After the taxi dropped him off, he’d washed up and unpacked, then tossed his gym attire into a bag and shut the front door behind him. Cal Rutgers should instantly recognize this neighborhood like the back of his capable hands, but it never failed to throw him off kilter the first day. Hence the walk to the gym, taking in every window and lamppost and sign, his feet hurrying along the trash-free sidewalks on Holman Street.
The storefronts were pleasing in a reserved way on the deserted Sunday afternoon. An unexpected wistfulness visited him as he passed rooms that had kept him company over the years. Marionville was unlike most other places he visited, suitable, staid, conducive to passing time while preserving the best of a number of old-fashioned ideals. Best of all, it helped order his mind and body as he readjusted between trips. It decreased toxicity of endless travel, made less vivid the dangers of his work. More manageable. The familiarity beckoned him with its soothing commoness. It cheered him even as the threat of exhaustion hovered like a low-flying helicopter.
Cal pushed aside the sense of displacement, feeling lost. Odd for a man who was a rover, used to adapting moment-to-moment, adept at charting a course in unknown environments. This was the immutable spot on which he hung his hat–not in actual fact, he didn’t have one he’d hang on any hook–a town he had called home for over eight years. He’d figured it was as good as any, centrally located in the country, with friendly folks who’d mind their own business if that was better appreciated. Oh, they thought of him as their own local celebrity, sure–a published photographer! a world traveller!– and it tickled him when they hesitated on the edges of The Clock restaurant, say, glancing his way with curiosity. Such easily impressed citizens.
He’d look up from his plate of eggs and hash, nod with a lift of his chin and fork if it was someone he cared to talk with. Then he’d share a few tales and listen to theirs, and it would be a good visit for both. Something more to tuck away for another time. Perhaps a storyline when he ran dry.
Cal pushed open a metal-clad door. Mike’s Gym, homely hole in the wall, was the only one (of two) open on Sunday but even then it closed early at eight p.m. The space held no more than a handful now. Cal was greeted with a high-five by Mike and a few grunts from other men.
“What’s going on, Rutgers?”
Cal surveyed the warm, sweaty rooms, noted everything as it was before he left. “Just the usual, interesting craziness out there. What about here?”
Mike shifted from one foot to another like a fighter getting ready to lock into position, his forehead limned with perspiration, breathing a little hard. He’d been working out long before Cal had flagged a taxi at the airport an hour away.
“Same ole, same ole. Well, Greta’s pregnant again. A better profit this month, the coupons bring ’em in.”
“Good work. Tell Greta I said congrats–again.”
“Now where you been?”
“Just out of Columbia. Jungle assignment.”
Mike shook his head. “Yeah, that’s right. Catch any monster snakes or get caught?”
Cal laughed as he entered the dim locker room. He stretched, did twenty quick sit-ups that tired him after the “red-eye” and a couple of more flights home. He found his spot by the free weights, prepared to empty his brain of images formed, filed and dissected. An hour or so here and he’d free up life once more, settle into his loft apartment with a new point of reference.
As he lifted the dumbbells he saw his housekeeper Emma run past the smudged picture window, hair flying. He made a note to talk to Mike and Greta about her, then set to it with mighty effort.
He got annoyed with hotels and other drop-in places so the loft was a gift to himself, situated on a gentle incline above town center. He’d found it one week-end after visiting an old college friend, a lawyer–since moved on to bigger places and cases–and took possession of it after he’d returned from India. The fourth floor of a converted, mixed use warehouse, its spartan expanses appealed more than the Technicolor view of the valley. He liked moving about open spaces; it was the best he could do here. But, too, the loft was so unlike many places he had bunked, whether a tiny, dark bedstead or a one-man tent or makeshift accommodations involving thickets of bushes and his backpack. As a travel photographer, emphasis on wild, hidden or unusual places, he was used to curling up and falling asleep without much fuss.
This purchase was a welcome respite from that, as well as far-flung locales. Countless inconvenient, dangerous, stunning moments. Boredom or sore limbs that invaded the hours of patient waiting, the odd contortions it might take to witness, then capture shots.
But it confused him, still, at times–where he was, what he was really doing, why he was immersed in another culture or landscape that did not always welcome his enthusiasm and precise documentation.
When Cal got out of the shower at the loft after the work out, his fingers paused. The towel was a luxe, thirsty blue item that had been perfectly folded over the heated rack. Not the ivory towels he always used to keep it simple.
Wait, did he order these at a front desk? Did someone else on the team he travelled with bring them in? Was he in the right room? In an actual three-piece bathroom?
His eyelids fluttered. He was back in Amazonia with its pressing growth of greenery, the air dripping onto his skin, the most rudimentary facilities shared with insects, reptiles and any others in the area.
