Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Rosewater Cafe Knife

I slipped it into the narrow cotton envelope, its heft and shape sagging in my pants pocket, and wove my way through the public gardens. I had my eye on the huge wrought iron gate at walkway’s end and sped up to close the gap between us. Also, Monroe and me–and the stocky security guard who had been watching us. If I could make the gate I’d be free to hop on my powder blue Vespa and speed away. As I held back from running, I imagined myself as seen by the guard–nearing middle age, slim, with curly hair yanked into a messy ponytail, my exercise clothing dark: nondescript. What might he say if calling in his suspicions?

“An older gal moving at a fast clip, and she hid something in her pocket–no, didn’t see her take anything but she talked to this kinda shady guy, then took something small from him and–huh? No, not sure. Well, anyway, going after her.”

How innocuous a thing, a woman meeting a man and exchanging something–might it be drugs, keys, maybe a rose cutting, even a hot diamond necklace? I laughed as I approached the gate but it was more a gasp of barely subdued hysteria.

And then I felt a hand on my forearm.

“Miss, please stop.”

I stopped, waited, breathing harder than desired. He circled me, wide face marked by a crooked half-smile, a friendly accoster, then stood back a few feet as I wasn’t moving. I did consider if I could make a dash for it but he was between me and open space. My pocket was laden with evidence, my jacket barely covering it at hip length.

I looked at him, eyebrows raised in faint surprise. “Yes?”

“Step aside so I can ask you a few questions.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m on my way to an appointment. Is there a good reason you are trying to detain me?” I tried to suppress irritation and fear bubbling beneath my words and started to smile right back but didn’t quite manage it

“Step aside, we’ll see, Miss.”

Miss, is that we get called no matter our age? I wanted to inform him I was old enough to be his great aunt but sniffed and stepped toward deep pink rhododendron bushes.

I knew Monroe was long gone, ordering a coffee and croissant and feeling relieved. He was good at that, here one moment, gone the next–story of our nebulous relationship for twenty years. We were not a couple but we seemed never entirely free of each other. It was like sharing a vast broken web where one or the other of us dangled awhile, then spun odd threads that guaranteed we’d climb back on and cross paths every few years. But what would you expect, we were sort of blood-tied, a family member being his wife once upon a time.

“Would you empty your pockets, please?”

I was incredulous. What would I take from a garden? It made no sense that he’d stop me; he had to be bored, a rookie or plain mean-spirited. I knew what I had but he didn’t, and besides, what true harm was there if he did? I made an impulsive decision to pull it out, slowly, the black cloth covering it wrapped snugly.

“Please slowly hand that to me, Miss,” the security guard said.

But I unwrapped it first, gingerly, so that he could see the ornately carved leather sheath that covered the 7 inch blade, and the leather wrapped steel handle darkened by years and years of being held. The knife was handmade by my father, Val, back in 1982 and that Monroe stole many times. Val’s daughter was its inheritor. Monroe’s ex-wife. My half-sister, Riley.

“Whoa there,” he said, and stepped back.

He picked up his walkie talkie, then studied me. What did he see? My anxiety that it would be taken again? Old memories evoked? I would not break down. But maybe run if he took it. Be done with it all just like that.

“This may need some sort of carry permit, I think, let me look at it,” he said with a grunt and a sigh. He turned the sheathed knife over and over in his hand, studying the intricate leather tooling, its wide loop almost cracked apart that used to slip onto an owner’s belt. Val’s and Davey’s until Davey went into the Army and didn’t return, and then Riley’s, until Monroe got a hold of it.

“What?” I stared at him, hard enough that my eyes were yelling at him. Absurd. But I’d felt Monroe and I meeting meeting in public was not so wise, times being what they unfortunately were, but Monroe is bolder than smart, which accounts for trouble he has generated. It took us all of less than a minute, we didn’t actually chat. I have no excuse other than I don’t trust him, don’t like him anymore, so always meet him in public. We’d talked on the phone–that led to this moment.

The return of the knife.

“It’s family owned and finally returned to me. A genuine Cosenti knife. I’m Lilly Cosenti.” As if that meant anything to this guy with the belly and the sweaty brow, hands belonging to a plumber not a security guard, who was handling my knife with keen interest.

The guard looked at me skeptically, shifted on tired wide feet, weighed the knife in his broad palm as if it was a possible piece of gold. Which it was to some people. One of the first knives fashioned by Valentino Cosenti.

He jutted his lower lip as if impressed, and angled his head at me. “Okay, maybe it’s all good, but it should not be here. Not these days, you know. Your ID.” He looked me up and down, memorizing my ordinariness. The mole above my lip to the left. The sunspots across my chest. My roughened skin from a lifetime of ranch work.

“Sure.”

I gave him my driver’s license, wondering who trained this guy. Was he taking my knife and calling cops or just passing time? He had no idea what this was about and I was not about to tell him. I had to get going. My cool Vespa was on loan; I had to return it to the hotel, call a cab, catch a train.

He handed the license back, rubbed his neck contemplatively as he studied my knife once more, then indicated a bench close by.

“Let’s talk.”

I moaned, followed him, sat. I had just come over three hours to climb aboard that plane. I eyed the gate once more, but gave up.

“Tell me about it, Miss Cosenti. ”

He said this like it was an order and if I didn’t obey, I’d be sorry. Oh, to be at the mercy of an aimless security guard who had nothing better to do than suspect a woman like me. Who had some fancy, worrisome knife. Weren’t there a few truly lurking about that he could interrogate, then escort out? He watched me as I took off my baseball cap, smoothed stray curls away from my damp face.

“Alright, then, it was like this…”

I settled and so did he, his feet crossed at the ankles as he leaned his bulk way back, ready for my explanation. As much as I’d tell.

******

“We lived in Wyoming,” I began. “My mother’s family has always had a big ranch, so when my dad married her it also was his. They loved training horses and we had cattle, lots. Anyway, by the time I was ten they were doing better than my grandparents had, more horse breeding and training, but my mother also had a passion for cooking and what I’d call hospitality. She pleaded for the run down cafe in town, and though he told her it wasn’t a good bet and we needed her at the ranch, she won the argument. Named it the Rosewater Cafe. Her name was Rose and she said it’d be a refreshing stop along our lonely road. I often helped out there, though I’d sure rather deal with the horses, work outside. My dad, meanwhile, was getting good at his hobby, turning out more and more knives, then selling some. It was a little extra income and he liked that. All seemed to be working out real good for them–for us.

“Then one day–I was fifteen–this foreign car pulls up in a swirl of dust and out steps a tall, large woman with short white-blonde hair and a girl some older than me. My dad rushed to meet her–Mom was at the cafe–and soon they argued. I waited to see what it was about–he was not an arguing sort of man–or when he’d introduce me. But it didn’t happen. The girl stood with hands on hips as though she was too fancy for the ranch and was disgusted–I distrusted her immediately.

