Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Business, Not as Usual

Columbia River, Oregon

“My skin is a brier patch–no one can go there without coming back wounded! I really have to find some magic moisturizer.”

“Well, time for my new creams–that, or an invisible fence around you, dear,” her mother said, blinking at the last thought, trying to not imagine someone on Elise’s skin. Though Elise was hardly a child. Still, what a thing to say to her, not the comment about her creams– no, they were excellent. But Jama was a dog lover and so the last slip, as if meant for protecting Elise…

But what else might Jama note? It was her daughter she was surmising. The dress was skimpy, boisterous with slashes of color and to make it worse, cheap on closer examination. She, herself, preferred tailored clothing, like the navy slacks with tiny white feathers and trusty white shirt she’d slipped on before coming by. It was one of the less offensive things she might wear in Elise’s estimation–the feathers made up for the vast navy-ness of it. But Jama was a quintessential classic woman–good solid colors, accents of gold or platinum at ears, neck or wrist. Elise? Chunky plastic or beads or whatever. She tried to overlook it all; to each her own.

Elise was posing in front of a full mirror, examining how the sundress hung on her newly curvy body. She had given up dieting when she turned forty, and good for her, her friends said as they rallied behind her fabulous self acceptance. If that was what it was; she was more lazy when it came to routine habits, and food fell under that listing. Not that it mattered for awhile, anyway…it had become a “go with the flow” thinking. She was taking things easy , that was it. Not coasting exactly–she had aspirations of many kinds, but not enough interest or energy to fuss over what she put on her plate every time she was hungry. She needed to be fed, that was all! Food: a basic need. Her figure had inflated. She felt more comfortable.

Even if she wasn’t like her mother, verging on petite. Thin. “Delicate” was not the word–the woman would reject that adjective herself–but feminine in ways, perhaps, Elise never got but so what?

“I read yesterday that celery green is the hyped color this year.” Jama stood up, smoothed her shirt and pants, stretched like a luxurious feline. She felt conscious that Elise had a diminutive space to live within as she went to get a drink of water. On the other hand, her own house was unwieldy, too much; she lately imagined living more simply. “I think I’ll try the hue as a small piece, maybe a scarf,” she called out in an afterthought.

“Ugh, named after my least favorite vegetable, stringy, tasteless.” Elise slipped off the cheery dress, pulled on leggings with a loose top. She hung up the summer dress and wondered how long would she have to wait to wear it–it was sixty degrees today, grey skies with raindrops spattering on her windows now and then.

And how long would her mother stay, that was the question. She filled a glass with iced tea but didn’t offer one to Jama as Jama drank cold water and hot tea, never combined.

She came by once every month lately after years of infrequent visits. There was more time free as Jama was edging more toward retirement, allowing her beauty products company, Jamalyn’s Rose Rescues, to be helmed by her right hand woman, along with the loyal band of staff she had built up over decades. It had started with a passion for roses and her small flower garden and soon it embraced a slew of plant-based products that had been ahead of the times. Now she relinquished control bit by bit as she prepared to have a different lifestyle for the first time since she was in her twenties.

What sort of lifestyle does an older single woman have, though? Elise had pondered it: she could not imagine her mother resting, or alone.

“I’m thinking of doing something different this summer. Marv has a boat, as you know, and he’s offered to take a few of us on a trip for a month around the San Juan Islands and north. Gino, Marissa and I are joining him.”

“That aging laggard, surprised you still hang out with him,” Jama said then tightened her lips in a line. She should know better than to offer such an opinion; the girl adored her first ex-husband’s nephew, they’d been friends for a lifetime. He supposedly got his life on track, anyway, and it was not her business, anymore “I hope it’s been kept up so it’s safe sailing.”

But Gino…that man Elise kept returning to the past few months. Successful but not so reliable. Jama had yet to meet him.

“It has a motor, mother, it’s a modest yacht. And Marv would never let me on if it wasn’t in good working order–as you know.” She wondered why this was her focus rather than Elise not teaching at Community Design Studios, as usual, fpr the whole summer. Didn’t she care? But Elise kept her thoughts on work to herself for the time being. She glanced at the leopard clock on her galley kitchen wall, watching its tail switch back and forth with each second.

Her mother snorted. A creaky ole thing, Marv’s boat–she had been aboard it once and the ensuing two hours were quite enough three years ago when Marv got engaged, threw an intimate party–and, of course, ended the engagement, as he had enjoyed a bachelor life too long. He adored his boat. She never understood the boating life, whiling away the hours on chilly open waters, risking life and limb and one’s digestion, calling it fun. Why couldn’t people be sensible, perhaps go by plane or train if they must have a little diversion? That was her plan in June, clickety-clack all the way down to sunny, beautiful San Diego.

“I guess your teaching will be fewer hours this summer, then. I do hope that works out. You need that job until you come up with a solid plan for whatever may come next…. But I can tell you have more on your agenda besides seeing me today. I did have a reason for stopping other than saying hello, Elise.”

The younger woman hesitated by her mother, as if to sit. Was it going to take that long, Elise wondered, but she smiled obediently and settled into her new, second-hand hanging rattan chair.

Jama perched on an overfilled couch cushion, leaned forward as she picked at invisible lint on her pants leg. From the corner, Elise tuned into her mother’s sudden quietness. Admired her half-Filipino tawny skin and shining striated-silver coif; fine boned hands, feet crossed at ankles and clad in pewter leather flats. Elise had her father’s fairness–but did have her mother’s caramel-toned skin, softly padded lips. There the similarities seemed to end. She did not have the full beauty or ambition. Lately she was making peace with who she was. Her own carefree style. Her search for love more open. Her creative spark finding different directions.

Jama had never been anything less than a sterling example many women aspired to, her incisive mind with a perfectionist attitude a tall order for her staff to meet, and natural grace enhanced by her own pricey organic products. Her strong nature was energetic if critical and efficient, more yielding with her dogs and verging on tender with her expansive gardens–which now were managed by professionals and which she rarely visited except when product development required it. They were miles from her big house now.

Jama–Elise called her that ever since she was thirteen, it felt more right than simply “Mom”–had doted on her daughter and son (four years Elise’s senior) when they were much younger, when she had time–if one could call teaching social graces and taking them on numerous educational forays “doting.” She did read them books, hugged them at bedtime; she did see to it they were healthy and managing alright. Mostly if no man distracted her much.

And then she was gone often as her business rapidly grew. Elise was on her own after her brother, Todd, left at 17 for university. By then she had her social circle and interests; their housekeeper was a constant, generous with her care. Jama’s absence felt more like the curious lack of a lustrous, valued family treasure– missed but nonessential, as it turned out, until searched for when truly needed. So there was that: the needing and the not having.

Elise swung gently in the suspended chair, and as seconds passed nervous quivers snaked across abdomen and chest.

“Okay, tell me!–are you alright, Jama? What is the mystery?”

Jama pushed a silvered lock from her forehead, eyes focused on her daughter; she licked her lips, a sure sign that something big was coming.

“It’s Wesley. Wes. Remember him?”

Elise frowned, slowed the swinging chair, bare toes skidding on the floor. “Wes…the only Wes I recall would be your second husband…” She sat up straight. “Did he finally die?” It sounded rude, but it wouldn’t cause her any pain.

“”Elise! No, he didn’t die. He got the diabetes under control long ago. No, I’m, we…oh, it’s this: I’m going down to see him. In June. For three weeks.”

Elise stood with arms dangling, mouth open. “Jama, no, tell me you’re joking! Surely you haven’t lost your mind!”

Her mother looked at her steadily, eyes shining but hard like topaz stones. And she waited until her daughter was done.

“It can’t be! You and Wes…you were like oil and water, no fire and ice–it ened badly, Jama. I would hate to see you with him ever again. He was not good for you, he was too much, he could be so tough, even disrespectful to us, and he never did compromise no matter how you tried to you said–“

“That was then, this is now. He has changed, believe me.”

“And you know this how?”

Dare she pry into her mother’s private life? They rarely did that, they let things be rather than stir things up. But why him, why now? When Jama was on the verge of at least semi-retirement at 68 and yet recently had considered other ventures to undertake. “You have been single for fifteen years and said you’ve liked it that way.”

“Fourteen years. Who said I was getting married? Don’t be ridiculous, Elise. I’m visiting him for three weeks. I just wanted you to know what my plans were ahead of time. To avoid explanations or fake apologies later…”

Elise paced, pulled her ponytail tighter–a nervous habit–and paused before her mother. “You mean you’re going to hang out with a man who threatened to sue you for alimony and almost hit you as he finally left. How can I forget? Todd and I were there, too, remember? He was home from college, you insisted we stay out of it but Todd had to put himself physically between you and Wes! And the ghastly man finally left.” She covered her face with her hands. She had been sixteen then but it came right back. “A brief but bad nightmare…oh Mother.”

Jama felt a shock wave of conflicting emotions. It first was hearing Elise saying “oh Mother.” Like she meant it. It was recalling Todd doing what she said, edging himself between Wes and herself when Wes had reached out to grab her or slap her or who knew what, maybe nothing but more pleading would have come of his anger and longing, it was all mixed up in their arguing. It was a bad moment, yes. But it was also wrong timing for such their alignment. And they were not much older than Elise was now. She had learned new lessons since then. Been married, even– again. And then alone.

