Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Invisible

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“Coming? Or is breakfast going to be your diner?”

Marni yelled upstairs toward Amanda’s and Tim’s bedrooms. Her son emerged immediately, his gangly length led by slipping, stockinged feet. She noted the hole in one sock toe. Darning was not a skill, though for her kids she’d do most anything. Darning socks was the least of it. He landed with a sliding thud.

She waited for Amanda, gave up and padded to the kitchen in her new navy scuffs with a trillium on each toe. Tim helped himself to eggs and sausage. She poured herself a big mug of coffee and sat across from him, chin propped in her hand. Every time she caught sight of her scuffs, she smiled to herself. Simplest pleasures made a difference.

As Tim ate, she thought over a conversation she’d had with her best friend a week ago. Lana had often suggested Marni begin to relinquish control of her family and was getting more adamant. “Or perceived control”, she’d added wryly. Now that Amanda was seventeen and Tim almost fifteen, it was time and then some. Time to get back into the workforce or into college studies or at least engage in a worthwhile hobby–ceramics, stained glass, anything but try to keep up her domestic goddess status. In fact, Lana insisted, Marni was the one and only such creature she knew–and that fact might give her a clue that it was an anachronistic state of being.

Their last lunch date was annoying to them both.

‘Unless you used it to build a gazillion dollar empire, let’s face it.” Lana smirked, knowing such a notion would never occur to her friend. “But, then, you’re undermotivated, being married to Rob the VP of Tomkins and Sons and a man with serious political leanings. You can afford to stay home, I grant you. The question is–“

Marni cut her off with a slice of the air with her fork. “You know why. I like being home and Rob likes me the way I am, and I am truly not ever unhappy as you think, so much so that I must go off in search of ‘fulfillment’, as you keep suggesting.” Lana’s words stung no matter how often she’d heard them, which was every few months.

Lana bit her tongue. Of course he did, Marni was everything he needed and more to aid and abet his career and keep their family ship afloat. “Yes, alright, I know…”

“Besides, we know you have a great career and travel often, are single and have one absent kid–so your perspective is askew. Not everyone is quite so independent and free.”

“He is not absent, he’s at university and busy practicing being an adult. I hope. I am also not what you’d call a free agent in my work position, either. And all you give me are rationalizations.” Lana sighed. It was useless to talk sense to her. “What will happen when they leave–like my Jason did? I had Plan B and C. You’ve spent years submerged in home life and you’ve well succeeded at all you’ve done. But don’t forget that dream you had recently. Your subconscious is knocking on your door, my friend.”

“It wasn’t a nightmare, it was just frustrating feelings emerging. Every mother has those!”

Lana’s highly arched eyebrows lifted. “Swinging high from a huge tree, people pushing and grabbing and pulling until you fall from that glorious moment of bliss halfway to the sky and then plunge into nothingness which wakes you up in a sweaty panic. Time’s a wastin’. Forty and counting, now.”

Marni toyed with her chef salad, then patted Lana’s elegant, bronzed hand flattened on the white expanse of tablecloth. “Relax, I’m okay. My life is good and you know it. Now tell me about your trip to Norway.”

“First commit to a spa day with me next month.”

“That’s easy, yes, if it has a eucalyptus steam room.”

Marni loved hearing about Lana’s adventures in work and life. Not that she hadn’t travelled some, attended concerts and plays, created interesting community events. But the truth was, she had long ago lost a taste for the kaleidoscopic, hectic, demanding world beyond her doorstep. She had long been aware of living in her own encapsulated time and space. It bothered her little–but lately, more often, for all the reasons Lana harped on. But what was actually worth more effort? Much of what mattered to her had gradually changed over the years–wasn’t that true of everyone? So she wasn’t as ambitious as she had once been, while most women she knew had gotten bolder, smarter, more accomplished. Well, once knew. She’d been left behind almost imperceptibly over the years and now it was an occasional meet-up, a shared charity responsibility. But sometimes they’d looked at her with a touch of envy when she talked about her life, while she found them more worn around the edges. If perhaps more confident in some ways. She’d make the same choices–would they?

But it was easy to be smug about one’s own life when you knew so little of the other person’s, or what all the options even were, she thought then. And thought again a few times.

When Lana and she had first met, Marni worked in publicity for a great regional magazine (which had become glossier and more literate). It was a good job, one that got her going each day and brought her to a restful closure, more often than not, by evening. But Lana had climbed the ladder fast, then moved on. And Marni stayed until Amanda was born and she never went back full-time. Then Tim arrived and it seemed right to be home awhile longer. Time passed. She followed the new parenting agenda. It soon felt as if she was on a train and there was no stopping it; she hunkered down, learned along the way, determined to excel at her more mundane job. But often treacherously difficult.

She thought over these things as Tim scarfed down the remains of his breakfast and slurped a latte. He watched her with dancing brown eyes and she smiled back.

She sat forward with a start as Amanda joined them–tall, lean, hair half-brushed, clothing disheveled.

“Okay there, Mom, or is that your third cup of coffee?” Amanda asked.

“Is virtual learning a reason to get sloppy?” Marni retorted, then regretted it as her daughter slumped into her chair.

“I’m dressed, not naked, right?”

Tim laughed, spewing latte, “Crap, no!”

Amanda threw a pinch of cold toast at him, then another.

“Enough, you two!” Marni did not think this exchange was hilarious. She longed for order at her tables.

Rob rushed by, grabbed his coat from the coat tree in the foyer. “Have a breakfast meeting at the club, remember?–See you all tonight!”

She rose, awaiting a quick kiss. He paused, blew an air kiss, and left whistling.

Go get ’em Tiger! she thought ungenerously and softly slapped at the countertop with a damp tea towel. She hoped the kids didn’t notice her irritation. She needed to get over the feeling of being snubbed by her own spouse.

******

With an hour to go before taking Tug, their collie, to the groomer’s, Marni later sought out Amanda in her room. After knocking and getting an assent, she entered and sat in the computer desk chair.

“What, Mom?” Her head was haloed in sunlight, a tangled cascade of hair resisting her brush-out.

“We have to talk about this summer.”

“Summer? It’s April. And I have to sign in for remote Calculus in a few.”

“Aren’t you going to apply to Blue Lake Summer Arts Camp this year? The due date is April 20 and you haven’t done a thing with your application.”

Amada rolled her eyes, pulled her hair into a messy ponytail. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Why is that?”

“Derrick will be in town, working at the golf course as a caddie.” She rubbed her face with her palms to wake up better. “So, that’s a no, I guess…”

“You’d miss a fabulous eight weeks of creative engagement for…some new boy? He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Mom! You can’t talk to me about missed opportunities! I actually do lots of stuff, you know. What have you tried lately that has been remotely interesting? Sorry–but true. You barely know Derrick, anyway–he is definitely not just ‘some boy’.”

That was true–she didn’t know him much though they’d met; he was well mannered and conversationally adept so those were pluses but that meant little when her daughter was out there with him.

“There isn’t much more to say, but can we talk later? Class begins in a minute.”

Dismissed, Marni left.

Days like that she wondered what she was doing there? It seemed as if her children had gotten their footing well enough that her advice meant little to nil. She was what to them all? A glorified cook/chauffeur/ occasional therapist/housekeeper. And she had to get Tug to the groomer. His hair was everywhere; she’d had enough of that, too. Otherwise, he was the only one that minded her, anymore.

******

That evening she swung on the porch swing in tender, bluish twilight, wondering if Rob was really at Capitol Steakhouse for dinner with a cronie. She saw him less and les, yet it meant little more to her. Everyone knew who Rob Henninger was. She was introduced to new people with: “You know, she’s married to Rob!” and people would beam at her until they realized she had nothing much to add to that. Plus, Marni was not gregarious and did not have a paying career. But she was good for helming causes behind the scenes, so was handy to have as an acquaintance.

All Marni could do was write a little. But no one knew that, not even Lana, it was not meant to be known. Well, Rob did in the abstract. He was aware she got up before anyone else to spend intense time at her computer and closed it when the house became more lively. He knew she loved fiction, kept trying to write it, and that was enough for him to know. Well, he had his coin collecting, a holdover from childhood. He had his passion, golf. Everyone needed something pleasing to do.

So she kept her ideas to herself. Her fantasy stories would draw giggles from her kids, a blank face from Rob. It was her quiet space, her private time, life outside the family.