I knew my dad was better than average to look at, and he had a way with people; women liked him more than necessary. So it occurred to me what it might be about, a past that had caught up with him. I went to the stables, saddled my horse and took off, didn’t go back til dark.

“When I returned they were, of course, gone. But not for long. In another week, after my parents chewed on the topic a few times, the girl was brought back. Riley was her name, and she was staying for the last few years of school. Whether or not Mom and I liked it. Dad seemed resigned but encouraged us all to try to be nice.”

I scrunched my shoulders up and looked at my watch. Time was wasting.

“When do you get to the part about the knife?” the guard asked. “And who was that girl?”

I frowned at him and took a deep breath. “Riley was my father’s earlier daughter, due to an error of judgement, he told Mom, and she was a spit fire–that was why her mother brought her there, so he could get her in line, I guess. It was true the ranch taught her good things. But it only half-worked. She learned to ride and groom horses okay. But she could get mouthy; also, distracted. And it was clear to me from the start she was a big deal to boys in town and from the ranches. I have to admit she couldn’t help it; she wasn’t so much gorgeous as she had charm like clover honey, the boys buzzed about her. Some are like that….my dad and she just had it. I was the other kind, the one behind the scenes, the one on the range, free and alone…”

The guard nodded; he was hooked by curiosity. I wanted to give him a shove and go. But my story was true and it turned out I enjoyed telling it–and he’d asked for it.

“Then Monroe came along.”

I recalled him in full technicolor. He had been–still was, of course–a few years older, easy to laugh, brawny, impressed with himself, testosterone like a flare that lit up everything. He moved like a mountain lion, stealth and grace. Another one that baffled. Intrigued me, okay, but I was busy working.

“He and Riley, though, made a match, nothing anyone could do or say would change that. As soon as she graduated that was it, they got hitched despite our dad wanting to run Monroe off. But Riley settled down, so did Monroe, it seemed. The problem was, there were still others who wanted to get close to her…like Monroe never existed. I guess ’cause he was an outsider from Arizona and so didn’t quite count..”

I shrugged in mild sympathy for Monroe, then stretched, raising arms high, twisting side to side. It was getting late. I saw my so-called guard gripping the knife as he waited to hear the punch line. It irked me that he had taken it, that I needed to tell him all this.

“The knife, miss– what about that part?”

I shook my head to clear it, stared beyond the gate. I never could stop a story once started, yet time was slipping by.

“Well, that knife you have that’s mine–it used to be in a wooden case with a glass pane in it so it was just visible, and kept under the counter at Rosewater Cafe. Dad put it there for Mom’s protection–you just never knew, he said. But as his name circulated due to his skills, customers wanted to study it, even made good offers on it. Eventually, though, it was locked and displayed from a high shelf above the coffee bar. It was like free advertising; his knife business got hot.

“Riley and I both worked at Rosewater. By ages twenty and eighteen we had made a truce, had found ways to get along as we got older. Then, one day Monroe was just finishing a three eggs sunny-side up with beef sausage breakfast when this guy walks in and asks for Riley, eyes cloudy with anger and hurt. I won’t bore you with whys and wherefores but just say that Monroe took great offense over it all. There was a bad fight and then Riley got the knife case down and smashed it open with a hammer and…and…I can tell you my mother fell down in a dead faint–it took her a long time to get over things.”

I gulped, heart banging. I had not once told the truth of that morning twenty-four years ago to anyone outside the family.

“Yeah, then what?’ the guard said, leaning heavily toward me, eyes popping. “Someone die…?”

“Of course not.” It occurred to me this was what the guard waited for, some bloody end, the thrill of arresting me. “But the guy got hurt between fists and that knife.He ran out the door but threatened revenge. But there was no next time. Monroe left Riley the next day, went back to Arizona… though he kept in touch–they had that need of each other that never really ended despite remarriages. The wounded lovelorn guy had vanished, had a few scars. And no one called police; it just wasn’t what you did. The stranger shouldn’t have barged in, said his piece….

“Dad kept his proud if deadly creation under lock and key in a secret place until he died. He had willed it to her. I guess he felt Riley was the one who deserved to live with its history or maybe he was saying she was a tough nut and there was her reminder. It was valued at about $5800 then, ten years ago. Yeah, it is that beautiful a thing…”

The uniformed man pulled the knife out of its sheath a little and examined it, the quickly put it away. Just him doing that sort of scared me but I understood his desire to see it. It was so finely wrought it seemed a work of art, more than a weapon. So many had wanted it in their collections. But it had been used for harm.

“Monroe wrenched it from Riley, took it to get rid of evidence–it was meant to be gone forever. But then dad got it back from Monroe with a bribe…stupid, huh, family feud like that. But it was worth so much, too. Riley finally told Monroe, you’ve gotta lay off, it’s a family heirloom, hers when dad died.”

“So how did Monroe get it once more? What a mess.”

“Yeah. He stole it from Riley after she refused to talk to him again, don’t know how. She suspected him, of course, but was sick of the whole thing. I kept out of it. Then all of a sudden last month he decided to tell me he did it and felt guilty, said he was ready to let go, stop the craziness. He’s made a decent living buying and selling antiques and other stuff; I figured he’d finally sold dad’s knife.” I shivered in a gust of wind. “But he didn’t. Now I have it.”

The guard slapped his thighs.”But why didn’t he just give it back to Riley, ask forgiveness and all?”

I scrunched my face in mock horror. “No way. They are sort of sworn enemies, despite still being soul mates. And she likely saved his life with her intervention–I didn’t tell you, the guy had a handgun back of his jeans that was never drawn once she got him, he was hurt pretty bad…But no, they don’t even talk now.” I looked at my hands in my lap. “Besides, it is really part of my dad’s and mom’s legacy–way before Riley had in in her grasp.”

“Oh…so Riley was the one, how about that.”

And he handed it back to me, just like that. Stood up to his full five feet, six inches. He was about to say more when his walkie talkie crackled and a muffled voice was unintelligible so he talked back and brought it close to an ear.

“I gotta get going,” he said, “someone’s messing up the flowers along with their dog.”

“That’s it, I can go now?” I tucked the leather-encased knife into its cloth, shoved it back in my pocket.

He raised a hand. “Thanks for the tall tale–that was interesting–but I have work to do–good luck, Miss Cosenti!”

He ambled off like a slow bear on the run.

I stood slowly, blinked in honeyed sunlight.

From yesteryear to the present moment was a long way to leap. But I strode through the gate, found the pretty blue Vespa, took off, my knife secretly gleaming. Riley would be happy to have it back. If it ever got to her.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Penny Park

If she could have avoided Marsten Street she would have, but the traffic was so bad Cam had to take the lane she could grab. It made her turn right and there was the street she tried to not use, cross, go near. It was inevitable that one day she would be corralled into its proximity. In this case, broad daylight, that mid-day blazing sunshine baking sidewalks, awnings casting heavy shadows, folks dabbing their brows while rushing to restaurants, shops, offices.

