Your Life Reset in Motion

Father's Day, beach, other 154

Over the past six decades, I have been adversarial towards my body as well as its greatest ally. Especially since I have so far outlived the prognosis given me at age fifty-one. I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of coronary artery disease and I get check-ups every year–and as needed.

So I recently had my yearly treadmill stress test with an EKG and heart ultrasound plus a new one (to examine carotid arteries along the neck) two weeks ago. I got the results Monday. My brilliant, effusive heart doctor arrived with his usual intense focus. Technical language rolls off his tongue like a romantic foreign language. He quickly but carefully explained each test result, the whys and wherefores of a couple of anomalies and the improvements. The results were encouraging–over fifteen years, I have had mostly good news. Despite two carotids in my neck starting to clog up a bit, one moderately so at 50-70%.

Wait a minute. I sat forward. What did he say?

But he wasn’t particularly alarmed.

“There are six of them feeding the brain– a great delivery system God provided. You can manage fine with a couple not entirely in prime shape for much longer. Plaque builds up gradually in everyone’s carotids as we age, not just yours. We’ll check next year unless you call me first with any complaints. Something will be done when it is necessary, but not that soon.”

And that one stiffening valve noted the last two years?

“Gone. I see no evidence of it now.”

But what about the slight enlargement of one heart chamber noted last year?

“I almost suspect it only looked a bit larger for a number of reasons…it’s showing nothing more, it operates beautifully, and you have a small rib cage so parts of your heart can appear bigger at different angles. In short, I make note of all but nothing concerns me about this, either. I will keep an eye on everything, of course.”

We talked a bit more; I am a patient who asks many questions. But since he had been up since four  in the morning and he was in scrubs (hospital conveniently next door), I went easy on him.

“So. I’m holding my own, still–I will just keep on keeping on. Live with the arrhythmias as best as I can, as before.”

“Cynthia, in truth, you somehow have the strong, hard-working heart of a fifty year old woman, rather than a sixty-six year old, despite coronary artery disease. But the heart disease is still a reality. You have done amazing things by staying nicotine-free, exercising so much daily, eating healthily, taking great care of yourself. You know you’ve outlived life expectancy–and you’ve even reversed a few things! You look fantastic.”

I think he really meant my heart, but I blushed a little, anyway. I had gotten up way before my usual time to get to an early appointment and felt bleary, more so due to feeling some anxiety about these visits. But now: relief. He extended  open hands to me with a warm smile and I reached back. We are a partnership and he is just as responsible, no doubt about this, that I still stand and well enough. He listens and he takes excellent action at the right time–so far so good.

“How much do you exercise now?” he asked reaching for the doorknob.

“Still about 2-4 miles  a day; I tend to power walk those. On week-ends, I hike up to two hours or so at a time. I love both. One recent fun time I walked through a nature refuge for nine miles. I could have gone more–I was not that tired–but I was hungry and my husband felt done long before then.”

“That’s great work, Cynthia. You’re a star patient, as ever.”

As I exit, out flows a long fast breath, tension ebbing once more.

It significantly delineates my life, this yearly meeting. It is a marker, tells me if I succeeded in staving off further damage one more year, keeping the disease from progressing, maybe making it recede a bit. But right after I underwent the first medical intervention, I was terrified to walk more than a block by myself. I envisioned my glaring lack of health and nearly sabotaged my progress. Then I thought: I will either die on the sidewalk as I walk around the block or I will go on living and my heart will get stronger again. I better get going.

Dr. P. had been the only cardiologist able to see me the day after my heart event. It had happened on a hike in the Columbia Gorge; I was brought to my knees by chest pressure and pain. After Dr. P saw me, the hospital and stent implants to prop open an artery 95% occluded. I came out of recovery and thought: At barely fifty-one, what will I need to do to get back? 

So when I got out of this week’s appointment was I more than relieved? One finds happiness comes with a dose of caution regarding heart disease. I found myself thinking of that carotid artery being more than 50% closed. Then I just let it go. I trust him. And I trust my own body to tell me when I need to get help.

I didn’t always trust it. I tried to ignored it. Too often took poor care of it, even disrespected it. I thought it tricked me, perhaps hated me many times. And this was long before I was fifty and headed for a fatal heart attack. It has been a long run of challenges. Yet, truly, I remind myself how fortunate I am every day, even the hardest days. I know my life could have been another tale told, one that was far more intolerable and ended early.

In the illustrious and checkered annals of history, no one will note much less recall this woman’s tiresome battle with and burgeoning love for her own body. For one thing, we all have body concerns and issues, beginning perhaps from that initial burst and flow of oxygen into lungs at birth. How easy is that, to be expected to step forth and embrace another sphere? We are built for it,  and yet it seems an uncertain thing desired since infants often require encouragement. The new body is smacked, the breath is sharply taken in and a cry erupts, the arms and legs tremble and tight fists punch the air. Bigger arms of newly appointed guides reach to embrace. Welcome to life on earth.

Unless, possibly, one is born as my youngest daughter, via the LeBoyer Method, quietly. Into a large basin of room temperature water, in a bedroom, with classical music flowing about our ears. She doesn’t remember this but she was an unusually happy, peaceable baby. I do. She made her way up my abdomen and chest like a part-water creature, making friends with air and gravity. But neither do I have memory of my birth; I am sure it was quite ordinary.

But the following complicated times shared with a cantankerous, wise and spirited physical body? I recall them well. So do you, I am sure. We inhabit this compact gateway to life that carries most all we need to operate (I suggest spirit or soul, whichever you prefer, also has mighty input). Such a marvelous system of sensory information. The mind incorporates diverse bits and pieces to create a comprehensive understanding of what is happening at any given moment. Chemicals, hormones, neural pathways–our brains thrive when given what it needs. And we are meant to get up and go. To set ourselves into motion, no matter shape or size or gender.

But it gets more complicated. Our flesh, muscle and bone do not just comprise a convenient vehicle with which to roam and interact. Our bodies are part and parcel of our identities. Which, I have often wondered, comes first? Most all parents are powerfully drawn to their new creation, such wondrous flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. Beyond basic nourishment, the manner in which they react and engage with that infant goes a long way toward determining how the infant grows–and grows up. Our personhood appears to develop the moments we are cradled or not, picked up or not, spoken to and sung to, or not. We are born with all essential equipment–if we are fortunate. And then we have to figure out how to live comfortably within its confines, with and without our caretakers’ adequate assistance.

And that has been an undertaking frequently felt as defeating when I got started on my journey, before getting anywhere close to halfway along the path. The other side can look like the same place as where you started if you have chronic fear or stubborn self-doubt, combat spiritual, emotional and physical pain. Because I think it can be helpful to others who’ve suffered, I haven’t kept it a secret here that as a child I was sexually abused for a few years by a man (not of my blood family). And then lived through attempted rape and beating along a railroad tracks beside a park as a young teen, an actual rape five years later, and more abuse as I became an adult. I began to feel like a target for anger or hate by then.

These leave a deep imprint on body and soul; they can go a long way in defining who you think– then believe–you must be. Or are no longer. It spreads in your being, stealthy, silenced, potentially deadly.

It took some years to face the damage squarely, to bit by bit heal the gaping rawness of those hidden wounds. But if there was one thing that motivated me, it was first an angry resolve that nothing and no one would stop me from living more of the life I wanted. There would not be lasting defeat. I would not give up rightful ownership of my own true self due to crimes committed against me. The past would not dictate my present or future. Even when I was on my knees praying through tears, body aching, mind spinning, my soul overcome, I believed I would get through it all because the alternative was not part of my deepest desire: death or sentenced to lifelong pain and misery. I needed to live a rich life with optimistic curiosity. Fearlessness again. I could feel this stirring, still.

But before that could come about I experienced adolescent breakdowns–due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder undiagnosed until age twenty–abused alcohol and drugs, and developed dangerous alliances. Teetered on the thin edge of a lifestyle that eventually cost me dearly. It becomes easier to live recklessly when you are not longer clear about how to live and stay safe.

I gave up high academic goals (though I attended university later), lost opportunities, including a possibility of becoming a professional singer. My dreams fell apart. Moment by moment, I sought any minute flickering light within darkness. It seemed each time I got to it there was something else to blot it out for some years. I began to suspect this was going to be life as I knew it, with no more good chances.

And yet there remained a soul-deep longing for a fulfilling life and so I held on to what hope could be mustered. It was centered on God, Whom I had still known and loved. God was yet moving in my life despite my sneering, my new hardness and that subterranean despair. But it was also the person I still yearned to be, calling me forward out of the muck and disarray and a long-buried outrage against merciless perpetrators who had derailed my life. How to recapture what I once knew? There remained, somehow, a slim belief that I might deserve more. That I was born into this mean and beautiful world both worthy and cared about.

