Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Saint She Might Be

The new neighbor, a younger woman named Marta Swinsky, was to be greatly admired. All the women said so and the men didn’t disagree. Kari mused over this as she scrubbed final traces of grime in the upstairs bathroom sink, tub and floor. How many times had she seen Marta heave bags of gifts or donations of unknown sorts into the back of her station wagon then head out to deliver the goods? Every few days there she was again with a few more bundles, bags. Kari had asked her about it and she’d shrugged, saying, “It’s what I do, add a little something to others’ trees–I spend months getting ready. It’s what I enjoy.”

Kari donated items to charity, too, just not on such a grand scale. Year around. And she took several toys to the car dealership to disperse, bought art at the one day holiday market as they donated 50 percent of profits to the community center. But she could do more. She was focused on her own holiday preparations, admittedly.

And Marta was a real baker; that is, the air between the houses smelled as if she was. Even with only one of Kari’s windows cracked for a freshening breeze, fragrances of molasses cookies, lemon bars and cinnamon buns made their way to her nostrils. Next would be sugar cookies and Russian teacakes and more, Marta said yesterday. Kari thought she could smell sweetness even now, rising above the offensive odor of bleach in the bathroom. She intended on making iced butter cookie stars– soon. Maybe a mince pie or two.

The truth was, Marta was likely a better woman than she was. She was younger, more motivated, great at domestic creations, she’d noted. The living room alone was wonderful with its good taste and comfort. She seemed a young saint in the making, industrious after her already-busy work day, always ready with a wave and friendly greeting. Her stunning smile added to the overall appraisal that she was one of those who was touched with something “extra”–charisma, or perhaps more than the usual heart for humanity. And it was likely true. No one was displeased she moved into the neighborhood– nor her smart, dapper, polite husband, Evan. Four months later they were already settling in.

There were plenty of tasks checked off Kari’s lists but nothing to warrant modest neighborhood acclaim, not much of passing interest. It was a quiet rolling toward Christmas and New Year’s. Not many were excited this year although there might be a little relief from the pandemic. If the world was still subdued, she didn’t start her day fighting the fact. But she did try to make it more festive. Charles suggested they put more colorful lights on the garage–he got right to it. She played holiday tues and hummed along as best she could.

There was less and less to do each year, but it was only Charles and herself. Their son, Craig, had already flown off to see his girlfriend and her family in Hawaii. Not that he was obligated to come back home; he was twenty-nine and lived four hours away. But it would have been nice to see him a couple of days. Such a life, busy with his lawyering, his cohorts, flying across the Pacific. He deserved it–anyone who had to debate and harangue for a living deserved a sweet respites. In this case, with Delia the chemical engineer, again. Craig and his equally upward bound girlfriends–well, alright, good for them. Kari had liked a couple of them, but hadn’t met Delia. Craig and she met online six months ago. He’d told them he’d gone to see her twice already, that she might be “the one”. Kari would have to meet her to determine if that made any sense.

But love often didn’t, did it? She and Charles were like rutabagas and raspberries, both uniquely satistfying sparately but an odd pairing.

There was, however, nothing to gripe about during her morning assessments of reality. They owned a good dwelling; she had a companionable if somewhat distracted, often snoozy husband; a secured retirement following thirty-seven years of teaching high school world and American history. Charles still worked as a consultant regarding organizational and team building issues–from his office at home for the time being. They had a sluggish white Persian cat named Dot for a dab of black fur between wide eyes, and an active mutt, Mr. Grimly–or as Charles said, chuckling, The Grimster. That dog had fixed on its mug a somber look, even when happy. Maybe he was influencing Kari–she was increasingly the one to walk him. She talked to him at length as they walked; he made noises back, a whine or a grumbling.

But her everyday work was never done and that’s what loomed at her as she got up at dawn. If Charles had been more fussy as well as retired, it’d be harder to carry most of that load. She was just tired out–it bothered her, she long the one with unstoppable energy. Maybe being well over sixty was the problem or, again, the unending pandemic. Or work not being at school but household labors. She needed a new direction for the New Year.

Christmases past had been quite an event. But Charles saw it as so much fuss though he was glad to spoil her with a big gift (last year, a new computer, sorely needed). He didn’t easily join in the merry spirit she displayed–mostly the light displays he put up, a few classic holiday movies. Son Craig was all in until he was fourteen, at which point he found better things to do than decorate the house or corak along with their holiday tunes. He left at eighteen with hardly a backward glance, home only for brief periods after that.

“It’s a fact that things change and that’s that, get on with it,” she reminded herself and put away her cleaning supplies and ran downstairs, contemplating dinner plans.

“Pizza?” she asked at the study door. Therein Charles stared at his computer screen, then looked up blankly. “For dinner?” she prompted him with a grin.

“Oh, right, but on a Wednesday night?”

He said this with furrowed brow, as if she’d lost track of time and thought it was Saturday. They ordered take out Saturday or Sunday. Not Wednesday.

“I didn’t get to the store and don’t have a taste for soup and sandwiches. Or roasting a whole chicken, our only meat.”

He tilted his head at her, nodded, went back to his work.

When Dot wound her way between her ankles, she picked the cat up, held the fluffy mound of squirming fur close. Cats and dogs had barely a clue about the goings on, good or bad, were happy to be fed and walked, petted while given lap space. She appreciated them for that alone.

She ordered pizza and went outdoors to wait for delivery. It had warmed some in the afternoon. There was a loose weave of cloud with rain in the distance, but also a soft wash of crimson and pink as the sun went down, For those vivid colors given by sunsets she gave thanks. Christmas would come, it would be fine, it would be gone again. But sunshine and moonshine provided artistic touches to earth, waters and plants, the sky, and they’d keep on. She felt better to realize it once more.

The vehement slamming of a door broke her reverie. Voices rose and fell, muffled across the side yard. Marta stepped out the kitchen door, headed toward the garage but stumbled a bit. Her husband’s voice was commanding but unclear. She paused, turned around, leaned her back against the house, panting, then right before she walked back she saw Kari. Stood up straight, walked rapidly to the door opening to her. Went in. Kari grasped both sweatshirted forearms and shivered.

Had she seen anything, really? Heard –what? Who didn’t argue at times? Everyone did and sometimes neighbors knew it but respected others’ privacy; sometimes they never knew, which was a good thing, she thought. She and Charles had had an argument a month ago that still got her a bit riled to think of it, but they’d moved on. She sat on her porch and wondered about her neighbor. Drifted back to her son and how he was long gone. Young children especially made the holidays meaningful, fun….She wondered if Marta wanted children. Kari hadn’t, not really, but when she had him a light went on; she was so pleased for them all. How she missed her son pulling up into the driveway a bit fast, with reasonably warm Thai take-out on the back seat to share, and a couple of days and nights of good talk at the ready.

The pizza delivery car pulled up, a teenaged girl hopped out and ran to Kari, plopped a warm box of savory delight into her hands and took a small wad of cash proffered, no counting it.

But then Marta’s side door opened. Her body was ejected and Marta fell hard. Running acorss the damp grass, Kari’s heart pounded in her throat. Marta was lying in the driveway, face covered with a mass of long auburn hair. She was crying softly like a creature from far off and wounded under cover of night. Kari pushed back unruly hair to better assess the state of things.

Marta’s lower lip was sucked between her teeth, eyes squeezed shut though tears eeked from the corners. Face contorted, hands to sides of her head.

“Marta.” Kari smoothed her hair; the cheek against cement was bright with blood. From her fall? “Marta, tell me if you’re badly hurt. What happened?”

The woman’s eyes blinked open, one partly swollen shut, the other brimming but she shook her head back and forth, hands dropping away to the driveway. Then she brought a forefinger to puffy reddened lips, one split open and said, “Shhhh….”

In the small window above the kitchen sink, there was a shadowy movement–and Kari knew Evan was there watching them. He didn’t come outside. Kari felt sick to her stomach as she gathered Marta into her arms, though the woman resisted.

“I’m okay, let me be,” Marta whispered, then sat up, pushing Kari back. “So sorry, had a couple of drinks…wine doesn’t sit well,” she murmured,

But there was no smell that shouted alcohol, not wine or beer or liquor. This was a sober woman severely distressed. Kari helped her up, looked her full in the face.

“Please,” Marta implored, more tears flowing.

“Come to my house. We’ll make Christmas tea. Let me help.”

“Tea?” her eyes widened at such a preposterous though. “No, no–I can’t,” she said, looking quickly at the kitchen window, now dark. She turned back at Kari, strands of hair caught on her lips. “Please. Don’t say a thing.”

“Check in with me tomorrow, alright? Come by, even.”

Marta may have nodded or maybe not. But she clasped Kari’s arm before turning and stumbled off, holding her side. She reached the door, opened it and was enveloped by shadows.

Kari backed away to her own yard, watching the window for light, which did not trun on. Hesitated, atill, and listened. Only a slight pattering of rain which she now felt on head, face, hands. A sighing breeze among two stalwart pines in the back yard. She wanted to stay but was certain if she did she’d crash into their house and pull out Marta and march her to their own home. But Marta had told her nothing, did not want to go with her. Why would she? Recently new in the neighborhood. The marital fight an embrassment and, worse, worry about–no, fear– of the man waiting in the kitchen. It was so much more than a tiff.

