late afternoon party invitation was an aside in the phone call, as if the Griswolds were not that thrilled to extend it but compelled by good manners. They had been eager to share their recent purchase, though. And there will be croquet so dress the part. So Patrick humors Elinor; she’s wanted to see the scenes from his upbringing. The place was in his family for over eighty-five years, after all, two generations.

Patrick feels there should have been a memorial of sorts, create a transitional ceremony noting its passing from one dynasty to…well, the Griswolds aren’t a dynasty but they might be someday with enough business acumen and luck. His grandfather and father would have appreciated that idea, some suitable bombast to mark its fate. But Patrick never quite took to Hal (who had once been a Harry; apparently Hal better suited him now), though maybe he did a little to Pris (Priscilla Martin before marriage).

Neither old friend had been any good at basketball or swimming, hadn’t shared his enthusiasm for spontaneous adventures. They had little use of reading for pleasure, something Patrick early on found improved on real life, plus he was easily held in thrall. The other two were the type that studied too hard to better forge ahead, making them seem more admirable. Maybe they were, though Patrick did well enough. Now his old cohorts seemed on the path to their own material glory. Back then their brief entertainments included gossip and television. They complained of heat and bugs when prodded into doing something even faintly athletic. So Patrick and his younger sister, Susan, included them since they were scholl cohorts but were not so close to them.

The tennis court is still intact, he sees, but weedy, a few snaking lines in the cement pad. He has an urge to bound onto the court, execute a few phantom serves. Do they possibly own tennis rackets and balls? The pool on the other hand looks good as ever, and now is being used by the Griswold’s seven year old daughter. Patrick wishes he had packed a swimsuit; he’d like diving from the low board and swimming a lap or two. He’s pleased Elinor undertakes her own social meandering after he introduced her to a few folks he once knew. Hal did the bulk of introductions, then let them be.

In the distance she looks ethereal with her wide-brimmed straw hat and flowing ivory skirt topped by a linen blouse. The setting is much better enhanced by her attire and grace than Pris in her crayon-bright attire. He warms at the thought.

“Is it all you remember, Patrick?”

Pris is standing behind him when she speaks but he still recognizes the scent she wears, to his surprise, something from Guerlain she once told him in high school. He never forgot it after they briefly dated; she was far more into him. He wonders if it was a deliberate choice today, then thinks himself an arrogant idiot for the thought. Maybe some never alter what was once liked. He finds that idea odd.

He turns abruptly to see her long-lashed eyes brighten with amusement. Discovers her square teeth unusually white.

“It is and isn’t what I recall. Ten years since I visited, after my father’s funeral. It was left intact, I think, after the other owners bought it. Which I appreciate. What about your plans?”

“I’d think it needs gutting and a total reno. Finally! It was getting old when you grew up in it. It needs more than a facelift now.” She turns as she places the lip of the tall glass to teeth. A delicate eyebrow rises. “Is that a shock?”

Patrick’s thin lips spread into a cursory smile. “It’s to be expected when a place ages, the fading paint, the creak in the floor. Our horse farm is one hundred fifty years old. But lots of people can’t stand antiquity. Newer means better, so we’re told. Faster, shinier, oh, yes, more ecological but also disposable.”

“I don’t plan on DIY work, no worries there. And I like a traditional look. Just a refreshed one, more color.” She steps apart from him and stares into the scenery. “How is Elinor managing on that place when you take off? She says you travel half the time. Doing heavens knows what, carousing with locals on Crete, I gather, or in Tuscany.”

“She’s devoted to her horses. She isn’t the kind of woman to pine away for an absent husband. Actually, I tend to wander alone more often than not. Scandinavia. India. Montreal. I love coming back to her…And how about you? How will you like it out here without the city excitement?”

“I grew up out here, remember? And it turns out I’m a bit artistic, I paint miniature dogs and cats. I have embroidery projects. I work part-time at the law office. And I have Laura.” She waves to her daughter who is just climbing out of the pool. “She might miss her friends so far out but she can have them out for sleepovers. There’s so much room! I thought it was bigger–as a child, it seemed beyond vast–but I do admit I still can feel lost.”

