Earley Waits for Mail

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Earley waited for the mail all afternoon like he did every delivery day, with the patience of Guernsey cows, which he’d loved as a child on the farm. His grandson would take issue with that idea, tell him, Cows don’t know enough to be patient, but that’s what Earley thought of when faced with the occasionally slow passage of time. Cows liked to eat, rest, socialize, all with a deliberate pace and acceptance. It seemed a good lesson. Being human created issues with time. For Earley, time generally was dashing away. As far as the postal service went, he was just grateful he still got it. What sort of life would it be without a little junk mail and a letter or package now and then?

Sol was too smart sometimes, explaining calculus and reading thought-provoking passages from his contemporary novels. Earley had patience with his grandson, but who cared what sorts of odd tricks numbers got up to at this point in his life? But the books he liked, or rather the being read to, especially when it had to do with a little love or a lot of history. One stimulated the other in the world, he thought.

When his son, James, was at work and Sol was at school he had some waiting while he did chores and puttered. Today was–he checked Sol’s calendar on the fridge–computer club. Three days a week the boy had obligations he said were fun. Earley had neither for the most part, unless you counted being a grandfather.

“You have to get a hobby, Grandpa. Ever since Grandma passed you’re just waiting all winter to garden. I know gardening is your thing but really. You need more than that. Maybe like playing Sudoku or checking out that new fitness club. I saw one of your friends over there. What about your woodworking?”

“I’ve made enough stuff, why do I need more? I do my crosswords and word searches so I don’t get soft in the head. I walk everywhere. Cook. Do laundry and pay bills like when Nana was alive. Plant my garden in spring. What more? You have hobbies, I get some free time.”

Sol and James looked at each other, eyes rolled. It made Earley think a bit. He did get restless at times. Then he saw the ad and put in an order.

For the last week he’d been watching over Sol by himself. It wasn’t hard but it took a little more out of him. Worrying and making sure he did all that homework, catching up with him more than usual. No James as a buffer or disciplinarian. It went pretty well.

James had gotten to Florida on Tuesday. He was supposed to have have come back home by now, not that Earley was anxious for it. It was never much real hardship being there for Sol. James called twice, once when he got to Miami and once when he found out he would be back a few days late. James was a fully degreed person, a writer and a construction worker, which Earley didn’t quite get, but the building trade usually worked out better. Bills had to be paid for three people.

James had this desire to swim his way into that smallish pool of people who might find their stories on shelves. He had been working on a psychological thriller for four years and it was almost done. Earley hadn’t read it yet. He wondered if it would scare him; the thought of that captivated him. Well, in good time.

James poked his head out of his office door one morning.

“I’m going to Miami, you guys! Kevin was hired as editor of Killing Justice, that new thriller and mystery magazine I mentioned, and said I’d be a good addition. But I have to do a formal interview. We’ll all move there, start fresh if this works out.”

Sal frowned and considered. He was fifteen. He had a small, well-defined life that he liked just enough. The house they shared with grandpa was big and had a garden he helped tend. He wondered how his grandpa would manage down there. He did want his dad to be happier. Sal could try Florida after ten years in Omaha despite leaving his best friend. The thought of tan, beachy girls and large reptiles soon held him in thrall.

As it lowered, the sun shot out pink and orange rays behind houses across the street, making half-halos about trees and rooftops. The sky warmed up like a tropical vista. Earley wondered what it would look like in Florida. He watched out the bay window, then saw the porch bathed in a glow despite a deep chill he kept at bay with the heat jacked up too high. The mailman–well, mail woman now– should have been there long ago. It annoyed him despite his resolve. So much for Guernsey patience. He wondered about James coming back late, what that all meant. His stomach growled as he glanced in the refrigerator. Leftover meatloaf when Sol got home.

He grabbed the seed catalog and sat in his worn, smooth leather chair. When he turned on the light and opened it to the first page pictures dazzled him with their lushness, as always. He could hardly stand that he had months to go before the planting.

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What would it be like to grow things all year long? he wondered. Florida looked like it sprouted life without any effort. It unnerved him a bit. The winters in Omaha were a good time to hibernate, which he liked. He might have to wear madras shorts in Florida, learn how to swing a golf club well, use terrible smelling sunscreen all the time. Or stay indoors even when there was no snow and no rain because of that heat. He wanted his son to use his degree in English and Sol to be able to try other things, but this was a lot to ask. If it was to be asked. He breathed into the gathering dark, a ruffly sound making its way down his commandeering nose. What if James thought it was time for him to join the others over seventy in those cramped places they pretended were communities? He had one already, right here, on this street, in this house. It had been good enough for forty-five years. The house had conformed to him and he, to it.