He opened his eyes and then the fluffy towel, tossed it over him. No, he was home.
It had to be the housekeeper, the gal Greta had suggested. She thought he needed someone to thoroughly clean up when he was away. Cal didn’t require much, he’d told her the day before he left six weeks ago. He maintained a habit of tidiness out of necessity, didn’t need much for his work there other than basics and his camera equipment and computer and other technological aids. Seldom left behind a mess. He had a habit of minimalism.
The loft was larger than required. There was a part of him that worried he’d start filling it with possessions not needed like large furniture or wrought iron candelabras or matched cookware. Or useless objects that attracted him on trips (he had a few but mostly gave them away), more irrelevant books he’d have to stack on the floor like teettering sculptures.
As far as housekeeping, yes, there were socks cast off and forgotten, stray hairs in the sink after he finally shaved a few times, wrappers of frozen ice cream treats that sometimes didn’t make it to the trash. He suspected dust accumulated like microscopic confetti without his help. It was an old building and he liked it that way.
He’d invited the young woman in, then told her housekeeping was not truly what he needed.
“The less I have to deal with, the better. I love my peace as well as a comfortable austerity. I’m a loner when at home, lean towards feral, nearly, fallout from my work.” He’d raised his eyebrowns at her placidity. “So, just how much would you have to do with all this, anyway?”
She’d looked at him as if he was speaking a peculiar language but she knew how to translate.
“I can take care of it all.” She looked over at the kitchen, which appeared untouched, then around the cavernous living areas. “I don’t think it will take me more than an hour or two after you leave if this is any indication. I’m efficient.” She pushed long hair away from her eyes, and pulled it back to make a quick bun of dark honey-colored strands.
Her eyes were orbs of green with dabs of amber in a face fashioned of fine bones. They sat above a prominent but classic nose. Expressive mouth. Androgynous at a certain angle. Captivating. Greta had confided that Emma had been a model once, then had suffered a tragedy, never mind what but she was a great housekeeper. She’d be around for a few months. Needed some easy cash is all.
“You’ve done this work before, I guess. I’ll pay seventy-five an hour. I’ll trust you to clock in and out on a schedule I’ll leave on the kitchen island. Get the keys from Greta and return them each time.”
He was anxious to catch his plane. Greta had reassured him but still, it was his home, his refuge. Here he wasn’t much keen on sharing it in general.
“I’m developing a creative arts website, well, fashion to start but yes, I clean and organize well. It doesn’t take brilliance to accomplish. I know who you are, and I know you’d like things done right.” She showed her teeth in a brief smile, then pressed her lips together.
“Yes, good. I have my own cleaners in the laundry area. I’m afraid I have to rush, thanks for coming. Just don’t change up anything.”
But she’d had other ideas.
When he’d returned after a shorter trip there had been a clear rectangular vase filled with black-eyed Susans on the metal and teak dining table. They were an unwanted anomaly and he felt irritated initially. As he crossed the room they did look lively against white walls, the wide window and the scene it framed. He left them a few days, then tossed them; rinsed and put her vase atop the refrigerator.
The second time he came back there had been an unscented, sage-hued candle in a small filgreed golden holder by his bed. He almost lit it, then hid it in a drawer. He thought that he didn’t want Emma in his bedroom, then reasoned that she had to do her chores. She was feeling creative about a very routine job, he guessed. Maybe she had lingered here imagining the ways it might be refreshed and chosen this candle as the least invasive.
But, still, he had told her to not change things. It prickled him then was soon forgotten. The night before he left he happened to look in the bedside drawer for something and there it was. He finally lit it, watched its flame evoke shadow dances on every surface. Remembered sweet hours of circling ’round fires in wilderness, so sat awhile with it in his hands.
Next time Emma had left on a living room lamp, as if she had just been there, wanted enough light to allow them both to better make their way. Which he did not need; the light of the moon was enough. His vision was excellent. He noted the bulb cast a dimmer light; perhaps a lower wattage. Maybe the other had burned out and she was eco-conscientious.
But it struck Cal that she left something of herself, a feeling both quiet and definite. It was nearly two in the morning and his every bone was aching from an arduous journey across mountains, then deserts, then a fourteen hour flight. But he slipped through each room cautiously, called out her name once. He stood in the middle of the loft and looked out over the slumbring town, hillttops ridges meeting starlit sky. Did she come here more often than she was expected? Why did she leave things differently?
Cal fell across smooth, crisp, foreign sheets of his downturned bed and slept thirteen hours.
He was home just eight days that time and never got around to calling Emma. He had first been concerned that she found it impossible to help herself, changing his perfectly good loft. It mattered less as time went on. When he ran into Mike and Greta, he didn’t even bring her up. Neither did Greta, he mused.
