Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

He took his leave from his landscaping job (was it deemed a yard, garden or more generally, estate…so many acres for sweat to drip to dirt) noon on the dot and went to the Far Ridge, grass-swept where nothing but silken melodies of birds stroked his ears. The rough-shod language of the others, the smallness of their lives hemmed him in even as he chummed about, had made cohorts over time. That is, they worked alongside each other, shared their food if you ran short, and took turns with rumbling sighs.

But Lonny was a person made of a whole different cloth his mother said with quiet certainty, that was a lapse into generosity, her best part. What she meant was that Lonny was lucky to show such fine skills in manual labor, for he was even humbler, lost in another way. She had tried. But that was there was the consensus by so many when he was growing up: that he was stupid somehow, his tongue so tied that he didn’t speak most hours of any day. Few could interpret the jumble of consonants and vowels he let go if required. It was a birthing accident, a tongue so clumsy and slow, they surmised. So no one asked him much, he was Lonny, that said it all. A barest or rapid nod, eyebrow raised or lowered, mouth skewed, eyes shifting or smiling–these were his language if you cared to learn it. His hands filled in the blanks, part quasi-signing he’d picked up, more often a shorthand of miming. He could speak with the gravest strain but managed a short,gasping sentence at times. But, truly, he was not one to seek attention so he was more a benign shadow that fell across the path and unsettled one’s conversation here and there. For you never knew what he might hear or see, he might have super senses attuned, otherwise. They also noted he managed to do well in school, and yet how? His tongue had much less, it seemed, to do with a kind of sequestered intelligence as he grew older.

It was correct that he stayed well aware of many things, but Lonny had less care for their lies and truths and goings on than they imagined. He kept inward, tending thoughts which ran fathoms deeper than Lake Minatchee after a heavy spring rain. He was a reader, and liked everything from Aristotle to Lorca to Carver to the latest bestseller list. Mrs. Morton, the only full time librarian, saw that he got what he wanted, set aside topics or authors she liked for him. The past few years, though–such books on landscaping design, volumes on soil conservation, plant identification. He had been hired on at Morton Landworks at age 16, part time until he graduated–he had taken to the work as if it was his calling.

Lonny always had a book with him for lunch, and as he gnawed on a leftover chicken leg and baked beans or savored tart potato salad with cheese and apple on the side, he took in information at a rapid pace. He wasn’t a kid, no, but he wasn’t entirely an adult, so his mother saw to him despite his obscure intention to leave town and set up house on his own. But where would he do his work gardening if not in Marionville? His Achilles heel remained his blood deep, uncured state of silence.

There was almost no one who came by Far Ridge. It took fifteen to walk there and others felt it wasted time and effort at lunch hour. There was no longer a clear path weaving through swaths of tall bobbing grass–it had been swallowed up years ago, no one missed it. Other than wide views of the meadows spreading about like a wheat-colored skirt and Ferryman Woods, there was a firm breeze that swiped perspiration right off you in seconds. Or a hefty wind that about lifted you up as a storm brewed. The wind had its sundry ways and Lanny appreciated that in addition to the solitude that rested in open space. He looked about, closed his eyes for good measures of red-wing blackbirds’ songs. All in all, he was good with the world if he remembered to let demons of worry escape his grasp, that is, how could he better himself more, maybe rise in the company; who could love him and he, finally, her? That sort of thing. But he had few actual worthy complaints, twisted tongue be damned. There was much to like about his life.

And so that noon was like any early June lunch hour: full belly, smoothed mind, sun high yet not attacking him with heat, rest enough to sustain him another four or five hours on Westwind Estate. He stood and stretched.

It was a glimpse of orange that caught his eye, but then grasses hid it– until a gust pushed spindly stalks over. The vivid remnant suddenly ballooned up and out into full shape of color. He narrowed his eyes against white sunlight, resettled his cap. The orangeness flashed up and over the tops of wild grasses and two legs beneath it carried it up to the other side of the ridge by Ferryman Woods. The ancient trees’ shade thickened and darkened things, yet the legs and arm became more visible: they moved from and under the tangerine dress. The girl or woman inside it was leaping, spinning, bowing, turning along the earth as if an exotic, freed bird.

