Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ways to Redemption

Photo, pixabay.com

It was the middle of winter then, the wind a hundred slaps of ice on her face, its meanness stealing her breath. Heavy flakes of snow were starting to swirl and plummet onto tree branches and her shoulders. No one who knew anything about the north stepped outside longer than a short time to grab more wood from the stacked cord, or to let the dogs out, or–if crucial–go to work, and then often under duress. It could get bad fast. Blizzard warnings were nothing to fuss much over but nothing to laugh at. No need. Everyone prepared for days or nights like that when they were accustomed to it. You took it like you took the long humid summer, or the muddy, stormy weather in spring, or scores of brilliant leaves shaking in the wind, then falling in heaps each autumn.

It wasn’t that she was ignorant of weather and its might; she was born and raised there. If that meant sledding headlong and screeching down Miller’s Ridge, it also meant fingers that reddened and burned with a rush of blood when warming up. If it meant working to cut a decent figure eight on the pond’s rough surface, it brought, too, sweat turning to icicles along her neck and spine. It meant snow boots that kept her from moving fast enough after the deer or fox she spotted and nights trapped inside with her parents as winter howled– and dates that were nothing but a whispered phone call in the warmish stairwell or corner of her chilly room–and their hushed voices cutting out until there came the dead line droning.

It wasn’t happenstance, then, that Freida was there, hanging onto the splintered wood railing of Moon Bridge which spanned the widest part of Otter River. Below her, the river parted from itself in a jagged oval around which the thickening ice was starting to jam up the flow. Freida frowned at it. Was it large or small? It was hard to determine as daylight faded and the whiteness gathered. Was the ice as thin as she reckoned or was it hardening into a board that would not break? How long would it take for something fairly heavy to be pitched over the rail and land smack in the middle of that opening? And then sink?

Freida pulled her red knitted hat further down, then released a short puff of a laugh. It didn’t matter, her nubby hat. Nor the growing blizzard or her stinging forehead; not the water temperature or time of day.

She looked into the sky and if it had been bright with stars, much may have mattered. If the moon had winked at her from behind bare birch branches. If a blazing cardinal had appeared nearby and called out. If she had brought her sadness to them, found their singular beauty a gentle caution, a promise of patience, a show of kindness–then things might be different. But it was not so. She was seventeen while the great stretch of sky had been there forever, perfect, powerful. She was not willing to wait for this storm to pass.

She had had enough.

She unbuttoned and let drop her slightly moth-eaten camel hair coat and worn leather gloves, then yanked off her bulky sweater and tugged off the jeans. Lay them in a heap with the other items, her skin gone goose flesh and her legs starting to shake. Then she pulled each warm foot from their comforting boots. Underwear, socks and hat still on, she climbed one split log running horizontal in the bridge railing, hands clutching the top guardrail.

The snow started to thicken and rush at her as Canadian winds swept her of all natural heat, taunting her. It was now or nothing. She held her breath and put one foot atop the last rung, arms lifting at her sides.

And then there was a sudden rustle in bushes across the river, and a sharp cry. Freida lowered her foot, red-hatted head turned as she peered into a jumble of snowflakes. Was that a person, then, someone watching her? Who would be out here now? A shriek then, high-pitched and wild.

“No!”

The single word was slung across brittle air, suspended above the river halfway from the far bank and Freida–yet it reverberated as loudly as if a truck’s brakes had suddenly been stomped.

Another teen– drinking, messing around? A woman on her way somewhere else. Or a kid? Who was going to tell when nothing much could be made out in the snow, anyway? Worst of all, what sort of ending would this be?

Her balance lost itself in a grip of fear; she fell backwards onto old and new snow, her back and legs scorched by deepening cold. She began to tremble, then shake hard as she, while lying down and so stiff-bodied every move was a terrible chore, pulled on all the clothing. She stood unsteadily, forced herself to not look back, then tromped back to the road slowly, achingly, her hands and feet numb. She was angry and disgusted–with her timing, with her crazed feelings, with the invisible one who had to see, had to cry out.

It was getting dark. She found herself trying to run home to her demanding mother and sour stepfather. She tried to focus on the fragrant, radiant heat of the wood stove that would rise up to the second story where her room caught and would hold it for her. They’d bark at her for being out too long, fuss over all the snow brought in,ask if she was frozen yet but after that, she could slip off to a quiet, thawing bath. She reassured herself that no one could have seen her closely. No one lived around there. Unless it was the old Riley wreck of a house being squatted in. Even she avoided the place after the barn burned down thanks to the owner, mad John Riley, who vanished soon after and let the wild things take over the rooms. No, no person would hang out there now–it’d crash down sooner than later and you wouldn’t want to be in it.

She looked behind her a few times. The early evening had gone slate dark, with masses of white gauziness clinging to all. It was nothing, that cry. An animal caught in a trap. A vagrant surprised by something. Nothing would come of it. And she’d have to manage to stay alive, stupid person that she was. She had music, didn’t she–still, no matter what? She had to keep on.

****** Twelve years later******

“Freida!”

She heard a man’s footsteps quicken but she hurried into the drugstore, her large sunglasses a shield, a straw hat a small comfort with wide brim shutting out prying eyes. All she had to do was buy soap, hand lotion and get the prescription for her mother, she’d be done in a wink. Items were gotten and she marched to the counter. No one waited before her so she slid up to the cashier, pulled out a credit card.

“Freida, there you are,” he said with relief, panting behind her, but she didn’t turn, not even when he got close. He smelled of beer. She had no idea who he was, and the cashier was looking her over, skeptical and admiring at once, so she ran out the door, found her blue convertible and started it up.

“Lanie, wait, can’t I get a picture, please?!”

Someone else and then another yelled her stage name, the only name she answered to easily anymore. Not Freida, never again. She put it into reverse and zoomed off, trying to not speed but desperate to get off North Malley Street. She had expected side routes to be discreet but no, there they were, and now two people on motorcycles trying to ride alongside of her. Like so often no matter what she did or where she went, anymore.

Well, she did grow up here. She had made a bit of a splash out there.

She had been gone twelve years, had made a name for herself on Broadway and, recently, much farther beyond. And returned here as Lanie Hartman, no longer Freida Jean Rossiter. But her mother still called her by her birth name, first and middle. There was no getting away from that, either.

She pulled up to the A-frame set back on the shady acreage, got out and unlocked the gate, then drove to the end of the gravel driveway. Studied it in the late afternoon light which draped all in a sheer wave of gold. It was a stone’s throw from looking run down–she’d have to find out what it needed–yet still stood proud on a grassy spot within wooded land. The front porch was empty now, and Freida aka Lanie, resolved to get her mother onto it and into the reviving air of summer, humid or not. After a hip replacement at only fifty-eight, that woman could be ornerier than ever.

******

“It runs in the family, arthritis and bone deficiencies, so you better be prepared. No more prancing around on a stage after a precious few years, Freida Jean.”

“Lanie…” she said, then took a swig from a chilled, beaded root beer bottle.

The sunlight was soft on her feet, and her mother’s face got gentler the longer she sat under their patch of open sky.

“What’s wrong with the old one? Oh, well, what’s the difference in the end. You’re still Freida Jean to whoever matters. Just like I’m Cece, not Cecelia.” She frowned, unsure that made sense. “Right?”

“Debatable, Mom. But lots of people–friends– call me Lanie, that’s who they know. They love me, too, as Lanie Hartman, they never had the chance to like or dislike Freida. I’m used to that name now, not the birth name, sorry. It’s been many years since I used it.”

An eagle startled the air, swooped to a perch on a pine tree. The fragrance of pines, warm earth, river water out back–it all swept over her like a hypnotic medicine. This, she missed. Not the rest.

“Well, Marsha and Clyde–remember them? Big house down the road two miles or so?–they saw you in that oddball musical. “Why Hello, Ms. Manners”, was that it? weird title. They saw it last spring when they were in New York. They said you were good. So, that was nice…that’s very good, of course. They have good taste, you know.”

Lanie flushed with smattering of schoolgirl pleasure, leaned forward and tried to catch her mother’s eye. “I’m so happy they liked it. Why haven’t you ever come to see me, Mom? I have asked you so many times, told you I’d pay for a plane ticket and get you in free, put you up in a good hotel, we could–“

“Oh, no, I told you long ago there has never been a plane I trusted. Went once in 1987 to my father’s funeral and that was enough. And it’s too far–how long would I be up in the air, anyway?” She shuddered. “And you know Hal never would go for that.”

