Artifacts, Ibsen and Me

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                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for creative types, thus our tolerance of “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I only peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a dirt buster handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Four fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, an old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new votives. A box of matches was in a coffee can along with two ripe bananas. I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire hazards but I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath the crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen the flickering glow from the sidewalk. I backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?

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Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a wooly bear caterpillar between us.

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I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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Eben Waiting

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On the morning he left there was a gathering across the street. Four women and two men sat in a circle by the fountain in front of The Manor apartments. He watched them talk and drink coffee, thinking about his trip. Annie had been cold on the phone when she said good-bye last night. They had argued, same old things, money, their future. He was currently working the counter at a deli while he looked for a better job. She wasn’t thrilled about that.

He was standing outside his place waiting for the taxi. Early, he was always early. To be late was to toy with the outcome of things and that was not a good idea, he’d found. You had to have a plan and stick to it whenever possible. Besides, if he’d stayed in his apartment Uncle Josef would talk him senseless. He’d welcomed Eben after he lost his good legal assistant job to downsizing. Now that his nephew was back on his feet the decision had to be made whether or not he was going to stay or move out. Annie was in Portland; Eben in Seattle.

“Well, you could marry her,” Uncle Josef had advised. “The girl has a career going, she’s pleasant. You won’t regret marriage–it’s said to mellow into a very comfortable thing. With the right one, of course. It’s pitiful that it’s just you and me here. Should have married Jane Hartner back in 1980. Do you think we could find her on the Internet?” He sat back and eyed Eben. “Your trip may sort this out.”

Eben pondered the situation. Annie had a way with words that could split him into little pieces, then put them back again before he knew what was happening. It made his head spin. He wondered if she was trained to do that in her therapy work or if it was just a defect. He couldn’t be sure; she was generally nicer although she seemed to find him annoying more and more. Not that he had an altogether sterling character. He tended toward introspection and that could be excluding of others. Of her, she noted often. He was particular. He liked documentaries primarily and hated anything made with eggs, beans or pork. He lined up his books as though they were on exhibit. Right up until June he wore cotton socks to bed. He also liked to play bocce once a week or so in good weather which he saw as an asset but she hadn’t decided.

Eben leaned against the wall. He tried to not think about the visit and watched the neighbors across the road. He only waved at them occasionally. They appeared to be an extended family.

A child popped up from the group. He was maybe seven, eight, a wild one– you could tell that from the way he looked: like a wind up toy that never unwound. He was alert to everything the adults were saying, leaning forward, climbing on one lap, then another, popping up between legs and elbows. He was wanting more attention though the adults were engaged in serious chatting. One man yelled at the boy to slow down, so he stood stock still a few seconds. The woman next to him lay her hand on his head, then he zoomed toward the street and zigzagged back to the fountain. He jumped right in; it was a hot day for fall.

“Marty, what are you thinking, getting your new shoes and pants wet?” the man berated him, scooping him up. He took him inside before he could wriggle away.

Eben could hear him screeching and he flinched. Loud, unhappy sounds were not to his liking. He enjoyed his aging painted turtle and Uncle Josef’s aquarium full of fish, silent, fascinating creatures that enjoyed lives of unimpeded ease. Eben did not look forward to the two Yorkshire terriers Annie had gotten when he’d moved out. They liked to bark at nothing, claimed her lap and snapped at him when he tried to be friendly. She said Eben wasn’t around enough to expect friendship but the truth was, he didn’t look forward to adding them to his small social circle.

The taxi was late. He was about to call when Marty came flying down the stairs again. Red shorts now, no shoes. At the edge of the fountain he dangled his hands in the water. The adults were laughing and sharing food, muffins Eben thought, mouth watering.  They took out cards and moved under the shade of a giant black walnut tree. The man who had yelled dealt them swiftly and they all concentrated on their hands. The boy was whipping up the fountain water with his hands. Then he looked across the street at Eben.

Eben looked down the road. No taxi. Marty looked both ways, then walked up to him, dripping.

“Hey, you going on a trip?”

Eben didn’t look at him. “Yes.”

“Family? Work?”

“No.”

The boy fiddled with the suitcase tag and read his name.

“Eben Hanson.” But he said it like “eebean”, drawing out the vowel. “E-bean?’

“Eben. Short ‘e.’ And you’re getting my things wet.”

“It’s just water, Eebean.”

Eben looked at Marty then. He had striking hazel eyes and freckles tossed across his nose. He was grinning and there was a blank spot where a front tooth should be.

“Well, who? A girl?” He giggled and poked Eben’s side with his wet index finger, making him jump.

“Shouldn’t you be with them?” He pointed at the group.

