Do Not Forget Your Own Heart

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I am not wild about Valentine’s Day. Like many, I believe it is a commercial ploy to boost lackluster sales following the holidays. That said, I still made a Valentines’ Day card with two of my grandchildren recently. We love poster paints, acrylics, watercolors, felt tips, crayons and colored pencils–the lot. They are natural artists, finding new ways to make old concepts interesting, into magnets for eye and heart. I just like to play. The card I made included seven hearts for my five children, my spouse and even myself.

Why me? Well, I’m part of the family, after all. But there is more to it than that. You will begin to understand if you look closely at the image I have shared above from the American Heart Association. They posted it on a Facebook page today, and asked how viewers loved their own hearts. And since I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at the comparatively young age of fifty-one, it struck me as a good thing. So I want to share with you these thoughts today:

Respect your heart; it’s place in your life is paramount. Adore it. Take it out for a rousing walk every day, even on adventures you think you can’t manage but somehow do. The deeper it beats the greater its joy. It will perk up at the attention and be good company no matter what’s around the corner.

Talk to it. Share your awe at its mighty power. Then tell it stories that are rooted in triumphs over trials, random altruistic deeds and vibrant, far-reaching hopes. Show it the best seat in the house, like an old trusted friend who attends every single show. It will want to see every last scene.

Make sure it has opportunities to be courageous; it has the impulses of the brave and stalwart already. Has your heart forgotten you when you forgot it? If it has even failed to give your sinew and bone the strength that it needs, it is not for lack of trying. It came into your possession already a fearsome warrior.

Let it sing even when you are startled by its plaintive or peculiar sounds and thumps. Tend to it immediately if it falters. The rhythms of its compositions are from the stream of celestial music that powers the spheres and lights our skies. Be reminded that God is the grand composer, you the prefect instrument.

Listen to its wisdom; we are given a heart so that our every plane of existence has ready guidance. Encourage it to laugh so that it expands every cell and finds relief from all its labors. But please also let it weep, for the potent tears of the heart purify its blood; without weeping it will close up and then divide against itself.

Breathe. Breathe the fragrances of your beloved’s skin and your grandchild’s hair, the scent of warm bread, wild and subtle winds from the four corners. Rest among wild things. Revel in the earth’s treasures and the blessed waters. Pull beauty into the heart’s chambers and grant it peace.

Dance with your heart, leap and fling your arms wide so it bounces against your ribs and resettles when you drift along the horizon of your living. Let it carry you into odd moments and release you into wonder. Are you sitting still even now? Get up and move for no good reason. Jump into the center of you; give your heart its due.

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Create for it. Expose your dreams, feelings and fascinating random imaginings. The heart likes nothing more than to be moved or flabbergasted by something new. Submitting to the thrill of capturing an idea and giving it structure refuels us. We are born creators because we are part of God. Your heart knows this even if you do not.

Feed it so it runs as well as it can. Not too much, but foods fresh with color and taste that prepare you for greater things. Eat only what fills the need so that your body is grateful for its nourishment and not burdened. And add chocolate or chilies; be impertinent and surprise your body.

Share this heart that you were made to have and to hold all your worldly days. When someone reaches, hands echoing with emptiness or regret or misery, reach back. Don’t be afraid. If there is a lack of grace, just let your heart speak. When someone falls to their knees, let your heart lie down beside theirs and speak to it. This is all that you both will need.

Do you believe you are alone? You will be made ready for love if you tend it and offer it. It may take patience; it does take courage. Your loneliness is the result of forgetting you live here among friends. We all are alone. But we have human hearts that want to know one another. They save us from ourselves. Our hearts know we are in this together.

When your day is done, do this last thing: look to your heart. Unload any weight it carries. Pray for its freedom from resentments. Soothe it with psalms for the living. For this day has brought you to this moment, to this night. And whether hearty or frail, your heart is still beating, beating like the wings of a mighty messenger, teaching and carrying you through this brief life. Be merciful, be kind to it, and it will fill you with strength enough to go the remaining miles.

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Blaze and Silverado

Photo by Blair Pittman
Photo by Blair Pittman

“It isn’t really what it looks like,” Sophie says as she shuffles the photos. “We skinny dipped back then, no big deal. Off to the woods and lakes we went during college breaks.”

