Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: A Matter of the Blood Oath

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It was a radiant red and gold fall Monday morning when everything got ready to change. Not that Perth would know it from a glance around the quiet house or when crossing Dartmoor Parkway, the traffic thickening and their mother waving from the porch, or the train right on time along Fourth Street. Victoria was ahead of her but not by much.

It would take the day cracking open–didn’t everyone hear it?–at lunch hour. It made her brain hurt, all the crackling and crashing as her mind took in, then recoiled at the scene before her.

Her sister didn’t even glance her way. How could she? Her wide brown eyes were glued to Dominic’s, the new boy’s, the one who sat across from Perth in eighth grade English class. Vic, as she called her at school, ten months younger but in the same grade, had him in drama class. They’d briefly noted him during the first week of the semester. And only because his thick dark hair fell to his shoulders and his bare ankles hung out where his jeans might have covered them. It was otherwise obvious he was out of place, though all new kids were out of place, as they knew. The sisters had moved a lot. (But now all three were “firmly planted,” their mother said, “in very good soil, we will bloom accordingly.” Perth and Victoria hoped with every fiber of their beings she was in this marriage for the long run.)

Perth carried the lunch tray to where she usually sat, between Jana and Elise, across from Vic. The two of them were in heated discussion about who did better in a math pop quiz and why Mr. Mercer was a terrible teacher, so Perth leaned forward and said,

“Hey, Vic.” She craned her neck to see Dominic but he was looking at his cheeseburger before taking a huge bite.

Victoria looked the other way while picking up several pieces of lettuce and tomato and stuffed them in her mouth. She acted embarrassed by that and she licked her fingers, then grabbed a napkin. Dominic was oblivious, attacking the burger, but he lifted a free hand at someone passing by. he had a friend already, that was good.

“Hey Victoria, what’s up, gorgeous?” Perth asked again, hands palm-up in the air. She then speared veggies from her chef salad. Why was was she being ignored?

Dominic’s gaze drifted around Jana, who took off, and landed on her. Vic gave up, flashed a smile as fake as possible at her. Perth gave her a level, cool stare.

“Well, hi,” Vic said, “I’m eating lunch, like you. Like Dom and Elise. What do you want? We have fifteen more minutes to eat. So, if you don’t mind…”

That wasn’t strictly true; they had over a half hour, but if they wanted time to walk around or fix their hair and all or gossip with friends, they had fifteen more left to eat. And they always made good use of their break times. They were together in school as they were usually around home: Perth and Victoria Didrikson, the reigning “Irish twins.”

“Hi Dom, I’m Perth, Vic’s sister, or do you know her as Victoria?” She gestured to her sister. “It makes a difference. Only insiders call her Victoria.”

“Perth, quit already!”

Dom swiped at his greasy mouth and shook his head, dark hair shimmying. “Just Vic, we met a couple weeks ago. Hey, aren’t you in my English class?”

“Yeah, with Miss Marsh, good deal, huh? Mrs. Harner is a cruel one. What are you working on for the essay?”

Vic stood up, tray in hand, salad barely touched. “Excuse me, Dom, you done? Let’s go outside where there’s more air.”

He shot her a grin, grabbed his tray and, to Perth’s shock, just followed.

Perth felt a slow burn make way from face to chest to gut. She listened to Elise jabber on about something, tried to finish lunch. But nothing felt right. Perth had an impulse to go to the nurse’s station and say she was sick. Because all in all, she sort of was. Vic had found a boy when they had absolutely sworn them off for another year. They had a yearly oath, and they each signed it. Then they pricked a finger and let a drop of their blood mark the page right under their names. It was one of a few mysterious ways they did things. It was like that since they had been kids.

******

The first thing everyone wanted to know was why she had such an weird name. Perth was, after all, the capital of Western Australia. Or if you didn’t know it, now you did. Her mother was born there and she’d had a supposedly idyllic childhood. Until her family immigrated to Canada, namely Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Maddy, their mother, had thrived there even more. Although the island was a bit isolated, not nearly as much as it was in Perth (where ocean and outback surrounded that city). She’d loved it so much that she fell in love and got married there. Later, she named her second child for that city.

Neither of the sisters quite recalled the city on the island; they had been two and three. But after Maddy’s divorce they’d lived across Canada several years. And then she met Keith, an American businessman, and that was that. That was five years ago. Now they were in Cincinnati and it could be worse, they guessed. But all through the ups and downs, Perth and Victoria were stuck together, one in mind and action more often than not, even though not in age or appearance. Nothing could have pulled them apart, not really, not even their tendencies for clear territorial space or their differences in musical taste or a constant need of reassurance that they were equally loved by their gorgeous, smart, but at times distracted mother. It had so often been romance that she preferred or so it seemed to them, and they had vowed to avoid it at all costs. Or at least as long as they possibly could, until age thirty or forty when they had established careers and good friends and homes of their own. Nearby, of course.

Maddy hugged them close when they told her the plan, thinking she might agree it was smart. They did not speak of the signatures and blood.

“Maybe so,” was all she said. “You never know what’s ahead. It is all an adventure…”

But ambiguous words meant little to her daughters; they were devoted, and so bold with certainty. She’d not forgotten how hard past times had been, the pain she’d suffered. Maddy had grown up cared for and secure, though, and she knew it had saved her. She now worked as a speech therapist four days a week; she’d remarried well, was happy again. But it had taken a terrible divorce and several more promising or miserable men, of being poor and deeply lonely while slowly finishing college–all in between then and now, meaning her degree and then Keith.

Perth and Victoria got wounded some in the fallout along the way. Maddy regretted this. What could be done but live a healthier life now, be generous with love? But she was a more and more realist. Heartbreak was not something they’d avoid. And that made her ache deep inside where no words lived.

******

After lunch, Perth obsessed about things. It was as if a part of her had been misplaced, and there was bodily discomfort, and when she looked around for her sister at her locker down the hall, he was there, one hand up, his body half-circling Vic’s. Perth’s body clutched; she felt it as anger, but who was she mad at? Him? Her? Her own self? Hormones? Hers must be sluggish or defective, despite being ten months older. Her sister did look older than she did, and Victoria thought she knew more, that was clear.

When they met back home and sat at the dinner table, Vic avoided Perth’s scathing looks and talked little or to their mother and Keith. Maddy noticed but said nothing; the girls had their rough moments. Their stepfather had little clue–who got anything about freshly minted teenagers?

Since they had their own rooms avoidance was a snap later, or so Victoria hoped. She was texting with Dominic, nothing that interesting yet fascinating to her, and she had homework to do, and her elaborately designed and colored “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the doorknob. Maybe Perth would respect that awhile.

But Perth pounded on the door. Victoria wished for her to go away.

“Victoria, let me in,” she said in a loud whisper into the keyhole. “Time to talk…”

“No.” Vic was watched the phone screen for Dom’s response.