“They can see me. They know Josef. I see you come and go.”

“Really?” This surprised and irked Eben, that a child would know details of his schedule.

“If you have a girl she ain’t heeere!”

Eben sighed. Maybe if he just told the kid his itinerary he would get lost. “Well, I’m off to see her in Portland for four days.”

“Marty! Don’t bother our neighbor!” The big guy waved the boy back.

Eben pulled his suitcase to the street. “That man your dad?”

“Naw. Uncle. Don’t have a dad. I have a big family, though.”

Eben could hear the taxi. Marty tapped the suitcase, then Eben,  damp fingers cool on his arm.

“When you come back, you should play cards with us. You don’t have to be alone.”

“Thanks.” Eben imagined himself playing cards with them and smiled.

Eben nodded to the taxi driver. Marty looked back at him when he got to the other side of the street and waved hard and fast, as though all his energy was exploding from his small hands. Eben got into the back seat, then waved back. Marty climbed into the circle of adults, disrupting the card game.

On the way to the airport Eben thought about Annie and her intelligent insults and his quieter ways and he knew already. He was not moving back in, ever. There was time to find the right one. Someone he might have a family with one day. He wondered if Uncle Josef figured that out. Josef and Marty, they both knew a couple things.

Invitation

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Cam steadied herself on the bottom step. She could hear their bright voices beyond the wall, laughter punctuating conversations like a foreign accent. There was fragrance of food unlike any she recognized, rich and well spiced. Her stomach lurched and she leaned on the wall. She felt ready to leave. A phone call with apologies and an excuse of sudden headache would not be thought contrary or so surprising. She was the woman they barely thought to count as one of their own, after all, and certainly not since the events that unfolded over summer. Her watch indicated it was not quite past the brunch hour, yet she felt as though it was both too late to enter and too late to leave.

What could they be saying? She strained to hear and caught snatches of sentences. Something about Harry’s shoes, how they were a “tad long” but grandchildren grew fast; she wanted to shop for “first year of private school and all.” And then other words about editing, “failed efforts at improving miserable copy” and Cam thought of Marie at her mahogany desk, hair pulled back from her face into a long grey ponytail, eyebrows arched, lips tinted raspberry. Then laughter and another–was it Giselle?–woman noted that her husband was travelling south of the equator “of all places.”

Argentina!” she squealed.

Cam felt a ripple of anxiety and turned her back to the brick steps. It was too hot for September, or more likely she was in a feverish state brought on by the nearness of these people. She imagined them in a tight circle around the glass table in the garden, manicured fingers gripping drinks, faces peachy–and caramel, including Fran–in the sunshine. Cam irrelevantly mused on how women used make up named for food or sweets. Sensory delights. She was likely persimmon, red-cheeked and tart, even sour. This somehow cheered her.

Her shoes hurt. They were new with medium heels, bronze-toned leather–to go with a long sage green dress she’d found at the back of the closet. There hadn’t been time to change her clothes over from summer to fall. She didn’t care. Maybe when the rains hit she’d find her sweaters and pull them close, feel their heavy cotton a comfort. But now she dreaded the clear weather fading fast, the thick clouds that would knit themselves together and refuse to split open so light could break through. In summer, after the horror, she could lose herself in forests and meadows, hike for hours with snacks and water and no one to impede her. Being alone meant peace.

All too soon she’d have to sit in the house and remember. Think of the day she was taken away. The categorizing of her grief determined by the so-called authority of the DSM-IV Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: Major Depressive Disorder  officially speaking. In essence, depression gone terribly awry. Ending in a sort of mini-breakdown with a day in jail and five days in a psych unit. She thought it just the exhaustion of sorrow cloaked in a brazen attempt at revenge. The psychiatrist had to be paid; insurance needed codes.

What would they have done? The women here, with whom she hadn’t officially become that friendly–they waved in passing, nodded on the street when they walked–and Marie, almost her friend before the crash. Would they have just shopped more, disregarded others’ poor choices? First the move here which Cam did not want; then Puck, their dog, getting lost or stolen; then their son’s, Alan’s, drunk driving accident, lost job and return to the new family home. The accident did more damage than they suspected and he suffered, as did they. It took until late August for Alan to rouse and return to Nevada and a faltering design career. And then her husband, Nate, and Rebecca Moore, “the VP of Marketing” he said off-handedly, seen at the golf club. Not once. Four times. Not during company events.

