A Higher Life

Photo by Slim Aarons

“Oh, I suppose it seemed the theater of the absurd at times. It was the start of their high life, alright. Mom got most everything she wanted and too little of what she deserved,” Maggie said, watching the fire grow with a sudden catch of the dry tinder, then flicked over the logs.

A sudden wave of snowflakes gusted sideways. The cardinal she always looked for had come and gone and not returned but it had instincts and she had to be patient. The scene beyond was a swath of whiteness poked through with bits of green–the branches of surrounding evergreens.

“So she wasn’t happier later? That’d be a shame, all the work she put in.” The soles of Lynn’s feet were held closer to dancing flames.

Maggie pulled the crocheted blanket more tightly about her. “Well, Al was alright. He took care of her in most ways. I mean, they were living the sublime California dream, he a fledgling writer and new producer, she an actress with unstoppable optimism. All those auditions, she was off and running every day. At least she got some calls, acted here and there, finally got a pay off.”

Lynn slipped off her chair onto the frayed Persian rug, eased closer to the fireplace. “Hmm, she looked like Rita Hayworth. She had such ambition, so there’s no explaining things, how they worked out.”

Maggie felt the usual ripple of discomfort in her stomach. This was where she tended to stop talking. Since Maggie had moved to Boise months earlier, Lynn either tiptoed around the topic of her mother or tried to barge right in. Maggie didn’t want to have to manage any psychic fallout. Her mother had already died and too soon. Still, it was just Lynn; they went back forty years.

“There is always an explanation. But that story is long and at points, twisted.” She turned her head to meet Lynn’s eyes; they were curious but warm, like when they were growing up. “You remember enough.”

Lynn tipped her chin to study two golden candles on the mantel and sighed. “I recall that your knock-out mother was friendly. Often laughing. Your stepfather was sort of stern–compared to my father–and corny, and good looking in a quirky way. But they were also just busy adults; we were kids, had our own world.”

“Kids live in two worlds–their own bubble existence and then dips into odd goings- on outside of it. Ours was possibly more fun; theirs, more dramatic. Complicated–how it is when you grow up. But, honestly, it was like they strove to live out their movie-land fantasies right under my nose, not just at work. By the time I was on the an adolescent, we both heard and saw plenty.”

“I guess you’re right. It was just so fantastic, too…I never met anyone else like them.”

Maggie yawned, re-positioned in the armchair, hunkered down–it got so cold here– in the worn green and brown afghan. The only thing her mother had ever made by hand. The wine bottle was close by so she poured a second glass and offered a refill to Lynn. It was dismissed with a wave of her strong yet elegant hand, the hand of a massage therapist. Her surprised eyebrow raised a tad, as well. Maggie never drank as a teen though Lynn did; it was peculiar to see this almost reversed, and she hoped it didn’t get to slurred words. She hadn’t seen it yet but there had been snatches of that at times during her years of odd, inconvenient phone calls. But Maggie was supposedly “over” liquor, at least. And she seemed clear of mind. Well, they all had there challenges.

Lynn had once lived two houses down from the Thornbills’ place in suburban L.A. When Maggie Thornbill moved there at age eight, Lynn was thrilled to have a new playmate who was brave but not reckless, smart but not snotty. They hit it off with their dolls then roller skating, foot and bike races at the subdivision’s park, marathon gabs and games when they had sleepovers every other week-end. The Thornbills’ house was much like theirs, a large, newer mid-century modern house, its light-and shadow-filled rooms made more spacious with high ceilings and big windows. Plus there was the good sized pool. They loved to swim; they switched pools each time. Unless Mrs. Thornbill was paddling around in Maggie’s during daylight with a few friends. But her friend’s mother often swam at night and into  early morning, that’s what she heard from her parents.

