How Eliana and Roe Met

Photo by Diane Arbus
Photo by Diane Arbus

We called them The Twins although they weren’t sisters and didn’t appear to be that much alike when you got invited to sit at their table. The only ones who really enjoyed that were those of us who hung out at Rolf’s between auditions or shoots. With their well-cut, old fashioned hats and suits they elicited whispers and looks but we were arty types, people who risked our psyches every day for our dreams. We could find virtue where others saw irrelevance or annoyance, I thought, and wished to be tolerant. I was pulled to them. I found their generousity of spirit a balm after the hurt left by my parents’ disapproval of my career choice.

Eliana and Roe, short for Roella, told someone who objected to their always snagging the corner table they were cousins of the owner by marriage and thus, entitled to it. When asked later about that, they denied having said it. They could be outrageous like that,  but with elan. They were a fixture at least three days a week around lunchtime.

They had lived together for twelve years, since their husbands passed away. Eliana was from Argentina and Roe, from Pittsburgh by way of Germany, but they had each ended up in Seattle. They looked like over-dressed, snooty dowagers even when trying to be friendly, Frank said. No, said another, more like two worn out basset hounds in discarded vintage wear, a new guy said, and that sealed his fate, never allowed at our lunch tables again. There may have been some truth in it; we just didn’t want to be unkind to two people who adored the arts and expressed genuine interest in our affairs, creative and otherwise. Besides, I appreciated their decided flair and was intrigued by their togetherness.

Frank and I had been close like that once, two peas and all that, but by then less so. He was an actor, I, a model, both of us struggling but determined. I was succeeding a bit more; he was becoming harder to enjoy. We often met at Rolf’s after auditions, joined at times by Viveca and her insufferable boyfriend, Mr. Harper, a supposed playwright. When he saw The Twins, he said, “Lesbians, what else?” with a dismissive flip of his hand. They were theatre people; I in a way was, too, with my play acting for cameras. We lived in altered realities and felt removed from mainstream earth people. But I didn’t think The Twins were gay. No matter; I was on a sharp learning curve those years.

After the older ladies had chatted several times with us, then asked to join them twice, they told us the story of how they met thirty years before. Roe first gestured to the waitress for a big pot of coffee and cookies for all. Eliana lit her first cigarette, then turned to Roe, the inscribed sterling silver lighter aloft to fire up hers. They seemed to inhale at the same time, sat close together, their lotioned and buffed fingers poised in the air.

“I was to meet a neighbor downtown at Pike Place market but she never showed,” Eliana said with a soft, lilting accent. “So I was musing over vegetables. Hills of tomatoes, mounds of green and yellow beans and bunches of radishes that looked so perky with those red skins and hard, white hearts. I was reaching for the biggest bunch on the top near the back of a wooden box and my hand collided with Roe’s. She was after the same bunch!”

Eliana looked at Roe and Roe raised her eyebrows.

“I saw them first,” Roe continued. “I eat a few radishes daily, with or without salad. They keep my palate fresh. They bring a little spice. I’ve found more ways to use an odd radish here and there so when I see a perfect bunch–”

“And when her hand hit mine, it quite hurt. ‘Pardon me, so sorry’, I said, but Roe still didn’t back away. I grabbed hold of them, gave them a yank and took them to the cashier’s table. Roe followed.”

Roe elbowed Eliana.”I was not about to let her get away with those. ‘Wait a darned minute’, I told her, ‘we have some business to discuss. First dibs when I saw them before you got your paws on them.’ But she did not relent. The cashier was annoyed, there was a line behind us and we were fighting over a bunch of radishes.”

“So we split them!” Eliana said triumphantly.

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“Equitable arrangement,”Frank noted.

“So you just shopped together?” I encouraged them as I eyed the plate of lemon bars. I was trying to avoid the extra pounds that sugar loves to leave me since I had more “go-sees” for modelling jobs in the morning. But hunger was gaining and food shopping sounded adventurous.

Eliana stubbed out her cigarette and took a lemon bar, nibbled a bite, then broke off a piece for Roe, who took the entire bar. Eliana shrugged. “Not at all, dears. We two some spicy Italian sausages at a food stand and sat on a nice painted bench on the street. The weather was so blue and sunny it demanded we bask in it and talk. We chattered on for a couple of hours.”

