A Last Summer Caper

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Junie sincerely hoped this person, this Guy, wasn’t going to fall for either of them but just in case, she was prepared for it. She had a handy store of diverting one liners, sizzling retorts. After weeks of correspondence he wrote he’d be passing through to pick up his cousin, Dale, and then they’d both be back to college. So, he said, wouldn’t it be good to at last meet in person? Junie supposed it just might. Her sister, Marta, could have found herself indisposed but no, she’d been excited. They had only been writing each other this last month of summer. It all started  after her sister’s friend mentioned him; she knew Dale, the cousin Guy was picking up on the way to Hartford College. They were both enrolled, it seemed. Guy was supposed to be “awesome” per Shelley’s descriptions and also Dale’s. It was complicated info thus, unreliable.

Junie was unmoved but it was Marta, anyway, who was informed about him. She was the one who intended on writing him from the start.

“But my handwriting is atrocious.”

“You could just type a letter, that’s the best way, more distant at first,” Junie said, tapping her fingers on the Olivetti’s worn keys, pausing midway in her poem. “You’re a very good typist.”

“You’re much better. And you form a convincing sentence so well….”

Marta gave her that easy-breezy smile she put on to sway someone yet undecided. It was her persuasive beguilement. Junie had practiced that look but her face just came across silly and insipid in the mirror no matter how much practice. She guessed it was because it was unnatural, a false presentation. Marta was her big sister if barely a year older at 18, but you’d think Junie had been a stray they took in to give Marta a toy or victim, depending on the older girl’s moods. It was absurd; it was Junie who had the common sense. Even a dash of flair all her own. But not the flashing, blinding lights of charismatic looks.

“No.” Junie walked out of their room. “Get another lackey.”

“Sometimes I don’t know what you’re talking about… I always have you!”

“Not for much longer–then what’ll you do?” Junie muttered.

But she became intrigued by the creative possibilities of composing improved–no, fake letters–to an unsuspecting male using a nom de plume. Well, using Marta’s name.

So it commenced. Marta dictated the bulk of each letter, Junie would type it on the onion skin paper she loved, and later after the first read and approved it Junie would go back and write a new and amended letter, soon more accentuated with her own content. She could not restrain herself. She edited her sister’s essays and term papers so felt this was much the same: a happy improvement of basic, boring text.

Marta’s letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks! Thank you for writing me back, it was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–such fun! I am not the water fan I could be, I suppose.

I got up late today, then played tennis with Shelley and I won. I like to compete, do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club, water cress salad and sliced fresh peach for dessert. I love fruit, it’s sweet and does no harm. I even picked strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. The only think I didn’t like was the dirt that got into everything. But worth it!

Anyway, do you play tennis? It’s one sporting event I have liked as spectator and player since childhood.

This week-end I am going to the movies with Shelley. Some action flick, not sure what it’s called. Bet you’d like it–lots of cars in it. You do have a car, don’t you? I drive my mom’s at times but we’ll see what I get when I graduate next spring.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Your friend, Marta

Junie’s edited letter:

Dear Guy,

This is the third letter in two weeks; thank you for writing back. It was interesting to hear about your summer. Boating, fishing, swimming–that sounds far superior to what I’ve been up to in the ‘burbs. I ride my bike, jog. I’ve always wanted to learn to fish, but my father says I have no talent for fly fishing. I need to learn more, even give it a whirl on my own. Where do you go and what do you catch? What sort of bait do you use? Is there a special rod you use? I’d be grateful for tips to get started.

I got up late today but played tennis with Shelley and won. I thrive on competition–do you? Then we went out for lunch at the club where I ordered a chef salad topped with tuna and for dessert, a double chocolate brownie. I am fanatical about good chocolate, it’s a weakness I hear, but I contend it’s the perfect reward for any job well done. I did pick healthy strawberries with my mother and sister a few weeks ago. Then I dipped a dozen in chocolate. But I love getting out into nature, availing myself of its bounties. Even the bugs that flit and creep about are extraordinary to me.

This week-end I’m going to the movies with a couple of friends. Some action flick. It is full of car races, yes! I dream of becoming a race car driver after I see those movies and when I get my hands on Mom’s car… Do you have a car or at least like to drive? I might get lucky one day and get a sports car. That’s a goal, actually.

It’s excellent that you made it through the first college year, but what are you studying? Liberal arts or sciences or a mix? You write well. I haven’t decided where to apply but not likely Hartford–too close to home.

Look forward to hearing back.

Your friend, Marta

This went on for over seven weeks. Now he was due to arrive. Junie thought she’d done a good job at appealing to him, getting his curiosity stoked. She could not have left all that up to Marta, she had the imagination of a squid. She had other strengths than Junie. Guy–with a name like that, he might be be insufferable–seemed pleasant enough and smart given his brief but emphatic responses, a little macho but not so you’d refuse to hang out to see what else was there. It might work out for them. In the meantime, she was having more fun that she thought possible. Junie decided she ought to find a couple more pen pals and correspond for real next time.

But she did feel an odd stab of guilt: she had, of course, overstepped. She worried about Marta’s capacity for dealing with Guy’s once he was here in the flesh. But Marta had a way with people that made them want to follow her anywhere.

And physical attributes some might pronounce as spectacular. of course, Junie had seen her at her worst and knew how hard she worked at being a five star dazzler. Junie allowed nature to take its own course, let things fall as they may. It hadn’t hurt her much, it just hadn’t advanced her. Since she was reasonably intelligent, it didn’t aggravate her except for moments here and there during her whole and entire seventeen years when people met them and without fail leaned toward Marta and gushed about how pleased they were to finally meet her, she was so beautiful, what a popular gal. As if they had been waiting  to see her in the flesh with bated breath for eons. Like some movie star when it was only the big fish in a small fishbowl phenomenon.

Sometimes they didn’t even notice Junie standing there. Still, that made it easier to observe details as desired, then get back to more worthwhile activities. Like writing in her journal the countless petty, moving, surprising, infuriating details of life so far.

Maybe she felt sorry and pleased at once about these letters because she knew this was one area Marta had not peaked. Might never do so. There was an art of exchanging words, uncommon value of incisive communication. Letters were gateways to intimacy especially if one also had a willingness to say this is who I am, warts and all. Well, not that but at least being a less contrived person. Not so with Marta. It was necessary to present the best if most shallow front at all possible costs; it cost her in more ways than one but she didn’t see it yet. But Junie wanted to believe there was a deeper Marta who would be willing to show an unpolished toe in the light.

But did all this give Junie the right to alter her sister’s words drastically? Was it fair to be sneaky? To play a hoax on an innocent man? It was, in fact, underhanded. An entertainment, honestly. And what if he got mad at them both, figured out something was haywire? Then Marta would have her in her sights, too.

And Marta was already down on the porch, swinging her feet on the bench swing. It didn’t occur to her to wait, then casually answer the door. She was primed and ready to meet the latest prince who might sweep her off her feet. Junie’s face was pressed against the screen of their bedroom window and from this vantage point she would just see the approach to the house. She could hear well enough. Their plan was, if it all seemed a wash, Junie should come down and interrupt their conversation.

At half past one, Guy’s car rolled up to the curb. It was a blue 1983 Lebaron Coupe with a huge dent in the front fender. Junie clucked her tongue but Marta now arrayed herself along the banister in anticipation. The driver door opened and out popped Guy as if on a spring, trim and of average height, brown hair a pleasant shagginess, energetic stride taking him to the house. He held out a hand as Marta descended. She welcomed him with both of hers like a hostess, chatting gaily, when he looked up as if distracted or he was expecting someone else there. Junie stepped away from the window.

“Guy! Come on up. I’m so glad to meet you at last, sit with me,” Marta said with all the warmth she could muster. Guy obliged.

He was, Junie knew, not quite right: average nice looks, a bit short, slender, not tan enough, not jock enough, not magnetic enough. Junie suddenly felt terrible. He would fall for her sister in sixty seconds then be deflated by Marta’s quick dispensing of things: a crash landing.

