If it hadn’t been for my chocolate hunger leading me astray, I’d likely not have run into Gabby Montague. As I pushed open the door a little bell tinkled gaily above me. There were my objects of desire and I made a beeline for them. A cottony murmur of voices under soft lighting swaddled the space then rose to high ceilings. Walls were dark blue with old floral prints. Tables were here and there with wooden chairs that were wicker-backed and -seated. I disliked wicker a lot but aromas drew me deeper inside.
So many choices: cacao from Peru, Ecuador, Madagascar, Trinidad….I licked my lips. I was a shameless consumer of dark chocolate but usually bought whatever was available. I certainly lacked insight into the various noted shadings of flavors.
“May I help you?”
I looked up and paused. Was this man speaking to me smoothly really a movie star laboring to pay rent? His eyes were bright; his perfect lips betrayed slight amusement. There was a wedding band on that finger. He was calm, poised.
“Not a clue. Maybe you could pick two of your best sellers for me?”
“Bars, candies or drinks? You may sample, too.”
“Chocolate drinks? I might indulge, let’s see…”
I studied the calligraphed menu behind his head but had trouble focusing. His hair: auburn, glossy and abundantly wavy. Three feet away yet his skin exuded sandalwood and cedar.
The bell rang again. In rushed a swirl of taffeta skirts accompanied by brisk tapping of heels.
I tuned to look but not before I saw Movie Star’s face brighten, formidable teeth flashing in the direction of those heels.
“Hey Gabby!” he sang out.
“Donovan!” she said, husky voice somehow light, sweet.
I latched onto her name as a tingle rippled over my spine but my focus returned to sumptuous displays before me. “Well, Donovan, how about two of your favorite bars and a black coffee.”
With chocolate from Peru and Ecuador in one hand and a coffee in the other, I turned and nearly stepped on black pointy toes, the hot liquid splattering her hem.
“Gabriela Montague,” I announced.
“I am she.” She tossed a cascade of fake silvery curls and raised a dark eyebrow, earrings jangling. “You are?”
“I’ve been meaning to contact you.”
She nodded, smiled. I nearly forgave her for a moment. Who could resist such bright energy sparking that charming cafe?
“I’ll get my card.” She scrabbled inside a gargantuan purple bag.
“Don’t bother. It was your tarot reading that sent my sister over the edge. She left with that feckless man. You’re a terrible advisor. The power you wield over naive fools is a power that banished my sister from a–a–a benevolent universe. She is, for all intents and purposes, ruined!”
I hustled toward the door as Donovan called out, “Wait up, you didn’t pay!”
“Let this quack Gabby Montague pick up my tab!” I shouted back.
“Hey, she’s my wife!”
“Not surprising ! May your futures be very interesting!”
After I ate half of Peru and two big bites of Ecuador, I was calmed by instant delight. But I decided to get over my addiction to dark chocolate. At least for awhile. Of course I did not return there despite the awards its product racked up. Gabby might have felt a smidgen of regret. I absolutely did not. She was a real case. People’s doings were sometimes beyond my ken–and I, for one, was rather good at that sort of thing.
Corbin never once felt a simple passing desire to have or even hold a cat. His aunt had had cats, numbering past a half-dozen, she didn’t really keep close track of them. He certainly didn’t bother. His visits were all about his cousins each summer. He enjoyed the boisterous company of two boys and one girl who lived the country life on a small farm. Corbin lived in a tidy cottage in a small city three hours away with his school teacher mother, and a month’s visit was an exotic vacation. He began to wait late winter for the thaw and then forsythia and crocus and finally the first intoxicating waves of late spring heat that heralded school’s imminent closing.
At Miller’s Farm there were three kids, a father who was his uncle– who actually talked to them straight up– and an industrious, sturdy mother, his aunt. He loved his aunt but he sometimes loathed the cats she adored. Mostly he was avoidant though tried to be neutral, which wasn’t so hard since they roamed outdoors and made themselves useful. But they were known to creep inside to wreak havoc now and again. Every now and then, though, he met up with one under sudden circumstances, as when he daydreamed in the hayloft. His body half-lift righted right off his cozy spot as the crazed animal jumped on him. The large black and white mouser swiped him on the nose, leaving it sore, oddly itchy and bloody for hours. That took a few days to heal and left a deep, small scar. had he resembled a mouse or bug as he’d enjoyed his rest? Did the cat lack the common sense required to avoid a boy’s enraged smack at its vanishing tail and behind? Corbin from then on was fully alert when he saw a whisker or a tail or heard the barest echo of a meow. He usually got at least three scratches a summer, anyway, and a nip or two at bare ankles. He washed and washed them. Aunt Lou covered them with snug bandages as he was convinced he’d die or go delirious from cat fever. She only shrugged and patted his back.
“You’d run if you even saw a cat shadow,” Marty teased, holding one of the creatures out to him.
Marty was heading toward burly at twelve; Corbin ran sometimes from him. But the cat scrambled out of his cousin’s arms to seek whatever it was he sought.
“Naw, not true, I just avoid their claws and teeth, which means keeping my distance.”
“I bet when kittens come again you won’t even want to pet one, you never do, not even the fluffy sweet ones,” Fran sniffed as she passed by.
Ott laughed, gave him a raised eyebrow. “Cat hater, huh?”
“They don’t like me!” It was as if he was committing a crime to not like–much less adore–felines. “I like your pigs fine. I like the chickens, mostly, and Clarence the horse–and goats the best. Lots of stuff.”
“Goat Man!” Marty shouted and grabbed his arm to give it a shake, which was a good sign as they were all headed to a field and he was never left behind. Corbin was a good pitcher. They played ball awhile and climbed trees and the topic was forgotten for the time being.
But when the next batch of kittens did come, Aunt Lou tried and tried to get him to cuddle a tabby and gave up only when he shrank way back, stifling embarrassing tears. Later she apologized but shook her head at him, as if he harbored some strange streak in him. But he was her only nephew, her only sister’s son; he was a good one, she and her husband, Ronnie, agreed. Good for him to be out of that city.
But that was the thing he did not look forward to when he visited his relatives. Everything else was so different and fun it was hard to say farewell after July 4th. His mother came to spend the holiday, which included a delicious pig roast, more bonfires and a spectacle of fireworks for starters. After three days or so, they drove back home.
And the cats did not mar his memories, they were no longer an issue. He was satiated again, full of the warmth and simple happiness that a kind aunt and uncle offer, and the bond that is built when cousins sleep, giggle and freak out in small tents all night, gather eggs for sunrise breakfasts, see night decorated with a gazillion stars and trees loom and shimmer with firelight, and also when hunting squirrel and rabbit (not his favorite but still) and suffering a lick of skunk spray (they had unbelievably lived to tell of it–afterwards it was a small legend around those parts). The sizzling thunderstorms were something that resonated in his mind forever, too, taking over the landscape, the house vibrating with it differently. It all marked him in secret ways.
Out there spectacular forces reigned. The cats were a footnote. Growing up changed some things. But not the essence.
“Fran, you’re really doing it!” He held the phone between cheek and jowl as he finished wiping down the counter top after dinner.
“I am, it’s taken me four years to save enough for this trip and to take the time off. Two weeks of heaven along the Seine and exploring Parisian haunts and wonders I’ve read about so long.” She sighed with delight. “But I’ve an issue I need you to help me resolve.”
“Ah.” He often got these calls from people, mostly family, sometimes friends. It was as if he was their helpmate in a pinch–being single, childless, pet-less and living a quiet life teaching at the university. As if he had not only spare answers but spare time or cash or whatever else was needed. “I can’t water your plants from this far but I would take you to the airport, I guess. Depending on day and time.”
Silence. He could hearing an intake of a long breath, and a brittle tapping as her long fingernails got restless atop the coffee table. Fran had grown up to be a successful business owner, cupcakes and specialty cakes, and he often wondered how long it took to get frosting from beneath those pretty nails. But that was Frannie, full of contradictions he always liked. She lived an hour away but they got together every two or three months and there were the calls.
“Out with it,” he said, rinsing the sponge, tossing it into its holder.
“Okay, then, take Henry for me.”
His laughter was fast and rich. Of course she was kidding. “Okay, what do you actually want?”
Silence again. He imagined her frowning, eyes narrowed. “Take Henry. That’s it and please don’t reject the idea out of hand. He is not one of those bad cats, you know he is a prince, and you and he get along. Overall.”
“Henry– here? You have to be joking, Frannie. I would no more have a cat here than I would–well, invite a crocodile in! You know I distrust cats, I do not have the nature to sympathize with their ways, nor inclination to change my view. I can bear them now, but only just. I–“
“Yes, yes, Corbin, I know they scared and aggravated you as a kid. You’re now an adult, and I’m your cousin and I have a critical need. Corbin, this one time! Mom would rather not as her gout is really acting up and Dad, also not great, said he’d just turn him into the fields to fend for himself–“
“Henry can make his way out there fine.”
“No, he’s an indoor cat only, you know this.”
“Fran, I have enough going on with my classes and I am dating a little and I still wear a blasted two-inch scar on my forearm after all these years.”
“But not your nose or chin or ankles. I am asking you because I can’t really spend extra money or incur the risk of germs at a pricey cat hotel, and I really have run out of options. No one else is able to help me. I leave in three weeks. Paris, Corbin.”