Then it came upon her, the small triangular park called Marsten Park–though that conjured up visions of columned manses and overarching, elegant boughs, of shiny long cars and women in linen dresses with floppy-brimmed hats. Now, however, it seemed closer to that incarnation. A neighborhood many invested in and it had paid off, she heard, but she’d not been here in two decades. Back in her childhood there were smudgy row houses that raucous families inhabited, sometimes two or three generations, life spilling out doorways any time of day, even night.

Penny Park, they’d called it when she was a kid. About big as a penny, her ma had said, and worth half as much. But they loved it, the kids, and some of the parents who brought smaller ones, Never mind it had one wonky swing for some years and a dented slide, with a horseshoes area (if you brought your own horseshoes), and four splintery picnic tables positioned close enough that they’d sometimes share extra burgers or frankfurters and even private info despite trying to keep talk to themselves.

Someone honked and she came to, saw the light was green, turned again since there was no choice, skimmed past the shady park. Such mammoth trees and so many more plantings the park looked foreign. She had to look again and hard. It was about empty, a small parking strip only half-full. Cam checked her watch, pulled into a spot. Parked and idled. Tapped her index finger, long tapered nail clicking against the steering wheel. She sighed and got out, shut the door. The place she had loved her life must be faced.

The first thing: play equipment painted primary colors and clean as can be– monkey bars, swirly slide, seesaws, four working swings. It took up the entire northeast corner of the triangle. That they stood empty dismayed Cam but she took a seat at a varnished bench–one of three. The day had been brutal, that Bampton case gone awry, the DA chomping at the bit and growling at her. Some days she didn’t know why she had gotten into this business of justice for all. It clearly was otherwise. But the wily ins and outs, the complex and intriguing nature of people and even the process had pulled her in from the start.

Who would have thought it? She was a pianist in her earliest and dearest of dreams. She imagined freedom from many conventions that had become part of her life, anyway.

Maybe it had started here, she thought, and pushed flyaway hair under a bow of perched fancy sunglasses. It certainly was not a family destiny, her father being a supervisor at the steel plant, her mother an overworked cook at Eagle’s Perch. But she had been a bit different, enough so that her dad said a few times a year: “How did your DNA sneak into this common stew pot?” She sometimes wanted to say that it was him, he had a far better brain than most, he had just not had a chance to exercise it all ways he wanted. But she did her own– because she’d willed it so.

A little boy ran to a swing and his mother trailed after. Soon he was pumping chubby legs so fast the swing was jerkily lifting higher bit by bit, the mother pushing only cursorily as she checked her cell phone. A half-attendant mother, much like her own, only better dressed. Cam worried he would fly out and then what? Maybe land on his feet, like she used to, mostly.

Cam and company hadn’t needed mothers much, fathers maybe less, or so they thought. They’d all lived across the street or around the corners, and after school they made a beeline for the only decent green space within arms’ reach, Penny Park. In summer they hung out until they couldn’t any longer bear the hot metal slide or smothering humidity of a Midwestern summer. They had a ball for kick or dodge ball, a found can for Kick the Can, a slingshot or two for whatever, and tangy Lick-a-Made packets saved up all week or rich butter mints snagged from blue glass candy dishes. They came there to share snacks and tales, play a game, do nothing, to hide from grown ups and maybe get into a little trouble.

Except Ben–he hung back, always with a book and a cold and sweating bottle of Vernors ginger ale. Despite the fact that the two of them lived next door, they were as suspicious of each other the first couple of summers as if they’d lived ten blocks apart. Cam excelled at games; Ben excelled at little but reading and just being outside, yet not even school held much interest. They nodded at each other after she had tried and failed to engage him in a good conversation. He watched her from behind the books and she attempted to ignore him.

But things began to change when they each turned twelve. For one thing, his father was out of work when her mother lost her job. They talked about it once briefly, a tentative, small bond over the failures of adults. They had zero allowance then so there was nothing to do but hang out at the park or sulk at their tense homes.

And that led to more chat.

“Why always the books?” she asked and plopped beside him under “his” aged elm tree. He was worried it’d be cut down for Dutch elm disease; he was likely right.

“I like what I like,” he said, scooting over a bit to create more space between them.

“What this time?”

Habits of Mammals in Spring,” he read off the cover. “Would you like to know about them?”

“Would you like to hear about my piano lessons?” she said.

“That would be a ‘no’. I am not so thrilled by your piano playing.”

“There you have it on those topics, then. But you have to talk and listen to know more about anything, not just read.”

Still, his words had stung–and did he actually listen to her practice? She tried to remember to lower the window sash in the living room.

“See, you’re the talker,” he said, upper lip curling slightly. “I hear you every day, talk, talk, talk.”

Cam rolled up a tiny bug into a leaf and tossed it at him. “That’s what we humans do.”

He laughed and batted away the leaf, laughed as if pleased by that assessment or the bug or both. It was a good sound to her–surprising. They sat quietly another few minutes until she got tired of looking over his shoulder–he didn’t move, just kept tuning pages– skimming info about beavers. It was interesting but she wasn’t going to admit it.

After that they spent random bits of time together. He explained food sources for small mammals and where good bird lookouts were. She talked about playing Bach and pleasures of the always cool Beatles and why she found them both so fascinating. But when she took part in an impromptu foot race with their neighborhood friends, he hooted at her.

“Back and forth on the same grassy stretch, that’s no dang race!” he’d yell.

“Try me–I’ll beat you before you even say ‘go’!”

Then one time the kids paused to see if a miracle would occur and Ben would join up. When he shrugged, put down his book and got set to run, they tittered among themselves. Everyone knew Ben was not a sporty guy. Cam was good at this; she won three out of five times. So when they lined up behind the pine cones, she was ready to impress him again. They got off to a good start, she was ahead by several feet, outran Sam, then Ken, then Marie, when suddenly out from behind shot Ben, his skinny legs wound up and set loose as he dashed past all, and barely stopped himself with the natural barrier of a hefty tree trunk.

What a sprinter! Cam and the others gathered round him. Why hadn’t he shown them this before? What else was he hiding? Good grief, he was faster than all of them.

Ben smiled graciously, then went back to his tree, huffing and puffing a little, face reddened. He didn’t need to prove such things, he thought to himself, but now they knew something more about him. In fact, he had surprised himself a little.

Cam slid down in the dirt beside him after a few minutes.

“You had us fooled, you prankster,” she said.

He slowly turned his head and those blue-grey eyes reached in and it was like she was staring back at slow creek water, and there was something moving under the surface. Cam felt it, an energy that frizzed and she barely caught it, it was swift, wholly baffling. He shifted, scratched his chin as he did when thinking, and narrowed those eyes as if trying to see more. Then he was back to his book on rock hunting.