She looks at him as if expecting a memory to be shared, a moment of intimacy. Patrick’s mind brings forth the house’s interior. He knows how much room is there: eight bedrooms and five and a half bathrooms, a cool, shadowy formal living and dining room, a rustic family room, a leather-and-cherry study, a semi-circular breakfast nook and a pantry almost the size of the kitchen (once white and pale blue)–

“Patrick!” Hal saunters up, slaps his back and hands him a beer. “What do you think? I mean, really? Can you believe your old buddies are married, had a child and are now living here?”

Pris studies Hal and Patrick from under the fringe of red bangs. Patrick looks away. He finds her hair alarming. It was once auburn brown; now it is nearly the bright penny color of Elinor’s hair, an odd coincidence though his wife’s is the real thing.

“What do I think about your buying my family’s old estate? Or about your success in real estate? Or Pris’ very red hair?” He doesn’t mean it to sound so sharp, but the words hang in the air between them and silence gathers.

Pris lets loose a guffaw, to their surprise, then waves to a woman easing into the pool. She dashes off, leaving the men alone.

Hal eyes his old pal and wonders if he made the right decision asking him to stop by. They weren’t all that close and Patrick has turned out to be a semi-reclusive, story-scribbling type. He has published three suspense novels already and they seem to sell very well. Hal likes them. Of course, Patrick doesn’t have to actually work for a living with his marriage to Elinor and his inheritance. He can still play around while Hal works like mad to give his wife what she wants and deserves. What they both want. Including the Keating’s ancient estate.

“I’ve coveted this house ever since I met you,” Hal admits. “Now I have it to myself.” He sighs, a man well-satisfied.

“Really? You liked it that much? I thought you came over to harass, then attempt to romance my sister and, barring that, to avail yourself of all amenities.” Patrick slugged Hal in the shoulder, lightly but not too lightly. “But it was fun to have you and Pris and the rest over to play. We had some incredible pool parties.”

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“That we did. And Pris and I will again.”

“Remember the Fourth of July after our senior year? The fireworks our two uncles set off down below, how the sky over the Columbia River blew up with all those bright explosions? Then those stars later, which are always better. Pris and Susan and the others jumped in the pool fully clothed, music was blaring and you got lit on vodka, stinking drunk!”

“You always wore trunks underneath your shorts, ever ready for a quick lap around the pool, a grab at the girls! Yes, indeed, I passed out in Susan’s arms–eventually.”

Patrick squirms at the thought. “You did? Where?”

“Under that–” he spins around until he finds a towering elm–“that monster tree. That one nearest the brick outdoor fireplace or oven or whatever it is. There wasn’t any fire burning, of course, so no one else was over there but us.”

Patrick lifts his straw hat, scratches his head, then carefully resettles it. “Susan’s husband is at Oxford, you know, and she’s doing noteworthy new research on Joan of Arc. She’s happy.”

“Well, that’s great, good for them!” Hal reaches down for a stick, then tosses it into the air where it flips twice before making a rapid descent. It bounces into the pool. “But it was your house, I have to admit, that brought me back. We lived on the other side of the road, in a very sound split-level my dad built. Custom design and work! Pris and her family lived four miles east with her mother, yes, it was quite a bit rougher than today…We each lived such different lives. I absolutely wanted yours.”

Patrick finds this sad and a bit absurd. No one can take over another’s life. There are so many factors, the shifting strands of personalities, fortunes that change. You create your own life. Anyone can copy externals or repeat a few choices. But if Hal thinks his moving into their house will be as wonderful as it was for Susan and himself, their parents and extended family, he is in for a rude awakening. That house shared their lives, harbored, celebrated and suffered them well. There were decades of living through ups and downs. Things Hal doesn’t know about and never could understand. The Keatings created their home’s energy. It was seasoned with love. It was a testament to loyalty of family, dedication to noble enough aspirations, a friendly showcase of substantial and comforting style.

That Patrick took another route via Elinor and writing didn’t terribly distress his grandfather or mother. But his father stopped talking to him for five years, then regretted it when he became terminally ill. It could not have hurt Patrick more, those lost years, but in the end they found a commonality once more. They were Keatings, afterall, they were one and the same if with different stripes.

But the house, this acreage, has been in other hands for so long. It is not the same as it was and never can be, not even for Patrick. Certainly not for Hal. He and Pris will have to make it entirely their own, whatever that may be, just forget the varnished past.

He thinks of saying all this but he can see the gleam in Hal’s eyes, how the fervor of new success and the ownership of such a house and so much land have served to ignite him with fabulous expectations. He got what he meant to get.