Her daughter holds it up close, wondering if it’s her dad, almost hoping it isn’t. She doesn’t want to know that much.

“But it’s you, right? And if it isn’t what it looks like, then what do you call it?”

Sophie takes the picture. Cradles it in her palms. Her face closes, then she puts it back in the square box. Nods.

“No mistaking my hair. And not your dad, no.”

She touches her hair now, as if reassuring herself it still holds a gingery glow. It is camouflaged a bit by a few strands of white.

“Well, he has a nice back, whoever he is. You were pretty.”

Sophie lets out a soft laugh. Mia slouches off to watch television. Saturday morning. Sophie has been up cleaning out her massive desk for hours, placing into teetering piles the things she wants and doesn’t want. What matters now, what doesn’t. Most of the paper memories are discarded. Even most of the pictures are less valuable as time goes by. There are tattered take out menus from the last city, matchbooks left over from smoking days. The race car sketches of Evan’s are kept. He left them five years ago, but still, for their daughter. And Mia’s report cards have been kept for her; they denote certain potential, despite her lackadaisical attitude.

They’re moving again. But this time to a house. Not impressive from the sidewalk, it got to her when they climbed the steps. The screened porch, a heavy wooden swing. It was what she had been circling back to her whole adult life.

The bulk of the sorting done, Sophie stands and pivots from the piles. Catches her face in the gilt-framed mirror. Something there brings her closer. Her hazel eyes are reddened by dust she stirred up. She smooths her freckled cheeks, her pale lower lip. That old photograph has invaded her oasis, returned her to that place where anguish and tenderness are bond together, captive.

What it looked like was what it was. Finding each other. Being astonished. Feeling safe, so also more free than ever before. Being in love had been like finding out she could speak another language without any effort, or had wings that were secretly hidden and waiting to share their power. It was the beginning of a small kingdom constructed with wonder.

It makes her wince, but she remembers it all.

Martin Robishe was the older brother of Cassie, a friend she’d met in social anthropology class. It was their family cottage into which a small horde of students crammed one June. Three small bedrooms with an open living area that soared above, skylights encouraging buttery light. They had sleeping bags. Two people had brought little tents. Sophie took the couch on the porch; it was her spot, Cassie informed the others, claimed last fall.

When she got there relief banished all tension like a kind drug, making her limbs looser, feet lighter. Mind cleared. She was a dancer with demanding goals, but here she forgot. Let herself revel in simple things, heat, tree mazes and dirt. Undulating, hundreds-of-blue waters. Feral cries in the night. Stealthy moths circling light, drawing her with their zigzag grace.

Martin disrupted her train of thought when his blue-black Silverado finally pulled in.  The engine boomed. He loped over, finishing a pizza slice.

“Hey,” Martin said as he came up by her. She sat with arms wrapped around bent legs. “Sophie, right? Or Blaze like Cassie calls you? We met last fall for a minute or two.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows at the familiar, interesting face, then returned to the sputtering bonfire. Smiled a small smile. The others had gone off to bed. Cassie had said he’d be there a couple nights before heading back to his apartment in town. He ‘d fix torn screens, cut back the new weed growth for their parents, who arrived in July for a month.

“Quietness is preferred, I know–sorry,” he said, then poked at the fire gently, as though he was afraid to disturb it. It flared, then settled into a coral glow.

“Yes, as solitude is, as well.”

He laughed, a low rumble, not put off by her sarcasm.

She sat cross-legged. “I’m practicing being still in the center of the dark. If you want to join me you will have to conform.”

“Here on my land? And how do you know it’s the center?”

But he sat opposite her, fire between them, the night’s depth and breadth embracing them. Sophie listened, eyes closed to better hear waves advancing and leaving, the simmering of wood in flame. She expected him to jostle about and clear his throat, say something stupid. But nothing. Nature had many songs,and a fine hum vibrated in her core. Until he broke the spell.

“The sky is a map of places we have been before, I think.”

Sophie opened her eyes. He was leaning back on his hands, looking at the constellations and other tiny lights in the blackness.

“Where do you think you’ve been?”

