Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: He Stepped Over the Threshold

He had vowed never to return to the house, and in fact, it appeared he had not. Looking right, left and behind his shoulder, Thomas assessed the circumference of the front yard and proliferation of colorful growth in it, then squinted hard at steps and door. This was not the yard he recalled, not the entry into a house he knew.

There were not six wonky brick steps, nor uninspired wooden door with peeling grey paint. These blue steps led to a porch that extended across the width of the charcoal grey bungalow. A proper one, somewhere you’d enjoy wasting time. He observed two white rocking chairs with fat floral cushions to entice a passerby. Well, he had come by and here he was staring at the lighter blue front door like he might see through it if he gazed hard enough. He wanted to discern whether he’d made a grave error. But no, the number–76–under one of two tasteful brushed metal porch lights confirmed his destination. No way could it be his childhood home.

But it was. He could hear her voice–high pitched, on the strident side–and rapid footsteps. He used to take one step to her three. And she never quite caught up. Now they were whole lives apart, not footsteps. And if this foreign-seeming house was any indication, he had little idea what he was getting into once he crossed into her domain.

He pressed the doorbell and there were those reverberating chimes. They hadn’t changed. He shivered in the July heat, but his neck was sweaty.

“Coming, coming!” Thudding feet.

Of course, the house had been more or less Keri’s for a year. Ever since their mother had gone into the nursing home and Keri took over her finances and property matters. And that meant the house was also Milo’s, that husband he didn’t like despite having “met” him only once via video chat with Mom and her. Didn’t they have a kid years back, his mother had said? Brent, Brandon? He knew zero about his half-sister’s life except that she had managed to inherit the house, and early–he hadn’t wanted it, he was set on the West coast. Thomas retained only watery memories of being there after 14, when Jim, her father– by default also his due to marrying his mother (who soon had Keri)–had passed.

It rained and stormed for two weeks after Jim was gone; the neighborhood creek swelled and overflowed. But Thomas didn’t cry. He hadn’t actively missed the man, just felt his absence like a deep cool spot in and near the cracked leather easy chair. But he did miss his mother, who disappeared into her room after long hours of work directing things at the shelter, even taking meals there.

Thomas stepped back and turned away, his long, sandaled right foot on the second step down. Toward freedom, away from the past.

“Tommy. I can’t believe you came. After eighteen years. About time.”

Her voice whizzed over his head. The nickname. He cringed. Took the next step down. She was going to start out complaining, as usual? But he had made it this far so turned and faced the whole situation.

Keri was tall like he was, like their mother (Jim was three inches shorter) had once been, and black palazzo pants made her legs seem unnaturally long, with matching black painted toenails pointed right at him, bare feet like when she was a kid. He raised his head, took in a sleeveless top of tiny red and white threads woven through more black. Her arms also seemed too thin and long–wasn’t she supposed to be heavier and look older?–and finally met her face. Bronzed sharp cheekbones, eyes shimmery at the edges. Thin lips stretched into a smile, revealing two crooked top teeth. No dental work and caps yet.

Her sharp brown eyes took in his length and emotional temperature. She looked like an exotic snake in good clothes. When she moved her bony hands, silver and gold bracelets jangled. He suspected those were Mom’s; she used to wear the same type, he suddenly recalled.

Something inside him sank.

“Keri,” he said, forcing a half-smile. “It was  a quick trip from the hotel, so I’m here.”

“Don’t just stand there, come in, Tommy. Please. You look decent, I have to say, but quite hot. We put A/C in awhile back, come on, cool off.”

Keri held open the door and he dodged past her. Talk, talk, talk that was Keri despite their rarely communicating all the years gone. As he entered the foyer it fairly gleamed. Polished wood floors reflected light that floated into the living room to the left, down the hallway on the right toward the kitchen and right up the stairwell on far right. The walls were no longer wallpapered, but beige or grey. He froze, tried to meld the old house with all that was before him, and the pieces didn’t wedge together. It was like a stage set or a rented retreat.

“Lots of changes, I know. Here, come through to the dining room and kitchen–that massive wall was taken down–and have a good drink. There’s time to talk, right?”

Why was she being courteous, not sharp-edged? Mean, really, was the word for her back then. Why did she ask for him to come insistently the last time and then demand it after he visited his mother this week? Their mother, right; not just his. And Keri  had looked after her the past many years, hadn’t she?

“Still like iced tea with a lemon slice, or something else? I’m out of booze.”

Thomas thanked her and sat. He could glimpse the back yard through the windows and averted his eyes. His one place of happiness, he realized, was right there all those years as his mother mourned, then let her anger seep out as she dealt with Jim’s gambling debts that left them living hand to mouth. Keri knew that was true, but she’d always left the room if the topic came up,  hand slicing the air, a refusal to accept.

He didn’t care to gamble; he saw it wreck so much. He wondered if she did. Likely not; the house looked too stylish, clean.

The dining table was made of heavy glass and rich wood. He flattened warm hands on the surface as she got the tea; his palms left damp outlines so he put them in his lap. He felt like a schoolboy, clumsy even as he waited, impatient for it all to be over.

The smells were different in recirculated, chilled air. Well, of course they would be. His mother had left the house years ago. She had taken her cheap but good violet perfume scent, and her baking scents and daily fresh orange juice scent and her used books and garden flower scent. Now there lingered random smells: fresh paint, scented candles, furniture polish and stark white lilies–a fragrance of funerals–that stood tall in a clear blue vase before him.

Keri returned with two water-beaded glasses clinking with ice cubes. They were round and small, like tiny golf balls. They had once enjoyed put-put golf, down the street, he mused and shook his head clear.

“I thought I’d never get you to stop by. All the years you might have…when Mom was feeling better, or to help when she was moved one place to another.”

“Well, I’m in California and you all are here in Massachusetts. Now I’m here, Keri. And why? Mom still has time to live, if not a great life, a decent life taken care of by us both. I knew she gave you money oversight and the house, basically. I’ve not argued about it, I don’t care about all that. I don’t come here to see you because it isn’t necessary. And I would rather not. I visit Mom a couple of days every four months–you know that–then I leave. “

“Mr. Big Shot, eh? So busy with hot music, your decadent partying  life, is that it? No real time for family even when they need you around…Okay, yes, there’s a reason I wanted you to come.” The words were spit at him.

She threw him a dagger look, those cheeks sucked in more, but he ducked internally, leaned back, legs sprawling out under the table. She leaned in with her glare, then swiftly looked away.

He wasn’t here for more drama so maybe it was time to go.

“Oh, stop. We aren’t kids now. This is why I didn’t see you, in case you forgot. Your blatant lack of acceptance, those well-placed words of derision. I don’t drink now, anyway. Though that isn’t relevant.”

“Well, huh.” She frowned, confused, as if this wasn’t part of the script, then almost smiled. “Nice, good for you. Me, neither. Not since Milo left.”

“He left you guys? When?”

“After Mom went into the nursing home. He’d had enough of everything, her illnesses, my bingeing, house needing too much work and the money of it all. The yard and foundation dug up due to a rat infestation and rebuilt, replanted. Can you picture that? It was the final straw; he’s lazy, self-centered by nature. So he moved out, filed for divorce. Also ,Brad isn’t so easy, he has issues like preteens do, I guess. Milo sees him every other week-end now.”