“But Hal died six years ago.”

“And I haven’t gone anywhere much since. Then, you know, my hips and knees.” She turned her face to her daughter’s and almost smiled. “I saw you on TV once. You were wonderful enough. I told Hal–she always had a fine big voice, that girl.”

And she winked with a crooked grin–it was usually this instead of an expansive smile—and placed a thin cool hand on her Freida’s forearm and squeezed a mite, then let go. Her girl had become a woman and she hardly recognized her even after a week together. Coppery hair. Glistening peach lips. Too skinny. It scared her sometimes to think of her as famous. What could that mean in the world but sensational or plain bad news?

Lanie smiled back, shutting her eyes against tears a split second. Yes, her mother and Hal had said things. They’d said, Stop that racket, can’t you find something useful to do? Why do you have to yell when you do a song? Try the piano, maybe, we all love that upright but it sits there gathering dust. You had a talent for that, it’s entertaining. Get back to work, music is a hobby after all work is done.

“Thanks, Mom, that’s nice of you to say.”

Yes, they had loved that piano, her mother and herself, she didn’t believe Hal cared for any kind of music much since he generally complained of it, not just hers. Her father, though, had played it every night, happy ragtime, a thumbed and tattered book of standards, old hymns. But he had died in a logging accident when she was eleven. And it had stayed silent–except when the house was empty and it was just her and the smudged keyboard. Herself settled in with music she tried to recall–but then made up her own, and her exuberant singing rang out. She had thought there was nothing better than singing and playing into that A-frame emptiness, how it nearly echoed. And nothing lonelier, too.

“By the way, Freida Jean, someone came by when you ran errands for me.”

“Who? A stranger passing off as an old friend again? No calls will be answered, no doors opened, remember?”

Cece shook her head slowly. “No, dear. It was Della Garner, quite sure of it.”

Lanie looked at her blankly. “Della?”

“Old John Ryan’s granddaughter. Remember her? Of course, she’s ten years younger than you, maybe eight.” She reached for her iced tea glass and drank long and noisily. “Let’s see, would’ve been young enough you might not recall that one, but her mother, Nance–John’s smart and only daughter– married into that good family who owns the fancy stables down the road.”

Cece seemed to fade, She drank more, sighed. The pain pills were kicking in at last.

“Della,” she repeated, “yes, that’s her, came by and wants to see you, honey.”

Lanie saw the drug smooth her mother’s lined face, heard it loosen her tongue. She needn’t worry about her mother and pills–she was moderate in everything but opinions about the world and rapidly offered sarcasm–but she did, anyway. A hip replacement was not so easy to get over as she made it seem. She might stay another two weeks.

Lanie vaguely recalled the child, not the mother much, she’d known them in passing, such as on side roads when Lanie was walking and Nance Ryan Garner and her daughter were riding beautiful horses. They were horse crazy, she had thought, whereas she was horse shy.

“I wonder what that’s about. Surely she isn’t into musicals since she is a teen now, but maybe she is, or her mother.”

But Cece’s eyelids were closed for the duration, her mouth was hanging open; a little drool trickled down the corner of her lips. Lanie retrieved her glass from an arm of the Adirondack chair and went inside to consider what she’d do about dinner. It was a challenge cooking for someone like her mother. But she was glad she could be there, anyway, in that yellow sunshine, that her mother had called her to come.

******

“Well, Della, glad to meet you–again, I suppose. Why don’t we sit here on the porch?”

It was not a child (as Lanie had still thought of Della) who stood before her, but an attractive young woman. Twelve years had changed them both, certainly, but Della was still paler than fair, with lots of hair straight and light as straw.

Della stepped back from her, fingers to lips, grey eyes round as two moons. “I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. My mother almost came, but she’s too shy. We saw you on the Tonight Show…you were fantastic.”

Lanie sat, Della followed suit. “I’m so glad you liked it, really! Can I get you anything, a sweet tea or a soda? A CD of mine, perhaps?”

“Oh, that’s okay.” She looked at her hands, then stole a glance at Lanie again, gaze then sliding off her face. “Well, yes, your autograph on one of your CDs– that would be wonderful!” She grasped the arms of her chair. “But I came for another reason. One I’ve thought about for years.”

“What’s that, Della?”

The visitor took a deep breath, held it in, then words rushed out in a torrent of feeling, as if to keep the words in any longer might cause her to start on fire–and she’d explode into who knows how many shreds of emotion out there in the beauty of the woods? It had to be said aloud.

“It was me. That night. The one who saw you, I was there in the woods later than I should’ve been, my dog got loose and ran off. and I knew my parents were going to punish me, come searching for us, so I was in a big hurry to get home and then… there you were. On the bridge, and you took off most of your clothes right there in the blizzard and climbed on the railing ..I knew something bad was happening, and I had to yell stop!”

Lanie clamped her mouth with both hands, her brows bunched together and her face went nearly white with horror. A small sound eked out.

Della breathed, her chest opening like vault whose lock had been picked at last. She watched the now-famous woman and wondered if she had made a mistake; tried to be calmer as old fears came up, then a wisp of sorrow. But there it was, the secret undone like a spell broken.

“I felt you might want to know, finally…”

“My gosh, Della! I can’t even imagine…you were–what? Only eight or so? What a terrible thing for you! I am so, so sorry, Della…it was long ago, but neither of us have forgotten it.” She closed her eyes and it all came back. “But your calling out made the difference. It froze me in the moment and I came back to myself…”

“Oh, Lanie, far more terrible thing for you! I didn’t understand it. All I knew is that you were in danger.I couldn’t do anything, too small, too slow, and the blizzard coming on us and no one else nearby. I was so afraid you would jump in the water– or fall– then what would I do?”

Lanie knelt beside her,pressed her hands between her own. Her face was damp with unbidden tears. “But you saved me, anyway. You have to grasp that! I was not okay, I was deeply discouraged, felt so lonely. I wanted music to rule in my life, I wanted to sing, you see, more than anything. But could not, not with my parents against it, not without any chance for training, not then…and I was ready to give up. Everything. It was that hellish a thing to me– a life without music. “

Lanie stood, walked to the side of the porch where she leaned out over the grass and Della followed. They took in the relief of sweeping summer greenness, sky winking its blue brilliance, breezes like sweet and unruly caresses.

“Well, now I understand. You had to sing. Just like I have to ride horses, train them. They’re my life, just like music is yours. I don’t know what I’d do without my passion for horses, my being in their world. But the thing is, many years later, that very moment saved me, too–that’s the other part you should know.”

Lanie hooked her arm in Della’s, surprised how small the younger woman felt next to her own bony tallness, but the smaller was muscular and straight-backed. A conditioned rider, a hearty one.

“I was barely fifteen and had endured a full year of bullying. I was always too pale, you know, so fair that you could barely see eyebrows or eyelashes, my skin almost translucent, my hair like the a straw doll’s hair. I had to wear strong sunscreen all the time–I was usually outdoors. A favorite name was “freak albino” though I’m not. Everyone teased me, harassed me, adding crude things on social media…the whole works. I starting skipping school. I also had a hard time with equestrian training, I couldn’t keep up, too many errors in important competitions.”

Lanie took in the young woman’s face, its fluid animation and how it glowed. She was brave to dare to come, to speak of such things to a woman she didn’t know except for a public face, and one snowy evening. Della observed her but gave her space.

“I wanted to either disappear or…die. I couldn’t bear the exclusion and meanness, anymore, at school, or my parents’ disappointment. I’d wanted to bring my family up even more–my grandpa didn’t have a great reputation–but I kept missing my mark. So I went to Otter River one day, feeling sorry for myself and letting myself have a hard cry. And then looked over the railing at the river rushing below, thought about just slipping under and away…and I recalled that night. It had scared me so much. I’d also felt relief when you left and so glad. Even though I got in trouble for being late and kept what I saw to myself.”

She gave herself a little shake as if to slough off the past.