“I don’t know. I just feel this isn’t the whole story. Look at the way the darkness dances up there. How much are we missing?”

“I second that feeling. Dancing heavens…” She let out a sigh that felt good.

Sophie observed at the fine shape of his head, dark hair falling forward, shoulders set against the gleaming midnight. The way he seemed to fit in the woods and this moment. The fire was nearly out but they stayed on, speaking only when it seemed necessary.

In the morning the weather wasn’t good. Wind rattled the screen door; the sky looked like a bruise above a swaying treeline. They played poker and chess, ate leftover spaghetti and too many brownies. By late afternoon someone suggested they sit on the dock. See how the storm swept in. They went down as felt the air crackle as thunder boomed, crescendos of sound through woods, across rough water. Lightning cut the sky into puzzle pieces. They waited until rain broke loose, first in splatters, then in a torrent that stung their skin. Cassie and the rest took refuge in the cottage. But Martin and Sophie found refuge in the boathouse, watching from an opened door.

“Ever sail?” he asked her, leaning against the boat.

“We had a sunfish. It was great, the challenge of it, and the way it sped and bounced along.” She leaned back, too, a few inches away, far enough to not give him false ideas.

“I always wanted to build a sailboat. My dad has this speedboat but I want another experience. That’s my goal this summer. I’m taking a class on week-ends. Have to work at our store long hours, but I can do it.”

“I like that. I’d try it out when its finished if you invited me.” She grinned at him. “I’ll be at an arts camp as a  camp counselor for three weeks. I get to practice my dancing, too, which is why I’m going.”

The wind died down; thunder was a distant echo. The rain was pummeling less, was now a pleasant drone.

“You do ballet, I guess?”

“No, I ‘do’ modern.” She laughed and pushed his shoulder. “Have you ever seen a dance performance?”

“I saw two snowy egrets. They looked pretty good. Can you do that?”

She laughed, head to the side, eyes seeking his. He looked down at her, smirking, then was intent on memorizing her features. She saw a surprising glint of silver in a wave of his hair and wanted to put her fingers there. She felt warmth from the lean lines of his body. Or it was their combined energy, travelling through their cells and out to each other. Everything felt dense but elastic, as though time was fluid and they were moving far beyond it just by breathing. She had to move or she would combust, even disappear into thin air.

“Let’s swim in the rain!” she shouted and ran. At water’s edge, she tossed t-shirt, bra and shorts onto the shore, kicked off her sandals. Then stopped. What was she doing?  But he was there, too, stripping off shirt, pants, shoes, wading into sterling grey waters. He sank, a beautiful, shining stone.

Under the surface and up again, under and up, she swam against the waves until she felt a luxurious weariness. Martin sliced through the water, then floated beside her. Waited as rain melded with lake water, their skin with the air.

She moved closer as he reached for her.

“Come here, Blaze, let’s hold each other while we can.”

They met like they were meant to, face to face, heart to mind and soul. It was that simple. Crucial. It was unavoidable–to be together, be happy all summer long and longer still.

Sophie returns to the photograph. She knows what to do with it. She’s going to frame it, place it in her new office in the little house. And some day she might tell Mia: “He was there for a summer and a fall, then he left our country. To fight for it. He did not return. He passed over to the places he showed me that first night. And I love him. Even now.”

Before the Time of Vespers

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(Image from La Collectionneuse)

She had gone out one afternoon and come back another woman.  She’d cut her hair. He’d followed her into her apartment, then to her bathroom where she drew a brush through what was left. Dean tried not to look directly at it. Instead he studied her face as she talked while his peripheral vision gave him a picture. He’d become attached to the length of bright auburn. It was as if a lovely tree had lost its final fiery adornment in the span of a few hours. Now Kelsey stood there in all her compactness, looking spare, arrestingly so, and more self-determined than ever.

Valiant was a word that came to him, he didn’t know why. Valiant and maddeningly attractive as she talked about her decision to have it shorn off.

But Dean felt alarmed by her action, as though she’d told him she had decided to become an entomologist or drive all the way to Nova Scotia alone. It didn’t make sense to him. She knew it affected him–she tracked his reactions like a fox, that one–but kept on talking, a jaunty lilt to her speech.