She debated whether or not to go down. If the staircase didn’t descend right in front of the front door, she’d tiptoe down and eavesdrop in the foyer. Oh, why not? She’d do it, walk right outdoors to get her own view, give input, save Marta. Be a decoy so Marta could beg off.

“Hello, hello, who have we here this auspicious afternoon?” Junie stepped out the door, turned, put  hands on her hips and flashed her teeth, which were good.

“Why, it’s my new pen pal, Guy Alton, you remember, don’t you?” Marta was smiling but her eyes warned her to tone it down.

“Of course I do, a pleasure to meet you, Guy. I’m Junie, her sister.” She sat between the two, pressing Marta over with a quick shove of her bony hip. Guy smelled sort of tangy, maybe Old Spice. No, better than that, green leaves and sweat. “You’re the friend of Shelley’s cousin, Dale, correct? Now that’s clear, what do you think of my sister? You’ve been the mystery man a long while– the tension has been killing us. Me.” His jittery thigh touched hers so she moved it, scooted closer to Marta.

Guy snickered as he cast a hand over his forehead, then left it there as he propped his head up, elbow on back of the swing. “Junie. Well, I’m a bit confused. Dale said–”

“Confused about what?” Marta widened those maple brown eyes, pouty lips curving upward. “Dale said what, I’d like to know?”

“Yes, tell all, Dale said what of which of us? Or was it Marta, my gorgeous sister?” She couldn’t help but turn to look him in the eyes. Clear deep blue, like inviting summer pools.

Guy shifted uncomfortably. Perhaps better to get away from overbearing sisters, one pretty as noted, the other really curious. But he stayed put.

“Well, Dale did say and so did Shelley that Marta was the goodhearted life of any party and lovely while Junie was talented, outspoken. Different. I mean, you two ladies were different.”

A hum of uncertain silence met his words. Junie crossed her arms across her chest, suppressed a smile. He was so close she could hear the soft wheeze of each inhale and exhale of breath. Marta pushed off the floor with a sandaled foot, making the swing move.

“That’s the truth, we’re like night and day,” she said. “So can we start over? Tell me about your trip down here and if you’re looking forward to more college and so on. I feel we’ve just picked at the outer wrappings.” She elbowed her sister to get off and leave.

Junie about said she knew Guy better than that and she shared quite a bit but just caught herself. It was too late to fix the thing, Marta had fluffed her feathers a little, shown interest, and he was not missing much so far. Best to disappear. Let things take their course. It was more fun than she’d had in awhile but it was over and done.

“Yeah, that’s right, she’s the hot shot, I’m the lowly caterpillar of a scribe who’s not yet come out of her voluminous cocoon. I’ll let you two get on with it. But I have to say I’m pleased I got to meet you, anyway.” She slipped off the swing, cocked her head at him.

“Yeah, me, too… but I’m trying to figure it out.” He sat forward, forearms on thighs, hands clasped together and stopped the swing’s motion. “Who actually wrote the letters?” He looked back at Marta, then at Junie, who was at the door, hand on the brass pull.

Marta let loose her silvery jangle of a laugh. “Who do you think? I wrote you! I was interested in knowing you better and found it sweet to send and receive letters–wasn’t it? She just tidied and typed them for me! Credit where credit is due, of course, but I wanted to meet you. Not her.” She pointed at her sister as if accusing her.

Junie froze. Narrowed her eyes.

“I’m not so sure. I think it might have been her. Junie, you talk just like those letters are written…what’s going on?”

Marta’s mouth fell open and she stared at her sister. “Oh, no.”

Junie ran inside, slamming the door shut and then trotted upstairs, down the hallway, out the narrow door to the back sleeping porch. Then she sat on the little folding camp chair she’d kept the last ten years so she could view constellations or storm clouds or creatures in high trees. Sometimes she even dragged along her sleeping bag and lumpy goose down pillow and slept there. Alone, without distraction of sister or parents. This would be another good night for it if it didn’t rain as forecast. She gnawed at a hangnail, anxious about her sister’s reaction and payback.

A half hour later, the sleeping porch door squeaked open and shut. Marta lowered herself on a square pillow she’d grabbed.

“I sent him away. He knows it was you. I read a letter you sent him.” She yawned. “It was a good one.”

The wind rattled tangled branches of oaks and chestnuts. Clouds bunched and scudded across a darkening sky.

“He said to say goodbye and he’d write you when he gets to Hartford. He is quite intrigued by you, Junie. He was a gentleman, honestly. It’s all okay. But wow, that took real nerve, Junie.”

“I ruined it, I don’t know what I thought I was doing!”

“No, sister, he wasn’t someone I could go for but maybe he’ll become yours to figure out.”

“The guy named ‘Guy’, is that for real?…too much!”

They slapped at each other in a fit of giggles.

“He’s kinda old, 19–watch out.”

“My oh my, I will manage, especially with your long experience and nuggets of wisdom to guide me.” Junie grabbed her sister’s arm, squeezed it for emphasis. “My great letter caper, what a bust! I had high hopes it’d work out for you but he got much more interesting. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. And then he said he’d take you– me!–trout or bass fishing sometime and that did it.”

“Thank goodness it really is you, not me!”

“You just never know how things will really be–it’s weird.”

She slipped off the camp stool, onto the floor by Marta. They lay back with limbs outstretched when, eyes fluttering and voices screeching, the first dashes and dabs of rain raced through overhanging leaves and made tiny splashes on their warm skin. They let the brisk wetness soak them, such a relief after the interminable, fire-scouring, holding-one’s-breath-for-what’s-next summer.

 

 

Rooney’s Best Plans and Outcomes

It was the crackling of leaves underfoot that got him, heralding summer’s imminent shredding by wind, by graduations of darkness and a brisk tenor of air. He hadn’t thought of it in years, that particular fall, yet here it was upon him as if someone had sat him down and fed him a story. His story, long-buried.

Rooney was alone as usual at the coffee shop. He couldn’t reserve a table outside looking over the west bank of the river, of course, but he usually snagged one. For starters, he came early, a few minutes after it opened. And he’d be there right on the dot except that he couldn’t stand being the solitary figure with just a fancy mug. Additionally, he was a regular, one might say too regular– and regulars got their pick, it was somehow sensed by those who straggled in. Others were in, out, off to somewhere.

He could be somewhere else, a gym or park or claustrophobic senior center. The last barely surfaced at edge of mind and when it did, he threatened it with silent curses which he imagined as bullets aimed at the bright red number like a warning of doom: “sixty-six.” He kept this to himself; he did not want anyone to suspect slippage into dementia or criminality. Not that they should. He was smart, upright enough, clear-headed. And he was, after all, a kid when that other thing happened. Well, over nineteen, under twenty-one, half a kid still.

The coffee was supposed to be excellent, every sign announced this. The place roasted its own beans, ground and brewed it fresh. Rooney sipped, tongue seeking signs that this was true. He always came to the same conclusion: it was strong, hot and vastly overpriced. Back in the old days (there it was, the age thing) it was twenty-five cents. He’d have to get another job to keep his current ill-advised habit.

Leaves swirled in a gust, crunched by more trampling. A woman in tall leather boots walked by with leashed terrier. She smiled indulgently at him; he touched the brim of his fedora. She thought he was a sweet old guy with nothing better to do than sit by the river on a brisk morning, watching others live their lives. Maybe so. He could hang out at the office; it still bore his name though Rooney’s Metal Fabrication was now run by his son. But Rooney wanted nothing more of it despite fussing at times. He liked this scenario of onlooker with coffee in hand, a walk along the river path. Then hours of reading, working on his collection of old clocks, tinkering with his 1968 Bonneville, checking investments, daily work on his half-acre, meeting with a friend now and again for lunch or dinner, gin rummy or chess.