The gravity of what had happened disturbed her; Kari felt caught by some twist of fate, mere chance, inserted into someone else’s bad dream.

“Kari! Where in earth did you go?” Charles stood on the porch and when he saw her turn to him, held out his hand. “Pizza isn’t much good now–we’ll have to nuke it.”

“I’m here! Oh, I was…talking…to Marta, sorry.”

The pizza respponded well to reheating. She smiled at his small jokes, nodded at the update of work and she thought of hurt and love, kindness and sorrow, trust and fear. And what did it really take to become a saint in this world, in such times? Was it ever possible–or simpler than imagined? Was it necessary, even? And, in the meantime, how did one live with pain, and knowing about others’ pain? Did you look at it, name it, or go on and still hurt with it?

How could she save Marta from any more? Had Kari surmised correctly her situation? Domestic violence. As if naming one sort of violoence separated it from others. It never told the whole story, she believed.

What was this Christmas meant to be about? Charity and pain?

It struck her as Charles lay his toasty, broad palm over her narrow, chilled hand: if not for shared compassion, it was all for nothing; if not for tenderness, it was all far less than should be. Cookies and lights and even sons visiting were smaller matters when considering greater human needs. And she’d about forgotten. That you had to rise up to meet life more, all of it.

That night in their wide, lumpy bed, covers heaped upon them, Kari and Charles embraced a long moment then fell asleep. Kari, to her surpise, did not awaken once until morning, a wide blue morning. As she turned to him and he opened one eye then another she decided she would tell him. Maybe they could figure something out; maybe they could offer safe haven. And Marta, being cared for, might find her way better. Maybe she’d learn that novice sainthood was not all it was cracked up to be, and that was alright.

Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: Revising Life

Visiting Flowering Springs was a long tradition Mirielle kept, and for many reasons. The garden and pond were convenient for a bit of solitude when she visited her parents each winter and spring. They lived down the street and around the corner, and the oasis of abundance held sweet memories of growing up. She’d escape the house to safely roam along pond’s edges and along pathways, weaving between dense groves of rhoddodendrens and azaleas. Later, it became a refuge in which to mull over problems or visit a friend without parental surveillance. Only her best friends came with her. It was a public garden but strangers had their routes and resting spots and she had hers. Flowering Springs held enchantments, senuous beauty with heavy boughs rich with brilliant blossoms, the peaceful ducks milling about and territorial geese making known their authority by honking and strutting, sometimes chasing people. Shadowed mazes of paths were good for sharing confidences, and offered meditative nooks.

She was glad it was there for greater security amid unsettling times. Mirielle was finding this December visit taxing. Her father had had hip surgery and was recuperating slowly, often napping, dulled by pain pills. Her mother was getting hard of hearing so conversations tended toward a tragicomedy of errors. And even admitted she got gout attacks at at night, awakening her from a sound sleep. Not that their minds were going. They read alot, played Scrabble and chess if they could stand the length of the games, and occasionally attended lectures and performances. Her parents were enthusiastic in intention if not always in action. She should be happier about their general well being.

But she had a life, as well, and it had been a harsh year for her, too. Thomas had left six months ago without a backward glance, only a note about Kong the humungous, princely cat, saying he’d slip b ack in to get him in a couple days. She wasn’t even there when he lugged the creature to unknown parts. Good riddance to them both. Yet she’d cried for hours.

The end of everything that really matters, she had thought then, but of course it wasn’t true. Mirielle continued to go to work (in the guest room/office) cranking out articles for a city paper. She ran daily at 6 a.m. for 30 minutes, as usual. And gave into her love of cream cheese and blueberry bagels, smoked salmon and onion bagels, sunflower butter with apricot jam slatherd on plain bagels, cinnamon and raisin bagels dressed only in butter. Thomas loathed bagels, decreeed them boring and fattening–what is the point? he’d ask, lip curling.

She quit restricting herself in most ways since she no longer needed to consider his habits or preferences. If that meant going to bed at 2 in the morning, she did so with a roaring good mystery or trashy magazine until she slumped over, face planted in a pillow. No more tedious discussions about post modernism or the peculiar habits of weasels. No more annoying bike rides at the same greenway each Saturday so he could tally up mileage each time. Sometimes his arrogant intelleigence could wear her down to a nub.

“So what really happened? With Thomas?” her mother asked at dinner the first night back home.

Her father looked up from final bites of meatloaf, green beans and potatoes to listen better. He didn’t ask anything personal but he always wanted the lowdown. One heavily white eyebrow was cocked as he waited.

“A better job, as I explained. Multinational company in Denmark.”

“He moved to Denmark?” her father asked, incredulous.

“Not yet. Six months here, then to Copanhagen, but who cares?” Mirielle said, ready to close the topic.

“He didn’t want to take her along, Dan,” her mother explained quietly, clearing off serving dishes.

“I didn’t want to go, we’ve been so over,” she muttered.

Her father peered out from under the line of bushy brows. “Best to stay put where you are, anyway, Miri. You live far enough.”

“Yes,” she agreed, yet mashed potatoes globbed on her tongue. Denmark, she might have lived in Denmark. Well, it was much, much colder there and he was not at all snuggly the last year.

Her mother came back with slices of Key lime pie. “You said the cat stayed, though. That may be a comfort to you. But poor guy, probably misses him.”

Mirielle didn’t bother to correct her–and who probably missed whom?–and was glad dinner was coming to a close. With a favorite dessert.

Then her mother patted her back like she was eight years old, presented the plate with its pie wedge and said casually, “By the way, I saw Harrison at the grocery today–he’s visiting his folks, too, and asked about you.”

She had taken a big drink and sprayed seltzer water onto her Key lime slice. Thankfully, her mother disappeared into the kitchen and her father was clueless, though irked by the sudden seltzer mess, and looked as if he stifled the urge to reprimand her for gauche behavior. Instead, he tossed her his clean cloth napkin. She was thirty-six, she could clean up her own messes.

******

After a short walk, Flowering Springs was where Mirielle ended up the next day in late afternoon.

The cold had arrived abruptly at dawn, and it sneaked past jacket and sweater to find barely defended flesh. She pulled arms close and cast a fond eye over the pond. There were Wood Ducks, Mallards, Buffleheads, Canada Geese, American Coot, great Blue and Green Herons, Double-crested Cormorant…so many she recalled, though there were close to 100 species. In middle school she’d written a though report on this wildlife; she found that investigating then commandeering facts was satisfying. And that decided her future as a reporter.

Harrision had thought it a great idea but he believed most anything she said or imagined was great. “Nothing but the best for you,” he’d tell her with that generous smile that drew people to him. He demonstrated his appreciation in many ways. She was 14 and Harrison,16, so that meant two tickets to a popular Friday night movie or a bag with bagels and coffee brought to her house after the second church service. Or it might mean a bracelet with enamelled daisies on it, or a sweet note slipped through a hole in her bedroom’s screen window at midnight. It seemed excessive to his buddies but to him it was simple: he was in love.

They were in love. And it remained that way for two, almost three more years. Mirielle and Harrison, a perfect couple– so certainly they would marry after college. It was true that they were a good match. He, the quiet one and she, more gregarious; he, a natural in theater and she, a track star. Harrison always knew what to do when she noisily displayed feelings of distress or discouragement, and Mirielle was the only one who semed to understand his unspoken thoughts, his subterranean moods. And they were beautiful together, no one could deny that: he sported dark wavy hair, tawny skin with softly brooding brown eyes; she had thick auburn hair, fair skin prone to a burn and blue eyes that shone with curiosity.

Except following graduation Harrison decided to attend a family alma mater five states away, and the third year he met someone…and got married before he had completed his B.S. degree. She never got over it, and if he was honest–which he was, once—neither did he. But there were so many miles and alterations to their lives; it was the way it unfolded. It had been a long while. The keen hurt had almost faded. Even if his sonorous voice and his probing eyes had not faded from her memory.

And then that morning when she’d gone for her usual run (much later than usual), he’d called her parents’ old landline number and left a message: meet him at Flowering Springs. A place they’d shared many talks, pensive times and stirring kisses. It seemed absurd to not see what he wanted. To not see him, period.

Mirielle began to walk around the pond, wending her way through huge bare-limbed rhoddies and azaleas. She was nerved up, alive with anticipation but also uncertain. He had been married for 15 years; he had children. Why was he meeting her? The last time they’d spoken was after his sister had died nine years past; they’d seen one another at the funeral home. Fewer words were exchanged than heartfelt glances, and it had been taxing for her, perhaps for him amidst his grief. But his wife was always at his elbow as she ought to have been. His lovely wife that had somehow stolen his heart, after all.

And there was nothing more. She still felt that tug, a clarity of heart that insisted they’d been meant for one another. But were they, in fact? They had been living separate lives for over a decade, close to two now. There had nothing for it but to keep on, adapt on the fly, make do, create most of what she needed in her life. Mirielle had done well– with or without a man being a part of it. And there had been a few, though not a husband. She was a very good reporter and had friends, garnered some happiness here and there. She didn’t need more complications; she preferred a hiatus from romantic relationships.

