The Other Side of Things

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“Peter Barron, over here! It’s Mitch! How’re you doing, buddy?’

I didn’t slow my pace or look over my shoulder. He wasn’t talking to me, after all, despite what he thought. He was hoping to have a chat and to share his latest news, maybe finagle sharing a coffee, even, before heading to his elegant or cozy (maybe both) home. I didn’t know a Mitch. I knew Mick and Corey, Dante, Artie and TK. No Mitchell/Mitch, who likely hung out with a Laurence, Carter or Theo.

I could hear his shoes slapping the sidewalk, picking up speed. He was not going to let Peter Barron go without at least a brief and pleasant exchange. I followed the right-curving walkway of the park. This was the longest way to the creek, so he might give up if he was headed to work.

But I felt the tap on my shoulder and turned my head to look at Mitch, not varying my pace. He fell in step.

“Peter, it’s been a few years!  Mitchell Howe from the Key Club, we used to share a table now and then? Knew it was you, haven’t changed, well, so much, but you may not recognize me what with the balding and all…”

I down shifted my stride to give him a laser focused look for about five seconds, one that would erase the image he carried in his head and replace it with the view in front of him. Predictably, his forehead crinkled and he faltered, then stopped.

“You’re not Peter. No, well, I’m sorry, buddy. Pretty embarrassing, but you look just like–I mean, you could be his twin!”

“Right, it happens. Don’t worry about it.” With a curt nod of my head, I kept going.

I thought that was it when he called out, exasperation emphasizing his words. “Julian! I should have figured out it was you!”

And finally, that was all. I’d gotten away with no major fall-out for once. Hadn’t had to explain a thing or tell him I didn’t rally know about Peter’s life or no, I didn’t have his data to give out. Sometimes the person asked how I was doing but it was barely even cursory, a waste of words and air.

I found the creek where it always had been, along the edge of the wooded park, and found an empty bench. It was three o’clock according to the church bell–that booming, automated ring tone. I had a few minutes to spare.

Why did Mitch think he should have known it was me? I had no recollection of him but that wasn’t too strange. I knew very few people here. What gave me away in his reconsideration? Or was it just my similarity to Peter while I was not him? Simplest deduction, then. But I toyed with the possibilities. It might have been my height at nearly six four. It might have been the very slight limp that arose without warning. Or maybe my dirty blond hair is longer, that was likely, I didn’t make regular stops at the barber these days. Or maybe it was how I hunch my shoulders when someone I don’t know calls out to me–I prefer to fold up some, even disappear. Or my eyes when I stared at him, wintry blue and a little slanted, smallish. Or as my mother always said, wolfish–despite a reminding her wolves eyes are not blue.

I cited her genes, not my father’s–his eyes were like his brother’s, ordinary, light brown. My Uncle Albert, the chain store owner of Barron’s Appliance and Electronics. Peter Barron’s father. Peter and me, you see, we’re first cousins. Dad has had his own thing going with three stores, Barron’s Footwear. Businessmen.

I suppose I have been, too, but it all went down wrong. I have zero going right now. Peter, though, he’s a man of the cloth. Who knew? But it makes some sense to me.  He was thoughtful and good in a way many couldn’t quite muster much less sustain.

******

We grew up two blocks from each other. We were born barely a year apart. My mom and Aunt Lydia were thick as can be while their husbands, the brothers, got along sporadically. There was always some family gathering, and sometimes it was good and easy if boisterous and other times it was all drama, a few hours tied up and split apart by disagreements between Dad and Uncle Albert. Peter and I sneaked off any way it went, sooner or later. It was better to not be in the line of fire or radar-like watchfulness of the mothers. There was the back yard with its fruit trees at our house or at his, there were layers of flowers, bushed and trees with a centrally located pool and a comfortable pool house. We easily found something else to do and sometimes had to elude Karissa and Jeanette, our other cousins, the first one being my younger  sister and the second, his.

It was like the mothers planned it all, their kids close to the same ages and one of each gender, husbands in business. Aunt Laura came from the south, all those stretched, rounded vowels and charming ways, while Mom was no-nonsense and straight to the point. It worked for them and impacted our lives differently. Peter from the start was more naturally academic, halfway refined by the time he was ten. I did fine at school out of desire to keep my parents calm and was resistant to develop gentlemanly comportment. He liked to explore and push the limits some but he didn’t dare get caught, that was the thing that guided his every move. Whereas I had less concern about it if the activity got my adrenaline going and there was some sort of pay off, like we got to see horror movies that our neighbor watched after we climbed the fence and bribed their dog with hot dogs or pretzels if he was out. We’d watch through their back family room window until the dog demanded more and more food.

But as time went by, I was looking for more things to get into and Peter was backing off. We still talked after school and rode dirt bikes in summer. I swam at his house often and we had a few parties together. We stayed at each other’s houses every now and then and stayed up late eating junk food and comparing notes on girls we hoped to date some day.

But by the ninth grade we  had less time for each other. He was eager to play team sports, baseball especially, and played trumpet in the band. I’d watch him play ball but I gravitated to skateboarding and off-road biking and backpacking in the mountains. The one time he saw me at the skate park he cheered me on but after we kicked at the dirt and threw rocks into the trees; we just had too little to say. So when I had some trouble after lifting a couple of packs of smokes, a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store, things turned for good. I got taken down to jail and booked and stayed 24 hours in miserable quarters before my dad paid them off and got me, entirely infuriated. It didn’t end there, of course, but my fine and community service work weren’t tough.

When Peter came over and confronted me about it, not wanting to believe the rampant gossip that I was suddenly a juvenile delinquent, I started to deny things then shrugged, backed away. I’d had enough verbal flogging from the parents, privileges taken. After that, he gave me a worthwhile punch in the chest  and I smacked his head, then shoved him hard enough that he fell backwards with a thud.

As he scrambled up, he shouted,”Why, Julian? You’re not that person, not some mean idiot!”