Swinging gently, she thought of the current story she was working on. How, if it ever seemed good enough, maybe she’d finally want to share it, but with whom? Still, thinking of her characters, letting them walk about in her mind as if they were cohorts from an ethereal–yet very present–zone…this always cheered her. She pushed off from the porch to swing more.

The sweeping front yard was breathtaking. Daffodils proud and still along hedges, and daphne bushes letting loose their heady perfume to dazzle all who passed, and the delicate cherry blossoms so blush-white against the darkening sky. Marni feasted her eyes and soul on the opulence of early spring: nature in its powerful unfoldings held her in its thrall. She was welcome within it all. She never felt set apart by nature. Unlike her family. She was a part of all that occurred in nature’s stirrings. And, perhaps, art. Left to her own devices, unconstrained by timetables and ever-urgent voices. Her viewpoint opened to a wider, deeper vista then, her experiences a tapestry of peculiarities and wonderments. And nothing and no one could disturb the outcome of what she made of words and imaginings, but herself.

That was the rub, she saw with a shock. She had begun to feel less welcome in her family’s world, in the finely appointed home, the stratified society in which she maneuvered. But give her an hour alone with language and she was set free.

If only she might attend an adult summer arts camp. Like the one Amanda found meaningless this year after five years attending a diverse program, studying flute, at which she excelled. It saddened her to think her daughter might be moving away from such times. Tim had been drawn to outdoor camps; now he went on camping trips with friends and their less city-centric parents. A vacation is what all parents needed, her acquaintances admitted and she had agreed–though Rob always planned a luxurious trip for them in between his own career engagements. Trips that made her fretful, itchy with boredom by a turquoise pool as he mingled and played golf.

As Marni’s swinging slowed she was startled to feel a sharp twinge of desire, an ache of need for a new environment: the arts within nature’s arena. She felt like a flowering bush straining for more light and space. A plant stymied was like a life hemmed in, doomed to not rise up strong enough, eventually to wither unless given needed nurturing and nutrients. Oh, she’d go on being wife and mother. But beyond that, who?

She had to do something to move from the shadows, make her secret self known or be left behind. Barely visible, in the wings of a stage full of family bustle and drama. Indispensable, always at the ready. Rarely acknowledged.

Now she saw the sense of what Lana had seen, and knew things had to change.

******

She sat cross-legged in bed next to Rob as he snored away. She was scanning possibilities– book stores and art stores for part-time jobs opportunities; literary conferences for volunteer work; small spaces in the country where she might rent a studio or cabin for a couple weeks. She hopped from one idea to the next, dissatisfied, headachy and blurry-eyed. Personal brainstorming was laborious.

Until, a bit after midnight, she found something. Marni leaned hard against the headboard with a small “Huh…”

Rob mumbled, “Okay, honey?”

She patted his shoulder; he went back to sleep.

“Yes, I just might be.”

******

By mid-May the rains had slowed from a rowdy polka to a short waltz now and again. Spring was offering everyone an infusion of good cheer and the balm of brilliant beauty. So, one Saturday afternoon three -quarters of the family lounged in the screen in back porch, enjoying soft breezes, sipping iced tea with lemonade, snacking on pretzels and peanuts.

Amanda said in a rush of words, “I applied for a job at the golf course.”

“No brainer,” Tim said and went back to his cell phone.

Marni looked up from a warm dry jumble of laundry. “Doing what? You don’t like golf much.”

“At the snack bar right off the green.”

“You don’t even know how to make a decent turkey sandwich!” Tim snorted.

“If you went there you’d know it was just drinks and packaged snacks, dummy!”

“Good, you won’t accidentally poison him.”

“Poison who?” Marni asked. “Oh…Derrick is to work there.”

“I’d like making some of my own money but yeah, he will be.” Amanda blushed enough that Marni knew she had lost track of the burgeoning romance.

“I’m all for that,” Rob said, as he walked in following an emergency town council meeting about zoning problems. I can help you with references, call Stan–“

“No thanks, Dad.”

The family chattered on as Marnie folded clothing. Shortly she carried the heavy wicker basket upstairs to the five bedrooms, then stopped and left it on the hallway floor. Let them put away their own things. She entered a spare bedroom and rummaged in a desk drawer, found what she wanted and descended the stairs.

Waves of rippling laughter slowed her before she came to a stop at the open French doors. They had all seemed more relaxed the past weeks, or maybe it was her. The good weather had been part of it. But, too, they each had pleasing things going on–Tim gearing up to help with Little League; Amanda with her boyfriend, a new job ahead; and Ron playing more golf and working in the yard a bit with her. They both loved their yard and flower garden. But Marni had something of her own, too.

“I have something to share with you,” she announced.

They swiveled to her, eyes narrowing in bright sunlight, and fell silent. A flicker of anxiety crossed her daughter’s face, and Tim slightly frowned. Rob rubbed his cleft chin, a fidgety thing. She unfolded the long envelope and pulled out a letter, then cleared her throat.

“Dear Marni Henninger, it is our pleasure to inform you that you have been selected to join Wild Salmon Arts Colony for a summer residency. We have further waived half the tuition based on the merit of your fine writing sample. The residency session is to begin August 1st through August 31st.” She glanced up nervously. “There’s more but that’s the gist of it.”

Rob stood and took the letter from her. “Very interesting…an arts’ retreat, a summer school or what?”

“The residency people make their art. Writers, dancers, composers, artists. A dozen at most. The spend a month working on their creations, then sharing them with each other.” She couldn’t temper the excitement she felt and smiled widely at them all–but she wanted to shriek with joy.

Rob sat down. “That’s something, honey… who would have thought?”

The spike in adrenaline fell off and Marni’s heart began to sink. Didn’t they get it, at all? She could see Amanda and Tim were more perplexed than he was. But of course they would be.

Amanda spoke up, gingerly. “Oh, like my summer arts camp? That’s great, Mom…but what were you thinking of doing? Or is it more like a school?”

Tim gripped his knees as he used to as a nervous child. “You aren’t, uh, really craftsy–are you? What will you even do for a month? Make flower arrangements or something?”

She felt as if a giant bubble of weird giddiness was filling her head, or was it dizzying disbelief. Her own family! They didn’t even know who she was, did they?

“She does write in the mornings,” Rob interjected. “I just didn’t know it was so important to you, Marni.” His wide eyes searched her face.

She sat down again, set the letter on a side table, smoothed her khakis. “I write fantasy stories.” She looked at her hands, then her children. “I’ve started… a fantasy novel. When you all are sleeping.” Then she threw up her hands. “My gosh, it isn’t so strange as all that, is it? I’m going to an arts residency to write and enjoy a whole new experience with other people who love to create. That’s it! Get used to it!”

She jumped up and her daughter and son did, too, with a rush of flailing arms about her and words of congratulations floating around–while Rob stood back, wondering what this meant to him, to their marriage, to her. He felt proud, but also suddenly anxious.

“Fantasy stories! That’s too cool, you kept this from us!” Tim said.

“Mom, you’re a mystery, this is great!” Amanda said.”What next?”

She’d thought of calling Lana, but they had a lunch date tomorrow, so she’d wait, put it all on the table. It might shock or amuse her, but certainly please her. Lana was her greatest support even if she didn’t know it fully. Or maybe she did–she had a keen nose for truth and never backed down from it. Her caring was steady. She foresaw changes, saw Marni clearly before Marni had come to really see herself.

At the end of the day, when the kids took off with friends, Rob wrapped her in his arms a few moments, then retreated to the family room with a glass of wine and his sports channel. The house felt huge, he realized, with the kids gone so much these days.

Marni sat on the front porch swing, watching and listening. She wanted to discern the inner workings of the dark sky. It was all so great an unknown. Her skin got goosebumps, and she hugged herself close. Maybe it was best to mainly appreciate what she saw and heard and felt. Until she could write out her thoughts and sensations.

It all felt good and right. She had made a marriage and two children; none of it was an easy thing to do. But it got so familiar it all had blended into her, the good with the not-so-good, an everyday-ness. She was quite overdue to map new courses, to create more curious, astonishing worlds. To offer up what she’d long and secretly imagined.