“I can get in, you know.”

“Not without breaking down the door. Do not pick the lock.”

“Come on, you can’t refuse your big sister entry. It’s against the rules,” she whined.

“Your rules, not mine.”

There it was, three small words from him: have to go. She stared at perth through the door.

Perth leaned her back against it. She could hear their mother and stepfather laughing over whatever dumb show they watched. “I’m bored. I want the whole story.”

Victoria sighed, got up, walked around the end of her bed, looked out the window. It was a hard cold night; stars glittered like ice and a frost warning was up. It would be another beautiful day in the morning and they’d meet at lunch, maybe, again. In drama class. Casting had occurred for the play and if he got the male lead and she got the female lead….She recalled the way his hands laced fingers, then slid behind his head and then neck, his elbows sticking out. She didn’t know why that got her, but it did, they was he seemed more…something…open, reachable…that minute, even though it was more a stretch. He was two inches taller than she was already. He was funny in a quiet way. It made her feel dreamy.

A hand smacked hard once at the door and Victoria started, then bounced back onto her bed.

“Go away, Perth, you’re only making things worse…”

She lay very still, staring at the ceiling, fiddling with silky fringe on her purple flowered pillow held against her chest. There was no more said, and not even Perth walking away was heard. And that suddenly scared her. Enough to stop thinking about Dominic, enough to make it tough to get on her homework. What was happening? How could such a thing make them slide around each other, but ready to fight?

******

It went that way, more or less on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday Perth stopped going to–much less talking at–her sister’s bedroom door. She stopped sitting at her usual lunch table so she wouldn’t see the two of them excluding the world. She and Elise ate outside on the lawn as there was a warming spell, and when Janna joined them one day, Elise warned her to not ask about Dom and Vic, it upset Perth more each day and it was all over school already: Vic and Dom, together.

“Are you so freakin’ mad or jealous or what?” Janna asked, anyway. “Why her and not us?”

“No, it just isn’t what I expected, that’s all,” Perth said. She made a scornful face, then pulled her long hair back into a ponytail so the wind wouldn’t readily catch it, turn it upside down.

“You have the best hair,” Elise said. “Vic and you got lucky.”

“Thanks…I have the best sister when she isn’t an idiot,” Perth said.

“She’s not an idiot, just dumbstruck with puppy love,” Jana said and Elise socked her in the shoulder. “I mean, who can blame her?.”

“Oh, please. He’s okay, just a new eighth grade guy and why she is so mesmerized…well, I don’t get it. He isn’t all that smart or anything.” Her eyes filled suddenly and she closed them. “And she promised!””

“Mesmerized…he’s dangerous magic!” Jana wiggled fingers at them and gave them a hard stare, one eyebrow raised, the goofy one as usual.

Elise sat up straight, ears perked up by Perth’s last words. “Promised what?”

Perth wasn’t listening. Dangerous. Yeah, that’s how it felt, as if they’d entered a dark maze, and she couldn’t quite find the way to Vic even though she felt her so nearby she almost heard her breathing. Laughing at her. And that guy calling out to Victoria. But why did her sister avoid her? They’d always talked. They’d always known what the other most needed or wanted. Yet Perth could figure almost none of this out. It was as if she had been suddenly closed out. Victoria took one step that way, not the other way where Perth and she were used to going, and the world they shared stopped turning. She felt queasy and dizzy–again.

“It’s like Vic pulled down the shades, turned out the light and even my banging on the door doesn’t matter. Okay, 911–but big deal, just not answering, Sis.”

“Oh,” Janna said.

Elise put her hand on her friend’s shirted back, smoothed away damp wrinkles from unseasonable heat and wondered what it was like to have a sister. She had an older brother who she might do without.

“Crap, Perth,” Jana said and sat closer to the other side but the truth was, it was just a boy so why all the drama? She sort of had a boyfriend who was really just a good friend. Much better that way. They were only thirteen, fourteen, anyway.

******

“Quiet down some!” Keith called upstairs.

It was Victoria’s music for a change, very loud soul or was it pop music. Perth liked Ella Fitzgerald lately, a real shocker, but then she was a unique one. A couple months ago it had been David Bowie, of all people, and before that, some rapper he had never heard. Sampling, that was a good thing he thought. He’d also noticed the girls weren’t talking much, and Maddy was getting worried. He lingered at the bottom of the stairs. The music quieted. Perth stuck her head out of her room, took one step into the hall, so Keith retreated.

Perth tiptoed to Victoria’s room, bent down and slid a note under the door. She backed away then disappeared into her own room.

Victoria’s head was bent over the first play script, hair draping a side of her face as she tapped her pencil against her lips. She had gotten the lead but told no one at home yet. But she heard the paper slip over the worn floorboards and knew what it was. Her eyes lost focus on the words below. Dom hadn’t gotten a part so a stage connection was out, but he was working on lighting. She was excited. She’d always imagined being a stage actress so now it could start happening. A lot was changing. She felt breathless at times, her situational anxiety rearing its head (or so their mother would say, it ran in the family).

She slipped off the quilt and retrieved the note. It got right to the point.

What have you done with my wonderful sister?

She opened the door but Perth was not there. She crossed the hall and knocked.

“Who goes there?” Perth called out in a booming voice.

“One lady of the forest, to another.”

“Are you armed with sword or words?”

Victoria paused, almost letting go a chuckle. This is how it went.

“I come in peace…my sister bids me welcome,” she said.

“I will confer with my cabinet and ferns.” A momentary silence, then a brass bowl was struck. “Enter with hands and mind open and free.”

Maddy was halfway up the stairs when she heard some of the exchange. Her throat tightened as she pressed hand to chest, and returned to her husband.

Victoria entered a room lit with soft white, star-shaped lights strung about two windows and across top of the wall behind the bed. Two huge ferns hung in planters in opposite corners; a tarnished brass deer perched on her desk beside an ivy. Perth was seated at the desk–as she often was–but stood gracefully, shoulders back. The one who danced best, had such posture.

“Okay, I know, it’s stupid, but Dom is the first guy I’ve really noticed and–“

“So stardust got you but that shouldn’t interfere, should it, with us–“

“Right. I thought he might like you, though.”

“Sure, no interest indicated either way.”

“So what’s next?”

Perth and Victoria eased back on fluffy bed pillows, looking at the soft lights.

“I think you need to revise the oath a bit,” Victoria said.

“Me? I did nothing, changed nothing. You’re the changer.”

“But we’re getting older.”

“I suppose. But why do I have to alter the document”

“You know.”

The wind came up, rattled maple limbs like a handful of dry bones. Soon Perth would be able to see out across the street again. She liked the comfort of dense greenery more than an open vista but that was nature.

“I know, I’m the writer Irish twin. Really ought to be accurate and say Australian, that makes more sense…”

“Perth! Listen: no more bloodletting?”