I sat under a crab apple tree and oscillated between tears and cold anger. I didn’t know why I did it but it wasn’t all that terrible, was it? It had something to do with seeing how far I could go, getting something for nothing, outsmarting others, feeling energized by the risks–all the wrong stuff to feel, part of me intoned. I felt confused. But intrigued even more; the other part tugged at me.

The next day we eyed each other in school hallways like once-loyal co-conspirators or old buddy neighborhood dogs who could not or would not any longer leap over the wide ravine to even say hello. I quietly growled at him when I ran into him after that and he just shook his head, eyes flitting over my face, seeming almost amused–or disgusted, I wasn’t sure. I resolved to check my impulses and do things better and it was partly because I knew Peter knew I could do better. And my parents were on me, as was everyone.

Kids used to mistake us all the time for years but by then, we were so different in attitude and style that it happened less. I secretly missed that, and I suspected even Peter did, as it had been part of who we had always been, almost twins, cousins more like brothers who had been best friends.

I had more trouble, though. Trespassing on the golf course grounds after midnight while drunk on vodka, causing turf damage with my golf clubs. But all in all, I minded my own business, made a few friends my parents looked askance at and got my homework done. I unfortunately wrecked my car–bought with my own money after three summers working at the stores–when drag racing, a favorite hobby, on a country road. But in the end we both graduated, me by the skin of my teeth and Peter, of course, with honors and awards. He deserved it all. He was still my cousin and a decent guy. That was the last time I saw him, at a joint party our parents threw at his place. That was a hugely successful event with some wild and sad stories but, then, isn’t that what those parties are about in the first place? Farewell with a big bang for memories? But my parents and Aunt Lydia and Uncle Albert were full of generosity and good nature: we’d both (me, more or less) navigated a few rites of passage by eighteen.

Peter and I ended up hanging out as people left, horsed around in the pool almost like old times. We had survived those adolescent years and so, we moved on, he to a top university.

We still looked very like each other, though I was nearly three inches taller, and yet he was undeniably Peter and I was, of course, strictly Julian or “J” to my good friends.

******

I met Artie a year or so later at his old man’s body shop since I often had need of work on my older trucks, more often on my very fast Mustang. I had finished community college and gone on to work in residential construction and remodeling, All that work on interesting houses gave me a desire to buy my own small place and the move in with Bella, the woman I had vowed to marry–some day. Being impatient by nature, I kept coming up with mad schemes that would pay off well and faster.

“No need to think so hard about it,” Artie said as I admired the work he  had done on my Mustang once more, “you just need to join the crew I’ve got going and we’ll get you all set, man.”

“What do you mean?” I was only half-listening as I leaned against the building. Artie said things that skirted the edges of ludicrous sometimes so I usually nodded my head, then went my way.

“Why not come over tonight and I’ll explain it then. You can make some big money, that’s all you need to think over.”

“Sure,” I said, curious more than believing he had any insight into making money other than fixing cars up, a good skill but limited in profits as his father owned the shop and took a big cut.

“Eight tonight.”

He gave me a look that presaged things I could not imagine. I felt it in my spine, a shift of energies, fear and excitement and fascination all mixed together. I took the Mustang out on side roads and ran it hard. It held up good as ever but soon it would be gone.

******

The creek was flowing fast and soothed me. I shifted on the bench under the emerald density of trees. My hip hurt as it had for years since the near-catastrophic car accident when it had been broken. But the hurt had developed into a dark ache that had tunneled deeper the last few. I knew it was the rude bed and damp, chilled conditions of the prison that had housed me for eight. Grand larceny. And before that, petit larcenies, incarcerated one year and then another. I had gotten out two months ago and had so far made no dent in the job hunt. No big surprise.

I was staying at the parent’s house, in the apartment above the three car garage. But only just. Mom wanted me there and Dad did not. There were discussions that ended up sizzling and there were silences that held fast for days. Except for Mom I would have left, slept on the street. She was so glad to see me and wanted me to talk to her, “to recover from hell” as she put it, and then to move on toward the Good Life. Dad just wanted me to move on and out-of-town and maybe come back when I had changed identities if possible, or at least started to live decently again. I felt myself leaning more toward his viewpoint every passing day. I had much to recoup, and their tolerance, their tentaive kindness was half-real, half a fluke, I thought.

I picked up a twig at my feet, tossed it with an easy swing of my arm so that it made a tiny plop, spun and disappeared. It was spring already, I mused. It felt overwhelming sometimes, all those scents and colors and sounds, the many moving parts and bodies both human and otherwise. Everything was no longer what I knew. To think that this was what I had yearned for and here I was, finally. Yet I was not at all convinced I could even live a life like this, in the open world.

“Julian.”

I twisted around at the sound of his voice, rose up to face him.

“Peter.”

“So long since that crazy pool party, huh?…”

He looked himself, older but not poorly, face made more interesting by creases around his mouth and at the edges of his eyes. He had the white band of collar on, he was really an Episcopal priest, but he quickly undid it then removed it and put it in a pocket. Peter offered his hand which I took. Then we caught each other into a bear hug, brief but strong. I pushed back the pain of time lost. I was certain I looked haggard, honed down to basics.

When we sat down, we were quiet. It felt surprisingly alright. Just the creek and  trees swishing in the warm wind and robins adding to a soundtrack of nature in the city with their brash and welcoming song.

“Where do I even begin, cousin?” I asked, voice almost swallowed up in the words.

“How about starting with right now? That’s all we’ve ever got, my brother. And we already know who we truly are, maybe the only ones who can say that of us both.”

I shut my eyes and saw only a soft blur of light behind my eyelids, not bars cutting it into narrow pieces. When I opened them he was smiling his crooked smile at me.

“You may have that right. And I’ve had time to think over my place in the universe, you know. Not sure it’s in this town but today it seems to be.”