“I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I’m drawn to that life and want to explore the possibilities. Before its too late, you know? I need to simply and cutting my hair is a start. I’m thrilled with it. I wanted to tell you all this later but you barged in and here we are …you always have thought my space was semi-public. Or partially yours.”

Kelsey chortled, ruffling her cap of hair.

“I was surprised when it sort of looked like yours! Funny, huh? Modified pixie, the stylist said. Not sure how I feel about that. Well, Dean-o, imitation is the best flattery. But look, the point I’m trying to make is that I want to discover what will happen if I…”

Her voice faded even though her lips kept moving on and on. Dean leaned against her bathroom wall and thought of reasons he ought to pay attention. That voice was like water falling over him, soothing yet powerful as the music she made.

He first liked her face because it reminded him of someone he knew before, a girl he used to chase around the fields in Iowa. He hadn’t imagined being a dancer before ten. He was broad of shoulder even as a toddler, and was husky, strong as an ox, his dad bragged. Dean shrugged and smiled obligingly. His mother knew something else was fated as he grew tall, lean and dreamy-eyed. Hannah, the girl he thought of when he met Kelsey, heard his secret hope of dancing and murmured it was strange; he was a third generation farm boy. They parted ways shortly after.

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              (Image Courtesy of Tom Curtis/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The two shared the same small, pouty mouth even when happy but Kelsey had a laugh that was a shock of  delight. Her eyes were close to sapphire blue in strong light. Hannah’s were middling grey, like her, somehow.

Kelsey had determined what he felt for her way before he knew it. She’d kept it playful. They’d been living in the same apartment building for a year and becoming friends was so easy he felt right at home with her. Then he began to feel a shift.

“I see you hanging over your balcony when I go to work,” she’d said, “and you might as well shout out your intentions to the neighborhood.”

He’d been irritated. “What intentions would those be, know-it-all?”

She’d blinked a few times, her jewel eyes flashing across the hallway. “Really? Could anyone mistake your looks for mere platonic wishfulness? Let me get a camera.”

She’d gotten her Nikon and started to shoot away, defining something though he wasn’t sure what. Then they were side by side, his arm around her shoulders. She deleted them all except for one, with their foreheads together, eye-to-eye, a big hug keeping them close. He’d pulled her closer.

“I’ve got to get to the studio,” he’d said, “but send me that!”

Later, when it was closing in on midnight, he checked his email and there it was. They looked bright and close as tulips in a vase. He was looking at her as though at the sun. He was going to be distracted for awhile, he’d thought ruefully. But it got harder, not better or more exciting or fulfilling. He danced every day and auditioned in between and when he saw finally saw her she was working on music history or composing or singing some song. He’d sit on the floor outside her door and listen to her sing. The landlord saw him and asked if he was in the doghouse. Dean got up without a word and entered his apartment. She never knew he did that. She didn’t know a lot of things. But she did know how much suffering his body endured, how auditions robbed him of sleep and what his favorite classic movies were. And how he berated, perhaps hated, his competition. She was patient with that. She “got” him while most did not.

Kelsey knew he wanted to be with her. She clarified her viewpoint by calling him “my best friend since seventeen when I shared my love for both Hesse and Kierkegaard with Marie Solis.” He was often thanked for being there when she was driven crazy by the second movement of a musical score she was writing. Or when she had vicious headaches that only eased with a head and shoulder massage. Dean was entrusted with tales about her parents that confounded him and he told stories about rural life that scared her. He thought they’d crossed into an unguarded place and it felt better than most things in his life. He imagined more.

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But she didn’t love him. Not like that.

Kelsey paused now; it seemed she was waiting for an answer or question. Dean leaned toward her so he could gaze into the three way mirror. They looked back from three separate pictures that appeared identical at first, but then Dean had the unnerving sensation they were different, and turned toward him with twelve questioning eyes. He recognized fear. What had she just said?

He stepped away and clamped his lower lip with his upper and breathed in through his nose. Exhale slowly. Be calm.

“What are you telling me?” he asked. “Did you say something about moving or did I imagine it? Is that what the hair thing is about? Women cut their hair when they are about to do something drastic, my dad used to say. So–changing things up or what?” He crossed his arms over his chest.