Roe took another cookie and placed it in Eliana’s hand. “We hit it off. Same age, similar tastes. Both our husbands were in business–mine ran a paper products company; hers owned import/export–and we all became fast friends.”

“Well…not exactly. Raoul was not the social type. Arnie was more of a conversationalist. A braggart compared to my humble love. What an odd couple.” They both giggled. “They mostly got along by playing cards and smoking cigars as they listened to music. Thanks goodness, they did both like a little jazz.”

“Big band, usually. Arnie started to appreciate tango near the end and Eliana taught us some gorgeous moves…” Roe was perilously close to veering into full nostalgia but snapped out of it. “She and I sat in the kitchen after we cleaned up and enjoyed a couple coffees, planned our next outing. So it went from A to Z like that: strangers to very best friends. And when our husbands died, I sold my house and moved into her bigger and, I must say, smarter house. Consolidated assets in a few ways. We live quite nicely, thanks to Eliana’s business profits and my financial acumen.”

“Yes, a good German, she has to be practical about everything and it’s worked out so well. I would have been a sorry old lady without Roe there to keep my spirits up. Raoul was such a lovely man. But Roe will quite do for companionship and sheer entertainment.”

Frank was on his third lemon bar and I was getting resentful. He leaned closer. “They didn’t die at the same time, did they? I mean, that would be hideous. They weren’t so close, you said.”

I kicked his leg under the table and snatched the last cookie.

Eliana’s eyebrows dipped further down and her round face caved. “How odd to say that! Yes…they were in an auto accident. On the way back from Spokane. Arnie had a convention to attend and Raoul went along to see an old friend from Buenos Aries who taught at university in Spokane. It was a four-day event. On the way home a truck–what did they call it? A nightmare.”

“Jack-knifed, El… a Mac truck jack-knifed and the driver lived, even with spilled gasoline that caught fire. Our husbands did not.” Roe looked down at the napkin she had folded into thirds, and now into halves and sighed.

Frank and I didn’t know what to say. He really could go too far, say things off the cuff as though he was in improvisation class. That was what did us in.

“My apologies,” he said, chagrined.

“No matter now, dears, we have gone on well enough,” Eliana said. “So tell me about your ‘go-sees’, Marisa. How many today?” She lit another cigarette and inhaled lightly, licking a lemon bar crumb off her peachy lower lip.

“Only two. I have a chance with the make up company but not, I doubt, for the swimsuit ad. Not their type.”

Roe looked shocked. “Not their type! What can they want when you are blue-eyed, raven haired, ivory-skinned skin and svelte?”

“I second that!”

Frank still admired me some days but who cared?

Roe lit her own cigarette this time and leaned forward to pat my hand. “They’re missing out. You must know you’re quite the beauty. Why, you could be Eliana’s lovely granddaughter with your coloring and style.”

Frank about choked on his coffee–he was going to say something stupid about my style, I knew it– but then spotted Viveca in red heels as she strode in with Mr. Harper. He excused himself but first bent over and told me he’d call after his hot audition the following week. I smiled to assuage his insecurity.

“Hi, Twins!” Viveca called out and the women returned the greeting. They didn’t care for her so much, they told me. Viveca was so addicted to the sound of her own voice they hardly got to speak. They liked having an exchange with others.

“Anyway, as Roe was saying. My daughter, Maria Teresa, she married a Brazilian and all three have moved there.” She produced an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her nose.

I stayed another half hour, listening to their stories about being young wives and mothers (Roe’s sons lived in Alaska and New York; she’d visited but they were so busy), telling them about my modelling jobs and going to the Black Forest in Germany the previous year. That made Roe so happy–she had lived the first five years of her life just fifteen miles from there–she offered to buy me lunch the next Monday, which I agreed to since it was a gracious gift.

But when I entered Rolf’s with a bouquet of flowers, The Twins were not there. Roe was, sitting at their spot as usual. She was shredding her napkin and letting her cigarette burn away in the clean glass ashtray. I sat opposite her and she startled.

photo-Wikipedia
photo-Wikipedia

“What’s up? Is Eliana not able to come?”

“Eliana sends her apologies. She’s at the travel agency. Then visiting a realtor’s office.” Roe placed what was left of the napkin over her mouth to stifle a cry.

