I hadn’t planned on a stop in town on my way to visit Aunt Cara but her last minute call–“Please get a six-pack of lemon seltzer and two giant chocolate bars”–demanded I park and shop. A Miracle Mart stood next to The Corner Store, another sign of change. It had only been a year since I was last this way, but it was jarring to see cement block and huge advertisement-covered windows jammed against aging timber saddled with the beloved wide sagging porch. A new job had kept me career-engaged. Aunt Cara had been busy getting unhitched from her husband of thirty years, then travelling. I had seen him one last time over a year ago, right before they split up. And now my uncle–no, he was just Lars now–was far away and she languished, alone, weakened.
I entered The General Store, of course, and there was Mr. Brunfeldt with his ancient stained Tigers baseball cap and a clean white long apron stretched about his middle. There was a story to that cap but I had forgotten it and wasn’t going to inquire. I was surprised to not see him chewing a cigar.
“There’s Gen Whitaker, how you been? Been a year, hasn’t it?”
A passing customer with a stuffed backpack nodded at me. I didn’t know him but likely he’d know me after I left thanks to Mr. Brunfeldt. I noded back.
“Hey, Mr. Brunfeldt. Tired from the five hour drive, eager to get to my aunt’s. Where’s the lemon seltzer?”
“Fancy or cheap?”
“Both, not sure what Aunt Cara prefers.”
I got both and studied the chocolate. Same dilemma. I got the best of four choices, two fat bars.
I paid him and offered a summary. “Been busy with my new job as Manager at the circuit board plant in Wicks. Still single. Looking for a good dog now that I got a town house. You?”
His eyes warmed in satisfaction. “Well and good for us both. Profits are up with people moving in from greater Wicks area. Jerry is finally gone with his girl over the mountain. My Myra is fair to middling. Isn’t it bad luck Cara got that mess? ”
“Pneumonia, nothing exotic. Of course, she’s getting on just a little like so many. Took its toll. As you likely know. Good for Jerry and his girl.”
The man with the backpack was tapping his foot behind me. I paid and left.
“She shoulda got the pneumonia vaccine like I did,” he added with a sudden cough to underline his smugness.
I let the door slam shut, its little silver bell tinkling furiously. Didn’t he ever replace that tinny thing? Pelton was the one place I’d hoped to avoid from here on out but that wasn’t likely with my mother’s only sister here. Not that I resented her, no. I just had little time for crises and miscellaneous causes. Still my very favorite aunt from both sides, and it had scared me when she took ill like that.
The main street and its buildings held a colorful tinge in late afternoon; sunlight glazed the winking store windows. Two blocks long when I was growing up just a street away, it looked as much as four now. I squinted in the amber light, then decided to stop for coffee. Not Starbucks but maybe better, a new shop with a black and red awning and in the center a small gold dragon. Fire and Water was its name. Not a bad choice, if out of place in provincial Pelton.
The room came to view through a soft murkiness as overhead lighting was spare. Electric candles were flickering upon wood tables, benches at the longer ones and chairs at smaller. There were drapes of red velveteen pulled back from two tall and narrow windows; dwindling light filtered through and on the counter.
“A grande iced, half-caf mocha with almond milk, no whip,” I announced to the barista, hardly believing this was offered or done right. But Hanna got on it. There was a young man humming along with the music track as he cleaned. All in all, a pleasant place.
Seven other customers had their heads in computers or phones. I felt a quiver of envy, wishing I could sit in quiet privacy, too. Guilt visited me with a thump in my heart. I was there for Aunt Cara, after all. It was not vacation time for me. She needed me. I took my chilled coffee, left a nice tip and vowed to return.
A few steps past the door was an alley. Above the entry was hung a sign: “Dragon Alley.” I looked down at the short end where there were two doors, both closed, one painted pine green, one deep red, address numbers above each. Apparently apartments or other businesses. I couldn’t recall what it had been but it looked curiously inviting, in an odd way. I hurried on to my SUV and headed to Aunt Cara’s. My diaphragm quivered at the thought of her drowsing in bed, mouth slack and her hair matted. Like a pitiable old lady. I nearly wept at the possibility.
“Here she is, here’s my girl, Genevieve!”