The smell of leaves, too, an acrid-sweet scent a perfume he never tired of smelling but then it was erased by bone-chilling rains. He dreaded taking his coffee at the indoor, polished wood tables or getting it “to go” in a crummy paper cup with fancy print on it. Or just staying home alone; his wife had passed four years ago. It would take time to enjoy the whole new process but it rankled that he couldn’t take things as they came to well; he was used to planning and executing. Taking charge.

But not those days, or not that particular one, he thought as he placed mug into bus pan. Those days in general he was a follower, more than he’d have admitted. Well, it was what it was. Rooney walked to river’s edge, leaned his tall bulky body against the railing, lungs taking in air imbued with eau de crumpled leaves with notes of rock, rich earth, rushing water.

This was why he’d relinquished his business, these singular moments as sunny shafts parted pewter clouds and the river rumbled along and leaves danced then clustered about his ankles. He ambled toward a certain meeting spot, but that long ago day settled upon hunched shoulders.

******

Rooney had been trying hard to keep up with Fergus that fall, the guy who’d moved to Rattlesboro two years previous and become a cohort unlike any other. Fergie was fast on his feet and a mercurial thinker but also “brash and rash”, as he boasted, “that’s what the ole man says–got it from him!” No one doubted it.

Rooney’s easy-going, sedate father thought it a terrible alliance. Sure enough, Rooney engaged in shenanigans with Fergie, a little vandalism and drunk Saturday nights that resulted in Rooney having his car keys withheld. But the boys played neck and neck, racing Fergie’s souped up truck against competitors on back roads, chasing the few girls who looked their way, spicing up rural bonfire parties with “dashes of hash and smatterings of mushrooms” as Rooney put it, flying high. He didn’t much think about what he was doing. Or what was coming next or he’d have foreseen it, and likely come to his senses sooner.

It was the week-end after Labor Day–they were both going on twenty at long last, working, both soon to embark on other things–but many took extended vacations due to the last brilliant weather.

“You know I was seeing Jan Townsend a minute, right? Until her mother caught wind of what was up, just as things were getting interesting. And her house is something, there’s a whole half of a yard devoted to food prep and entertaining–she explained it like that– the rest is just flowers , a tiny fish pond. It’s like a special Shangri-La for the Townsends. Man, I sorta miss it.”

“Sure, I was there a few times before you came to town. Birthday parties when we were younger. Pretty spot. Jan was nicer then, though.”

Fergie put his work boots atop the table–his overworked mother didn’t have the energy to keep three sons plus husband in hand and the surface was scarred and stained. Rooney shoved them off, shook his head but Fergie put them back, guzzled his cola then handed it to Rooney.

“I’m thinking of nosing around there tonight, something to do.”

Rooney choked on his big gulp. “What?”

Fergie grinned, eyes widening, slightly protuberant ears pinking up with enthusiasm but freckles darkening. That was the moment Rooney should have left. He knew that was a look that presaged all manner of sketchy activities. And yet he wanted to hear more; there was always something percolating in his buddy’s brain, things he hardly dared consider. Adrenalin let loose in his veins.

Fergie stretched. “I figure, why not? No one there, dogs boarded, there are few streetlights out that way. We could have a look, see what there is to see. There might be other places we could check out…” He shrugged as if this was not a novel or bad idea. “Before we go our separate ways, a last hurrah.”

“It’s trespassing! A dumb idea. But I kind of like it though I’ve got a dozen reasons to refuse.” He considered a moment more. “We can say ‘so long’ in better ways. How about we get a T-bone or two, cook out, then take your truck out for a last race? Is that cool?”

“Sure, but nosing around Jan’s place is better yet.” He gave Rooney an imploring gaze. “I’m moving to frickin’ Columbus, Ohio to work with my Uncle Joe, man, come on! Let’s go a little bigger a last time before I blow this dump!”

Rooney thought about the uncle’s towing and snow removal business, the deep winters there, how Fergie could barely deal with his cousins but needed to earn good money at almost twenty. And Rooney was about to enter junior college; time he forged a grown up life. So one last night whooping it up? It sounded good.

By the time they got steak, grilled it, ate with Rooney’s parents and finally slipped out the back yard and into the truck, it was fully dark. Fergie started the engine but kept the lights off a half block.

“Turn on the lights!”  Rooney said.

When they stayed off, he reached for the knob to do so but Fergie slapped his hand away.

“I know what I’m doing attract no attention.” Fergie was quiet in the way he got when strategizing. “You gotta trust me like you mostly do. I got this whole escapade figured out, man, follow me?”

“‘Mostly’ is a key word…I’ve got to know what’s up.”

“You’ll see.” He turned on the headlights.

Fifteen minutes later they were entering territory they’d visited but could not claim as their own, the land of starched white collars, two or three car garages, the land of platinum blond upsweeps and real leather jackets that were not motorcycle styles or vintage fringed. The land where no hippie, no greaser was well abided. Rooney and Fergie were respectively, loosely, one of each.

The headlights went off again and Fergie slowed down, parked two blocks from the Townsend’s in a vacant lot behind trees.

“Okay, follow me, do as I say.” He studied his pal’s skeptical face, index finger up. “‘Okay? ‘Cuz if not, this thing is off and that’s that for us.”

Rooney balked. “But we’re just checking it out, then going out Sweeney Road, right? We’ll find guys to race, for sure.”

“Wrong, dude, we’re treasure hunting first, then the real race is on. Come on!” he hissed, then darted off.

And Rooney followed.

The place was cloaked in shadows except for the strange glow a mercury lamp threw at a far edge of the yard. There were neighbors next door, house also dark, but a few past that were lit up. The moon’s light was sufficient to brighten edges of the Townsend lawn, make easy the way around the place. Rooney recalled times he had roamed there with young friends and smiled. Even better in sheer moonlight. He felt a twinge of discomfort.

Fergie peered into, then checked both windows of the garage.

“What are you doing?” Rooney stepped back. “That’s their property, not cool– no breaking in!”

“Rooney, get over it, we’re sniffing things out, I want to see what they have in there–why not?”

It was always a “why not?”, that was the trouble.

Rooney looked about, senses alert. He backed into bushes, panicked, just as Fergie advanced. It turned out he had more skills, could crack a glass window with barely a well placed, sweatshirted elbow punch. He knocked out more glass shards then hoisted his skinny self in and unlocked the side door.

“No!” Rooney whispered loudly, “this is not what I imagined doing…I thought we were window peeping since it’s empty, admiring the yard–creepy enough…”

“That’s the thing, Rooney, you lack imagination. Take some of mine, get in here!” He yanked him in and shut the door.

There was a red Mustang on the far side. Jan had used her mother’s car at times before she got her own, then left for Bennington College. A workbench was littered with various tools, as if Mr. Townsend had been working on something and left it for clean up when he returned. Cardboard boxes were stacked in one corner, maybe things to be donated or old files of whatever–Rooney didn’t care, he wanted to get out. Would Mr. Townsend sense an intruder had been there?

He noted firewood cut and stacked by the entrance into the house. The door led to the small mud room and then a large den, he recalled. He had carried wood inside, himself, during one holiday party. He’d known Jan better than he’d let on, had in fact liked her a lot at thirteen.

“Okay, Ferg, let’s take our look about outside, then leave. This was not smart.”

But Fergie was methodically examining tools, turning each over, putting them into a large cloth bag. Where had he gotten a bag? Had he hidden it in his clothing?

“Put those back!”

“Check out all you want, bud. Ten minutes, we’re out of here.” He turned to the Mustang.

“Not the Mustang!”

Fergie shot a look that silenced him. His behavior was not that of a novice, Rooney saw, but practiced, calm, fast.

“Those break-ins this past year…no one was caught…” Rooney whispered.

Fergie filled up the bag, shouldered it, paced before the car. “We can do it. I’ll hot-wire it in a few seconds and you open the big garage door and when I pull out you jump in–we’ll take the ride of our lives, right, buddy? I mean, look at it.  Then I’ll dump you unless you want to come ‘cuz I’m heading to the state line and beyond!”