“Please, calm down.” She patted the couch beside her and Elise sat gingerly. “I know, it was not good. My marriages… never worked out, I’m sorry that’s true. I have not been great life partner material…I was more about my business, my independence. But people change…I have changed some, too.”

“Really? Don’t we stay the same, essentially, Jama? Aren’t we products of our pasts? What can we do but try to do better, despite the mistakes, despite who we are? I know I am trying to not repeat your mistakes, Jama…to forge my own path, make my own legacy.”

Elise and her mother gazed at each other; sorrows and needs radiating from them, and a sad uncertainty that was laced with deeper love that had rooted despite difficult events and years lost. Jama looked away last, eyes watering.

She took her daughter’s hand in hers, and it was smooth and warm despite that earlier comment about being bristly and dry. And Elise didn’t tug it away-yet.

“Not in spite of, Elise, but because of who we are. We are always in a process of transformation, if you think about it. Just like nature, we adapt and adjust and come into new parts of ourselves. We just have to determine the whys and hows of it, shape things up.”

“A bit late to lecture me, Jama. Really, I don’t buy that Westley could have changed enough to make you happy.” Elise got up and refilled her glass.

“I’m already happy enough. I don’t need anyone to do that.”

“Exactly.” Her phone rang and she checked it, saw it was Gino. “One moment, I’ll be back.” She left the living area and closed a door.

Jama sighed and her shoulders slumped. It now seemed a mistake to come. She hadn’t expected whole acceptance of the idea. She had hoped for a curled lip and shrug to start, with improved response as time went on–if things went well enough in San Diego. She couldn’t predict a thing. Wes and she had talked for hours and hours over past months. He had flown up to see her once. It was still a slow reveal, a careful process but she was feeling almost optimistic for the first time. She might build something real with him this time. It was true they had failed and after two years despite fervor and intent. But so much had happened since. He had gentled, he had expanded his once rigid thinking; she had grown more secure and content with herself. Yet she knew from scathing experiences that anything could happen, and it could just as well be more bad news she ended up with as she limped off. And what then?

How could she explain why a return to him? Reassure her daughter? But in the end it wasn’t necessary. They were no longer young mother and daughter and had long diverged their paths. They had become naturally separate entities, determined to design lives their own way. Still, Jama had been anxious so long about sharing this with Elise.

Returning from her call, Elise leaned against a door jamb, index finger tapping her chin in thought.

“When did you say you were leaving?”

“I’m taking the train down late June, return early July–a nice vacation for me, don’t you agree?”

“Well– yes, I do.” She bent over the kitchen counter, forearms flattened. “Jama, will you make me a deal? First, let’s talk more about being safe around that man and second, have dinner with Gino and me before you go.”

“Stay safe…?”

The words snagged her mind, bringing the past back into focus. How Wes could be, his tendency to roughness not so passionate at times as controlling. But he was, well, they were, both drinking a bit then. He was magnetic, no way around that. Now, neither of them cared for the loosening and distortion of alcohol. They had lost that appetite and had been unwilling to give their dreams up for the pleasures and pain of it. Or so Wes had told her in many ways during their recent conversations. They had mellowed in some ways, sharpened their minds. Hence, the exploratory trip.

“We’re past all that. I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t feel feel it would turn out nicely, even better than that.”

“It’s just…you are not like some aging swinger, Mother, despite your fancy marriages and fancier divorces. I mean, you do have a good sense of propriety…I know you, you need order in your life and worthwhile ventures. He seems a throwaway; it seems reckless, okay?”

And there it was. “Mother” again, though with a sharp edge. The judgment of Wes and her, lacking understanding without knowing more, without any patience. It stung; Jama pulled back into the couch, arms crossed. It was getting late. She was getting tired of this. Well, she would not sell her daughter short. But she was done talking–for now.

Jama smiled sweetly and lifted her palms upward, then reached for her purse. She strode to to the brightly decorated coral and teal kitchen.

“Yes, let’s have dinner on the riverboat, alright? You’ve always loved that–“

“Wasn’t Wes a major boat lover? And now he’s in San Diego… Jama, you dislike them so.”

“No, he has a pontoon now. And I’ll manage. As I was saying, pick a date and time, let’s have a nice evening so Gino and I get to know one another better. You said he has promise and you may be right.” She reached across the counter, gave her daughter a peck on her cheek. “It’s been lovely talking, wanted you to know my plans– but I must dash, Elise dear, it’s getting late.”

Elise saw that she had failed to impress and she had to give it up, for now. Jama smiled warmly, graciously–but was there the tiniest hint of condescension?– and then was gone. Had she just managed the whole conversation and called the final shots? Again?

They had had a full adult conversation, hadn’t they. It had gone alright until Elise felt alarm that her mother might be off and running again, a replay of same risks. It worried her. But maybe she was wrong. Anything could happen, with time. She knew that by now. Just as she and Gino had found their way from breezy friendship to deepening love. Just as Marv had finally found someone he’d stay with for a lifetime. Like she was going to branch out and develop her own business in interior decorating. For boats.

She prepared a crisp salad for lunch and ate on the half-moon balcony in the energizing sunshine. Her business, how she loved the ring of that! Jama would be excited when she finally broke the news over the dinner. Gino was helping her start it. Bright Sails Interior Design. Home Cruise Designs. Ocean Decor by Elise Maddox . She tapped her lips with the fork. No, she decided, no time to waste on this. She must meet up with her mother sooner than later, and men were not to be invited.

San Diego Bay, Pacific Ocean


Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Talismans

“No, no, no, no,” she responded and turned her back hard against her father, looking out his study window, letting her gaze follow the rolling yard as it met up with Kayla’s yard and house. “Not there, not now! Why would we do that with Meredith coming back in two months and…everything else?”

Iris didn’t say what she most wanted to; she seldom did when it came to that topic, the missing mother matter. Chris Wells knew that; he didn’t say what he wanted to, either. It wasn’t appropriate to share such thoughts. He had a responsibility to two daughters, one smart and increasingly bold teenager, and one talented but more timid young woman soon to graduate with a Masters in Music Education. Who could a man talk to in this house? There was Ruffy, his aging half-wolf, half-German Shepherd companion, and Franklin-from university-and he got on well and…honestly, not many more wanted a good chat, much less an intimate one, with someone they had known as half a twosome for twenty years. Even if his wife–ex-wife– tended toward brash, more adventurous than he but easily bored and thus prickly, and remiss at home in ways he could not longer bear to well recall.

After almost two years, he had no wish to clearly recall anything of the life they had tried to build and turned into tinder.

So at this time, there was no one. He knew, as well, that Iris was still flailing and it wouldn’t be a picnic to trundle her off to the north woods. Despite the warming weather of late May, and their A-frame cabin and astonishing beauty of Lake Menatchee and its forests. Her mother had loved it there more than most places. And they had lasted only six days last year.

“Well,” Chris said calmly when Iris stamped her foot as if she was not sixteen but four, “it’s already settled. I need to get away to work on this book. So pack clothes and your other needs for two months.”

Iris threw him her deadly look as she rushed out the room. Wait until Kayla heard this one, they had had several plans. Good ones. And with that crushing thought, she raced downstairs, over to Kayla’s.

Chris sat back, hands locked behind his head; a tiny moan escaped, then he sat upright and poured over the last notes taken on the socioeconomic uses and meanings of color, his right knee bouncing in exasperation.

*****

Iris sat on the deck, crushing a small dry pine cone with the toe of her sandal. This place–her parents and Meredith who had loved it’s lofty ceilings and great windows, the bright lake frontage. The cabin had been a jumping off point for her mother’s outdoor adventures, while a meditative haven for her father. But for Iris it was halfway between the two, and now neither when she didn’t want to be there. Like the other two years since she her mother left.

Iris was desperate for company and Kayla was pleased with the invitation, as ever, but declined with tons of apologies. The annual trip to her grandparents was coming up sooner than later– and who wouldn’t prefer San Francisco to the backwoods?

Meredith would eventually come; they got along in a distant sort of way. Though she might persuade their father to stay the whole summer. In the meantime, Iris was on her own. She kicked the brittle, flattened pine cone off the deck and stood, hands on hips, uncertain what she wanted to do then ran down to lake’s edge. A beaten trail wound down a steep slope so her body was driven downwards, propelled into shadiness and washes of light as enormous fir trees simultaneously comforted and loomed over her.

“This was our mother’s place, too, but she’s living on a boat in the Mediterranean with that, that–rich rat, that creep, that disgusting old guy!” she said to the dirt and the sky. She almost tripped as gravity and speed thrust her onward until her feet met with large stones and she skidded, breath coming hard, hands on knees as she bent over a minute. She took a break on the end of the dock, scanning the lake. Feeling calmer as the gentle waves lapped close to her toes.

Our row boat, she thought, I love that heap of a boat. She completed the padlock combination, opened a dilapidated shed door and narrowed her eyes to make out things in the murky space. There it was, set up on a blocks, its green paint faded and peeling in spots, oars hung on a wall along with faded orange lifesaving vests, fishing equipment, various hand and yard tools. She leaned against the coat’s hull and studied the clear green-blue waves several feet past the door. It felt good there, safer, and Iris was more at ease than she had felt in a week. She thought of the dock, how they all used to jump off and make shallow dives, then swim to the floating raft several yards out for more diving and playing. Her jackknife dives.

It all seemed long ago, and she felt older than she wanted to be, for once.