He knew there was no way out of this one. He truly wanted her to go on her trip, she deserved this beautiful vacation. But what did he do to deserve Henry? How could a cat-loather welcome a cat? She was foolish to imagine he could do this.
He felt the heat of her desperation, too.
“Alright, I’ll give in this once for the sake of family– but you owe me, big time.”
She screeched, they made arrangements, said goodbye.
Corbin stared out the window, hands in pants pockets, full of regret. The cat was not his family. Why couldn’t she take ole Henry to Paris? Henri might have found love, just stayed on and on.
Henry was becoming gargantuan at just nine months–even as he sat (in that detached way of his sort) snug in a corner of the sun room. This Corbin had forgotten, the weight and bulk of him. And he looked similar at a glance to another type of cat, with ginger-colored tail about nearly a foot long, a torso lengthening to a couple of feet, and that Sphinx-like head perched atop bright chest of white. His back was mottled white and ginger, his paws mostly white and huge. Corbin thought those paws could climb mountains, and held an image of him stalking all that passed within ten miles of nose and ears. It was wild, that’s why; it had to be. Frannie admitted it had been feral the first weeks of life, than climbed under her car and camped out, even took a ride underneath the frame once to her horror. And that all made him hers.
She had worked to socialize him and had been moderately successful, she said. Henry no longer felt compelled to attack in a savage manner as it had the first four months. Corbin had met the beast a few times, greeted it with a wave that betrayed a flicker of trepidation–he didn’t turn his back on him. In response, the fledgling cat had regarded him with snobby disdain, barely sliding against an ankle their last short visit; Corbin had been prepared, so didn’t jump. But he only dared let his open hand run over his sleek back as he went out the door. Fran told him this give and take indicated they had acknowledged and even welcomed each other and so all was well.
Well, she was the amateur cat whisperer while he was a bystander with self-interest as primary.
Henry turned away from Corbin’s stare. Instead, he watched a fly buzz at the window, suddenly leaping three feet high to deftly smash it with a paw. Then he watched it writhe on the wood floor before batting it about and giving it a cursory sniff.
Corbin grimaced and left the room. Time to make his own dinner. The cat might get his can opened in a while but he must not disturb the brazen hunter.
It was 5:45 in the morning and there was an annoying scratching at his bedroom door. Not that cat already. His “Intro to Medieval Life” class didn’t begin until ten. He’d been up late reading Owen Sheers and his head felt clogged with cotton after barely four hours out in. He turned over and pulled a pillow atop his head. A thump commenced at the door, one-two-three thumps. What was he doing, throwing his body against the door? For what? Pancakes and sausage? That was what Corbin liked on Thursdays, it was a happy habit. He turned over again, threw the pillow at the door where it slid down into a yielding heap.
He watched as a big cat paw reached out and snagged the edge of the pillowcase, pulled it closer through the crack. Not that the pillow could squeeze under there but the sheer gall of that! The case would be sliced by those killer claws. He got up, composed a fierce face, opened the door fast and Henry ran downstairs. He smiled to himself , returned to bed.
At 7:00 the thumping commenced once more. He stifled an urge to yell. No sense giving in to an animal that was no taller than his shins. It was only a cat, hungry is all. He threw on his sweat pants and descended the stairs.
Henry sat on the dining table, tail swinging off the edge, and the thought of cat germs was too disheartening. He grabbed a bright pink emergency spray bottle and lightly squirted the leonine body with cool water. Though Corbin backed up in anticipation of a frontal attack, it worked. Henry leapt like an acrobat, up, up and out and landing on his feet, then sprawled in repose, looking at his host without blinking. Corbin started on the pancake mix, heated up a small skillet for sausage and brewed coffee and smiled. Sunshine poured through the window above the sink and the cat was lying on the floor by the door. Score a first point. Maybe he would let him out later into the back yard. Just for a feline look-see, a taste of the real world.
One third of a sausage was added to cat food. A tasty bribe worked wonders with creatures. Henry liked it so got a tiny bit of pancake which he ignored.
Corbin left for class early. Best to let cats inhabit their cat solitude. He had the relief of people awhile.
“Corbin? How’s my Henry?”
“He’s asleep by the fireplace though there is no fire. It is nearly spring.”
“He’s probably bored. Do you talk to him? Is he acting depressed?”
“Good grief no, he is fine, he’s napping. How is Paris?”
Henry yawned, stood, sidled over to him and the phone. Corbin did not offer him a chance to hear his owner or to speak, so he appeared to eavesdrop. The cousins chatted a few more moments. Before she could tell him to give Henry a hug, Corbin hung up with a cheery goodbye.
“Your mistress misses you. Now go lay back down, tiger.” It half-scared him to hear himself talk to a cat. He tightened his lips into a line line and got busy doing chores.
Henry tilted his head; his ears twitched before he briefly leaned against the human leg, then streaked across rooms, hunting something Corbin could not identify as anything at all.
Henry was missing. This occurred to Corbin around bedtime. It had been three hours since he was last seen. Did the cat sneak out when he took out the garbage? Cats cry out when they want to be let in, don’t they? Like dogs. Let him hunt insects–he seemed good at that–and root around for grubs and such. He continued to read students’ papers, engrossed for once. At 11:00 he headed for bed, remembered the cat. Shrugged. He sank onto the mattress, turned on the reading lamp, reached for his pillow to fluff. And got sliced by a swift sharp knife.
He held the left hand with the right, close to his chest, blood streaming. Henry lay back and groomed himself. The blood was more a very fine trickle, but the small gash was open and red as he raced to the bathroom to get a clear look. He swabbed it with alcohol and found an old Band-aid, all the while cursing softly at the mad animal who had usurped his pillow, And supported his belief that he and cats were essentially enemies. As before-not capable of being friends.
Despite his cooling anger, he had a quiet talk with Henry.
“You cannot sleep here. It is my sanctuary, not yours. I own this house, you are a guest. Not even a paying guest. And you cannot scratch me. If you must be here, you absolutely must get way, way over there. Or on the floor, yes. I prefer you to get out but don’t want more violent confrontations.”
He picked up the cat with both hands–he was so heavy it felt an effort– and clumsily tossed him on the other side of the bed before another wound was incurred. Henry gave a protest, jumped off the bed and padded to the armchair which he occupied instantly but not for long. He looked about, found no more victims, and slipped out the door. Corbin got up to shut the door tight, leaning against it.
“Little monster!” he said to the darkness.
The light was turned off. He did not sleep a long time; even his face covered with quilt, just in case. He dreamed of hot dirt and hay, of cats’ tails like shadowy snakes on walls and mice scampering for their lives, his feet following them.
In the morning, they greeted each other with the barest nod. Henry’s was more a twitch of whiskers as food was offered. Corbin dashed off to class and was glad of it. Only for Fran. Never again.
On Sunday they sat outside as it had begun to feel like spring. Corbin held a tall glass of iced tea despite a chill and hint of rain on the breeze. But nature was fast transforming, clusters of daffodils a bloom, two robins zipping about with songs to spread. He had a world history magazine on his lap, unread.
Henry was dazzled by all that lawn; he chased whatever had wings or tiny legs, chewed on grass and flowers and gagged a bit. He scampered about the edges of grass as if he was playing tag with another of his kind. For an hour he ran about and showed off that lean long body and shiny fur, then cleaned himself thoroughly, more like preened. He had to be fixed, didn’t he? He drowsed under the oak tree.
All this Corbin viewed behind sunglasses. He was delighted to wear his favorite warm weather attire, sip chilled tea and he wished he’d invited Cecelia over. But not with that cat here. At least not unless he behaved better.
Henry scampered up a tree in search of feathers but no luck, the bird had other plans, flew off. He navigated a half-slide down.
Corbin shook his head. What a predator, an alpha cat. He drank to the beast– but ho hum, what a lazy day.
Corbin was sick. Not a hangover, not the flu, sick with something big enough to make him want to lie down and die for two days. Might have been the lettuce, where did that come from? Did the FDA forget to test that field? Farmers, he thought, ought to be paid more but be more careful. What would Uncle think? Or was it a common student plague? He hung his head over the toilet bowl.
Henry lay on the bed, dozing. He was getting hungry. He was also waiting for Corbin to come back around, things to be normal. He got up, sauntered to the bathroom, lay flat upon the cool tile floor and watched, listened, waited. He returned to that spot after running downstairs to get water from his bowl and lay his head on two paws until Corbin glanced over at him.
They stayed put awhile.
Time passed and they were both in bed, Corbin with his arm flung over his eyes, Henry with his body curled up on the pillow next to Corbin’s. They slept–Henry took breaks elsewhere–and said nothing for another 24 hours.
Finally he resumed teaching. The cat sat in his beautiful way on a window ledge and saw the man leave, and liked everything else after that; it entertained him an hour or so.
“Corbin, I am on my way to the airport, darn it. Mom isn’t handling things well since Dad’s bleeding ulcer sent him to hospital so I’ve cut two days off. Home tomorrow. My brothers are so far away!… isn’t Paris far enough? We’ll get some dinner when you collect me at the airport. How is that Henry?”
“He’s fine. Sorry you have to return now, and to hear about more health issues. I need to see them more. I’ll be at the arrivals curb.”
She gave him details and he hung up.
He felt a slight spring in his step as he prepared a dinner serving for Henry. Soon: once more alone. Then he ate his turkey burger and salad, even offered a bite of meat to the cat, but Henry was so picky. They finished, cleaned up and the less-wild feline sat calmly until Corbin took a seat in the sun room to sip a coffee. Corbin reached to pat the furry head and Henry began to purr very softly as he trotted along, tail swishing.
