Our Continental Summers

Italy- no photographer

We were intending on staying for at least three weeks in the village outside Rome. My father had a work assignment in the city but always liked to situate us in out-of-the-way places when we traveled in Europe. He was a photographer, someone you might have heard of but only if you worked in scientific or industrial circles. He took pictures of things like cutting edge machinery or classified experiments or industrial construction that was controversial. Gerard and I thought he was a spy. Father found it amusing, said he was a boring documentarian.

We followed him all summer, and often for a month in winter when Chicago got too desperately cold for mother. He didn’t do glamorous work but he was expert at what he did and we got to be “semi-nomadic”, mother said with her airy laugh. He would be gone a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and we’d stay behind in a pensione or dusty hotel. He thought it better for the family than leaving us alone in a foreign metropolis. My mother shrugged; she was used to going anywhere on a moment’s notice and anywhere was better than nowhere. She was interested in meeting new people. If we got lucky, they might know someone who had a villa, and then my brother, Gerard, and I would be in heaven, scampering down the maze-like corridors, getting lost in the rooms that opened onto a large garden, splashing about in a spring-fed pool.

But this time, it was a small pensione that stood crumbling on a corner of the village. There was a swift, snaky river nearby. Gerard liked to explore things there and waited for some village boy to say hello. If that didn’t happen, he pestered me. I’m the elder by five years. I had no choice but to watch over him when mother was occupied, which was often. It wasn’t so hard.

Gerard was the sort of boy who, by age ten, had memorized several lengthy passages from books: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Bradbury. He said it was partly in case we couldn’t find libraries or book stores with English books–he could always entertain us with his oratory, a recitation of a sonnet or climactic scene. He also wrote poems occasionally. He was certain he would be a writer or actor. Mother found it so charming she would insist Gerard perform from time to time, which father found embarrassing for us all. Gerard didn’t mind much; it was a talent and he knew it. But the point is, he was a boy who found ways to entertain himself and when he didn’t, he found whatever you were doing entertaining, as well. I guess we had that in common.

But if Gerard loved living in his active mind, I loved paying attention to the world. I simply observed and sometimes took notes or pictures. It excited me. Father suggested I was like him but I wasn’t convinced. I can’t tell you why I had no real hobbies. I suppose it was because there was plenty happening wherever we were as well as within our family. I wasn’t distracted by boredom. I think Gerard saw much, but he was circumspect about his ideas and feelings, even then. Maybe he just wanted to keep them close. He would never point out weaknesses or mistakes of others without serious thought, and then felt the need to apologize in the telling. I watched, gathered data, and when I remarked on something it was given its due, at least to the extent of my understanding. I had a surfeit of opinions, mother said more than once, frowning.

“Nina? Hello? Where did you get that?”

I was on the dirty little terrace, sunbathing on a white towel. I had bought a new two piece suit, bright blue, modest enough and begging to be tried out. I wished we were near a pool or sea and wondered how clean the river was.

I lifted my sunglasses. “Gerard?”

“I found a puppy down by the creek and he just begs to hang out with me. I can’t get him to leave me alone.”

Gerard doesn’t like dogs. He likes undomesticated animals. We once had a Persian cat he half-admired but she made my father sneeze. Though he was gone a lot, off the kitty went, to my mother’s anger. There were long white cat hairs everywhere for weeks.

I sat up. “What’s he look like?”

“Maybe the kind that corrals sheep? I don’t care. But it’s black and white. It nips at my ankles which is annoying. It’s downstairs, I’m sure, waiting to pounce. Maybe we ought to find out whose it is?” He looked down into the piazza. “Mother looked busy.”

I, on the other hand, had been wanting a dog. Not that I could likely smuggle one across the continent but I could least make friends with a stray for a week or two. I put on my cover up and sandals, crossed the breezy rooms and followed him down the narrow stairwell.

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It ran right up to us. A border collie it was, splattered with black and white and very fuzzy. It had a collar but no helpful identification tags; many dogs in the village ran free. I knelt in the grass and it licked my face and yelped. I picked it up.