“Hey.”

A dark shaggy head popped around the doorway and she was met by the grin of a stranger. She shrank back, then strode into the near-blinding sunshine, shutting the shed door. She glanced up to the A-frame for no good reason; her father was absorbed in his research.

“Hey, yourself, you’re standing on our beach–who are you?”

He stuck his hand deep into jeans pockets and shrugged. He looked a bit older than she was. His bare feet were late-spring-soft; it wasn’t easy to walk along a shore like that, the rocks were big, numerous. He wore a faded black T shirt with an ancient Jim Morrison photo on it. And on his right wrist was a worn piece of tied red yarn.

“We came early, staying awhile at Coan’s Cottages, over there. ” He pointed across the lake where there was a narrower width. Six pale shingled cottages sat in a row, a bit dreary but homey, one might deduct.

“I know where they are. I see people hanging out when we come up each summer. Never there long, though. So you’re new? Then you don’t know you have to get permission to cross other peoples’ lakefronts, I guess.”

“Sure, I know, but most people aren’t even at the lake yet, it’s not the week-end or summer. I didn’t know you were here until now.” He took his hands out of his pockets, scratched the back of his neck, slapped a forearm–a fleeing insect took off. “I’m Jax, anyhow.”

“Iris. Now you should leave, okay? I have things to do. Have a fun stay.”

Jax’s dark eyes flashed with a sharp humor; he motioned a sort of saluting goodbye with an index finger flicking off forehead. As he turned, all that mussed, longish hair flew away from his neck and he walked away, briefly into water as the shore disappeared, then past trees and bushes huddled close. She couldn’t see where he was going. But she was satisfied he was gone–for the time being.

During a long trek into green and teeming woods, she became acutely aware of chorusing birds, and flitting, sometimes biting insects and spring peepers and garter snakes escaping her feet and wildflowers in glowing groups here and there; scents of water, mud, rock, pine, life in its glory. She settled into herself and the landscape better. The young stranger crossed through her mind once and she shook him off.

When back on the deck, she could just make out a guy who looked a bit like Jax. He got out of a canoe, pulled it up by the Coan’s dock. Maybe he wasn’t walking, then. He’d just been on the lake, canoed over, pulled it ashore at the empty lot next door to her dad’s. To do nothing or mess around. She hoped it was an accident that he’d come upon her. She let go a shiver but it wasn’t fear, exactly. More like when Ruffy came up to her before she had seen or heard him, before she’d ever thought to call him.

Chris started dinner, tuna tossed with noodles, and a side salad. Food he thought pleased a teenager was often not what she wanted. She was back on the deck, he’d noticed. Seeing her there, light brown hair waving over her shoulders like her mother’s had…he winced. And what if Iris was miserable and he could never do anything about it? What if he couldn’t get his work done here, either?

She spun around, feeling his deep set eyes on her, waved and then to his surprise, smiled.

******

“What does the color red mean?” she asked him the next week. She could have looked it up but he knew certain things.

“It depends. It’s the color of blood, of course, and fire. It can symbolize energy, passion, strength, action. Courage. It is a powerful color, certainly. In the West we tend to think it means aggression or violence, but that is not the case in many places. I would say–“

“Hmm…got it.”

Iris shifted in her chair and he went back to his book. Ruffy lay down between them on the floor before a cold fireplace, his movements fluid, front paws placed one over the other. He was a quiet dog, hence the nickname in jest as he rarely, despite his intimidating appearance, let loose a loud bark or a growl. Oddly, his ex-wife didn’t like him much, thought he was too stealthy, might turn against them, so Ruffy avoided her, taking to Chris and the kids easily from the start. They had long ago become family. The oft-imposing, elegant Ruffy released a little groan as Iris smoothed wiry fur on his handsome head.

“Okay, just what does a piece of red yarn or thread on the wrist mean?”

“It is worn for a few reasons–it depends on which wrist, too. The person. What they mean to gain from it. Why?”

“I just saw it. Tell me what you know.”

“Well, a red bracelet might be knotted seven times in the Kabbalah tradition, and a prayer is said when knotting it. It is for positive energy and protection, but men wear it on the wright wrist; on the left, women do. It is a sign also of purity, and it gets more technical if I go on, Iris. But it also is a a sort of talisman to some who wear it, that is, to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.”

“Oh. How interesting. As a kid I always wanted to wrap ribbons or colored tape or found thread around my wrists. But that just made me feel more fancy…Still, there was that ring.” She glanced at it on her finger and smiled.

She fell still, musing about what sorts of things people did to feel better. Safe. Like her wearing a silver ring with two floral shapes on it. She and Kayla had spotted in a grassy place by a creek. It was after her mother had left them. It fit, and somehow it helped to have found it and it went right on as if meant to be, so she hadn’t taken it off.

Chris nodded at her, shut his book and watched his daughter and dog resting.

“Is it uncomfortable being here without your mother?”

“Sometimes.” She rubbed her forehead. “Not really, anymore. It was and is our family vacation hideaway. I mean, Meredith and you and me, not just her.”

“But she was so into the great outdoors…”

“We all have been in different ways, if you think about it, Dad. Like your big bonfires and ghost stories and s’mores. Meredith’s sailing with her friends. Me in the woods and diving off the raft. You and me trying to fish…”

“And your mother hiking in the hills on her own, taking you girls on long rides in the rowboat or setting up the tent for you two, then you and your friends some nights.”

“No- you remember it wrong, Meredith and I set it up a lot more as we got older just for! Mom did like to sit in there all alone, at times–she called it her time out…usually after she got mad at us. She got so frustrated with us! But you–you taught us about the stars, Dad, and fire building and wild plants.” She patted Ruffy a last time as he rolled onto his side, then she jumped up. “I sorta hate being here and sorta am glad, I miss her a lot at times, but still feel angry and confused about her decision. But I am also okay.”

She grabbed strands of hair and wound them around her fingers, a nervous habit from childhood. She gave them a small yank and let go.

“Stop worrying so much or you’ll drive me nuts! I’m not a child, right? I can deal more than you think. Since we needed to come up north for more of your writing and researching time, I can cope for a month or two–we both have to… Anyway, we’re here now. Just us. And Ruffy. Okay, Dad?”

“Deal,” he said and went back to his place in the botany book. “But if it gets too sad or weird, let me know…” he mumbled at her back. He glanced at Ruffy. It’s you and me, us two guys, and you are like my own talisman. But Ruffy was snoring, there but not there. In his own nirvana… as he always seemed to be, awake or asleep.

Chris suddenly longed to hug his daughter but it was too late–at least now, this time.

Iris was stuck in a hallway, half-wanting to run back and jump on his lap, throw her arms around him and plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek. But she wasn’t that little girl, anymore, was she. A lump rose up in her throat and she unstuck herself. Grabbing binoculars she walked closer to the water, checked on Coans’ Cottages. How dumb of her to resort to that! She walked on, wondering how Kayla was doing, loneliness felt like a small stab. She checked in with her phone.

******

By the time she and her dad got out the rowboat it was a bit humid and looked a little like rain. Nothing much was forecast that they knew of, so they lifted and pulled and slid it in the water. He took the oars and rowed with gusto while she and Ruffy sat relaxed, faces to a damp gusty breeze. The water was choppier than when they had begun but it was a good ride along the lake shore, then in deeper water. Sunlight sparked the water then hid, then was flung as sheer ribbons across waves, then was gone. And still gone. The wind cooled. Ruffy sat with nose up, ears, sharp.

They were moving closer to shore in a few minutes, just in case, and were soon to pass Coans’ Cottages when the first rumbles filled the air. Chris rested, looked into the darkening sky. Ruffy stared at the increasingly metal gray water and then at the shoreline. He liked water but he was not a happy long distance swimmer.

“We haven’t far to go, about fifteen or tenty minutes back to our place, maybe, if I row hard. The wind will make it harder to row against the wave action.”

“I can take a turn if you want, I’m pretty strong!” She had to shout over the thunder and the rising wind.

“That’s alright, Iris, I can manage! Have to get at it now!”

The wind came up hard out of the northwest, that bass rumbling grew, and raindrops splashed on their skin, fur, the boat. Even Ruffy blinked in the heavier wetness. Then thunder rumbled so loud and deeply that he lifted his head and howled briefly. Lightning gashed the heavy pewter sky. The rain let loose.

“Got to go ashore, Iris, we’ll go to in here!”

In under five minutes they were there and Jax was already waiting, wading out with an older man. They pulled the rowboat ashore and hightailed it up to the cottage as torrents of rain lashed all animate and inanimate things, Ruffy racing ahead of them, big body stretched out, so lithe and fast, looking even more like a wolf on the run.

Stamping small rivulets from their legs and then shaking their wet heads and tossing shoes and jackets in a pile, they were soon greeted by a slow burning fire and a woman holding out bowls of chili.

“How about some food and drink? You, too, doggie. Or wolfie!”

It was Garth and Kath Ruskin, Jax’s uncle and aunt, who welcomed them so readily. As they gathered on benches around a heavy trestle table they were soon jabbering as if they had known one another more than a few minutes. Chris and Jax thought separately how crisis did that, even if it was just a sudden spring storm, it made strangers into friendly partners in problem solving, or it maybe just felt safer huddling together. After the chili came more endless adult talk about work, economics and sports and Lake Menatchee as compared to other lakes so that finally Jax bent his head toward Iris, who slumped with chin on a hand.