“So. I’m not going to be invisible, anymore,” she whispered to Venus, set like a jewel in the crown of the heavens. As if Venus didn’t know such earthly and other things already.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Breathe and Catch Fire

It’s not like you truly belong anywhere, so this is as good a place as any. Remington Heights, a fancy name for another uninspired suburb. Sort of; it prides itself on being a beautifully compact, near-exclusive town. You guess it is; you can see the BMWs, Audis, Mercedes Benzes mixed in with Subarus, Toyotas, Fords. There goes a red Porsche, its top down in March, for crying out loud.

After moving five times in fifteen years, how audacious is it to say when you’re asked: “We’re from Knoxville?” Hand held out for a good strong handshake.

What then? After they proceed to ask about that city’s milieu, its weather? You can only offer so much–that stop was for two and a half years. The others, even shorter for the most part. They already know you aren’t government or corporate consulting or an interesting entrepreneur. For one thing you teach, take on short contracts. Now, also, your husband. Well, he does one adult ed class at the community college where you teach one theater and two creative writing classes. He hasn’t contributed much to bills with his woodworking schemes and dreams no matter where they’ve moved. But he keeps trying.

“And we also lived in Arlington, Fort Worth, Everett, Rochester and–wait, there are a few more. You can’t imagine how fascinating it is to interact with many sorts of people and places…”

In ten minutes they raise eyebrows, glance at their ubiquitous phones, make excuses, talk about having coffee sometime and take their leave. In Remington Heights they’re thinking, Of all the boring places to have lived, why not Athens? Paris? Singapore...So back to their mammoth, comfy homes with their own loving, complicated families and deliriously devoted dogs.

Or cats–but that’s your preference. A cat can be left alone so easily, and it moves from house to house with nary a blink: every window has a view; every yard has birds and dirt. You need a cat, you keep planning on it, never do it. No time to further consider such an investment emotionally and monetarily. It might just run away.

Not that you are unfamiliar with such a response as raised eyebrows and a shrug after you introduce yourself. It’s on repeat no matter where you go. Gerry says some places are much friendlier than others. His vast experience dealing with direct sales to the public informs his viewpoint. He reminds you this when talk of a job possibility that offers tenure comes up. Gerry thinks you don’t like any place you go, not really, and he’s getting tired of it. That it’s having to put down roots, not the job that’s the issue for you. Okay, but you’re pretty tired of having to secure a great job that keeps a roof over your heads long term, and a job that gives you enough incentive to aim even higher as time goes by. That can be such a grind when you want it to be–dare you say it?–a happy endeavor.

“Next time, yes, always next time,” he says, looking away as you have lunch at a stylish outdoor cafe. “There won’t ever stop being a next time. I could put in roots any place if you’d just stand still in one spot. How long has your longest position been? Four years? Wow, we might still be there, Kit, and we might be glad of it.” He wipes his hands and mouth. “Oh, Kit, I’m sorry, it’s just…” He holds up empty palms to sky.

This is where you have to bite your tongue and not point a finger. If only you had gone to medical school as planned; if only your had a hobby that made us money; if only you stopped complaining when I am doing the best I can do. If only you’d use some of your inheritance for common costs of living instead of insisting it has to be untouched until we have a child or get old. Like it’s precious and must stay in a vault unless we are on the verge of noodles and beans every day.

Well, wait, it has been invested in lots of power and hand tools and wood and nuts and bolts and clamps….that money is good for all that.

If you say any of that, he’ll either crumple or walk out. After all, you’d agreed to let him get into woodworking as a small business. He has excellent talent–those hands that would have made a fine surgeon’s– and plenty of perseverance. But you have to make the cash to keep your lives afloat. So you do. Every new job has managed to do it, mostly–you just haven’t found the right one, the one you can foresee holding until that far-off retirement. Gerry wants that even more than you.

You are okay being a nomad of sorts. He is right about not setting roots too deep. That’s how it’s always been; your family moved almost every year for much of your childhood and when you were finally settled, it was not any kind of a happy settling. When your gambling father left when you were fourteen, your mother threw a huge party. It was also the start of selling overpriced makeup from home but weirdly, she did it well, made good money. She bought a condo two years before you left (right after your brother), and got married for the third time. Farewell, kids!

No, you do not know the comfort of a long term home. As far as you are concerned, a home is a place to lay your head, eat, and hang out if possible, preferably on the back stairs and no one knows. You still look for that–the relief of privacy on a back stoop that offers a better view than the indoors.

Gerry, he’s another sort of human being, at heart. He longs for roots because he had them so long. He will fit in better in Remington Heights. He knows how to act without even thinking, and that’s why he has done well off and on with his business. Maybe here he can make his mark, he’s said–these people can pay for fine bespoke furniture and toys for their kids. You think he’s dreaming but you love him for it, and how he stays with you no matter what. He just that morning told you to go ignite a thirst for knowledge in those students–even if it is just a few students, if only one today. He has faith in you, if he also worries you’ll not make a real home with him. You do need to have greater faith in him–that might go a long way toward building his success, he says. He holds her up; she can hold him up more beside paying for most of the bills.

You just stare at those bills piled up thanks to the last couple of moves crossing six different states. Stunned by it all. But you have a good chance at RCC, the Remington branch of Rand Community College. They pay well and they might keep you on if you try very hard. You hope this time you also can work in laughter more often. You actually pray for it secretly–it has gotten harder to keep looking and rarely find what you want.

Maybe it’s because you aren’t sure what that is. But you will not stop looking.

******

We–Kit and I–now live on a very old estate, and that is comfortable for a man like me. Of course, it’s the carriage house converted a decades ago into full living quarters, but there are ten acres here. I can see the big house rising above the garden walls as I head to the west end of our new place. A portion of the building, right under the apartment, was turned into garage and workshop. No more horses, carriages and how perfect is that? It isn’t cheap but what we get for the money…I’m hopeful this time. I think that if I can make this work long enough, I might create, sell, and make a decent profit. And then invest some of the inheritance to get my own workshop and store and then a house of our own….well, naturally, I don’t tell Kit all this yet. She’d be freaked out, just so many castles in the air, she’d say, slow down.

Kit says many things and I know she means something else half of the time. But I saw her eyes light up as we toured the place and put in our rental application. I was worried we might not get it–we have moved so much–but having my nest egg to show us as being ultimately solvent helps. Plus Kit’s a college teacher, how can they not like that? So here we are, and Remington Heights has no idea that I have what they need: beautiful furniture made to order. But it will soon.

After I got my M.S., I decided to skip medical school and pursue working with my hands differently than planned. I’ve always loved the scent, textures, colors and grains of wood. How it can yield to careful labor and give you its best when you respect it. There were plenty of woods to enjoy on our land growing up–several thousand acres for the giant cattle ranch that also boasted many trees. I was always sneaking off to the workshop used for a variety of reasons and fiddling with discarded or broken pieces. And our manager had the skills I needed. It was a fine line for him–teaching me what he knew while doing his main job well and keeping my father satisfied. But it worked well enough for me–Jack told me I had the right feel for it–until I stopped making things to enter college. Then it got shelved.

If I am being honest, I’d have to say that, in fact, it was the inheritance that set me free from the family expectation that there be a doctor in the family. I loved ranching but had not seriously thought I’d be one to run it–my older brother and sister do that now. But my uncle was a very wealthy businessman. He’d stayed in touch since childhood and figured out I wasn’t destined for medicine. He once told me when he saw me making a chair that I should put to use the sciences in a more artistic way. He left me enough when he passed to not make the wrong career choice. I knew it was for a woodcraft business.

Kit knows all this. She supports it, more or less, she’s just worried. Anxious that I’ll tire of her quicksilver temperament as her parents apparently did; afraid she won’t have what it takes to be a first class professor; scared she’ll never make enough money so she can stand on her own two feet if I do leave her; afraid I won’t ever be a success with my wood crafting or that I will be a great success–it goes on, this terrible tangle of fears she harbors, even nurtures. I sometimes hold and rock her like a scared little creature, shivering and unsteady, until she calms. But that’s marriage. I lean on her a lot for acceptance of my chosen path.

If you met her, you wouldn’t see the scared part. She’s strong with words and actions. You know you can count on her. You know there’s an imaginative, quick, intense intelligence behind her clear, penetrating gaze. Any job she has had, they wanted her to stay–sometimes they couldn’t keep her as it was a limited contract, sometimes they just wouldn’t offer better pay or other terms. But she always finds work. And she knows so well her realms of theater and writing.