Lonny couldn’t further sharpen his vision but he knew one thing–he hadn’t seen her before. Nothing about her physical or any other aspect was familiar. He’d worked at the estate for years off and on, under direction of Morton Landworks, ever since he’d completed high school. The ridge, hills and meadows, the dense woods and the lake beyond–these were familiar as his own self and so, too, area farmers and stable owners, lake and country home residents. Yet here was an alien person. A wanderer into his paradise. He was struck that what he felt was not only mild shock but a pleasant sensation as he watched her. The swirling movement was softened and emboldened at once by the one who wore such clothing in midday summer heat.

Still–who was she and why was she doing all that dancing? Not even a stage around those parts, no tourist traps of theatrical offerings. She looked like some kind of dancer in the filmy summer dress as she stood a moment before that wooded hill, amid early June’s beauty. He’d never seen anything or one so light, fluid, as if water had been changed to a flame of orange light and decided to crest and spin, then ripen and bloom into something new.

Into her.

He watched her a few moments, a creature he was unable to describe much less understand but at the least she was entirely herself. That much was obvious–there was certainty in her every motion. Doing what she wanted, a-shimmer with enthusiasm. Celebrating, he guessed, no more than the rich tonic of the day. Her head bobbed, then she dove behind and into the woods.

Lonny took in a breath of sweet air and then he went down the ridge, back to labors. He had to, despite a hesitance to leave. Where was she going, where was she from? He might have imagined it, perhaps…a girl in a dress, dancing. Improbable. But he had witnessed it all while making quick work of lunch.

When he passed the others clustered at the back gardens, he said as usual nothing at all and what could he say even if he had the gift? That he had seen a tangerine goddess of a woman dancing by the woods? They’d immediately spoil it, heckling him. They’d run up the ridge, call and hoot for her to show herself. Unthinkable. He put himself hard into the pruning of bushes, then smiled to himself.

******

He never expected it but the next day and the next and then so many after, she was there. Of course, it was not the tangerine dress every time, but blue or black or red or yellow; sometimes, shorts with light summer tops. He had to keep a keen eye but soon she would flutter up or run into the light. Lonny could not imagine why she would choose this time and place to do what she did–part exercise, he thought, part dance, perhaps part mindless play. Perhaps she felt freer there than elsewhere, as did he, and she thought herself alone.

He had been near-tempted the fourth day to bring binoculars to identify her, maybe, to observe better but the thought felt tawdry–and it was unnecessary, as well. He could see her movements well enough as he ate his lunches and drank cold tea under the shade of a large white oak tree.

Sometimes she was there a short time, others for the whole hour, and not yet gone as he left. The dance was similar in grace but not always in steps and so often she displayed such strength when, with bare feet, she pushed off the ground, jumped high with legs out at angles or leapt or spun about with electric power. It was a free dance concert in the open air and he was mesmerized, he happily gave in to it. He admired her, that she was that expressive and unafraid, kicked up her heels, laughed for any reason, grabbed the world with her excitement. He, too, sensed how careful with it she could be with slower delicate motions. It was a spectacle that gave him uncommon shivers, yet there was a quality to her height–he’d decided she was nearly tall as he was, six feet– and her embracing reach and that loping gait that calmed him, too.

He had to shake his head after to clear it of her so he could once more focus on an everyday world. Lonny usually left before she did. Some days she melted back into Ferryman Woods or slipped down into golden meadow grasses and seemed an apparition, fast vanished. It occurred to Lonny that she stayed in a lake house on the other side of the woods. That she was summer folk. And that might have made him give up the watching altogether as a waste–summer people swanned in and out of town, leaving litter, making trouble as well as dropping cash– but instead it drew him in more. For she, then, was truly transitory, temporal, now here and gone again. She was at least an unknown, different from other women he knew… so he must not disturb her presence with any judgement, or any movements closer.