Corbin whistled quietly, a thing he enjoyed. The cat kept sliding a glance at him. It occurred to Corbin that he might like to sing, too, but was too circumspect to do that. He soon was distracted by a tidy line of ants that made their way across the white painted wood floor.
“Henry, this is it, you’re now going back to where you belong.”
They were in the dining room where Corbin had paid a few bills and Henry had chased a fly until it gave up and then ate the whole thing. At least Corbin thought so– he looked away at the last moment.
Henry meowed a little, something he did at times if Corbin spoke, more often if he was hungry, wanted to be outside, or was bored or heard a weird noise or for no discernible reason. He raced to Corbin and,with an elegant slice through air, landed in his lap. Corbin’s arms flew out and he leaned back so that their weight was just balanced on two legs of the old oak chair. The cat rubbed his head on his chest and forearms, purring.
The other chair legs it the floor with a thud. “My gosh, stop leaving fur on me, not dignified behavior,” he said, arms still hovering, hands flapping.
But Henry settled on his lap. They paused like that until Corbin picked up the silky body and held him close just a second. Released him. No damage done but this was the end of it.
“Okay, let’s get that Frannie.”
Breathless and waving, she rushed to her cousin’s sports car, face rimmed with weariness and wide with happiness. She looked livelier than ever despite the long flight. He got the luggage. She grabbed Henry’s cage from her seat and sat with it on her lap.
“Hi, you two! How is my Henry? I so missed you–you would have loved Paris!”
“Take him next time. He was pining away, bored, irritating and needy. Back to the cupcake shop with you both! But we got by.”
She laughed in relief and murmured to her cat.
He looked over at Henry who gave him a good stare with a slow blink. Corbin slipped the car into first and took off with immediate speed. Henry gave a sharp meow then purred as he ran his rough tongue over Fran’s pearly fingernails.
It was an odd, fateful accident, all that resulted from that day, and it started with running into George in the middle of the day on Mimosa Pond’s path. She’d been to the bank, going over her woeful balance with a teller. After it was shown to be still in her barest favor, she took time at water’s edge, walking and gawking with deliberate pleasure. There were silken layers of southern floral fragrances in the air that half-spooked her. It didn’t seem quite right although she knew better. Her latest home base in Idaho was under a heap of snow. Tennessee held a different scent altogether.
She needed such moments away from her mother, and to practice experiencing the relief of small pleasures. The past month had not been a choice string of events. Anyone who had lost a job would not fault her for a swear word derailing her thoughts. Even the sweet green light of early spring did little to cheer her. She refused to budge until her mood lightened. Then she might re-enter her mother’s cottage with the evening’s dinner groceries in hand and good news that she was not entirely broke. She endeavored to keep the full and bitter truth from her: it could be a slight month more before her bank balance became a total loss. Unless her art work sold fast.
The footsteps behind her slowed, then stopped. She registered the sound of gravel crunching and the pause of it but was busy examining a duck that looked as if it had mated perhaps with a random crow. Pretty thing. Yet it had a duck’s bill and way of dipping and floating; it had not made a sound yet. It had plenty of company, unlike herself since arriving in town.
A husky voice made murky by duck squawks and a riffling waterfall came through her reverie. She stepped aside as if used to being in the way when others approached. A bad new habit since her humiliation.
She looked up because the person said it right, the “Mari” syllable not mispronounced as “Mary” which strangers inevitably said, but rhyming with “far” as it should be. She was “Mari” to friends–but this man couldn’t be one of the two or three holdovers from twenty years past. Could he? They’d all moved elsewhere, as had she.
Mari blinked; her eyes slid over his face. “I am. And you are?”
“George,” he said, “George Hartsell.”
A frown rippled over his tan face then vanished. Maybe it was a few day’s beard growth that darkened his jaw and cheekbones, an almost swarthy look; he was not recognizable. He looked taken aback that she didn’t know him right off and rocked on his heels a little, studied the ducks, waiting.
But Mari remembered enough. Her second best friend had been chummy with him and so they’d all done things together from time to time. Rita wasn’t serious about him–she was serious about no one. George was always in the background, though, and brought about when she was bored. Mari thought her capricious and a little mean but he didn’t seem to mind. Studious, with a quick wit, he was nice to her–that’s what she recalled. He’d been slight, a tad awkward, and companionable enough.
“Oh, George, sorry! I think we maybe ran into each other at the ten year reunion? Nice that you remembered me, and from a distance. What a surprise!”
“I wasn’t there, sorry– in Italy at the time, I think. It’s okay. But you don’t look so different. Same auburn hair, tall, lanky. A bright presence, overall, still.”
His lively look held her gaze a moment–he had certainly gotten tall somewhere along the line, too– and they smiled at each other with some embarrassment, which she could not decipher.
“Well, so how funny–here we are. I’m back …to tend to my mother. She had a bout of cancer and is on a slow mend. Never thought to find myself back in Tennessee. Just here a short time to make sure she is healing and doesn’t feel too alone. Though she has doting friends and, of course, the church.” She picked up a stick, tossed it into the water where it floated away with no destination. “I don’t know, guess duty called.”
“The same for me,” George said and squatted, long black coat sweeping over dirt and rocks as he studied the water fowl. “My uncle is about on his death bed. He was like a second father to me when I was a kid. Haven’t seen him in well over ten years, so my father called and asked that I come. Of course, I also wanted to see him.” He tossed a rock with some force toward a land mass that mimicked a miniature island. It hit solid ground. He stood and brushed his hands off. “It’s sad, seventy-nine, he’s been very ill. No doubt you and I have other obligations. But, you know, blood family is, first and last, family.”
“Right.” She sighed. “Terribly true despite our best efforts…”
He snickered. They began to follow the path together, despite her desire to be alone before once more being immersed in the hothouse tenor of her mother’s place. But he seemed at loose ends.
“Mind if I tag along? I have nowhere else to be right now.”
Mari shrugged. “Tell me what you ended up doing, then. You were good with numbers and played the…trumpet?”
“Yes, to both. I’m in business, worked for an international company and still travel a lot. And I still play the trumpet for relaxation.”
“Not a big surprise. You were–are–good at all you did.”
“Thanks for that.”
She had forgotten how and where she had heard him play, but she knew Rita, a drummer in a garage band, said he could be a jazz musician one day–he was that natural a musician, so creative. That was one reason she hung out with him, that tie with music. Not that Mari was averse to it. She just had had little satisfaction pursuing piano so quit at twelve.
“You know Rita became a nurse, married a dentist and moved to Atlanta.”
“I didn’t, no. Hope that worked out for both.”
“It did, I suppose,” she said, deciding to not tell him she had no idea what had happened since 2010. Losing track of old friends happened so fast. And now how to tell him the state of her career?
“I am or was part of a large, booming gallery–the director. Boise, of all places. But I have long been an artist. It just didn’t pay my rent.”
“You are or were a gallery director?”
She stole a glance at him but he was staring across the pond so she kept on, uncertain how to answer. His arms were swinging, matching his long stride; they moved in sync when his right arm brushed against her left. Instantly, a mini-shock of warmth, that tingle of one person touching another. George touching her, accidentally. He slowed a little, turned back to her, ready to hear her story.
“I am, but I’m on leave. It’s a long saga. Not too interested in telling it. I am re-evaluating.” A laugh came out too loud and hard, bounced around a thicket of trees.
“We’re never interested in spotlighting tough times, just remarkable ones, right? I’ve had my share. I cannot imagine your not being a fine artist, Mari. You have such talent.”
There, he said the more familiar name. It sounded good to her. “I was sure aspiring to be one. Making work much less these days.” She turned and put hands on hips. “Okay, none in four months.”
They had looped around the entire pond and stood near the parking lot. He took out car keys. His alert grey eyes held hers more than a moment, and there it was. An unmistakable recognition that went a little deeper, barely. A tentative, unexpected connection. o, she was imagining it, wasn’t she?
“I have to get going, but why not join me for coffee tomorrow?”
She wanted to say: what about a wife, maybe I have a partner, too; what about keeping it formal or maybe just keeping the heck away? But she felt that he was alone. They both wore a lean, wan look tempered by surrender to their chronic but comfortable solitary state. They had stopped expecting anything to work out. They were savvy and they had also given up. They were fine like that. Mostly. She was almost broke but that was another issue, more or less.
“Alright, why not? About ten?”
“Jana’s? Where we once sucked up too much bitter black coffee-before it became so terribly gourmet and pricey!”
That brought forward memories of forbidden cigarettes, heavy white mugs of rancid coffee in shadowy back booths. But she already had misgivings. As he found his sporty car she realized he was attractive in a slightly asymmetrical, curious way and carried himself with easy confidence. George had grown right up, become a man of the world, a doer of things. And she was tired of that sort. In fact, she was steamrollered and worn out by all men. And George was just another, albeit one with a fine woolen overcoat and light beard, and an attentive, affable manner.
The door jingled its small tarnished bell just as it had all those years ago. Assuming it was a newer bell, but maybe not. She surveyed the scene. Jana’s Side Street Cafe had new charcoal tiled flooring and rich blue walls but otherwise seemed the same. The booths were still dark red but sported upgraded fabric.