The front opened, then slammed shut the same time his cell phone rang. Sol tossed a package on the rectangular table in the foyer. Earley got up, then looked at his phone.

James. He answered.

“Hello? Son?”

“Hey, dad. I’ll be home tomorrow but I wanted to talk to you guys. Is Sol there yet?”

Earley beckoned to his grandson and he came over.

“We’re both here.”

Sol put the phone on speaker.

“Sol?”

“Hey, dad! See alligators yet?”

James laughed. “Not yet. But we might sooner or later.”

“We? You got the job, dad?”

“I did. They liked me and I like them. I’ll start in May.”

Earley walked to the table where the package lay. He could hear the two of them talking, excitement tinged with disbelief in Sol’s voice. He shook the package to confirm it was his order for sure, then went back to to his chair and sank down in the old cushion, box in hand.

“Hey Dad? You there?”

“Yes, I heard you.”

“Are you glad for me?”

“Happy as a clam.”

“Grandpa, clams aren’t even close to being smart–”

“You don’t know that, Sol. We don’t know every single thing.”

“Dad, I have to get going. Kevin is taking me out to dinner to celebrate. I’ll tell you everything when I get home.”

They hung up. Earley fished his Swiss Army knife from a back pocket. Sol had sunk into the couch, his jacket still on, backpack at his feet.

“Florida… sweet. I think.” He sat forward, hands clasped together between his knees. “What do you think, Grandpa? Oh, you got a package. What’s in it?”

Earley cut through tape, tossed the paper and pried open the box. Inside were neatly bagged pieces of wood. A whole ship.

“Behold, Sol, the Santa Maria. The largest ship of the three sailed during Columbus’ voyage. Modest, really, especially by today’s standards. About one hundred tons of her. Deck was 58 feet. A good seafaring ship until she shipwrecked in Haiti.”

“Nice! A wooden model. So that’s your new hobby?”

Earley smiled. “Could be.”

They looked over the plans and talked about history until Sol said he was hungry. At the table over meatloaf sandwiches, they were quiet awhile. Then Earley spoke up.

“You think you could head down to Miami, then? Or would you want to stay here?”

“We’re all in this together! Dad’s taking me and you if you’ll go and I’m sure taking you, so we’re going together. Right? Florida, like it or not, here we come.”

Earley wiped his mouth and sat back. “Well, it could be a good place to make and sail ships. But I’ll get back to you after your dad gets home and we talk. I’d have to have a garden. At the very least.”

Sol agreed; no garden, no move. He put the kettle on for tea and got out the organic peppermint teabags. That’s what his grandpa liked after a meal. That’s what Sol would always make him.

Monet in the Garden by Monet
Monet in the Garden by Monet

Raggedy and Jonlyn Have a Chat

IMG_2515Jonlyn’s bleary eyes rested on the last bright spots of color in her yard, then narrowed at the three crows–“the three cads”, she called them–that liked to aggravate her mornings with their carrying on. But no newspaper anywhere. She rubbed her cold hands together, then went inside and pushed the heavy door shut. What was the point of printing papers if they ended up in recycling before they even got read at her table?

She cast a resigned glance over the comfortable living room, pausing at the picture atop a side table. There was her granddaughter grinning, snuggled between her parents like a jewel in velvet. Long dark ponytail, cheeks bright as berries, burnished hazel eyes looking right at her. A smile that reached into Jonlyn’s world. But Iris was living in Brisbane, Australia with her mother, Fran, Jonlyn’s daughter. And her son-in-law. Dennis. The one who took them there, and also watched over them, she admitted.

She’d been there once. Clots of palm trees, traffic aplenty and some good shops, restaurants. Lively enough. The family lived in a small chic apartment then; now they had a house on the outskirts, close to the beach. Jonlyn wasn’t a beach person; all that sand got into places she would rather not have it. She liked forests around her. It was quite exhausting and expensive to fly there. Fran said they didn’t have time to come to the States. Well, years passed. Iris was six now. Fran was forty-seven. That made Jonlyn older than she ever imagined ending up. A trick had been played on her.

As if in assent, the antique grandfather clock chimed. Jonlyn patted it in passing, then got her jacket and gloves. It was Monday; it was nine o’clock on another grey day. With the colder weather fewer people romped about the park across her street, and Jonlyn enjoyed it just as much if not more. She’d experienced scads of seasonal changes on the paths and benches.

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Hammerlin Park was like an extension of their yard, her late husband Ralph had remarked once as he was raking leaves. Only much better since they didn’t have to bother with upkeep. It had been their motivation to settle there, raise Fran. A park was a comfort.

