Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Breathe and Catch Fire

It’s not like you truly belong anywhere, so this is as good a place as any. Remington Heights, a fancy name for another uninspired suburb. Sort of; it prides itself on being a beautifully compact, near-exclusive town. You guess it is; you can see the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes Benzes mixed in with Subarus, Toyotas, Fords. There goes a red Porsche, its top down in March, for crying out loud.

After moving five times in fifteen years, how audacious is it to say when you’re asked: “We’re from Knoxville?” Hand held out for a good strong handshake.

What then? After they proceed to ask about that city’s milieu, its weather? You can only offer so much–that stop was for two and a half years. The others, even shorter for the most part. They already know you aren’t government or corporate consulting or an interesting entrepreneur. For one thing you teach, take on short contracts. Now, also, your husband. Well, he does one adult ed class at the community college where you teach one theater and two creative writing classes. He hasn’t contributed much to bills with his woodworking schemes and dreams no matter where they’ve moved. But he keeps trying.

“And we also lived in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everett, Rochester and–wait, there are a few more. You can’t imagine how fascinating it is to interact with many sorts of people and places…”

In ten minutes they raise eyebrows, glance at their ubiquitous phones, make excuses, talk about having coffee sometime and take their leave. In Remington Heights they’re thinking, Of all the boring places to have lived, why not Athens? Paris? Singapore...So back to their mammoth, comfy homes with their own loving, complicated families and deliriously devoted dogs.

Or cats–but that’s your preference. A cat can be left alone so easily, and it moves from house to house with nary a blink: every window has a view; every yard has birds and dirt. You need a cat, you keep planning on it, never do it. No time to further consider such an investment emotionally and monetarily. It might just run away.

Not that you are unfamiliar with such a response as raised eyebrows and a shrug after you introduce yourself. It’s on repeat no matter where you go. Gerry says some places are much friendlier than others. His vast experience dealing with direct sales to the public informs his viewpoint. He reminds you this when talk of a job possibility that offers tenure comes up. Gerry thinks you don’t like any place you go, not really, and he’s getting tired of it. That it’s having to put down roots, not the job that’s the issue for you. Okay, but you’re pretty tired of having to secure a great job that keeps a roof over your heads long term, and a job that gives you enough incentive to aim even higher as time goes by. That can be such a grind when you want it to be–dare you say it?–a happy endeavor.

“Next time, yes, always next time,” he says, looking away as you have lunch at a stylish outdoor cafe. “There won’t ever stop being a next time. I could put in roots any place if you’d just stand still in one spot. How long has your longest position been? Four years? Wow, we might still be there, Kit, and we might be glad of it.” He wipes his hands and mouth. “Oh, Kit, I’m sorry, it’s just…” He holds up empty palms to sky.

This is where you have to bite your tongue and not point a finger. If only you had gone to medical school as planned; if only your had a hobby that made us money; if only you stopped complaining when I am doing the best I can do. If only you’d use some of your inheritance for common costs of living instead of insisting it has to be untouched until we have a child or get old. Like it’s precious and must stay in a vault unless we are on the verge of noodles and beans every day.

Well, wait, it has been invested in lots of power and hand tools and wood and nuts and bolts and clamps….that money is good for all that.

If you say any of that, he’ll either crumple or walk out. After all, you’d agreed to let him get into woodworking as a small business. He has excellent talent–those hands that would have made a fine surgeon’s– and plenty of perseverance. But you have to make the cash to keep your lives afloat. So you do. Every new job has managed to do it, mostly–you just haven’t found the right one, the one you can foresee holding until that far-off retirement. Gerry wants that even more than you.

You are okay being a nomad of sorts. He is right about not setting roots too deep. That’s how it’s always been; your family moved almost every year for much of your childhood and when you were finally settled, it was not any kind of a happy settling. When your gambling father left when you were fourteen, your mother threw a huge party. It was also the start of selling overpriced makeup from home but weirdly, she did it well, made good money. She bought a condo two years before you left (right after your brother), and got married for the third time. Farewell, kids!

No, you do not know the comfort of a long term home. As far as you are concerned, a home is a place to lay your head, eat, and hang out if possible, preferably on the back stairs and no one knows. You still look for that–the relief of privacy on a back stoop that offers a better view than the indoors.

Gerry, he’s another sort of human being, at heart. He longs for roots because he had them so long. He will fit in better in Remington Heights. He knows how to act without even thinking, and that’s why he has done well off and on with his business. Maybe here he can make his mark, he’s said–these people can pay for fine bespoke furniture and toys for their kids. You think he’s dreaming but you love him for it, and how he stays with you no matter what. He just that morning told you to go ignite a thirst for knowledge in those students–even if it is just a few students, if only one today. He has faith in you, if he also worries you’ll not make a real home with him. You do need to have greater faith in him–that might go a long way toward building his success, he says. He holds her up; she can hold him up more beside paying for most of the bills.