“Want to move over to the couch?”

“That sounds… risky.” She smiled and rolled her eyes.

He acted shy and even blushed, she thought– his skin was tanner than she’d realized, it was hard to tell–and they moved themselves off the table bench and to the couch by the fireplace. Ruffy roused himself from beneath the table and trotted after them, his long tail hanging low.

“Wolf dog, eh? A good one.”

“Yes, he is. How did you know so fast?”

“Well, he looks wolf, and a neighbor had one. Not so good, killed all the chickens they had and rabbits, but he had a sister in crime.” He gave a shrug, eyebrows up. “That’s how that goes. We have lots of dogs on the reservation as well as other animals.”

She turned to look at him better then averted her eyes, embarrassed. She may not have guessed he was Native American–isn’t that what he meant? She wasn’t going to ask.

“I never liked rabbits, the’re rodents, I think.”

“Not at all, they’re both mammals but rabbits are only rabbits, harmless.”

“One bit me as a kid.”

“You handled it wrong?”

“True, I did.” She stuck her feet out toward sizzling red and orange flames. “Why are you here with your aunt and uncle, if I can ask.”

“I live with them. Auntie Kath is my mom’s sister…mom was white. I’m half Odawa, the reservation is in northwestern Michigan, not too far. But I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle for three years now. I might go back, don’t know yet. Depends on me and my dad…”

He placed one foot and then another on top of Ruffy’s back. Iris tensed, thinking the dog would rouse and be irritated but he didn’t move. Jax had said his mother was white, so she must have died, she thought.

“My mom lives on a boat, so she’s also, well, gone.”

“That’s kinda cool, though–nearby?”

“In the Mediterranean.”

He let out a low, quiet whistle and Ruffy lifted his head a second, put it back down.

“Yea, left with some idiot she met at a gaming table. She likes to gamble…”

“Huh, my dad likes to gamble but not lately. He drinks too much to gamble well. But he makes good art still.”

“Why? Oh, never mind, sorry.”

“It’s okay. She was climbing, on a narrow path in Idaho’s Rockies–after visiting her parents–and slipped, fell. My dad, he hasn’t gotten over it, I guess. No one has.” He touched the red yarn bracelet with his fingertips, put hand over heart. At his neck hung a cord with a black stone she hadn’t seen before. He caught her glance. “Obsidian, it grounds me more.” He touched her hand. “Nice ring. You might like pink opal- it helps heal.”

She bit her lip, breathed in and out slowly through her nose, it always helped.

Jax saw her then with a sweeping look: her open face; her hands which she used to talk; her bare feet, the square toenails –and fingernails– free of polish. Eyes that did not look away but noted him, too. He let his head lower and he watched the dance of flames. The soothing fire crackled. The adults’ talk had begun to be only a low drone, and they heard beer cans fizzing as they opened one by one.

“It’s stopped raining,” Jax said.

They got up, opened the door to press their hands against the screen door that remained shut.

“The perfume of it all, you know? So fresh out now,” she said.

“Yeah, good, isn’t it?” he said as he pushed the screen door wide open.

Ruffy followed them out the door as Chris, Garth and Kath found an easy lull in the conversation. They watched the young people; Kath nodded at her husband and he smiled back.

“Thanks, you two, what life savers,” Chris declared with beer can raised high. “Welcome to Lake Menatchee. Come by next week for the first bonfire of the season.”

“We’ll be there,” Kath and Garth agreed.

Jax, Iris and Ruffy were down the lake shore by then, skipping stones, Ruffy chasing them into the water. They later sat with knees pulled up on the dock and watched the sky. Venus blinked and shone, Mars took its reddish flare to its usual spot. The sun slipped lower and lower, then there appeared as if by magic brush the tender colors of a stormy day ending, the vast silvered and navy dome above waves rushing and hushing, trees swaying, and soon the air seemed lit with rose and coral and hues so delicate, so entwined it was hard to know where one left off and another began.


Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Neighbors and Strangers

Ellis was not a neighbor watcher but, nonetheless, she stared out her windows more times than she could count. Her mind was on a netherworld-like pause, somewhere between cottony oblivion and sleepwalking auto-pilot. Why not set her body down, more rag doll than efficient biological organism, right on the desk chair in her back bedroom, or frayed floral wing back in the living room, or schoolhouse wooden chair at the kitchen table? She rotated: morning at the kitchen chair; afternoon at wing back; and desk chair in evening before flopping into bed.

Five weeks with no work. The seconds had ticked loudly in her head at first, small clicks that grew louder, then minutes and hours began to beat away, giving her a headache, until they ebbed and flowed with a swish, a flow without direction that still refused to let her go. Ellis was on a sailboat with no wind and no recourse. This thought made her perk up a second. Sam Towne had taken her sailing last August and she’d imagined it a beginning of something. It was–a friendship that was loosely woven across two hundred miles. He had called every other Thursday. Week-ends he’d been out and about. Not so now with the virus snaring their lives. Sam already had worked remotely and felt guilty he had paying work and she did not. He called less now, though he was at home like she was.

Only a few called at all–a couple old friends, her father, a cousin across town. Her ex-co-workers, never. They were work partners, never lunched or gossiped together. She was the boss then. Now they all were without a job.

She hadn’t loved her manager’s position at a large jewelry store. Ellis appreciated the product yet daily tasks were monotonous, customers’ relentless demands were taxing. Her paychecks eventually afforded her the 975 square foot frame house. It helped her even now feel better. She’d fallen in love with it at first sight four years ago. She could still wrap herself in its natural good ambiance despite a lurking depression.

Now she stayed in bed awhile, let her eyes take in first light as it spilled through sheer ivory curtains. The old maple’s branches gave up two or three robins that trilled, hopped about, flew off with stealth and returned to resume their singing. Ellis watched the leaves unfurl–the tree was that close, close enough to scrape the window in a thunderstorm, to offer shade in summer heat, and to cast a pale green sheen over her compact room as the sun took the sky into its arms. Sometimes this made her cry, all that brilliant new sunshine, but she couldn’t think why…it just all felt tender.

This morning after two slices of toast with cream cheese and a coffee, she had checked her neighbors’ yards. It was becoming the usual routine. The one to her left was quiet at first, then Heidi came out and whacked away at a rectangle of grassy dirt with a hoe. It had been decades since she had seen anyone with a hoe–her father had used one to break up, turn over earth to plant flower bulbs for her mother–and saw that Heidi was making a garden.

At the edge of her own trim back yard was a low stone wall, and then an alley, and beyond that lilac bushes primarily lined the perimeter of Genevieve’s wide, deep lawn. Except that there was an open space and a low gate set between two oaks. A pathway wound through Genevieve’s yard, and Ellis could see quite well much of what went on if she stood close to the wall or sat on it, looking past the gate. Which she did when she walked around. Genevieve didn’t care, it seemed, though she never beckoned exactly but nodded at Ellis, her pale face a smile of an aging goddess. She and Alf lived in a smallish mansion (albeit crumbling after 100 years). But the older woman didn’t get out much even before the pandemic. Another man came and went. Ellis thought he was someone who helped them out, and then a nurse, too, for the husband, she was sure of that.

Lately in daytime Genevieve sat at her patio table with a book, her wide brimmed straw hat shielding her face. And also her cat, Tucker, who stalked a bug or other invisible prey in the lush grass.

Ellis took the plate and cup and set them in the sink, then considered more cleaning. She held up her hands, spread her fingers apart. The ring on her right hand turned so the glittering sapphire was face down. She took it off and put it in a pocket. Her skin was cracked from constant disinfecting, the scrubbing, the attempts to hold every germ at bay. It was becoming a war. She felt battle fatigue already, to her dismay. Sapphires and platinum meant nothing.

She wished Sam Towne would call again, then almost spontaneously called him. Instead, she played an album of old standards and browsed through a home and garden magazine until she fell blissfully asleep.

******

Heidi had never gardened before. Well, she had helped her mother with an herb garden, so she did know a bit about those plants. But she wasn’t a great cook–not like her mother–and the thought of failure hit her in the knees, making them tremble. She gripped square-palmed hands about the hoe tighter and scraped and dug into the topsoil. Surely she could manage to plant a few seeds. That was the main goal now: make sure they had enough food. Her daughter must not be deprived of fresh vegetables and she was not going to the store every week, exposing them to the terrible virus. It had taken four weeks for five seed packets to arrive. When Heidi had checked on the order status, a notice appeared that no more orders would be taken. They were so backlogged that the company couldn’t keep up with demand and deliveries.

It was tiring. Not just the surprisingly sweaty dirt digging, but the way life had left them in this spot. She had been hopeful about that teaching post in Indiana but in these times that was no longer an option. She would stay where she was, then, and make the best of it at the private school, teaching online classes. Who knew how much longer the term would last? They hoped until June. Then she had summer off, as usual, then hopefully when fall returned….but it was too much to think on. Whether or not the country would be safe and healthy enough. Whether her ten year old, Marie, who stuttered when anxiety increased, would stay strong with her. Well, it was up to Heidi, of course, to make things secure. And a garden would be a good way to shore them up in all ways. You fed people and they knew you loved them well, her mother had said. It worked, Heidi knew that.