Aunt Cara wrapped her thin arms about my neck and pulled me in for a long one. It ended when chesty cough erupted. I waited, alarmed, until it faded, then pulled my suitcase to the staircase. She was propped up on the couch, her worn Pendleton blanket pulled close to chest. Just fifty-five, twenty years older than I yet she looked aged for a moment. Still, tenderness and elation filled me, so relieved was I to see her up at all.
“I thought you’d never get here, I was waiting all day. I know that traffic can be terrible. Look at you, good as gold to come see me! Cropped hair, looks pretty, but what’s that on your wrist?”
I covered the tattoo with my sleeve. “Just a bird. Time for a full once-over later, Aunt Cara. Let me look at you. You’ve lost about ten pounds and your color is, well, paler. But you’re sitting up. With a side plate of crackers and cheese!”
“You now I won’t starve. Marie’s just next door, you recall her?”
“I do, a great neighbor. I need to get your seltzer so you can cool your chest and swallow that snack. And I see pills.”
“The last of antibiotics, dear, that’s all. Well, a couple more things.”
As I got the ice for her seltzer, I shook off tentacles of fear. It was a new feeling in this home. Cara was always the hearty sunflower to my mother’s hothouse orchid. I was used to seeing her ruddy-cheeked, busy with work and chores and hobbies, volunteering. A hospital administrator, she was exposed to all sorts of things yet covered at work for those who got ill. She flew from one season to the next with nary a sore throat. Until this late summer, after a trip to Alaska. After she was left on her own.
“Here you go.”
She sipped on it with gratitude, popped a pill into her mouth, then another. “I know, it’s weird! It got a hold of me when I was in Anchorage, I think, just felt so tired, chest heavy in that beautiful air. In the mountains I thought, altitude. But it stayed on, a cough and shiver here and there. By the time my plane landed, I felt feverish. And then it hit me when the taxi driver let me out at the curb. I had to ask him to take my suitcase to the door, I was so weak.”
I had heard it all before but listened intently. “Humiliating, no doubt. I’m sorry, Auntie. I’m glad you didn’t end up in the hospital. It worried me so much but have come when I could. I’ll do all I can for the next week.”
She flapped her hand at me as if it was no big thing. “I’m not contagious, that’s good. But pretty wiped out. Still, I’ve had good help here and there…I knew I’d be better soon.”
“Marie is such a good friend, and I’m sure the book club, your hospital friends pitched in.”
She nodded, turned her head toward the bay window. I followed her dreamy gaze. Early fall sunset spreading its vibrancy, a warm backdrop behind other houses. No skyscrapers poking the dusk, no rumbling, clanging metro train to interrupt us.
Aunt Cara pushed herself up to sit a little taller. “Did you see it when you went to The General Store?”
“What? I could be in another town altogether, it was odd.”
“That fancy new coffee shop.”
I held out my iced mocha. “Yes, been there. Not that fancy…”
“Ah, but it’s excellent, right? Such an interesting place!” She gave me a slow, liquid smile, then lay back.
“You don’t like coffee that much, do you?”
“But the teas, they’re wonderful, homemade herbal blends.” She tilted her head at me. “Why not go on up to your room and unpack? We’ll order take-out soon, then we can talk until I’m ruined by all the news and excitement.”
Her laugh followed me up the stairs, then dissolved into a fit of coughing. I paused on the top step, listening to the deep bass of it. How it must hurt. I hurried to the guest room, really my room, unpacked the basics all the while thinking of quiet, steady and highly ambitious Uncle Lars. How I wished they had never divorced. So she wasn’t alone and could count on his level head and hearty ways. So he’d read to her, regale he with stories. But that was my fantasy. He was long gone, back in his native Sweden with his old company. Damn, why did he have to love work more than Aunt Cara? But I missed him, the good parts I’d known.
I ran back down to find her up and at the window, holding on to the forest green wingback chair, hand to chest, her thoughts far off. She looked so wane and small. Was she thinking of Sweden, too?
“Aunt Cara, you need to take it easy!” I bit my lip as a rush of tears blurred my vision.
“Yes,” she agreed, taking my arm, feeling light as a rag doll, “so let’s order Thai and then talk, talk, talk. Or you talk, Genevieve. I’ll listen.”
I tucked her in at the couch, took her order, called the Thai place from the screened back porch. I wanted to breathe the clear fall air one moment. A crickets’ chorus rounded out the night; a wave of longing rose and fell.