Rooney stared at him, unable to move. He flashed his small flashlight at him to make sure it was his friend spouting that nonsense.

“See how this id done, buddy?” Fergie was grinning, eyes bright and big with the thrill of it, then he opened the car door, slid behind the steering wheel. He leaned out the door a moment, head bopping to some silent beat in his crazy head.

“I’ll get this done and you get ready when I lift my hand and open that garage door, got it?”

“Not doing it, Fergie.” Rooney felt caught between fear and overwhelming clarity. “You’re on your own. Sorry it came to this.”

Fergie got out and stood before his friend, body tensed, face ugly. “What an idiot you are. This is what makes my life interesting, how could you not know all this time? What keeps me going! But you could never be a part of the fun because you’re just common chicken liver–such a nice guy, a real sweetheart. You know nothing, are nothing! Get out! Then shut the hell up, hear me? At least do that one last thing.”

“No, man, please don’t do this.”

Fergie’s fist flew up and grazed his friend’s jaw, a warning, but Rooney raised both of his and pressed into the slim space between them. They stood stock-still and then Fergie shook his head sadly, got into the car, started to work on wires.

Rooney filled with rage and sadness. For a moment he almost tackled him then, torn, started to the big garage door to aid and abet. That fine car, the charge of the illicit rose up like a punch of energy. Then he was seized with a more powerful sense of wrong. A deep betrayal. He was spurred out the side door and across the yard and down the street, stifling a terrible urge to roar out the anger. But no sound escaped other than labored breathing, a heavy hiss from between clenched teeth. His tongue went to a metallic taste of blood on the soft inside of mouth as feet pounded asphalt, crunching early autumn leaves frail and fallen.

******

By the time they caught Fergie not ten miles from the house with that candy apple red mustang, Rooney had gotten home and on his bed, sprawled sleepless across the handmade quilt, listening to any stray sound and his heart beat. The next morning he answered questions from his parents and then police but there was so little to say, he had left Fergie sooner than later, walked home after a disagreement when his parents, early-to-bed as usual, were asleep. But his mother, unbeknownst to father or son, had cracked the door, noted the time his arrival: ten-eighteen. Earlier that she had expected.

She’d decided he was innocent, believed it.

No one had seen him on Marley Street or elsewhere. Fergie said he’d worked alone.

Later that day Rooney drove to a meadow at edge of town where he’d enjoyed picnics with his family as a child, the one where a creek rose and fell according to the seasons, where creatures played out their blameless stories. He shed tears of relief and a disgust with all of it. Himself, too. But not for long. He waded the creek, its music and coolness assuaging the ache of it. Thoughts came about college, making a real life far from there.

******

Rooney watched a leaf spin on the river’s current and he wondered how far it could go, to the next city, to the next body of water? He might like to travel like that, he mused, and turned when squeaky wheels signalled a walker rolling up.

“Hey, there,” the man said, khaki overcoat flipping out from the rake of his body with each stumbling step.

“Hey yourself, how’s it going?”

“It’s herky-jerky but I get where I need to go, as you know. I’m great, I’m on my feet, you are, too!”

“Best news all morning.”

Frank Tillton had been employed at Rooney’s business for thirty-two years as accounts manager, when he had a stroke. Rooney had kept him on to help the new employee, a woman with a fine talent for numbers. But she had to accept Frank’s place or she wouldn’t have the job. It’d worked out, more or less.

The two men had been close friends for most of those years; they knew much of the other’s life. Like, how Frank was a “high functioning alcoholic”, later in and out of recovery until the stroke put him smack into it for good five years ago. Now they were both unemployed for the first time in their lives.

“You look like you’ve been thinking already this morning,” Frank said, laughing as he came to a stop beside him. “Is it that serious?”

“Naw, just a memory.”

“Oh, those are like smoke, here and gone, no sense worrying over them.”

“Right as ever but I was thinking I hadn’t yet told you the story about almost becoming a thief.”

“That so? This I gotta hear, you’re holding out on me. Let’s get walking. Then I might tell you how Lucy Masters and I nearly tied the knot. True–before Eileen came along. Lucy is famous now as a newscaster, I didn’t want to spill those beans… ”

“I’m ready for that one! Mine has a half-famous person in it, too, but not in a commendable way, I’m afraid.”

“We might have to find a bench if it’s long.”

“Yep, it’s a park bench sort of story, old friend.” He glanced at the crinkling of a smile about Frank’s eyes. How different a face than was Fergie’s–open, sunny and generous. And how fortunate a life Frank lived in comparison, a difficult life reclaimed while Fergie’s was lost to long stretches in prison. And his own? It had been made different by a hair’s breadth, perhaps, though he knew he would not have made it as a burglar or con man. Not enough cold-edged boldness, reckless confidence or even greed. But he had made a good businessman, had another idea if Frank was game: one mug of just everyday coffee for one buck (he’d call it “One for One”) in an airy, festive, colored-lights-lit tent at river’s bend. A reasonable place where customers could relax when it poured all winter or got too sweaty in summer.

Or maybe an internet business. They’d talk.

“Most good stories are worth a sit-down, boss man.” He lifted an eyebrow at Rooney. “Bald ole bestie, heh heh.”

They chortled and took off, Rooney with tweed coat flapping about long legs, fedora clapped onto his bald head and Frank yakking, step-sliding with the walker, each advancement feeling like a victory for them both.

This Broken House

Columbia Gorge, Cascade Locks, misc 050
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

They had spotted it from the first hilltop. Ed was breathless from another climb followed by a steep descent. His shoulders were hunched forward in muted excitement. Layla had fallen behind though she was supposed to lead the way. She knew how to get to her own house, didn’t she? The vicinity, overgrown as it was, became more familiar with each step. The trouble was, her legs didn’t want to carry her further, nor did her mind. What they had seen was both so familiar and foreign that she balked at the idea, after all. In fact, her entire being recoiled.

It had come up at the twenty year class reunion last night, of course. Miller had accosted Layla with two drinks in hand, waving them at her as if he was selling something she needed. Perhaps she did; Ed was preoccupied at another table, easy Ed, always a friend to anyone who talked back. She appreciated his outgoing nature–it had made the reunion easier so far–but now she wished he’d look her way.

It was not an event she had willingly attended. They’d been getting ready to have a real vacation in the mountains when he’d convinced her it would be a good thing to do this year.

“For me to see what your roots were. For you to wish old friends good stuff and share a couple of laughs. And put it all of it behind you once and for all.”

Why had she listened to him?

******

Miller bent over her (had he been so tall in high school? sweaty? and had they really dated a whole six months?); his cologne and the alcohol draped over her. Layla coughed.

He muttered, “Not what you’d expect, eh, Layla? All of us much older and more tired than we’d planned! Present company excluded, of course.” He’d handed her a glass and grinned at her in the same way he had in tenth grade, all teeth and rotten heart. “Have you anything to say for yourself, girl?”

Of course she did but she held her tongue. “Well, this was a stopover, soon we’ll be languishing in a mountain lodge eating salmon and strawberries and all will be forgotten. You?”

“I make these every ten years. There are cousins and old buddies to drink with, there are basketball trophies to recall, there are some very lovely women.” He lifted his glass to her and drank. “I got out, you got out–among a half dozen others. Who has the better tale?”

“Please tell me, Miller, I always knew you had a mini-spark of genius…”

“Well, what could I do with a lawyer father and an author mother? Fail? Indeed not. I own a tech company, TorchWare .”

“Sounds like a program for arson. Good for you, gives an outlet for that wayward bent.”

“Yes, it illuminates everything simply and well for those in dire need. And I reap fine benefits. And you? You got into Seattle University, didn’t you? English major, was it?”

His small teeth glinted at her. He breathed heavily; she recalled that he’d always had an inhaler at the ready. Or was that ill-placed lust?

“Funny you’d recall that. Yes, and also met Ed.” She pointed at her chatty husband at a nearby table. You’d have thought it was his reunion. “But I turned into a ceramicist and am unexpectedly good at it, while he teaches engineering at U of W.”