“Nina, don’t get cozy. Let’s find out whose it is. What else do you have to do but sunbathe? I avoid too much sun.” He pointed to baseball cap and sunscreen on his nose.

“That’s the point of summer! Lying in the sun and doing nothing. I like to glow; it takes sun. Not everyone feels compelled to be productive. Not even you, I noticed.”

“I was thinking all morning. About world building in sci fi novels.”

“Yes, well, thoughts are like air molecules to you. You might die if your mind went blank.” I put the puppy down and the three of us started off.

It was that time of summer where everything vibrated green. The trees were conversing with each other and the river was keeping company with children and old people. Two crude toy boats turned and bounced in the current. I spoke to shopkeepers to see if they had lost the puppy or if they knew anyone who had. My Italian was halting and basic; they often didn’t understand me until I pointed to the dog and mimed my question. A woman with huge dimples and crooked teeth who ran a small dress shop pointed us toward a cafe, whether to get a hand out for the puppy or to further inquire I wasn’t sure. The little dog greeted everyone, dashed off only to return to my heels. Looked up at me with happy eyes.

When we turned the corner and headed down the next alleyway I saw them at the end. I wasn’t surprised. Mother had been spending her mornings and some evenings with a small group of people, two from England, one from the village and another from France. I didn’t see the English couple, only the two men.

“I wonder what mother would say if I asked her if we could keep him awhile.” I scooped up the puppy and it laid his head on my shoulder. “This puppy is perfect.”

“Never. Father will be back in three weeks. Then we’re off to …?”

“Berlin, then the Netherlands, then Scotland for awhile. I think father will have more time to be with us then.”

“At least we can understand Scottish.”

“Don’t count on it, it will be taxing for us there, too,” I said, then slowed my pace, as did Gerard. I put my arm around his shoulders. When he saw mother he didn’t pull away.

She was drinking espresso with Jean-Charles and Roberto. They’d had dinner with us once. Mother had talked them into giving us a countryside tour the third day we were there. She was good at that. Jean-Charles was a businessman on holiday. Roberto had a villa three miles out; we had passed it on our tour.

If you had known mother you would have had to say she was beautiful. “Exquisite” is how our father put it when he saw her after being gone. She usually dressed up for him. Young for age thirty-eight, she laughed and talked to others easily, pulled people to her as though she was a radiant passion-flower in a field of clover. You couldn’t help but look at her, listen to her soft voice, her smart words. She knew all this but acted nonchalant. Maybe that was one reason people who stepped into her presence stayed there too long. Especially men.

It was part of my job to watch over her, too, for father. For the family. It was so easy for her to be taken away by the attention, to find hands on her hands a comfort, the gazes a delight, others’ conversation filling like a fine meal. I knew that. I missed our father, too, and wished we had him more. But I also knew she was foolish at times. Careless.

So when we saw Roberto lean forward and kiss her cheek, then lingering at her ear I walked right up to him.

“Anyone’s missing puppy sitting at this table?”

Roberto blinked and smiled at the puppy, then reached out and rubbed his ears. Mother looked away from me, past Jean-Charles who just have a little wave. Her face was pink from sun or being seen.

“I know I’m missing my mother so how about a swap? One great, available dog for our mother.”

“Nina,” mother said, her lips taut.

I dumped the puppy in Roberto’s lap and the Border collie immediately jumped up and licked the man’s face. I winced. Mother’s hand went to her throat and she started to say more, then got up. She thanked them for the espresso and left. We walked to the river. She talked to Gerard, asked him what he wanted for dinner, if there had been a poem written. I knew she felt sorry. But I kept hoping the puppy would find his way back to me. He did not.

Sometimes I knew I was good this, averting small disasters. Gerard agreed, sadly. I called my father. I whined about the boring village and why couldn’t we come to the city so we could visit museums and learn the history of Rome? He knew. He came. And that is why we left after only five days and got to see Rome. We had our father with us in every country that summer. But I still think of the puppy I lost.

