The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“Peter Barron, over here! It’s Mitch! How’re you doing, buddy?’

I didn’t slow my pace or look over my shoulder. He wasn’t talking to me, after all, despite what he thought. He was hoping to have a chat and to share his latest news, maybe finagle sharing a coffee, even, before heading to his elegant or cozy (maybe both) home. I didn’t know a Mitch. I knew Mick and Corey, Dante, Artie and TK. No Mitchell/Mitch, who likely hung out with a Laurence, Carter or Theo.

I could hear his shoes slapping the sidewalk, picking up speed. He was not going to let Peter Barron go without at least a brief and pleasant exchange. I followed the right-curving walkway of the park. This was the longest way to the creek, so he might give up if he was headed to work.

But I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned my head to look at Mitch, not varying my pace. He fell in step.

“Peter, it’s been a few years!  Mitchell Howe from the Key Club, we used to share a table now and then? Knew it was you, haven’t changed, well, so much, but you may not recognize me what with the balding and all…”

I down shifted my stride to give him a laser focused look for about five seconds, one that would erase the image he carried in his head and replace it with the view in front of him. Predictably, his forehead crinkled and he faltered, then stopped.

“You’re not Peter. No, well, I’m sorry, buddy. Pretty embarrassing, but you look just like–I mean, you could be his twin!”

“Right, it happens. Don’t worry about it.” With a curt nod of my head, I kept going.

I thought that was it when he called out, exasperation emphasizing his words. “Julian! I should have figured out it was you!”

And finally, that was all. I’d gotten away with no major fall-out for once. Hadn’t had to explain a thing or tell him I didn’t rally know about Peter’s life or no, I didn’t have his data to give out. Sometimes the person asked how I was doing but it was barely even cursory, a waste of words and air.

I found the creek where it always had been, along the edge of the wooded park, and found an empty bench. It was three o’clock according to the church bell–that booming, automated ring tone. I had a few minutes to spare.

Why did Mitch think he should have known it was me? I had no recollection of him but that wasn’t too strange. I knew very few people here. What gave me away in his reconsideration? Or was it just my similarity to Peter while I was not him? Simplest deduction, then. But I toyed with the possibilities. It might have been my height at nearly six four. It might have been the very slight limp that arose without warning. Or maybe my dirty blond hair is longer, that was likely, I didn’t make regular stops at the barber these days. Or maybe it was how I hunch my shoulders when someone I don’t know calls out to me–I prefer to fold up some, even disappear. Or my eyes when I stared at him, wintry blue and a little slanted, smallish. Or as my mother always said, wolfish–despite a reminding her wolves eyes are not blue.

I cited her genes, not my father’s–his eyes were like his brother’s, ordinary, light brown. My Uncle Albert, the chain store owner of Barron’s Appliance and Electronics. Peter Barron’s father. Peter and me, you see, we’re first cousins. Dad has had his own thing going with three stores, Barron’s Footwear. Businessmen.

I suppose I have been, too, but it all went down wrong. I have zero going right now. Peter, though, he’s a man of the cloth. Who knew? But it makes some sense to me.  He was thoughtful and good in a way many couldn’t quite muster much less sustain.

******

We grew up two blocks from each other. We were born barely a year apart. My mom and Aunt Lydia were thick as can be while their husbands, the brothers, got along sporadically. There was always some family gathering, and sometimes it was good and easy if boisterous and other times it was all drama, a few hours tied up and split apart by disagreements between Dad and Uncle Albert. Peter and I sneaked off any way it went, sooner or later. It was better to not be in the line of fire or radar-like watchfulness of the mothers. There was the back yard with its fruit trees at our house or at his, there were layers of flowers, bushed and trees with a centrally located pool and a comfortable pool house. We easily found something else to do and sometimes had to elude Karissa and Jeanette, our other cousins, the first one being my younger  sister and the second, his.

It was like the mothers planned it all, their kids close to the same ages and one of each gender, husbands in business. Aunt Laura came from the south, all those stretched, rounded vowels and charming ways, while Mom was no-nonsense and straight to the point. It worked for them and impacted our lives differently. Peter from the start was more naturally academic, halfway refined by the time he was ten. I did fine at school out of desire to keep my parents calm and was resistant to develop gentlemanly comportment. He liked to explore and push the limits some but he didn’t dare get caught, that was the thing that guided his every move. Whereas I had less concern about it if the activity got my adrenaline going and there was some sort of pay off, like we got to see horror movies that our neighbor watched after we climbed the fence and bribed their dog with hot dogs or pretzels if he was out. We’d watch through their back family room window until the dog demanded more and more food.

But as time went by, I was looking for more things to get into and Peter was backing off. We still talked after school and rode dirt bikes in summer. I swam at his house often and we had a few parties together. We stayed at each other’s houses every now and then and stayed up late eating junk food and comparing notes on girls we hoped to date some day.

But by the ninth grade we  had less time for each other. He was eager to play team sports, baseball especially, and played trumpet in the band. I’d watch him play ball but I gravitated to skateboarding and off-road biking and backpacking in the mountains. The one time he saw me at the skate park he cheered me on but after we kicked at the dirt and threw rocks into the trees; we just had too little to say. So when I had some trouble after lifting a couple of packs of smokes, a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store, things turned for good. I got taken down to jail and booked and stayed 24 hours in miserable quarters before my dad paid them off and got me, entirely infuriated. It didn’t end there, of course, but my fine and community service work weren’t tough.

When Peter came over and confronted me about it, not wanting to believe the rampant gossip that I was suddenly a juvenile delinquent, I started to deny things then shrugged, backed away. I’d had enough verbal flogging from the parents, privileges taken. After that, he gave me a worthwhile punch in the chest  and I smacked his head, then shoved him hard enough that he fell backwards with a thud.

As he scrambled up, he shouted,”Why, Julian? You’re not that person, not some mean idiot!”

I sat under a crab apple tree and oscillated between tears and cold anger. I didn’t know why I did it but it wasn’t all that terrible, was it? It had something to do with seeing how far I could go, getting something for nothing, outsmarting others, feeling energized by the risks–all the wrong stuff to feel, part of me intoned. I felt confused. But intrigued even more; the other part tugged at me.

The next day we eyed each other in school hallways like once-loyal co-conspirators or old buddy neighborhood dogs who could not or would not any longer leap over the wide ravine to even say hello. I quietly growled at him when I ran into him after that and he just shook his head, eyes flitting over my face, seeming almost amused–or disgusted, I wasn’t sure. I resolved to check my impulses and do things better and it was partly because I knew Peter knew I could do better. And my parents were on me, as was everyone.

Kids used to mistake us all the time for years but by then, we were so different in attitude and style that it happened less. I secretly missed that, and I suspected even Peter did, as it had been part of who we had always been, almost twins, cousins more like brothers who had been best friends.