Mari had told her mother she’d be a couple of hours and would bring home her new medicine. Tammy’s breast cancer had responded well to treatment; most of her chest was yet intact but this was the second bout and at sixty-three, she had been forced to retire from the library after so many months lost and too much weakness. Even if she had reported to her desk, it was time to take back the life she had left, she had told her daughter. She’d worked there thirty-four years.
Every time she looked at Mari she was filled with gratitude. This made Mari cringe with shame at the secrets she was keeping from her, and the fact that she found it hard to be there more than a couple weeks. They had not been very close during her youth; they had not become any more intimate with the passage of time. But Tammy was even more the optimist now, oddly, so kept trying to pull her closer, while Mari retreated more. For every kind hour there were those prickly with irritation, the subtle and often mutual criticism they tossed at one another. They had changed in opposite ways, it seemed. It frustrated them yet they never spoke of it, just carried on, each in their proscribed roles. Only now Mari was a caregiver, not the one aided. So far. She wanted to keep it that way. She liked her independence, her lifestyle. Still, her mother was her only mother. She loved her.
George waved at her from a sunny side booth; the favored back ones were filled with college students from the Baptist college. You could tell from the studied neatness and serious gleams in the eyes.
“Hey there,” she said and slid into her side. “You look more normal today, I have to say–and rested.”
Henodded. “I was getting over jet lag. Came from Columbia, then the Bahamas.”
“I see, tough life.”
That was an actual tan, then. He was clean shaven, wore a green T-shirt under a jacket with lots of pockets, safari-style. He smelled unusual, like cedar or the sea or a mix. Mari felt overdressed in tailored black slacks, high heeled boots and a teal cashmere sweater. She had met with a gift store manager earlier, giving her a sales pitch.
“I had business, forgive my cultivated look. I tried to push my nature prints at Nance’s Art and Knickknacks. I am trying not to cringe as I say that… hard to explain.” She felt her face flush so signaled a waitress.
George said nothing; he appraised her with eyebrows raised as cups were filled and cream brought.
“It is just that I have to keep making money on the side. I don’t know how long will be here and the job–it won’t tolerate my absence for long, and I have bills still coming in and–“
“Any good success at Nance’s or did you hightail it out of there?”
The vowels had relaxed already, just as hers had; the south was creeping in enough that they’d have to watch it or get sucked in to old habits of speech and behavior.
“Yeah, actually, she took four prints on trial. I hope they sell. I sell online, too, if you ever want to see what I do.” She played with her spoon, poured a heap of sugar into it, dumped it in, stirred. Her heat rate bumped up; she felt breathless. She just could not fake it to someone she had enjoyed and respected once.
“Hey, George, enough bull, alright? I was fired. I had an affair with the owner’s son and that was considered not acceptable as Joseph–the son–oversaw all accounts when his father was out of state. Which was at times for weeks, months. Charles Meier considered it overt favoritism and double dipping on both our parts when Joseph pushed my work at customers. I wasn’t even showing there, of course. Although business happened outside our gallery walls. And Joseph saw to it I got paid quite a bit and he got a nice commission and…well, not okay to Mr. Meier. So I was finally flat-out fired.”
“I see, you were both hustling.” George put an index finger to upper lip and pressed the indentation. He tried to not smile. “I guess it was a sort of ethics issue. Why didn’t he recommend you to another gallery or someone who could help without entanglements?”
“I don’t know. Laziness? He may have loved me?”
“Ah. Did you love him? Wait– that’s too frank a question, sorry. But I get it, he believed you deserved success. Plus he was smitten.”
Mari was stopped by smitten, how old fashioned it was and Southern it felt. “No. I mean, perhaps I was, but in the end it was more about the art…I didn’t separate the two very well. Love, art, men, business, work, art, love, life. It gets jumbled at times. It is not easy out there in the great art world, believe me. My prints and paintings are very good but so are plenty of others.” She lowered her face to the steaming mug and then looked up from under her eyebrows. “I took advantage of his contacts and interest, I admit it.”
He leaned back with mug grasped in both hands. “I understand some of this. I buy art.”
Her head jerked up. “What? Well, you make good money at your work, I can see that, so it must be great art you hang. What do you do? Your turn, George.”
“I’m an entrepreneur. I started out as an investor and did well fast, worked further in international banking and made a lot more money. Some years ago I got sick of working for others. I took my money and invested it in cutting edge tech industries of various sorts. Now I invest in others’ projects, businesses. “
Her mouth had dropped open enough that she made herself close it casually, sipped more coffee as she gathered her composure.
“Well, George Hartsell, we all thought you’d make it but more like an Ivy League mathematics professor or a ground breaking environmentalist, perhaps. I guess an entrepreneur is okay, too.” She let out a snort. “I mean, if you love it, why not?”
“It’s not a dirty word, is it? ” He smiled but his bright clear eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a plan to take over the world or anything mad. I just had this knack. I took serious risks.” He looked out the window. “You know, most people don’t recognize me in my old hometown. I get the urge to extend my hand but they look me up and down, pass by quickly. It is the smell of money, I suspect, and a foreignness I seem to carry now. It’s a weird feeling. My parents are glad to see me, of course, and had a dinner with a few of their friends last night. But no one seems to know what to make of me. I want to say, ‘I’m just George–I love numbers and innovation, that’s all! It also made me money!'”
“No one knows me, either, George. Or, rather, they know me but aren’t interested. I think they all know I lost my biggest job, anyway. And I make art, after all. Most of it is not the sort they’d hang on their walls. The nature prints are one thing–and I love doing those, too– but the rest…I mean, what is art to this town?”
“Maybe a primitive painting of a farm scene? Not that that is not worthwhile.”
“Yes, likely so and I agree. And the quilts my mother and her friends make are beautiful. But I am not a success in the typical way, not like you. And now I don’t know quite what I will do next.”
“Make more art, Mari.”
She checked his expression to see if he was teasing or being downright snide, but he seemed serious. His demeanor was even gentle.
Kayla the waitress– no one they knew– brought more coffee but they had had their fill and grew restless. The sun streamed in; they were drawn outdoors.
“Let’s go to the park,” he said and guided her out by her elbow like a gentleman well raised.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, “you do need to create so you can’t stop now. I need to create, too, just with different materials, using different avenues. I love the way the human mind can imagine and devise an vast assortment of ideas. I had my own dreams as a kid. I’m holding onto them as long as I can work it right. You can do the same. Should do it.”
They’d walked around the shimmering pond. He’d mentioned he was divorced for over five years and she’d said good for him, he was brave–she’d never even tried a marriage. He’d told her he was tired of travelling and had two houses, one in Wisconsin on a lake and one in L.A. and “a modest apartment in New York” and he’d like to stay put awhile. She wondered how simple or small ‘modest’ meant but just having three homes seemed entirely excessive. A bit interesting. They’d talked about art a little, what he had bought and who she admired and what her next project might be.
“I know. I’m not giving up. I just am taking a break and really have to make money soon.”
“Okay, you know what? I can likely help with that. Now, don’t start being negative or suspicious until we talk over some things. I have a week to hang around; we’ll come up with ideas, think it over well.”
He leaned against a tree and reached out to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from her eyes. She found the act lovely and natural. They both sensed there was something more underneath it all. They weren’t just two buddies passing the time of day to stave off boredom, catching up on old times, swapping stories to impress or garner attention. It was happening fast, but that didn’t negate the existence of something more stirring between them.
They liked each other’s company, had begun to click, even started to understand the direction and content of their thoughts before all the words were said. It was as if they had always known they might trust each other–when they were seventeen, more captivated by Rita’s boisterous energy?– but had put it aside and so now they resurrected the actual possibility.
Mari took a step backwards, then came forward once more as he carefully opened his arms. They stood there in the warm breeze, hip to hip and chest to chest, minds clarified, their hopefulness magnetic. Like they’d been needing such a moment a long while, and now they were meant to fit.
“Hey there! My gosh! Are you for real? Is that Marietta Masters and George Hartsell from the good ole, bad ole days? I can’t believe this–twenty-five years later!”
Mari said into George’s ear, “Good grief, that’s Tommy Jenkins, isn’t it! Balding and slouchy but no mistaking him!”
“Oh, no, not today if ever. Let’s get out of here, lady.”
George grabbed her hand and they ran around the bend of Mimosa pond until they came to his car, a vintage green MG. “Let’s head out to the country, what do you say?”
They had managed to leave the town a few miles behind when George shouted into the wind, grinning like a madman at Mari, “By the way, I already own six of your prints and two paintings!”
Mari smacked his arm as her eyes teared up. She wasn’t sure if it was the heady Tennessee spring wind that got to her or the sudden start up of actual happiness. But she did know her mother would forgive her for not sharing the whole truth. She would even cheer her on, then hug the breath right out of her and say, “Told you that all good things come to those who are just willing to hang on and wait, darlin’.”
The diffuse glow of light retreated into a cloud bank and hightailed it to a far off, more needy place. It was another piece of evidence that nothing was going right. He’d tried to ignore his mounting dread of another morning garbed in grey, then the afternoon battered with rain. But sunshine had won one round at noon before scurrying off, gave a generous showing as he stood outside the building door. He was trying with all his might to not smoke, partly because it set a bad example for clients, of course. But it was his only actual personal resolution of the new year. You’d think he might manage it–this was an addictions treatment clinic, and by now he knew a few things. But he advised himself that if bleak skies continued–honestly, that was likely– he was entitled to comfort of old habits.