Peter bent to dig two medium hefty, irregular rocks from the damp soil. He gave one to me. We threw them to the other side of the exuberant creek, mine missing a squirrel before resting on a grassy knoll, his hitting a tree branch and landing near mine, and it all felt better than anything had in a long, long while.

 

 

Wednesday’s Word/Fiction: Projects

Variety of pics 033
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What Ellen Tate ever intended to do with all that unruly front yard was anyone’s guess. And she had recently been hauling more bits and pieces from her station wagon after she backed it into her driveway, each item disappearing into the back yard. They couldn’t imagine what she was up to and strained to see just what it was she had in her arms this time–was that a peculiar table or another hunk of driftwood? Ellen liked beachy things, or at least she and Alec did some time ago.

The view from their porch was imperfect and Ellen was not just across from them but a house down to the left. And this ivy that crawled up one side of their brick bungalow and sometimes dangled over the roof edge needed a thorough whacking before the wisteria got strangled. A yearly dilemma and task.

“I suspect she’s only adding more stuff here and there, decorative touches or whatever it is that she calls it. The last time we saw that back yard was in 2011 when she had the block over for Annabelle’s graduation party. Pity.”

Clare blew her nose loudly. Simon looked away. He’d never gotten used to that alarming honking sound. Her spring allergies were kicking up already so this was just the start.

“Well, things have changed. Alec passed away way too soon. Annabelle got successful fast and hightailed it out of the country. Ellen still works too hard and you said she seems out a lot, just not around here.”

Simon stared at Ellen and Alec’s house, suddenly stirred, remembering things. Alec and he had swapped information about stocks, watched many a car race on TV and in the flesh, tried to out-do each other on their high performance grills several times a year. Even went fly fishing a few times, though Simon had little talent for it and needed repeated instruction. But Alec was naturally a man of patience, something Simon had come into far too late in life, not without considerable resistance. How had he really helped his friend? Maybe he’d been a good listener; Alec had things to get off his chest from time to time. Ellen’s love of knick-knacks, for one. He wondered if she still had that group of trolls from all over the world atop the fireplace mantle or the miniature dogs and cats on a bookshelf. He rather liked those but Alex disliked them greatly–though he never complained to her, only to friends.

Clare smoothed the heavy grey braid hanging over a shoulder. Before too long she’d have to wear her long hair up; the increased heat could fester the air and her neck. “I never knew anyone wanting to be a nurse so long. She could have retired five years ago. What if she can’t read the small print on medications and makes a fatal mistake? What is she gets tired out and doesn’t answer a call bell fast enough? She can’t need the money. Don’t her bunions hurt like heck by now?”

“Who doesn’t need more cash flow? Plus she likes it, keeps her engaged with life.” And death, he supposed, but she was aware of that probability when she took up the career. He didn’t know about any bunions, did she have such achy lumps like Clare? He’d admired her bright pink toenails in summer, he did recall that.

“I disengaged from that sort of hard work without a backward glance.” Clare stood up from her creaky rattan chair and peered at Ellen as she once more pulled something from the back of the station wagon. “Maybe Annabelle is moving back home? No, surely not, she’s in Lisbon…”

Simon swatted away the first fuzzy, noisy bee he’d seen in their yard thus far and that meant there were lots more moving in the neighborhood. Good for them; they had important work to get done. He admired their industrious, proscribed motions. How little he found to do some days. His last office responsibilities ended one year and eighteen days ago. He’d had all sorts of projects lined up and managed to get quite a few completed the first twelve months. This year he’d found himself spending more time being more still than not. Lazing around with an outdoors magazine or a crossword puzzle. A Ulysses S. Grant biography opened on his lap, trying to not doze off. Watching Clare neatly fold colorful laundry–he liked to watch her do this, he couldn’t say why–waiting until she told him for the third time that pots and pans needed drying and putting away. He fixed things, they took circuitous walks, he still met Herb and Morris once a month for breakfast, he was adept at keeping their property attractive. Some days, though, he didn’t feel like moving from the gentle warmth of their bed even after Clare had long been up and prattling about.

For her, retirement had been a breeze, transitioning from full time craft store manager to part time and now to on-call help which could amount to a couple days a week even. And she had plenty of artsy projects in the room next to the garage. Clare would have bought that crafts store if he felt they could swing it. “Clare’s Craft Haven,” that was what she’d dreamed of calling it (rather than “A to Z Craft Supply”). A place to shop but also meet others of the same ilk and a space for creating objects of useful attractiveness. Or rather, useless nonsense as Simon privately thought of it when she yet again had paste and felt and sequins and pins strewn about. But harmless enough; he had his own interests, after all.

She sank back into the chair. “Why not let her be? Either that or go on over and ask her what she’s up to?”

“Oh, I’d never intrude, you know she’s not open to idle chat, anymore, much less sharing private activities with others. I wish she was. I miss her. I’d like to figure out how to break through, make it like old times again.”

Simon knew what she meant, but he’d determined that old times were just that–done and gone. Everyone had to move on. But it was proving a challenge for himself like it was for Ellen, if for different reasons. Clare often had a pep talk about hobbies since she had more than enough but he thought the very word was indicative of their triviality. He wanted something meaty to dig into again.

“Well, we can walk by sometime when she’d out in front, start a conversation about any ole thing.”

Clare put a hand on his forearm. “Like now…she’s out there now. We can offer to help her with whatever she’d doing.”

So they got up and crossed the street when Ellen reappeared at the station wagon. Her head jerked up when she heard them call her name. The expression was neither welcoming or discouraging. She nodded at them and paused, one hand on the car as if her arm was a polite barrier to further progress toward her.

“How’s it going, Ellen? Haven’t seen you in awhile.”

She smiled, friendly enough if a bit tight around the edges. “That’s true, I’m still working and have plenty to do.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Church meetings, book club, a capella choir, hospice training, fitness club.”

“Hospice training?” Clare tried to keep her tone ordinary but the words came out too loud. Alec had died of pancreatic cancer, and rather fast.