“Agreed. I will just revise a bit: we’ve determined that flexibility and understanding are crucial when faced with a possibility of any outside love, but we must never lose our sister bond.”

Victoria lay her head on Perth’s shoulder. “Yeah. Well stated, sister.”

“Well received, sister.”

Perth and Victoria knew their mother was anxious downstairs, hoped to hear what they were up to this time, but they did what they always did. They kept their secrets to themselves, unless threat of harm was evident and imminent. And none was.



Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Fortuitous Forgiveness

If only, if only, if only…it was a well worn refrain, no, perhaps more a mantra for Maxine.

Eve worried they might be her mother’s last words one day, they hung between them so often, cluttered up space like meaningless items. It made her want to bolt, or at least grab the wine bottle and pour a tall one. Her parents didn’t drink, so that would come later.

“If we’re revisiting this topic even before coffee and pie, leave me out of the discussion.” Eve rose, took a serving dish and wooden salad bowl in her hands.

From the corner of her eye she noted her father had picked up the paper from the next chair over–Alden’s chair, topped with a booster seat– and proceeded to hide behind the Culture and Arts page. She wondered how long it would take him to check the stock market and predicted thirty seconds max.

“It is what it is, Maxine, let it be,” he mumbled. The pages were rustled, turned faster.

Eve disappeared through the kitchen’s Dutch doors; Maxine’s words sailed through like crows on the wing, undeterred.

“If he’d just finished his degree, this wouldn’t have to happen, you know that, Douglas, and he still could do that,” she intoned, dabbing her thin lips with a beige linen napkin, four of which I had ironed before they came. “If only he had given two thoughts to what it would mean…” She sighed and shook her head, a luxuriant bun freed slightly from its pins. Her hands–so like parchment they scared Eve lately– deftly re-secured it.

The leftover chicken and dumplings and salad disappeared down the garbage disposal and Eve turned it on. Let it run longer than needed.

What her mother was really saying was, If only you had gotten your Masters’ in chemistry or business management, this might be avoided–and: if only your husband did more to secure your family’s future. And saying it to her, not to the tension-saturated air. Eve being a teacher wasn’t enough for them, she knew that already. It had always been about the correct education and supposed power that brought. It was as if they were stuck in another decade when degrees meant financial and oddly, perhaps even spiritual victory. It brought respectability and status, after all. In their day. That was another story. One that Maxine seldom grew weary of sharing, putting a present day twist on things that was entirely made up.

Certainly she was not talking to Eve’s husband, Mick, as he was out, just as he tended to be for every Sunday mealtime. He was at his best friend’s huge garage where Garth was working on another of his special order paint jobs. Mick loved to see the shiny designs come to fruition; some of them were his ideas, in part, though he never shared the credit. “I’m the amateur, a spectator, he’s the pro; it’s all good,” he always said.

Mick was a landscaper, and he used his design sense in garden and lawn development and execution. But he had been laid off. As usual. It was heading toward winter and Mick was the most junior member of the team. He’d do snow removal until spring, and watch Alden, their three year old. They boy slept now, thankfully; he could dream about puppets and parks and wooden blocks, unaware of the stress his grandparents created with a few tiresome words.

Her father said something low to her mother– likely, Maxi, soft pedal it, play this snafu down, not up. He isn’t a bad sort.

Eve hung her now throbbing head, then straightened up and looked out a window, took in the expanse of open land. The mountains beyond. Breathed. Turned off the disposal.

“Look at Alden, there’s my boy, sleepy head! Come to join us at Sunday table, have you?”

Douglas’ voice boomed with happiness and relief. Eve could hear Maxine getting up and tottering over in her too-high heels to give her grandson a soft hug. She was not a hugger, but for her only grandchild she made the exception. Eve rinsed her hands, dried them, lifted her head and smiled, then greeted her son.

“Hey, my Aldy boy!” She wanted to squeeze him.

“Alden, up just in time for apple pie?” Douglas reached out a hand.

The child took it, then rubbed one puffy eye and ruffled his straw-colored hair. “Yes, pie and then match-the-cards game with Grandpa!”

Maxine sighed. “It’s always Grandpa. You boys! How can I get this child’s attention more? And where do you suppose he got all that blond hair? Maybe it will still darken.”

Stop talking so much nonsense, get on the floor and play, Eve wanted to say, but retrieved the fragrant, warm pie, the plates and forks. The thought of Maxine removing her heels and sitting sideways on the cat-furry rug in her herringbone skirt and silk ivory blouse made her smirk. And Alden’s messy, gorgeous hair? She wished Mick was there, his thick, bright waves making the overt point for her. Again. She checked her watch.

Maxine and Douglas should have stayed in Chicago suburbs another couple of years. But Douglas had retired and they wanted to ease into a simpler life, or so they said. They might have given Eve and Mick more time to get ahead, to build their lives with one another. Now her parents were a half hour down the road, through the hilly farmland, in a smaller manse in East Braxton.

******

Eve wished she could say it was always this way. But things once were normal, or what she knew to be normal, and she had been happier. Then all changed when her father got the Big Promotion. She was eleven then, halfway through school and already itching for more freedom. The family home, a sweet 1920s bungalow, was sold and then they moved into a five bedroom brick house, too much space but never mind, they had intercoms, and a yard that took half a Saturday for her brother, Tim, to mow. Their father was gone more than he was home; when he was home he was near-invisible or they wished he might leave again for all he understood about their lives. Their mother was gone, too, maybe more–to the beauty salon and spas and on shopping trips, at various club meetings and luncheons. She learned about roses and had many planted, front and back. About costly perfumes and handbags and had her closets renovated. About Chicago’s splashier charitable events where she’d get her photo put in the “People Out and About” section. She found being home more and more tedious as time went by. She liked to celebrate her sudden good fortune with her new friends, with new clothes.

Tim and Eve got many things done for themselves or they learned who to call. Eve became a budding cook but against her will. They got hungry when their parents were late, then later, so at last Maxine hired a cook three days a week. They learned how to fake their parents’ signatures if they wanted or needed days off school. If they got sick they checked in on each other more often than not. Tim ran quietly down the long hallway before he went to sleep around midnight–he was two years older–and stuck his head in, told her good night, good dreams. Even if she was asleep, though more often she lay there staring at the ceiling where starry stickers glowed. And Eve checked for light seeping under his door when she got up to use the bathroom or listen for her parents and if she saw it she knocked softly until he said to come in. Usually he was reading. If he had had a nightmare–which he had pretty often– she patted his arm, gave him a little hug.

In the morning, when their parents asked if they slept well, they smiled in unison, said, “Of course.” They knew better than to distract them from their fast-paced lives. Even then, their mother could turn up her lecture voice in a flash as their father hid behind work or the paper.