Yet her mother had loved her brother better. And look where Mason had ended up: Nova Scotia, as far away as he could get from them all. Far from most of the havoc that was wreaked on everyone else’s lives, it seemed. When did they last talk or email?

Marie had taken to sleeping in on week-ends. Heidi did not. She believed if she kept to her routines, starting laundry at 8 o’clock sharp, making coffee while soapy water swirled in the washer tub, making eggs for them both after she finally awakened her daughter, and so on–if she was diligent, nothing could come apart at the seams. It was ritualized living, a spell said against a negative outcome, and she hoped beyond hope that it’d work. Because she was starting to feel soft at the center, as if her abdominal muscles were going lame despite a half hour or more of yoga each afternoon.

Marie opened the screen door and let it crash behind her. She had a fashion catalog in her hand. She liked to browse even though she knew she could ask for nothing new. Maybe not until next fall.

“You find anything good in there?”

“Naw, it’s the usual dumb stuff, leggings, ankle jeans. I have all that. Maybe a jacket.”

“You have two spring jackets.”

Marie shrugged and folded herself into the hanging egg chair suspended from the ceiling of their rectangular covered patio.

“What are you doing with that tool thing?”

“I told you I wanted a garden.”

“But do you know how?”

Heidi stopped her labor and stood with hoe handle cupped in both hands , her chin resting there.

“That never stopped me from doing anything. You can learn things as you go.”

“True, I guess…maybe call Grandma Jean? She has the green thumb, ya know.” She held the catalog close to squinting eyes. She might need glasses, she wasn’t sure, but was saying nothing about it. She flipped the pages. “We could Zoom her tonight.”

Heidi picked up the hoe and worked harder, sweat accumulating under her faded denim shirt collar. Her mother. The woman of many careers. Now there was a person whose luck just got better. What a surprising business, her herb sales soaring as if customers thought little green things might redeem and save them. Heidi’s grip held firm and she put her back right into it and the soil gave way. At the damp end of an hour she saw things were progressing, after all. She imagined food coming from warm dewy air and then serving it up to Marie with a whistle, a jig and a hug. Musicals, she thought, her lost destiny, and laughed aloud.

Heidi heard her neighbor’s door swing closed and looked over at Ellis’ house. The yard was empty; she must have come out and gone back in. Why didn’t they talk more? Now that Ellis was home for good. For now, anyway. The woman was quite pleasant, a cheery greeting at yard’s boundary when she was home–she used to fly off to various trainings and gem trade shows. Must be hard staying home. But Ellis was not that approachable. Even Marie said so, and she could get anybody engaged in a good chat.

She took a seat beside Marie and peered at the bright leggings on a page. “We could get one pair,” she said.

Marie put her hand atop her mother’s dirty one and stared at the freshly turned soil. “Naw, I can wait. Before we know it, we can wear shorts.”

******

Within a lemony warmth spread over walls and floor of the solarium, Alf stirred in his wheelchair and looked at Genevieve longingly. Not that she could see him. He’d join her, but first he just wanted to look.

Genevieve was the most beautiful woman he had ever met when he was twenty-one, and that had never changed. Tall–taller than his five ft. ten inches–and willowy, graceful to the point of seeming less human than most, and her straight blond hair cropped at chin length, her ivory skin forever smoothed in sunscreen…she shimmered. Her words still came to him as they had from the start: liquid, warm, rich with deeper meanings as her alto voice slipped into ordinary air and jazzed it up. He was in love just like that and he never fell out or away. Even when he suspected she was smarter than he was–it added to her allure.

Genevieve was less enthralled with him at start. His potential, she said, was amazing, and hopefully he would follow his great instincts and dream beyond the usual–his dream then was to become the best something in the city. So he made lots of money as a stockbroker and wasn’t happy. Neither was she; her tastes and material wants were not terribly elevated, though her heart and mind reached higher. She kept painting large canvasses from seven to noon each day; it helped her discontent with her narrowed vision, his disappointments. So he tried out a pubic relations firm, became VP, and that was barely closer to what he longed to do. But what was to come next? What was his calling?

After a heart attack at forty-nine, he left the PR work and began to dictate into a machine some story lines for mysteries. To pass the tedium of halting days and a burden of too-long nights. To distract from his severe failure to remain a specimen of health.

Soon those jottings became stories. He asked Genevieve’s opinion as she was far better read than was he. He trusted her. She found the weak spots and magnetic aspects, suggested character strengths, weaknesses or quirks he might add. She smiled more. She became his happy shadow in his study, plying him with herbal tea and lemon poppy seed scones as she gradually worked alongside him in the afternoons. Those stories turned into books–he simply had a knack for it. And he was finally content. And Genevieve found her way to selling paintings, a show here and there.

Then came the stroke at 73, and it swept him off his feet and landed him in a cave of grief. He wrote nothing–for that matter, he spoke almost nothing of any kind of value– for seven, eight months as he worked to make his various appendages move in a less tentative or spastic way, to create strength out of little, and mental and spiritual plenty out of such paucity as he had never known. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, shuddered at the heap he had become. His legs never got as well as he wanted. he sat more in the wheelchair than he though he’d allow of himself. But surrender sometimes is best when you are clearly on a losing streak.

Yet there was Genevieve, talking with him, helping him. reading to him, painting and humming beside him as he adjusted to the wheelchair. She was not a sentimental woman despite pale beauty or considerable other assets. Every time Alf thought to give up–what good was he to anyone? how could she even bear his presence now? what stories were left in the wide world to share?– she told him no such thoughts were allowed to park in his brain cells, only the knowledge that he would go forward, and find the good in each day, in every hour. It sounded nuts. But they would grow old together, and now the process was well underway, and only a few complaints.

So, he’d learned how to write again and he had another book coming out. It was about them, their love and smarts more or less, with a crime or two tossed in.

She turned then in her chair on the patio, one hand holding her hat in place. Her hair was kept golden, cropped close about a lined face; her figure was still narrow and tensile, at ease in the world. Basic good health clothed her though she was slower than last year in gait and sparser of hearing. She didn’t care; she was still pleased with their life. Even though his books sold a bit less well and the house was not quite up to standards for a place that took up half a block, lawn included. They were entirely at home with each other and generous surroundings.

They could care less that they had to remain in place due to the pandemic, though the terrible loss of life and the mess of politics were points of head-shaking woe every day they spoke of it. They might stay well, or they might not, and meanwhile they lived.

Alf raised a shaky hand, half-waved. She waved back, her hand moving like that of a beauty queen–though she’d scoff at such a foolish picture. He wheeled himself close as she poured two glasses of iced tea. April might seem early, but it was iced tea as soon as it was sweater weather.

Alf took a long draft and then held her pale blue eyes. Tucker lept off her lap with a meow, lept onto his then left very fast to chase a bee.

“I think we might entertain more,” he said.

She cocked her head. “Entertain? How might we manage that, darling Alf?”

“You know, invite people closer, serve tea and food, maybe something good Clive can cook; he cooks four days a week, anyway.”

Her right eyebrow rose in a gentle arch and she murmured, ‘That’s true. He’d not complain of a few more now and then. But we have to remain apart, you know, socially distanced. Quite a lot of distance, Alf, remember? Hard to hold a group conversation that is not around a table. Or the fire pit.”

“Still.” He wheeled himself farther out to the patio’s tiled edge, almost halfway to the large fire pit where they used to gather people every week-end. Long ago. He gestured across the alleyway. “Those two. Three, I guess. They watch us, and we watch them. What are they called?”

Genevieve got up and went to him. Hands then rested on the wheelchair handlebars, readied to push is needed.”You mean Ellis and Heidi and her daughter….Mary or Marissa…no, Marie, I think. You’re suggesting we have them over here?”

“We might certainly do that. We can stay in our chairs on the patio to eat, while they can come in the yard, enjoy a small spring table well laid. We can still chat at the requisite number of feet–six is it now? Or they can stay at the edges, back here by the fire pit, enjoy its glow.” He looked up at her. “I miss other people sometimes, don’t you? We had such fun.”

She patted his shoulder then walked toward the lilac bushes and the gate at the alley; looked over the stone wall of Ellis’ and at the child with Heidi, her mother, then walked slowly back again.

“Extraordinary idea,” Genevieve said. She tapped her upper lip twice with a long finger, a bent elbow cradled in her other hand, a habit of hers. “I like it.” She leaned down, planted a kiss on a bristly cheek. “Let me think it over more. Come up with a plan. What a surprising person you turned out to be, Alf!”

Alf had heard that many times and it always filled him up with a warm humming. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath– the perfume of nearby cherry blossoms came to him, and cinnamon from the iced tea he had propped in his lap with his better hand, and her signature scent of lilies of the valley. And Genevieve smelled these, too, and the faint tang of sweat from her husband, and she laughed softly, thinking how fortunate they had been. And she felt it like a miraculous thing, a blessing amid the worst of times.

******

They all met there once a week thereafter. Ellis brought masks that they sometimes used, other times tucked into their pockets. They were never too close, always counting mentally the feet between them– yet never that far away, just placed so they could hear to share ideas and swap vignettes, even dumb jokes. Marie instituted a “show and tell”: they had to bring something quirky, interesting, or of real personal value. They felt safe standing like that in the evening, sitting apart around the fire, Alf and Genevieve seated ehind them but pitching in thoughts often enough. The savory and sweet foods they took turns making were satisfying, and the night air at once invigorating and calming. If it rained, they missed the time with each other but stored up more talk and searched for odd things to bring, items that told of their lives and wove more stories.

