Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Not Who You Thought I Was

Think you basically know who your neighborly acquaintance and co-workers are? And perhaps can get a good idea of the stranger’s state of being who stands behind you at a coffee shop and offers a cheery “hello”, a two minute chat? It’s likely you trust that you do after x many years of  various sociable interactions, and that you can pretty much “read” first impressions received–but maybe best to think again.

I’ve lately perused several reviews about Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. His research and conclusions intrigue me; people intrigue me, in general, as a writer and as a retired counselor. I also suspect many of us know already that strangers can be almost any type of person behind the knee-jerk performances given us. We generally tend to be cautious by teen-age years–and certainly by adulthood. Now more than ever, it must be said. I will read his book at some point, to see what new insights have been discovered.

Beyond that, his ideas obliquely dovetailed with my post idea for today. It may seem the opposite of Gladwell’s subject matter and I admit it’s too-large a topic: the origins, nature, and outcomes of friendships. (I will keep it more personal and shorter than all that.) But the reality is, our friends generally begin as strangers unless we knew them shortly after birth and even then, there was that first meet-up. Our knowledge starts close to zero before climbing upward toward some imagined one hundred percent, yet we probably never draw near to the fullness of deeply knowing another. Or we might be more fortunate, who knows at the inception of connection?

We are drawn to others for certain reasons–consciously or not–and we tend to see what we want to see. Suspense novels demonstrate this over and over; crime headlines and stories do, as well. yet we blithely go about our business of developing assessments, making new friends and perhaps becoming closer in time, determining who we can count on and who is a fair weather buddy and who is–let’s be honest–is a wash-up.

I’ve not had the most prolific friends compared to many. An introvert with strong extrovert bursts for pleasure or customary needs, I take my time, try to choose carefully. I learned to withhold  who I am until I am more certain of what may come of it. I had more friends when younger, due to circumstance and personal leanings. But when I review my history, it turns out those I decided might not be such fine cohorts were better, often far better, than first determined. Because I surmised who they were rather poorly, too wary at times. Or perhaps we found opportunity for a diversity of interactions and it changed things. Or a common cause led us to team up, then held other benefits.

The truth is, my good and even best friends were quite surprising–not who I thought they were more often than not.

My first close friend as a youngster sat with me at church. We passed notes on a Sunday bulletin and watched from the balcony all the other goings-on. After church services, we often met near my house at a drugstore counter to delve into a huge shared plate of  hot, salty French fries and cherry or lime Cokes. We enjoyed the occasional sleepover but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company at church events for years. Then we went to the same school by grade seven and became closer. She came from money, I was middle class but it seemed less important then–having parents who were educated and church going seemed to be the expectations for making friends back then.

We share the same first name, and that was dealt with by my name being shortened to “Cindy” which I detested–but then we both answered to that, too. She was the oldest of five kids in her family; I was the youngest of five. She even then seemed older than I. Both achievers, we did well academically but while I was involved in the arts, she was more politically inclined, running for and winning president of the student council. Many must have thought we were an odd couple of friends but it made good sense to us.

But she was not really as I first thought. She was deeper, gentler, and also much angrier. Her family life seemed blissful in their beautiful house but in fact, it was not. There was strife in her parent’s marriage; her mother was deaf and often seemed unhappy and her father drank a bit much. Loud arguments were not uncommon–between adults and  kids. In my family, no one argued; we tried not to even raise our voices. No one talked of anything too personal. And there was no alcohol in our house; none was drunk elsewhere. She was not athletic but I was; she was a class leader and I became more a rebel in mid-1960s. We still shared a desire to achieve; a sensitive nature under which was a well of deep hurt; a passion for fashion and books; and a sturdy trust of one another. And yet, when people change, friendships alter, and can fizzle out little by little. There is not the same alignment as before. And when one moves past the unusually intense bonds of teenage-hood, the need of closeness evolves. One grows up, and there is a loosening of ties while others form in appropriate ways.

We moved away from the hometown. She ended up in television news production while I raised two children, attempted to complete my degree and kept on writing, letting go of music and theater. She was yet my childhood best friend, and we kept in touch via letter, some phone calls; these dwindled to nothing. After over twenty years of not being much in touch we bumped into each other, fatefully, in yet another Methodist church service. She had been living in my city, too. But our get-togethers were strained; she was wane and terribly thin, pushed a piece of bread around her plate. She spoke of things that meant little to me– and vice versa. She’d never had kids; I had raised several. She had never remarried; I’d married three times, four if counting a remarriage. We had our childhood in common, memories, that was all. I was baffled, and worried about her mysterious frailty never explained, a vagueness in her eyes that had once been clear and quick, though they’d always been beautiful and still were. My heart was softly bruised by loss as our friendship was void of relevant meaning. She was not anymore who I thought she was. Maybe time had altered us that much. It is as likely that she never was who I imagined, just another youth trying to find her way–a partial stranger who for a time was known a bit and filled an important need in my life. And I, in hers.

I had another best girl friend to whom I swore loyalty. She was fierce from a distance. I was practicing becoming fierce. She was sullen, too, but one who always spoke her mind and defied convention– but displayed more compassion than I’d ever seen among our peers. We became the support needed for three years. She left town after high school as did I. Over time we lost connection.

Fifteen years ago we learned of each other’s whereabouts. Our email updates were lovely but brief– then ended. As if that was all we needed to say after the past intense years. She had become a biology, chemistry and psychology teacher at a high school in the Southwest. I’d imagined she’d been a world traveler/vagabond or maybe, if she settled down, then a social worker. Clearly I was mistaken but not entirely surprised–she was bright and she’d liked knowledge, the give and take. I wonder if we had tried harder if we would’ve enjoyed an adult friendship across the miles. But I always think of her fondly, a firebrand who smoldered less or differently, settling into her life, as I did mine.

There were college friends, too, many of whom lived on the same street in ramshackle rented houses. Like a mini-colony or commune, just a brief walk from one door and through another. Who knows if we would have been so keen on friendship except for being in an accessible place, at a propitious time. We met in class or at a college event or during a crisis hotline volunteer shift shared. It might have been our common sense of irony–so popular then–or similar degree program or mutual friend that first linked us. But before long we camped, hiked and skinny-dipped in backwoods lakes, took turns hosting dinners and musical gatherings, critiqued each others’ poetry or songwriting, held each other’s hand as loves soured. The women were engaged feminists; we had weekly women’s meetings that empowered us, attended protests, helped educate one another. Most of us went our separate ways but they are with me internally, as those were happy, passionate times of community in a real sense. (I married one of the men from then– eventually–and am married to him now, a best friend, too.)

I have had the good fortune to make friends everywhere I’ve lived and I’ve moved a great deal since nineteen. For one thing, since I’m in recovery, I can find twelve step meetings almost anywhere. Many of my closest friends have also been in recovery and what friendships those have been! In every city and countryside I have lived, there were women of all ages and stations in life who’ve been smart, honest, caring, and always lively. We’d go on walks, out for coffee or a meal, talk on the phone for hours, laugh over our ridiculousness. We’d hold each other when life felt unbearable, and mine the humor where there seemed to be none left. We were willing to be there for each other, which is not always the case in the more ordinary (not in recovery) world. And often what we’ve had in common was mainly a need and desire to live fuller, healthier lives, with no substances abused.

I initially seldom guessed how friendly we might become. Even at those meetings as people try to be open and thorough about serious addiction issues, you don’t–can’t really–know the complexity of a person. We each don our worldly masks, some more than others, and addicts and alcoholics are well known for being chameleons to survive their lives. Who knows what a nice smile really hides or means to convey? We all harbor a prejudice or two even when we wish we didn’t, and all kinds of people come through the doors.