She shuddered. Even thinking that woman’s name stirred up residual but excessive anger. But how noble would her neighbors have been? She had tried. But eventually, after three months of it all she “took the roof off”, as her husband noted more than once to the police. What he meant was, Cam had had two very stiff drinks, tossed the pots and pans all over the kitchen, overturned his dining room chair and when she had thrown the fuchsia and apple green pillows off the couch three lit candles were knocked over, igniting newspapers and magazines. Alan sat on the porch in shock. Well, it was a nightmare, she agreed. She had behaved poorly and was embarrassed. Then came the shame. Never had she lost her temper like that, never had she screamed such things at Nate. She needed time out, room to breathe and think. Now she had a decent therapist and her husband had come to his senses. Maybe. She agreed to no more alcohol and he agreed…well, he said he’d be home more from now on. In autumn’s chill they’d sit before the fireplace, just talk. By winter, maybe there could be love again.

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The brunch carried on. The talk was muted; they must have been eating. Cam wiped her damp face with a tissue. They didn’t understand her and why should they? They didn’t know her, didn’t know how life could turn upside down in a flash. She looked up the steps to the gate and the sun blinded her. Then she saw the outline of Marie’s head, sleek ponytail swinging.

“Hey Cam, are you going to come in?”

“I don’t know yet. I was but…”

“You should come and eat with us. The gals are all waiting to see you.” She opened the gate and stepped down. Her face was a relief to see, open and warm as always despite those fine, hinting-at-haughty eyebrows.

Cam took a deep breath. “Yes, well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’m right for this group. Maybe next year.”

Marie laughed in a chesty way that was restrained but full of timbre. “Oh, heavens, never mind any pretensions. They all have their own sad stories! I’ll share the mantle of shame with you over coffee one day. But I want you here. I want you to come over any time, but especially when I cook. Who else eats my marvelous dishes? Dan is gone a lot and my daughter only eats smoothies and salads.” She linked her arm in Cam’s and looked her straight in the eyes. “You’re human. It’s quite alright.”

Cam felt something lurch inside, as though the heavy stone in her heart had been pushed aside. She felt tension drain a little. Maybe she wasn’t that unique. Life could be flush with craziness. She put her arm around Marie’s waist and they climbed the steps to the gate, flung it open, and stepped into the party. Their neighbors raised their glasses and cheered.

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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Simone’s Summer of Certain Wonders

The sun had finally shrugged toward the horizon, and the courtyard was finally coming alive again. There was a circle of young men playing cards at a picnic table under the sole palm tree. Two middle-aged women were sipping iced tea on a bench, mopping their brows and necks with tea towels.  A toddler ran laughing and screeching from his father, who was barbecuing on the patio. Fragrant odors of chicken with a piquant sauce wafted across the grass where they tangled with scents from other grills. The traffic beyond the wrought iron gates of Mistral Manor Apartments had changed from the busy commuters’ stop-and-go pace to revved up engines given to sudden starts and languorous stops. It was mid-July and that meant the night would be warm and dusty and shimmering with life.

Simone propped her head on her hand as she sat at the round table. She traced the bright tile mosaic surface she had recently completed while she observed from her fourth floor perch. Just high enough to see between a variety of trees, she could also spot who went in and out from Cole’s Kaffee on the other side of the street. Tina and Harry Miles had left ten minutes ago, to be replaced at the table on the deck by Carter and Gloria, Simone’s neighbors across the hall. They were bringing back an iced mocha for her and a caramel bar, if any were left. They were good to her.

It was a decent start to an otherwise slow summer. Simone hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. The hopeful plan had been to be up and moving by the end of June, sign up for a harpsichord class, get back to easy exericse, get in touch with Higgins and Hughes, the law firm she had worked for until the end of April. Get back to her industrious lifestyle of long hours of labor made worthwhile by week-ends of recreation.  Well, no one and nothing was cooperating  with her wishes. May rained itself right into June and June sauntered into July with sunshine at last. And here she still sat.

Beneath her on a bench between the lavender, peonies and pots of red geraniums, Kari waved.

“Want me to come up later?” she called. “I’m meeting Trey for dinner and then we’re going salsa dancing. “Her hand flew to her mouth before she could stop it. “I know you miss dancing. Sorry.We are just… getting out of the hot apartment for a while. It’s been an age since we had a good meal, too.”

Simone grinned at her old roommate; Kari had moved in with Trey in October. “Well, of course you want to get out. It’s a perfect night for it. And I’m not so sure I miss the press of sweaty bodies in the clubs!  If my light is on when you get home, give me a call if you want. And have fun!” 

Trey emerged from the doorway of the apartment building and came up behind Kari, then took her hand. She pointed up at Simone and he waved as they left.