It was early and I was not in work gear but scrambling eggs with dill, shredded cheddar and sausage in Aunt Cara’s white and blue kitchen. And she somehow shuffled down the stairs most of the way before I got to her.
I took her arm. “I wanted to serve you breakfast in bed.”
“Had enough of that.” She paused to catch her breath. “I want to sit with my niece in sunshine. Well, it’s peeking out behind clouds, it’ll be brighter soon.” She planted a damp kiss on my cheek. “Let’s go to the screened porch.”
“It’s cold there.”
“I have blankets for us and we have coffee and tea. We’ll be cozy. Who, by the way, is gorging on all that?”
“We are. Well, you’re going to eat little of it.” I finished the eggs and toasted two slices of bread, but helped her out to the porch then went back for two mugs and plates.
“Now, cover up or we’ll have to go back in,” I ordered and she did as told, tossing one to me.
The birds and squirrels were talking and we were, too, when her cell phone rang from her sweatpants’ pocket. Aunt Cara clutched an armrest and listened. Five rings, then nothing. She picked at more sausage as I told her about my co-workers. The phone rang again, three times, then nothing and she pulled the phone out, glanced at it then put it away.
“Someone important?” I asked, gathering dishes.
Her ivory skin flushed with pink. “Oh, just a neighbor. I’ll get it later.”
But as I busied myself in the kitchen she made her way back to the living room, blanket pulled snug about her. I could just hear her muffled voice. In a few moments, she wandered back in.
“Where did you put that chocolate?” she asked.
“What? At seven in the morning? You barely ate half the breakfast, your blood sugar will go haywire.”
“What am I, your charge? Goodness, Genevieve, give your ailing auntie her chocolate. It is elixer for goddesses and humans. Then I have an errand for you.”
“To Dragon Alley. Right by the coffee shop, Fire and Water.”
I balanced a big plate with silver edging on sudsy hands. Pointed to chocolate bars at the end of counter with my jutted chin.
“Whatever is there? I saw it yesterday. A little sign above an alley.”
“Right. I need you to pick up a blend of herbs for me–there’s an herbalist in business there.”
I squinted at her, trying to discern more of the truth.
She laughed. “No, not that sort of herb! Justin is a certified herbalist, he makes natural medicines. He’s helped me so much, you have no idea, even the doctor was amazed how well I seemed the last visit. He doesn’t agree with it all, but he doesn’t forbid me–as well he should not.” Eyebrows wiggled up and down and she laughed again.
And her face slowly softened as if time was melting away despite stubborn cough and weakness. It was like seeing my mother come back to me, those expressive brown eyes, the same full bottom lip and slender top one that gave generous smiles, how her brown hair with bits of shining grey swirled around her thin cheeks.
I caught my breath but shrugged. “Anything to make you get better faster. When does his shop open?”
“He’ll have it waiting for you in an hour.”
I ordered a hot regular coffee at Fire and Water, then lingered a moment until Hanna the barista had a moment. There were two others helping customers so I caught her eye again.
“Can you tell me something about Dragon Alley?”
She snickered.”Oh, that’s just for the fun of it, but the herbalist is excellent. Even in uptight Pelton people have finally agreed some products are useful. I go for the skin care.”
I had to admit her skin was smooth and bright even in the shadowy shop. “So he can help sick people?”
“He has, from what I hear. He doesn’t do any harm…and he owns this coffee shop, too. He moved here from, hmm, maybe British Columbia? He has a little bit of accent.” Lynn leaned closer. “He’s nice looking, too–doesn’t hurt as far as some are concerned. He’s a very good boss.” She ooked at my wrist. “Cool tatoo.”
I glanced down at it. “Thanks.”
She was tapped on the shoulder by the young man, so got to work.
I marched to Dragon’s Alley to find out who this person was who was feeding my aunt herbs and flowers and likely other mysteriously contrived concoctions.
It was the door to the right, Hanna had said; the place to the left was his home. As I reached for the door handle, I spotted the narrow brass name plate on the building: Justin Q. Michel, Herbalist. She entered.
The rush of air was redolent of so many scents I couldn’t separate one from the other. The effect was less disorienting than enlivening though I felt momentarily faint. I grabbed a stool by a narrow window. Rows and rows of clear glass bottles were shelved around the room. Tins of teas and pretty packets of sachet lined the counter. When I heard footsteps, I turned and found myself caught off guard by the disarming gaze of Justin Q. Michel.