Kelsey sat on the three-legged yellow stool by the tub.

“Yes. I said: I’m going to stay in a monastery for three months. I want to study the music. The chants. Everything. I need solitude, to be fully integrated into music. I want to compose something much, much deeper. And God has always been a burning spot deep within. You know this, or some of it…”

Dean dropped his arms and slid to the floor opposite her.

“Hang on a minute! Monastery? With monks?”

“Benedictine monks.”

He peered at her from under bushy eyebrows. “You want to be a religious person, like a nun, someday?”

Kelsey’s laugh pinged off the tiled walls. “No, I want to experience music in a different way. Sacred music has its own forms and delivery. It would be as if you decided to take a break from jazz dance and studied modern dance, maybe. A different path of creative development. For me, spiritual development, too.”

Dean flexed his feet and watched her ruffle her hair. She was still breathtaking to him,  a woman who had ways and ideas that stunned him. He was surrounded by vanity and ego and aggressive competition. Yet he loved what he did. It had called to him  just as he music had called to her. And now it was taking her to a different level, a divergent path. He felt his core contract; he wanted to say it aloud.

“Have I told you how much–”

But Kelsey started to hum, then sing a wordless melody. He closed his eyes as a song took shape, lifting to the ceiling, dancing on the walls, reflecting off the mirrors and making its way across the distance between them. Into his chest. It was like a journey with prayer and yearning intertwined. It was her language; he listened and tried to hear her. It was like the ring of crystal. Pure. True.

He held her afterwards, calm only on the outside. Then she drifted to the living room and stood with her face to the window. When Dean left it was getting dark. He had to accept what was, didn’t he? He needed to walk, let his arms swing and his head empty out. He entered the park where they liked to picnic. If he had turned around he would have seen Kelsey in the distance leaning over the balcony, her gesturing hands saying wait, her face blurred by twilight but he was carried by the rhythm of his feet. The tempo: a brisk, solitary dance.
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A Letter from the Hinterlands

DSCN0774It peeked out from the mail pile like a lost missive, a thing out of time like a telegram. Who wrote longhand anymore? It belonged to a woman, perhaps. She studied the letter a good long moment, then slit the sturdy flap with her jeweled letter opener. It annoyed her that her hands trembled but this was no ordinary communique. Regina couldn’t read it yet. She sat on the bench by the door and closed her eyes.

Kat and Frederick, who all knew and touted as Derick the Great or just Derry then, had moved after they’d married. All the way to New York, upstate as evidenced by the postmark. Regina had been glad of their exodus, so relieved that she had thrown a small but lively party, inviting all the people she liked best. She didn’t say why she was cooking Cornish hens for eight at eight; she didn’t have to. They drank a lot of wine and danced to music that each person brought, then sank into the sofa and chairs, quiet. Regina didn’t whine or snivel and make a scene. The gathering was too good for that. But they saw that Derry’s photo was turned face down on the mantel, his small bird paintings studies removed from the wall between the windows. When everyone slunk out, smiles drooping, Regina changed into her pine green fleece robe and stoked the fire. There was nothing too wonderful left, she had thought. There were only days of stressful, possibly meaningless work. And nights that hit her like an anvil upon flimsy silver.

He didn’t write but once, a long year after the move, a brief email that told her he had found a better job, a curator position. All  because of the recommendations she’d slipped him at Kat and his wedding.

Derry had worked with Regina at the Montblanc Gallery for over a year before they became more than friends. Then, fireworks that ended with a jackknife dive into love. When he wrote, she’d deliberated for days what to say, how to stay neutral, how to not feel as though she was being mauled by a cougar again in the middle of a wasteland. She changed her email address.

After that, she felt better. It showed her she was strong enough to avoid his reach or better: she no longer felt compelled to love him. It was a choice to say “yes” when you know it has to be “no” and she had a strong will. Regina was not going to let it soften and fail when the man did not even live within her orbit any more. Did not need her now. He had Kat, his childhood buddy. She was rather high-handed, a reasonably decent patron of the arts and became his most adoring wife. They had made a pact as children, he’d told Regina once, but never did he expect her to show up and finally make good on it. Nor did Derry expect to be torn between two women so different that it made his want to split into two men.

