Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Nettle Creek and Love’s Rocky Terrain

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When Merle plummeted from the ladder while trying to work moss off the cedar shakes roof, I was sure he’d be a goner. He’d been doing that for near forty years but there comes a time when a man has to tell himself no. He isn’t great at that. And despite breaking his back, he’s not so good at quitting. He got surgery and recouped, and before I knew it, was back on his feet. I caught him eyeing the ladder and I locked it up. But he sits more, takes rests on our big bed. Usually there’s a sharp knife and a few pieces of wood nearby or he’s studying our weekly newspaper, acting like he can see the fine print. But the carving he can mange fine–he was born with the talent.

I can’t say he’s keeping things up so well, he uses a cane more often than not. I’m good sized and strong. As my father always told me, “strong as a mule”. (“Sly as a fox,” Mom said, as I solved problems pretty good.) That’s why he had to name me James, he thought I was to be a boy and when I was coordinated plus was strong I often was treated as such, dressed for the woods. Mom added a second name, Marie. Weirdly. I can take or leave dresses and other fancy things but like a pretty blouse and a full skirt for special occasions.

Merle says, “You never need paint on your face, you’re fresh as roses to me.” The first time he said that I about smacked him–I never had heard such a thing in my fifteen years and couldn’t figure it out–or him. But it sounded better over time. He could be generous with his admiration then. Now he says “Roses” if he’s trying to make me smile.

“Jimmie,” Merle asks me this morning as he often does, “is this a day we go or a day we stay?” He leans in toward me, two hands on his cane, the one with the eagle head for a handle.

He asks that–some days with a flip in his voice, sometimes all serious– mostly because I foretold the miracle of May Cousins. (The other reasons is because he’s just one who thinks on dying more as he ages. Not me. ) She was drowned a short time at eight but I was sure she’d come back, live and eventually be alright. Which she did, and still is, and teaches kindergarten in the next county. But I haven’t made a habit of such things, in fact, keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to be blamed when things go sideways. Don’t care for the limelight, either.

But I’ve been right about a few other things kept to myself. I have been right about Nelda sometimes. For sure about Merle getting injured (it may have just been the odds) but wrong about him dying and that’s good. I made plenty of stink about it long before he fell. Later I reminded him of it once, when he was lying there and I worried he’d never get up. No matter, he knew he had paid the price of pride. He even apologized, to my amazement, as they carted him off in the ambulance, siren blaring its alarm through woods and village. His friends lined up at the hospital until they knew he made it.

We got through it all–many months of it, surgery we couldn’t really afford, rehabilitation trials, misery—and we still get on alright. It takes some work. But he had quit drinking at 49, so most things had already automatically improved. Now we’re just settling more deeply, two ole dogs by the hearth. His ornery back, my creaky knees.

“I guess we’re stuck here in paradise, it’s another good day. You got half the beaver carving done for Ted– and another one started, right?’

“Don’t know what the second one is yet.”

“It’ll reveal itself, always does, the wood talks at you.”

He let go of the cane with one hand, pats my arm as I make breakfast, then clomps out to the round blue table put on the screened porch in summer. I have a little song humming in me and put another sausage in the gravy running richly over hot biscuits. He’ll eat well and feel better and get right to that unknown carving.

Long before he broke his back and soon after he quit drinking, things were far different. I stopped and gazed out the window above the counter, over Nettle Creek to the house beyond.

“You coming with the coffee?” he calls out, a touch of crankiness setting in. You’d think caffeine was more potent than Jim Beam the way he acts. But I know he has pain and needs those jolts of coffee pleasure, and thank the good Lord every day and night he grasps his steaming mug and not the bottle. And so does he. Or this would be another story.

******

While he naps, I finish chores and sit on the porch. I’ve been trying to stick with a book about Hawaii, a fat novel from a yard sale. It about makes me want to see that exotic place but I’ve not been anywhere for more than a few days. Just here in the mountainous, forested areas around Nettle Falls, our town, and Nettle Creek. I’ve known most of my neighbors–such as they are, scattered here and there–forever. I know this Northwest haven like my own face; it’s in my blood, three generations of it. Our son Tate, he moved, but he’ll be back one day.