“What? This doesn’t sound good.”

She crushed the cigarette. “No, not so good! But I should have known. She has been talking about going home awhile –missing Maria Theresa and little Arianna.”

“You mentioned the grandchild last week. I thought Eliana looked sadder than usual.”

“Than usual?”

I felt like an interloper. What did I understand about the ladies and their concerns? They knew so much more about life. “I mean, Eliana always seems melancholy to me…and then when you said that, she sort of teared up.”

Roe slowly pulled another cigarette from its package and rooted for a lighter in her crocodile handbag. I got a matchbook from my purse and lit it for her, thinking cigarettes were more like accessories.

She smiled at me. “Eliana’s a real class act, you know, much more than I am. And a good heart. My very favorite person after my husband.” She turned to look out the window at the congested street and took a deep drag and coughed. “But we all have to do what works best. Right? Right.”

For the first time I saw remnants of the woman she must have been, someone who worked very hard and kept a firm hand on things, was a devoted but realistic wife and a stern, loyal mother. Someone who cared about quality in food, in possessions and endeavors, and certainly people. All kinds of them, even us young adults with our arrogant self-delusions, our fragile egos. Roe could not feasibly have a breakable heart. She was far too accepting, and more yielding than apparent, in the end.

“Lovely flowers, so kind!” She sniffed them. “Now how about lunch?” She pushed the ashtray away. “Nasty habit. I think I”ll stop if she…goes.” She closed her eyes a second, then raised her hand to the waitress, shaking her wrist so that her gold bangles rattled pleasantly. “Don’t tell her I got emotional. She will go if she must, but you can’t really sever deep ties like we have. Now tell me about your week. Trips coming up? Maybe next year an escape to Brazil! We’ll both go, shall we?”

Anything seemed possible with the marvelous Twins. Gratitude filled me. I threw all caution to the wind and ordered a burger with avocado and bacon. I split it with Roe, then we each had chocolate mousse.

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Bound to Snow, Amelia

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No one else was out. It was his lucky break. All week he’d had something he’d tried to avoid. He’d felt a rumbling of imbalance before it grabbed him by the neck. He never got sick, mentally or  physically. Even if he had days, okay occasional weeks, of feeling stunned by the varieties of life’s misery, he called it a “rough patch.” Not “the blues” or “bad karma” or “the end of all good things” like his work buddy explained his depression. There was no end of things, period, or life, until it was over. And Billy was patient; if he kept enough around, almost anything got better. Or changed.

It had lasted four days, aches that made him wince and wicked tiredness that kept him home from work. Then he came back with a mind like a clear blue sky and strength returned full force. He saw on the television it had been snowing. The street view from his window confirmed it. He wasn’t surprised. The thick quietness of snow brought a smile to his pockmarked, angular face. It wasn’t blizzardy, but everyone kept to themselves when steps and car roofs were covered. Except for Billy. He’d grown up in snowdrifts and it was second nature to be right out in it. What was the town going to do, hibernate until a spring thaw?

He’d gotten dressed for a walk despite his wife, languishing in the chair as always, objecting.

“What’re you doing? You were sick yesterday and now I’m feeling it. I can’t have you relapsing and laid up again. Heavy snow.”

He’d glanced her way as he yanked on motorcycle boots. She was wrapped in the blanket he had just left, her slippered feet on the coffee table now that his empty mug and soup bowl were gone. Her hair wound down her shoulders, unkempt.  It had been unattended too long because he had been too ill to help her. Whereas she was always sick, with multiple sclerosis. Some days she could barely lift her arms, and brushing all that hair felt like trying to climb Mt. Hood, she admitted. Why not cut it?, he’d asked more than once, but she ignored him.

“I’m off to get some fresh air. I feel fine now. Anything you want?”

She’d shrugged. “More tea?”

He’d moved to the door, then paused.

“Chicken soup and tuna fish.” She sighed as though reciting the list was a chore.

He waited.

“Macaroni and cheese. Butter. More bread.”

Billy pulled his wool cap on when nothing else was noted and left.

That first step out was a swift slap in the face and he whooped loudly. The sweetness of the air was greater due to the cold. It’s whiteness illuminated the street. He felt everything got shined up when it snowed. He expected to feel even stronger after he walked the two blocks to the convenience store and back. Healing, the winter. Spring was a riot of newness that made him dizzy. Summer was too hot on his skin, but autumn was like a ride into paradise with a promise of the best to come. Winter.