That I would one day not be–or feel–so unsafe. That I could rest without nightmares awakening me from the moment I closed my eyes. That I could walk on a busy street or quiet forest trail and not be readied for a fight every other moment. That every man did not seem an enemy in disguise–I had brothers and a father who were honorable, trustworthy, so why did it all have to come to this?

That I could count on body, mind and soul to hold my life up like a colorful flying flag, not a pathetically broken thing.

I recount these times for a good reason so bear with me. I found some excellent, useful solutions, alternatives to a cheerless life.

I have always thought these were at the core of my earlier childhood: vivacious engagement physically, a happy abandon to the many offerings of daily life, fearless exploration of my communities, (neighborhood, church, school). I was not afraid for many years. I was cared about, for I had family and friends who were there day in, day out. But I think, too, during my growing up, that my own physicality had a hand in my survival and process of healing.

Since being very small I felt strong and confident inhabiting my body. I felt sturdy on my feet, felt free within my skin. There was perpetual delight in movement: dancing, climbing trees, riding my bike and doing tricks with it, ice skating, tobogganing, playing Kick the Can and Red Rover, badminton and volleyball, swimming, track and field games/competitions, softball, water and snow skiing, a bit of boating and sailing…well, the list goes on. There was little I did not have an interest in at least trying out, then practicing if I liked it. If it involved the body in motion, count me in. There was such excitement and satisfaction in it. Heart pumping, I was off . I got right out there and played some pick up football with the boys, prided myself on outrunning them. I wasn’t much conscious of any gender divisions. At home we were all encouraged to be in sports.

It wasn’t that I was only an active girl. I was able to be still, was introspective. Books enthralled me for hours and I liked to study for the most part. The passion for story and poem making started by age seven; I could focus for long periods. I loved making art, making up plays with neighbor kids, sharing music with family and at school. So there was a variety of activity I enjoyed.

But the allure of physical activity was magnetic no matter where or with whom I lived, or what was happening in my life. If for some reason my choices were seriously curtailed, I would find boring cleaning to do and, with music, I could dance about as I worked. Anything to get blood coursing, limbs reaching. There would be a car to wash, a closet to organize, a dog to walk, a yard to mow, loads of laundry, wood to split for wood stoves and fireplaces I’ve enjoyed (and sometimes relied on for heat). Sitting and doing nothing did not and still does not agree with me–unless reading, which is, arguably, activity of another sort even when mostly sedentary. But body and mind in a better balance has translated into greater well-being.

Years later while counseling others affected by addictions and the traumas that fed them, I increasingly observed something interesting: if they had little to do, they stayed sicker longer, and often more helpless about getting better. It’s tricky, as depression and fear can paralyze. But with strong support and ample ideas, a person can learn skills to overcome paralysis. Having one small goal accomplished, an activity explored, an ordinary hobby taken up–these can rouse a person enough to enable them to begin to perceive differently. Then they can reconsider more matters. As this positive momentum increases, it can trigger real changes for the better. After all, the human brain–that lively master planner and doer–manufactures chemicals and hormones that it needs, even if they seem to be flagging. We, ourselves, can trigger dopamine, serotonin, endorphin and Adrenalin production to heartily aid in a good fight for health–by taking more and vigorous action. We can begin to slowly reprogram our brains, our very neurology, how we respond to stimuli within and without us. How we determine our lives this very moment. It is nothing short of miraculous once you experience it and find it holds up time after time.

Personal experience certainly does show me this works out very well. I have had options to engage me at any given time; I have a variety of interests and am glad to seek more. Many require little to no financial investment so that is no excuse. And I know the longer I participate in them, the more well-rounded a person I become. More relaxed and present. Open to others. This has a ripple effect in all my doing and being.

Once when I was in residential treatment for a hidden and damaging alcohol problem, my therapist suggested two things:

1) that I get back to paid work, any work I could find, 2) that  I become more physically active again.

I was flabbergasted. Wasn’t I moving all the time? I was raising five children, ages ten to sixteen. I was running all day long and into night, my husband was often gone with a career that required long hours and travel. Plus, I was still under-qualified for much more than what I did, I thought. Still, she asked, weren’t these the two things that had not been put into full-throttle action? For just myself, no one else, by the way. They might make the difference. It rang a bright bell within me, as if being reminded of what was already known as truth. I prayed it was so. Little did I know.

First I found a bare bones gym. I was short on weight and energy. I ignored the muscle-bound men and phenomenal women. I just tried all machines, then asked for suggestions. In a couple of weeks I felt some improved. And gradually I discovered more serious weight training. Several times a week, I worked with free weights as well as machines with guidance from a good trainer. The regimen revved me up yet relieved stress. I started to eat better with more protein. The work outs challenged me, bolstered stamina and I developed more bulk. I was too thin most of my early adulthood, and now I gained weight with the muscle, looked better. Was actually stronger.

More than this, I felt more confident. Less skittish in the world. More self-possessed. All senses became even more responsive but in a calmer way; my attention was focused more clearly. I observed pleasant alterations emotionally, mentally and even spiritually. I found the workouts meditative as well as invigorating. It was a perfect combination for me at the right time in my life.

We bought weights to put in our basement so I could train there; my husband joined in as he could but cheered me on. My children were impressed and even, hilariously, liked to show off my significant biceps to their friends. I have to admit my abdominal muscles were excellent while my legs powered me better than ever. I was fitter than I had been for years, ate better and had more sustainable energy. And I felt satisfaction that I had regained some coping skills and this had improved all.

I stayed with weight training for about four years but when I felt I was getting too muscular, I backed off and then eased out of it and got into other exercise options. But after two decades, I still have free weights and I use them from time to time when to doing other exercise.

And I found it wasn’t nearly so hard to refuse a drink. I wanted to maintain better health. Then to my surprise I was hired to do what I found fulfilling– helping the frail elderly and disabled, and a new human services career took off well, leading to a managerial position. My life was back on track in a way that it hadn’t been for too long. Taking action worked; I worked harder because of that.

Remember the recent visit to Dr. P? And that he informed me I was to keep on doing what I was doing because it has worked so well? I stay alive by doing what works. If I find something with helpful results, I am persistent about the practicing part. I don’t like to lose out on good things. I don’t really like to lose, period. But most of all, ever since childhood, I have appreciated the thrills as well as practical benefits received due to being in motion, actively engaged in a silly game or a serious goal. This coming year I want to take dance classes again (tried and loved flamenco last time). And investigate kayaking. Ice skate more. Swim–how I used to love to dive! Who knows what is next? The choices are mine to make.

So let me move and count the miracles of sinew and bone. My body has lived many tales. We have had an adversarial relationship in the past. It has at times been bitterly betrayed. But it is forgiving. It is resilient. Mighty in its healing capacity. Its natural wisdom guides me, takes care of me, tells me things my intellect sometimes misses and that my soul can forget. It is braver than I ever imagined it to be, rallying when it falters. It is my home on earth. I am thankful for this shelter in which I reside. For the opportunities it provides as my heart keeps pumping,  carries me forward into the next moment. May I ever tend to it with respect and gratitude. Praise its Divine Creator. Eventually, though I hope not soon, this vital and repaired beating drum of my life will slow, pause, be silent, and I will take my leave. Until then, I am staying in motion as best I can, celebrating all the years left.

The Cat that Changed the Rest

 Hollywood California, 1961 Photographer- Ralph Crane Time Inc owned merlin- 1201638
Hollywood, California, 1961;
Photographer- Ralph Crane

He found cats unbearable to be near, so when Alice informed Tate she now not only owned one but was bringing it by “for a visit”, the very idea almost did him in. Tate locked the front door, went out back with an icy lemonade and a mystery book he’d been putting off starting. The air registered a degree of hotness that any smart person would avoid. Grabbing his stained, misshapen fishing hat, he patted it down and called it good.

He had no intention of answering the door and would hide out a long while if needed. It was unlikely she would come around back in her high heels after work. The ground was a bit spongy after last night’s drizzle. Curls of steam arose from the rich earth as sun’s heat settled into it.

Alice had been around for awhile. They had met at one of those useless parties at the start of the university’s year. They’d shared the end of a couch. She’d talked enough to save him from the onset of sleep. It turned out she was a new office person in his department–Geology was his domain. He had become lazy about meeting women. Proximity often had something to do with his relationships. That, and a shared interest in second-hand stores and antiques. Fishing helped but he’d not found a woman who fished willingly in over two years, a grave disappointment. Passion for desserts helped; he liked women who loved dessert as much as he did. Tate baked sometimes. She was into making homemade ice cream. It seemed a decent match. They went to movies, discussed cooking, ate many a good meal and listened to music. They had scoured the city for an Arts and Crafts sideboard recently. Tate said it was too pricey, though Alice was for it. She was good company, in general, and he did appreciate that.

