Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Sober Club

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The three of them were drinking and zinging haphazard barbs at various political figures (who of course could not respond), and generally commiserating about the unholy state of the world. It was cool enough to wear jackets, but they still preferred Mel’s patio–that’s what she called it, despite it being a rectangular, cracked slab of concrete with tufts of weeds winning out. Mel was a natural yard keeper, she said in self defense once. Veralynn and Kat waved her off, retorted that it was simple if benign neglect, case closed.

Kat got up to grab another bag of lime favored rice chips from a grocery bag, then popped it open behind them, startling Veralynn, who reacted strongly.

“Please do package opening in the kitchen–that was a bit irritating!” She chugged her remaining beer and reached for another bottle.

“Hardly a big noise–but we are loud, the neighbors will be peering over my fence in a few, then lobbing things next.” Mel said, eyebrow raised. “Anyway, I like that Kat leaps and gallops to the kitchen for more food. That’s the spirit! Even if it is shameful junk food.”

Mel had thought about suggesting that they needed to meet elsewhere awhile, it was becoming a point of contention for the Johnsons across the alley and was wearing her out, all the clean up. Soon they’d be forced indoors by winter rain. She shivered thinking of those temps and pulled muscled legs close to her chest. She considered one more beer, but three were likely enough.

Kat giggled–she became a giggler as alcohol relaxed her– and plopped down with a sigh, pushing three chips past her toothy smile, giving off a strong beam of her mischievousness. Her lips were one of her better features–perpetually colored candy apple red, and then those expensive teeth nearly glowing day or night. And long limbs, dancerly and lithe. She must have been a persuasive real estate agent before the kids were born.

“Well, they’re only envious–or dreadfully sober,” Veralynn said, pushing a sweep of dark hair from her forehead.

The others laughed at that, and munched on chips greedily.

But the last phrase echoed in her head. Which was in fact more dreadful–a hangover or no hangover? She was the senior technical writing editor for a large company–she freelanced, as well–and sometimes on Thursday mornings, the morning after they drank, the words she had to read zigzagged or receded. Thank goodness she was good enough to not be badly chastised–yet. It had been hard to jockey for such a good position.

They clinked bottles–Mel had grabbed one more–and settled back for a last few minutes. They all had early morning obligations, they reminded each other once more–it was only mid-week for two of them. Veralynn only worked four days a week at last. But they liked their sessions (our therapy, Kat thought, and I need these desperately), each Wednesday and again on Friday. It helped smooth the wrinkles that had begun to etch about their forty-ish faces, to ease pressures of their busy lives. It was their little club.

They were finally talked out–work, relationships or lack thereof, kids (Kat’s two plus a husband), health goals (Mel was into taekwondo), emotional balance (much was left unspoken but all had their troubles) and maybe toss in supplemental topics like books, films, art, spiritual well being–if they had time. No one wanted to lean too much toward intellectual discourse at their drinking sessions, they had agreed from the start.

As Veralynn was compelled to note, “Drinking and rigorous intellectual activity–that is an oxymoron, ladies. We must use this time to drown our tiny sorrows and act foolish.”

So they said goodnight, quick hugs all around. Kat and Veralynn left as Mel placed bottles in recycling and wiped down counters, turned out the kitchen light. She watched Kat’s SUV drive off with Veralynn beside her, Mel’s hand lightly pressed against the living room window. The window pane fogged under her nose. It was getting colder already out. How she loved the sun’s heat…

The house was so empty after their gatherings, it crowded her with its silence. Since Bill had left her when she’d fallen asleep last spring, nights were the worst.

******

It was Thursday, getting late. Veralynn finished up a last proofread of the document and switched off her computer. It was nearly 9 pm and everyone else had left, as usual, except for cleaning staff whose vacuums ripped apart the stillness. Working four, ten hours days meant she was at her desk for twelve–she was always trying to catch up. She put her shoes back on, grabbed her tan leather tote and coat. She would not take work home this time, she’d had enough.

The long drive from city to suburb was an easy one at this hour. Her mind ran over meetings of the past week, assignments, documents still needing touch ups. As she passed three bars, one after the other before she got on the highway, she felt the old pull. Tomorrow she could sleep in, after all, unlike her friends. She exited and pulled into a half-filled parking lot.

The Royal was anything but, yet its worn black leatherette seats and amber lighting, the three pool tables at the back, the nostalgic music that played and the usual line up of regulars at the bar,–it held an odd allure. It was suitably rundown, in a cozy way–at least when she felt ragged from work. Nobody was impressed with her professional manicure, expensive haircut or–of course, they hadn’t seen it–her luxe condo. They had come to accept her as an off-type–a visitor and just enough friendly–and her money was good as anyone’s.

Sid leaned on the bar, a towel bunched in one reddened fist

“What’ll it be, Vera, whiskey neat?”

“That’ll do it.” She put elbows on the marred black counter, chin in hands then half-turned her head. They were all engaged in chatter and drink–she didn’t know many that night except for a couple who lifted their palms to her and a guy at the end of the bar, Nels, who was usually there. He was a guy she didn’t really like or dislike, but she felt his eyes on her often and she didn’t return his gaze. She only nodded if unavoidable as she passed by on the way to the ladies’ room.

The rest were the usual. A small bunch of older men, four younger to older women, three hearty guys in work shirts and flannel who also preferred the counter. One by one, most eventually noted her presence and raised a glass. But no talk. Tonight they had their eyes on the flat screen above them.

Veralynn did not have the attention span, nor the interest. Newsy stuff with a sports review blared on. She sipped the whisky, accepting its rich burn. About half a glass finished, she realized she hadn’t really wanted or needed a drink. She wondered why she’d even stopped. It was just a habit–she had begun to come by two or three times a month, always Thursdays. It had been precipitated by a change of bosses, a tougher, surlier one, and by end of the work week she was running on empty and a bit raw. Yet, that was seven months ago. Now she was attuned to the new rhythm, and brusque Glenn Hannon had come to appreciate what he called her “backbone” for sticking to her decisions and her fastidiousness in editing. She had her eye on a promotion but wasn’t sure when, so she kept up the long hours.

Sid paused on his way elsewhere. “Got what you need? All ok?”

“I’m good, thanks, just realized I don’t need to dawdle.” Her shoulders ached, her eyes were computer- bleary, her stomach rumbled even more since the whiskey.

He gave a short laugh; only that Vera used words like “dawdle.” He kind of liked that.

“Gotcha, catch you next time.”

Veralynn left the drink, shoved off the bar stool and started across the room.

So did Nels.

As Veralyn exited, she felt him by her elbow; he nearly touched her andhis presence seemed sloppy but intense. She moved away though not too fast, lest she offend him. He always seemed the more offendable type. She wasn’t up for any of it; she wished him away.

“Always wanted your full name,” he said in his low, smoke-roughened voice. “Number. I seen you come and go, wondered–why’s she coming here? What’s her game?”

Veralynn approached her car and was ready to beep it unlocked.
“No game, just a drink now and then after work.” She glanced back at the bar entrance. No one there. He’d began to crowd her between her car and the next.

“Hey, you can’t look at me when I talk?” His words spattered out, he was wobbly on his feet, calmed a bit as he looked over her Mustang. “Nice wheels…”

She turned her face a little toward him. He was not quite a foot away. “I know who you are, a longtime regular, right, Nels? I bet everyone knows you and you know them.” She offered a sideways smile and beeped the car, hand on the door handle, tote snug to her body, all senses blazing.

“Yeah, that’s right, this is my neighborhood.” The words were drawn out, almost slurred but he tried hard to speak clearly. “Yeah, everybody but you….waltz in, waltz out.” An arm with hand wiggled in the air for emphasis. “I says to myself, Nels, she’s something this woman, one drink and gone, no friendly chat, no how d’ya do.”

She could smell his breath, sour and thick with drink, a lack of dental care. His sandy hair–what there was of it– was slicked back, and baggy pants hung a bit too low, shirt opened to a dark t-shirt. She thought, he’s likely harmless, he’s an aging drunk, but it didn’t help. Her only choice was to very fast open her door. She slid in, jammed key in ignition. But Nels’ hand caught the door edge, and it didn’t close–his hand was lodged.

“Just wanted your pretty hand, don’t crush my fingers!”

But Veralynn didn’t want to shake his hand. And she did not want it stuck in her door as she slammed it again and took off, either, so she opned the door a bit to shove her large, overstuffed leather tote hard against his hand and wrist–and because of the drink, being off guard, he staggered backwards.

She started the car, put it in drive and peeled out, but not before she heard Nels yell: “No friend of mine, are ya, damn good riddance!”

But she thought, as she shook all the way home: what if he had gotten in my car? Or what if I had slammed the door on his hand and half-dragged him with me onto the highway? What was she even doing at an established neighborhood bar where she was politely–usually–tolerated? But she liked it there, more or less. Well, it was about her drinking, that’s what. Not being neighborly. Another convenient pit stop at end of week where drinks were cheaper, no one bothered her, no pressure to say the right witty things.

Until Nels called her out–even if he was dicey about it, even if he had other ideas.

There was only fear with her filling that night. And finding solace in a drink didn’t enter her mind. She took a long hot shower, bathroom door locked. It wasn’t that bar, not really. There had been other bars, other unnerving encounters. This it had hit her differently. She could be anybody; alcohol leveled the playing field, as they said in articles she’d skimmed.

It was a long night of nattering in her brain.

******

In the morning, after a night of rooting within her covers and tossing about with pillows, Veralynn made a decision.

She splashed cold water on her face, ate a slice of toast, and called Kat, then Mel.

“You’re not sick? Why, then? It’s a Friday and we always meet Fridays… Jamie is on kid duty tonight as usual and I have stuff to tell you all. Geez, Veralynn, don’t do this to us, we’ve been a trio of best friends, and it’s just not right to beg off entirely. I need these nights out, you know? We need them! I mean, no offense, I like your place, but without the booze, what will we actually do? Not the same, lady.”

The call to Mel went better. Maybe.

“Well, I saw it coming, Veralynn. You just haven’t had the heart for the sessions, lately. I can’t say it has been the best highlight of my weekdays lately, either. I mean, I am trying to get healthier since Bill took off, and taekwondo is a rigorous sport, as you know. I am fully committed to it and also cycling on week-ends with my bike buddies. I always indulged in my beer, but it’s starting to feel hypocritical, you know? I need to clean it up. But meeting without our usual drinks–though I appreciate the offer of your home, believe me!–I don’t know…Let me call Kat, see if I can convince her. I mean, Veralynn, calling it ‘the sober club’ sounds a little…off-putting, I have to say. No one is an alcoholic here. We’ve called our nights ‘our sessions’ for ages–for a reason. I’ll see what I can do, no promises.”