By the time Jonlyn arrived, the dog owners, so possessive of their strip of torn up grass, had about left; the kids were in school. Excepting the ones who got kicked out or would rather skip class to smoke pot. Jonlyn walked by them at a good pace; they barely saw her so didn’t worry about being seen. She had reached that point in life. Somewhere before sixty you start to lose color apparently, finally fading into a surprising ghost. An advantage was that if she didn’t feel like dressing properly or doing up her straggly hair, she didn’t. Another perk was if she wanted to linger and eavesdrop by group, she could; no one expected she could hear much. She’d learned a surprising amount about people this way, though Ralph had cautioned about becoming a voyeur. Big word for being nosey, she’d laughed.

The ducks were quieter than she was. Jonlyn was about to take a seat and watch them glide like plump feathery ballerinas but she’d stepped on something. It was a rag doll with requisite red yarn hair, arms outstretched, a gay smile fixed on its pale face. The dress was a cheerful Christmassy mix of red and green and lit up with some yellow. A bit rumpled but in good repair. In fact, the doll was unscathed, not rumpled at all, as if its owner had just been there and Raggedy had slipped away without a fuss. Jonlyn surveyed the park: no mother and child, no errant strollers or forgotten diaper bags or backpacks. Jonlyn sat, then bent over and picked it up.

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Raggedy remained at ease in her hands, unperturbed by the damp breezes that ruffled her hair and stirred the leaves. The two black polka dot eyes stared back. Jonlyn lifted the arms up and pulled them down, then tried the legs. Sensible black shoes, she noted.

“Silly doll, forgetful mothers”, she said. “If Fran had been given this doll she wouldn’t have let go of it.”

The ducks make a gabbled sound at Jonlyn and headed toward the little island, their rumps bouncing.

“Well, that’s not true, really. Fran never liked dolls much. Planes and blocks. I guess she was meant to be a pilot.” She shuddered. “Those little private planes…fancy and dangerous.”

The doll lay there, either agreeable or held captive by happiness with a red-stitched smile. A bit crooked, appealingly so. The person who had made this toy would be disgruntled it was so easily lost. Jonlyn mused awhile about sewing she used to enjoy, then got up, hesitant as the doll gazed up at her. Should she take it somewhere, the closed clubhouse, the restrooms were there was a wood railing upon which to lay it? She determined it was best to leave it, so she sat her up and left. But she looked back once, twice, and something about that doll pulled at her, made her feel old and sad but tender, too.

“Ridiculous,” she muttered. “I will not be undone by a silly rag doll. It’s just the holiday season creeping up on me. I can’t abide nostalgia!”

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A teen-aged girl who was smoking by the edge of the pond shot her a look, then shook her head. The old woman was a sad case talking to herself like that. Jonlyn felt her dignity pinched.

The next two days she was busy with errands and an appointment but her thoughts kept retuning to the doll. The following morning she hurried across the street and along pathways. It needed to be gone, safely back in the keeping of the one who missed the doll. She saw a hulking man just leaving her spot so approached the bench. Someone, perhaps the man, had picked up Raggedy and abandoned her again with an offhand toss so she’d landed backwards and askew on the bench.

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“Ah,” Jonlyn said and took the doll in her hands, setting it on her lap as she observed the ducks and a lone heron. “A bit messy, though. Not as bad as I expected, however.” She brushed leaf detritus off Raggedy’s feet and noted a smudge on her knee. It gave rise to the disorienting thought that maybe Raggedy had tried to get up and head home on her own.

“I used to bring Fran here every day. She chased the squirrels and wanted to fish the pond.” She chuckled. “But not Iris. She’s never had the pleasure. Maybe next year. There’s always hope, of course.”

The two of them sat there fifteen minutes, watching a couple amble by, a young man execute amazing tricks on a skateboard. A homeless woman, the one Jonlyn often saw, pushed her full cart down the walkway. A child younger than Iris came by with her father, chattering and kicking up leaves. She stopped and pointed to the doll and Jonlyn, heartened, held out Raggedy.

“Oh, here–did you lose this?”

The man shook his head. “She has a baby doll that cries watery tears and does other things we wish she couldn’t!” He laughed. “I haven’t seen one of those for a long time, though.”

The child got a closer look, then took her father’s hand as they moved on, but she looked back.

“You can keep her,” the child called out and skipped away.

Jonlyn set Raggedy on the bench and nodded at her.

“Well, you’re a popular sort. I can see why, despite your maddeningly unchanged expression. You’re soft and quite pleasant company. Wonder if you have more of a name. Tell me it’s not Ann, but something more curious like mine.”

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The ducks paddled away and the wind picked up. Jonlyn left Raggedy seated on the bench and returned to the three cads and a bowl of leftover ham and bean soup for  lunch. Two days of papers had come and she looked forward to reading.