“I like to run, you just never asked me to,” he said.

And that was that. They were not as before, but more than before. They walked home later talking about running and rocks, her piano teacher who was mean and their parents who were more and more annoying. He felt the dry warmth radiating off her hand as it dangled beside his sweaty one; she felt the soft release of his breath on her bare shoulder as he said “later, then”.

It was as if they had always been that way. It seemed unlikely that things could ever go back. But there was plenty of time to ponder it if necessary.

******

Cam observed the boy and his mother tire of swings and they grabbed hands to cross the street; she heard trucks bump and roar past, crows scolding whoever passed. She noted a meter maid putting a ticket on her car–did they now dare charge for parking here?–but she looked into the trees and saw only Ben, age seventeen as he informed her that he was accepted into Stanford as soon as he graduated and, of course, a year early.

They had been to the riverfront all afternoon and finally–after dinner at The Floating Cafe, after they’d browsed the shops and bought matching copper and silver wire bracelets, after they’d run out of odd trivia to trade–darkness slid over sky and onto pathways and their persons. Bobbing boats were all lit up, and decorative lights gave a festive air to the marina. They leaned on the railing that kept them safe from the swirling brown river.

“I have to go, you know that– I wish it’d all work out differently,” he said, looking down at his holey sneakers. “But we are still together, right?”

She nodded, afraid to talk. He was two heads taller than she was and she was tall, and when he pulled her to him she felt as much as heard his heartbeat, steady and a little fast. It was always steady and fast– like a bird, she thought, and that swish swish had been a reassurance, a kind of audible tether to life when things got rough. His dense, warm chest, that heart, his chin resting on her head, his strong, long arms about her. This was the way they were to stand forever. She for him, he for her.

He held her head still with his, a few fingers woven through her thick, wavy hair and then he smelled the top of her head. This spot always gave off woodsy scents, the barest touch of musky something. Maybe it was because they’d spent so many years in the forest hiking, camping, sweating, dreaming: it was part of their skin and hers was richer than his. His comfort, each inch a fine venous map that led to greater things, to hope, to the next moment.

“Why don’t you come with me?” Ben asked, pulling back to see her face. “Be reckless for once?”

“Stop. Have to graduate, then University of Michigan if I am lucky, law school, a maybe or maybe not…As if you’ve never head this litany before.”

They let the night cover their sorrow; they talked of bears and Dvorak; they walked stealthily through the streets past midnight; they heard the river run with a vast indifference and then certain exuberance. It hurt to say goodnight, as if their words were windows shutting firmly to keep out a storm but also the sweeter breezes promised afterwards.

******

It was time. Cam leapt up from her bench in Penny Park, got her car, drove away and parked again fifteen minutes later. Here she was prepared to pay to park awhile, it was Bonner Auditorium, a small venue but all shined up, one meant for important events but smaller crowds. Lectures, solo concerts, chamber ensembles, readers’ theater, obscure dance company performances–these she had attended often the last three years since her return to help her mother relocate to a condo.

Since her divorce and the need for deeper peace. Which she had not quite found or created though she was getting closer.

Inside, people were talking excitedly, milling about and greeting friends, threading their way one end of the auditorium to the other. Cam found her seat easily; she had two reserved seats for the season but her mother was in too much discomfort from arthritis, to her regret. Cam’s breath caught in her chest and she coughed, fanned her lightly perspiring face with the program and wishing they’d ramp up the AC. When the lights were lowered she bit her lower lip to keep calmer. Someone was talking on stage, then there was a spattering of applause.

“Please welcome one of our very own, the esteemed microbiologist and author Benjamin Widdstone as he shares stories of his worldwide travels and research from his latest book, ‘Promise and Pleasure of the Humble Pond’.”

Sustained, excited clapping rang out and he was there in the spotlight, the boy and youth who had avoided all spotlights. Her hands clasped tightly in her lap: yes, that same slight leaning forward, darkish hair longer than she had ever seen, hands expressive as he warmed up to the topic, his deep, melodious voice–oh, that voice. She closed her eyes; a tear loosened.

She will wait for him backstage, tell him she can finally almost play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, yes, with some difficulty–but still, she has managed it a few times, it does please her a little–and perhaps he’d like to hear it? If he has a free hour before the next plane, next book, next field trip. If he has the inclination, if he cares to recall just a little of what she did–and find out what she does now. How they both have done without each other.

She let herself look up. Ben tilted his head, turned his body to one side and as if searching the crowd he peered into rows of shadowy seats, a flattened hand cutting off bright light. He paused one beat, two, three– then nodded, smiled, scratched the close cut, graying beard on lifted chin, and then continued.

Late to Arrive are True Confessions

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

He didn’t like to take “no” for an answer if there was any hope, at all, so he went back again. He had passed the house once only and it struck him as a beacon in the dark. It was large, had a good veranda, was painted a stone grey, and he could see a portico at a side entrance. More importantly, in the parallel yard nestled by a back fence was a smaller dwelling painted a Wedgwood blue that needed a touch-up. A hand lettered “For Rent” sign was hung haphazardly by twine on its doorknob. It compelled him to stop and ask about it.

Jim Jameson, as tall as they came in those parts, swung open the door, leaned down to study the stranger to take in Van’s interest in renting the tiny cottage and said, “No. Not for rent right now.”

“But there’s a sign on the door announcing it’s for rent.”

“That was last week. I changed my mind. ”

And with that Mr. Jameson took the steps two at a time, huffed and strode over to the dwelling and yanked off the sign. He put it face down on the ground, scowled at the younger man who’d followed him and barked, “I’ve changed my mind. A man can be of two minds and oscillate, can’t he? Today, it is certainly not for rent. So excuse me, I’ll say good day now and good luck.”

Van wandered after that, thinking things over. He hadn’t been back to Chesterfield since he’d left Chesterfield College his second year. He’d never expected to return. But life did turnabouts in ways that baffled him. His old father died so the family business, Warrington Jewelry, Ltd., met its own untimely end. He’d grudgingly worked for him fifteen years, ever since Walt Warrington was unwell with a worsening heart. There were not more appealing options then and his mother had passed several years earlier, so it was up to him. They had long dealt in vintage items, fine jewelry; they’d managed well enough, or so he thought, keeping a pleasant  home and bills paid.

Van had little idea there were old debts stirring up secret dismay and stress in his father. Why had he waited until the end to tell him the truth? And Van worried extra college costs had further jeopardized the business–and to what end? By the time Van got the mess untangled and debts paid off, there was not so much left. Nothing enticing in the hometown, either.  He had managed to keep a precious few thousand after all was addressed, so he took a needed break from the misery.