Veralynn turned on the first gas lit fire of autumn in the marble fireplace–it had rained and threatened more– at 7 pm. She’d arranged on a white platter the cheese wedges and crackers, plus pumpkin spice mini-muffins (courtesy of deli and bakery). She had stocked up on seltzers and made hot water for tea. She put on Tony Bennet’s newer CD with Lady Gaga on it–his voice could soothe anybody–and put on grey cashmere lounge pants and top. She felt excited but nervous. She couldn’t recall one single time they had met that there weren’t alcoholic beverages of some sort.

They had met in a classy bar opening downtown, introduced by a friend who knew Veralynn from a gym in her old neighborhood. That friend had moved out of state shortly, but the three of them kept on meeting. Becoming better friends was easy, despite Mel being very attached to Bill then, as well as being a high school math teacher; and Kat having been long married to Jamie, a mother of twin boys–once a high end real estate agent, longing to return to it one day. They had things in common, like classic and foreign movies, Italian and Asian food and novels that had strong female protagonists. And micro beer. Well, any beer. They moved to meeting mostly at Mel’s house–it was centrally located, cozier–and drank, talked, laughed. Even shed a few tears together. And they felt grateful to have those times.

They’ll come, she thought, nibbling at a cracker, trying not to eye her clock. They’ll come to their senses if they’re honest about things, finally see we don’t need alcohol to be friends. They wouldn’t refuse to visit just because I’ve decided it isn’t in my best interests to drink, anymore… would they? A couple hours with no drinking, just talk? Not a big deal. It sounded so good to her the more she thought it over.

But Veralynn began to pace before her full length windows on the tenth floor at 7:20. She felt tense, anxious, worried as 7:20 became 7:30. She checked her phone multiple times–nothing. Maybe it had been a stupid overreaction to Nels’ sloppy, leering, behavior. It had scared her enough that she knew she’d not return to the The Royal. Or any other bars. They had seldom served her well, in the end. She got too drunk and had to call a cab while leaving her Mustang overnight–risky; she’d had near-run-ins with those who became belligerent because she hated bullies and said so; she’d had many men following her with drinks in hand, bribes for a one night stand. I am a competent career woman, she’d wanted to yell; I just need a decompressing night of drinking not a man or a fight or greasy bar food.

She hadn’t told Mel and Kat about last night. She wanted to have them there to share these concerns– last night’s experience being one of too many that had made her wonder about benefits versus disadvantages of drinking. Now she knew–like she woke up with the clear solution to a heavily nagging problem–it was not what she wanted in her life, and she wanted to tell them why. And find out how they felt, bottom line, about alcohol in their own scheme of things.

Could they do that with her, learn more about each other– and enjoy differences as well as commonalities? There was one way to find out–sit together minus alcohol. But if they didn’t they felt it a waste of their time or foolish or boring so did not come–well, then, maybe they weren’t interested in sincere connection. She’d just have to live with it somehow. Veralynn felt that certain about her choice.

At 7:45, Veralynn put away the cheese and crackers and cakes. “Rude, just rude,” she complained aloud. “How could they be so inconsiderate? Just one call!”

She padded to her bedroom, got her quilt and the novel she’d begun to read and settled deeply into the sofa. Then she stared at the fire, hugged the quilt closer, a heaviness clogging up her chest and mind. Maybe I need that drink, anyway, she thought, but bit her lip, closed her eyes until the impulse passed. She listened to the rain pelting her windows, grew dozy.

When the buzzer went off, she nearly threw off the quilt. She went to the intercom with its screen and view of the main floor entrance.

“Oh! What on earth?…”

She buzzed to allow entry, then stood by her half open door.

In pranced Kat with a huge pizza box in each hand, and Mel followed with two bottles of sparkling cider.

“How do you like that?” Mel said. “You get all cozied up and we’ve been tromping about in a chilly drizzle. Here, I brought a deck of cards, in case we decide to play rummy or something…”

“It took way too long to get the pizza, really sorry, Verlaynn–we went to Rico’s, it’s Friday night, you know.” She put her face close to the boxes, sniffed aromas of cheese, onions, tomato sauce with sausage and bacon. “Well, we wanted to surprise you, too!”

Mel stepped forward, held up her phone and pulled out a cord from her coat pocket. “My phone needs recharging, it went dead.” She looked around. “I have missed the bright lights and that wide angle view of the city from up here, Veralynn.” She held out her arms as if to embrace blur of lights within the rainy scene.

“I’d about forgotten how fantastic your place is–and we have a fire burning… how perfect is that?” Kat ran over and sat right down, long legs stretched before it, a gazelle settling into the gentling dark.

“I can’t believe you finally came,” Verlaynn said as she plated pizza and poured cider. “I had given up….if you’d called– well, I am such a doubter, aren’t I?”

She put the plates down. Her chin fell to her chest, eyes blurred with the tears of sudden relief. There came an rising of deep affection for the women before her, so different than she was, but willing to stick by her. As she had hoped. As she was prepared to do for them.

And then came arms about her. Of course they were there–even late. They had been friends for five years; they’d always said they’d be friends, no matter what or where they were. Until they became wrinkly and tottery–and that seemed such a long way off.

They gathered at the coffee table by firelight, wolfed down the pizza with swigs of sparkling nonalcoholic cider when Kat said, “So–tell us what happened.”

Mel added, “And what we can do to make things a little better.”

Veralynn took a deep breath. “I came to the understanding last night that I need to be sober. I have come so close to being caught up in bad events, and I bet you’ve had scary times, too. No, wait–if I am honest here, I’ve lived through things I’ve not even told you about. Because it’s embarrassing. Or too frightening to recall. And it has nearly always stemmed from alcohol. My drinking has been less and it has been more. And I think it has to end before it gets just worse.” She looked up at their intent gazes. “Maybe not you–but for me. Just for me.” She crossed her hands over her chest. “But this guy last night–Nels–he helped me wake up to facts…”

They were not a little stunned. Pizza was pushed aside, glasses set down.

Veralynn laid before them a story of alcohol taking up more and more of her time, her life’s design, how it had taken things, maybe even relationships, from her. How Nels had scared her badly. How grateful she was that she had not drunk more than usual and had driven home safely.

She needed it to change.

“Will you honestly be able to be my friends without the booze? I do want to offer more good times to you.”

Mel and Kat looked at each other a long moment, then at her.

******

That’s how the Sober Club started. Plus a homemade Friday night dinner made if they had desired and time. Mel and Veralynn met every time they could, swapping homes for meetings every other week. Kat came, though, as she could. She was beginning the process of a return to real estate; there were Fridays she just couldn’t make it. At least that’s what she said. Veralynn was inclined to believe her; she’d become more serious about her career goals after the night they’d talked so openly.

Mel had already been headed toward a no drinking lifestyle. She loved her beer but she loved a healthier, active lifestyle more. And it was a relief to get her house back on Wednesdays.

“Plus, it was getting tiresome in the middle of the week with us getting half-crocked–and neighbors talked this past summer, snide remarks, funny looks as I took took out the garbage, that sort of thing. I’m a teacher, after all, and now that classes have resumed, I need a clear head. I need to set an example, too. Three high school students, maybe more, live on my street!”

It wasn’t always relaxed at first, nor the same idiotic fun. But in time no one minded not drinking. In a few weeks, they even forgot about it and did other things–went to the movies or out to eat, for a walk even in evening rain, to a concert. It was more often that Kat randomly came and went; they thought it likely she drank with her husband, with real estate friends after a deal was closed or at open houses. But that was alright. When she did come over, she looked great and sounded even better and it seemed she had her pre-motherhood independence and spark back. She never mentioned their old drinking sessions; she was just glad to catch up with them.

They seemed to bring to any table more fascinating, engaging, funny stories. In the end, sharing more of those was what carried them forward as they kept the Sober Club going. That, and the well tested bonds of affection they made a priority to protect and strengthen.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: From Fall to Winter- My Initial Plan for Adaptation

I walk into clear sunlight, but the morning air lightly frosts hands and cheeks. It isn’t really cold, yet the fall sunshine is less rosy, warm. I grab a jacket and think: the layering of clothing is begun. This is not such a complaint, though gloves are required by October’s end or my hands ache outside (indoors I’ll wear fingerless woolen gloves). Before long I’ll pull a rain jacket over a sweater, pocket my fleece cap.

But not quite yet. The air is still dry as overturned dirt and redolent of a faint summer fragrance, semi-sweetly rich, a tinge of mustiness. Squirrels are gathering nuts by the bunches. Crickets still sing out each evening. Flowers remain abloom as if determined to stave off any greyness that may creep above the horizon. I watch a redheaded, pileated woodpecker working for a good meal, then move on, hands in pockets.

This time on my brisk walk, crisp leaves twirl, then skim my hair, one landing on my head, and crunch as I scuff the path, that brief crackling sound as pleasing as when I was a child. But now I know that it means they are dying, are dead, and will carpet grass, break down in the soil until spring’s uprising. With a pause and gaze at their diminishing vitality, it rises upward in me: that strange meld of emotion that equals “bittersweet.” I linger on the wooded path, then stand in a meadow and something in me wants to stay there. To set up camp, make a circle of rocks and lay a fire. Not budge until the rains become relentless, and even then, shelter in a tent until birds’ nests fill with new eggs. At least I will be close to the earth’s innards and the great trees.

I realize now that I am not welcoming winter this time. Not a bit. I want the summer to extend itself a little longer. To go back and pick lots more berries, to lie on daisy-strewn hills and stare at the open face of the sky. To visit with family or friends across a picnic table or under a huge old oak, share an iced mocha to cool off, our foreheads damp with a glaze of heat. Our eyes full of summer wonders, our minds nourished by a reparative earth.

As I rest under the big maple tree that shelters so well– this tree must be a hundred years old– it’s easy to recall these pathways inundated with rain, then more rain, and skies weighted with thick slate clouds. But another good feature of living in primarily woods in rainy season is that I’ll be protected some from downpours as I walk, off and on–such huge branches offer their arms as coverage.

I turn and take in a wide stretch of mossy rocks and meadow with its still-dry gulch, the bronze leaves thickening into piles, the wild grasses brittle and bent. I listen for Cooper’s hawks, but they are silent while jays and crows keep up their prattle. There is suddenly a longing for what is present, but will soon pass. It puzzles me, this reluctance to leave behind what always must be left, the sharp heat settled into greenery, the high blueness of the heavens. I have never worried about the rain, nor dreaded Pacific Northwest winters. But today head toward that state a bit.

Winter was not soggy where I grew up, Winter was bitter and glittering and welcomed as I grew up. I lived in places–excepting a brief diversion in Texas– until age 30> It was a blazing showcase of autumn that transformed into bold silver tones of winter, hardened by very low temperatures. The air rang with cold. Soon, the straight lines of landscape were scrubbed by icy wind, made voluptuous with heaps of snow. It was a natural progression. I didn’t find any fault with this pattern–the four seasons were a comfort, reliable.