Tate also liked the way her hair cascaded over her collarbone and that slow smile starting in her eyes. He wasn’t so sure what she liked about him. Perhaps his lake cottage; they had gone up for the holidays and she’d asked if they could return this summer. He was waiting to see. Or it was his easy-going attitude that encouraged students and faculty to interact with him, like it or not sometimes. He was more a man to himself than not. Alice had popped up and was already influencing his well-run, quiet life, like dill weed and lemon influenced the walleye he brought home.

But Tate didn’t have room, time or inclination for pets in his life. And not cats, certainly.

“Why ever not?” Alice asked a couple of months after they met. “Pets keep things interesting. They create friendly feelings yet are neutral, sometimes sympathetic listeners and give you reason to get out and roam.”

“That’s what actual friends are for. Pets can’t converse to any significant degree. They expect things–treats and regular meals, scratches around the ears, play time outside. They make a mess that they don’t even have to clean up! I may as well have a human child–which I do not yet have, as you noticed right off, and may never… and, anyway, four-legged animals deserve a life outdoors, not holed up with us.”

Alice gave him a look of mild disgust. “So, you never even had a dog to call your own?”

“No. Wait, yes. In my fraternity we had a mascot, called Barker for obvious reasons, and we all took turns dealing with him. I did like him. He was a shaggy rescue dog and did well by us. I enjoyed tossing him things. When we graduated, Barker was adopted by a dog-crazy guy–so it ended well for all.”

“What about cats?”

Tate shrank back, stared at her, eyes full of horror.

“You aren’t a cat person? Are you allergic?”

“No, not allergic. Who is really and truly ‘a cat person’? I don’t know many, maybe one or two. Cats are not intrinsically wired to appreciate humans. Tolerate is even a rather strong word in my opinion. They don’t even like each other that much after infancy. They do like hunting rodents and birds. Barn cats would be a good example of a useful type of cat.”

“Well, I adore cats.” Alice threw her hands up in defeat and headed to the kitchen. “For someone so easy to get along with, you sure are a surprise. Who on earth doesn’t like pets? That’s a first for me!” The refrigerator door opened, then shut hard. “Where are last week’s cookies? Oh, there they are.”

Tate got up, hands pressed deep into pants pockets. Stood rocking a little on the balls of his bare feet in front of the bay window. He liked creatures just fine. He stared at a distant tree line near a pond. Early Saturday mornings he sometimes walked there to meditate on herons and ducks and such. He’d not yet gone with Alice; it was his private routine. He thought of his brother, Alan, how they’d go to the lake after their parents passed and fished without talking, yet understood enough. How they’d weathered the hardest things and managed to remain as brothers should be, available–from a distance–trustworthy. Comfortable with an intimacy nothing could sever. He should call him again soon. Try to get the whole family out. There’d be no pets, as Alan had none, either.

“Cats,” he muttered under his breath, then forced a congenial smile as Alice brought out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. He could smell coffee percolating and was suddenly grateful.

“Let’s listen to that Chet Atkins album,” she suggested. She set her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes as if trying get a better read on him, then her features lit up with good humor. “Maybe light a fire later?”

Cats, he thought again as got the album out, put it on, and turned up the stereo. Maybe Alice and I will get closer, maybe not.

“Yes, a fire. November is upon us.”

The cat topic never came up again. Until today. She’d gotten a cat and wanted to show it to him.

He could hear the gravel crunching under the SUV’s tires and panicked, then told himself to just remain at ease, she would go away when he didn’t answer the door. He’d said something to her about picking up dinner supplies so might not be home. His Jeep was in the garage. She wouldn’t bother to look in dusty garage windows. Still, he put the book down and slipped into shadows alongside the house where the juniper bushes were. Flattened inside shadow. He felt his chest tighten, heart jump.

“Pepper, you’d better stay put. Stop wiggling and behave. How will you ever audition? Wait a minute!”

Pepper, really? Tate was starting to perspire heavily but he pressed himself against the house, tried to slow respiration. He deeply wished he had a dog for the first time since that ole frat brother, Barker. It’d be one sorry cat, a cat held hostage on a tree branch. Why ever did Alice have to bring it over here?

And there it was, at his feet, sniffing about, then mewing. The whiskers of a cat on a man’s exposed shins is about the last straw when feeling contrary about the entire situation. It took considerable will power to not let his foot strike out. A midnight-black cat sat confidently, demurely, and appraised Tate. Unimpressed, it then began to clean a paw with delicate care.  It was enough to take his heart rate up a notch. He noticed a tiny rhinestone collar at its neck as he stepped around it and took off for the gate in a parody of power walking.

“Alice, aren’t you missing something? Why are you back here?”

“I am–but what are you doing outside? It’s too hot for man or beast and now Pepper has run off…”

“The beast part is debatable. Your very own, a large black cat is–” he pointed–“over there. In the cool of the shadows doing fine. Please don’t bring it any closer to me.”

Alice crept up on Pepper and deftly attached the leash to its collar. “There we go, all set now. I just wanted to introduce you to her, Tate. To show you my prize, to prove there’s not one thing unpleasant about this cat. I’d like you to be on good terms because she’s sticking around.”

Alice cautiously advanced, Pepper following behind her but with eyes on tree branches wherein perched robins. A cat is never a tame thing, Tate thought, and fought an impulse to grab the leash from his girlfriend’s hand, fling the cat out of the fenced yard in a graceful arc of farewell. But he did know this was irrational. Very wrong. Also impossible. She had a tight grasp on its leash and that cat had a clear intention of standing guard by the tree.

Tate took a step back. “Oh, no, that isn’t in the plan, sorry. I’m happy for you and so on but she will not be visiting further. I one hundred percent don’t like cats, Alice. I love many things, many sorts of people and do rather enjoy most animals–especially wild ones. But I just don’t appreciate cats. That is not going to change.”

He opened the gate and exited and she followed. Pepper came along; the birds had flown far off. The cat ran closer to him, stretched her neck out as if to rub her fuzzy head against Tate’s legs. He stepped aside and rushed on, Alice trotting after him.

“Alright, then, I give up for now! I’ll put her in the car, but it’s warm so I can’t stay. Hot cars are so dangerous for pets. It’s the A/C on or it’s a no go, lately.”

She picked up Pepper and placed her in a cushiony pet lounge on the back seat. The bed-lounge had built-in feed and water bowls attached. She rolled down car windows and closed the doors again. Then Alice joined Tate on the front porch steps.

“It’s like this, Tate, I have a cat who is trained for show business and I sure hope she makes me money.”

“What?Show business?’ He half-laugh came out in a  sputtering spray. “You can train a cat?”

“Well, not in the same way as dogs, of course, not exactly. Anyway, the training part is done. She’s my aunt’s project. She was diagnosed with skin cancer so can’t handle dealing with another need right now. Since I know Pepper and her talents, I stepped in. I learned with Aunt Lavonne.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“No, it seemed safer not to before. But now she’s in my life.”

“I thought I was, too.” He rubbed his bony shin. There was a phantom sensation there, a replay of those stiff whiskers sliding across his skin. It made his head feel like a vibrating high wire. “I’m starting to wonder.”

Alice grasped his forearm. “But Tate, you should see how she can act! Pepper looks so fine on film. She’s been in six commercials in three years and many magazine ads and has won some contests. She still has good years left, Aunt Lavonne says, and she’s made good money, too.” She released his arm; he’d tried to free himself of her emphatic grip. “Besides, I can’t let down my aunt. I’m the only one she trusts with Pepper. And there’s a movie audition next week. I have to get her in it. It’d make Aunt Lavonne so happy.”

She sighed. It was so delicate and tremulous that Tate put his arms about her. He felt something release his bunched up core, leaving it supine again. Pepper meowed loudly and poked her pink nose out the window but he chose to ignore her.

“I get the idea. I’m sorry about your aunt–a tough situation. You’re kind to help. I’m not going to ask you what the, uh, cat role is, though.”

“Yeah, well.” She fiddled with a straggling lock of hair. “I have to get Pepper into air conditioning. Also need to look at the script again–it’s a mystery story–and see what I have to make her do.” She smoothed Tate’s lined cheek., Kissed it. “I don’t get you about cats, it seems a phobia, even. But it’s okay for now. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ll call you after the audition.”

He went to the car, hugged her briefly, and as she got in he gave the cat a good sizing up. Pepper huddled down into the lounging bed again. She was as attractive as a cat might be, he supposed, glossy, well fed yet lithe in that dancerly cat way. Eyes so green the creature belonged to another place, not in a little bed in a car. He couldn’t imagine an acting cat, a real credit line in a movie, getting paid. Not a movie he’d go see without a major bribe.