Nelda, now, she’s the same as me in that way. Never wanted to pull up roots and find another place to roost. Never wanted to travel any farther than the coast to stick her toes in the salty sea, which we did many times, Merle and me, her and Gerry before he died. We stuck together, like small town folks do. I always have a sense of what she’s up to, even now. For one thing, I can mostly see her house kitty corner from ours, the whole thing when the leaves fall and only conifers stand tall and more sparse between us.

Her house is bigger than ours with a deck across the back facing the creek. (Always thought that a poor idea; mosquitoes–we do get fewer than imagined–can get you.) I could see her raising her three kids, note right off how they changed fashion and friends and how much beer they stole and drank, hear her and Gerry’s arguments and happiness when the breeze was right. We could walk over mossy rocks in the creek to visit each other in a minute. It was like having a sister, which I’d not been given, only we were best friends, too.

Then Nelda put up a half-wall right after she made the biggest mistake of her life. She paid a pretty penny for Hermann and Sons to erect it. I watched it being made and was baffled that she left it at shoulder height; I could still see over the top pretty well as we are on a rise in the ground; I could still see much. It was as if she wanted me to see her life go on as it did. To see how few people socialized with her, her kids less around.

I made a habit of keeping an eye out less after all was done. I doubt she wasn’t much looking our way, either. It felt wrong, for the first time. Why bother with someone who did what she did? Everyone felt like that if you listened to the gossip, for a good year. Then no one said much at all, but they were leery of her, some more than others. As for me–I eventually had sympathy and grief to contend with on all fronts, and all that near drove me over the edge more than just the terrible error. I refused to shun her, and told the others they’d better think twice before they carried on with it. I half-nodded at her when we passed each other, no eye contact. But that was all, so maybe it was close enough to shunning.

And yes, it was Merle’s grave error, also. Let’s face it, he had equal blame though many were quicker to release him of guilt, and who knows why? Because Nelda was a woman, though a widow woman just over eleven months? Because we were best friends and you don’t do that to friends? Maybe because Merle was newly sober just nine months? But not soon enough, as he’d already lost his good job at the post office over in Scappoose (got it back a year later; retired after his back stayed bad)–so he couldn’t be judged too harshly. That was it–finding his way with no whiskey or beer? Well, I said, yes, true, he was a blind man feeling his way though the dark alleys of his life–and he found his way right into Nelda’s tanned and glowing arms.

Was I really all that surprised?–a few of the women asked me boldly. Merle was good looking, strong-built and even though quiet he radiated a sort of warmth that drew in everyone and still does. Sure, girls admired him when we were still in school and beyond–and the boys had an eye on me. Looks are no good excuse, he was a family man, and I found it shallow of others to suggest there was a way out of his part.

We had cemented our bond at the start. And we two couples had enjoyed such good and bad times together; there was faith in our friendship, we were growing older together with ease. We had real trust. But when Ger had an aneurysm and that was that, it was a sea change. Not only missing him. We three felt like a wheel without enough spokes, and our friendships stopped rolling on quite right. Then it slowed, limped along. Sometimes we just sat by the creek, a stunned trio, then faded into a “goodnight.”

For all the unbalance, I was with Nelda, of course I was– right till the moment I found out. And it did not take a detective. I saw them. There they were on her deck, having pie and coffee when I was recovering from a bad summer cold. That was okay with me. But it was the way they were sitting side by side, their heads put together, shoulders touching, his hand moving to the small of her back. Then their lips locked. But quick-like and they peered across the creek, its rushing waters frothy and golden with early evening light. They had dearly hoped I was still in bed, sleeping, too hot and achy and snuffly to move. But I was standing at our bedroom window, paused for what reason?–to see if Merle was outdoors. Still having coffee and then checking her new umbrella clothesline’s wobble. I had been on my way to the kitchen for water, felt a need to look out. If truth be told, had a feeling. That feeling that tingles in my stomach, strikes me as something.