But you know about their recovery or how they are working at it, not much that might reveal a whole truth. That is only one part of their story; one’s essence is multi-layered, even more fascinating. Gradually people take more steps forward, learn to build trust so solid relationships grow. I have often felt that many of the finest people I have come to know have been those I’ve met at meetings. When you have lost or are on the verge of losing everything thought to be of value, you discover what ultimately counts most. You keep things to essentials. And that can make for profound ties for those who get it.

I recently enjoyed a visit with a woman I met 26 years ago. We were working with homeless, usually gang-affiliated, abused and addicted youth. I had fallen into the job, or so I thought until I fell in love with it. She had chosen the field. Larger and taller than I with a mane of hair, her swaggering attitude and assertive words intimidated me some. She acted as if she knew everything and commanded those kids–at times aggravated them with her boldness. I didn’t like her at all, I thought she was hard and crass and I had seen or felt enough of that in life. I figured she should get a grip on her style if she was going to be an example to the youth. She obviously felt otherwise and we went our own ways if we could, throwing looks at each other in the charting room but cooperating on the job.

But we both smoked then and took our smoke breaks behind the building’s fence where the kids–forbidden to smoke–couldn’t see us or smell the smoke. Rather than stand silently, we got into various conversations. I offered just a little of who I was. She told me right off that I was “prissy, a nit-picker, too inexperienced in all ways for this work.” I didn’t show it, but it got to me enough that I shared a bit more of my story just to get her to stop the commentary. I figured she might respect me more if she saw beyond my “Miss Junior League” clothes (her idea but she wasn’t the only one to think such things), ingrained manners and reserved presentation. It almost seemed if I swore here and there she got more congenial, but I informed her I didn’t like it. We swapped a more stories, shared our last cigs with each other, then stopped the mutual hassling–mostly. (Much later we laughed over how to annoy or tease a person can mean you like them, a peculiar method of showing it.)We worked better and better together and the kids in the facility saw that, how such different personalities could work in tandem for their welfare. After four or five years I moved on to another job as did she. At best she was a good companion in our work and we laughed a lot once I got to know her more; at worst still rough-edged and hard to know more deeply. And I think we both figured that was that and “good luck to you.”

Oddly, or perhaps serendipitously, we found ourselves often working for the same agencies in our city. And on the same teams again. Or one of us would be leaving an agency and the other would be coming into it. We began to spend time after work, going out for coffee and catching up, sharing inside info about what we knew of places we worked or wanted to next work. And gradually I began to hear about her parents, siblings, lovers and partners, past mad exploits and current sobriety challenges, her foibles coming forward as well as many strengths. I learned she loves opera as well as Bonnie Raitt (we’ve attended five concerts) and Mavis Staples. And also live theater–so I took her to a musical theater performance and had a great evening. I soon knew that she is part Native American; we’ve been to a few pow wows together. I realized she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met, both with time and money. That she is devoted to whatever dog she has last rescued and made her own. That she loves to go to Las Vegas for glitzy extravagant shows, yet also has a fascination with politics and volunteers for various campaigns. That she dislikes the outdoors as much as I adore it. And that she will never marry–we accept this difference despite my being the marrying kind. She does, however help raise a great niece and adores the child despite bellyaching about her hi-jinks.

We are getting older now, yes. There are even more things we can guffaw like fools over when we meet and slurp the steaming drinks with sugary scones, muffins or rich chocolate cookies. I have had the pleasure of enjoying five of her dogs; the last, an unlikely cross between a terrier and a basset hound named Dave, is a peach. She is not well; she has not been since I first met her. She has recovered from some things and developed others, serious maladies. She walks with a cane and a major limp despite being younger than I, and I know she is in pain every single moment. She doesn’t talk about it unless there is a crisis; I don’t talk about my health issues, either–we have too little time to enjoy all the good, the absurd, the miraculous, the strange, the love that circulates about despite many barriers to it. She has long worked in a women’s prison, helping them learn new things and get better, find their way back to lives more worth living. She is tired out by it but she won’t stop as I have; she wants to do this until she cannot take another step, I think. She will do it because it is what she loves–and to stop might mean not so good things are ahead for her.

I certainly had not sized her up correctly at first meeting eons ago. (As well, she did not make the correct evaluation of my personhood; she saw externals and decided who I must be.) She was this whole entity with interesting facets, far less like her projected demeanor than I even surmised. I found in time that she’d become a dear companion, someone I find marvelous and can count on. Laugh and weep and celebrate with, as needed. Someone who always can count on me.

A beloved friend. Once a stranger, as I had been to her. We both had been in error.

I could write of many people admired and gradually loved. Though I am not as social these days and can feel a bit too alone, I know that despite my share of heartaches and horrors–some trying to throw me off what can seem like the tightrope of life– I’ve been gifted with wonderful people to care about. They each have entered my life as a surprise, for all the right reasons. (More so than the people I should have avoided and also, unfortunately, judged inaccurately.) I believe we ought to pay better attention, make discernments the best we can–but then we must take our chances. Give others the leeway for reassessment and perhaps acceptance into our lives. Otherwise, we miss out on finer, richer truths of other human beings, the kaleidoscope of insights, delights, and mutual enrichment.

Monday’s Meander/Photos: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

We crossed a small bridge over railroad tracks and meadow land, and entered into wonderful Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. This is a wildlife preserve of around 5200 acres west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. It lies close to the great Columbia River channels.

There flourish marshes, grasslands, upland forests, riparian corridors, oak woodlands. Many of the Oregon white oaks have survived hundreds of years. There are dozens of bird species with thousands of wintering birds, alone; 23 species of mammals live on this land.

We came upon a full scale replica of a Chinookan Plankhouse, called the Cathlapotle Plankhouse after the Native American village of the same name. It is built on an archaeological site that was encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they headed west around 1806. Unfortunately , it was closed that day. We will go back to learn more when it is open.

The Oregon white oaks are massive and beautiful in their scrubby, ancient way. Some of the branches can be seen growing back into the earth. The one first pictured below is over 400 years old.

To give you a better idea of the size of branches and trunk, here are two more shots. I admit I have a thing about trees and still climb them a bit, if possible–in this case, only felled branches!

Branches growing back into ground.
Marc checking out plants.

A truly beautiful day on the trails around and about a portion of the refuge. I came away saturated with peace and contentment.

We’re looking forward to going back soon and bringing binoculars. My only hesitancy is that mountain lions’ presence has been verified (usually it is cougars I’d mind meeting–I am okay with bears at a decent distance), but nature offers so much wonderment one has to get out there to see things, and that means taking a few chances…Next time: new trails, deeper into the refuge we will go!

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Out of Sight

Courtesy Pexels, photo by Nicole Avagliano

If there’s a hard rain after her swing shift, Macy sits by her living room window, a candle burning, with her quilt bunched around her shoulders and stares at nothing. If it’s agreeable outside, she sets a three-legged red stool on her minuscule balcony, sets a smaller candle on the the iron railing and stares at nothing. I can see her from across the alley as I slouch in bed beside my dark window. We watch each other now and then, wave a tired wave we can barely make out, but mostly I keep an eye out for her. I have extra time.