Miller lifted scraggly eyebrows and sipped. “How’s all that working out for you–I mean, as a pretty but shy daughter of a rather derelict lumberjack father and a nurse, fortunately, for a mother? Though you sure speak up now! Don’t get me wrong, my own parents weren’t all that honorable despite impeccable appearances…”

“You know, I think I’ll use my big new voice to finally let you know–”

“Quite well, I’d say, it is all working perfectly. Wouldn’t you agree, Layla?” Ed said as he took her elbow and started to steer her away.

“He wasn’t derelict, you fool, he was ill–now dead from MS complications, Miller. Haven’t you learned basic human decency or even good manners yet?”

Miller snorted. “Everyone said he accidentally burned down the house to collect on insurance. It didn’t work as you well know. In fact, it’s still standing. Barely, I suppose.”

“Not worth it, darlin’.” Ed grabbed her wrist just as she lifted her half-full glass to douse Miller who, shaking his head as if in pity, walked away.

The drink spilled on her new navy pumps and she glared at him.

“The house, he had to mention Dad and the house. Do you see now why I never come to these? The villains still wait around to attack the unsuspecting and weaker.”

“Except you are not weak. You’re a bit tipsy, I think, and tired of being here. Let’s say goodbye to the ones we do like before I go punch the fool–then let’s make a run for it.”

Layla put her drink on a table, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed tight. “Good plan, smart guy.”

“You and all the smart guys…I see them looking your way.”

“Yeah, but you won out and you’re a good guy, too, so lucky me.”

******

“Ed, this is not a great idea.”

He turned to her, held out his hand. “You’re the one who says that if there’s a noise in the dark you need to get up to check it out. This has been bumping every night in your adult life. Time to take a look.”

She grabbed the proffered hand but pulled him back a little. “There’s nothing much to see, just rotting wood. You know I came back for Dad’s funeral before we got married. Mom left town that very night. No one was interested in the property, not even to tear it down. I took a quick look from the hilltop then. It just emanated all their miserable life. Our life.”

Ed studied her face, how tight the petal soft jaw, how pale her pressed lips, eyes narrowed against whatever might be seen. His throat constricted; he had to look into treetops, reassure himself the blue sky was up there; they’d get done with this. Maybe he had made a mistake insisting they come. But then she started to walk and he right along with her, down another hill, across the gravel road, right to the property line, if there was one. The lot was so overgrown with tangles of blackberries, spindly weeds and hulking bushes that nothing could have made its way to the front door except for the creatures. Foxes, mice, snakes or insects, whatever had claimed it and moved in.

The front door was torn away under the sagging roof, she could see this through the brush and wondered where it was. Perhaps someone long ago needed a door. She remembered how she and her mother painted it fern green, the radio blaring from the living room, paint dripping, getting on them, her father in his wheel chair that day but directing them. The dirty white of the house seemed less an affront with that new door. The door might have burned. All windows were agape, of course, the fire ruined them, too. The moss overtook the shingles, weakening them, and the insects, took, must have lunched on many seedlings and the birds must have pecked away the bits they could. All like vultures tearing at a carcass. It looked hideous.

“I don’t like seeing all this, Ed.” She released him, though, and put up her hand to indicate she wanted to  proceed a ways without him. He shifted from foot to foot as she waded through high grasses.

Layla worried that she’d be able to smell the smoke still, even after all the years. She’d been in college when she got the news from her mother, that the house had burned enough that it was not salvageable. So they had moved to an apartment right on Main Street, a better place than the house had been but small. It was an ancient kerosene lantern that toppled in the living room–her father had a thing for old stuff collected in younger years and he’d lit it and somehow knocked it off the table. Then he panicked and rolled his wheel chair into the yard.

It was pure luck that her mother had gotten home before the fire engines came, applied the fire extinguisher to wide swaths of area. But people talked because her father was not the most open or pleasant man, not even a reasonable man, they’d decided. He was hard on his wife and his daughter since MS had finally taken his legs and made things so taxing for them all. The truth was, he was never an easy man, one who could move through life on good will and a sense of hope. He had a hard edge to him that just got sharper as he got sicker.

But as Layla walked around the falling-down house she heard his voice wind through the place with a beckoning tone and stepped in at the back, the screen door hinges rusted and wrenched, the door nearly hanging to the dry dirt and brittle grass. Beer bottles and soda cans lay about, a torn and faded girlie magazine, a dirty plastic spoon and fork by a rank container, a torn up tennis shoe half chewed by perhaps a passing dog. Layla wished she had a trash bag but to what purpose? No one cared. Not even, really, herself.

But she stepped around the mess and indoors. She saw the living room, desolate, still filthy with fire’s carbon from so long ago, the wooden stairs having fallen down so she couldn’t go up to her room even if she had wanted to take a look. There was no parental bedroom; the wall had burned. The one third-charred kitchen with its stained farm sink was ruined, counters scratched and torn, even the walls though smudged by the fire seemed to be moldering in winter rains and summer heat. The appliances were long taken, maybe even sold as is. Fire had swirled through most of the lower level like a storm, then was defeated. But it was a bad omen. What was to come for her parents was worse than they’d known before.

But as she lingered she knew what lay beneath the rubble. Once this room had been almost cheery, yellow curtains with tiny green ferns on them; a ceramic rooster on the counter for cookies; a small oak table by a wall with convenient folding ends. They had enjoyed breakfast there, even Dad when he was up to it though he said little more than “Another day, damn it.” Each morning, before school and her mother’s work at the hospital, they had that half hour or more just to sit together, talk about the headlines or drink coffee without words uttered but the radio playing something tuneful and easy. It helped them, that music.

They could also see out the south side yard all the flowers her mother and she had planted and tended. Rose, irises and tulips, a few gladiolas, later the zinnias, geraniums and marigolds, three types of lavender, petunias and pansies, too, and more, so much she could not recall. They came to her as if someone threw back a curtain and she could see them: flashy and happy to be growing there. For the family of three. Even her father loved that garden, messy and simple as it was. But sometimes he became morose, lamented that he’d once been such a lumberman, how he missed the scents and feel of wood and dirt on his hands, the outdoors in his veins. Layla recalled him as he was once: standing so straight, barrel chest high and arms muscled. She had often wondered over his loss. And how it had hurt them all. How he felt so diminished it was a burrowing beast that dug deeper in him each year.

She decided one time–despite her mother’s warning look–to put into his unwilling palms a little pile of fresh soil and tender roots for him to close his big fist over and hold. He had wept a long moment. But it passed and he shook his head at her when she tried it another time. He just sat there each day he could manage it, after they rolled him out and let him be, and he read or drowsed or watched squirrels race about or listened to birds calling. Stellar jays, a favorite, and he always watched for deer at the far edge of the woods at dusk and called to his wife and daughter to see how they stood graceful, proud.

Did he long to be free like the creatures were? Did it anger him to see them work the garden? He was silent much of the time he wasn’t gritting his teeth or snarling. Her mother said once, “He loves me most, you know, when I am deep into gardening, my hair a mess, sweat ruining my shirt, my hands full of bugs and blossoms. I see it in his eyes. ”

And Layla could understand this, knew it meant more than most things to her, even his rough hug or kiss. He was not easy to love, and he was not gifted at it himself though her mother tried to show him and she, too, offered him her hugs that wanted to soothe him. Which he often pushed away. Maybe he knew things he taught her mother, too. They made what they had work; she stayed until he passed. But Layla wanted happiness, not just partnership.

He taught Layla that if helplessness and disappointment seem like the toughest enemies, family and nature are balm. And she wished she could lay her head on his shoulder one more time. She might call her mother, set up a visit but she now lived in Boise with a man Layla found wanting.

She wandered out and around the corner of the house.

“Ed! Come here!”

He ran to find her, glad she called him, praying she had not found things to pain her more. He found her staring , mouth agape, at the end of the lot. Inside the leaning, towering trees, past broken branches and bushes out of control and wild grasses and blackberry vines, there was something more.