Five days a week Lonny watched from the tree and keep her secret and it was enough. He had the sixth and seventh day to contemplate the scenarios and found he did not want to find her there other days, only upon his arrival on Monday once more. But he did wonder, what of her life beyond that hill and those woods? And how long was she for Marionville…

His mother thought him more absent-minded than usual but she had enough on her hands with his younger sister disobeying rules and two part-time jobs, one at the dry cleaners, one at the marina. She knew that the fewer questions, the better; Lonny would then avoid her. Besides, at near twenty-two he knew how to make his way well enough despite a lack of asking and answering the usual way. He had been an awkward, timid but good kid, and now was more confident and capable than she’d hoped, a decent young man. Her guilt and sadness over his speech impediments were at times less than a growing pride in him. She kept him looking forward yet didn’t say much about things one way or another. To be sure, she was relieved he was yet home, for now.

******

By late June, Lonny thought he’d seen almost everything of which the woman was capable, at least on grassy earth in dimmed or searing sunlight. He also liked to picture her as a basketball or tennis player; she was surely an athlete as well as dancerly. He believed she must have a brilliant future, that she was on her way from summer’s ease to somewhere big and boisterous, New Chicago or Seattle, places he’d surely go if he had a way to get there. And then survive.

In private, he started to ask her things in the velvety interior of his mind. Did she go back to college in fall? Was she from a big or small family and did it include a father? Was she a bibliophile, nose stuck in printed pages every day even for awhile, as was his? Where had she traveled in the world or their continent? Did she like the night skies here? What was her favorite musical genre? Did she stretch her whole body before sleep as he did? What about moths that pulsed at the light bulbs on porches, did they scare or interest her? He put head in the cups of his hands and groaned. This was not a good thing, talking to her without a sound, that he had all these words that he could never speak aloud.

The eleventh work day, a Monday, Lonny found the indented spot under the overreaching tree and opened his rumpled brown bag to extricate lunch. He spread out a tea towel on bumpy grass where roots hunched up, then laid out a ham with lettuce and butter sandwich, a cup of corn chips and bottle of tea. He didn’t glance at the hilltop by the woods until he took a first bite. It was just trees and grasses green and golden with patches of tiny daisies opening before him. Sun’s rays targeted his outstretched legs, bees hovered about the tea bottle, bumped into his head. The green and brown earth smelled lake-damp and meadow warm and it felt like a secret island, with sky as a backdrop of blue so clear it was as if he could see into the far off universe.

He was glad to be sitting and eating in such a tree’s gift of shade. But she was not there. He finished eating, pulled out his book, in case he must read rather than watch her practice whatever was for today. It was an ancient book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with pages yellowing, binding cracked.

He was onto a second essay, head bent over, an eye on his pocket watch and one on the empty knoll when there was a flutter and flash at edge of his vision. Orange filament afloat in the burning air. He stood and spun to his right, book falling to ground as she appeared from behind the tree and stood opposite him, hands at hips.

“Well, here we are,” she said, her voice soft, hazy as smoke. “You have been watching me. And I have been watching you watch me.”

All those repetitious words felt like a squall of language but it was the sight of her that did him in. He stepped, no, stumbled back, hands finding armor of tree bark just in time. Her tanned fair face and deep blue eyes were not threatening, but neither were they brimming with delight. Rather, sharply questioning and appraising. Maybe open to further discussion. Of which he could offer none. He wished he might say: you are amazing, that’s why I watch you, why else?

“I-I-I…” he started and had to stop, not even the simplest thing would come out, of course, so he tapped his lips, then made a cross-cutting action with both hands before his waist to signal there was nothing he could say further.

“You’re done before we even begin? Well. You won’t advance like some jerk, after all?” She took a small step back, still. “I have to say, this is a surprise.”