Just standing outside, perusing the neighborhood with its abundant shivering trees was a solace but it could be completed by a smoke. Actually, it was the only reason to stand beneath a water-laden awning soon to unload, in the way of people at the doors. He should go around the corner; there he could take get in one deep, potent drag and he’d be good for the afternoon. He’d be able to work better.
Bargaining: he knew how this went. Bargain until one thing wins, the other loses.
“Hello Rick, catching cold yet? Waiting out the urge?” A quiet, clear voice. “Don’t worry, the best is yet to come along.”
Marianne swayed past him with a chuckle and quick wave, graying curls bobbing as if pleased to see him, as well. He responded in kind with an exaggerated yuk-yuk but his shorn long hair had nothing to add. New clients had often thought he was one of them, so it was time. Oddly, when he was in treatment twice, himself, he’d been clean cut, stood with shoulders squared and was often mistaken for staff. That was nearly two decades ago. Much had rearranged itself, not only his physical presentation. He rubbed his head to warm his scalp; should have put on his waterproof Aussie hat.
Marianne paused to peer back through the glass door, a flash of concern unsettling her open face and since he’d watched her enter, Rick smiled, authentically. Only she knew he was trying to beat nicotine addiction. At last. He had to tell her. Only she knew how dicey the holidays were, with family far away; that he’d decided to not go see his egregious father and overachieving sister. Only Marianne knew much of anything worth knowing, he sometimes felt. About the clinic, city, people’s innermost beings. And she was the office systems manager, far too loyal to the organization. Everyone looked to her, but it had taken her well over a year to get to Rick. Not that he’d been her project–she’d been friendly, as she was to all. He’d believed he’d sniffed out a wanna-be counselor behind the warm eyes–that made her suspect. They each had their roles; there was no time to waste. He was polite, too pressured to chat. He sure didn’t need another bleeding heart-listening ear at him. Not when he was surrounded by four good plus one fake and three slightly-to-more-askew ones in his team room. He had his own issues but he tried. What a business, addictions treatment. Love and aggravation, that was his feeling mash up.
Marianne couldn’t help herself. She was responsive and caring by way of deep instinct, not by trade. Nor education. Or even personal need. Everyone relied on her at some point. Well, Tommy, his cynical teammate, thought she was sentimental “to a fault, unfortunately, and prone to mistakes on office orders, and way too forgiving of our crazy clients.” The two men had cynicism a bit in common, but even Tommy at moments noted Marianne’s peaceful influence on the milieu. The hypercritical guy often taunted Rick with: “You have fully succumbed.”
“So what?” he’d say and then shut up.
Rick reached for the pack of Camels, then pushed them back into the pocket. He should have thrown them out. He should have bought a bag of hard lemon candies, should have not had three cups of coffee before lunch. But this was the way of things. Good intentions and follow-through about 75% when on a persistently positive streak.
He took in a a few refreshing lungfuls of winter-rainy air and re-entered the workplace: quiet to chaos in the crowded lobby.
“Hey man, you gonna sign that shelter voucher for me or not?’
“Rick, lookin’ good, we need to talk!”
“I’m here on time, why are you late? Lunch that damned good?”
“Rick, I can do that UA now…”
He made a beeline for the interior locked door, swiped his ID, then made for his desk. It was true, he was ten minutes behind schedule. Not too bad; he’d be there late, anyway.
At his desk in the white square cubicle he opened his files and got busy. Voices migrated over the air waves: therapists discussing a case, another on the phone persuading a client to call his lawyer since he had no say on assault charges. Tommy cursing his computer again. The man had a wicked sense of humor but the cursing started to clang and scrape inside Rick’s head after a few hours. The man was five foot five but had a voice like a cranky giant.
Documents opened on his screen, he focused again. Relief. He hummed to himself, an old Nat King Cole song. Though he jiggled his leg until it vibrated. Did he have chocolate? He pulled out a drawer. None.
“Tommy, easy, all will be well,” he advised over the cubicle wall. He could shape his voice to be as soothing as needed.
“Rick, you’re a bona fide ass, your computer always runs fine and mine is on the blink twice a week.”
“You likely broke it to get a premier set up. New one due soon?”
“So you say. Next week. Cope with my snarls as I do with your innocuous humming. What a duo over here, before you know it we’ll be doing a routine at the corner bar!” He screeched out a phrase of some rock song. Another therapist launched a wad of paper at him; it missed Tommy and landed on Rick’s desk.
Rick moaned, picked up his ringing phone. Two urinalyses right now, check. Then five clients in a row. Group lecture late afternoon, another in evening–what was his topic this week? Had to find one that kept even him awake. Home by 9:30. The voice mail light blinked red. He got up, strode to the office front.
“Man, I can’t go and if I can’t go I just can’t go. That’s the gist of it!”
“Sorry, that’s a positive. Or you can drink another glass of water and wait it out, Jazz.”
She turned her narrow, taut but deeply dimpled face up to his and the smile became a scowl. “Hey, why do you always have to give me a rough time? Been clean 2 months now, nothing’s going to mess things up, got me a spot at the tent park and probation is going okay.”
Her bony body barely filled her long sleeved, black t-shirt and sweats. She owned just a fleece hoodie as far as he knew, now tied around her waist, spotted with raindrops or food or other mysterious things.
“You’re a champ so let’s keep it that way for you and the PO. I know you hate the observed UAs so do what you have to do each week and all is well. Right? Right!”
He held out the clear bottle again. Her pupils looked too small. She held out a plastic cup for more water.
“You on edge this week, you tweakin’?” She turned, cup up to lips. “Turn it down, Rickie.”
“Thanks for the advice, Jazz. Let the desk staff know when you’re ready.”
“I know the drill.”
Rick restocked a few UA supplies in the deep closet before getting the next client when he felt rather than heard a swish of something. A skirt? The uniform was clean jeans or khakis if you dressed up.
He looked up, eyebrows drawn. An unknown face. A mass of hair swept back and far below that a skirt, long, bright. Dark eyes that reflected florescent light so it was hard to read them.
“Marianne pointed you out to me earlier. I have a stack of UA forms here.”
He took them, nodded at her, studied the new form.
“So you know, I’m Nell. Just started yesterday–took over Jud’s position up front.”
“Nell, good to meet you. Good luck.” He got busy again. Not because he loved tidying things but because looking at her made need to pull back. Too much to take in without staring from a distance.
There was that swish again and then muffled voices from the lobby beyond. The room felt cooler and bigger; had it been warmer before? He shook his head. He was going through nicotine withdrawal; it made him a little nuts. On the way back to the team room he glanced over at the front desk. Nell and Marianne were in a huddle; the older woman lifted her head as he passed. He called the next UA recipient. And then another showed.
Back at his desk to check voice messages. Three o’clock. and time for client Ray with two DUIIs, a broken front tooth from his last car accident.
He got to his office, sat at his desk, turned on the desk lamp with bright green glass base and soothing illumination. He’d brought it from his basement, a forgotten treasure of the past. Opened the file and got ready for Ray, a man he might personally like if he wasn’t so deeply alcoholic, angrily resistant. The man had nearly killed two people. But Rick wasn’t paid to like clients, just educate and support them on the road to better health.
Then: Nell who? Where did she get that amazing–is that what he thought of it–skirt? That hair was shocking. Stop. Why did he care? Rick was so far off women that he felt like he had dug a cave in the mountains and set a ring of fire at the entrance to ward off trespassers of the female of the species. He’d not be found off guard. He was a loner since Laura. It suited him fine.
He went to greet Ray but instead found Jazz walking back and forth before him, causing two people to cast her a look of irritation. Ray was asleep. Or hung-over. Or drunk– please not today.
“Jazz, you ready yet?”
“Come right along,” Marianne encouraged as she slid past him, out the door with her (overdue) lunch bag. “Rick is one busy counselor.”
Come-along, he thought, that was her trademark refrain. Everything in her view needed to come along– move forward. Or, it was that something good would come along–sooner or later– if that is what was sought. That’s what she told him whenever he voiced a complaint. It could almost put him to shame some days–that persistent optimism. Her own life was not an easy ride, widowed young, raising a granddaughter alone. And yet, the open heart. That’s why she should counsel and he should ….try something else, maybe. But what?
When could he take just one little drag of a stubby Camel? There was a rooftop terrace of sorts where they could eat lunch or take a break–he could smoke up there if he was fast. he thought of the view of the block, the sky. But incoming calls jangled the air. More life and death calls. He readied himself and beckoned the live wire that was Jazz.
At home everything was as usual, thankfully. Snarfy greeted him with a jump up, a lick and happy yelp. He let him out back and heated leftover chicken and veggie soup that had been made from leftovers the night before, and also poured a cup over the dog’s kibble.
It had been Laura’s job to let Snarfy out and feed him; she’d gotten home first. A graphic designer, she went in at 7:30 and got home by 4:30. He slept in until 8:30 and got into work at 9:30 doing the four, ten but more like twelve hour days. She always felt he should tackle housework early in the day or run errands or pay a few bills, not just slumber away. But when he got home he was so keyed up, he couldn’t sleep until 1 am or later. He’d slip in, move toward her aromatic warmth, and she’d usually mumble about cold feet so he’d back off. Stare at the ceiling awhile. Try to catch up with the Post or CNN on his cell phone. The ceiling morphed as traces of failed light crisscrossed the deserted space; it soon gave rise to a wilderness of faint possibilities. He liked watching it all unfold or pause, and eventually he’d fall asleep when he wanted to wake her, show her. But Laura never deliberately studied ceilings, to his surprise. Too “prosaic”, she said, which he had to look up. He had thought it was a design term.