You just stare at those bills piled up thanks to the last couple of moves crossing six different states. Stunned by it all. But you have a good chance at RCC, the Remington branch of Rand Community College. They pay well and they might keep you on if you try very hard. You hope this time you also can work in laughter more often. You actually pray for it secretly–it has gotten harder to keep looking and rarely find what you want.

Maybe it’s because you aren’t sure what that is. But you will not stop looking.

******

We–Kit and I–now live on a very old estate, and that is comfortable for a man like me. Of course, it’s the carriage house converted a decades ago into full living quarters, but there are ten acres here. I can see the big house rising above the garden walls as I head to the west end of our new place. A portion of the building, right under the apartment, was turned into garage and workshop. No more horses, carriages and how perfect is that? It isn’t cheap but what we get for the money…I’m hopeful this time. I think that if I can make this work long enough, I might create, sell, and make a decent profit. And then invest some of the inheritance to get my own workshop and store and then a house of our own….well, naturally, I don’t tell Kit all this yet. She’d be freaked out, just so many castles in the air, she’d say, slow down.

Kit says many things and I know she means something else half of the time. But I saw her eyes light up as we toured the place and put in our rental application. I was worried we might not get it–we have moved so much–but having my nest egg to show us as being ultimately solvent helps. Plus Kit’s a college teacher, how can they not like that? So here we are, and Remington Heights has no idea that I have what they need: beautiful furniture made to order. But it will soon.

After I got my M.S., I decided to skip medical school and pursue working with my hands differently than planned. I’ve always loved the scent, textures, colors and grains of wood. How it can yield to careful labor and give you its best when you respect it. There were plenty of woods to enjoy on our land growing up–several thousand acres for the giant cattle ranch that also boasted many trees. I was always sneaking off to the workshop used for a variety of reasons and fiddling with discarded or broken pieces. And our manager had the skills I needed. It was a fine line for him–teaching me what he knew while doing his main job well and keeping my father satisfied. But it worked well enough for me–Jack told me I had the right feel for it–until I stopped making things to enter college. Then it got shelved.

If I am being honest, I’d have to say that, in fact, it was the inheritance that set me free from the family expectation that there be a doctor in the family. I loved ranching but had not seriously thought I’d be one to run it–my older brother and sister do that now. But my uncle was a very wealthy businessman. He’d stayed in touch since childhood and figured out I wasn’t destined for medicine. He once told me when he saw me making a chair that I should put to use the sciences in a more artistic way. He left me enough when he passed to not make the wrong career choice. I knew it was for a woodcraft business.

Kit knows all this. She supports it, more or less, she’s just worried. Anxious that I’ll tire of her quicksilver temperament as her parents apparently did; afraid she won’t have what it takes to be a first class professor; scared she’ll never make enough money so she can stand on her own two feet if I do leave her; afraid I won’t ever be a success with my wood crafting or that I will be a great success–it goes on, this terrible tangle of fears she harbors, even nurtures. I sometimes hold and rock her like a scared little creature, shivering and unsteady, until she calms. But that’s marriage. I lean on her a lot for acceptance of my chosen path.

If you met her, you wouldn’t see the scared part. She’s strong with words and actions. You know you can count on her. You know there’s an imaginative, quick, intense intelligence behind her clear, penetrating gaze. Any job she has had, they wanted her to stay–sometimes they couldn’t keep her as it was a limited contract, sometimes they just wouldn’t offer better pay or other terms. But she always finds work. And she knows so well her realms of theater and writing.

I’m pleased this time that this is where we landed. Kit finds it “too rich for her blood”, as she says with slight derision, but the fact is, this city offers opportunity for us both. I don’t care what people think of me but she says that’s what privilege spawns–a self confidence that is unshakeable. Maybe so; she never had that in her life. But all I want is to make beautiful things with my big calloused hands. And to love her better so I have to be smart but gentle. The best things happen to wood when you treat it well, learn its natural inclinations, find its hidden beauty. Same with Kit.

All this is a challenge I’ll not back down from until I more than succeed. But first off I have to set up my tools in the shop under the living quarters and walk the estate. I wish Uncle Cam could walk with me. I can almost feel his pat on my back when I made my first wood toy, a pine truck, when I was ten–whereas dad directed me to get back on my horse, get to work. That simple thing made a difference.