She turned sideways, looked to the yard so lush and green, then shrugged, and her eyes were unblinking as she fixed on him. “But that’s enough, more than I should have said. What about you? Now that you came, at last.”

Brad, her boy, how old was he? Thomas struggled to recall; Mom sent him a school picture a few times. “He’s almost ten?”

“Last fall. Will be eleven.” She twisted a dark wave around her finger, an old self-soothing motion. “He’s pretty musical.”

Thomas started, sat up. “What does he play?”

“Can’t decide. I am not yet encouraging him.”

“Of course not, you wouldn’t want him to be a good-for-nothing-musician like me.” He laughed despite himself. “What has he tried? What does he love?”

“A few things, trombone, drums, guitar. You should ask him.”

“Is he here?” He looked out the windows, over the rooms. Upstairs, waiting them out? He saw a baseball glove on a chair, a bat in a corner, and he felt a tinge of warmth for what he’d loved, too, long ago in this place.

“No. He might be later.” She sipped her tea, ice cubes tinkling as she swirled them. “I used to wish I could turn this into rum and Coke by swirling it enough. Like an idiot. It got bad, you know…”

“Mom said you had a few too many here and there and I knew there was more to it or she wouldn’t have said so. But I get it, no judgment. I was stumbling off-stage near the end, missing gigs. Got six years in.”

“One, with a daily counting.”

She held up her index finger and he wanted to give her a high five but sat quietly. He noted a crisscross of lines etching her dusky skin. She weighed too little, she looked too worn out but she wasn’t 15 anymore.

“I’m so sorry for it all,” Keri said, bottom lip a quiver, then covered her face with bony tapered fingers.

“Wait, Keri, just wait.” He shifted taller, held up his hands, palms facing her.

“Just let me say it, just this once, and that will be it!”

“Okay–but you have to know it was more than rough those years, what you said to me over and over. How worthless a brother and even a son I was, how stupid to not pass Algebra much less get on the honor roll like you, to not even make the football team. How horrible my trumpet playing was no matter how hard I practiced, how glad it made me. How insane I was to think I could make it out there ‘in any way shape or form, so do us all a favor and just give up!’ Remember that? That’s when I left, at 17. I never forgot that I left behind my mother and a sister. But I also bore wounds, had to move on.”

Keri stood up, started to pace about the room. “I know, I know! I was drinking already and Dad gambled so much and then died in the car accident and Mom was down the rabbit hole with grief and depression. And I was…I was…”

“Look, we all have pain to figure out. Get over. I don’t like to look back, anymore. Let’s talk about now, how Mom is doing today, the house, what you’ve done here–how good it looks.” His heart pounded; the room seemed to sway, he felt dizzy. He should not have come, had to get out or suffocate all over again.

She stopped by his chair, and placed her hands on his shoulders carefully and her pupils opened wide in circles of dark amber. He thought saw the start of tears so he closed his own eyes. He missed that her eyes cleared and were calm.

But she didn’t quit. She never did.

“I was lost, Thomas. Afraid, angry. I needed you. I didn’t know how to tell you so I pushed hard, and then away from you, from all. It was wrong but it happened.”

“Yeah, far away.” She let go of him and sauntered to the back door. “I left and traveled as far as I could go,” he called after her. But he got up and followed.

She was in the roses. Bushes and bushes of them, narrow paths in between–thick blooms of red, yellow, white, pink, peach. He knew their mother liked to garden, then less and less over time. And she hadn’t planted more roses, he didn’t think. Everywhere Thomas looked now there were pops of color and trees grown mammoth, bushes and flowering things new to him. And two wood benches, a small burbling fountain and a trellis with climbing red roses.

It was impeccable and beautiful. A haven. And it was Keri’s hand that fashioned it, gave it all that was needed to flourish.

“Amazing,” he said, “a heavenly place here, alive.”

And then she joined him.

“You appreciate the fruits of my labors? My pet project, a way of keeping Mom engaged for a few years though she mostly directed and scolded from a bench. But she loved the result. I’ve found it just the thing for me after draining work in the Emergency Room. So much blood and ruin traded for so much hearty life. Let me show you around.”

After the tour  they were silent and rested on a bench.

“So, why did you insist I visit now, Keri? Besides trying to make amends…which we both need to finish, I guess.”

She ruffled her dark bob. “I’m–we are–selling. I did all this renovation, with Milo’s help and Mom’s fiances, of course, in order to sell it. I don’t want to live here, anymore. Brad and I need a change, a home of our own. Mom is okay with it, and she can use the money.”

“Selling. Soon?’

“I’m about to put it on the market. I wanted you to see it, and also to ask you–would you care to buy it for investment purposes, maybe? Or maybe you’d like part of the profit since it has great value now, really top dollar for the area. I mean, even Milo may get a small cut. You should have something of what you’d like from here. Right?” 

He took a deep breath, released it in an admiring whistle. “You’re offering me our house or money? Wow. But I don’t need or want it, Keri. I left so long ago and come here to find so much changed and for the better. It’s yours and Mom’s to sell. I’m actually glad you’ve enjoyed it. It was not a great place to be for so long. Now it shines, Keri. The ghosts may have fled. Not toxic enough for them, anymore.”

She laughed. Not a considerate or restrained laugh, but as he remembered, from the belly, mouth wide open, head tossed back. Her hand grabbed his forearm and he laughed with her.

She smoothed her black pants, checked her finely lined palms and fingernails so short for gardening and her emergency nurse work. Both hands then collapsed into her lap, finally at ease.

“Well.”

“Yes,” Thomas said.

“So just sell?”

“Keep the money, you and Mom. Not so sure abut Milo…”

“I think you should accept some.”

“I don’t want any, Keri, you know I do well. If there’s something left over, you and Brad might fly out to my beach place for a visit.”

He heard himself and was shocked by his own words, as was she.

“A real vacation in California, at your house?”

“Mom! Who’s out there? Did he come?”

Thomas twisted around to see a young boy, lanky and dark haired and bright eyed, hands in pockets, and his cap with its bill backwards.

“Come and see.”

“Is it Tommy? I mean, Thomas Haines?”

He elbowed Keri.”Tommy, always that Tommy.”

He stood up and extended a hand to him and Brad who came right up to shake it hard, smiling.

“The famous musician from California!..My ole lost uncle! I have your music, too! Hey, I play trombone. Brass, like trumpet.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at Keri; so that was it, then, for the kid. Like when the trumpet found him, love at first note.

They gathered at the outdoor table, swapping more history. Keri and he were agreed that Jim was a man with heart who went terribly wrong with addiction to gambling, and that their mother was a codependent who loved them the best she could. And she had suffered more than they knew. It was a lot to say and harder to accept. Though he was interested, Brad went inside, his interest waning, and the notes from his trombone sounded true as they wafted through his window.

The afternoon melted into evening so they cooked spaghetti, sausages and fresh green beans. Thomas couldn’t say it was all easy and natural. It was randomly awkward, at moments felt strange to be around her like regular family, as if they had not suffered and learned to sometimes hate or drink into stuporous states– and given up on each other.