The next day Jonlyn told herself she wasn’t going to check on the doll, and certainly wasn’t going to talk to it if she happened upon it. Parks attracted people like her, a bit aimless, lonelier than she wanted to admit. They were pretty microcosms of the city. Well, she was going dotty from increasing solitude–and the rains and cold were just beginning. It was not attractive to reminisce about “good ole days” that weren’t all that spectacular. Now her daughter was gone and Iris growing up so fast she might have to remind her who her grandmother was before long.

The clock chimed; greyness deepened and spread as the afternoon came to a close. She grabbed her jacket. Rain threatened; wind whipped her coat open. Dogs were running about and people were heading toward their cars. Her long stride hastened her to the favored bench but before she even got there she felt the doll was gone. She edged up to the back of the bench and took a look.

Empty. Raggedy had been picked up by a child who needed a playmate, or some creature, heaven forbid. Or maybe that homeless lady she often saw on her walks. That would be just fine, although she wished the young owner had found her. Who knew? She felt a huge raindrop splat on her forehead and then on her cheeks so pulled her jacket close and headed back. The lamps came on and lit the way around the park. Jonlyn felt relief come upon her and with it, a stirring of pleasure. The air was thick with a damp and leafy perfume, and a sharpness hinted at wintry days and nights. She needed to buy a ticket to Australia. And she knew just what she was making Iris for Christmas.

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Friday Nights at Bumble’s

photo by Tony Brock

(Photo credit: Tony Brock; Source: spitafieldslife.com)

It’s been Maggie, Carny, Irv and me, Livia, every Friday night from almost the start, but maybe that’s the problem. Going on twenty years, believe it or not, meeting at Bumble’s Bar and Grill. Maybe it’s the rain that’s helped drive us there. But back then Irv could still hear and see great. Maggie was barely into her twenties. She had a spirit that could knock you off your feet, lively and smart, a joke readied for any occasion. Now she listens more and fusses over her miniature dog like it’s–pardon me–she’s royal, feeding it chopped liver and boiled potatoes or whatever it is now. Miss Molly’s her name. Would that I were Miss Molly; I’d  never want for anything. Don’t get me wrong, I like pets well enough and have had a few. But now I have “late-onset allergies” the doc said. It seems the specter of aging is trying to hunt and hog-tie me. So far I’ve run faster. But a shaggy dog or cat might do me in right now.

Carny was the only one new to town. He was the sort of man who might bring you lunch and a rose at work because it was Monday. He smoked a pipe and was more quiet than I expected. He said there was too much talking when he was a travelling salesman. And he had a complicated name when he arrived: Sebastian Leonard Pettingrove. He went by Lenny but we already had two of those at Bumble’s so that had to change.

So when I noticed he started complaints with, “I tell you, life–what a circus!”, I nicknamed him Carny.

“What? Why carnivals? I don’t like carnivals, never have. A circus is another thing but too much going on in too many rings. Carnivals are for kids, aren’t they.” He had a habit of making firm statements.

I was embarrassed. He was a well-made man, barrel chest and square shoulders. He had the brightest eyes, a graying head of hair. His cap was perfect; it rarely came off. Well, sometimes  it did but that came much later. Right then it was all I could handle to  look him straight in the face for more than a second or two.

“Well, I don’t much, either, but I can’t very well call you ‘Circ’, now, can I? Would you rather Sebastian, then?”

His wide brow wrinkled as his eyebrows shot up. I thought I’d made a mess of it but Irv and Maggie backed me up, saying it suited him, lightened things up.

“Okay, I’ll take that. Sort of silly but…maybe that’s good!”

He ordered me a fancy drink. I felt redeemed.

“You should set a wedding date right away.” That was Irv for you.

“Why would you say that?” Maggie chimed in. “You’re going to scare him away when he needs good friends. Right, Livia?” She had a fresh-faced guy at her side then and he rolled his eyes at us. He didn’t get Irv at all, which was a fatal flaw. “But Irv is a professional so he might have a point.”

Carny was puffing on his pipe and glanced the other way, as if he wished there was another table but it was crowded. We didn’t know then that this was the last thing he’d want to hear. He turned back to us, blew a couple soft puffs of smoke up to the rafters.

“If you can take a teasing at the start about name like that, you’re likely suited.” He sipped his steaming coffee with eyes closed, as though it was the best cup ever. Later, before I took him home, he’d have one beer. He was a man of moderation except for sharing good will.

Irv was the unofficial matchmaker of the town. Everyone said he made a better plumber by far but he had called thirteen marriages in nearly twenty years so he had the right to weigh in. Ten held so far. He loved doing it. He had never married, though. Said he’d gotten close enough to it through matchmaking.

Love from a distance, I thought, has its points.