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy

Mosquito

jack-corn National archives Who she used to be
(Photo: Jack Corn, National Archives, Who She Used to Be)

It couldn’t hurt. It might help, in fact, taking time from her busy schedule to visit her family and those who’d cheered her on (some) from the start. And those (many) who hadn’t. She didn’t have to stay more than a day or so. Take the early flight from Miami. Archie would go with her for company. All she had to do was call her mother. Her dad was still alive, correct? She had a two week break; breaks were for spontaneity, good or bad. This was good, right?

Travis Beecher turned around, phone in hand, and looked out the twenty-first story window of his agency. He let his gaze rest on the azure sea. Well, more of a grey-blue today but he never let reality spoil his vision. He had money to make, places to go, stars to propel into the stratosphere.

“How about it? I got my finger on the pop pulse of America, and this is good: Galicia Havers Meets Mother After Ten Year Rift. We could show you two in the garden you always talk about. Iced tea so cold it beads up the ole Mason jars. Apples all shiny, green and red in a basket on the table. I should have been a set designer!”

He could hear her breathing. That was one thing he wished she would work on; there was a barely audible but distracting wheeze that came when she got nervous and stated to hyperventilate a little. But that was usually the worst of it. She was manageable. She was exquisite, a high demand model; she was on her way up as an actress. He hoped.

“Galicia? Have you left the premises? Are you entertaining royalty over there so I have to wait?”

He thought she should drop the Havers but she didn’t agree. She’d already changed her first name. What was she doing? Consulting her calendar again? This was free time more or less, why couldn’t she just say okay and book the flight? The calendar hung on her kitchen wall; she filled it in with different colored markers. Tacky!

“I might.”

“She speaks! Look, no one’s twisting your arm here. You had mentioned you finally wanted to call them so this is just a variation on the idea. We can route you through–”

Galicia’s voice was quieter and more distinct. “I’ll do it. I’ll call my mother and if she talks to me, I’ll take care of the plans. Archie can’t come. No pictures.”

“Now, wait.”

“No one cares about me and my family. I’m not that important. And even if I was, family life is off the record.”

Travis lit a cigarette and let it dangle between his lips. “Look, everything you do is an opportunity to promote, sell. You know that. Good story here.”

Silence. A little wheeze. He wanted to tell her to get a drink but held back.

“I’ll let you know if it works out. I have to go, Travis. Dinner with Mr. Darnell, the producer, remember?”

“Good, good. Call me later.” Travis brightened. He could see the sunlight wedge itself between two masses of cloud, making its way to his place.

Galicia went to her closet and walked around. Not turquoise, not chartreuse or peony, not the little tweedy dress. She fingered the dove gray silk shirt and charcoal ankle pants. Silk was so cool, easy on the skin. She grabbed the sleeve and crumpled it in her hand, then let go. Yes, elegant. She slipped it on with the pants, then checked her face a last time. Rose lips. It was what was expected; it was what she did. But even as she locked the apartment door, her childhood fell over her like a clinging breeze. She said a prayer for strength: Holding tight, Lord.

******

Her mother’s voice nearly squeaked. “Alice? No. Alice Sue? Is this some mean trick? Who is this?”

“It’s me, mom. I…I thought we might get together…I mean, if you had the time, if you wanted to, because I have a couple days and can come by. I want to see you. Dad, too.”

“Come by? You can stop by for lunch, is that it? Are you ordering out? Because I don’t cook for strangers unless they’re recommended by a trustworthy friend.”

Galicia swallowed hard. What could she expect? She knew it would be a mistake. “Alright, I get it, you don’t want to have a thing to do with me. We had a terrible time… so sorry to intrude!”

She was close to hanging up, should do it, forget any building of bridges. Too much lost, misunderstood. Time had made it worse, not better.

“You did not bother with your own brother’s funeral, Alice Sue. No words between us for nearly ten years. What now?”

“Nothing, mom. I know, I know…”

She put her phone on speaker, laid it on the table, then made a ponytail of her thick caramel colored mane. The balcony was heating up. She imagined her mother on her own shabby back porch in baggy shorts and sleeveless cotton shirt. Was she heavier or still a scarecrow? Was her father stooped, his six feet bent with work and cares? Were they happier since their ambitious daughter had stayed out of their lives? Did they see her on magazine covers? They took no money from her all this time. Maybe they saw her face but turned away, her mother angry and confused, father wondering how she lived with all the nonsense.