Layla pointed straight ahead. “Look!”

“What on earth…?”

The garden was still alive, and it was in summer’s peak bloom.

“It’s me,” said a small voice. “I done it when I could, hope that’s okay with you.”

She was bent over, nearly the size of a child, with wrinkled face and white hair that was piled atop her head with a pencil. A hunched back, as it always had been but worse.

“Mrs. Stanish!” Layla went to her and, bending over, put her arms about her. “You! But why? You and dad never got along too well, as I recall, he didn’t like your dogs getting into our yard and such.”

“Well, that’s so.” She patted Layla’s hand and nodded at Ed. “Your husband, I see. I saw the newspaper notice all those years ago. And your mother, she told me, too.”

He took her hand into both of his. “This is wonderful, really amazing.”

Mrs. Stanish walked into the garden with them. “Oh, he now and then could be sour. I understood sourness with my bad scoliosis. How much pain tries to ruin you, how nosey people think they know things they don’t. I said I’d tend their garden after the fire. If it survived, and it mostly has. Sorta.  But never  break a promise if you can help it.” She smiled up at them, deep blue eyes wreathed in folds of flesh.

They caught up some then shared brief hugs.

“Thank you for keeping it going, It means a great deal to me.”

Mrs. Stanish gave them a once over. “You see, life does as good as it can, we just got to help it along. You two be nice to each other.” And off she shuffled to her equally aged husband.

“I suspect they’re in their late eighties or early nineties now. Incredible,” Layla remarked.

Ed and she climbed back up the hill. She turned back a last time and he did, too.

“Incredible that they are still alive, married or maintaining the garden as promised? Or that you found a few good memories there?”

“Yes,” was all she said and waved goodbye to that old broken-down house, where once her family had worked, suffered, loved as they could. “Let’s get to the mountain paradise before the sun goes down.”

 

Ordinary Sojourners

Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

It wasn’t my plan to stop at a neglected used book store but I needed a cooling breath or two and a drink from the water cooler. I’d been hurrying through a busy part of the city when I spotted it: Parson’s Bound Words and Fine Art the swinging wooden sign bragged, as if there were arcane, prized items beyond its dirty green door. It was proclaimed awkwardly, I thought, and it put me off but I noted a young woman and child appearing to enjoy heat relief as they browsed. I hesitated at the door. Perspiration made a beeline down back and chest. I turned the dented brass knob and went inside.

I had just been to lunch with Emory. It’s a date we manage every six months to keep a civil line open for our three adult children and six grandchildren. We don’t talk on the phone or, heaven forbid, text; Emory doesn’t believe either is good authentic communication and I can’t say I entirely disagree, at least in his case. Emory is not one who can grasp or respond well without the talking partner’s face providing constant and helpful clues. This was still true for us despite being married to one another for thirty-seven years. We’ve been divorced for ten. His need to clarify via constant overt signals might in part explain why we didn’t have patience enough to endure, much less fully enjoy each other, until death do us part. I don’t need to be duly examined, nor to regard another with full force in order to chat about an update on life. I don’t even need to be in the same rooms; I like to move about. Use your imagination, I used to urge him, listen to vocal inflections.

Still, we’ve somehow managed to talk without fisticuffs and it seems a useful meeting twice a year. Emory is not unpleasant from afar and close up he still looks pretty good. He says the same of me so that much we continue to agree upon. We each remain single. Just less complicated.

Although seeing him still can increase my blood pressure and thus, internal temperature, the city summer had already scorched us all. So that bookstore beckoned. I entered, the obligatory little bell on the top tinkling in a frenzy. A waft of cool air welcomed me immediately. Mr. Parson, I presumed, looked up from an opened notebook by the cash register, nodded, then returned to his writing or tallying. His black taped glasses perched on top of his head; he squinted at whatever was being entered in his own bound pages. He must have felt me staring at him–he was grizzled and rumpled but had a scholarly air about him, much like Emory. He looked up, tried on a smile with eyes that I suspected looked perpetually quizzical. He loved books, after all.

“May I help you this ghastly August afternoon?”

“Water first!–how generous of you to offer it– then to general browsing,” I said and headed to the cooler. He grunted in a congenial manner and let me be.

After a paper cone of lukewarm water was drunk, I glanced at section headings and went for visual arts, mostly because it was dimmer and farther back so perhaps cooler. There were three others besides the woman and child, each bent over a book in the aisles; I excused myself along the way. I  pulled out a few art tomes and thumbed through the pages. Seen one, seen them all, I felt at the moment, though at home was a sagging shelf devoted to classic and contemporary painters and a collection each of Mexican and Native American potters. Bored with books that held little interest I moved on to two long shelves of photography, fingers slipping over smooth or cracking spines as I dallied.

Henri Cartier-Bresson–that name so renowned but it had been years since I had even glanced at his work. I contemplated a heavy-looking book and pulled it out. Parson was passing me and pointed at a table and chairs alongside a window.

“Take a seat, have at it,” he said, then disappeared through a swinging office door.

It was pleasant there despite the predictable dry, musty smell of aging, oft-handled bindings and pages. The book I held needed to lay flat to be appreciated and so I sat and opened to the first pages. Though I knew he had died in 2004, Cartier-Bresson meant something to me still.

During the onset of the 1970s I had studied photography, before Emory and the bit and bridle of married life, and had had the good fortune to spend a year in Paris. There I’d wanted to practice certain techniques, to at the least mimic the sort of spontaneous shots which made the master photographer famous. I shamelessly shot every place and person I could, trying to not provoke. It was a time of unfettered days and nights, made of dreams I’d held close until they had come true, time in Paris with camera in hand: the extraordinary light and shadow, charming scenes and grand old architecture, revelations of life unlike any I’d witnessed or even suspected before. I had grown up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and so embraced Paris with high expectations, a growing adoration.

I wished more than anything to become a female Henri Cartier-Bresson. I knew I had some basic talent but did I have the creative mind and eye it took to offer views that spoke volumes even remotely like the master’s? Roll after roll of film was shot, developed that year and so much of it was no good. But some of it was.

I turned more softly yellowed, slick pages, studied the pictures. Street life, fresh and fascinating. People paused to gaze into a long, bright alley; strolled hand in hand along the busy Seine; hunched over food at outdoor cafes or on a dock; loitered at street corners beneath glowing lamps; kissed in parks; toiled in the grime; dozed and gossiped on benches. The artist found the extraordinary in all that was ordinary, recorded subtle or dramatic changes in much of the world. Some of that time was mine, was where and when I lived.

I sighed, happy to have taken a few moments to come into the little dingy store. How could I have forgotten such treasures as these? I flipped through more pages, absorbing them with a flick of my eyes. I had to get home to feed Dana, my dachshund. The past only held so much magnetism for me, anymore. What had gone before was done. I hadn’t wasted time grieving over the cameras I put away, then sold; I had made a choice.

And as I about closed the book, I stopped.

There was a young man with aviator sunglasses, patterned bandanna snug about his forehead, books pushed aside as he lounged atop a ponderous stone wall, likely part of many steps to an immense building, his back to a pillar. Arms around a girl pressed deeply into the embrace, his fingers entwined for a stronger hold on her.

The boy was Phillipe and the girl he held was me, Natalie.

I gasped and my hand clasped my open mouth. The young woman with child looked at me with a small concern as she scooted around the table, hand clutching her daughter’s. But I just bent over the page and remembered.

How was that possible, to have had our picture taken and not know it, to never have seen it all these years? The thrill of this threatened to bring me to a faint and I took in and released long slow breaths. Parson walked by; I kept my eyes down. I couldn’t possibly inform a stranger that I was in a picture made by a famous photographer. Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken many thousands of photographs. We were just one more couple with a passerby eyeing us and perhaps disapproving on a sunny afternoon. We were in the master’s viewfinder, then he had moved on.