Although one might argue that Chesterfield was nothing much, either, it had two colleges, one for medical degrees (Health Sciences Junior College), the other for liberal arts. Van had attended the liberal arts college on a partial scholarship, thinking of teaching high school kids. He hadn’t quit due to poor grades or lack of interest, it was more complicated than that, enough that he’d given it up and re–entered the family business.

After all had been squared away and sold, even the family house, after two peaceful but lonely weeks camping in state parks he’d had a happier idea. What if he went back to where things were better, before they got worse? Chesterfield had inspired him once; it might again. So he’d driven five hours toward that wavering glimmer of possibility and started looking for a place of his own. And then things got weird.

Van got a cheap room night just three blocks away and decided after his odd encounter about the cottage to inquire about Jim Jameson at the Pub ‘n Grub.

“I was interested in renting the little place he’s got but he flat out turned me away. There was a large ‘For Rent’ sign.”

“Big Jim?” The bartender said, shaking his neat head of dark hair. “He’s something, isn’t he? Teaches economics and world history at Chesterfield College. Married a gal who had just graduated, an artist. We all liked his wife a lot. They came in Friday nights for burgers and fries, a couple beers.” He paused wiping down the counter to check out Van from beneath bushy eyebrows. “You’re new in town, right? Don’t know too many who aren’t anymore, what with yearly expanded college campuses.”

“Well,” Van said, “I am, but not entirely. I used to live here as one of those invading students long ago. Left after two years to work in the family business, though. Now I’m back for awhile, anyway. My father died so I’m looking for work again and a place.”

“Sorry to hear of your loss. The town has changed a bit, no doubt. More people, more work in some areas, less in others. What was the business you owned?”

“It ended with my father…we bought and sold good vintage jewelry.”

The bartender stuck out his hand and Van took it. “I’m Bart Tilley, by the by. Been here since before you came around the first time. Don’t believe I knew you then but now we’re acquainted.” He pushed another beer over. “On me this time, then it’s yours to pay.”

“Thanks, Van Warrington here. I lived in the dorms on the other side of town. Hoped to be a teacher; had a dream back then. So what can you tell me about that rental property situation?”

Bart lifted a finger to indicate Van should hold the thought while he waited on more customers. The place was filling up; it was after eight. Van was suddenly exhausted from the drive, from looking for housing he could afford, from a few surges of muted grief which he could not quite name as such. Only a marrow deep weariness was recognized. He was on the verge of change, he felt it, but nothing good had happened yet.

Bart slid back and inclined his head close to Van’s. “She died, his wife, ovarian cancer. Big Jim has not been himself for awhile now. Gotten surly. He often decides to rent the place and then just as fast to un-rent it. You may as well look elsewhere. You seem like a good guy. I’ll ask around. But it was her studio, she was a potter. Good stuff. Sad story. Hey, by the way, there’s a new, hip jeweler taking over Dundee’s Diamonds and Gold downtown. In the big green building, just stop by, see if they need your expertise.”

Bart left him with that news as he got too busy to return. But he looked over his shoulder and frowned, rubbed his bristly jaw when Van was looking across the bar, mulling his own thoughts over.

Well, Van thought, that poor guy, no wonder. He went to his motel room. As he lay with hands tucked behind his head late into the noisy night, he mused, Jewelry appraisal, buying, selling–is that what I’ll have to do again? And then: Bart is alright, he seems solid, I’ll go back sometime and see what he’s heard–if he meant it.

******

But the next morning he returned to Big Jim’s house. He loved that part of town and imagined the rent more than workable for such a small abode.

Big Jim opened the door, looked Van up and down, shook his head sadly then closed it. Van remained on the veranda, turned toward the wide tree-lined street and looked over graceful lawns upon which stood old, well kept two-story houses. They had called this “Professor Row” in contrast to “Student Row” streets. He had sometimes ridden over on his bike, gawked at the pretty houses and dreamed of making it there, himself, in ten years. Ten years that had slipped away.

The door partly opened once more. “Why are you still here? I have a class in a half hour, I don’t have time to shoo you away every five minutes.” He hunched his thin shoulders as if he was too defeated to stand up and appear otherwise. “I don’t think I can rent it, it’s that simple. So for now, no deal.”

“Yes, I get it, Bart told me it was your…wife’s studio. I’m sorry she passed.” Big Jim only looked over Van’s head into the distance a wistful moment. “I love its appearance. I like this street. I need a place that is affordable and have money in the bank and can find work as a jeweler. Or something.”

“Right, a jeweler, that’s what I need here. If you’d said landscape maintenance person I might consider it a moment.” He gestured around the overgrown yard, flowers blooming out of control, rows of hedges in grave need of pruning. “But I don’t plan to lease it just yet. As already noted.”

“So you know, I can do that, too. My father had an imposing yard in Pineville and worsening ill health. I helped at home, the business he had. He died last fall.”

“I see.” Big Jim came outside, let the screen door bang, its whiny hinges scraping the still air.

Am I playing on his sympathies? Van wondered. But what I say is true. He was surprised when Big Jim gestured toward two dark blue painted wicker chairs nearby. He took a seat after his host did.

“Thanks for taking time to talk. I sure would appreciate this place, I have to get settled somewhere soon.”

“It’s not a proper house but part getaway and more a serious potter’s studio…a kitchenette, a tiny alcove for a couch or mattress…” He deflated more as his voice trailed off.

“I get that–not wanting others to live in it. Must be hard to see it there every day.”

“It was her refuge as well as work space, you see. I think she was happiest there. Married thirteen years, all we had. She got sick four years ago, died two years later. I just ignored the studio until recently.” He stopped himself, sat up and turned toward the congenial, pleasant looking man, perhaps the earlier end of middle age. “Well. And your name again?”

“Van Warrington. I studied education at Chesterfield College for a couple years, fifteen years ago. Then had to leave. But I understand that you don’t want to let anyone use the cottage, so I may as well move on and–”

“Cottage. That’s what she called it, her Potter’s Cottage, all six hundred twenty-four square feet of it. Look, Van Warrington, I have to go teach a blasted class now but stop by tomorrow and we’ll talk a bit more if you like.”

They said a hasty farewell and each went his own way. Van felt a stirring of hope. He wondered what sort of pottery she had made. He still wondered if the cottage might be rented in good time, and for how much. He went back to the motel, sat on his bed for awhile, trying to shake off drowsiness. He picked up his camera, put a few resumes in his backpack, then walked toward Stone River so he might follow its meander through soothing greens and floral cheer of Chesterfield. Maybe he’d stop by that jewelry store. Maybe not.