It was the best they could do, considering, even much more than Heidi and Ellis imagined possible a few weeks before. Or Genevieve and Alf. Marie wondered what took them so long, but she never said that to any of them, not even her mom. She knew adults had to take their time to figure things out right. But somehow she knew the oldest of them, Alf, as welcoming as her old teddy bear, had been the one who got it all going. Genevieve, too, but she was like a worn silk scarf; it took a little time to get comfortable with her, and then you were glad you did.

As they talked to one another more it felt as if they were becoming friends. The best things could come out of weird, scary times, Marie thought, and she couldn’t wait to wheel Alf around the block when the world got better.

Wednesdays’ Word/Short Story: What He’d Longed For

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Oscar took the rosewood-grained pen into both hands and turned the barrel over and over. The fine golden accents on cap and hefty body shone under the warm light of his desk lamp. He leaned back in the swivel chair with its worn buttery leather, and stilled the impulse to turn in it, side to side, as he mused. He needed to think without the usual distractions. Before him rested a sheet of grey-blue stationary, smooth and hearty enough for his pressured, rapid penmanship. His supply of writing papers was replenished a week prior, but the pen…it had been in his possession for thirty-six years. A gift, and one that did not diminish in usefulness or elegance after all this time.

It had been on his mind from dawn to midnight to write the letter ever since word had arrived from Addie. It was two days ago that he shuffled through the mail, then once more when realizing he’d had a glimpse of spare, careful handwriting, almost calligraphic. At first he thought, Another invitation to someone’s christening or wedding or who knows what else, and would have tossed it aside awhile. But there was something about the handwriting that brought him closer to the script, then held it at arm’s length to look again. To take it in.

The address label stated: Adelaide P. Trussman. From Wisconsin, of all places. The first name, yes, he got that, not the last–who else did he know with that name? No one. That place or the reason for the dispatch, no. It took him several seconds to entertain the probability that Addie–the Addie he’d known during college days, pre-law days– had written to him thirty five years after they had last communicated.

He took it to his desk immediately and stood above it, hands flattened on desktop keeping him upright, heart pounding. And then he did nothing more with it. But paced back and forth on the tattered Persian rug by his desk, glancing with each pass at the envelope as if it was a strange and risky thing to even cast his eye upon.

He then assembled a thick ham sandwich with white bean soup for dinner and sat in the long dining room, the two white candles that he usually lit staying flameless. The food went down fast, unremarkable but tasting like nothing and he wondered why he’d bothered, he was that unnerved. He was a man who indulged his appreciation of any sort of meal, and his girth testified to such, though his height was significant, as well. But he felt slightly unwell after eating.

And sleep failed him more than usual. Every time he closed his eyes he saw her: shoulder-length, ashy- blonde hair, as she herself had called it (rather than “dirty”, she’d confessed); medium-slim figure attired in her standard white button-up shirt and snug jeans; and her head thrown back in laughter, wide mouth revealing slightly crooked front teeth that showed up readily–she often smiled and laughed, with anyone or for any reason, he’d thought. Then he dropped off, unable to recall more, only to wake periodically, unsettled.

And then, on the second day after its arrival, he took his time reading Addie’s letter. He sat in the bright spring garden, and afterwards he stayed there a very long while, letter pages fluttering on the bench beside him.

And read it three times more.

Now he sat at his desk in a ruminative mood, jumbled feelings capsizing inside him. This was the day he would respond.

My dear Addie,

That was quite too familiar, wasn’t it?

Hello there, Addie!

Too casual, almost rudely so. Like John Wayne in a sexy, aggressive manner.

Hello my old friend,

That might be thought presumptuous. Were they really such great friends that one short final year of undergraduate school? Despite the fact that they fairly often studied together, shared a meal at least two times as week, went out with their buddies to theater and concerts and met up afterwards at various dwelling places to keep the party going? And got closer near the end? Not as close as he wished, but enough to linger inside his mind.

He pulled out a journal he used to write drafts of various things and on a white page he wrote with a cheap ball point rather than the fine fountain pen.

Dear Addie,

That seemed best. Keep it a cleanly simple and correct greeting, one that could be passed over without a pause.

It was indeed a bit of a shock to find your elegantly addressed envelope among the usual suspects of disposable advertisements and rancorous bills. It is seldom that one gets a real letter these days, much less arriving from someone from the past, like a ghost arising from the pedestrian and quiet landscape of life as I do live it.

Was that too much? Too revealing that he lived a more solitary life than he’d planned the days before or long after law school? He left it and kept with the momentum; he could edit later.

Your address label announced that you reside in Wisconsin, apparently a small city unknown to me. That was cause enough to look twice.

No, that would not do. It had the grating edge of criticism, even a minor threat of scorn now he thought it over. A small city in Wisconsin–as if he was shocked and in a distasteful way. Well, even if it had felt close to that… he was born and bred, now well established in the city wilds of Chicago–but wait, he did recall she loved the country. She had grown up on a ranch–Idaho, he thought–the first thirteen years of her life and had told him she missed the countryside and honest work of outdoor chores. So she may have found her Shangri-la, or close enough.

He drew a firm line through the sentences and began again.

First, it gave me pause that you are not living in Idaho or Massachusetts, after all. But Wisconsin must be a place you well enjoy; you missed more rural spaces even though you planned on being a lawyer. You did end up practicing law, too, and you do so no doubt well and diligently. This is the very good news. I practice, as well, as you must have discovered, and am now a partner at Longham, Wright and Levison. I still have to check that it is my name at the end of that line. It goes well. But perhaps we can discuss our work another time.

He reconsidered and crossed out the last line.

Oh, he’d be glad to talk about law, skip the rest, the less said that was directly personal the better and easier. Yet, in fact, that is what he longed to do, as well–talk about their last year, how much enjoyment was shared, how he’d longed to hold her much closer than a fast squeeze as greeting or farewell….well, not that, of course not, he’d not now say that.

I am glad to hear from you…was he glad, was that the word? Began again. Plunge right in feet first as Addie did, may as well get to it and get it finished. She had asked to reconnect. What did that mean in this day and age?

I was honored that you thought of me in this time of upheaval and loss. I knew you had married, of course, as you also learned of my decision to wed Jeanette, yet years absent of communication have created a yawning gap in knowledge of our experiences. My marriage lasted four years. It was meant to end from the start, perhaps; I realized I am at my best on my own and my life is full enough of events as well as my work. And Jeanette was intent on more hours spent solidifying her career in emergency medicine. Our lives rarely intersected. But we left each other with a decent, even kind farewell. And no children to bear the brunt of the ending.

I come back home to peace and pleasantries alongside my mammoth, somewhat stately cat, Titan. It is a good life I have made. I don’t regret our marriage but I do not harbor misgivings, either. I am, to my surprise, a man at my ease most of the time.

And it can get quiet enough to hear those long whiskers twitch some days or nights, Oscar thought, running a hand over forehead and balding pate. But he’d said what he meant. No sense embellishing or telling her lies.

It seems as if you have had more happy times than trying. Bruce sounds like an admirable man, someone with whom you experienced many joys as well as usual life challenges over thirty years of marriage. I’m saddened for you–that he was in the auto accident, that you lost him in such a devastating manner. It must have been harder than anything you have faced in your life. And to go on, to consider an entirely different array of elements that must now fill and reshape your life.

Was that hinging on maudlin? too personal?….Did she even want him to comfort her or was he imagining that? But he thought he felt her intention, that she need someone to talk to who also knew her back when. That shared history can matter more in hard times.

He considered it: snowy weather, icy roads, another driver fast out of control, an unavoidable hillside. Too much. Oscar would not revisit it in the letter despite wanting to know more. Was there an investigation or was it that simple? She had stated the bare details plainly and then only said she was having trouble with widowhood. As if one might ever find it not terribly troublesome. He could not imagine, not really, what she felt. But she didn’t sound as if she was drowning in tears. Well, it had been over a year. Perhaps she had gotten over the worst of it.

She had two adult children who cared about her, “a blessing, although they both live on the west coast and I see them only a three or four times a year,” she wrote. “But I have the beauty and sweat of hard work. You know how much that can fill up time and diminish any random need for more.”

Well, he didn’t have much need for more. But he could see that she did. It was a shock to lose her Bruce and now there was daily drudgery and longing as she remade her life alone.

Or so he speculated as he read between the lines.

You had said you would like to rekindle a friendship.

Oscar’s heart raced a bit once more. He stood up and shook his body out head to toe to calm himself, walked to the window. What was Addie writing to him about, in the end? A check -in after thirty-six years of nothing? They’d had something small, really not much, a warm friendship that mattered more to him than to her, he had been certain.

Outside were the huge oak and maple trees, expansive garden flourishing with its vivid carnival of blooms and texture-rich green plantings, the two benches he’d placed here and there in order to read, to meditate, to doze. He adored this home on a half acre. The historical brick house was too large, perhaps, but that didn’t bother him. He liked his meanders through the high-ceilinged rooms, appreciated the tidiness and the pleasing Shaker furnishings, enjoyed a sweep of views from each light-filled window. And Titan would pad behind him or overtake him, then disappear until the next mealtime or if he felt like rooting at the foot of the bed at night. If Oscar went outdoors, the luxurious cat would streak past to claim a cozy spot under a bush or at his feet– if not inclined to chase something else moving.