She is thinking as I used to think: how different–better–things might have been, how he chose the wrong fork in the road, but how can she make anything of her life until she moves past the so ordinary (she tells herself) heartbreak of it. But where is the necessary will to do so? It flags, it pauses, it stalls. He should have married her and he did not. What does one do with an excess of desire, as if he was still in the room, or that voice of hope inside her head, followed by a downward spiral of despair?

I sit propped up on three pillows, at least two books splayed face down beside me and shake my head as she sits by her own self and ponders. She’s lovesick, that’s what I conclude. After a year, this needs to be done and buried. Macy needs to join a spa, attend a positive single-hood seminar, take a leave and go to the Bahamas two weeks, perhaps trek Mt. Rainier since she is athletic. A breakthrough or at least a soothing mantra is required before she fades more.

I told her this too early, then only two months after her heart cracked apart. It was after she’d cried at the farmers market while examining strawberry plants (I meanwhile was taste testing a cherry tomato), explaining they were going to buy a house, they had spotted two they loved, and she was going to plant a bountiful garden but then he had to fall for that woman, the one they’d met on a cruise to Alaska, could I believe that? And she could barely face anything that grew despite yearning for all things green and beautiful.

I patted her arm and said, “I know. You have to work at moving on. It’s hard but he did get married and you can’t waste precious time and energy wallowing in self-pity. Pot some plants for your balcony, at least.”

“How can you just brush off my feelings? How would you know? You aren’t even with anybody at, say, 50 years old, right?”

I took a step back. I was just offering decent advice but tend toward frank and practical rather than fluffy or diplomatic. But I thought it was a bit overwrought when Macy burst into a tidal wave of weeping and turned away after her face constricted into a scowl of huge dislike of me, then wandered off to baked goods. We weren’t close, not even before he left her. But we often went to market together or took our dogs to the park when we both had one. (Macy gave hers away; the labra-doodle had been their dog. My scruffy mongrel got run over; he was not well, perhaps it was best.)

Since then, she avoids me at all cost. That is, avoids running into me, engaging in conversations with me if we accidentally come face-to-face. We make out our outlines across the alleyway and occasionally but barely acknowledge each other. I can’t say it hurts me, but it does disappoint me. We might have been better friends with more interaction, despite the ten years age difference and the fact that I no longer work full time but at home as needed as a nicely paid web designer. Macy and I like to read, for one thing; she has interesting tastes, we had good discussions. And then there were the dogs. I now have a cat, Razz. I don’t know if Macy has anything around to pet and chat with, but somehow I doubt it–so much effort involved. I feel for her, but don;t think of it until night falls again. I have my own life to shape and reshape until I get it more right than it is.

I’ve held a post by my window a lot longer than she has even lived in this neighborhood. I will continue to do so until insomnia abates. We’re older friends, the night and me, than anyone I know here excepting Travis on the tenth floor, who is now blind and nearly deaf. I take groceries and Razz to him and the cat sits on his lap, even purrs and nibbles his pale twisted fingers. We listen to too-loud big band selections on his stereo. The old man was there for me when I needed him and vice versa. We have a good habit going now, twelve years later. His wife, Selma, passed, heart attack right in their teak four poster bed, with him snoring away, he said, until he felt something, as if her ghost swept across his chest and arms before exiting. I liked her even more than I knew until she was gone. And I had my own issue, the strange matter of my partner, Ward, going on photo assignment in Mongolia and never returning. No good answers from the news agency, no acceptable reason for his silence. Everyone has presumed he is dead or imprisoned somewhere on that vast continent. I am not at first so sure but as time passes I am inclined to agree. There has been a holding place that will never be occupied in my life. Even Macy knows a few pieces of the puzzle. But she doesn’t know the sort of love he and I shared, the sort that I know beyond a doubt never comes around again.

After all that happened, Travis and I sat side by side in his nicely ratty armchairs– mine was Selma’s for decades, the cushions deeply indented bottom and back– by his living room window day after day, drinking fragrant spicy chai and eating too many sweets. Sighing. He lay a hand on mine now and again, said, “This, too, shall pass” until I was sick of it but he was quite right. He could walk better then. I’d weave my arm though his and off we’d go to the park with the fountain and feed the birds. It was a good thing to do.

Now we just sit an hour once a week and it’s enough for him, he smiles and looks at me with cloudy once-blue eyes and nods. I get up and go, until the next week, next grocery list.

Tonight I haven’t seen Macy at her spot outdoors yet. My night doesn’t settle right without her there; it’s like being accustomed to seeing the moon, or at least its light–out of reach but in place. I admit to sometimes worrying about her. Younger, more sheltered, less independent in most ways-what does she do with her time now? I see her here and there with some woman, some man, but there is something in the way she holds her shoulders, sharp and hunched with underground tension, as if pushing against an adversary, but what? Inevitable losses? Her own bridled anger? The tenderness of vulnerability that comes with human contact? Her mouth smiles but her eyes look far away, as if searching for him, still.

I understand. But before it got out of hand, I began to see what was in front of me and it meant more. Vaporous presences mean so little when your blood runs warm in your body and your mind lights up with a need to embrace and discover. For this is real living right now, not so the past which is nebulous despite our wanting it otherwise.

There she is now, good, her stool set down. She raises her head to see Venus, I think–so unmistakable in its regal claim to space. I see the gleaming body, too, and swing my feet over to stand in the narrow place between my big bed and the wall with two tall windows. One is half-open. The traffic, though sparser, never comes to a full stop in city center and I like to hear its metallic shifting and trumpeting of busy work. The alley is empty except for a heavily attired woman rearranging blankets on the back steps of another building, and a young man–he walks very fast–cringing into himself as he passes. He stumbles and I wonder if it is a rat underfoot, if he is drunk or naturally clumsy. And he is on his phone now and then gone.

Macy looks down, too, as if I wondered aloud what that young man was up to, then she gazes toward me. I think–how can I be sure. I press my fingers against the glass, then bend down to peer through the screen to see better. She is looking at me, she is raising a bottle in my direction, and a glass. Then she beckons me over to her spot with a nod and sweep of her hand, the glass spilling its contents a little.

Do I get dressed and go over? I am about to turn back to my books when something catches my eye, and a tall, reed thin figure pauses in the shadows, leans against the brick of Macy’s building, and lights a cigarette, face flaring bright a second but not discernible, then all is mostly dark again except for lights that burst forth and vanish down the alley. It is 1 a.m. I wait five minutes. The glowing cigarette is snuffed out and nothing stirs. But Macy is still at the balcony railing, holding the bottle, drinking from her glass. It seems a white flag from Macy, so I pull on my shirt, shorts, slip on flip-flops, ride the elevator down and step into the darkness through the side door.

I take that convenient exit as it is faster but feeling the unseen presence I about regret it. It is as if the stranger is waiting, resting– or maybe sleeping–but I almost call out to warn him off me. Still, my gut says this is more benign than dangerous, I can breathe alright. I go the opposite way, not trying to run–I’d fail in flip-flops–but not dawdling, either. My ears are pricked but there is nothing but the usual suspects, skittish creatures and whizzes of vehicles and muffled talking above, a shout down the street. Entering Macy’s building when she buzzes me up seems a comfort. When she opens her door, I note sweat has accumulated between my breasts and down my back, and realize her building has no air conditioning. She is across the alley but our life circumstances are different. I think we both felt that yet she is now welcoming.

“Hi! Wine? Rose.”

She pours me a full glass; maybe she recalls that is a preference. We clink our glasses and settle on the tiny balcony–she offers the other, yellow, stool. The dark seems heavier than usual, heat rising to swaddle us.

“So I just wanted to tell you. They separated already.”

“Really.”