And they did all that here, and now they were starting over within an altered house. And it was changing them, sitting at the table across from each other, talking of nothing much yet some of much else, sharing a simple meal, making plans for their visit to his spot on the Pacific Ocean. He’d make the time. Finally, he could make a little room for them. And he saw himself get right in the mix.

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Baby, Will You Still Love Me?

Photo by Martin Parr

It might have been a coincidence that things turned out how they did, but maybe not. But we were enjoying the sea air, visiting from the city. We always stayed a week at Burke’s Beach in July, maybe two if Len had enough vacation time. So our minds weren’t on random people, they were on each other, for once, and the rolling waves, and welcome sunshine eking through the clouds. It had stormed the night before; the air was thick with leftover moisture. My hair was going nuts, wild and curly. Len said he liked it that way–he told me this every summer there. It was good for us both, that beach town.

I had, though, noticed the guy on the bike earlier. He was weaving back and forth along the walkway, a bit wobbly, maybe tired out, undecided where to go next, wasting time. But a grown man–I guess it did strike me–on a kid’s bike. Maybe he borrowed the bike from his son. Once he zipped past us and we were distracted by other things I thought nothing more of him.

I never saw that young gal strolling up the sidewalk. If I had, I would’ve looked twice, sure. It isn’t every day a grown woman carries a baby doll under her arm– in public, anyway. When the gossip started its rounds, she–who we learned to be Elaine Moss–was a huge focal point, so I knew I’d missed the boat as the whole thing unfolded. But Tole Tolman, the bicyclist, took up much of the daily rag’s headline the next day.

Yet we were there and it feels odd we wouldn’t have known more. A person on a bike who vaguely caught my attention–Len pleads ignorant–partly because his jacket was peachy, hair bleached blond. Well, I’m a hairdresser. I notice these things. Possibly female, I’d considered, then settled on male–but whatever people are, they can be, no matter to me. Then Len suggested we find that new good restaurant, not go back to the old fish and chips joint so heavy on the grease. His stomach doesn’t welcome grease, though he loves his fish and chips. I didn’t want vacation ruined by his nagging ulcer so we turned away before that woman started down the sidewalk.

But I glimpsed her moving toward past the guy, blithe as can be. Len, too. A bit of a swagger, but mostly moving fast, a day out and about. And then the guy on the bike slumped over, fell off the bike–so they said later. We’d turned to stare out to sea, then heard commotion behind us, a yell, feet scurrying. Len turned abruptly, then tugged at me, saying, “Let’s go, Denise, we don’t need to be a part of any scene.”

Of course I wanted to see what was going on–how can you not want to find out the details when something unusual occurs? Not Len–he took my elbow, rushed me away as I craned my neck to see a group growing.

He’s very clear on priorities. That’s why he’s successful; he knows when to get on it and when to let the world run itself. That is what he tells me: “Let the world do its own business, we have our own.” He’s not like me. I volunteer for things, participate in gardening club, book club. Hands-on sort of person. Len, he’s hands-on mostly when it benefits him, mostly. But I fell in love with him thirty-six years ago and still feel he’s the one.

So we left and started a search for the restaurant that would make us both happy, and soon found one.

At the corner table with the fresh white candle lit and shining between us, we enjoyed companionable quiet after ordering. The place was attractive with simple, gracious surroundings, deep greens and tawny beige. It was busy but not overly busy for a Wednesday night. I admired the window sashes and curtains and while I leaned over to examined the material I began to muse. Or as Len calls it, overthink–but what does he know of people matters? He’s a manufacturing guy, likes machines and numbers.

“What do you think happened back there?”

Len looked at me steadily. He knew this was not going to be put to rest with a simple shrug. “I guess the guy was ill and fainted. Simplest deduction.”

I considered. Maybe that was why all the weaving. “Like a diabetic, perhaps like that man who fell over in front of our house a few years ago? Went into insulin shock or something? But what else was going on…?”

“How would I know? We left, the right thing to do.”

“I saw a woman walking past. Wonder if she helped him–someone did, for sure.”

“I saw her, too.” He smiled faintly. “Had a doll with her, carried it in her arm. Like it was half-real.”

“Oh, you saw her coming, then. But with a doll. What sort? And why?”

“People do odd things, Denise. Maybe it was a gift though it wasn’t dressed from what I could tell. I don’t think it had a bunch of hair. Really, there were more interesting things today than that little scene, don’t you think?”

“Well, you got more info than I did!”

“One and only time, I suspect.”

Our salads arrived and we dove in.

More interesting things? Maybe not. We took a morning swim–chilly and fast–and strolled around the town’s rose gardens, read after a picnic lunch, stopped at a wine bar for a couple glasses, rested at our cottage, then headed out to the boardwalk area. Now, dinner.

The snippet of a scene nagged at me; I wanted to find out more. Len has always said I make much of little but the fact is, life is chock full of tiny nothings that add up to something bigger. As a hairdresser–had my own salon for twenty years–there were at least ten ongoing stories daily. People were walking books, needing to be shared, in my opinion. And we could each do with more listening and observing. But that’s just me, going on about things, as usual.

“What did that guy on the bike do when she was coming along the sidewalk, anything of interest?”

Len waved his fork lightly in the air, pieces of avocado, romaine and red onion falling back in his bowl and on the table. “You should’ve been a detective, for crying out loud. I don’t really know–give it a little rest, darlin’.”

I fell silent, stung, but then he put his two big feet aside my small ones and winked at me, silvery hair flopping over his lined forehead. I sighed, slipped off a golden sandal, ran bare toes over his shin and chuckled with him. Our conversation moved on. The night got its lovely glow back. That’s what our vacations are meant to be about.

******

Burke’s Beach Weekly blared its unusual headline as I grabbed it from our doorstep. I carried it to the patio out back, reading as I did so. Len poured our coffee, then slipped a steaming omelet on each plate.

“Man attacks woman, steals doll: arrest swift,” I read, then looked at him, agape. “It’s the two we saw yesterday! What on earth…”

I sat down and Len scanned the paper over my shoulder, then sat back down and began to eat. “Enjoy it while it’s hot,” he suggested but I was busy absorbing the news. I finished the article, sighed hugely and took a fast drink of coffee, scalding my tongue and letting out a gasp. Len was a third done with breakfast and he paused, his small grey eyes held mine, thick brows aloft.

“Tongue stings now. So it says that one Tole–Tole?– Tolman, the man we saw, pretended he fainted, then suddenly grabbed Elaine Moss by the ankle, tackled her to the ground and forcibly took her doll. There was a tug of war over it but he got it loose from her– in one piece, I gather– and hopped on his bike and away he went. But someone had watched them, called the police and he was apprehended. And the doll was valuable, apparently, but more than that, it had belonged to Mr. Tolman’s aunt. It was her favorite of a collection. She had raised him, it says. She had some money. The doll was sold off in an estate sale–to that Moss lady–and he had despaired of ever finding it again. So when he saw it, he took it.”

“Despaired, really? Your word or the paper’s?”

“Well, it had been his mother’s childhood toy… he was very sad to have lost it… but anyway, Elaine Moss collects dolls and owns a shop outside of town. She was taking it to get clothes made for the baby doll. I wonder how it fared. And why she didn’t just give it up to Tolman. Money?”

“Such fanfare over a doll! A grown man attacking a woman, robbing her of it. Unusual, wouldn’t you say? Life is strange, Denise. I’d personally rather not think much on it.”