A deepening cold that settled in the parents’ bones meant heat got turned up or woodstove fires stoked, and blankets were unfurled and hot tea and chocolate sipped, fingers warmed about mugs. One’s nose and cheeks were reddened for months. But as I left my youth in Michigan and moved South, West and Northwest, I lost the special taste for snow, its sharp purity on tongue and in the blood. I took with me, instead, two chronically (if not badly) frostbitten hands from ice skating with no mittens for years–they encumbered me, I had no need of them– hands which finally could not retain much warmth below 60 degrees. Still, I tucked away a stubborn happiness for snow and winter, though any snowfall heaped and then melted as I came over miles of slick mountain passes and found the verdant valleys of Oregon. It all became an extended, inventive performance of rain.

I swing my arms in concert with my feet as I tackle steep inclines that mark the southwest hills, muscles in thighs and lower back pulling and softly burning, then the body cheering as another peak is reached. And then another series of around and up and down commences. I smell the fecund leaves that fly past. Cool gusts skim my skin. The light is amber, not brash like it can seem in summer–it is a light that burnishes, and no scalding. I am suddenly pleased more than sorry and want to sing out.

It is, I know, not the weather changes, not entirely-even this confounding year. I adore the outdoors any way I can experience it, usually. It is a primal comfort and joy, a way of gathering peace and generating healing–full of minute and amazing revelations that render a teachable holiness. I have seen four wooly bear caterpillars and their bands instruct me about it not being such a cold or long winter, if one believes folklore (I often do). The weather may, gratefully, be a reassuring repeat after the shock and hell of wildfire storms.

Yet, a remnant of melancholy tries to take root for other reasons, not due to leaves floating from host branches, the winds sharpening.

It is so many episodes we have had to face despite initial resistance: the deadly, omnipresent pandemic; the US chief commander’s failings; the vastly scorched west/northwest forests; global warming on the rise; worldwide economic crises; the loss of face-to-face contact with friends and family as we once knew it. What seeming luxuries we’ve enjoyed in our lives, it now seems. They talk of “pandemic fatigue” in the news, but also feels like “reality fatigue.” I am pressed into weariness some days, as we all must feel.

But in the summer, it was more surmountable for me, or at least manageable. Stepping into nature has been a liberation from constraints we’ve all had to adopt every hour of each day in some manner, whether disinfecting groceries and our skin or masking up or being bombarded by new data and graver concerns, and anxiety about every cough and sniffle.

And I worry about my twin grandchildren not being able to play with other little kids seen in the park or next door; not enjoying various playground equipment (they’ve never tried); not being able to nuzzle their faces against mine or hang out in their clever cardboard box playhouse with grandparents and all other “outsiders.”

Outsiders… we, the grandparents–it has come to that onerous state. We meet them in parks, stay 6 feet apart as much as possible even with masks. My arms ache for them, my heart longs for them but I banish sadness and laugh at their antics, touch their beautiful hair, grab a chubby, strong hand–which will be sanitized as we part… Oh, farewell, sweet pea and sugar plum, until next time. Once a week we usually see them an hour or two, and I am so glad of it, knowing others may have far less access to families.

I do yearn to see the rest of my flock, the entirety of five adult kids in my living room–or outdoors. There is a daughter in South Carolina who will not be here for Thanksgiving this time–nor will anyone, likely. It has been nearly a year since Naomi visited us–and most of her family–in OR. And another daughter (who was estranged from the family for 2 years) cannot come to visit now that things are gratefully back in sync and all is well. The youngest daughter and mother of the twins works full time–at home, somehow. A fourth daughter is in a deepening relationship and works many hours. My son works even seven days a week; his painting jobs diminish in winter months. It is not as easy to get together now, that is for certain. Other grandchildren either live elsewhere or are working full time, too. (That they all have jobs is a blessing; my husband still sends out resumes as he seeks a new one. It has been a 6 month search.)

But even Thanksgiving or Christmas are not what will be most surely missed. We can’t cook up any old pot of soup together and share crusty warm bread just fresh-baked, nor put on the kettle and bring out apple pie with ice cream, nor sit around our big table and talk and laugh as time rolls by, our motley crew brought together by love.

Isn’t this the hard thing that sticks under the skin like a relentless thorn? How does one get rid of the deeper sting even if the thorns can be more or less managed?

This autumn feels like that long wave of farewell, ’til we meet again, my dears-– waving to the beautiful days and nights we’ve managed to hold c lose since the start of the pandemic, despite such a variety of challenges. It was less terrible in some ways than expected, but that is only because I daily could (and yet can) step outside for an hour, even if it is on the wide balcony overlooking woods and toward the not-so-distant Coast Mountains. I am not a creature well contained indoors; I crave movement and open air, with plants and animals all about. I am fully alive when finding my place within nature. There is a heartbeat that is not only mine. There is a sky that covers all of us, everywhere. There is a wild mountain range that gives way to an exotic desert, an emerald valley that reaches to forest, rivers that connect to lakes and to seas, and flax- colored plains that go on and on and are being trod by someone or something else out there. I meet myself there but lose myself, too, in the enormity of this planet and universe. Life makes sense to me more than usual. I am alone but not ever truly lonely; I feel the connection to all as surely if we were each a silken thread in the fantastic web of life.

This year it was a relief that, though we’ve had COVID-19 around every bend, we–if fortunate enough to avoid the virus; so many suffering thousands have not–were given a bit of kindness in weather. There was spring, summer and fall within which to engage in daily lives, perhaps even to play a little. We have been now warned that winter will be rougher with such close, stuffy indoor time, and fewer chances to be with people safely. It pains me that we step back from one another routinely now, that we are afraid of others despite wanting–needing–to come closer.

And yet, I know I can get through this winter– if I have the good fortune to stay well enough. I want to make it as positive as I can and the simple determination carries a strong impetus. And, anyway, one does as one must; we all have to put one foot in front of the other as before, for whoever knows what can come next?

But I will miss the bright green days and running through the grassy hills with the twins and our loose gatherings with family we occasionally have enjoyed. I need to locate covered pavilions, as many places as possible so we can come together if only for a half hour in wet, chilly weather.

That I will walk daily is a given. I do it for well being, as humans do all over the globe, and also out of necessity. It is then my head clears and I find my footing in both the interior and exterior design of matters. Any leftover detritus I can give to creative activity, and to prayer.

Rain, rain–we need it. It is a part of everyone’s/everything’s life cycle, especially here. It is second nature to become waterproofed–to take precautions for a deluge. It can be a time of hibernation, seizing opportunities to get cozy, or delve deeper into depths and unearth even better creations or finding new forms of labor, exercise and entertainment. I may feel bittersweetness coming on here and there, but I am not without curiosity. What will be learned in the months to come? Nothing is beautiful all the time, and hardship can make us heartier as long as we have the will.

I will leave my window open a crack to hear, smell and watch rain showers, thunderous deluges, damp winds off the churning rivers, a dazzle of light snowfalls. It is part of the rhythm here. It is what I choose to embrace in the valley, in the hills. Melancholy may come as a visitor. It will leave, as well.

And I have bought two pricey pairs of insulated rainboots for the twins so we are ready to get out there. The next thing: looking for a waterproof canopy to rig up for our wide, deep balcony. We can fit a few under that when it pours, after all.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: The Quartz Creek Trio

Photo by Nashwan Guherzi on Pexels.com

The upright bass player, JD, was not in Quartz Creek Valley, New York because he had long craved a life in the country. Rima had dragged him there so she could nurse her mother back to health–hopefully–and give a helpful hand to her father. They now shared the 62 acre spread, and lived in the tiny cottage that was built ten years earlier to accommodate visitors and now themselves. There came with the shelter the tasks of keeping chickens, grooming and feeding and exercising two horses, tending the three dogs whose names he barely kept straight and a black, dusty one eyed cat. JD was okay with cats–they minded themselves.

He liked her parents, Neal and Emma, fine and the cottage was good enough–a nice change from the apartment they’d had in Pittsburgh, though so quiet he could hear his heart beating every night when it went dark. That was the worst part–the dark w hen in bed, lying still as can be so as not to wake Rima. For one thing, he was used to being awake until 2, 3 even 4 in the morning. And there could conceivably be menacing spiders creeping out from the corners, and random rustlings that could be anything from bears to racoons to snakes outside their screened bedroom window. They were in a huge forest. (Rima said it was just the woods, with meadows about, too.)

He lay there wide awake, then got up to sit with a book until his head drooped or another foreign noise shook him up. He’d especially never liked racoons, with their mean little faces and grabby hands, how they stood on hind legs ready for a fight he could care less about. They were welcome to his garbage, have at it, party on. But that was a city alley, not here.

Rima had been hesitant at first to ask him to go with her; he and the city were one, she believed. He could have stayed in Pittsburgh, yes. The truth was, his gigs had been less than satisfying and then he got sick. In the last month he’d recovered from a bout of pneumonia; he was still tired out. Not only physically. The club scene had felt a little stale after twenty years. So he said sure, let’s go hang out on a country lane, rescue your parents awhile. It made her happier than he had seen in years. So, Rima left her position as an Admissions Coordinator at a community college and he took time from from his most recent band once assured they’d take him back. They rented their place to a friend of a friend, packed a couple bags.

JD had grown up in Pittsburgh and though he had left twice before for a couple years, he always returned. And he had played in two bit dives, then decent bars, then supper clubs and cabaret, summer jazz festivals. Then strictly jazz clubs, at last. Not that he had trained for that.

Jamisen Dean Hardisty was the son of two prominent Pittsburghers (or Yinzers if you were truly local). By age 10 he knew he wasn’t meant for cello but the upright bass. From then on it was “JD” he answered to, and it was the bass he studied and played with enthusiasm. Jazz crept up on him. Before long he had a bad case of falling in love, and classical music, though it left its mark on him, was pushed to the periphery, to his parents’ misgivings.

Jazz was his life anchor. Rima often said it was his mistress, but in fact it was his first and would be his last love. His wife was his treasured everyday partner, his fine lover–she put up with his music obsession, after all. But jazz– just another category altogether. A different passion he could not explain to those who didn’t get it.

Emma was showing improvement after four months; the chemo was working. They all began to dare to hope. Neal was roused by this change and by JD and Rima’s help with daily chores so he could just be with her more. Although JD did mainly yard work and took the dogs out for runs, he had a quiet presence that helped steady Neal’s nerves. He was surprised; his son-in-law might be moody some days but he was rock solid, it turned out. Rima was the best daughter he could ask for in troubled times.

For a month, JD only played exercises, plucked and bowed whatever came to mind, then he took a break for a couple weeks. His fingertips softened and got grimed over from outdoor work so he kept to the routine, playing after dinner for an hour or two. No one complained; he played, after all, very well even if that music–the more contemporary of the stuff– was not their cup of tea. Sometimes he’d play a tune that Emma requested. it cheered her; he liked that it did.