Things might have gone on like that–not comfortable in most ways, but pleasant in others– until they were sprung from the brick house by virtue of time: their eighteenth birthdays. But Eve and Tim grew restless long before they were ready to handle what beckoned. They drank on the sly, they smoked pot. They had some interesting, wilder friends in common. They helped each other with school work that otherwise may have sunk them; they waited until they got out of detention for tardiness or skipped classes. Share and share alike. “Two goofy heads together are better than one,” Tim liked to say.

Then Tim turned seventeen and decided he wanted to be some kind of race car driver. Street racing. Illegal, risky. He drove far too fast and took chances that scared her and she liked to avoid it. And that was it, wasn’t it, for the madcap duo? She was not there; he kept on. He didn’t last at it despite a sterling reputation. It went bad fast and as hard as possible. Spinal injury, head trauma, they whispered at school as Eve slumped down the halls– when she even attended. Before he got a decent chance at more life, he was stalled completely. And not surprisingly, Eve was blamed in large part. Why didn’t she stop him? What happened the night she ignored his antics? Why didn’t she tell their parents about it before it was too late? Never mind that she was with a girlfriend that night, watching old movies. She and Tim had been less attuned to each other that past year. Still. Why had she not done more to discourage him? Why, why, why?

If only…

Maxine and Douglas faltered under grief heaped on them a long while. They looked to Eve for much and got little back; she was worn out, she was drowning, too, as she tried to tread waters of her daily life. So Maxine blamed her, too. It was one long sentence that never seemed to end.

“If only you’d been there, you could have stopped him, he adored you, I know you could have…”

Douglas stopped talking. Not entirely, no, he had that big job and its demands to navigate daily, and it took his mind off much. But at home, he was a quiet man made nearly mute, like a creature that goes small and silent as a bad storm comes.

And Tim lay in a hospital bed, tended to by nurses, specialists, physical therapists. And he still did. At home, yes, that came finally. But what was the difference? He saw little he desired as he looked out at the world.

Eve was determined to finish high school and leave. It almost killed her to go to classes knowing Tim could not, would never come along with her as he once had. He barely stayed alive despite her daily talks with him, her ministrations to him, her prayers mumbled in tears. When he stabilized and could flick his eyes at her, she knew she had better leave then– or never. She could not bear the “if only” anymore.

She got a degree in earth sciences–botany her favorite–and then taught middle school students ravenous for knowledge about the beautiful and changing earth. And that was something, wasn’t it. It was about all she had. She counted on that need, to get up each day, be there for her students. It carried her until the week-ends when she drove two hours each way to visit Tim for at least a day. And their parents. So it was working then in a way, despite the continuing loneliness she hadn’t anticipated. The roaring silence of night as she tossed and turned in bed, a darkness beaded with hardness of guilt. The stunning lack of peace in early morning even as coffee brewed, a good plan for the day at her fingertips. The fact that she could not call her brother to tell him about the kids, her book club, the sporty car she was thinking of buying. He could not even put a mug of steaming brew to his lips or smile at her. Eve didn’t know for certain if Tim knew she loved him even more than before. But she thought so, felt so. How could he not when they had always known what the other thought? Well, almost, almost.

Nothing was sure and good enough to bring real happiness back. Until practical, cheerful Mick came into her life with dirt on his hands and room in his heart for her. Who knew kindness could be such an easy thing for some to give and for her, so hard to learn to accept? They got married, they moved to the semi-rural town of Marionville.

******

Douglas and Alden were on the floor flipping and matching little animal cards as Maxine read a book Eve had recommended and loaned her when the back door swung open.

“Hey beautiful, what’s cookin’?”

“Chicken and dumplings,” she said, smiling at him. “Just put it in the frig.”

He pushed the back door closed with a foot and placed two bags on the table. Eve could see a couple of garden tools and his requisite bags of snacks, her own list of nonfood items.

Maxine and Douglas were just putting on their coats at the front door. Mick gave Eve a kiss on her neck and then went to bid them goodbye.

“Hey, folks, how was dinner? Sorry I couldn’t make it, Garth and I were busy working on a car, a 1992 Chevy–“

“Well, we missed you, but your afternoon was likely more entertaining,” Douglas said, eyebrows rising, his narrow hand shaking Mick’s square one briefly.

Mick wasn’t sure if his father-in-law was joking or serious. He knew the older man was not much for family chat but he loved his daughter (and her cooking) and, of course, his grandson so came along dutifully. Perhaps Mick really ought to show up more. He could deal with being given a hard time but it was worse when he got barely a nod on Maxine’s worse days.

“Ah, hello Mick, nice to see you, how’s business going?” Maxine said as she pulled on her favorite burgundy calfskin and cashmere gloves. Mick thought how much Eve might enjoy those, too, but would never consider asking for such a luxury.

“As a matter of fact–I was waiting to tell Eve–” he turned toward the kitchen, then swept up his babbling, reaching son. “Honey, come on out.”

She wiped hands on jeans and leaned against a door jam, crossing her arms. She’d hoped her parents would slip out faster. They of course asked him about work and they already knew he’d been seasonally laid off, so why?

“I’m happy to say I just got hired on at the Jameson Farm. Their evergreen tree farm needs more help, along with other land maintenance jobs. I can work through Christmas, at least! And a part time job tending the art museum’s winter garden just came open, so that’s an option.”

Eve moved to hug her her son and husband tightly. “Wonderful, Mick!”

“Mick, good news is always welcome,” Douglas said and patted him heartily on the back.

“It’ll pay for bread and butter, I suppose…” Maxine buttoned her coat, smoothed stray wisps of hair at her temples. But she paused, almost unsteady; her husband reached out but she batted him away. Her wrinkled pale eyelids lowered as if to shield them of her real thoughts.

Eve looked at her mother with the one look she tried so hard to not show. The one that could set fire to stone. But her mother stared at her with a face gone softer, then took a step closer to Mick. When she spoke her voice was almost frail. Tentative. But gentle.

“You do know you’re a good man, Mick, don’t you? And that we’re -I am–so glad you married our daughter.”

Douglas drew himself up, nodded at Eve and Mick, then opened the front door and let themselves out.

“We’ll see you and Tim next Saturday then,” Eve called out.

She’d followed them past the open door, wanting to offer something more, words floating in twilit, chill air. The visit was their routine, but she wanted to make sure; an urgency had come over her. Tim needed to see his nephew every week, Alden needed to see his uncle. She had to be near him, tell him things. Had to believe he heard her, even now. And Mick, he just had love enough to share.

Maxine lifted a hand in the fast falling darkness, her back receding. Douglas touched his hat brim with a finger, opened the car door for her, helped her in.

The shivering family of three went indoors. Alden got his blocks out. Mick built and lit a fire in the sooty old fireplace.

“Well, Mick.” She had to be careful what she said–Alden was all ears and too much feeling wanted to spill over. “I suspect–I know–it’s time for me to let the past go. I just decided that I have to forgive what was not, and cannot be, any different. And just be there more for my parents. For Tim.”