I had more trouble, though. Trespassing on the golf course grounds after midnight while drunk on vodka, causing turf damage with my golf clubs. But all in all, I minded my own business, made a few friends my parents looked askance at and got my homework done. I unfortunately wrecked my car–bought with my own money after three summers working at the stores–when drag racing, a favorite hobby, on a country road. But in the end we both graduated, me by the skin of my teeth and Peter, of course, with honors and awards. He deserved it all. He was still my cousin and a decent guy. That was the last time I saw him, at a joint party our parents threw at his place. That was a hugely successful event with some wild and sad stories but, then, isn’t that what those parties are about in the first place? Farewell with a big bang for memories? But my parents and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Albert were full of generosity and good nature: we’d both (me, more or less) navigated a few rites of passage by eighteen.

Peter and I ended up hanging out as people left, horsed around in the pool almost like old times. We had survived those adolescent years and so, we moved on, he to a top university.

We still looked very like each other, though I was nearly three inches taller, and yet he was undeniably Peter and I was, of course, strictly Julian or “J” to my good friends.

******

I met Artie a year or so later at his old man’s body shop since I often had need of work on my older trucks, more often on my very fast Mustang. I had finished community college and gone on to work in residential construction and remodeling, All that work on interesting houses gave me a desire to buy my own small place and the move in with Bella, the woman I had vowed to marry–some day. Being impatient by nature, I kept coming up with mad schemes that would pay off well and faster.

“No need to think so hard about it,” Artie said as I admired the work he  had done on my Mustang once more, “you just need to join the crew I’ve got going and we’ll get you all set, man.”

“What do you mean?” I was only half-listening as I leaned against the building. Artie said things that skirted the edges of ludicrous sometimes so I usually nodded my head, then went my way.

“Why not come over tonight and I’ll explain it then. You can make some big money, that’s all you need to think over.”

“Sure,” I said, curious more than believing he had any insight into making money other than fixing cars up, a good skill but limited in profits as his father owned the shop and took a big cut.

“Eight tonight.”

He gave me a look that presaged things I could not imagine. I felt it in my spine, a shift of energies, fear and excitement and fascination all mixed together. I took the Mustang out on side roads and ran it hard. It held up good as ever but soon it would be gone.

******

The creek was flowing fast and soothed me. I shifted on the bench under the emerald density of trees. My hip hurt as it had for years since the near-catastrophic car accident when it had been broken. But the hurt had developed into a dark ache that had tunneled deeper the last few. I knew it was the rude bed and damp, chilled conditions of the prison that had housed me for eight. Grand larceny. And before that, petit larcenies, incarcerated one year and then another. I had gotten out two months ago and had so far made no dent in the job hunt. No big surprise.

I was staying at the parent’s house, in the apartment above the three car garage. But only just. Mom wanted me there and Dad did not. There were discussions that ended up sizzling and there were silences that held fast for days. Except for Mom I would have left, slept on the street. She was so glad to see me and wanted me to talk to her, “to recover from hell” as she put it, and then to move on toward the Good Life. Dad just wanted me to move on and out-of-town and maybe come back when I had changed identities if possible, or at least started to live decently again. I felt myself leaning more toward his viewpoint every passing day. I had much to recoup, and their tolerance, their tentaive kindness was half-real, half a fluke, I thought.

I picked up a twig at my feet, tossed it with an easy swing of my arm so that it made a tiny plop, spun and disappeared. It was spring already, I mused. It felt overwhelming sometimes, all those scents and colors and sounds, the many moving parts and bodies both human and otherwise. Everything was no longer what I knew. To think that this was what I had yearned for and here I was, finally. Yet I was not at all convinced I could even live a life like this, in the open world.

“Julian.”

I twisted around at the sound of his voice, rose up to face him.

“Peter.”

“So long since that crazy pool party, huh?…”

He looked himself, older but not poorly, face made more interesting by creases around his mouth and at the edges of his eyes. He had the white band of collar on, he was really an Episcopal priest, but he quickly undid it then removed it and put it in a pocket. Peter offered his hand which I took. Then we caught each other into a bear hug, brief but strong. I pushed back the pain of time lost. I was certain I looked haggard, honed down to basics.

When we sat down, we were quiet. It felt surprisingly alright. Just the creek and  trees swishing in the warm wind and robins adding to a soundtrack of nature in the city with their brash and welcoming song.

“Where do I even begin, cousin?” I asked, voice almost swallowed up in the words.

“How about starting with right now? That’s all we’ve ever got, my brother. And we already know who we truly are, maybe the only ones who can say that of us both.”

I shut my eyes and saw only a soft blur of light behind my eyelids, not bars cutting it into narrow pieces. When I opened them he was smiling his crooked smile at me.

“You may have that right. And I’ve had time to think over my place in the universe, you know. Not sure it’s in this town but today it seems to be.”

Peter bent to dig two medium hefty, irregular rocks from the damp soil. He gave one to me. We threw them to the other side of the exuberant creek, mine missing a squirrel before resting on a grassy knoll, his hitting a tree branch and landing near mine, and it all felt better than anything had in a long, long while.

 

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

Variety of pics 033
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.

 

Here I am Without You

He didn’t understand, he was right about that, she thought. To him it had to be glamorous with jewels as the commodities of her trade, all that gadding about with fancy people, seeing sights he’d not see now. There was truth to this but it was the only part he wanted to believe.

The rest of it he tried to hold at bay any way he could, sometimes blaming her. And there was good reason for that. Admitting he was not going to walk again, at least not right–never mind play his horn, dance at one a.m. with the last customer, drive like crazy along some back country road–was like admittance to hell. Well, that had already begun when he had the stroke. Forty-one, relentlessly alive and just like that, cut down by a vagrant piece of circulatory trash that got stuck in an artery. Now his legs were mostly useless for the best things. His left hand couldn’t hold his trumpet mouthpiece to lips for more than a moment if he tied it there and dictated those beautiful, once-muscle-memories of movements required for sound.

But Mirabel kept on. Of course she did, what else was she to do, watch the seconds of their lives tick on as the pantry was emptied? She’d been a jeweler by trade when they’d met–he’d been browsing for someone who became irrelevant that snowy day–and remained so. He was a musician, he had some regular gigs and even when he hit it bigger there were more bills than income at first. Her work tided them over and she kept at it. She got good, then better, and then she was managing the finest jewelry store in Detroit metro as well doing the best work around, as she’d often been told.

Now she traveled more. Okay, a lot, every month or more. She had trade shows to attend and consultations to carry out, gems with just finished settings (or the final designs to deliberate) to hand deliver so an out-of-town customer could see up close exactly what big money was paying for. A personal touch was how Mirabel preferred to do business. It cost a bit but it was worth it for connections and subsequent referrals. Success had arrived. If she had to go out of her way to keep things well oiled, she’d do it despite Hal being held hostage to the damnable wheelchair.

