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)

New Tree City, as Pen Sees It

The look-out is the monster maple in our back yard; it’s the main place I like to be, especially when dad gets home and relaxes on the porch. His spot and my spot both overlook the hilly area behind our garden. He watches the tomatoes, cucumbers, squash or sugar peas grow and ripen–whatever is in season, we tend. I guess he  must look at the hills and woods and remembers what it was like when he grew up here with Pops and Gram, but they’re both long gone. He has told me how there wasn’t a house for at least a mile in all directions back then. Now we live on a paved street at the edge of town and Marionville just keeps creeping past the corner where they finally put a stop sign. A few good cars had to get bashed and a half-dozen lives of cats and dogs ended before it mattered. Now it’s a four-way stop. Dad says it doesn’t mean anything; nothing will stop the town from spilling over the hills and up here.

I’m who he has now. He calls me his blue-eyed soul girl because I like Motown music and because I’m the only girl left, I guess. Mom took off last year. She found out she could make more money as a medical receptionist down below, some small city by Ann Arbor. She has this new person in her life, a girlfriend named Lela. Don’t ask me what that’s all about because dad doesn’t say a thing so I’m not going to ask. I don’t see Mom much since she moved out. She calls once a week or I do. I haven’t met Lela but maybe one day I will. I miss mom too much some days, others not so much. When you get down to it, dad is about what I have, too, except for three good friends at school and a couple of neighbors I like to fish and ski with, meet for a Saturday movie at the Miracle Theater. It’s strange growing up with just a dad but we always did get along better than mom and me. I didn’t ask him to go school shopping with me, though. Telly’s mom took me and got me a bra, too. He hasn’t noticed which is a relief. I’m afraid it will upset him, my growing up already.

Dad says I’m better at climbing trees and running than most boys and he’s right about that. I’m eleven, I can outrun most of the guys around here, and I’m a strong cross-country skier and better downhill skier. He says when I turn twelve I might get faster or maybe slower. We’ll find out in three weeks, after my birthday. I have no intention of slowing down. I can’t help being strong and fast, it just suits me, as mom says.

The reason I spend so much time in the upper third of this maple is because I can see everything. And it’s peaceful. I can survey a small kingdom. There are the Scranton hills, named after Jonas Scranton’s farm that went under before I was born. They’re a relief no matter what the season, they just roll out their colors and designs: mind-freezing beauty. I get a great view of Marionville spreading out beyond the bottom of the hills, namely the south end of the lake, several businesses and the jumping waterfront park. The big woods on the far side of the lake are special after it goes dark. Yellow and white spots shine here and there until the dense trees are sparkling like they’re full of fairy lights.  And I get a decent view of Telly Martin’s place to my right, where he, his parents and sisters live by Silver Creek, in their chalet. Especially their back yard, which is where most of the interesting action is at any house. They’re always doing something, like badminton and barbecuing. I haven’t been there in a few weeks and I miss them even though the two girls are younger and like Barbies too much. My mom, I know, enjoyed Telly’s mom; they had coffee many mornings. But no one asks about her.

Telly and I used to hang out more; he’s fourteen now. I think he also wonders about my dad. One time Telly came by, dad was sitting in the rocker by the scarred square wooden table he uses for about everything. A glass was in his hand so he didn’t reach out to shake Telly’s, as is his way. A big ole bottle of Jack Daniels was next to his book, likely a complicated spy novel he can get lost in. The reading has always been his pleasure, but the whiskey came out after spring break. Before that, a cold beer on a warm week-end was all I saw.

“Come around to see my Penny, eh, Telly?” dad said. He’d had two small glasses already. Three is his limit but it should be one. Or none.

Telly shrugged. “We were going to take a walk. I keep seeing a red fox at the creek. Real pretty.” His hands were in his jeans pockets. He smiled nice.

“Never mind the fox, son, and never mind my daughter. She’s too young to go off with a young man.” 

“Dad, I’ve known Telly for six years–” I protested. It was shocking to hear him talk like that.

“That’s right. He was eight, you were barely six. Played all day.  That was then. This is now. We don’t need more trouble.”

Telly frowned, then winked at me with each eye, our way of saying “later.” He left before I could stop him. But I can see him in his yard; we keep an eye on each other in lots of ways. In fact, my dad doesn’t even know we leave notes under a big loose rock in the field stone wall that divides the Martin’s property from the empty lot between us. That goes back at least four years. Still, I’ve had some doubts about Telly this fall. He’s like a polite acquaintance when I see him in school and hangs out with the first person to move into New Tree City. That’s what dad and I call it.

A developer bought ten acres of the hills and planted skinny, skimpy trees, some maple and some poplar, a little bunch of white pine. It was re-named New Scranton Hills. They brought their big earth-moving machines and started digging up the rich, sweet earth. First time I saw it I winced. It hurt my bones, even my teeth. Dad swore.