So things went on like that the first couple months, until he got restless. This bucolic daytime life was not a comfortable fit for him, though it suited Rima. They got on well as ever despite a few misunderstandings about how to do things in Quartz Creek Valley–JD never would blend in–and she was grateful he’d come. Still…the music he wasn’t playing began to yank at him all day and night long.

And then one afternoon when he went in for groceries and a new hoe, he saw the woman sitting at front door of Enid’s Grill. She had ear phones on and was bobbing her head to the beat, and singing softly–he couldn’t hear her but he surmised–and her right foot was tapping away. Her eyes were closed. He stopped in his tracks, two big bags in his arms, one hand grasping the hoe. He wanted to run across the street, ask who, what, and why. Because she was not a local–he could see that by her clothing, colorful and verging on outlandish compared to what most people wore (jeans and old t-shirts and work boots or sneakers). And her body was full of music. And her mind, because she was surely another musician. Wasn’t she?

She looked up as if she had felt him watching, and pulled off the ear phones, lips moving to the lyrics and music she still heard in her brain. She lifted a hand and smiled across the street at him, then got up and went inside.

It took JD three days to find out who she was from the bakery owner where he stopped to get coffee and bagels often.

“Oh, that’s Kelsey, has a week-end house but can be gone for many weeks so we don’t see her much. She tours and such.”

“Tours? She plays with some famous band?”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, looking anxiously at the line behind him. “She sings but jazz or pop, not good bluegrass or–well, look, can we get a move on now?”

“Kelsey lives–where?”

The woman frowned at him then shrugged. “Well, JD…since you’re a musician, too– it’s on Brookhaven Road but that’s all I will say. Next order!”

The next day JD drove up her long gravel driveway, heart happily pounding in his throat.

******

Kelsey was not born a singer. Her father said she was, but she was born a dancer per her mother and Kelsey agreed, some of the time. She was so often swaying and turning about, tapping and swiveling and bending when she reached a year old and walking. Her feet were happiest sliding and stomping, her arms lifting and reaching to beats of cheery children’s songs. She’d hum a bit and squeal. But put on classical music and she was transfixed. She got so still that it scared her mother at first–it was like she was possessed of a spirit, she told her husband: “Look at her face, she’s seeing angels or something!”

He shooed her away and glanced at Kelsey with a pleased look–he knew she would sing even if she danced well enough. He could feel it; he sang once, after all, in the men’s chorus in college, but teaching suited him best so maybe it was her turn to sing on and out, make things happen.

Kelsey did take rhythm classes, then ballet and jazz dance, and she was good at it, everyone said so. But after her classes she’d put on the old records her dad had of jazz standards and a little opera and learn the words and tunes as best she would. By twelve, she sang a few songs for her parents and their friends on a bridge game day. It was decided: she was a singer and then some.

It was all in the body, that’s why she danced so soon–the music took hold and her nervous system worked it out, but then it went straight to the soul. She practiced and before long she was in a few choirs, then it was bands and she rehearsed and performed so much it threatened her school work. At nineteen she started to sing at a local Detroit club, a few songs here and there, and gradually, one thing led to another until she sang three nights a week with their house band. Jazz was what she did the best. Before long she was full time, then touring with this band or that, small potatoes in the beginning but she stepped up and up. Chicago, at last. A home base. She had no doubt this was meant to be her life. She travelled and made decent money. Each year she became better known and in Europe they turned out in droves.

And then a week before her thirty-fifth birthday her older sister died. The one with cerebral palsy, the one she adored and always visited first when she had a few days free. Ellen, with whom she shared all her secrets. Ellen, who had more patience and compassion than anyone else, and who easily made her laugh and vice versa.

Kelsey quit the band she was with and hid out at Quartz Creek Valley. New York, the countryside, far from the city. It was recommended by someone who loved to vacation there–“a quaint country village, an anonymous kind of place to relax.”

Kelsey had bought a cheap, ramshackle house there. Over time it was fixed up by a team she talked to via texts and long calls and she made quick visits. It was finally a good structure again, inviting and eclectic, a refuge from the stress of travel and performing too much. Ellen liked it, too, but hadn’t visited her there in a year, to their mutual dismay. There never seemed time enough, then Ellen was less and less well.

Everything came to a stop with her death. Kelsey didn’t enjoy eating as before; she didn’t want to go out with friends; she slept long hours, day and night; she had no interest in returning calls from men who had given off a spark. She knew it was the river of sorrow that carried her, that dulled her usual appetites. Even singing became less wanted, a guest that wasn’t welcome, then soon a bothersome ghost that could not remain unobtrusive and stay under the eaves to let her be.

Yet at Quartz Creek Valley she was removed from her large grieving family and from the hustle of the music scene, and from the endless sympathy of friends. This was a good thing, peace. She settled in and was relieved to find it helped ease tension and sadness–woods surrounding her, the creek behind the new deck. Her very house seemed to know how much she needed it and had been waiting, so closed about her in the green shady setting and held her snug, protected.

There was a second hand upright piano in the living room that she played sometimes, tinkering, really–but it, too, failed to move her to do more. Instead, she recalled songs Ellen and she loved as kids and teens and that made music come faster–and more painful. The best she could seem to manage listen to music on her iPod, let it all come as it wished, or not. It seemed enough for a couple weeks, at start.

And then that day the doorbell rang, two short rings and a long third. She peered out her window and determined he looked more or less okay, so opened the door a crack.

“Yes, what is it?”

“You must be Kelsey–I’m JD Hardisty,” he’d said, grinning at her as if they’d had an appointment set up and she was expecting him. He looked pleased. “Tanya at the bakery said you were a musician, and so am I.”

Kelsey opened it a bit more and stuck out her hand. His palm was broad and cool; she gave it a firm professional shake. Did this make them quasi-friends so soon? She took a deep breath, wary and impatient.

“That right? Kelsey Minor. And you thought…that maybe you would just pop on by?”

With a slight frown he noted her drawn, pale face, her pressed lips and bright hair in the sunlight, then let his glance sweep over the big, flower-bordered yard.

“I don’t know, I thought we might talk a little. Maybe I’d find out what kind of gigs you do.” He paused but she said nothing. “That sort of thing.” He hesitated again, stepped back. “I’m from Pittsburgh, play jazz bass–but, hey, maybe this is a bad time? If it helps to know, I am staying with my wife at the Lane’s house. Her mother has cancer…”

She tilted her head at him, then looked up at the sky, then at his flannel covered shoulders. New plaid flannel. So he was a city transplant. How could it help to know his mother-in-law was sick and maybe dying? It felt like a sharp pain in her chest. Still, he was being friendly, that’s all.

“It could be a bad time, all things considered, but maybe not. Go around the side of the house. We can sit out back.” She gestured at the corner of the house and went indoors, then came back out to meet him there.

They got caught up–her sister’s passing, his wife’s devotion to her mother and father. He had been there a couple of months; she had been there barely one month, had taken her time to wrap things up with her band.

“Millstones and the Feast, you may have heard of us…? We play more in Europe.”

“I have. Good band, I think one of my friends played with them awhile-Art G, drums.”

“Must have been before me; I joined them three years ago. I’ve sung with quite a few bands since I started out. How it is. And you?”

“The Evan Blake Quartet. We’ve played in Pittsburgh for many years. Hate to say how many. It’s a decent living, great guys. I toured once, too, but I got older, more sleep deprived and ornery than I wanted to be.”

He laughed easily and she felt his good nature spread among the trees.

“I miss it already,” she said, smoothing her long denim skirt over her knees, fiddling with a silver and turquoise necklace which shone in the sun. She then crossed her arms. I want to sing but can’t quite do it yet…You still play wherever you’re living? I mean, staying in good shape? I worry I will totally lose the skills. But not much to do in this little berg, is there?”

“I’m adjusting alright except for the nights. I play daily. Have to keep the fingers supple, calloused. Why don’t you sing at all?”

“I hum, I pull out notes, I run over lyrics. But everything comes back to my sister. We were that close.” She crossed her forefinger with middle finger.

JD said nothing and neither did she as the crows squawked at them from strategic perches. He was thinking how they could try a few things out together. He had noted a piano as he walked by the front windows. He felt that leap in his pulse, anticipation of making music with others once more. Even once a week, a couple times a week–it would feel so good to get back in touch with music in real-time, in the flesh, not just in his head or only exercises, some noodling. Not playing along with tunes on the radio.

But Kelsey thought of how it hurt to sing, how she wanted to cry when she sang, How to ease away from this, yet be kind to the guy? Why would she want to sing with a stranger, anyway? It could take a long time to mesh with other musicians. They had their style; she had hers. JD had his life to tend, she had hers. She did not want to get into their repertoire, into the intricacies of interpretation or performance, or of name dropping–shooting the breeze all afternoon. She had not planned this social call.

“Well, JD, I’m not much of a piano player, and my voice is on hiatus. Maybe another few weeks. I need to just hide out, you know what I mean? Sometimes we need to step back. I am so far back from all of it, I spend my time reading and sleeping pretty much, not dreaming of music.” But as she said it, it felt like a lie and she wondered if he caught it, too.

She rose from her chair and stretched, shaking her chestnut mane off her face and shoulders. When she turned he was standing, too, hands in jeans pockets, face closing, quiet.

“I see. Well, if I find a pianist, I might stop by again, okay?”

Kelsey held out her hand to him. “Maybe. I don’t mind talking music, I guess. Bring your wife–Rima? Is she a musician? Lovely name.”

“No, no, not a musician!” He guffawed at the thought. “Well, thanks, Kelsey, and take care, pleasure to meet you,” JD said, shook her hand, nodded and left.

As he drove away in the rattling truck that no doubt was his father in law’s, she shaded her eyes from midday ight that struck her square in the face. It made her eyes sting, all that streaming early autumn sun power, and the air cooler and richer all at once, and the heady talk of music.

JD Hardisty. Had she heard of him or was she only thinking so? People knew all the good people in the world of jazz and word gets around. He hadn’t heard of her, or so he said and so what, they were both working musicians, thank God–if not actually famous. She might be a little but not for now. She was ready to hibernate. Turn the lock in the door and close the curtains–that was the way she’d intended.

But his face–one that you immediately feel is familiar. The eyes…no rancor, no comeuppance, likely no big agenda, she concluded, other than wanting to play more jazz. He was likely for real, stuck out here in Quartz Creek Valley with an ailing in-law. In backwoods country, did they have to forget jazz?

What or who was she? Too damned good for him since she toured much of the world? Or maybe afraid she wasn’t so good, anymore? Or was she just worn out? Like her heart and soul had been overused. Now her voice was weakened, too. How much did it matter now, no news to give Ellen, no reports of the tours, no songs to share with her as she lay contorted in bed, the pain of it.

Still. It might have been his dark blue eyes. They were so kind it nearly hurt her to look at them. And she’d had enough of that. Did he play like his eyes spoke?