I’m pleased this time that this is where we landed. Kit finds it “too rich for her blood”, as she says with slight derision, but the fact is, this city offers opportunity for us both. I don’t care what people think of me but she says that’s what privilege spawns–a self confidence that is unshakeable. Maybe so; she never had that in her life. But all I want is to make beautiful things with my big calloused hands. And to love her better so I have to be smart but gentle. The best things happen to wood when you treat it well, learn its natural inclinations, find its hidden beauty. Same with Kit.

All this is a challenge I’ll not back down from until I more than succeed. But first off I have to set up my tools in the shop under the living quarters and walk the estate. I wish Uncle Cam could walk with me. I can almost feel his pat on my back when I made my first wood toy, a pine truck, when I was ten–whereas dad directed me to get back on my horse, get to work. That simple thing made a difference.

******

You know this is the place when you see a generous arc of tree branches swaying over and about an old carriage house with the sheen of long use but kindly. Then moving up the side steps to a wide sunny living room and three small bedrooms off a hall, then circling back to a neat kitchen with white painted cupboards. A bathroom with an antique tub in it and a small desk turned into a vanity. You imagine yourself in that tub, candlelight casting a glow, how you love long quiet soaks and seldom get them–and all the while looking out windows with ivory and viney half-curtains. You can see a garden from there–as you bathe! Everything about the carriage house feels well used but the wood floors shine with care; comfortable furniture is freshened with bright fabrics and interesting textures. It is quality but has no pretension, is pretty and cozy enough without being syrupy- nostalgic. And it has a wood stove. What else can it need?

You don’t show Gerry too much enthusiasm until you are accepted as tenants and even then, underplaying it is better than letting too much emotion show. Even if the rent is high it can be worth it–you can manipulate the budget somehow. Besides, to watch Gerry as he lopes about the property and talks to the fourth generation owner of the estate–how can you dampen that excitement? There’s this feeling both of you might find some peace here, on this huge corner lot, under the shade of maple and elm and oak trees. There are even fruit trees not far from the front door. You fantasize about sneaking out after dark and snapping up pears and apples–until Gerry says the landlord told him take any fruit desired at no extra cost (Gerry laughs as he relays that), it’ll go to waste if not eaten. Never have canned. Wondering about that but the idea makes you anxious so just think of Hunt’s pears with cottage cheese like when it was dessert as a kid–you were told it was a treat. And it was.

So you’re in, your are the chosen ones. You find that first week with the unpacking, learning the ropes of a new town with expensive tastes (that make you squirm and itch) and then visiting the college–you find those first days lighten up with a simple pleasure you haven’t felt in forever.

You want the job to fit well. After a month it may not be a perfect thing, no, but you aren’t getting tension headaches. Not hurrying from one class to another, shoulders set as if pushing against wind. The drama class is filled with interesting students if a bit haughty (well, it’s Remington Heights, it’s theater), and the writing classes are a mixed bag but you can cope with it all so far. Time will tell who has capabilities, how hard you’ll need to work until late at night even at home–and how pleased the Dean of Fine Arts will be. Or not. If tenure will ever be a dream come true. You learned long ago you must stay in the moment while even while designing a future.

Then, at a major monthly staff meeting, someone says something. That way that makes you shiver a little. You turn your head to see Ms. Brunette Bob who is tapping the table with a silvery pen and Ms. Luxe Ponytail who is smoothing her forehead as if she’s just gotten back from toiling in the fields. They are whispering, heads tight together.

“Were you wondering about me?” you ask, half smile trying to move across your too taut face. “I’m Kit Barnett, drama and writing, formerly of Knoxville.” Trying not to spread a Southern accent on it, hard to resist. Something has to amuse or please these women, you suspect.

They blink at you in unison, look down at their notepads a moment before smiling back. A waxy sort of smile, Caught us, but oh hi there!

“Oh, right, you have Marnie’s old job–I thought so,” Ms. Brunette says.

“You’ll find her students miss her already but don’t despair, they’ll settle in,” Ms. Ponytail reassures. “Marnie was a kind of legend after ten years…she had such flair. I mean, not that you won’t or anything…”

“Thanks for the heads up. And you are?” Marnie the Great, dang, more pressure!

“Oh, I’m Selene Rossiter and she’s–” she turned to Brunette–“Jana Leon. We teach drawing and ceramics, respectively, and this term I have 3 D, as well. Welcome to RCC, Kit Barnett. It’s a good place, overall. A good way to move on to better opportunities, it’s already my third year and I’m getting restless.”

Jana said, with a shrug, “I’ll likely be a lifer. I like Remington Heights and so does my boyfriend.”

You find all this friendliness entirely suspect but say thanks and pair their faces with names, hoping the other seven people there have distinctive names, too, so you can elicit them as needed. You determine to make a brilliant name tag for fun to stick on your shirt, will that make you better known? You know how this goes when new, you’ll be passed over a long while unless you remind them. You are not all that unforgettable in looks, either, though this has never mattered. It’ll take time, that’s all. Selene and Jana are as nicer than most are when you start out a new place. You doubt you three will be going out together, one too young and uppity, the other otherwise engaged–and it’s fine. You don’t really need friends, per se.

The meeting begins and you listen intently to what is said and not said, how people interact with words and eyes and hands, who speaks up, who is doggedly silent. It’s a game you must play to do the job and get paid.

But when you teach, you feel that urge to impress upon the minds behind upturned faces (and those that do not show themselves) that what they are about to learn and explore has the power to alter their lives in ways that will set them free. Yes, set them free, as art is that potent. And this is what carries you over the country in search of a place to set yourself down, share knowledge and create. A base to inspire as once inspired as a college student when your first good art professor told you: “Your work has such energy; let it breathe and catch fire.”

Professor Harmon did not say to you like Mom said, “Why do you waste your time making up stories, trying out for those dumb little plays? Get a real life and a real job and grow up!”

No, Madge Harmon said, “Let yourself have an adventure, Kit, make things happen. You have plenty of talents.”

And it turns out that teaching was one of them. You have what it takes. So keep at it–RCC will see what you can do. Or you’ll make them see it.

You need to hang on to that bathtub and those fruit trees. You need to support Gerry’s big hope in all the possibilities. He might be right one of these days.

******

“They don’t much belong here, really, you can tell by the way they…just are,” Viv Arnold said as she filled her basket with garlic, carrots and onions at the covered farmer’s market.

“Well, Selene says she’s a very good teacher and friendly, not pushy. I think they’ll find their way around in time.” Jude Rossiter squeezed the avocados just enough.”I think you are wrong about him. The husband is a class act, anyway, did you see him earlier at the bakery? Gerry somebody from Utah–big ranching family, I heard.”

“What does he do now? Does he teach, too? Not much money in that.”

“No, he makes bespoke furniture! Well, one class in woodworking, Selene said. But didn’t you see the huge ad in the newspaper? The pictures are beautiful. I may give him a call about a chest I want designed and handmade. Or maybe we should both just drop by when his shop is open, that would be informative.” She picked up bunches of fennel and dill.

Viv sniffed a tomato. “Is this really fresh? I sometimes wonder! He has a certain elan, I must say, dark hair and blue eyes. Yes, I saw him, Viv. His wife is rather plain, from what I noticed at RCC after my quilting class. But if she’s a good teacher–well, we need more of those around here, so cheers! Maybe we should consider inviting them to the Spring Fling, find out more and see how things go?”

“At the Club? Hmm, a good thought….But watch yourself, dear, you’re old enough to be his mother.”

“Never so old one cannot be wistful, Jude. Now let’s get out of here and chat more over a nice drink.”

Jude thought about what Viv said about Gerry and Kit. She didn’t know much about the wife, the teacher–she had always wanted to write, maybe she should find out more. But he reminded her of her son. Though Thomas was a patent attorney, no good at doing manual anything. Maybe it was the similar charm and a way of carrying himself. Honestly, Viv needed to own up to her age and exhibit proper decorum. It was getting embarrassing. The Spring Fling, however, was an easy way to introduce the couple to Remington Heights in all its boring self-glorification. She would do what she could to encourage them if they were interesting, unlike much of their citizenry– and, of course, fairly generous hearted. You never knew when you might need an extra helping hand on some project.