******

You know this is the place when you see a generous arc of tree branches swaying over and about an old carriage house with the sheen of long use but kindly. Then moving up the side steps to a wide sunny living room and three small bedrooms off a hall, then circling back to a neat kitchen with white painted cupboards. A bathroom with an antique tub in it and a small desk turned into a vanity. You imagine yourself in that tub, candlelight casting a glow, how you love long quiet soaks and seldom get them–and all the while looking out windows with ivory and viney half-curtains. You can see a garden from there–as you bathe! Everything about the carriage house feels well used but the wood floors shine with care; comfortable furniture is freshened with bright fabrics and interesting textures. It is quality but has no pretension, is pretty and cozy enough without being syrupy- nostalgic. And it has a wood stove. What else can it need?

You don’t show Gerry too much enthusiasm until you are accepted as tenants and even then, underplaying it is better than letting too much emotion show. Even if the rent is high it can be worth it–you can manipulate the budget somehow. Besides, to watch Gerry as he lopes about the property and talks to the fourth generation owner of the estate–how can you dampen that excitement? There’s this feeling both of you might find some peace here, on this huge corner lot, under the shade of maple and elm and oak trees. There are even fruit trees not far from the front door. You fantasize about sneaking out after dark and snapping up pears and apples–until Gerry says the landlord told him take any fruit desired at no extra cost (Gerry laughs as he relays that), it’ll go to waste if not eaten. Never have canned. Wondering about that but the idea makes you anxious so just think of Hunt’s pears with cottage cheese like when it was dessert as a kid–you were told it was a treat. And it was.

So you’re in, your are the chosen ones. You find that first week with the unpacking, learning the ropes of a new town with expensive tastes (that make you squirm and itch) and then visiting the college–you find those first days lighten up with a simple pleasure you haven’t felt in forever.

You want the job to fit well. After a month it may not be a perfect thing, no, but you aren’t getting tension headaches. Not hurrying from one class to another, shoulders set as if pushing against wind. The drama class is filled with interesting students if a bit haughty (well, it’s Remington Heights, it’s theater), and the writing classes are a mixed bag but you can cope with it all so far. Time will tell who has capabilities, how hard you’ll need to work until late at night even at home–and how pleased the Dean of Fine Arts will be. Or not. If tenure will ever be a dream come true. You learned long ago you must stay in the moment while even while designing a future.

Then, at a major monthly staff meeting, someone says something. That way that makes you shiver a little. You turn your head to see Ms. Brunette Bob who is tapping the table with a silvery pen and Ms. Luxe Ponytail who is smoothing her forehead as if she’s just gotten back from toiling in the fields. They are whispering, heads tight together.

“Were you wondering about me?” you ask, half smile trying to move across your too taut face. “I’m Kit Barnett, drama and writing, formerly of Knoxville.” Trying not to spread a Southern accent on it, hard to resist. Something has to amuse or please these women, you suspect.

They blink at you in unison, look down at their notepads a moment before smiling back. A waxy sort of smile, Caught us, but oh hi there!

“Oh, right, you have Marnie’s old job–I thought so,” Ms. Brunette says.

“You’ll find her students miss her already but don’t despair, they’ll settle in,” Ms. Ponytail reassures. “Marnie was a kind of legend after ten years…she had such flair. I mean, not that you won’t or anything…”

“Thanks for the heads up. And you are?” Marnie the Great, dang, more pressure!

“Oh, I’m Selene Rossiter and she’s–” she turned to Brunette–“Jana Leon. We teach drawing and ceramics, respectively, and this term I have 3 D, as well. Welcome to RCC, Kit Barnett. It’s a good place, overall. A good way to move on to better opportunities, it’s already my third year and I’m getting restless.”

Jana said, with a shrug, “I’ll likely be a lifer. I like Remington Heights and so does my boyfriend.”

You find all this friendliness entirely suspect but say thanks and pair their faces with names, hoping the other seven people there have distinctive names, too, so you can elicit them as needed. You determine to make a brilliant name tag for fun to stick on your shirt, will that make you better known? You know how this goes when new, you’ll be passed over a long while unless you remind them. You are not all that unforgettable in looks, either, though this has never mattered. It’ll take time, that’s all. Selene and Jana are as nicer than most are when you start out a new place. You doubt you three will be going out together, one too young and uppity, the other otherwise engaged–and it’s fine. You don’t really need friends, per se.

The meeting begins and you listen intently to what is said and not said, how people interact with words and eyes and hands, who speaks up, who is doggedly silent. It’s a game you must play to do the job and get paid.

But when you teach, you feel that urge to impress upon the minds behind upturned faces (and those that do not show themselves) that what they are about to learn and explore has the power to alter their lives in ways that will set them free. Yes, set them free, as art is that potent. And this is what carries you over the country in search of a place to set yourself down, share knowledge and create. A base to inspire as once inspired as a college student when your first good art professor told you: “Your work has such energy; let it breathe and catch fire.”