Alice gave him a doleful look, eyes half-closed a moment, then tossed him a last kiss. He was surprised she still felt affection after his display of hostility, even when she’d explained such an important matter as illness and family. He felt a stab of shame. He ought to have better sympathized. He guessed Pepper would manage a better job of it, in her view.

But she’d stumbled upon his secret. Maybe he should have told her. Maybe it was time he let her know more of who he was. He shivered in the high noon sun.


Tate cast his line and looked out over the placid lake. Sunrise spread about tree limbs like a tangerine scarf opened wide. The boat rocked gently as he adjusted his position. He didn’t expect to catch much of anything. It was a good time of day but the summer saw less walleye activity. Trolling was one of his favorite things, the boat moving at a little over one mile per hour across the water, the line calm until it wasn’t. There were other ways to do this, other seasons–better waters, even–but when he awakened in the last of the dark he was relieved to be here, fish or no fish. He had to be in his boat.

He had called his brother but they had said the same old things, how the weather was getting weirder, how work was something that should be less bloodletting and more fun, how he should should catch a flight and share more time. Maybe August? Alan was 1800 miles away, his two kids were about to be teens, his wife was working more, not less. The brothers were rarely together, anymore, though they were never apart as kids.

He and Alan…and Rae. The triumphant trio that ruled the waterfront on Foxtail Lake. Or so it was for years, until more places sprang up and with them came kids to play with or avoid. They were wild and dirty and reckless with the happiness that comes from living close to the marrow and soul of nature. Their parents never argued there; the food tasted better; the water called them morning ’til night with its depth and shine.

Until the summer it all got torn apart.

Tate shook his head, blinked twice to better see the quiet sky lighting up a pale translucent blue. He loved this place more than anything. He owned it with his brother but it was more his than Alan’s due to the distance apart, the years he’d spent without his brother. Alan deserved to be here, too, and lately they had talked of growing old together at the cottage, then snickering at the thought. Just as they had grown up together, why not? But there would come that moment when they could talk no more of any of it. As a flashing red light dictated they had to stop, turn around, go elsewhere.

Tate was oldest, then Alan came three years after, then Rae the next year. Somehow they fit together like a handmade wood puzzle, seamless. Rae was the one most in trouble, not the boys, so that they felt compelled to try to outdo her at times. She emptied the tall change jar for dozens of packets of sweets, brought home worms to sneak into salad and sometimes scared the fish when their dad took them out, rocking the boat just to see wavelets gather and spread. She tried things that were dangerous, like try to swing by her hands from a tree branch over the lake. She would land in shallow water there so their dad grabbed her as she fell. Grounded her from the outdoors a whole day. Alan and Tate reeled her in a little, kept an eye out, as Rae was always laughing, her ideas were nutty and they were older and bigger.

And she was just theirs. The third voice in their trio.

Tate cast his line again, watching the lure sink. The birds were more talkative and he heard, then spotted other boats. He looked over his shoulder at the cottage light burning at the door, safe among the pines. He heard rumbling of a truck in the distance and turned back to the water, replaced that brash noise with a soliloquy of waves, more bright birdsong. If Alan was there they’d grill out later, enjoy a couple of beers at the fire pit later. Talk or not, remembrance a thing without language.

It had been just this sort of day. Clear as crystal but later in summer and an amber afternoon. Rae had been swimming with them–she could reach the far floating raft without tiring at age nine as she was wiry strong–but then went next door to her best friend’s, Jenny Molson’s. The boys weren’t ready to come in. They ignored their dad’s call to help him clean up some dead and downed wood and knew they’d have to make up for it the next day. Their mother had left for the market. Alan was determined to make more and fancier dives than Tate and so they kept at it as if they were training for the Olympics. Eventually they dragged themselves to shore, dried off inside the screened porch. Tate located Rae by her boisterous command.

“You dummy, come here!”

Jenny piped in. “Oh come on Rae, Red isn’t going to listen to you and, anyway, let’s get that broken tire swing by the shed so Dad will fix it for us.”

“I have to get Red into this carryall, then I’ll put him into the house!”

“It’s okay! Red likes being outdoors, that’s why we bring him.”

“He could get lost. I lost a gerbil once when I let it out.”

Tate grabbed a towel. He dried his hair and walked to the back of the house, which faced the road.

“Rae, what are you up to now? Leave that Red alone; he’s fine.”

Alan ran up behind him. “My gosh, is she really going to try to put him into that bag? That kid is goofy.” He guffawed at the sight of Rae with a grimy Army issue bag held wide open.

“Yeah, nothing like a mad cat in a bag!” Tate thought it hilarious right along with him.

“Come here, Red, come away from the road, here kitty, I’ve got something good for you, a big old smelly fish! We’ll swing in the tire swing, great fun!”

“Awww, geez,” Alan said, shaking his head.

“Rae come here, leave ole Red alone!” Tate called.

But Rae wanted to grab hold of that orange tabby cat. She had really taken to it. She stalked him as he sat by the side of the road. The boys watched to see who would win out and bet on Rae.

They could hear a vehicle coming down the road and thought it must be their mother. Rae glanced that way, too, then crept up to Red on tiptoe, the wide-mouthed bag held close. And Red jumped straight up when he saw it, eluded her as he dashed across the road like he was five years younger.

“No, you don’t!” she yelled and dashed after as the cat disappeared in weedy underbrush.

Tate saw the truck close in. A rusty, rattling truck that braked fast and hard full force. The driver’s face went slack, a kid not much older than they, racing down a country road on a perfect summer day, music blaring. But he saw her late.

Too late. Too late. She flew up a little, thin arms raised in surprise like a tossed rag doll’s, head thrown back with that sun bleached hair flying off her narrow, tanned back. Then she fell out of sight.

“Rae!” the brothers screamed in one terrible voice and ran.

The driver jumped from his truck. They pushed him aside, bent over her crumpled body. Blood came from somewhere they couldn’t identify and it spread into dirt and weeds as if it was only spilled juice, some bottle she’d held in her hand and dropped. It couldn’t be Rae’s. It couldn’t be her head cracked, her legs twisted. It had to be a nightmare. But she lay with her face to the side and her flesh was all so harmed. Emptied, even. Tate took the sunflower beach towel and lay it over her legs and touched her bleeding forehead, cried out without human sound and Alan got up and screamed for their father to come. But he was already there, he was falling into the road and as he scooped her up in his shaking arms, Rae was already leaving them.


The lake speaks to him like a wise one. It tells him to give himself up to the beauty, stay entirely alive. But the shore is lined with ghosts, not just Rae’s and their parents but Jenny Molson’s–she died at twenty-nine, haunted by that first death, while serving in the Army–and another playmate who had a heart attack at forty. This place holds things in the guts of the earth that he cannot name much less share. He thinks of the hearts of lake stones, how strong they must be to live on at the bottom, to endure the seasons and the errors of humans. He thinks of the ancient reeds that wave as his boat passes, how they know to lure fish and keep much more hidden. He thinks of the loons who infuse the waters and woods with a magic that cannot be stolen. All this is powerful balm every time he  comes, despite the stubborn ache.

Tate watches the cottage to make sure it is still there, that place they loved, played, were a family. The seam that held it all together came undone when Rae left them. The boys felt the emptiness like a sentence the rest of their growing up, and they had trouble carrying it even as they could not refuse its weight. But he thought Rae still ran along that shore, slipped in and out of the summer gilded water, flew with the passage of the sun. He can see her there sometimes, when afternoon light glints and beguiles, when other children are laughing as if nothing will ever be as good as that moment. And often this will be true in some way they cannot yet discern.

It may be time to tell Alice, if she is that much to him that her black cat could make him hurt again, want to flee in fear. But it was something he never could get over: that damned cat got away to safety, while their Rae died with her arms open–for nothing at all.

Her spirit lingered in their cottage, on the lake, among the trees and they told him to be still, wait. For her happy amazement to shake loose, be free. To unmoor himself (and Alan) from the long gone.

Maybe that was it, he thought, as he looked at his vibrating cell phone. Maybe joyous wonder was what she had to give–even to the last, even trying to catch a cat for a ride in a swing–and that’s what he had to remember. And let her be now. Release all cats of his insane blame. Forgive himself for not saving her. Somehow.

“Hello? Alice?…”

“Tate, Pepper got a part! Not the lead cat part but a fair part, at least.”

He laughed so softly she could barely hear him.

“I know, it’s minor in the real world of events, I get that, but–”

“No, no, good for you. Pepper…”

“It was something else, at least a hundred cats, can you imagine? It sort of creeped me out, too, but then we went in and–”

“Alice? Can you come up to the cottage? Right now. For the week-end?”

“Oh, I, well, I have Pepper, I’d love that but…”

“No, I mean with your movie star cat. We can get better acquainted, maybe, and she might like the country.”

The line was silent. Tate thought she’d hung up.