But they didn’t have to note that, she was partly visible from Lynn’s bedroom window and she unabashedly spied sometimes. Everyone nearby would hear her at some point. The woman could be a real pistol or a riot after her first drink, everyone agreed. Lynn thought that was true of everyone who drank but it turned into a different thing. Lisa Thornbill became more of everything: ravishingly pretty, boisterous, unstoppable, daring. If she got in the pool with her drinks at hand, Al at poolside and watchful, her very own father would walk over by 1 a.m. and firmly ask Mr. Thornbill to please her rein in, other people had to get some shut eye even if they didn’t. The next day Maggie said nothing of the whole thing and neither did Lynn. Of course Maggie knew what went on, she lived there. But the two families were congenial and besides, it was just the way things were, old news very soon.

The other inescapable facts were that Mrs. Thornbill was fairly talented and gorgeous yet so were a few thousand others. She was lucky to get a smaller but recurrent role in a popular soap for ten years. Her husband’s promotions in the industry didn’t help speed up her career. But you’d think she was famous just to see her walk across the street, “natural grace lit with a preternatural fire”, her own mother had murmured once to a friend. Lynn had to look up the last adjective but she didn’t get it for years. When she did, the idea seemed right.

At sixteen, Lynn was forced to move to Illinois when her father got a transfer with bigger bucks in the advertising business. Her own life went downhill until she married and left home at nineteen, though she went on to college a bit late. Not like Maggie, off and running from the start and now at least regionally famous and her reputation spreading. She might be in Boise that long.

That was so long ago, Lynn mused, three children and five jobs and two husbands ago. It was fortuitous, she so wanted to feel, that Maggie had recently moved to Boise, Idaho where Lynn had lived the past half decade, single and with only one teen left at home. They’d lost touch but there they were, catching up. Lynn watched the leaping flames and  shook herself a little.

“You know, Mom called me almost every day after I graduated from Mills College and started teaching music,” Maggie said. “She had to admit she was proud of me, finally. She wanted to know everything–gosh, questions never ceased! I finally had to stop answering her calls much. She got the hint, always good at intuiting things if at times rather late. Her health by then had developed glitches–a bleeding ulcer, days long migraines, signs of early arthritis–but otherwise she seemed better than I imagined she’d be at forty-five. You would never know she lived through so much… still seemed nearly perfect. Looks can sure lie.” Maggie lowered her eyes as she gave a short laugh, sipped her wine then licked her lips as if satisfied. “Almost our age, weird, huh…” Her lips curved into a careful smile, eyes still dark with escaped anger. Then came a welling of relief. “But she could not endure more disaster.” She glanced at her friend. “I’ve outlived her, haven’t I,” and she smiled again.

It was unnerving to see that smile juxtaposed with the statement, as Lisa Thornbill had drowned during a boat trip in South America with her third husband. It was not likely an accident and her spouse was not to blame; he’d tried in vain to revive her.

Maggie’s face opened up as the edges of her anger softening, becoming satisfaction laced with mischief. And there it was: Mrs. Thornbill’s lively, charming presence stirring within Maggie. She finally saw that even Maggie’s features held many attributes of her mother. Or, perhaps, the mother’s own hopes had more fully come to bear fruition in her daughter.

Lynn plunged onward. “I remember the last Christmas we were still there, do you? We were busy packing and cleaning; we were to leave the day after New Year’s. Remember how I came over and cried on your shoulder for hours because we didn’t even get a Christmas, it cost too much, was a hassle and Dad had left for Chicago already? I thought that was heartless, it felt so cruel.”

“Well, it was, Lynn. But our parents often forgot we were still kids who actually needed them.”

Lynn wasn’t sure she wanted to fall into the pit of sadness that underlay Maggie’s words. They couldn’t tiptoe around it as they did as kids; everyone knew soon that Mrs. Thornbill was an alcoholic. It caused all manner of pain even then though she was–as when she was sober– most often a vivacious drunk, the hostess whose list everyone wanted to be on even if they knew something might go spectacularly wrong (“untoward”, her mother said) by the end of the event. Likely that was why some came.