“You’d been where I was, right there, feeling like that. And then–you were walking away into the blizzard. And years passed while you began to perform, become well known. I had no idea what it all meant to you from start to finish. But you’d changed your mind, went on. I kept track of you in your show news and interview to know what played out. And saw you succeeding. It was because you believed in what was meant for you, then worked hard. Achieved things that are meaningful for others, too. It’s beautiful what you’ve done, you know? What if you’d given up that night? But you got stronger, found a way to be yourself. So I thought I should try to do the same. I walked away, too. I never gave up again, either.”

Lanie folded Della in her arms, and they were like that long enough for Cece to struggle to the window with her walker and get a good gaze out at them. The scene puzzled her. Maybe Della was a great admirer–so many were. She went to the kitchen and wondered about dinner. Lanie was no real cook but she’d done alright. It was just real good to have her there after so long apart. Her sensitive daughter who sang too damned loud, left home too young. Her grown, now-famous daughter. Strange things happened sometimes, she guessed she’d become a believer.

The two young women spoke a bit about lighter things, when Lanie suddenly stopped and asked, “What about your dog? Did it perish in the blizzard? Please tell me it worked out okay.”

Della laughed. “Oh, no, Tommy got home way before me! He’s still limping about, a leg gone lame after a raccoon fight.”

Finally Della got her CD with case autographed, plus two tickets for a tour date in Chicago. Lanie walked her down the driveway to her truck. She waved even after Della vanished in whorls of summer’s dust. And she sang to herself and the trees on, then took her song into the house, and shared it with her quieted, soft eyed mother as she made dinner.

Later when dishing out a dessert of two chocolate chip cookies with one scoop of maple nut ice cream, she announced she was buying “for you, my irascible and beloved mother, a two-way train ticket for a new show opening in New York–you are coming late November, no excuses this time, it’s for a shared Thanksgiving.”

Wednesday’s Words/Flash Fiction: Dangerous Life

“You’ll break your neck!”

That’s what she said when informed he was taking windsurfing lessons for his 59th birthday.

She nearly wept; his legs, badly injured in the war. She got him cargo shorts, a fly fishing guide. Neither was what he needed: a major jolt. The old ways no longer satisfied. He’d watched the windsurfers; they inspired him as nothing else in years. It was his turn out there.

“What do you know of that river, its winds?”

He knew some things and wanted more. Trouble was, her adrenaline had been waylaid, passions dampened by defeatist views.

Still, friends cautioned him: age, dangers.

His strength and resolve grew.

When he at last hit water, then sailed, freedom from years of her worry and his subterranean fear arrived. Not easy; not disappointing. He fully awakened.

Finally, he turned back.

Only then did he see her with fists raised in victory.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Her Oasis on a Tilt

It was very late afternoon, light sifting through treetops in a shower of gold, a slight pause before hearty or unusual fragrances of culinary works began sailing across one emerald, expansive yard to another. Songbirds, entertaining and costumed with fine feathers, rested. Heat had finally been turned up by the invisible hand of nature. The pool shimmered as if diamonds had been tossed across its surface, and for a moment Bella found herself blinded.

Her damp, straight hair hung about pale shoulders. She was a swimmer but not a sunbather and shade of the mountain ash, though patchy, soothed her drying skin. She didn’t want to move under great overhanging maples; her body was in repose. Nothing stirred her. Not even Remy, her golden doodle, snuffling about edges of things. Not even the phone ringing from the dining table where she had left it.

She was almost dreaming while awake. Images of her drawings bled through the pale orange to pink screen behind her eyelids and she saw their flaws and potential, meanings not noticed before. This was one reason she swam every day she could: mind released its contents as body unclenched its knotty parts. It was a feast of ideas, and Bella let them arrive and depart as if a click of old fashioned slides. Decades, now, of work. The actual, salable art was often removed from her faster than anticipated. Or desired. That was success, she mourned, and turned her face from the light that blared on all.

There was no reason to get up soon. No dinner to create. Antonio was gone, this time for perhaps a month. This was not unexpected; he was a corporate financial consultant and traveled widely. He conducted business she had only an inkling about and that suited her. If he was challenged enough… that was the tipping point– from bored to enthused, stressed to invigorated, irritable to expansive and more attentive when he returned. Otherwise, they could be more like two cautious partners fielding questions and flinging looks despite reaching for each other, and then suddenly there might come sparks that flared. But vanished, too soon. They both resisted an undertow of discontent for long. It damaged the landscape of their lives so had to be repaired. Bella learned to find her own way, to let Anthony realign himself. To nurture her own soul as needed.

It was mysteriousness, being married. Who was trained in the requisite skills? It was instinct and risk, or nothing. For them, a hoped for oneness was everything when together, even during trials. And the best way to survive in the wider world.

On the breeze came an almost acrid if rich odor that made her mouth water: choice beef on the grill. She turned over and glanced at the high fence, thought of Nance, wondered if she was home from work or, no, it was the chef they had in four evenings a week. Ridiculous. Nance, too, was one of just a couple over there–their son left for university, never quite returned. It was as if she and Rollie, her spouse, needed some sort of reward after their labors, their many sacrifices for success which Nance always referred to with a sigh, gaze lowering in a small show of self-pity.

What sacrifices, she wondered. What was lost or left behind, what had been given up or ripped away? Nance never said. There was something, maybe one day they would talk. Or not. Life was a private affair in that neighborhood.

Bella ran afoul of the norm lived around her: an art maker, not a professional woman in a business suit, not a mother hen gathering and exhibiting her chicks proudly. Married to a man she cared deeply about. She was not a scholar or any sort of teacher, nor a gallery director or curator. And never a commercial artist. Not close to becoming a mother, that was how it worked out for her body. Only an artist thinking, sketching, drawing, examining, transforming day after day. Her choice was made long ago to create. Antonio did not truly understand. But he loved her. It worked well enough.

He was in Spain again. Basking in the poetic sunlight, seeing family, working, working, an engine that never stopped until vague far off destination.

Her skin perspired under the last of the day’s deep rays. She lightly pressed her forehead with a palm so not to disturb the sun block, then tousled the dark drier strands that fell over her brow. She would work more after she ate, sit on the upper terrace with sketchbook. See if he called her.

Now, a cool shower. Candlelight with Remy at her side.

******

After she had showered off chlorine and sweat, dressed in a caftan and padded about the kitchen thinking of salad, Bella remembered the mail.

The small pile lay in a black lacquered tray; it was on a small entry table against the wall. The mail slot beside the massive door neatly released its contents into the tray. It was one of the things she loved about the house: it was efficient in design. Too showy for her but practical in its ways.

The mail was usually dull. Perhaps an invitation to a wedding now that it was summer–yes, there it was–advertising circulars (a waste that maddened her), thick or thin art magazines she wouldn’t give up as they felt so happy in her hands, a small order of something, oh, that lip gloss she found online (she’d use it only if they went out).

Then a plain white envelope. The white security kind you might have used to pay bills. Handwritten address, to Mr. Antonio Alvarado. The handwriting sloped downward a bit but was firm, even bold in a way that seemed studied: this address must look serious, confident. Unadorned, not quite printing, but close. She turned it over. Blank. Just a brownish smudge, as if dropped on the ground en route to a mailbox. Bella studied the front once more, frowning. Was that young or old handwriting? Male, female? Perhaps the second, something in an exaggerated curve or tail here and there. A personal letter, not business. No return address.

The postmark was San Francisco, CA. They were in New Mexico.

Eyebrows rose to high arches. Who might he know there? When had he been last? Two or more years, she thought. She stared hard at the front door as if Antonio was going to bound in so she might put an end to speculation.

She replaced it in the lacquered tray. Decided on salad with chopped smoky ham, the vegetables left she could scavenge. And iced black tea with a lemon slice. Her head was a tad swimmy until she sat and ate slowly, trying to not think of it further.

******

It didn’t make that much difference when her leg snapped as she hit the ground all those years ago. Though everyone cast pity her way, worried about her too long. She barely could keep her seat for longer than a half hour, they all knew that, but Antonio loved riding so she went along, and elegant beasts were wonderful. She had a dancer’s body, used it well but it was only another passion and though reined in, not quite dampened despite the leg. Of course, she didn’t publicly dance after that, not even for charity events or arts festivals or flamenco classes she’d attended. She was left with a limp, not so terrible that a stranger would gawk over two seconds. But everyone who knew her, saw her altered and looked away so they wouldn’t embarrass her. Or themselves.