“I see,” she said.

She had just had dinner with him, so unsuspecting had she been. But he’d brought here there to tell her about this decision: engagement to Kat.

She cleared her throat to avoid choking. “You chose a well-trained, sweet little creature when you could have had a wild girl, a changeling sort that you seem to like a lot, a crazy adventure that could still take you to the edges of mind and body and bring you back howling and happy. You could have had me and we might have made all things possible.”

She put her fork down very slowly.

He’d studied his red napkin squashed beside a silver-rimmed plate. Derry had splurged on her with great food before rotten news.

“Yes, I know, I know. I know! But Kat and I want other things–they make good sense to me. They add up to a life that’s familiar and solid and that’s good, too. Different than what you and I’ve had but still good!”

“But better? Better than us?” she’d asked, the words verging on a harpy’s screech.

She could feel diners glance at her as she stood up. She pushed her chair back under the table with a delicate movement, patience and kindness registering on her exotic–that’s what Derry said–now sadly uneven features. Regina decided that moment that he just didn’t have what it took, the verve, the spontaneity, the capacity for the sort of love she had to share. It helped her to leave the plush room and him without shedding a tear or stumbling, without leaving a mess.

After the wedding, to which she’d RSVPed “that’s a negative”, she’d waited on the church steps behind a few of their friends. She could almost touch him as the photographer took a hundred pictures to immortalize his decision. He was surprised to see her but Kat didn’t even register her presence

“Reggie,” he said, although he didn’t say it aloud, just shaped her nickname.

She’d reached forward and gave him an envelope which enclosed her letter of recommendation for further gallery or museum work, or whatever he felt utterly sensible. And then she left her heart teetering on a ledge somewhere she couldn’t name. She thought she might scream but it dissipated as she drove the long way home, past woods and the river path they’d walked and the osprey nest.

Regina watched tree branch shadows interrupt the stream of light that fell on her feet. The letter felt cold in her hands. She took it to the dining room table so she could lean on it, then opened it before it froze in her shaking fingers. She’d not stop until she was done.

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Dear Regina,

It has been a long while since we have communicated–three years, is it?–and I am compelled to reach out. I am hoping you will see fit to read the entirety of this; it isn’t long and I get to the point now.

Frederick is ill. In fact, he’s more than ill, he’s become heartsick…a respiratory infection visited its wrath upon him two months ago, but he recovered eventually. 

No. It’s you, Regina, that’s stymied his return to a full and happy life, and so, I am asking you this one favor now.

He is not creating work anymore. He must have your counsel, needs your great hope in him. He won’t listen to me, says I don’t understand. Please come and see him. Show him he can paint again. Convince him he is worth more than a good paycheck. Explain that he’s just lost his way like artists can and do sometimes–you know how it is, but I do not! I so hope you can find the compassion to come, to remind him of his true nature.

I will be forever indebted to you for this. I know it will be hard for you. He has too much pride to ask for you but he needs you before he falls into further despair. I will fly you out as soon as you can come.

With hopeful anticipation,

Katerin

Regina stood up.

“Well.”

She walked around the living room, into the kitchen where she got a glass of water, then circled back to the letter and picked it up and read the last two paragraphs. She went to her desk and took out a pen and paper with a grey and burgundy chevron design on the edges.

Derick/Frederick, known to we who know you as Derry!

Get ready because I’m coming. You just hit a nasty snag. I’ll give you three days to pick up that paint brush and make one stroke on paper or canvas. After that you’re on your own in the great wide wilderness. We all have to test our survival skills sooner or later. Ultimately, alone–but luckily I’m offering absolutely free assistance this one time. Consider it a delayed wedding gift.

Ever Reggie

She tore Kat’s careful letter in half. Kat had Derick and far better handwriting but she, Regina, had some moxie and forgiveness. She could possibly be an urban warrior of the heart. She went to the hall closet and reached behind her coats until her fingers found Derry’s two small bird paintings. Two ospreys in flight and a heron at watch over the river. Regina thought it time to give them back their spot on the bare wall.