“Good morning! How may I help you this lovely day?”
His accent was a lilting, gentle French–perhaps French Canadian, I guessed. And he was at least her aunt’s age, rangy but sturdy, his strong boned face weathered by wind, sun and extreme temperatures. Falling over his lined forehead was a curve of steel grey and wavy hair; it reached his sweater collar. Was he an agrarian, an adventurer or what? Justin barely tilted his head at me.
“I’m here for my aunt’s herbal medicine, for her cough.”
“Ah.” Justine set his feet apart, placed fngers and thumbs together in a tent shape. “You must be Genevieve.” It was prounounced the French way, soft, pretty. His hand then extended over the counter top; she took it. “She told me all about you, and now you are dispatched on her errands. How good of you to help her.”
“Of course, I’m her niece. Her son lives in Europe.I’m five hours away. I worry about her here, alone, but she never gets sick. I mean, she did get sick and I was so busy that I…” I pressed my lips together. What was I going on about? I needed the medicine. “Is it ready?”
“Yes, surely you worry, not living close enough to watch over her. But she undertands.”
He already had the order waiting and rang me up. I took the package, hesitating.
“She is in good hands, you must not be stressed. She has fine friends, is strong, goodhearted, loves life greatly. Can’t miss with these! Cara will be well soon, up and going again, well, she has…elan…I will personally see to it.”
“Okay, thanks for the reassurance. ” I eyed him. “Say, why that name of the alley? Is it something you did? It is quite fantasical.”
Justin laughed. “Dragons. Well, they were powerfully majestic according to some, beasts of destruction according to others. Were they real or fantasy creatures dreamed up by those who needed to believe in them? Does it even matter? We believe what we need to believe, eh? I believe in what speaks to our health, may connect us to wisdom, to the heart and spirit of life.” He lifted his hands, palms up. “And a good name to remember, right? It helps point the way to something different, to the power of nature’s healing.”
“Good answer. I think. And Aunt Cara is a romantic, a dreamer deep down inside, no wonder she likes this place.”
“Yes, she is; our Cara is… a good woman. Send her my best wishes.”
I thanked him, left, got in the SUV and suddenly felt rudely awakened.
“Our Cara.” It was Justin. It was he who helped, was there for her, was important in recovery from her loss, the pneumonia. Or maybe he was there before the divorce, I would never know. But I almost got it. Aunt Cara had been a woman often left to her own devices, someone who hoped to share a life more fully than Lars could ever manage. She was one to dance in the street, to try to count stars, to swing on the hammock while reading aloud the meaning of flowers. Who went the extra mile for her staff, still did for many others. Not because she had to. Because she cared and could not do otherwise. After my mother had died, Aunt Cara was there lifting me up with letters and packages of pear jam and homemade brownies, phone calls to tell me I was going to make it, I was well-loved.
Now Cara was watched over by one Justin Q. Michel, herbalist. She was not lonely, anymore. Things were changing in Pelton, and even more for Aunt Cara.
When I arrived with the prescriptive plants, I held her close. Aunt Cara patted and rubbed my back then tapped it three times as she did when I was very small. Ravenous, we ate Thai leftovers on the couch, feet raised on Lazy-Boy foot rests.
“What is the tattoo, Genevieve?”
“A crow.” I pulled up my sleeve and she peered at it. “He kept watch at my building for three years. Sat in an old oak tree, watching all, and sometimes he flew down to squawk at me. At least, I thought he tried to talk to me or maybe fuss at me and I always looked for him, even named him Cyrus. He was a comfort during that last terrible job that made me dread each work day for years. And then one morning Cyrus wasn’t there. Not dead to my knowledge and not lame. Just gone. He had moved out, moved on, found a better spot. I took it as a sign. I quit my job, got this new one and moved to another place. Now all is well.” I smoothed the rendering of my bird’s feathers.
“And I thought you were the realist among us!” Aunt Cara chuckled.
“Aren’t I? Sometimes you have to interpret reality new ways.”
“That’s my girl, my Genevieve!”
“True, I am always and forever your girl.”
And that was the gist of the story in funny old Pelton, less me helping my aunt and more us helping each other. Sometimes, too, an old hometown is misunderstood or it changes, like magic.