Clare touched her prominent chin with a forefinger, was quiet a second. “I know, seems a bit late for that but they helped us so much, so it’s now my turn.” She smiled again, took her hand from the vehicle and reached in and grabbed a box.

“That’s quite wonderful of you,” Clare murmured.

“Can we be of any help with the stuff you’re getting out?” Simon asked. he had to admit she looked strong enough to handle it all on her own. She’d changed shape– from more of an apple shape to a pleasant pear, arms and legs quite strong. He wondered if he had changed, not for the better.

“No, I’m good. Well, on second thought, this is quite heavy, thanks.”

Simon took the box, awkwardly moved around her. The three of them entered the back yard, Clare filling with anticipation. At last, maybe the spell made of grief and loss was broken and she and Ellen could be real friends again, not just neighbors who waved at each other. They rounded the corner of the house and she stopped. The grassy expanse was nearly covered with what appeared to be household goods. Blue painted chairs, a table made of driftwood and perhaps an oak plank, lamps tall and small, a box of linens, another of dishes, a big rug with an ocean motif and things that could not be fully discerned due to be wrapped or bagged.

“What if it rains? Can we get this stuff inside for you?” Simon put down the box.

“Oh, I’m not worried, I’ve been covering it up at night with tarps and the sunny season is upon us. Besides, the plumber is coming tomorrow  to finish and when the bathroom is done soon, I’ll move it all in.”

“Wait, you have a new bathroom? And all this is being added to ….?”

“Well, Clare, that’s her business, not ours.”

Ellen put hands on hips and laughed as if Clare had made her day.

“Yes, that’s right, a new bathroom! In Alec’s old study. Remember?” She turned toward the small outbuilding several feet away to the right of the driveway. “Come on, you two, have a look.”

“What on earth can you mean?”

“I know–it’s an ADU.” Simon crossed in front of his wife to follow Ellen inside.

“What’s that?” Clare said, close behind.

“Accessory Dwelling Unit.”

The door opened and Ellen led them in, arms opening wide. The old space was looking new. Not completely altered but emptied of Alec’s things, freshly painted a warm blush color. The four small windows finally had repaired screens; the sashes were pushed up so fresh air wafted about, the floral ivory with coral curtains fluttering. Signs of progress on the new bathroom were apparent and they peeked inside. It was spare but tasteful with a sleek glassed shower stall in the far corner.

Ellen beamed at them. “I’m going to make additional money so I can retire and be comfortable, see?”

“Fantastic,”  Simon murmured as he walked about the living area. He imagined Alec at his desk, scribbling away and thought he’d like it.

“Oh gosh, you’re going to rent this out?”

“That’s the idea. Like an efficiency apartment, maybe just for travelers. They’ll have to use a microwave, eat with me or go out. I don’t want to spend more money yet for a kitchenette. Besides, it’d take up quite a bit of room.”

“Fantastic idea,” Simon said, arms folded across his broad chest, eyes gleaming.”Alec’s place for others to enjoy.”

“I never thought of it until I cleaned it all out. Took me forever. You know how he loved to write and read out here, enjoy alone time. And then I had to consider if I wanted anyone else in his  special place, you know? But he’d like this. Me being more secure and self sufficient, while having more company of sorts.”

“Well, I’m impressed. You really did all this?” Clare grabbed Ellen’s forearm without thinking of it–they’d been close friends once– and Ellen didn’t step away.

“Except the bathroom, that was Gerard and Sons’s responsibility.” She ushered them out and locked the door. “I have more to get done tonight, then a shift to work tomorrow, early.” She shook out her tired arms and hands. “I can’t tell you how relieved I’ll be when I leave that hospital. Two more months.”

“What good news, at last you’ll be free! Well, now this…but far freer.”

They lingered by the station wagon a moment.

“You know, I think it’s high time for another backyard party –to celebrate my retirement. Are you interested in helping me some with that, Clare?”

“You know I am, I’ll wait for details and direction.”

Simon smiled warmly at Ellen. “And if we can help you with anything before that, let us know. I’d like to pick your brain some, too.”

Clare frowned at him ever so slightly.

“Well, I likely do need to clean up my front yard, and then my collections ought to be sorted. One thing just leads to another…never ending, really. Yes, we have to chat more, you guys. And nice that you stopped by.”

She looked comforted by it all. The brooding sorrow over Alec’s death was now a residual feeling peeking from the far edge of her deep brown eyes.

******

When the two of them climbed into bed, Clare eased toward her husband and admired his scratchy square in the soft light of the bedside lamp.

“I wonder about you sometimes, Simon, even at this time of our lives.”

“How’s that?” He looked at her narrowed eyes, admired how the deep blue sparked through the slits.

“I saw how you became engaged by her.” She poked his belly.

His unruly eyebrows shot up and he grunted. “I was engaged by her ADU, that’s what you saw.” He took a deep breath and let it go slowly, then cleared his throat. “Clare, I have found a new goal again, a worthy task! A kind of calling, even, in a humble form.”

“What now?”

“It’s a great idea and we need to steal it, make our own ADU. Maybe build on top of the garage. Or build a tiny house behind the apple tree. In the southwest corner, isn’t that a good spot? And think of it, we’ll get to meet new people, won’t that be interesting?”

Clare turned her head and stared at the tiny crack snaking into the ceiling from a far corner. Imagined being always at a stranger’s beck and call. More housework. Meals at certain times. It was one thing to admire Ellen’s initiative; she lived alone, she had no one else to tend to and share time with day in and out. But for them it would mean a third person about, in the way.

“I have so been needing this, a good project! Think of it, Clare, the money, yes, but the opportunity to learn about other people, stretch ourselves.”

She felt stretched plenty between her on-call work and hobbies and him. She wondered if he’d just crank that enthusiasm down a bit. And learn to automatically wash and dry the pots and pans. Maybe do some of his laundry, at last. Would he be making breakfast with her if they took on a, well, what did they call this person, a renter, a guest? Or was it going to be her load to carry, as ever? She was not the least bit fond of housework. She’d rather make nifty–even nonfunctional–things, create for the pleasure of it. And she recently sold some at an arts and crafts fair, to her surprise.