It impacted her sense of self but Antonio was shaken–by the accident, her terrible broken bones, the difficult surgeries and rehabilitation. His guilt. If he hadn’t persuaded her to ride so often. Or at all. But she’d tried to reassure him.

“This doesn’t change so much–just my childish wish to perform. Well, it changes my gait, it might slow me down awhile. Does that disturb you?”

They suspected it would last indefinitely, the uneven walk, the chronic pain and nerve damage. And so he hesitated ever so little but it was there, a flicker of his eyes, and it was then she knew it did. Perhaps enough to change his view of her in an essential way.

“No. I love that you’re so positive about this, that you stand up to seeming defeat and take matters in hand. You can well temper you romantic side with your realistic attitude. You know how to make the best of things, can recreate the design of your living.”

“Really, what things do you mean? I can walk, I will one day hike again, I can swim–and there is making art, which if you recall requires little to no movement of my legs, right? I–“

He clasped her forearms, then slid fingertips over her face and smiled. She shivered, moved in closer, his warmth a magnet for her growing coolness. He kissed the tip of her nose, stepped away, looked at his phone as he replied.

“Bella, you inspire me…I’m proud of your hard work. A limp is nothing, we are grateful you can walk! But please excuse me, I have a call coming in.” He looked back as he left the living room. “Don’t forget I have to leave on Sunday for London. We’ll call that physical therapist- Stan? Steve?-back in–okay?” He held up a finger as he answered the clarion call to business and put ear to cell.

His back receded to a shadow beyond the doorway. She thought again that he admired too entirely her body, when she spent much of the time unaware of it. Creating, for her, took her out of flesh and bones in many ways. For Antonio, physicality brought him to a place where he felt most at home, felt elevated even by her presence, and there were times of jubilation. He was a person of action first and last. She admired and was pulled to this, too.

There was another hunger she sought to satisfy more: creating. And how graciously he deferred–usually. It was that or get less of her.

Still, it worried her a little as she struggled to heal. But nothing much did change. Oh, the nagging or lightning pains even after seventeen years. Bella had donated her collection of high heels. She gave up any desire for superficial perfection. She stopped dreaming of marathons. She worked on more secure, critical balance. Her endurance and strength improved as she swam, undertook vigorous exercise regimens, began short hikes with a custom made staff to keep her steadier and went with or without him–but always with Remy if possible. He was her look-out and her buddy.

The limp did not disappear. It was a part of her, like the brush of pale freckles across chest and cheeks. Irrelevant in the end.

Anyway, she still danced on their long, deep terraces at back of the house in dry weather. Nance, Rollie and few others about occasionally noticed her swaying, turning in less than perfect circles across space to soft music and murmuring to each other, what a shame, once such a graceful woman, an asset to Antonio –but a fine artist, thank god for that.

Now before she began brainstorming for the latest project she danced, no music, just movement like licks of wind, flicks of a paintbrush, a ringing of glass chimes a call for more beauty in the world as she turned, turned, reached and at last sat down with her tools for art.

Nance watched her from her patio and said to Rollie, “She’s become more of a ghost over the years, don’t you think? Secluded and pale, even with all the swimming. He’s gone so much and she draws, swims. Flutters about. In her own dream world.” She felt a proximity to envy, as if she wanted to join into those moments and see what it was she had. It was a moment gone as soon as it began.

Rollie laughed. “What do you expect? She’s an artiste, my dear. They don’t have an inclination for much else. Anthony could be a saint– or at least loyal as heck. Though she’s a fine person, but who could imagine that she would end up with him?”

“Come on, a saint– Antonio? You think so? She’s fascinating, but he’s as good looking and charming as they get after forty-five. And he’s all over the world, alone…Idle hands, they say. No saint, I wager.”

“Mmmm, yes.” He grimaced. “Well, now–a steak, dear? Thank you, Brett, you always do such a royal job on a rare chunk of meat!”

“Rollie, your manners. Just a smidgen, Brett, I’ve got to keep my health on the straight and narrow.”

Bella worked long after Nance and Rollie went indoors. The night air was light and cool, feathers drifting against arms and legs. And the quietness a balm, though their voices had been muted and even if she’d desired to, it wasn’t possible to eavesdrop readily. The residences were built to insure separateness.

She lit a lavender-scented pillar candle, sketched away. Antonio didn’t call–but he often did not for a week or so.

When she was done, she found trails of nonsensical writing across white pages, shapes at odds with each other, and objects from faraway places she had once visited floating across the expanse… yet at the edges were darkly shaded spaces with nothing to show. Like a graphite collage of random bits and worn out pieces of her past. Where was cohesiveness, a central idea? Why could she not get her brain and muse on the right track with this?

Not a good night, after all. Remy had nuzzled her leg more than once, then gave up and stretched out by her feet, soon snoring. The stars had come out. The yard was shaped by gradations of grey and black and treetops cut a fading filigreed silhouette again a lighter navy sky. All seemed calm in their home despite her angst.

Bella stood abruptly. It was that damned letter, it was just sitting there, waiting. Dizziness visited her, then she reoriented herself and went to bed.

******

In the morning after breakfast, Remy and Bella took a walk, then trotted inside, threw open the french doors and jumped into the pool’s silky, turquoise water. He liked to swim, too, if only a few minutes, while she swam easy laps for a half hour. She stopped when her left leg twinged. Some days it felt worse, some better. Sometimes she had to pull herself up by only the force of her arms; below her waist then it was as if much got heavier with a slow-aging lameness. Antonio hadn’t seen that yet.

As she dried off, she recalled a book on the kitchen island. Once inside, she dawdled, drinking remains of tepid coffee, then looked toward the foyer. Put the book down.

The letter was the only thing there. Should she take it to his study, lay it on his desk? Prop it up on his dresser? Casually leave it on the island or the dining table or…Why did it matter to her? It could sit there. It could wait for its recipient just as she could.

The book was more of a bore than she expected–an academic treatise from an old professor friend on how art creates smarter children and youth. Nothing new. But it had primarily made her feel different than her peers, as if she had x-ray vision while they were nearly blind. She still didn’t quite fit in many places. But it was no longer a problem she felt any desire to solve.

She swam more: backstroke, sidestroke, breaststroke, crawl. She dove deep and moved along the bottom like another creature, then shot back up for air.

It is only a letter, a letter, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe.

After sun’s heat roasted her–she’d fallen into a light sleep–she startled at a sports car roaring by. Stretched. She gathered up Remy, pushed her face into luxuriant fur, inhaled his good doggy scent, gave him a rub and compliments. More tea, a snack for them both, then back to the drawings.

They were for a new exhibit in three short months. This time, pastels and colored pencils. And more clarity, letting the unexpected move to the fore, accept it for what it was, transition, a sorting out. Alterations. All afternoon she worked and considered, made small progress. An imagined travelogue of a woman moving between places, people, stages. A map– of the verdant oasis of body and soul within which she lived. Then, a lure of more exotic unknowns. And how to make peace or encourage change, how to shape it to her, her to it.

She was a woman of deepening ideas and impulses, and nearing middle age she’d again realized that so much more was unknown. Like an infinity before her. Antonio didn’t seem to feel nit as acutely. He mastered what he could, let the rest slough off.

She got out of the pool, shook out her bundled hair.

Inside it waited, nearly glowed–a warning or an illumination?– it was inert in the tray’s glazed darkness when she checked for mail later. Bella, of course, got letters from those who had bought her work, or from her niece in fourth grade and sometimes her brother, a journalist. Anyone, she supposed, might send a letter to Anthony, it was nothing of such interest. Only a small thing, then. So why did she return to it and feel unnerved?

******

The fourth day after the letter had arrived–ninth since he’d left– he called. It came after a late dinner of salmon with rice and green beans on the patio.

“Darling, you answered–a quick hello from Madrid–I thought you’d be in your studio at work, no phone on, but glad you did.”

“Hello, Anthony, no, I made good progress today so am slacking off tonight.” She glanced at the orange kitchen wall clock–five a.m tomorrow over there.

“As well you should. The exhibit is not yet tomorrow.”