So what dad really watches since spring are the new houses cropping up like morel mushrooms. Only he likes those so much he’s on a mission to gather them every spring.

“That’s what’s wrong with Marionville. It can’t stand being the same year after year. It keeps looking to progress but it’ll end up being just like any other fast-growing town. They’re all the  same. Like white bread, right, Pen?”

He took another swallow–I could hear him cough a little–and I grasped the next branch, got a familiar foothold and pulled myself up higher. The leaves were starting to fall and a red one landed on my face. It smelled ancient and comforting.

“Well, dad, nothing can stay the same forever, probably.” I zipped up my hoodie against the autumn chill.

“There you go, that’s the mentality your mother has, our county has, the whole blasted country has. Gotta be bigger, fancier, more, more, more.”

I looked down through a new hole made by leaves falling. He was on his second glass and already he was getting miserable. I had a mind to shimmy down and grab that whiskey bottle and pour it in the garden, let the bugs and squash get tipsy for once. They’d probably just get sick, though.

“Well, no one knows this land like all of us up here, dad. And for sure no one loves it more than you. Pops would be happy you haven’t sold out.”

He chuckled. “That’s right, Pen. No selling out. You can bury me right here, too.”

I looked out over the land and blinked, then looked again. There was a house going up that looked way too big for the land it had grabbed. The carpenters were done for the day, and the frame they had left was a three-story something that dwarfed the new trees and the houses on either side. It hinged on being a mini-mansion from what I could tell. I wondered if it was one of those community places where there would be an indoor swimming pool, rooms to throw big celebrations in, maybe a game room for things like billiards.  I pressed against the sturdy trunk and leaned out a bit, parted the leaves. But it might just be a house, with all those options in it. You could fit four of our house into that building. It made me dizzy to think of it,  excited and mad all at once.

“You hear me, Pen? I don’t want you to start making friends with any of those people, okay? That’s the type young Telly might go for now, you wait. New Tree City people just don’t belong up here.” He banged his glass on the table. “Period.”

But I was gazing out at the lake and the woods and the sky beyond. A silky wash of dusk and then twilight colors spread over the treetops of the lake’s far shore and they glowed for a minute. It got so intense, that’s all there was: oranges, pinks, yellows, then night blues but with a weird light of gold fanning out over the world. The tiny fairy brights lit up the blackened woods after that.  I was alone but happy in my treetop. My dad had given in to whiskey or sadness or maybe sleep. I understood this: he wanted to forget some things and remember others. But New Tree City sat mostly empty of memories while I had nearly twelve whole years in this place. I really held the whole world in my arms. It fit me just right. I’d write a note to Telly about it in the morning; he always got it.

The Heart Chronicles#10: My Father’s Heart Still Guides Me

I was walking as fast as I could as the incline increased.  Perspiration bloomed at my forehead and chest, and my legs were straining. The thundering in my head seemed reasonable: 136 beats per minute and rising. It was hard to talk, so I concentrated on breathing steadily, mouth slightly open to allow more oxygen. I noted the rate of speed– 4.5 miles per  hour on a good incline.

“Had enough?” the nurse asked after fifteen  minutes.

“I’m getting a bit tired,” I replied, “but I want to–”

“You’re right up there for having taken your beta blocker last night. Did just great.”

And with that she slowed down the treadmill and I had no choice but to jump off, lie down and be still as possible so I could submit to the echocardiogram procedure. I was courteously commanded to hold my breath over and over although I was desperate for air. Breathe quickly, hold again, my lungs ready to burst, the muscle of my heart working furiously.  But the beats were even and they slowed gradually. In less than five minutes I was on my feet, breath easy, no pain. Still, I had wanted to go longer on the treadmill, work harder, until I could do no more. How much better could I have managed this time? Had the daily walking in every sort of weather and hiking in the woods on week-ends plus roller skating a few times, random dancing in the living room–had they made enough difference to improve my heart’s strength and overall functioning? Were the arteries still good enough?

“I train for this every year, you know,” I said before leaving the cardiovascular institute staff. They laughed. “Okay, it’s not a marathon, but it’s a little sprint, and I exercise as much as I can. I almost look forward to it–it’s a challenge. See you next week for the results.”

Every year I enter and depart the medical building, my previous visits are recalled. This is not just because I am hoping to mark progress and express gratitude.  When I stand in front of the elevator, I can see the hospital where I’ve arrived by ambulance more times than I want to recall. It is also the place where my cardiologist–capable, good-humored, frank, and attentive (what more could I ask for?)–saved my life by propping open a narrowed artery with two stent implants. He has accomplished even more by motivating me to change my thinking about health and well-being.