It was the most basic scenarios which gave him comfort after arduous and engaging long work days. Well, that and a good sherry; great literature or a fast thriller to entertain him; so much music to hear that he’d not be finished with it in his lifetime; an hour’s horseback ride at a welcoming stables twice a month for the sheer pleasure of learning something new; meeting with friends at the golf course whenever he was so moved. A satisfying meal three times a day. He was privileged and he admitted it to himself, and the way he felt better about it was to take pro bono cases, too. And he gave a bit of advice on the Community Free Legal Connection line.

He shook his head; he had drifted way beyond letter writing. He got lost in his ways and means, not hers, but it was good to reevaluate what he cared about, too.

I would like that. It has been so long since we shared any thoughts, it might take quite some time to reconnect. We both have full schedules and commitments to attend to, but I am thankful you let me know of the passing of your husband …but also that you are managing, anyway. It helps to have community such as you describe, with potlucks and farmer’s markets and many events for people to gather for celebrated or mourned occasions. And your important book club–that is a boon after all the years you have known the participants. We must not forget MahJong–there’s a game to engage you well, even back in college. (I haven’t yet learned it.)

Was he acting poorly? Brushing her off? After all this time…

He had wondered for years if she might turn up in his life one day, even in passing. Imagined that it would be what he had hoped as a young man, and might even culminate in a romantic and impassioned embrace. Or perhaps more. Love. Much to his embarrassment later, he’d shared that with his closest friend Grant, right after Jeanette, and Grant covered his smile with a hand and probed less. He knew it would take time for the dust to settle, his friend offered without unkindness.

Oscar was not the type for fluff or fuss, Grant told others if asked, but was a good-natured and well meaning man, a gentleman who could get a tad rowdy if encouraged, and simply brilliant at the law. And, it went without saying, supremely content as a bachelor–most of the time–while not averse to meeting with smart, like-minded women with which to share experiences. And that was close to the truth. Oscar could take intimate company or leave it; more often he left it as the years passed.

So, here was the moment Oscar had fantasized– and he was extolling the virtues of her new…independence via widowhood? Ghastly of him. Was he just a commitment-phobe, as a few had hinted or outright accused?

No, a resounding no. He was committed to living the life that he chose. It was not what he’d first anticipated by this age, but it had turned out well.

He put ballpoint to paper once more.

I am glad to offer support as you continue to sort things out. Since, as you know from the past, I have long appreciated the art of letter writing, I am glad you reached out in this manner, as well. We surely have much to catch up on and it pleases me to think of time well spent doing so. Such a correspondence seems an extraordinary thing to undertake in these virtual reality-mad times.

Please let me know if this is something you would benefit from and still may like to share. Until then, I sincerely hope you will find the coming months opening to more fascinating possibilities that help close the profound gaps the loss of your husband has created. I am certain you will.

You certainly deserve all the best in your life, Addie. I have always thought so.

Warm regards (and gratitude that I still use your graduation gift, a beautiful thing),

Oscar

He looked over the draft, made a few more changes, then picked up his rosewood pen, uncapped it and let the ink flow with his meticulous words onto the fine stationary. It was a joy to use his tools of correspondence, and more so in response to Addie. He had waited a lifetime to do so once more. But if she didn’t want to just write letters… well, then, he’d not be the one to fuss over a lost opportunity. There would eventually be other people, other letters to write thoughtfully with his cherished pen.

After he was satisfied with the pages, he slid it into matching envelope with a slow sigh and left it in the lacquered tray in the table by the front door. He patted it, then went to the kitchen to prepare fresh salmon he’d purchased earlier in the day, Titan scurrying at his heels.

Wednesday's Words/Fiction: Rough Cut

They said she developed a powerful swagger after the fire, and not the sort that may bring pleasure to the eye. She had grown up fast since the fire that attacked her family’s tinder box of a house and left it ash. It took over three years for her to learn to cope at all with the loss of her younger brother and parents. It would take a lifetime to figure ways to live with and beyond it. No, the way she took up a space was not a welcome but warning, long legs moving forward in near-gallops, feet planted so hard the ground wanted to shake them off. Her arms swung rhythmically; her head, set above those Coverson broad shoulders, had chin up permanently in public, and once- sharp but dreamy eyes half-closed to survey any thing or person which crossed her path.

At nineteen Renee, known now as “RC” around town, rarely answered no matter any name called out by peers. Her presence gave off an air of having lived very long already and she was prepared to fight it out from there on. People avoided her quick tongue once she gave in to a casual conversation; how to answer someone who had suffered much yet brooked no fallibility in others?

It was a jolt at first. She’d been the Coverson family hope of a different future, the girl being smart and kind, hard working. After the fire, she still attended school but barely graduated. Her English teacher found her work often impressive but disturbing, yet gave her all As. Otherwise, she skated by, waking up in a cloud each day at her Aunt Dee’s house and met the hours with a long stare, like a rusty wind-up robot. When her aunt got her up and dressed, she just went on for lack of anything else to do. If her hair went unwashed and her clothing bore signs of an overdue cleaning (despite Aunt Dee’s tireless efforts), who cared. No one judged her back then. They were sorrier than they could say, but didn’t know what more to do much less talk about with her. So they watched her change from promising and sociable to closed, sad, even bitter. After high school, most lost much interest. RC was who she was; life did things to people.

Then Renee Coverson came down the street one day in early spring, dressed in usual plaid shirt and torn jeans and her mother’s worn boots–boots of her mother’s. When she entered Maddy’s Fashions, customers were surprised. You couldn’t avoid looking at her, either; she’d been touched with her mother’s exotic aura of beauty. They seldom saw her around, as she avoided unnecessary social situations since her family perished, including shopping done alone, at least.

“RC, hey,” Jana said from behind the counter, her mouth left hanging open.

“I need a dress. Something kinda dark, longer skirt, easy. Size 8, I guess.”

She plunked down a credit card on the counter and stood with hands on hips and feet apart, surveying the racks. Jana looked her over discreetly, considered the inventory. It was most all spring prints, light, airy, elegant or snazzy. Years ago as RC was growing up fast every one worried she’d end up being the one all the guys wanted. Now, it was a different story. Jana got married, so no big deal to her. And the guys were afraid of RC’s history which she carried everywhere like an invisible cape, with dagger.

After lots of shaking of her head, RC selected a maxi cotton dress with small scoop neck, a green-black color with a little cream–it was a viney print. It looked large for her, Jana said, but RC entered the dressing room as three young women whispered to one another, eyes watchful. Two other shoppers arrived. They surreptitiously waited to see if RC would come out in the dress. To their surprise, she did.

Renee Coverson looked in the three-way mirror, eyes narrowed as usual. She smoothed the fabric over her lithe body, slowly turned. You couldn’t say it was a terrific fit, Jana confided later to her best friend, as it hung too loose, was an odd length and the shoulder seams sloped off a bit. But with that thick, deep coppery hair, RC’s eyes opening wider, her pale muscular arms appearing, a curve of calves winking between boots and hem–well, it somehow looked very good. Forest green and ivory vines draped gently over a honed body so long hidden that no one knew what she looked like, anymore. And now that they did, the shoppers fell silent.

RC spun around, both palms up and glared at her audience.

“What are you all gaping at? You don’t have anything better to do with your money and time? It’s just a dress; I’m just me.”

The room was full of lightning, that’s how Jana described it later, and people pulled right back. RC vanished into the dressing room, came out with her old stuff on. Murmuring, the young women turned to each other, full of new gossip. Jana took Aunt Dee’s credit card, despite it not being quite right to do so, and the dress was Renee’s.

She took the bag and turned back to Jana. “Thanks. You aren’t so bad, you know?” then pushed out the door in a terrible hurry again.

It wasn’t a smile she had offered Jana. But it was still something. Maybe RC was coming back to a more ordinary life. God knew that the conflagration her daddy started was the worst day of RC’s life… or ever would be.

******

RC, RC, RC. that’s all they ever call me. Did they forget my real name? It gets on my nerves hearing it.”

Aunt Dee looked up from potatoes she was peeling, then handed to her niece, the lettuce to tear up.

“It’s been a nickname awhile now, it’s only your initials,” her aunt said, her low voice going soft. Though she did know that was a white lie.

“Only since seventh grade when Rene James moved into town. Why didn’t they just call her RJ instead?”

“Maybe because you never objected. Or…”

“Never mind. That was then, this is now,” Renee said, tearing up the iceberg leaves, tossing them into a bowl. She grabbed a carrot and another peeler. “I’m Renee. Period. I need to do something about it sooner than later.”

Aunt Dee had heard once what RC really meant: “rough cut.” The young brats in town had started that, likely the boys, after Renee had changed into a brittle, grief hollowed girl. Rough cut: a major tree trunk sliced up with a serious saw and then left unfinished. Not pretty wood that was finished. Her brother Johnny, Renee’s father, had been a woodsman, eking out a living selling cords for fires in winter and snowplowing, and crafting furniture, or doing special projects for renovated houses of the well-off. Rough cut, a way to designate the sort she came from, perhaps. Not a good term for a human, not a fair one in this case. Her niece was better than that, more like teak, mahogany shined up, fine wood waiting to be made good and lovely once more after too long gathering dirt and dust.