“You’re up early, as usual. How is your work going? Are you enjoying being with your uncle?”

“He misses seeing you, sends love. Work is work, going well enough, making money for all. Anything thrilling there?”

She updated him on the water bill–skyrocketing with all those sprinklers–and the boulevard repaving work begun and walks Remy and she had been taking on a long path in the woods. For the salvation of coolness, she said, but also for the birds. “We heard the calls and saw two Cooper’s hawks today, Remy nearly took chase.”

Antonio laughed. “Good, all sounds right. It’s sweltering here, already my shirt feels damp, of course. Bella, the reason for the call is I’m coming home sooner than anticipated, early next week.’

“Glad to hear it! But all goes well, you said?”

“It has, but there are changes in plans, another meeting will be held after a quick trip to L.A. So I will be home for a week between. Arrival is sometime next” -he tapped on his computer- “next Tuesday afternoon. I’ll send details. Get my car, then home for a late meal. It’ll be restful to have a week off for once.”

“Sounds wonderful. Maybe go to the lake a few days?”

“We’ll see, darling, that might be just the thing.” He sighed: days of simpler pleasures. Bella held close to him. “I should get something to eat and prepare more for my meetings. I just wanted to check in with you, inform of my earlier return. Te amo, Bella.” He offered last intimately, a whisper.

“Love you, too… Antonio, wait…ah, I…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Impatience book-ended his words; he had made the loving but dutiful call, had business to address.

“Nothing, it will wait.”

“Until next Tuesday, then.”

******

The next days and nights were like mud and molasses, Bella slogging her way through them. Yet loose sketches still were executed rapidly, then a few good drawings. The engagement truly buoyed her–discerning shapes and movement and meanings in her work. Remy pestered her less, romped more on his own after daily swims but she always scooped him up after her work, loyal companions.

Only once did she look at the letter. It seemed to have cooled down, was less intriguing to her, as if it was in stasis after too long untouched and unregarded. It seemed almost a frivolous thing the more she burrowed into work, aware of less time left for herself. She had not expected his return so soon, and so sought the greater and better sum of her artistic efforts.

She started to swim at night again, something she had not done for months, but lazily. Remy drowsed on the first floor terrace. The air was redolent of a rosiness freshened yet dimming as nightfall came, and the moon sat in its throne to survey lawns and inhabitants.

And what in Madrid? Was he staying out late with his uncle? Was he looking upward for a propitious sign, even rain? He could be superstitious. Maybe he had made plans for their jaunt to the lake resort–he was good at that–or did he puzzle over what he would do with himself every day?

Everything around her offered the usual magic but her eyes closed, ears were underwater. She floated, floated, keeping the revelations due on Tuesday out of mind.

******

Nance on the other side of the fence leaned toward Rollie.

“Why didn’t we get a pool? I can hear her swimming at night sometimes. It sounds so relaxing. For years I’ve asked for a pool. I know you don’t swim much and it costs, but we’ll get a big raft for you to float about.”

“It might be nice. Remember, she’s still young, strong, she’s…well, she has a lot of time, don’t you think?”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes at him. “So do we, now that we’re retiring soon. Think of that.” She listened for Bella’s strokes, the water making a gentle shusssh when she resumed.

“Let’s go to Barbados, instead, before fall,” he said and lit his cigar. “Just wait until Tony gets back, they always have us over for a meal so you can have your swim then.”

“We can only hope. Or why not just put in a pool, Rollie, just do it.”

He studied the brilliant slip of moon and then the glow of the cigar’s end. Retirement might not be all he had hoped, or it might be more, time would tell.

******

She had made an effort to shine up the place, adding small bouquets here and there–they both liked that. He had long ago wanted her to get cleaning help, the house was so big, but she resisted. Instead, she spiffed it up well once a week and in between could care less. Neither did he–he barely noticed between trips. But this time it seemed important.

In the mirror’s reflection, she examined her face, found it acceptable. The fine lines about her eyes had deepened since working longer hours; she needed readers to better aid her focus. She had chosen flaxen-colored linen pants with a sleeveless white tunic, turquoise at ear lobes and neck. Unadorned, bare feet, the norm all summer. It was Antonio, not a guest, anyhow.

He arrived nearly on time for once, and when he unpacked and put on shorts and old polo shirt they chatted about this and that, then settled into the upper terrace chairs, cold drinks in hand–he, a beer, she, iced tea.

He looked good, burnished by the Spanish sunshine; he seemed pleased with the trip, seeing his uncle again. His kiss was long, almost spicy-fruity as if he’d consumed peaches with ginger. He always looked well even if crinkling about the edges, as if travel became him rather than wore him out, unlike herself. More importantly, his work was satisfactory; next steps were in place for clients. Bella liked how he’d mastered his career, knew his way in greater arenas and came right back to her, still. With the unseemly limp and all.

They were a pair, alright.

“Antonio, I held back something for you. It came in the mail last week.”

“Nothing of interest in the pile you handed me…something more?”

She pulled out the creased letter from her pants pocket, offered it to him. “It has felt a bit of a mystery…I will leave the room if you prefer.”

Antonio took the envelope, gazed at it, turned it over and back again as had she. “No return address? Ah, I see-California?”

“You don’t recognize the handwriting?”

“Not at all. Stay, Bella, it is only a letter!”

He tore it open without hesitation and read. He lay two pages on his thigh and then read it again, more slowly. His face betrayed puzzlement, then a dawning distress.

She leaned closer to him. “What is it? Who?”

He looked up at her, his mouth agape, eyes wide, and shook his head.

“Bella.” He wet his lips, took a frail breath. “I may have a daughter and she may have found me.”

******

“How old, Antonio, and who is she? When did this happen? Where? Answer me!”

She was standing above him, yelling as quietly as she could when her insides wanted to shriek. Her hand went to her mouth, before she did let out a harridan screech. He rose from his chair and his eyes swept over the vibrant garden and sparkling pool, then walked into their bedroom, letter in hand, and then he struck the door jamb with it three times.

She followed and they sat on the bed; her heart was running, running away from her. This was not what she expected, not what he ever imagined, she felt by his response. She’d long ago considered he might not be entirely faithful. She ignored the possibility, however. Her mother–so unbending yet certain of herself and well readied to corral the messiness of life– had taught her this was more or less the norm: how else could ambitious men manage for long periods out there? Bella’s own father may have strayed–“Too much, too much, stop!” she’d yelled at her mother when just a new wife–but one just gets on with it. It could be worse–gambling, drugs addiction abuse. She had to be at ease with men if they would be at ease with her.

She hated that advice. She’d struck out in her own direction, hadn’t she? Her needs mattered, too, it was an egalitarian marriage. Wasn’t it?

He folded the letter, slid it back into the envelope. Laid it on the dresser. She wanted to snatch it and read a loud.

“It was in Italy. That summer we were thinking of separating.” he rubbed his face with both hands. “So long ago, Bella! Such craziness then.”

“When were we thinking of that? You mean, during my long recovery?”

But she knew what he referred to, that she retreated, how long it was before she let him come closer, then even blamed him. Most days and nights she despaired in private, smiled in public. It was that it should not ever have happened, a ruined leg at age 28, a life unbalanced by pain.

“After the riding accident you became depressed about progress… and not being able to have kids, a last blow…we fought so much, remember?” He looked at her, brown eyes glassy, unfocused. “I was in Italy for two months, maybe more, working and staying with an old friend.”

“What friend? A woman friend?” Her words sliced the air. How could he simply roll out this story, hide his face?

“No, no, with Ian–who was with Trevor then. I told you where I stayed.”

“Apparently not all the time! And, who was the woman, Antonio? Who and why, dammit…”

“It doesn’t matter now. It was once, that is all…she was a friend of a business colleague. We all went out. I never dreamed it might happen, felt like hell about it, please Bella, believe me, it has haunted me ever since.”

She covered her face with her hands and lay back on the bed. “It has now come back in the shape of a daughter,” she mumbled. “How can you know for sure?”

He continued, voice quiet, trembling. “This…girl is seventeen. Adelina. The facts line up, she says she has a birth certificate copy with her. Here for college. Somehow she managed to get my name–and address. Through work contacts of her mother?” He made a sharp sound, bark of a laugh, once. “I don’t recall her name, her mother…”

Bella could not stop tears even if proffered a life of fame and a happily forever after. She would not believe him easily ever again–she also could not glibly accept this as truth.