I began to eat, thoughtfully. I had a mind to visit the shop and wondered if it was open after the press coverage.

“I know, Len, but it keeps things interesting.”

“So you say,” he said, and got up to pour more coffee in the big white mugs. “I know you’ll have quite a tale to offer when you get back to your salon. But the thief was arrested and charged, I imagine, and the woman recovered okay, with doll intact.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“Well, justice done.” He shook his near-shaggy head–he loved my hair wilder I loved his untrimmed–and bent over a book on production methodology, discussion over.

But I wondered.

******

I walked down two short side streets until I came to the store. Moss and Wright, Emporium, a painted blue and white sign stated, elaborate scrolls along the edges. It was open and I went in, the bell on the door chiming my entry. It was busy, a couple of men and several women milling about with items in their hands, talking softly among themselves. I hadn’t heard of it until now, a shop of wonders. It had to be new since last summer.

Everywhere were shelves and tables and displays full of brightly colored and textured items, a variety imported from other continents, also antiques and beautiful, random odds and ends: refinished or painted furniture pieces, lamps of all sorts, pillows fat and small, lovely jewelry here and there, fabrics and ribbons, glass vases and candlesticks, tea sets, old books and magazines that were a bit musty and more. I needed nothing but had my eye on a necklace when a sales woman stopped by. Not Elaine Moss, I surmised due to different coloring.

“May I help you find something special?”

“I’m new to the shop, is it just opened?”

“Just last September.” Her hand fluttered to smooth her bangs, which were wavy and thick. “So glad you found us–so many have come today…” She tried to look congenial but barely succeeded, and there were crinkling lines creeping about her young eyes, and skin as pallid as if drained of natural blush.

“Ah, the news– everyone from out of town reads the newspaper,” I said.

“I’m afraid so. You didn’t come to see Elaine, too, did you? She’s not in today, nor tomorrow.”

“My sympathies…no, but I did come to see all the dolls.”

“We don’t sell dolls–just a couple now and then. She keeps a private collection, under lock and key due to their value. Surprising what antique or rare dolls can bring.”

“I see. Like the one Mr. Tolman tried to get?”

“No, well, that was different…” The woman peered at me, eyes narrowed. “You with the paper or something…?”

I found myself stepping back, gesturing with palms up. “Oh, no, we were just nearby right before it happened, coincidentally. I’m just wondering what it was all about. I mean, a doll doesn’t usually warrant an attack, does it?”

The woman’s head swung around left, then back to me. She was again composed. “Odd timing for you. Perhaps you should contact the police, they might be interested? Excuse me, someone wants to check out.”

“Of course.”

I wandered about then went back to the necklace. It appeared to be made of sterling and tourmaline. It would go with my summery dress purchased just for our trip’s last nice dinner out in a few days. Pricey but not too pricey so I decided to buy it and went to the back of a small line.

Two women in front of me spoke in low, exclamatory voices, easy to overhear so, of course, I listened in.

“They say he is, you know, mentally challenged. Not right, anyway, and at some point he was sent away–to be raised by the aunt. Who was also Elaine’s, I guess.”

“Oh, really. The same aunt? They’re cousins? He robbed his own cousin! Of a doll! How peculiar.” She giggled. “I wonder if he was in love with Elaine as a kid or something!” The woman shrieked, hand clamping her mouth.

“Shhh! “The first whisperer glanced back; I stared at the necklace, so she resumed. “I don’t know if they’re related, exactly. Ask Carolyn Wright, that’s the business partner up front. Yeah, inheritance issues that finally got to him, I guess. He still lives in the deceased aunt’s house, but who knows when he gets out of jail. He might end up homeless, poor thing. Elaine Moss has clout, you know she married Hugh Moss. Gorgeous woman, too. Anyway, no one is going to leave valuable things with someone who is so–well, odd… maybe even actually gay. Certainly he comes up rather mentally short!” She turned to her friend. “Hey, maybe she walked right past him with that doll on purpose, you think–to shake him up?”

The friend put a hand on the other woman’s arm, stifling a laugh, and they shook their heads in unison.

I cleared my throat loudly and stepped forward. The women turned to look at me. “Moving along, aren’t we? Not gossiping about such sad news, are we? I mean, really?…Come on.”

“None of your damned business–no doubt you don’t even live here, right?” It came out tartly, one hand on the rail-thin woman’s hip, but the two gossipers moved forward. Nothing more was uttered despite my wanting more than anything to lay into them both. When they purchased their items they loped past with cold glares, arms linked.

I studied the gleaming necklace, fingered it gently. Thought of the man on his bike and the woman–his relative–walking right by him, the beloved doll thrust under her arm, its presence taunting him. Who knew exactly why it meant so much to them both? Why he had to get it any way he could? It was more than a little painful to contemplate now as she recalled him weaving about on his too-small bike, his peachy jacket loose on a thin frame, his blond hair too bright in the clouded July light. Alone. A man born with less, perhaps, than he may have needed or surely desired. A child abandoned, a man unaccepted and brimming with needs– and once more left behind.

It was all too terrible.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment that rapidly felt like shame. I had been too curious, full of a hunger to glean more–personal details that were not even mine to know. I had looked askance at the man on the bike, perhaps, and had a few of my own unwise ideas. I was not so pure of intent. And I had listened a long time before having the courage to say anything…I shook my head in an effort to clear it, stepped out of line, put the necklace back on its display and left the store.

The air had become crystalline, the temperature had risen. I noted sunbathers and swimmers swarming the beach as I approached our modest, dear cottage. I wanted to go lie down, hide my head awhile. Feel only the fan sweep salty air back and forth, the ocean’s energy hush my writhing thoughts. Not even talk to Len, who would, mercifully, then go back to the patio with wine and book. And just wait.

******

The next morning Len snuggled up to her, fresh from his shower. He knew better than to awaken her but her eyelids quivered, then blue irises and dark pools of pupils peeked at him. He planted a soft kiss on her cheek. He didn’t ask how she was. He didn’t ask for anything. Nor did he expect continuing silence from her as she rolled closer.

“It just goes to show what you can learn,” she murmured. “Even at our age.”

“What now?”

“You seldom know where a person’s story begins or ends and you’re lucky to know any of its true middle parts. But you also can learn more about yourself in the unfolding. I’m going to remember that when I get back to the salon.”

Len liked that thought but frankly, he didn’t know entirely what it meant to her this morning and watched the yellow flowery curtains flap in the breeze. He did know she had a good heart and a very inquisitive mind and he adored her. He wrapped his arms about her but she pulled back to look at him better, then seemed satisfied and found her place within his embrace.

“Thank goodness we come here every summer–maybe we should come in winter, spring and fall, too! Why not?”

“I second that, my darlin’ Denise,” he said, a rush of relief underscoring his chuckle.

They remained just so, soft belly to rounder one, wrinkling chest to pudgy parts, until the coffee he’d begun was done perking, its sharp, happy fragrance filling the place with its welcome.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Two Wings and a Man

Everett took Trixie everywhere allowed, which meant he mostly wandered outdoors with her as he could. That was alright. They sometimes visited Gerry’s Joint for lunch–she was more willing than most to have them both. Saw a couple of friends. He was retired now from his mechanic’s work and finally had time to relax. But he and Trixie were old mates, they went with the basic flow of things. Goodness knows, they had seen it all, had dealt with high and low waters.