He turned on his knees and patted the floor beside him as fledgling flames spat, sputtered and flared. Mick sat cross legged, put an arm about her, pulled her into him. When she settled with a sigh, Alden sat in her lap one hand held up to the fire’s warmth and one hand on his father’s knee. Their good and right fit.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Out of Sight

Courtesy Pexels, photo by Nicole Avagliano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi! Wine? Rose.”

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

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

“Really.”

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

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

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

“Ah, good work.”

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

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

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

“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”

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

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

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

I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait–you smoke now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Baby, Will You Still Love Me?

Photo by Martin Parr

It might have been a coincidence that things turned out how they did, but maybe not. But we were enjoying the sea air, visiting from the city. We always stayed a week at Burke’s Beach in July, maybe two if Len had enough vacation time. So our minds weren’t on random people, they were on each other, for once, and the rolling waves, and welcome sunshine eking through the clouds. It had stormed the night before; the air was thick with leftover moisture. My hair was going nuts, wild and curly. Len said he liked it that way–he told me this every summer there. It was good for us both, that beach town.

I had, though, noticed the guy on the bike earlier. He was weaving back and forth along the walkway, a bit wobbly, maybe tired out, undecided where to go next, wasting time. But a grown man–I guess it did strike me–on a kid’s bike. Maybe he borrowed the bike from his son. Once he zipped past us and we were distracted by other things I thought nothing more of him.

I never saw that young gal strolling up the sidewalk. If I had, I would’ve looked twice, sure. It isn’t every day a grown woman carries a baby doll under her arm– in public, anyway. When the gossip started its rounds, she–who we learned to be Elaine Moss–was a huge focal point, so I knew I’d missed the boat as the whole thing unfolded. But Tole Tolman, the bicyclist, took up much of the daily rag’s headline the next day.

Yet we were there and it feels odd we wouldn’t have known more. A person on a bike who vaguely caught my attention–Len pleads ignorant–partly because his jacket was peachy, hair bleached blond. Well, I’m a hairdresser. I notice these things. Possibly female, I’d considered, then settled on male–but whatever people are, they can be, no matter to me. Then Len suggested we find that new good restaurant, not go back to the old fish and chips joint so heavy on the grease. His stomach doesn’t welcome grease, though he loves his fish and chips. I didn’t want vacation ruined by his nagging ulcer so we turned away before that woman started down the sidewalk.

But I glimpsed her moving toward past the guy, blithe as can be. Len, too. A bit of a swagger, but mostly moving fast, a day out and about. And then the guy on the bike slumped over, fell off the bike–so they said later. We’d turned to stare out to sea, then heard commotion behind us, a yell, feet scurrying. Len turned abruptly, then tugged at me, saying, “Let’s go, Denise, we don’t need to be a part of any scene.”

Of course I wanted to see what was going on–how can you not want to find out the details when something unusual occurs? Not Len–he took my elbow, rushed me away as I craned my neck to see a group growing.

He’s very clear on priorities. That’s why he’s successful; he knows when to get on it and when to let the world run itself. That is what he tells me: “Let the world do its own business, we have our own.” He’s not like me. I volunteer for things, participate in gardening club, book club. Hands-on sort of person. Len, he’s hands-on mostly when it benefits him, mostly. But I fell in love with him thirty-six years ago and still feel he’s the one.

So we left and started a search for the restaurant that would make us both happy, and soon found one.

At the corner table with the fresh white candle lit and shining between us, we enjoyed companionable quiet after ordering. The place was attractive with simple, gracious surroundings, deep greens and tawny beige. It was busy but not overly busy for a Wednesday night. I admired the window sashes and curtains and while I leaned over to examined the material I began to muse. Or as Len calls it, overthink–but what does he know of people matters? He’s a manufacturing guy, likes machines and numbers.

“What do you think happened back there?”

Len looked at me steadily. He knew this was not going to be put to rest with a simple shrug. “I guess the guy was ill and fainted. Simplest deduction.”

I considered. Maybe that was why all the weaving. “Like a diabetic, perhaps like that man who fell over in front of our house a few years ago? Went into insulin shock or something? But what else was going on…?”

“How would I know? We left, the right thing to do.”

“I saw a woman walking past. Wonder if she helped him–someone did, for sure.”

“I saw her, too.” He smiled faintly. “Had a doll with her, carried it in her arm. Like it was half-real.”

“Oh, you saw her coming, then. But with a doll. What sort? And why?”

“People do odd things, Denise. Maybe it was a gift though it wasn’t dressed from what I could tell. I don’t think it had a bunch of hair. Really, there were more interesting things today than that little scene, don’t you think?”

“Well, you got more info than I did!”

“One and only time, I suspect.”

Our salads arrived and we dove in.

More interesting things? Maybe not. We took a morning swim–chilly and fast–and strolled around the town’s rose gardens, read after a picnic lunch, stopped at a wine bar for a couple glasses, rested at our cottage, then headed out to the boardwalk area. Now, dinner.

The snippet of a scene nagged at me; I wanted to find out more. Len has always said I make much of little but the fact is, life is chock full of tiny nothings that add up to something bigger. As a hairdresser–had my own salon for twenty years–there were at least ten ongoing stories daily. People were walking books, needing to be shared, in my opinion. And we could each do with more listening and observing. But that’s just me, going on about things, as usual.

“What did that guy on the bike do when she was coming along the sidewalk, anything of interest?”

Len waved his fork lightly in the air, pieces of avocado, romaine and red onion falling back in his bowl and on the table. “You should’ve been a detective, for crying out loud. I don’t really know–give it a little rest, darlin’.”

I fell silent, stung, but then he put his two big feet aside my small ones and winked at me, silvery hair flopping over his lined forehead. I sighed, slipped off a golden sandal, ran bare toes over his shin and chuckled with him. Our conversation moved on. The night got its lovely glow back. That’s what our vacations are meant to be about.

******

Burke’s Beach Weekly blared its unusual headline as I grabbed it from our doorstep. I carried it to the patio out back, reading as I did so. Len poured our coffee, then slipped a steaming omelet on each plate.

“Man attacks woman, steals doll: arrest swift,” I read, then looked at him, agape. “It’s the two we saw yesterday! What on earth…”

I sat down and Len scanned the paper over my shoulder, then sat back down and began to eat. “Enjoy it while it’s hot,” he suggested but I was busy absorbing the news. I finished the article, sighed hugely and took a fast drink of coffee, scalding my tongue and letting out a gasp. Len was a third done with breakfast and he paused, his small grey eyes held mine, thick brows aloft.