“Bella, please forgive me, forgive me.” He lay down beside her. She didn’t move but wept soundlessly, then in gulps. Antonio’s eyes filled, too, as he stared at the shadowy ceiling, then let himself cry.

“What an idiot, what a fool and a failure I was that summer, Bella!”

She threw a hand out and smacked his chest once, twice. Then rolled halfway to him. Put an arm about him which he pressed close. They wept together, tried to speak but gave up and finally, silenced by hurts and regrets, they fell into a restless sleep.

Remy sat outside their door, whimpering, but no one came to him.

******

She swam three times the next day. Hid in her studio.

He moved to a guest room.

Remy looked from one to the other all day, and finally left for a breezy hallway, lay down, head on paws.

******

She swam and sat under the biggest maple with her sketchbooks and scanned each page, looking for direction, inspiration. Peace.

He swam. Drank chilled wine as he sat on the terrace. Nothing to do but wait. And think about Adelina more than he wanted.

Remy swam, too, caught the ball he threw him a few times.

******

Repeat.

In the middle of the night Antonio looked at their favorite lake spot, dreamed of a different reality.

Remy ate, chased his tail, ran in circles. Lay under the bushes until he joined first one, then the other.

******

She swam and he swam at the same time finally, though they didn’t come close or toss out words. A pantomime of a slow duel, a silent confab. Her eyes were clear beneath thick wet lashes. Her gaze held a simmering anger and it bored into him several times; even when he didn’t see her, he felt it. His own eyes, bloodshot in the high summer spotlight, did not look away.

That night they made a meal together, commenting on the tenderness of parsley and ripeness of the avocado, the smokiness of the turkey. They ate outdoors together by the pool. They sat at its edge, feet dangling in the water. Remy waited long enough, then bounded up to them.

“So. This girl. She wants to meet you, then.”

“Yes.”

“Her mother know?”

“No, she wrote. Her mother never spoke of me until Adelina pleaded with her a long time…her mother is long married, she likes her father. No one cares to talk about the unfortunate past…” He opened his hands up to the sky.

Bella kicked at the water, splashing him. She felt like she could dive in and maybe not resurface…or she could dive in and come back up and just try swimming with him. Her husband. The secret keeper, that fool. The man she loved, and deeply hurt long ago.

She had turned away from him. It wasn’t right, his impulsive diversion, no. But she’d left him with only his work, friends, no promise of better times ahead. She had forgotten those soul battered days and pain wracked nights. The well of loss. She had thought she’d been alright at first. She’d survived and overcome and kept on. A bit heroic perhaps–see how she learned to walk? To become a a more well known artist? See how she managed to beam at Antonio’s side, and that she was acceptable to him, still?

Until he left that summer. She no longer could face the scrutinizing realms within which they resided, any time in the world a reminder and her leg stealing her attention with roaring pain. Her awkwardness and weakness commandeering a life she had lived intensely, body, mind and soul. She had suffered, it was true. As had he, helpless. They made wrong choices–she with pain pills and isolation, he with a stranger. But they came round to one another again by that autumn, didn’t they. And that was a choice, too, but of a greater, not a lesser, love.

“She wrote that she is studying theater arts…costume design, maybe.”

Bella stared ahead. Then burst out laughing. “Her mother must have a few good genes.”

He inhaled a huge breath, let it slide out in a soft whistle so that Remy came running, barking, with tail a-wag.

“Oh, Antonio… what needs to be done, that’s the next question. Perhaps tell her to come–when you are ready,” Bella said as she slipped into the water. The half moon glowed, a pearl in night’s velvet hands. “I will help figure things out with you.”

he had hoped but was not expecting it. “Thank you.”

Antonio wiped his eyes. Never had he wept so much as the last three days.

“You see what kind of person she is, Remy? Do we deserve her? No. But she is still with us, she always perseveres, so we shall love her even better, and more.”

Remy licked his face of sadness. Bella embraced them both.

******

Rollie stood by the fence and tried to jump up to peek over it, but he wasn’t that tall and he got nothing even bouncing up and down. His wife smirked as she weeded.

“Nance, it’s just that I know he’s home already, I saw his car. Kinda miss the guy when he’s been gone long. Want to hear about those trips, the deals. Shouldn’t we stop over, say hi?”

Nance stood and shook her head as he gave up and sauntered over, hands in pockets.

“If they want us about, we’ll hear, Rollie. They’re still young and lovely, and interesting people. Her art really is wonderful. And he’s got that spark that makes a man reach farther. They aren’t half-bored out of their minds like we get. I suspect they could use more time alone, with each other.”

“You often have a nose about people. But we could ask them over here soon, too. And I was thinking about that pool. It might be fun. Our son might visit more, too.”

“Now you’re talking. Our son might or might not come, but it’ll be great. Drinks on a floating swan, imagine it.”

******

Bella and Antonio spread three comforters on the upper terrace that night. They watched the sky offer minuscule blooms of light, talked about the lake. They slept well, and Remy, too.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Vesta Arrives on Tuesday

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.

On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.

On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.

This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.

Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.

Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.

Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.

******

Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.

But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.

So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.

On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.

Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.

The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.

“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”

The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.

“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”

“Because you promised, and we have to go.”

“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“

“Don’t even try to get out of it.”

“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.

Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.

“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.

A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“

“But we didn’t so now–“

“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”

Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.

Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.

The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.

He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.

She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?

Why did this matter to her?

She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.

“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.

The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.

Vesta felt the urge to run.

She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.

But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.

“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.

Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.

Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.

“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.

“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.

Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.

Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.

The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.

And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.

“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.

Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.

There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.

******

“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.

Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.

And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.

But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.

She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.

It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.

She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”

She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”

She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.

What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.

She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.

As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”

At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Language for a Tangerine Life

He took his leave from his landscaping job (was it deemed a yard, garden or more generally, estate…so many acres for sweat to drip to dirt) noon on the dot and went to the Far Ridge, grass-swept where nothing but silken melodies of birds stroked his ears. The rough-shod language of the others, the smallness of their lives hemmed him in even as he chummed about, had made cohorts over time. That is, they worked alongside each other, shared their food if you ran short, and took turns with rumbling sighs.

But Lonny was a person made of a whole different cloth his mother said with quiet certainty, that was a lapse into generosity, her best part. What she meant was that Lonny was lucky to show such fine skills in manual labor, for he was even humbler, lost in another way. She had tried. But that was there was the consensus by so many when he was growing up: that he was stupid somehow, his tongue so tied that he didn’t speak most hours of any day. Few could interpret the jumble of consonants and vowels he let go if required. It was a birthing accident, a tongue so clumsy and slow, they surmised. So no one asked him much, he was Lonny, that said it all. A barest or rapid nod, eyebrow raised or lowered, mouth skewed, eyes shifting or smiling–these were his language if you cared to learn it. His hands filled in the blanks, part quasi-signing he’d picked up, more often a shorthand of miming. He could speak with the gravest strain but managed a short,gasping sentence at times. But, truly, he was not one to seek attention so he was more a benign shadow that fell across the path and unsettled one’s conversation here and there. For you never knew what he might hear or see, he might have super senses attuned, otherwise. They also noted he managed to do well in school, and yet how? His tongue had much less, it seemed, to do with a kind of sequestered intelligence as he grew older.

It was correct that he stayed well aware of many things, but Lonny had less care for their lies and truths and goings on than they imagined. He kept inward, tending thoughts which ran fathoms deeper than Lake Minatchee after a heavy spring rain. He was a reader, and liked everything from Aristotle to Lorca to Carver to the latest bestseller list. Mrs. Morton, the only full time librarian, saw that he got what he wanted, set aside topics or authors she liked for him. The past few years, though–such books on landscaping design, volumes on soil conservation, plant identification. He had been hired on at Morton Landworks at age 16, part time until he graduated–he had taken to the work as if it was his calling.

Lonny always had a book with him for lunch, and as he gnawed on a leftover chicken leg and baked beans or savored tart potato salad with cheese and apple on the side, he took in information at a rapid pace. He wasn’t a kid, no, but he wasn’t entirely an adult, so his mother saw to him despite his obscure intention to leave town and set up house on his own. But where would he do his work gardening if not in Marionville? His Achilles heel remained his blood deep, uncured state of silence.