“Literally as well as figuratively, this is the reality, and you two have  been the better for it”, Annalisa, his niece, said.

Ev didn’t say things complicated like that.

The two of them lived on Chancy River’s west bank in a plain modular home, the sort you might note as a double wide trailer at first glance. He was pleased to be there. He was eight miles from town and Petersen’s Garage where he worked forty years. Annalisa lived with her husband (he was alright, but didn’t deserve her) and their two rugrats down the road. He never called them that out loud; he meant no harm in thinking it. They were just loud, got into mischief–well, they were kids. Everett liked them much of the time despite himself. It was family and family was good–mostly or, more honestly, sometimes.

But when thinking of family, he first thought of Trixie, his blue and yellow budgie, or parakeet as most called her. And he knew people didn’t quite get that.

Trixie was closer to him than any person, really. He did have John and Morrie, fished with them every Sunday, their own secret church, Morrie once said, and they all heehawed and snorted. And he had Annalisa and the bar and grill owner, Gerry. Bernie the garage owner. A coworker here and there. Overall, they respected that Trixie and Everett were companions 11 years. Trixies heard his tales, cheered him up, kept him company through the drizzly long winter. And vice versa.

At the garage it had been harder. He was teased by new guys and random customers like it made their day.

“Hey Ev, how’s the little lady this morning?

“Did you brush out her feathers before you left for work?”

“Does she complain about the greasy slob you are after work? Maybe she won’t sing a tune then, huh?”

“Polly wants a cracker–and a glass of wine, please!”

They cackled at him but he ignored them best he could, laughed back under his breath. Fools. Everyone who knew anything knew that Everett cared so much for Trixie for good cause.

Annalisa had found, bought, then taken the parakeet to him after his cabin burned down. He had also lost his dog to the wildfire. She thought since he loved birds singing and flitting about outdoors he might like one to live with him indoors. To talk to and such. And she was right. Trixie helped things get better.

Everett was a born bird lover. He had it in his blood; even his grandpa had kept track of bird sightings, their songs and habits. But it was different than his dad who hunted them to eat and for sheer sport. He never got that. But, then, he didn’t get lots of things, apparently. He learned early on he was stupid, for that’s what his dad told him day and night, and his ma said little to change that impression. He barely finished tenth grade but knew how to fix mechanical things with hardly a thought. That was how he knew birds and their singing: he paid close attention to them and used his own instincts.

He half-believed them holy. Those wings. Those songs. The amazing freedom from gravity’s heaviness.

******

Trixie was let out of her medium-sized, rectangular cage every day for about three hours. Ev took her to the sun room at east end of the house–so-called because that’s where pools of sunshine gathered and soaked up. There was a bunch of potted plants, a raggedy easy chair by the picture window, an end table with binoculars and a dogeared bird book. He’d have let his parakeet buddy go footloose and fancy free more, but he had things to do on his acreage. There was fishing first of all, almost daily attacks on the curse of ivy, tending his vegetable garden; errands to run; someone’s car to fix on the cheap–he couldn’t help himself on that. He found he’d nearly as few free hours as before retirement. It just filled up differently and felt better.

So Ev took Trixie out with him, her cage settled on the passenger side of his truck if he had to drive somewhere. Otherwise, they were on the riverbank or went to nearby wetlands and meadows. He could see how happy this made her. She fluttered about, hopping from one perch to the other, wings opening, closing like beautiful fans. She pecked at him affectionately and settled under his protective hold when he took her out a bit. She sang a little as wild birds called out, as if they’d invite her over. But more often she listened, and chirped and nattered at him.

“You like being out here. I wonder if I should let you go. You know, Trixie, you’re right spoiled. You wouldn’t make it out there, just chaos. We’ve a good home, ya think? Our refuge, yeah?” He wiped his brow. “Hot today.”

“Good day, Ev, good home,” she said to confirm that it was, then turned to watch a wren fly by. “Hot enough for ya?” She shook her head in slow fashion.

“Yep, sweating like a stuck pig. Good thing you hang around, buddy.”

“Buddies,” Trixie said. “Good day.”

He decided to open the tiny door and stuck his hand in. She hopped atop his index and middle finger. He placed his other hand over her body, eased her out. He could feel her trembling, almond-sized heart racing. Maybe it was wrong to do this, but she always fell under a happy spell, and later seemed calmer, and rested well. It was her little adventure the few times he had braved it.

Her bright yellow and blue mask was vibrant in the sun, her feathers so warm, shiny and soft as he carefully held her against his chest. Her head turned this way and that as she watched and then a tune escaped, one he taught her. She added other notes to wild sounds in treetops.

They sat there awhile, enjoying a light rattle of tree branches and birds working and tittering and as he was about to put her back in, the grasses behind him rustled, hushed, rustled once more but very slightly. Everett slowly turned, Trixie held closer, but he expected a rabbit or squirrel, even a beaver waddling to water. He reached for the cage, Trixie momentarily blinded by his palm, when there was the faintest swishing of grasses as the creature–bigger than he thought– closed the distance between them. His heartbeat banged away as he turned to see a sleek red fox leap out and dash to Trixie who leapt, too, right off Everett’s finger, stirring still air as she rose, a receding spot of soft blue melding with sky’s aquamarine brilliance.

Ev was frozen a second, then jumped to his feet, stared at his empty hands in disbelief while the fox glanced upwards with longing– then ran on, hidden once more in swaying grass.

“Trixie! Trixie! Oh no, no no…! Fly back to me! Where’d you go?”

He ran where she flew, ran more only to find watchful trees studded with birds who cared nothing of this small drama, and a sky so immense he’d never find her there.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I bring her and open that door? She was bound to leave one day. She just needed a fox for an excuse!”

He knew how silly that sounded and covered his long face with scarred, strong hands, refused to cry out as surely he was not that sort of man or friend. He’d just find her somehow. Wouldn’t he? Had to.

******

“They’re called budgies in other parts of the world, ya know. Native to Australia. Came to the USA around 1920 and we call ’em parakeets. Related to parrots, yeah, talk pretty well if you teach ’em well. Smart, unlike me, and also sociable.”

“Unlike you?” Gerry asked. “You manage fine, Ev, just fine. And Trixie isn’t the be-all, end-all..okay, so maybe she is. Sorry.”

“They can whistle any tune you teach them, you know that? Sure, you’ve heard her.” He kept running a hand through his hair absentmindedly.

“I do like your Trixie. I can’t believe she flew off…”

“She’s a bird,” John offered.

“She’ll be back,” Morrie said, washing down a french fry with his beer. “Patience.”

“Well, she might not, it’s a big world,” John said, patting Ev on a shoulder. “Sorry, sure was a fine parakeet, a good ally.”

Morrie glared at him, nudged their friend. “There are things we get and things we don’t. You never know. She might not like it out there. Might get lucky, too.”

Ev’s shoulders, broad and muscular, folded as he hunched over, lifted the beer mug to lips. Stared into depths of amber liquid. He could get lost in there, he was not above it. “She might just end up loving it,” he said and drank it all down.