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Big Surprise

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                              (Photo Credit: Garry Winogrand)

We were heading out to Lake Winnatchee when I got a call about a party on Rinehart Road. The reception was sketchy but it sounded like Amy. The address matched. They have the best parties, what with the moneyed and the mad hiding out in the woods. I knew Karin and her folks well enough so I changed directions and floored it.

“What are you doing, man?” Janna narrowed her eyes and sulked. “The lake and a bonfire sound a lot better to me. The Winslows aren’t even that friendly.”

“It’s Saturday night. Why not check it out?”

Janna gave me a look. She likes plans. I like spontaneity and sped up. Her hand smacked my thigh so I backed off a little.

The trees were dense, the night thickening with darkness. Every now and then someone would speed by and honk, blares lingering. In Marionville it isn’t easy to go unrecognized, especially when you drive the only red Camaro.

“Everybody seems to know you, Tony,” Mick said. “Did you play football or something back in the day?”

“It’s the ‘or something’,” Janna answered for me. “First football, then just playing. That was well before me.”

Mick snickered. I could see his “thumbs up” in the rearview mirror.

If only he knew. Mick was Janna’s visiting cousin and a minor smartass. I was one of those guys who made a wrong turn, then got spun around. Too much business late nights, the kind that attracts cops. A couple of jail visits and I was cured. Or you might say Janna happened. She’s the sort of person who finds the best in people but won’t let on until she’s impressed by at least one thing.  We met three years ago–she’s from a town down the road. I definitely proved myself by expanding my family’s marine business. And she has talents, good at photography. She can flush out and shine up people’s true characters.

Mick rolled the window down. The autumn night was musky but sweet. Mosquitos were not yet gone and would cruise along with us if I slowed down, then buzz on in.

Janna craned her neck at Mick. “Roll the window back up. There’s the beach where we’re not having a bonfire, where Tony almost proposed but got cold feet.”

Mick snapped my shoulder. “You need to rectify that. You both passed twenty-one a long time ago.”

Jana grunted. “One more year. Then I’m leaving town.”

“She’s off to seek her fortune in the wedding photo business. Detroit, watch out,” I said.

“Well, it won’t be my own wedding pictures that make my name.”

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I down-shifted and turned left. Cars were parked along a curve, a line that snaked a distance. The Winslow house was blazing and we could catch a few strains of music. A live band, maybe. We parked at the end of the row and got out.

“So, Tony, why do you think we can crash this party? What if it requires dress clothes? Look at us.”

I hesitated. Janna looked excellent in red pants with black sweater. Her boots held a sheen under the street lamp glow. I always wore chinos; dad required it and I hadn’t changed. Mick was more ragged in jeans and jacket. We’d know soon enough if we got in.

The front door looked taller and wider. I hadn’t recalled it being a deep red, but it had been awhile. I rang the doorbell and they rang out in a bass voice. It opened wide and we could see to the back of the house. Well, to the crowd. A short, balding man just stood there, drink in hand, smiling at us. His free hand caught the door frame for balancing.

I held out my hand. “Tony Arnell, Russell’s son. May we come in?”

“Of course! Come in and check out the fun. I will go in search of more sustenance. Oh, Carl here. Have the Ford dealership.” He shook my hand and moved on.

“He had a tux on, Tony!”

“We can go around the side yard to the back.”

“No, that’s too sneaky. What was this supposed to be for? Should have brought my camera!”

Carole Winslow scurried past the open door, disappeared, then came back. Amy’s mother, the hostess, full of good will.

“Tony Arnell! And…is it your girlfriend… Janna, right? Come on in–if you dare!” She looked us over, a gaze like a magnifying glass, then smiled her toothsome grin. “Never mind. It’s after ten thirty. Everyone is long past caring. My fiftieth birthday. I invited your folks but said they were off to somewhere else.”

Amy walked by with someone on her arm and waved. I returned the greeting as we stepped in.

“Chicago”.

“Well, so much better!” Carole shut the door and turned to a well-wisher.

We slipped through the crowd and made for the food, drinks and music. The band was good, though it played old standards, not my choice. Janna grabbed cheese and a sparkling water; Mick grabbed a drink and headed toward the band.

“Nobody cares. We’re just Marionville, not New York.”