He shook his head and made his face gentler as he saw she had a sizable rock grasped in a hand. They stared at each other in surprise and uncertainty when he found he had to sit down to avoid being made a fool by weakening knees that resulted in falling over. She dropped the rock and took a seat many feet across from him.

Lonny tried hard to think how to say his name without mangling it but gave up, his breathing too shallow, brain too numb. If there was anything that might still terrify him, it was the sudden need to speak, that expectation of another of his words, words, words.

“I wondered why you’re always here eating and watching me, that’s all. Two weeks now, at least.”

He looked at her still face then pointed to his lunch, half of which he had stepped on. He gestured back towards the estate, as well.

“Apparently a person of few words…? You work down there, eat lunch here… I see. I don’t really live here, so why should I think I own that spot?” She flapped her hand toward the wooded hill across the expanse of meadow. “I’m here for the summer so I dance for practice, partly, but also for fun. The rest of the year I study dance…and many other things.”

She smoothed down the hem of full skirted tangerine dress, then her light brown hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail. Looked out at Ferryman Woods. He let his eyes study her face closely then. Perspiration dotted her wide forehead and generous upper lip. Tiny waves were plastered to forehead, at her ears. Her nose was small. His own neck was prickly with heat and sweat so he scratched, looked away just as her eyes slid back to him. He glanced at his watch. It was high time to get back, and he gathered food detritus and stuffed it in the bag, then stood, gestured to the land below them.

She got up, then.”I’m Marni Bellingham,” she said. “You are?”

“L-l-l-lonnn,” Lonny spat out, then turned, ran down the hill while she observed the curious lumbering man grow smaller and smaller.

******

He avoided the ridge after that and ate with Giles, who had befriended him at the start; they both had initially been teased some, Giles for his Quebec accent and unusual thinness; Lonny for his speech problem, his enduring silence.

“All I can get is that you gave up your lunch spot because of some girl. But you are interested, I think? There must be a hundred different girls in summer months. I might let that one go, Lonny.”

Of course he had already determined that was the best course of action. Or inaction. If he did return to the ridge any time soon, he may or may not see her but even so, what was there to do or say? The fact was, he couldn’t tell her anything that might reassure or interest her.

“You’re a good looking guy, Lon, and a good man but honestly, why waste time? Marionville has plenty for you to consider–take Flora, for example, an industrious and attractive woman/ We went out with her and Evie twice but you gave up. I’m going to see Evie this week end, why not come and she’ll bring Flora along? “

Lonny hated these one-sided chats. They went nowhere. He had dated, since age 18, a tad more than he could count on one hand. Before then, none. No one wanted to be with a man who was considered if not actually stupid, then essentially a mute with only a small future. The fact that he made good money now at the landscaping company meant little to someone who, if honest, also needed to talk all day and night with her man. Well, if only.

Besides, there was Marni. She leapt through his mind any time he wasn’t considering something else, and then she might yet pop through as if crashing his brain from some other dimension, reminding him she was just off stage, but still there. Or was she?

******

In town on Saturday morning while downtown with his mother and sister Laura, he saw someone who might be her sitting with someone who might her father. He had to look twice, then indicated to his mother and sister he had another errand to get done. Laura frowned at him then followed their mother to the bakery for their scones.

Marni was sitting outdoors on the coffee shop terrace. The older man was reading a newspaper and she had her chin propped in her hand, the other hand around a coffee mug. Lonny was going to walk right past her and into the shop, just to see her that was all, then leave. He managed to get by and inside, then stood in line, heart tramping his chest.

“Hey there, Lonny.”

He turned to find Flora smiling at him with that bright pink lipstick but as he nodded at her, in swept Marni to stand behind her. Flora followed his changed gaze, scowled, then looked at the chalkboard menu above them.

“H-h-hi-uh…” Lon called out in Marni’s direction, then stepped out of line. Idiot, he thought, what are you up to?

“Lon!” She made room for him in front of her. “I wondered where you’d gone. Figured I’d scared you off. Sorry…If you’re getting a coffee, want to join Dad and me outside?”