She shifted in her chair and opened the book she had been trying to read for a week. It was something light, Gloria had said when she loaned the novel. Something beachy, although there was no beach within an hour’s reach.  Something to keep her mind off things, give her a laugh. But she could still, surprisingly, laugh; she just kept thinking about things. About how it could have been different if she had made other choices.  Just walked away that last night of April instead of having continued the conversation, then gotten hooked by the debate,  then snared in the argument and finally trapped by the same old story: demands, pleadings, tears. Yes, that man could weep to beat all. And just as fast be transformed into something unrecognizable, cold as steel and full of rage. She shook her head to clear it.  The last thing she needed was for Bart’s face to loom at her all night. She flipped the page and read the next paragraph, then read it again and a third time. No use. She pushed it aside.

But four floors below there was a panoramic scene to sample, to absorb and wonder over. There was another small group forming a circle and she knew it would be a long night of music.  Two guitars, three hand drums, a rain stick, a flute or two, a violin, even. It was Friday night and whoever was around came down and started up a song. Simone heard a penny whistle weave in and out and around the melody, light and clear and captivating. She caught her breath.

“He’s back,” Simone said aloud and sank deep into her chair. Sean McAllister had been touring the British Isles and Europe with his band for the last five months. He surely knew the whole sorry story by now, unless he had just gotten in. Kari may even have called him in spite of Simone’s protests. He might be disgusted with the whole thing, with her, and was avoiding her. That’s what some of the old crowd did. But, then, she also wasn’t partying anymore. She fervently hoped he wouldn’t look up. Her face still looked less than what she’d been told to expect, scars across her cheekbone and chin, nose still a bit bumpy. But what she really didn’t want him to see was her humilation. Shame.

He, along with so many others, had warned her. He had said yes, Bart was charming and capable and also impossible, a man who couldn’t have it any way but his own–a man who could flip like a switch if you looked at him wrong. Sean had told her: “I know him, he was with a band I was in a few years ago, remember? As your friend, as someone who cares about you for who you really are–not only your outstanding good looks and fabulous intellect,  by the way–tell him to shove off!” At which point she had given him a swat across the head with her sweater and sent him back home with leftover spaghetti and salad from their late dinner. Before he left he ran down from the seventh floor and had again lectured her. “Better break it off or you will regret it. I want to come home and find you happy again.” Simone had saluted him and he’d enveloped her with a hug that she sank right into. But she had finally broken it off. Or tried to. And paid the price. 

The Irish jig morphed into something eastern in flavor, became a light melancholic tune. It moved through the tree branches and leaves so that they seemed to sing a song of gentle longing. Simone shut her eyes and let her mind wander to better times.

Until she laid her hands upon her thighs and felt the right leg cast all the way up to her hip, the left leg still bandaged from slow-healing wounds. It had been an accident: she had wanted to believe that for weeks after she left the hospital. But it hadn’t been, not really. No, not at all.

Bart had made her get into the car and had driven out to the Pointe like a madman, slapping her as he drove, yelling things she had never heard before and still tried to forget. And when they had reached the spot, the place where only last summer she had climbed the small bluff with friends, he had yanked her out and shaken her until her mind went blank. She tumbled and as her helpless body bounced off rocks and earth she saw a profound blackness filled with garish bursts of light, then nothing. Until a week later, when she awakened, immobilized, wounded, astonished at what her life had come to.  Everyone else was amazed she wasn’t paralyzed or dead but for her, it was a horror that she would end up here at all. She would not have believed it possible to fall for such a man. He would be end up incacerated for a long time, they told her; a car had driven up just as she had fallen over the ledge of rock so there was a witness. And may he suffer dearly, they added in more brutal words than that. She couldn’t know about his suffering. She hoped he was facing himself and feeling something, at least regret, but expected otherwise. There was no one left to hear apologies. He would certainly see it all as a serious inconvenience.

For Simone, there were court dates ahead and she dreaded them. Seeing him. Remembering what she tried to forget every day. But she had to stand up for herself. And then maybe she could move on.

Simone snapped her eyes open and bit her lip. She focused on the peaceful courtyard. The musicians played a lively song, improvising easily. The women who had rested before were now gone, and a group of children jumped rope, chanting rhymes. The sun was softer now, the heat diminished, the sky a more tender blue. Everywhere she looked there were people just living their lives on a July evening. They were spread out beneath her like a colorful safety net. She breathed deeply and her nostrils filled with the balmy air. She was grateful to be home at all the last two weeks, resting on this balcony that was washed in transluscent golden light, the courtyard a welcoming place.

A broad hand suddenly crossed her peripheral vision; in it was her tall iced mocha in a clear plastic glass. Simone turned her head to see who it was and then looked away. Sean knelt and took her hands into his, turned them over, and placed his lips in the center of each opening palm. Then he sat beside her and they watched the scene change once more.