******

When Gerry got home from teaching his class three weeks later, he found Kit sitting on the steps on the carriage house, the porch light a soft haze in the growing darkness. A notebook was flat on her lap, a favorite mechanical pencil in hand. She looked up and smiled at him but kept on writing.

He sat down on a step above her and placed his hands gently on her and massaged her tight shoulders a moment. Kit exhaled a steady stream of air, closed her notebook, leaned back against his knees. She’d have to mention that invitation to the Remington Country Club “Spring Fling” but for the moment there was this: navy sky above towering trees, a few stars glittering between branches. A night bird called out once, twice. She wanted to learn about the birds and flowers on the estate. She’d like to talk to the owners about its history. She’d like to take a bath every morning and every night even in summer, open the bathroom windows to the breeze with all that was carried on it right to her.

She’d like these moments to stay in their places and never leave her.

Gerry ruffled her hair, it shortness feeling like a downy chick but he might never share that, just keep it to himself. He loved her hair and put his cheek to it a moment.

“How was your day?” she asked as she pressed notebook to chest.

“I got two more orders already, a couple came by before my class. Two side chairs and a nightstand for a child. I have my hands full, so surprised it’s happening fast. How about you?”

She put the notebook on her lap once again, hands flat atop its cover. “I’m so glad, Gerry–things are looking up for your business just like you wanted, it’s what you deserve.” She looked up at the treetops and found a tiny star among newly leafed branches that was bigger out in space than she could easily ponder. “Well. I’m finally writing again.”

“You are?” He came down the steps to one below her. “What are you writing?”

Kit gave him her real smile, the one that showed pink gums and every big square tooth, the one that told him how much she cared that he asked this question on this night, on the steps under trees and stars. Their steps. Their fine night.

“I’m working on a full length play…Gerry, I’m good and ready to do it.”

He reached out for her, pulled her up and embraced her tightly. This is what he’d been waiting for, her true self to emerge and find its way back to creating. To not be afraid so much. To believe the life they inhabited together would be alright. It was happening, right there, right then, a change. Kit hugged him closer and they left the world behind, trailing a tender and plaintive song of nightbirds.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Lake Skating (Mona Faces the Ice)

Photo by Gantas Vaiu010diulu0117nas on Pexels.com

She surveyed the frozen lake and landscape and felt its sullenness. It seemed a blur despite the many lines and array of muted and brighter colors; she noted pale and smudged snow at rest on flat earth and small rises, the weighted sky pressing against and surrendering to a fading horizon. It was the way of things in winter, the now-sleeping land patient, wide open yet oppressive in its endlessness and greyness.

Even frozen Lake Wenatchee looked unappealing that moment. The other kids and a few grown ups were trying to make the best of another dull, regrettable February day. But it was home, and Mona appraised it with a loving if grudging assessment. She slung her skates over a shoulder and dragged herself onward. She was not thrilled about getting out there, scraping about the crusty, bumpy ice with the local crowd.

She knew she was cranky even if she could be big hearted and was smart. Her father often said she was like an old woman– had she skipped over the regular age progressions? Mona was fourteen and a half and it seemed irrelevant. And when her father said that to her or others, she didn’t know if this was good or bad; it was an observation. Her mother said she ought to listen better to her elders and begin to act more normal. What was acting normal, exactly? If is was like her older brother and sister, no thank you. If it was her classmates’ ways of doing things, she was bored to death by the prospect. She had to often check a desire to roll her eyes and sigh in classrooms or during social get togethers that she felt obligated to attend. Who were these people who said such silly or empty things? But it wasn’t that she didn’t care for them, it was that she was confused by them, and felt like an island adrift from the mainland they occupied. She often felt she had to build her own boat and carry on, her compass the winds she noted.

her mother said she was too smart for her own good; she worried about that. Her father said no one could be smarter than for their own good–everyone had things to learn and to offer. Mona felt like she wandered around trying to translate other’s languages so she could get in on the game, the joke, the story. There was a great deal she did not know, at all.

Mona searched the snow-skimmed ice for familiar forms and faces. Her skates banged against her back and front as she half-ran across the field toward the lake. Last time she had said she was not coming out to skate again. When the lake thawed she’d be the first in it, but in February the frozen body of water seemed a dozing monster of some foreign sort. She hated the ice now even though she knew much about it.

******

Only her family and the obligation to grow up where planted kept her firmly tethered to them all. If she had her way, she’d be off to Spain or Prince George Island or Singapore in a flash. Any place but Marionville. But her parents had been born there and they weren’t budging much less to another state or country. Her father, the weatherman for a northern Michigan television station, had been given an option to do just that last summer. It was Boise, Utah, not the place of her dreams, but it offered a good salary increase–yet he’d declined. He had four seasons in Michigan, he made enough money and Marionville was a great community for the kids. Great in what ways? She had marched into his study/billiards/sports room in the basement and asked that when he and Mom had been talking it over.

“In what ways is it great?”

Her mother had flipped her hand at at her as if shooing Smitty the cat, and her father had puffed on his pipe, squinting at them above the curling smoke.

“Don’t listen in–and you should alert us when you descend those stairs, Mona,” her mother said, patting back a stray wave of her penny bright coif.

“I mean that our schools are better than most up north, the town is attractive, the land is beautiful with good recreational opportunities, and we have a very fine library, considering.”

“And a summer town band and a great women’s chorus, lus the live theater does well during tourist season.”

“Are you trying to sell some stranger on Marionville? Do I like gullible after all these years here?” Mona dared to say. “I wonder what a place looks like that has exponentially better attributes. How I might strive more and make great er gains.”

“See? An inspirational speaker or diplomat, perhaps someday.”

“Does your language never get to shift into simple teen gear? It perturbs me, ” her mother muttered and sat down with a plop on the couch.

“I suspect you could travel the world over and not find a place as comfortable as this,” her father said. “We’re staying, Mona.You’ll have other opportunities after high school if you play it right.”

Her mother looked at her daughter and saw the loveliness in her face and sturdiness of her slim body–if only she would stand up taller and be pleasant. But that was adolescence. And she had been through this phase with the other two kids; they were soon on to the next. It would all pass, in time. They would grow up and be real human beings. Moona would be thankful for much more one day.

Mona could think of nothing else to add to all the nonsense, so she turned on her heel and ran upstairs. At the top she paused; she could just glimpse them.

“It’s her intelligence, dear,” her father murmured. “She was born with much more than most. Some good genes slipped through.” He let go a small chuckle.

“Well, she might keep it a bit quieter and simpler until college–those rather rowdy genes likely came from your side,” her mother replied, “but I might carry a tad of the blame, I imagine.”

He shook his head as he returned to his pipe and fishing magazine. She loudly cleared her throat, and retreated to her armchair with a book. They were two odd lovebirds her parents, and they were not ever leaving their nest.

The familiar, irritated heaviness of resignation fell upon her as she crept away and took refuge in her room. When would she ever get away from there? When would she live the life she dreamed about?

******

Mona could feel the heat of Gen’s aggravation through the cell phone.

“I think you’re being ridiculous to insist you’re not ever skating again. You’ve loved skating all your life–it’s what we do in the winter.”

“There’s skiing and snowmobiling, snow shoeing, tobogganing. Let’s see, there’s music, books, hikes in the woods, films, there’s–“

“Stop it, Mona. Get your skates and meet me there. You just have to overcome your nervousness. We can’t spend our lives avoiding everything we’re worried about–this is a direct quote from my mother. Or was it your father?”

“I’m not nervous! It’s just that it was the worst thing ever and who’s to say what the odds actually are? Do we have that data? No one seems to care if–“

Gen hung up. What was Mona going to do? Gen was her best friend, they were blood sisters, secretly, and without Gen, who was there in her life that truly counted? (Besides family, and often she wasn’t entirely sure about them.) That she’d even want to be around more than twenty minutes without wanting to pull her hair out? All the reasonably good things occurred in connection with Gen Traymer first and last. Gen remained happily loyal when others did not after elementary school. Well, maybe not so happily sometimes but they both put up with the other.

So here she was again, trudging across a stretch of cold white desert to the lake they loved all year around. Except for Mona lately. Well, she had her reasons, perfectly sane, clear reasons.

“Hey Mo, what’s up?” Wade Bartos yelled at her as he skidded to a stop at the edge, hockey skate blades flashing dully at her.