The geese didn’t budge from her path but neither did they attack–they had known her so long, she liked to think. To what age did geese live and did they recall human faces? She forgot if she’d researched those for the report made. Their presence reassurred her with their brazneness and familiarity. All of it comforted her as she moved through the landscape on quiet feet. This was a place she had often dreamed and grown up strong, independent. Where she learned about nature, but also learned about hearts made full and empty.

The platinum sky was weighty with clouds; bands of light slipped out like phantom fingers. She could almost see the small waterfall and a fountain by the south end of the pond, where they used to meet. It appeared deserted.

The truth was, she’d be surprised if Harrison showed up. It was one thing to have an impulse, another to make it reality. And should one even act on impulses like this? Perhaps just as well nothing might occur. Time gone and comittments made, so many changes of fate. It was too much to figure out. Things needed to fit together much better to build a cohesive whole of her life. She was not 14 or 15 but heading toward middle age before too long. No more did she entertain childish fairy tales.

Mirielle sat on a weathered bench at the waterfall’s edge, leaned over to dangle fingertips in brisk clear water as it cascaded over mossy rocks. The ache and then slight numbness startled her. December days in Oregon were not like December days in southern California, but both places were home.

She’d give him fifteen minutes, no more. She was not being left stranded once more. A wood duck flapped its fancy wing by the pond and lifted its elegant green head, and she thought how simple a life it had. She closed her eyes and breathed in clean sharp air.

“Mirielle.”

It was almost a whisper, that rich, gentle voice sliding across the air to her. She stood and faced him.

“Harrison.”

He was shorter than she recalled and his black hair was nuanced with white at the temples. But his searching eyes were the same and, too, his sensitive mouth, which broke into the smile she knew well. He stepped forward.

Mirielle was frozen in place, whether by the sweep of emotion she felt for him still or fears that fell upon that joy. Before she could stop herself, she looked at his wedding ring finger. She had to know.

Bare. That was enough. Harrison’s gaze scanned her face with near-disbelief, then held his hands out to her. She moved to him, let his warm hands take her chilled ones. He pulled her to his chest, her name spoken happily, arms snug about her. Mirielle leaned in as close as she could–to be sure. They fit one another, still, and after k moments that threatened to undo them, they released one another reluctantly.

They squeezed side by side on the old bench and began to talk as if in an old and secret language, layered and muted and kept close between them–the waterfowl heard little of import. Harrison and Mirielle began to discover what story might blossom from their chance encouter, even as the sky closed over their garden and darkened. The rain fell and lamps flared one by one, illuminating the way as they dashed to shelter.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story on Thursday: Out of the Mouth of the Lion

If the Cabrellis were certain of anything, it was that they were a family unit that resembled a landlocked ship. Every one of them had leanings toward greater individuation or dreamed of enchanting distant destinations. Or just wanted a day or two for themselves. But they were bound by not just deep familial affection but loyalty to one another, that tenacious glue not likely to be pried away without great laborious effort. They were the classic American unit, off-kilter and indispensable.

Or so it seemed to her. Sometimes Charlotte imagined herself in a three-legged race though life, doomed to be stumping along while everyone else passed her by. It didn’t help that she and her brother lived with their parents in a crumbling corner mini-manse.

“There’s a gutter that seems to hang low at a corner,” she mentioned to her father after stating the obvious: that the place was starting to crumble more. It wasn’t money, it was lack of time and other priorities.

“I wouldn’t say it’s near crumbling, my dear, it just needs a little repair.” Frances, her father, peered over his readers at her. “I keep an updated list going, don’t worry over it.” he did not want to be irritated; he was still getting used to having Charlotte back home. He was delighted and concerned and annoyed by it. When was the nest going to be emptied?

“And the list keeps going nowhere– hire someone and it’s done in a jiffy, well–a few jiffies,” her mother, Mirabel, said dryly, finely penciled eyebrow rising. She studied a page in her tome of contemporary art. “What we need is great art to improve on what can’t be undone or rehabbed.”

Charlotte nodded, but kept on with her notebook scribbling. She was trying to recall song lyrics that came to her when suddenly awakened too early in the morning. It might be time to give up; she sensed a sore spot of her parents’ was being poked and regretted her own words.

“I think the house still has its graces,” she offered.

“We’ve run out of wall space,” Frances reminded them both with a sweep of his arms, “and that is one of the things on my list to remedy.”

“Are you building another room for my collection, finally?” Mirabel said sweetly.

Frances grunted and left in search of more coffee. It was a Saturday morning but he had a virtual meeting in an hour. He needed a clear mind and a hefty dose of caffeine to prepare him for price negotiations on a new product he might order.

Everyone–her family, friends and neighbors– knew Mirabel had long studied drawing and painting before she had Charlotte, then three years later, Tony. Lately she’d been talking again about putting obligations aside and devoting herself to art. Making it. A residency somewhere might be an effective starting point, she’d said, and Frank had squinted in her direction as if he wasn’t clear it was Mira speaking. (Oh, he guessed she once did do those nice paintings of wildflowers–in college?) But she squinted back, thrusting tiny daggers with both eyes. Frances was thinking how he had more talents unfulfilled–woodworking, for example–and he had precious little time, either, but what was the big deal? He owned Cabrelli Lawn and Garden, and business was booming more lately. This was not the time for Mirabel or him to slow down. That was way ahead, plenty of time to sufficiently relax.

“I think you ought to apply for an art residency, draw and dab paint a couple weeks and see what happens. I know you have thought of it a long time,” Charlotte said to her mother. “Show Dad he lacks the right viewpoint on art–and your creative vision. You will fall in love again…I mean, with creating art!”

Frances shook his head at his daughter and laughed. He thought this a silly idea, in spite of adoring his wife. He generally exited such “conversations of the soul”, as he called them.

“We shall see.” Mirabel smiled gratefully and stood up, shook out her arms and hands, rolled her shoulders.

She had tender spots and aches that indicated she was on the far side of 40, skidding her way down to imminent decrepitude. She had found several new gray hairs threading their way through impeccable walnut brown locks. She sighed and asked Charlotte, “A coffee refill?” Maybe coffee was aging them all, one never knew. It was an obsession of Frances’ that they have the best beans readied for a fresh pot at any given time. He never was any good at letting down, it was always go-go-go.

“I’d love some, use my big grey mug, please!” called out Tony as he slid into the living room, arms open wide. Twenty years old and still sliding around in his sock feet.

“At your service, Mr. Antony,” Mirabel murmured and was gone, her high heeled boots clicking on the tongue-in-groove wood floors. You could hear her all over the house whenever she abandoned comfort (quiet-soled loafers or sneakers) for an attempt at chic. It worked fine now and then, looking sharp and confident.

Charlotte examined her brother. He appeared to be in too good of shape for someone who’d crept in from a party later than was decent. But he didn’t have to go that much bother to shape up. Bags under his eyes did the talking, and also a maze of red capillaries on his eyeballs as he blinked at her. And attractive despite himself.

“Good morning and all that.” he yawned rudely.” It was quite a night… Hey, are you still refusing to go to JT’s next week-end with your friend? That one I like?”

“That greasy food about gags me and you know I don’t like much beer and you shouldn’t drink again. Carly is babysitting her nephew tonight, anyway. She’s ancient, like me, Tony!”

He didn’t need an ID at JT’s but he got a fake one in case anyone bothered to ask. Why bother? Most everyone knew the Cabrellis. And he bought everyone drinks and his birthday was in two months.

“No reason to refuse an offer of a free meal and music, you’ve become absolutely solitary and lazy as a log since you came home.” The words held an undertone–subdued anger? sarcasm? envy? But he plopped beside her. She swatted at him, he pushed against her shoulder and she got up.

Charlotte wanted to tell the truth for a change: Who is lazy in this room? What have you been doing since I have gotten not only a B.A. but an M.S. in social anthropology by age 26? Working at JT’s as a part-time DJ and getting drunk most nights? But she frowned at him, took her book of song lyrics to the sunroom.

Mirabel gave the mug of coffee to her son and took refuge in her office. Let the kids enjoy each other while she schemed how to get away and make art. Tony took a slurping gulp and followed his sister, at which point she gave up and looked hard at him.

“What? What do you want now?”

He managed another small slurp then sat down. “I dented my car last night. But I’m not sure how.”

Charlotte shook her head, put down her notebook, looked out the window at the sheet of rain drenching the sweeping, verdant side lawn. She took a deep breath. This was being home with her family: entering the mouth of a beautiful, testy lion and hoping to get make it out alive again. Likely not entirely whole and functioning. She prayed every night and day for a job far away. Even though the lion was beloved and she’d always miss it.

“Tell me what you know, Tony.” And she did feel ready to listen.

“Lisa and I had an argument and then I had a couple more beers….”

“Lisa again? I thought that was done. But far more importantly, how many?”

He shook his head head side to side and covered his face. “Maybe… four more? After three?…”

It took all her strength to stay seated and not to yell at him, not to call her mother. “A huge overindulgence. Get on with it, Tony, you have my undivided attention.”

And he talked, drank coffee and talked more until he was just repeating himself and getting a worse headache. She saw a brother in serious distress over more than he could articulate. And it hurt her. Scared her some.

“I will help you as much as I can. It may not be much, though.”