“It turns out she was already engaged to another guy and he found her and visited them… not a pretty scene, I guess, and Hank lost out. A mutual friend knows the story, he’s an old friend of Hank’s so called me.” She looks at me and I blink. “You remember Hank’s name, right?” She takes a good sip. “It has been awhile since we talked.”

“Right, Hank. And yeah, it has been that. Well, that is good news…?”

“Not sure. I might be finally over him.”

“Ah, good work.”

“You know, it wasn’t that much work, just a decision.” She lights up with a toothy smile. “I got a promotion and since then things have gotten better all around. I am moving soon, across the river.”

“Congratulations, that is great news.” We clinked again.

“Last week he called to say he missed me… but you know, it didn’t feel right. I think I’m done, as you suggested would happen.”

“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”

We talk another twenty minutes about our work and being single and she is considering a cat, too, for when she moves. I start toward the door, thanking her for having me over and wishing her well. It seems a well- intentioned ending to our acquaintanceship.

“Oh, I forgot–one more thing. You know how we both watch from our places? Have you seen some guy lurking about the last three nights?”

Something in me dives straight down into a chilly bottomless pool and I nearly gasp. “Not really, but I may have seen someone tonight.”

“He looks up at your building, I think. Just a heads up. I carry pepper spray and take a cab home each night so I’m good. But I wonder what he’s up to.”

“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”

On impulse I give her a light hug and she returns it. I think, though, how she never asked about Ward. Just as well.

On the way back–a mere two minutes with a rapid walk–I go around her building, then around mine and look down the alley from the opposite end from which I left. I will enter the complex from the front door but first I squint to try to delve into the shadows.

He steps out, about one hundred feet away. And then I run, flip flops torn from my feet by the length and speed of my stride, lungs pushing air in and out then I must pause one second to slide my electronic apartment key to unlock the main door. And just like that he is there, grabs my arm.

I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.

“Gina? Oh my god, it’s really you, Gina!”

I freeze into stone. And then I am turned to face him.

It is him. It is Ward, I think, I want to think, but he looks much older, his beard so long and his once-wide eyes half sunken in deeply tanned, lined skin. His wavy salt and pepper hair is pulled into an unruly ponytail. I check his throat. Around his neck, circling a long scar left from war story, is a silver infinity symbol on a darkened leather cord that I gave him over twenty years ago.

My knees weaken and a hand braces against the opening door and we fall into the foyer.

“Yes, it’s really me, it’s Ward… don’t run off, please! Listen. My motorcycle broke down. I got lost. I was captured–yes, true– by a nomadic man after I stole a prized horse and had to work to pay off my debt–and I had to adapt and I–“

“What? What did you say?” I cover my eyes with both hands, then my buzzing ears. This cannot be Ward, this cannot be reality. What is he saying, captured after a horse theft? My head swims and I will faint if I don’t sit down, so sink to the ceramic tiled floor, its hardness a relief.

“Please, hang on with me, Gina, wait! I’ve lived in Mongolia all this time. It has been amazing and hard. With nomadic tribes. I tell you the truth.”

“Wait–you smoke now?”

“Yeah, rotten habit, I’ll quit now I’m back to some quasi-normalcy. Or, I think it is, hard to say after adapting to a whole other life.”

My chest is heaving, my eyes sting. Of course he’s telling me the truth, he has lived the craziest things, he has always brought back such stories. “And now you’re just…are you really in the flesh? And you felt I’d still be here.”

His arms wrap around me, pull me tight. We rock side to side, back and forth, entwined arms clinging.

“Yes, I have waited but barely let myself believe…Ward. Alive, here, now.”

“It’s a story unlike any other I’ve chased or lived, my love. I can’t believe my good fortune to find you– still here in our old home,” he says into my long graying hair, into my being.

“Yes, you’re finally home, thank the powers that be,” I whisper as we stand shakily. “Come with me.”

I breathe him in, smokiness with all the rest that I recall, and we get in the elevator. His eyes never leave mine, I fall into his, what else can be done? And in our bed we hold each other past dawn, our eyes searching one another’s for all the missing pieces, our hands welcoming each other as if anew, and though Razz raises his head once, he stays curled on the couch, the only one that cares to sleep.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Myrna at the Minthorn Camp

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The Minthorns had kept a house on the wooded rise beyond wildflower-overtaken Lazy Meadow for three generations. The big rambling domain, Minthorn Camp, had been the talk of the farmers and the town for the first two and part of the third. But it had lost much of its rough-hewn grace and prosperous sheen, sadly evident by the time Earl Minthorn, II, left behind all earthly toils and gains. Now it looked weary, as if it had a hard time trying to keep up mere appearances. But Myrna was working on it.

Garth said it was hopeless when he drove up the rutted road, looked far and wide over sun scoured land and when he ate breakfast in the breakfast room and remarked on a lack of fresh flowers at the table because they’d drooped their blooms in a gasp of surrender due to record heat. The sturdy roses folded into themselves sooner than they should have, only some regaling under a brief rain here and there. Watering properly got very expensive. The place had come to him disrespected, even damaged

“It’s going to waste, nothing I can do about it,” he mumbled. “Look at those tenacious weeds edge of even the yard. When is there enough time to tend to all those?”

Myrna looked past him and at a ridge where a shimmer of light seeped through trees, spread like honey along the grassy horizon. It gave her a shiver every morning she could see it, every dawn she walked the hill.

He was not even complaining to her, but Myrna somehow felt responsible, as if she should be getting out there on her knees and wrenching them up from 100 rolling acres. Of course she did plenty, besides which most all was leased now, which was a good thing. But that still left ten acres to keep up. Which affable Roger Dell did on week-ends, and after his own long days, to the chagrin of Terri, his wife. But they were given two good-sized plots on the meadow’s south side and grew the best strawberries, raspberries and many vegetables. It had kept them nicely fed, made them a little cash. Plus they now stabled their horse at Minthorn’s for free.

Myrna bit her lip, then retrieved the coffee carafe from the bright, high-ceilinged kitchen. She leaned on the counter, tucked sweaty hair behind her ears. It hadn’t changed so much in her view; when she’d married Garth it looked much the same. True, the pictures he’d early shown her depicted the wealth of previous generations–that freshly painted, proud exterior, the beautiful stone work, carefully tended gardens, a maid in the long formal dining room and cook in the pantry. Rich acreage that prospered so well it was legendary. It was so big and beautiful in those shots it scared her to think she might actually have to live there. Then Garth explained it’d declined and she felt relief and ready to try it. There was nothing in her background that prepared her for such a place, but she knew how to keep order. How to work hard as she had on her grandfather’s humble land in the summers. And, too, make improvements others didn’t notice until done, how to learn fast what was needed.

One thing was saying nothing when Garth was caught by the web of discouragement and remorse. Maybe if he’d been a lawyer like his father, or a horse breeder and trainer like his grandfather (a side business), or an investment banker who made a fortune to bring back home–then things could be different. The cancer had taken so much money, and so soon even the will from his father.

Instead, Garth taught at the state college both American history and world culture (he was still trying to get that right) classes, as well as one economics class he hated, driving 45 minutes each way. Earl, his father, had belly laughed when he’d told him he was going to be a professor. Surely, he wasn’t serious–but he made his own way. Later, he thought living at the old place would be better than college faculty housing. When Earl passed four years ago following a grievously long battle with cancer, Garth and Myrna moved in.

“I should sell it, just unload it. You’ve done a great job refreshing many rooms…we might make a little now.”