He understood this much: they now lived in a beautiful spacious condo with a fine river view and he had good help. Alma came to care for him every day, and she had a fair for it. She had expansive congenial feelings for him which she could dispense lavishly; she went home each night to a good humored, healthy husband.

Mirabel meanwhile speculated what a warm bed would feel like as someone sidled up close, held her all night. Those days felt over for her, to her sorrow. Not that Hal yet believed it but he was more a dreamer, not so accepting of gritty details.

“You must stay at nice places. And stay occupied,” he said. “Don’t tell me ‘no’.”

“Right, occupied by my usual historical novel or a sitcom on T.V. It’s a blast. I do find most people I meet are interesting, you know that, and thank goodness. It’s not all diamonds and rubies and money.”

“Oh, come on, there are many men in this business who’d be happy to hold your hand, your waist, then–”

“Right, those men are older by far than you and gassy and balding, or baby-faced and ambitious, or very married with two kids. And what do I care? The others circle like hawks, I know how to put them off. How many times do I have to remind you? I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I’m more likely to meet up with business women for a late dinner. But none of us love travelling. We’re flat out whipped at the end of the day so it’s no party. It’s not a great way to see the country, either. No, it’s not great fun…”

Hal grunted. “Yeah, it’s so hard to be free, on your own out there.” He turned up the music, checked out.

The anger never quite quit, it just went underground. It abated if there was something good, like his musician friends coming by for dinner and talk. Then Hal was all affable bluster as ever he’d been. He applauded his friends’ recording contracts or tours or the latest band they’d put together. Never moaned on and on that he wasn’t with them. He wouldn’t consider doing that to them or himself. They missed him. They also saw him as man of steel despite extraordinary ways with his instrument. Well, once extraordinary, once on the high road. He was a guy who could take punches over and over and still come up chirping about this surprising and wild life. How thankful he was he wasn’t a Benny who’d died of an overdose at the apex of his career, or a Margo who literally went over the edge from too many bad breaks. He’d had it pretty good since he was nineteen, overall. Now he could again read some (the stroke rattled that piece of his brain), listen to music all day, compose in his head all he wanted. Sit the terrace and breathe pungent city air without worrying, planning the next big gig. Maybe he’d take up electronic music in the end. He was working on bettering hand strength and dexterity.

And then Mirabel was one of a kind, she stepped in, took care of things, they knew how steady she’d always been. She never once hinted she’d leave him. Besides, there was now Alma with the short blonde bob and so-so jokes–she was such a cheerleader and they got on well. Maybe he would be okay.

Hal was a braver person than any of them but it was so sad to witness his demise that they couldn’t speak of it later. They put on his recordings now and then and raised a bottle.

Hal’s anger spilled over after they returned to making music and he to useless days and nights. Mirabel gave him enveloping hugs and good words then stepped aside, worked longer hours. Loneliness might bash him any time. He’d feel it burrow into his sleep and his waking when she left for a three day trip or worse, a long week. He’d think himself into exhaustion wondering what she was doing, who she was doing it with, even though nothing telegraphed that she was  disloyal. It was his humiliation, the teeth-gnashing depression that ran his mind in circles like a mad dog. But she was a person others gravitated to, that was the thing, eyes sparking with intelligence, a listening ear that put you center stage, a soft laugh that rolled into body and mind. She was attuned to life’s nuances as he was to music’s dynamics. He’d also seen her operate in a competitive, male-dominated trade that centered on obdurate, cool, magnificent gemstones with people to match. Mirabel had the right touch for so much.

But now more than ever there were things they did not know about each other.

******

When she went on work trips, after she was done for another day or evening, Mirabel wandered. If she had been successful or not, it was the same. After she window shopped and consumed a juicy steak, fish and chips or street burrito, she walked as if she was going somewhere, stride confident, footfall secure. But she was just moving fast from corner to corner, street to street, waiting for lights to change, people to pass without making eye contact, feeling breathless. Waiting for her life to stop blurring, as if she was on a runaway train and had to hang on for life.

Sometimes she ended up in a bar. The first times is was a shock, she was not a bar person, but they weren’t fancy or suspect, just any neighborhood place when regulars swiveled their heads as she slipped onto a stool. They knew she was passing through, she had the look of a visitor, hair neatly swept up at the sides neatly, her good leather bag full of things like scarves and elegant sunglasses, glossy pamphlets and who knows what else that made it bulge. She kept it close to her body.

The women who tended bar wondered if she was looking over their men but saw the plain gold band (her right hand wore a large single contemporary-set topaz) and her distant look. (Mirabel never wore her wedding diamond with two sapphires on either side when on trips, it was vintage and worth a good figure.) So they got her the simple mixed drink to get her started, minded their own business unless she stayed late for one too many. Which happened too often on trips, never at home since she rarely drank otherwise.

They’d pause at her spot, one hand on hip, brushing back unruly wisps of hair with the other. Tired out but always curious.

“BBQ sandwich? Pretzels? We’ve got a pile of garlic fries.”

“No, thank you very much.” She jiggled the ice in her glass full of rum and coke. “I suppose I need my husband… but he’s home and I’m–” she looked around as if surprised–“here.”

“Visiting someone then, huh?”

She shook her thick brown hair with white gleaming at the part and leaned into her glass. “Work only, I’m a jeweler. I’m on business.” She slurped the last of that drink.

Then they’d talk about jewelry and the bartender would show off shiny earrings or a dainty necklace from a boyfriend and ask if they were worth anything. One thing would lead to another until Mirabel would put an end to the questions with another drink, then a third and she’d start to slump. She was an amateur, they noted.

“I do miss the guy…”

“Have you called tonight to let him know you’re thinking of him?”

“Oh, no, he’s surely asleep. Alma the Nurse usually puts him to bed before she’s done for the day.”

“Oh?” Both hands on hips. Quizzical looks shared with those who’d been listening in.

“Hal’s paralyzed. Stroke.” She’d press fingers to lips–she hadn’t meant to tell these strangers, never anyone—would get up, hurry out the door unsteadily, hail a cab.

They were sure to watch her climb in okay, then regulars shook their heads, regulars frowned at their beers, muttered about fate and its misfortunes. The bartender slapped her rag hard once on the counter and got busy. Lots of pain in this place.

Back at her small, too bright room, the cheapest one available that didn’t cause worry about bedbugs or neighbors shouting all night. Why spend money where it didn’t help business, after all?

Mirabel somehow got off her clothes. Sat on the edge of her bed awhile, listening to the traffic below, the night a meaningless void. Where would she find some comfort for the night if she didn’t collapse under the influence of alcohol? Her five hundred page book or the same shows again? She stood motionless in the inadequate shower, shivering even in the hot spray. Then came the ache of longing, the gaping depths so empty where rich love had flourished. Her music man, crackling wit and loyal partner. Struck down. She wanted to hold his hands in hers, feel him squeeze hers three times like a young man: “I”, “love”, “you.” She wanted to hear that music had not been the one and only love of his life. That he still had room for her. For them. If his heart might still pull out the old joy–she could help if he’d let her–one day.  She didn’t need him to be this strong. Or this sorrowful. It would end, wouldn’t it?