“Ellen, what can I do with myself now? Dig a hole and pull the ivy over top of me?” she asked, face to an empty sky. It was absurd to talk like that, wrong, even–but some days it was all she could do.

******

He had not been a regular in this circle nor was there a desire to be but there he was, almost a fixture at Frannie Palmer’s house. It had become a week-end thing, and she’d suggested it become a longer term thing until he got his feet back under him. All the booze-drenched parties, then his partner leaving, and his concert schedule heavier than was healthy–it was enough to drive anyone over the edge.

They’d finished a scrumptious dinner once again and were relaxing in the study, which was really a brainstorming room where Frannie worked on marketing and product development for body and face products. He picked up a jar and opened it, gave it a sniff, gave it the thumbs up and closed it again.

“That’s yours now, dear. Really, you have to get off the fast track and take a breather, Rodney, you can see how it has helped me! Anytime I’ve had enough I come to my country house, lick my annoying little wounds and repair any broken brain circuits. I wholly recommend it.”

He sipped his elegant goblet of red wine rather than downing it as he felt a gripping desire to do. “If it’s good for a CEO of a thriving beauty company it must be good for an aging bonnie boy slash pianist headed for rack and ruin from alcohol and a bleeding heart. Right? I swear, if Tony had half a brain he’d know what he’s missing, get humble and come to his senses.”

“You are neglecting to consider the upside in this situation, my dear.”

“There is no upside! I have lost the love of my life…and it’s all your fault since you introduced me to him.”

“Oh, do get over it. More fish in the sea.” Frannie jumped up and opened the French doors to the distant tinkling of the creek and a gust of piney air. “The upside is that you get to start over to a degree, alone and with a clean slate.”

Rodney felt the scrape of those words but ignore it, joining her. The air was soft and sweet and he thought how fortunate his oldest friend had this beautiful second home. Since she was getting older she’d spoken of retirement in this place but Rodney felt it was premature–she was too glamorous to take up residence in Quartz Creek Valley, surely. On the other hand, she was at least ten years his senior– and he was already getting grey at the edges, signs of loosening jowls. Perhaps it would be good to get a few things fixed – Frannie would steer him the right way.

He joined her at the open doors. “I think I’d like to have more fun with music, for a change. One can only be a classical pianist for so long unless you are a genius, and far more devoted than I tend to be…”

He stated this with wistfulness; Rodney truly did want to be much more dedicated to the finest of all performing standards yet had had to be. He had to work very hard to even remain where he was after thirty years–far better than above mediocre, of course, but also a very far cry from the top of the heap. There was always some up-and-comer to take his place, and fast. His days might be numbered.

“I’m getting more accompanist jobs, Frannie. My concerts average a couple times a week at most, in maybe eight or ten states. It has slowly and surely changed. The rest of it… all the playing for someone else. Not that this is so dishonorable…it takes talent and skill to play for the best soloists…”

She lay a hand on his back, nudged him toward the pool and patio. “Better to get paid than not; and better to play some than none. I know you, Roddie, you would not be happy unless you played something until the day you died!”

“I could play for old people, I suppose, if it came to that, just sign me up for the boomers’ dances and swanky retirement homes, darling Frannie.”

“You already play for old people–me, my friends and so many more! We love you as much as the rest of the audiences do.”

“Maybe more, ” he said with chagrin. “Well, I’m based in Coral Gables, Florida–as are you–so how can I lose? I always have a good crowd in that state.” He put an arm around her shoulders as they walked to the chaise lounges. “To think I almost like this place in the northern woods. You came from around here? I forget.”

“No, Roddie, I hatched from a golden egg outside of Chicago, you know that, and was born with this beautiful hair. It was hubby’s summer tromping grounds, not mine.” She giggled as she patted her champagne coiffure and then they fell quiet, at ease.

He stared into the underwater lighting of her turquoise pool and wanted to dive in and paddle about but he’d smell of chlorine, then have to shower. He had no energy for all that. He licked his lips clean after a last bit of wine, closed his eyes, leaned back and listened to the crickets begin their songs.

Fran cleared her throat. “Well, it seems I do know someone who sings, Rodney. She’s had a vacation home here for some time but often is gone on tours. I saw her yesterday. Kelsey Minor.”

“Hmm, never heard of her.”

“She’s a jazz singer.”

“Oh, swell. No arias to belt out for me?”

“Rodney Cannon, you really must ease off the snobbery-“

“Says the pot to the kettle–“

“–because she is that good. Maybe that would cheer you up. I can call her tomorrow, set up a meeting. Maybe you can even do a run-through with our piano.”

Rodney grunted. He was busy feeling wine loosen every muscle and then every knot that squeezed his overwrought mind. “Maybe.” He yawned. “Sure, why not…you often know best, Frannie.”

She smiled to herself and got up to dip her toes in the water. Mission accomplished.

And that was what sealed it, Rodney realized later.

******

The first time they all got together at Fran’s–she had that shiny grand piano–thanks to her determination and Rodney’s charm–it seemed like a madhouse. Kelsey was trilling away between scales and vocal exercises. JD was tuning and retuning, then playing tunes with pizzicato as if the strings were wild things to be tamed, while Rodney was working on chord progressions that sounded as if they might be be overjoyed to be let lose in a cathedral. But when all got quiet, they tossed around ideas and settled down some though no one wanted to take the lead.

“Well, how about just trying an old standard?” JD suggested.

“How old do you mean?” Rodney asked. “I only do old, that supreme age from when my father loved standards.”

“You know, like Sinatra?” Kelsey suggested, eyebrow raised as Rodney looked at his hands with a smirk. “Or-okay, then, earlier?”

JD had been scrutinizing Rodney from the minute he came in. “Do you even play jazz, my friend? I mean, not can you imitate it… can you play it?”

“Yes, bud, I do play it when I run out of my usual classical repertoire and every one is begging for more…” Rodney’s words held an edge.

Rodney suspected JD was like every other jazz club musician he’d come in contact with–maybe three or four of them, anyway. Leaning towards arrogance and cloaked in a ultra calm cool. Kelsey was nicer so far but she had probably been trained to be nicer from the cradle, sadly.

JD suspected Rodney was once deemed too fabulous for his own good, and his classical rigor stymied all hope of experimentation. But JD was willing to give it a try. He’d had cello lessons for years as a youth, after all, but he wasn’t sharing that with Rodney. The guy ought to know better.

“Come on, you idiots, let’s get the music going or give it up!” Kelsey bellowed, hand to weary head. “I don’t have the wherewithal to play games. It’s hard enough to consider singing much less with bickering men…”

Both men shut their mouths, composed themselves and were sheepish. Kelsey was, then, not just a lovely gal with impeccable manners–all the better for it, Rodney decided. It took grit to keep in the game.

“Suggestions, then?” JD asked.

“‘April in Paris’? ‘Stairway to the Stars’?” Kelsey said.

“Right,” JD agreed and picked up his bass bow.

Rodney flexed his hands, lay fingers atop piano keys and soon the familiar tune of “April in Paris” was slipping into the dimly lit room like a somewhat crumpled satin ribbon.

Kelsey hummed at first, voice warming a bit more each measure as the musician found their places, out of sync at times but urging themselves closer to the heart of melody, the luxurious beauty of sweetly emphasized notes. They were professionals; they knew how to do this, even Rodney, who was surprisingly adept at the genre. And it seemed they might have promise.

Then Kelsey opened her mouth wide and the richness of her alto suffused the spaces like liquid into hands. The men puzzled out and played with each other’s lines and her interpretation. She, however, soon shaped it, the song growing, breathing, her command of her instrument creating an embraceable tune. It was an offering to them– as if she was singing of their times in Paris, their love affairs as well as hers–and many others’. She swayed to the music, her body gone fluid, too, and they all leaned toward one another, face to face, sounds to sounds, following each other down flowing measures, and to the tender end.

Rodney dabbed at his eyes, then sat up tall. He smoothed his pants legs and nodded at them. Kelsey and JD nodded back, not entirely displeased.

“Well,” he said. “Let’s try it again… JD?”

JD led them into the melody and they were off once more, fewer odd bumps, more attentiveness to one another and the song. Then again they ran through it, embellishing here, simplifying there, interweaving, correcting, emoting more but not too much, making the song a lovelier thing.

Frannie was at the back of the room with Rick, her husband, who had come to the house after a trip to and from Columbus. He leaned against a wall, her hand in the crook of his white shirt-sleeved elbow. As the song started up once more, he took her in his arms and they danced ever so quietly, careful not to disrupt the trio, their movements restrained in the small area.

She patted him on the back as he deftly stepped along with her. “Now that’s a great tune, wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed Frannie, let’s keep them on, shall we?”

She hummed along in his ear, and he kissed her plump cheek.

Frannie Palmer, CEO, was also quickly planning how she could get them to form a new band, then market them to friends. And, of course, beyond.

One day, she dreamed. For al her brusqueness and learned gentility, she was often just a gladdened dreamer.

******

That was the start of it, the Quartz Creek Trio. They played every day after that. The name was suggested by Rima, who was glad JD had a purpose other than labors he’d been willing to do (basically forced to do) in that dull, jazz-club-less country life.

JD was encouraged to slough off chores. The family was getting back to a more normal routine. He was so grateful that he yet took the dogs for runs morning and night, still mowed the yard weekly and continued to grocery shop for them. Rima foresaw their moving back home by early to mid-November–he had gigs galore then what with holidays. But for now, peace and easier days reigned.

Kelsey got up in the morning and attended to a healthy bowl of oatmeal and toast, then ran a couple of miles and finally practiced, banging away at her second hand, tuned up piano as needed. She found her voice was getting deeper and wondered if it was all the crying. Or just rustiness. But she was better than she had been before the guys came along. Before the music was gradually returned to her.

Rodney was a perfectly pleasing guest. He entertained them daily with “Breakfast with Roddie” which entailed English muffins with cream cheese and scrambled eggs; fresh coffee; and piano music while they ate. He was fired from cooking but they adored his music, as usual. “Bach for Breakfast” they called it–changing the composer’s name as required. But he enjoyed the jazz standards more as days went by so he slipped one in now and again, to their delight.

The Quartz Creek Trio played that fall for three weddings and two retirement luncheons and two big parties of Frannie’s for which people from New York to Florida came. A few wanted to hire them right then for their future soirees. It left the trio privately gasping with laughter–to think they would do such gigs, just like in the first days of their careers! But they had fun, that was the point of it all, wasn’t it. They enjoyed playing together and they’d’ gotten to know one another. It was a good thing all around.

Their time was short, they knew that. It made the hours seem more potent, at times quite worthy of remembrance and always instructive as they worked out the kinks. They got to know their unique moods, their ins and outs–the individual styles and inside knowledge of each piece. It was building a complex and careful dialogue even as it became freer of constraints, all their playing and singing.