“Maybe not decide today,” she murmured. “Maybe walk with me tonight, find ways to enjoy the land.”

Myrna poured a second cup, a hand placed on his shoulder. He tugged at her fingers then touched his lips to them. Her hands were that rare combination of smooth and strong, hearty enough to split wood. They’d met at grad school, yet here she was, trying to make him happy as she labored to maintain a 5500 sf dwelling (counting the guest cottage, but not counting barn with stable, and sheds) when she might have been teaching, too. But art history classes weren’t available for her to teach there. She had plenty to do, she said and he witnessed. If she wasn’t removing old wall paper, she was pruning trees and shrubs; if she wasn’t stripping wood, she was deterring mice from nesting in the attic.

He should be there more. But there were not only classes but multiple meetings and student conferences and papers to grade. It was enough to keep him out of her way and the place out of his mind. Until he came home.

“Aren’t you lonely out here?” But he knew the answer. She loved it more than he did.

He finished the cup and grabbed his sweater. It sweltered in the house even with strong cross breezes and multiple fans, while his rooms at work were air conditioned to an icy chill. He turned back to ask something about the fence but wasn’t sure what it needed now. She gently pushed him toward the door.

“Stay cool as you can, don’t work so hard.” He kissed her on the cheek and lips, then left.

Was she lonely…she could not imagine being less so, she thought, as she cleaned up and banged the screen door to the back. There were chickens not far off that she’d insisted they buy when they moved in. But did she wish he felt about this place as she did? Yes–it was his! Perhaps living a life more privileged caused you take things for granted; maybe it was the good and not-so-good ghosts of his past life, family he’d loved more or less. But she was fully engaged in the plan; she wanted to see it prosper. If he’d just hang on and not sell but keep faith. If he was home a bit more to actually roll up his sleeves, not just criticize.

Even Roger wondered if his old friend had given up, and said so one day as they’d shared a beer on the back veranda. Then he’d apologized.

“Sorry, Myrna. A Minthorn has deep pride in place. His father would have done more if he could have. I don’t think Garth will abandon it.”

He didn’t say, “And won’t abandon you, either,” but he thought it and wondered why. He shook off a ripple of unease as they gazed at the sheer blue prelude to twilight. She was smiling; that was good.

“See you tomorrow night to check on those fruit trees.”

“Thanks, Rog–what would I ever do without your help?”

He shrugged and tilted his hat at her, then turned on scuffed toes of his boots. “You’d learn, you’d be alright,” he said over his shoulder.

******

Her husband brought the young woman by one Saturday morning when a class had been cancelled due to air conditioning repairs. Myrna had forgotten they were coming by as she painted the cottage’s second bedroom. The ramshackle but appealing 1200 sf house was a quarter acre east of the house and she had walked there early to finish the task, naming birds as she went. It was true she’d had the idea to rent it out. Garth had mentioned he might have a potential renter. And then they were in the open doorway.

Garth smiled broadly as he flung wide his arms in the bedroom.

“Myrna, Sherrie Evans. Sherrie, my wife Myrna.”

Myrna wiped trickling sweat from her brow and stood to face a woman taller and younger than she, with a mane of streaked blonde-red-brown hair, a pale hand (with topaz ring on a finger) thrust at Myrna.

“Good to meet you–this is gorgeous!” She breathed in deeply, despite the prevalence of paint fumes

“Well, come on in– I guess you’re looking to rent awhile?”

“The rest of the school year, at least, and as soon as possible.”

The student–so Myrna deducted–swiftly apprised each room with enthusiastic commentary–“Great color and designs for rugs, walls and curtains, you must be a decorator!” –and in ten minutes said, “I can use one room for a studio, yes. When can I move in?” Her toothsome smile was a thousand watts.

What? Myrna thought. An artist?

And so it was done. The rent money was reliable because she was not a student, after all, but taught at the college. Fundamentals of Art and ceramics. Myrna looked at the woman sharply then; she did admit she missed teaching. Also, time to create more than restored houses and chicken coops and middling flower borders. She tried to not think of it because she enjoyed most she was learning and accomplishing.

But now Sherrie would be using their home to make whatever she wanted while Myrna scrubbed dirt stains from her fingernails and got up to tend hens in early morning.

Furthermore, she thought as the woman left, she didn’t like her laugh. It was brittle, could cut glass if she pushed it a bit more, her gaiety underscored by a recklessness. Also, what was with all that hair half-obscuring her eyes–was she hiding something? Or just into over-dyed long hair? And why did that matter–why was Myrna bothering with her? A tenant was what they wanted. The cottage was not that close to the house; she could be avoided.

“Well, she needed a place and will pay good money!” Garth hotly protested as she raised questions. “I checked around, she’s responsible, has taught there three years, is quite pleasant–look, you don’t have to be best friends! ” He gave her a thoughtful look. “I thought you’d like the fact that she’s an artist, too. It might be nice.”

“I know, I should be grateful. I am. It was so unexpected, just like that! Did you put up a notice up? How did she know about it?”

“I mentioned it at lunch when she complained of her roommates.” Then he glanced up at her quickly. “Well, it was an impromptu birthday lunch for four college staff, she was one of them, and I was invited by a guy in my department so I went–we started talking about rentals–“

“Okay. It’s done. We can use the money so I–we–can keep improving things.” She picked at a nubby spot on her light sweater and her torn fingernail caught at it. The temperature had cooled considerably since a hard rain the day before; lingering clouds yet kept the heat at bay. She wanted to leave and take a walk. “Just so I don’t have to be that friendly with her. I have work to do. She seems so extroverted–for an artist…”

She released a tight laugh. She wasn’t going to whine about not being able to work on her massive paintings or research about 18th century silk weavers or study her students’ critique sessions. She lived at the Minthorn Camp, it was where she needed to be now. And wanted to be. Here with Garth, after all.

If Sherrie Evans’ money could keep things running better, why not? She just needed to stay out of Myrna’s way. And yet her chest tightened a bit and her mind felt murky as a stirred up pond.

******

“If he’d talked to me more about it, I’d have felt better prepared to turn over the cottage soon.”

“That it?” Roger was dragging a birch branch to the side of a shed. There was always more to do but he was getting hungry. “Or don’t you like the idea of that cottage being someone else’s good spot?”

“What do you mean? That was the whole idea when I started fixing it up.”

“You said you might use it down the road. A refuge, was that it? And for your art work.”

She swiped at the air with her hands. “Oh, that, just a fantasy. Like a getaway for when I had time to read or draw or sit, listen to mice dance about and watch leaves drift to the ground in autumn. Right.” She looked at him more closely. “And we get along fine, don’t you worry about things. We just need our space at times. Or, I do.”

“I’m not worried about you and Garth. But now this Sherrie gal has put her mitts on it while you have all that extra space everywhere else– but you feel cramped? Go figure, Myrn! ”

She tried to punch his shoulder but he took ax to branch, then she piled up the cut pieces until they were done.

“I can use this pile if you don’t want it. Or should I ask Garth?”

“Go ahead, you know he won’t care. But it’s more psychic space, not literal space, I need sometimes, you know? Away from Minthorn energy, but also constant household chores and the yard’s mess. The cottage was a hidden treasure when we moved in–neglected and forgotten but waiting to be shined up and loved–by me.”

“Ah, she speaks her truth.”

“Oh, Roger, give me a break. I just like my solitude.”

“I know, now you won’t have the cottage for sure. I’m sorry but nice that rent will be coming in.”

“Yeah. I have one week.”