The steam billowed, suffocating her. Mirabel opened her eyes, turned off the water and slid back the curtain. Grabbed a towel, readied body and mind for one more vast, chilly bed in the drone of the dark.

******

Hal watched Alma clean up the living room, her muscular arms and square hands moving with efficiency as she picked up things, dusted a little, took the tray with his dinner leftovers to the kitchen. She hummed to herself much of the time. He’d never commented despite his flinching; she was always off key and it pleased her. She spent all day taking care of him except when Mirabel could be there so he tried to be generous. To encourage her when she had trouble getting him moved, to laugh at her silly jokes, to not make more of a mess than possible.

She’d lasted ten months now. The others lasted two or four months. The stroke had terrorized him into submission close to two years ago. It was hard work to help him; he was not a short man, no longer toned, lithe, quick to respond. Alma was possessed of broad hips and shoulders and moved with such grace that he marveled at it. She had good muscle in those biceps. Mirabel though lovely, sleek, inhabited her body as if she had to command her limbs to act natural. She was confident while working, her hands so deft, but otherwise she might stumble, ram into corners, drop glasses–about which he used to tease her. Not now; he envied she could rise up, move alone.

Alma’s dishwater blond hair was spiky and bright. She wore black stretch pants and a long, loose pink shirt. Hal found her attractive if he was honest but made sure she didn’t know it. Her company was priceless, she had to know that by now. She hummed and chatted as she labored, and never lost her patience. He guessed that’s why they paid her a hefty wage. Well, mostly Mirabel’s health insurance did but Alma got bonuses. For such aid and company he’d give up other things if needed. She read murder mysteries to him. She cooked well enough. And never made a face when he needed more help in the bathroom, unlike Mirabel, whose dismay could not be hidden, nor deep frustration over her limitations.

Alma was interesting to contemplate. She’d be one of those women who stood right up in a nightclub and swayed to the jazz, arms raised, ample form mimicking the beat, high on his acrobatic trumpet. Livening up the crowd. This imagined scenario as she worked dovetailed with his sadness, shaping it into a lighter, prettier thing. She’d glance at him as if feeling his gaze, eyebrows flitting above cheery eyes as she hummed louder to make him chortle–surely she knew she couldn’t carry a tune but just didn’t care. She stirred things up a little as she watched over him. Perhaps that was her best way to help people. Distracting them from any self pity.

“Mirabel back tomorrow?” she asked since her work was done. She took off her pinafore type apron with its big bright flowers. Old fashioned, pretty, a fun touch.

“I suppose, wasn’t sure about this tran–trans–I mean, deal. I thought she’d call tonight.” His language use had returned bit by bit a year after the stroke but he still spoke with care, had to simplify some days. He gestured to the table. “Phone charged yet? She call or text?”

Alma picked it up, brought it to him. “No, Hal, nothing the last hour.” She handed it to him and then sat in the armchair across from him.”I was thinking lately. You ever consider going with her on a short trip? I know it’d be tiring but just for a change of pace.”

“No, no, that’d never work! She couldn’t help me. Even the airport would be a nightmare–can you imagine it? Everyone staring, too.”

She leaned forward, hands on knees. “They have wheelchairs there and those electric carts that whisk people about–they’re many places. You might get a portable wheelchair or find a hotel where they have extra aids.”

“Naw, not a plan of mine.”

“What if I came? I mean, a little trip, one that wouldn’t cost too much.”

Hal shook his head, glared at her. “What are you getting at?”

Puzzled, she took her time answering. “I was just thinking, if it was me, I’d want you to come along some times. See a couple of sights. Be there when I got back to the room. Share a nice dinner with me.”

“But you’re you, not Mirabel. She’s a busy pro with people to see, things to do. I doubt she thinks much about me when she’s out there. She calls out of duty. I mean, she escapes!”

“I’m busy, too. You’re not my only patient, I work at night sometimes. But if I could–”

“You work at night?” The idea seemed absurd, no one could do this another eight hours. “When do you sleep or see your husband?”

“That’s neither here or there but yes, on week-ends I do overnight work.” She sat up straight and sighed. “Hal, you are starting to look at me like your best friend or your mother or something… it’s time to get you out more, not just to the park. You should ask if you can go with her.”

His face flushed as he turned wheelchair away. “I see. So, are you done here?”

“Yep, all done. Your chili is in the frig if you want to microwave more. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”

“I can do the necessary things better now, thanks.”

“I know, but I’m here.”

“You can go, thanks, Alma.”

She came around to face him. “It was just a suggestion, Hal! It might make you both happier.”

He looked into her eyes, saw compassion. Her soft face was so close, her skin radiating a scent slightly sour but even more sweet. He looked down at his knobby knees, the near-useless hand. His wife was so far away. It almost lured him, this closeness that wasn’t even Mirabel’s.

“Maybe so.” He managed a wan smile. “I’m alright, never mind.”

Here was a woman who knew all his needs, frailties, moods. He tried to think of himself in a bland room with Mirabel in a strange place, greeting a morning together, sipping a cup of coffee, chatting softly and then he’d realize they weren’t even home with some comforts. Did he even want that? But maybe it could happen; likely not. And she’d have to leave him once more. Of course, he’d also been gone every night when she came home, for years and years. Did she feel abandoned? No, she had had two legs and arms working, a resolute mind.

He felt confused by all this, saw Alma study him.

His phone rang. Alma got her sweater, opened the front door. She almost waited to see who it was then waved at him and glided outside.

Hal looked at the caller ID, answered. “Mirabel. It’s late in Boston. All okay?”

“I miss you,” Mirabel’s voice wafted to him, weary.

She missed him. “That’s nice to hear…tell me about your day.”

“Hal, I drank too much at a corner bar and feel so lonely. When I got to my room I desperately wanted to just hold your hand. To press forehead to forehead like we used to do, remember?”

A crummy Boston dive of all things, his wife alone! But the timbre of her voice reached in. His body–all parts that still could be swept up in feelings, so many places–tingled, and his mind’s usual fog lifted just enough that he knew this was real, his wife was speaking truth.

“Are you there, Hal?”

His good hand holding the phone shook a little. “Baby, when you come home, let’s figure out how to take me with you next time, okay? I want to be with you more, hear me? I need you.”

There came the ease of relief, then he heard her snuffling. She hadn’t cried around him since the first days after his stroke. He had become the weeper too often. He put the phone to his chest, his heart as she caught her breath. Because she would. She always regained footing even when he had no purchase, himself. But he saw it was possible she could use help, too. Hal felt her head against his shoulder, her warmth melding with his, soul opening a little like a flower to the light.