So it got harder to think of saying goodbye. They might cross paths, though. Kelsey would remain there through the winter–she needed more healing rest. JD would be coming over once a month–or as feasible– with Rima to visit her parents. And Rodney, well, he flew all the time, anyway, and he figured he’d make a stop at Frannie and Rick’s, too.

Just once Rodney suggested, “Maybe when we run out of steam doing our usual programs and plans, we can form an official trio. Not just for entertainment of friends and family here…I mean, when we get older, or bored with things. Try a new path.”

“Speak for yourself, buddy. Will it pay the bills? Rima is finally pregnant!” The reality of that scared the heck out of him, but a kid later in life was also a boon, he imagined, and he felt very good about how things were turning out. He had plenty of gigs lined up, anyway–yet, he wondered, too.

“What? And spoil what we have now?” Kelsey said, somewhat appalled at the idea of leaving her band and engaging in this little act once more. But she’d been surprised how it had helped with the loss of Ellen, and how good hearted the guys were–not to say, very fine musicians.

She’d think it over. They’d all think it over. Their worlds connected at the outer edges of the music world, they overlapped in theory, they admired each other greatly. But it would take a lot of effort to make a new commitment. It was a rather serendipitous series of events that demanded greater consideration: a chance meeting, an odd connection, a creative process that grew and made them feel more themselves than they had felt in a long while. Well on the way to being rejuvenated musicians, they were more excited to share music–and also ready to further open up their lives. Together, and apart.


Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Making a Stake in Reclamation

The raindrops pelted me with snappy wetness; wind was gusty and chilled just right. Ah, an early autumn downpour, crispy leaves scuttering about, the earth emitting its scent of greenness devolving into decay and fallowness in the weeks ahead. Not yet winter and not fully fall, this transition period will display fickleness–one week a bright balminess again, the next, an earlier darkening horizon with clouds gathering water to disperse.

My upturned face ran with raindrops, my jeans grew soggy, my breath was taxed by steep paths, then I found my pace along the terrain. And every step brought to mind singular words or phrases, as is so often the case. This time: cure, curative, restoration, claimant, clearing, rejuvenation, reclamation. Act of reclamation. Then only the quietness of woods and steady beats of my feet.

By the time I got home I asked myself: claimant of what, exactly? A cure, of what kind, for which sort of malady? Clearing… of smoke, land, people’s minds, clearing away of debris? Rejuvenation of our fire-hollowed million acres? Reclamation: that has been the urgent word for a few days. It first conjured up a picture of people standing up tall, a solid force and laboring to make right what is wrong. Our people in Oregon. The American people.

Still, my brain scanned examples of reclamation and came up with a mediocre plot of land that lies in sad shape. Someone passes by and sees it is disused, or poorly used or even overused. He/she is challenged by the task of rehabbing it, considering something better, different. An insignificant spot altered so that people may come to enjoy. That person asks for help. Flowers or vegetables are planted, a bench or two installed, an old wooden table set in the shade of a revived apple tree whose white blossoms glow in the sunlight, and the fruit ripens, is picked and well enjoyed. Soon others gather to swap ideas, share food, play dominoes or chess or cards.

I consider the art of mosaics, how often they are created by jagged pieces and slivers of glass or ceramic or rock that have been broken and then salvaged to construct a work of art, utilitarian or an object of beauty to gaze upon appreciatively. The useless pieces were reclaimed, refashioned into something of value to the maker–and maybe others. Something that might have gone to waste since deemed useless has been reclaimed.

I consider these images that unfurl like stories, and then people I know. How do we restore our lives in response to the stresses and worries of these days and nights? Or is a basic restoration the wisest goal, with so many influences intent on determining otherwise? Restore to just what, now?

I keep hearing from friends and some family that they are beyond weary of it all. The novel coronavirus’ demands and restrictions and continued loss of life; the historic wildfires of the West/Northwest; the ever increasing political turmoil; loss of jobs and homes–that they have begun to feel more impotent each day. I hear the telltale flatness of their sentences, a symptom of depression, and worry. I call them, text them. Daily there are articles about people experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being so long ill from COVID-19 or working brutal hours helping the critically ill; from losing all to the fires out West or to hurricanes; from worry over, or participation in protests to address racism that can turn ugly and get way off track. And reported erroneously–as so much seems to be, more and more– in the media, as well.

How do we manage, then, monumental stress and uncertainty? It is no longer just one thing or another, but a number subsequent events–depending partly on where one lives– that have us tied up in knots. We know to try to stay better connected to one another even if virtually (who could have imagined this–like sci fi come to the fore–main mode of connection just 7 months ago?) and getting enough rest, exercise and eating decently despite lessening appetites; and taking time to enjoy whatever we each may find. Taking time to be together, even if six feet apart-but even that seems harder, at times. We are just tired.

Recently some friends and I had conversation about how people can reckon with painful, sometimes sudden, alterations in their lives. After the initial shock of a negative life-changing event lessens–which may take weeks, months or longer–individuals embark on various courses. They may do nothing, unable to find motivation enough other than to survive. They may engage in more group activities (even online) to help stay the profound sense of loneliness that can accompany the sadness. Or they may take up a project that fully engages, whether building something or repainting or repairing the house (hardware stores are doing well). Or some may lessen tension by enrolling in a Zumba class, running a few miles a day, doing yoga. Therapy is an option and if it is good, people can learn how to cope with stress and fear, and with PTSD triggers to then minimize overwhelming feelings of helplessness, deal better with nightmares and intrusive thoughts or images of the trauma. Or sessions can help one learn how to grieve more fully, then finally begin to live without the loved one who was lost, or the job that was taken away or the health that is undone–and finally, one hopes, go on, day by day.

Others might retreat into solitude and prayer or other meditative activity. The person seeking relief may choose to work longer and become the last one out of the office–or be very late turning off the computer if working at home, one’s partner calling out to “come to bed, please.” They also could engage in addictive behaviors that may temporarily induce a numbed disconnection from unhappiness they push away. This can occur even if they were not originally given to problematic drinking/gambling/sex/shopping/falling into love affairs– to name but a few.

It all comes down to rooting out some relief from realities that plague people. But a foundation of healthier ways needs to be built somehow if life is to be improved beyond a short tie. When there is psychic or physical damage, repair is needed. To reclaim something can mean to save from the refuse, to gather remnants left and make anew from ruined bits. It might mean the person needs to move away from haunting errors made with a change in locale or leave a toxic person. And it requires getting perspective and some control of conflicting parts to remake a life so that it works better. This, rather than you being worked over by it. Because unless a life is essentially habitable, it becomes a kind of prison or worse. And little can feel worse than to feel caught in the same bad place, helpless.

I have actual experience with all this, both as a counselor working decades at mental health and addiction treatment agencies, and in my personal life. Client after client came to see me with complex, weighty issues. They were at wits’ end and worn out and often on the brink of giving up entirely. Some had arrived after being near death for a few reasons— or had met death and then returned unhappily to the living. And the circumstances were far more varied than one might think.

One person was desperate to meet, with bad injuries still healing after a private plane trip that resulted in a crash. Yet this person continued to see the pilot, the love interest, who was untrustworthy, abusively dangerous. My client had developed an addiction to both prescription and illegal drugs in part due to the availability from the wealthy partner. The client’s well bred family had given up and from the hospital sent the person right to treatment.

Another person who was homeless with addiction and mental health diagnoses was finally getting substance free, yet still had the problem of where to live safely with a mangy but beloved dog. Housing was severely limited; there was no income until disability was applied for and gotten, which took a long while to obtain. There was no care for the dog without money. So we had to cut corners to secure pet help and temporary housing,

An adult was the only one left alive after her family was murdered by nephew in alcoholic black out. A teen grew up in a home with “routine” domestic violence; she had became a runaway and a dealer, lost in every way and angry. Another client was raped but no one believed the truth; he started to drink 7 days a week and dropped out of college-he was hoping to become a doctor.

I listened to human tragedies every day. How could I help them recover? Show how to rebuild their lives for the short and long term? Because the reality is, I could have used every therapeutic tool in the book, shown compassion and patience for months, but if the individual was not prepared to do the tough work of changing his or her state of mind or circumstances, I was not going make the difference I desired. Being ready to change was equally a key, perhaps even more than gaining new choices and life skills. This sounds harsh but consider what happens when one does not want to heal, to change: more of the same, or nothing.

It might surprise some how not ready people can be when you get down to the bottom line, despite their pain. But I understood this. The more life errors or trauma experienced, the less able a person feels to hang on for the long run, to start to recover and move forward. It takes exhausting and mind boggling efforts when already feeling on empty. So when there was any spark noticed in a client–that they realized life could still be worth living and there was hope despite the rawness and bleak view, I was holding out my hand, carefully but surely. I felt that when someone at last took it, he/she was willing to give a different way of living the barest chance. And we all know one spark can make a fire, and a small, well tended fire can do much needed good, especially when you are not truly alone.

From an early age, I was given some challenges. Those who have followed this blog know I experienced childhood sexual abuse. My mother, who suspected it, did not protect me nor tell my father or anyone of her fears. I was cautioned to stay away from the perpetrator at 9 years old. So it continued 2-3 years until my beloved oldest sister divorced the man she’d so hastily married wasn’t right for marriage (and she learned afterwards was a pedophile–and heard of my abuse when I was 35, she was 48.). It was like being caught in a corner with no way out and no one to call for help. Everything boiled down to survival and I knew so little about that then.

But that was just the start. If someone is abused and no one acknowledges it or helps, more trauma arises from that terrible error. In fact, it may be the worst of it. The secret was kept; the adept pretending that all was fine increased; feelings of worthlessness, failure and loneliness increased year by year. And behaviors tried out to lessen the relentless discouragement, confusion, and fear were increasingly unhealthy. Abandonment in dire crises is a hard one. I just had to learn how to swim in a vast stormy sea.

And then what came happens when life is lived as if stumbling through the dark with clumsy bruised feet. More victimization from various assaults; drug use both legitimate (our family doctor prescribed my first tranquilizers at age 12 due to not being able to sleep) and later illegitimate to dull the pain; the drug-fueled, PTSD-laden breakdowns at 15 and 19; and much later, alcoholism and treatment centers. Retreats from death.

Less positive choices for a life path was made harder by being a magnet for a dangerous boyfriend and later unstable/abusive/neglectful husbands (and, occasionally, “friends”). Including a criminal who took whatever dignity I had somehow redeveloped, as well as what money I had. And for most of that relationship I was sober; I had naively thought he was different deep down… Clearly, I hadn’t righted my life yet. I did not have the corrected map or enough wherewithal to traverse the right roads. There was no sure reclamation going on until the two teen children still at home left secretly with me. This was, for me, about the worst it could get. I was devastated that the work I had put in was still not my salvation. But I would not give up.

After all of that and with more therapy, I had enough. I sometimes wondered if I was one who might not recover, never make my life whole. It was either create a different life or get off the planet. i abstained from relationships for years. When I was out of money awhile between low paying jobs, out of nowhere came the gift of work I then believed was not for me. I could pay the rent and buy food (my19 yo son helped out); that was enough.