She hated that nickname, it was like the name of a pet mouse. He was always showing off. She wondered if he really thought she cared. Even if he was the second smartest male person in her English class, he didn’t like to use his brain much and opted for sports almost entirely which endangered said brain. They’d argued once in the hallway about that–whether or not it took much intelligence to play a skillful game of any kind, how many brain cells decreased with each blow to the noggin–and he almost won. Well, he insisted he was right, but he always did. The truth was, Mona was athletic, too, so the debate was a waste of time, really, expect that they liked to do that. Plus she knew he was engaging with her any way he could. It had gone on like that for a few months, and it irked her more than a little.

She held up her skates to show Wade more obviously, as if to say, skating, dummy, thinking he’d laugh at her and take off. But he didn’t. He stared at her hard.

“You’re really going to try again?”

She shrugged, heartbeat drumming harder than it should after the long but easy walk to the lake. “I came for Gen, maybe I’ll just watch awhile.” She wanted him to leave.

But he grinned at her a long moment, then took off with a flourish, blades slicing through the crusty ice. He was fast, faster than nearly all the speed skaters.

Enough ice had been cleared that it would be passable to skate much of the way around, she guessed. A few kids and some adults came out early on weekends to shovel as much as possible. The following visits their shovels were brought to clear snow or shredded ice off as needed. But the ice was doomed to remain rough–gouged by blades, scraped and scratched and full of little potholes and natural debris caught in its steely surface. Some of the skaters longed for ice rinks that were carefully cleaned, groomed often so the ice was smooth as glass underfoot, harder to keep balance at first but oh, when you got accustomed to it, what perfection it was to glide, swoop and rush across its shining surface.

Or had been. Mona hadn’t been to Traverse City to skate at the fancy rink there in months.

Mona scanned the crowd for Gen and there she was with that red hat with fat blue pom-pom, gloved hand waving at her. Mona sat down on a log and waited as Gen skated up to her in long, even strides despite the snowy lumps. She was a superior skater, and seeing her move across the lake made Mona feel a little happier to have come. It gave her a sense of connection to the beauty of winter again and it warmed her insides. Her friend came to a halt before her with an ice-spraying T-stop.

“Well, I wondered…okay, I had my doubts but you made it!’ She took off her hat and rubbed perspiration-dampened curls.”The ice is good even though the surface is crap but we’ll manage.’

“You mean you’ll slowly help me navigate the rough spots and the people and my anxiety as I try to make my unhappy way out.” She looked at the ice and gave a little shake of shoulders, as if she was having a chill when in fact she was plenty warm outside, too. Only her feet felt like thick ice blocks, stuck to the ground.

Gen sat beside her and put an arm about her shoulders. “I know it’s hard. This is the farthest you’ve gotten in over a month.”

“Yeah. Because I already know better than to risk my life.”

They were silent a moment, remembering.

“But that was a one time thing,” Gen said and squeezed her shoulder.”It could happen to anyone. You know what you’re doing, it was just random, an accident, a thing we all know might happen.”

“Don’t get all reassuring. You know that it could happen again. This is not rocket science even if we both can figure out the whys and wherefores…it happened. To me, not you.”

“And a few others in the history of this town. Mona, you are not being picked on by God, you know!”

“Oh, please, leave any talk of divinity out of it…”

Gen pulled away a little, looked at her skates digging at hard earth. “I can’t.” She faced her friend. “Stop making it worse. We’ve talked and talked about it. You’ve come out a couple times to watch from a distance and now you’re finally at the ice. So…please put your skates on?”

Mona gulped hard and closed her eyes tightly; she didn’t want to see it like a movie again. She did not want to remember how the ice suddenly gave it warning of loud cracking and, a shifting of thing, an echoing as the sound travelled down and under the lake length…the subtle shift in ice and a giving way as she stood halfway to the center of the ice, legs shaking, and tried to skate away, to beat the crack that would open.

But she was too slow to move, she felt trapped there and by her growing fear. The ice gave way. Mona plunged into a freezing abyss of icy lake water and she clamped her hand over nose and mouth so as not to gulp, and her breath was stolen, every nerve screamed and panic came but knew number one was to overcome the initial cold shock. As time ticked by each limb seemed near useless, and in three minutes she could die. She began to kick with her legs to propel her weakening body towards light, each movement a slowed motion of energy loss. It was eternity, a blackly screeching, frigid and endless vault of nothing, body pierced by searing pain, chest compressing, her mind empty of anything but survival or awaiting death. Monas head bobbed up once, twice, submerged again.

Alden the Monk lived alone at edge of woods in a three room shack. He had been watching outside his door, waiting for the worst to happen. He knew this lake, the ways of the ice. he knew death might arrive fast, a spirit lurking inside the lake. He crept out but fast, on all fours, grabbed her wrist as she reached up and yanked her arm so hard it felt he ripped it out of the socket. Up and up and then her body pulled from hell and over ice, and a furry grim beast putting its teeth into a jeans’ leg and yanking, too, hauling her along with the Monk off that ice, over snow, away from the grasp of death.

She nearly passed out, heart pumping in fearful relief hard but quiet as if it belonged to another, breath coming in deep painful gulps as she searched his weathered face and heard King’s yelps and barks from a distance, his rough tongue on a cheek. She gave over, let the Monk do what he had to, wet clothes stripped off and blankets piled atop her shivering length. The woodstove on the other side in a gentle roar. Fragrances of coffee and burning wood like a sweet prayer. Everything hurt so badly; she was starting to shiver and then she was almost as afraid as before the Monk had come. Shortly, paramedics rushed in, were working over her and she drifted into a netherland of dreams and horrors until the emergency room and all that followed, her family, Gen, her life touched by nature’s power and human terrors. Her life somehow changed by how much she did not understand and a hermit who knew much and rescued her.

“Mona?”

Gen balanced on her skate, holding out both hands so Mona pulled on the boots of her worn Hyde skates and tugged, then laced each one fast without thinking of it further. Until she was done.

Was it worth the trouble, her heart whimpering, her lingering, embarrassing scramble of feelings? Every single one out there–and though the ice was tested hard as a rock and the snow had stopped– knew what had happened; it was news. So her return would be news. But she loved ice skating as much as anything outdoors in their long brutal winters, and so she took her friend’s hands. Slow and easy, she told herself, as if just learning to put blade upon surface. Blades made contact and she was standing with knees trembling, Gen’s hands tugging her along slightly. The worn figure skates slipped over the familiar rough surface. She did not look up, only held onto Gen. Mona lifted one skate after the other, the strokes thrusting her forward.

A few classmates waved at her–she raised her head enough to nod at them. Wade skated by and then began to circle back.

Gen gritted her teeth as she forced legs and feet forward. “No, not him.”

“He’s a nice enough guy and you know he likes you.”

“He’s all about things that don’t matter to me; I don’t want to like him.”

“Yeah, yeah, here he comes. You’re doing great, push off harder, make the effort.”

“I am not feeling great yet. Are you my teacher now? I will never feel great about this again…”

“Wrong, you will feel even better!” Wade said and clapped her on the back so that she stumbled a bit. “Oops, sorry, trying to encourage you.”

He took her other arm so Mona was wedged between the two of them. She tried to shake him off but he held on loosely. She glared at them and kept moving. They were watching the ice for any troublesome spots and making sure others moved out of the way. Several more skaters shouted greetings, a few skated with them them. Mona felt if she could only shrink to the size of a pea she’d be more okay. To have them watch her–they used to watch her skate well, by herself–and get so close as if they’d protect her…it made her feel weirder. Like she was some emotional and physical cripple who couldn’t make her own way.

She shook off her friends’ hands, began to put her body into each forward stroke. If she was garnering attention, to heck with them, she was going to just skate.

And she did it. She sailed around the outer edges, stumbling here and there, knees locking up a bit but she moved ahead and kept her balance better as she kept at it. And the cold wind grazed her cheeks, a pale sunshine leaked out of the clouds. Her brown shoulder-length hair lifted and waved like a burnished flag. She was freer than she co uld have imagined possible.

Until she skated past the Monk’s house and glanced over at the spot where she’d fallen in.

She couldn’t stop it, she saw it, it came back at her and she screamed, not so anyone thought it was an emergency but enough that Gen and Wade rushed over, caught her as just as her legs buckled.

They held her up between them. Others slowed and stopped, circled loosely around them.

“Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh,” Mona cried and covered her face, willing herself not to shed tears, willing herself to be okay, and yet all she wanted to do was fall to the ice on her knees and crumple, and wail.

Alden the Monk saw them out there. He smoked his cigarette, yanked at his bushy beard and nodded his black ski hat-covered head. King, his husky, stood with paws on the window sill, ears pricked, whining softly. They remembered how it went, too. They remembered how four kids and one adult with her little dog had fallen in over the past eighteen years. Three made it out and recovered. The woman with her dog died eight years ago. The ten year old boy did not survive a few years later. Alden had been far more watchful ever since. It was just his job, he believed, like it was his job to keep the sustaining woods fire-free and the beautiful birds safe from feral cats and the slinky-smart coyotes alive. They all called him the Monk but really, he was a Life Keeper, he felt. The girl would soon be alright. He knew about tragedy and he knew you could heal and go on. Or, if like him, live in solitude, within the welcome of acceptance and peace.

Mona stood up again, looked over at the ramshackle little house. She glimpsed the Monk and the husky at his window and he returned the look a long moment, then stepped away with King. She’d have to leave him something, a surprise, a thank you. She hadn’t done that yet–her parents had thanked him and offered him money which he refused. But she was ashamed of misjudging her steps and stupidly half-drowning in ice water, embarrassed by her clothing being removed by him, angry about her newly hatched fear. But she recalled his eyes on her eyes for a split second that day, how he had cared. He had gone onto the cracking ice to save her life.

She lifted her hand to him, hoping he saw her.

Gen and Wade were talking to her.

“See? It’s perfectly solid, nothing to worry about.”

“It’s over, it happened but you lived through it–it’s over and you were so lucky.”

“You did it, you came out and skated and got through the bad memory.”

“Don’t cry, you’re safe, Mona, here with us.”

The small group gathered around them began to clap their hands and cheer.

She was safe. She was not actually alone. It was going to stop haunting her some day, maybe even before spring.

“Thank you Gen, forever,” she said then turned to Wade. “And thanks for hanging around today.”

They skated swiftly around the lake, separately but close to one another, Wade going on, then passing them as he flashed around the lake. But the two friends skated in long, easy, fluid lines, avoiding the bad ice and finding the good. Wade whizzed by once more and shouted, “Pizza at Buster’s Hut tonight, girls!”

Gen yanked on Mona’s sleeve. “What do you think?”

“I think I might have one other decent friend. Maybe it’s time to find a few more. Marionville has to have a few more weirdos hiding out.”

They high-fived, then glided to the edge of the ice. There was a small bonfire flashing yellow and orange through a hazy winter veil of late afternoon. People were circling up, warming their hands, sharing food, laughing. The girls unlaced and removed their old, trusty skates, cleaned the crusts of ice from the blades and then joined in to warm up before walking in long shadows to Buster’s.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Garage Living

photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Hello readers. There were a few problems with WordPress yesterday so I’ve posted one written several years ago. Themes are somewhat timely, though without the virus impact…I hope you enjoy it.


As Clark opened the double doors to air things out, in rushed a gust of damp, dead leaf odor. He couldn’t win. He thought if he got busy with something his newly inflated misery would be deflated some. It had been six months since they had moved to this broad street with friendly looking houses but now all he could ever see was the rain. It had let up some in the last hour but it was still ever-present and irksome, like the projects he never got around to finishing. Like fixing the second-hand cabinet Mina wanted in their master bathroom. The door needed new hinges and a fresh coat of ivory paint–Milkweed White, she called it. Nothing taxing, so this chore was his goal for the day. But how can you be successful in such dampness? It’d take days to dry.

He reached a hand to the top of a door and stood there, the other in his left worn khaki pocket; a corner of his upper lip betrayed mild disgust. Anyone passing might think he was a well-bred fellow, a man who knew how to take charge–he was taller than many, for one thing, and moved or stood still as if he meant it–a man who had a decent job and was just taking a day off because he’d earned it and why not?

Instead, he was a man without a job, having been let go before they moved. They sold their house in California as soon as Mina got a far better job in Oregon. Life was supposed to be cheaper, more relaxed here, but he wasn’t so sure. The expectation, of course, was that he would get employment as soon as possible. But the insurance industry market seemed different here, though he frankly didn’t care about that line of work much. Yet he definitely was a resistant handyman/house husband. Mina went off to work as Nurse Midwife each morning, nearly whistling. But that was not different from before.

“Where is the stupid damned Phillips screwdriver?” He rifled through things on his creaky workbench; it was hiding under the previous owner’s old washer warranty and a handful of bent nails. He tossed it all into the wastebasket.

Clark could hear Mina tsk tsk over his language as he unscrewed four rusting hinges, cleaned the wood beneath them, then loaded the paintbrush from a newly opened can. She was quite proper in her speaking while he was tried to recall mannerly rules. But, then, they were so different in every way, it was a wonder that they had made it fifteen years.

Mina grew tired of the sunny palette of California while he had found himself utterly adapted after a month. She liked more variety while he liked the constancy so it followed that for him routine was appreciated and for her, spontaneity was needed. Clark liked essential orderliness and she liked a little mess in every room “to make the scene more interesting.” People were not his thing, other than for the sake of business but give Mina a chance to greet a stranger and she would have them gabbing up a storm in no time.

They had one main thing in common: they loved each other. So they tolerated things, supported each other, had plenty of laughs, survived the spats trying to figure out how to manage life together. It just worked.

Until he lost his job, they moved and he could not find another good job and she was adapting without him. He wondered when she’d get sick and tired of his moping but so far she had just stayed her usual positive self and let him be.

He slapped more paint on the cupboard but wiped up drips before they made a worse mess. he did want her to be happy. Didn’t he? She always said that no matter what difficulty they were facing, she got to help new humans enter the world and that was enough happiness to tide her over. She took care of people and loved life because she had a gift for it. Clark cautioned himself to not puncture that happiness but why was it so great being born into this place, anyway? But Mina was smart and she’d had a hardscrabble childhood in India. She well knew the costs of life daily lived, the value of the smallest, random joy.

The rain drummed harder on the roof of the garage. He ignored it and stepped back from the cupboard to examine his work. Looked acceptable, much better than before sans hinges, which he’d add when the Milkweed White dried. he checked his irrelevant watch. He had hours to go.

“Hey, Clark, how’s it going?”

Neal the mailman didn’t expect a reply as he dashed through puddles to hand off the mail but Clark wanted to talk.

“No change, still a handyman. Painted a cupboard,” he said, pointing at it with a small flourish.

“Looks good, enjoy the free time–you’ll find work soon!” and Neal was gone, splashing his way to the Hudson’s’, a retired couple he never saw.

This rain, it’s like a curse that’s never-ending, Clark thought as he noted his sneakers were damp from the puddle Neal agitated. And that’s when the cat raced in, sniffed the newly painted piece and sat himself down. Clark frowned at it, sat across from it on his three legged stool and wished it would disappear.


By the time Mina arrived home he’s gotten acquainted with the feline. There was no collar or bell, and nothing interesting about the cat other than it looked more like an oversized if sleeker rat with all that wet grey fur. In other words, ugly. Clark didn’t recall it being in the neighborhood and wondered if it would go its own way as cats do. It looked cold as it curled up on the cracked cement floor. He felt it, too, under his rain jacket, that icy damp that spread as cloud coverage got thicker and rain pummeled the earth like a beastly thing. No wonder the cat took a chance with him.

“Clark, you out there?”

Mina always parked at front of a house around the corner and came through the kitchen door to find them sitting quietly. He had closed the doors to warm the space up some and was contemplating how to make it even cozier.

“What happened to the poor creature and why is it here?”

She squatted before it, still dressed in her blue nursing uniform, ebony hair swept up in a fat bun with tendrils escaping, her eyes lit with interest.

“It dashed in, it can’t take this winter deluge, either. He’s been drying out some, along with your cupboard.”

She stood up, studied the piece, then clasped her hands. “Wonderful! That will look so good when it’s up, thank you, honey!” and she turned and planted a kiss on his lips. She was not a cheek kisser with her husband; that was one thing he loved.

“Well, he?–yes, it’s a he–deserves a safe place to dry out. Maybe we should give it some milk or tuna fish–he looks famished. As am I.”