She wondered why now she did it, got the dress. Two days before the anniversary of that horror of loss, she could hardly bear to think of it–Renee had gone out alone to get it done. Something about how she wanted to commemorate it for once, she mumbled. It spooked Dee. Her niece never wanted to make a note of it, refused even to visit the graveyard, instead going off to the woods for hours as Dee worried. And then she’d show up at the cabin, calmer than usual. But set apart, so alone.

“You like my dress?” Renee asked.

“Sure, but I’ll like it better if I see it on you and know what it’s about.”

Renee turned and leaned against the sink, pulled her hair back and slipped a rubber band on to make a ponytail. My, how she looked like her mother. Evelyn. A strong but too long suffering woman who took care of Dee’s alcoholic brother best she could, and what a wearing down sort of life it was til the end. It made her bones cry out. Dee shook her head.

“What’s up, Renee? What is going on lately? You’re up, down and more mysterious than ever. But you seem less angry.”

That was taking a big chance. Never talk about feelings if you could help it, the family motto. Since Dee was a teacher’s assistant, she’d had training and knew how to listen and to coax kids, and maybe that was why Renee talked to her a bit more over time. But they’d been overall good Renee’s whole life in many ways; after the fire, they got used to each other more, then got more trusting and their bond was nothing to trifle with, as her Russ used to say.

“I’ve got a plan, Aunt Dee. I’ll let you know about it soon. We stick together, bread and butter, right?”

This childish statement so touched Dee that she stretched out her arms to hug her but Renee didn’t respond in kind: paring knife and peeler in her hands, chin jutting a bit, eyes narrowed just enough so it was like shutters being pulled to again. And then she sliced up a tomato fast, chopped the carrots faster. And asked about salad dressing choices and if they still had sliced almonds.

Okay, then, perhaps tomorrow. Dee put the pot of potatoes to boil and hummed, ignoring her niece. Tucking away her heart, a wounded dove hiding in a thicket, waiting to heal up more.

******

If there was one thing Renee loved, it was dawn. It was the possibility of a new start each time, and that was what she needed to bear life. She had long awakened early, gone to bed late, and that pattern still felt better than most things. Aunt Dee lived only a half mile from where her own family had lived, yet harder to get to when it snowed or stormed. The roads were gravel the last bit to the cabin on a low hill. It was snug against forested acres like her parents’ had been, but here it was deeper, thicker, full of wild things that she might see if she was patient. Darker at night and greener by day, especially after winter.

She’d run here countless times when her father had been slobbering drunk and belly aching or, more rarely, swinging clumsily, then slumping over in inconvenient places, kitchen floor or the shed or the roadway when it was five below. She’d been at Aunt Dee’s that night, helping her with canning and then Dee helped her with exam study questions. That was not unusual; she was told she should not feel such heavy guilt every single day. Renee could hardly think at her own chaotic house, after all, Dee had said once, and then regretted it as the words were true but stung.

If she’d been there then. If Kenny, her brother, and their mother had come with her as Aunt Dee had suggested. If her father hadn’t drunk too much, built and lit a fire in the fireplace haphazardly– then spilled that damned whiskey bottle. It was finally determined by sheriff and firemen. Renee had already blamed him. She knew he’d been in a black out, took them with him out of the blind neglect that came with the powerful sickness.

Out here it was empty of all that, and peaceful. She craved it from the start. Uncle Russ was a kind man, only given to a beer now and then, then he was sick with cancer, gone when she was eleven. Only her harried, overworked mother’s needs even kept her at her own house. And her brother’s hunger for her attention, which she gave him as she could. She’d often felt guilty about wanting to leave but took off, anyway.

Still, she had risen at dawn there, too. Before he had awakened. Before Kenny asked her to take him with her. She needed that half hour. To breathe. To see clues of God. The creatures slinking about in shadows, then softening illumination of day. To just be herself, her own small, searching and more hopeful self. Blessedly alone. And now she was, that was one certain thing. Except for Aunt Dee.

And so in the morning she once more threw off light quilts and swung feet over the edge of bed, rubbed her eyes, pulled off bedclothes. Got into the bathroom before Aunt Dee beat her to it and then dressed. Opened the back door as silently as she could, then sat on the back stoop, knees pulled high, chin propped on her palms.

From there she could see it happen, a slow flare above treetops, navy sky doing its magic brightening, seeping watercolor hues a report of coming weather, birds chorusing, all things coming awake with her, scrabbling in that way that soothed her ears and filled her enough to go on. If not for the stealthy arrival of each dawn, she would have lost her mind and disappeared in the forest for good long ago.

Soon she would do what she’d planned for six months.

******

The calendar date marked came, the one Renee Coverson had dreaded and avoided commemorating for three years. But not today.

One with gray hair cut short and one with a burnished braid and an understated dress moved in expectant quietness through musky forest following a worn, rutted path.

Long ago Dee and Russ had hacked out the two mile route to gather kindling or search for dead and down trees to cut up; visit the west meadow and pick blackberries and wildflowers; run their beloved beagles or any other dog they took to–and it was comforting to trod, as she often did alone when Renee was gone. Sometimes they took it together but not much during snows, which finally had abated.

Her chest was drumming with anticipation as they wound deeper into pine and spruce, oak, ironwood and birches. Renee took the lead decisively, her stride steady and long, energy increasing the moment they began. She wore her backpack, bulkier than usual, over her new dress.

“Slow down, what’s the rush, we have all day,” Dee puffed words out as she picked up her feet faster. “I wait three years for you to join me for this date and now you may leave me behind…”

Renee stopped and frowned at her aunt, then inclined her head and gave a slow, small smile. “I’ve been waiting, too, I’m impatient, Auntie.” Then she took Aunt Dee’s arm. They tried to sync their steps and finally managed it..

“What is going to happen when we get wherever we’re going?”

But Renee said nothing more. It was quite enough that her arm was laced through hers.

In the meadow, a brilliant light had painted the land and its vegetation golden and emerald; it pulsed with life, itself. Dee wanted to sit in newly sprouted, greening grasses. Listen to the meadowlarks for hours.

“We aren’t there yet, keep going,” Renee prodded.

At the northern edge of meadow land there came a narrower path half-overgrown by vines and grasses. As they entered groups of tall trees again, the younger woman steered the older toward an opening that was filled with dapples of sunniness and shade.

“Cover your eyes now,” Renee half-whispered,”I will lead you.”

When Dee was stopped and instructed to stand still with eyes shut, she heard her niece open the backpack, then rustlings and steps here and there. She almost peeked but knew better–it had taken so long for Renee to come to this point. Finally, she was allowed to see.

She gasped, and hands flew to her mouth. She reached for a tree trunk, braced her weight as her head felt light.

Renee stood close by and Dee looked more. There in the small clearing among elegant birches stood a perfect tiny pine house. Perhaps two by two feet, it had a roof and windows and a doorway open to sweet air and light. With a partly open back, it about resembled a doll’s house. But it was not a doll’s house. It was a replica of a most ordinary simple house. Like her brother’s family house.

There, intact in the woods.

Dee knelt down in the dirt to look inside, eyes stinging, and Renee joined her.

“What on earth… Renee—how?”

“I made it.”

Aunt Dee studied the good proportions, clean corner and smooth edges, the neat, flush nails, then at Renee. “You did this? How and when?”

“I got a few supplies from the garage last summer, yeah, from our old place…it was hard, but anyway, I stored them in your smallest rundown shed of yours, hid things behind junk. Uncle Russ had tools, too. I waited until you were gone for long periods a few times. It wasn’t that complicated. But I have very slowly worked on the people who stay there…and just finished yesterday, so I could bring them on this date.”

“You have skills, and it’s wonderful, what you have done here…”

She saw then the wooden figures Renee had just placed, each in a different room, standing or sitting. They had jointed limbs. Narrow faces with clear hand-drawn eyes, line mouths. Just sitting there, apart. Not quite smiling but not grimacing. Again came a hand to her mouth as she held at bay tears, unwilling to mar the moment with her sorrows, which lessened by the moment.

“Yes, I have basic skills and ideas, so I just did it. It was helpful, I guess. To hammer and cut and put things together. To remember– but make something clean, new…know what I mean? To try to make it a little better than it was. But we did have some love, we did….”

Her face had begun to alter as she spoke. Anger melted from her– tension released her smooth lips, narrow creases eased from her brow. Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at the house, then into the woods, and finally at Aunt Dee. It was as if Renee was coming to, even finding it okay to look at life full-face more.

“Yes, I think I understand.” Dee got up from the damp ground.

Renee reached inside the back of her miniature house. She picked up each figure, then arranged one after the other in a circle, in the room at the front of the house. They stiffly faced each other, mutely obedient, and then she made the pegged arms and legs touch lightly.

She and Aunt Dee were still, too, arms linked. Benders Creek rushed downstream behind them, a jay screeched and took off, the red-winged blackbirds gathered in the meadow and carried on. They took in the creation that sat among trees, sunlight warming the constructed pine building, its few rooms brightening, the four figures resting in sweet symmetry.

Renee bent to pick a smattering of periwinkles and marsh marigolds about their feet. In the center of her pine family gathering, she placed blossoms. Aunt Dee bowed her head as her niece laid her hands a long moment upon the roof, placed a tender kiss on the sun-touched front doorway, then walked off, lanky body easing into sunshine, soul lighter with each step, new dress swinging above her boots.