But there was rapid skill development and a surprising passion for the work even as I resisted the encouragement to become a fully certified counselor. The work was with addicted, emotionally ill, gang-affiliated, and homeless youth. Even as I said no, I returned to college. My work got better. I healed faster with more help. Still, for six years, I was one of those who worked every hour I could–to pay the bills but also to keep well occupied–and attended classes and studied. But when home I withdrew from the world. I prayed, wrote, walked daily, danced–took care of my self, tended to my children the best I could. Parenting demanded I be involved and responsive, enabled me to yet love deeply. In time, success seemed more reachable in the ways that mattered. After that, another marriage and there came decades more working with vulnerable adults and youth.

I found more and more happiness, despite difficulty. I stopped feeling terminally unique, too. A deep relief that was.

The point is, reclamation of life can take awhile. It can demand you give more, to make good on tentative promises to yourself and others. But it does come to pass.

I found it a long journey; I remain on the lifelong path to greater understanding and well being. It is alright; I enjoy learning immensely. But I had to build up endurance. Had to keep searching for the light through shadows, sketchy twists, off-road forays. I transformed the old feeling of being a maimed person with mostly deficits into being changed but not ruined. To being able to regenerate were injuries had slowed it or stopped it before. To having a capacity for problem solving and adaptability. I kept giving the pain to God, and it works. I gave my more tender self to creative work that improved. It happened in bits and pieces but each time there were clearer insight or better choices made, there was progress. And I was grateful for any small step forward.

Reclamation of life: we can do this for ourselves. Likely you, too, have already done it many times but perhaps didn’t know how potent a thing it was. Then hindsight showed you how much it was you undertook and overcame. A fighter for good, a creative force, a change agent–yes, you.

I came back to the core of who I am–as valuable as others, a capable person. Someone worth respecting and caring for. It was first hard to believe. And strong, as I found I can endure many harsh surprises, losses. I have, with encouragement and care from many, retained a heart for life and for others. An “optimistic realist”, I will hold up hope, but give me the full facts. No excuses or white lies or fudged numbers. Give me the truth, first and last, as it is best known. I am not good in the dark even if I can manage it. Turn on a spotlight– or at least a homely candle burning orange and yellow in the maze of life.

So, back to the conversations I have had lately about how one deals with all these crises that millions are trying to cope with these days. I can only think that we can do it, because it has been done before. We do have what it takes. We all suffer; we learn how to persist. People have the remarkable characteristic of resilience and when it is coupled with concern for others as I have seen in Oregon since the wildfires devastation, this is true power being witnessed.

I know at any time conditions can change in a flash. Meantime, I am going on despite trials making my own sort of reclamations as follows:

*Remember we are each part of the infinite and eternal design of the universe. –I had to get this one out of the way, because it informs all I do and believe. It helps me keep things in a more reasonable perspective. Maintaining my spiritual life just makes the difference. (Others may not agree–I try to always respect this.)

*Assess the situation based on facts as they are known. Do not close a blind eye when both clear eyes open is what is needed.

*Develop a plan for longer range goals (even a day, week or month beyond this current moment) by brainstorming options; be open to thinking outside the box and hearing others’ ideas.

*Proceed with caution but take even a small action– with expectancy of a some good progress to be made within one’s own life and potentially within a community.

*Use common sense. Sometimes humans overthink a problem or situation to the point of dead-end idiocy. Trust the gut; we were all born with instinct and intuition. (I should have done so long ago…)

*Exercise compassion, even when–maybe especially when– angry or confounded. Pause to pray or meditate, and that one’s perceived enemy to be truly blessed, not cursed.

*Stand up. Be heard. Claim your space and change one little thing. Make right what can be made right in your sphere, and work to support others who endeavor to reform what is unjust–that is, whatever stymies human flourishing. And may we keep out planet alive with more people fully caretaking of–not wasting–its vast gifts.

*Hold on. Some things cannot be rushed or altered at the moment. Timing makes a difference. Patience can mean everything. But then go boldly.

*Find worthwhile meaning in small moments, too; praise them all. What we have after we lose something or someone is ourselves, and some faith in what we cannot yet see but hope for, and anything we can salvage to begin again.

*Remember: no matter your pain, it has been felt before. No matter your grief, it has been mourned by another. No matter your aloneness, you are still part of humanity and someone cares. Ask for help; be found. Then help others who seek aid.

*If you can laugh despite the tears, give that to yourself and others. It shakes free some heaviness, lets more light in, brings relief.

*Create something. Anything you like. Give it away if the spirit moves you.

*Go and sit under dancing trees or move through fields or mountains or walk by water or rest among cacti and watch for coyotes. Open a window to the sky and listen, smell, touch, see. This is much of the wonder of life, given to you.

We can be well enough restored–as long as we have breath and our hearts beat–even in these times. It is not so likely it will be the reality we have known before…but nothing is static. Living can still be embraced and improved upon. It has been done before. The world has suffered in some terrible way, always. We being an adaptable species have managed to go on thus far amid devastations. We fail at times, but we also are compelled to try once more. We will wake up each day to see what is going on, and we will participate in the unfolding by being present and accounted for. I have gotten to 70; so also can you carry on the best you can.

I believe we are meant to be like angels for one another while we walk this earth. We are meant to illuminate the pathway together. We are meant to see goodness in one another, make compassion the rule. May we, then, comfort and help one another as we navigate rough waters and no matter what lies ahead.

(Note: those referred to as clients are composites of people I have known over many years of counselling positions.)

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Ms. Regina’s House on the Corner

Tanya and her mother read the column in the Obituaries section and they released a gasp in concert. The deceased lived five houses down the block. It was true they hadn’t seen her watering her flowers for months–some hired hand now did that task. They calculated she was 85 when she drew her last breath. Gone from the neighborhood. The entire planet.

Regina Ludlum had been the Headmistress of the Moss Highland Girls’ School for four decades. Tanya’s sister, Melanie, had attended years K-8 but she had not. Her mother came to prefer their good public schools rather than the parochial system, and at last won the argument with their father.

Mel had congratulated her on such good fortune. “You won’t endure the pressures for perfection, or all the knee bending, and the reverence for snotty staff. Though you kinda have to hand it to Ms. Regina,” she said, giving Tanya a “high five.”

Ms. Regina– she wanted to be addressed that way; her family’s origins were Southern, people speculated–was legendary for her intellectual prowess as well as vast organizational skills. She was also a good fund raiser twice a year. Many wondered why she’d ended up in such a small city, but she had the inheritance of her great uncle’s house. Her family heard this had brought her from Italy where she was studying some arcane art like gold leaf restoration in ancient buildings and exquisite crumbling homes.

Regina Ludlum was possessed of a quirky beauty defined by a loping, lanky grace; delicately shaped hands that nevertheless seemed a bit large; and bright eyes crowned by the most dramatically arching eyebrows ever seen. Her dark hair swung at chin length, neatly cut, and it framed her features perfectly, kept the emphasis on high forehead and penetrating gazes. Even when it turned white and her facial lines drooped, it suited her.

Ms. Regina’s presence was quietly imposing. Poised, entirely civil. Her capabilities were never questioned, and her students’ competence reflected her successful methods of direction, their parents said when Mel complained. But it seemed no one knew her well, at least not at school and not in the neighborhood. She remained pleasant but restrained, enough so that a mere “hello” seemed at times too friendly a gesture toward her–she’d give a quick nod and smile wanly. Or, if she was feeling generous, raise a palm in greeting, then keep on.

Tanya waited for news of her house sale, for it was this that had long drawn her. The ancient uncle who had owned it had passed when she was only one so it was just Regina Ludlum’s domain in her mind. When estate sale signs were placed along the sidewalk and at two corners, she was eager to discover all she’d longed to see.

Her mother said there was something inherently disrespectful, even distasteful about such a thing. All that gawking and buying of another’s personal property by an acquisitive public… but Tanya waved off her remarks. Her mother knew she was going to be an artist and was fascinated by houses, the things they held. Plus, she was now eighteen, fully capable of consideration of others’ property. And she wasn’t going to buy one thing.

She also knew her mother would be at her for detailed information when she returned. Even if she was too self-righteous to admit at the family table. They’d go fall shopping, have lunch tomorrow, and she’d give her a full report.

The Ludlow place was a large two story home, easily over a hundred years old, and painted a pale yellow with white trim. It offered a pretty covered veranda with overflowing flowerpots still hanging. Several people were already entering. The heavy carved door with beveled glass opened to a living room with a side staircase, steep and fashioned of polished, worn original wood. Small stained glass windows welcomed autumn light at each landing. There were other stained or leaded glass windows atop or alongside regular ones in the pleasing space. The light was dimmer in these areas; there was a huge chestnut and a big leaf maple out front.

Tanya wandered further into the living room, not unlike their own but much bigger, with a grand fireplace and brick hearth which displayed an array of large figurines. There were really statues, a couple that came up to her knees, some classical in design. Women, of marble or alabaster–one in a flowing Grecian gown, another a glowing white nude; an impressive, rider less brass horse with front leg raised and head up; a ceramic stylized bird that was most likely a blue heron but with an Asian flair. Tanya’s fingertips grazed them each lightly, and as she went on she wondered where they came from. Europe?

Did Ms. Regina travel often? Were there fine mementoes to be found?

There was a smaller study of the main room. A deep brown leather armchair for reading, a long narrow desk with matching desk chair. Bookshelves about empty; book sellers had already come in, cleaned them out. Textbooks were for some reason stacked on the floor along a wall. Several oversized art books still in a book case tempted her but she went on.

In the expansive dining room there was the usual, if one’s usual included bone china, crystal stemware, a silver set snug in a velvet-lined case, pale green and blue glass vases of elegant design, serving dishes of sliver. And then pitchers–five total, three of which were more rustic pottery. Tanya wondered if those were for iced tea, while two clear lovely glass ones for fresh lemonade or chilled water. Or vice versa. And with whom did Ms. Regina use all these items? It was so big you could well seat fourteen at the massive–was it mahogany?– table.

The large spaces were empty of much feeling; she wasn’t sure what she expected. Maybe lingering energy of laughter, high spirited conversations… Did she have many visitors? It was possible, of course; no one had a daily eye on her house. Maybe she got tired of dealing with so many kids and teachers at the end of school days; it was a tiring job, she suspected. When she retired, she might have craved solitude. Yet as Tanya thought about the possibility it made her feel lighter: Ms. Regina chatting away on a ton of topics, her smart comments filling the air. And they’d enjoy cold drinks and pastries on the fancy veranda.

She had never seen or heard Ms. Regina with a large outdoor gathering over the years. Not that she should have. Tanya was busy with her own life, not too mindful of the woman. She had read glowing newspaper articles, had seen her on television, heard the stories from kids who had attended Moss Highland. Oh, she’d seen her come and go to work or a store, but only a glimpse was caught as she parked her shiny black Buick in a double garage at the end of the curving drive. Then she entered the side door, Tanya had noted. There was a gigantic back yard, however; the house and its plot took up a third of the block.