“Pris may have had the right idea–gut it and start over. Make it something just right that suits you.”

“I can’t have that! We have to preserve as much as we can. I want it to be as it always was.”

“Good luck, then. It was a happy house for me. I hope it is for you.”

Hal shines with triumph and pumps Patrick’s hand. They reminisce as they walk the perimeter of the grounds. Patrick feels a shiver here and there: this is where their favorite calico cat ventured out and never returned; this is where he and Susan climbed a tree with their sleeping bags but Susan fell and broke her leg; this is the rock bench where he brought his notebook to write things on week-ends. The huge brick oven presided over wonderful barbeques, scads of people milling about, the Tiki torches casting their burnished glow on everyone.

Once back at the pool, he has the sudden urge to swim. He strips down to his boxer shorts.

“Wait, Patrick, really not appropriate this time, come back!”

He runs off the diving board, clutches knees in arms and executes a cannonball. Smacks onto the lambent surface of cool aquamarine water, then sinks and sinks into the depths. He keeps a strong hold on his breath. Opens his eyes. All is lit up, gentle perfection, voluminous space emptied of distractions. He shuts his eyes and floats sideways, then upward when there is a rush of water and bubbles beside him. He sees Elinor’s white blouse rising off her chest, her skirt ballooning around her bent elbows. She has a giddy look. Her long red hair streams around her, fire and water commingling in this momentary heaven. Her mouth tells him, I love you.

They grab each other’s hand and float upward, their heads breaking surface. They gasp and giggle, arms thrown about each other.

All around them are the party goers, some considering jumping in, most staring at them with a mixture of admiration and distaste. Strangers drinking and eating and whispering and plotting on this land that was once Keating land. Not his now. It doesn’t cause any pain to say it aloud so he does, to his wife.

“This is so not my life, anymore. It’s a relief to be returning to our own place, my real life.”

“Yes, so right.”

Streaming water, they walk to an edge of the property where she picks up sunglasses and purse from the picnic table. They pause to admire a last time geography of his youth, the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. The place that set him dreaming and moving on a good course.

“Patrick? Elinor?” Hal and Pris dash toward them with towels. “Can we help you back to the house?”

“No, we’re on our way.” He sweeps his arms open and around the area, turns to Hal’s disapproving expression.”Treat it kindly but make it your own. It may take good care of you.”

“Where will we change?” Elinor whispers as they walk away.

“In one of their bathrooms or in the cab?”

“Your pick.”

They leave the others chattering, no apologies offered for the pool plunge. No last words for this good land, the esteemed house. Off to horses and stories. A sweatier, more intriguing, contented life.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson


A Poetry of Sisterhood, Past and Present

Birthday, lilac farm and tulips 5-12 151

I was going to write about writing and reading poetry, its innards and otherness, how its spareness rearranges and keeps honest the core of living. Then my sisters stepped forward. One lives on earth; the other does not.

I have kept a snapshot on a table that sits inside the front door. We three are standing together on a river walk in Astoria, a town we visited on one of our too-few sister getaways. We are grinning, arms about each other’s waists. Taken several years ago, we look chubbier than more recently. I study the softness of our faces revealed by late spring light. We are confident, sure we will be there for each other year after year. I stand in the middle. Being the youngest, bookending myself with each sister is natural. None of us was/is tall, but we stand firm. They have white or greying hair; mine is still brown in the photo. An anomaly in my family. But I think the white is flooding my roots in the last few months, trying to catch up with the others.

Maybe my hair is grieving.

I still don’t know whether to use present or past tense half the time. Marinell passed away a few days before my birthday in April. Allanya is still here, in the same city as am I. Which to state: we were, or we are, or we will be…There are these new gaps–not one but many–like crevasses we note, then assiduously avoid.

But everything has changed. Everything. When one sibling dies and leaves the others behind, nothing fits in the same way. We became parts scattered by a toss into the circle of our expectations and hopes. Landing, though, outside the usual parameters of things. It is being alone in a good boat that, even when secured at dock, rocks with the waves–but it isn’t quite a comfort. It’s off-kilter. I stand with feet apart and scan for the others. Wait.

I have two brothers, one nearby and one on the other side of the country. We occasionally speak of many things, but not Marinell’s death. We are kind to one another. We note our health and projects. They are engaging in various captivating activities, invigorating travels. They live forward, I assume, as before. I haven’t asked them recently what else, what now–now that we are four in a family meant to be five (seven with  parents, gone as well). But their presence make two linchpins in the wheel of my life, helping it keep its place.