Billy expected to see someone out with a dog, but the squeak of snow beneath his feet was unaccompanied. There were two snow people across the street, half-dressed, which he found funny. On the top of the hill was a snow fort about two feet tall. Abandoned snowballs. Kids were probably called in for dinner. He picked one up and threw it hard across the street. It hit a brick building, a soft thwap in the stillness. He scooped up more– it was good packing snow–and made a little ball, then tucked it in his pocket.

by Julius

The tree branches moaned and creaked. They were dressed up in white like ermine, as if to shield their bark from cutting wind. The twilit sky was hosting more galaxies. His breath singed his lungs on its way back in. Billy was glad he’d let his bread grow back, even if his wife didn’t love it. Where he came from, a man without a beard was not quite a man. He knew better but winter and beards were made for each other.

Icicles sprang out in a streetlamp’s glow like fine sharp teeth of the abominable snowman. He stood beneath a row that hung off a windowsill and had the impulse to break one off, brandish it like a sword. He reached up and couldn’t quite grab it, so jumped a couple times,  grazing the sharp tips. An old woman appeared from behind a curtain and shook her finger at him. Billy made like surrendering, hands raised palms up. She grinned at him, all six teeth showing. He slid across the street, boots slicker now. What he wouldn’t give for a sled. His beat-up old toboggan that was sold for ten bucks when his family sold the cabin twenty years ago. Or the cross country skis for distant mountain trails that he put away when his wife got sicker.

By the time he reached the second corner, Billy felt better, just as he expected. The Curb ‘n Corner was all lit up. He pushed open the door and heard the chime go off. He could see the back of the owner as she restocked down the first aisle. He found a basket and filled it with the things he needed. At the back of the store, he deliberated on root beer or ginger ale and took two bottles of the second. His wife might need these if she got sick. Before the refrigerator door slammed shut he got a root beer for himself.

“Well, well,” she said as he stood before her.

She was tall and thin like a strong reed, he thought, in that grass- green uniform. It made her eyes almost turquoise. She leaned forward, palms pressed on the beige, ink-marred surface. “Where you been lately, good-lookin’?”

He took out the groceries and passed them to her hands.

“In bed a few days. All better now.”

“I see that. You snugged up to trudge out in this? Like a polar bear, Billy. For soda and tuna? Just makes me long for a piece of that perfect Hawaiian sunshine. But I knew it would come to this mess.”

Billy chuckled. “I know, you’re too soft for it but you gotta look for the best, Amelia.”

“Your fault. You ordered it. You told me it was comin’ but I held onto hope.”

After she finished ringing him up she put hands on hips and flashed him that mile-wide smile. It had the effect of turning the grimy, dull surroundings into a place worth inhabiting. She counted his change slowly then put bills and coins into his hand with a slap.

He said nothing as he set down the money but then grabbed her fingers, pulled the snowball from his pocket and lay it in her hand. A foolish, freezing gift.

She looked aghast and then laughed, tossing it back at him, a little melting clod of white.

“You sneaky devil! I told everybody–that Billy Cook, he said last week, ‘Bound to snow, Amelia, bound to snow good‘ and they said ‘Billy Cook’s a wild man escaped from his true element and he sure knows signs of weather. Like you’re an expert.”

He made a horrified face. “They didn’t say I was a wild man, did they?”

She threw her head back and laughed, chest bouncing, florescent light bathing her face and neck as though it was tropical sun shining down on her alone.

“Yes, but Billy, they also said you was a good man, crazy good. Now get on out of here before your head swells and so I can work.”

He stood still and the words he never said wanted to come out, but he snatched a peppermint from glass ashtray and grabbed his bag.

“Say hey to Erin. And stay healthy.”

He left, chime going off, the light dimming. When he crossed to the corner and turned back she was still looking at him. He waved at her but she just stared out until he thought she couldn’t possibly see him in the thickening dark. But he felt her thoughts and his brush like wings in the night, then fly off.

The walk home was shorter, his strides longer. He didn’t have time to play. Tea had to be made. Then he’d wash Erin’s hair if she was up to it. Tomorrow, work, but he smelled new snow on the way.
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Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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.)