 

Wintering

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Joe heard the snap of the door opening and the barest crack as she slammed it behind her. One more thing to have to repair sooner than later. He stubbed out his cigarette in the dirt of the dying African violet and glanced over his shoulder. Maddy stared at the picture window, eyes asquint in the late afternoon light,  pencil tight between her teeth. He imagined she was trying to see how hard she could bite down before it snapped but maybe that was his own feeling welling up. It was hard to say what she was feeling. They were alike that way.

The two of them had hunkered down early, right after breakfast. That’s when Isla had born that look of hers right into the living room and then back to the table then to the front door.

“I can’t stand the way the rooms turn in on you, the dust and smoke and silence choke me,” she said, shaking her mane of mahogany hair, trying to clear her head. “If there’s not more light soon, I’ll be gone to Arizona, wait and see, Joe Talford!” She touched the fern in the corner, then batted it. “The desert’s needing me, that makes it even harder! I’ve surely had enough!”

He found this amusing, as if a desert would need anyone. She meant You and Maddy don’t, so why put up with this endless snow and darkness if I get so little? It wasn’t true, they so needed her, just not so much like this.

She needed ubiquitous light like water needed sky, she felt not enough herself without it. She needed attention like the temperamental violet. He saw that and tried to do better even when he didn’t feel the urge. He’d never known anyone who required direct eye contact as much as Isla did. But then, he tended to be zeroing in on other things.

It was mostly this way every winter. Joe wasn’t sure if her tone had changed much but something in her shoulders had. The gentleness was eking away, the slopes had become ledges, sharp and taunting. At night in their cramped room if he’d reach for her, she’d surrender with little delight and afterward her warmth cooled so fast his hands were surprised. This Isla was not the Isla he knew and liked so well. But to be fair she’d had little idea what the winters were about when they’d moved back to his family’s land eight years ago. Words were nothing compared to reality.

“She didn’t take her gloves or button her coat,” Maddy noted.

“She’ll manage.”

Maddy chewed on the eraser, but when Joe lifted a bristly eyebrow at her, she lay the dented pencil on the table. What she really wanted was a cigarette. Her parents didn’t know she sneaked one from her dad’s pack once a week. She liked how the smoke shocked her mouth and lungs before sliding out in a mysterious whirl of smoke. She’d take one out back into the woods as she gathered kindling or followed a blue jay deeper down a packed, narrow trail or if it was about dark, just sat on the giant stump behind the tool shed, smoking away in peace. She liked how it made her feel foreign to her age, not quite fourteen but she felt she was leaning toward sixteen. But at sixteen she’d be close to executing her plan to get out of there: move into Marionville, start community college. Right now she could play at life a little. Pretend she was tougher than she felt, have a laugh all on her own. Sometimes she shared a smoke with Hanes, the boy down the road a half- mile, and the next time he’d bring one from his aunt’s pack. He was her age but smarter about some things, she thought, as he’d lived here all his life and his family before. But she never told him about her mom, though she could have. He’d likely know about cabin fever.

It had taken practice to not cry out when her mother took off like that. She used to run after her but her dad always caught her arm, tugged her back.

“She’s not going far, my girl, she only needs bigger space, more air awhile.”

“I know, but I want to go with her.”

“That’d be unwise. We’ll wait.”

He’d put one big flannel-clad arm about her and hold her still. Maddy knew what he meant even a few years ago but that didn’t make it any easier to see her mother unhappy. Mad as a trapped animal. Which she was, she told them many times. And they can get mean. Now Maddy didn’t even move from wherever she was.

She didn’t have the same problem as her mother; she couldn’t quite recall Arizona. The tightly sealed walls felt safe to her, the radiance of heat from the burning wood and its acrid-sweet fragrance lulled her into peace. And her dad was mostly how she liked him, quiet, and there when needed. He worked on illustrations from dawn to two or three in the afternoon (with lunch at his drafting table) and then he read or worked around the cabin or split more wood or went snowshoeing. She often went with him after school; sometimes her mom did, too, if it was a day when she found their life good or even enchanting again.

“Going up to the loft,” Maddy said, picked up her books and notebook, padded up steep steps in her heavy socks, ran past the narrow office space where her dad drew, slid past the half bath and into her room.

“Yep,” he said, too late to be heard.

Joe stirred in his chair, looked out the window. It’d been an hour since she’d left and he had work to finish and yet he sat. He knew she’d be at Twyla’s house (or Marty’s, her other good friend) by now after a long slog through snow in her heavy boots, so resisted calling her. He had a commission to finish in a week but was also intruded upon by a recent dream: a mad jumble of red rock, searing sand and scorpions with faces and Isla sailing about overhead. He’d liked the amazing desert plants and many mountain ranges, the sunrises and sunsets. He did some of his best work while they were there. But the brilliant sun was relentless, the merciless heat kept him caged like the snow did Isla.

In Arizona she had taught art to elementary school children but after twelve years she’d had enough of their racket and carelessness but even more, the yearly budget problems, having to buy her own classroom supplies. She quit and was at loose ends. Isla was meant to be a painter but the years of stressful teaching had taken a toll on the free flow of her own creativity. She had tried, found the well dry of much watercolor inspiration. She’d begun to sew everything from clothes to handbags to curtains. She sold a few things here and there, and then more and more.

And then Joe learned of his inheritance, the family land and cabin. They’d decided they could do the same work in the far north. But it was not easy for her. It was like an impossible course to run, she’d told him once in the middle of an argument, tipping a tentative truce, no more faking it.

“Or worse! It’s like a foot binding–I can’t even hobble about here with any sense of balance, can’t even take off my shoes most of the year much less walk freely in and out any day, any night, or even think half the time! My creative vision is dimmed by this–this pinched density of what you call God’s country! What I’d give to cut down all these trees to see the whole sky for once, Joe…”

He’d crouched by the wood stove while she’d gone on and on about how too much of the year she had too little nourishment, the outdoors and she had become estranged. She felt lost and small and sad. That night, like many, had ended with her tears and recriminations, his laying awake most of the night, awakening with a mean crook in his neck.

Yet Joe knew this: he loved her. He needed her in his life and so did their Maddy. And every winter crisis he feared she would not come back, either she’d perish or she’d find her way to the nearest airport. He had for years believed that the richness of the north country would loosen her with greater familiarity. That she’d learn to adore the dark rich earth and majestic forests, adapt to a rugged but comforting rural life. That she would delve into beauty, each season like magic as it spun new stories from old, the back country a balm, not a poison. He’d even believed each winter she’d made some progress. She enjoyed snow shoeing and watching birds and foxes and deer, the snow falling on the land like a pristine afghan, creating gentle shapes and bright swirls of ice on windows. He and Maddy had found their place. For Isla, it was never quite enough.

He saw with a shock that his wife was, heart and soul, a genuine desert flower. She could die here. Had all the anger and tears been warnings he had thought were passing eruptions?