At first it seemed like a fever dream. I blinked, looked hard again. Merle and Nelda got up, took plates and cups inside, and shut the door against the languid heat. Or to keep it in. They didn’t come out until darkness fell and I gave up hoping for different, leaned back. Was exhausted by tears and drifting into sleep before I heard his footsteps in the dark, then porch steps. By the time he got to our room, I was plunging into an abyss of heartache. He slithered out to the couch.

Sleep pulled at me. My falling thought: Damned traitors, bet those sheets smelled bright as sunshine, mine all twisted around body and heart, hurts deep…

It took time, as all things do, with Merle. I am stubborn even if enraged. Do you throw out an entire lifetime together when one of you fails to stick to the rules? How much weight does sexual commitment–with its duty and occasional boredom–carry in the long run? Is it everything, is it the soul of a marriage–or actually a smaller part than you believed at the start? What mattered here? What do you deep in your gut want, I asked him over and over? It wasn’t the surrender to desire, that basic act. It was what we all fear and loathe: trust shaken, torn, hard things to mend. We made choices together once we got through the thorns.

The reason I stayed is that we took our time healing, made no sudden moves. He remained here despite regret, his shame. It’s love, that’s all. The kind of love that had long ago put its stamp on our hearts and carried us through near every sort of weather. And Nelda—she was heart shocked about Ger. She gave in to greater needs. Maybe he did, too, though I didn’t and won’t ever ask that. I didn’t need all the sorry facts, just solutions. besides, I about reacted to his failure by doing the same. Then stepped back right in time. No one knew–but I did.

No, it was Nelda who I lost the hardest, the worst, the biggest, and who with a desperate kiss lost me. Even though I pitied her, I could not entirely, sincerely forgive someone I had so long called Sis. Not even after praying for her all those years. Twelve of them.

******

So I watch her deck and house because she has not come out in eleven days. Well, she came out because once I heard her car leave and return. But no sitting outdoors. No hanging out laundry–she still liked to hang her sheets and towels, yes, that sun and wind. I know it is eleven days because I count as I used to in the old times and worried about her. Because Nelda gets depressed. Not just like after she and Merle had the fling and Ger had passed on which was quite bad but her daughters helped her then, and even her stuffy pastor, I heard, gave her some good advice so she got counseling. Got back to more living, got a job in the office at Dean’s Hardware.

No, this is something I don’t anticipate, though I feel concern as the days added up. I sit an hour and with each second sense her more. It builds up until it hurts my chest and rings in my brain: help.

“Merle,” I said, sticking my head inside when I hear him rustling around for a snack. “I’m going over the creek.”

He thumps his way to the door as I run down the steps.

“What did you say?”

I give a short wave backwards and keep on, my tennis shoes seeking hold on the flat and rounded rocks, trying to avoid mossy slipperiness, finally sliding into cold water running about my shins, the bank seeming far off. But when I make it I run to the back of her house, around the fence, to the gate, and find it locked. I rush to the front door, throat constricted even as I call out her name.

“Nelda! Where are you!”

The front door is unlocked, not too unusual, and so I enter for the first time in over a decade to find heaps of magazines sliding to the floor and piles of clothing on the couch and a few used paper plates with plastic forks on the coffee table. The television is on, sound muted.

I rush to the large airy kitchen but she’s not there–then the bedrooms, one by one. Not there. Where?


“Nelda, it’s Jimmie! Where are you?” My voice cracks; I gulp air.

I open one bathroom door, it’s acrid, stuffy, empty. Then another one.

And there she is sitting on the toilet lid in faded knit shorts and a baggy, stained pink tank top. Her longish, once-blonde-going-white hair falls over her hands, which barely hold her head, her head which dips to her knees as I enter. On the floor is an open prescription bottle, pills spilled and rolling all over the black and white tiled floor.

“Nelda, what have you done to yourself?” I cry out and fall to my knees.

I take her head into my hands, pull her to my shoulder so that she crumples, slides down to the floor and falls hard onto me, her once-full body light like sticks in my sturdy arms. I look at her and see a once-velvety forest woman now a sad one with her insides turned out, her fineness ripped and frayed.

“I’m going to give up,” she whispers, “why are you here…go home…”

“Did you take too many? Tell me!” I reach for the bottle and see that its an antianxiety medicine. “How many?”