“But then foxes and cougars, snakes and eagles…” John said, as he was a practical man and felt it had to be accepted. But this time Morrie reached over, smacked him back of his head so his ears nearly rang. He glared at him, but tried again. “I mean, she knows where the house is, right? She could find her way.”

“They’re tough, smart. Lots of good food out there so that won’t be a worry.” Gerry swiped at the counter, leaned across from Ev. “Have a little faith.”

Why was everyone yakking at him? His insides were pulling apart, no matter their words or that he was on his third beer.

“Parakeets prefer being with their humans, they really do,” Gerry said, patting his hand. “Read that once. She has a decent flock right here.”

“Yeah.” Ev got up, slid off the stool, walked out the door, his friends turning and calling him to come back. He kept on.

“Man. This is going to be rough,” Morrie said quietly. His oldest friend slunk past the window into the darkness, chin hanging on his chest. He’d never seen the man look so defeated except when his cabin burned down and his mutt died–much worse, and even then he hadn’t carried on about it to others. But maybe this was partly about Trixie coming into his life on the tail of that nightmare.

It had been instant affection and stayed like that, the odd couple.

Annalisa visited her Uncle Everett on her way to night shifts but all she could say was, “I’m so sorry, Uncle. The worst. Such a budgie! But she might still come home.” And then half-hugged him, as he was not one to be hugged.

After she left, he sighed and sighed, sat like a lump, and he felt her caring and sadness, too, like a good but heavy blanket.

*****

Ev got up at the crack of dawn day after day, made and packed a sandwich, filled his thermos with coffee, then headed to the marshy area that gave way to grasslands. Where they’d last sat under cottonwood trees. He made a spot against the best tree. He listened to birds singing their heads off and the faint rippling of Chancy River not far off and accepted sun’s offering of warmth kindly on his tired body, softly upon his mind. He’d have counted this as a fine happiness if not for Trixie’s absence. He sipped steaming coffee; more sweat rolled down his neck and disappeared under the collar of his chambray shirt.

“Why did I call you that? That’s what they always want to know. As if it matters to them. But it was the little girl in the picture book, that’s all, the one with poems and paintings when I was seven, nursery rhymes I imagine. There was a picture of her running in the field, red-winged blackbirds lining up on a fence. It was on that page: ‘Trixie gave her day away to red wings and blue butterflies, her face a beacon of happiness.’ Or maybe I made it up, the poem had to have been better… but it made me put down my own words later. We’d talk about things like that. I was reading those haiku out loud. You listened.”

He was watching, watching. He recalled the fire, how it took everything and he had been ready to leave it all, find another town but then she came, thanks to Annalisa.

“Where did you go? You had to have out-flown the murderous creatures. Got enough to eat? Fresh berries, veggies?”

At the end of the afternoon he’d trudge home and sit in the dark, doze and dream of bright wings, lightning, smoke.

It was not a surprise that he thought he spotted her on the sixth day. He always believed he saw her, in flight, perched on distant branches. This time he crisscrossed marshy parts and then there was a bundle of pale blue, tiny and crumpled in mud a few feet away. He came closer, fear filling him as he knelt. There she was–wasn’t she? Yes, Trixie, dirty, worn out and keeled over on her side, eyes opening to him.

“Trixie! Oh my, let’s get you home, there you go, girl…I got you.”

Everett very slowly put her into his cupped hand, then both hands carried her to their house. And on his front stoop were Morrie and Doc Vale.

He nearly fell to the ground in relief, only stopped by his hurt cargo. Morrie slapped his knees, stood right up followed by the other man.

“I brought the vet for ideas, to help look but– wait–is that Trixie?”

The vet took the shuddering bird as they entered the house. For several minutes no one spoke as he efficiently checked her. She was almost inert on the dining table, a twitch of foot, tiniest bob of head, barest sound loosed. She still looked half dead.

“Broken wing, surely, might be recent as she seems well fed. Dirtied up is all. She managed to stay alive–how did she elude predators?”

“Busted wing? Can that be fixed? Will she feel okay again?” Ev was horrified, expected the worst. To have found her, then lose her again would do him in.

Doc Vale stroked his white goatee and considered. “Yes, I suspect so if I determine for sure it’s a simple fracture. She must have run into something or fallen fast and hard. No other injuries. I can take her with me now, Everett.”

“Yes, take her, get her healed up and I thank you, Doc.”

******

“I see you,” Trixie called out from her cage perch as Ev popped up his head, then hid beind the couch again. “I see you, I see you!”

“Yeah, I see you, too, you ole feisty budgie. Here to stay– can’t fly too far now… what a surprise you are.”

“Surprise, surprise! See you!”

He finished frying up the bacon and set it aside his eggs. Tore tiniest bits into a small china bowl that held cooled, cooked potato and carrot, good seeds of all sorts, then took it to Trixie’s cage. He set it on her freshly cleaned floor, then she hopped down and over to it, wings aflutter.

“Eat hearty.”

“Heart and soul, heart and soul,” Trixie sang out and whistled the tune as Everett took her cage to the sun room, then got his own plate. They sat beside each other, bird cage set on side table, Ev in his easy chair.

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Trixie, let’s eat.”

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Ev–thank you!”

He gazed at her. Did she thank him, was that for real or was he hearing things? Trixie was busy gorging on breakfast so he dug in, too.

 

 

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Ways of Fox Lake

It is the crickets that steal her attention as she stops for a delicious drink of water at the roadside spring. Their insistent chirping, variations of a redundant theme. If it wasn’t dusk and she wasn’t getting groggy from travelling, she would’ve sped past the village. But here at the wayside she decides to look for a (most likely) dank, homely room for the night, and she will get a fresh start for home come dawn.

But Vanessa just sits in her car before turning the engine over, letting the crickets captivate her. It is one of those sounds that has beckoned and calmed her since childhood, like fireflies with their blinking soft lights, darting here and there like tiny dancers. She can’t say why–she grew up in various desert towns. Ended up in Las Vegas, to which she is returning.

The air’s rich undertow of pine and musty leaves stings her nose as she climbs back in the roadster. She starts the car, drives at a casual pace down the main dirt road, its obscure wooden sign stating: Fox Lake Corners. She unwittingly seeks out a fox’s flicking tail or triangular face along the road, then laughs at her own naivete. They are far too clever to be noted. She admires that although she is the opposite, in fact, as a showgirl, always in a center of attention, but not so much to distract from the flashier, far better paid stars. But there is an element of hiding in plain sight, just like the fox. Just another showgirl blinding the audience with sequins and feathers and long legs moving in sync, yet never really seen.

The village appears as so many others in this Midwest lake country. Tattered and slumping, blending into nature’s palette. Comprised of a gas station, general market, auto body shop, groupings of cabins and cottages among forested wooded acreage. A lake is tucked somewhere behind these; she’s been skirting such waters for days. Whether large or small, it dominates all else. That’s how it is around there: fishing, hunting, fishing, boating for fun and sweat-drenched work outdoors. The late spring light is tree-filtered and dappled, and warms her as she enters the more populated part. The village is more perky than she expected. Her shoulders relax when she spots an old–1940s?– motel; she catches a glimpse of deep blue behind it. She admits this is why she took vacation in lake country: the potential for peace. Which has mostly eluded her.