But sisters. They can occupy the same internal territory at a glance. Marinell and Allanya have been as close to me as any of my friends. More so. Not just because we were born of the same parents, but because we have embraced each other thoroughly. Our differences have skirted around the edges of conversations. We’ve had divisions and multiplications of positive and negative in our lives. Some shared like a knotted rope. But we didn’t waste time on the oppositional, rather forged connections all ways we could. Empathy, full throttle, has made it easy, no matter that we have inhabited different lifestyles. Mutual respect has been restorative in a world that seems to often disregard it.

Allanya and I care about helping people, the arts, our families, about creative work and nature. About how we can live from inside out, manifesting the Divine Love we know to be real. The same can have been said of Marinell. I do not idealize any of us. Our errors have informed our knowledge of the world and ourselves. No one has judged; we’ve gotten those stings from elsewhere.

Allanya has been an executive director of such diverse agencies, she acts that way more often than not, but her tender compassion can light a brave light in the dark. She collects turquoise and primitive paintings, yard creatures that she rescues from curbside, then repaints. Allanya is devoted to her family, so is often busy, as am I. But on the phone and face-to-face, we can erupt into laughter as well as weep without hesitancy. We have affinity, we have loyalty galore.  We eat chocolate together when sharing errands. Remember old flames.

Yet, we somehow steer away from the places our sister has occupied, literally and emotionally. We need more time to assimilate the truth, I suppose. To add it all up. To dispel the undertow of tears so we can reminisce with light heartedness.

The power of place is resonant of people in ways that perhaps only scent can be. For a few decades Marinell lived three and a half hours away. I cannot imagine returning to her quaint town outside of Seattle yet. There would sit her two-story pale yellow house with many windows, snug on a hill. Now owned–taken over–by others. Her music room is likely a television space or guest bedroom. Her burnished cello and grand piano were sold to strangers two years ago, when she and her husband moved to Texas. The thought still elicits a gasp. I may not even enter Seattle, a stellar metropolis that is resplendent in its offerings. It used to be partly hers–where she played in the symphony, shopped at Pike Place Market with us, attended Seahawks games. I imagine it less welcoming now, a city other people get to use for their pleasures and ambitions.

She was the reigning family historian. Lineage details and events and rumors were kept in her excellent memory, as they were in our mother’s until she passed at ninety-one. Now who do we contact when wanting to know where our second cousin once removed ended up? How will we know what really went on for our grandparents and parents during the Depression? And what was the name of that great-aunt’s gadabout son and did he ever marry?

I think of calling her every week. There is something I need to hear from her. Anything, a chortle of delight, a surprising insight, a question put in such a way that it never meant harm. She and I had many of the same health issues so shored each other up with two wills. We meant to endure without fuss, to give gratitude a refreshing.

I think of her answering the phone, that lilt of her refined voice, also capable of improper asides. How those beauty queen (literally) hazel eyes warmed the room. A tentative breath, then a pause when thinking, biting her bottom lip.

Everything was beautiful in her world even when it wasn’t. She found it, nurtured it, carried it, shared it.

I peruse the memroy bank and find us taking the (small, not large) yacht voyage for a week through the San Juan islands and sparkling Victoria; the journey to Banff where bears gorged on berries and we were awed by the Rockies; and that trip to tulip fields where we three sisters us sat gabbing amid such a profusion of color it was as if we were painted into a living canvass. And the shopping we did. We caught up on even serious personal issues while weaving between aisles, browsed the sale racks–all with pungent asides on good, bad or plain ugly fashion. I shake my head thinking of updates on crises amid discussion of earrings and scarves–but it worked fine.

My sister. Mercy and flowers, courage and fine crystal, stamina and a Bach concerto.

There will be no new times, not here, not soon. I accept she is gone, and I know where I feel she is. But she is not within my reach and it still shakes my heart without warning, a rattle of sorrow in the quietude of my days and nights. I keep trying to fill those gaps with frail wisps and little souvenirs, even epiphanies of memory. She shone for me. For so many.

This was to be about poetry. It has become musings on how I have been a sister with two other sisters, now one to one. That number flummoxes. But I will rebalance. What is left is what was before, a peculiar lessening and yet, still more.