“Tongue stings now. So it says that one Tole–Tole?– Tolman, the man we saw, pretended he fainted, then suddenly grabbed Elaine Moss by the ankle, tackled her to the ground and forcibly took her doll. There was a tug of war over it but he got it loose from her– in one piece, I gather– and hopped on his bike and away he went. But someone had watched them, called the police and he was apprehended. And the doll was valuable, apparently, but more than that, it had belonged to Mr. Tolman’s aunt. It was her favorite of a collection. She had raised him, it says. She had some money. The doll was sold off in an estate sale–to that Moss lady–and he had despaired of ever finding it again. So when he saw it, he took it.”

“Despaired, really? Your word or the paper’s?”

“Well, it had been his mother’s childhood toy… he was very sad to have lost it… but anyway, Elaine Moss collects dolls and owns a shop outside of town. She was taking it to get clothes made for the baby doll. I wonder how it fared. And why she didn’t just give it up to Tolman. Money?”

“Such fanfare over a doll! A grown man attacking a woman, robbing her of it. Unusual, wouldn’t you say? Life is strange, Denise. I’d personally rather not think much on it.”

I began to eat, thoughtfully. I had a mind to visit the shop and wondered if it was open after the press coverage.

“I know, Len, but it keeps things interesting.”

“So you say,” he said, and got up to pour more coffee in the big white mugs. “I know you’ll have quite a tale to offer when you get back to your salon. But the thief was arrested and charged, I imagine, and the woman recovered okay, with doll intact.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“Well, justice done.” He shook his near-shaggy head–he loved my hair wilder I loved his untrimmed–and bent over a book on production methodology, discussion over.

But I wondered.

******

I walked down two short side streets until I came to the store. Moss and Wright, Emporium, a painted blue and white sign stated, elaborate scrolls along the edges. It was open and I went in, the bell on the door chiming my entry. It was busy, a couple of men and several women milling about with items in their hands, talking softly among themselves. I hadn’t heard of it until now, a shop of wonders. It had to be new since last summer.

Everywhere were shelves and tables and displays full of brightly colored and textured items, a variety imported from other continents, also antiques and beautiful, random odds and ends: refinished or painted furniture pieces, lamps of all sorts, pillows fat and small, lovely jewelry here and there, fabrics and ribbons, glass vases and candlesticks, tea sets, old books and magazines that were a bit musty and more. I needed nothing but had my eye on a necklace when a sales woman stopped by. Not Elaine Moss, I surmised due to different coloring.

“May I help you find something special?”

“I’m new to the shop, is it just opened?”

“Just last September.” Her hand fluttered to smooth her bangs, which were wavy and thick. “So glad you found us–so many have come today…” She tried to look congenial but barely succeeded, and there were crinkling lines creeping about her young eyes, and skin as pallid as if drained of natural blush.

“Ah, the news– everyone from out of town reads the newspaper,” I said.

“I’m afraid so. You didn’t come to see Elaine, too, did you? She’s not in today, nor tomorrow.”

“My sympathies…no, but I did come to see all the dolls.”

“We don’t sell dolls–just a couple now and then. She keeps a private collection, under lock and key due to their value. Surprising what antique or rare dolls can bring.”

“I see. Like the one Mr. Tolman tried to get?”

“No, well, that was different…” The woman peered at me, eyes narrowed. “You with the paper or something…?”

I found myself stepping back, gesturing with palms up. “Oh, no, we were just nearby right before it happened, coincidentally. I’m just wondering what it was all about. I mean, a doll doesn’t usually warrant an attack, does it?”

The woman’s head swung around left, then back to me. She was again composed. “Odd timing for you. Perhaps you should contact the police, they might be interested? Excuse me, someone wants to check out.”

“Of course.”

I wandered about then went back to the necklace. It appeared to be made of sterling and tourmaline. It would go with my summery dress purchased just for our trip’s last nice dinner out in a few days. Pricey but not too pricey so I decided to buy it and went to the back of a small line.

Two women in front of me spoke in low, exclamatory voices, easy to overhear so, of course, I listened in.

“They say he is, you know, mentally challenged. Not right, anyway, and at some point he was sent away–to be raised by the aunt. Who was also Elaine’s, I guess.”

“Oh, really. The same aunt? They’re cousins? He robbed his own cousin! Of a doll! How peculiar.” She giggled. “I wonder if he was in love with Elaine as a kid or something!” The woman shrieked, hand clamping her mouth.

“Shhh! “The first whisperer glanced back; I stared at the necklace, so she resumed. “I don’t know if they’re related, exactly. Ask Carolyn Wright, that’s the business partner up front. Yeah, inheritance issues that finally got to him, I guess. He still lives in the deceased aunt’s house, but who knows when he gets out of jail. He might end up homeless, poor thing. Elaine Moss has clout, you know she married Hugh Moss. Gorgeous woman, too. Anyway, no one is going to leave valuable things with someone who is so–well, odd… maybe even actually gay. Certainly he comes up rather mentally short!” She turned to her friend. “Hey, maybe she walked right past him with that doll on purpose, you think–to shake him up?”

The friend put a hand on the other woman’s arm, stifling a laugh, and they shook their heads in unison.

I cleared my throat loudly and stepped forward. The women turned to look at me. “Moving along, aren’t we? Not gossiping about such sad news, are we? I mean, really?…Come on.”

“None of your damned business–no doubt you don’t even live here, right?” It came out tartly, one hand on the rail-thin woman’s hip, but the two gossipers moved forward. Nothing more was uttered despite my wanting more than anything to lay into them both. When they purchased their items they loped past with cold glares, arms linked.

I studied the gleaming necklace, fingered it gently. Thought of the man on his bike and the woman–his relative–walking right by him, the beloved doll thrust under her arm, its presence taunting him. Who knew exactly why it meant so much to them both? Why he had to get it any way he could? It was more than a little painful to contemplate now as she recalled him weaving about on his too-small bike, his peachy jacket loose on a thin frame, his blond hair too bright in the clouded July light. Alone. A man born with less, perhaps, than he may have needed or surely desired. A child abandoned, a man unaccepted and brimming with needs– and once more left behind.

It was all too terrible.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment that rapidly felt like shame. I had been too curious, full of a hunger to glean more–personal details that were not even mine to know. I had looked askance at the man on the bike, perhaps, and had a few of my own unwise ideas. I was not so pure of intent. And I had listened a long time before having the courage to say anything…I shook my head in an effort to clear it, stepped out of line, put the necklace back on its display and left the store.

The air had become crystalline, the temperature had risen. I noted sunbathers and swimmers swarming the beach as I approached our modest, dear cottage. I wanted to go lie down, hide my head awhile. Feel only the fan sweep salty air back and forth, the ocean’s energy hush my writhing thoughts. Not even talk to Len, who would, mercifully, then go back to the patio with wine and book. And just wait.

******

The next morning Len snuggled up to her, fresh from his shower. He knew better than to awaken her but her eyelids quivered, then blue irises and dark pools of pupils peeked at him. He planted a soft kiss on her cheek. He didn’t ask how she was. He didn’t ask for anything. Nor did he expect continuing silence from her as she rolled closer.

