“I’m sorry, your name again?”
He was cupping his ear like an old person but he couldn’t be more than mid-forties. He–Neal, he’d said–sported a crewcut with a smidge of silver, a cherry red running jacket with sleeves pushed up to elbows, navy short-shorts with two whites stripes on either side, white tennies and two good legs. He was shielding his eyes from the sun that lent its heat to every unshaded surface in the courtyard garden. She wondered if he was stuck in the eighties but when she imagined him in a straw fedora, grey linen shirt and pants, in leather sandals, she instantly liked him better.
“Sparky, like spark plug, a spark of fire, first syllable of sparkler, whatever helps you fix it firmly in mind,” she answered briskly and returned to parsing her book but could make no sense of it, a corny romance she’d found in a free box by the elevator. No wonder it was tossed. She closed it with a smack of her hand.
He jogged a bit in place. “Like the Dalmatian firehouse dog of a kids’ story I read a few decades ago?”
“If you like.”
“We’re both newer, I guess,”‘ he continued, and ran around her chair. “I work from home so will likely run into you again. Nice to meet you.”
Sparky glanced up and gave one short wave. “Likewise.”
“Ok, number 32 if you need anything,” he tossed over shoulder as he bounded away.
Oh dear, she was 38, so he would run into her and vice versa. She’d hope to avoid people a bit longer. And would appreciate no more intrusions on her sunny spot for the afternoon’s remainder. But fat chance. This was the third resident who felt compelled to speak to her. Mira? Kendra? Talley? Or Mariah and Candy? Talley for sure, who was a graduate student but it seemed a made up name, as if he wanted to be in movies. No matter, they at least hadn’t engaged her much–the two women, barely that– and she had only bobbed her head so on they went.
It was disconcerting to sit in public and be vaguely acknowledged by passersby as one would a perhaps an odd new plant. She’d likely be startled, too. It was so different from her home where you had to unlock the gate to even get onto the winding driveway. Sparky had to pinch herself each morning to determine she wasn’t trapped in a nightmare. If not for the faint bruising that had begun to appear on her left upper forearm, she might still believe that was so. Every morning, a rude awakening, indeed. The pinching had to end, she was no masochist despite the situation.
So here she was. At Mistral Manor Apartments. She turned to scan the building, situated in a horseshoe shape about the dappled central courtyard. There was a sort of gate, alright–a worn black iron, double gate with pronounced points atop it. It opened out to a circular drive–with fountain, no less, which was just turned on in the warm weather– that split off and led to parking behind. One could get to the apartments as well as the courtyard through this gate, but also via a big main entry at each end of the brick horseshoe.
The courtyard she found quite pleasant, at least, with round tables and chairs–metal and once a pale blue, in need of a re-do–scattered throughout the shady area. There were two Japanese maples and a lovely Pacific madrone tree, a few white oaks. And flowers–well, begonias, petunias and pansies, that sort of thing. Oh, it pained her to not be in her own garden where her peonies and hydrangeas and tiger lilies would be blooming, soon the rose bushes–yes, just looking out over the long, rolling lawn right that moment.
“You need to give it up, you simply cannot stay here forever, the taxes alone will do you in within two years,” Melody, her one and only child, had insisted to Sparky for the last time. “Your fine home is now one of well over a dozen, and those are so shiny and contemporary this one looks like a forlorn plain Jane in comparison.”
“I could have hung on that long and, anyway, who made you my financial advisor? I already have one.”
“Mom, please, all three of us have gone over this already. Conservative use of funds, right? And it’s been my home, too….and when Daddy… well, it has remained ours, been only ours and for at least ten years longer than even imagined.”
“When your father left us, you mean, twenty-four years ago, it became just ours. Well, now mine. When you imagined things might get worse, you mean. I never gave it a thought, I was making good money on top of the settlement and then my set design career took off like gangbusters. Boy, was he shocked. But I expected to be in my home until they dragged me out heels first.”
Melody slumped into the chaise lounge beside her, looking down the hill to the pond. Several large orange koi fish flashed in golden light as they swam about. What would become of the koi?