He pulled her into his still firm arms, fingers woven in her unbraided hair. “This is something we can plan and do on our own time frame, Clare. It will be great to have extra cash and we can choose who we want here and when. It could be a good time shared, my sweet darling, don’t you think? A whole new adventure!”

Maybe this could be his own project. She’d approach that later. She let herself fold into him, closer and closer. How could she refuse a man who called her “my sweet darling” after forty-six years? She realized how much they had–their storied past, the limited years ahead–and she would not spoil them with doubt or hesitation. He might go any time. Alec did, after all.

“Yes,” she said to it all and kissed him firmly, turned out the light.

 

Wednesday’s Word: Hideaways in the Other Reality

Me in the forest

Whenever there is a hole or other opening within an ancient tree trunk or stump, or when a huge crooked root beckons, I try to fit inside or under, compacting my smallish frame smaller so as not to get snared by  slivered wood or unknown bits. It’s best to avoid massive spider webs but unlikely that I’ll avoid their creators as I wedge myself in. After all, they thrive in Northwest forests, as well as scores of other bugs (very few mosquitoes, however) –and ubiquitous slimy slugs. I am on neutral terms with arachnids, though I’ve been bitten and at times not appreciated results. This happens least often when I am rambling about woodlands. I fit myself in with a peripheral awareness of other creatures and fill my nostrils with the powerful pungency of wood and loamy earth.

I crouch down, hands on thighs, and look about. It is semi-dark. Snug. The light above or beyond the tree and me is caramel-toned in fall and summer, a grey opalescent in winter, and green-yellow in spring. Birds seem livelier, brightly chirping and serenading as they flit above and around, or my ears hear better  from the center of a tree. At this size and from this angle, I feel less intrusive there. I may rest in the insects’ hollow and this gives me pause, that I am so much bigger than they. I rest on spongy earth where mushrooms dot the landscape, garter snakes slip by and bees swoop and squirrels freeze then skitter off with their chittering. My breath is still, heart is quiet. I can stay this way a long while: at rest though alert, awake to this world even while captivated by powers mysterious, immense even if not always working in my favor. A big shiny black beetle trundles past my feet. The forest air rests on my tongue–savory, sweet-sour. I feel moved by the abundant density of life. It is beautiful and warm here, in this tree, in this solitariness, under canopies of leaves and sky.

Until I can see two feet and a long knotty branch used as a walking stick. Marc, my spouse, has waited long enough. Am I going to get up and out of there? I rouse myself and half-crawl out, then unfold myself, brush off the crumbs of dirt and pieces of wood, the webby coating on a sleeve. He thinks I am slightly daft–this obsession I have for smaller spaces in the outdoors, or for climbing beneath or up onto a big root or branch. I even sometimes ask for photos. I can’t say just why–I just know it gives me pleasure to recall being in those lovely spots, to feel that much closer to nature’s ways.

But it all started when I was growing up, this interest in discovering a unique spot, making a nest of my own, holing up in smallish spaces.

In a house full of people–seven of us in a two story, three bedroom place with one bathroom plus a half-finished basement–being cramped for space was a way of life. I saw friends’ bigger houses (some of my friends even had their very own bedroom, not one they shared with one or two other sisters, swimming pools and so on) but ours was homier. In fact, it was cozy and attractive to me, filled with interesting objects as well as persons. (Not just family or an occasional neighbor but Dad’s music students or customers who needed him to appraise and sell or repair instruments and people from church and my parent’s bridge partners and good friends or visiting musicians or school teachers there for luncheons/dinners and siblings’ friends as well as mine–well, it got tight, alright.) The doorbell and phone were forever ringing. Music took up residence in the rooms and talk floated about heads and people moved around furniture or sat in it or pulled out a chair at the long dining table so it got crowded, too.

In winter, when I was indoors more, I escaped under our baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. There I could watch people come and go but also read a book, trace a picture, make lists of names for characters in my plays, hum a new tune I had learned, play with dolls, make tents and houses for them with scarves with the aid of books, listen to those who played piano and watch their feet work the pedals, the vibrations entering my bones as the piece reached a crescendo. I also listened in on more private conversations, a favorite activity. (Or took a nap until age six or seven.)

Less satisfactory was the area in front of a heating register; it was on the wall behind an armchair. This spot did meet dual needs–warming as well as half-hiding me. But it was easy to get in the way as it was by a door leading to stairs so there was foot traffic; I could also get squashed if someone moved the chair back.

The best resort was the outdoors. I’ve written before of the giant maple tree with our regular swing and a rudimentary trapeze; of its sturdy branches which acted as steps that carried me aloft, one sturdy stretch of leg at a time to the very top. Talk about a fine look-out. I could see way across the small tree nursery behind our bush-and-fir-lined back yard, past the Benfers’ huge vegetable and flower garden, over the rooftops of another two-story house, a small medical office and beyond to the pretty subdivision on Richard Court and Manor Drive. And that Michigan sky!–much greater than one might imagine and full on goings-on with chameleon clouds, moveable light and later, glints of a trillion tiny stars. The cars I spotted on Ashman Street swished by, oblivious.

There was a certain crook made of two branches that held my weight well so I wedged myself there. Despite a need to shift every few minutes, I was content. Undisturbed and nearly invisible. Surrounded by robins, a cardinal or blue jay, wrens and sparrows all came and went as they pleased. Freedom felt democratic there. I could just be, dream of anything, imagine myself anywhere–a tall ship was a favorite. My world was full to overflowing within the natural intimacy of a tree’s branches, as if I was made to fit. I just belonged there.