Professor Harmon did not say to you like Mom said, “Why do you waste your time making up stories, trying out for those dumb little plays? Get a real life and a real job and grow up!”

No, Madge Harmon said, “Let yourself have an adventure, Kit, make things happen. You have plenty of talents.”

And it turns out that teaching was one of them. You have what it takes. So keep at it–RCC will see what you can do. Or you’ll make them see it.

You need to hang on to that bathtub and those fruit trees. You need to support Gerry’s big hope in all the possibilities. He might be right one of these days.

******

“They don’t much belong here, really, you can tell by the way they…just are,” Viv Arnold said as she filled her basket with garlic, carrots and onions at the covered farmer’s market.

“Well, Selene says she’s a very good teacher and friendly, not pushy. I think they’ll find their way around in time.” Jude Rossiter squeezed the avocados just enough.”I think you are wrong about him. The husband is a class act, anyway, did you see him earlier at the bakery? Gerry somebody from Utah–big ranching family, I heard.”

“What does he do now? Does he teach, too? Not much money in that.”

“No, he makes bespoke furniture! Well, one class in woodworking, Selene said. But didn’t you see the huge ad in the newspaper? The pictures are beautiful. I may give him a call about a chest I want designed and handmade. Or maybe we should both just drop by when his shop is open, that would be informative.” She picked up bunches of fennel and dill.

Viv sniffed a tomato. “Is this really fresh? I sometimes wonder! He has a certain elan, I must say, dark hair and blue eyes. Yes, I saw him, Viv. His wife is rather plain, from what I noticed at RCC after my quilting class. But if she’s a good teacher–well, we need more of those around here, so cheers! Maybe we should consider inviting them to the Spring Fling, find out more and see how things go?”

“At the Club? Hmm, a good thought….But watch yourself, dear, you’re old enough to be his mother.”

“Never so old one cannot be wistful, Jude. Now let’s get out of here and chat more over a nice drink.”

Jude thought about what Viv said about Gerry and Kit. She didn’t know much about the wife, the teacher–she had always wanted to write, maybe she should find out more. But he reminded her of her son. Though Thomas was a patent attorney, no good at doing manual anything. Maybe it was the similar charm and a way of carrying himself. Honestly, Viv needed to own up to her age and exhibit proper decorum. It was getting embarrassing. The Spring Fling, however, was an easy way to introduce the couple to Remington Heights in all its boring self-glorification. She would do what she could to encourage them if they were interesting, unlike much of their citizenry– and, of course, fairly generous hearted. You never knew when you might need an extra helping hand on some project.

******

When Gerry got home from teaching his class three weeks later, he found Kit sitting on the steps on the carriage house, the porch light a soft haze in the growing darkness. A notebook was flat on her lap, a favorite mechanical pencil in hand. She looked up and smiled at him but kept on writing.

He sat down on a step above her and placed his hands gently on her and massaged her tight shoulders a moment. Kit exhaled a steady stream of air, closed her notebook, leaned back against his knees. She’d have to mention that invitation to the Remington Country Club “Spring Fling” but for the moment there was this: navy sky above towering trees, a few stars glittering between branches. A night bird called out once, twice. She wanted to learn about the birds and flowers on the estate. She’d like to talk to the owners about its history. She’d like to take a bath every morning and every night even in summer, open the bathroom windows to the breeze with all that was carried on it right to her.

She’d like these moments to stay in their places and never leave her.

Gerry ruffled her hair, it shortness feeling like a downy chick but he might never share that, just keep it to himself. He loved her hair and put his cheek to it a moment.

“How was your day?” she asked as she pressed notebook to chest.

“I got two more orders already, a couple came by before my class. Two side chairs and a nightstand for a child. I have my hands full, so surprised it’s happening fast. How about you?”

She put the notebook on her lap once again, hands flat atop its cover. “I’m so glad, Gerry–things are looking up for your business just like you wanted, it’s what you deserve.” She looked up at the treetops and found a tiny star among newly leafed branches that was bigger out in space than she could easily ponder. “Well. I’m finally writing again.”

“You are?” He came down the steps to one below her. “What are you writing?”

Kit gave him her real smile, the one that showed pink gums and every big square tooth, the one that told him how much she cared that he asked this question on this night, on the steps under trees and stars. Their steps. Their fine night.

“I’m working on a full length play…Gerry, I’m good and ready to do it.”

He reached out for her, pulled her up and embraced her tightly. This is what he’d been waiting for, her true self to emerge and find its way back to creating. To not be afraid so much. To believe the life they inhabited together would be alright. It was happening, right there, right then, a change. Kit hugged him closer and they left the world behind, trailing a tender and plaintive song of nightbirds.

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