He took his handkerchief and wiped damp brow and face, then his neck and chest where a chambray shirt was unbuttoned a few inches. She gazed at the spot, then past him at the fence that required repair, then her eyes returned to him. He folded up the handkerchief, resettled his baseball cap and hitched up his jeans. Roger was six foot three and if he didn’t work outside so much he’d be thin as a willow branch. He was a telecommunications lineman all day, then often came to help. This had gone on the last three years. He never griped about it.

“You got anything to eat? I haven’t had sustenance since after noon and my stomach is howling.”

“Salami and cheese okay? Just salad and sandwich today, I didn’t go to the store. Garth will be home by ten.”

They tromped through swaying wild grasses, crossed over Kills Creek where a man was attacked by a cougar years ago, past the barn where Roger stopped to check on Pal, his (really, his daughter, Lou’s) horse and finally past the cottage.

With its lights on.

“Why are those blazing right now?” They climbed up five new steps to the back door.

Sherrie was inside evaluating square footage.

“Hi there, I’m just measuring rooms since I move in next weekend.” Sherrie ushered them in.

“Sherrie, this is Roger, a friend who works for us. Garth gave you a key already?”

“Hello! Yes, today.” Hands on hips, she surveyed the living room. “I was thinking of my couch size, and then chairs over there and my buffet here and the dining table might be big for this area and what about my drawing table?…”

She nearly glided in low golden sandals to the other side of the room.

“Well, please don’t move in before the lease start date. I still have work to do in the kitchen and out back.”

“Sure, sure.” She turned back to her surmising of furniture and placed one foot delicately in front of the other, like a ballet dancer.

“Okay, just checking. I know you’re signing the lease tomorrow. So… just please lock up.”

Sherrie murmured something agreeable, flipped the surfeit of hair over her shoulders with both hands, stretched her arms up high and returned to inspection.

Myrna and Roger continued to the house.

“I see what you mean.”

“About what?”

“Not much caring for her….maybe not trusting her, either.”

“Did I say that, Rog?”

“More or less.”

“Sometimes I think you know me better than Garth.”

Roger stuck both hands in his pockets, sped up so that she had to run a bit to catch up. It was true, he probably did.

“Wait up, the sandwiches won’t be all that good!”

“Like fine cuisine to me!”

From behind he was outlined against the vibrant sunset, and how confident the set of his shoulders, how natural and easy in the landscape as he pointed to Venus suddenly sparking at them. She’d occasionally thought they might have more in common than she and Garth but what did that mean? They had become good fiends, perhaps best friends. They were both nicely married. He had a lovely child, a good horse, a job he liked, a pleasant home: it was a good, full life. And so was hers. Minus child and horse, both of which which mattered less to her than an art studio, she admitted. Minus husband rather too often, which also mattered somewhat less than she’d once imagined.

******

When she was considering getting ready for bed the next night, Myrna did not look at the clock. Nor check the driveway and peer down the long road that ran circuitous like a snake unwinding its tough, attractive length through their land. His and hers, Minthorn Camp.

Garth was to have been home for dinner but he called and said he was meeting Sherrie to sign the lease–he’d be home before long. It was far too late but she didn’t care when he got there–she knew all she had to know.

She was putting away his T-shirts in the dresser drawer earlier. They weren’t lying nice and flat and socks were bunched up, so she took them all out to organize. There at the back was a folded receipt, then one more, then another, and more. Garth saved receipts for work so she tossed them in the wastebasket, reordered the underwear but as she did so kept eyeing the receipts until her hand followed gaze. He filed such receipts in his desk drawer, not in a dresser.

They–eight of them–were from Palatini’s Food and Spirits. She’d heard of it, but they’d never been there; she wasn’t fond of Italian food. When she studied the credit card, she realized it was not a regular debit card but his credit card. The one he used for emergencies or big purchases. These purchases were meals, two meals each time and dated over the last four months.

Myrna lost her breath, time and space fell away; she grabbed the bedpost to keep from sliding to the floor. She put head in her hands, leaned toward her lap, took in slower breaths. She was not going to faint over this. She’d already sensed it: Garth was meeting someone and it was not for work.

She slipped on her Teva sandals and ran outside, leaned against the nearest tree, body going soft as if defenseless, and searched the sky. Nothing but a wash of soft blue-black, stars and ever more stars and a three quarter moon that glowed so bright she could see dry, brown grasses bending against the weathered fence. She felt relief: to know the truth, not be afraid, to know her gut was right despite rational excuses. Two tears slid down her face but that was all, and they dried fast in the heat of the wind.

Then she got mad.

She reached for her phone.

“Hello?” He sounded a bit annoyed but resigned.

“I know it’s getting late, but can we talk, Rog? Or will Terri be mad? I could use your help–I’d be glad to explain to her, too.”

“Terri and Lou are at her sister’s in Utah for two weeks, remember? It’s kinda late so what’s this about, buddy?” He wiped his face of sleep and got out of bed.

******

They shouldn’t have done it, of course, and if they’d have thought about it a few days and Myrna had let her mind settle and clear, heart becoming quiet as it tended to be, they might not have. But they went ahead with it, changed the locks on the cottage front and back doors. They could barely stop laughing on the way way back to his truck, then said good-bye with somber faces. It was no laughing matter. Roger wondered what on earth Garth was thinking and Myrna, was dumbfounded by a deep sadness.

When Sherrie arrived with her lovely possessions in a rental truck, she couldn’t get in. She called Garth and proceeded to yell, fuming like a child who has been denied. Roger and Myrna watched her carry on from their vantage point in a wooded stretch by Kills Creek. The not-to-be tenant waited for her–Myrna said it right out loud– lover. They couldn’t hear much but the activity–or lack thereof–said it all. Garth came to a a roaring, dust-swirling stop at the once-hoped-for-trysting spot and took Sherrie into his arms, then stomped around the place, trying all windows and doors. Then they were gone, each in a car, one after the other. The rental truck sat as evidence.

Myrna had seen far more than she’d desired; they skulked deeper into woods, then parted. Nothing was said, though Roger had reached for her and maybe she wanted more than anything to fall into someone’s arms–no, his arms–but she did not. Instead she returned home to wait for her husband.

Roger Dell drove all the way home singing loudly with the radio, not a song he even liked. It was better than the feelings he felt, heart pounding like wild hooves against the dirt.

******

The two of them, Garth and Myrna, dug for and found enough love and good sense to recover. It was also the pleasure and grip of Minthorn Camp, one place that belonged to Garth, and he to it. And the woman he married was not someone he cared to harm or lose again, and he told her he’d spend his life proving it. He knew that place had become part of her, as well. He found himself teaching better, returning earlier and in search of Myrna.

But Myrna didn’t believe or care if Garth proved it; she was simply there despite the pain. It had become her home. That was the half-answer answer she had for him; any more would take loads of time. So she finished up the cottage. She moved in and turned two rooms into one airy studio space. There she captured time enough to make large acrylic paintings that were a wilderness of colors, and to refine new skills in botanical drawings, their lushness made more potent by exacting lines. There was the research for articles she was determined to publish again. She went back to the big house only after she sold an article months later.

Roger stayed on part time at Minthorn Camp. He needed to work the challenging acreage; he had grown up roaming it with Garth and their friends. He liked the extra money he now was paid for his labors. It accrued over time for a second horse for Terri (as expert a rider as was he) and himself to share. He hoped one day for a third, maybe more. The Minthorns weren’t the only ones with a respectable history with horses.