And also in the northeastern corner of the yard’s bushes and pines. I had a couple of weathered, handmade benches–one like a table, one a chair– made of 4×4 wood remnants from the garage. There were variously dolls, notebooks and novels, art supplies, a ukulele, tea sets, snack and lunch detritus, a weak magnifying glass, a miniature flashlight, thermos of tea or water, forbidden matches, a stained old toss pillow and a cast off sheet for a makeshift door or more “seating” for buddies. It could hold maybe three if they pressed into undergrowth. The hideaway was full of branches that had to be tied back to enlarge the space and to be kept from poking out eyes. With all the pine needles on the ground, the place was so heavy with their perfume that I could smell pine for days on my sweater and jacket. Damp pine and warm, layers of fresh or old pine. It would get shadowy and then darker long before the outside darkened. Quieter than anywhere else on the property. There was the advantage of also being able to slip out and hightail it right across Stark Nursery’s land if I didn’t want to stay put or was eluding siblings who came poking about. There I would pretend I rode horses or carried on epic battles or slipped into a netherworld. My hideout was my fort of safety when pursued by ghosts or intruders, those either imaginary or real.

I tried to make another private cubbyhole at the end of the front porch. Alas, it was too noisy with nearby streets, people who stomped up and down the steps with annoying regularity. Plus, there were red juniper berries there that my mother was worried I’d eat like a scavenging explorer. I did pick them; I never ate one, certain I’d die. I also would make a mess behind those ample bushes; that wasn’t going to happen in our front yard. But I still sometimes hid there to watch the world between branches, especially during winter when it became igloo-like with snows. (I’d also make snow caves alongside our street after the snowplow made towering drifts.)

Often I roamed the 24 acre wooded park, Barstow Woods, a couple of blocks from our house. The winding trails and creek offered plenty of nature to examine, a whole territory to explore or to play hide and seek in with my friends. I was as at home there as I was on my own city block; it was a safe place back then. And I learned much about trees and animals and plants each summer as a “day camper” with other kids and adult counselors.

The northern parts of Michigan were visited often, and there I was just as accustomed to running wild on dirt side roads and trails, playing in the light-dappled woods and finding my way back, moving according to sensory input. And dwelt in happiness all those places.

Since those days of fearless play I have lived in the country a few times though never long enough. But I have always been drawn to it, awed, enchanted and daunted by it. Sometimes as an adult, I can become afraid of sounds and shapes I can’t identify and unexpected events that occur no matter the time of day or weather, no matter if I am alone or not. (Like the unseen cougar I learned later was in the area but that I felt along the trails.) Generally, I am secure in my instincts and there are many spots that accommodate me. The open rolling fields of the Midwest and its northern woodlands; the dense, humid hothouse of the South; the tinder-dry, quirky vastness of the Southwest, the rainy wilderness, mountains and high desert of the Northwest: they have each called to me. And I have found my place even in the hardest life circumstances. There is always a hollow near a waterfall or a gaping hole in an aged, giant tree. A river bank that offers green bushes where I can kneel, watch the current carry leaves and twigs, ducks and stones.  And Pacific Ocean beaches with huge driftwood piles to sit on and within, and headlands with caves to settle into.

I live in the city but I am never far away from landscapes other than densely packed blocks. We have Forest Park. At over five thousand acres and stretching eight miles on hills above the Willamette River, it is one of our nation’s largest urban nature reserves. And other city parks and wildlife preserves are varied and well kept. A mere twenty-minute drive takes me to the Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area where wildlife, waterfalls and rivers and rocky buttes flourish amid the Cascade Range, miraculous with beauty. When multiple wildfires ravaged that vast acreage last year I wept, sick at heart. This summer I will finally venture out into it once more.

Every one of us needs a place to find serenity, to be at ease apart from the world’s pressures, its craziness. And we are animal beings who need our comforts, spiritual beings who need deeper sustenance. For me, it is more often than not in the welcoming outdoors, within nature’s arms. But I am told that even in sleep I pull close the blanket and quilt, up over nose, to or even over shuttered eyes, making a little tent. Please don’t awaken me; I am a creature well nested and deeply at peace. Nurtured yet freed. I will emerge restored and bright eyed when good and ready.

Find your refuge

Friday’s Quick Pick/Photos: Good Earth, How You Move Me

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson, copyright 2018

Last week-end, Marc and I made our first early spring trek to check out Steigerwald Wildlife Refuge in Washington State. We visit at least once a season to investigate the bird activities and walk among the marshes and grassland, as well as absorb partial view of the Cascade Mountains and portion of the Columbia River. I grew more excited as we neared the turn-off; this nature preserve shares small surprises each visit as well as peaceful beauty.  Many people flock here to enjoy the wealth of the offerings; they are always friendly and usually share what they have experienced.

There is almost more water than trees but alder and fir trees as well as groves of stark black cottonwood are attractive in fields and along the river. We will return when they are fully leaved, but before the summer sun bears down upon us with fiery heat.

Far from being accomplished birdwatchers, we still try to identify our sightings. This time we noted a bald eagle perched high above, blue herons in the marshes, Northern harriers hunting as well as red-tailed hawks, watchful kestrels and a bold scrub jay, and the elegant outlines against brilliant sky of charming swifts. And scores of Canadian geese as well as the requisite mallards and buffleheads. We enjoyed many I could not quite capture on film or name. The harriers were majestic and powerful and flew very low over land, then abruptly rose and rose above treetops countless times. I could barely move for the awe I felt. You’ll find the harrier in the 3rd, 13th and 14th photos. They tend to hover right, almost seeming still, before diving to kill their prey. (Unlike red-tailed hawks which ride the thermals, spiral up and then execute a very rapid dive to prey.) The smallish kestrel stands atop a post. I suspect you all know a bald eagle and heron.

I find the high wild grasses stunning, and love to listen to and watch them sway, shimmy, rustle, sigh and bow in the strong Columbia Gorge winds.

You can see shining Mt. Hood a few times, a dramatic beacon to those of us who live here (though one of many great peaks we can see on a clear day).