It might have been his work and differing hours, her cool, tidy art taking precedence and his counseling so all-consuming. Her formal education, his street smarts. But in the end it felt like boredom. Rick, bored with her nagging and avoidance; Laura, bored with his resistance to her ideas, so many feelings. With their lack of willingness to do something innovative, insightful, fun to change it all.
Five years and done. That was four years ago. She’d left Snarfy; she didn’t have a natural affinity with dogs. The right thing isn’t always comfortable but in the end, it’s still right. For Rick, liberation was right, being alone, too.
The soup was still good. Netflix had a good mystery series on, so Snarfy and he sprawled on the couch. Snarfy’s fuzzy triangular ears were pricked at the whistling winds as they swirled around oak and evergreen treetops, rushed along the back fence, awoke the tubular chimes and their sonorous callings.
He’d be halfway content if not for the smoking dilemma. But he’d had a dream in which his father shook a finger at him, told him to “dial it down” and immediately Rick thought of smoking, steaming hot lungs: bad for him. As it had been bad for his father, gone ten years too early at least.
Snarfy licked his bowl clean and Rick rinsed their items in the kitchen, put them in the dishwasher. This was when he missed smoking most, after a meal. Like the final portion of the meal, or a commentary that tied it all up. A delicate branch flew by the wide window, then a thicker one with pine needles. The rain could become black ice overnight. Maybe the clinic would close–a pleasant thought and unlikely. But as he turned out the light above the sink and ambled to the couch with Snarfy trotting along with him, her olive-toned face, those deep eyes robbed him of that idea–he wanted to go in tomorrow.
So you know, I’m Nell.
He reached for his lighter, flipped it over a few times, thought of the Camels. Leaned forward with both arms on his knees, undecided, then lit a half-burnt Christmas candle, a now-droopy, snowy pine tree. Turn down the heat, Rick; don’t be lured by stuff you don’t need. Just be calm.
“And when you click there it will take you to the other client portal and that data you need… oh, morning, Rick, how’s it going with the resolution?”
Nell glanced his way as her boss spoke, eyes sliding down to his feet as she crooked a couple fingers in greeting, then got back to the screen.
He peered over his reading glasses at her. Couldn’t Marianne keep his smoking battle to herself? She must think he needed a mother–he had a very nice one in New Hampshire, thanks, anyway. He couldn’t help but love that she asked, anyway.
Nell turned in her chair slightly and looked at him full in the face. It jarred him so that he spread his feet as if to gain better purchase. She was alert, pale lips a little tight, mind at work. She hesitated, then opened her mouth a little, took a breath. Conscientious person about to offer not so great info.
“Jazz’s UA results are in.”
“Not a good feel to that.”
She pointed to his mailbox so he snagged the sheets, took them to his desk in team room. There it was. Positive for cannabis and opiates. His held breath shot out. How could she? But, then why not? Picked up the phone, dialed her cell number, waited for the voice mail recording.
“Jazz, I need you to come in ASAP for another UA.”
He hoped that would get her in fast, as it was a probation violation. Jazz was running out of the last of good luck. She knew the consequences: more jail time. She should not try to run this time.
The day flew by because there was much to do; he was good with tightly packed schedules, worked faster and better. There were too many UAs on a day when he needed to prepare for two new groups. he stopped thinking of the Camels in his jacket even when he felt his head might explode. He popped a lemon drop in his mouth, walked a bit. He sneaked out for a very fast, late lunch and when he returned, there was Jazz yakking with Nell as if this was a social call. Rick noted Nell was the congenial sort, encouraged brief conversation, a good thing with clients as it gave her insight. Some sleuthing might be accomplished if she was willing to share information. Like who looked high, who seemed more depressed than usual, who was antsy or angry.
When Jazz showed up, they sat in his office. She crossed arms over her chest. Noting he saw this, she then let them fall casually at her sides, hands resting on the chair’s arms.
“You want to show me your arms?”
“What? No.” Jazz narrowed her eyes at him. “You crazy? I’m not doing heroin and not here for show and tell. But I can take another UA any time you want.” She roughed up her thatch of fading burgundy hair.
The defiance, the feigned outrage made her face fiercer, hints of worn beauty barely visible under makeup. She had been at all this a long while. She knew what was expected, what the cost was, what her life could be or how it would end. It had been fifteen-plus years of using and she was a hard thirty. Lost two children, lost partners, lost any facsimile of a what passed for any normal life. They’d worked together four months and she had become less wary of him, even relaxed at times–until now.
“Let’s go, man, prove me wrong.” She flipped her hand at him.
“l’ll get Melissa to accompany you.”
“Observed UA? Really? I hate those–can’t pee–I’m good, I tell you!”
“Not according to this.” He handed her the red-lined results.
“No way, no way! I got four months, I go to those stupid meetings, come to your groups and therapy, I’m even eating again–you know this!”
The words torpedoed out; he had to make himself not pull back, glad the spit didn’t hit him.
“But the truth is indelible, Jazz, there’s nothing for it but to test again and hope this one is less toxic, anyway. Then we need to talk without any bull. And I have to call your PO.”
“Right on, Rick! Nothing like screwing with my life! You got the wrong sample or you got a bad reading, I’m clean as they come!”
“Jazz–” He silenced the words: better not catch you with bought urine.
“No Jazz this, Jazz that…I’m just outta here. Idiot cops or keepers, all of you!”
She stood so fast the chair knocked sideways, teetered and righted itself, then she was gone down the hall.
“Jazz!” he called as softly as he could but she cut off his attempt with a chop of her hand. He followed her a way until she rounded a corner.
He said this to himself but Nell, returning to her desk, heard him and watched Jazz go.
“But not gone for good?”
He rubbed hard at his forehead. “Unless she ODs again and doesn’t wake up.”
Rick wanted to run after Jazz, ask her to please stop using, please stay alive, please tell him what happened. But he never did that, it was the client’s choice. Sort of. So he suddenly wanted to smoke. He broke out in a cold sweat, leaned against the file room doorjamb.
“Hey, how about coffee in the kitchen?”
“I just need to pause and let it go…well then, okay, yes.”
They sat there without talking a moment, inhaling the fragrance of a fresh brew, sipping. Rick suspected she was jeopardizing her new job by taking such an unscheduled break– another staff was in the front office but, still, her chair was empty. He tapped fingers on the table, then stopped, jiggled his leg. His closely shorn head felt chilly, itchy. Smoke, just smoke that cigarette, he heard in his head. He wished he still had long hair that covered him up more.
“So, you have a dog?” she asked, lighting up. “I just got a mutt, a really good one. Named Sukie. Training isn’t so fun, but worth it. She’s a good buddy and smart.”
“I like that name. Yeah, my Snarfy is an old border collie. He likes to laze about, follow me around, answer my questions.” She laughed. “Plays Frisbee with me sometimes.”
Five minutes, ten minutes, and he had her face memorized, voice etched on his brain. Her hands flushing the air like birds, translating words into more good stuff. Hair wound in a turban sort of thing. And another skirt, skimming booted feet.
He got up, smoothed sweaty hands on his jeans.
“Thanks, I guess I needed a mental health break.”
She cocked her head at him but shyly.
He asked, “You in recovery, too…or is that too personal a question?”
She nodded but preceded him through the kitchen’s opened door and aimed for her desk. “Have to get back to work. Oh, I like your socks.”
He stood in the hallway and stared at his feet. He’d worn two different socks, one faded navy and one grey with red squiggles and he hadn’t even realized. And was she in recovery or had he been direct too soon?
Tommy rushed by, hands thrown up in the air. “What a fashion plate! You’ve sure got what it takes, ole boy!”
Melissa passed, a hand clutching her phone. “Still not smoking?”
“Does everyone know?”
Then moving at her own cheery pace came Marianne, arms stuffed with manila files.
Tommy roared past from the opposite direction. “Aren’t we way, way beyond the Stone Age, Marianne? Can’t we eliminate actual files now?”
“Come along, Rick, can’t dawdle, groups to lead, people to lift up,” she said.
“I may not be your man. I’m in serious need of rejuvenation. By the way, are you now my supervisor? All the free advice you keep giving me!” He held out his arms in wonderment.
She affected looking aghast. “Who suggested that? Is there a raise? Naw, just an office manager. But Jazz is almost begging to see you.” She trundled on then spun around, almost losing the stack. “Rick, you know you’ll do what you do so well. You’re genius with tough ones. Success is relative, more to come. And be very good to Nell; she’s a keeper here.”
Rick switched direction and followed. One more time, that’s all it took, another try with Jazz, another hour to stay smoke free, another chance to reconsider the beauty of surprises. He’d been ready to sneak out, light that cigarette, set fire to his own cravings–and who knew what else? It felt like this, the nicotine withdrawal: repeated small implosions, risk of explosion. Bam. He breathed through his nose as if meditating–if that even worked.
Did she like soup, he wondered–because that was a specialty, making something simple, bringing out flavors and goodness from little to nothing. He’d learned that out of necessity but while it was useful it also generated happiness deep inside him. He liked life simplified; it offered more meaning to him.
He swung open the lobby door and found Jazz slumped in a chair, tears snaking down her cheeks, marring thick rosy make up, tears gentling her face despite deep lines and scars from years gone so bad she had nearly quit living.