As for Al Thornbill, he was a man with sublime equanimity and manifest ego. He was neither fazed by his wife’s antics nor her daughter’s snappish intelligence or growing sulkiness. He possessed a decisive manner, taking charge of any situation. Lynn wondered by the time she was a teen if he took charge a bit too much, unlike her own father who proudly proclaimed equality for all and seemed overall unperturbed which Lynn thought at times cowardly, also neglectful. For example, he scolded her for drinking up his scotch and made her pay him back for it but he never forbade her or monitored his bottles or her week-end drinking with friends, leaving hard experience as the teacher, too many times. She had to make up her own rules and she was still struggled to find what worked the best. But alcohol had lost its spell for the most part.

But Maggie seemed to have been born with a set of directives propelling her, many that didn’t match her parents’.  Her friend should have been a composer, perhaps–she thought up wonderful tunes as a kid, learned to write them down as a teen– not just a music teacher, a good thing but limiting, she thought. But Maggie had become a musical theater company director.

Maggie reached for the near-empty wine bottle, then pulled her hand back. “It was the holiday no one forgot in Belmont Estates.” She swept her dark, silver threaded hair into a long ponytail and slipped it in an elastic scrunchie. Her flecked amber eyes glowed in the firelight. “Of course, it was the tree that started it, the fact that dad didn’t want to wrestle with a real one again and Mom wanted a gold metallic and I was trying to convince them that only a real one would do, it was a tradition, they couldn’t change tradition. We didn’t have all that many, this one I needed.”

“I know, who among us wouldn’t need a tree? But us girls, especially, it was a tough teen-aged year. And I came over and we sneaked into the hallway to hear that argument your parents had.”

“We did? Well, Mom had begun an early cocktail hour by then, no doubt. But Al–Dad–ended up siding with me, well, maybe he just wanted to oppose Mom. The next day the two of us went out and found a scrawny tree that cost so much he almost took it back when it tried to fall off the car roof, but we got it home and into the yard. And Mom said, ‘What do you intend to do with that? It’s far and away too ugly to deposit in my living room, it must go!’, her manicured finger pointing somewhere into the distance. But he later wrestled it in, set it up with your dad’s help. Then Mom kicked it.” She looked at Lynn incredulously, shaking her head.

“Yes, I remember, she kicked it twice, a high heel was scraped and her big toe hurt. She hobbled off to their bedroom but we decorated it ’til late, stringing popcorn all of which we ate and I stayed over. I remember her high heels because they had pointed toes, spike heels and oh, that chartreuse green! I coveted them…”

“Yeah, heels were a serious need of hers. Then the next day we woke up and Mom was at it again, saying real trees dropped needles and looked such a mess, it was the ugly tree of the year and no one would be allowed into their house for their annual holiday party if it stayed there! She wanted gold! I was disgusted by the whole thing and told them I’d go get my own tree for my room, they should sort it out.”

“And your dad, usually so unruffled by her told us to go play at my house.”

Maggie unwrapped the blanket and got up to resposition falling chunks of embers, sparks jumping and spitting, wood sizzling. She turned to check out the snowfall beyond the picture window. “This endless snow. I still miss California sometimes.”

“Not me. I miss nothing but those good times we had. I’m so glad you called before you moved again, I never expected to be neighbors at this age. But you know I never wanted to leave, then.”

“It about defeated me to see you go, Lynn. But that day–a few days before Christmas and the usual party–was a fantastic way to wrap up things, right? We got up late and had our peanut butter slathered pancakes, I think…then I decided to check out Mom and Dad, see what they’d done. And what I saw as I rounded the corner of the house…”

“You ran back to get me and when we came up to the swimming pool, we went bonkers, just screamed!”

“My incredible, crazy mother! There she lay on the floating raft in all her glory and at the end of the pool bobbed our tree! Our decorations messed up, but still standing tall. I don’t recall how he rigged that up but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen. Those cheery bulbs bobbing in the warm blue water. Good grief!”