“It just goes to show what you can learn,” she murmured. “Even at our age.”

“What now?”

“You seldom know where a person’s story begins or ends and you’re lucky to know any of its true middle parts. But you also can learn more about yourself in the unfolding. I’m going to remember that when I get back to the salon.”

Len liked that thought but frankly, he didn’t know entirely what it meant to her this morning and watched the yellow flowery curtains flap in the breeze. He did know she had a good heart and a very inquisitive mind and he adored her. He wrapped his arms about her but she pulled back to look at him better, then seemed satisfied and found her place within his embrace.

“Thank goodness we come here every summer–maybe we should come in winter, spring and fall, too! Why not?”

“I second that, my darlin’ Denise,” he said, a rush of relief underscoring his chuckle.

They remained just so, soft belly to rounder one, wrinkling chest to pudgy parts, until the coffee he’d begun was done perking, its sharp, happy fragrance filling the place with its welcome.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Two Wings and a Man

Everett took Trixie everywhere allowed, which meant he mostly wandered outdoors with her as he could. That was alright. They sometimes visited Gerry’s Joint for lunch–she was more willing than most to have them both. Saw a couple of friends. He was retired now from his mechanic’s work and finally had time to relax. But he and Trixie were old mates, they went with the basic flow of things. Goodness knows, they had seen it all, had dealt with high and low waters.

“Literally as well as figuratively, this is the reality, and you two have  been the better for it”, Annalisa, his niece, said.

Ev didn’t say things complicated like that.

The two of them lived on Chancy River’s west bank in a plain modular home, the sort you might note as a double wide trailer at first glance. He was pleased to be there. He was eight miles from town and Petersen’s Garage where he worked forty years. Annalisa lived with her husband (he was alright, but didn’t deserve her) and their two rugrats down the road. He never called them that out loud; he meant no harm in thinking it. They were just loud, got into mischief–well, they were kids. Everett liked them much of the time despite himself. It was family and family was good–mostly or, more honestly, sometimes.

But when thinking of family, he first thought of Trixie, his blue and yellow budgie, or parakeet as most called her. And he knew people didn’t quite get that.

Trixie was closer to him than any person, really. He did have John and Morrie, fished with them every Sunday, their own secret church, Morrie once said, and they all heehawed and snorted. And he had Annalisa and the bar and grill owner, Gerry. Bernie the garage owner. A coworker here and there. Overall, they respected that Trixie and Everett were companions 11 years. Trixies heard his tales, cheered him up, kept him company through the drizzly long winter. And vice versa.

At the garage it had been harder. He was teased by new guys and random customers like it made their day.

“Hey Ev, how’s the little lady this morning?

“Did you brush out her feathers before you left for work?”

“Does she complain about the greasy slob you are after work? Maybe she won’t sing a tune then, huh?”

“Polly wants a cracker–and a glass of wine, please!”

They cackled at him but he ignored them best he could, laughed back under his breath. Fools. Everyone who knew anything knew that Everett cared so much for Trixie for good cause.

Annalisa had found, bought, then taken the parakeet to him after his cabin burned down. He had also lost his dog to the wildfire. She thought since he loved birds singing and flitting about outdoors he might like one to live with him indoors. To talk to and such. And she was right. Trixie helped things get better.

Everett was a born bird lover. He had it in his blood; even his grandpa had kept track of bird sightings, their songs and habits. But it was different than his dad who hunted them to eat and for sheer sport. He never got that. But, then, he didn’t get lots of things, apparently. He learned early on he was stupid, for that’s what his dad told him day and night, and his ma said little to change that impression. He barely finished tenth grade but knew how to fix mechanical things with hardly a thought. That was how he knew birds and their singing: he paid close attention to them and used his own instincts.

He half-believed them holy. Those wings. Those songs. The amazing freedom from gravity’s heaviness.

******

Trixie was let out of her medium-sized, rectangular cage every day for about three hours. Ev took her to the sun room at east end of the house–so-called because that’s where pools of sunshine gathered and soaked up. There was a bunch of potted plants, a raggedy easy chair by the picture window, an end table with binoculars and a dogeared bird book. He’d have let his parakeet buddy go footloose and fancy free more, but he had things to do on his acreage. There was fishing first of all, almost daily attacks on the curse of ivy, tending his vegetable garden; errands to run; someone’s car to fix on the cheap–he couldn’t help himself on that. He found he’d nearly as few free hours as before retirement. It just filled up differently and felt better.

So Ev took Trixie out with him, her cage settled on the passenger side of his truck if he had to drive somewhere. Otherwise, they were on the riverbank or went to nearby wetlands and meadows. He could see how happy this made her. She fluttered about, hopping from one perch to the other, wings opening, closing like beautiful fans. She pecked at him affectionately and settled under his protective hold when he took her out a bit. She sang a little as wild birds called out, as if they’d invite her over. But more often she listened, and chirped and nattered at him.

“You like being out here. I wonder if I should let you go. You know, Trixie, you’re right spoiled. You wouldn’t make it out there, just chaos. We’ve a good home, ya think? Our refuge, yeah?” He wiped his brow. “Hot today.”

“Good day, Ev, good home,” she said to confirm that it was, then turned to watch a wren fly by. “Hot enough for ya?” She shook her head in slow fashion.

“Yep, sweating like a stuck pig. Good thing you hang around, buddy.”

“Buddies,” Trixie said. “Good day.”

He decided to open the tiny door and stuck his hand in. She hopped atop his index and middle finger. He placed his other hand over her body, eased her out. He could feel her trembling, almond-sized heart racing. Maybe it was wrong to do this, but she always fell under a happy spell, and later seemed calmer, and rested well. It was her little adventure the few times he had braved it.

Her bright yellow and blue mask was vibrant in the sun, her feathers so warm, shiny and soft as he carefully held her against his chest. Her head turned this way and that as she watched and then a tune escaped, one he taught her. She added other notes to wild sounds in treetops.

They sat there awhile, enjoying a light rattle of tree branches and birds working and tittering and as he was about to put her back in, the grasses behind him rustled, hushed, rustled once more but very slightly. Everett slowly turned, Trixie held closer, but he expected a rabbit or squirrel, even a beaver waddling to water. He reached for the cage, Trixie momentarily blinded by his palm, when there was the faintest swishing of grasses as the creature–bigger than he thought– closed the distance between them. His heartbeat banged away as he turned to see a sleek red fox leap out and dash to Trixie who leapt, too, right off Everett’s finger, stirring still air as she rose, a receding spot of soft blue melding with sky’s aquamarine brilliance.

Ev was frozen a second, then jumped to his feet, stared at his empty hands in disbelief while the fox glanced upwards with longing– then ran on, hidden once more in swaying grass.

“Trixie! Trixie! Oh no, no no…! Fly back to me! Where’d you go?”