There were also a couple of interesting outbuildings beyond the enclosed refuge as you can walk for miles and miles along the rushing river.

Good Earth, how deeply you move me…

Steigerwald Spring March 18 062

Running Late at the Jolie Cafe

He was at long last good and tired of waiting for her. Not just the past 22 minutes, but all the times he had sat in restaurants even if mediocre, on benches at parks in a spectrum of weather, at charming cafes tucked away in a district like Little Paris where he was waiting, or even at home with take-out cooling on the wobbly table they’d spotted in a thrift shop. It was his habit to wait, he’d been good at it ever since being a contemplative child in the country, where all around him things took their own time, quite apart from what his battered pocket watch stated. It was her habit to keep people waiting as she did one last thing, booked two appointments at once or was compelled to stop on the street to save the rabbit that got loose from somewhere and was about to mowed down by a skateboarder. So it wasn’t just Timothy who paid for her lateness; each person had stories to add. But it felt like it when it happened again. She knew this was unacceptable, surely.

Madeline was flat-out in a rush, energetic about everything but over-engaged with life, that was the problem. It had been one of the issues when he’d interviewed her for the vacant spot as apartment mate. The first being she was female which, when she proffered full cash for the first month, he promptly forgot. It was a large vintage-style apartment close to city center; Timothy had lived there two years and did not want to give it up after his original roommate exited for the paradise of New Zealand. Most people he’d talked to couldn’t part with the hefty sum despite their excitement over wonderful views of the river from the front windows and from a small balcony at back, colorful storefronts and ongoing activities.

“I like to quiet things down by eleven at the latest.”

“Even on week-ends?” Madeline had asked, shocked.

“I sometimes work on week-ends.”

“Yes, but I hold on all week long for Friday and Saturday nights, like most people.”

“I’m a web designer on the side, if you recall. I work on week-ends often, just as when I’m at the office being a cog in the techie world during the week.”

She half-frowned, more a vague, acquiescent look of knitting together her eyebrows and tightening her lips, which were brilliantly glossed. He couldn’t quite stop looking at her lips. They were like two bright flags waving under the pier of her nose, rather too long for her face. He found her a bit funny but kept his face empty of telltale ripples.

He considered the bathroom sharing, how much space she might take up. His vanishing friend, Evan, had used half of one drawer for all his essentials. They had never tripped over each other’s stuff unless there  had been a big sports night with friends, beer and crunchy snacks.

“Are you saying you have restrictions on when I can be up or make any sort of noise? Do you snore?”

He looked away, narrowed his eyes at the wood floor. Who was she, questioning him? But yes, he did snore, that had irked Evan until he’d found good ear plugs. And also, he was a periodic insomniac so could get up a few times.

“I see how this is, my friend, so good luck with finding someone who fits all your needs.” She started to rise form her chair.

“No, wait, we’ve just begun. I really need an apartment mate. Tell me more. Basic info about your own lifestyle, is that okay?”

“I work as noted in the county building handling building permit requests and such, go out with friends often enough but am not a raging drunk or pitiful drug abuser and have no pets at the moment; I do have one stuffed dog from years ago–don’t ask–named Goldie who will stay put on my bed. I like classic movies and cook some but prefer take out. I am tolerant of most tunes and love world music. I run each morning around six–well, I used to have access to a stinky gym in my other building but now I’ll run again, along the river, that should be fun! I’m a hiker and a dragon boat team racer. I have no boyfriend now and won’t be looking. I’m neat enough.”

“Dragon boat teammate, nice,” he murmured.

She studied him as he jotted notes and laughed. “You’re writing this all down?”

Timothy put aside the note pad and pen. “I took info on the other three, too. I’m sharing a home with a stranger, right?” He tried to make himself look at ease, took a breath, let it seep out. “Look, I’ll check your references and get back to you in a few days.”

“Come on, Timothy, I have the money right now and if you need a security deposit, that’s fine, too. I have to get into a place ASAP–they’re tearing the three-story down to put up one hundred-sixty condo units that will rent for some crazy price.” She looked about. ” I can afford this, it’s a wonderful place–even near my work. And I think you’re a nice enough guy, a far better sort than the third roommate we had a short time who was a bona fide slob and kept a few scary reptiles caged in his room. You’re just a little rigid…we’re workable, right? Or do you have some nutty habits I’ll run from, screaming  in fright? Because I don’t need all that.”

He cleared his throat to cover his surprise over the money as well as her dwelling circumstances and the snake handler. “Well, I’ve got my ways, but I’m not an intolerant person, just organized. Quiet by nature.  I’m a kind of studious sort of guy except for some sports on TV. I don’t get too wild, no–that’s a serious understatement…so, guess that’s it, then. When will you move in?”

It took her over two weeks to haul in possessions–not so many, just one piece at a time, it seemed to him– despite her emphatic statement that it’d be five days, max. This was his first clue about her lateness.

But she ended up being a fine roommate, paid her rent ahead of time, kept her things picked up, was cordial and lively without being intrusive. They’d found they had a few things in common, despite her opinionated frankness and his more neutral philosophizing. Despite her terribly long hot baths and his fast cool showers. Despite the contrast between her chatty friends–one of whom slept on the couch after concerts or films or drinking a few and dancing at a monthly ceili, of all things–and his two very good friends who he met out somewhere else excepting baseball and basketball season on television and playing golf a couple times a month in good weather.

And Madeline liked baseball a lot, it turned out. And thrift store shopping, going to see travelogues, volunteering for park clean ups, sitting by the river with a book and music. They had, day by day and activity by activity, just become friends. Timothy suspected this meant more to him. She had an interesting and busy life compared to his and the more she went out, the more he stayed in it seemed. He worked hard on his side jobs and saved up–he wanted to buy his own place one day. It was a relief, his solitary immersion in silence so the high ceilings echoed only with the click-click of his computer keyboard, the bright clink of ice against the sides of a tall glass of minty green tea. He nearly forgot she lived there when she was gone a couple of days, then he realized he waited for her to show up when she said she’d be home.