“Alright, we will! I’ll pack some things, get Pepper car-ready and we’ll be up in an hour. I’ll bring the cake I made yesterday. German Chocolate. Anything else?”

“Perfect. No, I’m good now.”

Tate hung up, reeled in nothing and headed back to the dock. June’s warm illumination slid across rippling water, over his face and body until he was giddy with it.

“Later, Rae,” he whispered and set a course for shore.


A Mighty Portal

That door at the bottom of the stairway. It was the secret to the kingdom of all adults and it kept me at bay. It was a major entryway that connected or separated most of our house’s two-story spaces from more public areas. The other nearby two doors joined kitchen and dining room, then stair landing (with small hallway) to a den. The main one in question opened into the living room. The areas were generally available to anyone not still a small child, which pretty much meant everyone in my family. And their ever-enlargening circles. As the youngest,  a “leftover” following two pairs of boy and girl born ahead of me, I wasn’t granted full access to all goings-on. But the primary barrier seemed that living room door. After all, I joined the others each day around our large mealtime table. No, it was the pale sage green door that stalled me out when skidding to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. It sometimes provide a harsh wall to any flying bodies, thus stymieing  decent progress into the main house.

I made it my mission to find ways around and through it. If I couldn’t manage that, I pressed ear to wood, listening hard, or spying through the sliver  of a view via a tiny crack created by a stealthy turn of beveled glass and brass doorknob. Voila, entry, of a sort.

It wasn’t always shut, certainly. There were times when we ran or jumped down the numerous steps (that included a halfway landing which served as a sort of springboard)–only to find it stunningly open despite the appearance of otherwise. In which case I, less practiced than the others, would ram into the substantial upholstered rocking chair that was just inside and to the left of said door. If someone was sitting there it would elicit a frown at least or an exclamation of disgruntlement and an admonition to be more careful. Or a punch to the shoulder. I never assumed any blame for this, however, since the door was either supposed to be clearly open or closed tightly. There could be a small sign that indicated my father was teaching his stringed instrument students, as if we couldn’t hear them sawing away: “Lessons in Progress”. Judging by the schoolbook perfect penmanship, it was my mother’s reminder. I must have been a bit noisier those days or my father–or mother–was more sound sensitive for an unknown reason. It was true that although she had great affection for music and much more for my father, she liked to close some doors at times to savor a moment or two of restful quiet.

The open or closed door: it was instrumental in defining much of my childhood and youth. The living room wasn’t overly big yet multi-purpose in a way that some may not understand these days. There was no vaulted family room with big screen TV or towering stone fireplace. (We didn’t own a TV until I was 13; even then it was not close to a top pick for entertainment.) No completely refinished basement; no wraparound, screened-in porch. With seven family members, all claimable space was at a premium. Closing that door meant well over a quarter of the first floor was forbidden for play, lounging, studying, reading, practicing my cello or noodling about on the baby grand piano pretending I was a famous singer and pianist.

I liked especially to play with my Barbie doll or two out there–to build her house with pillows and scarves, books, blocks and various decorative odds and ends– perhaps because she had more space, too. The area beneath the baby grand provided additional awesome real estate. She and I, after all, shared a bedroom with my two older, often bossy sisters until I was six, then with one other until I was 12. My older brothers harassed us from across the hall. Downstairs created an illusion of more equity, and there was an ease of a clan’s shared space. Access to greater parental mediation was a boon.

I wanted to come and go without restraint. For the most part, I roamed if  not engaged in study and other pursuits. I spent a great deal of time outside, too, in our tree-lined, very private, welcoming back yard. A neutral zone. Freedom reigned. But even then, the main room access seemed crucial, as it was comforting refuge from Michigan’s sharp cold of winter, autumnal blustery winds, dangerous spring storms and summer’s sweltering heat.

So to be even semi-trapped behind that door was a trial. Especially if the kitchen was off-limits as well, for purpose of undisturbed cooking or phone calls (it hung on the kitchen wall awhile) or private before-dinner updates with my father. What lay behind that living room door depended on the day of the week, the very time of day. The different occasions. Confronting its closure gave rise to the question of what was really going on this time. It could mean many things. A boyfriend visiting a sister; a girlfriend visiting a brother–always a curiosity to me. The music lessons–boring and a nuisance. My mother’s millinery or dress design or alterations business (on top of her school teaching) bringing in a customer. My father’s musical instrument appraisal, repair, buying and selling business, ditto. The business parts were fascinating to me and I watched from corners if at all possible. Thus, the living room–and dining room, to an extent, as they flowed into one another via an archway–received all people. Except the meter man and repairmen–“dirty shoes and you just never know,” my mother informed me. The shoes I got. We all had to enter and take off dirty shoes at the back door, but the you just never know part I wasn’t clear about.

Our household was not quiet, not at all isolated from the outside world. People frequently rang the door bell or knocked. Called out our names if the heavy, rounded wood front door was open to a screened door. People from church or my parents’ work came by for a consult. If friends saw the car in the driveway, they might just stop for a chat. If the living room door was shut it could mean there were  only full grown adults engaging with just others of their sort. Or something more mysterious.

My parents often invited to our home their friends and visiting artists who’d given concerts at the performing arts center. It might be a casual luncheon, dinner served on china or a later coffee and dessert affair, the cut glass dessert plates unearthed for just such an occasion. And we children were expected to be present, to converse if we had comments intelligent and respectful to offer. As a small child, I was not let off from this duty. But otherwise, gracious repose was the order of things, as well as a hand in the kitchen, with serving if requested. I knew how to handle and offer a tray of cookies or coffee service long before I entered adolescence. We all knew how to properly set a table, how and when to pass around each serving dish, when to ask something politely or keep our thoughts to ourselves. How to be mannerly, I suppose, or “civilized” as my parents might say. It seemed the natural behavior to me.

But when that door at the bottom of the stairs forbade entry, it meant it. It could be that this time no one other than my parents were allowed access. It indicated: 1) a significant importance of the visitors 2) there was a bridge party going on and a kid was not allowed to interrupt unless called forth for a task 3) aforementioned music students or customers or church people or perhaps the life insurance man were engaged 4) there was something serious, even bad, happening and we could not know about it until later, when summoned. The way one knew for sure there was a high level conversation going on was this: there were three doors at the bottom landing of the stairway, one to the kitchen on the left; one straight ahead to the living room; and one on the right to the parents’ room (later becoming den/office, at which time that door changed its meaning). If all three were shut it meant: No Admittance. Silence.

I had ways around this barrier, this being excluded, however.

I could feign sickness with a pitiful calling out and weak knock. That would always bring my mother to the door and when she opened it I got a decent view of who was there and what was happening. But it was too brief and thus unsatisfactory. If I was really sick the door was finally irrelevant, of course, and my mother would take me to bed, administer to me appropriately.

I could listen with ear pressed just so–it took some fine-tuning to hear well– against the door. If that didn’t work I could also eavesdrop through second floor heat registers. I might manage to sneak through the first floor room(s) on the pretext of needing  sustenance or to access a way outdoors to visit a friend or attend a figure skating or swim lesson, for example. But I had to knock first and then quietly plead my case. Or if a sibling got through, I could make like a shadow, slip in behind them.

But I became reasonably proficient at cracking open the main door, sneaking through a slight opening, then crouching, then crawling behind the big rocking chair and lamp table. Or even lying flat on the floor and slithering toward the baby grand, finally hiding, breathless, beneath the piano where no one noticed me if I was lucky. From there I could usually make out who the characters were and what the story line was. If I knew them and okay with the topics, I might stay without concern of reprisal. But I might need to reverse order of action fast if someone caught me. If all this was too risky, I would only huddle behind the rocking chair and quickly gather intelligence–at least until my breathing was detected or perhaps my feet and then sent brusquely back out. The trick seemed to lie in becoming as invisible as possible.

Of course, this worked only so long. I grew. Slithering unseen was not viable. The only thing I could do was wait on the bottom step of the stairs before the closed door. Or forget about it and hike back upstairs or leave by the back door. By the time I was an adolescent, I cared less about what others were up to–I had my own important activities, ideas, mischief-making, worries. My older siblings had all decamped to college; I was left to my own devices. I had my very own door to close tight against nosy inquiry.

But I will not forget that stairwell door. The power it had. The importance of its changing status. The meaning it gave to the day, the very moment. And there were many times when I–along with friends or siblings–burst through the door into the living area and then through the one leading to kitchen and from there to the stairway or what became the den. Endless circular tag. We were thundering wildebeest children, screeching, teasing, laughing, fighting. Doors slamming shut, being pressed open. Doors that meant nothing more than access points in a silly game, a way around the circuit. I can still see my mother in the kitchen, wiping her hands on a tea towel, ordering but with a laugh, “Outside with all that!” Our smallish house, after all, was a place where things needed to get done in more manageable ways. We were many. We needed to cohabit with minimal disruption. A basic calm and order encouraged creativity, hard work, prayer and caring. We dwelled within a set of rules; we (hopefully) evolved and matured.