There was almost no one who came by Far Ridge. It took fifteen to walk there and others felt it wasted time and effort at lunch hour. There was no longer a clear path weaving through swaths of tall bobbing grass–it had been swallowed up years ago, no one missed it. Other than wide views of the meadows spreading about like a wheat-colored skirt and Ferryman Woods, there was a firm breeze that swiped perspiration right off you in seconds. Or a hefty wind that about lifted you up as a storm brewed. The wind had its sundry ways and Lanny appreciated that in addition to the solitude that rested in open space. He looked about, closed his eyes for good measures of red-wing blackbirds’ songs. All in all, he was good with the world if he remembered to let demons of worry escape his grasp, that is, how could he better himself more, maybe rise in the company; who could love him and he, finally, her? That sort of thing. But he had few actual worthy complaints, twisted tongue be damned. There was much to like about his life.

And so that noon was like any early June lunch hour: full belly, smoothed mind, sun high yet not attacking him with heat, rest enough to sustain him another four or five hours on Westwind Estate. He stood and stretched.

It was a glimpse of orange that caught his eye, but then grasses hid it– until a gust pushed spindly stalks over. The vivid remnant suddenly ballooned up and out into full shape of color. He narrowed his eyes against white sunlight, resettled his cap. The orangeness flashed up and over the tops of wild grasses and two legs beneath it carried it up to the other side of the ridge by Ferryman Woods. The ancient trees’ shade thickened and darkened things, yet the legs and arm became more visible: they moved from and under the tangerine dress. The girl or woman inside it was leaping, spinning, bowing, turning along the earth as if an exotic, freed bird.

Lonny couldn’t further sharpen his vision but he knew one thing–he hadn’t seen her before. Nothing about her physical or any other aspect was familiar. He’d worked at the estate for years off and on, under direction of Morton Landworks, ever since he’d completed high school. The ridge, hills and meadows, the dense woods and the lake beyond–these were familiar as his own self and so, too, area farmers and stable owners, lake and country home residents. Yet here was an alien person. A wanderer into his paradise. He was struck that what he felt was not only mild shock but a pleasant sensation as he watched her. The swirling movement was softened and emboldened at once by the one who wore such clothing in midday summer heat.

Still–who was she and why was she doing all that dancing? Not even a stage around those parts, no tourist traps of theatrical offerings. She looked like some kind of dancer in the filmy summer dress as she stood a moment before that wooded hill, amid early June’s beauty. He’d never seen anything or one so light, fluid, as if water had been changed to a flame of orange light and decided to crest and spin, then ripen and bloom into something new.

Into her.

He watched her a few moments, a creature he was unable to describe much less understand but at the least she was entirely herself. That much was obvious–there was certainty in her every motion. Doing what she wanted, a-shimmer with enthusiasm. Celebrating, he guessed, no more than the rich tonic of the day. Her head bobbed, then she dove behind and into the woods.

Lonny took in a breath of sweet air and then he went down the ridge, back to labors. He had to, despite a hesitance to leave. Where was she going, where was she from? He might have imagined it, perhaps…a girl in a dress, dancing. Improbable. But he had witnessed it all while making quick work of lunch.

When he passed the others clustered at the back gardens, he said as usual nothing at all and what could he say even if he had the gift? That he had seen a tangerine goddess of a woman dancing by the woods? They’d immediately spoil it, heckling him. They’d run up the ridge, call and hoot for her to show herself. Unthinkable. He put himself hard into the pruning of bushes, then smiled to himself.

******

He never expected it but the next day and the next and then so many after, she was there. Of course, it was not the tangerine dress every time, but blue or black or red or yellow; sometimes, shorts with light summer tops. He had to keep a keen eye but soon she would flutter up or run into the light. Lonny could not imagine why she would choose this time and place to do what she did–part exercise, he thought, part dance, perhaps part mindless play. Perhaps she felt freer there than elsewhere, as did he, and she thought herself alone.

He had been near-tempted the fourth day to bring binoculars to identify her, maybe, to observe better but the thought felt tawdry–and it was unnecessary, as well. He could see her movements well enough as he ate his lunches and drank cold tea under the shade of a large white oak tree.

Sometimes she was there a short time, others for the whole hour, and not yet gone as he left. The dance was similar in grace but not always in steps and so often she displayed such strength when, with bare feet, she pushed off the ground, jumped high with legs out at angles or leapt or spun about with electric power. It was a free dance concert in the open air and he was mesmerized, he happily gave in to it. He admired her, that she was that expressive and unafraid, kicked up her heels, laughed for any reason, grabbed the world with her excitement. He, too, sensed how careful with it she could be with slower delicate motions. It was a spectacle that gave him uncommon shivers, yet there was a quality to her height–he’d decided she was nearly tall as he was, six feet– and her embracing reach and that loping gait that calmed him, too.

He had to shake his head after to clear it of her so he could once more focus on an everyday world. Lonny usually left before she did. Some days she melted back into Ferryman Woods or slipped down into golden meadow grasses and seemed an apparition, fast vanished. It occurred to Lonny that she stayed in a lake house on the other side of the woods. That she was summer folk. And that might have made him give up the watching altogether as a waste–summer people swanned in and out of town, leaving litter, making trouble as well as dropping cash– but instead it drew him in more. For she, then, was truly transitory, temporal, now here and gone again. She was at least an unknown, different from other women he knew… so he must not disturb her presence with any judgement, or any movements closer.

Five days a week Lonny watched from the tree and keep her secret and it was enough. He had the sixth and seventh day to contemplate the scenarios and found he did not want to find her there other days, only upon his arrival on Monday once more. But he did wonder, what of her life beyond that hill and those woods? And how long was she for Marionville…

His mother thought him more absent-minded than usual but she had enough on her hands with his younger sister disobeying rules and two part-time jobs, one at the dry cleaners, one at the marina. She knew that the fewer questions, the better; Lonny would then avoid her. Besides, at near twenty-two he knew how to make his way well enough despite a lack of asking and answering the usual way. He had been an awkward, timid but good kid, and now was more confident and capable than she’d hoped, a decent young man. Her guilt and sadness over his speech impediments were at times less than a growing pride in him. She kept him looking forward yet didn’t say much about things one way or another. To be sure, she was relieved he was yet home, for now.

******

By late June, Lonny thought he’d seen almost everything of which the woman was capable, at least on grassy earth in dimmed or searing sunlight. He also liked to picture her as a basketball or tennis player; she was surely an athlete as well as dancerly. He believed she must have a brilliant future, that she was on her way from summer’s ease to somewhere big and boisterous, New Chicago or Seattle, places he’d surely go if he had a way to get there. And then survive.

In private, he started to ask her things in the velvety interior of his mind. Did she go back to college in fall? Was she from a big or small family and did it include a father? Was she a bibliophile, nose stuck in printed pages every day even for awhile, as was his? Where had she traveled in the world or their continent? Did she like the night skies here? What was her favorite musical genre? Did she stretch her whole body before sleep as he did? What about moths that pulsed at the light bulbs on porches, did they scare or interest her? He put head in the cups of his hands and groaned. This was not a good thing, talking to her without a sound, that he had all these words that he could never speak aloud.

The eleventh work day, a Monday, Lonny found the indented spot under the overreaching tree and opened his rumpled brown bag to extricate lunch. He spread out a tea towel on bumpy grass where roots hunched up, then laid out a ham with lettuce and butter sandwich, a cup of corn chips and bottle of tea. He didn’t glance at the hilltop by the woods until he took a first bite. It was just trees and grasses green and golden with patches of tiny daisies opening before him. Sun’s rays targeted his outstretched legs, bees hovered about the tea bottle, bumped into his head. The green and brown earth smelled lake-damp and meadow warm and it felt like a secret island, with sky as a backdrop of blue so clear it was as if he could see into the far off universe.

He was glad to be sitting and eating in such a tree’s gift of shade. But she was not there. He finished eating, pulled out his book, in case he must read rather than watch her practice whatever was for today. It was an ancient book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson with pages yellowing, binding cracked.