Allanya and I are closer in age so became friends first and longer. Our childhood territory was marked by quiet fighting, sharing food and secrets. Co-conspiring of kids, and then deep sympatico as adults. Marinell was thirteen years older than I; eight more than Allanya. Perhaps her re-entering my life much later made it different, my being youngest to her oldest. She was a sort of second mother, pushing my pram, reading me books, reinforcing good manners. In time our ages better aligned as we discovered in each other solace and good humor, shared revelations.

I knew I was a grown up when I felt equal to my sisters–trustworthy, a part of their repartee, present for them and entirely able to return their affection.

The years gave, then took. As they do.

The poetry has been about herself, afterall. About accepting that loss swoops down on us, picks us up and drops us, altering all. Even how I think about journeying into the Olympic National Forest, where I know she walked and wondered about her health and future. It is about a sister who calls forth these words and inscribes the vibrating notes of my mourning. In truth, she liked my stories and we once made music together at her piano. I have written pages for her to critique; now I just write for myself. The music, it whispers.

As the days pass, sadness visits me and burrows but in time healing will complete itself enough. I have been enriched by her comings. Now her going. Yet I will find her in myself because we are ever sisters.

In the end, nothing can be perfectly retrieved from the past but love.


His River Nights and Days

Image from Breathless
Image from Breathless

There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.

The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.

“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”

“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”

“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.

“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”

“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”

“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”

She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.

This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.

He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”

Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.

He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.

“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”

She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.

“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.

“I know–then…”

She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.

He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.

Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”

“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”

She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.

With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.

Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.

“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.

“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”

“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”

Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”

“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”

Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.

“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”

She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.

A Garden of Dissent and Dreams

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Tully and Freda followed the couple on a sinuous walkway that led from one sprawling garden to another. It wasn’t exactly intentional, only in the way you decide someone else’s idea is better than yours so avail yourself of it. Without other intentions it was easy to find their way stepping into someone else’s scenario.

They–Tully and Freda–had gotten up arguing about the heat. She said the light sheet entangled her like a tenacious blanket all night and she may as well skip her shower, she was already drenched. Tully said they needed a big new fan, that’s all, but then he could hear her slamming the frig door closed, rankled by what was available for breakfast. He scrambled eggs for her, which helped only long enough for her to swallow the second bite, then she complained about the sunlight torching her legs and feet under the table.

“Summer! I’ve had enough. Bring back autumn’s rain!”

Tully put his hand on her shoulder but she shrugged it off. “What are we to do with ourselves if you already find today so repugnant?”

“Away from heat-radiating concrete, into nature might help.”

“Despite offensive sunshine blaring away on everything?”

She slurped her orange juice. “Yes, despite. I love flowers, as you well know. Let’s go see what they have to offer.” She got up, left her dishes and climbed the narrow stairway to get dressed in as little as possible, this being short cut-offs and a worn black tank.

Tully felt his own mood dip as he wiped up bread crumbs, soaked the frying pan. Freda was usually far sweeter in the mornings. But things had changed overnight. Her job was deleted; she was suffering from deflated self-esteem. Plus, he wondered if she was having withdrawal from the air conditioning in her old office. He had been raised in the desert, usually wore a hat and long sleeves, and felt fine.

They had chosen gardens as their Saturday escape. Freda could mosey about and absorb floral fragrances. Tully could be happy moving in any manner, anywhere, to avoid congealing on the fake leather loveseat.

After a tranquil Japanese garden tour which left them with a smattering of higher thoughts and fewer snappish words, they spotted a striking couple strolling hand in hand. She wore a flowing red and white-flowered sundress, quite exquisite, they agreed, with her black hair flowing. He appeared attractive enough, displaying impressive shoulders. Then Freda heard the man correct the woman’s language usage–she was speaking uncertain English. The woman turned her head from him but he tugged her hand until she looked back.

“You hear that? He has the nerve to correct her. She’s probably trying her best.”

“Keep it down. Maybe he’s her tutor.”

“Awfully friendly for that. Likely her boyfriend or husband. He seems to believe she requires his expertise to communicate.”

“It would seem she could use his help, as I said,” Tully nodded.

“Can’t you be more generous with empathy?” Freda shot at him and hurried ahead.