But she kept him waiting no matter the plans. It had irritated him so long that he felt he might blow up the minute she walked in this time. Timothy had to tell her in no uncertain terms that such lack of consideration was unacceptable. Either they should not plan things together often or she had to promise to be on time.

He settled in with an espresso and a notebook for recording ideas for his next projects. But he did love Little Paris district and the Jolie Cafe. They’d discovered it when thirsting for a great cup of coffee. That day they’d bought an antique gilded mirror for the foyer. And they’d taken home delicate apricot croissants for late night snacks and two bear claws for breakfast the next morning–though she’d been late for work so rushed off without hers. But it was that day when there was a switching of tracks in his brain, when something appeared at the edges of his sight, even though they’d said and done nothing different. She’d turned to laugh her belly laugh at something he’d quipped, long hair whipping about the planes of noteworthy cheekbones, and he saw all that light welling up inside her and haphazardly spilling over, and he felt a rush of warmth, even in the lines of his palms and fingertips, along the back of his neck, and then it paused and bloomed in the center of his chest.

He didn’t think she noticed. He was so unsure of himself with women. Even of their friendship after that.

******

He looked at his pocket watch given to him by his grandfather, a dairy man who also bred fine horses. The old man would be happy to know it stayed with him all these years, that he’d taken care to keep it running. What would he think of his work, he often wondered, of the way he’d turned his back on the family legacy and toward this city life? He’d have been pleased after he thought it over awhile, just like his dad, Timothy imagined. He checked the time once more, sighed in a rush of caffeinated breath.

Both of them would have appreciated Madeline–her respect for nature, exuberance, how she handled herself with confidence and humor. Grandpa wouldn’t worry so much about her penchant for forgetting time and he’d take Timothy aside to say, Have to go with the natural rhythm and order of things, no matter who or what, be patient with women, too.

Thirty-five minutes now, no, forty. He checked his phone–no messages–then slammed back the rest of the espresso and gathered up his things. He wasn’t waiting any longer.

At the cafe’s heavy front door was an explosion of motion as it was shoved open. In rushed Madeline and a waitress looked up in surprise, reached out to slow her down then stepped back, hand to mouth. Timothy’s back was turned but when Madeline uttered his name in a strange voice and grabbed his shoulders, he pivoted. He took her by the arms, lead her to his table, sat her down. He leaned forward as he took her all in, trembling knees touching hers, her jeans dirtied, torn. Words were useless but customers had begun to whisper. The waitress had run off and fast returned with wet towel in hand, the manager right behind her, both white-faced.

Madeline’s own face was a ghastly study in pain, of raw gashes and swollen pink areas that were already darkening to bruises. Blood seeped and flowed, the worst from a large cut two inches beneath her right eye. Her neck was splotchy and her hands dangling at her sides were marred by scrapes, broken fingernails that bled, too. Her rain jacket was torn and stained. Her whole body, her expression held the feel and look of horror but no tears fell. She tried to slow down her breathing and making little headway despite encouragement from the waitress, Carol, and Timothy. The manager hovered, asking repeatedly if he should call 911, then he just dialed.

“What happened, how did you get hurt–who did this?” Timothy said as he gently dabbed at blood and grime and soon giving up. He had to get her to help.

“From the bus stop I took a shortcut–I was so late!–ran through an alley I’ve taken before oh my god Timothy, two guys, a woman they grabbed and tripped me– I was–tried to fight, got up, was hit again, dragged me back down, took my purse, everything, oh no this really hurts–”

Tears then, great heaves, her hurt cheeks streaming as people gathered about or quietly exited the cafe. A siren wailed in the distance and Carol knelt down, put an arm around her but Madeline reached for Timothy so he pulled her slowly onto his lap and held her there. She buried her damaged face into his sweater-soft shoulder, wept hard. All he wanted was to carry her out of there, pick her up and take her to medical care and then home, far away from police reports and gawkers. Far from her burgeoning fear as adrenaline subsided so that the nightmare and pain came forward to assault mind and body again and again.

******

They lay in her bed as the long white curtains with tiny green ferns billowed at a half-open window. Late morning sunlight spilled over exposed skin, illuminated their eyes as he stared beyond the window into an unreal new day and she, at the most ordinary comfort of a textured ceiling. A robin sang its loud, repetitive song; cars and buses and trucks  honked and made their way to the next stop.

Madeline rolled awkwardly toward him, trying not to emit a moan but finally letting go a whimper. Her neck, head and face; arms and hands; hips and knees had been x-rayed, prodded, disinfected, stitched, butterfly band-aid patched, swathed in gauze as needed. Antibiotics had been administered since she’d been taken down in the alley. Nearly beaten. Nothing was broken; she’d sport such big bruises. Scars that might be fixed later. She’d had a mild concussion; doctors had kept her in hospital for twelve hours. The police had followed, taken her complete report, then seemed to have an idea who the attacking thieves might be. No comfort, that, not then and not in the morning. It had happened to her, it was an event no one could have foreseen, and the damage had been sustained and would remain for some time. Long after flesh and sinew healed.

“Timothy?” she whispered, one bandaged hand lain crumpled on his chest.

His face turned to hers and he held her loosely so as not to jostle or squeeze one wounded spot. He ached for her aching but had found few words.

“Can we stay right here… a long, long, long time?”

He blinked back sudden dampness at the corner of his eyes, raised his head to barely brush her quivering lips with his own.

“Forever if you like.” He put a hand lightly atop her arm, felt her warmth and his mingle. “But maybe we could work on time issues, and then there’s safety…”

“Mmm, um, good,” she mumbled then slowly draped a leg over his. “Glad that’s at least settled.”

Madeline drifted off again. Timothy knew she might mean the matter of time or safety as well as staying there forever but all the same, he had to clench his teeth to keep from shouting out in sorrow and in joy.