******

Jim Jameson found his way to the studio as he did each morning sleep eluded him before dawn arrived. He glanced at the kiln outdoors, then unlocked the door and pocketed the key for safety , patted  it inside the fabric as if it were an amulet. There was the still clay-coated potter’s wheel to right of the door. She liked to keep windows and door propped wide open in good weather as she worked, to encourage a fresh breeze. To move and out to think and use the kiln. There was the salvaged farmer’s double sink with cracked muddy splotches, and bags of clay lined up along the west wall. Cupboards hung above containing supplies of various sorts–he knew so little of it. On the east side were many shelves with last finished pieces crowding each other, bowls, mugs, plates, trays– and small free form sculptures not meant to resemble anything so much as a sensuous curve of a hill or a waterfall in mountains. It was the glazes that set them off, glossy or matte vibrant autumnal tones she loved, and natural textures she created.

Used to create,” he said in the dusty stillness, and took all in as long as he could stand it, not going near the day bed where she used to sometimes fall asleep and remain all night. More often than he’d wished. The worn coverlet with vines on rusty colored and quilted fabric was where it was when she died, the pillow scrunched up as she’d liked it.

But would she want it this way forever? Like a memorial to a life she once led but left behind? And without any serious complaint, he had to agree.

Jim blinked bloodshot eyes to dispel their dampness, shut the door softly, locked it and went into his house to make coffee. He took a stack of papers to grade into his study as he waited for Van Warrington to arrive.

******

When Van came and accepted the offer to enter the house, it was as if he remembered something, but he didn’t know what it might be. There was a familiarity about it but then, many of the houses were like this one and he had been in quite a few over those two years. Parties, a few suppers with profs’, study sessions at profs’, visiting friends who had snagged a shabbier version of such a house to share with five others. It could be the evocation of a time he lived, is all.

He followed Big Jim into the study. The walls were made of books and the scatter rug was a large old Persian. The light was dim, the room warm. It was early and too humid. The clouds outside regrouped, gathered more steam for rain.

They sat on the velvety burgundy sofa. On the coffee table was just that–a  carafe of coffee next to cream and sugar in cut glass bowl and pitcher. Jim poured one mug then a second for Van.

“So, I’m wondering just why I’m here,” Van said when silence settled between them a moment. He could hear a grandfather clock ticking, looked for but saw none.

“I thought I’d tell you more before you further considered how much you may desire to live there.”

“Alright. I guess.” The cottage was partly visible from the side bay window. Van wanted to see the inside but willed himself to be patient then drank the strong coffee.

“We built it right soon after we married because she decided to make art, not teach it–though she did teach a few workshops each year. It was easy to agree to anything she wanted. She was younger than I by nine years and had a laugh like gently falling water… and a smile that snared everyone who saw her. She had the kind of beauty that caught you off guard not because it was dazzling but because it was quietly unassuming, natural but unmistakable. Sweet and a tad zany at once.”

Van drank more, uncrossed his ankles. He felt embarrassed by the details shared. Was the professor going to wax on and on about his deceased wife? He should be kinder; Van was sure the woman was lovely and very talented. But he wasn’t a grief counselor, not even this man’s friend. He had his own sadness to sort out. Was this woman’s essence never going to let go of the man? It hovered about him, a cloak of sweet sorrow.

Van understood how that could feel. But Van didn’t speak of it, at least not to strangers.

Big Jim went on. “She had such a knack for pottery–she fully discovered it after she got her B.A.– that it was only a matter of time before she sold them at art fairs, then galleries were interested. She began to make money at it. But mostly she loved what she did. I was never creative. I’m a man of strict numbers and political pondering, neither of which interested her much. I don’t create a thing but decent meals.” He scanned his bookshelves as of there was something there he must recall. “But she was so vibrant, she shook me up. I wasn’t a fool; I knew she needed the security I offered her so she could be a potter. I didn’t care. Just to be near her, to know she was out there every day, would be here most of the time when I returned from work….” He covered his eyes with a large hand. “I will not marry again.”

Van felt a sharp twinge. He knew some of what Jim spoke about. But he had to move on, learn about the cottage availability.

“It must be wonderful to have such a marriage, Jim. And I’m truly sorry she got sick/ And died. I suspect you’re right–this is not the right time for you to rent it out. I appreciate your telling me how important it is to keep as it was. I couldn’t live there. honestly, knowing how you feel. I hope you’ll excuse my bothering you.”

He was feeling short of breath, as if the room was hotter and smaller than it was and he was taking up too much air and room by by sitting there. It was a little creepy listening to such longing, as if he was overhearing a confession of something more intimate or complicated but he didn’t know what. He began to stand up.

“Still, she’s want me to share her cottage with the right person. I feel Lily would like you.”

Van sank to the chair. Tiny hairs on the back of Van’s neck stood up. He felt vaguely nauseous. “What did you say her name was?”

Big Jim unfolded his clasped hands and gestured toward the cottage as if she was out there waiting for them to decide what was next. “Lily. Lily Hunter Jameson.” He stood and looked out the window. “My dear wife for far too short a time.”

Van had to leave the room. He wanted to crawl out on hands and knees, he felt weak and unable to stop the spinning of his mind, the unreal sense of everything there. Lily Hunter! The bright young woman he had fallen in love with the moment he had met her in freshman composition. The woman he’d wanted to be with the rest of his natural born days. The woman who loved him right back with her stirring spirit and searching mind, her resonant body like an instrument made of fantastic music–as if she had waited only and ever for him and could never let him go.

Except she did. Back in college she in fact was falling for someone else, she confessed so one spring day after they picnicked in the riverside park. Someone more established and secure in life. She had to be an artist–he surely could understand that, couldn’t he? And the man knew exactly what she needed whereas Van, truth be told, sometimes needed too much, gave more than she could easily handle. She need energy left to create.

He never knew who it was but now he was staring at the back of a very tall, thin man, an accomplished, kindly man who so loved her still. A man more secure and well off. A man who adored her from afar as long as she had lived.

Van left the room as swiftly as he could, as if he was being run out, without a backward glance, tripping down the steps of the lovely veranda, past the cottage he would never look at again. He started up his car and drove to Stone River, then got out. Such an ache that dug into his center. How could this have happened? Was she not done hurting him, chasing him after death, mocking him after all these years? Or had Big Jim Jameson figured out who he was? No, that would be too uncanny and cruel…

“Get a hold of yourself, Van!” he said aloud as the river swept by. Let it go.

“”Yeah, man, come on, it’s just a place to rent that you need,” Bart said as he lightly punched him on the shoulder.

“Hey Bart–what are you doing here?” Van threw a rock into the muddy current.

“You look pale as a…oh, wait, you’ve been talking to Big Jim about his haunted cottage. Listen, I tried to tell you–nice guy, but kinda nuts these days. Pay him no mind. I have a place for you, it’ll be fine.”

“What? Just like that?”

“I’ve lived here fifty eight years. I know things.” his glance slid over Van. “Like who you are.”

Van felt a strong need to move away from Bart or to push him. This town–he had thought this could be a good move.