“What? Apparently not…”

Tully let her gain a few feet ahead before he closed the gap. He kept his eyes on the lush landscaping, the treetops reveling in glowy breezes. He knew his wife was still reeling from being laid off almost three weeks prior, but felt she was overdoing moodiness. She just wasn’t any less expendable than the rest, but she took it personally. They had first argued after she said he had not thought of her feelings, only of her job prospects. He had plenty of thoughts, her feelings being one if not always the top pick. He cared for her, but he also knew Freda could get another position at a better company before the month came to a close. She had never been unemployed; she was a technology whiz. For now they could manage on his teacher’s pay.

The attractive strangers striding ahead of them took a turn, descended steep stone steps and entered the rose gardens. The woman moved as if she floated, torso erect, head high but not too high. Her partner walked heavy on his heels. He bent down close to speak to her.

“Shall we?” Freda pointed at them.

“You mean trail them? That’s your game. I’m all for smelling roses, though, that’s the point of being here.”

All Tully could see from where they stood deliberating was the glare of light skipping across people’s heads or hats and onto a few rose bushes. It all shone as if with celestial stage lighting. He had forgotten his sunglasses and squeezed his eyes shut a moment. Shade trees were sparse in this part.

Freda started down another set of steps.

“Let’s go in. We’ve not seen this garden blooming in a year.”

But the roses were thirsty and not so soft to nose or fingers. Most had passed their prime, a peak experience missed. Freda was disappointed but kept marching up and down rows of bushes, sniffing away, taking mobile pictures. At the end of a row of elegantly colored Peace roses, she turned to beckon Tully. He was examining a bee in the blossom next to her, keeping safe distance, thinking a tall glass of iced coffee would do them both good after this.

“Where are they now?”

“Over there, last I saw.”

He indicated with his head where the couple had gone. They had stopped under an arched trellis and seemed in deep discussion. Freda took ger husband’s arm and steered him toward that area.

“I really don’t feel like stalking people today, honey, maybe tomorrow,” he said, hoping to get a smile.

She blinked twice. “I’m not stalking, just observing. We can sit in a patch of shade near the summer concert stage. I just want to see if she’s okay. There’s something tough about him, don’t you think? I sure wonder what they’re about.”

As they made a wide sweep around the dark-haired couple, Tully thought she might have a point. It did seem as though they were arguing, though quietly. Well, beautiful people had issues, too. Not surprising these days, climate problems and warring and money shortages. People got mad sometimes, yet this was a sign of life in his opinion. He shook the thoughts off.

As Freda walked closer to the couple, he let a groan escape. She wanted to interfere, he could see that. He believed that people generally made right choices. And if not, were capable of mammoth change for the better when put to the test. She was far more skeptical.

Tully eyed the shady places to sit in the terraced hill above a semi-circle cement stage and wished there was music. He’d like to lean back, rest under a gentle dome of soothing sounds but he heard his wife’s bold whispering.

“That guy is insisting she stand still and listen to him. He’s practically pulling her into place, why is he doing that? She looks so passive, her face is showing nothing of what she must feel. No, no, she’s…scowling, or maybe smiling, trying to pacify him, yes. Well, he’s backing off now, he must have come to his senses. You can’t boss someone around like that, not in this public garden. Huh, she’s waiting for him to do something now.”

“Freda, sit with me.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be with him? What if she’s….made to be with him and can’t get away? We might need to help her!”

A passerby glanced her way and hurried on. He had heard the rise of agitation, too, anxiety trumping mere curiosity, her imagination running away from reason. She had been so up and down since she lost her job, she had nothing but worry to consume her and skew things. It made him nervous lately but didn’t show it. One of them had to be steady until they got over the hurdle.

“She’s fine, she’s standing there with him, not running off, she’s out for a nice afternoon with her man. Please come and sit down. It’s nothing to us, anyway.” He walked over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. She resisted. “It’s weird, Freda, to keep such close watch on folks we don’t know. Come away, okay?”

She walked, feet dragging, to the hillside and took a spot beside him.

“I’m sorry. I’m so out of sorts. I let my imagination take over me, don’t I? Well, I do like to know what people are about.”

“I know you do. But why not let strangers keep to themselves and hope for the best? Or at least be more dsirceet about it.”

She pulled her knees up to her chin. “In case you didn’t notice, I’m more aggravated with life, less inclined to be generous with hope, lately.”

How to salvage this outing that had started so well? He put his hand on hers. “Look at all the people having a good time, sunbathing, even! Having picnics, Freda. We’ll have to do that again sometime, right? The air is so dry with no rain in three weeks but things sort of…sparkle, don’t you think? Colors are brilliant.”