Sparky wondered, too– what of the sweeping garden? What about the little bonsai planted in a tall, heavy pot by the front door? The set of wooden chimes that made the most sonorous sounds all day and night? Should they stay? But how would she sleep without those rich yet light tones ringing in the night? It was all too much to contemplate.
Melody stirred and looked at her mother. Such a face. Those arching eyebrows, that short wavy silver hair with an impulsive burgundy streak on a small wave; snaky lines tracing her eyes and mouth, the pursed lips line atop her upper lip especially pronounced. But she looked well and strong at sixty eight, was feisty and smart and dramatic as ever. It did hurt her to push this at her mother.
“Anyway, it’s the money and your ailing leg, that’s that, so please just move into Mistral Manor since it is only a half hour from me. And do think over the house. If you want to sell after you lease it for a year…or hang onto it awhile or…”
“Huh, that’s that.” Sparky ended the words with a grunt. “Your father’s daughter, simplify everything to its meanest details. Oh, my apology, to its very bottom line. If I hadn’t broken my leg skiing last January at Tahoe, you’d not be so adamant. I’d be working full time, for one thing. Swimming daily at the club. Dancing a samba–who knows?”
“Oh, stop, Mother, you know what I mean, it’s time to move on…you work part-time, on contract now. And five bedrooms, four baths, three levels, two acres of land. Who lives like this at your…time of life? It was country living at its best, a short commute to the city. But now, it feels like a threat to a kinder future– for us both.”
And that got to Sparky. A threat to a kinder future was not something she wanted to face, nor did her daughter.
So she concurred with reasonable deductions and let Melody’s co-worker and his wife rent it for a year. She moved to half-charming, dusty Mistral Manor, also no doubt once fine country living for the rat-race-weary, but now part of a sprawling suburban neighborhood that had never seen a grand past, honestly. It was good, though, to save money, just in case. In case something else waylaid her future.
But it was not even close to being a joy, not the merest joy, to be there. Even Melody admitted it was not going to feel very tolerable, at least at first. But she would do her best to hang in there and appease Melody. At least she hadn’t suggested a live in nurse or sent her packing to the rest home while her leg healed more. And her new tenant’s substantial rent payments were good, this they agreed on. He and his wife would be buying a house of their own after the year was up. And Sparky’s house? Who knew what would happen then?
She still walked with an ungainly hobble when she felt tired out, and with two grocery bags she was bound to tilt off balance just a bit.
“Let me assist you,” Neal said, rushing up to her. In his arms he held a grey cat with a very long ringed tail, it might have been a racoon if she hadn’t double-checked. It jumped down as soon as he loosened his hold and waited at her door.
She allowed him to take her apartment key which hung around her neck, and he unlocked the door and took the bags in. She suspected it was only to snoop about her place, and she was right. The cat had similar intentions.
“Such vibrant colors though they’re earthy, too,” he noted. “I like it, rich textures and a great use of the spaces.”
“Are you an interior designer?” She was unloading the food but keeping an eye on him as he cased dining and living rooms.
“No, but my father is and my mother’s a textiles artist. I got a few of their genes, and they expected a similar career trajectory of me but no, I’m a video game designer.”
“Oh? Now, hmm, do I use this avocado tonight? It has one soft side…”
Neal leaned on the counter dividing dining from kitchen. “Use it, I leave mine longer, then regret it. So how about you, are you a designer?”
She had knelt down to the vegetable bin, and with tomatoes and French onions in her hands she looked up at his open face, narrowed her eyes against light creeping in from the many windows. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Aha, I knew it. I can tell from a mile away. Commercial or residential.”
“Stage. Set design.”
She grabbed hold of the counter to pull herself up. Neal restrained himself form helping.
“Oh, different. For live theater?”
“Well, yes, people moving about a stage, throwing out lines, strutting their stuff in fabulous costumes and so on. A lot of Shakespeare for some years. I do television sets and other things, as well. Or have…” She slowly righted her body. “Now that you have the basics, may I finish my grocery organization in peace?” She smiled with teeth showing, tried to sound nice but enough questions.