“I know I can count on you, thanks. I’ve missed having you home more. Maybe you’ll stick around…despite being preachy and self-righteous.” He smiled, teeth showing.

“Oh come on, you know I’ve always been your advisor, but you ask for it!”

The fledgling song lyrics Charlotte had committed to paper lay dormant in the closed notebook for the rest of the day. Songwriting was, according to her father after dinner that night, a nice hobby but obviously her other capabilities were more sorely needed. And she wondered: was it giving aid to Tony? Was it succeeding at her goals to make her father look even better? Was it buoying up her mother’s artist heart?

What about her own needs?

******

Mirabel found four residencies west of the Mississippi that looked interesting. They required samples of her work, among other things. Did she have a couple of respectable drawings on her files? Should she attempt a few fresh pictures? One residency was pointedly for women over forty-five, with or without a college degree in art, with or without any exhibits, who had never attended an arts residency. In other words, slackers or newbies. Biting her lip, she poured over the details, insides trembling with excitement.

Or was it fear?

The last time she had created anything was for her best friend’s birthday four months ago. She’d made an original card–something she enjoyed doing. It was a pen and ink with a wash of watercolor. Yes, she got praises from Lara who simply adored anything arty and especially Mirabel’s renderings; she felt they should be framed, and hung on as many walls as possible– why not start a little side business? The woman had no idea how much it took to find time and mental space to make even a throwaway card. She was always engaged in other matters, even filling in at the family business.

Frances rapped on the doorframe, then entered. Mirabel shut her laptop.

“Yes? Was the meeting productive?”

“I think I got what I wanted–not sure they did.” He chuckled and glanced at her desk, then the small gold clock that rested on a square of marble, a find at an estate sale. “I just wanted to tell you I’m swinging by the store and nursery for a few hours. When’s dinner?”

She tapped her bright lips. “I haven’t gotten that far, it’s only late morning. How about take out?”

“Naw, how about your chili? It’s cold out there.” He came closer, gave her a peck on the cheek. “I’m off.”

As she heard him run down the stairs, she reopened the laptop and griped to herself. “How about chili? Well, how about bringing home something fantastic from Stafford’s?” The clock reminded her she had cleaning to pick up, groceries to buy, a stop at Lara’s to get a dress she’d loaned her which would turn into an hour gabfest. She’d see what Charlotte was up to; maybe she could help out. Isn’t that what adult children were supposed to do–help at home when they couldn’t find a decent job and lived off parents?

What an uncharitable thought. When, to be honest, Char had sent out plenty of resumes and had completed three good interviews, just not good enough. And she’d been home only seven months. And she was helpful, mostly with moral support. Unlike Tony, who took more than gave and never offered an apology or any other thought about things. A young man who still collected model planes and cars…would he never grow up? And then what? Was there a decent future for him? Her head felt beleaguered by worry.

Both of her kids would be long gone and glad of it one day. She’d still be attending charity functions and shoring up their business work force, making chili and stuffed Cornish hens when she wanted simple take out and a glass of wine.

Mirabel stared at the residency’s website a long moment. It began to elicit a flaring desire. To nurture her creative bent. To get the heck of out of there, away from all the fine and cracked things and people claiming to be her beloved family. Which they were, but that was often the rub.

******

“You’d better call Paul right this minute and see what he knows. If he can’t recall, you have to keep asking around until the full story comes to light. Or maybe look on the news?…Tony, you make me crazy! Alcohol will be your ruin if you don’t watch it, I mean it.”

Charlotte left him to it. She had an errand to run.

Tony was in trouble. He called it making another dumb mistake. He had gotten into the argument with Lisa over something not worth recalling. Drunk more then driven home way too late with his buddy, Paul. He’d let Paul off down the street and proceeded home, right? But he had a gauzy memory of Paul yelling at him then he got out of Tony’s Charger. And Tony wanting to fight his best friend. Before they got into it, they gave it up. Paul went into his house as Tony drove on. Barely able to command his body to get the car into their curving driveway, open and enter the garage. And stop. As he stumbled out of the car and rounded the front of the Charger to go into the house, he noted a weird, bad something on the fender. Too bleary, he kept going, forcing his legs to carry him upstairs so he use the bathroom, flop on his bed. Of course he drank too much again, that’s what he did these days.

He knew he’d made some huge mistake after he woke up in a panic and checked his custom metallic blue Charger. He was aghast at the sight of an ugly dent and scrapes on the bumper. A light had a jagged line in the cover, too. It felt even worse when he called Paul and left a message, then had to wait until he called back, angry and still half-asleep at noon.

“What did you feed me last night, bourbon?” Paul demanded. “Now that I’m 21, I can make my own idiotic choices, you’re supposed to stay a lot more sober to drive but no, then to top it off–oh never mind, you’re just in for it!”

He hung up on him so Tony called back to no avail. Then he texted him: What did I do to my car? And something else? No animate objects… right?

Then Paul called.

“Crap, Tony, you knocked over the mailbox. My parents’ mailbox! Plowed it half-down and never even understood what you did. You wanted to fight me when I got mad– you were out of it.”

Relief flooded him, then a quiver of panic. “Oh no! It’s ruined? Even the bluebirds perched on top? What did your dad say?” He was starting to sweat, nausea threatened.

“They’re gone for the week-end, remember? Other wise we wouldn’t be having this nice conversation and our fathers would be having it out. Maybe we can fix it. But I’m so hungover… aren’t you?”

He touched his forehead then wiped his face with a shirt sleeve. “Yeah–but we have to fix this! I’ve got to fix it before my parents find out.”

“Ask Char what to do, maybe she can help smooth things out. Because your dad and mom will see your Charger and then what? And my parents, when they get home, hate to think of it.”

“Oh my perfectly hot blue baby…” He moaned and dropped the phone, ran to the bathroom.

******

“The bare facts of the matter are that you have a son and I have a brother with a big alcohol problem!”

Mirabel closed her bedroom door and shushed her daughter, then replied as quietly as possible, “How can you determine that? You know young women and men have to experiment until they have had enough! It’s a rite of passage. he has to get it out of his system now, not later when he’s forty or fifty!”

“Not everyone has to go through this stage, as you call it.”

“Well, you were different, you never liked it much, were very studious. Are studious. You have a fine mind.” She placed her hand on Charlotte’s arm and led her to the two big armchairs by a window. They sat. “Not that Tony doesn’t, he just has different strengths…”

“It isn’t one bit about me, Mother, you don’t know what I got up to in college–let’s face up to Tony’s issues here and now. He got really drunk–again–and hit and ran over Carter Harrison’s fancy mailbox.”

Mirabel stifled a snicker despite the discomfort tightened her chest. “A big, unsightly one, you have to admit. But yes, that counts for more than a little thing. He’s never had an accident that I know of…yes, this is not good.”

“He got two speeding tickets, it’s only luck that he wasn’t drinking then.”

“But he’s very young, honey, they do these things, your father was the same. Well, he didn’t drink much and you know he still doesn’t. That was my mother’s side, she liked her wine, her father drank a bit much. But if Tony had a long list of alcohol-related issues, I’d see why you’re so upset. He simply made too close a turn into Paul’s driveway and–“

“Will Carter Harrison feel that way?”

Mirabel sighed. “Of course not, though it was Jane’s idea to adorn their mailbox like that, love birds and all.” She laughed too heartily. It was not stacking up to be a great Saturday evening and she hadn’t even begun the chili. “He’s lucky he didn’t hurt his Charger even more. And I am grateful no one was hurt! It can be fixed. It can all be fixed, Char.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Things are always fixed one way or another–or utterly ignored–around here. I can’t believe you aren’t more concerned about this or Tony.” Charlotte felt tears rise and she swallowed them back down. Steady now. “He’s one day going to get hurt badly or damage someone else, not just his car, Mother! This is no small thing–driving while drunk!”

Mirabel felt the rapid swing of a heavy door deep inside herself–the door that closed tightly and locked up the aches and bruises of the past and kept her feeling safer. Yet her heart galloped because she knew Charlotte was right: Tony had to be taken in hand. She had lain awake so many nights worrying that he’d get home in one piece. She’d nursed his hangovers with him. She’d given him advice on how to stop at just one or two drinks and then told her darling boy that that he should stay away altogether from it, alcohol seemed to push him to the limits. And of course, he was too young to be drinking like that out there. Although…they’d served wine in their home; their kids got to sip at a young age. And it was this way many places. But her son had trouble written all over him now.

Charlotte didn’t know how Mirabel had tried to help Tony, then protect him from Frances’ short fuse over what he deemed sheer irresponsibility. Her daughter had left at eighteen, went far away, and attended university a long time. Mirabel just hated it to be this way now. To tear the sturdy fabric of their family over a ridiculous mailbox, a minor victim.

This time. Next time it could be hell.

“You’re likely right, Charlotte. Your father will be home soon, we’ll face it somehow, deal with it. Thank you for warning me about the accident.”

Her mother put her arms around her. For a moment Charlotte felt entirely protected with care. But then Tony called upstairs, looking for food like a hungry child. They gave each other a long look and went down, toward dinner time, and more.