He squatted, hands folded.
“Jazz, come along with me, let’s go have a talk, okay?”
“Why not,” Jazz sniffed.
After she wiped her face, Jazz grabbed the sleeve of his shirt, didn’t let go. He did not shake her off. She’d never come with need so naked. He appreciated that aching humility that felt like shameful defeat. He was careful with her. And Nell, savoring pieces of tangerine at her desk, noted that.
Alan J. was a boy who no one quite wanted around, not really. Even if they didn’t hound him with that fact, he felt it. It wasn’t that he was a nuisance; that would be something to note, make him easier to relate to. It might have made life easier in the school yard where he was ignored, generally, and at home, where he suffered the ignoble status as youngest and smallest–a “runt” as his siblings said. He could make the fiercest faces at them (which incited more taunts) but had even less to say as the years rolled by. It was not his nature to spout off or to mumble on about things. It made many people uncomfortable. He observed and learned quickly, he asked such questions for just an eleven year old, his teachers assured his parents; he was an unusually introspective child.
Maybe, he thought, he was just not ready to tell the world what he thought of its silliness and beauty and puzzles.
Even the house, once rather grand, seemed to ignore him, perhaps in relief, as it was full of raucous activity. He could fade away into its dusty far corners. It was a big house, if now worn about the edges. Gran and Grandpop (the J. of his name: for his grandfather, Jackson) had run it as a bed and breakfast for many years, then Grandpop died. The past nearly four years she had relinquished it to her daughter and son-in-law and their four children. It had become more a home, not a business, Gran said with a long sigh–as if she missed the latter and didn’t so much crave the former, anymore. At least in its present state. She was slowing down and let them deal with the greater matters.
Wintry rainfall pattered and dashed against the roof, under which Alan J. sat with flashlight in hand, illuminating the bead board of his sloped ceiling. Once an attic, the room was a reasonable size if a bit dank, separated by a small bathroom from his oldest sister’s bedroom. Sarah was now relegated to visitor status since attending college. And big brother Gerry didn’t want the room, as he was well installed at the end of the third floor hallway, the opposite end of his parents’, separated by a guest room and bath; the second floor was primarily commandeered by Hannah and Gran though there was a also study (and bath) used by both his father and mother. Alan J. wasn’t sure how he’d lucked out getting an attic room. It suited him, and he was nagged about taking too frequent refuge in the so-named “AJ Cave.”
Grandpop used to take refuge with him in either attic room way back then if none was rented, as they loved to watch the sunset, the moon and stars from up there. The old man had a telescope which was in the den now, and he’d also read some of any book Alan J. chose, then the boy would read haltingly for his soft-spoken, hunched over Grandpop. He was the one tourists loved to see again; Gran was hospitable, unruffled but sheathed in a coolness, ever the businesswoman. But that was all a long time ago, three and a half years now. Grandpop was sometimes nearby yet not there, at all, a baffling thing.
He smiled as he studied the darkening blur beyond his window. Treetops whipped about in a glistening wind. His flashlight beam then zigzagged about the bead board ceiling, then back to his personal balcony which was long and narrow. It stretched from his small outside door to his decamped sister’s. Sarah had long ago put up a bamboo screen and nailed it to the railing and outer wall. It was decrepit but ivy she’d had in pots crept up the house and over the top into his sunny or dreary part. He liked seeing it there still. Alan J. missed her some, especially the last year when there were midnight bombs of marshmallows and chocolate drops and dumb missives thrown over the screen, at his windows. She had gotten drunk a few too many times. He’d not complained as she laughed more then, and he generally liked her surprises. Sometimes he had tossed marshmallows and miscellaneous junk back and then total madness was on.
She had at least seen him, noted his presence often. But Sarah would not be home for holidays; too much money for a quick plane trip.
It was getting closer to Christmas, a week or so now. This bothered him. Alan J. usually knew what to get people, something simple like packets of seeds for spring or a good if used book or a drawing of the brick-red covered bridge over D Street Canal or a flamingo or a race car or bouquet (his one talent, his brother conceded, was that he drew well). This year he was empty of ideas, probably because they’d had to tighten the purse strings, as mother said, so the mood was less inflated. Dad, a big manufacturing plant’s supervisor (soon to be manager, they still hoped), was laid off with the rest of the workers for six weeks, on a sharply reduced pay. That meant their allowances were suspended, other budgetary cuts made.
No, he was not yet inspired to draw much of interest, but it might still come. Or he’d come up with a crafty thing.
Alan J. stood and looked out over neighbors’ houses. The whole block had houses two stories or even one. People thought they lived in a mini-mansion but the truth was, they lived in a rambling house that looked good across the street but up close showed age, even an unmistakable neglect. Still, the view from his attic room and balcony stirred in Alan J. a sense of confidence and expectancy, as if he was a ship’s captain or an airport watchtower’s commander and there were important things to see, do and plan. He liked being able to glimpse quick scenes of neighbors’ activities, too, as darkness fell and lights cast a golden glow over inhabitants. Sometimes he tried to sketch them at their tables or lolling on porches or watering gardens. He found it all worthy of a long look.
Tonight he watched various goings-on, and the black bare tree branches and gleaming streets, and felt something like a longing with discontent, even as he smelled pot roast aromas stealing upstairs. Or he imagined it, since Gran and his mother– after she’d rushed home from her bank job–were preparing it earlier. His father had been in the basement, fixing a scratched old toaster or at least looking busy at the workbench and he’d nodded at his son, asked how the day was. Then they both fell silent. His father was down there a lot lately, and he cracked jokes less often than Alana J. would have liked, despite how corny they were.
The trash cans banged and crashed about; the wind had tossed things here or there. Another sudden crash disturbed the falling dark, and then another. It could be a homeless person or a raccoon or even a coyote. Alan J. had seen the last only one time, and he hoped to see another, so he tossed on a heavy grey hoodie and went onto his balcony to take a look.
As he bent over the railing and peered down below he just made out a scrawny figure with a backpack poking about the trash cans, tossing a couple of cans into a plastic bag. His father might yell out a window at a vagrant, as he called most who came onto their lot, but Alan J. always looked. Waited. He wondered where they came from and where they were going, what they most hoped to find. Any tossed food–even if it was not spoiled–would be a sodden mess in winter and the thought of having to eat such a thing made him feel ill.
He’d left outgrown tennis shoes out there; they were gone faster than he expected. So he left other things in bags by the cans, like a sweater he hated (had a dog on it) and a pillow that had fuzzy yarn daisies which Sarah left behind in her closet. Gran had seen him do it. And Hannah, now thirteen and too busy for him, so she just shrugged and flounced off. Gran shook her head, said nothing.
The rummaging didn’t stop despite the inclement evening, chilled and wet. Alan J. was afraid the person might fall face first into the can, so far into it was his or her body. He shivered, pulled the hood closer. He felt like calling down. What was needed at six o’clock at night in the rainy dark? His mother called up the stairs loudly; dinner was ready. Still he felt compelled to watch and when finally he was about to go indoors and dry off, the person three and a half stories below looked up, scarf falling away from the face.
Her face, he saw as light, long hair was tossed back in a chilled gust. She stood stock still, stared at him a long moment, then slowly raised a gloved hand to him. He saw she couldn’t be so much than fourteen, maybe less or more. She was short and looked terribly thin even in a puffy jacket, face also narrow, small. Alan J. raised his hand to her in almost a wave, and a rush of feelings coursed through his body, a shock of something. He wanted to call out, ask her why she was out there all alone, or what was it she needed. But she quick like a rabbit scurried right into the street and beyond.
Alan J. took his perch by the bedroom window to watch for her the next three late afternoons and evenings like he was an appointed sentinel. He’d tried to recall the color of her jacket–black or was it navy?–how her eyes were, how she stood with arms dangling, a half-empty plastic bag slumped on the ground, her fingers wrapped around the top. Bedraggled and worn out was his impression and yet he thought she must have been roaming all day long and still would roam more. She had to be brave, strong. Or entirely out of luck and options. Both, he decided. But she did not return.
The fourth night he decided to get something ready for her just in case, he told himself. Hannah saw him put a sweet roll, box of crackers and slab of cheese into a bag and rolled her eyes. He liked snacks late at night–she did, too– and only told on him when he once took the last three chocolate cupcakes. He then took it all to his room, found a basket of hair stuff in Sarah’s room and emptied it onto her bed. They had used all the string last week threading together plastic glow stars, which they neatly hung atop the windows. So he got the very long, doubled piece of yarn he’d cut from Gran’s stash of skeins and tied it around the basket handle.
It had stopped raining awhile, but he had slicker and flashlight at the ready. A half hour later he caught a glint of that blond hair under the corner street lamp by their house, then saw her run to the garbage cans. He left the flashlight behind–he didn’t want to startle her– but got the basket and entered the balcony to stand at the railing. His heart was beating almost like a hummingbird’s; his breath caught in his throat. Would she look up? He was afraid if he called out she’d dash off. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Worry he’d be mean.