He got up, pulled on his jacket and cap, grabbed her red woolen gloves and his stained leather ones and set out. It was not the first time but it had to be the last.

Maddy came out of her room and leaned over the loft railing as the door closed below her. She knew better than to follow. But she still wanted to as she eyed the sewing machine at one end of the living room. It’d been unused the past month, maybe more. She wondered if it was broken, like her mom might be, and a shiver of terror ran up and down her bones.

******

Isla knew her way around their little patch of country. She’d made the trek to Twyla’s or Marty’s often enough–or vice versa. The path through the acreage was covered partly as her last foray was a few days ago and more snow had laid itself down. Still, her feet knew how to find the trail to the fence and the broken slats where she either climbed over or pushed herself through the other side to Twyla’s a half mile away. She shoved her hands into her deep wool tweed pockets. It’d have been better to wear her so-called ski jacket and mittens but she’d been eager to leave Joe’s punishing silence, Maddy’s listening ears. Snow flurries danced about her face and barely skimmed the trees. Her mink-oiled boots squeaked on the path as snow packed down with each step.

Mustn’t forget Dan might be there. He was not the most sympathetic of men, neither easy to talk with or easy to avoid in a room, his bulk like that of one of the lovely beasts he liked to hunt and kill, whose heads adorned the walls. He seemed to want to stare her down. Twyla told Isla that he didn’t hear well so was straining to get all her words but Isla found him suspicious of any outsider. Joe was not one. His family owned the cabin and land for two, nearly three generations.

She knew Dan was expert at fixing all manner of ruined things. Twyla was stalwart and ingenious; she made do with little and made it look easy and good. She was born to this life, not the territory since she’d been raised in the upper Northeast but this was not so different. Isla and she would have had little in common except for Twyla’s quilting passion, her creative snug alongside her practical side. And, too, there was her nephew, Hanes, who she’d raised as her own. Maddy liked Hanes a lot. Isla could see why; he was resourceful, independent-minded and easy to look at. He taught her much about how to adapt there just as Twyla had done, or tried to do, for her. But Twyla knew Isla had not the heart for this life though she’d never said so. She had grown to like having neighbors who were an arty sort and Isla read to her as she quilted, helped Hanes with his homework sometimes.

Isla was grateful for this friendship; though hard to build at first, it was woven strong over the years there. But this time, she didn’t know what she’d tell her. It had started to seem like she could not stay in this land any longer. The past three months of winter nights had gotten rockier and mornings were shaped by sameness and chores and when she picked up the fabrics they felt heavy and useless in her hands. Her website had shown a dip in sales. She had so little motivation to fill orders, made excuses to customers and felt deeply embarrassed. If this kept on, she may as well quit. May as well pack her bags and go home.

“Home,” she said, her breath aloft in crystalline air. Then: “Arizona.”

She took an involuntary intake of the air and it hurt her lungs. She licked chapped lips and kept on, cold seeping into her flesh. The sky was low and thick with grey clouds as it always was in winter, no hope of sunlight getting through. In the distance, she barely made out smoke rising from Twyla’s chimneys. They had a fireplace in front as well as a woodstove in a back room–a sprawling house, larger than most if showing wear and tear. She could have called her friend but she was nearly always home this part of the day. They could show up at each other’s homes about any time. Dan would likely be gone.

There was a muffled sound behind Isla. She exposed an ear from her cap to listen and looked about but it was nothing, or a deer streaking through the pines as it saw her. She loved the wild creatures, it was true, this was the main part holding her here other than her own family. And sheer will. She started to leap-run across the field, boots sucked into the foot of snow at times, her strong legs pulling free. Heat soon radiated from her chest as she got closer to the side door, Her thicket of hair was damp so she pulled off her hat, stuffed it in a pocket and took long strides until she reached the steps.

The screen door was closed but the inside door was open.

Isla mounted the stairs fast. She pressed her face against the nylon mesh and peered into the darkened rooms.

“Hello? Twyla?…anyone?”

Nothing but the quiet crackle of flames in the fireplace. She pulled open the creaky door and entered the kitchen so redolent of apples, bananas and oranges in a bowl, fresh bread. She looked about, and in horror fell to her knees.

On the floor was Twyla, her legs and arms askew, wavy bottle-blonde hair now half-red as blood seeped and pooled on the cracked grey linoleum. Isla looked into her unfocused, half closed eyes, felt for a pulse so soft she wasn’t sure it was there, examined a gaping wound at the side of her head.

“She must have fallen, hit the counter edge!” She reached for her phone. Not in her pockets, nowhere.

“Mrs.T? … Isla?”

Her name careened through the rooms in a barely restrained scream. Hanes came around the corner with hands plastered to his face, breathing fast with cries caught in his throat, cell phone skidding across the floor.

“What happened, Hanes? Did you call for help?” She got up and put her hands on his boney forearms.

“She–she cried out, put a hand on her head, she fell, hit the counter edge… no not yet  I couldn’t find my phone at first…” He blinked back tears to no avail, face dazzled with fear. “What’s wrong with her? What do we do?”

She grabbed his phone, called 911, explained what she could then called Joe. No answer.

“What’s your uncle’s number, is it in here? Where is he?”

Hanes pointed out the door toward the woods, then ran to it, calling out his name. Hunting, likely; who knew if a signal would carry.

“Call him, Hanes. Tell him the ambulance will be here in less than fifteen minutes. Hanes!”

The boy was pressed against the screen door, looked about to run into the snow so she called his name again loudly. He turned and caught the phone when she tossed it. Dialed Dan. No answer.

She sat by Twyla, afraid to touch her but afraid not to and so she placed her hands on the woman and prayed. What to say? What words even mattered? She lowered her face to Twyla’s.

Keep this good woman alive, damn it, don’t let her go until she’d an old lady, she’s one we all need in the world. God, you hear me talking? We need help here. Save her from this trouble, such an ending. Give me a chance to love her more, for Hanes to know her longer, for Dan to care for her better. Lord, answer me with help now.

“I see someone,” Hanes whispered out the screen. “Who…?”

The sirens could be heard from a long way off, even through the tough old trees, even with the snow-laden earth and dull clouds that capped the world. She felt Twyla’s warmth and her blood saturating one jeans-clad thigh and time was a snail. Twyla’s face was so small. Isla closed her own eyes. Life was made of many smallnesses. Microscopic, really, such tiny moments and the fine-laced snow and shards of ice and cellular mystery of blood. Anguished and joyous hands of a child, this kind woman dying right in her bountiful kitchen. Her life staining Isla’s own skin, the wind freezing tears on her nephews–no, her boy’s–face. And it becomes an infinite flood of life careening here and there, you don’t know how much it all matters until its being torn into jigsaw pieces, life strewn across sand and dirt. If only she saw more good in the scheme, felt less the struggle. Twyla did. Gave much more than sought for herself.