******

She walked along the darkening street, shadows melting into rainfall. She’d felt if she didn’t get outside she’d explode into a thousand pieces like confetti sprung from a bashed piñata, but no sweets, no goodies as reward. With a taste of rain on her tongue and wind playing with her hair and leaves crunching under her footfalls she felt more sane, more herself. Less alone.

For months she had watched their mother sigh and gaze out the window, yearning for more–it was worse than her teen years at home–and her brother get drunk, charm everyone and flounder, and their father run in circles with work, always work his medicine and his poison. The house held such subterfuge; she didn’t even want to know what it all was. It was Charlotte so often who was the center of the turning wheel and who people turned to, sought solace from when worse came to worse. It seemed an affliction of hers, this energy of helping that she emanated, but she knew she might be helpful. It had gotten very hard, and she sought freedoms of every sort at a university in Vermont– the far side of the country.

Charlotte had a piece of news, too. News she had kept to herself for three days. She was soon to have an in-person interview at a place she’d admired next Friday. In Honolulu. And she had a good feeling about it, even if it didn’t pay what her father could brag about. It was a nonprofit Institute for Humanitarian Studies and Advancements. She loved saying that over and over, relishing a sense of things to come. And no matter what came of it, she’d be elsewhere, in Hawaii a couple of days. Sunshine, sea air, sea life! Respite.

The moon barely made it appearance from beneath the floating clouds but the rain had stopped. She dug her hands into her rain jacket pockets and found an old ticket for a concert in Vermont. One that had inspired her to try again to write song lyrics, try out her tunes that she had sung to herself. She wasn’t a great talent; it wasn’t that. Though there was a man who she had loved who partnered with her then sang them on their university coffee house stage now and then. Charlotte so enjoyed creating lyrics. No one in her family got it since she rarely sang.

She arrived as rain began to pelt her: Paul’s house, where the debacle had occurred. The mailbox was put into position again, to her surprise; there didn’t appear to be irrevocable damage done. Or the guys had fixed it well. But the bluebirds were gone; she was sorry, but they might be replaceable. There might be little harm done. This time.

She headed back home. But all she could do was care about her family, try to be there when they needed her, yet she had to get on with her life. She had to leave the mouth of the lion and forge her own path.

Tony came bounding up to her out of swaths of dark rain.

“Char! I was looking for you., Dinner’s ready and Dad found out.” She linked her arm with his and they walked slowly, out of sync as ever, trying to better match each other. “He’s so angry with me, you should have seen his face, all deep red when he saw my Charger, then heard about Carter’s mailbox…it was pretty messy. Mom, too. I do feel terrible, Char! But Paul and I worked on the mailbox, as you just saw. I’ll pay for body work as I can, Dad insists. I have more DJing jobs coming up. But he informed me I have to start work at the nursery, too. Snagged at last by the Cabrelli business.”

Charlotte slid a glance at him. He had said all that with an equanimity, no anxiety or outrage. “And that’s fine with you, the last part?”

He lifted his shoulders high, paused, let them slump. “Guess so. I’ve avoided it forever but I’m not ready for more education so why not? Anyway, I have no other choice right now. I might learn something. I might like the it, who knows?” He stopped and turned to her. “What do you think?”

“I think you should take a hard look at your drinking problem before you make other plans or dream any dreams.”

He stepped away, began to walk faster.

“Because I don’t want to ever lose you to alcohol and maybe worse consequences, Tony. I love you– and this family–way too much. So–enough!” Her voice had wavered mid-shout but she got it said.

When she caught up to him, he let her put an arm through his again. In a moment he squeezed it to his side briefly. “Okay, I’ll give that a try. I promise,” he conceded. “Besides, the parents are gunning for me now, I have to stay sober, or at least try hard.”

They entered their family’s elegant home (if constantly in repair) with verdant lawns and a long history that kept on being made anew. They knew the chili would be excellent–they inhaled it like a fine fragrance– and the table would be set beautifully, as ever, no matter what they ate. Even if it was mixed with admonitions and escaping tears, a seasoning of strife, loyalty and care, the meal would be enjoyed and a funny anecdote might be told. Charlotte would finally share her own news. And her mother–she was apt to have something to divulge, as well. They were in this together, no matter what.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Matilda Johansen’s Help from the Postal Service

Photo by Calvin Hanson on Pexels.com

She hesitated before signing her name, as she often did. Should it be Matilda or perhaps Tillie or the name he always preferred, Mattie? He was only the second one who ever used it. The other was her mother, who landed on it when she was two in protest that her father required his only daughter be named after his grandmother. It conjured up no nonsense pioneer women, yes, but ultimately they were someone’s domestic laborer, they worked themselves to death like his grandmother. Her daughter would be independent and more. So Mattie was also used to the name Tillie, as teachers used it in school and then school chums used it, too. But she was her mother’s Mattie at heart, despite her father’s good intentions. In secret, she supposed, she would truly just be Mattie.

Well, she thought, licking the flap of the envelope and pressing it down with slender fingers, the recipient of the letter never objected to anything she used. Mostly she signed it Mattie; once it was Tillie. And–she pressed envelope against her chest–she really wanted to sign it, “Your sweetheart.” But that was clearly not right, not now.

She put on her light rain jacket–the low grey clouds suggested another day of rain–and walked the six blocks to the post office. Mrs. Melcher was raking leaves ahead of the weather, creating a giant pile in front of her porch, but she waved at Tillie, such a pleasant young woman. Mr. Harry was rounding up his fancy poodles after a walk and sharply nodded. Other than that, the street was mostly empty of traffic and yards were vacated later in the day. The neighborhood had been calm and orderly since she’d lived there. It was a place without drama, and that was reassuring and irritating at once. Mattie wished for more in her life but was always quick to find gratitude for what she had: a little house, a teaching career, an indoor/outdoor cat that had managed to stick around ten years, two close friends and a vegetable garden.

Except she missed Alan. Still. That was why she had begun to write him. Once a week.

Mattie was a fast walker. She clutched the letter in her side pocket and thought of him, how he’d outpace her with his longer legs and then she’d speed up and they’d end up racing each other to the corners, laughing. Sometimes she won. Such a simple thing, but it was another example of happiness she’d collected like she had many discovered, common stones. They were set out on the table for morning light to wash over. Then their real textures and colors were brought to life. Just as it felt was with the plainest stones illuminated, her day was given pricks of joy with each new reveal of the more lovely past.

A big white truck honked at her twice and the man gestured crudely at her; she stepped back just in time. Thinking of Alan did that–it took her to another place so that her present world was shined up, partly recreated. She kept her eyes on the downtown traffic clotting along the street, then came to the post office. Once inside, she cheerily greeted Annie working at the window, slipped her letter into the mail slot and started toward the coffee shop. She always got a cappuccino after she mailed his letter. To sit and think over what she had shared, to wonder how he’d react. If he’d react. To imagine him there across from her, smiling so readily and with that smile, stopping the world.

******

Annie knew that the woman had had a hard time when Alan left her; who didn’t know? It was a fishbowl town. Twenty years ago they’d seemed content, but in another five the marriage crashed and burned one day. Steady Matilda Johansen was left stunned. In shock, one might even say. It had taken a long while for her to get back on top of her job teaching theater and English at Elson Middle School. Or so Annie had heard; her son carried gossip to her from school. But it was apparent whenever they met at the post office–that dull look to her eyes, the absentminded nod. Understandably/ No one married with the idea that the love of her life would leave.

Alan was the sort of guy that everybody liked, gregarious and easy going, smart but not lording it over anyone; great at his work as supervisor of the pottery plant over in Waverly but more ambitious. And good looking. Annie thought he was a little exotic looking; everyone thought he was Italian but he said his mother was French-Canadian, maybe that was it. But he had an extra something that made people want to look at him more than a minute. If he knew that, he never let on, and always talked his wife up. They had made such a solid couple, sociable, generous with food at potlucks, attending the Methodist church Annie did, engaged in several community events. Annie secretly envied them their partnership.

Then Alan got a new job in Waverly, a managerial position at a outdoor/adventure company. It required longer hours, occasional business travel. So Annie wasn’t surprised when he was absent at many events. She’d shrug, say, “It’s the cost of ambition, he loves his work and wants more”, and she’d laugh a little too fast. But they bought the house; things went along.

Until they didn’t. Someone he met at the new company, people said. Marilyn was the name. his old work buddy let it slip that she was in Human Resources, and her looks, well, they matched his. So Alan divorced his wife of eight years and moved to Waverly and married Marilyn. People shook their heads, but things could be random, good men fell, lives changed.

But the one left behind? She isolated too much, the warm sheen she shared with him wore off, and she was apparently emphatic she was done, no dating, period. But she was a devoted teacher and began to win awards; this brought her back to a much better place. Back into her old circles, a life that mattered more. The whole town was relieved for her, as she was a valued citizen.

Then she started to write Alan letters. Annie couldn’t help but notice the weekly drops of carefully addressed envelopes, even if she’d tried not to. It had been going on for a month. Why would Tillie write that man fifteen years later? He was still married as far as anyone knew. Not that they cared. No one had seen him around in all that time. he had flown the coop and word was, though, he had kids, moved up the ladder of success with that Marilyn. It was a shame for Elson Middle School’s favorite English and fine theater teacher, but such was life with its hard knocks.