“Aren’t; you going to ask me what sort of games I create?”
“I’d just as soon not, but I get the gist of it. You design and I design, so there you go, creative, aren’t we?” she said. “Leave my key on the counter on your way out.”
“Well, not that you’d likely know much about video games, anyway. Nice chatting, just wanted to help and welcome you. You know where I live. Later.” He said this with no malice, but some resignation, as if this was the norm for him.
The door shut firmly on his way out. Sparky left the vegetables out and went to her front door and opened it; the cat snipped out between her ankles. She caught a glimpse of him as he trotted down the hallway. “Neal, thank you for helping me out. I appreciate it!”
He stopped, turned, made a little half-bow, one arm crooked in front, the other at his back. “My pleasure, Sparky. And that was Esmerelda, by the way!”
Nothing like having the perkiest person in the building a few doors down, she thought, and she laughed. It was lucky for her he was trying to befriend her. She could use one or two friends. But did he create those gruesome warrior games? Hard to imagine it. Likely to him she was just a quirky old granny. She’d have to disabuse all of that stereotype with much better conversations.
Mariah and Talley were sitting in the corner, heads bent to one another. Sparky had been thinking of her koi and made a note to stop by and check that Jacob, her tenant, was taking care of things. She had considered getting an aquarium; she wasn’t sure she was allowed such things. Then that thought stirred up aggravation. That she even had to ask whether or not she might have a few fish living with her! It was absurd. All her adult life she’d made her own choices, lived as she chose–with the exception of Marty, who had also made his own choices many of which crowded hers, until he and that woman…well, it had come to this.
One year to go, then she’d move back. Or sell and buy another house. Or go wild, buy an RV, who knew?
She put down her task list and leaned in to try to catch what the two across the courtyard were saying.
“It isn’t right, she certainly ought to have left you more than that,” Mariah said, alto voice rumbling its way to Sparky.
“I know, that’s the thing, after all the years summering with her on the island, helping her out, keeping an eye on things when she got sick…” Talley was gulping his words a bit, voice muffled, sadness or dismay. “I so wanted that cottage.”
“But, Talley, your cousin has first rights– he’s her son, after all.”
“Who languished in Cayman Islands all these years, not a care in the world. When did her visit her? Now and then at Christmas. What does he want with an Oregon seaside cottage?”
“He’s coming here next week, right? I mean, the meeting with the lawyer and all.”
Talley nodded, then let his head drop on crossed arms atop the table. Mariah patted his back, glanced at Sparky and frowned.
“Sorry, words carry out here…” Sparky called out and went back to her list, added more items she had to do and buy. Or wanted to buy. A new place, different stuff was required. A lifestyle change deserved a good backdrop.
Two metal chairs were pushed back, scraping the flagstone floor; footsteps crept up to her table then stopped. Sparky did not look up. She was chewing on the end of her pencil, thinking what was the one thing she’d had to remember to get–that she then forgot.
“Are we too loud for your work?” Mariah asked.
Talley studied her. “Is it Sari?”
She looked at them one at a time. Two earnest types. “Of course not. And no, it’s Sparky. Oh, for goodness sake, don’t look like that, you’d think it was the strangest name in the world. I assure you it is not.”
The young adults shot each other a look.
“Hey, it’s a nickname, to clear things up. I’m a set designer, and I was first briefly a costume designer for theater, then television. I had a thing for sparkly accents and attire and a crazy sparkly kind of personality so they said–of course, I wasn’t jaded yet– and then others found me capable of sparking a wildfire of tempers over the smallest set details. One thing led to another; the name stuck. Sparky. “
They looked at her, nodding, then opened their mouths.
“But I have a real name if you that sticks better–Serena. Though I doubt I’d answer to that.”
“Oh, pretty,” Mariah said, smiling.