He was onto a second essay, head bent over, an eye on his pocket watch and one on the empty knoll when there was a flutter and flash at edge of his vision. Orange filament afloat in the burning air. He stood and spun to his right, book falling to ground as she appeared from behind the tree and stood opposite him, hands at hips.

“Well, here we are,” she said, her voice soft, hazy as smoke. “You have been watching me. And I have been watching you watch me.”

All those repetitious words felt like a squall of language but it was the sight of her that did him in. He stepped, no, stumbled back, hands finding armor of tree bark just in time. Her tanned fair face and deep blue eyes were not threatening, but neither were they brimming with delight. Rather, sharply questioning and appraising. Maybe open to further discussion. Of which he could offer none. He wished he might say: you are amazing, that’s why I watch you, why else?

“I-I-I…” he started and had to stop, not even the simplest thing would come out, of course, so he tapped his lips, then made a cross-cutting action with both hands before his waist to signal there was nothing he could say further.

“You’re done before we even begin? Well. You won’t advance like some jerk, after all?” She took a small step back, still. “I have to say, this is a surprise.”

He shook his head and made his face gentler as he saw she had a sizable rock grasped in a hand. They stared at each other in surprise and uncertainty when he found he had to sit down to avoid being made a fool by weakening knees that resulted in falling over. She dropped the rock and took a seat many feet across from him.

Lonny tried hard to think how to say his name without mangling it but gave up, his breathing too shallow, brain too numb. If there was anything that might still terrify him, it was the sudden need to speak, that expectation of another of his words, words, words.

“I wondered why you’re always here eating and watching me, that’s all. Two weeks now, at least.”

He looked at her still face then pointed to his lunch, half of which he had stepped on. He gestured back towards the estate, as well.

“Apparently a person of few words…? You work down there, eat lunch here… I see. I don’t really live here, so why should I think I own that spot?” She flapped her hand toward the wooded hill across the expanse of meadow. “I’m here for the summer so I dance for practice, partly, but also for fun. The rest of the year I study dance…and many other things.”

She smoothed down the hem of full skirted tangerine dress, then her light brown hair which was pulled back into a high ponytail. Looked out at Ferryman Woods. He let his eyes study her face closely then. Perspiration dotted her wide forehead and generous upper lip. Tiny waves were plastered to forehead, at her ears. Her nose was small. His own neck was prickly with heat and sweat so he scratched, looked away just as her eyes slid back to him. He glanced at his watch. It was high time to get back, and he gathered food detritus and stuffed it in the bag, then stood, gestured to the land below them.

She got up, then.”I’m Marni Bellingham,” she said. “You are?”

“L-l-l-lonnn,” Lonny spat out, then turned, ran down the hill while she observed the curious lumbering man grow smaller and smaller.

******

He avoided the ridge after that and ate with Giles, who had befriended him at the start; they both had initially been teased some, Giles for his Quebec accent and unusual thinness; Lonny for his speech problem, his enduring silence.

“All I can get is that you gave up your lunch spot because of some girl. But you are interested, I think? There must be a hundred different girls in summer months. I might let that one go, Lonny.”

Of course he had already determined that was the best course of action. Or inaction. If he did return to the ridge any time soon, he may or may not see her but even so, what was there to do or say? The fact was, he couldn’t tell her anything that might reassure or interest her.

“You’re a good looking guy, Lon, and a good man but honestly, why waste time? Marionville has plenty for you to consider–take Flora, for example, an industrious and attractive woman/ We went out with her and Evie twice but you gave up. I’m going to see Evie this week end, why not come and she’ll bring Flora along? “

Lonny hated these one-sided chats. They went nowhere. He had dated, since age 18, a tad more than he could count on one hand. Before then, none. No one wanted to be with a man who was considered if not actually stupid, then essentially a mute with only a small future. The fact that he made good money now at the landscaping company meant little to someone who, if honest, also needed to talk all day and night with her man. Well, if only.

Besides, there was Marni. She leapt through his mind any time he wasn’t considering something else, and then she might yet pop through as if crashing his brain from some other dimension, reminding him she was just off stage, but still there. Or was she?

******

In town on Saturday morning while downtown with his mother and sister Laura, he saw someone who might be her sitting with someone who might her father. He had to look twice, then indicated to his mother and sister he had another errand to get done. Laura frowned at him then followed their mother to the bakery for their scones.

Marni was sitting outdoors on the coffee shop terrace. The older man was reading a newspaper and she had her chin propped in her hand, the other hand around a coffee mug. Lonny was going to walk right past her and into the shop, just to see her that was all, then leave. He managed to get by and inside, then stood in line, heart tramping his chest.

“Hey there, Lonny.”

He turned to find Flora smiling at him with that bright pink lipstick but as he nodded at her, in swept Marni to stand behind her. Flora followed his changed gaze, scowled, then looked at the chalkboard menu above them.

“H-h-hi-uh…” Lon called out in Marni’s direction, then stepped out of line. Idiot, he thought, what are you up to?

“Lon!” She made room for him in front of her. “I wondered where you’d gone. Figured I’d scared you off. Sorry…If you’re getting a coffee, want to join Dad and me outside?”

Did he want to join her…yes! Did he want to join her father? No, and he would have to chat away. He moved ahead a notch; she moved with him.

“Listen,” she said in a near-whisper, “it’s okay if you’re quiet. Not every one is a talker. I can talk a lot or a little or none at all…”

He nodded his head at the barista who always knew Lonny’s order. Marni ordered her refill and they stepped away together.

“Marni girl?” The man who was decidedly Marni’s father in black polo shirt, khaki shorts and deck shoes had stuck his head in the half-open door and called out, “I’m off to the marina, meet in an hour?” He nodded at Lonny as if he was a nice guy he naturally trusted with his fabulous daughter and then left.

Flora departed, too, with a deeply heated backward glance at him as if he was a traitor.

The two of them sat at her table, cooled by shadows cast from as large blue and white striped sun umbrella. At first she said nothing but sipped her coffee, looking into the busy street. Her sleeveless white blouse with tiny green sailboats caught his eye, then her muscular arms, too, and her hand went to the vee of bare throat and chest. He felt the color rise in his face.

“Lonny, tell me if I am wrong. I get right to the crux of a matter… But you’re sorta mute, is that right? I suppose there is some fancy technical term, sorry.”

He lifted his chin a bit, held it there, his hands clasping the seat of the chair as he waited for the usual discomfort, tried to stave it off with perfect stillness. His eyes, he hoped, said little except he was glad to be there.

“I don’t care, that’s what I had to say. It’s different but means little to me.”

He shifted his eyes from her face to table top. Well, nothing to say to that even in his head–she might mean it or not, anyway. He wished it was not even a point to be made but there it was, and hopefully over with.

“Lonny, this is what you see about me but might not get: I’m a dancer. So I don’t love to indulge so much in regular language, not unless I can possibly help it. I’d rather dance, period.”

“Oh…” he uttered a well of a word, bottomless, and he fell into the moment.

Marni smiled, teeth flashing. “And I’d like to like you, maybe.” She put a index finger on his forearm, tapped it once, tentative yet telegraphing an affirmative.

He gulped his coffee, tried to not choke; that soft finger, her lilting voice. Some passageway inside him went from darker to lighter, and opened up enough that he felt his chest open, too, and his head expanded to accommodate her words: And I’d like to like you, I think.

He set the half-full mug down, rose up and offered the crook of his arm for a walk– along the lake, he gestured, in the sunny day. She held up another finger, then made her hands swoop and fly so that she took her body down the steps and dancing onto the sidewalk, not a care for what anyone thought. Lonny watched in amusement, then jogged after her. As he trotted he tried to say her name. The best he did was manage Ni. As she came to a measured stop, she was so brimming with laughter that he had to catch her hand in his and tug her along.

There were more than a few Marionville inhabitants who noticed all this that Saturday and were perplexed for days–but Lonny was still water running deep, you just never knew. That young woman, a summer girl, someone said a talented dancer? Well, she was a foolish or brave young woman to take that curious one on. But Giles, Lonny’s mother and sister Laura knew better. Marni was on the verge of discovering an astonishing man, someone about to come into his own– but they kept their thoughts to themselves, just as Lonny would hope. Just as Lonny almost always did.