******

Dear Alan,

I can’t believe the leaves are not only brazen colors already but falling as fast as they turn. The summer was gorgeous and languid and then gone. But you know autumn is my favorite time of year, air clean and musky, sharp with cooling temperatures. I sit with Ginger Lily–my cat, if you recall–on the back porch and watch the maples catch fire in the fall sunshine. I know you’d like seeing this.. And Ginger Lily looks a lot like Tucker, our long gone tiger cat. She’s getting old and settles into my lap a good hour. I’m glad of her company, though she has little to say. This house, though small, would feel empty without at least this fur creature.

I imagine you’re doing well, are so beleaguered by work that you have little time to think of me. I always knew you’d rise to the top, as the best often do. I understand. (You had a family, I heard, at least one child– but a boy or a girl? How fortunate you have been.) So I try to imagine you in your office. Head bowed as you work at the computer, hand running over the shock of dark wavy hair when frustrated or just concentrating hard. You would play with a pencil, quickly laced it between your fingers over and over. And sometimes bite your nails. I used to nag you about it but we all have our foibles. Like, I still twirl and twist my hair when grading papers. And still forget to wipe down the bathroom counter after I splash a ton of water when washing up.

I saw the Hunter’s Moon with my buddy Lydia–she loves the skies, too–but thought of you. It was enormous and so warmly hued that it looked like a giant orange masquerading as the moon. Remember how we’d go sky gazing? Willard Point and the fields out by Rossiter’s Farm and the western hills and forest where we set up our tent for a weekend away. So dark there you couldn’t see your feet when you had to get up at night.

My teaching continues on as before. Not much changes from week to week. I so appreciate my students; they work hard on crafting a decent sentence, to inhabit a role in a play, to open their minds enough that they can see the value in creativity more unleashed. Well, most of them do. But I never give up on any of them, you know that.

And I never gave up on you. I look forward to writing these letters once week. It would be ridiculous to others if they knew. But I sense you near when I write. I know you are, still. We had so much, didn’t we? It is sustenance to my soul to know this.

Yours, Mattie

******

“Every time she sends one of these, I either want to throw up or scream. This is number four. It has to stop, it’s gross!” Carly’s eyes shone with outrage, then glistened. She tore up the page of blue stationary. “It’s just lucky we keep getting home before Mom does.”

Kendra leaned back in her chair and frowned. “Yeah, she hardly ever is home before 8. We do have to end it. Strange…But we never, ever tell Mom, right? We can handle this somehow. There is no return address but we can find out where she lives, somehow. Didn’t Dad say she was a teacher when he explained he was married before?”

Carly, a mirror image of her sister, raised arched eyebrows, eyes wide. “Hmm, right. We’ll figure it out. The Twins Shall Triumph. Again.”

They high-fived and went to their room. It took all of four minutes checking out the two schools in tiny Littleton, twenty-one miles from Waverly (an actual medium-sized city, thankfully). There had to still be a teacher with the name of Matilda Johansen. There it was…That was her full name, they guessed, though their dad had called her Mattie when he admitted he was married for eight years, that she taught kids. But then he met their mother and she swept him off his feet, and he didn’t feel too badly about it, because leaving the Mattie person meant he got to have them.

“My girls, the best in the entirety of the universe.” He said this as he grabbed both of them in a giant hug, and at 6 ft. 3 with a few extra pounds, they felt cozy and safe in his embrace.

They thought of this more than they wanted to. Or they wanted to but found it hard to think of him, period.

This Mattie was of no importance to them, not until a month ago when the letters started, and what nerve that took, sending them! It was wild that she taught English and theater. They both liked those subjects, were close to her students’ ages.

And they recalled their dad had said her name with a bit of softness in his voice, then said no more. That was two or three years ago when they had gone fishing with him….

“It all gives me the the shivers….I mean,… does she know something? And how do we find her?” Kendra said in a whispery voice. “This idea is crazy. Do we get Michael to drive us over and show up at her door?”

“No, no way. I don’t even want to see who this person is, who has to butt into our lives all of a frickin’ sudden. Let’s just call and leave her a message, threaten her a little, you know?” Carly sat up, hands balled into fists.

“No, don’t be stupid, no threats on a voice mail! In fact, how do we get her number?”

“We can… just call the school, ask for her.”

“And if she answers?”

They readjusted the pillows on the bed behind their heads and stared at the laptop, open to the school staff page. Matilda Johansen looked like a basic teacher type person, not a madwoman; she was almost nondescript, not even worth mentioning her looks. No wonder their dad left dull Mattie for their mom. And their mom was smart, practically ran the company, finally. They didn’t have to say these things aloud. They knew their mother was beautiful when younger. Sort of even at present.

But she’d changed a lot in four and a half months. They all had been changed.

“I’ll call,” Kendra said, “you’ll get way too emotional.”

Carly punched her shoulder and Kendra punched back.

“Stop it. We both want this to end. I can’t stand reading her pathetic lovesick letters. It’s so awful and wrong that she does this. And Dad would not even read them, he’d toss them from the start and tell her to get a clue, it was over at least fifteen years ago.”

Carly pulled away, gave her sister a side eye. “Would he? Do we even halfway know that is an absolute fact? Maybe he—“

“Stop it, just let me take care of this…” Kendra said with less conviction than she desired, voice wobbling. Before another moment passed, they were both crying, their arms about each other.

This was getting to be an old routine. Just mention dad and then slobber-cry.

Their parents had been fighting off and on for a year. Money stuff, petty miscommunications, the girls had to do this or that, the other parent against it. It had gotten tougher to come downstairs in the morning on week-ends, not knowing if they’d both be there or if the one who left would be back before night. Sometimes they’d wait until it was quiet, until both might have left. So they could eat breakfast in peace together.

They always had each other.

They stopped when a few hiccups subsided, finally stood up. Looked at each other, chins tilted up. It was like looking at themselves only different. Thank goodness.

“Tomorrow morning,” they said in unison.

******

“Elson Elementary and Middle School, how can I help you?” The woman spoke as if stifling a yawn.

“Ms. Johansen, please?” Kendra clutched Carly’s hand. They had under five minutes, then they had to leave for their classes in tenth grade.

“She’s in a meeting right now, can I leave her a message?”

“Can I leave it on voice mail?”

“One moment.”

“It’s ringing!” Kendra said.

“I can hear it, speaker’s on, the volume’s up!” Carly hissed.

A woman’s low voice with a melodious lilt came on. “You’ve reached Matilda Johansen’s office, and I’m away from my desk. Please kindly let me know what you need with your name and number. I will return your call.”

“Oh. Hi. I’m–well, you see, I’m calling because my sister and I need you to stop sending our father letters. Got it? Our names are Kendra and Carly Weatherford, his daughters who have a mom who loves him. And who he has… loved.” Kendra began to sniffle, then choked up so badly Carly tried to get the phone from her hand. She resisted and kept on. “Sorry for crying, this is hard to do but you just have to stop. Because–because…” she put her phone down.

Carly pried the phone from her fingers, took a deep breath. “No more writing him! Because it’s wrong. And– Alan Weatherford died last June!”

They gasped for breath as Carly hung up. They had never said those words to anyone they didn’t know. Just forming the syllables out loud hurt. But telling this crazy woman–this ex-wife of their dad’s? Why did she have to butt in and make things harder? It made them feel like they were lunging into a deeper dark pit so they grabbed each other, eyes gushing.

“Okay, we did it and now we have school,” Kendra said as she pulled away from Carly. and they wiped their cheeks with their sleeves.

Hal honked his horn three times, as usual. They counted on that. They grabbed books and coats and left, slamming the kitchen side door hard behind them, windows and door a-rattle as if in applause.

******

Matilda Johansen, Tillie to friends, Mattie to only two others (three if she counted herself), listened to that message three times.

Then she dialed the number from which it originated.

Carly answered immediately, put it on speaker as Hal drove unhurriedly. Kendra did not want to talk more.

“It’s Matilda. I guess it was you who left me that message? I knew something was wrong…Oh, no, you said–He’s…? I mean, I heard from him–the thing is, he came to me. In a dream….I guess.”

“Are you serious? How can you call us back? He was in a drunk driving accident…not him, the other guy killed him!”

“Oh no! So that’s why he walked into my room when I was staring out the window at constellations. And he did speak to me…I thought, well, he really needs something. I didn’t know what. I didn’t know how to get a hold of him but I knew his address. So I decided to write, see what would happen, that’s all. I didn’t know for sure if he was still there, still married or what…I thought they come back to me or someone would write somehow…”

Kendra bent over the phone. “Matilda. Mattie. It’s Kendra, that was Carly, my sister. He spoke to you, really? Well. What did he say?”

“Makes no sense, she’s nuts!” Carly said, poked at her sister’s thigh, looked out the window then toward Hal. he looked in the rear view mirror but said nothing. He knew when to shut up.

Kendra put the phone up to her face, as if trying to see her. “Wait a second. What could Dad possibly say to you, of all people? He hasn’t even shown up for me…us…”

Mattie cleared her throat once, twice. “He was like, foggy, you know, but I knew it was him. He said, ‘Don’t worry, Mattie, the stars and I watch over you all.'” She clamped her mouth shut with her free palm, turned away from her door where a student waited to see her. Willed herself not to lose her control. She had known it, she knew it already, didn’t she? That he was gone from the earth? She saw him, in her room.