“Wait, Van, I knew Lily a long time, too. She used to come into the bar and cry on my shoulder. Everyone does, right? It’s my job. But, yeah, she came in after she married Big Jim and drank a little much and finally told me how she’d ended up with the wrong man but it was too late for her and Van…how much she loved you, that she lost you. But I don’t think her husband ever knew the truth. She had to carry on with her life, didn’t she? A really good potter, a finer woman. My friend, glad to say. I miss her–she was a lively gal when she wasn’t swimming in regrets.”

Van gave Bart a hard look then turned away. He was ready to wake up from the unnerving dream he was stuck in. All he had to do was concentrate on the three dimensional world. He took in the trees’ lush greenery, the polished picnic table, three children laughing at river’s edge with their father. He listened to his heartbeat against his ribs, just beyond his shirt, ba-duh, ba-duh, ba-duh.

“I mean: Van. Your name is one you don’t forget! Old fashioned, kinda like Lily’s. I thought it was you when we met…and I had to say she did love you, buddy. She made a kind of mistake that couldn’t be undone easily so she was in it for life, she said, with Big Jim Jameson, a decent man. It just turned out it wasn’t for that long.”

As he steadied himself on a picnic table–newer, cleaner than the one he and Lily had used years ago–he slowly sat on the bench. Felt the strength leave him and run into the sky, river, ground.

Bart grabbed his arm. “Hey, take some slow deep breaths. It’s a lot, no need to rush into understanding it all. It’s a tough story.”

Van straightened up. Sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs. He felt better in a few minutes. But he felt half-undone. He jutted his chin into storm-prescient air. He was a man who knew how to make the best of things, wasn’t he?

“Yeah, a lot to take in. To think about later. It happened. But it’s over, done. The past can’t hurt us unless we invite it to do damage.” He felt Bart nodding agreement beside him. “Okay. I heard you say you have a room? If I stay, that is?”

“Oh, stay awhile. It’s a small bungalow on the west side. If you have cash and get yourself a job soon, it’s yours in two weeks. I own it so that’s a solid.”

Van felt like he had been taken too far back to make a victorious step forward. But hearing Bart give him new information made him recall his life was just a life like any other. There had been good breaks and bad, quirks and bad timing. Deeper pangs. But he believed better times were possible. It was his way and it was what made the best sense to him right now. That, and Lily loving him all along even as she cared for Big Jim. She was some woman.

The Watchman

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

Heaven had hung the windsock she’d whipped up from remnants at the back of her house, near the fence enclosing her courtyard. Right where Jasper Dye could see it. It flapped and spun in gusting, humid breezes. The placement had been his idea. She’d walked up the hill and offered it to him last month. Thought it would liven up his house a bit. She preferred the numerous handmade wind chimes that called out from her eaves and elsewhere. Most of those hung in the front with the exception of a large chime back of the driveway by her business sign: “Heaven Steele’s Glass Chimes and Art”.

Jasper generally liked the mix of brittle and soft notes that lifted in the air, wound their way up and over the road to his place. Kept him company. The visit was a surprise despite being neighbors. He was third generation Marionville and she was new. He suggested he’d see the windsock better from his porch. It was a cheery decoration but sure not his style. He wondered if she was trying to tell him his place had gone to seed; that was old news, he’d been out of the genuine farming business awhile now. But the other thing was, he didn’t want to feel indebted.

He had grown used to the woman’s strangeness. She wasn’t like most people in Marionville, around Potts County. She was younger than she appeared with that silvery, cropped hair. She had one nearly violet eye and one brown, some defect that marked her more. It was true she was a hard worker (she had that in common with other folks), but was operating an art studio. He guessed she made hundreds of glass chimes year-round and other useless, pretty things. But her other business was all about desperate folks showing up at her door, day and night. Some sort of counseling, he’d heard, but he knew better. Maybe a money making hoax or some witchy thing going on. That made her somebody way outside of the box but he didn’t know quite what. He cared very little; he waved at her when she waved, shared a few words.

He could see a few goings-on from his porch up the hill, as his ratty–he admitted it–farm overlooked the back of Heaven’s nice house. Jasper hadn’t crossed her threshold yet, saw no need. It had to have things in there he couldn’t decipher. The fall one evening last week was a warning, anyway. He had inched down Heaven’s steep lot to get a better look at a girl–he thought he knew her; her father could be a violent man–pounding on Heaven’s window. But he’d slipped in mud and tripped over a root or rock and that was the end of that. He’d paid for his nosiness, drat the ole curiosity. The girl took off. Now he had a cast on his right arm and nasty bruises up and down his side. Felt nearly helpless though it could have been far worse.

“Jasper Dye’s Downfall!” His son Shawn laughed at the foolishness when he came by to help out. “Let people be, ole man. Don’t go where you’re not invited. Stay the hermit you usually are.”

Shawn got on his last stretched nerve some days. Acting like his own father was getting dumber rather than wiser. That was not the case, not yet. But he was a good son to help out so he just grunted, let it go.

So now Jasper truly had little better to do than watch plumes of dust stirred by infrequent trucks and cars that rumbled by or Heaven’s comings and goings. He wondered if she knew he could see her pretty well in one 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 water falling slipped in and out of his hearing range. That’s where she met with people if the weather was good. All he could make out was someone’s head or a flash of one of her bright outfits between thick leafy branches. When the wind was settled and the road empty, a murmur of voices might drift up to him. It was like having the TV on low, a barest semblance of company.

He felt a peculiar contentment knowing she was there. Had been for about ten years. Before that the place had been a vacation home, people in and out and noisy. This was better. Yet all Jasper truly knew about her were the rumors of unusual talents (Shawn said she was “just plain psychic; she advises people on stuff” and Jasper just laughed at the idea), her beautiful chimes and quiet ways. She had been friendly enough the few times they’d crossed paths. He wasn’t a big talker; she let him be.

One Thursday–he usually came on Thursdays–Shawn had done an errand for him and then barbecued burgers for dinner, cleaned up and left. Jasper sat on the creaky porch drinking coffee, rolling the same lumpy cigarette three times before he got it right. He needed one of those simple machines since his stiff fingers made a mess of things too often. It was about dusk, the light rich but sweet in the trees, tipping the swaying wild grasses. The air had a glossy sheerness that early summer lent it. 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 windsock settled down as if done dancing for the day. He noted a silver car still parked in her long driveway. It wasn’t familiar but then lots of cars at her house weren’t, especially with high season getting into full swing. Heaven got people from all over wanting to see how she made those chimes and they always carried out bags bulging with purchases.

He rubbed his thigh and hip, smoked, thought about his wife, Jane, long gone. How she’d sit with him without a peep and it was like a whole conversation happened.  Jasper talked to her more now than before.

“I know it was stupid, but you wouldn’t say so. Just our son’s got that sort of mouth on him…Made burgers with his special sauce, my so tasty, he should be a chef not some greasy spoon cook…”

He leaned forward, squinted. Heaven walked into the courtyard and back again, talking to someone, hands wildly gesturing. There was a guy there, much taller than she was, which was saying something. Jasper strained to catch the tone of voice.