She pushes wide the low car door, climbs out and sees a man opening the motel office door to greet her.

“Ma’m. Can I help?” he says with a gap toothed smile, lifting a greasy baseball cap a half inch and resettling it. He admires the dusty green MG openly but only nods at it, and then her.

“A room for a night–you surely have one that looks directly onto the water.”

He shakes his head; thin lips stretch wide. “Lucky day. All do, comes free with the rent. Step on in.”

He opens the squeaky hinged screen door and she enters first.

Behind the desk sits a woman of indiscriminate age although she may be his wife, certainly business partner. She raises eyes to squint at Vanessa a moment too long, then smiles briefly, a hand unwittingly touching her short grey hair. Vanessa understands. Her own hair is pulled into a high pony tail but it is blindingly penny red. And there is the rest, the body that has carried her so far in the entertainment world even now, although she is well covered for this northern country. She is tall, taller than the string bean proprietor who offers her a seat. She stays on her feet. She doesn’t care to chat.

“What room, then, and how much?”

She pays $95.00 which is highway robbery but so it goes, then takes the key.

When she unlocks the room, suitcase in hand, she is surprised. It smells welcoming, like faded wood smoke–there is a small wood stove in the corner–and a soft scent of lavender, not her favorite but still, nice. Too much calico or vintage floral–whatever it is– for curtains and bedspread. Four pine walls. But it is clean and through opened curtains is the lake.

Fox Lake. She is still, breath held lightly. A wide curving expanse opens up before her. Bluish twilight encroaches upon the last of sunset rays limning the waves, and the shushing of water plays against a rocky shore. The screen window lets in a full score of soothing nature sounds. She has been at an elegant resort for a week on Lake Michigan. But it was not this tidy lakefront, not this welcoming view. She unpacks her suitcase and goes in search of food.

Which is right down the road at a small bar and grill, Lettie’s Landing.

All heads turn when Vanessa saunters in. She’s used to this, the pause and stares and ignores them, perches at the counter to order a ginger ale and a burger with fries.

“Visiting Fox Lake, I guess?” The sloping shouldered bartender pushes the plate and bottle across the counter. His eyes are deep brown; when he smiles at her, skin around his eyes crinkle above high cheekbones. “Like half the group here.” He slaps at the counter a couple times with the damp towel, makes a cursory swipe of crumbs.

“Just for a night, on my way back home.”

“Not around here, then.”

She takes a bite, shakes her had, ponytail swishing back and forth. Let him wonder over it. People can be nosy in the north country, unnervingly direct. She appreciates it but is too tired to have a such a conversation. One might say she is even feeling depressed– if they knew her well. She raises her eyebrows at him in flirty friendliness, well practiced.

“Too tan for here. Enjoy,” he says and slips away to the next customer.

The meat is well seasoned and juicy, the fat fries crisp, the place another surprise. She didn’t know simple food like this could taste so delicious. It has to be the tourist trade that brings out the best in these backwoods business people. And the bartender is at ease, might be nice to chat with if she had time.

“I’m Lettie, welcome to my place.”

The older woman’s voluminous blond hair is piled atop her large head and around her neck dangles a cord with a medium sized wooden fox attached to it. Its eyes are amber, the wood rich. She leans into Vanessa’s space but not too much, not enough that Vanessa asks for a to-go box, to shove off and go to bed.

“Vanessa. Here one night only,” she says and takes a swallow of her of soda. “Good food here.”

“Glad you enjoy it.” She stands up, stretches arms above her head, twists side to side. “Got a bad back, keep limbered up.”

“I have an aching back from driving so much. Nice to stop and breathe. To enjoy the views you have. So pretty.”

Lettie stares at her, blinks, looks at the counter, fixes on her face again. It is annoying. The woman’s eyes are round, deep blue, a bit red-rimmed. “You from around here–like, maybe in the past?”

“Oh, no, I’m a desert dweller from way back. I would not survive here in the woods.”

“You look a tad familiar, is all.”

“You probably say that to all the passersby,” Vanessa laughs and raises her bottle, swigs the last of it. “We must blend together since we come and go all season long.”

Why is she taking to this woman? She wants to finish up, walk by the lake, fall into bed.

“Nope.” Lettie shakes her head and portions of curls slip over barrettes that anchor them as she continues to appraise her. “I have a really good memory for faces.”

Vanessa shivers suddenly, frowns, slips off the stool. Not the kind of chitchat that ever interests her. Plus, time for bed.

“Goodnight, Lettie, thanks for the hospitality and vittles.”

“Enjoy your stay, Vanessa. Come for breakfast, doors open at seven.”

******

The night is silken, deep. Nothing hurts her length and breadth, despite the bed seeming at first too firm, despite her hips becoming arthritic too young from years of hard dancing. Wind is her whispering companion as she is loosened from sleep, stares over the black-blue expanse of water, the slanting rain darting across a roiled surface and spattering through the screen. But there are stars as clouds dash by. And they seem brighter than necessary as she feels their ancient light as a cool caress. She sits on her narrow bed, falls back, gathers the bedspread’s garden of flowers over her body, to her face, and sleeps on.

A night owl listens, calls out, and the fish turn over and the crickets are mute in the swell of darkness.

******

“It got to you, right? The lake air and the quiet. Gotta love this life.” Bartender Ralph winks at her as he wipes down things, grabs her plate from the kitchen, offers steaming scrambled eggs with dill and grated colby, topped with four redolent sausages.

“You been here forever, too? Seems nobody leaves the north country.” Vanessa stuffed a whole sausage in her mouth, no apologies. It was ten o’clock and she was starving.

“Naw, moved here many years ago–before that I worked in insurance, Detroit. Hated it. Love it here. Met a gal here one summer, got married, learned how to make drinks, stayed on.”

“A synopsis like that sounds good. Happy endings for you.”

“Well, we all get bruises, some slow healing wounds. I had cancer last year but am pretty good now.”

Vanessa looked at her eggs. “Sorry.” She knows about that illness; her mother knew much more of it.

“No need. Got it taken care of. So, you’re a genuine desert person?”

“Lettie already brief you?”

“Of course. She says you remind her of someone.”

“Would not be the first or last time. Must be my rather ordinary face or how much a chameleon I can be.”

“Hardly.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “Lettie never forgets a face. Some mad memory she has.”

“I have surely never been here.”

“Oh, well–enjoy your breakfast,” he says, moves down to the end of the counter to serve another.

She doesn’t see Lettie as she finishes up. A couple she saw the night before is hunched in the corner, slurping mugs of coffee and each reading pages of a newspaper of sorts. A woman with a shiatsu dog at her feet sits with chin on one hand, a cinnamon bun in the other, which she nibbles. An attractive young man has his feet propped on a side chair, and slowly eats waffles topped with blueberries and whipped cream as he checks out the window, waiting for someone. Two men in caps and worn out khaki jackets are debating something, gesturing toward the lake.

The lake of foxes, how beguiling it looks. Cumulus clouds hang in a sparkling blue sky here and there; the rain has left all things shining. She eyes it’s placid, brilliant teal surface longingly. If she only had time…she would like to stay one more day. She could stay if she left very early in the morning. Another gulp of strong coffee and her eyes sweep the room again. The old guys hoot and chortle, rouse themselves, exit. The young man hails his possible girlfriend who slaps him gently on the shoulder. The couple put papers aside and chat.