And there was Myrna, wasn’t there. She was learning to ride–Garth didn’t enjoy it after he’d fallen as a kid and badly broken his an arm– and it was taking much effort and time. She was not quite at ease on the back of an animal that knew its own mind better than did she. Myrna needed extra help, they both knew it, and Roger was careful as she got better–and gained back ground. Before too long they rode together now and again, sharing a beer and a sandwich after each comforting, victorious ride.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: He Stepped Over the Threshold

He had vowed never to return to the house, and in fact, it appeared he had not. Looking right, left and behind his shoulder, Thomas assessed the circumference of the front yard and proliferation of colorful growth in it, then squinted hard at steps and door. This was not the yard he recalled, not the entry into a house he knew.

There were not six wonky brick steps, nor uninspired wooden door with peeling grey paint. These blue steps led to a porch that extended across the width of the charcoal grey bungalow. A proper one, somewhere you’d enjoy wasting time. He observed two white rocking chairs with fat floral cushions to entice a passerby. Well, he had come by and here he was staring at the lighter blue front door like he might see through it if he gazed hard enough. He wanted to discern whether he’d made a grave error. But no, the number–76–under one of two tasteful brushed metal porch lights confirmed his destination. No way could it be his childhood home.

But it was. He could hear her voice–high pitched, on the strident side–and rapid footsteps. He used to take one step to her three. And she never quite caught up. Now they were whole lives apart, not footsteps. And if this foreign-seeming house was any indication, he had little idea what he was getting into once he crossed into her domain.

He pressed the doorbell and there were those reverberating chimes. They hadn’t changed. He shivered in the July heat, but his neck was sweaty.

“Coming, coming!” Thudding feet.

Of course, the house had been more or less Keri’s for a year. Ever since their mother had gone into the nursing home and Keri took over her finances and property matters. And that meant the house was also Milo’s, that husband he didn’t like despite having “met” him only once via video chat with Mom and her. Didn’t they have a kid years back, his mother had said? Brent, Brandon? He knew zero about his half-sister’s life except that she had managed to inherit the house, and early–he hadn’t wanted it, he was set on the West coast. Thomas retained only watery memories of being there after 14, when Jim, her father– by default also his due to marrying his mother (who soon had Keri)–had passed.

It rained and stormed for two weeks after Jim was gone; the neighborhood creek swelled and overflowed. But Thomas didn’t cry. He hadn’t actively missed the man, just felt his absence like a deep cool spot in and near the cracked leather easy chair. But he did miss his mother, who disappeared into her room after long hours of work directing things at the shelter, even taking meals there.

Thomas stepped back and turned away, his long, sandaled right foot on the second step down. Toward freedom, away from the past.

“Tommy. I can’t believe you came. After eighteen years. About time.”

Her voice whizzed over his head. The nickname. He cringed. Took the next step down. She was going to start out complaining, as usual? But he had made it this far so turned and faced the whole situation.

Keri was tall like he was, like their mother (Jim was three inches shorter) had once been, and black palazzo pants made her legs seem unnaturally long, with matching black painted toenails pointed right at him, bare feet like when she was a kid. He raised his head, took in a sleeveless top of tiny red and white threads woven through more black. Her arms also seemed too thin and long–wasn’t she supposed to be heavier and look older?–and finally met her face. Bronzed sharp cheekbones, eyes shimmery at the edges. Thin lips stretched into a smile, revealing two crooked top teeth. No dental work and caps yet.

Her sharp brown eyes took in his length and emotional temperature. She looked like an exotic snake in good clothes. When she moved her bony hands, silver and gold bracelets jangled. He suspected those were Mom’s; she used to wear the same type, he suddenly recalled.

Something inside him sank.

“Keri,” he said, forcing a half-smile. “It was  a quick trip from the hotel, so I’m here.”

“Don’t just stand there, come in, Tommy. Please. You look decent, I have to say, but quite hot. We put A/C in awhile back, come on, cool off.”

Keri held open the door and he dodged past her. Talk, talk, talk that was Keri despite their rarely communicating all the years gone. As he entered the foyer it fairly gleamed. Polished wood floors reflected light that floated into the living room to the left, down the hallway on the right toward the kitchen and right up the stairwell on far right. The walls were no longer wallpapered, but beige or grey. He froze, tried to meld the old house with all that was before him, and the pieces didn’t wedge together. It was like a stage set or a rented retreat.

“Lots of changes, I know. Here, come through to the dining room and kitchen–that massive wall was taken down–and have a good drink. There’s time to talk, right?”

Why was she being courteous, not sharp-edged? Mean, really, was the word for her back then. Why did she ask for him to come insistently the last time and then demand it after he visited his mother this week? Their mother, right; not just his. And Keri  had looked after her the past many years, hadn’t she?

“Still like iced tea with a lemon slice, or something else? I’m out of booze.”

Thomas thanked her and sat. He could glimpse the back yard through the windows and averted his eyes. His one place of happiness, he realized, was right there all those years as his mother mourned, then let her anger seep out as she dealt with Jim’s gambling debts that left them living hand to mouth. Keri knew that was true, but she’d always left the room if the topic came up,  hand slicing the air, a refusal to accept.

He didn’t care to gamble; he saw it wreck so much. He wondered if she did. Likely not; the house looked too stylish, clean.

The dining table was made of heavy glass and rich wood. He flattened warm hands on the surface as she got the tea; his palms left damp outlines so he put them in his lap. He felt like a schoolboy, clumsy even as he waited, impatient for it all to be over.

The smells were different in recirculated, chilled air. Well, of course they would be. His mother had left the house years ago. She had taken her cheap but good violet perfume scent, and her baking scents and daily fresh orange juice scent and her used books and garden flower scent. Now there lingered random smells: fresh paint, scented candles, furniture polish and stark white lilies–a fragrance of funerals–that stood tall in a clear blue vase before him.

Keri returned with two water-beaded glasses clinking with ice cubes. They were round and small, like tiny golf balls. They had once enjoyed put-put golf, down the street, he mused and shook his head clear.

“I thought I’d never get you to stop by. All the years you might have…when Mom was feeling better, or to help when she was moved one place to another.”

“Well, I’m in California and you all are here in Massachusetts. Now I’m here, Keri. And why? Mom still has time to live, if not a great life, a decent life taken care of by us both. I knew she gave you money oversight and the house, basically. I’ve not argued about it, I don’t care about all that. I don’t come here to see you because it isn’t necessary. And I would rather not. I visit Mom a couple of days every four months–you know that–then I leave. “

“Mr. Big Shot, eh? So busy with hot music, your decadent partying  life, is that it? No real time for family even when they need you around…Okay, yes, there’s a reason I wanted you to come.” The words were spit at him.

She threw him a dagger look, those cheeks sucked in more, but he ducked internally, leaned back, legs sprawling out under the table. She leaned in with her glare, then swiftly looked away.

He wasn’t here for more drama so maybe it was time to go.

“Oh, stop. We aren’t kids now. This is why I didn’t see you, in case you forgot. Your blatant lack of acceptance, those well-placed words of derision. I don’t drink now, anyway. Though that isn’t relevant.”

“Well, huh.” She frowned, confused, as if this wasn’t part of the script, then almost smiled. “Nice, good for you. Me, neither. Not since Milo left.”

“He left you guys? When?”

“After Mom went into the nursing home. He’d had enough of everything, her illnesses, my bingeing, house needing too much work and the money of it all. The yard and foundation dug up due to a rat infestation and rebuilt, replanted. Can you picture that? It was the final straw; he’s lazy, self-centered by nature. So he moved out, filed for divorce. Also ,Brad isn’t so easy, he has issues like preteens do, I guess. Milo sees him every other week-end now.”