“So, what is it?”

Her mother’s question dove into the Miami sunshine and floated. The Missouri cicadas were so loud in the background that Galicia couldn’t make out what her father said. She recognized his voice, so deep it rumbled even when he sighed.

“Mom, I’m just going to come. If you won’t open your door, I’ll just leave. But I need to see you and dad and Molly.”

A clap of thunder raced across the miles and left Galicia trembling. The cicadas were insistent; they scared her after all this time. They might be warning her off. Or telling her to hurry up, she couldn’t be sure.

“Well, then,” her mother said, “bring ordinary clothes. Rent a regular car. I don’t want folks running over here making a fuss. And I don’t like the company of strangers so come alone. You’ll be enough to handle.”

******

It had always been that way, she thought, as she drove the three hours from the airport through the Ozarks, slowing at the familiar curve of road, looking down the dirt paths, noting trucks parked  in the shadows. She had been enough to handle. When other kids were minding their parents she was running off with Willy, chasing after small game. Building hideouts deep in the woods. Willy called her “Mosquito” the way she doggedly trailed him, pestered him. She hated dresses, preferring to wear the same old jeans in winter and plaid shorts in winter that Willy said looked like a boy’s, knowing full well they were his-hand-me-downs. Alice Sue was good in school but foolish and wild after, her father said, his hand raised over her more than once, then lowered as he turned away, half-smiling to himself, his wife scowling.

But then she grew up. Tall like him. Beautiful like…who? Some said it was a younger Aunt Marilyn–now disfigured by cancer–she took after but her father shrugged. Then looked away. Her mother told her it would come to no good; looks created problems and then fell away. It didn’t make sense, Willy said, to be gorgeous when she didn’t even want to brush her hair. He evaded her. No matter her pleading, he went off with friends, leaving her to her own devices. But, still, later they’d met by the campfire pit to catch up. Willy with his beer, her with a stolen cigarette. They conspired and laughed. He predicted great things for them both. Gotta get outta here, ‘Squito, he’d repeat solemnly and she’d nod.

When he died, she was in Shanghai on a shoot. She got word a day after the fact. Galicia wanted to attend the funeral yet the thought of seeing him empty of himself was terrifying. Her mother had said he looked like life had taken him and dropped him off a cliff. It was true, she knew. Because of the alcohol. So she didn’t go. Couldn’t. And that was the end of everything. She went on. They turned their backs.

Galicia pulled up to the row of houses. each turned inward, tired from standing up so long. She parked and saw how their roof sagged. She saw the hearty flowers and vegetables her mother had planted. The wash drying on the line. She heard a screen door slam shut but it was no one she knew, just a raggedy kid running by, giving her a wide-eyed look. She got out and too one step toward their porch, looking and listening. Did they know she was there? Where was Molly?

“Molly?” she called, her voice wavering a little. The beagle should be making a fuss by now, howling and running out to guard her territory. Would she know her like this, all clean and shiny and smelling of money?

“Oh, my.” Her mother stood at the top step in the dark cool of the porch roof. Arms folded hard against her chest. “Molly’s long gone.”

As Galicia came forward she caught a glimpse of someone, a girl about ten years old, hair unkempt, wary eyes piercing the sultry air, arms all brown and bug bitten. And then she was gone.

“Alice Sue…” Her mother cried out and stumbled down the steps, cropped hair so grey, arms thin as pins, her hands held out.

She ran to her mother and held her close.

“There’s our Mosquito,” her father said. He just leaned against the porch railing, his eyes like those of a man who has seen a strange sight and might never find the words to tell what it felt like. They were three of the four in one spot. He and his wife would finally sleep through the night. He knew Alice Sue might look like something the world owned, but only part of her, and not for good.

(Photo prompt from http://www.patriciaannmcnair.wordpress.com)

Big Surprise

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                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”

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I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.

“Chicago”.

“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.

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After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.