Oh, Twyla.

Two hands fell upon her shoulders, someone’s breath warm on her neck as chill air moved about her.

“Isla, you can let go of her now.” Joe pulled her up, engulfed her in his arms. “Isla, they’re here for her. Could be a stroke but she’ll live, they think–thanks to you, my love.”

*****

It can happen just like that, she thought later as she sat with Dan and Joe, Maddy and Hanes and Twyla on the front porch. One day you believe you know what’s best for you and then the next you see how little you ever knew and everything changes and life goes one in a decent, even finer, way.

“Snow’s about done and look at that petal!” Twyla noted happily to Isla.

Dan smiled, teeth barely showing. “Spring is coming, as usual.” He looked at Isla and Joe with quite a bit less of a squint. “You made it another winter. Stayin’ on again?”

“Not sure, we’ll see,” Joe said but his voice held hope as much as caution.

Maddy elbowed Hanes, lifted an eyebrow. He returned the knowing look and they got up and went around the back of the cabin.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure we’re staying for another year, anyway,” Isla said  as she laced her fingers with Joe’s.

Flowers, some with snow 102

 

The Cost of a Good Day’s Lunch

It’s not often that he goes to Gideon’s for lunch but today is a good day so he celebrates with a small act of charity for himself. Charlene at the office suggested they share a meal but he persisted in watching his computer screen until she went away. It is better this way; she is loud and sometimes uncouth in ways that can annoy him, like slopping coffee when putting the pot back on the hotplate  or noting that so-and-so has about gone bald this year or clipping her shoulder painfully as she rushes around a corner. Not that Peter is the most graceful or civilized person. But he tries to be, at least at work, whereas she tends to let things fall where they may, words included, though her work is good. She sits four cubicles away from him, so there is relief in that. But he still sneaks around at times to avoid her; it depends on his mood he’s noticed.

“I’ll have to hogtie you one of these days, then take you out on my own dime to see what else can develop,” Charlene informed him once in the elevator, smiling rather wickedly before flouncing off. He has been afraid she might manage it somehow, and that image is not pleasant but its funny, too. He can’t imagine why she persists when he tends to feel flattened by such boldness.

To be fair, Peter avoids most people, they are all too much in some way. He has one good friend and their camaraderie is based on passion for video games, something they can’t quite abandon despite closer to thirty than they ever imagined. They get together on every other Saturday night to play and compete and share a couple beers and pizza. Peter doesn’t much like pizza but Tim does; they both enjoy the strange trance that playing provokes when adrenaline kicks in. Other than Tim and his sister, Everly, who lives twelve blocks north and occasionally comes by on a Sunday (though they text once or twice a week), his world is solitary. He prefers it that way, overall. He has had more friends but they end up being a distraction from his research on gemstones or forest canopies or alternative fuels–whatever grabs his interest. Gaining knowledge is his main activity after the workday at Drummond Systems. It staves off the bleakness that creeps in like mildew, a little at a time until it cannot be eradicated.

But today he has received clear praise from his manager. It goes a long way in scrubbing the grayness from his cynical being even if it is temporary. To prolong the upwelling of happiness he felt after supervision, he has come to Gideon’s on Rose Terrace Boulevard, so-called because there is an old and neatly terraced rose garden across from the restaurant.  Peter glances at the garden as he pushes the door open; it has a long way to go before pruned bushes grace them all with greenery and showy blossoms. When they erupt into color he will come more often, maybe twice a month until they die down again. A small extravagance he allows each summer.

“Mr. Ellison, welcome back.”

The hostess nods at him and he follows her. He has been coming here off and on for six years yet he still forgets her name, he could be more mindful. When seated he glances at her name tag, Ursula, that’s it alright. He smiles at her and when a new waitress arrives with coppery curls and an overbite he smiles and orders what he often does, a club sandwich on triple toasted sourdough with a premium dill pickle. And then he sighs audibly, glad to be here, and sips ice water.

Matt Carter has been a tough boss to please. In fact, very few do and Peter has not been different in that respect. But he wants to move up, make more money so he can save for a bicycle trip to Holland or France, perhaps both, he works harder and longer hours than most. So the talk today acknowledged this; Mr. Carter knows a loyal and upward bound employee when he sees one, and Peter Ellison is fast becoming most expert in his domain. A bonus is due.

It might actually happen, his trip, maybe a promotion before he knows it. Peter gleefully looks about the open space with its casual but certain loveliness as if to spread his unexpected good cheer. Everyone is, of course, busy with others or on phones or staring out the window. He gazes out at a news stand and the cars inching by, and imagines telling Tim, then wonders if it will matter or if he will be envious since he’s stuck in a low paying, tedious sales job. Everly will shriek and throw her arms about him so he’ll have to pry her off. He might call her at her museum job so she’ll maintain a calmer demeanor. He chuckles. She’s three years older, is kind and protective of him ever since their parents split up when he was sixteen. If he calls them tonight,  Dad and Mom will murmur “Good work, Peter, really, it’s about time”, then swamp him with details of their busy lives until he begs off and hangs up. No, he won’t share it with them. Not yet, he wants it to be his good news, safe and sound.

Looking down at his glass beading up from warmth of his hand, he removes it and studies a ragged cuticle, picks at it until it reddens.

Lunch arrives. Peter reaches for his earphones when someone roars with laughter. He looks  over at the red-faced, bulky man in a charcoal grey suit. He tenses, rumples his napkin. He’s so like his father, boisterous, big, commanding attention of two others at his table. Both Peter’s parents excel in making their presences known. It was a chore for Everly and him to be properly seen so they got by those years like overlapping shadows until they moved to this sprawling city for college and work. Let their parents have their world, they had made their own; sometimes they got together, but not too often.

He plugs in to a playlist of electronic music and takes a big bite. Savors tang and saltiness, crunch and chewiness, feels lucky to have a place like this to enjoy lunch. To feel a little relieved and even good about his success today. Peter half-closes his eyes as he follows along with the music softly soothing his brain, is in a silver roadster and head out on the highway, the top down, the wind gleefully wrecking his hair, and he’s headed to the mountains when there is a fast flick of a sinuous tail, almost a snap at his shoulder. Peter’s eyes widen.

A dingy white and rusty brown cat. Parading along a low room divider as if performing for treats, tail swaying, head high. It then licks a paw a couple seconds. There was never any mascot at Gideon’s, certainly no breathing, licking, scratching cat so what is it doing here, a restaurant at lunchtime? It thrusts its head at Peter, sniffs, whiskers twitching, then pulls back and primly sits right above his table. The cat–a girl, Peter decides–has no intention of leaving him to his sandwich, it smells wonderfully of thick bacon and turkey and ham so he looks nervously about for his waitress who’s at the far end of the room. Waves at her but she moves away. The next table’s occupants don’t notice the cat as they’re intent on coffee and dessert, so Peter shoos the creature away, who simply follows his hand with bobbing head, then eyes the food. He pulls out the ear buds, unnerved. Takes a bite, then another and chews with mouth shut and stares at the cat in defiance of its motives to make ruin of his meal. How irksome and odd to have a cat present. It has to have run in when a door opened wide.