The man stopped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. She stood still, as if rooted to the spot. Jasper re-lit the last half of another cigarette. Well, this wasn’t his business. She’d made quite a life in Marionville and some excitement was part of it, whereas he got bored with things so paid too much attention to her place. Heaven, despite her soft name, could handle herself.

The glowing stub faded; he crushed it in a ceramic pot full of stones. Rubbing his eyes, winced at the deep ache in his left hip. Stood up. He looked out over the valley towards town and the water. Lake Minnatchee gave off a deep blue sheen. He imagined the young ones had gone home and teenagers were soon taking their places as darkness snuffed out coral and rose streaks of sunset. They’d be up to no good or romance, maybe the same thing. Jasper felt something like peace but a melancholy undertow yanked at him, as usual.

Jasper turned to go inside and threw a last glance at Heaven’s house. The silver car was still there. There were no sounds coming from the courtyard other than faintest tinkling of water. He frowned at the emptiness he felt there. Something had changed in the last few minutes. Well, they’d left the courtyard, no big deal, she likely was showing her art. Still, unease coursed through his legs. He rubbed his hip and rocked forward to redistribute his weight, then scanned lot and house again. It was the windsock; it wasn’t there. The air was dense with moist heat; no blasts of wind had swept over the hillside to shake it free. Windows in her house were grayed out; the courtyard’s bright lights, usually lit up at dusk, were off. He swallowed hard, then trudged down his bumpy footpath to the road and Heaven’s place, his hand carved cane aiding his decent.

It was slow going, half because Jasper didn’t want o feel he had to hurry for anything and half because he didn’t want to tumble into the soon-to-be twilit road. As he inched his way down, then crossed the road he noted the car was a Porsche and had an urge to lick a tire. He walked around to the courtyard fence. There was the pretty windsock, crumpled on the ground. He couldn’t quite reach the hook from which it had hung so stuffed it into his pocket.

“Jasper,”  Heaven whispered at him, more a hiss than his name.

“Yeah,” he whispered back but couldn’t find where she was.

“The window.”

Jasper moved three feet to his left, saw her face behind a screen. He felt a little embarrassed to be right at her private rooms and backed up.

“Don’t go. I need a little help.”

“Yeah?”

“There’s a man, a guy who came hoping to talk to his dead wife…I don’t do that kind of junk….but he’s drunk. I can’t get him off my rocking chair in the courtyard. I need to call a cop or a cab or something but earlier my phone was at the edge of the pillow on the chair–it has to be right under him. I stood on the garden bench just barely yanked off the windsock hoping you’d see. Well, that you’d understand. Which, of course, you did.”

Jasper studied her imploring eyes through a 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, face flattened comically. “Can you come in and help me with him or just call a cab? Or the police?”

Jasper started, nodded, then hobbled around to the front of the house, past the glinting chimes, up to her door. Walked right in. He knew to turn left to find the courtyard and passed though part of the living room and a big kitchen first. Heaven met up with him. The man was sopping blitzed, slumped over in the rocking chair, reeking of something expensive. Jasper raised an unruly white eyebrow and pointed to his cast. Poor guy, hurting and stinking; he knew about wives dying too early. Needing to hear a word from them. But he just talked to his own Jane as before. That felt like something but she had a strong personality even after death.

Jasper did the easy thing, used his cell phone and called a cab, then waited at the door as Heaven sat in the courtyard keeping tabs on the guy. When he roused some from his stupor, he yelled at Heaven.

“Liar! Imposss-ter!”

“Okay, that’s right, you gave me nothing but a headache so we’re all good,” she reassured him as Jasper came forward.

“Thaz right, mista, real fake! Don’t give cash, I’ll tell who you are, lady! Or hey man, you part of this scheme…?”

Jasper reached to steady him with his good arm as well as his cast-hindered arm so the drunk wouldn’t come crashing down on the rocker. Or, worse, his bum leg. The man swung at him with sudden vigor and just as fast Jasper lifted his cane, whacked him good on a meaty but weakened fist. He yowled and stumbled back as the cab driver stuck his head into the front door and yelled out.

“Okay here or need a hand?”

“Hey Billy K! We’re all good, come get the fool!” Jasper yelled back.

Billy K, a big man but an affable one, had little trouble encouraging his new customer to take a break, sleep it off in the hotel, get his car the next day.

“He came all the way from Georgia…” Heaven stood there in a floaty turquoise dress, her big bare feet planted firmly and a calm look on her face.

As the cab disappeared in a swatch of darkness, he and Heaven stood in the middle of the empty road as if waiting for something, he didn’t know what.

“He was just perturbed, poor guy… That about it, then? You okay?” he said.

She smiled at him. There was a warm gleam, as ever, to her weirdly colored eyes. She took his good arm and the cane, steered him to her house. She smelled like lilies of the valley that grew back of his house and her hand was strong.

“Let’s have some good tea with a couple slices of mixed berry pie.”

He hadn’t seen an invite coming so was surprised. Nothing too crazy had happened yet. He went along as she guided him down softly lit steps and onto her walkway.

“How’d you know I’d see the windsock was gone and wonder about things?”

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

“Is that right?”

“I see you walking about, see your cigarettes lit and smoke rising in the sunlight. You spend a lot of time with your good thoughts. And I know you watch me, too.”

“I do, that’s so,” he said and it was frankly strange that it didn’t bother him a bit to admit it. He crossed her threshold for the second time in one night out of those many years since Heaven Steele came to live in Marionville. He’d never felt he’d wanted or needed to. He supposed since he’d helped her out it was like being a real guest. Maybe, he suspected, even a friend.

 

(Note: This story about Heaven and Jasper is one of a series about various residents of the fictitious northern Michigan town of Marionville. First posted in 2013, this one has been revised for today’s offering. I’m in process of editing/rewriting the stories for possible submission for publication so may continue to share a few here. Feedback is welcome!)

Mae Lynn’s First and Last Drive-In Movie

Photo by Stephen Shore

The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.

The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her  prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.

“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”

She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.

Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.

“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”

She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.

“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”

She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.

“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.

Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”

She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d  have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.

So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.

“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.

“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”

Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”

“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”

“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”

“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”

She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”

“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”

The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.

The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.

“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”

“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”

She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in  meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”

Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”

“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.

“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.

“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”

They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.

But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.

She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.

Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.

“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”

Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.

“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”

Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.

“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.

“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”

“Yes, water would help.”

Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.

“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”

Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”

Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.

Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.

“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”

It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.

Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.

But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.

“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”

“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”

But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.

“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”

Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.

“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”

“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.

“If I meet anyone named Candace…”

“Candace Jarrett–”

“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”

“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.

Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.

“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”

“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”

The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to  be in her some day, too.

Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.

The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.