He ran where she flew, ran more only to find watchful trees studded with birds who cared nothing of this small drama, and a sky so immense he’d never find her there.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I bring her and open that door? She was bound to leave one day. She just needed a fox for an excuse!”

He knew how silly that sounded and covered his long face with scarred, strong hands, refused to cry out as surely he was not that sort of man or friend. He’d just find her somehow. Wouldn’t he? Had to.

******

“They’re called budgies in other parts of the world, ya know. Native to Australia. Came to the USA around 1920 and we call ’em parakeets. Related to parrots, yeah, talk pretty well if you teach ’em well. Smart, unlike me, and also sociable.”

“Unlike you?” Gerry asked. “You manage fine, Ev, just fine. And Trixie isn’t the be-all, end-all..okay, so maybe she is. Sorry.”

“They can whistle any tune you teach them, you know that? Sure, you’ve heard her.” He kept running a hand through his hair absentmindedly.

“I do like your Trixie. I can’t believe she flew off…”

“She’s a bird,” John offered.

“She’ll be back,” Morrie said, washing down a french fry with his beer. “Patience.”

“Well, she might not, it’s a big world,” John said, patting Ev on a shoulder. “Sorry, sure was a fine parakeet, a good ally.”

Morrie glared at him, nudged their friend. “There are things we get and things we don’t. You never know. She might not like it out there. Might get lucky, too.”

Ev’s shoulders, broad and muscular, folded as he hunched over, lifted the beer mug to lips. Stared into depths of amber liquid. He could get lost in there, he was not above it. “She might just end up loving it,” he said and drank it all down.

“But then foxes and cougars, snakes and eagles…” John said, as he was a practical man and felt it had to be accepted. But this time Morrie reached over, smacked him back of his head so his ears nearly rang. He glared at him, but tried again. “I mean, she knows where the house is, right? She could find her way.”

“They’re tough, smart. Lots of good food out there so that won’t be a worry.” Gerry swiped at the counter, leaned across from Ev. “Have a little faith.”

Why was everyone yakking at him? His insides were pulling apart, no matter their words or that he was on his third beer.

“Parakeets prefer being with their humans, they really do,” Gerry said, patting his hand. “Read that once. She has a decent flock right here.”

“Yeah.” Ev got up, slid off the stool, walked out the door, his friends turning and calling him to come back. He kept on.

“Man. This is going to be rough,” Morrie said quietly. His oldest friend slunk past the window into the darkness, chin hanging on his chest. He’d never seen the man look so defeated except when his cabin burned down and his mutt died–much worse, and even then he hadn’t carried on about it to others. But maybe this was partly about Trixie coming into his life on the tail of that nightmare.

It had been instant affection and stayed like that, the odd couple.

Annalisa visited her Uncle Everett on her way to night shifts but all she could say was, “I’m so sorry, Uncle. The worst. Such a budgie! But she might still come home.” And then half-hugged him, as he was not one to be hugged.

After she left, he sighed and sighed, sat like a lump, and he felt her caring and sadness, too, like a good but heavy blanket.

*****

Ev got up at the crack of dawn day after day, made and packed a sandwich, filled his thermos with coffee, then headed to the marshy area that gave way to grasslands. Where they’d last sat under cottonwood trees. He made a spot against the best tree. He listened to birds singing their heads off and the faint rippling of Chancy River not far off and accepted sun’s offering of warmth kindly on his tired body, softly upon his mind. He’d have counted this as a fine happiness if not for Trixie’s absence. He sipped steaming coffee; more sweat rolled down his neck and disappeared under the collar of his chambray shirt.

“Why did I call you that? That’s what they always want to know. As if it matters to them. But it was the little girl in the picture book, that’s all, the one with poems and paintings when I was seven, nursery rhymes I imagine. There was a picture of her running in the field, red-winged blackbirds lining up on a fence. It was on that page: ‘Trixie gave her day away to red wings and blue butterflies, her face a beacon of happiness.’ Or maybe I made it up, the poem had to have been better… but it made me put down my own words later. We’d talk about things like that. I was reading those haiku out loud. You listened.”

He was watching, watching. He recalled the fire, how it took everything and he had been ready to leave it all, find another town but then she came, thanks to Annalisa.

“Where did you go? You had to have out-flown the murderous creatures. Got enough to eat? Fresh berries, veggies?”

At the end of the afternoon he’d trudge home and sit in the dark, doze and dream of bright wings, lightning, smoke.

It was not a surprise that he thought he spotted her on the sixth day. He always believed he saw her, in flight, perched on distant branches. This time he crisscrossed marshy parts and then there was a bundle of pale blue, tiny and crumpled in mud a few feet away. He came closer, fear filling him as he knelt. There she was–wasn’t she? Yes, Trixie, dirty, worn out and keeled over on her side, eyes opening to him.

“Trixie! Oh my, let’s get you home, there you go, girl…I got you.”

Everett very slowly put her into his cupped hand, then both hands carried her to their house. And on his front stoop were Morrie and Doc Vale.

He nearly fell to the ground in relief, only stopped by his hurt cargo. Morrie slapped his knees, stood right up followed by the other man.

“I brought the vet for ideas, to help look but– wait–is that Trixie?”

The vet took the shuddering bird as they entered the house. For several minutes no one spoke as he efficiently checked her. She was almost inert on the dining table, a twitch of foot, tiniest bob of head, barest sound loosed. She still looked half dead.

“Broken wing, surely, might be recent as she seems well fed. Dirtied up is all. She managed to stay alive–how did she elude predators?”

“Busted wing? Can that be fixed? Will she feel okay again?” Ev was horrified, expected the worst. To have found her, then lose her again would do him in.

Doc Vale stroked his white goatee and considered. “Yes, I suspect so if I determine for sure it’s a simple fracture. She must have run into something or fallen fast and hard. No other injuries. I can take her with me now, Everett.”

“Yes, take her, get her healed up and I thank you, Doc.”

******

“I see you,” Trixie called out from her cage perch as Ev popped up his head, then hid beind the couch again. “I see you, I see you!”

“Yeah, I see you, too, you ole feisty budgie. Here to stay– can’t fly too far now… what a surprise you are.”

“Surprise, surprise! See you!”

He finished frying up the bacon and set it aside his eggs. Tore tiniest bits into a small china bowl that held cooled, cooked potato and carrot, good seeds of all sorts, then took it to Trixie’s cage. He set it on her freshly cleaned floor, then she hopped down and over to it, wings aflutter.

“Eat hearty.”

“Heart and soul, heart and soul,” Trixie sang out and whistled the tune as Everett took her cage to the sun room, then got his own plate. They sat beside each other, bird cage set on side table, Ev in his easy chair.

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Trixie, let’s eat.”

“Yes, a pleasure, ole Ev–thank you!”

He gazed at her. Did she thank him, was that for real or was he hearing things? Trixie was busy gorging on breakfast so he dug in, too.