The girls were stock still, bodies sharing a fine electric charge that ran up and down their narrow backs and triggered memories. They used to be afraid of the dark, little kids always checking under their beds, in the closet, begging for a bright night light. Their parents didn’t think it necessary to buy them one. Their dad said the stars were there to comfort them all, like shining points of love. And then, tucking them in, he’d tell them: “It’s alright, I’ll always watch over you, from here or afar.”

“Oh, yeah…” they said.

Mattie heard them. And knew they all realized he was doing just that.

“I will stop sending letters, of course. You’re right, it was a strange idea. But when he came to me and said that, I deeply hoped maybe he was around still, maybe he was in trouble or all alone, and I believed he needed something from me, you see. I guess it was absurd, but–“

“No. We see. I get it. Sorta,” Carly said as the car lurched to a full stop in the school parking lot.

Hal turned around, held both palms up. When they ignored him, he got out. He didn’t know what to say about their father dying. It scared him. But he waited for them to come out. He was a trusted third in their twindom.

Kendra sighed. “I think I do, too. I can’t imagine why writing–I mean, think if our mom might have found them!” She looked at Carly. “I guess you loved him, too.” Carly nodded in agreement.

“Yes.”

“Okay, then, we have to go now,” Carly said.

“Yes, alright. And I’m so very sorry that he died, girls. He was something else. But you know.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

******

The next Saturday afternoon Ginger Lily sat at the front door, meowing with her best complaining voice. Someone was knocking, but Mattie was in the kitchen rinsing off sweet potatoes. By the time she wiped her hands and opened the door, no one was there–only a car racing off. But there was a big bunch of potted rusty-yellow mums with a little note card.

Dear Mattie,

I think you did the right thing, writing to our place. Dad sent us a message through you. So he did need you to find us and talk to us. He really cared for you to trust you that much.

Maybe one day we’ll meet, maybe not. But we’ll remember this.

Thank you,

Kendra and Carly

Mattie picked up Ginger Lily and went to the back porch to sit awhile. The leaves were twirling down so gracefully; the big trees were shedding the old ones so fast. She knew it had to happen but she mourned the castoffs a bit. It might be a lonely fall and a slower and colder winter. But she could keep writing to Alan. She just wouldn’t have to send them anywhere. He’d know she was talking to him.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Catch Me Falling Now

The gist of it is that as I’ve settled into Marionville, I’ve been recovering from a head injury due to a hike interrupted by a stumble that triggered disaster. So I don’t have expectations, other than getting through each day. When your brain feels permanently fogged in, that’s how it is. It could have been worse, everyone says. I suppose so. The surgeries tried to correct things. My right leg is healing from two compound fractures; my nose and forehead could look and feel even better. My left arm is now more useful though it was also fractured. It was a long fall down a very steep, tree-occupied hill. I lost consciousness for three days. My mind still has starts and stops three months later. It’s an intricate, slippery thing, the brain.

My dad–and others–always said that I err on the side of verbosity. So I guess that part of my brain is hearty because words are working better in my mind. It wasn’t that way at first; it was three weeks before things came back into moments of focus. And words worked their way out a little bit at a time. I came around, made better sense, sought more answers. But there were none when it came to the story of a long fall and a supposed rescue by a passing stranger. I was present and aware and hiking, and then I was not. I was given help, then said helper disappeared as EMTs arrived. No one could identify that person from what I had heard.

So, a mystery and I live inside it every day.

Marionville is not where I want to be. My parents long lived here, now only my dad. But it makes sense for a quiet road to recovery. I’m on leave from my radio show until I can demonstrate more communication strengths than deficits. I often have to wait a few beats before responding, making simple decisions. Actual words get confused. I have too many rehab appointments. So I get it that I need time, two-three more months. I hope.

Dad and I keep company–about fair to middling. He has his part of the house–downstairs. I have mine, a bedroom and bathroom, a second room with a desk and single bed to do whatever in. Maybe practice talking in a microphone again, working on a radio show script. Sometime… Right now I gaze out the window a lot. I can think, sort of, but decent writing seems a forbidden event and talking is a crapshoot.

Like this morning.

Dad said, “I’m going fishing, want to come, Sammy-boy?”

The endearing term caught me off guard. But fishing sounded hard. I shrugged as he turned to his array of poles in the garage.

“Guess to stand in water? Can’t pitch a damn.”

“No pitching, we aren’t up for any baseball yet,” he chuckled.

“Fitching, fishes, ya know, hoof– hook in…worms!”

I was pleased to get a part of it out right. Some sentences came out worse than others.

He swung around, studied me gravely. “Guess you can’t use that arm yet. Maybe you forgot how, sitting in a radio station all those years. So it can wait longer, Sammy.”

“I…it’s…” I exhaled tiredly.

As it he didn’t want to cause more embarrassment for either of us, he paused a half beat, then left. I would have stood in cold lake water all day if it made him happy–if he’d waited a minute. But I don’t hold it against him. Retired fireman Carl Garfield Thomas is a man of few words and little sentiment showing on his sleeve. And I do look more like Mom, do love language like she did. And it is true that now, at 77, Dad is going it alone pretty well. Though he cares, of course; he just seems baffled and annoyed by my recovery at his place.

Me, too. I miss Issaquah, just beyond Seattle. I’m in Michigan for the duration. A childhood place left decades ago. I am not in my element, anymore.

But, then, what was normal and “like me” is all screwed up now.

Why did it happen, this accident? I’m not unfit. A thirty-eight year old man, I do enough–hiking, skiing, cycling on week-ends. I love the mountains. I do hike with others but am confident on my own even in the back country. That Saturday I was alone. A bit tired–had been out the night before, but that’s often the case on week-ends. I still felt ready for the hike. But there was loose rock, massive roots, steep descents. Or did something else happen? What came when?

I don’t know. It happened too fast.

But I want to know exactly why. How. There is so much missing. It makes me toss and turn, bad arm and leg in the way, sweating in the quilt, eyes open half the night.

I need to know it all. But it’s not there.

******

Dee calls to set up a lunch visit at the Spoon and Mug for lunch, a diner at the end of Lake Wenatchee. I reluctantly agree. Dad raises unruly white eyebrows but drops me off. I haven’t seen Dee for three years. We met when my parents moved here for retirement. I visited every Christmas, some summers of falls. And we stayed friends.

“Well, come here, Sam,” Dee says with a throaty laugh.

“Dee. Here we are.”

She gently wraps both arms about me, careful of my balance since I lean on a half-crutch wrapped about my forearm. Her plumpness warmly engulfs my wrecked frame.

We settle into our chosen booth, the one we always sit in, overlooking the lake. I inhale to my toes. Ah, fragrances of burgers, French fires and onions, fruit pies and too strong coffee. I haven’t had a venison burger in awhile, and order after she does.

She searches my face top to bottom, notes my lame arm and leg. I am not nervous with Dee and know the long jagged scar across my forehead remains deep pink; my nose is crooked despite surgery,

“Still handsome, huh?” she says. “You seem to be bearing up okay, despite the ordeal. I thought I’d meet up with a quasi-Frankenstein, but I was not–truly not!– one bit afraid, my friend. You’re still Sam T. Thomas, smooth jazz with most current commentary, right? Of course you are, just waylaid awhile.” But she blinks twice, eyes glossy. “And how’s it going at ole Carl’s? Fishing any good, yet?”

“Funny ask. No, so far. Bum arm, leg. I not a thing, he…this or that. Long days.” I’d warned her about my speech but Dee is a patient sort.

“I imagine. You’re used to being on the move in all ways. Rough, buddy. Give it the time it requires.”

We pause to check out our orders, sip hot coffee.

“So sorry you had to go through it, Sam. I couldn’t believe it when Carmela called me after talking to your dad’s friend, Sherry….”

I stop my fork halfway to my mouth–Sherry who?–but took the bite of cole slaw.

“…and it was a shock. You know your way around a wilderness trail! But accidents…that’s just the way they go. Sudden, a weird succession of events. I was relieved to hear you’re healing, though.”

“Except–brains.”

“Your brains are good, your mouth just needs a little rest, I guess.”

She beams good cheer and I flood with appreciation. A real friend is just what I need. A few back home are busy; they have important lives to get on with.

“Can I ask–Lily? Ok? Sch–shoo—classes ok?”

“Oh, yes,” she says, “back at it and glad of it. Both of us. She’s eleven, going on fifteen in her deluded mind. But doing alright. Overall.” She takes a bite, glances away.

“Martin?” I ask. That’s why Dad’s eyebrows raised, maybe.

“Yeah. Gone. Left one morning without even his usual juicy poached egg and bitter espresso. Back in Grosse Pointe. It was bound to happen, right? He couldn’t stay put up here. We tried hard but had to give it up.”

I think of Lily, reach for her hand. Now comes a barely audible whimper. When she stays quiet on the topic, I attack my venison burger with barely retrained relish which gets her smiling again. I never liked Martin; his hair and Lexus were too important and resolved to tell her later that it will become a better life for Lily–a good kid, a bright one–and her.