She turned sideways, looked to the yard so lush and green, then shrugged, and her eyes were unblinking as she fixed on him. “But that’s enough, more than I should have said. What about you? Now that you came, at last.”

Brad, her boy, how old was he? Thomas struggled to recall; Mom sent him a school picture a few times. “He’s almost ten?”

“Last fall. Will be eleven.” She twisted a dark wave around her finger, an old self-soothing motion. “He’s pretty musical.”

Thomas started, sat up. “What does he play?”

“Can’t decide. I am not yet encouraging him.”

“Of course not, you wouldn’t want him to be a good-for-nothing-musician like me.” He laughed despite himself. “What has he tried? What does he love?”

“A few things, trombone, drums, guitar. You should ask him.”

“Is he here?” He looked out the windows, over the rooms. Upstairs, waiting them out? He saw a baseball glove on a chair, a bat in a corner, and he felt a tinge of warmth for what he’d loved, too, long ago in this place.

“No. He might be later.” She sipped her tea, ice cubes tinkling as she swirled them. “I used to wish I could turn this into rum and Coke by swirling it enough. Like an idiot. It got bad, you know…”

“Mom said you had a few too many here and there and I knew there was more to it or she wouldn’t have said so. But I get it, no judgment. I was stumbling off-stage near the end, missing gigs. Got six years in.”

“One, with a daily counting.”

She held up her index finger and he wanted to give her a high five but sat quietly. He noted a crisscross of lines etching her dusky skin. She weighed too little, she looked too worn out but she wasn’t 15 anymore.

“I’m so sorry for it all,” Keri said, bottom lip a quiver, then covered her face with bony tapered fingers.

“Wait, Keri, just wait.” He shifted taller, held up his hands, palms facing her.

“Just let me say it, just this once, and that will be it!”

“Okay–but you have to know it was more than rough those years, what you said to me over and over. How worthless a brother and even a son I was, how stupid to not pass Algebra much less get on the honor roll like you, to not even make the football team. How horrible my trumpet playing was no matter how hard I practiced, how glad it made me. How insane I was to think I could make it out there ‘in any way shape or form, so do us all a favor and just give up!’ Remember that? That’s when I left, at 17. I never forgot that I left behind my mother and a sister. But I also bore wounds, had to move on.”

Keri stood up, started to pace about the room. “I know, I know! I was drinking already and Dad gambled so much and then died in the car accident and Mom was down the rabbit hole with grief and depression. And I was…I was…”

“Look, we all have pain to figure out. Get over. I don’t like to look back, anymore. Let’s talk about now, how Mom is doing today, the house, what you’ve done here–how good it looks.” His heart pounded; the room seemed to sway, he felt dizzy. He should not have come, had to get out or suffocate all over again.

She stopped by his chair, and placed her hands on his shoulders carefully and her pupils opened wide in circles of dark amber. He thought saw the start of tears so he closed his own eyes. He missed that her eyes cleared and were calm.

But she didn’t quit. She never did.

“I was lost, Thomas. Afraid, angry. I needed you. I didn’t know how to tell you so I pushed hard, and then away from you, from all. It was wrong but it happened.”

“Yeah, far away.” She let go of him and sauntered to the back door. “I left and traveled as far as I could go,” he called after her. But he got up and followed.

She was in the roses. Bushes and bushes of them, narrow paths in between–thick blooms of red, yellow, white, pink, peach. He knew their mother liked to garden, then less and less over time. And she hadn’t planted more roses, he didn’t think. Everywhere Thomas looked now there were pops of color and trees grown mammoth, bushes and flowering things new to him. And two wood benches, a small burbling fountain and a trellis with climbing red roses.

It was impeccable and beautiful. A haven. And it was Keri’s hand that fashioned it, gave it all that was needed to flourish.

“Amazing,” he said, “a heavenly place here, alive.”

And then she joined him.

“You appreciate the fruits of my labors? My pet project, a way of keeping Mom engaged for a few years though she mostly directed and scolded from a bench. But she loved the result. I’ve found it just the thing for me after draining work in the Emergency Room. So much blood and ruin traded for so much hearty life. Let me show you around.”

After the tour  they were silent and rested on a bench.

“So, why did you insist I visit now, Keri? Besides trying to make amends…which we both need to finish, I guess.”

She ruffled her dark bob. “I’m–we are–selling. I did all this renovation, with Milo’s help and Mom’s fiances, of course, in order to sell it. I don’t want to live here, anymore. Brad and I need a change, a home of our own. Mom is okay with it, and she can use the money.”

“Selling. Soon?’

“I’m about to put it on the market. I wanted you to see it, and also to ask you–would you care to buy it for investment purposes, maybe? Or maybe you’d like part of the profit since it has great value now, really top dollar for the area. I mean, even Milo may get a small cut. You should have something of what you’d like from here. Right?” 

He took a deep breath, released it in an admiring whistle. “You’re offering me our house or money? Wow. But I don’t need or want it, Keri. I left so long ago and come here to find so much changed and for the better. It’s yours and Mom’s to sell. I’m actually glad you’ve enjoyed it. It was not a great place to be for so long. Now it shines, Keri. The ghosts may have fled. Not toxic enough for them, anymore.”

She laughed. Not a considerate or restrained laugh, but as he remembered, from the belly, mouth wide open, head tossed back. Her hand grabbed his forearm and he laughed with her.

She smoothed her black pants, checked her finely lined palms and fingernails so short for gardening and her emergency nurse work. Both hands then collapsed into her lap, finally at ease.

“Well.”

“Yes,” Thomas said.

“So just sell?”

“Keep the money, you and Mom. Not so sure abut Milo…”

“I think you should accept some.”

“I don’t want any, Keri, you know I do well. If there’s something left over, you and Brad might fly out to my beach place for a visit.”

He heard himself and was shocked by his own words, as was she.

“A real vacation in California, at your house?”

“Mom! Who’s out there? Did he come?”

Thomas twisted around to see a young boy, lanky and dark haired and bright eyed, hands in pockets, and his cap with its bill backwards.

“Come and see.”

“Is it Tommy? I mean, Thomas Haines?”

He elbowed Keri.”Tommy, always that Tommy.”

He stood up and extended a hand to him and Brad who came right up to shake it hard, smiling.

“The famous musician from California!..My ole lost uncle! I have your music, too! Hey, I play trombone. Brass, like trumpet.”

Thomas raised an eyebrow at Keri; so that was it, then, for the kid. Like when the trumpet found him, love at first note.

They gathered at the outdoor table, swapping more history. Keri and he were agreed that Jim was a man with heart who went terribly wrong with addiction to gambling, and that their mother was a codependent who loved them the best she could. And she had suffered more than they knew. It was a lot to say and harder to accept. Though he was interested, Brad went inside, his interest waning, and the notes from his trombone sounded true as they wafted through his window.

The afternoon melted into evening so they cooked spaghetti, sausages and fresh green beans. Thomas couldn’t say it was all easy and natural. It was randomly awkward, at moments felt strange to be around her like regular family, as if they had not suffered and learned to sometimes hate or drink into stuporous states– and given up on each other.

And they did all that here, and now they were starting over within an altered house. And it was changing them, sitting at the table across from each other, talking of nothing much yet some of much else, sharing a simple meal, making plans for their visit to his spot on the Pacific Ocean. He’d make the time. Finally, he could make a little room for them. And he saw himself get right in the mix.