The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.

Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

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The Watchman

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Heaven Steele hung the windsock at the back of her house, near the fence that enclosed her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in the hot breeze. The placement had been his idea. She walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. She thought it would liven up his house a bit, she said. She preferred the many handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves. Most of those hung in the front, one big one in back by the driveway like an announcement. Jasper liked the mix of brittle and sweet notes that kept him company. He told her he’d see the windsock better from his porch. He liked seeing it whip in the wind but thought how funny she did that for him. He didn’t like being indebted, either.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville. She was much younger than she first appeared as she had silvery, cropped hair. It was a fact that she was industrious (that she had in common with the others), operating an art studio where she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round. Her other business had to do with desperate folks who showed up at her door all hours of day and night. Counseling, he had heard, but he knew better. Maybe a witch–did they even exist these days, in real life? He shivered. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown. That made her somebody outside of the usual box but he didn’t know quite what. He could see a few goings-on from his porch, although his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s modern house. He hadn’t crossed that threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall was a warning, anyway. He had been trying to get a good look at the girl who was pounding on Heaven’s window when he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock. Maybe he knew her, was what he was thinking. Drat his curiosity. Now he had a thick cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his leg and side that still hurt. He felt half-helpless although it could be worse at his age. “Jasper’s Downfall” his son, Shawn, said laughing at him when he came by and helped out.

So now Jasper really had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by the rare car that sped by and Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her in part of the spacious courtyard. Tree branches overhung more than half of it. He couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to have a water feature; the sound of a waterfall slipped in and out of his hearing range.  That’s where she met with people if the weather was nice and it had been. All he usually saw was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright dresses between the leafy branches. When the wind was still and the road empty, a murmur of voices would drift up to him. He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for over ten years. Yet all Jasper knew about her were rumors of her unusual talents (Shawn said she was also psychic, she advised people on things), the beautiful chimes, and her odd, lovely eyes. She had been friendly enough the few times they had crossed paths. But he didn’t like talking much and she wasn’t nosey. Like him. It worked out well enough.

On the third Thursday of the month Shawn had picked up two prescriptions for him, made them both burgers, then cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the porch drinking coffee, having rolled the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those machines. It was almost dusk, the light rich and soft on  trees and grasses. The air had a sheerness to it that said it was summer. Everything sparked with color. Jasper lit the cigarette as his gaze ran over the scene before him, resting briefly on Heaven’s darkening house. The lively windsock settled down as though tired. There was a silver car parked in the long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but, then, lots of cars parked at her house, especially since the summer season had started.

Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those wind chimes, he’d heard, and they always bought some from what he could see. He smoked as Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands gesturing. There was a guy a lot taller than she was. Jasper leaned forward, straining to hear something, a word, a tone of voice. The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still and became silent. Jasper re-lit a last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business, he thought, she had herself quite a life made in Marionville, while he was restless and getting old and bored with things, that’s all. The glowing stub faded and he crushed it in a ceramic pot with stones in the bottom. Rubbing his eyes and wincing at the sharp ache in his left hip, he stood. He looked out over the valley. The lake had a soft sheen to it still. He imagined the kids on Lake Minnatchee had gone home now and teenagers would be taking their place when darkness snuffed out a coral and rose sunset. They would be up to no good or romance. Jasper felt something close to peace but melancholy sneaked in as usual.

He turned to go inside with a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There was no sound or movement coming from the courtyard other than the faintest tinkling of water. He frowned. Something had changed in the last five minutes. So they had left the courtyard, no big deal. But something else. Unease coursed through his legs. A stab of pain made him reach to his hip and rub it hard. He rocked forward to change his weight distribution and scanned the house again. It was the windsock. It wasn’t there now. The air was still; no gusts had swept over their hillside. The windows in her house were grayed out; even the courtyard’s rainbow lights usually lit at dusk were still off. He swallowed a walnut-sized lump in his throat and started down the pathway to the road and Heaven’s place.

It seemed like slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to trip and tumble into a twilight road. When he inched his way down and crossed the road, he noted the car was a Porsche, then walked around to the high courtyard fence. There was the windsock, on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper.” It was Heaven whispering to him, more a hiss than a whole word.

“Yep, it’s me,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“Here, the window,” she said softly.

Jasper moved three feet to his left and saw her face in the screen. He felt bashful, a little embarrassed to be there at her window, and almost backed away.

“Don’t go. I have an issue. I need a little help.”

“What?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of stuff….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard and that’s where my cell phone is. I need to call a cop or a cab or something. The phone was tossed on that chair and it’s under him…I stood on the garden bench and pulled off the windsock, hoping you’d see. Well, that you would understand. Which, of course and thankfully, you did.”

Jasper really looked at her for the first time. Her eyes implored him  yet sweetly through the scrim of falling darkness. Those eyes were two beautiful magnets; he couldn’t stop himself from staring.

“Jasper.” She pressed her nose and lips against the screen and her face flattened comically. “Can you either come in or call the police?”

Jasper started, shook his head to clear it, then walked briskly around the front of the house, past her glinting, swaying chimes, up to the door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard; Heaven met up with him. The man was indeed drunk. He was slumped over in the rocking chair, drooling and reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised his bushy eyebrows and shrugged, pointing to his cast. And he knew about wives dying and wanting to hear from them. It had never occurred to him to do anything but have his own conversations with her. Apparently Heaven had a big reputation.

Jasper did the easy thing. He called a cab and waited at the door while Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs. Then he and the driver wrestled the weeping man to his feet and got him out of the house and into the cab. He would have to get his Porsche tomorrow.

He and Heaven stood on the road and watched the car disappear into a disappearing cave of blackness. He felt wide awake and surprised at himself.

“That about it, then?” he asked her.

She took his good arm and steered him toward her house. She smelled familiar and good, like the lilies of the valley that grew back of his house.

“Let’s have my good tea with strawberry pie.”

He didn’t resist. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. “How did you know I’d see the windsock was gone?”

“I’ve got my eye on you, Jasper Dye.” She squeezed his arm and it wasn’t unpleasant.

“Is that right?” He smiled despite himself.

“I saw your cigarette smoke. But I know you watch me, too.”

“Hmm…” he said as he crossed her threshold a second time.

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