She ate and watched, took a swig, then looked at me with those deep-set grey eyes. They were like the lake in winter but shot full of warm currents. “Well, let’s join the throng on the dance floor.”

I was never voted even a good dancer but how could I turn down a woman who used words like “throng”? This was a large couple of rooms and the music echoed. I danced reluctantly, if moving most parts of my body qualifies. Several people greeted us, mostly known. Everybody looked giddy and didn’t comment on attire. I hoped Carole was happy with fifty.

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After a few minutes we danced ourselves out to the veranda where citron candles flickered. We shivered and stood closer, leaning against the low stone wall. My eyes roamed over the scene. I wondered if they had sung “Happy Birthday” yet. I could sing better than dance.

And then, there she was, like a hallucination or a dream.

Champagne-colored dress to match her hair, which was in her trademark upsweep. Her body swinging, her fingers snapping, eyes averted as she disappeared inside the music. The dangling earrings must have weighed a ton. As if she felt my stare, she looked at me. She stopped, patted the arm of the man opposite her and took her time coming over. It all slowed down, her walk, the dancers and the song. I started to go back in but couldn’t figure out how to avoid her so turned around and looked over the lawn–could we jump the wall?

I could smell that luxurious, sweet, decadent scent before she got there. It hovered, a warning. I waited it out.

“Tony, Tony, Tony.”

Janna spun around but I turned only when I felt I had to.

“Gilly McHenry. What are you doing way over here in little Marionville?”

Gilly’s lips plumped like a big pink peony. “I am about to live here. Can you believe it?” She flashed a smile at Janna.

I started and blinked, then Janna stepped away from me.

“My girlfriend, Janna Baker.”

Gilly slid her hand across the space between us and floated in closer. Janna took it, then let it fall. Said “hello”, then frowned.

“You’re going to live here? Off the beaten path?” I almost stuttered like a kid.

She laughed, that famous raucous sound hammering my nerves. “I am about to marry Neil Hendron. The real estate guy? Met him at a nice party in Traverse City and we hit it off. Imagine that–I told you I wasn’t long for single life!” She chortled. “I wondered if we would ever meet again, Tony, my boy.”

“Again?” Janna’s voice sliced the air in two. Her head turned to me. “Did I know that, my boy, and just forget?”

Gilly took my other arm. “Sure, Jan. We had a summer awhile back. A Traverse City summer fling, right? I think he was twenty-one. Or younger. But he was singing karaoke like a pro! This one’s got some pipes, you know that?”

“Yeah,” Janna said. Her eyes were going grey to charcoal.

I put my arm around Janna. “But, still, Marionville? This guy doesn’t live up here year-round, does he?” Please say no, I thought.

“No, just summers and week-ends. So I could see you on the  slopes this winter, right? If I get any good at skiing!” She fiddled with a stray strand of hair at her ear. “We might marry here, though. Something different. You should meet him.” She looked over her shoulder. “He’s quite a talker.”

I could feel Gilly’s perfume latching onto me, settling in. I worried that it would attract more mosquitoes. Her glow dimmed a bit but her eyes were still a shocking navy blue. Janna was biting her lip, not a good thing.

“Gilly,” I said, holding out my hand to her. “I’m glad you found the right one!”

Then we turned away from the woman with the spell-casting perfume, down the back steps and toward my car.

“Who is she?” She asked. “Wait. It has to be a bad story.”

“It was that summer when you helped your sick aunt in Ohio, remember?”

“Well, six weeks, enough time for trouble, right?”

Then she put her hands alongside my face and said, “Despite your lapse in good taste, I love you, anyway.” She leaned against the Camaro. “I wonder if I can photograph her wedding? She’d make a great picture!”

“So. Will you marry me?”

Janna’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Whoa, big surprise number two! Let me think that one over.”

“Okay….while I’m waiting, we should call Mick to come out.”

“Maybe Mick will bump into her. A thrill a minute for him.”

We sat on the curb and studied the October sky, our breath creating little clouds. The stars were having their own quiet party. We were just spectators. I sang a tune I’d heard the band play. Janna rested her head on my shoulder, where it belonged. I thought: that’s a “yes”.