Another version of the closed doors, though, was when one of us became so angry after being told to go to our rooms for a while that we’d enter the stairwell area, slam all three doors shut and sit on a step to cry out loudly against the cruelty of our parents. But not for long. They’d issue further warnings and off we’d go to our punishment.

It was just that time of doors shutting and doors opening, those growing up years. There were twelve doors to, or within, that house–not including the basement’s three, the attic’s one and several closet doors. Which all held their own meanings.

The fruit cellar was cobwebby, dank and dark, stocked with canned fruits and vegetables arranged on shelves, but for some reason I liked it okay. I was appreciative of that actual door, cut low and small for littler people like me, with a latch that opened or closed the compact room. And it held good things. It could be a sheltering place when tornado warnings blared. The folding door to the recreation room and another narrow one to my father’s instrument repair workshop were rarely closed. They, thus, seemed invisible.

The attic door was a magic passage into a stuffy, low-ceilinged, treasure-laden expanse along the front of the house. It contained distractions as well as history: boxes of old books and photographs and records; colorful canisters of wonderful buttons salvaged over decades; pretty and worn packs of playing cards; stacked board games to pull out; woolens in zippered bags, protected concert dresses belonging to primarily my mother and oldest sister–also my father’s tuxedos; old cigar boxes my brother made into trick boxes (for hiding things) that were the devil to open. There was so much to dig into and enjoy. I easily spent an hour rooting about there, now and again.

But the door that informed me that I was well on my way to young adulthood was that door to the front of the house. The door at the landing, right across from the last step of the stairway we took up to bed each night and descended each morning. The one I spent untold moments staring at, willing it to open. With three doors that also closed on the small landing at the stairs, it was easy to feel excluded. When all were open, it was whole different house, one that allowed air to freshen passageways, one that encouraged roaming, that allowed many voices to be shared. That invited your very own presence. When I could confidently enter that main door no matter the event, even during a crisis, I knew I was on my way to being an adult. It no longer forbade me entry. But it also no longer protected me. I had crossed one threshold from childhood to beyond.

Such is the magnitude of doors in one’s youthful home.

I have fewer doors where I live now. The living and dining area flow into one another and the kitchen is open to both. There are bedroom and bathroom doors but that is about it, other than the  ones that open to the outside. There are many windows in every room. The pale gold light that streams in as I write is warm, gentle, and it encourages me to look away from the keyboard toward mature trees and dwellings that surround us here. My desk and computer are within reach of the dining table. I am alright with that; I like being a part of the whole space, not ever shut apart as a child. But, too, I write, the space widens and lengthens within until I about disappear. Doors are flung open to the greater universe and earth’s clock stops. Doors seem more important when viewed from here, looking back at that place I no longer live. Now all the varieties I encounter, pass by and move through simply entice me, tell me things, and whether or not they open to me is neither here nor there. I can appreciate a door’s existence for its own sake. There are more out there than once imagined. But valuable doorways exist here, deep within me. I will enter any of them or not, as I choose.


Picture It Like Life


Summer had arrived in all its gaudy glory, as observed by scores of purely tinted blossoms, multi-greens of leafy things and people sporting spare, candy colored clothing. Several children added to that tableau, creating gleeful havoc in the refurbished courtyard fountain of Mistral Manor Apartments. Why did everyone make such a fuss over this time of year? Was it being seventy-one that made the difference? She hoped not. But awakening in a damp bed–unless you had the wherewithal to purchase window air conditioning units–was soon followed by the quandary regarding her tea, hot or iced. Evangeline preferred hot but even when it had cooled for fifteen minutes she felt as if she was on her way to being steamed half to death. She opted for iced for the third day in a row and enjoyed the chill seeping into hand and down throat as sipped at her balcony table.

Van Garner waved as he zipped by in his wheelchair, en route to the corner mailbox. She knew his destination because he waved the envelopes.He did not trust the mail person to pick up things before they were snatched by thieves lurking nearby.

Natalie-from-New-York, her daughter, told her with frequency that she ought to break down and get an air conditioning unit for her bedroom. She’d then order another for the living room so it was tolerable when she visited in August. Evangeline considered, so far not going along with plan.

Natalie, aged forty-nine, firmly entrenched in pushing her clients up the ladder via her talent agent prowess, apparently had sixth sense when it came to what her mother needed. Evangeline wondered why since she wasn’t there enough to observe her mother’s life. In point of fact, two tall floor fans did a decent job. Her insides just flared up at night and resultant heat sought escape through her pores. She always ran hot, handy in winter. Evangeline shivered involuntarily, another anomaly. She blamed it on an odd gust from the North. There were many strange winds in this part of the city.

From her balcony she peered three stories down at the crowd of kids making havoc in and around the fountain. There was a sign that stated: “Do Not Climb or Play in Fountain”. No one paid it any mind. It was big enough that six or eight medium sized kids could jump in, flap about. It looked like fun. She wished Riley, her past babysitting charge and not yet a year old, still lived here. She’d help him wiggle bare feet and legs a few times, maybe get in with him to wade about. A twinge in her middle came and went.

The summer brought out the worst in her, she thought. All those giddy, spontaneous things younger people did. Her plumpness making the heat feel more a burden. Her silver hair so long and heavy that anyone else in their right mind would chop it off and look sensible at last. A chignon required dedicated effort. She watched the kids romp and then picked up her book, photographs by a previously unknown street photographer. She had been pondering photography lately, wondering if she had any business trying it out again. Carter, her deceased ex-husband had always complained she got things crooked. Maybe she could get it right this time; she might have more patience.

The peppermint and black tea mixture was bringing her closer to feeling civilized. She smiled down at the children now drenched and likely filthier, soon to incur wrath of a mother or two.

The doorbell was rung, chimes sent into a frenzy of excitement. She yelled toward the door.

“Come on!”

She turned a page, then flipped it back again to study the picture of a woman in the fox stole and veiled hat. Hideous dead creature draping her thin shoulders but a riveting shot.

“Come on, whoever it may be!” she called out louder. She glanced through the French doors, the dining and living room. “Who is it?”

There was a loud thump, then a hard bang. Evangeline pushed herself up from the wrought iron chair with its plump rose covered pillow. Maybe a delivery person she’d missed seeing. She had ordered books. She found the door half-open, and pulled it wide. Van’s barely wrinkled face had a scowl that melted into a half-grin.

“Why won’t you just come and open it? Is this inconvenient?”

“I just did. And it often is, but not today.”

He maneuvered his way in.” I get stuck at the door jamb. It’s hard to attempt opening a door while pushing a wheelchair through it. You should lock it, by the way. ”

“Well, the solution is obvious, stand up and leave the wheelchair in the hallway. You don’t need it now per your doctor, correct? Now that you’re fit again?”

She took his grey tweed hat–he had to take it off when he arrived or he wasn’t coming in. He ran a hand over bald head and grabbed his cane. Van’s height never ceased to surprise her; they’d met when he couldn’t walk yet. When his legs healed so he could stand up to greet her, he was over six feet tall to her shrinking five feet two (once five feet five, she thought). Had he once been a giant on the smaller side?

“Oh, spare me, what do they know? They didn’t fracture both legs falling into a ravine while hiking. It’ll take more than rehab and a fortnight or two.” He slowly walked into the kitchen off the dining room, emphasis on his small limp, and waited.

She looked at him, eyebrows soaring like white wings, one hand on a rounded hip. He was in better shape than she was except for the limp.

“I’d like whatever you’re having, please. And one of those muffins.”

Evangeline poured the iced tea, he grabbed a blueberry muffin and paper towel and they settled on the balcony.

“What are we doing today?” he asked with mouth full. “Sorry, I’m hungry.” He held up a finger to ask her to hold on as he chewed while she looked through her book. He washed down the bite with more tea.”I’m up for adventure.” He waved at a girl below. “Valerie! Good job, you got everything completely drenched!” He swallowed hard. “That fountain is a lifesaver in more ways than one. The sound of it helps me sleep. The flow of water is cooling and it keeps the kids happy awhile.”

Van ate, thinking Evangeline was ignoring him or bored, neither what he was hoping for.

“You know what? I’m thinking about buying a good camera.”

“Good, I have one for sale. I was given it for a birthday a few years ago and hardly ever use it. It’s a point and shoot thing. Want to give it a free trial?”

“That’s interesting, you also like taking pictures? For your band gigs or what?”

“For nothing. My sister bought it for me  out of lack of imagination. She doesn’t know me, obviously, but it was a decent gesture. We have a photographer for publicity shots.”

“Of course–well, wait, I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“You never ask about my family, not that I talk about them much–”

“And yes, I’ll take it. Today. Let’s go out this afternoon with camera in hand and see what we can find.”

Van ate most of the muffin, took a swig and swiped a hand across his lips.”Let’s go, then. It’s in a plastic storage box keeping company with other useless gifts.”

“Finish the muffin, no wastefulness allowed if I can help it.”

“You ever stop being the stern, dare I add formidable and irritating, librarian? I’ll bring you a bag of mixed muffins this week.”

“Dare say anything you want. But also, I’m not pushing that wheelchair, so it’s walk or nothing.”

“No wonder your Natalie’s too busy to visit!”

He glanced at her to see if he had hit a sore spot, regretting his fast mouth. But she shrugged, made a face that said well, so it goes, then buckled her sturdy sandals, gasping a little as she bent over. That was the thing about Evangeline. She was possessed of a fluid perspective, leavened with pessimism. It might be a bulwark against serious breaches of her heart’s locked entrance, unlike her actual front door. A mystery. Calamity may have met its match, Van speculated, and he didn’t even know her that well yet. She just seemed well-suited to life. Able, ready.

Evangeline didn’t belie the bristling inside. She thought how little it seemed musicians could muster much less master spoken language. Language that actually said something on target, with finesse. Give them an instrument and they’d become voluble, show grace and inspiration. Give them a chance to use actual words and out tumbled things that could run downhill fast. But she’d give him more of a try.


Van explained the few basics. She liked the camera or rather she felt she would once she got more comfortable. It was small and slick; she worried it’d get lost without a strap to hang it around her neck. It was digital which meant another set of troubles. She’d had a fancy Nikon once long ago. She and Carter had used it for family pictures or on the trips they’d taken, joining up with his famed bossa nova band, “Laguna Azul.” Those pictures were probably worth something now, if she could find them. She’d research that.

She snapped a picture of the high wall with entry gate to the salmon-pink stucco structure of Mistral Manor Apartments. Usually it struck her as a sad attempt at replication of far better places in the Southwest. Now it appeared refreshed in the viewfinder, better than she’d hoped, mature deep green trees bending gracefully about, their funny grand fountain looking bright in late morning sunshine. She focused close up so she could capture the kids splashing about but felt it didn’t turn out. She tried a couple of different views, then they went on.

They walked to the corner and turned down Market Street, Van stumping along with his handhewn cane. He had carved it himself and proudly showed her the hawk’s head upon which he rested his hand. She noted his skill, said he’d unearthed a talent born of need. Now she walked as briskly as she could manage with him along.

“We could go to the park,” Van suggested hopefully. He might sit on a bench and watch her work. He had felt tired out since the accident  but tried to muster good intentions.

“And let you remain idle while I snap away? No, let’s go around the neighborhood. I have some ideas. You recall the second hand stores that sell old records and books and such? Maybe I’ll feel inspired by random things.”

“And the people who shop there.” He chuckled. “Of course I know it.’

She smiled and put her arm through the crook of his. He was a help just being there. She might not venture out on the street with a new (if simple) camera. It might have felt eccentric, unseemly at the least, taking pictures of this and that. Of course, being odd was not new. She just arrived that way but had a skill for camouflage as needed. Like “The Librarian” she was most of every day for decades.

The older people got, the less others seemed to care, anyway. Maybe that’s why older people gradually forgot about how they appeared.

“Hey lady, enough already!”

She was photographing a wide shouldered, beefy man who was with perky white terrier on a stroll. It looked good to her on the camera’s screen. She moved along as Van tousled the dog’s fuzzy head.

“You have to be careful out here, Ev.”

She halted. “Why must you call me that? You’ve only known me…four or five months. It’s presumptuous.” She put the camera back to her eyes, snapped a few of colorful store fronts and a stray tabby cat lounging smack in the middle of the warm sidewalk.

“But I like it–you don’t, honestly? There’s that record–well, CD and vinyl store. What, they now serve coffee at the back? Let’s go in!”

Once inside they noted music rolling around the grey spartan room and stopped to talk with a sales person whom he knew. There were listening booths in the back with a coffee bar nearby. He purchased an iced cafe latte with two espresso shots and meandered.

Evangeline watched from the blues section, rifling through the CDs and recognizing nothing, to her dismay. She used to like the blues, who were those good artists? Van was engaged in conversation with a young woman by the rock section. The contrast was interesting. She with her mass of purple hair and tattoos on arms and legs, vitality strong. He showing wear and tear in the barest bent-over stance; his skinny-legged limp (which got better as they’d walked); the scarcity of hair hidden by his old tweed hat; deepening furrows about mouth and over eyebrows. His aging was eclipsed by ferocious interest in many things, music being number one. He played his trumpet four nights a week, despite being partly retired.

She saw that everyone he spoke to seemed to know him. He had something she did not, natural gregariousness which arose from an appreciation of humankind that would not be contained. She envied that at times.

Evangeline snapped pictures of faded and torn event posters tacked at angles to one another. Of a young man with bushy blonde hair keeping time to the beat with eyes closed and head bobbing. Of a small woman with a swaying floral sundress and singing along with whatever was playing in headphones as she browsed, intense voice noting love lost. Perhaps no one quite heard her or cared to hear.

Vinyl records were discovered in their tattered, marred sleeves. Holding them brought her to the past quickly, as if someone plopped her into dream time. She slipped from one grouping to another, finding ones she recalled enjoying, but did not look for Carter’s old band recordings. Not today. Changing from color to black and white, she took a picture of a beautifully suited businessman grasping a Beatles’ record close to his chest, sunglasses pushed atop his head.

There was something to this, being swept up in incremental bits of life, fractions of seconds she could pinpoint and hold still. She liked it just as she’d had suspected, the seizing control of the moment. Or, she thought with a light shock of recognition, perhaps it actually found and seized her, held her in thrall.

As she scanned the room, she paused on a good-looking young man, perhaps sixteen, well dressed, whose hands ran over the cases of the CDs as he nervously scanned the room. He chose three or four as he moved down the row. No salespersons were in sight. She lowered her camera and studied him. He felt her eyes, looked over his shoulder, noted her white hair and bland face, her harmless bulk, then returned to the music. He snatched up two handfuls of CDs and stuffed them into his field jacket’s deep pockets. Evangeline raised the camera and shot the act of theft.

“Jonathan? Son, are you ready?”

It was the businessman. He had gotten a couple more albums and appeared pleased with his finds.

Jonathan nodded, smiling back at him. “Yeah, let’s go, Dad.”

“Find anything?” his father asked as they moved away.

His son shook his head and his eyes bore into Evangeline’s, then offered a mocking smile. He was getting away with his crime. She made a quiet sound like a tiny growl, then walked rapidly toward them.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The man stopped and turned. His son pivoted, threw a challenge with his glare.

“I feel you should know your son is attempting to rip off the store. I watched him stuff CDs in his pockets.”

The man shook his head as if dismissing a peon. “Lady, you’re mistaken. That’s absurd. He can certainly afford a few CDs. Jonathan? Do you have purchases to buy?”

And then turned away, took him by the elbow, conferred in a quiet voice.

“No, sir, not mistaken, rather, my trusty camera is not. Please check his pockets or I’ll call the manager over.”

The man drew himself up so that Evangeline felt shorter and broader than usual but she, too, straightened herself, stood with shoulders back and head high.

“I don’t think you realize who you’re talking to, madam. I’m Jeffrey Rickard, a state attorney, so I suggest you step cautiously here. Now what seems to be the actual issue? Do you have a bonafide complaint to lodge against my son and, by virtue of being the father of a minor, me? Or was he rather rude? Then he must apologize. Are you irritated with his music choices? Then perhaps you need to apologize–we all have our tastes, not to be confused with good or bad.” He looked her up and down calmly.

Jonathan was showing a slight concern with nervous tapping against a thigh of his right hand, eyes downcast, but he now placed hands on hips and stood with feet apart, as if mustering for a round of punches.

“Now wait a minute–” she started.

“What seems to be the trouble here, Evangeline?” Van appeared and stepped forward to join her line of defense.

“And you?” the man demanded. “If this misguided woman your wife?”

Van showed his false white teeth. “That is certainly not part of this problem. Apparently there’s been a dispute over something I sadly missed.”

“I said wait a darned minute!” Evangeline stepped forward and held up the camera.”I want you to take a look at this. I took pictures of his offense. It’s clear what he did and he needs to rectify that wrong or there will be an problem neither of you can so easily dispel.”

“Ah,” Van said and stepped back a bit. “Yes, better take a look at her evidence. She means business.”

A sales person had been alerted and was warily watching them. He didn’t really want to have to intervene with that customer; the man often came in to buy up the best and priciest offerings.