“It doesn’t suit me as well, so…”
“Alrighty, then, just saying hi, wondering how things were going,” Talley said. “And I’m an actor–part time amateur, but still, something in common, right? We should talk more later. I know a director who needs help…” His eyes skidded over her list. “Not to further interrupt you, but I was going to ask if you’d ever do that to a devoted nephew– leave them out of your will.”
Sparky blinked twice. “Will? Oh, your relative with the seaside cottage.”
Mariah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, that one.”
“Who knows? Not given it a thought. I have a niece in India working with the poor, so likely not, she actually took a vow of poverty… but maybe I’d leave her money for her causes. My daughter Melody? She does very well in advertising. Unless I still have the house when I kick off, then we will see…”
“But I loved that house, it kills me…”
She was afraid he’d start to bawl right there. “I’d likely do what was sensible. It seems your cousin has money. Maybe he can care for it best even from a distance. My daughter, Melody, adores my house and she made me move. I’d have remained there another couple years, but she keeps a hawk eye on me as if my business is her business. Prods me to make decisions not needed. Though it may be time to be more cautious financially.” She swung her body around to face them, gesturing with her hands, pencil flying off. “What do you think, would you insist your own mother do something she didn’t want to consider doing yet? Or do you think it is all part of a dastardly scheme to get me out so she can slowly take possession? Sell it, maybe, and send me off to the old folks farm?”
Mariah wiped the sweat trickling down her forehead with the back of a hand. “No way would I do that, my mother wouldn’t have it. But she likely just wants you to be….okay, right? I mean, mothers are important, they deserve respect.”
“Well said, I like your answer, Mariah.”
Talley leaned closer to Sparky so she could smell his cologne. It was cheap but had cedar in it. “I’d say you need to keep an eye on your house. Families can be be surprisingly disappointing!”
Sparky stood. “I think you both have good points. As for the cottage, Talley–maybe have a chat with your cousin, see if he’ll share it with you. Certainly that would be equitable and he has a Cayman Islands abode, after all. Maybe he’d get tired of it, too.”
They walked to the gate, let themselves out and said their goodbyes.
“Sorry for eavesdropping.”
“Sorry for assuming the worst,” Talley said. “Can we talk about set design some day? Fascinating.” His almost-handsome, mobile face was a sweep of pleasure following his earlier consternation. Born actor.
“Come by number 38 sometime and I’ll give you my card to give your director. I consult for a fee–but you and I can chat again, of course. Theater people have to stick together, eh? I just can’t get you paying jobs based on a chat, you know.”
“Right, catch you later.”
He actually bounced a little. Talley likely believed she’d get him auditions. Maybe she could; maybe she could not. But Sparky couldn’t think what to say to Mariah, a genuine girl and his sidekick. She waved and gave her a toothy smile. A real one.
What a funny, congenial sort of place it was turning out to be.
Melody came by with almond and chocolate croissants and steaming coffee one Saturday morning. They sat on Sparky’s balcony. It was too early to get fully dressed and go out in public, even to the courtyard. Besides which, she could hear children clamoring and yelling out there. It might be a day inside with a book or a script. Sparky had awakened in a mood.
“It’s hot already, then it rains and it’s chilly, then sunshine blasts for two weeks and all my little potted plants are about give up, green tongues hanging out as they fall over. I wish I lived where there was an automatic sprinkler system and everything stayed green and brightly blooming…like at my own house. A place where I had air conditioning that hummed, not shouted.”
“And good morning, Mother, how is it going?”
“I have made three friends and am about to get two closer to my age. Alan and Greta, number 44. They have a schnauzer–which is a breed I can’t abide if you recall–but they seem interesting, have travelled a great deal. They like to cook and I like to eat, not a small thing.”
She smoothed her wrinkly hibiscus-covered green palazzo pants and thought that she needed a new iron. Melody looked impeccable–it was a strange need in her– in grey jeans and a white shirt with the collar turned up. Her shining hair–blonde, cut straight at the shoulder–needed streaks of darker color or a slight mussing or just a sparkly barrette. A little drama to offset the conventionality. But of course, not happening. She was the daughter every parent wanted. Sparky had been the mom her friends wanted. But mother and daughter were not that close until the last ten years.