Time goes by as we cover basic news we want to know, relaxing with another mug of coffee. I do not ask about Sherry’s identity; that’s my dad’s business. Dee talks about work and Lily, asks questions I answer with extreme brevity. We have a fair picture of each other’s present state of mind. She is sad about Martin but has been letting go. I feel angry and curious about my issues., somewhat resigned but am not letting go.

“So, you can’t remember what happened exactly. From start to the end….when you woke up. I keep coming back to this. Not surprisingly, it seems you want to recall the details…not keep it in the dark like so many people would. How like you to have to dig, find the bits and pieces. And I understand that need to know everything possible, being a librarian.”

“Yeah.” I slowly nod at her–she does get it. I like her inquisitive spirit, too. And the sooner I can part the pea soup fogginess–it can’t all be the concussion’s effects–the better.

She puts an arm on back of the bench seat, narrowing eyes at me, pondering. “Well. I keep thinking of Heaven. Of course.”

Of course. But I chortle–not that I don’t know what she means. Because I do know. And why Dee places so much faith in a woman everyone else calls a crazed hippie artist or a soothsayer or perhaps a mastermind hiding out from the Chicago Mafia, I don’t know. I’ve only seen Heaven Steele in passing and that’s fine with me. I don’t need Ms. Steele to tell me all I have endured. I just need one hundred percent recall.

“Dee, I not all–“

“Not all about that kind of thing, I know, I know. But what is there to lose?” she says. “Let’s go see her–she has helped people. Please?”

I grunt, hold my hands up in the air, screw up a nutty face at her.

Maybe it’s the happiness of a full belly, good talk and shafts of honeyed light drifting through the streaked windows of down-to-earth-wonderful Burger and Mug Diner. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m bored out of my fuzzy brain. And my daily headache is ramping up. But I give in.

How can I rule out something Dee recommends if I haven’t tried it? I trust her. Why not trust her artist-clairvoyant?

******

Heaven Steele’s house is nothing spectacular though apparently she has money from her Chicago life chapter. I can hear a sweet jangling of glass wind chimes she makes by the dozens to sell to tourists and online. A narrow flagstone walkway winds down the hill to an older modern one-story set above the town. I expected a full glass mini-mansion so she could view the world, maybe keep track of us below. At this moment, anything can apparently manifest per gossip about the woman. I suggest a mystique equating very little.

Dee rings the doorbell, a sound of sonorous bells. When the door opens Heaven fills the space with her height, clothed in a deep blue tunic, dark loose pants. Barefoot. She steps forward to take Dee’s hands into hers, lightly takes my one free palm.

“Hello folks, welcome to my place.”

I wonder what that means–inner sanctum, hill temple, chimes studio, crystal ball room?–but decide to withhold judgment. There is a pleasant living room with large paintings on walls and richly colored upholstery, but she leads us into a dining area, past the kitchen then through French doors–I see a partly glass walled studio to the left and big paintings– and into a large courtyard.

I pause to rest my swinging, heavy leg and take it all in. Flourishing plants, brightly hued flowers, a gurgling fountain, rainbow of lights strung from tree to tree…who wouldn’t come here and expect to hear their fortune told? Or whatever she did. It smells good, feels tranquil. It surely offers sanctuary,

When we sit down, Heaven Steele eases into a seat across from us. Her silvery hair glistens in the dappled light. Her strong hands–they just appear strong–are resting on the chair arms. She inquires after Dee and Lily. It seems they know one another better than social friends might. But I’d had no cause to think of her one way or another. Before now, to perhaps learn…something. Or nothing at all.

Taking her space in I failed to really see Heaven Steele’s face, her eyes. But now mine catch hers and it’s clear what people have noted: one eye is blue, the other greenish-amber. I know this is hereditary–a childhood classmate had the same rare condition–but this doesn’t dampen the effect. I want to look away, yet she easily holds me in her steady gaze. So I look right back, give her a semi-fake smile.

“So recently Dee informed me of the situation. Maybe I can help. I sometimes snag experiences from others. You don’t have to believe in anything I say or do. I’m sorry it happened, Sam. But it was not to be avoided, no matter what you did. Your body took over, it likely tried to save you and then…”

I am taken aback. “Save me? About k-killed-ended me…” I gesture to my face, leg, arm.

“Yes. But wait.”

She keeps me in the thrall of her gaze even as I glance at Dee’s encouraging expression and back. Heaven lowers her eyelids, breathes out a really long exhale.

Please, I thought, no mesmerizing antics.

“What did you hear before you slipped? A sharp sound? A brush of the air? Close your eyes now, follow the path.”

I think back, eyes wide. I’m not closing them, I recall so little, looking at empty blackness behind my lids won’t show me one thing.

“I know you’re anxious. But there is a slight rustle in the underbrush, among the pine trees. You hear it but think nothing of it, a squirrel, a snake, a beaver along the silvery creek. A small clearing, then deeper woods. you tire…”

There was a creek, true. A rustling, but even tiny birds rustle. Lots of things. A creek I stopped by just before taking a turn in the trail, a clearing before I went on. She must see where I was. I close my eyes.

“You feel something out there, then a shot of energy along your spine, neck prickling, but you are soon to descend the trail, head to your car. You’re tired, warm. Almost out of water.”

I am on the trail, legs pumping dutifully, feet getting sore, throat parched as water is low so I wait it out longer. The light dims as I enter a thicker grove of cedars and pines, and if I hear footsteps I think they are far behind. The birds…they are now still as I push on after four hours of hiking narrow rocky trails. Out of the corner of my eye–the barest glimpse… of what? I keep on.

“What do you see, Sam?”

I feel my heart race, look around, see another pale streak, step slightly off the trail as i pivot, enough that I lose my footing, the steep side of the mountain suddenly like a magnet so I am going down, sliding, my legs catching on a stump, hands grasping and missing plants and branches, flesh tearing, leg hitting rocks and roots all the way down, trying to avoid tree trunks, arm catching on a thorny bush and yanked, then I roll over and over and over, head hitting hard places, arm shrieking with pain, then my god my leg, my leg… but…nothing. Hard stop.

Then a terrifying screech.

Me? or is it a woman? What’s happening? I am overcome, engulfed in pain. I’m out.

“Sam, Sam.”

Dee is crouching before my knees, shaking me gently and I am back as fast as I fell into the past. Heaven is leaning forward, breathing hard and almost breathless, her face alert and open, eyes finding me. Compassion.

“W-wh-what?” I say, suddenly sure of what it was out there.

Heaven speaks carefully. “Yes, a cougar.”

My skin prickles, jaw drops. How can I be surprised? There are bears and cougars and deer and so much more in forested mountains. I have heard the bears, carry bear spray; have seen great elk, sidestepped a rattlesnake once, felt I saw a wolf vanish between the trees. I know cougars stalk their prey a long while, with no sound.

And that they scream. Like a screeching woman. An entirely wild thing unlike me, us.

“Surprised by one,” I say. “Oh.” I rub hands over my face, lean back and run fingers through my hair. But then: “Why…how can I be…h-here?”

It might never have been me. But it was too close to ignore or finally forget. That I am one small human being in a world of other creatures.

Heaven says, “There was another, a mountain woman who realized your danger. She trailed you and the cougar. It was her body you saw that time before you fell. Moving with a rifle in hand. The first time you saw the cougar. I barely can capture a cougar running off, then her arms and hands thrust high, her voice deafening, almost like that of the fierce cougar. What happened? Not sure except she got to her cabin to call for help. And then she went back to wait until she saw their lights. Remarkable.”

We all fall silent, considering it all.

“Sometimes we get lucky–rescue comes at the right moment.” Heaven spreads her hands out, barely shrugs. “There is nothing more. Thank you for letting me witness your trial.”

Heaven makes tea for us. I am still shaking some, as if it all just happened, unsure if i was alive. Dee puts both arms about me, reassuring me. My skin and brain feel tumbled inside out. I can still feel the sensations of rolling down head over heels and the pain and the mindless fear. Was this possible? That I might even have died one way– or the other? That a ghostly wilderness woman saved me?

The burbling water calms me. The hot tea has lavender and other things that taste soothing and feel better going into my body. All three of us are quiet. The fountain splashes and colored lights brighten in the fleeing glow of an October afternoon. After our cups are emptied, we tour her art studio. I study the immense precision of her work, take in the jewel-toned hues, clean designs. I purchase one, but she insists on giving it to me. It will be beautiful to behold as the race toward winter begins, and snowfall comes. A crystalline background for the mobiles of tinkling glass asway in the biter winds.

“Wait and see what winter brings,” she murmured as we left.

But it isn’t a matter of believing in Heaven Steele. She definitely has her skills. But it’s more a matter of facing my fears and believing in myself again. With some help.

I have to manage the coming months, the work it will take. I can heal up from inside out. Become stronger than before if I do it right, find my way to the next good thing. I will accept this country my father loves. I hope to go ice fishing with him. And then there’s the gift of language from my mother who, though long gone, seems to call me to greater renewal. Maybe that was the reason for the fall. Maybe not. I’m digging my heels in for as long as it takes to find out.

Maybe I’ll even get a chance to say: “Heck of a good morning to you, Radio Marionville, hold on to the moment because Sam T. Thomas is here and coming at ya!”