Phillipe was a student at the Sorbonne, studying philosophy and music. We had met at a cafe one afternoon when I was trying to not cry  over my espresso, feeling homesick despite the wonders found, wishing for someone with whom to share it all. He’d picked up my sunglasses from the ground as he walked by; we began to chat. He, too, missed his small town of Ornans but said this lessened as his studies became more interesting. Phillipe was studying music theory and composition, was working on a piece. I’d felt relief and gratitude that he had taken an interest in me, a foreigner, and he’d shared his struggles adjusting to living on his own.

I racked my brain –where was that taken? What had we been up to? It was like any romantic afternoon we shared in Paris; it may have been at the university after he got out of class. But I knew Phillipe such a short time, only three and a half months, and time trickled away so fast I kept a diary of our stolen and intimate days and nights, our falling easily into a tender love. He, the romantic French boy I’d longed to know; I, the American student he found so open and independent. I was afraid no one would believe me, or that I would forget somehow, so  I wrote it all  down each day. And took some pictures of him.

Where did all that end up? Crammed into taped up boxes in the attic, no doubt. I was twenty-one then, now sixty-seven.

I smoothed the page, tapped his hands. Recalled the weight of my hair in summer warmth, how he loved to hold it to his face; the prickle of his stubbly cheeks against mine. The books we read to one another, my French just passable, his English better. The music he played for me, very good songs. But I soon came to the end of my stay, the end of money left me by a beloved uncle. Phillipe had to continue at the Sorbonne. His carefree lust and easy affection for me were nothing compared to his passion for music. And though I found his words and touch gentling as well as incendiary, I suspected photography would bring me great comfort long after he was gone.

Yet it had stung, how could it not in 1971 for a young woman in Paris studiously snapping pictures while seeking a soul mate? He had walked into my life, we’d clung to one another in a free-fall of delights, then simply parted.

I took a last look at his face. It was so long ago it seemed impossible. I slowly closed the book. Henri Cartier-Bresson had frozen for all time one ordinary Phillipe, one everyday Natalie.

“Find something interesting? I couldn’t help but notice…” Parson grasped the back  of the wooden chair, leaned on it as he looked at me with interest.

I rolled hunched shoulders luxuriously–they needed a good stretch. “Oh, the past, it sneaks up on you at odd times. Or wallops you.”

“It can. May I ask–are you a photographer? I mean, since you poured over his work?” He patted the volume as if an object of his affection.

I considered the man. He was older than I, had a white trimmed beard and eyebrows that could scare you if he scowled. But he seemed more the benevolent sort. The poorly repaired glasses slid off his head, a hand catching them at the last moment. I wondered if he’d ever traveled or had only labored away in this little book shop all his life, an armchair sojourner. Did he like other things or only words and pictures he could catalog, keep handy in their places?

“I was once. At least thought so–or that I could be. I so admired Cartier-Bresson. I hoped to emulate his style. Then I stopped. You know, how we stop doing something because there seems no good reason to keep on? One thing just replaces another.”

He considered this, looking out the window. “Yes. I sailed and lived all over the world for over a decade and then I was done. Have not been on a boat since. I bought this store and stuck with it. Lately there are far fewer customers. But it’s what I enjoy still. For now.”

He acted as if he was about to pull out a chair and make himself comfortable, so I stood up. I had to feed Dana, it was getting late and I was tired out.

But Parson persisted. “What about your pictures–do you miss taking them?”

“I haven’t thought of it in a good long while. Until today. Perhaps I have, after all.” I started to move away from the table.

“Well,” he said, “maybe start again.”

I picked up the book and took it to the counter. “I for certain know I want to buy this.”

He grinned at me, crooked teeth homely but nice. “Good. Which one did you especially enjoy?

“Page sixty-four.”

He turned to it, peered at it a bit. “A fine capture of young lovers, in Paris, perhaps.”

“That was me… and Phillipe,” I said to my surprise and sudden embarrassment.

Parson raised those big eyebrows and his eyes grew huge. “That right? That’s marvelous, then, isn’t it?”

I paid for the book, a lot more than I expected. “Yes, I guess it really is. Quite a good memory but I value it because it’s by my idol. Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

“As well you should, Ms….”

“Just Natalie.” I half-winked at him, I don’t know why but it just seemed the right thing after all that.

“As well you should, Natalie, a wonderful find.”

“Yes, I’m so glad I came in. It’s a good bookshop. Thanks, Parson.”

“Jack, and I thank you, too.”

He offered his hand and I took it, held it a second or two, his palm slim but firm if aging, fitting into my bony, aging one.

“Goodbye for now, Jack.”

“Come back any time.”

I closed the door behind me and was swathed in a blanket of humid heat. But I hugged the book all the way home. I felt quite lucky at times in my life. Even with Emory, who had been kind if quite hard to bear as well. Weren’t we all. I did wonder what I’d find next at that bookstore. First I wanted to buy a good, cheap camera. I might tell Emory about that. Or even Jack.

The Case for a Little Madness

All photographs by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

 

“In the interest of my sanity, I must come to the conclusion that my household is in the grips of something I can no longer control. I surrender.”

“Yes, do.”

“Enough is enough.”

“Yes, well then, he should be banished,” Father said, trying to downplay his amusement. “But it was only a water gun fight. They dripped mostly outdoors. They’re just big kids, themselves, I’m afraid. Soon they’ll be grown ups entirely with daunting or boring careers and flocks of their own.”

I could hear her slam the sun room door–not too hard–in response and wondered what he would do next. Likely nothing but continue reading his book and magazines. Mother would fume a bit longer then get out the china for dessert.

She was Mrs. Judith Lightness, wife of Charles Lightness, esteemed judge. Chic, civilized manager of house and garden. Our mother. Her words had floated outdoors. Their timbre rumbled like the engine of a tugboat, smallish yet still mighty. We heard them from the porch table. We had drinks after dinner, as usual, enjoying the way the garden brought us a sweltering sweetness of florals. My brother, Teddy. said nothing; he knew she was slow to expand her views when it came to impulsive activities. It was as if she had only tolerance for order, proscribed behaviors, despite the fact that she had only a moderate talent for the first and reportedly deviated from the second when she was younger.

Paul sipped a brandy and licked his lips, eyes on the giant trees that surrounded the garden. He was used to ignoring mother’s distress.

“Is that a black walnut?” He pointed. “I’ve always wanted to gather the nuts and make ink from them. I read how that can be done. I’d enjoy writing a smart letter to Meredith in walnut ink.”

Teddy laughed and requested more information. My ear was inclined toward the french doors despite a tiny upsurge of pleasure at his comment.

“Pssst!”

I looked up. Lillian poked her head through her upstairs window. She had her ratty stuffed elephant in hand and waved it at me. Then she pointed down below and made a face meant for mother. I thought she would drop the creature on Teddy but he was ignoring her, his head bent toward Paul’s. She had a habit of making it dive when someone was passing, tossing it down the staircase as company arrived. Leaving it in a pathetic heap so when I left my room I stumbled. It–Hildy, she called it–seemed to do things for her, a daredevil by proxy. Lillian was seven and a half years old. When could I slip it into the trash without igniting her fury?

“Meredith? What do you think?”

I looked back at the boys. They smiled as if something marvelous would be happening if I just gave them the go-ahead so I nodded.

“The ink? Why not? Or did I miss something? Whatever you say.”

“Splendid!” Paul swallowed the last of his drink and stood. “It’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll get supplies and begin immediately.”

“Wait! What am I being recruited to do?”

“Too late,” Teddy said with shrug, palms turned up. “We have a plan and you will help.”

Well, that was the problem. My twin and our adopted cousin developed schemes and often I was a part of them without quite knowing how it occurred. A few times I had spearheaded them, but generally I was more cautious, nicknamed “Merry Mouse” by Paul long ago. But their plans were like rumbas clothed as minuettes, and every time Paul arrived the music played on and on. I sometimes felt like a whirling dervish within days of his yearly arrival. Mother would have said we were struck by lightning, only to survive for yet another strike.