“But when you see two people who are good for each other and it all works it feels like you’ve done right, you did a good deed. But when it doesn’t work out, that’s a sad day for all. Nobody wants a wounded heart.” He spit into his glass discreetly. “Besides, never knew a woman who liked chewing tobacco. I use it to focus sometimes, like when I’m caught way under a sink, trying to not think about when it was last cleaned.” He shrugged. “But you know, fixing a bad pipe is good. I like making things better for others.”

True. You could count on him to warm up a room just by saying hello. He stopped to talk to strangers, never left a person unnoticed. Carny saw right off that he didn’t let the night end on a sour note.

“It’s a talent to be so optimistic. The man is generous with kind words, Livia.”

We were finishing dinner at my place. I thought Carny was a smart man but I had other things on my mind. He’d been around for two or three months by then.

“Irv was a friend of my pop’s before he passed, and after that he came by and asked if he could join my group. ‘What group?’ I said. ‘Whoever finds a chair fits in here. Besides’, I told him, ‘it’d  be our honor.’ Irv took the place he liked, his back to the wall so he could see the action.”

Carny helped me with the dishes and gave me a hug when he left.  Irv’s magic was working. But it turned out that Carny still had to get his divorce papers. It all worked itself out like Irv predicted, two years later.

Much is different now. Can’t help but be, I guess. Time does things to people. Maggie got sick with a painful nerve problem and had to quit waitressing. Irv is going deaf and doesn’t match make often–it’s an old art, fading fast. And Carny’s touchy lately, daily. Turns out he’s got wanderlust. He can’t decide if he wants to travel around a bit on his own or wait until I retire. I have my factory job supervising a bunch of people. Work and I were made for each other. Maybe Carny is just restless. A change of pace, new scenery might do him good.

But will he really come back? I miss him thinking of even a small trip. I get a tug when he walks by, and a shiver when he stares out the window.

I do know what he’s feeling. I feel it, too. The shortening of time, like I’m accordioned by it, squeezed by each minute and can’t shake loose. I want to stretch life out, make it all last longer. I want more surprises than the usual.

These Friday nights, see, are so alike. Same people stopping by to join us, rotating weekly specials that cost too much. Same ole talk. The various kinds of rain. What the neighbors are up to. What the cost of even chicken is these days. And was I still thinking of putting that incompetent (and nameless) employee on notice? Too, the crowds are getting rowdier at Bumble’s since several houses were made into rentals for college kids. Sometimes I like the bustle. Others, it goes against my grain.

But Maggie called me last night. Irv is turning seventy-seven this Friday, four days before I turn fifty-six. We celebrate it every year together at Bumble’s.

“Do you think he’s up for a party?” she asked.

“Of course he is.”

“He’s seemed distant lately; spacy is a better word. He’s more forgetful. It worries me. Maybe all the people and activity are getting to be too much.”

“He’s almost eighty! If Irv forgets occasionally, he deserves that much. Hopefully he recalls the best of things. Does he seem bothered by forgetting? Has it caused him trouble yet? No.”

There was a long pause. “You don’t have to get snappy, Livia. I want to do what’s right for you both. I’ve been your friends a long, long while.”

I could hear the hurt. And I felt that feeling again, as though time was catching up to us and making life harder for all. “Please, let’s plan it as always. You get the balloons or cupcakes and I’ll get flowers. Carny will do something, not sure what.”

We assembled at seven, just as wind-driven rain slammed the place. The owner and all the regulars pulled up chairs. There were German chocolate, red velvet and plain white cupcakes with single candles on Irv’s and mine, all courtesy of Maggie. Balloons were bouncing off the ceilings, green and gold ones. My orange and yellow mums and zinnias were festive.

Irv stood up and got his speech out of the way.

“I’ve said it every year: being this age isn’t much different from being twenty or thirty except I’ve lived a lot longer and have the good and bad stories to prove it. Stick around for the stories later.” He enjoyed the cheers and applause, then sat.

I raised my glass. “I’m going to quit celebrating birthdays the year I retire. But one more time, thanks for hanging out with me the last twelve months!”

Someone said that would be the day I’d need a funeral since I was a workaholic. That wasn’t news. Everyone grabbed a cupcake before they remembered to sing “Happy Birthday”. Irv’s candle sputtered a little, then went out before he blew on it.

Then Carny stood up. He took off his cap–that made me nervous.  He stood up tall. He cut a figure even in his old blue sweater and baggy jeans.

“I could think of nothing to get you two, sorry, and I ran out of time.” He made a sad face. “Life–what a circus it can be…”

There were groans and a few chortles.