“It makes things droop, get brown and prickly. I am not good in this weather, not one bit.”

She turned to better study the couple under the arch. The man was taking the woman’s hand in his, now she was shaking her head but not pulling back. Who was she? Was she family or friend? What was so important under the climbing roses? Were they maybe hiding from someone? Or just having more words, the JUly heat driving them mad? Freda did this when she was upset, made up things about strangers. Tully sometimes found it entertaining, sometimes tolerated it. It had started long before he came into her life, an odd coping mechanism. But other people’s lives sometimes seemed to hold more or better things than hers. She even tried to foresee their fate, pronounce it happier or safer or more exciting. She supposed many people did the same but didn’t admit it. Who could not help wondering about each other, social creatures that humans were? Or being nosey, at the worst. She didn’t want to end up like that, a misguided busybody.

“Freda. About your unemployment.”

She pulled at the grass and left bare spots of earth.

“It will work out. You got laid off, not fired: repeat this daily. You’re getting unemployment. Keep looking for a better job–someone will spot your value soon enough. You never liked your boss, anyway!”

Her head snapped up and she looked him in the eyes. “Dan? Of course I liked him…at least when he was on beam, doing his job. He was funny, that much I’ll give him, when he was happy with us.” She patted his hand, which she then removed. “It’s my friends I miss, not the job. Paycheck, too, naturally. Well, and the routine, of course. I suspect I’ll find work. I’m just not used to being tossed out like that, as if eight and a half years is nothing. It hurts.”

“It’s longer than many people remain at a job. You’re so good at what you do.”

“I was up for promotion! Now I have to start over.” She wiped at a tear that slipped out. “I know, I’m quite beside myself. I must get a firm grip.” She lay back on the grass. “I’ll call an office mate who got the boot, too. We’ll hash it out.”

This pleased Tully, her about-face. It was clear she had to move on after all the moping and grumbling, staying up half the night. She had made the decision to start anew and so she would, that was her style. He was chagrined about not having more faith in her. She was always a surprise.

But right now he wanted to shield her from the sun. Her skin was so smooth and fair. Hold her. Maybe recite a poem he had been re-working this summer. Cook tasty clams, whip up a chocolate tort. Just take her home, spread about peace, instill joy. It would be such a relief to get on with things.

Freda rolled over so she could frame the pretty couple under the rose-covered trellis with her flattened hands.



“Look. He’s taking pictures of her. Maybe she didn’t want to or maybe…wait, is she pregnant? That’s why she’s so voluptuous, maybe. If not, she’s still a young Venus, what genes.”

He raised his head and studied her, too. “That might be it. Maybe she was fussy about being photographed when pregnant or, well, something?”

“Not fussy,” Freda said propping chin in hands. “Just…sensitive. She looks wonderful, don’t you agree? Lush. Full of miraculous things! I have to be wrong about them. They seem alright, I guess. I just had a lapse, of imagination and, I admit, small-mindedness. What do I know?” She laughed her throaty laugh then was still a moent. “Gosh, what a lucky woman, look at her smile…”

He heard her but there was something more, a wistfulness, a desire. Was she…? No, couldn’t be. She wanted her career, too. They were responsible people despite harboring streaks of zaniness.

Smoldering warmth found its way into the grassy shade. They found each other’s fingers and laced them together, grew languorous at last in the July afternoon, on an edge of the garden of roses. They were together in this wonderful muddle of living. Tully thought how they had labored hard to get this far, had fallen through hidden trap doors and climbed back out, had secured a home at last that they loved, had made progress in fledgling careers. They had enough things and far more of love.

“Are you…?”

“No,” she said, “but I now see I might like to be.”

Tully touched the tip of her nose and her eyes opened, hazel irises encircled with gold, a smile taking over her lightly freckled face. His longish dark-blonde hair fell forward along with sweat, which slipped off him and onto her tank top and chest. He kissed her forehead, chin and then her lips, hoping this was answer enough, as he wasn’t up to talking, only dreaming, now. Greenery’s perfume mixed with an array of roses settled on them so that they fell under summer’s spell.

The photogenic couple under the trellis started up rows of nodding red and yellow and peach roses. They entered that haze of blood-deep heat, hands just grazing as they sauntered through the grass, up stone steps, then disappeared under a canopy of hickory trees.

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson