Acting the Expert When Surrender is Needed

The human being has a serious inclination to make masterful talk, to inform, educate, even enlighten another of our species, then ultimately persuade the listener of one’s own point of view. We do this nearly without thinking during normal conversations, peppering our speech with ideas and details that are meant to define an experience with our first hand experience, and thus determined authority. It’s as if we believe we are each born experts in both broad and specific ways and so proceed in life on that presumption.

Perhaps we are experts–but of our own perceptions, our individual viewpoints. Or education and long experience makes us seem so. For all intents and purposes, what we think we know is also what is more or less real–in our minds, if no one else’s.

Consider one ordinary exchange:

“Watch out, you’re going to hit that car–the light is red!”

“What? I see the car, the light was yellow. Plenty of room, no harm done.”

“Yellow means slow to stop soon and was red as you turned. It’s alarming how that might have been an accident.”

“It means to speed up to not get caught in a red light, actually. I had plenty of time. You overreacted.”

“It’s not safe, pushing on fast at the last moment, not gauging distances clearly.”

“What’s not safe is you barking at me to watch out, it distracts me, then I lose needed focus.”

“You need to drive more carefully.”

“You ought to chill out and just let me drive. I’ve been doing so a long time now.”

“Wait, where are you going? Turn left there, it’s much faster.”

“It’s actually longer, that way is residential streets.”

“You miss traffic jams. I guarantee it’s ten minutes faster at least due to light traffic. I go this way all the time–”

“I’m turning on Siri; she knows the best way.”

“My gosh, an annoying computer and not one bit of driving experience although ‘she’ insists on directing us.”

“Siri has updated, inside info on all routes.”

Slightly sulking wife turns to the window, stares into the traffic. She would like to silence that computer once and for all, just take charge of that steering wheel herself. She sighs. It’s better to relent sometimes. But next time she is insisting on driving, her way.

Both are convinced they know what’s going on and what’s needed and what is not. They likely each have valid points. They each have literal viewpoints that create a manner of decision and action. Yet both desire to exert influence over the other. One or the other will win out unless a stalemate occurs. This time the driver did since he was in control of the vehicle and she at least verbally backed down. And it’s just a drive through town on a few errands, not a critical point to be made, not a major decision (unless he should not be driving due to a fading of keen senses). But we love our viewpoints, our familiar and comforting subjectivity. We know our own minds and assert them.

I’ve delved into this issue the past week–that sometimes overwhelming urge we have to make our voices heard, opinions accepted, our purported knowledge well heeded. There is such a powerful need to impact others, to even change them in some well-considered ways. And it is usually “for your own good”–this, from our singular and considered position.

If it is an acquaintance or even a stranger, that is one thing. We have interchanges in an elevator, on a park bench, at an event or when sharing a ride to work. But even interactions about weather at the grocery check out stand can be comically loaded with impulses to have the last word. This happens to me.

Checker: “How is it out there now?”

Me: “Great. Started out out temperate, getting hotter. So nice I got my sandals out.”

C: “I’ve waited so long for a day of real sunshine. It seemed grey and chilly earlier.”

Me: “Sunshine will prevail. But it changes you know, rain and wind, a smattering of hail, then bright clear skies. It’s Oregon, we like it.” (What does he mean by “real sunshine”?)

C: “I actually bought an umbrella, first ever. I’m from Arizona. It’s never warm enough here, wear layers all the time or about freeze.”

Me: “I see…it’ll be up to eighty, ninety soon, stays clear and hot until late October then the rains return.”

C: “I’ll adapt, right?…There you go, thanks for shopping at Fred Meyer!”

Me: “Welcome to Oregon, hope you’ll enjoy being here!”

It was only a chat about weather…but I really wanted him to appreciate a place where the beauty is magical no matter the season and go on to explain how our weather changes our landscapes and impacts choices in interesting, positive ways. He surely wanted me to understand how hard it is to get used to a different clime; he missed the predictable dry heat of his home state.

Just a passing exchange.

What happens when something closer to home challenges us? When we feel that something is not going the way it ought to according to our estimations and yet the other person insists it is well and good? The hardest of all quandaries to address meaningfully is with those we love. When is too much said, too much influence attempted? When do we step back, admit things will go the way they will go? When do our frank opinions start to sound like severe directives? The dread static of interference?

As a parent, we are expected to be the ultimate guides. Or to at least gain enough trustworthy information that we’re able to behave like we can do the job. Some decisions are instinct for most parents: to nourish our children physically, mentally and emotionally; keep them safe from harm; train them in all sort of skills; provide assistance and feedback as they progress or need more aid and practice. And we want them to feel well loved. According to our cultural norms and traditions, we have further priorities to address as they grow up. We do whatever we can to ensure they get the information needed, then use it satisfactorily. And explore their lives from a solid base of confidence. This all seems reasonable most of the time, an arduous task during others.

But we all know that no matter how well we manage to pull off parenting responsibilities, little ones have minds of their own from a very early age. And then they grow up and our opinions and expertise mean less than a a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper tossed over popcorn and potatoes. They can and do make up their own minds They’re turn into adults somewhere in their early twenties. They’ve already stumbled, fallen and gotten back up, even become stronger and smarter–more than a few times if fortunate.

So just why am I standing here going on and on about what may well be the better way, what is probably in point of fact the wiser choice? Excuse me, a look tells me or a pause on the phone: thanks for those awesome words but we have complicated lives to attend to and we do have a tentative plan–don’t I have a busy life of my own? They might not say all that but I hear it.

Yet, wait a minute. I have decades on them. I have experiences they have never had and may not. I have knowledge that might be derived from excellent and arcane sources that could transform their lives. I just know those adult kids really well after the diapers and strep throats and night terrors and scabby knees. After we’ve shared heartbreaks and missed chances and anxiety over more change and the victories and moments of stirring clarity and the strength and courage that courses through their tender selves like life giving, sometimes even holy, water. The healing that comes when loving kindness is infused into rancorous wounds.

It’s sacred, being a parent. It demands of us much. We are witnesses to a life changing before our eyes. And our speaking and listening both helped keep them on the road that’s unspooled present and future for a long while. Safe! we’ve breathed again and again. Or if not then we waited without end at bedside, outside closed doors, in the night as we called for angels. In the kitchen making something that they liked. Put that kettle on for soothing tea, anything to help them rebound.

The truth is, I would take out my heart and lay it down for them. I would leap over a burning bridge to rescue them. I would find and carry their souls in my own hands out of a menacing darkness and into the lustrous light. And I am a woman for whom motherhood was not originally in the foreseeable, feasible plan.

So when an adult who was once my small child, a grown person whom I so love chooses to do something I do not understand, I have tried to quell my response unless requested. But not always, not by a long shot. I have to be honest, it almost seems unnatural after those intense decades of being ever-present and needed. So I attempt to offer thoughts with care even when I feel the weight of urgency. I remind myself: they are smart people, creative thinkers, they have an array of attitudes, ideas and feelings, too.

It’s not my life, after all.

It might be marrying someone I have not even had the chance to properly know. Leaving a fine job for other interesting but uncertain possibilities. Adventuring to places that are so far away and seem risky. Changing the configuration of a family despite the clear challenges. Moving to another place when the old one could improve if given more time and effort. But they have come up with a mutable plan, a working map and preferred criteria. My input is only useful or impractical data and may or may not be discarded.

The thing is, I know they generally value my well honed opinions. They call or stop by to toss about ideas with me, share work lives and creations, ask for some skill or ability of which they need to avail themselves. Most still even name their hurt, hopes, joys. They know they can always get a hug. They know I can listen. I have spent a lifetime of listening to clients and also to friends and family. I can be quiet, can wait, observe. But I also have a need to be honest about what I think and to inquire after more when I don’t understand well enough.

I am not good at being fully neutral with my family. Aloof or inscrutable, disengaged. Utterly objective. Sometimes I have to pray long and hard to regain a viewpoint that will enable me to place distance between us even as I zero in on the issues. It can be a hard maneuver to pull off but I have gotten better at it. I also pay attention to Mother Wit, my gut.

Nonetheless there are many times when what I think is not particularly relevant to these adults. They may not even ask much less tell me the good stuff in the first place. But when they share their lives and I’m taken aback by matters revealed, I have to remember I want to be the sort of parent I at times wish was here for me: someone calm, attentive, with a sense of humor, too. Able to consider a kid’s view valid even if all whys and wherefores are elusive. I would want respect. Trust in ability to make good decisions. Due consideration of the whole story. Acceptance of my adult life, anyway. Love.

All this is just what they deserve, as well.

I also ask myself: what was I thinking and doing at their age and what did my mother say or not say to me? She managed to get some decent sleep and also care about me despite some choices made that she sighed or likely wept over. She knew what I know now: you cannot act like an expert and blatantly insist on the wisdom of parental opinions and viewpoints no matter how you might want to… not with grown children. Especially when it is not their wish. I can’t any longer take away treats; I can’t give them “time out.” Nor do I want to, thank goodness.

But lest the reader think the five I raised are not quick to engage in their debates, too, it can seem like pandemonium around our table when they visit. Each one for themselves and yet in the end they are each one for all, too. I guess they’ve been taught to question, to probe, to re-imagine, to assiduously examine. But they know when enough is enough. They know to be kind.

So, I now do know what to do with my important advice. Leave it, tell it to pipe down. All my pushy, incisive, needful words can find another place to stir things up: a poem, a story, a walk along a brilliant river. Or to find solace: a prayer, a talk with my spouse or a friend, another walk in life-affirming woods and dale. I can manage my own self. Why would my children not do the same?

I feel humbled. I don’t always. Sometimes I feel as if someone must please hear me but today I think I’m the one who needs to reckon with greater truth. What do I know except for myself and even then…? I am not in charge of anyone else’s life. My mind can be a lively though peaceful haven or a corral knocked about by a hundred wild horses in it. I want to let out those beautiful and maddening horses. I can always look for them later. I prefer my innermost haven more right now.

My children, I surrender my worries and questions today and maybe even the morrow. I give over to the choices and aspirations that make up your own journeying. I want you to take chances that matter to you, to dream wiser and farther. To become your extraordinary human selves. And may our paths forever cross along the curious byways we take, the bends, twists, peaks and valleys that we each chart and traverse along our way.

 

Days of Loss, Treasures Revisited

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson copyright 2017

I’m not able to write fiction today; it takes me 6-8 hours per short story posting. It might be feasible if I propped my eyes open all night, even made a pot of coffee but I drink that substance sparingly so that’s out. I’m a bit weary but have now paused after hours better spent–have to say it as today it is certainly true– with my extended family than at this computer. And believe me, I am madly in love with writing. (Posts this short are like teasers; I always long to pick and play with more and more of those acrobatic words.)

But it’s Memorial Day. A day set aside in remembrance of those innumerable ones who have given their lives defending our country. And it is a somber day for other reasons.

Over the week-end in my city two brave people’s lives were lost while stepping in to defend two teen-aged, apparently Muslim girls who sat on a train enduring hate mongering. A third man is still in hospital with severe injuries. The perpetrator–who spewed racist epithets and threats then resorted to deadly knife violence when well-meaning strangers intervened–was soon arrested. But what was done was done and so fast. This happened not that far from my neighborhood, on public transportation that thousands routinely take to get to work, to home, to see friends, to attend events. It is a horrific crime, a nightmare of a reality to victims’ families and friends. To the witnesses.

And then I think of Manchester. And so many other places and persons, countless intolerable losses that permeate our earth, this home we are to share.

So I felt strongly this was a time to even more appreciate those who matter so much to me. To pause in prayer and slow way down. I put aside thoughts of writing and now here I sit thinking. What visits me with increasing familiarity is that mixture of sorrow, incomprehension, gratitude laced with tenderness. Inside my essential being remains glowing embers of hope. I don’t always see why, but faith in goodness is rooted there. What language can muster any order or sense from cavernous depths of human despair? Such pain nonetheless can reveal in its darkest moments a relentless, fierce pursuit of hope…We work to believe and find strength as we connect through the haze of doubts.

So I shared ordinary activities today that mean so much. I gathered with family to share a table full of good food, and hugs, ideas, anecdotes, experiences, passions. We are all talkers sooner or later and it can go on a long while, wave upon wave.

We spoke of the violence. But we also talked about rock hunting (saw new ones my son brought), health and healing, true love here and in the beyond, books, beading and jewelry (niece), yard and electrical work, dill potato salad (I make a good one) and delicious chicken linguine and baked beans with unusual ingredients. Packing up and moving to new homes, making custom T-shirts and hats (son and sister), print making (sister-in-law) and photography. Carburetors (one brought as a gift) and vintage cars and motorcycles rusting or running. Being an active jazz musician at seventy eight (brother). House painting jobs and the risk of carpal tunnel. Pyramids, aliens (son, his partner, niece’s partner). Outer space exploration versus earth sciences (I was thinking of this more than speaking). Grandchildren growing up and away, skateboarding (son is a pro), jumping on a trampoline (I enjoy with grandkids), learning to drive and also driving as downright irritating. Also learning to play piano to better compose music. Cherry and marionberry pie with ice cream to savor, even admire. And mentions of those not present: they are always missed. Dogs abounded, which was good. My sister’s attentiveness, smile, and hug were better. I enjoyed her fun yard art; she likes to paint creatures salvaged at estate sales.

If there were captivating characters ready made for short stories… well, beloved relatives could fit the bill fine. A family, as we know, is designed of custom- created individuals sharing genetic, historical and/or emotional material. And how fabulous that is, you have to agree. Except when you feel it may not be so all that, or not all the time. We all have opinions and viewpoints, after all. We can find ourselves at cross purposes and out of key as well as filled with exquisite harmonies made by all (which has layers of meanings for me since we are a musical crew).

I am glad to report today was like a satisfying gift bonus, as when you open the main package and then discover goodies hidden about the expected one. It was reassuring and invigorating to mingle with those who are interesting, goodhearted, often (dryly) humorous persons. And who feel like real friends, not obligatory ones.

Add in packed-with-info phone calls and lengthy texts that count for more time shared–not all are family members who reside in Oregon. Space can be healthy and good except when you really want them all with you. Close, safe.

This long week-end also afforded more time with my overtaxed, oft-traveling spouse. And since the hard and daily rains have ended and we’ve been able to get out and about more, we revisited a few places we love. Birds singing their small hearts out was exquisite, even poignant; how they moved me. I leave you with scenes from nature’s variety which proves a constant source of renewal. So I can be and do better. So we can go out and love even truer. Bravely, despite risks. This is basic wisdom. Other peoples in other times have used it well; so can  we.

Noble Woods, Steigerwald, Vancouver Lake 100

Friday’s Quick Pick: Poem/ Youth and Eternity

Forget the rest, all hurtful things
and any false efforts, the energies
discharged when every look and
multiple words meant more or less
than what was needed or imagined,
and still the train of youth barreled
into midnights and mornings
when what mutely drew you was an
enthrallment, a peace planted and
blooming in the heart of chaos.

Which is here, now, and reverberates
up and down canyons and trees
with arms raised as you carry on
one heartbeat at a time, rocks sharp
though they give way and mossy places
still nestled, tender after all this time.
And the water flows, falls to earth
generous with riches, and long before you.
The wind carries secrets to all creatures
yes, and kindly, and always to you who are
made of starshine, angelica, pine sap and love,
brought into this slice of time, a drop of dew,
a tiger soul resonant with ancient life.

(For my granddaughter)

Day 4: Water’s Ways: A Short View of History, Hauntings and Happiness

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So much to write, so little time to get it written! I do feel an increasing desire to move on to topics other than our four day coastal trip. But patience, I counsel myself. There are more scenic pickings, as there were more excellent times. I never get tired of this route along U.S. 101. Note that most of the first shots across water are from the perspective of looking across the river from Oregon toward the state of Washington, one lengthy, impressive bridge span (4.1 miles long) away.

We arrived at Astoria, a bustling, important West Coast harbor where the Columbia River’s muscular currents of fresh water meet vast and briny Pacific Ocean waves. What a powerful thing it is to see and muse over. I hold deep regard for the essential pilot boats and captains, U.S. and international cargo ship crews, fishermen/women (gillnetters have a long history here) and the hearty souls who work for our critically important Coast Guard and rescue so many all year ’round. And too, there are attractive cruise boats on which I’d love to travel (hopefully next year, after a train ride to Astoria from Portland). From Astoria on the Columbia all the way across the state and to my city (settled along the intersecting Willamette River), all is carried from sea to various ports.

Astoria is the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies. It also is a major international harbor with one of the world’s most dangerous crossings from ocean into river’s mouth.  That distant, very small pilot boat is guiding the freighter toward the mouth of the Columbia River, then through an ever-shifting sandbar and into the Pacific. You will note the waiting and readied Coast Guard ship; a beautiful cruise boat (“Un-cruise Adventures”), with the last picture of the Lightship Columbia, now decommissioned. From 1892-1979, there was a lightship stationed at the entrance of the Columbia. Five miles out, it was a virtual floating town with tons of supplies and a large crew for long stays.

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A brief look at the small city’s downtown shows a couple of examples of its old style with a few shops. We stopped at Rusty Cup for coffee; note the window’s sign.

There are wonderfully preserved Victorian houses in the hills where most of the population resides. I love the Flavel House, built in 1885 and now a museum.

We spent the night in Astoria and awakened to a fine new morning. One more day out and about and on the road…

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Then it was off to Long Beach, WA. First, the bridge, a drive that stirs me as we go over the mouth of the elegant but ever-working Columbia River. To the west, an endlessly brilliant blue sea.

And we arrive in our wonderful Northwest neighbor, Washington. We stop by Middle Village and St. Mary’s Church. It gave us pause thinking of the land and the native people living her long before the famous explorers Lewis and Clark arrived. I felt a melancholy as we walked around and imagined all the activities. The world’s history is stitched with events, sagas, wars; of land being overcome, possessed again, changed; of people’s power usurped and replaced; and beginnings wrought of endings. It just goes on and on; certainly today we see versions of the same. Perhaps because of this, it gave me much to once more think about.

The next stop did nothing to dispel such cogitation: Fort Columbia. From Wikipedia comes this abbreviated description of its history:

“Fort Columbia was built from 1896 to 1904 to support the defense of the Columbia River. The fort was constructed on the Chinook Point promontory because of the unobstructed view. Fort Columbia was declared surplus at the end of World War II and was transferred to the custody of the state of Washington in 1950.[2]

In the 1960s and 1970s, Battery 246 was outfitted to serve as a Civil Defense Emergency Operating Center and was one of several possible locations the governor could use in an emergency.”

I felt the loneliness of the buildings as I walked the grounds. The vast emptiness, rather than being peaceful, felt full and restless with the past. It was a knitted-together community of soldiers that lived there and a town was not far away for some socializing on off-duty time. Yet its intended mission combined with a stark quality of the buildings (which from a distance appear a bit pleasant), now emptied of life, were a reminder of how things might have been and also developed at that place, in those times. As I tarried at various spots, then looked into a kitchen and through another window toward the ocean, it seemed deeply inhabited by its history. Some say it is a haunted place. Perhaps.

It was time to head on up to the Long Beach Peninsula, dispel the pensive mood with more sun, wind and rolling sea. The beach purports to be the longest in the world–not verified as fact, to my knowledge–and also boasts a very long boardwalk. It was a railroad town once. Walk, breathe, take in more of nature’s generous offerings.

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We stop at North Head Lighthouse, opened in 1898. Lighthouses along the coastal stretch from Oregon to British Columbia are crucial to help keep ships safer. Yet the rocky coastlines have been strewn over time with some 2000 shipwrecks and hundreds of lives lost. I chose to forego a typical lighthouse photo and snapped those below. Many visitors were moving beyond a safety fence and trekked down to the treacherous bluffs to get a closer look at the vista. I seriously considered it but moved on. This is one of the windiest places in the U.S., with winds often surpassing 100 mph. It was definitely very gusty standing there, hair whipping, eyes stinging.

I found myself drawn to the property beyond the main attraction–brightly white and rust-red Head Keeper’s dwellings, which can be rented. This might be a fine place to work on a selection of poems or a new novel; Marc offers the thought that he’d like to work on his technical book here. Mostly, though, I would want to daydream, saturate myself with the wildness, mystery and blessings of nature’s panoramic ways. I suspect those who do rent this home come to enjoy bike rides, walks and hikes, and perusing surrounding towns’ delights as well as the mesmerizing ocean.

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It was finally time to head back home. Thus ended the small journey that we packed a great deal into, enjoying varied learning experiences as well as being replenished on every plane. It was a time for us to steal a few carefree days and nights together as ironically my husband travels a great deal in and out of the country for his work. And Marc and I especially find–as most people do–bodies of fresh and salt water soothe, invigorate, lighten and inspire us. We would both return to the city happier. What my hat says sums it up. For me, another year alive despite heart health and other challenges, being able to do what I love most of the time, this is not a mere motto I take for granted: Life is good!

I hope you don’t just scrimp/save/wait for one or two fancy, expensive trips. Get in the car (or bus or train) and head out on a short ramble, even those close to home. Let taxing cares and harsher realities loosen their vise-like grip and drift away. We all need the balm of moments both meaningful and laughter-inducing. Take time to find and celebrate places and feelings you might be passing over–there are such surprises out there! Pull in close. Share wonder.

 

 

Note: This is the fourth and last part of a small series on our recent four day trip to the Oregon and Washington coasts. If interested, please check out Days 1-3 posted the last few times!

The Shadows that Befall Us

Photo by Christer Stromholm

He was back. Lee got word at the pharmacy as he picked up a prescription for his sister. He was whistling a Sinatra tune, “Summer Wind”, which made hunched over, pale Harriet smile as he approached the little window. It was already hot as blazes and all he could think about was his boat, the rippling water and time off from his boring as ever junior loan officer job. He was a good whistler and everyone liked a good whistler, he thought, something cheering about it. One thing in his favor, anyway.

“So Rita has a toothache, huh? I feel for her. This will take care of it. Is it getting pulled or can Dr. Cramer fix it?”

Harriet wanted the rest of the story before she would release the bottle to him. She sucked on the end of her pen, waiting for details.

“She’ll be fine, thanks,” he said, not knowing one way or another, he was just to pick it up and deliver it.

“Well, now, you both keep up your strength because your old friend is back.” She watched him sign off, then put it in a little white bag, handed it to him. “And no doubt you’ll get a knock on the door one of these evenings.”

Lee’s mind darted here and there. A friend, maybe Tom, a childhood neighbor and fellow graduate from state college; he had called awhile back. Or Lisa, whose heart he accidentally stepped on, so she took off for the coast. He hoped it wasn’t she–he was better off living an uncomplicated life

“I’m sure whoever it is, is just passing through, and we’ll enjoy a cup of coffee. Thanks for the heads-up, Harriet, gotta go.”

Harriet let him take the bag and turn away, then said, “It’s Mick. Mick Stavros is back.”

He was whistling again but when that name hit the air the tune evaporated. Lee stood in the aisle as a couple wove around him with their fussy child. He turned back to her but Harriet was on to the  next customer. She only looked at him when his hand was on the door’s brass push plate. Shook her head as he exited.

******

“If there’s only one thing you might not have said for the rest of our lives, it’s that!”

Rita slammed the refrigerator door shut and dropped two cans of beer on the table. She didn’t know why Lee had to linger now that he had left the medicine and told her the bad news. He lived in the third dwelling of their jointly owned triplex and they seldom saw each other unless there was good reason. Her infected tooth and resultant pain qualified. Rita had left work and gone straight to Dr. Cramer, gotten the verdict, then had lain down. She was not in a mood to be trifled with much less attacked with worse news, nor did she want to down a beer with an antibiotic. But this was not the usual afternoon so she opened the beer and washed the pill down.

“When? Why? Where is he so we can make certain to avoid him at all costs? And do the cops know he’s here?”

Lee protested with palms up and against humid air. “I don’t know anything but that. Take it easy. It’s been…”

“Nine years, that’s how long and I want it to be one hundred. Forever.” She squinted her eyes at him and sat down. “I thought he was going to Houston after he got out, see what his uncle could do. That was the last Mr. Stavros said of it and he wasn’t full of misgiving about it, either.” She rolled the chilly beaded can against her forehead, which was hotter than usual due to the infection. Her hand went to her jaw;e leaned forward. “He had better leave us alone, Lee.”

Lee glanced at her cropped reddish blonde hair. It had been long once, all the way to the middle of her back, “that amazing Marlin family hair” people always said of it, even his with its abundance. Hers was shorter than his was. The day Mick had gone to trial for his crimes, she had cut it off with her own scissors to shoulder length. Then it seemed like she cut it a little shorter each year. No one knew why exactly. His nostrils flared and he put his own thoughts away.

“He will, don’t worry. Everyone in town will know soon and be watching him. Mick never did have a clue about what makes sense in the larger world. I guess it must be in the genes, whether you have an instinct for good and smart or not. I mean, his father is not the best example though he’s changed.”

Rita snorted. “The way you break down complicated matters to the smallest, most simple components! Mick Stavros made the wrong choices because he wanted to; he’s not unintelligent, he’s a…”

Just saying his name caught her off guard, the way it rolled around the kitchen in sunshine like honey. The pain in her jaw and the news were both sleep inducements. She longed for sudden oblivion.

“You can stay but I have to take a pain pill, hit the bed and get over this thing,” she said and got up. She hesitated, then squeezed his shoulder. “Keep cool, Lee. That was so long ago, we don’t need to revisit it, right? Let’s just bide our time. He’ll get bored and leave or get run out. We just won’t answer the door or pick up calls if he tries.”

You’re warning me? Of course the past has to stay where it belongs. We’ll be okay, call me if you want to talk later. I’ll keep an eye on things.”

As he ran down the porch steps, crossed the yard to enter his unit on the end, he thought, We’ll be okay. Unless he’s here for you.

******

The sun went down at some point during her fevered dreaming but all she could see in her slumber was the day she met him. Mick was standing with back to thin May light and his face was only partly visible. His hands were tucked into his pockets; he stood tall with a casual authority, that’s how it seemed, feet planted apart. As she passed him he turned his head to look at her and then she saw his eyes in the sudden sunshine, that rich amber surrounding brown. They were curious, bold, with questions that somehow foretold the answers.

“How you doing this beautiful day? Are you the one I’m waiting for?”

She felt his unusual, magnetic presence,  and briefly entertained the idea that he had been planted there to test her purposeful mind. But she kept up a fast pace to the locked employees’ entrance of the building. She laughed under her breath. Was that an old fashioned come-on or was it just a risky, foolish thing to say to someone who could be the one to decide his fate at the treatment center? She looked over his shoulder, noted the outline of his strong, straight body; stubborn shoulders; head turning as if scanning the horizon. But he looked back at the last minute, saw her still there, and their gazes caught.

Rita twisted and turned, sat bolt upright in the darkness, heart pounding, face and neck slippery with sweat. She threw off the covers, padded to the kitchen, took out a bottled water and smoothed her face with some of it before drinking. It was eleven o’clock. Her mouth was less tender, but not enough. Rita opened the door to the back yard and sat on the stoop sipping, easing into full consciousness. And as she did the past slid forward, took a place beside her. Rita studied the landscape until convinced she was alone.

Mick Stavros was a fledgling criminal and an opiate addict of a few years when they became acquainted. He had been in jail, he was being given another chance and he was intent on changing before it was too late, that’s what he said. Rita sometimes heard him from her desk in the office next to the group room; his voice could boom though it was often quiet. His words weren’t that much different from many others’, and she knew far less than she surmised. Her work was scheduling and phone intake; she had little direct contact with patients unless she was needed to check them in. But Mick seemed to find a way to catch her eye or even occasionally call out her name with a wave as he passed from one room to another. The other women who worked at the front desk agreed he was good looking, smart and cagey as they came. They alerted Rita to watch herself, don’t get friendly. She was barely twenty-one. They were experienced in that work; they knew what they knew.

“Boundaries, first and last,” they said.

“Of course!” she responded, irritated they believed she was that naive. But it was too late.

A swift breeze swept over her as she drank the water; she cooled in the enveloping darkness. The grass smelled so sweet in the dampness of night. A bird called out now and then but all else was quiet. She turned so that she could see Lee’s unit; his bedroom light was still on and it reassured her more than she wanted to admit.

I wasn’t that naive, I just went mad, she thought. I temporarily lost mind and soul.

She shivered violently from head to toe so got up, went into the triplex, trudged up the stairs and took two more over-the-counter pain meds.

She would stay home the next day while her tooth settled down and the antibiotic kicked in. She did not want to hear it: “Can you believe it? Mick Stavros is back in town.” The treatment center could be a gossip mill. She worked in the thick of it, would have to endure scrutinizing stares and whispers even though she was now the office manager– despite it all. Despite a haunted, arduous recovery on every level. She kept many things to herself when people expressed sympathy that bordered on pity. She would not be humiliated again.

******

Lee turned off the bedside light, then lay with arms folded behind head, eyes wide open. How long it had been, not just in years but in everything else, his goals, achievements, lifestyle. Not that he had been going down a bad road back then. Two years older than Rita, he had finished community college before her, started at the bank as a teller. But he was restless then in a way that he hadn’t been since, anxious about whether or not he was doing the right thing staying in Marionville County, if he should consider joining the Merchant marines or take a road trip at the least instead of doing what his parents thought was good for him. Yet he loved numbers and even the physical handling of money, the way it all added up to the same thing all the time if he was conscientious. How his public interactions, his skill and interest were rewarded. He intended becoming more, in time. Still, there was an itch that he couldn’t get well scratched. Even boating on the lake didn’t do it some days. His girlfriend pressured him for an engagement, his parents hoped he’d remain in town and fit in but rise up, show off a little. Lee was looking for something more but what, he didn’t know.

Mick lived on the lake with his father and three brothers. The Stavros family had rented out eight prime waterfront log cabins and also canoes for two generations, going on three. Everyone knew each other around Marionville, especially on Lake Minnatchee. It was the place to go for fishing and boating and water skiing, for daydreaming and walking your dogs and jogging and making out with your heartthrob. And partying. The Stavros’ weren’t entirely avoided but no one found them easy to know. They kept to themselves. The father was known to drink too much and then behave erratically. The boys were more like him than Grandfather Stavros, who as an immigrant from Greece had worked so hard to create a good business. Mick was generally pegged for wilder living; he seemed older, apart from most like his brothers. He’d had some theft charges in high school. People said he liked at least weed, maybe more–a lot of kids did. But no one could put their finger on just who he was or what he’d get up to next.

After school years, every now and then Mick and Lee would bump into each other at the lake or a bar, share tales and a drink, joke about surviving high school, but Lee never felt comfortable enough to call him an actual friend. Mick was smart enough and had a flair abut him but he was sketchy. He was a social acquaintance who acted more like everyone’s buddy even when few responded in kind. He was the sort who entered your space then just stayed there.

It all began at the first yearly summer party when they were in their early twenties. Everyone went. His friend Tom Harvey’s family owned a large house on Lake Minnatchee’s south perimeter; they had a great speed boat and even a pontoon. No one was really excluded; it was more an annual town affair since the broad yard sloping down to the water was perfect for making merry.

Mick had come alone. He’d wandered over to Lee and the usual gang and soon asked if they wanted to drag race. Lee’s buddy Dale, a fast driver, didn’t turn him down nor did a handful of others. It was summer, it was a fine night, they wanted to pull out the stops. One by one they slipped away and met at Four Corners Road where it ran through deep forest, less patrolled than anywhere else that night. Lee was thrilled to be part of the action; he hadn’t done anything reckless like that for a few years. The driver, Dale, was better than good though he worried about Mick’s renowned skills. But it was just for fun.

Before the race, Mick pulled Lee aside.

“You know I can drive you amateurs right off the road, instant tragedy. I figured with a few beers in you, you’d all bite. But there’s another reason for it. I plan on meeting up with your sister and want her phone number. I’ll even let Dale win if you give it to me.”

Lee was confused. “Rita? Why? She’s as straight arrow as they come, not your type at all, believe me.”

“Oh but we’ve met, just not really talked. It was at her work.”

“Really, you’re a customer there? Even  a worse scenario.”

Mick closed the small distance between them, stared down at him. “I need her number. She can speak for herself but I can’t talk to her there. So just hand it over after the race–I’ll let Dale win this one, got it?”

Dale won. No matter how Lee had protested, Mick insisted and finally got the family landline unpublished number.  At least it was better than her cell. A year later things would be entirely different. That number would no longer be workable and Mick would be gone downstate. And Rita would not be the same. The trouble, burglary and assault with a deadly weapon occurred at Tom’s house much later. The very house where everyone had enjoyed a smorgasbord and had fun in the water. The very one where after the drag race, Mick had sidled up next to Rita and told her how incredibly smart and funny she was, and how he admired her new white tennis shoes.

Rita turned away but not long enough. Mick’s low smoky voice was like a drug and she felt her skin and brain wake as if from endless slumber. She took his words in and all the meaning behind them despite the warning going off like that moment was a five alarm fire. They both had begun to burn.

******

Lee finished a burger and drink at Mighty Tim’s Grill and Bar and felt satisfied. It had been a good week at work. No one had seen much of Mick since he had come into town a week earlier.

Tim wiped down the counter. “Naw, he’s visiting his father at the hospital. Old man had pneumonia and it was touch and go. So Mick got out, came back to see family. He’ll soon be gone, that’s a fact.”

“That right?”

The taunting response rose a few feet behind Lee and he didn’t have to look behind him to know who it was. He hoped he was wrong. Tim gave him a wary look and moved along down the bar, smacked his rag a little too hard on the counter.

“Lee. Long time.” Mick climbed onto the next bar stool, nodded at a couple of staring people, then at Tim. “Cola with ice over here.” He beckoned Tim back, turned to Lee. “Catch me up some, buddy.”

“See you’re doing okay, that’s nice. How’s your dad?”

“Yep, off booze, off it all. Got to be good, parole, man, but it’s fine. My father’s going to be right as rain; the tourist business needs him. You?”

Tim set down a cold bottle with a glass and left. Lee watched him as he leaned over the bar, talked to a few customers who then stared at him and Mick. He stood. He could see Lee’s natural quiet swagger even as he sat in a bar, as easy as if he always did this, he was a loyal customer and all was well with him and the world. And there was something more that made him nervous, cockiness, steely confidence, as before but so much more.

“I’m good, work at the bank and like it. But I’m about out of here. The week was too long, I need to get rested up for the sunny week-end.”

Mick poured the cola slowly into the glass, sucked off some foam, chuckled. “Yeah, the lake, huh? You got a little game since we last met. Success and all. Well, good for you.” He turned to better see Lee’s face. “I’m not going to ask. I know she’s done well, too. Tell her ‘hi’ for me. I’ll be moving on to Houston.”

“Yeah, sure, and good luck, Mick.”

He turned on his heel when Mick grabbed his jacket sleeve. Lee swallowed, unable to say the words he so meant to say but he looked down at the seated man with narrowed eyes. A foe if ever there was one; he needed Mick to see his as the same. Mick let go.

“Just wanted to say your sister deserves so much more than this town can give her, know that? She’s amazing.”

And Lee’s body went cold, felt heavy; his mind clouded. He felt a whoosh of light-headedness a split second, then turned his back on Mick Stavros and took off.

******

“I’m telling you, I think he knows where we live now.” He was on the phone as soon as he left the bar.

“What can we do about it, Lee? The police know he’s here, his parole officer surely knows he’s here. He’ll be gone and we won’t ever have to think about him again!”

Rita’s stomach quivered but she didn’t want him to know it. She wanted to be courageous, not needy. There was a time when she needed everyone but could hardly say why. When the depth of her fears and the bitterness of betrayal were like an endless tidal wave. But she got over it. Mick went to prison for something else entirely despite inciting her to lose her common sense and far worse. And she had learned to live better than before, with more strength and faith.

“He said he wouldn’t bother you. But call or come over if you have any reason to–”

“Yes, okay! Alright, Lee, thanks. I’ll check in later.”

It was still light when Rita took her lawn chair and placed it so she could see the gate to her back yard. It was a pleasant view, her border blooms bright and healthy, the dimming sky blues streaked with scant stratus clouds. The middle unit of the triplex looked empty but an older couple occupied it; they taught at the college. A light then came on in their upstairs bathroom as if to assure her they were home. She patted her cheek and found the pain had receded much more the last few hours, was barely there.

Assurances. Those didn’t align with other thoughts and feelings. Rita was watching the side yard and her place. She was watching the night arrive in barest movements, as if it was helping prepare her for full darkness. First, sunset’s performance which was just just detected beyond the roof line. She was happy with their investment, feeling alright about living there and near her brother. But she didn’t feel reassured nor free of the sudden upsurge of anxiety. She felt riveted by the night, every sound, sight and scent magnified. She was most afraid that she might finally have to see him yet also feel what was felt so long ago–their passionate needs exchanged, the thrill of his nearly shape-shifting presence, strange feelings never felt before.

Before she saw his darker prowess, his errant ways. Before she crossed a border into Mick Stavros territory. Before things went bad. She rested, waited for nothing and everything.

He arrived late but not so late she was drowsy. He managed to jump over the low fence behind her, it was only his full landing on dampened dirt and flowers then a slight swish across the lawn that alerted her, his movements swift and quiet. Thieving motions, the strength and nimbleness, the silence that came naturally to him.

“Mick,” she whispered.

He pulled her up to him and she slumped, almost falling through his arms. When she righted herself, his face and labored breathing hovered about her neck and hair and face.

“Your hair…”

Rita’s chest tightened and her voice fell away as she felt the blade of a knife in her skirt pocket, then withdrew it, lifted it, readied it at his side. Hand steady.

“I’m sorry for the bad end, Rita, how it all went down. I never meant to…I wish I had…but I have to disappear for good.”

His breath was warmly fragrant as if he had exuded exotic plant, a night flower. Just as always. He spoke carefully so as not to further startle her or cause any disturbance that might bring others. His lips grazed her cheek. She wanted to scream, take fast action, but did not. She almost believed him, longed to find him changed despite her alarm, the old anger but she would not be mystified by him.

Mick released her with care. He traced the edge of her jawline with his thumb, then melded with deep shadow and disappeared through the side gate.

It was as if he was never there.

Rita collapsed on moist grass face first and what had to be hundreds of tiny, stalwart stems of greenness were prickly against her skin. She exhaled into spiky grass, inhaled the scent of loamy earth as if remembering to breathe this ordinary air. And her heartbeat rose and fell with relief.

Her phone rang. She pulled herself together.

“I’m calling because you were supposed to check in! I worried,” Lee said.

She held the cell phone with sweaty hands. “I’m sorry. I had things to do, time flew.”

“You’re alright then? We can both get sleep tonight? And what about your tooth?”

Rita looked up at the sky, the stars like ice and flame, brilliant although so long dead, and the moon like a giant pearl glowing, lovely and calm.

“All is well, Lee, thanks for the call. I will be even better tomorrow,” Rita said as she positioned the knife’s point and blade down as was safest. She entered her home. Locked the door. Gazed through its small window into the swath of darkness.