She bustled out and the quiet two gents sat a moment longer before Clark got up and left the cat a few moments.

“Where are you going with that?” Mina called after him as he returned with his idea in hand.

“Right out here, we need it here.”

And he plugged in the portable electric fireplace unit into the extension cord and then turned it on. It emitted a nice hum as the phony flames leapt up and heat was dispelled.

When Mina came to call him in for reheated beef and bean casserole and to feed the cat, she found them both dozing before the pleasant representation of a fireplace. Clark’s head was leaning against his work bench; she noted how much his sandy beard had grown in. Was it a bit sexy or was it becoming concerning? She knew he would get another job; if only he believed it, too. She opted for sexy, placed her hand on his shoulder and shook it so his eyes flew open.

The cat became fully alert and dove right into the tuna.


That’s how it started. The rain, being out of work, the painting of a cupboard and a drenched stray cat.

Clark set about fixing up his small garage with a vengeance, letting his vintage Fiat remain sitting under the maple tree. He sorted and tossed bits and pieces left behind by previous folks and swept the floor well, then covered it with sealant and waterproof paint of blue to mimic the ocean’s color. He put up pegboard and hung his tools, then purchased a better utility lamp. Their bicycles were hung on the walls until spring. There was even a painting on the vacant wall between rakes and lawnmower. He had found it at a second hand store, a tropical landscape he still sorely missed, and there was a beach shack on the shore. He thought about hanging fish netting from the rafters but Mina frowned at that.

The cat–whose picture he had posted all over the neighborhood–mostly settled in before five days had gone by. He ventured once or twice inside the house but preferred the garage or the outdoors, much to Mina’s relief and Clark’s acceptance.

“Is there to be a name or do we simply cat him ‘Cat’?” Mina asked.

Clark thought it over, giving a stroke to the skittish creature. He’d dried and fluffed surprisingly well; the thick grey coat was handsome beneath green eyes.

“Captain,” he said quietly to the cat who looked up at him, blinked once and looked away, then back at him, whiskers seeming to twitch. They held each other’s gaze a couple of seconds and thus, it was decided.

“Well, Captain, you’ve managed a miraculous thing for Clark and his garage, so welcome.” She worried that someone would come looking for him, but for now she’d take it as it came as long as he stayed outdoors. She wasn’t such a cat person, and who even knew he liked cats? They’d had cocker spaniels until the last was hit crossing their busy street in California.

“Let’s see if the weather surprises us this morning,” he said to Captain as he opened his garage doors.

“See you two tonight!” Mina called as she closed the garage door.


Bernie Hudson liked to keep an eye on things from his living room window. When he saw there were colorful lights being strung on Clark’s garage, he decided to get out and watch more closely. He moved slowly among slippery leaves, using his cane for better purchase.

“Hello, Bernie.” Clark, startled since he had spoken with the older man maybe a half dozen times, greeted him from the ladder. He was about done with the lights and they draped about the doors like small exclamation marks, brightly welcoming. The cat was curled up on a big flat rock now that the rain had stopped. Weal sunlight eked through the clouds and rested on its green eyes and Clark’s congenial face.

“That looks real good, I have to say. Some people make such a show of wasting electricity but this will be tasteful.”

Clark chuckled –he didn’t think of holiday lights as being fine decor–and climbed down, then entered the garage and plugged them in. The brilliant colors glowed under the mostly bare black limbs of trees, seemed to spruce up the homely garage. They admired it together, noted the other houses people had lit up over the week-end.

“You got a new cat, eh? Fine looking animal.”

“Oh, he found us, a stray I guess. I advertised that he was here but no one has claimed him this week. I decided he could stay–well, he comes and goes but  likes to hang out in my garage.”

Bernie followed him inside the warm space, leaning on the cane as he gazed about. It looked almost like a makeshift den, he thought, with two old ladder back chairs and a humming electric fireplace and a painting on the wall. A well used oval rag rug was aid across the floor, to his surprise. Hardly a regular garage. But pleasant.

“Mind if I have a sit? This leg gives me grief.”

“Not at all. I’m about to put on new hinges on a repainted cupboard for our bathroom.”

“Nice job,” he said, and took out his pipe. “Mind if I smoke?”

Clark hesitated before answering. he disliked cigarette smoke and cigars were overwhelming but maybe a pipe would be okay. He didn’t mind the old guy visiting, so why not?

“I like best my Paladin Black Cherry, do you know it?”

“No sir, can’t say I do, not a smoker, but go ahead.”

Clark worked in silence after that while Bernie smoked and grunted a little at the cat or over his sore leg and captain took his spot on the big braded rug by the fireplace. The aromatic scent wafted about the room  and since the excess escaped through the open doors, it lent a peaceful atmosphere. As time went by, Clark shared some about his past work and how he wanted something different, he was a very good numbers man. Bernie talked about his wife’s weak heart and their seven grandchildren and how he could get tired of the dark, wet weather, too, but this was home until they were too old and then who knew? Best to enjoy the days as they came.

“Clark, what have you rigged up here? How enchanting.”

It was the neighborhood’s community mediation specialist, Julie, with daughter Carrie in a stroller. The three year old reached for the cat but he got up stretched and sauntered off.

“Oh, just a project while I keep applying for more jobs… the house can feel small all closed up in winter and well, I like garages.”

“Yes, Troy would admit to the same. He’ll want to come and see this!” She waved and kept on.

He hadn’t recalled her ever talking to him. Julie lived kitty-corner from them; Mina had run into her once in the store, she’d said.

As darkness began to fall and the little lights quietly blazed, Bernie waved to someone getting out of a BMW. It was Terry Hansen and his wife, Melba. Clark gritted his teeth; they were both younger and lawyers; they likely would sneer privately at his little project. They’d ask whether he was working or not. Clark got busy fiddling at the workbench but on they came and looked things over as they chatted with Bernie and then his wife, who had hobbled over to find her spouse.

Mina opened the garage door, then carefully backed out onto a landing atop three steps. As she turned, two mugs of coffee in her hands, she stopped. She was amazed to see Clark chatting with neighbors they barely had been able to recognize. Everyone was so busy with their lives. But the visitors greeted her warmly so she offered them coffee.

“Sure, why not?” Terry said. “It’s been a grueling day. Mind if we sit and chat?”

Melba helped with coffee and then the women joined in, opening two camp stools on which to sit. The rain had started up again and darkness was thickening about the streets and houses but the glow of the Christmas lights sparked up the homely scene. Clark looked on from his three legged stool and made a mental note to bring out their set of folding chairs, and to buy a tall stool for himself. But he was a little baffled by all these people, how much they liked his funky garage. Maybe no one here had thought of such a thing before but its wasn’t entirely unheard of, he was sure. On the other hand, garages not renovated for, say, an extra bedroom, were meant for cars and tools, not people.

Once more, rain started up, sweeping across the street, yards, bushes, into the garage. Clark pulled the doors to a little, enough to see the curtain of water and let out the pipe smoke. They grew quieter, each in his or her own thoughts. Dinner time was also past due.

Terry drank the last gulp of his coffee, stood up and stretched his compact frame. “You play cards at all, Clark? Poker or a hot game of rummy? I’m thinking this would be a great place to play on an occasional week-end night, open the doors some for fresh air, fire up the fireplace unit and have at it. What do you think?”

“Oh no, another ‘man cave’ plan being hatched!”  Melba said in mock horror but she seemed to not find it so appealing.

“Keeps him occupied for now,” Mina said, smiling tolerantly at the chic woman. “I kind of like what he’s done, and so does the cat.”

“Here, here,” Bernie said with a lift of his pipe. “Cards are sorely missing from my life.”

Clark thought it over and found it full of possibilities. “I might like that idea…”

“Good, we’ll figure out a couple more players. Quite a nice set-up you’ve created. Unique, I have to say. Just what the neighborhood needed.”

Melba moaned good-naturedly and reached for Mina; they swapped phone numbers. “We need to get our own thing started,” she suggested.

After all had left and Mina ordered Italian take out, Clark puttered around until Captain came back. When the cat yawned and he figured it was time to pick up their food, he closed the garage doors and turned off the electric fireplace. He petted him twice and went into the house, leaving one garage door ajar. He figured if Captain wanted to leave he’d come back sooner or later; he sure knew his way around places and people. This could be a decent life for them both, at least for the time being.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.