After she found a few empty cans and a small portion of last night’s pizza, she ate hungrily and drank from a large water bottle. Alan J. took the newly food-filled basket, placed it over balcony edge and lowered it down to the ground. It thumped on sodden earth and she glanced that way then away, then back again. It spooked him to imagine her distrust as her elfin face slowly lifted up, up, up until she might have thought she saw someone at the top balcony of the house. But Alan J. had crouched down, made himself small, and leaned against his door, yarn taut in his hands. He did not intend on being seen. It would spoil things. He could hear her run to the basket, rummage in the contents and then, right before she left, there was a tug on the yarn. After listening a few moments, he heard only crows and the slight damp wind. He stood and pulled up the basket. Empty.
Each night when Alan J. could manage it, he put something good in the basket. A soft scarf no one really needed. Four dollars from the makeshift Mason jar “bank” on his dresser. A small summer sausage with a can of seltzer. A paperback fantasy novel he’d enjoyed and Tootsie Rolls. Each time he hid under cover of darkness–she came roughly around 5:30–as the girl stealthily arrived and left. She always tugged on the basket and he never came forward. It occurred to him that she was counting on him, and that made him feel good. Alan J. had a new purpose and it propelled him through the days, gave him an uncommon sense of fullness.
His family was oblivious. His father was in the basement or at the table eating or in the den with the TV muted. His mother was frantic with Christmas preparations, working on a wreath, and Gran was busy knitting and crocheting, or up to her elbows with kitchen matters. Hannah was with friends, doing homework or telling him to stop looking over her shoulder as she read–she’d pass her sci-fi book along if it was any good. Gerry was just gone; at seventeen he had a junker car and it was his freedom ticket. Plus, he worked part-time.
On the fourth night he stole a look at her. He knew she knew it, as she turned in an oddly careful way toward him, showed him a big smile. Then she dallied a bit over trail mix and a single bottle of apple juice he’d put in the basket, and raised the empty to him in a “cheers” before heading off with bright steps.
He waited to see her from then on. They didn’t speak but communicated with a look, a gesture. He wondered if she could talk, then realized she might wonder the same. Once they both looked at the stars at the same time. It gave him chills when she waved at him without even turning and kept waving as she melted into shadow.
After the seventh time it also came to him that, since she was counting on him, what would she do if he quit this? Strictly garbage can living again–unless others were doing the same as he was. It seemed almost wrong of him to ever consider stopping, yet how could he for certain keep with it? He just would.
The ninth night, three days before Christmas, there was a weather warning: rain mixed with sleet. Possibly snow but likely the dreaded black ice. Maybe she wouldn’t come at all. Maybe she’d found shelter; that would be perfect. But he filled the basket, anyway: a pair of Sarah’s worn mittens, his striped knit cap, a small crocheted throw from his reading chair. And a fat sandwich, lots of turkey with big slab of cheddar. Gran had seen him fix that at four o’clock. She’d warned him to not eat the whole thing before dinner, for goodness’ sake, or his chicken dinner would be unwanted. And then she’d put hands on hips and narrowed her eyes with head cocked to one side. Stopped him cold a minute. He kept his face impassive and waited, but she just threw up her hands and went back to her work.
The sleet hit like bits of glass on glass of the many tall windows. There was a steady fire roaring in the living room and Alan J. sat on the floor near Gran and Big Cat, her black Persian. He listened to the clicking of knitting needles. Heard his father’s footsteps as they trudged up basement stairs. The Christmas tree, as fancy with decor as each year, was beaming at them. His mother was running quite late and Hannah was dozing under a blanket on the couch. He had worried the cuticle of his right index finger until it bled. He re-checked the time on his cell until it was closer to when the girl might come by. If she’d bother. Gran got up to check on the browning chicken so he slipped away to his room.
He put on his winter coat, went to his balcony, lowered the basket. When he looked down, there she was beneath him the three and a half stories below. And she was looking up. The lights from the house illumined her softly. Her wide eyes were dark and her hair long and straight, the color of straw but streaked with black. She was very pale, perhaps older than he thought, but not as old as Gerry or young as Hannah. She had a grown up air to her as she stood with one hand on hip, jaunty-like.
“Hey, brother, what’s your name?”
Her voice was much louder than he expected; it cut through low howling wind.
“AJ,” he called out, thinking it easier to catch than his whole name. Sleet stung his cheeks, wind seared his eyes. She pulled her hoodie closer to her face and head. He cupped his hands, said, “So here it comes.” The basket slid down over the railing.
“AJ, okay, I’m Marley! Thanks for everything, you’re the best. Saved my belly–you’re a real prince of a guy!” She grinned at him, a big smile that showed uneven teeth.
As soon as it neared her reaching hands, she sorted through it all, tucked the sandwich into a pocket, put on the hat, pulled the mittens over her gloves. He saw her slap and rub newly layered hands together and thought of their radiant fireplace. Of the delicious dinner waiting. Marley took the warm throw and put it around her shoulders and managed to tie a fat knot in the ends. She hesitated a second then pulled out the sandwich and took a giant bite, then another. He wanted to invite her in, to make a ladder and pull her up. She kept eating as he waited; they endured darts of ice and the bitter air. He wished he had stairs to his balcony and a chair for her. What a sight she made, all decked out with the added layers. Somehow she gave off cheer and this made him smile.
Gran set plates and glasses on the table, hoping for her daughter-in-law’s safe drive home. Big Cat sat alert on a window ledge, ears pricked, head turning back and forth. Gran checked to see what she was seeing. It was a medium-sized basket dangling, swaying in the air close to ground, and a slight young girl, alone. Right there in the middle of a storm, she stood eating a sandwich. A basket in mid-air? She grabbed her coat from the coat tree, rushed to the kitchen side door. As soon as she stuck her head out, the girl started, then froze, her fingers releasing the remaining sandwich fall to the ground.
“What’s going on here?”
The girl looked over with saucer eyes as Gran followed the basket string to the crouching boy at the other end. When she looked for the youth again she was gone.
“Alan J.!” she yelled up the balcony. “What are you up to?”
But she knew full well. Her hand pressed against her heart as she closed the door to shut out all the storm.
His mother got home and walked into a murmur of excitement. At dinner the event was all they wanted to talk about: a homeless girl and the basket idea and Alan J.’s initiative and how good of him to think of it– but, too, rather risky. Pats on the back, hair ruffled. But still, you never knew…. he should be more careful. No more good deeds that might endanger them all, right?
He didn’t tell them how many nights it had been, just that he’d noticed her once out back, so he’d given her some stuff. All he thought about was how full his stomach was, how warm the rooms and where did Marley have to go next? Gran scared her off. He felt angry. Alarm at that and sadness. Still, the bigger thing was that no one had ever called him “brother” who was not blood, nor called him a “prince”; he heard her voice ring out, carried to him on raw wind. No one had said “thanks for everything” to him like that. He found it sad, yes, but she was amazing, out there on her own, surviving somehow when he’d curl up in a ball and die. She deserved to have more than a small basket now and then, didn’t she? To have a better life, not root about for crumbs.
After dinner, he was glad to get away and scampered upstairs to do math homework. Tried to. He knew she wasn’t still out there; black ice was laid over all now, she’d at least be inside a store or fast seeking shelter. He had a name now, he knew who she was; they’d talked a little. But that was it. It all stuck in his mind like tantalizing clues.
A few minutes later there was rapping on his door. Alan J. didn’t want to answer. But Gran walked right in–he could not recall when she had done that—and sat herself at the end of his bed.
“I want you to know I’m proud of you. Grandpop would be happy to hear it, and likely he does… And I suspect it wasn’t this one time. I didn’t want to embarrass you at the table but, Alan J., you have his spirit, his kind ways.”
At the thought of his grandfather, Alan J. nearly choked up; he was the one he wanted to talk to about the girl. Gran moved closer, put a strong arm about him. The door pushed open and in came his mother and father and they, too, sat on his bed and briefly hugged him.
“But what about Marley?” he asked, tears hot as coals sizzling down cool cheeks.
“I think she’ll be back,” his mother said, laughing, “to see if you were real.”
“You’re a sort of angel for her, son,” his father said with uncharacteristic emotion.
He shook his head. “No.” His words were gulped, hard to get out. “Marley is.”
But he knew they wouldn’t understand. She’d called him “brother” though he was a stranger; she’d called him “the best” when he’d only done the easy thing. A “prince”– for what? For giving her stuff he didn’t need. Marley had welcomed his offerings, and that made him feel rounded with contentment. He’d received the most.
“Maybe she’ll turn up soon,” Gran said as she stood up and peered out the window at the sudden snow. “Getting rougher out there.”
“If she does, can we invite her inside? For dinner at least?” He wiped his nose on a sleeve and stood next to Gran as his parents fidgeted.
She sighed. “I imagine so, we’re in the hospitality business, aren’t we? Of course we are.”
He nodded, wondering if it’d ever really happen. If she’d come in, take off her puff jacket, mittens and the thin gloves and sit by the fire and warm herself, lean in at their table and share hot food. He had to shut his eyes to remember how she’d waved at him, spoken to him. She could fade so fast.
The grownups saw he had gone inside himself again so left, carefully shut his door behind them.
But Alan Jackson Havers III didn’t leave his post at the cold, filigreed window for a long while. He was watching the thickening confetti of snow soften a treachery of ice, watching his street turn into a velvety blanket of white and garbage cans turn into bright, frosty mounds. Watching for Marley with yellow and black hair streaming from beneath his favorite striped hat, a tattered angel sliding along icy sidewalks, roaming the street for good finds.
He felt his fingers itch for drawing pencils and prepared to recreate what he could of her smallness and bigness, which felt to him like unfolding wings in the great secret of darkness.