But Jeff  and Jonathan Rickard watched as the condemning pictures paraded, five of them. Then then fell silent a moment.

Van shook his head at the boy.”She’s on it, this lady, really on top of things.”

“Dad.” His arrogance had been whittled a bit, but he was still trying for the long shot.

Jeff looked as if he was going to spew all sorts of legalese, then thought again.”Jonathan, march back over to where you found those–your pockets are nearly bulging!– and put every one of those back, you hear me? Now!”

Jonathan shot Evangeline a last withering look and hurried back to the scene of the crime.

“Do you like Latin music?” Van asked. “I just wondered as I saw you over there earlier. I was looking for something, too.”

Jeff was angry and embarrassed, his face going pink and splotchy. He swung around to Van with impatience. “What’s that now? I like many kinds of music. Look, lady, sorry this happened but really, it is not worth making a scene about…My son is a good kid and he slipped up.”

“Evangeline Templeton is my name. I’m sorry it happened, too, but he needs to be held accountable or it will happen again. I’ve seen it before–the end result is not good, surely you realize! That was bold to take something in your presence, in a store you enjoy.” She looked straight into bloodshot eyes. “He should have punishment.”

“Anything wrong over here?” A pimply faced youth not much older than Jonathan, a salesperson, sidled up.

“I was just telling Mr. Rickard that Evangeline, my friend here, was married to one of the greatest vibraphonists of all time, Carter Templeton. Pretty great, right?”

Jeff Rickard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Really? Impressive.” His eyes gave up their professional glaze; he nearly smiled. “I like that old band, wasn’t it ‘Azure’s Ocean’. No…’Five C Blue’?”

Van blinked. “Close…”

“Amazing, right,” the sales person added.”Looks, not my niche. But as long as you all are okay…”

“Fine, fine, right?” Jeff asked.

He left them to their own devices, then headed to the computer to look up that musician’s name.

Evangeline watched the boy swiftly slip CDs into their crowded slots as if each was a hot potato.

“Alright.” She put her camera into her pocket. “Harm averted. More or less. For now.”

“I tend to agree,” Van said, the added under his breath, “but he’s a slick kid.”

“Agreed,” Jeff stated with decisiveness and a hint of relief. “Thanks. You will delete those, right? Or should I wait to watch you do it?

“She will.”

Jonathan slinked back to his important father, hands shoved in his pants pockets.

Evangeline addressed Jonathan. “You need to realize the importance of music, even old music, even used and forgotten music. You need to pay for this music, for the musicians working hard to entertain or shake up or inspire you. Not steal it, got that?”

The boy’s face was caught between brazen amusement, regret and humiliation. He really looked at her, then away. She saw something deeper there, something sadder, smarter or both. He and his father paid for the Beatles and left.

Van and Evangeline slipped out without notice of a few eyeing them. Ambled past second hand shops, the new and used bookstore. She was too tired to stop and snap more.

“That was exhausting–and why bring up Carter’s name once more?”

“I thought it might help. It did, sort of.” They passed a rundown, packed cafe. “I need something to bouy me. Want to share a chocolate cupcake?”

“No, not now, let’s go back. I’m done with documenting humanity. I’ll make you a fresh French press coffee or you can have more tea and I might get my chocolate chip cookies out of hiding. Despite your sugar-burdened diet. Or make you a nice sandwich.”

“Yes, even better, Evangeline, I’m all for a sandwich–with cookies.”

She had an impulse to punch him on the shoulder but he stood too tall. Besides, it was best not to punch a man already limping about, rightly so or not.

“I do think you have a knack. You could become a private investigator and offer discounts for seniors–”

She slapped his forearm. “You never stop. I intend on taking more pictures, just not today. I see people and places, all kinds of life in a fresh light. May need to reconsider who, where and how… but it feels good. Just don’t bring up Carter again anytime soon. Please. That’s the expired past, my own past. This is the voluptuous present. Hopefully you like me for, well, me, not my deceased ex-husband being famous. Let’s mosey about in each new today more, shall we?”

“Quite right, Ev.” He liked this talk. It lent hope and delight to all things. “I surely do enjoy you for you.”

“And thanks for being there, too, Vanderbilt Garner. I may have had less restraint with the youngster had there not been a better-natured voice.”

Van made a strangled sound as if she had hurt him by saying his real name aloud. He placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezed a tad, then let it slip around to lower back. She laughed, good and rowdy. They hobbled home, Evangeline thinking Van had a valorous streak as well as a cheeky one. The summer might improve, all in all.

They felt relieved when they beheld the courtyard. The children had gone in search of other enticements. Mistral Manor’s fountain gushed and burbled as summer played on watery cascades, like fingers of light on a beautiful instrument.


Hello Readers, this is the second short story featuring Evangeline and her community at Mistral Manor. The first was recently posted here:



Riverine Sunday, A Walk for Life

Riverine Sunday, A Walk for Life
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution

The stillness within me is punctuated by vagaries of thought and sensation, an upwelling of feelings. They arrive following days of a deeper quietude, the sort that language cannot translate with succinctness nor a rudimentary grace. It all lives in a surround of consciousness, yet I am full of not-knowing. Limited. Time even seems defined by an existential awareness of separateness, not constant but clear. And then a sense of merging with humanity visits me and I am plummeted into a morass that also cradles in a primal way. This isn’t a new experience; it has become too frequent.

I have put this off, my usual mid-week essay, a genre that allows me to tackle and examine a variety of ideas, of internal and external interactions. A genre I love because of its strictures and demands. The words shape facts while the reality I experience gives rise to a flood of connections. Somewhere within this there is a brief communion as I strive to remain loyal to the truth as I know and understand it. Yet whenever I have begun to write of the facts of this topic today, either blankness or tears have marred my physical, intellectual and psychological vision. I have to leave to others the task of reporting and investigating acts of terror but still I want to put in words…something…and this is all I can offer.

On the last very early Sunday morning, a massacre occurred in Orlando, Florida. It is worldwide news by now. Such information travels across the globe so fast that we can know and yet not know really, so we hear, try to absorb and wait. I, too, have let information in bit by bit, even when not wanting to know. Then I stared at blank pages begun on my PC. I don’t much comment on national or world news; I am not writing a political blog. But this is also other than that.

While this will be repeated many times I will add my voice and my agony: why again all this violent death? The terrifying end of 49 human beings, leaving survivors–the wounded, the traumatized–to go on living with it every passing moment? This is again more grievous loss of life that seeks and cannot find a way to contain the keening. It seems stullifying, unfathomably so. A reminder surfaces at moments, a minuscule comfort: that people somehow manage to go on. To endure what was imagined as unendurable. To mine the treasure of love, anyway. To root out compassion even in the dark, thorny places. To grab onto a shred of hope and not relinquish it despite the poison that can render us exhausted. We still know how to put into motion an intention to become braver, stronger, wiser even as the rage against causes of suffering ebbs and flows.

On Sunday afternoon, despite the specter of fear that slips about, despite the stunning grief that descended on our country once more, my husband and I went down to our city center to the waterfront. We have a river walk along the Willamette River. The annual Rose Festival has begun and lasts a month, a time when thousands of tourists visit in search of not only our world famous roses but also our food and coffee and micro beer, arts and entertainment, and the extraordinary beauty around us. I wanted not to see the arts and crafts market or the festival midway fair so much; that has been done and done over the years. And I have often studied the big ships that set anchor in our port to be admired. I have also witnessed the dragon boat races many times, thrilled to do so, cheering on all vibrant teams.

It may seem selfish to go out and about, as if it could be just any walk after tragedy such as this. But it was hard to do–the weight of it. I needed to make my body a part of this world. Dawdle in the sunlight. To breathe the early summer air that was saturated with sounds, with natural and man-made smells. To walk and feel the muscles in my legs, the pumping of my heart. To feel the vivacity of life humming and dancing about and to join in. I wanted to be around people, just enough. To stroll through palpable laughter, hear strangers calling out to one another in fun and excitement. To see youth riding scary carnival rides only to soon be safe again; watch children climb into and wriggle out of their parents’ arms. I had to watch our river, friendly and commerce-busy and finally intersecting with the mighty Columbia–those miles north and south I have walked countless times over decades. To visit the cafes and little garden areas and the old and new architecture I know so well. I wanted to love my city as it has loved me, for Portland has been a nurturing and energizing home for my family. We just wanted to walk without a fear that blocked our curiosity, and we did. We never know when our paths will end so until then, we go forth into the moment.

And it turns out I did want to do all the things I’ve done. So I offer you a brief portion of last Sunday afternoon. After that news. After those taken had left us and as those still living were tended to far from here–this, my city which mourns, too. May we not forget either the living or the dead. May we find moments of grace amid wreckage, and share a balm of small kindnesses. And go into the world and walk with life, for life, despite the risks that always accompany this human living.


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