Did he want to join her…yes! Did he want to join her father? No, and he would have to chat away. He moved ahead a notch; she moved with him.

“Listen,” she said in a near-whisper, “it’s okay if you’re quiet. Not every one is a talker. I can talk a lot or a little or none at all…”

He nodded his head at the barista who always knew Lonny’s order. Marni ordered her refill and they stepped away together.

“Marni girl?” The man who was decidedly Marni’s father in black polo shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes had stuck his head in the half-open door and called out, “I’m off to the marina, meet in an hour?” He nodded at Lonny as if he was a nice guy he naturally trusted with his fabulous daughter and then left.

Flora departed, too, with a deeply heated backward glance at him as if he was a traitor.

The two of them sat at her table, cooled by shadows cast from as large blue and white striped sun umbrella. At first she said nothing but sipped her coffee, looking into the busy street. Her sleeveless white blouse with tiny green sailboats caught his eye, then her muscular arms, too, and her hand went to the vee of bare throat and chest. He felt the color rise in his face.

“Lonny, tell me if I am wrong. I get right to the crux of a matter… But you’re sorta mute, is that right? I suppose there is some fancy technical term, sorry.”

He lifted his chin a bit, held it there, his hands clasping the seat of the chair as he waited for the usual discomfort, tried to stave it off with perfect stillness. His eyes, he hoped, said little except he was glad to be there.

“I don’t care, that’s what I had to say. It’s different but means little to me.”

He shifted his eyes from her face to table top. Well, nothing to say to that even in his head–she might mean it or not, anyway. He wished it was not even a point to be made but there it was, and hopefully over with.

“Lonny, this is what you see about me but might not get: I’m a dancer. So I don’t love to indulge so much in regular language, not unless I can possibly help it. I’d rather dance, period.”

“Oh…” he uttered a well of a word, bottomless, and he fell into the moment.

Marni smiled, teeth flashing. “And I’d like to like you, maybe.” She put a index finger on his forearm, tapped it once, tentative yet telegraphing an affirmative.

He gulped his coffee, tried to not choke; that soft finger, her lilting voice. Some passageway inside him went from darker to lighter, and opened up enough that he felt his chest open, too, and his head expanded to accommodate her words: And I’d like to like you, I think.

He set the half-full mug down, rose up and offered the crook of his arm for a walk– along the lake, he gestured, in the sunny day. She held up another finger, then made her hands swoop and fly so that she took her body down the steps and dancing onto the sidewalk, not a care for what anyone thought. Lonny watched in amusement, then jogged after her. As he trotted he tried to say her name. The best he did was manage Ni. As she came to a measured stop, she was so brimming with laughter that he had to catch her hand in his and tug her along.

There were more than a few Marionville inhabitants who noticed all this that Saturday and were perplexed for days–but Lonny was still water running deep, you just never knew. That young woman, a summer girl, someone said a talented dancer? Well, she was a foolish or brave young woman to take that curious one on. But Giles, Lonny’s mother and sister Laura knew better. Marni was on the verge of discovering an astonishing man, someone about to come into his own– but they kept their thoughts to themselves, just as Lonny would hope. Just as Lonny almost always did.

5 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

  1. I enjoyed this story so much. I agree with Lisa, the open ending engenders a desire to know more, but then isn’t that what a great story does? Make us want to read more? Thank you Cynthia for this wonderful narrative. 🙂

    1. Paul, how nice to hear from you again, and thank you for your support and –and for enjoying the story. Yes, I suppose you are correct…Though I looked at it again once more and thought, hmm, perhaps they aren’t done, one sometimes doesn’t know for certain until later…I have to say, though, some characters tend to linger in my mind and heart awhile, no matter the plot! 🙂

    1. Glad you are interested in it! Indeed, you are right: I don’t always wrap them up as well as possible, as I write a story in about 6–8 hours unlike when much more critically editing and polishing something….so it goes on WP! Thanks for reading and commenting, Lisa!

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