Still, there is a greater reason I pause at the window. My father was a patient in that very hospital at age eighty-three. He and my mother were visiting four of their children and a few grandchildren here in the Pacific Northwest when he became very ill. He had already survived a heart attack when he was seventy-one and had managed well enough in the intervening years. But the quadruple bypass he ended up having during that visit did not go well. Although he was released from the  hospital, we all knew he was not long with us. The day the procedure dramatically failed, I sat with my arms around him, listening to the siren wind up the hills to my sister’s house. The EMTs had to pry my arms away. We had all gathered to spend time with him; our beloved father passed not long after.

I never imagined I would need medical care for heart disease, and  at the same place (did we have the same operating room? I anxiously wondered one time). Return to the building next door year after year. Gaze out the window. Ponder us both, father and youngest daughter.

My father’s heart: it lives on within me. It is not the illness I refer to, but, rather, the ways in which he has influenced my walk through this world. Lawrence Guenther was a charismatic, public man who was well-loved as a musician, conductor, music arranger and educator, and as a person. Our house hummed with students who came for private string lessons. He tutored five children, including me, in the discipline and wiles of classical music. The phone rang constantly as people sought his advice or asked whether he was free to play in another quartet, at a church service, for an operetta. I used to complain of being his secretary after my siblings were gone, taking messages, checking the wall calendar. Which night was symphony rehearsal? Which Saturday morning was free to make extra money tuning a piano? When could he appraise a great-grandfather’s fiddle found in a dusty attic?

But of more significance to me were the activities in which he engaged that allowed casual, closer proximity. A man who had a keen interest in sciences, we enjoyed naming the constellations and discussing ever-changing landscapes explored during summer vacations. Later, when my parents travelled abroad, he excitedly shared slide shows, and I thrilled to the images of grand cathedrals as well as narrow sides treets packed with people of many cultures. He had a great curiosity about the mechanics of things, whether it was a sailboat, stereo system or toaster, or anything with wheels that he could repair and drive–from motorcycles to a three-wheeled foreign car to well-used bicycles.  I  recall riding to school on the back of one of his motorbikes. He was dressed in his suit and tie. I held his briefcase in one hand and hung on with the other, my hair streaming and skirt riding up, enjoying the stares of my classmates as we pulled into the parking lot.  

A person who loved games and puzzles, he created several of both.  We snatched time to play dominoes, Scrabble, Chinese and regular checkers and card games. Naturally competitive, he held me to the rules and made me work for every “win.”

He had a tiny basement repair shop I loved to visit. The sounds, smells and sights were exotic to me as a child. People brought their stringed instruments with hairline fractures in lustrous wood, or brass and woodwinds in need of refurbishment. His specialty was working with violins, violas, cellos and basses.  Watching his long-fingered, ambidextrous hands at work was a comfort, no matter what work they were about. I would lean close into the pool of workbench light as he evaluated, by listening, touching and using discerning vision, every telltale sign and symptom. The glue-pot simmered; he also repaired bows, re-hairing them with care. He explained what he was doing and why. All the work tools of his trade were lined up on a long pegboard,  and I handled them carefully, putting them back. When my father was finished with a violin, he hung it on a clothesline strung across a larger room and we would admire the burnished wood shining under the lights. And he would play each instrument to make certain music issued forth just as it was intended. It would send a frisson of happiness through me to hear it made right again.

I can see him at the head of the dining room table, the table cloth set with iris-adorned china and lovely crystal water glasses. He would reach to hold my hand and another’s, and say a simple prayer of thanksgiving. Throughout the meal he might talk a bit about a concerto mauscript he was studying or upcoming arts events, share a joke from Reader’s Digest, quiz me about classical music playing on the radio. But most of the time he wasn’t one to waste words. In fact, they were often fewer than I would have liked. Yet it was what he did, who he was, that made such a difference.

Once when I was a youth I told him how much people valued  him, as I wondered if he really knew. I shyly shared that one person even said he was “a great man”. He was silent a moment, and then quietly answered, “True greatness comes from humility. So I would hope to be known as a humble man, and as someone who dedicated my life to what I love.” I felt his embarrassment, so left him and found something to do, but I understood well and never forgot.

And I was certain what he loved: God, my lovely and strong-willed mother, the children and extended family, teaching and making music. The mysterious universe. Small adventures. Learning. Being kind if at all feasible.  I watched him and learned: beyond our shared heart disease and despite my struggles to live well, my father’s heart still guides me. He set the bar high; I work towards reaching it in my own way.

Next week I will return to Dr. P’s office and learn the results of the stress echocardiogram. I will linger at that window in the hallway, think about my father and hearts that have faulty mechanics. But I will remember his love, and then move on.