“Instead, I thought how I hated being a salesman, even making great money. Then after I left a failed marriage and that job and moved here for some peace you all welcomed me right away. And how you, Irv, helped me get a decent office position that lasted until I retired last year. You had faith in me when you didn’t even know me long. You’ve been a true friend.” He cleared his throat. “And you’ve all shared your good company every Friday with me. Maggie, how often have you taken us to fabulous church potlucks or, even better, trusted me to walk Miss Molly? We’ve had good morning phone chats since you’ve been at home. You remember all the little things in life.”

“Okay, okay, get on with it, Carny,” someone called out, but was shushed.

I sat riveted to my seat, heart all revved up. Was he going to announce he was heading out on an adventure? Was he going to forget it was my birthday as well as Irv’s?

“And Livia.” His grin reached right inside me. “How you changed my life. Not just my routines. Not just things like making me get exercise or buying me good music or saying the right things when I’m a bit low. No, with you I just want to be a much  better person.”

I thought I’d faint. It was pretty personal. I knew he loved me. But what was he was going to do?

He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and looked at Irv, Maggie and me. He waved it around like a thing for all to admire, then handed it to me. No one said a word.

I opened the envelope with trembling hands, pulled out the contents and laid them on the table. My mouth fell open. There was a collective gasp when I held them up.

I stood up. “What have you done, Carny?” I could barely see him through the flood of tears. “Four plane tickets to Hawaii! Are you nuts? You’re blowing your wad on us all?”

“Yeah, so much for travel on a shoestring. I want to have a good adventure with my friends and girl at least once.”

He scooped me up in an embrace. The pub was buzzing and a few pounded the tables to draw more attention.

Irv’s eyes were round as the mums. He kept shaking his head, a funny smile overtaking his wrinkled face. I knew he’d heard it all. And I knew he’d always wanted to go to the islands.

Maggie? She said she’d have to think it over, but unless Miss Molly could come, too, maybe her aunt could take her for a week. And then, shocking the whole place even more she let out a small but deliriously happy scream.

What a gift, that my Carny knows just how to relieve a little boredom, shake up the fates. And when we get back Bumble’s will be here, same as ever.

(This photo prompt was shared on www.particiaannmcnair.com.)

The Watchman

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Heaven Steele hung the windsock at the back of her house, near the fence that enclosed her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in the hot breeze. The placement had been his idea. She walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. She thought it would liven up his house a bit, she said. She preferred the many handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves. Most of those hung in the front, one big one in back by the driveway like an announcement. Jasper liked the mix of brittle and sweet notes that kept him company. He told her he’d see the windsock better from his porch. He liked seeing it whip in the wind but thought how funny she did that for him. He didn’t like being indebted, either.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville. She was much younger than she first appeared as she had silvery, cropped hair. It was a fact that she was industrious (that she had in common with the others), operating an art studio where she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round. Her other business had to do with desperate folks who showed up at her door all hours of day and night. Counseling, he had heard, but he knew better. Maybe a witch–did they even exist these days, in real life? He shivered. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown. That made her somebody outside of the usual box but he didn’t know quite what. He could see a few goings-on from his porch, although his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s modern house. He hadn’t crossed that threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall was a warning, anyway. He had been trying to get a good look at the girl who was pounding on Heaven’s window when he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock. Maybe he knew her, was what he was thinking. Drat his curiosity. Now he had a thick cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his leg and side that still hurt. He felt half-helpless although it could be worse at his age. “Jasper’s Downfall” his son, Shawn, said laughing at him when he came by and helped out.

So now Jasper really had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by the rare car that sped by and Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her in part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of a waterfall slipped in and out of his hearing range.  That’s where she met with people if the weather was nice and it had been. All he usually saw was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright dresses between the leafy branches. When the wind was still and the road empty, a murmur of voices would drift up to him. He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for over ten years. Yet all Jasper knew about her were rumors of her unusual talents (Shawn said she was also psychic, she advised people on things), the beautiful chimes, and her odd, lovely eyes. She had been friendly enough the few times they had crossed paths. But he didn’t like talking much and she wasn’t nosey. Like him. It worked out well enough.

On the third Thursday of the month Shawn had picked up two prescriptions for him, made them both burgers, then cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the porch drinking coffee, having rolled the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those machines. It was almost dusk, the light rich and soft on  trees and grasses. The air had a sheerness to it that said it was summer. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The lively windsock settled down as though tired. There was a silver car parked in the long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but, then, lots of cars parked at her house, especially since the summer season had started.

Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those wind chimes, he’d heard, and they always bought some from what he could see. He smoked as Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands gesturing. There was a guy a lot taller than she was. Jasper leaned forward, straining to hear something, a word, a tone of voice. The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still and became silent. Jasper re-lit a last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business, he thought, she had herself quite a life made in Marionville, while he was restless and getting old and bored with things, that’s all. The glowing stub faded and he crushed it in a ceramic pot with stones in the bottom. Rubbing his eyes and wincing at the sharp ache in his left hip, he stood. He looked out over the valley. The lake had a soft sheen to it still. He imagined the kids on Lake Minnatchee had gone home now and teenagers would be taking their place when darkness snuffed out a coral and rose sunset. They would be up to no good or romance. Jasper felt something close to peace but melancholy sneaked in as usual.

He turned to go inside with a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There was no sound or movement coming from the courtyard other than the faintest tinkling of water. He frowned. Something had changed in the last five minutes. So they had left the courtyard, no big deal. But something else. Unease coursed through his legs. A stab of pain made him reach to his hip and rub it hard. He rocked forward to change his weight distribution and scanned the house again. It was the windsock. It wasn’t there now. The air was still; no gusts had swept over their hillside. The windows in her house were grayed out; even the courtyard’s rainbow lights usually lit at dusk were still off. He swallowed a walnut-sized lump in his throat and started down the pathway to the road and Heaven’s place.

It seemed like slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to trip and tumble into a twilight road. When he inched his way down and crossed the road, he noted the car was a Porsche, then walked around to the high courtyard fence. There was the windsock, on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper.” It was Heaven whispering to him, more a hiss than a whole word.

“Yep, it’s me,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“Here, the window,” she said softly.

Jasper moved three feet to his left and saw her face in the screen. He felt bashful, a little embarrassed to be there at her window, and almost backed away.

“Don’t go. I have an issue. I need a little help.”

“What?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of stuff….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard and that’s where my cell phone is. I need to call a cop or a cab or something. The phone was tossed on that chair and it’s under him…I stood on the garden bench and pulled off the windsock, hoping you’d see. Well, that you would understand. Which, of course and thankfully, you did.”

Jasper really looked at her for the first time. Her eyes implored him  yet sweetly through the scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper.” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen and her face flattened comically. “Can you either come in or call the police?”

Jasper started, shook his head to clear it, then walked briskly around the front of the house, past her glinting, swaying chimes, up to the door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard; Heaven met up with him. The man was indeed drunk. He was slumped over in the rocking chair, drooling and reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised his bushy eyebrows and shrugged, pointing to his cast. And he knew about wives dying and wanting to hear from them. It had never occurred to him to do anything but have his own conversations with her. Apparently Heaven had a big reputation.

Jasper did the easy thing. He called a cab and waited at the door while Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs. Then he and the driver wrestled the weeping man to his feet and got him out of the house and into the cab. He would have to get his Porsche tomorrow.

He and Heaven stood on the road and watched the car disappear into a disappearing cave of blackness. He felt wide awake and surprised at himself.

“That about it, then?” he asked her.

She took his good arm and steered him toward her house. She smelled familiar and good, like the lilies of the valley that grew back of his house.

“Let’s have my good tea with strawberry pie.”

He didn’t resist. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. “How did you know I’d see the windsock was gone?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?” He smiled despite himself.

“I saw your cigarette smoke. But I know you watch me, too.”

“Hmm…” he said as he crossed her threshold a second time.

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How I am Being Alone in the Here and Now

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I flung open the louvered closet doors. The sight of colorful skirts, sweaters, shirts and pants crushed between one another made me wince. It is time to make a seasonal change, trade the winter group for spring and a few items of summer. It’s a chore, but usually painless. This year, it felt like something else: an anxious moment that brought me face-to-face with remnants of a previous way of life. The work-for-a-paycheck life.  I sorted for charities, hesitant about several pieces. Since I am no longer working four, ten to twelve-hour days at a community mental health clinic, how often would I use these?

So far, most of them remain. I haven’t given up hope of finding part-time work so that I can keep on writing more. And there are other occasions to get a little fancied up, even in Portland, the only place I have lived where one can wear jeans and sandals to a symphony concert.

I intended on working for several more years but when I became ill with vertigo I identified cause and effect. The job I had didn’t fit; stress was gaining. The answer? Time to go. I have been happy to fulfill a true calling for twenty-five years: counseling many at-risk populations including addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to my clients. I found a way to let them know I was doing what I advised them to do: taking care of myself, making prudent decisions to support my well-being. I planned on doing just that.

So what have I done the last four and a half months? I wanted to be happy with my choice, while the pretty attire seemed to accuse me of sloth as I stood there in jeans, t-shirt and an old grey sweater. And slippers covered my feet after a long walk in the damp morning. But I stopped to reassess. What constitutes work? Am I not managing household business affairs, running errands and taking care of my husband, who works in an intensely demanding position? I spend time with adult children and grandchildren as often as possible.

But there is more to be done, much more.