Melody stretched out her lithe legs and let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t spoken to her mother for over ten days. They’d had words about the koi pond, which took attention the tenant was not too interested in giving. Sparky had taken to stopping by at any old time every other day to check on her fish. And examine the grounds, look inside the windows. It had to stop and it finally did the prior Wednesday.
“So did you get my landscape guy, Paul, to come by twice week to take care of things?”
“I did, and all is well. And I got a good price for you.”
“Alright, topic closed for now. How is work?”
Melody waved that aside. Dismissed, next. “Same as usual. I’m interested in you and what you think of Mistral Manor.”
“Okay, how is Leonard and how is the IVF going?”
Melody shook her head and looked out at the grove of trees. “Len is well, as ever, and his golf game still stinks but so what? The IVF goes as it goes, it just inches along. I’ll inform you of positive changes, Mom, don’t worry… Seriously, are you still angry I insisted you move here, after a month?”
Sparky knew she had to choose her words carefully. Which of many things was she still a bit angry about? What was least and what was most an issue? Was she mad that she didn’t have as much work as five years ago? Was she irritated that she needed to work, or maybe that she chose to work because what else was there actually to do at this in-between age? Not too old but so young. Not even close to done with life but great experiences not especially knocking at your doorstep. Was she lonelier here than back home, where the neighbors were a five minute walk away? Or less so where you were surrounded by others?
She didn’t quite fit anywhere, that had always been the problem. The thought of a senior community frightened her to death, being squeezed in with oldsters who could care less what she did for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twenty years ago. And perhaps the same lack of true regard for them.
But here there was Neal the gamer guy and his sanguine cat, Esmerelda, who pranced around the place when visiting, tail high in the air as if she claimed the entire territory and welcome to her remarkable world. That cat always looked as if she was smiling, green eyes gleaming–leading lady, she was. Talley with his chronic whining–and flair for mimicry. Mariah and her desire to please and her graceful, strong body meant for dance–she was in a ballet company. The place seemed to be teeming with artistic types and brainiacs, though maybe Sparky was just lucky to have met the few who were, and quite friendly. Some hairbrained, avoidant author was also likely writing convoluted plot-driven novels in a top floor corner apartment, a pallid cast to her skin from such little sunlight.
Surely there were junior accountants and car salesmen, ambitious computer technicians and hair salon stylists–somewhere. Or was it just the artsy ones who failed to make enough money to move on? Well, Sparky had money. She just wasn’t going to broadcast that, nor use it casually these days–or she might use it up. She was here of her own accord and temporarily, after all. But what of this would Melody understand and in the right way?
“It’s a decent place, I’ll grant you that. The residents are so far, so good. I can use up our hour telling you about my new almost-friends, or we can enjoy relaxing and the view while we eat.”
“Whatever you like, Mom,” she said, biting off a huge chunk of croissant, coaxing it down with sips of hot coffee. “:I just need to know you won’t hold this against me forever.” She took another whopper bite.
The girl was always hungry, that was the problem, she didn’t allow herself indulgences. When had that started? Less restraint, more spontaneity, she’d taught her but it hadn’t stuck.
“Oh, if that’s what you’re worrying about…stop! No one makes me do anything, I have my faculties, thank God, but my beloved house has felt too big for a few years. My leg, meanwhile, is still full of pings and zings even when I’m not on it; I need to get another look at it. Maybe the nuts and bolts are coming undone. I’ll be bent over with a cane before you know it.” She laughed robustly, which told Melody she was talking nonsense, having fun with her. Although, really, it hurt too often still.
Of course it wasn’t all terrible there, and why not make Melody feel better about things? Poor mother in need of simpler lifestyle so just had to make cost saving interventions. It was all done, and the next move would be Sparky’s, anyway, not Melody’s. She had been thinking about the will business ever since Talley had brought it up.