“I thought your mother was amazing, lying there in the buff, and that tree sparkling in the hot sun.”

“Was not naked! She had on her pinkish underwear –those impulses can still make me cringe–but at the same time it was sure something. The whole tableau, in some terrible, awesome way.” Maggie was surprised her throat constricted around the last words.

Lynn stood up then and put her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “What a party they threw. And no one was very embarrassing. You and I had fun, too, and your mom was great. She came up to me as we left and told me that she’d forever be grateful you and I got to be friends, that it was heaven-sent when you found a best girlfriend and to not let it slip away. Did you know that? It gives me goosebumps thinking of it, as here we are now.”

Maggie patted her hand and peered deeper into the fire. She felt so much  younger and older that she did at the start of the evening, as if she was caught in an accordion of time and hadn’t established her own spot in this new story, this new musical line yet.

“I think she was lonely, for all the so-called friends she made. Your own mother was much more domestic than she was, worked at the phone company part time; they didn’t have much in common. She didn’t easily let people in, it just looked that way I realized later, and when she did, they were taken with the physical beauty, not who she was. A woman who was a romantic at heart, a little lost, I think. Even scared. It was a time and place that made it so hard on women if you didn’t play the game. She wanted so much more, to be on the stage, not television. This is what she admitted during later talks we had. By then she was more sick than she let on but I didn’t want to call Dad… that is, my stepdad, but he was good to me. He had long  joined the ranks of Hollywood’s big fish.” She sighed. “We catch up every few months but, no,” she said to intercept more questions from Lynn like, was he finally rich now…”I don’t go visit him, anymore. It’s too much razzle dazzle mess for me. He told me he’s proud of my work. That’s enough. He can come visit me, if he likes.”

They sat down in their respective chairs, each lost in the past moving with its phantoms in and out of firelight. The silence had deepened as snowfall had thickened and begun begun to pile up

“Are you not going to get a tree?” Lynn asked.

Maggie chuckled. “I’d thought of it, then I didn’t get around to it, the current rehearsal schedule is killing me and then there are eight performances in one week. I’m alright with not having one. I mean, I’m alone here, who’d I share all the trimmings of Christmas with?”

“Me, of course, Maggie, who else? My son might even come if we whipped up a nice meal. I have no big plans for Christmas this year, just my usual New Years’ Eve party which you’re attending.”

“Well. A tree…sounds like some more work.” She stretched luxuriously, back arching, shoulders up to her ears, hands clasped together over her head, then she let it all drop into a slump. “But I’d do it. I do have a few acres out there.” She gestured out to a dim, snow-blinded view, nodded her head. “You two want to cut down a little tree with me tomorrow morning if we can slog through the drifts? I have the requisite snowshoes.” They hung on a back wall of her well-aged cabin and she got up to show them off to Maggie. “I’ve used them twice–got a small distance but I’ll get the hang of it.”

“Yeah, you’re a quick learner. I like that idea. Let’s do it!”

“Good. A Christmas tree is good.”

Once more they fell into quietness, a deeper cushion of comfort, the ease of an old familiarity resumed. They could hear snow being blown up, down and around by frigid winds, dashing against windows. Maggie wondered about her cardinal, if it would show up when the weather was spent of some of its power, when the snow lay sparkling like a stole upon sleeping earth. Somehow, that small red bird’s meanders among the proud trees, his stops at her bird feeder and his zigzag flybys past her big window meant more than she could say. Without those flashes of poppy red wings, she wouldn’t feel very at home in this frozen place; it was another stop on the road to a bigger career moving fast. The cardinal and often a mate had been there from the start and greeted her daily.

Come, red bird,” she said after Lynn left. “Don’t disappear.”

Maggie stood in the open doorway, arms pressed to chest, her hand then rising to cup a few snowflakes. As the wind shushed, a brilliant flash materialized from beneath trees to sweep through darkening and pristine air, his strong wings just missing her fingertips.


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