Now the kitchen doorway swung open so she moved on. It had been updated with high end appliances, two rectangular skylights, a huge quartz-topped island with matching counters and refinished wood cupboards. Tanya moved to the side. More bodies crowded in and examined everything, exclaiming over this and that brand and culinary tool. Two sets of everyday dinnerware of pretty hue and decoration were stacked up. There was a shelf on the wall with more than a dozen cookbooks featuring recipes from around the world. It was clear Ms. Regina knew how to cook with skill and flair. There was so much light there it was friendlier than the rest of the house, so far. At the back wall which overlooked the expansive yard was banquette seating, with cushions adorned by a fabric design of copious green vines upon rich ivory.

There was a pantry, too, and she poked her head in to note half-full counters–a heavy duty mixer, an espresso machine and other kitchen aids–and many cupboards each side of the work and storage space. Had there been a cook, even a butler, once upon a time?

Tanya extricated herself from the crowd that had started to bunch inside the kitchen–it was popular. She stepped down into the deep, wide yard. Cypress trees–were those Italian? -she’d ask her father– lined back and side boundaries. The lawn expanse was so green and flowery she felt stunned by its beauty. Birds twittered, blooms bobbed their heads as bees darted about. There also flourished a small patch of vegetables to the right–pumpkins grew fat and jolly–by the garage. There was a darkened mossy stone bench at each side (an old man was half-slumped on one, peering into sun dappled shadow, a hat in hand). And a teal-colored metal café table with floral umbrella and four chairs in a corner–and was that an arched trellis covered in twisty vines? A two-level fountain burbled just beyond the trellis. Tanya found herself pausing there, looking back toward the stately house, entranced.

This had to have been where Ms. Regina spent much of her time. Who wouldn’t? It felt a special place. Her family’s own back yard was much smaller with an aging trampoline in one corner and a charred fire pit in another; their flagstone patio was outfitted with worn outdoor furniture and a big gas grill–that was all. But this–this was lovely, expertly tended yet welcoming, a perfect combination. Attention had been lavished on it; the array of forms and colors, the deft touches were what the senses longed to claim. Serenity. Ms. Regina outside on her knees, trowel in hand, wide brimmed sunhat a canopy for her attractive face–this must have been her joy and relaxation for many years. It suited Tanya’s idea of her–the gentlewoman tending her plants considerately and with wisdom, as she had tended her school. But, she imagined, too often alone. It felt so…private, despite the cheery aura.

But where was the woman beyond all the gardening? There had to have been more of her. Everything reflected abundance. Tanya had heard there had been a baby grand piano but it was gone if so, carted off by some gifted child’s family. She’d expected to see more of something…. There were were paintings leaned against walls, some Tanya liked and some she didn’t with others turned away from view. She had hoped to find more clues than pretty objects, greenery.

Tanya left the resting gentleman in the garden and others trickling out, and once inside she climbed the steps to the second floor. Four huge bedrooms, three smallish bathrooms. The first two were empty except for expensive and heavy bed frames and dressers for sale, one frame leaned against the wall. Most had “SOLD” stickers already.

The next room had a shelf with several bells of brass or crystal on it. A sturdy desk had six fine music boxes with inlaid or carved lids; Tanya gently opened each one to classical melodies. They looked very pricey. There were small prints of birds, butterflies and plants, like botanical illustrations–and bed linens folded in zippered plastic cubes on the high bed. A footstool was at its side. A gorgeous pen and ink drawing of the very house in a tarnished silver frame that pulled her in. But no portraits of family of others–they might have been collected for relatives, wherever they were. There also was a rich worn Persian wool rug, a closet with three woolen jackets and a couple of rain coats that looked well kept.

She then noted stacks of poetry books on a side table, and it made her inexplicably clap her hands. Yeats, Whitman, Lorca, a Russian poet she couldn’t pronounce even in her head, a few women of contemporary times (Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton), and several more.

This must have been her room, Tanya thought, and sat on the deep rose colored quilt that covered the bed. She was suddenly filled with the hugeness of the house, life lived there quietly, smartly. Alone. Melancholy pressed into her as she took in the room, then she left it to glance in the sparkling bathrooms with heavy claw foot tubs and high windows, then stopped at the last bedroom across the hall.

And she pressed her fingers to lips.

What greeted her from the door was a wedding dress with its long veil. The lace and satin were yellowing–she was afraid to touch it. Meticulous bead work adorned the bodice. There sat a limp cloth rose above the neck. The scalloped hem was stiff with fancy lacework. A leaf-and pearl-decorated veil was topped by a headpiece that seemed like a small hat which mimicked a crown.

Ornate, flowing and sumptuous. A wedding dress for someone who expected her wedding to be long remembered. Someone who had to be clothed in such finery to lavishly emphasize all-encompassing love.

She held the fabric to her nose a moment, breathed it all in, smelled a faint waft of cedar that must have helped protect it inside a hidden bag in the dark corner of a closet. It smelled of that time and it filled her with an ache, a warmth, barest echoes of fervent, lost words. It held deep commitment, a promise of a future of joy.

And loss of both. Somehow.

Tanya began to back out of the room, slowly. She wanted to close the door and secret the dress away, but she guessed dress and veil were also for sale; she didn’t look. It felt a betrayal to let them hang there, be touched by so many, then bought as just another vintage thing. She thought for a moment that she needed to own it to keep it safe, but even that felt wrong. It was Ms. Regina’s, she was sure of that; it had been meant to stay hers. All that pride, expectancy, excitement–then perhaps great sadness. But it was not for Tanya to say, and Ms. Regina was long gone. As she turned, her vision blurred and she dabbed wetness away. Anyone would think she had lost her wits in the old house, full of items gotten and treasured then so easily let go. Sold off as if exquisite nothings.

Gawkers, as he mother had called them, were filling the stairwell now and Tanya began to understand the pronouncement. Was she one of them?

As Tanya rounded the landings and pushed her way downstairs, the shoppers gathered with purchases at the table set up for business. She looked about then. Was there not one thing she should keep of Ms. Regina’s? But all she felt was a pressing need to leave.

She walked around the three-quarter veranda and there he was, the old man. He wore a perfectly fitted, grey three-piece suit, his hat now set upon his sparse thatch of white hair. He reclined on a rattan and cushioned armchair. She approached him, leaned against the banister. He looked up, bloodshot eyes blinking, and offered a slight, crooked smile. She smiled in return and took in a breath of cool air.

“You knew…” she began.

“Yes, I knew her,” he said, gravelly voice low and well enunciated. “Did you find anything of interest?”

She hesitated. “Well, I found a wedding dress.”

He took his hat off to smooth back fine hair, then placed it on his lap just so. His gaze stayed on the hat. “Yes, that dress…”

“It was of course for her…oh, now wait, was it by any chance your…”

He looked up, sought her eyes with pale blue ones. “Yes. Back when we were fresh, full of the dickens and love. Right out of too much university we were, raring to go.”

Tanya half-sat on the banister as anxiety rippled her stomach. She didn’t want him to feel badly–maybe fall apart–as he rested in the breezy September morning. The barest scent of winter chased after autumn leaves in the side yard so that they knew more change was coming. They would each leave, soon. What could she say to him now, how could she comfort him? She was eighteen; he had been alive so long. When she didn’t speak, he continued.

“You don’t mind me telling you, do you? I saw you in the garden–maybe you knew her, too.”

She nodded. “Yes. I mean no, it’s okay. I sort of did, and admired her.”

“We were married for eight years, that was in Boston. Then I got a job offer in Los Angeles–I was a lawyer, got a big opportunity.” He pressed his forehead with the heel of a palm, studied the floorboards. “She was an art historian then…and didn’t want to leave her work. She taught , worked in a museum. See, it was the east coast and smaller and nicer than L.A. She said, ‘A fast lifestyle, glitzy people! Must it be your work, first and last?’ That’s what she said to me over and over. I said, ‘But think what I can do for us both, think of other options for you!’ On it went until we had heard it all enough…”

The wind gusted; a flurry of dry leaves rose and fell. People were coming out, going in the front door as they hid there, speaking of more personal matters. Tanya wanted to reach out, touch his hand but refrained.

He re-creased the top of his hat, patted it as if with affection. “So that was that, miss. It was tough. Unusual those days, people leaving a marriage was almost unheard of, at least in our group. In point of fact, she was ostracized for not going with me, not being the dutiful wife. But we left each other for things we deeply believed in. Still, I often have asked myself: for what?”

He brought his gaze to Tanya; so much was there that she looked away. The man stood, held out his arms to the seen and unseen world with a weariness, then dropped them with a slap against thin thighs. Tanya felt as if she was listening to a confession; it made her a little embarrassed, but his honesty was touching. She felt more sadness for him than anything. She took a step closer but not too close so her concern might make him think she found him some dotty old guy. Because she knew he wasn’t.

“Time slipped by so fast. My career was a great one; hers changed but it was fulfilling, too. It happened that we later wrote one another. After a long time we no longer did. On my sixty-fifth birthday, she sent a last card. And now…”

He leaned with one hand on the banister, the other held up to the sky but she could see his legs were weakening so she grasped a forearm.

“I remarried, a nice gal, but only for a minute–it was nothing, nothing much, at all. ”

Tanya feared he might be weeping but he wasn’t. He had closed his eyes and squeezed them tight. Then he stood tall, placed the hat on his old lion’s head with a sharp pat.

He held out a hand to her with a genuine smile that opened his wrinkly face. “That’s the story, at least partly. And I am Martin Ludlow–please excuse my manners.”

Her jaw dropped a bit, then she got hold of herself. She felt the warmth in his hard, lined palm. All the life lived and still left there.

“Tanya Oppenheimer. I live right down the block.”

“A student of Regina’s?”

“No, an admirer from afar. She… inspired me though I didn’t know her much at all.”

“Like me, then, inspired long from afar,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you–thank you for listening to my revelation. Best wishes for a good, long life, Miss Oppenheimer.”

Then he bent over to grab a small bag by the chair and handed it to her. With a turn on his heel, he took his leave. He clomped down the stairs and strode off, a bit hunched over but head held up. When he reached his silvery car, a driver popped out and rushed to his side, then opened a back door. Martin Ludlow stooped just enough to get in and the door was closed.

He was once and for all gone.

Tanya lingered a bit before going home, wondering over things. Regina Ludlow. She had kept his name. They had both kept each other in their deepest hearts. Two aging persons still in love. Maybe they got what they needed, and maybe not, she surmised as she dawdled along. But she was relieved she had finally gotten access to the home.

It was only when she no longer could see the lot with its house that she thought to open the bag. It was the pen and ink drawing: Ms. Regina’s on the corner.