No slot machines, no boozy fools, no stale cigarette smoke.

She, in fact, will linger. Just for a little while.

******

It feels more than a bit familiar but she doesn’t know why, what it could mean in some greater context. Maybe it is just her secret geography and she never knew it before. She is so used to cactus flowers, rattlesnakes, vastness of sand under and around tamed spots, burning heat, chilled indoor air blowing on her day in and day out, and gaudy confines of the stages. She is used to the razzle-dazzle, raucous applause; of sweat racing along her spine and fancy drinks often uncounted and guys breathing down her neck: hey baby wanta dance all night with me?

Here she feels much less like herself. But she is feeling more alright with that the longer she remains.

Vanessa is walking along the rocky shoreline in clean navy sneakers, searching for good stones, feeling her long, heavy hair lift and fall from her shoulders which are no longer hunched up like a bird of prey, tensed and ever watchful. She feels unsought and even unseeking. Cleaned out of old worries and the nagging emptiness. Legs feel lanky and strong again as she jogs a bit, sees a motorboat pull a female water skier across tufted wavelets and wishes it was her. She halts her steps. She has never water skied but now wants it so much she can nearly taste mud-tinged, weedy water spray on her lips, feel it release her of aches. The exhilaration. She could do that, she would love doing that.

“Thought I’d find you down here.”

It’s Lettie, catching up with her. She’s in a holey tan sweater and rumpled fisher hat, with one hand on a carved staff and another on a leash, at the end of which is an aged, dutiful Brittany springer spaniel.

Vanessa smiles, genuinely this time, and pats the dog on his fine head. “Enjoying all this before I go.”

“Meredith Kane.”

Vanessa nearly trips over a big black rock. and then presses her hands hard on her chest, mouth agape.

“Yes, ma’m, I knew you were familiar, and that’s it. Meredith came here for four summers back in late ’70s to early ’80s. Then I didn’t see her again. Or hear from her, either, and we were real friends. But something happened–I knew.”

“You knew my mother? She was here? She never told me that…”

“I knew her well for awhile. And then she got pregnant, told me at the end of that last summer. Left fast and that was it for us being friends, I guess.”

Vanessa eyes filled. “Oh, my gosh, she passed away three years ago.”

Lettie’s bright eyes closed. “Oh! Oh dear, Vanessa…I am too sorry to hear that. I was even hoping to reach out to her again.” She let out a long, raspy sigh. “But you know what I’m saying, right?”

“This is too much. I never knew she lived here. That she got pregnant, of course, and back then it was a scandal of sorts…It was me who arrived.”

“Yes, I imagine it was if you were the first–only?– child. But she was summer folk. Her parents rented a cabin downshore every summer for those years. Three months at a time, and her father joined Meredith, her little brother, Todd, and mother on week-ends. She was from… think it was Columbus, Ohio, yep.”

“That’s right. Columbus. But she moved to the southwest after college. Had me, got a decent job.” Her heart is thudding, face shiny with unbidden tears. “You knew her, when she was so young.”

Lettie puts her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, feels a stab of pain at her deep sadness. “Look, she was a superior gal, and a dear friend those years. She, that last summer, met the guy. They had a thing a few weeks–she got pregnant… and her family never returned. Gavin was his name, right?”

“Yes, I even met him– once. When I graduated from high school. He seemed nice enough. It was so weird, not good. He had a wife and three other kids by then. What could we say? He gave me a crisp hundred dollar bill, as if that could mend things. I didn’t know who he was, he never knew me except for my pictures, updates from mom as she felt like it. He sent me Christmas gifts, for my birthday–they stopped when I hit my teens. Mom refused to see him, but said he wasn’t a bad sort, just irresponsible and their lives diverged. I didn’t think that much of it; she was dependable, a loving mother. She was all I needed.” She bit her lower lip to stop one more trembling, embarrassing tear.

“Yeah, he was so suave, carefree, sporty like she was. They went swimming, fishing, boating, water skied even daily. I thought she was better at stuff than he was.”

“She was athletic, yeah.” She saw her mother running in the cooling dusky sandy, rocky landscapes, calling to her to keep up, they had miles to go, she could do it, keep at it, breathe and reach.

“Want to come back to my place and talk? Like what did she end up doing? Did she stay single?”

“I’m supposed to check out in an hour or so, I’m afraid. I’m a day behind schedule so must get on the road, get back home and to work. Las Vegas is a long way, still. I’m a dancer for those big revues.”

Lettie stares at the water, caught in present and past at once. “I see, my oh my.” She rubs her neck, then smiles like it is second nature to do so.

“I have a small talent for dance that supports me–but Mom was smart, ambitious; she was eventually a high level college administrator. Later she got sick, off and on for years. She married my father, Dave, my real dad. But they divorced after twenty-five years.”

Vanessa wants to say more but she also feels she has said too much. Lettie is hanging on every word, but it is just not enough and this can go on and on. She needs to get home, back to her real life, away from this idyllic and curious place. Still, it stuns her. She is so drawn to the same village and lake as her mother was. She feels she draws in and exhales Fox Lake’s air, is in concert with it before she realizes what is happening. Like falling in love. She loathes leaving it, the new and tender connection to, perhaps, a better world. A least a quieter one, where no one cares about her other life which grates and clamors and even claws yet pays her way.

She barely grazes Lettie’s hand with her finger. “Maybe I could come back later this summer.”

“Book a room now, dear. I’ll circle the date in orange!”

They take some time getting back to Lettie’s Place. They talk about Lettie’s growing up and not ever venturing far from there; about Meredith’s athletic ability wasted on a desk job even if she was good at that; how Vanessa had wanted to be in musical theater once. And Vanessa keeps looking at that beautiful water, then they are at the entrance so they have to wrap it up.

“Well, I have to say you are some like her.” The older woman pulls her sweater close despite the warm breeze that skims her face.

“Maybe. You don’t know me.”

“But I do see you, Vanessa Kane, you have heart, a good mind and much to offer, like your mom. Plus, you have her square jaw, beautiful eyes and mane of hair. A bit like the way she walked, too.”

“How do you mean–how did she walk then?”

“Like the dirt and stones welcomed every step. And she well loved it all back. At the core she was more one of us, of Fox Lake. Maybe you will be, too, who knows?”

“She did crave outdoor life on week-ends… Anyway, I’ll be in touch.”

Vanessa pays her bill, makes an expensive reservation for a coveted late August date, then climbs into her MG. Idles a moment. The pine trees rattle their branches at her, a blue and yellow lake light winks from the distance. It is the place she was looking for, she thinks; it offered a slice of peace so needed. And one day she may find her way back for good, when she has had quite enough of the spotlit stage and glitzy parties, the good money. It is beginning to take more from her than can be replenished.

Ralph and Lettie watch from a window as she shifts into a faster purr and roar and stirs up dust, the glinting sheen of her auburn ponytail lifting, her hand suddenly raised in a wave. He reaches an arm around his grandmother. Gives her a strong squeeze– she squeezes back– before they get back to the summer season’s workload.

Half a mile away, Vanessa is looking for foxes, thinks she sees a nose, the tip of a tail, skids to a halt. But only elegant wild grasses lean her way.