Peter overall feels neutral about animals unless they’re in the wild, then he’s all eyes and ears. They’d had a terrier when growing up but he got hit by a taxi in a rush to get their father to the airport. That was that. Everly asked for a cat once but the answer was a resounding negative; their mother found them fussy and unpredictable. His sister now had no time for pets; Peter had no inclination.

“Go!” Peter commands of the calm statuesque cat.

“Oh dear, where did this one come from? Now aren’t you something, pretty thing?”

Marcy, the name tag announced, is smiling at the cat despite a tremor of alarm in her high voice. She pushes back long wispy bangs. Squints, reaches out with lips pursed as if about to kiss the furry thing but her plan is to grab and hold on despite fear of scratches. The cat leaps down and behind half-wall so she moves slowly around the end, whereupon the cat darts between her legs, under Peter’s table. He can feel its warm body atop his shoe and moves the foot but it moves, too, remains there wedged between the wall and the world, a benign bulk settling in.

“I need to tell the manager,” Marcy says frowning.”A shame, such a pretty feline. Not yours, I assume?”

“No, no, I was enjoying my meal and it appeared as if invited.”

Marcy giggles. “It likes you, apparently.” She looks under the table a moment. “We could offer it some bacon.”

Peter shakes his head emphatically. “Not acceptable to encourage finishing off my meal.”

“Oh, right, sorry, sir, it might just do that.” She leaves in search of the manager.

Peter pushes the cat off his foot with the other foot. It remains close at his ankle, purrs, rubs its head on his pant leg.

“Leaving your fur on me, are you? You need to go.”

It persists with rubbing its head on his pants. Peter  looks under the table again, worries his pressed jeans pants will be hairy with cat fur, shakes his leg. It–she?–stops but stares at him without any concern and rumbles its purr even more.

“I got a bonus today and you had to interrupt my victory meal. Why not bother someone else? I never much cared for cats.”

The next two tables’ occupants have taken notice and watch with either distaste or amusement. He reaches under, tries to snag the cat but it slips around the barrier.  It has begun to feel like a battle being lost so he quickly finishes the sandwich, determined to get back to work late. The cat reappears, disappears, hides under the table. About the time he is ready to get the check, the manager rushes toward him.

A lanky man with a long nose, he looks down through thick black rimmed glasses toward the floor, then at Peter and the others.

“I am so very sorry. This has never happened before. I’ll deal with it, don’t worry.” He studies Peter, his features exuding regret. “It didn’t nab your lunch, sir, did it?”

“No, she must be full of mice as she might have made a pounce for it. May I have the bill, please?”

The manager beckons Marcy, whispers to her, reiterates regrets to him then finds the recalcitrant cat. Swiftly he grabs her by scruff of the neck so four legs stick out straight, then they rush between tables toward the front doors. Out she goes. Peter can just see this from his spot, tossed out just like that. He wonders if the cat’s fate is to scrape by and die on the street.

“No charge, sir, we’re so sorry this happened but hope you’ll return,” Marcy says, blue eyes downcast–but no tip, either.

Peter unfolds himself from his chair, smiles vaguely in her direction. “How generous of you. Crafty cat. No worries, I’ll be back.” He gathers ear buds and phone, gets his wallet out and tucks a tip at plate’s edge as she steps away, lips parting to reveal bright big teeth. He grabs his backpack, eager to leave it all, and exits. Marcy finds him attractive in a disheveled, studious way, hopes next time he remembers her name.

Once outdoors, Peter consults his watch–ten minutes for two blocks–and steps forward, nearly squashing a mass of something. He just catches himself from falling and it yowls–damned cat! She’s been lurking, wishing to hold him up. Now she slinks along the building’s wall and eyes him suspiciously. Maybe she’ll at last go, he’s fed up with shenanigans when he just wants a few more moments to celebrate on the walk back.

She dashes out into the street as a truck lumbers up to the corner so that Peter must run out and hold up his hands to stop honking traffic, then scoops her up, presses her writhing mass to his chest and makes for the corner right by the garden. He plops on a bench, clutching her. She stops wiggling, pokes her nose at his, licks it to his mild dismay. Now he will have to be responsible, how can you not be when you save a life? Isn’t it a spiritual law?

Peter accepts he will now be late. He worries…he knows his boss will not like it–but he will also overlook this slight error of his man of the hour. The cat settles in his lap as he takes out his phone. It rings three, four times and he is about to hang up when it is answered.

“Everly, what are you doing after work? I have news, work-wise and otherwise, can’t say what just now. A surprise, yes. We can order take out, Indian.” He pets the cat firmly. “I have a favor to ask, also, not that big, maybe just advice.” The cat tries to turn a full circle on his now-ruined lap. “Good, see you at seven.”

When Peter enters the office he walks right to Charlene who is startled by his sweaty face. He crooks his finger at her and she gets up, follows him into the empty break room.

“Hold on, now, I just have a chore to ask of you.”

“What’s that?” she asks, curls shimmering at him.

“Where can we keep a cat until I leave?”

“A cat? Here? A real live one?”

“Sshhh!” He lifts his backpack, undoes the flap buckle so two ears and a pointy face pop out.

“Hello, gorgeous! How exciting, Peter, I never imagined you—”

“Pipe down, Charlene, this is serious, I can’t leave work until five but this cat followed me, more or less…so where to keep it? Without being found out and duly dismissed, both of us?”

“Oh, well, there’s the storage room, put it in a box maybe. I do sit right by the door, no one can get in without my knowing. I’ll check on it a couple times. Hopefully it won’t be noisy. I even have leftover ham sandwich, we have milk here, I can feed it if it fusses.” She beams up at Peter. She’s finally gotten into his good graces. Or will soon. “I hope it doesn’t make any messes, though…”

“Perfect, you’re a titan of fine ideas. I really appreciate it. And if you want a cat at the end of the day…”

“No thanks, I have a white poodle puppy to oversee.”

He shrugs, hands off his backpack and she takes over as he lopes back to his cubicle. He turns at his desk and goes back.

“Want to go out sometime, maybe?”

“I passed a test or something?”

She looks undone by his question and it tickles him.

“Maybe.”

“Sure, of course, why not?”

She almost glows some moments, he thinks, like a peachy-orange sunrise moving along the horizon.

Peter returns to work. He has plenty to do and he’s no slacker, that’s for sure. Neither is he a cat person much less a people person. He hypothesizes that life changes at times without his full approval or understanding. But he suddenly feels ready for more happenstance; he’ll figure out the necessary details and make a few accommodations as need be.