After that, he began to expect something different. The months passed and he sought out a small surprise, to his chagrin, as if he was a small child, even made a game of trying to guess what it would be, where it might turn up. He couldn’t bring himself to call her. And he mentioned it to no one. Candied orange slices in a dish. A butterfly wing set into a piece of glass on the desk. A tiny red bird hanging from a piece of string from the bright globe in the bathroom. A fanciful alphabet on silvery paper–made by her own hand?–left in one of his books as a marker.
He kept them all.
Then after a trip to Patagonia he arrived home mid-day to find a photograph housed in an ordinary black frame. Of Emma.
She was striding along a bank of stony beach shot through with wild grass, the lake beside it calm and silvery-blue. Her long tweedy skirt was lifting a little from boot-shod legs, the wind evident in her wild hair, face turned to him. She wasn’t quite smiling. Eyes were lit up beneath hooded lids. Emma had on an ivory Aran cardigan, one hand in a pocket. But the other held a lantern aloft, orange light casting a small halo before her and over the grasses. The sky above dark, backlit trees was imbued with deepening twilight.
It was beautifully wrought, incandescent with her presence. He searched for the photographer but none was noted. She seemed so real in that frame that Cal for an instant believed she was stepping into the room, would speak to him. It caused his mind to whirl and his fingers to itch for his own cameras. And his heart started to thrum more deeply.
Why herself presented but not a word to go with it? A gift of sorts, perhaps because he was a photographer. And she was the photographed. Likely it was from an old modelling shoot. But was there more going on here? He placed his fingers on her face.
Cal stepped away from it, turned off the lights, entered his room and collapsed on the bed where he dreamed of savannahs and zebras with Emma sitting tall upon one, his camera put aside, his tent then blown away by a stormy wind. She lifted her hand to him and rode off.
When he awakened, he had a need to meet with her, take her to lunch, ask her what was going on. Who she was. Sit with her, listen to her story. Get his own pictures. Learn her ways.
He called the number Greta had left him in the beginning. Months ago.
“You have reached Emmaline Hathaway. Please leave a clear message.”
He hung up, then slammed down the cell, picked it up, dialed Mike.
“Oh, yeah, sorry but she’s left town.”
“What? Left for where?”
“Yeah, she got some modelling gig. I don’t know much about it, you’d have to ask Greta. I guess they offered her really good money so off she went. But she was just here for her grandma, you knew that, right?”
“Grandmother? I thought she had a house here, shared it with a roommate.”
“Right, with her grandma at the house, not Emma’s, well, it’s hers now. The old lady had pancreatic cancer. Gone now, too, sad to say. Nice woman, too. Greta will find you another housekeeper.”
Cal thanked him and rang off.
He sat before the photograph. The lighting in the picture was lustrous even as it was shaped by shadows. He resisted the impulse to critique it and studied her, instead. Her face was a country of peaks and valleys and vulunerable points, her eyes wide. Glimmering. Watchful, attentive. Amusement, or was that joy wrapped up inside? Her mouth was still but he felt something was about to fall forward, a telltale sound, another clue that indicated more of who she was and what she meant by her fearless, open look. What was on the path she walked? What could she see as she surveyed the scene ahead of her?
And now–what did she see and do now?
Leaning back, he kneaded the grooves that lodged between his eyes. She had been telling him something, hadn’t she? She had maybe even been staying here from time to time. She had wanted to give it something more, a certain touch, a bit of whimsy, objects to bolster or amuse him. But she had left him mementos of herself when he did not object.
“Did you find refuge here, then?” Cal moved through the sunny, high-ceilinged volumes of space. “Did it help any? As much as it did me?”
Away from sadness, hours she spent with a dying grandmother. Maybe she had come here and let her eyes sting with tears, let them caress the slumbering town. And like he often did, wondering how long, how long did he have there. When would she have to move on. When her grandmother would pass on, yes, and then Emma’s very aliveness would be indelibly wounded. How long before she was squeezed back into the haphazard milieu of the world.
He understood the need to be here and also to go. It was a closing and opening of passageways, the realignment of points from which one departed one life and then resumed the other. It was his way, too. They had crossed paths but only just barely, and she had given to him almost imperceptibly yet so willingly. Cal felt her like a surreptious warmth spreading across his skin, then his soul. He knew any time he could reach inside to hold that seedling of generosity close.
But he’d find her. Or she’d find him.
Cal grabbed his gym bag and headed to Mike’s, his feet running along the aging sidewalks, the blue and sunny afternoon trumpeting possibilities, Marionville a salve upon his soreness. For now, he was back home.