“It isn’t that cheap here, as you know, being on the historical register. I love all the original woodwork, high ceilings, tall windows. The elevator is a boon for you, I like that though it creaks all the way up. I can see why someone would choose to happily here, it has real charm, doesn’t it? And I’m relieved you like it alright–for the time being, while you think about what you want to do next.”
“You have to see the courtyard again, it is the best spot here. But I don’t want to do anything next. I want to stay here for the duration then return home. Listen, if I sell, I sell, and that money affords me a very comfortable lifestyle the rest of my days. I just want to put it off, see what my investments do.”
“Right…but I thought we might one day move into it…Len and me and…”
“I’d take that profit–it’ll be handsome– and travel around a couple of years. I might get my own set and costume design consulting business in a small, sweet office downtown. I might buy land by a river and build a cabin on it for week-ends, for my much quieter old age. But I am going to sell it– one day. It was my home for thirty-nine years. And your father’s for quite awhile. And at some point it will be someone else’s. You and Leonard have the money to build the house of your dreams, too, Melody, and I hope it also holds a child or two.”
“I see, I suppose you are right…”
Sparky saw her daughter let the mask fall, saw a person who felt hurt, too, by changes. Tall, boney and vulnerable while hiding in her fancy summery pants and matching sleeveless top; restless hands twining long fingers that once played upon oboe keys, pearly nails glistening like opals. Her oval face was gaunt, all cheekbone and pale mouth, slightly tilted hazel eyes that reminded Sparky every time of her ex, her Marty’s. But that mouth was set so as not to let disappointment show. Her nearly pointed chin raised ever so slightly so her precision cut hair swung away from a tight jaw. Driven, overworked and anxious, even–and full of deeper sentiment, feelings gone subterranean. Like her own feelings beneath sharp words, an impudent toss of head. She understood self-protection and ambition, both.
But who was this daughter she had born and raised? A woman now of means, a once-young woman who set her own course and sailed away as soon as she hit eighteen, and who now feared her mother might be moving along a sharp timeline to a faltering stretch and then the dreadful arc of slow decline, and if that happened who would she have? What and who would be left for the children Melody hadn’t even managed to conceive yet? Her father had disappeared into Canada with his Vancouver-born mistress who became his wife…so long ago.
Sparky saw this not, perhaps, for the first time but wondered why she hadn’t accepted it as real before.
For Melody, there was also house love and a house burden as it was another thing that could be lost. Their only lifetime home, after all. The land, the modern structure with such varied rooms, two fireplaces and a third if counting the outdoor one, and the koi pond, the many places she’d played with her toys and read all those wonderful books and painted pictures alongside her mother, standing with big and little easels on the patio…
“But if you really, really want it, of course we can talk more, honey, I didn’t think it was as important as that…”
Melody put her face in her hands and wept.
Sparky scooted close to her daughter’s chair and put her arms around her. They both had a small cry. Sometimes it was the only way to say what needed to be said.
It looked like there was more to think over. One never knew what was next, anyway, a year from now she might be nursing some other injured limb though she had learned her lesson about blithely trying new sports. But Melody, that was another story. She was, in fact, close at hand. And would be staying there, she surmised, her heart swelling with gratitude a little more.
Still, a cabin on a river!….such a tantalizing scenario, if not quite for her.
When they all managed to make time and gather, her Mistral Manor guests bore gifts of favorite dishes. It was an informal affair but Sparky had cleaned top to bottom and put on the best of her music collection of swing, they’d have to suffer it awhile. The tablecloth had been ironed, it took forever even with the new iron, but it was white with elegant vines with a smooth sheen beneath white china she had unpacked to wash, only six of twelve place settings. Just enough. The peonies were earthy of fragrance, a deep pink at table’s center. There were Alan and Greta, Talley and Mariah, Neal and herself. She had made place cards for each and why not? Treat a potluck dinner like a happening and good things came to be, people had fun. All life was an interconnected series of acts, and full-bodied, deep-hearted actors coming forward with wants and needs awakening– just as the Bard said–and Sparky was happy to be be quite able to set the appropriate scene.