All those years of raising five children, getting more college credits when possible, working outside of home and then doing laundry until midnight, I longed for one thing more: time to be and do all the other things I loved. I have never been truly bored. That may have come from my history of growing up in a prodigiously active family; we did not have time to do nothing. We seem to have excellent stamina and reserves of energy. And if I even hinted about being restless, my mother told me to find something to do. I was expected to comply.

So I show up each day to fully experience and utilize my time, just as when I had an ID badge. It would be dishonest to state it has been a simple transition. I am still a person moved to be of use, to aid those in dire need and listen with unerring attention. To be centered and calm, to not derail the client, to maintain clarity of thought and keep an open heart yet not to be swallowed whole by the suffering: this takes rigorous practice. It became second nature.

So, to be without people around much of the day has been strange and hard. But here is the time I craved so long; it was either use it or lose it to something I have never known before–a lack of direction. Solitude has much to teach me. I will continue to give thought and prayer to possibilities that must be within my reach. But this is what I am doing, in between numerous household chores and seeing family:

*I read as soon as I get breakfast, starting with magazines. I have subscriptions to The Writer, The Smithsonian, Vogue, Architectural Digest, VIA, and American Craft. Oh, yes, also People and Entertainment Weekly. And I sometimes buy Glimmertrain or Tin House (literary journals), Real Simple, and Sunset and The New Yorker. I peruse Willamette Week for area events and arts offerings.
I enjoy newspapers online as well as blogs of many. I also read non-fiction and fiction off and on during the day and at bedtime. Currently I am reading The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (a novel about author Edith Wharton), Neighbors and Wise Men by Tony Kriz (about spiritual experiences of the author), Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran, and A Book of Luminous Things (poetry anthology) edited by Czeslaw Milosz.
I read a few hours daily, more if I am researching something. I have to set a limit or nothing else will get done.

*At night I schedule my time for the following day and the bulk of my day is reserved for writing. When I write or research writing issues, time can cease to exist. The work includes: research on agents and publishers as well as lit journals both online and in paper and writing competitions, revising my work, writing blog essays and poems, working on new fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry, preparing and submitting work according to the specifications of various editors, editing my novel for the umpteenth time. I have an abiding passion for writing. I want to write pieces that will move, surprise, and engage people so that after they are done, they have something interesting to take away.

*I walk or hike. Every day, rain or shine, cold or hot. The only thing that will stop me is serious illness. I walk because I love the rhythm of walking, the way it relaxes and clarifies my mind, and I so appreciate nature, architecture, people and random and surprising moments that occur. I also walk and hike because I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease at age 51 after an apparent heart attack while I was hiking in the beautiful Columbia Gorge. I don’t worry but I am aware of my “borrowed” time as heart disease does not go away. I keep the inevitable (but who among us doesn’t leave this world eventually?) at bay any way I can.

*Daily I pray, sometimes read meditations and the Bible. I think about and sense Divine Love/God in my life and others’ routinely. I cannot imagine my life without God in it daily, every second, whether or not I am fully conscious of it. I would not be alive without God, could not have endured and healed from dangerous and painful experiences, would not have stayed alcohol-and drug-free all these years, would not have the gratitude and peace that permeates my life. There are times I am not totally clear about the next step in this earthly life, but I am never uncertain of God’s eternally compassionate guidance.

*I am learning to draw and use watercolors after many years of not painting and drawing. I used to paint large acrylic paintings so this is new. It is a wondrous thing to see what pencil and paint can do on paper. It is scary because it is new but that is part of the adventure.

*I am happy when photographing things, mostly nature and architecture but also people. I have a passion for

* I either call (or text or email) my children at least weekly if not more if I am not going to see them. I talk to a sister often. I call my mother-in-law and email my other siblings. I visit with a few close friends. Despite being introspective, I have extrovert tendencies and miss people at times. So I get out in my neighborhood and enjoy shops and restaurants.

*I am thinking about taking flamenco dance classes, engaging in voice lessons so I can actually sing again, enrolling in a tai chi or QiGong class, taking more writing workshops, volunteering again, finding more botanical gardens and also forests to explore, self-publishing my novel. I’d like to make some new friends. Appreciate my family to the very fullest. I don’t know how many more days and nights I have to immerse myself in all there is to hold close, then let it go.

This is my slice of life, alone, in the here and now. I don’t think too hard about the future; it will come, or it will not. I am still a good friend to myself after all these years, but I can always learn more. It has been a slow letting go (for now) of service work. But when the heart breaks open even a little it has room for so much more life. It creates space and insight needed for change. For me, that means making more stories and sharing life’s bounties. I hope that whoever reads this can find time alone to explore all that wants to awaken and better serve your life.

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