“Four, five or dunno, not counting…”

I hold her head up so I can look at her. Red-rimmed, half-open eyes in shadowy sockets; sunken cheeks; pale lips gone slack; unwashed hair that sticks to her face, neck. She needs a shower. A meal and coffee. A new life.

She first needs a doctor.

I pick up the bottle, then lift her and nearly fall over as my knees complain. I carry her to her bed. Then I pull out my phone, call the number on the bottle. Can the pharmacist tell me what to do? Yes, go to urgent care or if she breathing is shallow and is less responsive, her eyes closing, call 911.

“Jimmie? Jimmie…you real…” Her words are slurring. She rolls over, nearly falls off the bed. I grab her and sit by her on the edge of the mattress which, I realize, has no sheets.

“I’m here, we’re going to get help.”

I call Merle and tell him to to get to the car, drive over fast.

“Nelda, I’m right here. We’ll get you better.”

“You’re…” she says as tears stream from the corners of her eyes. Which begin to close.

“Nelda, come on, wake up!” I shake her but her eyes remain half shut, her mouth opens, her silver fillings dully gleam.

I call 911 and carry her out the front door and Merle sprays gravel as he halts in the driveway. I sink to the ground with her limp body clutched to my chest. He shoots out the car door, limping to my side, hand over his mouth.

******

Two months. That’s how long it’s been since Nelda had her stomach pumped. Then monitored, then in inpatient treatment for severe clinical depression with suicidality and generalized anxiety. That’s what they called it, as if she has a fancy predisposition to some alien thing when it was in fact a close decision to end it all. I can’t abide the psychobabble but glad they helped her. She was released after three and a half weeks, and seems much better.

Was, that’s the word we can use now. Was going to die, not now going to die. She is back in therapy, on different medication and on her feet–what a way to put it but quite true. She’s even thinking of taking a dance class at Jody’s Studio in Scappoose; she loved ballroom dancing when Ger was alive, so why not? I’ll likely cheer her on.

I don’t understand it, not all of it. Neither does she, she says, just that she can get so low and then goes to the pits and needs help but waited too long. I can’t abide thinking that I about lost her once and for all. Nelda insists this is quite true, I was there in spirit all along and that helped her hang on. Really? I shake my head. Maybe, though my sense of things was too slow to alert me quite soon enough. Wasn’t there in person until near late and how do I get over that? By living and being better, I guess.

I’m right sometimes with my feeling about people, wrong other times, and that’s just how it goes. I have no special power, that’s for sure. Just love, I guess.

It was a wimpier, half-lonely time without our friendship. Like I’d been so hungry but got used to it though I was craving more. Maybe we can both finally fill up more, a little at a time. It’s not about forgiveness, it’s time passing and time found, and life knocking off more of my edges. I’m freer inside my mind and spirit.

Still, I’ve felt the burden of my neglect since I found her in the depths. It sliced a gash inside me. My not being there all those years–knowing what I know about Nelda– is the real crime here. I want the bleeding to stop, the wound scab over–as she wants hers to close. Her old humiliation, that lingering shame. The only way beyond it is getting up. going on, and learning each other again. We’ve begun to share tales and news in person over coffee a couple days here, a couple maybe there. Merle gives a brief, hearty greeting then disappears. One of these week-ends I hope and pray–I pray for everything, that’s the way I do this– we’ll grill a fine dinner in summer’s green beauty, all together. It won’t be like old times. There is no going back. We’ve been ignorant. Suffered the hurt. Left each other, found each other. We’re getting whiter, gimpier. Maybe wiser. What a saga we have woven. But in the end there’s just what lies before us this day. And we want more peace.

We keep an eye on each other from across Nettle Creek, our creek, where I never got much of a nettle sting yet and love to hear the water running, cascading no matter what goes on. It feels about as good as it can. But I’ll aim for better, I tell myself when I feel whipped by the upkeep of our acreage and house and Merle gets cranky. Then I up and call Nelda Sis, it slips out, isn’t that seeing the bright side? I’m still just Jimmie, best friend, or as she says Jimmie Marie which gets on my nerves– except when she says it anyhow.

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