He was an adopted cousin because he was, in fact, adopted by my Uncle Joseph Dane in Newport (as opposed to Uncle Joey in Charleston or Uncle Joseph III in St. Louis). Joseph Dane, or J.D., and my Aunt Genisse tried to organically summon children but things didn’t take. They found an adoption agency operating out of New York while on vacation. They eventually found Paul at age five and the rest is history.

Ours, as well, I must say. Teddy and I were two years younger so Paul took the lead. In another couple of years the gap started to close. He was a curiosity with his foster home tales, long gaunt face and wide dark eyes that appeared surprised or befuddled. Neither of which was the case. Paul knew more about a room and its occupants when he walked into it than those who studied it at length. But the expressions, along with his horsey good looks, served him well. We adored him. He came for up to a month each summer. The habit stuck, except for the year he was at Harvard year around.

He had done well. We all had. I studied anthropology, uncertain of what direction was needed. Mother said anything with marriage as a secondary descriptor might be best. But despite being a female of twenty-two in nineteen sixty-four and typecast as a mouse, I had a secret hunger for adventure.

Lillian was dangling Hildy by one ear from the window she’d opened in her room. Teddy and Paul stood up. As soon as Paul headed toward the garage he passed beneath her window and bombs away, Hildy smashed Paul’s coiffed black hair. Teddy grabbed it as it bounced off and tossed Hildy to me, whereupon we were engaged in a rousing game of catch that elicited shrieks of protest from Lillian.

Mother came to the dining room’s double doors at the other end of the house, popped her head out and called out in a calmer manner. But she still meant business.

“Please return Hildy to her owner before the neighbors call 911.”

Paul had Hildy in his hands when Lillian buzzed him with her balsam wood glider. He ran inside to harass her, which she required.

It never ended. At this point one might think so. We were adults by objective criteria but Paul continued to find ways to subvert that reality. Teddy and I followed him at a leisurely pace. Mother’s head disappeared. I yelled back in passing.

“We’re coming, mother. I’ll have a small Dutch apple slice.”

Upstairs, Lillian’s pallid face was scrunched into her persimmon expression. Paul had squirted her once more with his water gun and dampened her bed. Teddy intervened, whereupon Paul hugged her and she squeezed back.

After they left she patted the bed for me to sit down. “Are you all going to do anything good this summer?”

“You mean, with you or in general?”

She shrugged but I felt the longing in that action.

“We usually do, with and without you. Expect nothing less this year.”

“Cousin Paul will be here awhile? Remember? I’m going to New York tomorrow. I hate seeing the doctor. The pokes and stuff.” She thrust out her lower lip but didn’t sniffle.

“Yes, unless mother marches him out the door, he’ll be here when you return. We have to be ready to defend him tonight when she fusses.”

Lillian tossed wispy blond hair from her eyes. “It’s all in or all out!”

I grabbed her hand and we went down for pie. That heralding cry had come from Paul–either do something full-on or don’t bother joining in.

The next day parents and Lillian had already left for New York when I awakened. Another check up. Lillian had energy-sapping anemia that curtailed her activities. They had tried a new medicine; every three months she had tests and an exam.

**********

“What? Up way before noon? Did you have an attack of industriousness?” Teddy inquired of my presence.

Paul chortled and poured himself a cup of coffee. They were dressed in shorts, faded polo shirts and sneakers.

“How could I help myself? I have to see what you two are scheming.”

“Include yourself, Merry Mouse, in the undercover work. After breakfast meet us in the driveway. Tell no one you may see on the way.”

They left. I soon followed with my own cup of cream and sugar with strong coffee added to it. Breakfast could wait.

There was a small stack of lumber in front of the three car garage. Nearby sat four bags that looked heavy. A paint can and brushes waited in the shade. A large bench wrapped in plastic stood apart. They walked around the supplies as if they were as puzzled as I, then disappeared into the garage. It dawned on me what it might be when I found them searching through tools on the workbench and wall.

“I know you can hammer so grab one and come along,” Paul said and linked his arm through mine.

We worked well together. Over the years we had created forts, games and toys, sometimes poorly, other times with great success.

It took us longer than planned, nearly until dinnertime, and after showering off sweat and grime we re-convened for a meal.

“I hope it gets the right response,” Teddy said to me when Paul had left for a walk. “Otherwise it will have to be donated somewhere. We could have done better, I think.”

“How can it not? It turned out beautifully.”

“It’s reasonable to us but you know Mother might forbid it.”

“Please! Mother will have little to say when she sees how much fun it is.” I punched Teddy. “And don’t put it all on Paul. Anyway, Father will help. I hope.”

Paul suggested we go out for dinner to celebrate. When he uncharacteristically slipped his arm around my waist I thought he must be anxious. The night was balmy so we ate at an outdoor cafe, pleased in every way. Sloppy and a little rowdy, we walked arm in arm. It gave me pause to think how long we had been together, and scared me to think it might one day end.

When they returned our parents and sister were in improved spirits–the anemia seemed to be abating little by little. Her doctor was cautious but optimistic that Lillian would become more robust in time.

“But what’s going on in the back yard? Has someone constructed something? I saw several nails, which I narrowly missed and returned to the nail jar. Who to blame for that near-miss?”

That was Father. I thought we had placed our project far enough behind bushes and flowers groupings that it wouldn’t readily show, way in a back corner. There was no street view of the yard, so it was hidden from public probing–Mother would be relieved of that. Teddy and I stepped forward in concert. I made a sweeping gesture with my arm, pointing to porch and yard.

“I think we should go out and see the new addition to our yard.”

Mother made a clucking sound as she withheld questions. Paul led the way in the end but seemed slow-footed.

“Oh, you really did it! You made my wish come true!”

Lillian clapped her hands, then ran to the cheery orange sand box and nearly sat right down in it, floral dress be hanged, white shoes tossed onto the grass. But Paul hadn’t yet taken off the plastic from the bench or sand box in order to p[protect both. He did so, then suggested the parents sit down and relax. Lillian sat down with a sound plop. I had found a drapey coverlet to use as a canopy and Teddy and Paul had painted it. We had hung a string of colorful plastic flags on the bushes behind the bench.

“A sand box? Lillian, out of there at once. You have the wrong clothes on, in fact the whole thing is in unreservedly poor taste, the bugs, the mess, the possibilities of animals creeping into it and–”

“My darling Judith, hush for once! Let it be. They have done a very good thing here. A tiny play area right in our back yard. Her little friends will enjoy this, too.”

Mother turned to her husband, mouth agape, and then did as suggested. They watched their late-in-life child, their great surprise whom they adored piling up sand on her lap, digging with a toy spade and filling up plastic glasses and bucket we’d placed there, her toes seeking coolness below the surface.

“It was Paul’s idea,” Teddy started.

“Yes,” Lillian concurred, “he has the best ideas. Every time you guys do things, it’s good.”

Mother moaned. “Ridiculous, unnecessary things. My lovely yard…! Of course it has to be Paul. Why, dear nephew, must you always shake the boat? Visit every summer and give us such a time of it?”

He went to her side and took her hand. “It’s rock the boat, Auntie Judith, and it’s because I love you all so much,” he said, then kissed her cheek.

And that was that. Mother patted his arm and sat back. Lillian demanded I get Hildy and a few others to join her. Teddy brought out a tray of iced teas. Mother and father sat back on the attractive wood and wrought iron bench to watch Lillian play with Hildy and new sand tools.

Paul stretched his legs out and tapped my sandal with his shoe under the table. His eyes traced my face. “Well, gang, what next?”

“More fine madness, I expect,” Teddy answered. “Maybe we should build a swing set? Add another fountain? I saw a big one at the hardware yesterday.”

I was so pleased our Lillian could be given such simple fun; she had a challenging time of it. But I knew what Paul meant. I gazed at the summer sky as if nothing at all had occurred to me. But as a budding anthropologist I clearly had more real life research to do.